A number of people asked for copies of yesterday’s reflection. Also attached is a pdf of the JRR Tolkien story told (The book is difficult to find but this pdf is freely available. Just click on the link to read all of it)
When I was doing some reading on the Bread of Life I found a meditation on Jesus as bread, by theologian and Episcopal priest, Lauren Winner in which she writes:
“In calling himself ‘the bread of life,’ — and not, say, crème caramel or caviar — Jesus is identifying with basic food, with sustenance, with the food that, for centuries afterward, would figure in the protest efforts of poor and marginalized people. No one holds caviar riots; people riot for bread. So to speak of God as bread is to speak of God’s most basic provision for us.”
For people who have lived with hunger, this is an especially powerful image. But I admit that it is a biblical metaphor which I, and probably many others, sometimes struggle with. I have never been really hungry, and, though I always need to be fed, I rarely notice this need, and I rarely credit God with my nourishment, more often I either take my nourishment for granted or credit myself—my efforts, both financial to provide the provisions and culinary to provide the meal. So for me and maybe for you, the image of bread as provision can be a bit of an eye-opener, showing me how insensible to my dependence on God I really am. But instructing us in our search for what it is we hunger for is not all this image can do. Bread is basic food, but bread nonetheless contains meanings beyond just sustenance.
Which raises all sorts of questions: Am I hungry? If yes, what am I hungry for? If no, what has made me full? Am I ashamed of my hunger? Does fullness scare me? What kinds of bread do I substitute for Jesus? Do I feel deep down that Jesus is a “necessary provision?” Not an appetiser, not dessert, not an occasional-dietary-supplement, but essential, everyday food without which I will starve and die? Our hungers and the hungers of the world are about far more than just food, they are about security, about safety, provision, protection. They are about whether the world we occupy is an abundant, generous, hospitable place — or a barren, empty, dangerous one. Lockdown has caused us all to feel a sense of hunger, hunger for human presence, hunger for human contact – how much have we hungered for that touch, that hug. Hunger for normality whatever that means – hunger to feel safe, free from risk, to feel we are truly living our best life, not keeping it on hold through fear, for ourselves and those we love, for humanity.
Jesus invites the crowds to recognise the deep hungers beneath their surface hungers. Of course they’re hungry for literal bread; they’re poor, food is scarce, and they need to feed themselves and their families. There’s nothing wrong, or “unspiritual” about their physical hunger — remember, Jesus tends to their bodily needs first, without reservation or pre-conditions. But he doesn’t stop there. Instead, he asks the crowds to probe the deep hungers that drive them restlessly into his presence — hungers that only the “bread of heaven” can satisfy. What are those hungers? A hunger for security and belonging? Meaning and purpose? A longing for connection, communion, intimacy, and love? A desire to know and be known? A hunger for delight, for joy, and for creative engagement with the world in all of its complexity, mystery, and beauty? An ongoing hunger for wholeness, redemption, and courage? A craving for the healing of old wounds? I’m sure we could add many other things to this list?
It’s one thing to name our hungers, but quite another to trust that Jesus will satisfy them. After all, we’re so good at finding substitutes for communion with God. Perpetual busyness, social media, books, movies, exercise, chocolate, wine and other people. Do we really trust that Jesus is our bread? That essential sustenance? Very often, the answer is no. Very often, Jesus is an abstraction. A creed. A set of Sunday rituals. Why? Maybe because we don’t come to him starving. We don’t recognize our daily, hourly dependence on his generosity. In short, we just don’t actually expect to be fed by him. Instead, we hide our hunger, because we are ashamed to want and need too much. In my work at the hospice I often meet people who are hungry, hungry for support in their fears, hungry for someone to listen, for someone to talk to honestly about their life, their death and their fears. They often don’t really know Jesus, they know a little from perhaps Sunday School days but they haven’t ever really felt a need to know him any better but now they want to know a bit more, they want to know if there will be a place for them in eternity even if they haven’t shown any interest before.
