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The Running of the Sap

‘Tis the season to tap maple trees and invite them to share some of their delicious bounty.

Unusual winter weather does not seem to have affected the harvest; I taste-tested some of this year’s “crop” this morning at the Maple Festival at Touch of Nature (on Little Grassy Lake, south of Carbondale) and it was more than satisfactory.

To be honest, I almost didn’t go to the festival. Ash Wednesday, my first full week in a new church community, a lot of planning for Lent, a broken clothes dryer, and dogs with upset stomachs … it has been a very long week.

But at 7:45 this morning, I got the text from wonderful friends with whom I was anxious to spend time … so despite the urge to take a cup of tea and my journal and curl up somewhere quiet, I loaded up the dogs and headed for the woods.

The dogs burned some energy at Giant City State Park prior to our visit to the festival, and their mania at the sun and the smells and the water and the woods made me laugh. After they had worn themselves down, I let them nap in a warm and sunny car while I ate pancakes and sausage with local maple syrup and then learned the ins and outs of tapping trees.

I was sure that my greatest need today was to putter gently around my house, rather than spend one more day this week driving around Southern Illinois. But  it turns out that I was wrong.

Laughing with friends, learning something new, and bringing pleasure to the critters whose care is entrusted to me was what my spirit needed most. As it happens, I only discovered that truth in the doing of those things.

In honor of the season, here are a couple of photos:

Why Food Ethics?

Tonight was the second week of our series on food ethics at FPC. Those who were gathered made up quite a good group: large enough to spark some interesting conversation and plenty of diverse opinions.

At some point, a lightbulb went on over my head and I thought: this topic is a landmine. It’s not the kind of issue that is so controversial that it comes with it’s own red warning light that flashes “DANGER” to pastors who would approach. But it is still very much an issue that can stir up controversy; it just does it subtly.

So, why bother with it? Why have the difficult conversation about food ethics? And what would I say to those in any congregation, anywhere in the country that might prefer NOT to be more aware of how their food choices affect people and animals and ecosystems and economies around the world?

As you might imagine, I’ve given this issue a fair bit of thought. For me, it comes down to one answer: because we are the people of God.

The God we serve has commanded his people throughout every age to tend to those in need: the widow, the orphan, the least of these. As the people of God, we do not have the option of ignoring the consequences of our actions, even actions that would be easy to take for granted (like our food choices).

When it comes to eating ethically, there is no easy answer.

No one way of eating (organic, vegetarian, etc.) will eliminate every ethical dilemma.(For more on this topic, watch to Michael Pollan’s brilliant lecture at Princeton University’s conference on Food, Ethics and the Environment available on iTunes.)

But because we are given the responsibility of stewardship of creation  – and of care for one another – we are commanded to take our choices seriously: to eat with our eyes open and to be willing to bear the weight of the consequences of our actions.

Food as Sacrament

Today in worship, our scripture is from Exodus 12 (the Passover) and Matthew 26 (the Last Supper).

These passages point to a meal – not a worship ritual, but a household meal – as a way in which God comes close to us and a way in which we practice our faith

It’s not unusual to talk about food during the season of Lent; the season of Lent is often when we give up something tasty as our Lenten sacrifice.

But what if, instead of giving something up, we were to be intentional about practicing our faith with every bite?

What if we were to see each mouthful as holy, as a way in which God comes near to us?

Would it change the way we eat? shop? cook?

What do you think? Offer your comments below.

An Ethic of Food

Michael Pollan writes that the name for his book – The Omnivore’s Dilemma – comes from the difficult choices an organism faces when it can eat anything.

As Pollan explains:

Omnivores (like human beings … or rats or cockroaches) can nourish themselves with a variety of things. Unlike a cow, which is biologically programmed to eat grass, or a koala bear, which only eats eucalyptus leaves, we have options.

However, when you can eat almost anything … the choice of what to eat becomes more difficult.

For the other omnivores (the rats and cockroaches), the menu choices focus on finding food that provides sustenance, but that also isn’t harmful to them.

