Monday, August 27, 2012

What would Jesus eat?

This past week the news broke that, for the seventh year in a row, the state of Mississippi boasts the highest obesity rate in the nation.

As a pastor, I want to say loud and clear: this is a bad thing. We need to eat better.

I know, I know. If you know me, your first thought was probably: 'easy for you to say, Nance. You weigh like 50 lbs'. It's true, I fall far, far short of the statistical standard for obesity. But that's on account of my zesty, youthful metabolism. My weight doesn't necessarily mean I eat better than everyone else. We're all in this together. One day my metabolism won't be so youthful.

And maybe this was your second thought: but why should Christians care about what they eat?
That's not as obvious as you might think--'thou shalt eat healthy' isn't exactly one of the Ten Commandments. And we need to be careful here: the Bible is not a weight loss plan. Some Christians take the story of Daniel and his companions' refusal to eat the Babylonian meat and wine, opting instead for vegetables (Dan 1:8-16), as a special Bible-diet--apparently Rick Warren is trying his hand at this right now--but I think that's a pretty astonishing misapplication of the scripture. The Bible isn't going to offer us a step-by-step guide to every decision in life the way some people would like.
Still, I do think eating healthy is important, and there are a few reasons that I can see why Christians might want to take this seriously.

  • The Bible takes for granted that you will take care of your body (Eph 5:29).
  • Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). This idea can be used in some pretty odd ways--weight-lifting nuts will talk about 'keeping the temple beautiful', tattoos are rejected as vandalism, and whatever else--but still, I think this can at very least mean that we should care for our temple's health.
  • As a Christian, you are not your own; you are Christ's and you are called to be about his work. Eating tasty junk food is a me-decision. It says 'this tastes good, and I want it. And I don't even care about the consequences'. Christians don't get to make me-decisions. Everything is a kingdom decision. Maybe, from time to time, seeking the kingdom of God will mean delighting in the cocoa bean that God created. Most of the time, it probably won't. It will mean putting your own desires to death, taking of the cross, and following Jesus down a hard road. When we squander our resources and bodies on junk, we're disregarding King who has laid claim to our lives.
  • Bodies matter. A lot of us have been taught to think of our flesh and bones as a prison, an island we've been marooned on, and we look to the future, to heaven, where our souls can finally be rid of these bodies. That's not a Christian view of bodies. As we confess in the Apostles' Creed, "we look for the resurrection of the body." Our bodies and our appetites aren't going anywhere: after his Resurrection, Jesus still ate (Luke 24:42-43; it was broiled fish, for those of you really wondering 'what would Jesus eat?'), and we are looking forward to a heavenly banquet, after all! (Matt 8:11, Luke 14:15) We're not going to just get rid of bodies and everything that goes with them after death. God created bodies; they're good and they matter. We need to treat them accordingly.
  • Food matters too. Food, as a professor at seminary liked to say, is God's love made delectable. The food we eat is a gift of grace. If that's true, then, as an interesting article from Christianity Today suggests, "Food that causes our bodies harm misuses and ultimately abuses his gift of grace."
Okay, fine. Maybe my faith has something to do with a healthy diet. So what do we do about that?

There are a lot of issues that play into a problem like obesity, but it's safe to say that how we eat is one of them--a big one.
A lot of the eating tips you always hear are worth repeating: pay attention to the amount of red meat in our diet; cook at home more and eat out less; be intentional about your fruits and veggies.... and veggies. There are lots of really simple changes people can make too, like getting a breakfast cereal made of whole grains instead of marshmallows, or switching from whole milk to 1% (or 2%--baby steps are good!). Exercise is absolutely essential also, of course, but we're talking about food.
Rather than repeat all this sort of stuff that you've heard a hundred times before, I'll pass on a helpful new resource.  The EWG recently produced a guide to getting 'good food on a tight budget', and it's all online here. Their aim is to help people on a $5-6 a day food budget find things that are nutrient rich, free of harmful pesticides, and relatively (very relatively) inexpensive. The price estimates on here don't always seem accurate, but the tips and recommendations are invaluable.
Check it out. Explore the site! It's full of useful information that can help all of us lead a healthier, more Christian, lifestyle.

