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Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson

Sermons Podcasts

Eating as a Spiritual Practice

June 28, 2009

Margot  W. Garcia

The saying goes that " we are what we eat." So what we eat and how we eat affects whom we are as spiritual persons who are part of the interrelated web of life.

Due to vacation, the podcast will be posted later.


Come into this house of worship.
It is good to be together again,
on the cutting edge of our lives.
Let us take time to breathe deeply
and think about this day,
this time, this place,
To think about the things we do everyday.
I am glad you are here.
It wouldn't be the same without you.

HYMN   188 Come, Come Whoever You Are

Good morning and welcome to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson. My name is Margot Garcia and this is a service organized by the Worship Committee. Our Minister, the Reverend Diane Dowgiert, is away on vacation and study time. She will be back in the  pulpit on August 23.

I extend a special welcome to those of you who are guests today. If you would like to be placed on our mailing list, please fill out the yellow card found in the back of your hymnal. If you are new to our community and would like to know more, please join us after the service, right here in front of the pulpit. Someone from the Membership Team will meet with you and answer your questions. A free lunch is provided for first time visitors.
I invite everyone to remain for Coffee Hour and our Sundays Together Lunch here in the Sanctuary.
This is a congregation filled with vitality. There are many ways for you to be involved. Announcements are projected before the service A calendar of events is available at the information table in the foyer. You can also stay informed by visiting our website.

We are a religion that welcomes all people.  Whether you walked, or skipped, or rolled into our sanctuary, we welcome you.  Wherever you live and whomever you love, we welcome you.  Whether you are short or tall, young or old, we welcome you.  In the spirit of affirming the worth and dignity of everyone, please turn and greet your neighbors.
Thank you. Let us now engage in the opportunity to worship.

We remember that lighting the chalice is a ritual, an act that brings our focus to this flame.  Robert Fulghum, UU Minister reminds us that
Since the beginning of time, people who trust one another, care for one another, and are deeply connected to one another have shared food as a sign of and a reaffirmation of their relationship.
When attention is paid to this sharing, it takes on a ritual character.
The nurturing of the body becomes a metaphor of the mutual nourish of lives. Every time we hold hands a say a blessing before a meal, every time we lift a glass and say fine words to one another, every time we eat in peace and grace together, we have celebrated the covenants that bind us together.
Robert Fulghum in From Beginning to End

Hymn  402 From You I Receive     Sing it through three times   

Being together in a community of caring companions is a gift. Here we are reminded that we are not alone and that our lived do have meaning. Each Sunday, before the service begins, we light candles of joy and sorrow, our symbols of hope and healing.  When you light a candle, you may also fill out a card so that your joy or sorrow may be shared with the congregation.

Resting in the embrace of this caring community, we can open our hearts to acknowledge the joy present here today. We acknowledge the joy of warm, even hot summer days. …….
Widening our embrace further still, we acknowledge sorrows and difficulties that are a part of life. Let us especially remember…….

May we acknowledge the joys and sorrows shared and those that remain unspoken by keeping a moment of silence, held in the warm embrace of this community. The Time of silence will be marked at the beginning and end by the sound of the bell.

Out of this shared time of silence, let us now share our voices in song.
HYMN  174 O Earth, You are Surpassing Fair

Earlier we sang from "From you I receive, to you I give, together we share, and from this we live."      We can think about this in many ways; giving and receiving hospitality, food, hugs, and help. At this point in the service though, we need to think about it in terms of resources, money. When we had finished making payroll this week, we had about $1,000 left in the checking account. For an individual, that sounds like a lot of money. However, it requires more than $10,000 a week to keep this church operating. Please be generous. The offering will be given and received. May we be worthy of your gifts.               

