I Can’t Believe It’s the Bible #1: The Syrophoenecian Woman

Image credit: Sarah Kolb-Williams (www.kolbwilliams.com/)

Image credit: Sarah Kolb-Williams (www.kolbwilliams.com/)

“That Time Jesus Called a Woman a Dog So Maybe She’d Go Away. Wait, What?”

At least that’s what the titles should read above Mark 7:24-30 (or, if you prefer, Matthew 15:21-28). Instead, it’s usually just titled “The Syrophoenecian Woman.” Really, it should come with a warning label. I consider it one of the strangest stories in all four Gospels, right up there with the infamous Fig Tree Incident.

Yes, believe it. This woman came to ask our Lord for help casting a demon out of her poor daughter. To which he said, and this is a direct quote from Mark, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Meaning, You’re a Gentile. I have to help my own people first.

To which she replies, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” Meaning, quite literally, Throw me a bone here.

And he says, “Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.” Okay, you convinced me. It’s a deal.

It just seems so unlike the Jesus we think we know, the gentle shepherd, the good teacher. Refusing to heal someone? Name-calling? Really?

We tend to not like this passage, we Christians and other Jesus fans. We would like to pretend the passage doesn’t exist, or just skim our eyes over the page, or mutter something about how some dastardly person must have snuck it in there.

But most of us can’t do that, not forever. We are compulsive readers of these relatively few stories. We have to wrestle with the words so we can clearly understand the Word.

I’ve heard a lot of explanations from these wrestlers. Some people say Jesus was testing this woman and that he exulted at her snappiest of comebacks. Some even say he was joking with her, calling her a dog with a wink. Some say there was no irony involved and she straight up taught him a lesson about not being so mean to Gentiles.

Me? I’ve done my share of wrestling, and I know I’m far from done. But here’s the meaning that leaps out of the text and into my heart today.

For me, it’s a story about Jesus’s unique nature: 100% human, 100% divine, both at the same time. And it can be a story of comfort and hope for those of us who are just plain 100% human.

First, a little context. At the beginning of this story, it says Jesus has just arrived in a new place, the region of Tyre. The Mark version of this story says that despite his efforts to keep his healings secret, people keep completely mobbing him. There is seemingly no end to the people who need to be healed. Seems reasonable. There’s enough healing that needs to go on in my neighborhood to keep Jesus busy for weeks.

So at the beginning of this story, it’s the human side of Jesus we see. He is exhausted from a long day of healing. He’s trying to set limits on his ministry so he can come back to do it another day. Right now he inhabits a single human body, and he has to sleep like anyone else. He doesn’t have the time or the energy to do everything.

Who can’t identify with this – the aching feeling that our dreams for every twenty-four hours are bigger than what we can actually get done? What largehearted, well-intentioned person has not felt momentarily paralyzed in the face of so much more suffering than one person’s heart and intentions can handle?

So this woman comes begging, “Heal my daughter!” and I imagine it breaks Jesus’s heart to say no, but in that moment he feels like he can’t say yes. The line must be drawn somewhere.

When you think about it, who would want to choose between feeding their children and feeding the family dogs? What a horrible thing to have to decide. How it must have torn Jesus apart to realize even he couldn’t heal everyone, couldn’t feed the whole family.

In the same way, who wants to live in a world where children go hungry, die of preventable and treatable diseases, die of violence, die at all? Who wants to live in a world infected with all kinds of injustice? Yet don’t we all decide, at a certain point, that there’s more need than our time constraints, our energy levels, our pocketbooks can take? We are only human, after all.

But Jesus is more than human, and the Gentile woman confirms it, loudly, claiming the table scraps of grace God has surely set aside for her.

She says, in essence, One person can’t heal the world – but God can. And God will.

God and man flicker gloriously in the same person. He savors her answer, the cry that expresses her strong faith. She knows without a doubt that Abba can feed the whole family.

Jesus smiles and says to her, You’re right. It’s done. Go home. He doesn’t have to leave the house where he’s staying, go out in the open and get mobbed by more people, lose sleep. The healing can happen despite his exhaustion, despite his limits. God can make a way.

And God will make a way for us too. We are not perfect and limitless, but God can perfect us and fill us with holiness, giving us more than we can ask or imagine. There are no superheroes saving the world singlehandedly, but if we’re humble enough to accept God’s directions, we can find our part to play in the grand plan. We can’t do everything, but in and through God’s holy people, God can do anything.

