Rachel Marie Stone: Bringing grace to the table

In the last 10 years, Rachel Marie Stone has lived in three states, four countries and four continents. She was living overseas when she created the hashtag #AddAWordRuinAChristianBook, which became the number one trending topic in the U.S. that same day (see Christian Courier, Oct.28, 2013). She’s a regular contributor on Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog and the author of Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food (IVP, 2013).
When I caught up with her in Grand Rapids, Michigan, she and her family had just moved back to the U.S. from Malawi, Africa, where Stone taught writing at Zomba Theological College. Stone writes thoughtfully on faith, family and justice, navigating divisive topics with skill. She believes that “God’s provision of food is always a gift to be received with open, grateful hands.” Her book focuses on how we’re called to be like God by sharing food; on how eating together restores community and can heal eating disorders; on how food production connects to justice and creation care, and on how to let food speak to us of God’s goodness.
“Food is connected to how we live,” Stone says, and her work seeks to find ways “to bring grace into our conversations about food.” Here are some snippets of our conversation on this good gift from God and our complicated relationship with it.

Our culture is obsessed with food: we don’t just eat, we read about eating, watch shows about eating and photograph what we’re eating. In the midst of so much focus on food, why did you want to write this book now?
When I first started writing it, I wasn’t finding a lot of books on food and faith. The idea was first birthed in 2006, but I trashed my first manuscript because it was really preachy and righteous. The idea of joy came to me from the passage in Ecclesiastes – eat with joy (9:7) – and I really liked that. We’re never going to solve all the problems of the world, and Ecclesiastes is about all those problems, and we’re not going to solve them in this world. But we can be grateful for what we do have, and steward it well, and receive the gift of food with joy.

How can we “eat with joy” or even eat in peace when every bite seems fraught with fear (calories, chemicals) and problems (injustice)? What does it mean to find food that comes from places of joy?
Without wanting to be dogmatic about it, I would say, if you have a choice to buy a salad in a bag from the grocery store or a grow a little bit of lettuce in your yard in pots, choose the yard. If you could spend a little more to buy local and organic at the farmer’s market, do it. North Americans pay a lot smaller portion of our budget on food [than the rest of the world], and when we spend more on food, consciously, we see the value of it. It teaches us not to take it so for granted as an interchangeable commodity. There is a story behind where your food comes from. A lot of companies want to convince you that the story behind their food is more wholesome than it is.

How can we feed the least of these when there’s a “war on obesity,” when poverty in our cities is more likely to look like obesity than emaciation?
The first thing to have is compassion. There’s a huge myth that people who are poor don’t care about good food, but I think we forget that time is a big luxury. Having time to cook is a luxury. Plenty of people working three low-wage jobs to try to keep things together have no time to cook. We need to be careful about the way we speak about the obesity crisis. It turns into demonizing, as though the worst thing a person can be is fat. It doesn’t help. A person needs respect.
And the next thing is to realize that everybody wants to eat well. We need more ways to get healthier foods out there. School programs can be effective in raising awareness and making healthy choices available. We also need to make better tasting food for kids – and make changes slowly. Instead of brownies, don’t offer carrots. Try oatmeal raisin cookies first.

You mentioned this morning that you’ve lived outside the U.S. for 6,000 meals in the last 10 years. Did your time in Malawi change your perspective on food?
I thought I was really grateful for food before. We’ve just been back a few days, but my son said, “Grandma, I feel like we’re in heaven every day,” because we have all this wonderful food we couldn’t get anywhere in Malawi. Here we drink the water right out of the sink. I have a deeper appreciation for food now. I don’t feel ashamed of liking good food, but I do feel the need to steward it carefully. Even more than I did before.
When you see women so tired and malnourished that they smile after giving birth and their gums are white . . . they’re so low in iron, you see their stool and it’s white or yellow because there’s no substance in what they eat. Being there confirmed a lot of things that I had book knowledge of, and I got to see it first-hand. Planting things in monoculture, using chemical fertilizers and the dependency it creates, subsistence farming. [The problems] are overwhelming. I’d be lying if I said I’d made sense of it.

Leslie Leyland Fields says that Christians have “over-spiritualized” the Lord’s Supper. “We’ve turned an actual meal into a pantomime of a meal, and the church is hungry because of it.” Do you agree?
I see some truth in it. I’m always struck that early church services were a meal, not just something you tacked on once a month, once a quarter. I just think that eating casually with one another is a lost art; we have somehow accepted that. We eat wherever, whenever, on the go.
The Eucharist is not less meaningful to me because it’s not a full meal. Friends of mine celebrate the Lord’s Supper with good wine and homemade bread and people sit down and eat as much as they want, and I see something lovely in that. But we don’t have to re-do our traditions.

“Until now, many churches have been places of illness rather than health. The Bible Belt has been widening, but not in the way ordained by God.” That’s from Rick Warren’s new book, The Daniel Plan. He’s encouraging a healthier lifestyle based on biblical principles. Is this useful?
I am glad that Pastor Rick is using his platform to encourage people to think about food. I haven’t read The Daniel Plan, but I love that he has the community element. I don’t know if it incorporates joy and celebration enough, which is really biblical. And I do take issue with cutting out things like cupcakes on birthdays for kids. We have lost respect for [the difference between] special days and ordinary days. In The Supper of the Lamb, Father Capon talks about that really well – don’t have a roast on the table every day. That’s for a feast day. On the other days, you eat a pile of rice and maybe some beans. We have feast days every day now. We don’t need feast days every day, but we should still make room for celebration.

  • Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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