Human beings have to go one step further. We not only have to choose things that will nourish us rather than sicken us … we also have to choose food that will allow us to live inside the moral framework that we’ve chosen.

Moral framework? Perhaps you’re thinking that you don’t make your food choices based on any sort of moral framework. Well, let me take this opportunity to point out that you (more than likely) do not eat other humans. Why? Probably because something inside you tells you its just wrong.

That, my friend, is just the most obvious way that your moral framework affects your food choices. There are others.

Wednesday night (March 16 at 5:30pm) is the first night of the Food Ethics study at the congregation I serve. (Meal provided: come and join us!) We’ll begin this 6-week study by talking about what ethics means … and how it affects our food choices. We’ll even watch an excellent lecture given by Michael Pollan to some college students at an ethics conference at Princeton University.

It’s shaping up to be a great evening and I’m really looking forward to it.

A Quickie

It’s Ash Wednesday, so just a (very) quick thought or two …

As part of our increased mindfulness this Lenten season (especially around the issue of food), I asked the congregation to use today to pay attention to everything they ate and to make a list.

So, here’s mine:

bowl of granola cereal w/ milk

bacon cheeseburger w/ fries and tea

several cups of tea (during an afternoon meeting)

3 pieces of pizza

Geez! That’s embarrassing. I’d blame it on the busy schedule today … but that doesn’t make me feel any better about it.

On the bright side, though: I managed to get through a whole day without any high fructose corn syrup (which is what I’m giving up for Lent.)

Mairt Inide

While that title might look like Greek … it’s actually the Irish translation of Shrove Tuesday. (Irish seems appropriate, since we’re coming up on St. Patrick’s Day next week.)

If I knew how to pronounce the Irish phrase, I might start using it instead of Mardi Gras (which is the French translation of Fat Tuesday.)

Mairt Inide. Pancake Tuesday. Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras. Carnival (which is Latin for “farewell to meat”). Fat Tuesday.

No matter the name, they all have a common heritage and point to the same thing: the day before the beginning of Lent.

The early church marked the time leading up to Easter as a time when the faithful would be prayerful and reflective in preparation to rededicate themselves … and as a time when those who were new to the church would prepare for baptism.

Later, an emphasis on Lenten fasting was added to the priority already placed on prayer …

Easter, of course, is in the spring … and in the centuries before our food system was industrialized and before produce was plentiful year-round, the weeks leading up to Easter found families living on the dwindling supplies that had been stored for winter.


Produce that had been stored (what was left of it) was beginning to look rather sorry. The grains held up pretty well, but meat was scarce and chickens don’t lay eggs in winter.

Smaller and plainer meals were not voluntary or optional. They were just a part of life, in that day and age.

But Lenten fasting gave purpose to their poverty. It allowed the people to see their circumstances as having spiritual significance.

Of course, with advances in refrigeration, transportation and agriculture, Lenten eating is a very different experience for us today. For example:

The day before Lent is sometimes called Pancake Tuesday, because making pancakes was a good way to rid the house of some of the richer food items (eggs, sugar, etc.) before Lent. But the idea of getting rid of a surplus in early spring (before the fields were even planted) would have seemed crazy in certain cultures at various times in history

The tradition of Mardi Gras or Carnival is based on the idea of gorging oneself on all the vices (rich food, strong drink and, well, whatever else) before entering into a penitential season. Again, the notion of such luxury at the end of a long winter would not have made sense to our fore-mothers and fore-fathers.

On Sunday, I invited the congregation I serve to NOT give up something for Lent this year. Instead, I suggested that we all be more mindful of what and how we eat.

Here are some suggestions:

instead of giving up chocolate or coffee or tea, pledge that you will only eat or drink fair trade chocolate or coffee or tea;

instead of giving up fast food, pledge to slow down (and not rush) your meals but to sit down with family and take time to connect across the table;

instead of giving up eating out at restaurants, pledge to eat only at restaurants that purchase their ingredients from local farmers;

instead of giving up a particular item (chips, soda, etc.), pledge to read the list of ingredients on the food labels of everything you eat.

Happy Mairt Inide, friends. And a blessings on your Lenten journey.

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