What Food Is For

Soul. Body. Soul

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The Best Fruit Is Fresh From the Tree



We’re spending Spring Break week at the girls’ dearly loved Gramma Honey and Papa Billy’s farm in rural Fresno. For the kids, it’s a rural haven of farm animals to play with, ditches to swim in, golf carts to drive/crash, and all manner of agricultural shenanigans up which to get. For Phil and I, it’s a chance to get away from the technological whirlwind that is life in Silicon Valley. Phil takes increasingly frail Bill on field trips to Bill’s beloved Costco, and I spend time feasting on long conversations with Joyce, the Godliest Woman on Earth ™, and feasting on the fruits of her orchards. Literally.

Every year, the acreage around the farm is filled with fruit trees. The varieties change from year to year, but thanks to the industry of Bill and Joyce’s family, the quality never does.

I still remember the day I first had a peach picked directly from a tree in Joyce’s “backyard”. I remember marveling at the sight of it. It was a hundred different shades of orange, red, and yellow and all the hues between. It was the platonic embodiment of the universal peach. I reached and pulled on it gently, and it transferred its residency from the branch to which it had been attached, to my hand, heavy and warm. The first bite was everything I’d hoped for every peach I’d ever eaten – dry, fuzzy skin yielding to a firm, slick interior, with juice that was sweet but not cloying.

As I ate it, I thought on all the peaches I’ve ever seen at the grocery store or in the farmer’s market – stacked in pyramids of yellow or nestled in boxes resting on pillows of tissue paper to be kept from the bruising that so quickly leads to decay. Occasionally I would see a young man or woman bring the boxes from cold storage in the nether regions of the store. I had known in theory that those boxes didn’t get there by magic – that a hardworking group of farmers and day laborers had put days and weeks of sweat into getting those peaches grown to perfection, then off of the trees and into those boxes. I also knew, especially from experience, that market demand for pretty peaches at low prices for as long as possible meant that many farmers breed their fruit far more for appearance and durability during transportation, than for taste. Thus, the cheap and lovely peaches I had bought too often that were all pretty and no peach. They had spent too little time on the tree, and too much time on the truck getting to the store. So the fruit was often floury and tasteless. On the other hand, the peach I had just eaten, newly picked from the tree from which it had grown and flourished, was everything a peach was created to be.

I remembered that peach recently as I as I was reading a book some friends had recommended for its helpfulness for promoting Christian virtue for women. (I’ll decline to name it, out of respect for the women I love who found it helpful as much as anything else.) The chapters listed particular virtues – faithfulness, humility, contentment, and then proceeded to describe why they were important and why God required them and that we could be them because – Christian!

It read more like a tract from the Mormon Relief Society. No wonder I put the book down in frustration (or rather, my iPad because .99 on Kindle meant it was cheap!). I needed more about the tree.

As a way to apply that principle, I’ve been working on memorizing Ephesians 1. This exercise began simply as a way to apply the larger idea that I need to make God’s Word a part of my heart and soul as surely as I make food a part of my body. But as I’ve meditated on Ephesians 1, I’ve seen how helpful it has been in helping me deal with ongoing discontentment over some life circumstances. The list of all that I have in Christ is long and so, so rich – spiritual blessings, adoption, redemption, forgiveness, a guaranteed inheritance I’m just waiting to receive in full. Each one of those concepts is full to bursting with significance. Looked at together, they subsume my temporal disappointment with their eternal certainties. Meditating on all the riches I have in Christ produces the fruit of contentment in my life in a way that just thinking on the idea of contentment never does.

I would love to say the contentment lasts – that I’ve memorized these verses, checked contentment off my list, and moved on to the next virtue. But I can’t. I’ve had to call these verses to mind in the last 24 hours many, many times. I’m getting ready to log off and spend the whole day with my family instead of writing on all the topics I want to write, so I expect I’ll need to recall them many more. Good fruit has a short shelf life.

But I’ll take the fruit that comes from spending a long time on the tree, over the fruit that doesn’t, any day.

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What Do Carbohydrates Have to Do With the Kingdom?

