Litany of Gratitudeby Max Coots, Minister Emeritus, UU Church, Canton, NY
The harvest will be an attitude, not a time of year. And maybe I'll be wise enough to feel a sort of litany of gratitude:
- For seeds—that, like memories and minds, keep in themselves the recollection of what they were and the power to become something more than they are…
- For soil—that accumulation of lives piled up by death that gives new life…
- For the justice of the earth—that gave me about as many weeds and wilt and scab and bugs as vegetables but, in the end, gave me enough for what I need…
- For hands—those miracles on the ends of my arms that let me tend my vegetables and pull my weeds, and for mind enough to know the difference between the two…
- For calluses—life's defense against that softness that makes survival difficult…
- For the ability to work and the will to work and the work to do, and the time to do it in…
- And, finally, for that sense of kinship to it all, that singleness, that unity that is the basis of faith…
soul food? Think about the most memorable meals you've had. What did you cook? Whom did you share it with? What did you converse about over it? What was the secret ingredient in the experience that truly made it feel like
Food is the universal language we all share, and yet we all have our own unique dialects for. Partly because of my Unitarian Universalist faith, food science has long been both a spiritual and academic interest to me for its hidden ubiquitous nature: what we eat affects everything, from our health, to our environment, to global economics and security. We Americans will typically eat about 3-5 times every day, but how often do we actually appreciate its power?
What is food to you? What thought do you place on the miraculous process that turns pure elements into the plants, fungi, and animals that we depend on for survival? Is food simply dead matter that we assimilate from the bodies of these beings? Or can food itself literally have a spiritual element, a soul even?
All the matter and energy in your body, composing every atom of every organ down to the neurons in your brain that characterize your identity, came from the food you consumed, even when you were still in the whom. All that we consume comes from some living thing, which in turn consumed another living thing, all the way down the food chain to the raw elements composing this planet. In every phase food carries the same matter and energy that has been coursing through the universe since the dawn of creation as a vessel for the essence needed to sustain life. How could food give life unless it contained the elements of a soul?
The very growth of food is a testament to our reliance on our surrounding environment and the countless factors that contribute to a greater purpose. Wind carries the seed and the water, earth shelters and forms the foundation for them, water nourishes the seed, and the sun's flame energizes its growth. Plants sprout and grow, insects pollinate, birds propagate the seeds, and fungi decompose all that falls to the ground, so that nothing in the natural process is wasted. Paradoxically, life itself feeds on destruction. All life on this planet exists through consumption, with every being consuming and producing sustenance across a steady web. And in each being on this planet we see the fruits of this wondrous, beautiful garden, eternally sowing and harvesting itself in a perpetual circle of life.
At the center of the life web is our species, the ultimate apex predator, capable of preying upon every other species without fear of being preyed upon ourselves. Gone are our ancestor's days of hunting, gathering, cultivating, harvesting, and spending untold hours just to acquire necessary sustenance to survive. Now we inhabit the era of convenience, with food readily available every moment of every day year-round. To the vast majority of those in the developed world, there is only a perpetual rotation between hunger and consumption.
Food is also the foundation and lifeblood of all civilization. The science of cooking enabled our ancestors to transfer internal energy previously devoted to digestion toward the mental development that enabled them to explore the first scientific innovations. Through the rise and fall of empires, access to food has determined the fate of all nations, especially our own. Our first colonies were nearly lost due to famine, while advances in food preservation enabled our expansion westward. In 1850 almost half the U.S. population worked in agriculture; today it is only 2%, yet it has grown into a global industry. Roughly 2.2 million farms cover 922 million acres of the American landscape, producing over 750 million tons of the top 20 most profitable crops annually. Ironically, it seems like the more food we appear to have available, the farther from it we have grown.
The subtlety of food's power has blinded too many of us to its cost, and its dangers. Perhaps even more so than every other natural resource on this earth, food is easily exploited by its controllers at the abuse of all who rely on it. Ten corporations control nearly all the world's food supply, none of which have adequate policies to protect the communities producing it from land and water grabs or abuse. Worldwide precious ecosystems are being decimated to make room for more animal agriculture just to satisfy a growing global demand for meat, while the majority of the ocean's fisheries are being overfished to the point of depletion. In the U.S., growing, harvesting, and transporting food uses 10% of the total energy budget, roughly half of lower continental U.S. land, and 80-90% percent of freshwater consumed, with animal agriculture using over half of all water consumed in this country. Animal agriculture alone also uses roughly 80% of all antibiotics used in the U.S., steadily building ever more resistant strains of bacteria nationwide. Irrigation processes meant to sustain life have created a literal
dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey, as nitrogen fertilizer and pesticide overuse from soil runoff continues to sacrifice our own land. And yet the reaper for this ongoing destructive harvest is a two-edged blade.
