The Eternal Now & Mindful Eating

I have currently been reading The Eternal Now by Paul Tillich. The book is a collection of sermons by the great 20th century existential theologian. Even though the book is a collection of sermons, rather than a sustained treatise/argument, the overall thrust of the book is examining how we as humans, and specifically as Christians, deal with the passage of time. And in the middle of the book is the sermon from which the book derives its title, “The Eternal Now.”

In the sermon, he discusses the mystery of the future and the mystery of the past. As humans, we are simultaneously excited about the future and anxious about the future, whether it is the immediate future (like the awaiting news of my wife’s internship placement) or the distant future (like the excitement/anxiety of wondering what my life will amount to) or the eternal future of life after death.

Not only do humans deal with the excitement and anxiety of the future, we also deal with the blessing and the curse of our past on an individual, a communal and national scale. We are able to free ourselves in some degree from the curses of the past through repentance and forgiveness, according to Tillich (pp. 88-89).

However, over both our future and our past stands the Triune God who is Eternal, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. And the Eternally Relational God wishes to relate to us, to me, in the present. He wants to be with me in my excitement and anxiety about the future, while also helping me to experience freedom from my past, but more than anything else, I believe, He wants to be with me in the present.

And yet, as Tillich explains, “The riddle of the present is the deepest of all the riddles of time” (p. 90), for as quickly as we acknowledge the present, it is gone. However, the present moment is all that I have. No matter how much I try, I cannot fully know the past, nor do I really have any idea of the future. (I do believe in reaping what you sow, but Job is a clear example that life is not always like that.) While the past and the future are important, what is most important is the present, which is ever fleeting, but where I live. And in each new moment, I am given the opportunity to be alive to what God is doing in me, through me, and around me. Or as Tillich writes, “We live in it [the present] and it is renewed for us in every new ‘present.’ This is possible because every moment of time reaches into the eternal” (p. 90). If God is ever and always present, whether I notice Him or not, then the eternal is always and forever breaking into the present.

Not everyone is able to experience the present. To quote Tillich at length here:

People who are never aware of this dimension lose the possibility of resting in the present. As the letter to the Hebrews describes it, they never enter into the divine rest. They are held by the past and cannot separate themselves from it, or they escape towards the future, unable to rest in the present. They have not entered the eternal rest which stops the flux of time and gives us the blessing of the present. Perhaps this is the most conspicuous characteristic of our period, especially in the western world and particularly in this country. It lacks the courage to accept ‘presence’ because it has los the dimension of the eternal (p. 90-91).

We as a culture are so consumed with either the future or the past that we have forgotten what it means to be alive and rest in the present moment. Whether it is a new job promotion to work towards, a degree, saving for a house or a new car, or even something as simple as a long list of “to-dos” before the day is over, we are a culture in constant motion, many times unaware of the Eternal breaking into our present and stopping to simply rest in the presence of the Triune God.

I am just as guilty as anyone when it comes to slowing down, stopping, and resting in the Presence. For instance, since learning that Claire and I will be moving to Evanston, WY for her internship, I have had to fight not to want to make every plan right now, even though we will not move until July. It took a conscious effort to simply want to celebrate that Claire was placed at her top choice, instead of making plans about a move over four months away.

But food and thoughtful eating can help in this area…to stop, slow down, and literally savor the present moment. Thoughtful, intentional eating is an activity which demands that one be ever cognizant of the present. Every bite of food is a fleeting moment of pleasure and delight—if I am lucky it will last maybe 15 seconds. And I as the eater must continually engage with each bite in order to fully taste it, which takes concentrated effort over an extended period of time. Yes, I can, and often do, eat just to eat, whether it is due to thoughtlessness or a lack of time to enjoy the food, but in those instances I rarely fully enjoy the food. When I do slow down and intentionally eat, I enjoy the food that much more, whether I am dining at a fine restaurant or simply eating an orange from the tree in my backyard.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, the author gives a summary statement five times throughout the book, “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is a gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13; see also Ecclesiastes 2:24-25; 5:18; 8:15; 9:7). Like food, being open to God in the present moment requires a certain concentrated effort. It is easy to go through each moment and each day oblivious to the reality of the work of the Triune God, just like it is easy to go through a meal without ever being fully aware of all of the flavors. Being aware of God’s presence and work in this moment also requires training, just like enjoying an elaborate meal. I am not simply going to wake up one day and be able to sense God’s movement if I have not slowly trained myself how to discern his gentle stirrings throughout the day. Nor am I going to be able to walk into The French Laundry and enjoy Chef Keller’s cooking if my eating habits have mainly consisted of driving through a drive-thru, eating alone in my car on my way to the next thing on my schedule.

Through thoughtful eating, maybe it is possible to train ourselves to enter more fully into God’s promised rest where the anxiety of the future and the shackles of the past disappear for a little while, at least, and we are simply able to sit with the One who loves us perfectly now in the present.

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Caring for the Sick Through Food and Prayer

One Evangelical tradition that I saw practiced and continue to see practiced is caring for the sick, especially through meals. I saw my mom cook many meals throughout my childhood, and my family was the recipient of meals at points. I know that I give a lot of grief to Evangelicalism, but this is one area where I am happy about our traditions.

But up until today I had never actually prepared a meal for a family in need.

Tomorrow, Christy is going to have surgery at Loma Linda. Claire and I know Christy, Peter, her husband, and their two adorable little boys, Aiden and Jacob through Restoration Covenant Church, but more intimately through our small group. It has been a privilege and honor to get to know them and to hear their stories. Christy has already battled cancer, and is now dealing with more health issues.

