Pastor's have the rare privilege of listening to the wisdom of the people we serve and learning from it. I was visiting a member in the hospital, a mother of three teenage children with a fairly large extended family living nearby. She was in the hospital for surgery to correct a problem which had not allowed her to eat or enjoy food for the past two years. She said the whole experience left her feeling less than human. "It is critical to our happiness to eat," she said. "I have not been able to enjoy my family or my friends in the past two years because much of our time together revolves around eating, and eating has been a painful experience for me. When we cannot eat, we are isolated, we get depressed, life is somehow less."
While a liquid diet had kept her alive, she felt less than alive because she could not eat and suffered all the ramifications that followed from that - social isolation, loss of joy (food gives us joy), even the ability to care for others, for cooking food for her family was something that gave her happiness. It made me realize how important the experience of eating food is to our social fabric, and therefore our happiness as social beings.
Just a few days after our conversation, I heard a report on National Public Radio about a book by Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham called "Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human." (click here for transcript of NPR report.) Professor Wrangham speculates about implications of cooking food for the social order, especially regarding the relationship of the sexes. I would further speculate that it also created the social institution of the family (or tribal) meal - for because of cooking we went from eating anytime there was food available, to eating at a set time when the food was done. Gathering around food gave us time for conversation beyond basic needs. It may have led to the faster development of language and even a more advanced brain. I have not read Professor Wrangham's book - perhaps he also speculates about such things.
Jesus said: "I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will not hunger, whoever believes in me will never thirst" (John 6:35, part of the readings for Pentecost 9 and 10, year B). Part of the "life" that comes from the bread Jesus offers is the gathering of the community to eat this bread. The implications of this are profound - coming to know one another better, sharing concerns and needs, offering laughter, love and support, sharing what we have to improve our community. If, for some reason whether of our own doing or because of other forces, we are unable to gather to share in this meal of life Jesus offers, the implications are also profound - isolation, loss of joy, diminished purpose.
My wise parishioner taught me about the importance of eating for our total well being - physical, emotional, psychological and social. We learned from Professor Wrangham about the importance of cooking and sharing a meal for the development of all humankind. Jesus teaches us, that when we gather to partake of him in communion, when we come to feast on him in worship, when we share Jesus with each other in word and deed, we find not just that we are full, not just that we grow and develop as human beings - but that we have life - and have it abundantly.