I love this beautiful, hard story, showcasing the struggles of Jesus who was man and the soaring glory of Jesus who is God.

How do you interpret this Bible story? What questions does it leave you with? What other Bible stories do you wrestle with?

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My Heart Is Sick of Being in Chains

Photo Credit: Paul Domenick

Photo Credit: Paul Domenick

I don’t need to listen to the song to hear it; it’s all there within me, intensely vivid as only a song you loved at fourteen can be.

Why do we crucify ourselves, every day?

Crucify myself

Nothing I do is good enough for you…

Strange to remember how little it meant to me at the time, that word “crucify.” My teenage brain skipped over the image as someone in a hurry might skip a step. I went right to what I felt was the heart of the song, put it on like a magic cloak under which I could safely travel the land of my own suffering.

Every day I crucify myself

And my heart is sick of being in chains

I felt those chains. Constantly I felt other people’s eyes on me, measuring me, judging me, weighing me and finding me wanting. I was a slave to other people’s opinions of me. The tiniest words of praise or blame sent my spirit soaring or plummeting.

Part of me wanted off the rollercoaster. I knew it was making me sick. But like any addict, I was apt to forget the inevitable lows when enticed with the prospect of another high.

I didn’t want to admit all this was out of my control. I didn’t want to ask for help – and yet, deep down, I did want help.

I’ve been looking for a savior on these dirty streets

Looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets…

Please be

Save me, I cry

This struggle is still a part of me – to some extent, it probably always will be. But at least now I know where to go for help. This song is a dark mirror to the hope I’ve found. Maybe, strangely enough, it even helped me find that hope. Maybe mouthing the lyrics was for me a rough and inchoate prayer, the Spirit’s groanings.

I’ve been raising up my hands

Drive another nail in

Just what God needs

One more victim

So what the Cross mean to me now, when it’s not an abstract symbol in a song but my saving hope? What can I possibly see in the Cross other than stupid suffering?

What does taking up my cross and following Jesus mean? Does it mean hatred toward myself, salvation through violence? Does it mean the guilt and burdens and chains that Tori sings about?

No. The Cross means freedom from all those things. The Cross means I can get off the rollercoaster and start living an abundant life.

Here’s the thing: Jesus did not come to condemn the world – he came to save it. He emptied himself to take on our burdens. He became sin for us so we no longer have to be slaves to sin.

But isn’t what some people call “sin” what makes life worth living? Isn’t it exciting and beautiful? Isn’t it another word for what makes us human, our ultimately lovable imperfections?

I used to think this, used to clutch my sins to my chest because I thought they were what made me myself. But then I realized my sin is not me. It’s part of me, but not the heart of me. In fact, it wars against all that is good in me.

Who can’t relate to what St. Paul said?I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

So often, I open my mouth and say the opposite of what I really feel, the opposite of what I would choose to say if I was actually thinking. So often, all my willpower can’t stop my destructive urges.

So what’s the way out?I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does.” Everything Jesus said and did was aimed toward setting the world free – most of all his death on the Cross.

Jesus died on the Cross so I could die too – not my beautiful, unique, God-created self, but my false self, my ego. The destructive part of me, the parasite that eats away at my healthy, authentic self. The one who keeps putting those chains back on. My false self has to die so I can be more myself than ever, like a plant that gets cuts back to bear more flowers and fruit.

Of course, the Cross accomplished so much more than my personal freedom. Jesus came to set the entire world free, to break the chains we all make for ourselves, not just individuals but socieities and cultures and yes, even religions. And yet I can’t help but give thanks for the chance I’ve been given to crucify myself every day so I can truly begin to live.

Lord Jesus, save me. I want to be free. Help me draw strength from your Cross today.

Crucify my apathy to make room for your love.

Crucify my cynicism to make room for your joy.

Crucify my anxiety to make room for your peace.

Crucify my entitlement to make room for your patience.

Crucify my pettiness to make room for your generosity.

Crucify my anger to make room for your kindness.

Crucify my hypocrisy to make room for your faithfulness.

Crucify my pride to make room for your gentleness.

Crucify my selfishness to make room for your self-control.

