Symbols can be very powerful. I have come to realise over the years how often food is used as a symbol of generous hospitality within the church and beyond.
Food is a huge part of daily life and how we meet together as families and friends. And it’s everywhere. There’s Masterchef, My Kitchen Rules and Poh’s Kitchen … and then there’s ‘Donna’, ‘Jamie’ and ‘Nigella’ and there’s the Flowerdrum, Brunetti’s and in the deep Tasmanian south, the Red Velvet Lounge. Food glorious food! We’re anxious to try it.
The glorious smell of garlic, bacon and onion cooking on the stove top, the feather light sponge dripping with passion fruit icing or the spicy vegie burger on freshly baked bread. We love to share it with our friends, read about
it, cook it, photograph it, Facebook it and eat it.
In our church, many gatherings are dependent on a table spread with delectable delights symbolising hospitality. Who can ever resist the asparagus rolls, the jam fingers, the cucumber sandwiches (with the crusts cut off) and, of course, the delicious iced cupcakes? I know there is one Uniting Church in rural Victoria that still runs an annual vanilla slice competition. I well remember the year Audrey won with her superb offering.
It is hardly surprising that, for many of us, food has become the symbol for hospitality, generosity and the abundance of God’s love.
A few weeks ago, as part of the Friday theological reflection session, candidates for ministry and some CTM staff reflected on the power of food and all that it symbolises. Yes, there was much talk of the rich symbol of hospitality and abundance.
However, one of the candidates, Wendy, started to squirm as the session moved on. You see for her food does not symbolise that at all.
The reason is Wendy’s son has Prader-Willi Syndrome. When Tim was born it quickly became clear that he had many challenges to face. When he was six he was diagnosed with a genetic condition that is particularly difficult to manage. One of the effects of Prader-Willi is that, no matter how much Tim eats, he is always hungry. Therefore, Tim never feels full. Food becomes an obsession and those who suffer this condition go to any lengths to access food. Just to complicate issues, sufferers need fewer calories and have low metabolic rates, which leads to morbid obesity.
We can only imagine the agony of gnawing hunger 24 hours a day.
This condition is particularly difficult in young families. The stress of weight issues, alongside severe behavioural and emotional dysfunction, takes an enormous toll on all involved.
Loving Tim (now 31) and looking after his best interests has meant not being generous with food.
Wendy recalled for us a dream Tim had as a young child where he was in heaven, surrounded by a sumptuous spread and there were no restrictions at all.
So Tim and his family have very different connotations of food than others in our community – it represents family pain and exclusion. People like Tim are often the receivers of misunderstanding and unkind treatment, and their dignity is often disregarded. In a ‘photo shopped’ society such as ours – that holds up the slender and toned as being the ultimate body form and secretly assumes being overweight is due to lack of self-control or laziness – Prader-Willi is a tough road to tread.
So what does the welcome and inclusion of God look like when a table filled with food is often understood as a symbol of God’s generosity and love?
Wendy says Tim knows that the welcome of God is about open arms. Hospitality is the gesture of human love. Tim believes that nothing is closed to him in the Kingdom of God … perhaps significant to him after the experience of locked food cupboards and fridges.
God’s love is all about inclusion and being treated lovingly, about having his humanity recognised and not being looked down on by anybody. It is here in the welcome of God, in the loving actions of community, that Tim finds a place, a shelter, a home and a true place of hospitality.
Clearly symbols carry such different meanings for different people. Perhaps what is more important is the call to pay attention to what symbols we include in our worship life and be mindful of how differently they may be experienced.
Ironically, a bare table with just chalice and bread, can also be a symbol of God’s overflowing love.
Field Education Coordinator
Centre for Theology and Ministry
This article was written in conjunction with Wendy and Tim Elson