I'm one not given to joy. I'm far more likely to escape from normal with a fantasy novel than I am to delight in the cutting of vegetables and the washing of dishes.
I'm not so rare a bird as Brother Lawrence, who can practice the presence of God as easily as whistling. No, for me, practicing the presence of God in the midst of the ordinary is a thew-straining effort. Thews being what characters in fantasy novels strain when they're wielding a battle axe or rescuing a distressed maiden. Which we feminists no longer do.
In about the second grade, I decided that reality was not as great a place as Middle Earth, Fae, the 19th century British Navy, or any other swashbuckling reality constructed from paper, ink, or Legos. I'm shy when it comes to reality, preferring to face it from under the covers of a warm bed, with a flashlight and a novel. As a junior in high school, I decided I preferred the color black, smoking pot and sneering, to various other less soul-sucking joys. I delighted in liquid foods, just as an engine delights in gasoline.
In short, I am the urban dweller who forgets:
"We forget to look for rainbows when the rain clouds part near sunset. We get up too late to watch the dawn. We forget to gaze at the stars and to recall the vast light's journey to reach our eyes. We take the water for granted and wish the rain would go away. We stop bending low enough to witness the toiling ant. We lose our wonder for growing plants and the mysteries by which the seed falls to the earth and brings forth grain a hundredfold." -- Bill Callahan, Noisy Contemplation
Just so. But I'm nevertheless suspicious of ordinary kitchens, tables and ants that lure you away from the extraordinary living out of faith in activism. But it turns out that falling in righteous love with eating can ground your body and spirit and then lead you into an encounter with the world.
You see, human rights offered me an opportunity to square off against real evil, allowing me to live out my hero dreams, like during the Occupy movement, or when I was in prison to close the School of the Americas. Times when I felt the Holy Spirit like a fire in my bones. Times when it seemed that the nonviolent lamb marched to war with the principalities and powers that chain the earth in decay and bondage and sets yokes on the poor. It's easy to feel like you're living out the Gospel when you're in prison, sleeping outside in the winter, or blocking a bank from seizing someone's home.
Justice in Ordinary Times: Eating
But then there are ordinary times. Times in between calls. Times that call for patience and faithfulness. Hyponome. Times when I reflect on my own life and its inconsistencies. And whenever I turn the key in my car, I feel that pang of guilt for putting more carbon in the air. Someday, a rock from the Baja Penninsula will fall into the sea. That will be my rock, the rock from the gas-guzzling car I drove for a year and a half (apparently I believe that global warming will trigger apocalypse-style earthquakes). I loved the metro, but I loved the hour I spent with my infant son more.
It's hard for me to love my ordinary life when I'm inconsistent. When I apply the same searing critique I've set to Chevron, Coca-Cola, and white-bread America loose in my own life.
I know the score. I come up short.
In ordinary times, I'm often paralyzed by the torrent of news. Reading the news is a constant reminder of my own impotence, my own inability to do anything at all to help those who are suffering. As Baudrillard puts it, "Now, the more we are told about poverty and violence, the less effect they have on us."
But we can do something: just not while we're poring over our Facebook feeds. Lent is an extraordinary time to establish our joys in the everyday. We give those things up so we can focus on the ordinary and make our lives more consistent with our Gospel call to love ourselves and what we do. Falling in love with the ordinary is subversive. Watch, I will show you.
A Righteous Love for Food Is Subversive
For me, joy in the everyday begins with food. If I can take time to make food and drink holy, if I make my table a place of family and community, a place of health and wellness, a place of good choices that sustain creation, I am grounded. Food is the place where I began my journey towards social justice, as a self-righteous young vegetarian who lusted after meat.
Food is the thing we all have in common, and with it, Jesus set forth the Eucharist. Is that enough for you to believe food is important?
Do you ever wonder why Paul spends so much time advising his churches on food and dinner manners? It's because the Eucharist was a wine-and-bread-leavened feast that intentionally leveled the strict hierarchy of Roman society. This enables Paul to confidently state, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."
God through the Eucharist invites us to reflect on the mystery that transforms flour, water, and yeast into risen bread, and then transforms again into the risen Christ, who nourishes our souls. It is a profound mystery that a crushed grape becomes the wine that lifts our spirits and loosens our tongues to laugh and love the ordinary in each other.