I have faith that your love can break my chains and lead me into abundant life. Thank you for everything.

Addiction and Living Water

My dad and I once talked about the moral implications of legalizing drugs as we waited in line at the post office. That probably tells you all you really need to know about our relationship.

Me: I just don’t think drugs are good for people.

Dad: Yeah, well, that bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream you have every night isn’t so great for you either.

Me: That’s different. I’m not addicted to eating ice cream.

Woman in line behind us: I am!

That conversation took place back when I was a teenager and knew everything. But the medical definition of addiction is “the persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be physically, psychologically, or socially harmful.” So, yeah, in that case, I am addicted to ice cream. And a lot of other things. Considering what I know about the harmful aspects of ice cream (the fat, the sugar, the non-fair trade ingredients, the mood swings and blood sugar crashes it causes), I should realize it’s potentially physically, psychologically, and socially harmful, but I love it and don’t want to give it up. So much for that argument.

The medical world also defines addiction as characterized by increasing tolerance, so whatever you’re addicted to, it leaves you wanting more. To me, that seems like the worst part of all, the fact that you’re always chasing some elusive horizon of enough, always seeking just a little more.

So much of my life is like that, if I’m honest. I’m addicted to so many things. They’re not illegal; most of them are even socially acceptable (my bouts of compulsive people pleasing come to mind). But I ignore the harm they do because they make me feel so good – I ignore their true nature because of their momentary appearance.

In a way, my addictive personality is perfectly natural, because I live in an addictive society. All around me, people overeat, overwork, overanalyze. We chase all kinds of things that, deep down, we know have nothing to do with true happiness. We spend our lives yearning to get rich quick, stay young forever, or some other impossible thing. Our society positively encourages addictions to money, power, violence. It’s hard to see another way, much less live it.

God does not want this for us. I love that that’s right there in Scripture. God does not want us to be endlessly, fruitlessly chasing something that doesn’t love us back.

God calls to us sadly through Isaiah: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?”

The book of Jeremiah echoes, “My people have committed two sins: they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”

These words jump off the page for me, because I have lived them. I keep on living them. I feed my soul with junk food and let life-giving water slip through my fingers. And the whole time, there is a source of true happiness out there. The Bread of Life, the Water of Life are there, if I’ll reach out my hand and take them.

Jesus once sat with a woman at a well. She was an ordinary woman, just like me. She was out to get water and schlep it back home, the same old chore she did day after day. And she’d been trapped in an addictive cycle her whole life – wanting another person to complete her, protect her, satisfy her – but none of her five husbands, nor the man she was living with, had really ever helped her longings and loneliness become less.

She heard Jesus say the words living water. Right away, she asked where she could get it. How to get something to combat this raging thirst for more, something she wouldn’t have to chase after, pure joy with no side of pain?

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

She said, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

And then, gently, he brought her addiction to light. As they talked, she realized that he could set her free, that he was the truth that would set her free. No more need to spend her life running after food that just made her hungrier and water that was never quite enough. She was so happy, she told everyone she knew that she had finally found the source of living water, joy welling up inside her and overflowing.

I want that kind of joy. I mean, who wouldn’t? But the question is, do I want it more than ice cream, or people’s praise, or a sense of accomplishment? Can I stand turning my darkest deeds over to the light of truth? Can I empty myself of ego so there’s room in there for the good stuff, the water of life, life to the full?

Monastic Value of the Month: Living in the Abandoned Places of Empire

Inner City Angels mural, a pastel drawing on wall

(Photo credit: Roberrific)

So as I recently shared, I’m reflecting this year on the twelve core values of the New Monastics. Perhaps you are asking yourself who these people are and why I care about their values.

Well, my basic definition is this: New Monastics are laypeople who are trying to live out monastic values in the modern world. I guess the term itself usually applies to Protestants move (since monasticism, and laypeople adopting monastic values, is nothing new for Catholics), but it’s a welcoming movement for anyone in the Church. There is a lot of diversity among New Monastic communities, and disagreement is fine, as long as it’s respectful. They do have some official values, which I really like, and I plan to do my own take on them.