Today convenient access to food has created a consumer culture of addictive taste, speedy delivery, and low price. Of the $277 billion spent on farm subsidy programs since 1995, nearly half went to subsidize corn and soybeans while less than 0.5% went to fruits and vegetables. The U.S. Department of Agriculture spends over $1.28 billion annually to subsidize crops used for junk food additives. As a result, nearly 70% of our nation is overweight, 34% suffers from obesity, over 10% suffer from diabetes, and as much as 1/3 are expected to have diabetes by 2050. Unhealthy diet contributes to over 600,000 deaths annually in the U.S., amplified by the constant mass marketing of junk food starting at childhood. Food itself is no longer a source of sustenance but a medicinal product to stave off the contrived diseases of hunger, with fat, sugar, and salt as the new drugs of choice. Like a massive proverbial Oroborus serpent, our very food culture is morphing us into our own dominant predator as we eat ourselves towards self-destruction.
Yet in this abuse of abundance, the effects of scarcity continue growing. Today the United Nations proclaims we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945, with more than 20 million people in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria facing starvation. But this recent crisis is hardly a new challenge: as of 2015 roughly 1 in 9 people in the world suffered from food insecurity, 1 in 3 suffered from malnutrition, and 1 in 6 lacked access to clean drinking water. Even right here in the land of apparent abundance, an estimated 12.7% of American households, roughly 42 million Americans, suffer from food insecurity, including 1 in 6 children, roughly 13 million kids. Roughly 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts with limited or no access to affordable, healthy food options. As a result, the vast majority of food insecure households have to rely on the cheapest and least healthy foods, further amplifying the health issues that plague us.
But just as we have profited on food's power at the abuse of the less fortunate, so too have we abused food's accessibility in our insatiable avarice for acquisition. Roughly 1/3 of all food produced in our country is wasted, impeding our landfills and poisoning the air we breathe. From farms to restaurants, supermarkets to households, food that fails aesthetic qualities is discarded, without even returning to the natural cycle through composting. Our very land is choking on our compulsion to take more than we can chew.
Today our species faces a paradox in our relationship with food. In our free market culture, we are pulled by extremes of gluttony, hunger, and waste, in a seemingly endless struggle. Food is no longer a basic human right, but a marketed product, like any other fuel or energy source that empowers our lives. The ubiquitous nature of this product has created the illusion of a limitless and readily available supply. As if a testament to human duality, nothing undermines the security of a resource, or its spiritual components, more than abundance. How could a product of such destruction still have a
Meanwhile, around the world hunger stalks us like an immortal predator, growing stronger as the human population surges towards 9 billion people by the middle of this century. While many Americans feebly keep it at bay with a steady appeasement of drugs masquerading as food products at the sacrifice of their health, in the developing world it preys mercilessly on the less fortunate. And when thriving in such an environment, hunger can make the most peaceful human turn to extremism in their desperate attempts to fend off the beast.
There is another aspect of humanity that exhibits a similar paradigm. Faith, throughout much of human history, has likewise been exploited sporadically for the empowerment of the few. Although unique to our species, faith is an integral part of our civilization, from the earliest cultures that conceived of Gods to manage the elements to the modern religions that guide so much of our public policy. Even those who don't believe in a higher power still know the inherent value of faith. Faith in ancient gods laid the foundation of empires that dominated the globe, and gave rise to the native cultures that thrived throughout this nation for millennia. Even faith in fellow humans is vital to creating the mutual trust upon which our very existence depends.
People of developing and wealthy nations both hunger, whether for nourishment or enlightenment. We all need to believe in a greater power, a greater purpose, or simply the potential in our fellow humans as much as we need vital nutrients to sustain us each day. And like food, faith can be taken for granted, especially when it appears abundantly available.
When we are starved spiritually, we become emotionally ravenous as well. Even when simply deprived of faith in our fellow humans, desperation sets in, leading to fear, isolation, and narcissism. We hunger for vindication, salvation, and prosperity, and we follow any who claim to lead us to it, no matter the cost. We feast on the rhetoric of the narrow-minded and neglect our intellectual and emotional nourishment just to feed this hunger, no matter how brief the reprieve. Throughout history, prejudice, paranoia, religious suppression, mass exile, war, and genocide have erupted from the lack of spiritual nourishment. In the dire regions of the developing world, this sacrifice to escape desperation is as easy a compromise as sacrificing health to escape hunger. But in lacking the vital nutrients of compassion, empathy, curiosity, and mutual respect for all living things in this web of life for which we are all a part, we starve ourselves of our very humanity.