I’m a decent cook, but a lousy gardener. The feeling of dirt under my nails drives me crazy, and I can make a plant die by just looking at it. Thankfully, God has blessed me with a husband who is a terrific gardener. Each year he and our girls work to plot our herb and vegetable garden, and by early summer, I have my own little organic produce section from which we can glean. I particularly love the herbs we grow. Beyond the fact that fresh herbs add depth of flavor to food, herbs can give you one of the biggest monetary returns on your gardening investment. Each time I’m in the produce section at the grocery store I make it a point to glance at the little plastic packages of herbs and note the ridiculous price being charged for a few twigs and leaves. Then when I get home, I’ll make a dish that features a lot of those same herbs (pesto, perhaps, or my special Bolognese sauce with oregano and thyme), and savor the dish AND the savings.

A Jewish mother in Jesus’ day could certainly relate. In Deuteronomy 14:22, God actually calls out crops as a quantifiable asset of sorts, from which He required a tithe. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day, being the Pharisees, worked to ensure that they and everyone else kept that requirement, literally down to the leaf. In Matthew 23, as part of Jesus’ truly epic, blistering rebuke, Jesus uses their nitpicky counting of sprigs of mint and dill and cumin as a picturesque example of their myopic focus on a small part of the law, to the neglect of what Jesus calls its’ weightier matters – justice, mercy and faithfulness. In their fixation on a single verse of Scriputure, they had completely missed the bigger picture.

Several millennia later, I wonder if in some parts of the Christian life we’re not still doing the same thing.

Several weeks ago, The Gospel Coalition published a series of articles on how the implications of the gospel might inform the way we look at food in general, and baking in particular. Part personal meditation, part social commentary, the articles were lengthy and broad in scope, albeit not in theological depth. I was personally delighted that a group with the reach of TGC was permitting someone to think out loud on a topic I hold so dear, even as in a few places she did it in a way I was concerned might derail or even halt the conversation, instead of move it forward.

Many comments on the articles themselves were positive, with most people expressing happy surprise that TGC would tackle such a topic. But it was a few comments outside the TGC ecosystem, on Twitter and elsewhere, which really brought me up short. While they could be filed under the general category of “Oh look, another excuse to hate on TGC”, their particulars had to do with the triviality of trying to tack something so mundane, so bourgeois as pastry onto the gospel. “We can eat whatever we want, however we want it!”, they cried. “Acts 10:15! Acts 10:15!!”

Forget about the fact that she was thinking out loud about justice, and mercy, and faithfulness. Suddenly, foodie fundamentalism (as I’ve heard it so named before this) was out, and anti-foodie-nomianism was in.

I’ve tried to show myself from just the first 2 chapters of Genesis, Jesus has always worked through His creation to reveal the mind and heart of its’ Creator, and He has done it in a particularly eloquent and rich way in food. The fact is that the central ordinance of both the Old and New Covenants, which will, in God’s providential timing, both be celebrated around this world this week, involve, not the mandatory recitation of a creed (to the possible disappointment of the Presbyterians), or the performance of some kind of interpretive dance (to the certain relief of the Southern Baptists), but the communal eating of a meal.

If that’s the case, shouldn’t the question be not why we’re suddenly talking so much about the role of food in Christian life, but why in God’s name we’ve said so little? In centering our thought on all the spiritual implications of what God says through food, have we perhaps lost sight of the practical implications, because we are fixating on one verse, and not looking at the bigger picture?

And before the anti-foodie-nomians get out their pitchforks and point them at me, let me be plain. If the central theme of food in the Old Covenant was the Messiah as our true and better food, than He has to be the central theme of New Covenant food conversations as well. We shouldn’t be New Covenant Pharisees – spending more time obsessing over whether our nightly dinner’s balance of food groups and color and use of negative and positive space on the plate appropriately adorns the gospel (although I’m sure there’s a Pinterest page for that), than we do feasting, through Scripture, on the One the gospel is about. Sometimes it will be the choice of the better thing to put down the baking sheet and pick up the Bible.

But when we do, and as we see how often in that Bible Jesus uses food to point to Himself, perhaps it’s worthwhile to at least consider if we, as His disciples, who are called to walk as He walked, ought not to be about doing the same thing – using this central aspect of God’s creation as a means to see Him, and to display Him, and not see what He has given as a mere personal, nutritional, and pleasurable end in itself.

