Eating as a Spiritual Discipline

It started with the farmers market,
where I grew addicted to the beauty
of the summer rainbow of vegetables
and fruits available here in Michigan.
My friends and I started walking there
together weekly. When my husband and
I bought our first house, I decided to try
my hand at gardening, enchanted by the
idea that I might actually be able to grow
some of those colorful vegetables myself!
I started with two tomato plants, then my
neighbor gave me two more, and by the
end of the summer I had so many tomatoes
I decided to explore canning–and
made enough salsa and pizza sauce to
last until spring. Over the winter I joined
a co-op where we could buy sustainably
raised meat, cheese, and eggs from local
farmers year round.

This summer, my second year gardening,
there were even more tomato
plants crammed among the other vegetables
in my crowded 8 by 10 foot plot. Vegetables
took over my patio flower boxes, Dried Fruit
and herbs and a cherry tomato plant invaded
the flower garden. One day as the
summer produce was rolling in, my husband
and I suddenly realized it: Everything
about how we eat has changed. Not
only what we we’re eating, but our whole
attitude about food.

To some this might seem like nothing
more than an obsession with the local
food movement, but for me it was more. It
entailed a certain mindfulness, paying a
special sort of attention to something that
once was done without thought. I loved sitting
down to dinner and recalling the faces
of the farmers who had not only sold me
my food, but who had raised it from seedling
or hatchling on their farm. I found a
new sense of connection with the place I
live, with the seasons, and with the food
that sustains me each day. That connection
and awareness led to gratefulness
and joy.

I have begun to read some of the
many books currently available about the
American food industry and the local food
movement, and while I believe we do well
to learn as much as possible about where
our food comes from, making a political
or economic statement does not provide
enough motivation for me to sustain these
new eating habits. The convenience available
at the big box store would lure me
back if these lifestyle changes didn’t result
in something more life-giving. As Barbara
Kingsolver writes in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,
“It can take something on the order
of religion to invoke new, more conscious
behaviors–however glad we may be afterward
that we went to the trouble.” Indeed
it has taken “something like religion” for
us to sustain these changes to our food
life. Perhaps, like a friend of mine, I began
buying and eating local “simply because it
seems like the right thing to do.” But since
then it has transformed my choices about
food (from shopping basket to dinner table)
into a sort of spiritual discipline. Eating
has become an intentional habit that
leads me toward greater thankfulness,
better stewardship, and hospitality.

Miracles and Gratitude

I love walking through my garden in
the summer, sometimes several times a
day. I can never resist climbing in there
and peeking beneath the leaves of the
plants. Peas appear like magic–yesterday
I couldn’t see any, today there are
a handful ready to pick–the tomatoes
ripen and zucchini grow steadily each
day, the onions and carrots are like
presents wrapped in the dirt. Every
time I investigate my little plot, there
is something new and I am amazed.
A friend from church described how
she feels about eating her homegrown
foods: “It puts me at God’s mercy. I understand
that the seeds may or may
not sprout, and each time they do, it’s a
miracle. And it’s a miracle again when
I eat that fresh corn or homegrown tomatoes.
Oh, and then there’s gathering
wild berries! There is the feast. Here I
am. Little ol’ me, accepting it like Communion.
Didn’t do a dang thing to deserve it, but there it is, like the rain
and sun.”

The only difference between my
garden plants and the random assortment
of who-knows-what growing between
the bushes by the back fence is
my relationship to and mindfulness of
them. It is because I tend the vines daily
that I discover each new fruit as a blessing.
I often wonder what will happen if I am able
to continue to cultivate this kind of mindfulness–a mindfulness
that allows me to see the miraculous–in the rest of my life. Barbara
Brown Taylor writes in The Preaching
Life
that “when all is said and done,
faith may be nothing more than the assignment
of holy meanings to events
others call random…. this changed
perspective is the most valuable gift in
the world, with power to save souls and
change lives.”

Perhaps you grew up learning the
wonderful habit of prayer at mealtimes;
it’s a perfect time to pause and
be thankful at least three times a day,
but I want to propose that mealtime
could take on more thoughtfulness and
thankfulness than just a brief saying
of grace before we dig in. Instead, in
our purchasing and preparation of our
food, in consideration of where our food
comes from and how our choices affect
other people and the earth, we can
demonstrate our thankfulness and be
led toward deeper gratitude for God’s
provision for our lives.

Stewardship and the Kingdom

In his book Second Nature, Michael
Pollan writes, “My experience in the
garden leads me to believe that there
are many important things about our
relationship to nature that cannot be
learned in the wild. For one thing, we
need, and now more than ever, to learn
how to use nature without damaging
it.” The garden (and, once you understand
this, the market and the kitchen
and even the front lawn) is
also a place to discover
and wrestle
with our impact
on nature–in other
words, to learn
about stewardship.
 
I don’t actually think I have a right to demand
“fresh” tomatoes all year round. Besides,
once you eat one that has actually ripened on
the vine in your neighborhood, you may not
ever want to eat those watery pink spheres
that are available in January anyway.
 

Clearly I’ve decided
that I’m willing
to exert my will on
nature enough to
till up the soil and
pull weeds, but
where do I draw
the line? Do I use
an insecticidal
soap that will kill all the bugs, or do I learn and watch,
pulling off the harmful bugs by hand
and cultivating plants that naturally
deter pests? Do I fertilize by adding
organic matter back into the soil–composting
my garden waste–or do I use
chemical fertilizers? And at the grocery
store another set of questions arises if
you let the garden or the farmers market
teach you to ask them: Where did a tomato
come from in January? Does organic
or local food do more to reduce my impact
on creation? What does “ultra-pasteurized”
mean?

