Harvest thanksgiving and gratitude

During the month of November, our faith community, the Fig Tree Collective, is exploring the practice of gratitude. We began with an adaptation of an experience that hearkens back to my childhood in England – a harvest thanksgiving service.

Growing up, I have memories from both church and school of tables groaning under the weight of root vegetables, loaves of bread, tinned goods and other food items, which we admired as we sang hymns like ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter.’ Later the food was distributed to “those less fortunate than ourselves.” Those are fond memories, and elementary age children are still creating those memories  in schools today.

For our gathering this past Saturday I invited people to bring a food item that they loved and place it on the table that sits in the middle of our gathering. After our weekly potluck meal, we sang ‘Come, Ye Thankful People Come’ and then participated in an Examen, a practice that our family engages in at the end of every day. An Examen is an opportunity to pause and reflect on the day, and is often structured with these two questions:

  • “What am I most grateful for today?”
  • “What am I least grateful for today?”

Sometimes we change up the questions, asking, “What was your happy thing today?” and “What was your not-so-happy thing today?” Or, “What was the honey in your day?” and “What was the sting in your day?” For our time together in Saturday, I invited people to lift up the food that they had brought, and share why they were thankful for it, and then describe something about food for which they were not grateful.

Our daughter, Maggie, lifted up a Gold Rush apple from our favorite local tree and berry farm, Reed Valley Orchard. Gold Rush are crisp, sweet and long keepers, and our winter staple apple. Maggie’s ‘not-so-happy’ thing was that most of her classmates at school had never tasted Gold Rush goodness, and only knew the (not-so-holy) trinity of waxy Red & Golden Delicious and Granny Smith typically available in most grocery stores. Our son, Seth, brought blueberries from Reed Valley that we picked and froze in July, and which we will add to our hot breakfast cereal throughout the winter.

Some of us brought food we had grown ourselves: figs (of course!), a jar of homemade pesto, volunteer butternut squash from a compost pile. We were thankful for access to land and good soil to grow food, and not-so-thankful for people who are denied that. We were grateful for the people who work hard to grow our food, and not-so-grateful for the abuse this vulnerable labor force often suffers. I brought an empty egg carton, because I am grateful for the eggs our backyard flock provides, although as they’re moulting in preparation for winter, they’ve stopped laying, for which I am not-so-grateful. I am least grateful for the conditions in which the vast majority of chickens that provide eggs for our tables live.

Someone gave thanks for the tomatoes that a neighbor had shared with them. Another brought a bar of Swiss chocolate, expressing gratitude for the luxury of it, while being not-so-grateful for the way that luxuries so easily become necessities, and the consequences that come with that. Another person brought a jar of popcorn, grateful for the daily routine of air-popping a bowlful which he has enjoyed for two decades, not-so-grateful for the harm that industrially farmed corn has done to land, ecosystems and bodies.

Each item of food came with a story, a mixture of the good and the not-so-good, relationships whole and severed, food that provides a living and food that has decimated local economies. And in the midst of them all were the bread and the cup, the Eucharist, the meal we share each week that reminds us that the source of all life underwent death so that all the not-so-good and the downright evil can be restored, redeemed, made new – not least of all ourselves.

Expressing gratitude is a balm for much of which ails us as a society. We are continually encouraged to be selfish, self-centered, judgmental of others, by the actions of those in the highest offices of our country, in the ads that litter our visual space, and across social media. We are continually encouraged to view the world through the lens of scarcity, that there’s isn’t enough for everyone so you better get yours while you can. We swim in an ocean of judgment: of others, certainly, but also of ourselves. It’s all too easy to focus on the little things that need ‘fixing’ in others – especially the ones that push our buttons – while overlooking all the good things about that person. Some of us do this to ourselves constantly, and our perfectionism can be crippling.

Gratitude is a practice that helps us resist these cultural forces. When we’re grateful, we’re often focusing on others: it’s hard to be grateful and selfish at the same time. It’s easier to overlook the things that bug us about a person when we’re grateful for all the things we love about them. The power of the narrative of scarcity is weakened when we’re grateful for what we do have, and not just resentful about what we don’t have. When we practice gratitude, the unrealistic and unfair expectations we often have for others – and ourselves – become right-sized.

So, for the month of November we’re seeking to more faithfully live into our mission, ‘To cultivate the loving way of life through compassionate, creative and collective action steeped in prayer,” with the practice of gratitude. We might choose to begin to practice an Examen at the end of each day. We might keep a logbook of what we were grateful for each day. We might think of people we’re grateful for, and do something kind for them.

To conclude our time together on Saturday, we took time to express gratitude in various ways. With a short playlist filling our ears with songs of gratitude, we took time to write a note to someone expressing our thankfulness for them; we lit candles to give thanks for people who brought light into one of the dark places of our lives; and we ate the bread and drank from the cup, giving thanks to Jesus for the gift of Life and Love that he offers us all. I wrote a note to Trudie and Dana Reed, thanking them for providing us with the fruit that we love, and for caring for the land on which it grows, a note which we all signed.

