you are an arm
maybe a hand or finger
as important as a toe
but not God.
you have a place, a role, a duty
crafted from God’s own hands
sense it, love it, keep it
and remember that it takes more
than a pinky to flourish.
you are an arm
maybe a hand or finger
as important as a toe
but not God.
you have a place, a role, a duty
crafted from God’s own hands
sense it, love it, keep it
and remember that it takes more
than a pinky to flourish.
Grieving is weird right now. It seems silly to write about, lament, and ultimately mourn the death of a pet while the world is on fire around you, but I need to do it for my own sake. I have discovered rather quickly that I am a public griever. When I feel like I am breaking inside the only thing that gives me peace is sharing the burden with others. So I hope you will indulge me.
Albert Allen passed away this morning peacefully at the Triangle Veterinary Referral Hospital. He was just over eight months old. We found out a few days ago that the pain and sickness Al had been feeling stemmed from an incredibly rare liver disease that affected him his entire, short life.
Al and his brother (from another mother) Vinny, were mine and Haley’s first pets. They made us a true family. It is not that Haley and I weren’t family before, but I speak for her when I say we felt “whole” with them. We felt new responsibility and now new grief, but a whole lot of love. They came into our lives at the start of the New Year and have been the bright spot ever since. During this time of being at home 24/7, we basically spent every waking minute with the dynamic duo.
Even though they were not truly brothers, they hit it off right away. So many people remarked how they had never seen two cats, related or not, love on each other like they did. They helped bathe each other, but most adorably, they took naps together, cuddled up in a ball. Our hearts melted every time.
Al loved laying in the back room where the sun poured in. He loved hiding under the couch when the sun was hitting him too hard and he needed a break. He loved new people. He loved tearing up blinds. He loved being held. He loved dramatically jumping on the dinner table when he was hungry. He loved sleeping under the covers with one paw on me and one paw on Haley. He loved letting out the sweetest meow when it was time for a treat. He loved trying to find the worst place he could scratch me on my body. He loved flying down the steps in the morning when the first person woke up. He loved watching TV with us for some reason. He loved laying on laundry like it was his palace. He loved wagging his stump of a tail as if he had one as long as Vinny’s.
The last picture we have of Al is him being held by Haley with his hand on her face. It was taken in the brief time he came home in-between hospital visits when we thought he was going to be OK. I like to think of it as Al telling Haley that it is all going to be all right and that he will see her again. Either that or he is just really flaunting his new fur boots the doctors gave him.
When we got the boys, I jokingly said they needed to have middle names. I declared that Vinny was now Vinny “Cheese” Allen and that Al was now Albert “Very Good Boy” Allen.” Last night, as I held Al in the vet on the operating table and was an unrelenting blob of tears, the doctor told me we had done all we could do and then looked me straight in the eyes and said “He is a very good boy.” She had no idea about his middle name, but it made me feel a little bit of peace.
A Very Good Boy he was and always will be.
God, we thank you for this food. Just as you formed us from the soil, so, too, has this sustenance sprung forth from the dirt. Let us never forget this. We pray for the regeneration of its home, the well-being of its tillers and transporters, and the lives of those who have prepared it. We thank you for this table, those gathered around it, and who they are in this world. Thank you for bringing us together in this place. Let us not take it for granted. Amen.
days are busy, impulse flooded, inertia-bound
trains on tracks that i cannot stop. it is
so hard to turn off, away, or toward you.
mold me, if the sunrise comes
into a creature who cherishes my creator,
believes in Her power, sings with the carrion,
and never forgets to look out of the train.
i pray if my body rests here tomorrow
it will have been a beacon of hope
and a vessel of your presence.
