What Food Is For

Soul. Body. Soul


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Blind Tasting Truth and Spiritual Sommeliers

Late last year, Kevin DeYoung continued his cheerful one-pastor crusade against foodie-ism by linking to a video of a couple of Dutch pranksters crashing a European food industry event with a tray of samples from that bastion of epicurean excellence, McDonalds. The premise was straightforward – when presented in the right way, garnished with the right verbiage, even an experienced foodie can’t tell the difference between nutritious, well-crafted cuisine, and food from the original purveyor of cheap and fast over good. Sure enough, the films depicts people murmuring words of affirmation as the unwittingly chow down on McNugget and muffin morsels. Digitally sliced and diced with more precision than Thomas Keller’s mise en place, the video is a cute conceit, but the central argument still holds true. As I’ve noted before, our food preferences are shaped by all kinds of influences. And not all of those influences serve us well.

Professionals in the wine business understand this challenge particularly well. An aspiring sommelier’s (a fancy French word for wine steward) entire education is focused on learning how to make objective assessments of wine while under the pressure of subjective influence from the information on a label. For weeks, students learn to recognize all the sensory attributes – flavor profile, color, and aroma, even texture – that identify a wine’s essential characteristics through repetitive rounds of observation and tasting (and then spitting, for the benefits of my Baptist readers). Then, an aspiring sommelier’s abilities are tested through a process known as “blind tasting.” Wine from an unlabeled bottle is poured into a glass, and the candidate must correctly identify the wine’s varietal, year of bottling and even producer, using just their senses and memory.

Sommeliers who pass these tests put their skills to work selecting and serving wines at fine restaurants. They pair different wines with different dishes to bring out the characteristics of each. They keep a lookout for “cork taint” – wine that’s turned into moldy, damp tasting awfulness because of the presence of a compound called TCA. Sommeliers also serve as judges at wine festivals, putting their blind tasting skills to work in judging the quality of new offerings from both famous and not so famous wine producers. These events offer a level tasting field where small, unknown wineries can be recognized, and a big brand name winery to be taken down a peg or two if what’s on the inside of their bottle isn’t on par with the reputation and prestige of the label.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of blind tasting in relation to how Christians think about what and whom we read, or listening and what we think about what other people read, and how we talk about it all on the Internet. To put it bluntly, we are becoming increasingly bad at letting the exterior labels of name and platform influence how we receive or reject what’s being offered. Whether the issue is racial reconciliation or young earth creation, a book or a blog post, what seems to matter most to a lot of people is who is doing the speaking, and from what platform, instead of what’s actually being said and how connected it actually is to the gospel. Depending on one’s loyalties (or self-identified discernment in assessing all things Biblical) if it comes from the mouth or pen of TeamPyro/TeamTGC/the SBC/GCC/John Piper/John MacArthur/Russell Moore/Beth Moore /Doug Wilson/ Jared Wilson/Thabiti Anyabwile or Ann Voskamp, we shouldn’t go near it, or we shouldn’t go anywhere else. We’re becoming a culture of undiscerning spiritual wine snobs, refusing to recognize our favorite’s failures and flaws when they’re exposed, and equally uninterested in receiving genuine, beneficial truth when it comes from a source we don’t immediately recognize, or we’ve already decided deserves rejection out of hand.

This tendency to prejudge a message based on its source isn’t exactly new. Scripture is replete with stories of God speaking through timid and unskilled, marginalized or unexpected people, and people finding excuses not to listen. Sometimes, a listener overcame his biases and discovered nothing less than eternal life. But other times, they didn’t, to their eternal shame. The Apostle Paul took a particularly dim view of tendencies to identifying too closely with any human leader other than Jesus. He was so committed to exalting Jesus’ name over his own that even when unscrupulous men tried to take advantage of his imprisonment to get in on the ministry action, Paul cared only about Who they preached. He’d leave the “why” of it with Him.

Last week, I decided to take Paul’s exhortation to heart and do some blind tasting of my own, by listening to a sermon Voddie Baucham preached at The Gospel Coalition national conference last month. Brother Voddie has said some things publicly in the past that have, well, not exactly blessed my soul. Some of the labels he wears are ones I reject categorically. That’s precisely why I wanted to hear him preach on the significance of the resurrection from 1 Corinthians 15. It’s a profound portion of Scripture, one that I’d been meditating on as I fought off a severe strain of bronchitis, and as I had learned that a teenage girl in our church had recently been diagnosed with a fatal in human terms brain tumor. Voddie’s expounding of this text, with all of its implications for every day life and ministry, filled my soul with spiritual wine of such depth and clarity that I’m still meditating on it. When I set aside the labels I didn’t love, and took the time to listen, I was blessed.