There are so many ways to practice our gratitude – what way could you incorporate into your own life this month?

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The Opioid Crisis – pt. 2

Last week I wrote about my experience of becoming physically addicted to Oxycodone earlier this year. That post was shared over 400 times on Facebook, and many people shared their own experiences with powerful opioid painkillers on my FB page. My guess is most people living in the US who are reading this know someone who shares my story, or knows someone who knows someone.

Last week the President of the United States declared the opioid crisis a national health emergency, although did not seek to appropriate any additional funds to deal with the emergency, as is typically done with health crises. The Center for Disease Control declared an opioid epidemic in 2011, and it has only gotten worse since then. Currently 142 Americans die EVERY DAY from an opioid overdose: that’s more than die from car crashes and gun homicides combined. Every three weeks, the US loses more citizens to opioid overdoses than died in the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Since 1999 the number of deaths has quadrupled. The increasing availability of fentanyl, which is up to 80 times more potent that morphine (most of which is produced in China, and often pressed into pill form that resembles Hydrocodone), is having a dramatic effect on overdose deaths. in 2015, 34% of opioid deaths in Kentucky were due to fentanyl: in 2016 that number rose to 47%. In 2013 there were 93 deaths in Ohio from fentanyl overdose: in 2014, that number more than quintupled to 514. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. The American Association of Addiction Medicine estimates that 2.5 million Americans have an opioid-use disorder, all of whom have a significantly increased risk of death by overdose. And with people turning to heroin, or crushing pills in order to inject the drug, we are also seeing a rise in the rate of HIV infection.

These numbers should shock us. The stereotypical image of someone who dies from a drug overdose for many of us is someone in a squalid apartment with a needle hanging out of their arm, perhaps with their dealer looking on unmoved. But now it is just as likely that that person is a stay at home mom in the suburbs who crushed what she thought was an OxyContin pill but instead ingested a lethal dose of fentanyl. Or who shot up heroin for the first time and died. Or it’s a miner in West Virginia living with chronic back pain who developed tolerance for the prescription he’s been taking for 3 years, and tried crushing it to remove the time release component in the hope of finding relief, but instead overdosed. Four out of five people who try heroin today started with prescription opioids. And if you live in Ohio, where in 2016 one in five people received a prescription for an opioid, your chance of using an illicit opioid is significantly higher than someone living pretty much anywhere else in the world.

How did we get here? The answer is unambiguous: the over-prescribing of opioid painkillers in the United States. In 2012, 259 million prescriptions for painkillers were written in the US – one for every adult. In Kentucky, 128 prescriptions were written for every 100 people. The US consumes 99% of the world’s supply of Hydrocodone, and 71% of the Oxycodone.  You’ve probably heard of so-called “pill mills” which have now just about been eradicated: the most infamous was in Kermit, West Virginia (population 400) where 9 million pills were shipped in a single year. Why is the situation so much worse in the US than other countries? The BBC has a helpful article, the main points of which can be summarized:

  • Insurance typically does not cover alternative treatment for pain (e.g. physical therapy): its preferred modality is medication, which is much cheaper
  • Advertising: only New Zealand and the United States permit advertising for prescription medication on TV. For that reason, patients in the US are much more likely to request a particular drug from their doctor. This obviously works, as advertising costs rose 64% from 2012-2016, when the industry spent $6.4 billion.
  • Gifts to doctors by pharmaceutical companies have a direct correlation with their prescribing company’s products
  • Most doctors have little training in pain management beyond medication, and with the effects that medication has on patients
  • We live in a culture of medication: 97% of doctors in the US treat acute pain with opioids: by contrast, in Japan, that number is 47%.

My own experience bears this out. Following surgery, my surgeon prescribed Oxycodone without saying anything about the risks associated with opioids. After I was hospitalized, I met with my surgeon weekly, and at the end of every meeting he asked me if I needed another prescription for pain meds. When I began to experience severe withdrawal symptoms he admitted he didn’t know much about that side of the drug, and referred me to a pain management specialist.

Ultimately, as this lengthy article in the New Yorker describes, this national emergency can be laid at the feet of one family-run company. Purdue Pharmaceuticals developed OxyContin (for “continuous release”) and released it in 1995. They began to market their product aggressively in 1996, sending out over 1,000 reps to doctor’s offices around the country. Their primary task: to downplay if not outright deny the addictive potential of this new drug. Within 5 years, OxyContin was generating a billion dollars a year for the Sackler family. Purdue marketed it’s benefit as continual pain relief from just two pills a day. Their 80mg and even 160mg pills meant people could get a solid 8 hours sleep without being woken by pain. A wonder drug indeed. But from the earliest days of testing, the company knew that not all, if even most people actually experienced 12 hours relief. “Prescribing a pill on a 12 hour schedule when, for many patients, it works for only eight is a recipe for withdrawal, addiction and abuse.” And that was exactly what unfolded.