READING                                        Pi Erwin

As an eater, I acknowledge the domain of the sacred. I recognize that the act of eating may be ritualized and inspired. It may be given symbolic meanings that are religious or spiritual in nature. It may even be joyous.
I further agree that eating is an activity that joins me with all humanity. I recognize that to be an eater is to be accountable for the care of the earth and its resources. I acknowledge that despite our differences, we are all ultimately nourished by the same source. As such, I agree to share.
I recognize that at its deepest level eating is an affirmation of life. Each time I eat I agree somewhere inside to continue life on earth. I acknowledge that this choice to eat is a fundamental act of love and nourishment, a true celebration of my existence. As a human being on earth, I agree to be an eater. I choose life again and again and again….
Marc David in Nourishing Wisdom

Food is already holy, not profane and may never under any circumstances be desecrated, even as a possible demonstration of something that could be more sacred. We say grace before our meals - not to make our food holy, but to acknowledge gratefully that it is already holy. We don't gobble our food, play with it, or throw it around, because food is too sacred to be violated. A "food war" I witnessed in a college cafeteria was one of the most painful desecrations of sacred matter that I have ever suffered.
William McNamara in Christian Mysticism

I made soup tonight
And all my ancestors danced
In the pot, with the barley
The beans, the knuckle and neck bones,
Enriching this brew;
Here women joined
Love and ancient wisdom, the knowledge
Salt and pepper bring; secrets
That are ritual and legacy.
Elsa Garcia in Open Mind by Diane Mariechild


