Breaking Bread: How Christians Can Build the Kingdom of God Through Food
By Margaret McEachran, essay and photos
“When the disciples landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread… Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast."(John 21)
As Christians, we often struggle to be “in this world but not of it” (John 17:16). We struggle with the frequency and degree to which we can engage in the things of the flesh while also serving God and not “mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Thankfully, one of the many benefits of an incarnate God come down to earth in human form is that the Scriptures are replete with mentions of human needs and how we are to think of them—riches, rest, drink, and most of all, food. Food is critically important for humans, not only as the fuel for our basic biological functions, but also as a pillar of expression, identity, community, and culture. Food and eating are mentioned over 100 times in the Gospels, and Jesus himself uses the metaphor of eating bread and wine to explain how Christians can partake in his death and resurrection to new life through—you guessed it—eating his flesh. When Jesus invites the disciples to eat with him on the shores of Galilee after His resurrection, he’s recalling his invitation to share food at the Last Supper, and as he enacts a powerful parallel to that iconic meal, “none of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord.”
Although the church has spoken to the intimate relationship between man and land since God first told Adam and Eve to “till the earth and keep it” (Genesis 2:15), recent exhortations have brought forth a resurgence of the stewardship ethic. Pope Francis captures the necessity of embracing the stewardship ethic in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si: “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” Simply put, as Christians, we are called to build the kingdom of God on earth -- to participate with God in the care and keeping of creation as Adam and Eve did in the garden before the fall. In my experience, one of the best ways to do that is through growing, hunting, foraging, or creating as much of your own food as possible--and here’s why:
Food as “keeping the earth”
Have you ever stopped to marvel at the produce section of your local grocery store? At first glance it may evoke memories of getting dragged along for shopping chores as a kid. But look closer and the truly amazing phenomenon becomes clear. The modern industrial food system is arguably a modern wonder of the world. I can walk into my grocery store in Minnesota and get lettuce from Spain, apples from New Zealand, avocados from Mexico, and pineapples from Costa Rica. Whether it’s January or June, I can count on the same profile of fresh foods, and in abundance.
However, this cornucopia of exotic foods comes with its consequences. Industrial agriculture is named as a top user of freshwater resources, source of greenhouse gases, and source of nutrient loading in aquatic and marine ecosystems, leading to a host of environmental issues (Horrigan et al, 2002). The same cannot be said for the bounty in your backyard, which although it offers many delectable edibles if you know where to look, shifts and morphs with the seasons, a veritable all-you-can-eat-buffet for those who know how to look.
I am, one small step at a time, trying to become one who knows how to look. My family has made the foray into procuring as much of our food as possible from the ground, not the grocery store, through gardening and foraging in our St. Paul urban landscape. We started with a strong curiosity about what the heck are these berries and have slowly progressed. We planted beans and carrots, tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, and peppers. We pored over books with names like “Encyclopedia of Country Living” and scrolled through hundreds of internet pages about mushroom identification, tomato gardening tips, and how to store rutabagas. We picked crabapples and serviceberries from the landscaping trees on campus and grapes from the vines that snake up roadside telephone poles to make jelly and jam, filling half-pint jars that glowed like garnets and rubies from within. We connected with strangers and asked them if we could pick cherries and raspberries in their yards, a strangely intimate encounter with someone we’d never met before. We got a secondhand set of canning supplies and a flat of canning jars. We walked slowly through the woods, bent almost in half to stare at the ground, our eyes straining for an edible morel or chicken-of-the-woods mushroom.
It occurs to me that if Adam and Eve had possessed better fruit identification skills, they might have known better than to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. All glibness aside, our efforts to forage and grow as much of our own food have been rewarding in countless ways. Not only do we get to enjoy a special treat, but the journey to get there is worth it in and of itself.
Now, to be fully honest, I’m grateful for that cornucopia of food always available at the store, because my efforts in gardening and foraging are rarely enough to keep us fed for a day, let alone all the time. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve trudged back from the woods, the lake, the park empty handed and hangry. But the very experience of attempting to work WITH the land to co-create something I can eat is worth it in and of itself. In coming to understand the way the earth works, through its cycles and seasons, and experiencing the delicate bounty that heaves forth in waves with each passing season, it is impossible to maintain indifference to its wellbeing. As we draw closer to the Earth in its rhythms, we also draw closer to the God who spoke these rhythms into being.
Food as “loving your neighbor”
My grandma was the kind of woman who, when you arrived at her house, would immediately begin to fix you a snack, whether or not you had asked for one, and often despite many protests. She cooked meals for her 12 children, countless in-laws, neighbors, and friends, and later in her life, for her thirty-plus grandchildren. Love at grandma’s house meant enormous piles of spaghetti and meatballs, never ending cookies, and chest freezers full of ice cream. When my daughter was born, we signed up for a meal train through our church. We received so many meals generously cooked and brought to us by friends, but also many members of our church whom we had never met before. It was such a lovely gesture of kindness during a challenging time of recovery and navigating new parenthood. Many times I’ve experienced similar generosity, whether it was from a parent who made my favorite snack after a hard day of school, a coworker who brought treats to celebrate my birthday, or a neighbor who sent a tray of sandwiches as we gathered with friends to mourn the sudden loss of their teenage son.