Fast forward ten years, and in 2006 Purdue pleaded guilty to criminal charges of misbranding, acknowledging that it had marketed OxyContin “with the intent to defraud, or mislead.” Three company executives received probation and paid nearly $35 million in fines. Purdue paid an additional $600 million. But given the billions of dollars their product had already made, many critics saw this as an (expensive) slap on the wrist, given the level of misery their product has caused American families.

In 2015, the state of Kentucky brought a case against Purdue for deceptive marketing that had initially been filed in 2008. The trial was set to be held in Pike County, but Purdue sought to have it moved, believing they could not get a fair trial there. They financed a demographic study to bolster they claim, which only proved the case for the state: 29% of respondents reported that they or a family member knew someone who died from using OxyContin. Nearly half of the 1997 Pikesville High School football team had died of overdoses or were addicted to opioids. The judge in the case ruled it could not be moved, and Purdue settled for $24 million, without admitting liability. That amount is utterly incommensurate with Pike County’s need because of the epidemic they are experiencing. Currently ten other states are bringing cases against Purdue.

Purdue now acknowledges openly that patients will likely develop physical dependence (as I did) but they claim this is different from addiction. But if people find themselves unable to stop taking a drug for fear of crippling withdrawal, “at a certain point that might as well be addiction.” With the market shrinking in the US, Purdue are now turning their sights to the global market, which means, tragically, that the US may soon not be in a unique situation regarding our opioid epidemic.

But it’s not only Purdue. Another company has brought a new opioid painkiller to the market – Zohydro. When abused, it is up to 10 times stronger than any other version of Hydrocodone available, which begs the question, why on earth do we need this drug? And why did the FDA approve it, given the resistance from multiple medical organizations, and the current national emergency?

So, what is to be done? Clearly it begins with addressing the points the BBC article makes. And with providing long-term treatment for those suffering from opioid addiction. With no additional funds for any of this being requested by the current administration, where should we look? Perhaps to the companies that have made billions of dollars from the misery of their fellow citizens.

(Much of the statistical material in this post came from a lecture I attended recently given by Rich Wheeler, LPCC, who works in an in-patient drug treatment facility in Kentucky.)

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The Opioid Crisis – pt. 1

As I entered my fiftieth year of life, I decided I would take up indoor soccer again. A few months later, that decision led to a torn ACL and meniscus injuries, and in March this year I went under the knife to have the ACL reconstructed. My surgeon prescribed a 30 day supply of oxycodone for pain relief. As I sat in a chair or lay on my back over those first few days post-surgery, I was grateful for the relief, and that the drugs also allowed me to get straight into physical therapy.

Around day 4 or 5 I noticed a difference. Every six hours I popped a pill, but on this particular occasion, within a short time I was feeling something new. A focusing of the mind that I had not had because of sleepless nights from my inability to sleep on my back. I suddenly felt like all those writing projects bouncing around in my head were possible. And I felt a feeling I can only describe as something like euphoria.

And I really, really, liked that feeling.

But then the feeling went away. Just thirty minutes later and I was back to my fatigued, incapacitated self. Where everything looked bleak, when all those ideas that had come into sharp focus returned to their jumbled selves, and all I wanted to do was watch hours of original programming on Amazon Prime (The Grand Tour, actually, of which my daughter observed, “Since when have you been interested in cars, papa?”). As I glanced up at the mantelpiece in our bedroom and saw the line of orange bottles containing all the prescription medication I was taking, the smallest – the one with the Oxycodone in it – began to take on an almost mystical glow. “I could feel that feeling again, if I just took another one of those.” I didn’t need it for pain in that moment, but I wanted that feeling back. And then I had a moment of clarity: This is why people get addicted to opioids.

Many of the victims of the opioid epidemic in the USA are people not that different than myself. Perhaps they, too, had surgery, or began to experience chronic pain, and a doctor or surgeon prescribed a 30 day supply of opioids, and just like that, they began to chase that same feeling. Because, I confess, it is pretty wonderful. And I am familiar with all the mental games we can play to shut down the voice that suggests this might not be a good idea. “The doctor prescribed them, so they can’t be that bad, right?” “I’m heading out and need to feel OK, so why wait another 3 hours for the next dose?” “Look how much work I can get done – I’ll just keep taking them till I catch up…” Yes, I understand why people can become addicted to opioids.

I also understand why people stay addicted.