But why am I personally so drawn to monastic values? That’s another good question. I haven’t ever lived in community, per se, and as with any non-mainstream lifestyle, it’s hard to fight the tide of the greater culture alone. I don’t even do hospitality on a large scale too much anymore due to the small size of my living space. And yet I do feel communal life is something I ought to seek after as a Christian, even though it won’t look the same for me as it does for others. I need to remember I’m not in this thing alone, that every single disciple is my family, and that we can work to help, encourage, and exhort each other as travelers on the Way. (I’m hoping this blog will eventually help me form such a community of encouragement in its own way.)

So the value I’ll be focusing on this December is “living in the abandoned places of empire.” But what does this mean, and what does it mean for me?

For most New Monastics, this means they form their communities in abandoned parts of the inner city, places other people have long ago abandoned as hopeless. The New Monastics figure that Jesus has always hung out in such places. (Remember what Nathaniel said when he learned the area Jesus called home: “Nazareth?! Can anything good come from there?”) They’re not just there for some condescending short-term service project; many of them put down roots for good, seeking to learn from their less privileged neighbors as well as use their privilege for good within the new community.

As for me, I have made my home in the city, but it’s a pretty darn safe city overall, and my neighborhood is beautiful, quite a desirable place to live. I walk to and from work each day, often in the dark, with no fear for my safety. My lifestyle is fairly humble out of necessity, but not more so than that of many of my friends, and I certainly enjoy a certain amount of luxury. Nor does my day job have anything straightforwardly to do with serving the poor or bettering the community.

On the one hand, I want to grow more comfortable with spending time in abandoned places, places others have deemed ugly and unsafe and worthless, and seeing the beauty and eternal worth of the people who live there. I want to be a true friend to the poor, and I know I have a lot to figure out in this area. On the other hand, fixing up an inner-city “abandominium” as a long-term home is definitely not the only way to grow in compassion for the poor. Nor should it be – Christians live diverse lives and that should absolutely be encouraged!

So how can I appreciate and build up places the Empire rejects in my life as it is now? Here are some thoughts.

1. Support and uplift poor communities in my city with my skills, money, and time, and make concrete goals to do this more and more in my life.

Examples: I can use my skills as a student and teacher to help teach literacy (and strive to do it respectfully, always acknowledging my students have much to teach me). I can donate my time and money to local organizations that help the poor find peace, renewal, and health. When people approach me on the street to ask for money or other help, I can respond to them with kindness rather than ignore them, even if I’m unable to give them what they ask for or I think it’s not wise.

2. Spend time with others who are ignored or despised by the world, affirming they are truly valuable to God and to me.

Examples: I can seek out friendships and conversations with those who feel different or lonely and see what they have to offer that others are missing out on. I can spend time in places that are often unlovely and lonely, like nursing homes, and try to ease others’ burdens by listening and being present.  When I see someone getting attacked on the internet or in person for taking an unpopular stance, I can extend my unconditional support for them as a person, even when I disagree.

3. Refuse to accept the (often very subtle) imperial mindset that wealth, success, physical beauty, health, youthfulness, etc. are the best indicators of true worth.  See things in terms of the values of God’s upside-down kingdom instead.

Examples: I can learn to better accept myself for who I am and choose not to obsess over how successful I appear to others (this is pretty huge for me). I can likewise encourage others to be who they are and show them unconditional love when they experience failure by worldly standards. I can create spaces online and in person where people can lay down the ideological burdens cultural empire puts on us all.

Of course, like I said before, it’s hard to do these things, or any countercultural things, alone. We need community. I’m very grateful to be part of a church community that places a high amount of emphasis on questioning the values of the greater culture and trying to see things God’s way instead. I’m also grateful for the many mentors I have, both in person and in books (I don’t take nearly enough advantage of them!). And I am grateful for you, my friends and readers. I would love to hear your thoughts on how we can strive to live out this value better together.

What does “living in the abandoned places of empire” mean to you? How do you do this in your everyday life? How would you like to grow in this area? What aspects of this subject would you like me to explore in more depth this month?

4 Simple Steps to Centering Prayer

Modular

(Photo credit: derekbruff)

About a dozen of us came to the church in the dark, an hour before the Sunday morning service, and formed a circle on shabby folding chairs around our teacher. Our expressions were serious and determined. We wanted to learn how to Really Pray. We figured there must be lots to learn, since Sister Shirley’s class would last for six weeks.

