What Food Is For

Soul. Body. Soul

Spiritual Digestion

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Except for Thanksgiving, there doesn’t seem to be any holiday more dedicated to expressions of celebratory thankfulness through overconsumption of all manner of of American foods and beverages than the Fourth of July. From hot dog or pie eating “contests” (which I loathe and despise, but that’s a post for another day) to the ubiquitous ceremonial burnt offerings of animals on the Weber altar, nothing says “Merica quite like anticipating fireworks commemorating bombs bursting in air with belt notches bursting with flair. But as even the most intrepid eater can testify, every meal, no matter how big or how grand, must come to an end. In God’s wisdom, He has made sure that our bodies do its best to overrule our wills in this, if ever we attempt to overrule our body with our foolish will. Unless there’s a stopping point for intake, the work of transforming of what’s been taken in won’t be able to keep up. And that, after all, is the point of eating, at least when it comes to living.

It’s one of life’s ironies, albeit perhaps an understandable one, that advances in science, technology and hygiene have simultaneously enriched our understanding of how digestion works, even as it has driven most of the conversation about it to the edges of polite conversation. It makes sense that previous generations felt far more comfortable talking about all manner of means to promote good digestion and avert the consequences of poor digestion, when the consequences of things going awry would be likely be experienced more broadly and, ahem, regularly by the general populace. But maybe that’s part of the ministry that those of us in food sciences can offer the rest of the church, (hello), body. Because digestion is a mechanical and chemical marvel.

Much like our nervous system works to process external stimuli and generate automatic responses, our digestive system automatically assesses every morsel we eat and drink, categorizes it based on its relative immediate value and importance to both our health and safety, and then responds accordingly. Nutrients are derived and distributed, water is extracted, useless substances are moved along and away, and dangerous substances are forcibly removed as soon as they’re detected. Every single morsel of food and drink we take in eventually becomes part of our self, or of our environs. And the entire process happens largely apart from conscious thought or effort on our part. But without it, we’d die-quickly and painfully. 

When it comes to spiritual digestion – taking the truth of God’s Word heard or read, and appropriating into our minds and actions – it’s easy to think that that process happens somewhat subconsciously too. We come to church and make our way to our customary seat. We hear the Word read and expounded, whether poorly or well. We sing a closing hymn. We may, with Jesus, say “Amen” through Holy Communion. But it’s what happens next that matters just as much, maybe even more. Taking time to pray over what we’ve heard, talking about it with our church family at lunch, or with our own family that night at dinner – that is the work of spiritual digestion. And it’s essential for our spiritual vitality. 

I experienced this in a significant way at TGCW14. I would sit with friends and hear God’s Word taught – the book of Nehemiah laid out before us as a glorious feast. And we would take it all in. The closing prayer and song was the end of the eating, but it signaled the beginning of the digesting. My friends and I would talk, and talk, and talk. Later, texts and tweets from out of state friends and Internet friends would initiate still more conversations, into the night and into the early hours of the morning. All of us parts of Jesus’ body, taking apart what we’d heard, turning it over and over, asking questions, considering answers, assimilating all that we were learning for ourselves, and helping one another do the same.

Of course, it helped that we were in that suspended state of reality known as “time away” from our family responsibilities. There were no meals to cook, no supervision of daughters’ Sunday morning fashion selection and hygiene rituals, no defensive early bedtimes due to fear of middle of the night toddler visitations. When we returned home, all of those things and more, on Sunday and every other day of the week, were waiting to distract and redirect us from investing time to appropriate the Word of God into our hearts and minds, our thoughts and actions.

More than ever, the time away with other Christians reminded me of the critical importance of the “meeting together” aspect of spiritual nourishment. Physical digestion relies on the cooperative effort of many hidden parts of the body working collaboratively, each doing its part to turn food into active energy. Spiritual digestion happens the same way. The sisters and brothers with which we sit are in need of our help to move God’s Word from their minds to their hearts and bodies in action, just as surely you are in need of their help to do the same.

This Sunday, as I go to worship, I will be praying, not just that I will be fed the Word of God, but that I will be an active participant in transforming it into true spiritual energy for the Kingdom, for me and for those with whom I gather.

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