I developed a staph infection post-surgery, and ended up in the hospital for a week, with a couple more surgeries to try and deal with the infection. I was still taking Oxycodone, but also receiving morphine through an IV “as needed” following the third surgery. The pain in my knee from both the infection and the surgeries was pretty significant, and again, I was glad to experience the relief the drugs provided. When I was discharged, IV drugs were obviously no longer available, and my surgeon increased the amount of Oxycodone I was taking “to compensate.” I was now taking three times as much as when I first began taking it two months earlier.

The pain dropped off pretty quickly, and about 10 days after I was discharged, I reduced the amount I was taking to the initial dose. And immediately went into withdrawal, as I had become physically addicted to the drug. I can only describe the experience as similar to a really bad bout of flu. My body ached, I had chills, I stumbled rather than walked and my speech became slurred. I was curled up in a ball on the couch, utterly miserable. And I didn’t understand what was going on. It didn’t cross my mind at first that I was in withdrawal as I was still taking the drug. But the dropoff in dosage had been precipitous, and that triggered withdrawal. What I did understand all too well was that when I took the next dose, I felt so much better within just a few minutes. Until it wore off, and I felt like death warmed up again. And sometime in the next few days I had another moment of clarity: This is why people must find it so hard to get off opioids – because I know that this misery will go away if I pop another pill or two.

I ended up seeing a pain management specialist, who helped wean me off the drug gradually over a period of six weeks or so. I was highly motivated to stop taking them, but when I finally stopped taking them, there were definitely moments in those last five days of misery when I thought about taking a pill, “just to take the edge off.” But I didn’t, and have not taken one since. And I’m pretty determined that should I ever need that kind of pain relief in the future, I won’t be using opioids or any other narcotic to seek it.

I took my first dose of Oxycodone on March 2, and my last on July 2. Four months of daily putting opioids in my body, several weeks of which were long after I actually needed them for pain. I understand – in a way I didn’t before this experience – why people both get addicted to opioids, and why they find it so hard to get off. But there’s so much more contributing to the epidemic of people experiencing opioid addiction than what I’ve described here.

In my next post I’ll explore why this is indeed a national crisis.

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“Do not withhold wages from your workers”

We were squeezed into the back of my friend Steve’s car, on the way to deliver a letter to a tobacco grower’s home in Garrard County, Kentucky, in support of seven of his laborers. The grower was illegally exploiting them, and they had made the courageous decision to join FLOC (the Farm Labor Organizing Committee) and go on strike in protest. One of them, Adolfo, had just shown me a picture of his 2-month-old daughter, at home with his wife in Hidalgo, Mexico, whom he had yet to hold in his arms. He is here in Kentucky on an H2A visa for six months of work to provide for his family. This was his third year to work on this particular farm, and he and six of his fellow laborers had had enough.

The H2A program links farmers with laborers from outside the U.S.A. and provides a legal contract: so many hours work a week, for so many weeks, at a fixed hourly rate. In Kentucky, that rate is $10.92 (which may sound like a lot, but only six states offer a lower rate). The farmer reimburses the travel expenses of the laborers: the laborers have to pay for the visa application process. The farmer provides accommodation, and the tools for the work. Or, at least, they are supposed to. But many do not abide by the contract, and that is why my daughter Maggie and I, along with about 20 other allies from Lexington, Louisville and Berea made our way towards Paint Lick this past Sunday, to stand in solidarity with these seven young men.

We crowded into their basic cement block accommodation, and began by sharing a simple meal of beans, rice and chicken chimis, sent by La Casita Center in Louisville. Then we listened for an hour as the men told their story, Felix Garza from the National Farm Worker Ministry translating for those of us who didn’t speak Spanish. The first year they worked for this grower, he had only paid them $7 an hour, instead of the contracted $10.92. The previous year he had paid them $8 an hour. This year, he had changed their wages from hourly to piece work – 15 cents per stick of six plants. If they worked as fast as possible they could make about $7-$8 an hour, but at that speed, accidents happen, and they could all show us scars on their arms from an errant blade, or from the sharp metal spike atop the sticks. Whenever they complained to the grower about the reduced hourly rate, they told us his consistent response was, “If you don’t like what I’m paying you, go back to Mexico.”

But reducing their wages is not the only way he exploits them. He doesn’t give them enough hours of work. Some weeks they may only go out for a few hours every other day. Or he may decide he needs them to work 12 hours a day for two days, then nothing for three. At the end of the week, he sits down with them individually to endorse the back of their pay check – which he has left blank, so they do not know how much he actually draws from the bank for them. They just see the cash he gives them when he returns. This may be so the bank records show he has paid them the $10.92 an hour as per the contract, and then he pockets the difference. He also made them bring their tools with them, and provides no safety wear for this difficult and sometimes dangerous work. If they handle tobacco for 10-12 hours a day, the amount of nicotine they absorb through their skin prevents them from sleeping.