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Of Eden and the Upper Room

As a microbiology student, I spent a lot of time looking at teeny tiny things through the lenses of a big, clunky microscope. One of the phrases that got used a lot when I was learning how to do this well involved “narrowing the field of vision” – the area inside the brightly lit circle you viewed through your lenses in the hopes of seeing microbiological somethingorothers. Sometimes, I was looking for single-celled organisms of mathematical beauty called diatoms. But most of the time, I was was  looking at the kinds of creatures that wreak havoc with our persons when we, say, ingest something previously egested, or when we (polite cough) experience in our persons the unintended consequences of an illicit interaction with another person. In either case, my classmates and I spent a lot of time twiddling dials and turning knobs to focus on an ever-diminishing field of view. Then, on the way from the lab to my car, I would spend a long time squinting and blinking my eyelids to remind my not-as-young-as-they-were eyes what my normal field of vision was supposed to be.

Whatever the field of vision Adam and Eve had in those first days in Eden, we can surmise from the description God gives that what was inside it was beautiful. And delicious. With all that modern agriculture has done to bring back so-called “heritage” fruits and vegetables to modern day diets, can you imagine how fruits and vegetables grown directly by the hand of God must have tasted? And with the cost that modern farmers incur to bring these varieties to market (and then pass on to consumers, so that a pound of heirloom tomatoes can set you back over ten dollars), doesn’t the language of generosity that God employs to invite Adam and Eve to eat what He’s grown seem beyond rich?

This lavishness is what makes Satan’s enticement of Eve all the more insidious, and her active acquiescence more tragic. In one conversation of questions and answers, Satan reorients Eve’s field of vision away from all to which God has given His generous “Yes”, and fixed it on the one thing to which He has said “No”. In a rapidly spiraling series of half truths, distortions and lies, Eve infuses the one thing she is denied with a universe of meaning. Her vision is now fatally horizontal, with her creaturely need seeing fulfillment in finite creation, instead of its infinite, divine Source. With Adam silent at her side, Eve takes Satan at his toxic word, and for the first time, her eating brings death, instead of life.

Anyone like me who has ever fought an addiction or simple inordinate attachment to food (or any other creaturely pleasure) can see Eve’s battle in our own. We let Satan draw our eyes away from the incomparable riches of His grace, and onto what we don’t have, but suddenly crave with all of our being. Our marriage is crumbling, our kids are rebelling, our career is imploding, our ministry is dying, and suddenly a fridge, (or a bottle, or a website, or a risky investment,) is all we can see, offering all that we think we lack. We lose our sense of fulfillment in our identity as a child of God, and seek to find it through food – in gluttony or anorexia, in organic everything, in making every meal for our family or ourselves a microcosm of meaning. We look away from God and toward what He’s made, we eat, and we die.

When I think of how often we rehearse Adam and Eve’s deathly ritual of a disordered perspective on food in our daily life, I can’t help but marvel at the mercy, the kindness, the brilliance of Jesus’ gift of a restored perspective on food in Communion. In the giving of bread and wine, to His disciples in the upper room, and to His people whenever we meet together, Jesus does for His bride what Adam neglected to do for his. Jesus reminds us, with the bread and wine, and with His words, where true fulfillment, true life, is to be found. In Communion, Jesus undoes the fatal distortions of Eden and refocuses our spiritual field of vision for food as a picture of our true life in Him, instead of death in our sin.

In Eden, Adam and Eve made food about themselves.

In His Supper, Jesus reminds His people that food was always, and is always, about Himself.


Eating is About Being Alive

Eating as an essential element of living is something you think about a lot if you’re studying microbiology (as I was last year). Part of that might be because microorganisms eat a whole lot differently, and a lot of different things, to us, so there’s a lot to learn. But unless you’re a nutritional science student (like I was until I had to take a break recently), it’s possible that you don’t spend much time thinking about how or even why you eat – how your brain integrates a complex array of physical and chemical impulses to make you pick up an apple and bite into it (because you know that it’s an apple and not a Christmas ornament), taste the clear, cold juice, feeling the crunch of the flesh under our teeth and the tiny piece of skin that wedges it way into a crevice between your front teeth, moving the disintegrating flesh down into your stomach, where another array of processes over which you have little direct control turn what you’ve eaten into energy.