I still have the little card she gave us, the one with the instructions. It’s lived for years in my threadbare first Bible. Essentially, Sister Shirley told us, Centering Prayer is as simple and hard as this:

1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.

2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word.

3. When engaged with thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.

4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

Turns out, there wasn’t much more to teach us. The six weeks were more like a support group, meant to get us in the habit. Sister Shirley checked in with each one of us, gently, about how faithful we’d been to our prayer practice over the previous week.

We struggled. Our lives felt too crowded and urgent for silence. Some days, we forgot all about the Centering Prayer thing. Often, we tried to pray and fell asleep instead.

“When that happens,” Sister Shirley instructed, “just thank God for the rest.”

I’m still grappling with these simple instructions. It seems so hard to do so little! And I’m way out of the habit now. I’ve found room in my life for so many more things than just sitting there in thankful enjoyment, in quiet relationship with God.

Which is why I’m glad you’re reading. Sister Shirley knew: these kinds of simple things, it’s hard to do alone. We need each other.

And if you want to use these four simple steps to follow along at home, I’d be delighted. Leave a note in the comments if you’d like to share your experience.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: taken on my lunch break, in the training room. Crazy, dreamlike thoughts floated through my mind and I tried not to get stuck in them (with limited success). I think I actually did fall asleep for a minute. When it was over, I mentally conjured Sister Shirley’s expression of patient encouragement.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

Prayer for a Busy Life

Fifteen minutes (maybe ten) before I have to leave for work. I curl up with a blanket and my Bible, the first bit of sunlight streaming through my window. I read a psalm, then read it again, letting the words of praise, grief, more praise sink in.Walking to work, skirting traffic, trying to keep my umbrella level. My body is groggy and allergic to coffee, but my mind is even sleepier. It’s the opposite of the time when you fall asleep and dream fragments drift constantly into your head. I try to center my mind around this: Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these…

I duck into an unused conference room on my break. Quiet spaces in the office are precious these days. I read from the tattered turquoise copy of My Utmost for His Highest that’s lived in my purse forever. Or maybe I offer up some words for my friend with five kids between the teen years and babyhood, who doesn’t get official breaks. Or maybe I just sit there for a few minutes in silence, trying to let go of thoughts and just be who I am with the great I Am.

Walking home. I feel too exhausted to create words of my own, but I jam my earbuds in and turn on the audio Gospel. I am the vine, and you are the branches… As the Father loved me, so I have loved you… Now remain in my love… The words come out crackly and the background music is corny, but the message washes over me and my spirit relaxes into a posture of Amen.

So many days this is all I feel I can do, a moment of prayer snatched here and there, like a bite on the run. With so little, God does so much. I offer my crumbs, and God gives me bread for life.

“Take [the peaceful moments of your day], poor crumbs of minutes though they may be, and give yourself to God in them. You will not be able to feel prayerful in them, but that is beside the point… We should be misers in prayer, scraping up these flinders of time and holding them out trustfully to the Father… There is time enough for what matters supremely to us, and there always will be.” Sister Wendy Beckett

How do you weave prayer or meditation or moments focusing on what truly matters into your daily life?

Be Still: A Lesson from My Cat

IMG_4008My three-legged tabby, Trivet, seems to think she’s a dog. There’s none of that cat aloofness or snootiness with her. Since I adopted her a little over two years ago, she scampers to the door when I walk inside it, whether I’ve spent all day at work or spent thirty seconds checking the mail. She rubs against my legs and yowls as I enter the apartment, not because she wants to get out or even because she’s hungry, but just because she missed me.

Honestly, I think pets are one of God’s greatest creations (I know technically people created pets through selective breeding, but surely God came up with the idea). First, you take an animal, which has no notion of hypocrisy, betrayal, or even gossip. All those things are human things; with an animal, you always know where you stand. Then you make it small and cute and prone to bond with and depend on human beings. Result: a relationship that makes up in unlimited, unconditional love what it lacks in words. Pure genius.

Considering all Trivet gives me and how little she asks in return, I try to keep her happy. Sometimes, though, I can’t figure out what she wants. I’ll get home from work and she’ll follow me as I putter around the apartment, fix a snack, read the mail. She screeches plaintively at me, clearly requesting something, and I try to figure out what.

Does she want me to rub her chin or scratch behind her ears? No, that doesn’t seem to satisfy her.