Besides seeing the photo of Adolfo’s beautiful baby daughter, the moment that will remain with me from the three hours we spent with these exploited young men was after we had signed the letter to deliver to the grower. We were ready to drive to his home when Adolfo said, “He won’t be there yet. He’s still at church.”

“He’s still at church.”

I wonder what kind of church he attends. One of the “bible churches” liberally scattered across rural Kentucky perhaps? If so, I wonder how he has managed to avoid the dozens of passages throughout the bible that address treating your workers well. Because the bible was written in an agrarian culture, and between the two horizons of the text and this grower’s situation, agricultural laborers have remained some of the most vulnerable people for millennia. In Torah, it is written, “Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.” (Deuteronomy 24.15) James writes, “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” (James 5.4) Well, these exploited laborers had cried out to their church-going employer, and he had refused to listen to them. So they cried out to the Union, and the Union responded.

We are hoping that with pressure from the Union and one of the companies that buys this grower’s tobacco, he will decide to act justly and give these seven men the backpay he owes them, as well as provide enough work for them moving forward. Ultimately that they will win a Union contract with this grower. They are afraid he may report them as “bad workers”  which could prevent them from gaining a visa next year – the Union will provide protection from that kind of retaliation.

After this situation is resolved, I’d like to believe that the grower will sit in his regular pew one Sunday and ponder his actions. Or perhaps that he’ll be reading his bible during his regular quiet time, and stumble across one of these passages, and ask questions of himself. Or that his pastor will, from time to time, preach to the farmers in his congregation about treating your workers with respect.

I’d like to believe that.

(These young men are running out of money to buy food and basic living supplies. If you’d like to support them during this time, you may do so by contributing to FLOC here)

Photo credit: Steve Pavey, Hope In Focus

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The Naked Man – pt. 50

For the setting and a cast of characters for this series, click here.

Simon held Yiftach’s gaze for a long moment. Several emotions played fleetingly across his face before the anger lines and tension eased from his expression, replaced by something that Yiftach thought might have been sadness. But as Simon pushed off from the tree and got to his feet, his face hardened once more as he looked down at Yiftach.

“It sounds like you’ve made your choice then. Which means you won’t be needing that.” He pointed at the sword lying beside Yiftach. Yiftach’s hand leapt reflexively to the hilt, but then it dropped back to his side. He offered no resistance as Simon leaned down and picked up the weapon. “I will find someone whose allegiance lies with his people to give this to. Someone who understands the meaning of fidelity and friendship. Someone I trust, as I once trusted you. Farewell Yiftach.” He turned, and walked away without looking back.

 

As Yiftach approached the gateway into the courtyard where the ecclesia was gathering, he felt hot tears splash on his cheeks, and he turned aside to wipe them away. Had he really made his choice? Or had Yiftach just made it for him? Was he truly going to turn aside from the path to liberation he had walked for so many years to now join the Way? Was he really turning his back on the band of brothers with whom he had shed blood to align himself with this – he had to admit – vilified sect? Did he believe – as they did – that this Yeshua was the Messiah? In that moment he didn’t know what was true of himself. But then his stomach rumbled, and a wry smile broke out on his face. One thing is true, he thought. I’m hungry as usual. And he stepped into the courtyard.

As Mark observed Yiftach from across the courtyard, he noticed that his young friend looked troubled. He seemed to eat the food before him without tasting it, and was not engaged with the conversation that flowed around him. He didn’t even seem to be giving Rachel the attention Mark had noticed over the past few evenings. When Yiftach looked up and caught Mark looking at him with concern, he quickly looked down and studiously avoided making eye contact again. As Mark got to his feet, he made a mental note to try and catch Yiftach before he left.

“My friends,” Mark began, “I’d like to pick up the story where I left off last night. Peter told me that after Jesus fed the crowds, he immediately made his disciples get into a boat and go ahead of him to the other side of the lake, to Bethsaida, while he himself was sending the crowd away.” Rachel spoke up. “Why would Jesus do that? If he wants people to understand that he is the Messiah he could have made sure everyone there understood what had just happened. I mean, there must have been some excitement in the crowd after he fed them all, surely? Why wouldn’t he encourage that – if only for his disciples’ sake?”

“I don’t know, Rachel,” Mark responded. “Peter indicated that there were some in the crowd who were ready to march on Jerusalem there and then and make him Messiah by force, which was never Jesus’ intent. Word was already getting around about Jesus as we heard a few nights ago, and if what Herod had done to John the Baptizer was anything to go by, Jesus certainly didn’t want that kind of attention. Whatever the reason, after bidding them farewell, he left for the mountain to pray.”

