I went to the State Fair yesterday with my son Christopher and daughter-in-law Ashley. It was an absolutely beautiful morning for it. We enjoyed all the animals and the displays—and discovered a big white ribbon on my son’s photography entry, which made us all happy. And of course, there was the food: I had a pineapple whip for breakfast and salt water taffy for lunch. I’m a vegetarian, so I didn’t try any of the meat-lovers’ favorites, like the rib-eye sandwich or pulled pork or the endless supply of corn dogs you can buy at the stands positioned strategically throughout the fairgrounds. Ashley got her favorite—an elephant ear with cinnamon sugar—and although the kids didn’t have any of the fried treats yesterday, they have tried the deep-fried Snickers and some of the other rather odd delicacies the food board at the Fair comes up with.
Have you ever wondered why we love the foods we love? Some of it is just taste. One person likes spicy food, another mild; some people prefer salty foods to sweet ones, and so on. But most of us have comfort foods, foods we turn to when we’re having a difficult day—or series of days—something that makes us feel better in ways that are hard to describe, ways that have little to do with our stomachs.
A collaborative 2015 study by two major universities found that comfort food is more than just empty calories that get your mind off your troubles for a few minutes. Researchers designed a set of experiences to find out what, exactly, the comfort food was doing for people on emotional and psychological levels. Through a series of experiments, they discovered that eating or even thinking about eating comfort foods significantly reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation, especially after people have experienced what researchers refer to as a “threat to belonging”–perhaps an argument with someone they care about or a misunderstanding or conflict, even with a stranger. Anytime we feel rejected, isolated, or unwanted it threatens our sense of belonging, and belongingness is a deep existential need we share with every human on the planet. Just like the need for food.
It seems that comfort food brings to our minds and hearts a memory of someone who loves us, someone we trust who provides us with comfort and understanding. And that person could be part of our present or our past. That person for me is my Great-Grandma Roos, who on frosty winter mornings would fix me creamed eggs on toast for breakfast and wrap me in a blanket and have me sit in the warmest spot in the kitchen. That memory for me today is all comfort, all warmth, all security, all love. The researchers found that simply thinking about the comfort food Grandma prepared for me releases neurochemicals in my brain that lifts my mood and improves my outlook. The comfort food—and more importantly, the love of the person providing it—helps me feel better, improves my day, even now, 50 years later.
Comfort food varies according to the culture, country, and unique family makeup of each person. One study showed that while chicken soup is often identified as a comfort food in America, in the Netherlands, the most common comfort food is chocolate, and in the Philippines, it’s noodles.
It’s possible the children of Israel had their own comfort food. In our Old Testament reading today we heard a bit of what Moses had to say to the second generation, the ones who will finally cross over into the land of milk and honey to them promised to them so long ago. Moses reminds them of all God has done for them and admonishes them to keep the covenant God has established with the people. In particular, he says,
“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.
He doesn’t want this second generation to lose touch with the reality of God-with-them. They may not have seen the great exodus with their own eyes, or walked across the open floor of the Red Sea, and he knows how important it is for God’s presence to be real and alive among them. Moses goes on to paint a lovely picture of the home they are headed for—a home with abundant promise, good food to eat with enough for everyone, always. He ends with this:
“When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.”
Food is such an important part of the way God shows his love for his children, the very essence of providing for our daily lives, and Moses wants the people to remember that God is the One providing it all. Food is Love. Food is an affirmation of life—it reminds us we’re here and it’s good that we’re here, and as God provides, we continue to receive and share and celebrate the bounty of God’s blessings.
Manna might have been the comfort food God provided for the people as they made that long, exhausting, trek across the desert. Manna was fresh for them every morning, with an extra supply the day before the sabbath, just what they needed to sustain themselves, to make bread, to feed their families. With his words, Moses shows them a family portrait, including ancestors as well as descendants, showing the goodness of God’s love shining on them faithfully each day. This is their story of belonging, gathered together in the love of God. Chances are that, as they hear Moses retell it, they remember who they are, they find the courage to do what’s right, and they feel strengthened to follow God’s laws and do their best to live good and faithful lives.
That is what belonging does for us—it makes us part of something larger than ourselves. Belonging connects us to a family, a tribe, a culture, a nation. It connects us to an age group—Baby Boomers, Generation X, or Y, or Z. It connects us by our hobbies and interests, by our political affiliations, by our beliefs. We in this room are part of the Religious Society of Friends—formally or casually. In the groups we belong to, we share a language—as Quakers, we understand phrases like proceed as way opens or holding you in the Light. Our shared language and experience creates a strong bond among us. The things we have in common helps us feel that we belong.
