Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Desserts in the Desert

Chocolate cake, apple pie, ice cream, banana pudding, peach cobbler. . . what's your favorite dessert? For most of my adult life dessert has been a special occasion thing, not a course at every dinner. So when I was recently dragged into a conversation between a 7-year-old and her mom about the merits of daily dessert, I sorely disappointed the young one who was hoping to find an ally in this ongoing debate.

I know a lot of people who are giving up chocolate or sweets or dessert for 40 days. Some of them are painfully aware of the sacrifice. Some are taking advantage of the Sunday loophole and eating the forsworn item only on Sundays. A few probably don't actually miss it but can at least say they kept the fast when Easter rolls around.

So what place does the sweet stuff occupy in your life? In your child's life? Do you threaten to take away dessert if a child won't eat his peas? Do you bribe her to eat her peas with the promise of a treat? What would happen to your meals if sugar was suddenly rationed as it was during World War II? Given all the passion devoted to condemning Mayor Bloomberg for his position on banning the 32-ounce soda option, I'm guessing there would be a lot of serious withdrawal pain.

We who live in American abundance take the availability of sweets for granted and so do not live with them mindfully. As a result, we have a lot of unintended negative consequences: obesity, mixed messages, diabetes, insensitive palettes, and lack of appreciation for the more natural flavors of food. I don't pretend to know what your family should do about sweets. There are so many factors to consider: what your family traditions are, what your family likes, how strong your teeth are :), and how much you like to bake together. I definitely think that there is a place for sweet stuff in every life, if it brings you pleasure. 

Like all good things, sweet stuff like honey, sugar, chocolate, and sweet potatoes come from God; they are freely given, and meant to be enjoyed. Like the great gift of love the Father gave us in Jesus, we don't have to earn it; it is given with no strings attached. As I consider the great gift of Jesus in these Lenten days, I cannot escape the immense wonder of such a love as this. The more I contemplate it, the more I appreciate the completeness of the gift, and the love of the giver. I suspect that the gift of sweets would likewise be enhanced by deliberately savoring it; so perhaps the occasional sugar fast, or saving dessert for special occasions would give us greater enjoyment of the treat, and also of the other flavors of our lives. If you love the sweet stuff, give thanks! All acts of gratitude and mindfulness draw us closer to God.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Taste and See

True confession: I didn't eat whole olives until I was in my fifties. I had horrid associations with olives based on some federal food surplus program in the 1960s that sent vast amounts of black olives to my school lunchroom. They were probably classified as vegetables, along with the ketchup. Since olives were not a food friendly to the palettes children, we quickly decided that they were actually projectiles that could be launched from any finger. Not a memory that inspired me to actually want to try eating them.

While I am not a picky eater, neither am I an especially adventurous eater. So it is exceedingly hypocritical of me to be judgmental of picky eating. There are very few childish behaviors that I won't excuse. I can tolerate exuberance, argumentativeness, excessive curiosity, repetitive behaviors, obnoxiousness, messiness, and even a little bit of rudeness, but picky eating drives me crazy.

I guess that for me, food has always represented wholesomeness, providence, creation, and care all rolled up into one neat package. I know that there are people who see eating as a chore but because I have imbued food with so many other qualities, picky eating feels to me like rejecting the generosity of God, nature, and the person who prepared the food.

Given my sanctimonious attitudes about picky eating, it's funny to think that lack of finickiness around food was one of the things that ticked off the Pharisees about Jesus.  He didn't always dine in homes that kept kosher. He sometimes dipped his bread in the same bowl as people who didn't take their ritual cleanliness seriously. The Pharisees called Jesus out on this more than once. The question of what the early believers were allowed to eat nearly created the first schism in the church as Peter and Paul argued on opposite sides of the kosher diet question.

Here, however, we see God at God's finest. For where are we most united in faith? At the table. Gathered around the altar. Meeting to eat and drink together; Christ's very body and blood, given for us. There and then, beyond all other places and times, we are united as one. What if we were too picky for that?

Every family has ideas about when children should be welcomed to the Lord's table.  In my congregation we leave it up to parents to decide. Theologically, it seems to me that any time is the right time. As a parent, I think that the right time is when they reach for it, or ask for it. I think that when your child reaches out to actively participate in the life of the church, it is the right time. Who would turn down a child who wanted to help decorate the Christmas tree or dye Easter eggs? We know that participation adds meaning to events so I support letting them participate early, and in as many ways as possible.

What introduced me to the wonderful world of olives was a curiosity about Middle Eastern food, about what Jesus ate. Your children may be curious about the meal at worship.  Help them expand their food choices by bringing them to the table.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Fasting or Starving?

