God Has Given You Good Gifts. Learn to Love Them Well.

While I do realize that it might be taken as a teensy bit self-serving to share emails from readers, this one was so good that I begged the good person who sent it to me to allow me to share it, which she graciously allowed me to do.

(Identifying details have been removed.)

I’m a pastor in a poor, rural church, and I am going to be preaching on the topic of food. During seminary, through the influence of Robert Capon, Wendell Berry, Albert Borgman, as well as some good friends, and classes examining capitalism and technology I came to see my eating choices as directly flowing from my love of God and love of neighbor.

Because I’m interested in the topic and have been actively reforming my own habits, I was excited to be given this opportunity to speak to my congregants, but I was struggling with how to approach the subject without increasing shame for many of the overweight members of our church, and the poor members who struggle to afford to eat well, even in an agricultural community. 

I was so grateful to find your book that reframed the conversation for me. I had seen food as a mix of invitation to grace, through delight, and a call to obedience and love, but your book, with your emphasis on joy, helped me to see that all of the ethical points that I would like to make can all come out of the invitation to grace.  They flow out of love for God as we receive his gifts, and learn to love in the way that he loves. It is grace all the way down.

…It was such a relief to me to come to see that, instead of saying, “you all need to make better choices for the sake of God and neighbor,” I could say, “God loves you and has given you good gifts. Learn to love them well, to receive them from God’s hand, and everything else will fall into place, from health to justice.”

Much like, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, all these things will be given to you as well.”

The sermon went well, thanks in large part to your writing. When I sat down a woman from the congregation, who has struggled with her weight, and who I often hear disparage herself about what she eats, whispered to me, “That was so great because you invited us into a better place without all the negative.”

Can I tell you truthfully that this means more to me than sales figures, endorsements from famous writers, and suchlike? My book is not perfect by any means, but I wrote it in hope and faith that it would sprout little wings and scatter seeds of hope and joy in the world. When I get to hear of one of those seeds sprouting into something lovely and beautiful, I am so, so, so grateful.

{To read more about why you might want to read my book, click here. And then here.}

{Regarding books and what they can do for us, THIS SHORT FILM! Watch it!}

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The Peace of Wild Things (with photos of animals seen on a recent safari)

For me, there is nothing quite like being outdoors, and, especially, seeing wild creatures, as an antidote to anxiety. I don’t think there is anything particularly unusual or strange in that. God’s strangely comforting words to Job involved proclaiming himself as involved and caring in the lives of the wildest and remotest creatures, Psalm 104 celebrates God as the one who knows the comings and goings of animals, and feeds them, and Jesus points his hearers’ attention to the birds and the flowers as evidence of God’s loving and continuous care.

I love Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” which, to me, somehow expresses all of that. Several years ago, when we were enduring particularly stressful times, I memorized it while washing dishes and repeated it to myself in bed when I couldn’t sleep, and when I longed to put on my hiking boots and wander into the wilderness, but had to stay home to change diapers and put kids down for naps. It’s worth reading and re-reading, I think:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

{via gratefulness.org}

I am, faith in Jesus notwithstanding, quite expert at “taxing” my life “with forethought of grief,” and that is just one of the reasons I love wild things: they cause me to consider that I am as beloved, or more so, than these creatures that God so loves.

Here are some of the wild things that gave me peace and grace this week:

kingfishers
kingfishers
bathing
bathing
delight
delight
impala
impala. so beautiful.
into still water
into still water
tree
wild, beautiful trees

{All photos by the Stone family. Feel free to share so long as you link back here. Thanks!}

The Everyday Famine(s)

You won’t hear about it in the news because it isn’t news. It’s just what’s normal here.

Every day, or nearly so, the clanging sound of metal hitting metal lets me know that someone’s at the gate that surrounds our home, bringing vegetables or fish or charcoal or wooden carvings to sell. It happens often enough that the sound elicits annoyance from me as I leave the stove, or my book, or the couch to answer the call. And often enough, the people are so desperate to sell that if I say “not today,” they’ll plead with me, lowering the price with every word. But occasionally—at least once a week—someone comes to the gate with nothing to sell, nothing to offer at any price. They’re coming, very simply, to beg for food.

It’s summer here in the southern hemisphere, and corn is growing in every spare bit of earth in which it can possibly be grown, with pumpkin and squash vines bearing their orbed fruit between the rows. The corn will be allowed to dry on the husk before being harvested, after which women in villages will pound it to a fine flour that they’ll cook into nsima (nn-SEE-ma) the thick, polenta-like dish that forms the staple of people’s diets. Pumpkins—and their edible greens—along with okra, beans, and tomatoes will become stews to give the bland, starchy dough some flavor. It’s tastier than it sounds, and it fills you up.