Does she have enough food and water? Yep.

Does she want me to play with her? No, she seems uninterested in any toy with which I try to tempt her.

Finally, I give up and sit down on the couch, at which point she climbs on my lap, settles in, and starts to purr.

She didn’t want me to do anything for her. She wanted me to do nothing with her. She wanted me to give up my idea of being productive and focus my energy on enjoying her presence. Without words, she managed to teach me something. After all, the best relationships are the ones where you can just sit and do nothing together.

How often do I take the time to do that with anyone? I lead a busy life and I’m kind of addicted to multitasking. I feel like I’m not making the most of my time if I’m not doing two things at once. But too often, when I do this, I end up doing both things badly, having given them both just a half-hearted effort. Isn’t this really thoughtlessness, faithlessness, the opposite of mindfulness?

The Word of God invites me: Be still. Be still, and know I am God. But I put that off. Who has time to be still? Who has time to just sit and enjoy God, remember the presence of God right here and now? Who has time to give up all activity, even reading Scripture, even praying with words, just to enjoy the gift of life and breath?

Luckily, I know from experience God is just as persistent as my cat. God will keep calling, and I’ll keep turning around and making a tiny holy space in my hectic life, maybe a little wider each time. Space to do nothing, and just be, with I Am Who I Am.

Learning to Love the Old Testament

English: Moses Showing the Ten Commandments, b...

Moses Showing the Ten Commandments, by Gustave Doré

As I believe I’ve mentioned before once or twice, reading the Bible is not easy. Not in any sense of the word. Particularly not, for me and I think for many of us Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures.

For one thing, parts of it downright shock me. So much blood from so many animals. So many reasons to stone people. So many people getting struck dead for getting too close to the Holy, or getting killed in plagues or battles for wandering too far away.

And when I’m not shocked by these scriptures, I’m just as often bored. With all those lists of names and numbers, parts of it feel about as fun as reading the telephone book. Or there’s the wacky rollercoaster Israel gets on of bad kings and somewhat better kings, or those ever-popular descriptions of how to build and decorate things, conveniently measured in cubits.

So why, some would ask, do I keep reading? Why not just mentally assign the brutal or boring parts of Scripture to the recycle bin, especially since as a Christian I have the Gospels and epistles to read, action-packed and chatty by comparison?

Well, because you wouldn’t pick up a novel in the middle and read from there, would you? Reading the Bible that way doesn’t make any more sense. The New Testament is the Christians’ version of the end of the story of God and God’s people. Reading only the new part means you miss the full impact of the many Old Testament characters, allusions, and symbols woven everywhere into the text. Delete all of them and you wouldn’t be left with much.

Now, realizing this doesn’t necessarily help us enjoy the Old Testament. We might take it in like cod liver oil, faithfully, but with a shudder and a grimace. And that would be sad, because in those parts where our eyes are glazing over, there is beauty too if we have eyes to see.

Let me tell you what helps me actually enjoy the Old Testament.

I think about the fact that Jesus read it too.

I imagine child Jesus, with luminous eyes, soaking these stories in day and night. We know he came from a devout family. We know these words filled him like bread. No doubt, as Scripture itself teaches, his family talked with him about them sitting at home and walking along the road, while rising in the morning and lying down at night.

I imagine Jesus listening with total attention to these same stories, laws and histories and lists of names and decorating plans and all. I can see the wheels in his head turning. He knows, because of Who He Is, the beautiful way all this fits together. He knows it all points to his Father’s nature. But how to explain this? How to make people understand the intricacy of the tapestry, how organically all the pieces build a Kingdom?

I imagine him pondering these things day and night, on holy days and ordinary days, reading also the world around him, the signs that show up in wheat fields and fig trees and clouds.

When I can keep this image in my mind, suddenly every word becomes delicious. I long to read as Jesus read: hungrily, longing for his Father’s presence to be made known in the world. Jesus read these very words, the ones that seem brutal and boring to me, and he pieced them together into teachings that, along with his presence and his sacrifice, would lift heavy burdens from ordinary people, would set the world in motion following him wherever he led.