Before the curmudgeons do that thing they do, let me say categorically that I’m not arguing that we separate man or woman from message all the time. There’s wine and there’s vinegar and sometimes reading the label is necessary to avoid dinner time disaster when your guests sit down and you pour them a glass. But what I am saying is that we’d do well to be better spiritual sommeliers – willing to speak out when a beloved and trusted purveyor of truth says something that’s tainted with error, and especially, able to recognize, receive and recommend spiritual nourishment wherever it can be found, no matter the label.


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He Became Yeast

Early on in my study of the theme of food in Scripture, I spent a lot of time wrestling with the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, and the mechanics of it, at least as it’s practiced in a lot of Reformed evangelical churches like mine. Why did Jesus and Paul center the ordinance on Jesus’ death, instead of His victorious resurrection? What’s to celebrate in that? And if it is a celebration, what kind of party food is a bland square of tasteless chalk and sickly sweet grape juice?! Why not a fragrant loaf of Challah and a rich bottle of earthy Cabernet? Aren’t those the kinds of food and drink more in line with our most sacred and only repeatable ordinance?

If I had lived during Jesus’ day and my fervor had driven me to pull a Mary Magdelene and crash the Upper Room with my well meaning offerings for the meal, the wine might have been welcome (as long as it was kosher) because the disciples were likely not flush with cash. But the mere presence of the bread would have brought the entire night to a screeching halt. Not only would I not have been welcomed, I would have been given the right hand of disfellowship by Jesus, the disciples, and all of Israel. Because my bread would have contained a substance every Jew, Jesus included, knew was supposed to be decidedly, conspicuously absent.

Challah, like most bread, contains yeast, a single-celled microorganism that feeds on the starches in flour and ferments carbon dioxide. The fermentation process is what makes dough rise, and what it its characteristic aroma, and baked bread its volume and texture. Without yeast, bread is flat, dry, and empty of any rich flavor. Just one tiny yeast cell can transform large quantities of simple flour and water into something large, and airy, and altogether other than what it was before. Which is why yeast (or leaven, as its commonly called in Scripture) was, and still is, a dominant metaphor for sin in Jesus’ day, especially the sin of pride and its many spiritually malodorous byproducts. Jesus used the metaphor Himself when talking about the Pharisees, those living, breathing metaphors of puffed-up pontification of corporate piety who reeked internally of spiritual corruption. In contrast, Jesus was gentle and lowly of heart, the one who emptied himself when he took on human flesh. He was unleavened.

As Passover marked the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a major part of the preparations  involved ridding the place where the meal would take place of every crumb of bread or grain of wheatanything that might have the slightest taint of yeast. But thanks to modern science, we know today that this was actually impossible. Yeast lives on work surfaces, on the ground, and even in the air. Given enough time, a container of flour and warm water left in any ordinary environment will eventually “bloom”, thanks to invisible rogue yeast cells that can’t be eradicated by mere human effort.

So just as no Passover meal was ever truly free of yeast, no one who ate of it was ever free of the sin yeast represented. Right in that room were men whose pride and drive for sinful self-preservation and self-enrichment would move them to words and deeds of incredible wickedness mere hours later. It would be hard to comprehend, if we didn’t see the same thing going on around us every day.

You know, for all of my Calvinism, there are many times when the depravity of mankind and the wretchedness of the world can seem somewhat theoretical, let alone the depravity of, well, me. And then there are months like this one has been. The entire world feels like it’s been turned inside out, its heart of darkness exposed and pulsing relentlessly. Men, women and children are suffering unspeakable horrors at the hands of wicked men and microscopic pathogens. The state where I live is choking on the dust of dried up reservoirs, desperate for rain to water the crops that feed the entire country, but the rain refuses to come. The county where I live houses the workspaces of the wealthiest, greediest people on earth, and the living spaces of the poorest and most desperate, within an afternoon’s walk of each other. A man blessed with an astounding ability to see the world and show it back to us in a way that makes us weep with laughter, can’t see through his own pain, and makes one last, tragic, choice, so that now he makes us weep with sorrow.

So much brokenness. So much sin. So much yeast.

And the church? Jesus’ bride? The one whose job it is to proclaim to the world that there is still good news? What a mouth she’s had. Shrieking and shrewish when she should speak gently (or not at all), then purse-lipped with false piety when she should be ugly-crying over her hypocrisy at talking so much about rediscovering the gospel while she speaks and acts likes she’s never really gotten it at all.