Chances are, you too have a story about being loved by the sharing of food. Even the Lord shows his overabundance of generosity through food, multiplying the loaves and fishes to feed the 5,000 and have 12 baskets left over (John 6:1-14). Now, when I have the opportunities to show generosity back to other people, I’m learning how to do it in the form of food. Learning how to cook good food for oneself can be daunting enough, and many balk at that before even considering how they could cook for others. However, chef and writer Tamar Adler argues in her book An Everlasting Meal, “there is a prevailing theory that we need to know much more than we do in order to feed ourselves well…” In fact, she goes on to claim the following about learning to cook: “If we were taught to cook as we are taught to walk, encouraged first to feel for pebbles with our toes, then to wobble forward and fall, then had our hands firmly tugged on so we would try again, we would learn that being good at it relies on something deeply rooted, akin to walking to get good at which we need only guidance, senses, and a little faith.” For those of us bashful about our cooking skills, Adler’s words may be a comfort. They may even be mistaken for a discussion of the moral life as we stumble and fall our way to ever-increasing virtue and communion with Christ. I’m learning to “feel for pebbles” with my toes as I venture into the world of cooking, and I know that with each step, each meal I prepare in love for another, that I’m getting closer to understanding how Christ loves his people.
Food as “be still and know that I am God”
On the very last last warm day of the fall, before the temperatures dropped and the morning dew crystallized in leafy frost on all surfaces, I sat in a blind at the edge of a field. The golden hour was fading into the trees across the field, alighting their brightly colored leaves into a perfect October bonfire. I grasped a fiberglass compound bow in nervous hands, the steel tip of the arrow nocked to my string wavering in the evening light, and waited.
This was the year I had decided to give deer hunting a try. Hunting is the most primal and visceral way to procure one’s food, and as an animal lover, I was always wary of it. But as I learned more and more about the detrimental effects of industrial meat production (The New York Times, 2008; Swain et al, 2018), and inspired by my husband’s and other hunters’ reflections on what it means to hunt, my curiosity was piqued. Time and time again I heard hunters describe the pursuit as a way to respect the animal, to challenge themselves, and to reach the depths of what it meant to be a human. Some hunters even claimed that hunting was, for them, the most intense way of showing love for creation. “I wouldn’t marry a deer,” joked the famed hunter, conservation advocate, and TV personality Steven Rinella, “but I sure do like ‘em.” Many people find it extremely difficult to reconcile a hunter’s desire to pursue and ultimately kill an animal with their hunter’s deep admiration and sometimes even love for the very animal they are trying to kill.
To be sure, not all hunters are filled with reverence at the sight of their quarry. Some of them are outright disrespectful to the animals. But for some hunters, the time spent in pursuit of an animal is everything I’ve described so far and more; for them, it is a time to become closer to God. Christian writer and hunter Dave Hrbacek compared the long, drawn out hours waiting for the desired prey to appear to the agony experienced by the Jewish people as they waited for their Messiah (The Catholic Spirit, 2008), and the anticipation of Christians waiting for the coming of Christ during Advent. He describes the hard-earned lesson of patience that he and his sons learned as they waited for days on a lengthy elk hunt. “God asks us to wait on him for the promised Messiah. It is something we should focus on now and continue to practice in our daily lives beyond Christmas. But it takes patience and discipline. Sometimes, it seems as if God is not present in situations where things are not working as we had hoped or planned. What we need to do at those times is remember that God is there and that he has something better for us if we simply wait on him and put our trust in him.”
As I waited at the edge of my field, Dave’s reflections were fresh in my mind. I hadn’t seen a deer all day and I knew my chances for success were fading with the light. I even briefly considered packing up and heading in early. A single star appeared above the treeline, and I knew I had just minutes left of legal shooting light. The words of the psalm echoed in my thoughts, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Setting my bow on the floor of the blind, I knelt back and began to pray. I tried to be grateful for the time, for the opportunity, even though I had not had any success, and to thank God for the chance to spend some time in his beautiful creation. In the last moment of light, a dark shadow moved into my field of view. A young buck, walking steadily along the edge of the woods, was approaching my stand. I leaned back to hide myself in the shadow of the blind and let him pass behind the cover of a tree. When he reemerged on the other side, I raised my bow and fired.
For me, creating food is more than just procuring sustenance or enjoying a hobby. It’s a way to connect with the land, with the people that are most important to me, and to my God, the author of all our human actions, both ordinary and extraordinary. In a fallen world that is rife with opportunities for disordered relationships, is one of the most beautiful opportunities we have to make ourselves right with God by respecting nature, loving our neighbor, and improving our relationship with our Creator.
In the deepening twilight, we tracked the deer and found him lying in the woods, about 200 yards from where I had shot him. I felt a wave of emotion wash over me as I knelt on the fallen leaves next to him. As we field dressed the deer’s body to prepare him for butchering, I looked up into the night sky, now dark and filled with stars. It all felt so primal, and I couldn’t help but feel kindred spirits in the millennia of hunters that have come before me. They too have looked up at the stars, and maybe they too pondered what it meant to hunt and kill an animal, to eat its flesh, and to make it sustain their lives moving forward. Perhaps the ancient pagans worshiped the god of animals or of nature in thanksgiving for a successful hunt. For me, a Christian, I could look up into the stars and ponder what it all meant, too, but I knew that this experience had afforded me more than a meal. It had also been an opportunity to draw closer to the deer, to the land, to my own body…to draw closer to creation and to the God who set it all in motion.
Bittman, Mark. (January 27, 2008) ‘Rethinking the meat guzzler.’ The New York Times 16.02: pp 1-5.
Horrigan, Leo, Robert S. Lawrence, and Polly Walker. (2002) "How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture." Environmental health perspectives 110.5, pp. 445-456.
Hrbacek, David. (December 11, 2008) ‘Montana hunting trip triggers thoughts of Advent.’ The Catholic Spirit, p. 8b.
Swain, Marian, et al. (2018) "Reducing the environmental impact of global diets." Science of the Total Environment 610, pp. 1207-1209.