i do not pray for the earth
not the soil, the cliffs, or the sea
called to keep and till, we have
ravaged and plundered, forsaken and forgotten
it does not need my prayers
it needs a new me
i do not pray for the earth
i pray for my body, my God
for my senses to be renewed
for my eyes to see your creation
for my ears to hear the wood thrush
for my tongue to taste the berries
for my hands to climb trees
for my feet to feel the silt
for a body transformed by God’ grace
that feels myself as one amongst many
not one above all
created to sustain, not stomp
to sing, not blot
to live in harmony with the birds of the air and lilies in the field
i pray for conviction
to stand when it is easier to sit
to march when it is easier to watch
to give when it is easier to withhold
to create when it is easier to consume
to think when it is easier to react
to love when it is easier to hate
grant me the bravery and courage of those who have gone before me
to stand, to march, to give, to create, to think, and to love
when it is easier to be comfortable
My favorite movies of the 2010s in order by release date:
THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)
FRANCES HA (2012)
THE MASTER (2012)
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (2012)
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)
HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)
LA LA LAND (2016)
LADY BIRD (2017)
ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)
MARRIAGE STORY (2019)
Eat your hearts out.
It is almost the time of year when people begin to fish out an old notebook to jot down a bulleted list of New Year’s resolutions. I’m a sucker for it, too, so do not mistake this as a critique. There is something about a blank canvas that seems so appealing, is there not? All of our bad habits — we can throw them out! All of the things we never have time for — let’s find some minutes for them! All of our dreams — let’s chase them!
I took a class on the infancy narratives this semester and thus have spent a great deal of time studying the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke over the past few months. It wasn’t until after my final assignment was due that I flipped the page in my Bible to Luke 4 where Jesus is now grown up. It’s one of my favorite passages, and I couldn’t help but think how it can serve as a measuring stick for our 2020 and beyond goals as Christians.
In this passage, Jesus stands up in the Synagogue, picks up the reading for the day — Isaiah 61 — and reads:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He rolls it up, sits back down, feels all of the eyes on him, and proclaims — “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Promptly, he is thrown out of the synagogue and the people attempt to throw him off the cliff.
The first real message that Jesus delivers in the Gospel of Luke explains that Jesus came to
bring good news to the poor
proclaim release to the captives
recover sight to the blind
let the oppressed go free
proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
When we make our New Year’s resolutions as individuals and churches, what if we compared them to this list?
Are our actions bringing good news to the poor or spreading the gap of inequality?
Are we proclaiming freedom or confinement to the captives? Are we putting people in cages or are we breaking chains?
Are we agents of healing in our places or are we powers that bring devastating pain?
Are we oppressing others? Are we indifferent to oppression? Or are we working to fight against those who wield power and harm others? Are we holding swords or plowshares in our hands?
When we think about what our goals are for this new year, I hope we take a sobering look at the words of Jesus. Instead of looking to find a comforting word, we ought to see a lifestyle that pushes and challenges our deeply seated comforts and convictions.
In anticipation of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s return to the Koka Booth Amphitheater in late June, here is my review from last fall’s set, with an added emphasis on Isbell and practical theology.
Switching back-and-forth between his favorite Telecaster and Gibson guitars on a buggy Friday evening in Cary, North Carolina, Jason Isbell and his 400 Unit band delivered a performance nothing short of revelatory. In-between the 100 decibel alluring guitar licks and Isbell’s Muscle Shoals, Alabama southern drawl blaring over the speakers, rapturous applause was all that could be heard from the Koka Booth Amphitheater crowd.
Isbell and the 400 Unit Band took the stage after the Milk Carton Kids’ opened with a quiet, acoustic 45-minute set. Isbell and the 400 Unit, often labeled as members of the Americana genre, are a five-piece band which leans on the slide guitar of Sadler Vaden. Smoke machines and overbearing light shows may be typical of the 21st century rock concerts, but Isbell’s 400 Unit does not follow suit. The only decoration on the stage is the band’s logo – an anchor and sparrow, in part inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” – in stain glass form on the backdrop. The typical rock-and-roll conventions may be absent, but the deafening sound is still there. Isbell, as he noted throughout the concert, loves to rock.