SERMON    Eating as Spiritual Practice            Margot W. Garcia

It's so easy to grab a bowl of cereal in the morning and stand eating over the kitchen sink, or take that doggie box you brought home from the restaurant last night and sit down in front of the TV for dinner. No time to cook, the family members have their own things to do and are busy also. They grab a hot pocket from the freezer and nuke it. It's filling and there are some vegetables inside. But what have we lost in this scenario? Why do we feel empty at the end of the day and frazzled?
I suggest it is because we have forgotten that eating is a spiritual practice. By spiritual practice I mean an honest and sincere effort, done consistently on a daily basis to develop divine qualities and achieve a sense of serenity. Taking the time to be reminded of who I am, centering myself, and feeling appreciation for my family, my friends, for the earth that gives me - gives all of us - so much. I need to take the time to link with my deeper, wise self. This time and practice gives me insight on what has meaning for my life and an opportunity to give gratitude. For gratitude keeps my heart open and allows me to be a learner.
In thinking about eating as a spiritual practice, I am struck by the multitude aspects to eating; there are the plants and animals that nurture us. Where did they come from? How were they raised? I will come back to this later. There is the cooking - an opportunity to be creative in color, fragrance, and taste - that can be thought of as an act of service to those who w
There is the setting for this eating. A table big or small, round or rectangular with cloth or placemats, dishes, silverware, glasses. Here is an opportunity for contributing to the functioning of the family, for the young people can do set the table and know they have made a contribution to a family event. Here is also an opportunity for creativity with color, flowers, napkins that are decorated for the season. I remember my mother having us take plain white paper napkins and coloring them with crayons to decorate them - a special touch for a special time.
There is the gathering together of those present in the house for this occasion - family, friends, and new acquaintances. Or it may be a larger event - a church potluck or Sunday's Together Lunch where we can sit and get acquainted with new friends, or learn more about longer time friends. Children learn conversation by being involved in the discussion at the table between parents, or parents and child or between friends. Learning the skills of conversation are important in learning to frame ideas, sharing our deepest thoughts and concerns, asking questions or - remember that old chestnut - what new word or thing did you learn today? The focus is on learning and expressing oneself, connecting to one's wiser self.
Many of us begin the meal with a time of gratitude- aloud or silently. Gratitude for the food before us. Gratitude to the rain and sun that made it possible for the plants and animals to grow. How often do we stop and think about that. Growing our own food brings us closer to the earth; even if it is only carrots or radishes. I have grown carrots many times and when my children were in elementary school I made a point of growing some of our food, including rabbits for meat. These were not pets. They had no names. I wanted our children to realize that the meat they put in their mouths had come from living, breathing animals. It was not to be wasted. We are carnivores and I am OK with taking responsibility for eating meat, as long as I appreciate that a living entity gave up its life for me. I feel the same way about plants. They are critical to the existence of life on this planet. Without plants we could not live, for we need the oxygen they produce as part of their metabolism. I think about one of the girls in my Camp Fire Girls group who when she pulled up some carrots from the earth, washed them off in the hose and bit into them, said, "It tastes just like a carrot from the store!"
We should have gratitude for the people who raised the food, transported it to us, to those that bought it and to those that made the money so we could buy it. Gratitude to those that cooked it. A favorite toast in our larger family meals is the simple "I make a toast to the good cook or cooks." Even young children can feel very important as they clang their glass to get the whole group to be quiet for the toast. That is real power! To get people to be quiet, and then to thank them for creating this meal. Everyone joins in the clanging of glasses - be they milk, club soda, ice tea, or wine - and acknowledges their appreciation of the effort and result. The cook - or cooks - is glad to be appreciated for the time spent in thinking about and creating the meal.
Meals can be very grand and full of symbolism. Think about Thanksgiving. Children learn in school about the story of the first Thanksgiving as we have taught it - about the pilgrims and the Indians. There are the symbolic foods of turkey - for those that still eat meat- of corn - a gift from the Indians, and the cranberry relish - a food from the bogs of the eastern US seaboard and pumpkin pie - the pumpkin or squash also a gift from the Indians. To that we add all the other foods that fit with our family heritage - mashed potatoes, green beans, and whatever you love to eat.
Some meals are also religious events - like Passover. There is so much symbolism in the Jewish Passover meal - from the empty place for the uninvited stranger who may come to the door and be welcomed, to the matzos - bread without yeast - reminding the Jewish people of the flight from Egypt when there was not time to let the bread rise. There are the bitter herbs, chopped apples and honey to be like the mortar that held the bricks together and the prayers. Because this is a religious meal, the family spends time getting everything ready for the table. The silver is polished, the crystal washed and shined, and a sparkling white tablecloth and napkins set. Eating can be a religious practice. 
The Jewish people also have a ritual Sabbath meal on Friday evening. Many families still like to make the Challah, the special eggy braided or twisted bread, as an act of spiritual practice. My nephew Kenyon was married in a Jewish ceremony and the bride's grandfather made the Challah as a special act of participation in blessing the wedding. He cut the bread as part of the ceremony and handed a slice to the bride and groom. They broke bread together.
In Turkmenistan the flat round risen bread, baked on the inside of an outdoor over was considered holy. The bread, known as chorek was not to be wasted. I remember seeing a person in a public park pick up a little crumb of bread and treat it very gently. I am reminded of a Celtic Prayer:

Be gentle when you touch bread,
Let it not lie, uncared for,
So often bread is taken for granted.
There is such beauty in bread -
Beauty of surf and soil,
Beauty of patient toil.
Wind and rain have caressed it,
Christ often blessed it.
Be gentle when you touch bread.
A Celtic prayer in the Open Gate by David Adam.