Do you think Christians need to take care of their bodies and pay attention to what they eat? Why?
What are some ways that you've been able to make your own eating more nutritious?

[For a totally different angle on the question 'what would Jesus eat?', see this older post, "Eating Mercifully." Also, United Methodists might be surprised to learn that health and wellness were an important part of John Wesley's ministry. You can read more about that here.]

Monday, August 20, 2012

billboard wars

I recently saw news of yet another atheist billboard popping up in a major US city, this time Charlotte, NC.

If you missed this one, you can see a picture here. The billboard (with a sister ad which criticizes Mormonism, thereby attacking the faith of both the Republican and the Democratic presidential candidates) describes Christianity briefly: "Sadistic God; Useless Savior; 30,000 + Versions of 'Truth'; Promotes Hate, Calls it 'Love'."
Oh, and there's a picture of a piece of toast with Jesus' face on it.

I'm still not sure what the point of an advertisement like this is. It seems like there are only two things it might accomplish: 1) make Christians angry, or 2) make atheists feel smug and superior to their Christian neighbors. What I don't expect this billboard to accomplish is spur an intelligent and charitable debate about the place of religion in American politics, as seems to be the idea. If there's one thing our political system certainly does not need, it's more vitriol, more mudslinging--no matter how morally or intellectually superior to the opposition you may feel.

The only good that I think might come out of this latest childish display in the atheist billboard-attack on the religions of the world is for Christians to respond by putting up absolutely no billboards of their own. This is our opportunity to exercise turning the other cheek.

You see, I could make a billboard in response. It might say something about atheists lacking any meaningful basis for living an ethical life, or about how hopeless materialism is as a philosophy. Or maybe it might just say that all atheists are ugly booger-faces. (Underneath it could read: "Didn't my billboard make a good point?")
Maybe some Christians will start putting up such billboards--maybe they already have, and it's just not in the news, and I haven't heard about it.

Well, please don't.

Don't join the billboard wars. Let American Atheists (the actual organization sponsoring this and other ads) have a monopoly on the aggressive, simplistic, somewhat confusing (I'm still don't know what "Useless Savior" is supposed to mean--someone help me out here), and offensive billboards. As a follower of Jesus, I don't want any part of it. Frankly, it's too hateful and intellectually dishonest for me. And it's too alluring an opportunity to be sarcastic or just plain unkind.

Instead, let's use our resources--I could do a lot of good with the $15,000 this billboard cost for one month--and our energy to find aggressive and public ways to love the people who are so disgusted by us. Or not so public ways. Jesus' ministry doesn't exactly scream 'billboard' to me. Let's just love them, and bless them. It won't often make the news, but that's okay. It's what the life of faith looks like.

"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." - Luke 6:27-28

Monday, August 13, 2012

the United Methodist Church on gun control

Unfortunately, it seems like the hubbub about Chick-fil-A lately effectively removed the recent events in Colorado from the public memory. It's not that the one's position on same-sex marriage is unimportant--far from it!--but I think this particular ordeal was blown completely out of proportion on the internet, where everyone's opinions on any topic are usually exaggerated already.
(And, for the record, I don't think this is really the biggest issue Christians need to consider when deciding whether they'll patronize CFA or not. More on that here.)
As a result of all this, we stopped talking about something that's arguably much more important--and something that has already returned to the headlines with last week's shooting at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee. Gun violence is a persistent reality in our country, and we need to face it.

In the wake of bloody killings in Aurora three weeks ago, several voices in the media sought to shine a spotlight on the state of gun control in the US. One of the most insightful pieces I read was by James Martin, a Jesuit, called "Why Gun Control is a Religious Issue." It's an easy read, short and provocative. Basically, Martin wants to make the point that gun control is a "pro-life issue" just as much as abortion, euthanasia, or the death penalty, and so Christians need to "stand for life" on this issue as well.
Another good piece by Fareed Zakaria at CNN, "Time to face facts on gun control," emphasizes the statistics where America leads the world in guns per capita--no one else even comes close--and also boasts a high number of gun homicides. The numbers are not encouraging.

Of course, for a few days, articles arguing one side of the issue or the other were a dime a dozen, and usually (though I don't think this is one of those cases) you can find really compelling cases being made for either side of a polarizing issue like this. Online articles are hardly the end-all in this debate.