Lots of people are swearing off chocolate or soft drinks for the next 40 days and calling it a fast, or a sacrifice. Some of us aren't really doing it to sacrifice; we are doing it to lose weight.  As a culture, we are extremely focused on appearance. Many people are nearly always trying to lose a couple of pounds.

Eating disorders aren't in the news as much as they were when my girls were teens but they remain a clear and present danger to our kids, especially our daughters, but increasingly also to our sons. They are serious, life-threatening illnesses. The exact causes remain unknown but it seems that self-esteem, body image, societal and family pressures, along with heredity all play a role in creating the perfect storm of an eating disorder.

The following is an excerpt from the blog Small Steps Upward written by a young woman I know who has been doing battle with anorexia for almost half of her life. She writes:

 I’m currently sitting at a coffee shop, wasting time before my group therapy session this evening. I am eating my snack, scrolling through different websites on my computer, listening to the music and the conversations that surround me. I hear the door open and a woman walk up to her friend. The first words out of her mouth are, “Oh my god, you look so thin! You’ve lost so much weight!” There’s no “hello, how are you?” in this conversation. 

Oddly, I find this to be infuriating.

I do not know these women. But, as they stand behind me, waiting for their drinks, the woman continues to praise her friend for losing weight. She then states, “I’m so jealous, you look great!”

Perhaps it’s because I’m seeking an identity outside of my size that I find this conversation to be frustrating. When did it become the social norm to make running commentaries on peoples’ appearances? How did it become acceptable to pick apart every minute detail of someone’s looks?

How indeed? Maybe this season of fasting can be a time to examine our family and personal attitudes toward food, shape, health, and exercise. How much attention do we pay to appearances? When the prophet Samuel was sent to anoint a new king, he was quite impressed with Jesse's son Eliab. "But the Lord said to Samuel, 'Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.'" (1 Samuel 16:7)

It is challenging, but necessary, for us to look into our own hearts. What do you love about your child? What do you see in his or her heart? Do you know in your own heart that your child feels loved and accepted as is? Is there anything in your heart that will cause you to send your child a message that she or he is not acceptable? Is there any doubt that your child is created in the Maker's image? Celebrate what you love about your child. Ask God to work in your heart so that you will love your child unconditionally. Unconditional love is the most powerful prevention available.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry

. . . for tomorrow we fast.

It's Mardi Gras time in New Orleans, Carnaval in Brazil: a time of wild outrageous fun, or dark evil debauchery, depending on how you look at it. Strange as it may seem, this wild event grew out of the Christian tradition of fasting during the 40-day season of Lent leading up to Easter. Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, or one last fling before the fasting begins. A less exuberant celebration, Shrove Tuesday, marks the beginning of fasting by eating pancakes, and thus using up the rich eggs and butter in the larder before the Lenten fast. In many parts of the United Kingdom, there are wonderful Pancake Day celebrations that seem much more child-friendly than Carnaval or Mardi Gras. There are even pancake races at the National Cathedral (pictured above.) For full video go to YouTube.

When I was growing up we ate pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. In recent years my church has had a "Mardi Gras Pancake Breakfast" for children and parents on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. We borrow from both traditions, serving pancakes, making masks, handing out beads, and ending with a parade, marching and singing "When the Saints Go Marching In." All of these various celebratory activities are designed to prepare us to fast during the season of Lent.

Why fast? What is to be gained from denying ourselves something that we like? Why fast during Lent? Tradition? Guilt? Repentance? Fasting is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. Lots of our favorite Biblical heroes fasted; Moses, David, Esther, Elijah, Jesus, and Paul all fasted. Should you? I don't know!

For me, the practice of giving up something for Lent (or its corollary, taking up something for Lent) has been a good one. It is always surprising what insights flow from the practice. It is humbling to find how little self-discipline I have. It helps me stay focused on how greatly loved I am as we move toward Good Friday. My small sacrifice in no way mimics the great sacrifice Jesus made, but each uncomfortable moment reminds me to think on Jesus' wondrous love. Hopefully, those frequent reminders make me look for ways to love those around me, remind me to carry on the work that Jesus began.

My "sacrifice" for this year is a small one. I am going to forgo eating out for the 40 days and give away the money I save. It will be inconvenient. It will mean forgoing an outing or two with friends or coworkers. I hope that each time I am faced with the temptation to grab a taco or a burger that I will remember all that was done for me. And rejoice in the love that has been showered upon me, and with good cheer, reach out in love to someone in need.

And next Tuesday, I'm definitely going to have a Mardi Gras lunch at a favorite restaurant. It is also good to celebrate this abundant life we have received!