Last week I retreated with my master’s of divinity class, one year after our graduation. The theme of our retreat was “thriving through transition.” I stood in the middle of a labyrinth where, six years ago, I first changed my answer to the question: “Will you change careers, drop what you’re doing now, go to graduate school, and become a pastor?” I said “yes” for the first time in the middle of that labyrinth. Then a little over a year later, I was laid off from my job as a news reporter and forced out of a career that I had loved for nearly half my life.
The psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth has researched a concept called “grit” that is making rounds lately in podcasts and media think-pieces. Here she discusses grit and how to learn it: “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint….(Growth mindset is) the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort. When kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they’re much more likely to persevere when they fail because they don’t believe that failure is a permanent condition.”
During the retreat, led by Carolyn Foster, we heard this poem, which funnily enough hearkened back to my days as a Kentucky journalist:
By expenditure of hope,
Intelligence, and work,
You think you have it fixed.
It is unfixed by rule.
Within the darkness, all
Is being changed, and you
Also will be changed.
Even though I had said already said “yes” to a career change, I still felt like a failure and tasted the bitterness of the layoff for months, even years afterward. But as I stood in that labyrinth last week, I rewrote my story of failure. I remembered that I had said “yes” to change many months before being forced to change. I reminded myself that I have agency and power, and that as long as I’m alive, my story is not yet finished. I will keep on changing.
Adapted from a sermon preached Aug. 16, 2015, at First Presbyterian Church of Lexington, Ky.
Recently I visited a former seminary classmate who lives near Los Angeles. He’s of Filipino and Chinese descent, and we went to have dim sum at one of his favorite restaurants in Chinatown. We ordered chicken feet. I have eaten and liked them before, in Korea, where they are eaten in mounds as bar food, like rubbery, gelatinous French fries, and doused in the spiciest of sauces. There is one big difference, though: The feet I’ve eaten before are deboned.
Not the case with Chinese chicken feet, at least those at this restaurant. They’re full of hard, tiny bones. They’re really hard to eat. My friend explained that I’d have to bite off a whole toe, and then gnaw the bones clean with my teeth and tongue, and then spit out the bones. This is not bar food. My friend told me his theory about why this difficult-to-eat delicacy is so immensely popular: “I think Chinese people like food where there’s some sense of adventure. It’s not just food, but it’s an accomplishment.”
So when you imagine the meal in this passage of the gospel of John, imagine eating chicken feet, nibbling the flesh off tiny, hard bones, chewing the rubbery covering, swallowing the flesh, spitting out the bones. It takes about five minutes to finish two mouthfuls. You can’t eat fast, you might choke. The eating of these feet is a communal experience. You’re passing dish after dish of dim sum between yourself and your companions, everyone taking a bite or two at a time. “Try that,” someone says, pointing with chop sticks. “Pass the tea,” you say. Bones are discarded from the chicken feet, banana leaves are unwrapped from sticky rice. Different combinations of sauce are tried and retried.
When Jesus talks about eating the bread and water of life, his flesh and blood, imagine this kind of meal. Imagine munching on tasty morsels of dim sum and chicken feet. Imagine not a sterile passing of a thimble of juice and a tiny piece of bread. Imagine a savoring, a crunching, a slurping, an enjoying of friends. Imagine a meal.
The wisdom of the gospel is a meal.
The wisdom of Proverbs 9:1-6 lays a meal; she is a person the reader gets to know, sensually, bodily, viscerally. Some scholars say that the writers of Proverbs probably characterized Wisdom as an alluring woman in order to attract the young men who were studying the scriptures in priestly and scribal schools. Woman Wisdom is not offering a metaphorical meal, or an intellectual one. The meal is bodily. Wisdom is a person, and she has laid a table. She calls us in to partake.
Wisdom is a meal.
From its first verses, the Gospel of John associates Jesus Christ with the divine person of Wisdom. At the start of John 6, Jesus is feeding five thousand people a miraculous meal of bread and fish. The five thousand people lay in the grass, in the sunshine, near the sea. They ate until they were satisfied. It was in the context of a meal, a satisfying meal, in which Jesus was understood. We can’t understand Jesus as the bread of life, unless we understand this satisfying meal.
This is the kind of understanding that can’t come from our brains, from a book. It is an understanding that arrests us with its graphic nature. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” This visual image is as disturbing to me as it was to the people hearing Jesus preach in the synagogue.
What does it look like, in today’s world, to abide in Christ, for Christ to abide in us? How are we to partake of a meal with the body of Christ?
This is not a story about believing in Jesus. This is not a story about understanding a metaphor about Jesus. This is the Gospel of a meal of Wisdom and true life, true bread, true flesh and blood. The gospel of Wisdom is a meal, a satisfying meal, with a sense of accomplishment, a sense of relationship.
To understand this meal, we have to crunch on some things we don’t normally think of crunching on. We have to eat with people we don’t normally like or want to eat with. We have to recognize that Christ is welcoming all to his table. We will only “get it” when we’ve sat down with strangers and “others” and people who believe different things, and found the body of Christ abiding in them as well as in ourselves.
First Presbyterian Church of Lexington, Ky., has been my home for more than 11 years now. When I arrived in Lexington, I was this stranger from out west, moving to a new place out of college, and my grandmother called up her old childhood friends and asked them to invite me to church. The way I came to love this church and the people in it was over meals, studying and arguing together—yes arguing—because through the weekly Bible studies that I joined, I found friends I knew cared about me, despite our differing politics and generations and lifestyles.
As we munched the food we made for each other every week, we ruminated on the scriptures, and we came to see Christ abiding in each other.
What happens when Christ abides in us? What happens when we abide in Christ? We share in Christ’s divinity. We also share in Christ’s vulnerability. The vulnerability part is a necessary piece. When we are Christians, we agree to be in relationship with people we don’t normally hang out with.
Earlier this year, I wrote about a trip with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) through Mexico and Central America. During a walk along the U.S.-Mexico border, a pastor in Douglas, Ariz., and Agua Prieta, Sonora, described the experience of meditating on the stations of the cross, or celebrating Communion, across the border fence that divides the town. Before the fence was built, it was easier to pass bread and juice across the divide. Now steel mesh in many places prevents completion of the simple sacrament. Meanwhile politicians in the United States want to build higher, bigger, and more dangerous.
Celebrating a meal with people across this border now seems futile. Unwise. The gospel here looks like UNwisdom. What will it change to allow Christ to abide in us? To peer through the fence and see Christ abiding in another person? The truth is that it’s unlikely to change much on the border. But it will change much inside us.
When we had the good fortune to cross safely into this land, O God, we became dreamers. We laughed with relief, with optimism, and ironically with fear, knowing that the wrong word upon our tongues could end in deportation and undoing.
Those in other nations looked upon us with envy, believing us to be saved, but suddenly we knew in our flesh that it was not yet true. Some of us are still missing. We dream of our grandmothers, sons, nephews, sisters, husbands, grandbabies, back in the land where we were born but don’t belong.
We rejoice because we may now remit and save and feed the flesh of our torn flesh, the bone of our broken bones. We praise God for our safety. And we plead for theirs.
Restore us, O God. Make us a whole family. Be like the waters of the Rio Grande, so long absent, suddenly bursting forth, washing away the sins and the hurts and the fences, and soaking the soil and renewing life.
May we who sow their fields with our tears then reap with shouts of joy.
May all families who go out weeping, bearing the seeds of dreams, return home with shouts of joy, carrying their own babies, feeding their own families, kissing their own lovers, embracing their own flesh.