But in these months—in February and March, as people are waiting for the harvest—their stored corn begins to run out, and they enter the ‘hungry months.’ What corn remains is rationed carefully, and two daily meals become one small meal, or none at all. As I walk and drive along the streets, I can see people using canes of bamboo to coax guava or papaya or avocado out of tall trees. When people pass me in the street, they often chew sugar cane before spitting them out, slowly and carefully extracting whatever sweetness might remain in the fibrous bits of plant. People walk slowly. Women in labor hardly have the strength to bring forth babies. These are the hungry months.

Despite this, corn—maize, they call it—is regarded with nothing less than reverence. “Nsima is our food,” James, our gardener, tells me. “If you don’t have nsima, you don’t have life.” Nsima—and foods like it—are to much of the world today what bread was to the ancient Near East when Jesus ministered there. “I am the bread of life” was meaningful in that context in a way that’s difficult for us to grasp. For most of us, bread is just one of many choices, and we may forgo it altogether if we’re going low-carb or gluten-free or Paleo. For them—for many people in the world—no bread, no rice, no nsima—means hunger. It means weakness. It means lifelessness. Eventually, it means death.

Every day, or nearly so, women and men look in mirrors and step on scales, count calories and worry about body fat and about their appearance. It happens enough that children as young as four begin to develop anxiety over food, or express fears of being seen in a bathing suit. Even eating healthfully can become an unhealthy obsession. And often enough, people become so desperate to get control over their eating as to spend huge amounts of money on drugs, diet plans, and surgery. Occasionally, the burden of eating; of bodily existence itself, is too much to bear, and people lose their lives to anorexia—the deadliest of all mental illnesses.

But even with the superstores filled full in season and out of season with food of all kinds in every space where food can possibly be so, many of us still struggle to extract whatever goodness might remain in God’s gift of food. We ration carefully so as not to overindulge, or we use food to comfort ourselves when we are feeling lonely or anxious. We eat thoughtlessly and on the run. In this land of plenty, we remain hungry, disconnected, unsatisfied. Those at the gates—people who are poor in America—are more likely to suffer diseases associated with poor diets because the ‘plenty’ doesn’t extend into the food deserts.

Despite all this—despite the tens of thousands of children who die each day because they don’t have enough food, despite the mothers who die giving birth because their bodies have never been nourished properly, despite those who suffer bitterly from the various ills associated with greed and overabundance—I believe we can, and should—“eat with joy.” It’s a phrase that comes from Ecclesiastes, a book that reflects, and is reflected in, a good many people’s experiences of life “under the sun.” We look for justice, and find injustice; time and chance sometimes trump hard work and intelligence. Still, urges the Preacher, even in this messy, confusing world, with hunger and poverty and injustice always with us, we should, as we are able, enjoy the good things of this life with an enjoyment tempered by the knowledge that life is fleeting, and that we have obligations to God and to one another.

And so when the sound of metal hitting metal pulls me away from my computer once again, I fill a bag with cornmeal and give it away with a smile, because that’s what I can do right where I am. But wherever you are—whether among people hurting from plenty, or hurting from want—you can do something, too.

Glamorous Tuberculosis, Ghastly Cholera, Ordinary Stomach Bugs, and Extraordinary Grace

Tuberculosis seems to have been the disease of choice among 19th century artists and poets.

Yes, the sensitive, intelligent characters in novels and operas of that era always seem to succumb to that particular disease; it was even a bit ‘fashionable.’

As diseases go, it’s a glamorous one, or so suggests the professor in the delightful Open Yale course I recently listened to. It doesn’t cause you to lose control of your bowel functions, as in cholera, or cause your extremities to become gangrenous as in bubonic plague.

Tuberculosis, on the other hand, while every bit as serious and deadly, causes few visible (or odorous) symptoms–other than weight loss.

There’s even some scholarly speculation that ‘thinness’ as an ideal got its start in the Romantic era’s idealization of tubercular patients!

I don’t have any of those frightening diseases (though they still exist, usually taking the lives of people living in extreme poverty) but I’ve been sick with some nasty intestinal ailment the last few days.

Thanks to my dear husband & parents stepping in to help with the children, I’ve been able to get by, which has meant, ahem, just being ill and sleeping.

{And catching up on Downton Abbey in between.}

Spoiler Alert!