Even the slow ballads that Isbell and the 400 Unit performed – like “Cover Me Up” and “Flagship” – become something of a spectacle in concert. Isbell’s lyrics are littered with references that have never been more personal until his voice ripped through the amphitheater. He sung about the desire for unending love in “If We Were Vampires,” of leaving home in “Speed Trap Town,” and of the fragility of life in “Elephant.” When Isbell sings about county fairs, high school football games, and endless highways he imagines the images are as clear in your mind as they are in his. His voice – which elicits the same sensation one gets when watching a purplish sunset or eating cookies fresh out of the oven – may be what the fans come for, but it is the lyrics that have the ability to move anyone to tears. Much like his lyrics, Isbell’s voice is unassuming and honest. It is practical and piercing. It is his vehicle for telling stories.
The divine was mentioned in passing throughout the concert. Isbell sings in “24 Frames”, “You thought God was an architect, now you know, he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow. And everything you built was all for show and goes up in flames.” Later, during “Something More Than Free” Isbell sings the refrain, “Sunday morning I’m too tired to go to church, but I thank God for the work.” And in his latest tune “Maybe It’s Time” – performed by Bradley Cooper in “A Star is Born” – Isbell writes, “Nobody speaks to God these days. I’d like to think he’s looking down, laughing at our ways.” Passingly throughout the rest of his catalogue Isbell touches on his thoughts about God, however a constant theme does not occur.
Isbell does have a practical theology, though, which focuses on loving others as yourself and seeing potential in the world. After finishing “If We Were Vampires” on Friday evening – an award winning, gripping, tear-jerking love song – Isbell stripped his guitar, stepped to the microphone, and spoke, “Y’all take care of each other, you hear? Be good to one another.” Isbell preaches loving others – and his sermons are his songs.
This was evident when halfway through the concert Isbell and the band played “White Man’s World” which challenges the racial and gender inequalities built into the American psyche. Isbell sings, “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war. Your creature comforts aren’t the only thing worth fighting for. If you’re still breathing it’s not too late. We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate.” “White Man’s World” elicited one of the strongest reactions from the crowd all night – a standing ovation from most.
The band followed it up with “Relatively Easy” off of Isbell’s solo record Southeastern. It seems the song is about people living a much more comfortable life than many around the world and not understanding their privilege. The chorus repeats, “Still compared to those a stone’s throw away from you, our lives have been relatively easy.” Isbell also performed “Cumberland Gap” which touches on the effect of strip mining and “Dress Blues” which challenges the purpose of war.
Isbell and his 400 Unit are extremely conscious of the world around them and the way the songs can enforce change. In an interview with NPR last year Isbell noted, “If we’re not talking about the things that we believe, then we’re not really using our voice to their full potential, and we’re not really making art.” When Isbell was asked what influence he would like to have as a musician, he said he wants people to “see(ing) that something is possible” and that something is different for everyone.
Many of the tunes
Isbell and the 400 Unit played were peppered with a longing for change, and a
wistful yearn for comfort in a world of pain. These lyrics about longing and
searching for this time when what we yearn for becomes possible – perhaps a
world full of justice and mercy and truth and love – may be what draws
listeners the most. Isbell taps into the part of humanity that is always hoping
and searching. That piece inside of every human that recognizes fallenness and
dreams of change. The hope for Christians – the coming kingdom – is never
specifically mentioned by Isbell. He never sings of “thy kingdom come” or the
time when “every knee will bow,” but his lyrics express the longing that
everyone faces and the brokenness that everyone feels all too well. And that is
a sermon that everyone needs to hear.
 Hight, Jewly. “Naming The Beast: Jason Isbell And Amanda Shires On Speaking Up In 2017.” NPR. December 18, 2017. Accessed October 15, 2018. https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2017/12/18/569098685/naming-the-beast-jason-isbell-and-amanda-shires-on-speaking-up-in-2017.