Unless there comes a day when you need to eat, but you can’t.

Several years ago my beloved “extra Dad” Bill was surprised by a diagnosis of throat cancer at age 74. By far, the hardest side effect of his treatment was the way the radiation and chemo gradually and painfully rendered him unable to first taste, then even eat at all.  For two months, Bill “ate” by mixing up a specially formulated cocktail of powdered nutrients and water, and injecting it via a syringe and a tube surgically inserted through his belly button directly into his stomach, bypassing his numbed tastebuds and burned esophagus. Because Bill has wonderful working man’s hands that struggled with the mechanics of attaching the syringe to his feeding tube, occasionally I would step in to help. There was nothing noble or romantic about this. The liquid smelled far from appetizing, and the process was awkward and uncomfortable. But Bill was alive, and for him to keep on living, this was what he needed. So we did what needed to be done to help him. And eventually, by the grace of God, Bill beat the cancer and went back to eating the ordinary way.

Two years ago, the memory of watching and helping Bill find a way to keep eating, to keep living, came back to me as I sat in those first few microbiology classes.

What none of my professors or fellow students knew, nor few of my friends, was that for some time I had been living under the weight of a very dark season of spiritual struggle and trial that exposed some idols in my heart I never even knew were there, let alone recognized for what they were for a while.  And for about eighteen months of those two years, I stopped eating. Not literally, although the stress did cause me to first lose a lot of weight, and then gain it back, plus more, as I fought to medicate the pain.

I stopped taking in God’s Word. I stopped reading and meditating on it, stopped praying over it, or listening to it.  I had lost my spiritual appetite.

I was too proud for myself and too concerned for my kids to give up all pretenses of a spiritual life. I still went to Sunday school and church. Still listened to the preaching. Still sang with the worship team, feeling like the songs I was singing of hope and joy were only true for other people, and not for me.

I was being nourished, but only indirectly. I wasn’t eating.

As the months in my microbiology class went by, and the connections between eating and living were continually reinforced, my mind would return to an earlier season in my Christian life. Born out of an earlier time of trial, God used two books to radically reorient my understanding of what life as a Christian actually was. Life as a Christian was something far simpler, and yet deeper than a mere boxed set of external disciplines. Christianity was a way of being, of living, not just moment by moment, but permanently, even eternally.

Recalling that truth about spiritual life in the light of all I was learning about physical life, was the beginning of my restoration.

My lack of appetite for God’s Word, my inability to taste or savor it, wasn’t a justification for not taking it in. If I was alive, I needed to eat, no matter how absent my hunger.

So I kept going to church – kept listening to the preaching, kept singing the songs, kept reciting the creeds.

And most importantly, I started to take in God’s Word again. Bit by bit, day after day, I open my Bible, and read.  And pray. Few were the days, at least at first, when I felt any joy or hope, any sudden epiphany, anything. But that was no longer my ultimate goal. I was alive. I needed to eat. God’s Word was my food.  So I ate it.

And it was in the obedience of eating that God revived my appetite.

The process was not instant. The initial weeks were the hardest.  Much like a malnourished child struggles to take in good food, the initial months were ones of purging of sinful behaviors and attitudes that I had permitted my circumstances to justify, and a wrestling to hold onto the truth about who I was to Jesus in spite of them all.  It wasn’t enough to simply take God’s word in to my mind. I had to digest it spiritually – to make it (through the Holy Spirit’s help) part of me, so that it changed me. It freed me of my demand for my circumstances to change before I would. It helped me see my sin in its ugliness, throw it all at the foot of the cross and leave it behind.  It helped me see myself as God has always seen me, but as I had forgotten – eternally loved, with a future far greater than my immediate circumstances promised.

I’d like to say that that hardest of my circumstances changed and we all lived happily ever after, but it wouldn’t be totally true. Some things got better, but other trials were waiting in the wings.  Today I’m back to being in a season of difficulty, circumstantially and spiritually. But never again will I allow my circumstances or my attitude about them keep me from my greatest need, my need to constantly take in the life of Jesus through His word to me.

Not simply to stay alive, but because I already am alive.