Mindful Eating as a Spiritual Discipline
Resources for Congregations and Individuals
By Lynn Bird and Sarah Rohde
God gave to humans “every tree with seed in its fruit” for food. To the animals and birds God gave “every green plant for food.” (Genesis 1:29 - 30)
“We are looking for ways to live more simply and joyfully, ways that grow out of our tradition but take their shape from living faith and the demands of our hungry world. There is not just one way to respond, nor is there a single answer to the world’s food problem. It may not be within our capacity to effect an answer.
But it is within our capacity to search for a faithful response.”
-Doris Janzen Longacre, author of More-With-Less Cookbook
What’s for dinner? This is a question that humans have been asking for centuries, but its answer is complicated by the realities, consequences, and possibilities of our current age. Graced—or cursed—with an expansive menu of options, we need to see the way in which the food on our plate sustains and/or threatens the life of God’s creation. As the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, as small, local farmers struggle to stay afloat amidst the rampant pressures of capitalism and industrialism, as people become more insistent on immediacy and convenience, as we replace real, seasonal, whole food with cheap, processed, fake sustenance, as the food industry produces 37% of greenhouse gas emissions every year, as a child dies every five seconds due to hunger-related causes…we cannot deny the importance of food. It has been said that “we vote with our forks,” and so we, as beneficiaries, inhabitants and co-creators in God’s world, are called to eat with gratitude, mindfulness and intentionality.
So, what are we supposed to be eating? What does the Bible say to people of faith about God’s meal plan for us? Can eating really be a way to practice our faith and enliven our spirituality? How should our discipleship inform our eating habits and what do our eating habits say about what we believe?
If we believe that God is fully present in the earth—in plants, animals, soil, air, stars, and humans—then we may say that the way in which we treat earth reflects the way in which we treat the One who created and continues to create all of life. God has created earth not for human use and abuse, but for the delight and livelihood of all created beings. Because we are called to live in a way that honors, promotes, and celebrates the health and well-being of all life in the cosmos, eating is one way in which we may daily acknowledge and give thanks for the gift of creation. It is through our eating that we first come to know our reliance on human and non-human community. Eating joins us with all other living beings who know hunger and yearn for fulfillment. Our meals are rituals that invite us to take in and live out the grace, love, and goodness of God and God’s earth; in our eating, we are made mindful of our connection to land, water, seed, field, fruit, farmer, laborer, cook, and all the friends and family that gather around our tables.
The scriptures point us again and again to the meaning and sacredness of food. In the Old Testament, we learn of a God who creates a world that is good, dynamic, and interconnected. God forms humans from the earth, gives food to all creatures, and calls humans to take care of all creation. God establishes a covenant with God’s people and promises to nurture, protect, and bless them. In response to God’s faithfulness and life-giving power, the Israelites respond with abundant joy and appreciation. They rely on God for the provision of daily manna. They participate in a cycle of feasts that celebrates the rhythms of creation and honors the generosity of their Creator. They enact dietary and Sabbath laws that seek to remind human beings of their dependence on nature and need for limits. And they imitate the generosity of God by opening their homes and inviting others to their tables.
These ancient traditions inform the life and mission of Jesus, as his ministry continues to honor the sacredness of food. Jesus prays for “daily bread” and exhorts his disciples to turn away from greed and over-consumption and trust in a God who will provide. Reflecting his vision of a world in which all have enough, Jesus fed the 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes. Jesus turns society’s systems of power and privilege upside down by dining with people society wanted to reject—women, lepers, tax collectors, and sinners. By his participation in community celebrations and religious festivals where food was the focal point, Jesus showed us the importance of food and eating as a way of celebrating God's abundance and binding the community together. The forty days and nights he spent in the wilderness, fasting in order to gain spiritual strength, demonstrates the power our food practices can have. Jesus realizes that food is both ordinary and sacred; it is a daily, earthy substance that has the power to reveal the presence and goodness of the divine. Jesus refers to basic food—mustard seeds, grapevines, salt, and yeast—as he teaches about God’s kingdom of justice and love. And, in his last meal with his disciples, Jesus takes grain and grape and says, “This is my body and blood, given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”
Our holy scriptures are inundated with traditions, stories, and truths that help us see food as central to the Christian life. We are called to care about and delight in the food that we eat. We are called to think about where and how it was grown and transported. We are called to consider the people and labor that participate in our being fed. We are called to nourish and care for our bodies. We are called to recover our relationship with earth and its seasons of planting, growth, harvest, and rest. We are called to pray for and walk with those who have no food on their plates. We are called to gather around the table and break bread with strangers and loved ones, giving thanks for the presence and gift of God and our entire earth community.
As people of faith, we must answer the question, “What’s for dinner?” with discernment, care, and trust. By asking the following questions, we seek to respond attentively and faithfully: Can we be truthful if the food we consume is not truly food? Will we be able to nurture our families and friends if our meals are not nutritious? Can we call ourselves disciples if our eating habits are undisciplined? Or spiritually mature if the produce on our table has been picked prematurely and then forcibly matured give thanks, nurture and empower healthy bodies, healthy communities, and a healthy and sustainable world.
Our prayer is that this compilation may serve as a resource for congregations and individuals as they further their commitment to creation care and mindful eating. This resource is divided into the following sections: worship, education, fellowship, outreach/mission, and daily discipleship, with additional information about gardening, composting, and… at the end.