Where does our bread come from? Do we know what is in the bread? In the hamburger, in the cookie dough that Nestles just recalled? Nicholas Kristof, a columnist in the New York Time and Arizona Daily Star, wrote a column last week about food. He wrote:
"Growing up on a farm near Yamhill, Ore., I quickly learned to appreciate the difference between fresh, home-grown foods and the commercial versions in the supermarket.
"Store-bought lettuce was always lush, green and pristine, and thus vastly preferable to lettuce from my Mom's vegetable garden (organic before we called it that). Her lettuce kept me on my toes, because a caterpillar might come crawling out of my salad…..
"Over the years, though, I've become nostalgic for an occasional bug in my salad, for an apple that feels as if it were designed by God rather than by a committee. More broadly, it has become clear that the same factors that impelled me toward factory-produced meat and vegetables - cheap, predictable food - also resulted in a profoundly unhealthy American diet…"
One reason for health problems, Kristof opines, "is our industrialized agriculture system, and that should be under scrutiny as well." He goes on to mention a new documentary film "Food Inc." He finds that it "offers a powerful and largely persuasive diagnosis of American agriculture. Go see it but be warned that you may not want to eat for a week afterward." He found it "particularly unnerving to see leftover animal bits washed over with ammonia and ground into "hamburger filler." "
Kristof notes, "American agribusiness truly is wondrous. When I moved back to the United States after years of living in China, I remember visiting a supermarket and feeling a near-religious awe. Yet one consequence of this wondrous system is that unhealthy calories are cheaper than nutritious ones; think of the relative prices of Twinkies and broccoli. We even inflict unhealthy food on children in the school lunch program, and one in three Americans born after 2000 is expected to develop diabetes."
"The solutions", he goes on to say, "Aren't simple, and may involve paying more for what we eat, although we may save some of that in reduced health costs for diabetes and heart disease. In any case, "Food, Inc" notes that we as consumers do have power. "You can vote to change the system," it declares, "three times a day.""

So, I am what I eat - literally and figuratively. How am I going to handle this issue, living in a desert where it is not easy to grow our own food, and meat animals, other than chickens and rabbits are not allowed in the city? How am I going to live an ethical life, trying to reduce my carbon footprint so climate change doesn't reduce the quality of life for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren?
I can pay attention to what I buy and eat. I can read labels on packaged and processed food. When my now 46 year-old son Karl was about 9 he would beg for all kinds of cereals in the grocery store. I got tired of saying no to sugared this and that. So I told him, he could have any cereal in the store as long as it didn't have sugar in the list of ingredients. I went off to buy other things on the list and he started reading. He came and found me and said that shredded wheat was the only cereal that did not have sugar in it. That was a shock! So I had to back off that approach. But as others have pointed out, with sugarless cereal children just sprinkle sugar on the cereal. But I could control that!

I love raspberries. I have written in my poem "Raspberries in Watsonville"
Heaven is raspberries;
Gleaming ruby jewels,
With the sunlight from behind,
Hidden by green prickly leaves,
So you have to look
Under and behind.
Best to be squatting
Or your back will tire.

Soft in the hand,
Sweet and warm in the mouth,
Soon my fingers are deep red,
Stained from crushed berries,
Pricked by thorns.

But no matter,
The soft scent of warmed fruit,
Speaks to my very soul.
Raspberries are heavenly.