So let's turn to a, for some of us, more authoritative voice, and see how it weighs in on the issue. Let's turn to the official statements of the United Methodist Church and see what they have to say about the question of gun control.

One of the most extensive and unambiguous discussions that I found comes from the Book of Resolutions, 2004.
The opening paragraphs feature some strong language, including the call to affirm our faith through "vigorous efforts to curb and eliminate gun violence... A significant total reduction in the numbers of guns in our communities is our goal in ministry." The resolution goes on to argue that "no appeals to individual autonomy are sufficient to justify our church's ignorance of this threat."  The UMC, it goes on to say, is "calling for social policies and personal lifestyles that bring an end to senseless gun violence."
That's all well and good, but what does all of this mean in practice? A look at some of the actual proposals shows us the practical vision behind the more generic statements:

(4) develop advocacy groups within local congregations to advocate for the eventual reduction of the availability of guns in society with a particular emphasis upon handguns, handgun ammunition, assault weapons, automatic weapons, automatic weapon conversion kits, and guns that cannot be detected by traditionally used metal detection devices. These groups can be linked to community-based, state, and national organizations working on gun and violence issues;
(5) support federal legislation to regulate the importation, manufacturing, sale, and possession of guns and ammunition by the general public. Such legislation should include provisions for the registration and licensing of gun purchasers and owners, appropriate background investigation and waiting periods prior to gun purchase, and regulation of subsequent sale;
(6) call upon all governments of the world in which there is a United Methodist presence to establish national bans on ownership by the general public of handguns, assault weapons, automatic weapon conversion kits, and weapons that cannot be detected by traditionally used metal-detection devices;*

There is more, like talk about education on gun safety, adult responsibility in gun violence prevention, etc. All the same, gun control is clearly the focus. It's also clear that the church is particularly concerned with preventing gun violence among youth, but that doesn't undermine any of the larger practical aims. (You can read all of this and more online here.)

I'm not interested in taking everyone's guns away--and neither is the United Methodist Church. Hunting is a good thing, and you need guns for that. I may not have any use for a handgun in the house, and I may not think Christians ought to have them, but I understand that there are very different philosophies on this, and I certainly wouldn't want to impose my view on this on everyone else through legislation. People should be able to keep a gun in their homes for self-defense, if they like.
But assault rifles? There are limits to my understanding and support of gun ownership, and I honestly can't see why it should be any other way. I find myself in perfect agreement with James Martins when he asks, in the article linked above: "Why would anyone be opposed to firmer gun control, or, to put it more plainly, laws that would make it more difficult for mass murders to occur?"

There's a lot of space for debate and frustration when a denomination offers its official position on a controversial issue. Yet this is one case where I'm really pleased with my own denomination's conclusion, and I echo the UMC's call to faithfulness for believers in America: Christians need to do what they can to reduce the availability of guns in our society.

* Each of the proposals cited was reaffirmed in the Book of Resolutions, 2008.

Monday, August 06, 2012

marriage advice from a monk

Today marks Emily and my one-year wedding anniversary, and what would anniversary festivities be without a commemorative blog post?
So, in honor of our first year of marriage, I thought I'd share this passage from John Chrysostom's Homily 20 on Ephesians 5. This sermon comes from a little collection called On Marriage and Family Life, which is one of the books Emily and I read together in the months leading up to the wedding. This passage in particular is one that has come back to mind for both of us on more than one occasion over the last 12 months. For a monk, Saint John has some surprisingly important words for married couples.

Throughout these sermons, he has been trying to cast a new vision of marriage for his people, to help them re-imagine what it means and how two people are related to each other in marriage. Here, he begins by describing a scenario: a man has married a rich woman, and now the couple are quarreling with each other over finances--whether she has been spending his money on new clothes, or the money she brought into the marriage. I've heard this kind of conversation before. Apparently Saint John has too, and he'll have none of it:

What are you saying, woman? Still wearing your own clothes? What can be worse than this sort of language? You no longer have a body of your own (since you gave it away in marriage), yet you have money of your own? After marriage you are no longer two, but one flesh, and are your possessions still divided? Love of money! You have both become one person, one organism, and can you still say, "my own"? This cursed and abominable phrase comes from the devil!