Though I am late in reflecting on it, I want to share with you the experience I had last weekend. I was in Athens, Georgia at the two day symposium Saying Grace: Food Justice and Sustainability, sponsored by Piedmont College. Many thanks to the friends and blog readers who sent me the information. It was marvelous.
The event was led by author, preacher and professor Barbara Brown Taylor who opened the Friday night banquet by asking, “Is the Bible Green?” This is a relevant question for me and, I imagine, many of us who would like to believe the answer is yes, but who get hung up early on Genesis 1:28 and its directive to subdue the earth. Have we no more responsibility than that? I learned on Friday that the Bible tells us pretty clearly that we do, only it is sometimes found in the most obscure corners of the text. Taylor pointed to the command in Deuteronomy 20 to leave fruit trees untouched when laying siege to an enemy city. “Are trees people, that you should besiege them?” God asks of the people. The answer was “No.”
Sometimes, however, the God’s concern for creation is not so difficult to find. It is clear in the book of Revelation which describes God’s reign in terms of a renewed earth with trees that are constantly in fruit and whose purpose is the healing of nations. As Taylor pointed out, the direction describing the final reign of God is not up – with believers flying away to heaven – but down, in a restored creation.
On Saturday morning, Norman Wirzba spoke on the topic “The Grace of Good Food – Eating and the Life of Faith.” The Professor of Theology, Ecology and Rural Life at Duke Divinity School, Wirzba drew our attention to the image in Genesis of God the Gardener, and to the Christ-like quality of the very dirt we walk on and grow food from – taking in death, absorbing and transforming it. His words that I will remember most were “Food is God’s way of saying ’I love you.’”
I attended two workshops on Saturday. The first spoke to the importance of community gardens. We heard speakers from Georgia Organics – Ed Taylor, who gave us the advice to “feed the soil, not the plant” – and leaders of community gardens. Kamal Nuri introduced the Truly Living Well garden, which is based on small, reclaimed plots of donated land within the city of Atlanta. Since their launch in 2006, they have been working to encourage a return to sustainable food production methods, and the return of food as a focus for community and family life. From Clarkesville, Georgia, Justin Ellis of the Soque River Watershed Association told of their recently launched organic community garden near the Old Clarkesville Mill. It is a recent addition to the many conservation and sustainability efforts in which they have long been involved. I hope to visit and blog about both of these places soon.
From Koinonia Farm in Americus Georgia, member Sarah Prendergast talked to us about the emerging use of Permaculture. Permaculture is a method of growing food that is not only sustainable, but that also works more closely and flexibly with the land, making use of its own order rather than imposing ours.
Though I have long known of Koinonia – began in 1942 by Clarence and Florence Jordan and Martin and Mabel England – hearing its story again is always moving. Wanting to become a “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God,” this intentional community began a simple farm where they worked and worshiped. They were extremely controversial in their early years because of the simple welcome they extended to anyone who chose to join them, well before “regardless of race” was a common policy.
Our closing worship service was a celebration of our created world and an expression of our desire to maintain it. Taylor preached about Jesus’ sharing of bread, multiplied by what his disciples brought to the table. We closed with the eating of bread though not in communion, but through a different kind of “sacramental” act – taking bread with honey, with cheese, with produce from nearby providers who are all committed to practices that will honor the earth and its Maker.
It is no surprise, I suppose, that Jesus spoke of himself as bread. There are few things more real, more needed and basic to our lives, and few that will more viscerally connect us with our origins. Bread reminds us from what and from whom we have come. In this way all bread, all food becomes sacramental.
And really, Jesus might have called himself any kind of our food. It might have varied a bit depending on culture, but like the grain in bread I can imagine him naming himself through something that comes to us directly from the dirt, just like God made us. I am the corn of life, he might have said; the olive, the beet. Because anything that nourishes us must point us right back to God.
When I teach about spirituality and eating, I wonder aloud why God built us to need food as we do. Why we can’t fill up once a week, like I feed my car? Or once a month, as often as my dogs need their heartworm medicine? Why are we so inconvenienced that we have to eat not only every day, but several times each day! I’m barely finished with lunch before I’m ready for popcorn or chips and salsa. It seems an awfully inefficient way to be. But God never did seem to hold much to efficiency. More important is our recognition of our own need and of our God’s extravagant generosity.
In truth, I am only an aspiring gardener or foodie. My enthusiasm is a mile wide, but my knowledge is much slimmer. I came to this symposium hoping to learn, but also wanting to find new avenues to acquire information that can help me to be a better preacher, teacher, parent and eater. I think I found it. It was a wonderful step in the journey that introduced me to many fellow travelers, and many new routes to discover. As I explore them, I’ll write about them here to be a map of possibilities for your journey. Thank you for taking it with me.
Recipe for Holy Eating
Slice bread, any variety. Top with cheese, or honey, or jam, or tomato or other vegetable, or eat with fruit. Give thanks. Savor. Share with friends.