Grace: Not Just Something You Say

I didn’t grow up saying grace over food, not even in the old days when my family went to church together. Well, we memorized the standard Catholic grace-before-meals, but we never said it consistently. I learned a few graces, too, in Girl Scouts, upbeat little songs that seemed silly compared to the stern grandeur of the Catholic prayer.  In either context, not only did the graces said not penetrate my heart, but they never even shaped my mind, never became one of those good habits moms drill into you like buckling your seat belt or brushing your teeth.

My conversion at age 18 didn’t sell me on grace either; as I wrote at the time, I thought “churches and ceremony” gave people “a false sense of security.” Even through college, I scorned most spiritual disciplines, didn’t attend church regularly, didn’t pray or read the Bible. Though I called myself a Christian, I could almost forget about my faith for days at a time. I certainly didn’t find my three square meals a day occasion to remember it. Grace seemed too superstitious, inorganic, almost insincere.

Only within the last few years have I come to see the value of this ritual. Strange, because food and shared meals have always been core symbols of the faith for me. The transition from hunger to fullness recalls the Beatitudes. Sharing a meal with loved ones and guests echoes the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples and his instructions to remember him “whenever you do this.” Scripture actually invites us to “taste and see the goodness of God,” like it’s a feast we can sink our teeth into, like it’s tempting us to take that first bite. And I’ve always loved feeding people, expressing my love through a loaf of pumpkin bread or pizza from scratch, my little way of echoing the love of God in the concrete.

We all need food. Sharing food fosters friendship. Giving food shows love. I understood all of this without words.

But now I know that words are valuable too.

I started to learn this in my junior year of college, when I was part of a dinner co-op with six friends. We’d all trade off making dinner in pairs five times a week, then fend for ourselves on Fridays and Saturdays. On the whole, it worked well, and we all learned a lot about cooking (my tablemates patiently bore with me through some memorable botched meals, including mouth-scorching chili and a truly disastrous first batch of pizza).

My friends Katrina and Anna are wonderful cooks and hostesses, and night after night when it was their turn, they’d set the table meticulously, set out some steaming, succulent dish plated beautifully… and ask us to wait. Then Katrina would read out loud a poem she’d selected beforehand, maybe something by Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry, and we’d chew the words over, looking around at each other’s faces. When the poem was over, we’d take a breath before digging in, and the food would somehow taste even better for the ritual.

They graduated and left, and I began tucking into meals without pausing again. It took me years to figure out that I missed it, the moment of silence and the carefully chosen words, to make a meal something more. So I started taking a breath, taking a moment to pause thankfully before sating my hunger, and in the act of doing it, I’ve realized what grace really means.

Why is it called grace? Because the definition of “grace” is “a gift I don’t deserve,” and I don’t deserve my food. Sure, more often than not I’m the one who cooked it, bought it at the supermarket or the farmer’s market. But could I feed myself entirely on my own? Absolutely not. By the time my food reaches my lips, so much energy has already gone into it that my own act of cooking seems like nothing.

Could I make meals like I do if I had to grow my own wheat and grind my own flour and make my own pasta? My lifestyle wouldn’t allow it. Could I enjoy the bounty of foods and the variety of ingredients and cuisines I do without the help of others? No. These things have nothing to do with my merit; they’re a gift, and they should inspire my gratitude. So grace is a way of remembering where my food comes from and a way of honoring those whose hard work went into its making.

And even if I did grow my own vegetables and mill my own flour, would I not be dependent, as all farmers are, on temperature and rainfall and other earthly processes that nourish seeds and make them come alive? Could I ever truly say I made my food myself when its growth depended on so many things beyond my control? Agriculture itself is a gift. The security it provides us with is surely a gift, since I doubt I’d do better at hunting deer and gathering berries than I would at farming. In a sense, my entire existence is a gift which the gift of food makes possible.

Sharing food with others I love is also completely undeserved. It’s a wild blessing that I’m alive, that they’re alive, and that we’re together. It’s worthy of celebration, just like the meal Jesus shared with his friends. It’s a holy moment every time, and the ritual of saying grace reminds me I’m on sacred ground.

Honestly, a few words and a pause before a meal don’t even do all of this justice. But it helps me to keep it more in mind, to pause my whirling brain for a moment and try to comprehend the degree to which I need to be thankful. And then, like the energy in my food fuels my actions for the day, that moment of thankfulness can fuel the sharing of my blessings with those around me, can help me view my life as bread to be broken, a little at a time, meal by meal.