There is also powerful mystery in the transformation of cabbage and salt into sauerkraut, of bones, skin, and feet into broth, and of milk into yogurt, in the transformation of garlic, olive-oil, and root vegetables into deliciousness.
Ordinary foods like loaves and fishes can multiply and transform a individuals into a community that nourishes one another in body and spirit. Love is the leaven in the Eucharist that we eat.
Sauron Seeks to Enslave Your Kitchen
But there is an evil at work, one that seeks to bind your kitchen flame to the power of Sauron. You probably think I'm exaggerating, but I assure you that I do not believe in exaggeration.
But it's not enough just to love food. Our holy feasts must reflect love for one another. You have to love sustainable, healthy foods. And you have to share with the least of these. "How, how," you ask, "can this be done"? Hold your horses, I'm getting there.
"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." -- Bilbo Baggins
Food is a social justice gateway drug. If you're a middle-class, well-fed person like me and you delve deeply into ordinary food with righteous love, you'll discover the hungry. Oh, but that's not all.
In the United States, you'll discover a structural malnutrition which some have labelled "food deserts." For some mysterious reason, food that has been processed, canned, sterilized, and sugared in massive factories is cheaper than fruits and vegetables. Yes, you heard me. Food that even the U.S. government knows to cause hypertension, diabetes and heart disease, food that was dreamed up by chemical cooks who use ingredients like maltodextrin, polysorbates, and xanthan gum, food trucked all across the country emitting carbon gas, this food is cheaper than fruits and vegetables pulled straight from the ground and trucked to the store. What?!?! Something is structurally wrong with our agricultural system.
What this means is that people with low wages, people who prepare food for others, can't afford the fresh fruits and vegetables which are the bedrock of good health, and instead eat industrial foods. Which cause all the preventable diseases above.
Twenty-two percent of food prep workers live in food insecure houses, and 31 percent are at risk for diet-related diseases. How ironic that those who deal with food professionally can't afford it for themselves. We can't just vote with our forks. We need to be participants in a holistic vision for justice and be advocates real wage growth.
You see, it is dangerous to dwell on one thing too deeply, just as it is dangerous to sit in silence and wait for God. You will be changed, if you allow yourself. This is what Lent is for.
Falling in love with the ordinary leads you into an encounter with systems and structures, principalities, and powers that hold us in bondage to malnutrition, poverty, and climate change. Systems that we must change by working together.
A great, organized evil is not defeated by individuals, no matter how mighty of thew or hefty of battle axe. U.S. culture has broken the tradition of mutual aid, sustainable cooking and table fellowship, and in order to learn it again, we must pursue it in community and learn together. We must change our church culture. Let's replace our canned-food drives with vegetable drives, let's plant church gardens, and let's fill our potlucks with something other than 20 different meat plates and 20 different desserts.
"How? How?" You ask. Well, I'm working on that. We're building a web platform to help churches organize farm-to-table events that provides fresh produce to the poorest families and reduced cost. The model is called called a Fresh Stop. I've watched the Fresh Stop transform my church, Mosaic, by empowering leaders and volunteers with a mission to serve. We've learned to love healthy food and our Fresh Stop provides vegetables to the poorest members of our community.
A Fresh Stop is an event where we sell a sliding-scale produce box to community members. You pay based on your income. The money is pooled, and we buy veggies just plucked from the soil from local farmers. Then, on a Saturday, usually, everyone comes and picks up their shares. We share coffee and conversation, and enjoy fresh-cooked samples of the foods, and offer recipe books that help us learn to cook novel foods.
We believe Fresh Stops have the power to transform food access and heal our disrupted relationship with creation and enter into a loving relationship with the ordinary.
We all have a focus. Perhaps food is part of your focus. Or perhaps God is calling you to listen in another area of your life first. If you do not feel called to food, I invite you to spend the next three minutes you might have spent watching the following video in silent prayer discerning where God is calling you this Lent.
May we hear your voice in the chaos of our lives, oh God. Amen.
Disclosure: "The Grow Your Own Farm-to-Table: Just Add Community" campaign is being organized in part by the author himself: yours truly, the (in)famous and likable, Jeremiah Matthew John.