And then there’s me.

As I’ve made my way through Ephesians this summer, I’ve returned again and again to the promises in chapter 1, all set in motion before a word of the universe was ever spoken. I want to ask God what in His own holy name He was thinking to make me a part of His plan. I can click away from the news of the evilness of the world, but never from the evil that lives and multiplies in my own heart.

The yeast of sin is still everywhere, and in everyone, as it has been since long before that Passover meal in the Upper Room.

In everyone, except for the One.

Jesus is the one man who was, and is, the sinless, yeast-less One, the unleavened Bread of Life. He was the one who in unleavened humility emptied Himself to live with us in all of our sinfulness. He, the unleavened Bread of Life became our yeast, was disfellowshipped from His own Father on the cross, and died. That death is what bought us our life. That is a death worth celebrating.

Each time we take the wine and the bread, Jesus proclaims that death to us. Through His perfect, yeastless death, the yeast of war has died, the yeast of child hunger and thirst has died. The yeast of Ebola and cancer has died. If we belong to Him through faith, our yeast of laziness and pride, greed and lust, lovelessness and anger – it has died too. And that is a death worth celebrating, as often as we meet together, and as often as we wake up in the morning, until the day Jesus comes back and death itself dies, forever.


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When Jesus Says Hard Things

What is it like to eat a human being? And what’s the big deal about it anyway?

If just the idea of those questions grosses you out, I’d encourage you not to read this piece at the Huffington Post, which uses the recent NBC drama “Hannibal” as an excuse to ask those questions and offer some perspective courtesy of modern history’s most infamous cannibal criminals. And if asking the question out loud is offensive well, even secular anthropologists will try not to judge you for your Western cultural bias. For most Westerners of any faith or no faith at all, the idea cannibalism is something from which we all instinctively recoil (ahem, unless we’re a Hollywood producer with an insatiable craving for yet another edgy late night TV hit). But we don’t often ask ourselves why.

The Old Testament gives us plenty of reasons. Genesis 1 tells us that we are creatures of a very particular kind. We are God’s image bearers, made to reflect him individually and collectively. To use one another as food, instead of receiving what God has already given, is to be literally inhuman. The kosher laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy elaborate on this idea. While the laws about which animals are permissible or impermissible for food are somewhat shrouded in mystery, the laws proscribing the ingestion of blood of any creature are explained clearly. The life of an animal is in its blood. To drink blood is a disordered quest for life outside the means God has already provided. (Dracula, anyone?) Many of the corresponding kosher laws center on honoring this central requirement – to cleanse any permissible meat of all residual blood before it’s eaten. Even today, with the sacrificial system on hiatus for contemporary Jews, dietary restrictions like these remain at the center of Jewish identity.

With all that in mind, spare a thought for Jesus’ followers, and especially for Peter, when, in John 6, Jesus actually seems to be commanding the people to throw out this restriction in an appalling way. The people have just had their physical hunger satisfied in the most spectacular manner since God fed their ancestors manna from heaven, and they are doing their level best to get Jesus to make this a permanent thing. After several rounds of verbal back and forthing, Jesus tells the people that he is prepared to feed them, but on His terms instead of theirs.

“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:54)

Don’t you kind of wish the Internet had been a thing back then? Can you imagine the Twitter-rage? Those 34 words comprise one of the most offensive things any Jew could have said to another. “Hard saying” seems like an understatement. It makes the decision of many of the disciples to turn their backs on Jesus and walk away seem totally understandable, even, dare I say it, biblical.

But it also makes Peter’s response incredibly beautiful.

Peter had been with Jesus from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in general, and this latest miraculous adventure in particular. He had watched Jesus pass out the bread and the fish, and had helped haul the baskets of leftovers away himself. He had listened in as the crowd tried to filter this experience through their own presuppositions to meet their own demands. He heard Jesus’ outrageous words as clearly as everyone else. What must he have thought in those moments as he saw the crowds dissipate and watched so many of the other disciples leave in a cloud of dust and disgust? Peter was no deep-thinking intellectual. He was an act-on-instinct kind of guy. If anyone should have run away screaming and gagging, it should have been him.

Instead, Peter’s response revealed that he knew more, in a far deeper way, than any of the disciples who walked away that day. What Jesus had said to them all was indeed a hard saying, and Peter didn’t understand it any better than anyone else. But Peter’s lack of understanding was overruled, not so much by what he had already come to know, but by Whom he had come to know, by following him. The sum total of all that Jesus had spoken, and all that he was, was greater and more certain than the hard saying of this moment. Peter couldn’t not stay.

