Theology and bread: living into the feast...

NOTE: this is part two of an end of the church year reflection that began with my growing interest in theology and the arts. Today's posting explores the roots of the feast in ministry and soon I will explore the importance of grace/compassion. If you want to see part one, please check out the post for November 20th.

A second major theological commitment that has continued to inform and inspire all aspects of my ministry over almost 30 years is the feast. This includes the Eucharist, to be sure, but is not at all limited to it. In fact, the table fellowship of Jesus has become the central organizing principle of the way I preach, evangelize and try to do my administrative work.

I suspect this all began back when I was wrestling with how to best live into my commitment to nonviolence. As a young conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, I wanted to work out the contradictions in my life (something I have come to see as both hubris and one of many overly idealistic notions that drove me as a young man. Today... well, let's just say that mystery and humility - even laughing at myself - makes more sense.) But in those days I wanted to be ethically and politically in sync - which led to 25 years of vegetarian living.

+ Three key writers to my emerging vegetarianism were: Dick Gregory - the African American social activist and satirist - Francs Moore Lappe - whose research and insights about world hunger in Diet for a Small Planet continue to resonate with me - and Mohandas Gandhi - the Indian freedom fighter who showed how nonviolent "soul force" could change the world.

+ Additional intellectual support came from Gene Sharp's trilogy: The Politics on Nonviolent Action as well as my work with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.

In the midst of learning to fast - and eat in a more sustainable way - I also found myself working in one of the first vegetarian restaurants in St. Louis, Missouri: Our Daily Bread. With the two co-owners I learned to bake whole wheat bread - a life long passion - and immerse myself in the alternative culture of St. Louis. These very practical skills gave me an abiding interest in the different ways "feasting" feeds both body and soul.

While in St. Louis, I came to the second influence concerning the feast as I shared Eucharist with farm workers and union activists in a highly political context. I had never grasped the social justice dimensions of the sacred meal before, but the connection between "sharing by all so that there is scarcity for none" became an on-going theme.

I also spent significant time hanging a Jesuit priest, John Little, as he worked with the Farm Workers and cared for those in his tiny impoverished parish near Soulard Market. Going into dark and lonely houses to serve home bound elders Eucharist helped me appreciate how vital the Lord's Supper is for an embodied spirituality. There is nothing abstract about breaking bread together and sharing the cup: hands touch hands, food and wine is swallowed and love and trust are experienced.

+ This was clearly an antidote to the hyper-individualized communion of my Protestant youth where individual tiny cups of grape juice were passed in silence alongside antiseptically cut cubes of white Wonder Bread. In that world, communion was all about me and Jesus - and the body seemed to be an unfortunate after thought.

+ I still didn't have an intellectual or theological grounding in the new way of experiencing Eucharist - that came during seminary - but I knew that old habits were giving way to new and more nourishing realities. Clearly, the word was becoming flesh through the bread for me. Family dinners - hosting community Seder's - and celebrating Eucharist after ordination was the third great influence as I searched for new ways of being authentic in the old tradition:

+ In Cleveland, I started to study different theologies of Eucharist and discovered that both John Calvin's mysticism and the ideas of Henri Nouwn, Charles de Foucoult and Jean Vanier resonated with me. I became a member of a small Roman Catholic "community of presence" on the East Side of Cleveland that held a community Eucharist every Thursday night. They didn't care if I was a Protestant. They didn't care if I was a middle class white guy either. All that mattered is that we were committed to experiencing the Risen Christ together at the table and then serving him with our lives in compassion afterwards.

+ I also held a Lenten study on Eucharist based on both the writing of Eric Liddle - the Scottish athlete the movie "Chariots of Fire" is based on - as well as other cinematic expressions of the feast including "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," "Babette's Feast," "The Big Night," "Like Water for Chocolate" and the Thanksgiving edition of "Northern Exposure." This was not only liberating for those of us searching for more than our Protestant background offered, it also gave us images of how God's abundance, grace and community can be strengthened through the feast.

Then, after moving to Tucson - and now Pittsfield - I made a commitment to study and refine this embodied theology of grace that finds expression in feasting and all types of bread. I read - and studied - everything I could get my hands on about this theme beginning with both the Reformers and theologians from the Catholic and Orthodox realm and then moving on to those who were writing on the spirituality of bread. Here are some of the best resources:

+ Food for Life by Shannon Jung
+ Stations of the Banquet by Cathy Campbell
+ A Spirituality of Bread by
+ The Spirituality of Feasting by Holly Whitcomb
+ The Eucharist and Ecumenism by Gerorge Hunsinger
+ Feast of the World's Redemption by John Koenig
+ Making Room by Christine Pohl
+ The Ongoing Feast by Arthur Just

As I reflect on my ministry at the close of the church year - in anticipation of Christ the King Sunday - there are two more influence upon this theology of shared bread and feasting: being privileged to serve the first Open and Affirming congregation in Arizona and giving birth to the band Stranger. When we left Cleveland - and our work in urban ministry - one of the challenges we faced in Tucson was helping one another learn to be a congregation open and supportive of the GLBTQ community. Our church knew how to make intellectual commitments - afterall we were good Protestants - but this incarnational stuff was the greater challenge. How would/could we become a place that honored everyone's sexuality as an integral part of the holy/human experience without becoming obsessive or patronizing.

It took us years of timidly studying - and haphazardly trying to make connections - before we got it right. Our openly gay choir master, Jim Gall, helped a great deal. He brought in his Tucson Gay Men's Choir and shared his faith testimony. From that two choristers sensed that they had found a spiritual home and John and Pete helped us grow in love and authenticity. And little by little, we started to really practice the radically open table of Jesus. I was asked to celebrate two glorious same sex wedding ceremonies - and the WHOLE church (almost) joined in the feast.

In time we deepened our minstries with the local GLBTQ center and took a lead in fighting the state wide ban on gay marriage (the only time we have been able to defeat the forces of fear and hatred on the ballot.) We found ourselves welcoming transgendered folk into worship, too. Clearly something of the sacred feast was becoming flesh within and among us and I will be forever grateful for being welcomed and trusted by the GLBTQ community of Tucson.

The birth of our rock and soul band, Stranger, continued to extend the table beyond the confines of the religious ghetto of church. To be sure, we still played mostly for worship but our emphasis became secular songs from the everyday world that spoke to us of God and grace. We wound up doing U2 Good Fridays, playing for GLBTQ rallies and helping/pushing/challenging one another to start looking for God beyond the obvious. That is, to take the incarnation seriously and find God in the shit as well as the sunshine and everything in-between. Joan Osborne's tune, One of Us, where God is describes as "just a stranger on the bus trying to make her way home" became the source of our name and theology.

And now there is really no disinction between feasting and the work of compassion, justice and Eucharist for me: like the United Church of Christ communion liturgy states so clearly, "sharing by all means scarcity for none" and that has to do with food, hospitality and grace.
credits: 1) 2)


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