“When it was evening, the boat was in the middle of the sea, and Jesus was alone on the land. He saw them straining at the oars, for the wind was against them. At about the fourth watch of the night, in the darkness before the dawn, Jesus came to them, walking on the sea; and he intended to pass them by.” Yiftach had been listening somewhat distractedly to Mark’s words, but now he sat bolt upright and called out, “What? Now you’re telling us Jesus could walk on water?!” He looked at his neighbors, spluttering, “And you all believe this latest tale? On top of feeding thousands of people with a few hunks of bread and some dried fish?” He sat back, his arms folded rigidly across his chest, his face a fury. The woman sitting to his right leaned away slightly. Mark held Yiftach’s gaze, understanding that something lay beneath his fierce response besides sheer disbelief, but not yet knowing what it was…

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Eat more veggies

If we’re friends on Facebook or elsewhere, then you know our family devotes a lot of yard space to growing food. We have perennial berry bushes, fruit and nut trees, herb beds, chickens for eggs, and several raised and in-ground beds for annual vegetables. Diet – what we eat – is the foundation of health, and all of us are always either building a solid or poor base for our health based on what we put in our bodies. Our kids, Maggie and Seth, have grown up eating all kinds of veggies, and for the most part enjoy everything we put in front of them. They’ll wander the yard and eat things right off the plant, and love getting their friends to eat things they’ve never tried (or seen) before. Right now it’s a fresh fig, ripe from the tree in our front yard.

But what if you didn’t grow up eating lots of veggies, and only have a few you like? What if your kids won’t eat them, and you don’t have the energy or patience to persuade them otherwise? My wife Rebecca is always coming up with ways to incorporate more vegetables into the meals we eat, and I thought I’d start an occasional series sharing some of the recipes she and I create – often because of what is growing in the yard at any given time –  so we can eat more veggies. So, the inaugural dish is Sunday brunch frittata.

I don’t know when I first made this dish, but it has become a staple feature of our Sunday mornings. I crank up my Sunday morning playlist, and get to work. As with many dishes we make, the first step is gently caramelizing onions. I make the frittata in a cast iron skillet, as it ends up under the broiler. While you’re thinly slicing the onion(s), add your favourite fat – I usually use lard or bacon grease – to the skillet on a medium-low burner. Add the onions, and stir occasionally as they slowly turn into caramelized goodness.

While that’s happening, dice a sweet bell pepper or two, and when the onion is softened, add the diced peppers and stir.

 

 

 

While that’s all gently sauteing together, use a large-hole grater to grate a couple of large carrots and beets. Yes, beets. Purple veggies are good for you! Once the onions and peppers are beginning to turn golden brown, add the grated carrots and beets, and stir together. Turn the burner to medium. Check your fat/oil – add more if needed.

Next, gently whisk your eggs. We use a dozen of our hens’ eggs, which may sound like a lot, but we typically only eat half the frittata and save the rest for a morning when we need a quick and easy breakfast. Add whatever seasonings you enjoy, and any fresh herbs you may have. We have perennial oregano and thyme in our garden, and plenty of basil, so those get chopped and added to the eggs.

Next, rough chop some greens – kale, swiss chard, collards, or whatever else you may have growing or to hand. Once the carrots and beets have softened and their sweetness is starting to come forth, throw in the greens and stir all together. While they’re cooking, dice some tomatoes, and grate some of your favourite cheese.

Time for another fat/oil check, as we don’t want any of that goodness sticking to the pan. Pull half the skillet’s contents to one side, and pour in enough of the egg mix to cover the empty side. Then pull the contents over to the side with the egg, and pour egg into the now vacant half to cover. Then gently spread out the mixture, and pour the rest of the egg over the veggies.

Sprinkle the diced tomatoes and cheese over the top. When the edges of the frittata turn brown and start to pull away slightly from the skillet, turn your broiler on to high, with a shelf in the highest position. Place the skillet under the broiler, and cook the frittata until the egg is completely set.

Remove skillet with a hotpad, and serve with a side salad, or steamed beans,  or whatever sounds good to you. The last time I made this we served it with steamed garden beans and plantain waffles. My kids love this dish, and it is chock-full of good veggies that have kept most of their nutrients. It takes about an hour to make.

Veggie Frittata
Serves 4
60 minutes

12 eggs
1 large yellow onion
1-2 bell peppers
2 large carrots
1-2 beets
1 packed cup of rough cut kale/chard leaves
Fresh herbs & seasoning to taste
1 large tomato, diced, or a cup of halved cherry tomatoes
Grated cheese

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A Canaanite woman and Charlottesville, Virginia: a reflection on Matthew 15

I imagine the range of sermons preached this weekend in the U.S. from the Gospel reading assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary will vary widely. A challenging passage at the best of times, given the national mood following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman we find in Matthew 15 feels positively explosive. Why would Jesus say to this desperate foreigner, pleading for the liberation of her demon-oppressed child, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs”? Especially knowing that “dog” is an ethnically-charged epithet used by his fellow countrymen against their gentile neighbours? Is Jesus joining the chorus of “Israel First”? And how do we read this story alongside the stories being told about events in Charlottesville this past weekend?