It’s possible that some of the painful division in our world right now is emerging as a natural expression of the growing alienation and isolation people feel today—many folks don’t feel that they belong anywhere. Research published by the Make Caring Common Project at Harvard University in 2021 found that “36 percent of all Americans, including 61 percent of young adults and 51 percent of mothers with young children—feel ‘serious loneliness.’” A large percentage of people report that their feelings of loneliness dramatically increased during the pandemic. And while COVID exacerbated the unease and stress already present for many, isolation and struggle has been the story of many peoples’ lives for far too long. We see evidence of that in the soaring number of people who are dealing with deep depression and crippling anxiety and also in those struggling to overcome addictions of all kinds.
Just this week I met a woman who organizes, manages, and puts her heart and soul into the Carthage Community Food Pantry. Carthage is a small town east of Greenfield—I have had a number of hospice patients there through the years. The census of 2010 shows 251 families in Carthage, and the director of the food pantry told me last week that every other week they feed 60 of those families with groceries they collect from a number of different places. She is always on the phone, finding new sources of food, working with people to take their surpluses, arranging for it to be picked up and transported to their site. She spoke passionately about the people they serve, the volunteers who come so faithfully, about the young moms who cry as they are helped out to the car with their groceries, the people who tell them they were praying for their next meal, the elderly people who every month face a tough choice between groceries and medicine.
Even though the Carthage Food Pantry feeds nearly a quarter of the town, their budget is small—just $500 a month to feed all those families. Other towns in the area get five times that much support from their own counties, but the trustee in Carthage just doesn’t have the funds. Other food pantries also have agreements with big grocery chains in their areas, like Kroger’s, for food donations. But there’s no Kroger’s in Carthage, just a small neighborhood grocery that helps the best it can by providing canned goods and some other foods at a discount. But in spite of all their limitations, the director of the Carthage pantry has great faith. Her face lit up when she said, “God always provides. Just look what Jesus did with the loaves and the fishes! I feel like we see that every time we open our doors.”
Food is at its most basic an affirmation of life. It is one of the first good things we encounter after we’re born. And we need it—several times a day—to sustain us so we will continue to live and eventually thrive. On Twitter, I follow many small farmers in the UK and they post videos of newborn calves and lambs who within minutes of their birth, struggle to their wobbly legs and make their way over to their mothers to nurse. The mothers sometimes provide a well-placed nudge to get the newborns to their feet and help them along. Food is the essence of connection, intrinsic to all life. Food tells us we are wanted and worthy and have value—we are welcome, we deserve to eat, to live, to love. Those who make it their mission to provide food, especially to those who hunger so much for it, are saying, “You matter to me and you matter to God. I’m so glad you’re here.”
In our New Testament reading today we heard some well-known words from Jesus. He was sitting on the Mount of Olives when the disciples came to him and asked about what would happen in the future days and weeks. Jesus shared a bit about what they could expect and offered several parables to help guide the way they would be of help to others. Near the end of this conversation, Jesus offers this story,
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
When we are truly able to see “that of God” in others, we will understand in a real way what Jesus means by those words, “whatever you do for them…you do for me.” When we support someone who’s struggling, it might look like listening, or offering a story, or perhaps just being a shoulder to cry on. But really, it’s an invitation to belong. Through our care and concern, perhaps her hunger for companionship is met. Maybe she feels a little better and remembers she is loved. She may even remember that God is with her, leading her, loving her, too.
In closing I’d like to share something we discussed in our book study group Thursday afternoon. We were talking about our different experiences of Quaker meetings and churches we’d attended, and Marilynn mentioned that at Hortonville Friends years ago they regularly had revivals—the old-fashioned kind with a traveling evangelist and altar calls at the end. Several of us in the group had had that kind of experience too.
I asked, “If Christ comes to teach his people himself, why do churches need to put that kind of pressure on people?” And we had a variety of interesting answers. Gary said he felt that altar call at the Disciples of Christ church he attended was central to the mission of the church, enabling people to meet Christ. Caleb suggested that “going forward” in a service like that could be important for the person as a kind of public statement about their inward change and a way to create some accountability that would keep them motivated. And Marilynn suggested that even though the high pressure may have done some damage and turned some people away, she also feels like we have lost something today. The idea of being “invited” is still very important, she said, and that’s exactly what we’re talking about here this morning. Being invited to God’s table. Being loved and valued, just the way you are, worthy of sustenance, kindness, grace, belonging.
So how might we invite people to find a sense of belonging among us, on a personal level and also as a family of faith? How might God lead each of us to welcome others into the Love we’re finding, the truth we’re seeking, the hope we trust in, the Light that guides us? There’s always a way for us to share the comfort food God gives us each day—that’s part of God’s purpose in giving it. Life is good. Love is here. God’s presence is with us, and we all have a home in God’s grace. That’s good and comforting food for souls, whether they are hungry or not. Let’s enjoy it for ourselves–and share that sweet blessing with others.
- OT Deuteronomy 8: 1-10:
- NT Matthew 25:
- Carthage Community Food Pantry: https://www.facebook.com/FoodPantryCCC/
- International food relief: World Central Kitchen: https://wck.org/