So when I learned that the church was organizing meals for the family, I jumped at the chance to participate. It is, after all, the least I can do.

Today as I prepared the meal, I could not help but have my heart and soul pray for this dear family. Standing over the pot of beef stew and rolling out fresh bread became a time of prayer consciously and subconsciously for them.

The experience was unexpected and caught me a little by surprise. But my heart and soul loved the chance to be in thought and prayer. I made extra, so that Claire and I could have something to eat as well, and I am going to bet that when we enjoy the stew, we will also remember Christy and her family.

I wonder if this is the experience of others. If you have had similar experiences, I would love to hear them. And if you have never prepared a meal for another family in need, I challenge you to do it and use it as a time to love and pray on brothers and sisters.

If you remember, pray for Christy tomorrow as she has her surgery.

A little aside: the organizer of the meals used www.mealtrain.com to set up the meals. It is a great website in which all of the information is right there and the participants can state what type of meal they are brining so that there are not duplicates. Plus the website allows the recipients to list allergies, likes and dislikes. I highly recommend it.

New Page: Book Recommendations

I added a new page to this blog listing many of the books on my shelves dealing with various aspects of food, from cookbooks to philosophical musings on food to theological musings on food. You can find the link to the recommendations just under the picture header or by clicking here.

The lists are by no means exhaustive, and will change as I obtain more books, but I figured some people might find it helpful.

Check it out and let me know what you think.

Bon Appetit!

Thoughts on Training in Food Habits

At the end of the last post, I proposed that maybe what we need is to engage people in training them to approach food that is counter-cultural to the American way. Monica, a good friend who always seems to ask the right question, raised the natural question, “How would one go about this sort of training?”

I have been thinking about this the past couple of days, and remembered a chapter in Serve It Forth by M.F.K. Fisher (part of The Art of Eating) entitled “Pity the Blind in Palate.” In the chapter Fisher argues thatAmerica as a culture is blind to the delights of taste. She writes in 1937,

Almost all people are born unconscious of the nuances of flavour. Many die so…. They like hot coffee, a fried steak with plenty of salt and pepper and meat sauce upon it, a piece of apple pie and a chunk of cheese. They like the feeling of a full stomach. They resemble those myriad of souls who say, ‘I don’t know anything about music, but I love a good rousing military band’ (p. 57).

One awakens a palate in the same manner one awakens his ear to good music—experimentation and thoughtful attention. As one experiments with new tastes and pays attention to them, a person begins to discover, like in music, the difference between good food and bad food.

Fisher mentions that of all the countries, France probably possesses the most intelligent collective palate, not because they can name great vintages of Burgundy and Bordeaux, but because “whichever France eats, she does it with a pleasure, an open-eyed delight quite foreign to most people” (p. 58). Whereas, she notes, “in America we eat, collectively, with a glum urge for food to fill us. We are ignorant of flavour. We are as a nation taste-blind” (p. 59).

Children in France are raised to appreciate food and wine. In France, and other countries, eating is not seen as merely fuel to be more productive, but food is a celebration and an integral part of their culture, who they are as a nation and as individual family units.

Changing America’s cultural view of food is a massive undertaking, but being a family who intentionally train their children to eat, not so insurmountable. I was recently made aware of Rachel Stone’s blog, eatwithjoy.org (definitely worth reading). Her family was recently on vacation and she shares this story:

My older son (Aidan, age 6) reminded me of the centrality of the table to what it means to be a family in a home. He’s not much for homesickness, or at least for openly expressing it, but today he asked if we’d be back tonight in time for dinner.

When I said I wasn’t sure, his eyes filled quickly with tears, which he tried to hide, and he bravely said,

“I just really wanted to eat dinner at our table again. I miss our table.

Yes, my son–that longing for the table–our table–is built into you from the beginning. It is a picture of the longing we all have for belonging at a great table with all our beloveds, where we are ourselves are beloved, and where grace and plenty abound.

Rachel and her husband are doing it, training their children to understand and appreciate food and the table. She also shares some great wisdom on how she and her husband have governed dining practices with their children.

But the training also begins with me and you as individuals, and I don’t mean you have to eat at the best restaurants and spend an inordinate amount of money for this training. However, I will state that eating at really good restaurants helmed by chefs at the top of their game is also important.

Start by finding a local farmers’ market in your neighborhood, and perusing the stands seeing and smelling what is fresh and in season. Buy something new and go home and find a recipe on how to prepare it. Here is an even simpler idea. Citrus is really in season right now. Buy different varieties and taste them all, from blood oranges to cara cara oranges, to grapefruit, to tangerines, to lemons. And as you taste, notice and pay attention. If need be, jot down a few notes on the differences you notice and which ones you prefer.

You might be wondering, “Why do I need to do this? Won’t I turn into a food snob who can no longer enjoy simple food?” Not necessarily. Maybe you won’t eat KFC as much, not because you are too good for it, but because it is not good food, not to mention it is not good for you. I still have my guilty pleasures (Western Bacon Cheeseburger from Carl’s Jr., namely).

The key benefit, however, to what I am talking about is being fully aware in the present. Again as Fisher writes, “He can taste, and life itself has for him more flavour, more zest” (p. 58). With each new bite and even chew, new flavors, new textures, and new smells are experienced, and these sensations are there for seconds and then gone, save for the memory. Hopefully as one becomes fully present to what one is experiencing through eating, one can became more fully aware of God in the present moment. As I go through life, God is constantly working, and I should avail myself to those workings.

My goal in cooking is not to fill people, and encourage gluttony and lazy eating. Rather my goal is to open people to new tastes, but more importantly to the present moment, and hopefully through that, the person who eats will be more open to God.