Convenience is king. It may not be initially apparent, but that is because the art of convenience – being able to get what you want, when you want it, and as quickly as possible – has become so deeply embedded into the American psyche that it is hardly noticeable. With the rise of technology, the average American can now get their groceries and household necessities without ever stepping foot into a grocery store, much less coming within a thousand miles of where the food was physically grown. A few clicks, taps, and of course a Credit Card number, and “fresh” fruits and vegetables are brought out to your car at the local grocer or even delivered to your doorstop next to the morning paper. It’s in with the new – convenience, ease, and expediency – and out with the old – namely, any type of connectivity with the land. With this loss of connectivity to the land has gone any semblance of a genuine food culture. In turn, we have lost what Jennifer Ayers calls the process of “thoughtful eating.” Ayers defines thoughtful eating as the understanding that there is “no human fellowship without a table, no table without a kitchen, no kitchen without a garden, no garden without a viable ecosystem, no ecosystems without the forces productive of life, and no life without its sources to God” (Ayers, p. 59). Essentially, thoughtful eating is understanding that food does not just drop onto your plate out of thin air and instead arises from a complex web of occurrences from planting to transportation and many steps in-between (Ayers takes it all the way back to God). In this essay I will argue that the lack of connectivity to the land has directly led to a loss of thoughtful eating. First, I will examine Americans continued distancing from the land and how it has in turn created a lack of thoughtful eating, then move to the role education has played in creating this phenomenon, and conclude with theological emphases that can help reinvigorate a culture of thoughtful eating.
Americans are more distanced from their food than ever before both figuratively and literally. This, I argue, is the fundamental reason why thoughtful eating has gone to the wayside. In her chapter, “Called Home” in Animals, Vegetables, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver lays out the hard facts: in the modern U.S. city “virtually every unit of food consumed there moves into town in a refrigerated module from somewhere far away,” the average food item on a grocery shelf “has traveled farther than most families go on their annual vacation,” and the water is “pumped from a non-renewable source – a fossil aquifer that is dropping so fast, sometimes the ground crumbles” (Kingsolver, pp. 3-5). Two of the most basic ingredients of sustaining human life – food and water – are increasingly being imported from afar rather than being grown or obtained locally. And although this process is often labeled as convenient, it cannot be deemed healthy for humans, animals, or the environment. Food insecurity and food deserts are rampant, workers of the land are treated poorly in their labor conditions and in their pay, the earth is given no time to rest, and animals are treated with no dignity. Michael Northcutt sums it up best when he says that this distancing from the land along with the increase of the global and industrial food economy has had direct effects on the way people eat and think about how they eat (Northcutt, p. 214).
With Northcutt’s statement in mind, I will now turn to how this distancing from the land has changed the way Americans eat. Food, which at its best can “provide powerful pathways for sharing and sustaining beliefs, and for passing on and retelling memories, narratives, and traditions” has been individualized to a great degree (Northcutt, pp. 214-215). A once communal, deeply involved act of growing, preparing, and eating has now been relegated to “pre-prepared and pre-packaged food from a factory or fast food outlet,” consumed often times alone (Northcutt, p. 223). Northcutt argues that this individualized eating is indicative of the growing global, industrial food economy. The process of making food has become delegated to professionals and more and more people have detached the process of making food from their daily routines. The question becomes apparent: how can someone develop a genuine love for food, its origins, and its effects on the land and animals, when they have no attachment to it whatsoever? Further, if thoughtful eating is the process of understanding where food comes from – starting with the table and going all the way back to God – how is it possible to retain this in a day-and-age dominated by pre-packaged, ready-made, fast food? The lack of connectivity to the land has created a food culture that does not think about the consequences of eating and instead emphasizes convenience.