This summer we bought a share in
a local farm through a program called
Community Supported Agriculture
(CSA). We paid a set amount before the
beginning of the growing season, which
entitles us to a portion of each week’s
produce, whatever it might be. Our CSA
share meant learning a lot about when
each vegetable is in season, eating vegetables
I had never seen before, and sometimes
receiving more produce than we
could eat in a week. By August it seemed
like vegetables were taking over my refrigerator
and countertops, so I started
preserving them–steaming, blanching,
freezing, and canning like crazy. Maybe
a lifestyle like this isn’t for everyone, but
for me, growing, cooking, and preserving
my own food by the seasons is related to a
recognition that my convenience and my
schedule are not bigger than this world
or more important than seasons. I don’t
actually think I have a right to demand
“fresh” tomatoes all year round. Besides,
once you eat one that has actually ripened
on the vine in your neighborhood,
you may not ever want to eat those watery
pink spheres that are available in
January anyway.

Other friends I talked to spoke of
their experiences of eating seasonally
and locally as connecting them to “the
way things are supposed to be.” One
said, “I do believe in not getting too comfortable
(convenience foods, over-packaging,
etc.). I don’t think it’s right to be
comfortable about the way things are; we
need to keep working to make this life a
little more like heaven. And I don’t think
there’re fields and fields of genetically
modified corn being raised to be turned
into corn syrup, put into over-processed
food, and trucked across the country to
fatten up children in heaven.” I believe
these friends are sensing a connection
between stewardship of the earth and a
vision for the Kingdom of God.
 
Jesus taught us about the kingdom
by talking about seeds and vines and
weeds and soil.
 

After all,
Jesus taught us about the kingdom by
talking about seeds
and vines and weeds
and soil, and he
taught us that our
role is something
like the steward
left in charge of the
master’s property
while the master is
away. Our day-to-day
choices in every
part of our lives, including
what we eat and where it comes
from, are part of our discipleship–our
halting steps, imitating Jesus as best
we can as he shows us what life is like
under the Reign of the Most High.


Hospitality: Sharing the Joy of Food

The final step in buying local or
growing your own food is to prepare or
cook it. By “cook” I mean really cook–nothing out of a box and no frozen premade
meals (unless you combine and
freeze it all yourself for later, which is
a great idea!). This means meals take
more time, but it can also mean cooking
and eating together with friends
and family more often. As I have grown
in the habit of cooking I’ve noticed that
I rarely do it for myself. Sure, I choose
meals that include my favorites, but
if there isn’t someone to share them
with I’ll simply scrounge for leftovers or throw cheese and pepperoni on top
of bread rather than cooking from
scratch.

And the more I cooked at home
throughout the past couple of years the
more our house has become the place
where friends gather. It became a Sunday
evening ritual with one group of friends
who came every week, bringing appetizers
and desserts to share around the
kitchen table while a couple helpers and
I whipped up something for dinner. Yes,
at times it started to feel like a burden
to spend Sunday afternoon cleaning up
the house and planning a meal after a
busy weekend. But usually as the kitchen
warmed with bubbling sauces and
too many bodies my heart warmed with
joy. I’ve realized that I love having people
over. I love that my friends just pop in
the back door while I’m chopping veggies
or stirring a pot. I love sharing what
I’ve made and perhaps a story of where
it came from, and I’m learning
to care less about the state of
cleanliness in my house.

I’m convinced food is for
sharing. Despite all the convenience
available today, a meal
of quality, which requires someone’s
time and attention, is something we
all instinctively appreciate sharing with
others. That’s why we celebrate by sitting
down with friends and loved ones at a favorite
restaurant, throw dinner parties
or potlucks, and even invite over the piteous
college students who (we can safely
assume) are sick of cafeteria food and ramen
noodles. Something about the combination
of food and friends and family
makes us feel at home.

Clearly Jesus understood how food
affects us when he shared bread and
wine with his friends and asked them
to remember him each time they gathered.
Our celebration of the Lord’s Supper
should be like coming home to your
favorite home-cooked meal–a celebration
of reconnection that you can smell,
touch, and taste. In a worship class I
was once asked to imagine I was invited
to Jesus’ house for dinner: Jesus is in
the kitchen with an apron around his
waist, enthusiastically stirring a large
bowl in his arms. As I stand watching, the doorbell rings; more guests are arriving.
“Can you get that? ” Jesus asks.
And suddenly I find myself participating
in Jesus’ hospitality, extending it to
other guests like myself. Whether I end
up helping with the cooking or setting
the table, or even if I’m the last one in
the door, I am participating in this hospitality
modeled by Christ.

***

Food is more than simply fuel to
keep our bodies going throughout
the day–a truth that is perhaps best
grasped through the cultivation of intentional
habits of thankfulness, stewardship,
and hospitality in connection
with our eating. It could begin today
when you look out the window and
choose the sunniest spot in the yard or
on the patio to grow your favorite vegetable–and your sense of the miraculous.
It could begin with your next trip
to the grocery store or farmers market
as you consider the stewardship of the
land and what it took to get each item
from field to shopping basket. It could
begin the next time you share a meal
with family or friends as you work together
to prepare the food and participate
in the hospitality that Jesus modeled.
With practices like these, our eating
can become a spiritual discipline,
and a mealtime shared with others can
become more than just food, but rather
a celebration of God’s providence, the
creation, and our invitation to participate
in it all.

Dustyn Elizabeth Keepers is
a 2009 graduate of Western
Theological Seminary’s Master
of Divinity program and
is a candidate for ordained
ministry in the Reformed
Church in America.