The attraction of such abusive faith comes from a contrived sense of certainty, the grounding fortification in a terrifyingly uncertain universe, as addictive as the additives we put in food products to provide that guaranteed flavor. But this superficial foundation carries a dire cost of spiritual lethargy as we cease exploration and the inevitable diversity it brings. As Unitarian Universalists, we cannot take any mouthful for granted any more than we can do so for the nourishment of a free and open mind. This distinction between religion and spirituality originally drew me to this faith, and illustrates the inherent depravity that occurs when we transform any natural process into a product. Far too much organized religion, or simply organized faith in our leaders, is a product sold as an immediate and easy solution to desperate circumstance, but spirituality is a process that requires continuous exploration. We UUs obtained this mindset by continuously questioning our relationship with our faith, examining its sources, exploring its possibilities, and fully apprehending its impact on our own lives and the greater world community. Can we not apply this concept to food as well?
Just as peace in this world must ultimately begin within each of us, so too must an end to depravity of both the body and spirit. Food itself has been symbolically used as a vessel for spiritual connection with a higher power, from the numerous spirits for food worshipped by Native American tribes for its life-giving power, to using bread as a medium to become one with God. What if we all connected with our food in the same way we connect with our faith? What if instead of treating food simply as a fuel to be hoarded, marketed, and squandered, we treated it as a process to be examined, explored, and protected? What if we also treated food as a spiritual component, and harnessed its power to end the mutual abuse between the consumer and the resource? Why else is prayer of gratitude often so integral to each meal?
Recall our earlier discussion: what is
soul food? Can it be bought off the shelf or ordered at a restaurant? True
soul fuel reminds us of the spiritual aspect of food, of our role in its eternal process, and how blessed we are to be a part of it. The essence of such soul food is the conscious effort we put into every step of this process, from growing, harvesting, preparing, cooking, serving, and even consuming it, using the energy garnered from our previous meal. We must question our role in the web of life by considering not only the sources of our food and its impact on the greater community, but how we will use and expel its energy within us to uphold this balance and end its worldwide abuse. By making this effort, we can distinguish between real, authentic, natural food and the superficial variety marketed as a drug for hunger, just as we can distinguish real, spiritual faith from the superficial faith marketed as the only solution to the tribulations of this world.
Real faith is a process, drawn from personal experience, research, and engagement; fake faith is assigned to us from a simplified worldview that shuns diversity and analysis. Similarly, real food is grown and harvested, nourishes and fulfills us with the energy accumulated directly from the very pulse of this living planet, and connects us with the natural world. Fake food is processed, manufactured, artificially flavored, and mass marketed, depletes our health, and ultimately just leaves us hungry; it retains little or no natural energy left at the end of its process, and little to no
soul. In both cases, the conscious effort we devote to connect with our food, from purchasing ethically to cooking it ourselves, rewards us in the same way as the effort to connect with our faith, whether to nourish our lives or simply indulge them. We all know the difference between a store-bought cookie and one that we made at home with loved ones: either alone can fully sustain us, but only one can make us feel truly alive.
Food can remedy worldwide social injustices as easily as the lack of it contributes to them. There is more than enough food produced annually to feed every human on this planet, well into the projected population of the near future. If we connect with our food on a global scale, this universal need can create a new age of spiritual camaraderie. Since the dawn of humanity, the single most effective way of building faith and trust in fellow humans has been simply sharing a meal with them. Physically, we are what we eat; spiritually, when we apply our faith to the process of food, it can restore the faith of all who consume it. And when we feed from the same source of the web of life's eternal essence that fuels our soul, I believe we effectively become one. Just as every act to preserve faith is significant, so is every act to protect food and work towards a sustainable future, whether by eating from more ethical and sustainable sources, cutting down on food waste, eating less meat and dairy, contributing to international agriculture development, or supporting a local food pantry. To a mind of free and open spirituality, there is always room at the table.
In this spirit, and in the act of building faith in our community, I'd like to share a bit of food with you. With apologies to any gluten-sensitive members, I'm passing around some organic shredded wheat; feel free to take a piece, but before you consume it, contemplate its power. While it's not a substitute for communion wafers, this is about as simple, natural, and
real as food can get. There are no added ingredients, or preservatives. Compared to what we typically eat after a service, it may seem pretty bland. But this wheat represents the essence of the web of life. Know how precious every morsel of food is in this world, and how blessed we are to enjoy it. Appreciate the faith we share with each other, the faith we have in our food, and the faith you have in yourself to use this food's energy responsibly. Ask yourself what you will do with the vitality you consume, and how you will channel its energy to find your role in the web of sustenance on this earth. If you wish, say aloud one act of faith you'll do this week with this energy to make this world a better place, and when you are ready, consume the wheat. Personally, I will use it to help stack chairs after this service, and then find a new task. I believe we can find that even as UUs, faith, community, and friendship are the best spices. Amen. Blessed be.
As we enter the autumn months to celebrate the bountiful harvests reaped from the earth as it steadily reclines towards its winter slumber, go forth and bless that harvest, and use its blessings to nourish yourself and protect the eternal soul of this world. Make it a great week.
Litany of Gratitudeby Max Coots, Minister Emeritus, UU Church, Canton, NY