It used to be raspberries were only available in the summer and not very available in Tucson as they squish so easily. Now I can buy raspberries all year around - from Chile in the winter and from greenhouses in Watsonville in the spring. They have become not so special because they are so available. What energy price, what contribution to global warming, am I paying for eating raspberries in Tucson's winter?
We have the option of buying organic vegetables and free-range chickens and turkeys at chain grocery stores - even organic canned fruits and vegetables. Michael Pullen in his book Omnivore's Dilemma, a Natural History of Four Meals writes about the trend toward big organic foods. He writes "One of the key innovations of organic food was to allow some more information to pass along the food chain between the producer and the consumer - an implicit snatch of narrative along with the number. A certified organic label tells a little story about how a particular food was produced….The word "organic" has proved to be one of the most powerful words in the supermarket; without any help from government, farmers and consumers working together in this way have built an $11 billion industry that is now the fastest growing sector of the food economy "(page 136). Michael Pullen traced a few of the items in his Whole Foods cart back to the farm where they were grown. He learned that some (certainly not all) organic milk comes from factory farms, where thousands of Holsteins that never encounter a blade of grass spend their days confined to a fenced "dry lot." Eating (certified organic) grain and tethered to milking machines three times a day (page 139). He also visited Rosie the organic chicken at her farm in Petaluma, which turned out to be more animal factory than farm. "She lives in a shed with twenty thousand other Rosies, who aside from their certified organic feed, live lives little different from that of any other industrial chicken. Ah, but what about the "free-range" lifestyle promised on the label? True, there's a little door in the shed leading out to a narrow grassy yard, But the free-range story seems a bit of a stretch when you discover that the door remains firmly shut until the birds are at least five or six weeks old - for fear they'll catch something outside - and the chickens are slaughtered only two weeks later" (page 140).
What about organic processed food and frozen dinners? Michael Pullen relates the journey of a Gene Kahn, founder, in the 1970s, of the New Cascadian Survival and Reclamation Project, an organic farm and commune in Oregon, Its current status as Cascadian Farm, is a General Mills subsidiary. Cascadian Farm produces organic frozen dinners. Gene Kahn discovered that he could make more money buying produce from other farmers than by growing it himself and processing it. He became part of the food industry. In 1990, the federal government began to regulate organic agriculture and passed legislation that required USDA to establish uniform national standards for organic food and farming. Finally in 1997 "USDA obliged agribusiness clients by issuing a watery set of standards that allowed for the use of genetically modified crops and irradiation and sewage sludge in organic food production"(page 135).  "An unprecedented flood of public comment from outraged organic farmers and consumers forced the USDA back to the drawing board…  The new standards do a good job of setting the bar for a more environmentally responsible kind of faming, but many of the philosophical values embodied in the word "organic" did not survive" (page 135). Even more amazing is that the final standards included a list of permissible additives and synthetics from ascorbic acid to xanthan gum to processed foods labeled "organic."
Michael Pullen goes to visit a different kind of organic farm, called by some post-organic, and by others, sustainable, natural agriculture. Polyface Farm in Virginia raises chicken, beef, turkey, eggs, rabbits and pigs plus tomatoes, sweet corm and berries on 100 acres of pasture patchworked into another 450 acres of forest. Joel Salatin, the owner, calls himself a grass farmer. Pullen writes, "That is because grass, a whole community of plants, is the foundation of the intricate food chain Salatin has assembled where a half dozen different animal species are raised together in an intensive rotational dance on the theme of symbiosis.  Salatin is the choreographer and the grasses are his verdurous stage; the dance has made Polyface one of the most productive and influential alternative farms in America." This is how it works. Salatin puts the eighty or so cows to graze in the pasture when it is at the top of its' blaze of growth and moves them every day onto fresh grass in a fenced pasture. These intense but brief stays completely change the animals' interaction with the grass and the soil. "They eat down just about everything in the paddock then move on, giving the grasses a chance to recover. Ruminants spread and fertilize seed with their manure, and their hoof prints create shady little pockets of exposed soil where water collects - ideal conditions for germinating a grass seed. After the cows are moved to the new paddock, a phalanx of portable chicken pens was moved and formed a checkerboard pattern on the grass. Each ten by twelve, two-foot-tall floorless pen houses seventy birds. A section of the roof is hinged to allow access and a five-gallon bucket perched atop each unit feeds a watering device suspended inside. Each pen is moved 10 feet each day. "Directly behind each pen," Michael Pullen writes, "was a perfectly square patch of closely cropped grass resembling a really awful Jackson Pollock painting thickly spattered with chicken crap in pigments of white, brown, and green. It was amazing the mess seventy chickens could make in a day. But that was the idea; give them 24 hours to eat the grass and fertilize it with their manure and then move them onto fresh ground." The birds also get a ration of corn, toasted soybeans and kelp.  The worms, grasshoppers and crickets they peck out of the grass, provides as much as 20% of their diet. In 56 days they have reached slaughter weight.
Polyface Farm also raises chickens for eggs. The Eggmobile, a ramshackle cross between a henhouse and a prairie schooner houses 400 hens. "This rickety old covered wagon has hinged nesting boxes lined up like saddlebags on either side allowing someone to retrieve eggs from the outside.  Joel Salatin bolted the Eggmobile to the hitch of his tractor and pulled it to new paddock some 50 yards across the meadow to a paddock the cattle had vacated three days earlier. It seems the chickens eschew fresh manure, so he waits three or four days before bringing them. The fly larvae are on a four-day cycle. Three days is ideal. That gives the grubs a chance to fatten up nicely, the way the hens like them, but not quite long enough to hatch into flies. The result is prodigious amounts of protein for the hens, the insects supplying as much as a third of their total diet - and making their eggs unusually rich and tasty. The birds do a more effective job of sanitizing a pasture than anything human, mechanical or chemical and the chickens love doing it," Joel says. "In a ecological system like this everything's connected to everything else, so you can't change one thing without changing ten other things."
In a similar way they raise turkeys in a shademobile called the Gobbledy-Go. The turkeys rest under the Gobbledy-Go by day and roost on top of it at night. They happily follow the contraption into the fresh pasture to feast on the grass.  Joes also runs his turkeys in the orchard where they eat the bugs, mow the grass and fertilize the trees and vines.
Polyface also has pigs and rabbits and they both are fit into the processes of the farm. In one season Polyface produces 30,000 dozen eggs, 12,000 broilers, 800 stewing hens, 25,000 pounds of beef, 250 hogs (50,000 pounds of pork), 800 turkeys, and 500 rabbits. All this from 100 acres of grass and the 450 acres of woodlot. During the winter, Joel and his son Daniel operate a small sawmill from which they sell lumber and mill whatever wood they need to build sheds and barns. But the farm's water supply depends on its forests to hold moisture and prevent erosion. The trees also provide firewood to warm the family and wood chips that go into making the compost from the rabbit and chicken manure during the winter.