Many of us can see ourselves standing next to Peter in this scene. We have received our own “hard saying” from Jesus. We struggle to reconcile what Jesus is commanding with everything else that He’s promised. We watch the crowds walk away, and the temptation to follow is overwhelming.

In those moments, it’s what we have come to know about Jesus – about who He is and what all of His words to us truly give us – that help us speak like Peter in the midst of our struggle, and continue to walk with Him.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”


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Food For Thought About The Daniel Plan

In an interview in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Pastor Rick Warren described the health epiphany that lead him to write, along with world-famous doctors Daniel Amen and Mark Hyman, his latest bestseller, “The Daniel Plan”. Named for the biblical Daniel, who Warren says “refused to eat junk food and challenged a king to a health contest”, “The Daniel Plan” uses a myriad of Scripture passages from a variety of translations, under the categories of Faith, Food, Fitness, Focus and Friends, to help its readers experience the same success Warren and the Saddleback congregation did in losing over a quarter of a million excess pounds collectively, and reverse the effect of nutrition-related conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

“One-third of [Jesus’] ministry was health care,” Warren states in the interview. ”We believe the Daniel Plan is really taking the church back to what it has done for 2,000 years.”

Saddleback Church isn’t the first group to have a Scripturally inspired epiphany about the need for God’s help to solve food problems in a fallen world. The Jews of Jesus’ day had a battle with food far bigger than ours in America- not with weight, but with hunger. Living in an arid climate, with no Publix , no organic famers’ market, and no Chik Fil A,  meant that the fight to produce enough food simply to sustain life was relentless and exhausting. Many (though, sadly, not all) Americans have never felt the kind of constant nagging worry over water sources running dry and barley supplies falling short like the Jews of Jesus’ day. So we need to use our imagination to understand how the people in John 6 felt as they sat and watched a man they already knew to be a great healer, pray over a one boy’s lunch of barley loaves and fish, then send his disciples out amongst them to distribute it for all of them to eat.  Skepticism turned to shock as the entire crowd wasn’t simply fed, but made full, with a dozen baskets of leftovers standing as a testament to the miracle that had just taken place. Old Testament passages recounting manna falling from heaven and predicting a day when a prophet would come had been reenacted, right before their eyes.

It’s not a surprise that the crowd responded as they did in wanting to make Him a king. They had seen what He could do. They knew what that signified. He was the one sent to save them.

What did surprise them, and what should give us pause, is how Jesus responded.

When the people move toward Him to compel him to become their king, he moved away. When the people tracked him down, instead of receiving them, Jesus rebuked them for seeing him as a means to nutritional ends, even legitimate ones.

Unmoved from their goal, the crowd deployed an impressive combination of Scripture allusion and feigned selective amnesia in an attempt at holy reverse psychology, hoping Jesus would give them bread one more time, if not always.

But instead of another miracle, Jesus responded with an increasingly cryptic, shocking and ultimately offensive collection of statements, turning their understanding of bread, of manna, and most importantly, Himself, upside down.

I am the bread of life.”

“Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.”

I am the living bread that came down from heaven.

“The bread that I will give for the life of the worlds is my flesh.”

Whoever feeds on my flesh, and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”

Saying the he had come from heaven, when they all knew he was Joseph’s son, was bad enough. But saying they needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood?  Violate a tenet of Jewish law so pivotal that it was given in the days of Noah, even before all the other Kosher laws their ancestor Daniel had committed to keep were given?

Unbiblical. Unthinkable.

And so they left, unsatisfied and upset. And Jesus let them go. His compassion had filled their stomachs for a time. But he wanted more for them. He wanted them to want Him more than they wanted what He could give.

None of God’s gifts of food – not the trees in Eden, nor the manna in the wilderness, nor the barley loaves and fish on a Capernaum hillside – were ever meant to be gifts in themselves. They were, and still are, eloquent pointers to THE ultimate gift – Jesus, the true bread of eternal life, not just giver of earthly bread for the here and now.

When we come to see food this way, the way we feed ourselves, our families and a hungry world still matters very much.  We do well to consider whether what and how we eat is an accurate and beautiful picture of who Jesus is, or a distortion. But in all of our efforts to be a better steward of God’s good gift in food, we ought never to lose sight of the greater gift of God’s Son. It’s Jesus’ plan, not Daniel’s, that fulfills God’s greatest purposes for our bodies, and our souls.