You can find this story in Matthew 15.21-28, but the RCL gives us the option of beginning at 15.10, which I think is helpful for understanding what follows. It all begins with some Pharisees and their lawyers coming up from the seat of power, Jerusalem, to confront Jesus about his disciples’ lack of respect for what they teach. Specifically, that his disciples do not perform ritual hand cleansing before eating. Now, that’s a long journey to make for what seems like a minor religious faux pas. But what’s at stake here is not hygiene: it’s Jesus’ authority. As a fellow teacher of Torah, the Pharisees are concerned that Jesus’ disciples should be observant in every way, just as theirs are. But his disciples aren’t, and Jesus’ popularity among the disenfranchised multitudes is such that it’s time to bring this rogue teacher to heel, in case this disrespect for the tradition of the Pharisees spreads.

Jesus will have none of it, however. Instead, he bluntly points out their hypocrisy, for teaching in such a way that their tradition, in fact, refutes what Torah itself teaches. Jesus then calls the crowds to himself, to address the issue of eating and what makes someone ritually unclean. And it’s not whether you wash your hands before supper or not. He says, “Listen, and understand. It’s not what you put in your mouth that defiles you: it’s what comes out of your mouth.”

The disciples pull Jesus aside and say, “Uh, you do realize that you offended the Pharisees when you said that, right?” To which Jesus says, “Leave them be – they’re just the blind leading the blind. They’ll all end up in a ditch.” I picture the disciples elbowing each other, whispering, “You ask him.” “No, you ask him.” And as usual it’s Peter who finally blurts out, “We don’t get what you’re saying.” To which Jesus responds, “How can you still not understand this?” And that question, I believe, is the key to understanding the story that follows.

Jesus explains to them that what we eat – what we put in our mouths – ends up in the stomach, and eventually is excreted. It’s a natural process. Duh. But the things that come out of the mouth don’t originate in the stomach, they originate in the heart, and they reveal who we are. And often what they reveal about us is ugly. He lists some of those things and then says, “It’s those things that defile a person – what comes out of our hearts – not whether we put things in our mouth with unwashed hands. Get it?” And again, I picture Jesus looking at each of his disciples and hoping to see some indication that they do, in fact, get it. That they understand what he is continually trying to teach them. The encounter they have with this woman will reveal whether they have or not.

Jesus withdraws, heading north into gentile territory – Tyre and Sidon, on the coast of Syro-Phoenicia. As they’re walking, a Canaanite woman approaches them, and begins to cry out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly, demonically oppressed.” I find it interesting that Matthew identifies her as a Canaanite, and not as, say, a Syro-Phoenician, or a gentile (as Mark does, in his Gospel). I don’t know if being a Canaanite was still even a thing in the first century, but for Matthew’s audience, identifying this woman in that way would tap into a centuries-old narrative of conquest of those who are entirely “other.” People who were to be destroyed, their evil not to be tolerated. People who were utterly irredeemable. Those people.

But this is a new age, a new kingdom: we don’t get to hold onto old animosities and prejudices anymore, right? Jesus has been teaching them about loving your enemies, not judging others, about treating others as you would want to be treated yourself – his summary of the whole of Torah and the Prophets. So, with this gentile woman he has a chance to model for his disciples what he’s always teaching.

But he doesn’t. Matthew tells us, “But Jesus did not say a word in response to her plea.” And as he keeps walking along ignoring her, she keeps calling out, until the disciples apparently feel so uncomfortable with the spectacle she’s making of herself (and them), that they tell Jesus to send her away.

How we read what happens next determines how we see this story unfolding. Matthew tells us that “Jesus answered and said, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” “Israel first!” perhaps. But who is he answering? The woman? Or the disciples? Most of the sermons I’ve heard and read indicate that Jesus says this to the woman. After all, she is a gentile – a Canaanite – and so, he can’t help her, even if he wanted to. “Sorry.” Or maybe not sorry.

Except. Except that Jesus has already cast demons out of people just like this woman. And healed them of disease and pain and paralysis. At the very beginning of his public life, when he’s healing people from every kind of illness up in Galilee, people from Syria come down when they hear about it, and he healed them (Matthew 4.24). Maybe even people from this woman’s village. And at least four of the disciples, including Peter, were there when that went down. So, what if Jesus isn’t saying “Israel first!” to this woman: what if he’s saying this to his disciples, to see how they’ll respond? What if he’s waiting for one of them to say, “Uh, Jesus, didn’t you already cast demons out of Syro-Phoenicians before? Didn’t you heal that Roman centurion’s servant down in Capernaum? What about that demon-possessed guy on the other side of the tracks, I mean, lake? Have you changed your mind since then?”