Before any answers, we must quickly turn to the ways that education has enhanced this issue. Education, both secular and theological, is undoubtedly partially to blame for this problem. Education has moved from the realm of practicality to the realm of theory in most modern universities, in turn emphasizing the “presumption that education is a key to moving away from manual labor, and dirt” (Kingsolver, p. 9). Kingsolver notes that as more Americans walked away from the land (a product of the educational systems), our understanding of food production went with it (Kingsolver, p. 12). When defining the land and the jobs which are associated with it as lower and less important, food culture (in particular what Ayers calls “thoughtful eating”) disappears as well. This is because food culture arises “out of a place, a climate, a history, a temperament, a collective sense of belonging” and cannot be sold to people (Kingsolver, 17). If a love for the land dies, so too, will a desire to understand the processes in which the land produces. Theologically, there has been a lack of emphasis of humans as members of creation and on the Eucharist meal in many traditions (Ayers, pp. 71-72). Instead of membership, we have settled for dominion. Instead of meaningful Eucharist meals, we have turned to a superficial, ambiguous understanding of Eucharist as a token event done once in a while during Sunday services. As we turn to what ought to be happening, I argue that it must start with understanding humanity as a member in creation and Eucharist as “faithful feasting” (Northcutt, p. 266).
Moving to the normative task, I argue that a reinvigoration of humans as members of creation is the one way to regain thoughtful eating. Ayers and Wendell Berry are both extremely important in developing this concept of membership. Ayers emphasizes that through Christ God has gifted us with a “radical gift of membership” that gives humans the “sacred obligation to continually seek, tend, and nurture the bonds of connectedness in God’s whole creation (Ayers, p. 71). Berry states that in order to live “we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation,” and when we do so with care, “it is a sacrament” (Ayers, pp. 69-70). On the other hand, when done out of ignorance and greed, “it is a desecration” (Ayers, 69-70). To build off Ayers and Berry, if humanity sees itself as members of creation, the land and animals become brothers and sisters to us. The desire to take better care of the environment, to fight for animals’ rights, and to re-connect with the processes of food making will be invigorated. When properly oriented as a member (and not dominator) of creation, thoughtful eating becomes second nature (or perhaps it was natural all along).
Another way that theological education can help create thoughtful eating is through the sacrament of Eucharist. Although every scholar that I read on this topic approaches food culture in different ways, they each presented a renewed understanding of Eucharist as part of the solution. Fred Edie suggests that Eucharist is a key component in developing an ecological catechesis for Christians. Edie develops the idea of Eucharist as a “regular and discernibly robust ritual meal shared in community” but additionally a way to explore a “care for the land, sustainable agriculture, just practices of food distribution, and limited economies of sufficiency (Edie, pp. 10-11). Similarly, Northcutt suggests that there is “an urgent need to recover the full agrarian and social significance of Eucharist in Christian worship” (Northcutt, 224). Northcutt believes that if Christians come to understand Eucharist as a truly holy meal of “faithful feasting” then all meals will become holy. If so, “all meals should be accompanied by prayerful recognition of the gifts of creation,” which, I argue, Ayers would understand as thoughtful eating (Northcutt, 266).
Christians should take seriously these recommendations for a multitude of reasons, but perhaps none more poignant than out of an understanding of the sovereignty of God. If Christians take seriously God as creator of the Heavens and the Earth and Jesus’ command to love thy neighbor (who can be seen as both the ground being tilled and the tiller), the desire to eat thoughtfully and live in membership with creation is a natural extension of those principles. As Edie points out, Christians have not done very well at this historically – specifically the ‘Christianized West’ which has “proven to be the most rapacious and least earth-friendly on the planet” (Edie, p. 1). Living sustainably does not mean living conveniently. Living sustainably does not mean living short-sightedly. Living sustainably means being thoughtful, humble, and aware of our effects on the world, and I argue that regaining a food culture of thoughtful eating is a great place to start. Theologically, through a better understanding of humans as members of creation and the Eucharist as a robust, communal, and fundamentally ecological meal, there will be a natural growing into a re-connection with the land and a more productive way of eating thoughtfully.
Sources (and for further reading)
Ayers, “Making Room at the Table” in Good Food
Edie, “Ecological Catechesis for Holy Things” in Call to Worship
Kingsolver, “Called Home” in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Northcutt, “Faithful Feasting” in A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming