Food, Fellowship, and Faith – Without Friction
My daughters and I love to read together – curled up on the couch by the fire, or propped on pillows in bed. We really enjoy novels set in the nineteenth century, novels about simple families in simple times, when ladies churned butter by hand, horses pulled buggies to church, and everyone pitched in to do the hard work of living off the land. One of the common threads of “olden day” stories is the way food and fellowship are woven into the patterns of work and daily life. Men worked hard to provide their families sustenance, and the women labored equally hard to turn that provision into nourishment. Historically, people ate the food that was available to them, the food that the land in their area would give. Ma and Pa Ingalls butchered hogs in the Big Woods, served wild rabbit on the prairie, and lived off potatoes during the relentless Long Winter. In Mountain Born, Peter and his sheepherding family enjoyed frequent mutton. Caddie Woodlawn’s family marked the calendar by the nuts and berries they gathered, and the produce their garden produced.
Today, our food choices are not limited either by our geography or by the season. Most of us do not live off the fruit our own land produces. Instead, we wander grocery aisles heavy-laden with every variety of food imaginable. We can purchase fresh fish even if we live inland. We can eat strawberries in February, and buy olive oil imported from Italy. We live in a time and place of great abundance. And of many options.
Out of the luxury of abundance, our Western culture has seen new problems and new ideas emerge. Over-abundance has led to obesity, with its myriad of connected health issues. It has also given rise to a culture of food that is vastly different than the simple provision and life-sharing that marked Laura Ingalls’ life. People now have choices about what they will eat. We can choose organic food. We can find all manner of convenience, ready-made foods. We can opt for gluten-free. There are vegetarians, and vegans. Some people prefer low-fat diets, while others think high-protein is best. Instead of relying on the family cow for our daily milk, we face a refrigerator section filled with low-fat, non-fat, whole-fat, lactose-free, soy, almond, rice, and coconut milk, and weigh the nutrition benefits of each against the varying costs.
As I flip the rustling pages of Little House on the Prairie with my daughters, I think about how we may have gained much in terms of knowledge about nutrition and availability of food, but we have also lost much. A realm of beautiful simplicity has become complicated and sometimes argumentative. I think about families and neighbors gathering, giving thanks together, breaking bread – and I think about how the differing opinions clash and the breaking of bread sometimes breaks relationships instead. And I think about Jesus, and the bread He broke, the fellowship He shared, and I wonder how the Bible might speak into the friction that arises over food.
Old Testament laws designated categories of clean and unclean foods, and gave detailed dietary guidelines. However, in the dispensation of grace – the time after Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection and the indwelling of believers with the Holy Spirit – those laws have been fulfilled. Grace and freedom in Christ have overtaken the rules and regulations that made up Old Testament life.
Several Scriptures speak directly about the freedom we have in Christ to eat and drink according to our own consciences. 1 Corinthians 10 talks about believers eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols and gives freedom to buy and eat any food in the market, because “the earth is the Lord’s and all it contains.” Paul says, “If I partake with thankfulness, then why am I slandered concerning that which I give thanks?” And, most importantly, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” In Romans 14, he contrasts a weak believer who eats a ceremonial diet of vegetables with a strong believer whose conscience is clear to eat “all things.” Verse 6 says, “He who eats, does so for the Lord, and he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.” Further down in verse 13, it says, “Therefore, let us not judge one another anymore…”
It is clear from these verses that we have Biblical freedom to eat all foods. The issues of our times may be different than those faced by Corinthian believers, but the solutions are the same. It does not matter what we choose to eat or not to eat. What matters is that we choose to eat with hearts of thanksgiving to the Lord, and that we eat without passing judgment, without placing a stumbling block before a fellow believer, and without breaking relationship over issues of Christian freedom. We are to eat – just as we live and breathe and pray – with a posture of grace.
Remember what Jesus called Himself? One of the names He gave to His followers was “the bread of life.” He said, in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.” The choices we make about our physical “daily bread” are truly insignificant. Believing in the eternal bread of life is of far greater importance. Physical bread – whether whole grain, gluten-free, or even plain, unfortified white – sustains us in a physical sense. But Christ offers us eternity with Him when we “partake” of His sacrificial bread.
The Bible also speaks of the breaking of physical bread as an essential aspect of fellowship and communion with others. Jesus broke bread with His disciples. He shared the Passover feast with them. He cooked them a breakfast of fish at the Sea of Tiberius after His resurrection. In Acts, the Christians were “…continually with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people.” (Chapter 2, verses 46 and 47) They were of one mind, taking their meals together with gladness! Whatever differences they had were laid aside, and they broke bread together as a symbol of unity and fellowship. Isn’t that a beautiful model? My husband and I have, for the last five years, opened our home one night a week for a small group Bible Study. Somewhere along the line, we decided to follow the pattern of the early church, and take our meals together. With gladness and sincerity of heart, we share a potluck meal with a group of one-hearted believers. Giving thanks and partaking of a shared meal has changed our group’s dynamics. When each one brings what they have to share, and we fill our plates with nourishing food prepared sacrificially by the busy and loving hands of our Christian brothers and sisters… unity happens.
How do we experience unity when we still all have preferences and beliefs about food? We bend. We give. We offer grace and we lay down our rights. We lovingly prefer others instead of only looking after our own interests. We continually thank God for His provision. We learn to see food – all food – as a gift from His hand, and we rejoice in fellowshipping with others as we, together, thank Him for it.
Personally, I prefer to eat whole, natural foods. I cook very, very simply, from scratch, most of the time. No fancy recipes, just basic whole-food ingredients. I avoid commercially prepared foods as much as I can (with exceptions for crackers, canned tomato soup and granola bars). We don’t eat cereal; instead I cook oatmeal , or flip pancakes, or scramble eggs with a little cheese, or make smoothies. I like incorporating different grains into my cooking and baking, and we eat vegetarian meals several times a week. I am pretty lenient with sweets, as long as they are the home-baked kind. I will feed my kids a homemade cookie almost any time they want one; I just don’t like them to eat potato chips or candy. Funny thing is, my sweet mother-in-law absolutely delights in feeding my little ones potato chips and candy. She loves giving small gifts, and takes uncanny enjoyment in giving them non-Mama approved treats. I am learning (slowly) to love my mother-in-law by just quietly letting her do this. If I argued and made a fuss every time she offered my girls candy or chips, I would be robbing her of grandmotherly joy (and believe me, I have done this in the past!). I would be squelching her generous spirit. So, I am learning to step back, to realize a potato chip offered in love will not harm my children, and to choose nurturing a relationship over maintaining a standard.
My mother recently shared a story with me that exemplified taking the “higher road” of grace. During a busy shift at the flower shop she works in, a co-worker brought in a homemade meal for everyone who was on-duty that day. One of the women is a vegetarian, and the meal was authentic chicken mole. Thanking her co-worker, the vegetarian employee simply ate the chicken. Later on, my mom expressed her surprise at this. She said, “That was so gracious of you to eat the chicken.” The woman’s response was short and emphatic. “Of course I ate it. If someone is going to go to the trouble of preparing a meal for me, you’d better believe I am going to eat it.” For her it was that simple.
Please don’t think I am saying that one should always lay down his or her beliefs and eat something their conscience is uncomfortable with. A hard and fast vegetarian does not necessarily need to eat meat because it was prepared for her. However, this story portrays one woman’s grateful heart, and her willingness to set aside personal preferences in order to gracefully receive the blessing that was being offered her. She lovingly chose to honor her coworker rather than uphold her own standard. And I think we can all learn from her.
If we are hard-hearted and unwilling to bend or bow – it could be that food has become an idol in our hearts. When we are willing to “give a little,” we demonstrate with our actions that relationships are more important than being right. Whether it is a vegan nibbling a butter-rich cookie or a meat-lover enjoying a hearty lentil soup, each of us can bend towards one another in grace. We can bow our heads and give thanks together to the One who provides nourishment of all kinds for our bodies. We can enter into communion together as we break bread and fellowship over sustenance. We can partake with thankful hearts and clear consciences towards one another, and receive in faith the dual blessings of food and friendship.