{Here’s poor Lavinia, about to die from influenza. And of course her couture nightgown is perfect, as is her hair and makeup. There’s no evidence of unwholesome bodily effluvia.}

Just for fun, I decided to take a picture of me, definitely not about to die, but definitely in the unattractive state of being that my friend Mr. Intestinal Microbe has put me in:

{I had to put it in black and white because “color” was just too scary. And “color” is in scare quotes because my face looks just as gray in both. Otherwise, yeah, that’s me right now. No lace. No makeup. Hair definitely not done. }

Online life–including blogging, social networking, etc.–can be kind of like that preference for tuberculosis over cholera, if you’ll pardon the sick analogy.

Certain kinds of icky are allowed; others are definitely not.

We like a certain measure of grittiness, of ‘reality,’ but, really, if you have to look upon an ill person, who wouldn’t rather see a tuberculosis patient than one with cholera? Glittering eyes, red cheeks, and thinness are comely in their way; uncontrollable diarrhea, not so much.

That’s understandable as far as it goes, I suppose, but golly, I want to get to the point already (and I bet you want me to, also) and the point is this:

Everyone needs to be loved even in the midst of their sickness and brokenness, whether literal, figurative, ‘glamorous,’ or gag-worthy.

Thank God, I suspect that’s just the kind of scandalous grace God extends to us.

{Now I’m going to drink some more fluids and take another nap.}


Is Hating My Body a Sin?

I love seeing the search terms that bring people to Eat With Joy. Some of them are strange, some are creepy, some are funny, some are sad. Sometimes, the search terms inspire posts, like this one, which landed someone here last week:

“Is Hating My Body a Sin?”

And so I’d like to attempt to answer that question.

To begin, we might ask “What’s sin?” I’m aware that there are about a thousand disputed ways to answer that question–and so no one ‘perfect’ way–but I like this one:

Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.

And I’d add that the people who make it easy for all of us to hate our bodies (through relentless idealization of unreal bodies, through profit-motivated manufactured discontent) are more ‘guilty’ than the teenager who thinks there’s something wrong with her thighs.

Then we might ask “what’s meant by ‘hating my body’?” There’s no answer in a catechism, of course, but we could try something like this:

Hating one’s body is the disrespecting of the body God has given us, which in itself is worthy of respect and honor, being made in God’s image, the fulfilling of desires in ways God not intend, to believe lies about human bodies in general and ours in particular, and to covet for ourselves a body not our own.

So I would say that, yes, hating one’s body usually involves sin: a distortion of the relationship God desires to have with us, and the relationships God desires for us to have with others and with creation.

And, like any sin, hating our body means a loss of freedom and liberty that God desires for us.

Hating our bodies is a great handle for marketers to grab onto–which is why I see body hatred as a corporate ‘sin’ as much as an individual one. Untold billions are made off of people’s hatred of their bodies.

Body hatred might be regarded as a form of ingratitude for the life and body God has given us. It may lead us to fulfill certain desires in ways God doesn’t intend (for example, self-starvation or gluttony.) It may lead us to covet what we don’t have–as when we look at someone else’s body and wish we looked “like that.”

As always, the ultimate remedy is the grace of God shown to us in Jesus. I think of the communion table as a place of grace and healing in particular for this ill.  Supplementary remedies include:

  • Love & Gratitude

Give thanks for your body and for your life! If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re breathing. Start with giving thanks for that breath. And the next one. And so on.

  • Be Extra-Kind to your body–enjoy your body!

Loving your neighbor “as yourself” presupposes that you love yourself. Eat well. Sleep enough. Move some. Put lotion on your dry skin. Dress so that you are comfortable and confident. Doesn’t mean endless primping. I’m talking about making the time to treat your body as well as you would treat the body of someone you really love.

  • Starve the Beast!

Interrupt the cultural messages that encourage you to think there’s something wrong with YOU, instead of with the airbrushed images of anorexic people they present as ideal.

Answer the inner voice back if it’s telling you that you’re ugly, too thin, too fat, too jiggly, whatever.

Remind yourself that you are God’s handiwork.

For me, starving the beast means I don’t look at certain catalogs or magazines or shows. Do you need to cancel certain subscriptions? Stop watching certain movies?

  • Prayer and Meditation

Ask God for mercy and help to see yourself and others as God sees them.

  • Find Support

If you suspect that you may need professional help for an eating disorder or for a body image disorder, please get help. You can even contact me if you need help looking for a professional in your area.

But even if your problem does not warrant the care of a mental health professional, it is a good idea to find support in a friend or confessor who has a healthy body image and can encourage you to embrace yourself as God made you.

What has helped you accept your body? What has stood in the way?