Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Feeling Hungry?

True story: Sara Miles, a journalist and an atheist, became tremendously curious one day as she walked by St. Gregory's, an Episcopal church in San Francisco. What was going on in there? she wondered, her journalistic sense tingling. So she ventured inside. The church was offering communion--to everyone! Sara (pictured right) was more than a little shocked when a woman handed her a piece of fresh bread and offered her a goblet of wine.

"I ate the bread and was completely thunderstruck by what I felt happening to me," she told PSB's Religion & Ethic's NewsWeekly. "So I stood there crying."

After the service, Sara bolted out of the church, not wanting to be accosted by some crazy Christian. But the next week, she returned. And she continued to go to that service, again and again. The former Mother Jones editor says she kept going back because she was "hungry."

I've been thinking about Sara a lot, mostly because I've heard a lot of church folk talking about being "fed" recently: attending a certain church where they'll be "fed," getting "fed" by their pastor. You all know how I'm pretty fed up (bad pun intended) with Christian words and phrases that are only used within the church--our "Christianize" language. So my first instinct on hearing Christians use the word "fed" was to roll my eyes and let out a long, loud sigh.

But before I could mentally line up my arguments for why every Christian should quit using the word "fed," the Holy Spirit yanked my ear. "Stop it!" the Spirit seemed to be telling me. "Don't judge people for expressing how they feel in words with which they're familiar. Think about what they're saying. Think about what their words mean."

I realized I needed to dig deeper. So I thought about some ways we can be fed:

FORCE-FED: Sometimes, folks don't really want spiritual nourishment. Yet they go to church or read their Bible anyway because it feels like the right thing to do. Perhaps another person actually coerces or forces them to go, like in a parent/teen relationship or a marriage. Or perhaps in a dating relationship, one might go to church hoping to please their significant other.

SPOON-FED: As a seeker, I was so spiritually hungry that I would take anything from anyone. I didn't know how to fill myself up spiritually, so I accepted whatever was given to me. This is also a way to describe Christians who don't investigate their faith. They accept whatever the pastor says, and they don't bother to look up Scripture to verify whether the sermons--or their beliefs--are on track.

In a physical sense, these two methods of feeding are usually used by parents who are the sole providers of their child's nourishment. The kid gets whatever he's fed, whether he likes it or not. Likewise, in a spiritual sense, something good might get digested, even if one doesn't actively seek or desire the food.

Even as I seek out spiritual nutrition for myself more and more, there will probably always be moments when I don't want to read my Bible or I'd rather just sit passively in church without processing the pastor's words. I know God forgives me for those moments of selfishness and laziness. Soon enough, I'm ravenous and ready to do the hard work and deep thinking required for a good meal. Anyone who cooks knows there's a lot of work that goes into eating: writing the grocery list, heading to the supermarket, planning the menu, finding the recipes, then the actual prepping and cooking. We get out of a meal what we put into it.

"The requirement for faith turned out

not to be believing in a doctrine, or

knowing how to behave in a church,

or being the right kind of person, or

being raised correctly, or repeating

the rituals. The requirement for faith

seemed to be hunger."
--Sara Miles

Does this mean we should be striving to do all our own cooking when it comes to our spiritual meals? Not a chance. It seems impossible to know absolutely everything about food, so how could I possibly learn all there is to know about faith?

Every Tuesday, I go to my friend Peggy's home for dinner. Peggy is a good cook, so it's a treat for me to enjoy a delicious meal I didn't have to make. In the same way, we should seek out "good cooks" in the church. Spiritual wisdom can be found at every age and stage in the Christian walk, so we shouldn't limit ourselves to the pastoral team.

It's important to get fed by others for a couple reasons. First, they may have insight that I don't. Isn't it great when someone gives you a recipe you've always wanted, or maybe even a cooking lesson? Most importantly, when I let others feed me, it keeps me humble. It causes me to acknowledge the value of others. I don't know how to cook meat on a grill, so I'm thrilled whenever someone invites me to their barbecue.

I recently learned something huge from Sara Miles, that former atheist journalist who walked into a church and was given a piece of bread. Sara became a Christian and now--get this--provides meals to hungry people through St. Gregory's food ministry. Her words about that first, accidental communion experience:

"I think what I discovered in that moment when I put the bread in my mouth and was so blown away by the reality of Jesus was that the requirement for faith turned out not to be believing in a doctrine, or knowing how to behave in a church, or being the right kind of person, or being raised correctly, or repeating the rituals. The requirement for faith seemed to be hunger," she told PBS. "It was the hunger that I had always had and the willingness to be fed by something I didn't understand."

Thanks, Sara, for teaching me that every person on this planet is hungry. It's not my job to judge how others get fed. Or how they interpret that word. While I may know a little bit about spiritual food preparation, I'm not the food source: "Then Jesus declared, 'I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty' " (John 6:35).

My job is simply to tell every one of them where they can get a free meal.

To ponder:
1) How much effort do you put into understanding your faith and building a relationship with God? Are you eating like a gourmand or a pauper?

2) What is your attitude toward the "meals" served at your church? If you don't feel like you're getting fed, ask yourself, "Is there nutritional value here? Is there truly nothing to eat? Or do I just don't like the taste or type of cuisine?"

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