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!}

Tired of “Smug Advice, Hackneyed Words, and Silent Judgment” from Christians?

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Then you should read this book.

My grandmother had been languishing in her dingy apartment, drinking herself to death, for decades. Despite what was obvious to the rest of us, my grandmother persisted in the delusion that she knew better than any of us, and rebuffed all our attempts at intervention. When some people from Alcoholics Anonymous came to talk to her, she listened politely and later dismissed the encounter with, “the poor dears are so sincere,” as the ice tinkled in its tumbler of pure vodka. My grandmother spoke in a sort of fake Hollywood/French/British accent to disguise her impoverished, Yiddish-speaking upbringing. She was convinced that she knew better than everyone how to live, an illusion she could maintain only by keeping everyone away, including her family. Because it only took one look at her wizened frame and yellowed skin to see that her idea of herself didn’t match up with any reality that others could see. Looking at my grandmother; hearing her voice over the phone, I became convinced that facing reality, however ugly or harsh, was to be valued far above any masks that might prettify the truth.

So it makes perfect sense to me that the worst day of Laura Sumner Truax’s life was, in a way, the best day of her life. On the day that the judge flatly declared her marriage to be dissolved, she bolted not one but two Sara Lee coffee cakes and a “nice big glass of red wine.” By opening the book with this story – an anecdote of binge-eating that most of us would hesitate to share, in which she also makes it clear that she was the party unwilling to seek reconciliation in her marriage – Truax shows that unlike Blanche DuBois, unlike my grandmother, Truax faced the difficult truth about herself while there was still time for her to live her life in an entirely different way. It was the “best worst day” of her life, because it was the day when the outward image of perfection she’d scrupulously maintained came off for good; the day she saw herself for who she really was: “it wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t holy and it wasn’t good,” she writes, “but it was real,” and it made her realize for the first time “all that had been fake and futile.” And “one real thing,” wrote the incomparable Robert Farrar Capon, “is closer to God than all the idols in the world.”

On that “best worst day,” Truax cried because of all the “smug advice, hackneyed words and silent judgment” she’d bestowed on friends who had failed. Truax was a Christian well before her marriage and divorce, but her faith had taken a legalistic form; she had believed that “pious actions would make me more holy, more lovable, more…special to God.” The problem, she explains, is that all these “pious actions” were motivated by fear–fear that she was not good enough, which prompted her to try to earn the approval of God and others by maintaining an outward image of perfection. But, just as my grandmother perished slowly in her apartment, keeping us all at arm’s length, preserving the fiction that she knew better than all of us, artifice and dissimulation bring us slowly but surely to isolation. Religion, Truax suggests, is perhaps no less implicated than Madison Avenue advertisers in perpetuating the promise of perfection that keeps people in isolated, futile pursuit of perfection: “our churches,” she writes, “have been really good at setting up new laws, feeding us with the expectation that if we obey the laws then new life will follow.” She paraphrases Philip Yancey, who once said that God was never looking for perfection, but for people willing to “go toe to toe with him.” In this way, Truax gently offers an invitation to those who may or may not be pursuing God at all, or who may have pursued a spiritual life only to find the pursuit as phony and futile as Truax once did. She invites us to experience the “filling, flooding love of Jesus [that] allows us to change,” while keeping a humble realism that flies in the face of the conversion narratives many of us are familiar with: “there is no life is peachy since I accepted Jesus into my heart.”

{Read the rest of this review at Englewood Review of Books}

The World is No Disposable Ladder To Heaven: RIP, RFC

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Until 2003, Father Robert Farrar Capon served as an assisting priest at the Episcopal church fewer than 300 yards up the street where I grew up. I can remember learning to ride my bicycle in shaky circles in the parking lot of the historic (circa 1830) Baptist church that my father pastored, next to the parsonage where we lived. When I was ready to brave the sidewalk, I pedaled confidently until, passing Holy Trinity Episcopal, I’d invariably begin to totter. “Why do you always go wobbly when you pass the Episcopalians?” my father teased. “Do you find their theology wobbly?”

In truth, I was drawn to Episcopal worship before I had words to explain why. In my own church we sang songs that promised that if we turned our eyes upon Jesus, “the things of earth/will go strangely dim/in the light of his glory and grace.” I was weak in the knees for a way of worshiping that did not pit the “things of earth” against the “glory and grace” of Christ, but was capable of seeing them—the humblest of elements—charged with such glory. This is what makes The Supper of the Lamb remarkable both as a work of theology and as a cookbook: “The world is no disposable ladder to heaven. Earth is not convenient; it is good; it is, by God’s design, our lawful love,” Capon wrote. For Capon, discussing the physics involved in the preparation of a perfectly smooth gravy—down to the details of what sort of whisk does the job best—was of a piece with celebrating the goodness of God who created it all for delight, who means to lift all the good things of this world to grace, to that

unimaginable Session
In which the Lion lifts
Himself Lamb Slain
And, Priest and Victim
Brings
The City
Home.

Robert Farrar Capon’s writing is charged with an intense love for God and for all that God has made; it is deeply opinionated, utterly unique, and saturated with grace, reflecting the quirky appeal of the man himself, who, though now lifted to glory, leaves behind a warm invitation to taste and see that the Lord is indeed good.

