The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
And leads me beside still waters.
On Easter Sunday of 2014 I sat by the death-bed of my grandfather and read him the twenty-third Psalm. We are told to speak to those who are near death, whether we think they can hear us or not. I could do nothing else.
For he had spoken a Word to me when I was born nine weeks premature and had lost my twin brother. Every day for months on end, after walking from his university office to the hospital just blocks away, he prayed and talked and sang to me as I lay in the incubator — incubating into life, incubating in the prayers and praise which he uttered on my behalf. At times, I still think of that season as paradigmatic; I often find myself incubating in the prayers and praise of others — of the Church and of Christ the Word (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25).
I received a call later on Easter notifying me that he had died to this life. I had just landed in Boston and was headed to New Haven in order to attend the funeral of my maternal grandfather. With Psalm 23 still echoing in my ears, the inchoate utterance in my heart in that moment — which I only subsequently found myself able to articulate — was to ask with St. Gregory of Nyssa, “Where are you pasturing your flock, O good Shepherd, who carry the whole flock on your shoulders?” (Gregory of Nyssa, “A Prayer to the Good Shepherd,” 2). In three days time, both of my grandfathers had been lifted onto the shoulders of the Good Shepherd, who walked with them beyond this place.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
As you might imagine, the bond between me and my professor-intercessor grandfather was unique. Once, after living out-of-state for some time and neither seeing nor hearing from him, we returned to my grandparents’ home, and upon hearing his voice, I instantly ran around the entry hall to the house and embraced him. I hadn’t seen him since I was an infant, but the Word spoken does not return void.
As I grew up I spent many hours in his office at the university, where he would share root beer with me, allow me to play with his electrical engineering gadgets, and occasionally even let me sit in on one of his lectures. Our bond around “good” food was particularly strong. But the chief embodiment of love that existed between this (grand) Father and (grand) Son was … you guessed it, the Holy Sizzler (at least, until our local franchise went bust). Going to Sizzler with my grandfather always produced wide toothy grins on both our faces. I was recently reminded of this restaurant a few weeks ago when a friend of mine emailed me their promotional training video, which was produced in 1991 (take a moment to watch it and trust me, you will not be disappointed!).
Upon watching this video, a few points struck me: First, was the dad of 7th Heaven the businessman in this video? Second, I was amazed at how similar the song was to a lot of 1990s Contemporary Christian Music (both in terms of aesthetic quality, and, dare I say, even content). Third, having grown up in an environment of scarcity where any buffet seemed like an outpost of Disneyland, I couldn’t help but think of Chrysostom’s writing:
For it was not unto this end we came into the world, and have been endowed with life, that we should eat and drink. But to this end do we eat, that we may live. For living was not at first ordained with a view to eating, but eating with a view to living. (John, Chrysostom, On the Study of the Word of God, 22.88)
Finally, however, what struck me most forcefully was the following verse of the song:
Sizzler brings the choices, you’ve been looking for,
by giving you the right to choose, we’re offering much more,
by holding to traditions, yet changing with the times,
choices and selections, choices of direction,
choices that can add a little freedom in your life.
How often we grazed at Sizzler, laying down in the green pastures of yeast rolls and hamburger steak, led beside the still waters of soft serve ice cream and hot fudge. And they were right — choices were abundant! Where else could I fulfill my childhood dream of eating only pizza, french fries, macaroni and cheese, and an ice cream sandwich made by me, with one peanut butter cookie on top and a chocolate chip cookie on the bottom?
Perhaps the loudest word that is spoken by this video is one that is not spoken at all, namely, that this buffet is a culinary version of what we find so often in the Church (“the pastor and the parish were not meeting my needs”), in how we treat Holy Scripture (“a little of this, a little of that … oh, that causes heartburn!”), and in how we approach personal discipleship (“you prefer x, I prefer non-x, who are we to judge?”). The parallels are manifold.
However, if we know regarding our diets that (1) what we often want versus what we need are two different things, and that (2) the beliefs we bring to the table are often challenged, falsified, and transformed as we partake of fare that changes our perception of reality and what actually is good, is it not reasonable to conclude something? Might the same be true on a cosmic level, even at a metaphysical level, regarding what we believe about ultimate reality, about divinity, about God? Of course you can have mounds of spaghetti, fried okra, and soft serve ice cream, but why would you want to when a delicious lean filet mignon awaits? The good of our souls, what they truly need, may not be what we would first identify.
We so often find ourselves seeking to set the table, to choose what we think we know is best for us, or to eat something other than what has been given. We yearn for another meal or to go over to another table altogether (whether this is another church, another relationship, another job, another religion, another pop-spirituality, another __?).
This sounds like Genesis; this sounds like Adam and Eve; this sounds like grasping instead of receiving God’s grace.
This is the anti-sacrament.
My grandfather (and many others) taught me that God has already set the table and he has said his grace — he has spoken his Word, Jesus Christ, whom we receive at his feast, precisely because Jesus “did not count equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6).
You spread a table before me in the presence of those
Who trouble me;
You have anointed my head with oil,
And my cup is running over.
Therefore the Church need not frenetically maneuver or act out of cultural angst as if the table still needs setting. To misquote Karl Barth, to be postured toward the Word with anxiety is to misunderstand the very nature of the Word. This Word has been spoken — and it calls us out like a father calling out children to join in on the feast (the dinner bell rings at every Mass). Far from making us less human due to the limiting of our options, this meal makes us more fully human, more free, and more full of the life of God. Thus, in the words of St. Gregory, let our prayer ever be:
Show me then (my soul says) where you pasture your flock, so that I can find that saving pasture too, and fill myself with the food of heaven without which no one can come to eternal life, and run to the spring and fill myself with the drink of God. You give it, as from a spring, to those who thirst — water pouring from your side cut open by the lance, water that, to whoever drinks it, is a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (Gregory of Nyssa, “A Prayer to the Good Shepherd,” 2)
The featured image of Sizzler was taken by Tom Arthur and is licensed under Creative Commons.