All right, so we don't live in Virginia and we can't create a farm like Polyface, we probably can't even find one like this close by. So what can we do to make our eating a spiritual practice?
You've probably already read between the lines to know I am going to say, be a locavore, buy and eat as much as possible from local sources - farmer's markets, your own garden, and the citrus trees we can grow. Experiment with new local delicacies, like mesquite bean flour, and purslane or verdilagos (as we call them in Spanish) that grow as a weed in our gardens. Join the class "Menu for the Future" starting here at church on Monday, July 13 at 6:30. You can sign up at the AFD table at the rear of the Sanctuary after the service.
But whatever food you chose to buy and eat, remember that it came from the earth. Something living gave its life - a plant, an animal - so that you might live. Enjoy it with the people around you, sitting down and conversing with them. You will be surprised at how it can enrich your own sense of self. Even it you live by yourself, you can use this time as a spiritual practice. When I lived along in Richmond, Virginia, I ate dinner every night with Jim Lehrer, as he related to me the world news of the day. I didn't get to talk much, but I could think about, be open to the possibilities that were being presented.
When I practice eating as a spiritual practice, I try to make decisions about the food, the setting, the color, the fragrance, the nutrition, the interaction with the people I am eating with that respects their divine qualities and makes meal time one of joyful interaction and ultimately serenity. I am grateful for the blessings that my life here in Tucson affords me. And I try to do what
Thich Nhat Hanh describes in his book Mindfulness and Meaningful Work:
The next time you have a tangerine to eat, please put it in the palm of your hand and look at it in a way that makes the tangerine real. You do not need a lot to time to do it, just two or three seconds. Looking at it you can see a beautiful blossom with sunshine and rain, and you can see a tiny fruit forming. You can see the continuation of the sunshine and the rain and the transformation of the baby fruit into the fully developed tangerine in your hand. You can see the color change from green to orange and you can see the tangerine sweetening. Looking at the tangerine in this way, you will see that everything in the cosmos is in it -- sunshine, rain, clouds, trees, leaves, everything. Peeling the tangerine, smelling it, and tasting it, you can be very happy.
May you make it so.   Blessed Be      Amen.

HYMN 175 We Celebrate the Web of Life

As we go forth into the world,
may we think on the words we have heard here,
may we remember the feelings of being together as a beloved community. Let us go forth and do good works,
May all love surround us,
and may we be safe
until we meet again.
Amen and Blessed Be


© Margo Garcia

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