But they don’t. Maybe because when Jesus sent them out preaching a while back he told them not to go to any gentile or Samaritan cities, but to go only to the lost sheep of Israel. So maybe Jesus had forgotten all that when he healed those gentiles before, but is now back with the “Israel First!” program. And so it is then Jesus’ own prejudice that needs to be confronted by this Canaanite woman. I’ve heard people I respect preach that version of events, and perhaps that is what was happening as their walk up the coast was interrupted.

But I’m not convinced it is. When the woman cries out to Jesus, she addresses him in a very specific way: “Lord, Son of David.” An odd thing to find on the lips of a gentile: a title for the long-awaited Jewish messiah, and the very way Matthew identifies Jesus at the beginning of his Gospel. I wonder if Jesus was waiting to see if his disciples would pick up on what she was saying and stop in amazement. Certainly very few of their countrymen had made such a declaration. But they didn’t: instead they told him to send her away. That’s why when Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” I think he’s talking to the disciples, and not her, and waiting for one of them – please God, even just one! – to say, “but she thinks you’re the Messiah – maybe you should help her? Even if she’s not one of us? Like you did before, remember?” But they don’t.

Or maybe Jesus is talking to them all. Addressing the disciples, but in the hearing of this brave woman who refuses to be ignored , and who even now humiliates herself, bowing down before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” In response to which Jesus answers her with that offensive statement, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs.” Is Jesus truly employing an ethnic epithet in his response? Is his prejudice coming to the surface? Is the ugliness of his heart coming out of his mouth?

And how does this unnamed gentile woman respond to this demeaning statement? “Sure, Lord, but even the dogs feed on the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” To which Jesus replies, “O woman, your faith is great! What you request has been done.” And somewhere in Syro-Phoenicia, a young girl’s oppression and torment ends immediately.

To me, everything about this story gets to the heart of why Matthew wrote his Gospel: so that his audience would come to the same conclusion as this woman had, that Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel, and that the kingdom he brought has room enough for all. An exclusive, “Israel first!” posture could never receive the message that Jesus embodied. And apparently the disciples were still all too slow on the uptake. They failed to understand the parable that Jesus had just told them: it is what is in the heart that defiles us, and causes all manner of evil to come out of our mouths.

Evil such as that found on the lips of the white supremacists in Charlottesville last weekend. “Blood and soil.” “Jews will not replace us.” Racist and homophobic epithets. Evil found in the hearts of many of us perhaps, evil which never quite reaches our lips because we’re too polite, or afraid of what people might think, or because even though we know it’s evil, it still somehow rises in us anyway. The evil of staying silent when hate speech and racist and ethnic epithets are spoken in our presence, and we let them go unchallenged. Perhaps as the disciples did when they heard what Jesus said. Perhaps.

But note this. Jesus praises her faith. He says she has great faith. In fact, in Matthew’s gospel, those who are praised for their faith are not the bible experts or the religious elite: it is those who are marginalized in Israel: a Roman centurion, a woman with a continual haemorrhage, and two blind men. Those critiqued for having little faith? That would be the disciples. What if Jesus wants his disciples to see what he is doing and who he is, just  like these marginalized people do? What if he’s trying to provoke a response from his disciples in this story, and not, in fact, revealing his own prejudice? What if he’s inviting them to say, “Wait a minute. You just said what comes out of our mouths reveals what’s in our hearts. Did you really just call her a dog? After she called you Messiah? What’s up with that?” But they don’t. They’re silent, and just look on at this brief interchange.

(There’s an interesting element to the Greek text of this interchange which (literally) gets lost in translation. The word translated “bowed down” is a form of the verb, proskuneo, while the word translated “dog” is kunapios. Proskuneo carries the literal meaning of, “to kiss, like a dog licks the hand of its master.” Is Matthew inviting his audience to see a witty interchange between this woman and Jesus right in front of his uncomprehending disciples? Perhaps. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into that. It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened.)

As I have read and discussed this story this week in anticipation of gathering with my community this weekend, what rang out loud and clear to me was this: silence in the face of prejudiced speech of any kind is unacceptable. Regardless of whether this woman confronts Jesus’ own prejudices or Jesus is testing his disciples, what is clear to me is this: When I hear people using racist or hate speech of any kind, I must confront and denounce it immediately. Even if it’s someone I know and love dearly. Perhaps especially then. Maybe the disciples didn’t confront Jesus for using such derogatory, exclusionary language because they kind of believed it was OK to do so. Or maybe they didn’t confront him because, well, “he’s Jesus, and so it must be OK?” Silence in the face of hate speech contributes to the violence that all too often follows it. When I hear such speech from now on – whether with my ears, or on my screen – I know I will picture Jesus looking over his shoulder at me and saying, “Well, you got anything to say about that?” And I hope I do.

May it be so.

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