They want to believe that they will be welcome but it’s hard to accept not just that God welcomes all, but that God welcomes all of us, not matter what we have done. God welcomes even that within us we wish to hide: the part that cursed at our children this week, or drank alone, or has a problem with lying, or hates our body. That part within us that suffers from depression and can’t admit it, or is too fearful to give our money away, or is riddled with shame over our behaviour, or cheats on taxes. All these parts of us we wish Jesus had the good sense to not welcome to his table are invited to taste and see that the Lord is good.”
So where should or we go from here? Once we’ve named and probed our deep hungers, once we’ve moved an inch closer to trusting God with the scariest desires of our hearts, where do we head next? Into trusting our Lord. Jesus wants to be so much more than a creed, a good example, or a teacher in our lives. He wants to be food. He is food. Are we hungry for him? Will we allow his substance to become ours? The bread of heaven is ours for the tasting.
May we absorb it. May we share it. May we desire it above all things. May its nourishment permeate us through and through until we, like Jesus, become life-saving bread for the whole world. As Paul says we are the body of Christ, fed by Christ and encouraged to go out and live our lives, to see the picture that is right in front of us and not keep trying constantly to perfect it but instead live it for the good of all.
A friend reminded me this week of a lovely story which you may have read by J R R Tolkien which is called Leaf by Niggle, the book is not easily available but I have attached a pdf of it which is available online at the end of this reflection. If you haven’t read it please do. It is a story about life, about seeing the picture of our life and being satisfied to live it, not constantly trying to change it because we are hungering for more because sometimes the journey comes to an end before we ever get a chance to live it. Niggle the main character in the book is a painter and keeps trying to finish his picture which he sees as imperfect, but he only has a limited time because he has to go on a journey, a pre-ordained journey and he has no control over when that will happen. He thought to himself:
“At any rate, I shall get this one picture done, my real picture, before I have to go on that wretched journey,” he used to say. Yet he was beginning to see that he could not put off his start indefinitely. The picture would have to stop just growing and get finished. One day, Niggle stood a little way off from his picture and considered it with unusual attention and detachment. He could not make up his mind what he thought about it, and wished he had some friend who would tell him what to think. Actually it seemed to him wholly unsatisfactory, and yet very lovely, the only really beautiful picture in the world. What he would have liked at that moment would have been to see himself walk in, and slap him on the back, and say (with obvious sincerity): “Absolutely magnificent! I see exactly what you are getting at. Do get on with it, and don’t bother about anything else!
But there was no-one there to appreciate it or understand or tell him to forget everything else and get on with just painting so he kept putting it off until of course, he had to start his journey. However Niggle was more fortunate than most of us because he got an opportunity to live the reality of his picture and his neighbour did too and it changed their lives for the better.
We have lived and worked together now. Things might have been different, but they could not have been better. All the same, I am afraid I sqall have to be going on. We shall meet again, I expect: there must be many more things we can do together. Good-bye!” He shook Parish’s hand warmly: a good, firm, honest hand it seemed. He turned and looked back for a moment. The blossom on the Great Tree was shining like flame. All the birds were flying in the air and singing. Then he smiled, and nodded to Parish, and went off with the shepherd. He was going to learn about sheep, and the high pasturages, and look at a wider sky, and walk ever further and further towards the Mountains, always uphill. Beyond that I cannot guess what became of him. Even little Niggle in his old home could glimpse the Mountains far away, and they got into the borders of his picture; but what they are really like, and what lies beyond them, only those can say who have climbed them.
My work at the Hospice constantly makes me aware of the fact that we need to live the life we have been given by God to the fullest, loving him and caring for his world as he would have us do, the gifts God has given us are for sharing, they are given us to help feed the world through sharing the bread of life. We don’t need buildings to be fed by our Lord, we just need willingness to accept the gift he offers and to trust that he will guide us in the right path providing all the sustenance we really need.