{Read more of this piece, which originally appeared at Christianity Today here. Spoiler: RFC once asserted that all mothers should be plump, and he once burned a $20 bill in the pulpit!}

My Top 5 Books on The Body

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The September print issue of Christianity Today has my recommendations for the ‘top 5’ books on the body. It was really hard to pick only five, but here they are. They’re diverse: some are about sex, some are about food, some are explicitly focused on Christian belief and behavior, some are totally secular.

All come highly recommended by yours truly.

(Click for the full list at Christianity Today.)

I’ll Meet You In The Place Where the Stuffed Kitties Are Real

Mrs. S. died a few months ago. She was 92, although woe betide you should you have mentioned that fact to her; she maintained to the end that she was 91. And who are we to argue?

She also maintained that the stuffed cats in her room were real. This was not actually a point of contention, but a matter of settled fact, one that I, and, mercifully, most of her caregivers at the nursing home, entered into in all seriousness. She would hold the cats and stroke them with concentration, talking to them softly, much the same sort of encounter she had with all her cats the entire time I knew her, which is to say, most of my life, and, if reports are accurate, much the same as she had done her entire life.

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(At night, she said, the windows and doors would sometimes fly open, and dozens of puppies and kitties would come running into the room. It was very funny, she said, chuckling a little.)

This is not to suggest that Mrs. S. had ‘lost it’ or was ‘suffering dementia’ or whatever other clinical or dismissive term we might put to it. To be sure, there were times when she was confused, speaking as if out of a dream, but much about her remained unchanged nearly to the end. She was patient in affliction, tolerant of people’s shortcomings, and deeply confident.

“There’s just not enough work for me to do here,” she’d complain. (She was almost entirely paralyzed, but her sense of her own limitation wavered.) “I don’t know how I’ll manage to put the house back together; I’m afraid it’s all been put out of sorts since I’ve been gone.”

“I’ll help you,” I offered, knowing, of course, that she would never go home.

“Oh, you have enough to do!” she told me. “You are very busy.”

“I’ll make the time,” I said. “You’re a good girl,” she said.

Once Mrs. S. could no longer take solid foods, and the Fannie Farmer project—wherein I’d made dishes of the creamed and breaded and glazed variety so beloved of the WASPier members of the Greatest Generation—was over, I turned to puddings, which I’d bring after the dinner hour, when we’d sit in her room and watch Jeopardy. This was not the idle turning-to-television instead of conversation brought on by the degradations of age; we’d gone to the S. house to watch television since I’d been tiny, since we only got one channel, and that frequently snowy and full of static. We came for the Super Bowl and other big events; on ordinary days, we watched the news and the game shows, and there was always a bowl of Hershey’s Kisses, or, even better, a box of Andes mints, or, best of all, a carton of After Eight chocolate mints.

The first time I ever visited Greenport—the place in this world that I think of as ‘home,’ though I’ve traveled and lived far from there most of my adult life and, if I’m counting years, much of my childhood too—I ate at her table, slept at her house. I can remember nothing specific about that first visit, except a sense of deep and satisfying comfort. There was nothing unctuous about her hospitality; nothing pretentious or flashy, just a dignified ease to her welcome. I could play with the Barbies that were older than my mother, dress them in the clothes that, even as an eight year old, I recognized as incredibly superior in quality to those available in the 1980s. I could have a cold drink or a hot one; I could tag along behind Mr. S. as he made things out of wood and ask a thousand questions; I could feed the cats and try to catch the skittish ones in my scrawny arms for an entirely one-sided hug.

I was not just playing along with an old lady’s dementia the day I carefully took her kitten—the one pictured above and below—home to wash him and return him the next day.

(She stroked him and asked him to behave himself. Which he did, naturally.)

And there was nothing imaginative or fanciful in my promise to help Mrs. S. put her house to rights when she returned home. I was, rather, meeting her in the place she was, a place as real and true as her home in Greenport with its sensible furniture, beef stew, vintage Barbies and percale sheets. A place where her hands were not enfeebled by age and paralysis but were still the strong confident hands of an Army nurse, a woman who assisted surgeries and calmed the soldiers who shrieked in the night in the psychiatric ward where she worked during the war. A place where she daily and for decades bound up the still-weeping Purple Heart wounds of her husband; a place where she cooked meals and ironed shirts and petted cats and treasured her beautiful, carefully-kept china.

Place, Robert Farrar Capon writes, does not merely mean ‘location.’ Place is about encounter between beings. The kingdom of God cannot be plotted out by longitude and latitude; it is instead the place where God meets us, and we meet God and one another, with all the justice and love and goodness of heaven.

“What really matters [in the question of ‘place’] is not where we are, but who—what real beings—are with us. In that sense, heaven, where we see God face to face through the risen flesh of Jesus, may well be the placiest of all places, as it is the most gloriously material of all meetings. Here, perhaps, we do indeed see only through a glass darkly; we mistake one of the earthly husks of place for the heart of its mattering.” (The Supper of the Lamb)

My mom brought the kitten with her to Malawi; one of Mrs. S.’s last ‘things,’ a thing that she encountered with all the love and tenderness she ever had for every animal—and everything, really—that she ever touched. A bit of the placiness of Greenport—of Mrs. S.—is there when I look into his plastic button eyes.

I’ll take care of him for her, for now.

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