Janie Beck Kreider is the Associate Coordinator of Public Programs at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center. She is also on staff with the Mennonite Creation Care Network and is part of the Mennonite Church USA communications team. She graduated from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 2012 with a Master of Divinity degree. Janie lives with her husband Luke in Charlottesville, Virginia and attends Charlottesville Mennonite Church. She enjoys leading retreats, planning worship, hiking and camping, music, cooking, traveling, and spending time with friends and family.
Last month I led a women’s retreat on spirituality and the environment. This was the third retreat I’ve organized since joining the staff at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center, and they have all somehow incorporated things I love dearly: singing and worshiping with other women, hiking at night in the snow, sharing delicious and thoughtfully prepared food, and reflecting on stories from the Bible and from our lives.
An important part of the retreat each year is to practice paying attention to the non-human elements in the world around us and in the biblical texts we study together. Following this theme, I led a workshop on prayer practices, including lectio divina, a slow, contemplative praying of scripture. In a small group we prayed excerpts from the long and beautiful Psalm 104:
O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
The earth is full of your creatures.
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
And plants for people to use,
To bring forth food from the earth,
And wine to gladden the human heart,
Oil to make the face shine,
And bread to strengthen the human heart….
After praying together, we reflected on how the Spirit had moved in us. One woman shared that bread was the thing that struck her the most throughout our praying, that recently she had been reading about the health benefits of eating a gluten-free diet, and that recent studies have shown that wheat is difficult for the body to digest.
She had tears in her eyes as she reflected on how disorienting and even painful considering this dietary shift has been for her, because of how deeply bread is connected with her spirituality and the myriad ways bread is connected with the story of God’s people as a nourishing substance. Take for example, the Israelites fleeing Egypt with unleavened bread in hand, and then Manna—the bread from heaven in the wilderness. And there is more: Jesus breaking bread with his disciples at the last supper or the feeding of the five thousand with fish and—you guessed it—five loaves of unlimited bread! In the Gospel of John chapter 6, Jesus proclaims “I am the bread of life,” and then more bread comes down from heaven, and all who eat of it “will live forever.” The reliable and the miraculous presence of God is often interconnected with bread somehow, so close that we eat this substance together when we remember what happened to Jesus’ body.
But what do we do when our bread does not nourish or satisfy?
Why is eating, something we need to do multiple times every single day, so difficult and complicated? Why is it so confusing to make choices about what we eat? And not just the what, but the how and why and with whom are also important to consider. Among its many functions both utilitarian and pleasurable, food is related to how we find meaning in this life. It connects us with tradition, spirituality, community, the soil, creatures, and natural systems. What we eat and how we eat it connects us to our watershed and all the communities that share it, to government policy and poverty and global food scarcity and climate change.
We should be making intentional choices about where our food comes from, how it is grown and produced, and how we share it. We should be aware if the way we eat harms other people or if our food systems harm the earth.
So, what shall we eat? And what shall we drink?
And, related to these questions about consumption, what shall we wear, drive, bike, purchase, mend or recycle…and how low should we set our thermostats in the winter?
As God’s people, we have a responsibility to connect with the created world around us and care for the whole of God’s creation. In this work there is deep and sustaining joy. We know that healthy soil will grow more nutritious food for us to eat, and that sustainable farming practices will ensure the integrity of the land for years to come. Monoculture in our farming, in our food, or in our spiritual metaphors, leads to death and disillusionment.
Throughout the Bible we are shown a God who provides, but not without mystery. We are part of a people who are continuously provided for, but not without confusion and angst and understandable worry. We do our best to trust, but wouldn’t anyone get sick of eating the same exact thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day for 40 years, even if it was amazing, out-of-this-world bread from heaven?
Bread is a symbol of what we share together in the community of Christ’s followers, and it comes in all different forms: flakes of Manna in the wilderness, loaves for the five thousand, unleavened (yeast-less) in a hurry….so why not a gluten-free option too?
And what do we make of it when in the wilderness, the very place where God provided Manna to the Israelites, Jesus proclaims that we do not live by “bread alone”? Instead, and he is quoting Deuteronomy here, we are to live by “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” This is a lesson that monoculture fails to teach: we need variety in our symbols and metaphors; our God cannot be distilled into one substance or one sound bite. We must consider bread, but also water, wine, oil, doves, ravens and lilies.
We need time and space for wonder and discernment, to listen to the chorus of voices singing in the trees and the diversity of voices across the church. We need to seek the wisdom that comes through holding rich layers of metaphor and meaning together within our spiritual ecosystems, to experience the fullness of what it means to be one of God’s creatures, in all its complexity.