By Laura Meitzner Yoder

The Mnemonic of Food

Photo: Pontus Edenberg

In the spring, my students return from six months of learning with the global church, having worked alongside local organizations in the Majority World. The experience has been pivotal, generating life-orienting commitments to justice, service, and love of neighbor.  Their learning prompts many questions.  How can their new dedication and ideals take tangible form in their lives going forward? How can they live out their learning in their daily life? How can they maintain their commitments and build upon them, rather than having them fade as they embark on post-college life?

Many of my students feel caught in the quandary of thinking that personal change is insignificant (one asked, “Sure, you can compost, but does that really make any difference?”) and that social or systemic change is unachievable (another said, “What would it take to re-create our entire food system?”). Can anything they do make a difference?

I propose that food is an ideal medium through which my inquiring students can do something both tiny and grand, simultaneously personal and systemic.  Just as our daily bread literally turns into us, our choices for habits come back to form us, to make us who we are.  Our food habits are conveniently already present in our lives: we eat 2, 3, 4, 8 times a day, moments that represent our nominations and votes for the type of future we envision for the world.  The effects of our food interactions add up; our choices to grow, buy, and consume food produced in certain ways and places have profound, tangible effects on bodies and on land both close to home and far away.  And in addition, we are presented on our plates and in our bowls, reminders that it is the goodness, the fruit, the product of God’s good earth that sustains us. It is the inescapable habit of eating, simultaneously grounding and transcendent, that commends mindful eating as the ultimate prompt to perceive the extraordinary amidst the ordinary.

When I hear Paul’s words about the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:26): “As often as you eat this bread or drink the cup…” I wonder this: why did Jesus choose eating and drinking as the symbols of remembrance, proclamation, and expectation?  Why not a more exalted or glorious symbol, like a rainbow or a stone monument?  Why should something so simple, so commonplace as eating, point the way toward something so profound?  Perhaps because eating jogs the memory in ways that that enable us to live aware, with the mnemonic of food so often before us, serving as a regular reminder.

As the Gospels talk about Jesus’ life and ministry and interactions with people from all walks of life, there is a lot about food, and eating.  Some of these famous food interactions include Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine, eating with Zacchaeus and other prominent sinners, being criticized for hulling grain on the Sabbath, talking with the Samaritan woman at the well while waiting for the disciples to retrieve food from town, feeding the 4000 and the 5000, the Last Supper, and the post-Resurrection breakfast of roast fish on the beach.  There is a lot of writing and detail about the rather ordinary practice of eating. There is much I learn about Jesus through these stories, and these insights help me address my students’ question on how to live out their commitments.

Presence

Jesus spent time with and cared about people who were physically hungry.  This is so obvious it could seem to go without saying, but physically being with and caring for people who were hurting in various ways was at the core of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus’ detractors did not appreciate his social choices, as he went out of his way to be with those whom society saw as unworthy of attention, the marginalized, and the economically corrupt.  He sought out those who were poor, opted to live among them, and made them his literal neighbors, friends, and table-partners.  What would our lives, and the church, and the world look like if we followed his example more regularly, sharing food with hungry people at more of our meals?

Community

We learn while we eat together.  Jesus did a lot of teaching around the table.  Intentional and transformational relationships happened through conversations around food. Food and community-building make good partners; even as the practice of eating makes us think about food, consciously eating together can remind us to take time to reflect on what we are learning.

Inventory and Offering

As we give thanks for what we are eating, pause a moment and take an inventory of what we offer to Jesus, Monday through Friday.  Life with God elevates the mundane to sacredness.  Imagine for a moment that Jesus is physically sitting right here at our table, and we are in fact discussing the statistic that one in five people in the country where we are eating does not have enough nutritious food throughout the year.  Jesus’ response might be the same as he often had when meeting people with needs: compassion.  Compassion has nothing in common with pity or guilt, and it also has nothing to do with distance; compassion is up close and personal, the ultimate practice of presence, of suffering with.  Knowing that Jesus has done a lot of mass feeding in the past, you turn to him and you say, “There are a lot of hungry kids and moms and dads and grandparents just down the street.  What should I do?” 

He might respond what he told the disciples when they posed him this question (Mark 6:38): “What do you have?”  He may send us around to do an inventory of what is available to address the needs in our neighborhood.  What would we say?  What God-given things might we name as available, be they valuable, or ordinary and perhaps unimpressive?  Do we have land on which to invite people to plant a garden?  Do we have understanding of soil chemistry, or political systems, or economics, or digestive tract parasites that might be offered to Jesus to transform into meeting the evident needs in the community?  Do we have the ability to communicate and to motivate people to come together in community-building activities that build relationships and make the connections that will provide food, and foster health?  Do we have time to gather to learn from each other to cook new foods together?

Commitment

Graduating students are on the cusp of radical, rapid changes, and they feel the pressure of decisions and events that change life in an instant.  But more of life’s changes occur gradually, and the decisions that lead to those changes can seem imperceptible by comparison to the memorable moment of accepting a job or making a marriage proposal; these changes are more like water and wind weathering a rock, or a tree growing.  Those kinds of changes are most evident when looking backward, from a distance, at change over time.

And so I find that the answers to the questions my students pose are not as majestic, dramatic, or surprising as I think the askers expect.  Responses are often anchored in the staid language of long-term commitments, persistence, and patience to cultivate transformation, taking place regularly in mundane and everyday settings more than in one-off events. We see this happening through the super-ordinary activities that provide consistent, regular, repeated learning opportunities: talking when sitting at home, walking on the road, in our routine comings and goings both throughout and at the edges of our day (Deut. 11:18-21). 

As we find ways to put Christian community into practice around producing and sharing food, may we recognize and be reminded (at least) three times a day of how we are growing roots of commitment to Christ-minded action in God’s world.

About the Author

Laura Meitzner Yoder directs the Program in Human Needs and Global Resources and is Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Wheaton College, IL.  Her educational background includes a BA in Biology from Messiah College, an MPS in International Agriculture and Rural Development from Cornell University, and a PhD in Forestry and Environmental Studies from Yale University. She enjoys being in mountain forests, learning languages, and eating Asian food and tropical fruits. 

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