Dining with John

December 2, 2010

The holiday season is upon us, a time of get-togethers featuring delicious, irresistible food. Imagine yourself attending a Christmas party this month where the host comes up to you carrying a platter of beguiling hors d'oeuvres and says, "Would you care for some stir-fried locusts or roasted grasshoppers?"

If you are like most people in the U.S., you would likely respond to this gracious offer with a shocked or polite "NO!" However, a foreigner visitor might just say, "Yes please!"

Many people in developing nations count on insects as an important source of protein in their diet. In a recent article about American chefs using insects in various dishes, a chef remarked how his perceptions about eating insects changed when he visited Africa. One day he observed children bursting out of school to eat a swarm of locusts as if they were "flying popcorn." Other chefs commented that edible insects can be a vehicle for personal and cultural transformation, and that "you get to know the world when you get to know the food."

Our Dec. 5 reading from Matthew 3:1-12 reveals that John's diet consisted of locusts and honey. When we hear that, it is easy to say "yuck, count me out." It is also easy to overlook the important spiritual insights that John's food choices reveal about God's work in the world then and now.

First and foremost, John understood the realtors' mantra "location, location, location." John followed his call from God to preach the good news in the desert before he decided what he would eat. He did not allow the creature comforts of civilized living to limit his ministry. The physical circumstances dictated by his response to God's call established the menu for his stomach.

Additionally, John was getting free food with a very high nutritional value. The locusts are a good source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids (brain food)! John had it on good authority that locusts were worth eating -- Leviticus 11:22 commends the eating of locusts. They even taste good when dried, with a flavor that has been compared to smoky bacon.

Speaking of flavor, wild honey is the bees' knees! Beekeeping has taken off in the United States over the past few years, motivated in part by the delicious and nutritional qualities of honey, including B vitamins and antioxidants. How did John manage to survive the bee stings in order to lose his head to Herod? Perhaps that is why he wore garments of coarse camel's hair, to protect his skin from bees.

John must have been pretty healthy to maintain such a vigorous lifestyle in the great outdoors. The amount of activity that it took to acquire his food and being in nature all the time probably assured that John was healthy. Imagine all the money John saved by being healthy and not needing to run to the doctor for medicines and procedures.

All things considered, John was living lightly on the earth. By any standard we use today, his lifestyle had a very low ecological footprint. You couldn't blame John for global warming. He ate very low on the food chain, avoiding an increase in greenhouse gases and the slaughter of fellow mammals with strong emotional ties such as cattle, sheep, goats, and rabbits. Plus he was helping to preserve the crops of neighboring towns by eating a pest insect. No need for harsh, toxic chemicals while John was around. He was the pesticide!

So where's God in all this? The most important lesson we can learn from John is to trust God. If God calls us to preach and baptize in the desert without a temple to give us respect and resources, God will help us to find what we need to survive and even thrive. God calls us to self sacrifice, not self destruction.

A life lived with God has meaning and purpose. It provides passion and logic, as well as energy, enthusiasm and courage. It can even give us the courage to eat insects and speak truth to power, as John did. When we allow grace to work within us, the spirit is stronger than the mind and body put together.

If our "work" (paid or unpaid) comes first and God comes second, we are on a junk-food diet, spiritually speaking.

Today most of us are not being called to preach in the desert and eat locusts. We are called to much more challenging tasks, such as living with hope, sharing our resources, and reducing our demands on the earth -- as well as speaking truth to power as John and Jesus did.

Would you care for some stir-fried bees or fried grasshoppers? Yes please!

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