Wednesday, May 15, 2013

5 stars for Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist

I am not a foodie or a cook.  I am also not at all adventurous with my eating. My wife does most of the cooking in our house, and as a great Mennonite woman it means lots of delicious meaty carby meals.  That said, every once in a while I love to mess around in the kitchen and try and create something new and special for my family.  Usually this ends badly.  I have of course learned some things: Lots of cinnamon and ground beef is a revolting combination, I have zero ability to make a chili that tastes good, and bacon wrapped chicken breasts on the BBQ can easily end up being raw and burnt at the same time.  My specialties are eggs and bacon with toast, and hamburgers.  So, I’m not exactly sure why I decided to review Shauna Niequist’s book “Bread and Wine.” But I am glad I did.

This book is fantastic.  It is fun and inspiring and carries with it many moments of profound insight.  The book revolves around the themes of hospitality, food, friends, family, infertility, love and shame.  It asks us to look into the truth of who we are created to be, to see the Spirit of God in the present moment as we both fast and feast.  It is about recognizing the spiritual moments that happen when we share life together.  Shauna writes, “It happens when we enter the joy and the sorrow of the people we love, and we join together at the table to feed one another and be fed, and while it’s not strictly about the food, it doesn’t happen without it.  Food is the starting point, the common ground, the thing to hold and handle, the currency we offer to one another (14).”  A little later she writes, “Food is the language of care.”  Which as a pastor in a small Mennonite church I can assure you is one hundred and fifty percent true.  Food is central to just about everything we do in our church life, and no one can imagine an event without it.  I am constantly amazed at the way in which food is crucial to our relationships with each other.  I am reminded of Eugene Peterson’s memoir, “The Pastor” in which his wife tells families that if they want to strengthen their family relationships and help their kids they need to eat together.  I think that this is true for most relationships.  

For me the chapter “Open the Door” is worth the price of the book alone.  In a society that has become obsessed with Pintrest, taking pictures of our food, and HGTV which makes us all feel that our homes are just not quite what they should be, we can all be shamed into keeping our doors closed and not inviting people into our house.  Which is why we all need to listen to Shauna when she says, “What people are craving isn’t perfection.  People aren’t longing to be impressed; they are longing to feel like they’re home... We practice hospitality, creating soft and safe places for people to connect and rest... But it isn't about perfection, and it isn’t about performance.  You’ll miss the richest moments in life - the sacred moments when we feel God’s grace and presence through the actual faces and hands of the people we love - if you’re too scared or too ashamed to open the door.” (106,107, 108).”  Shame is a powerful force that keeps us from letting people in.  However, in my experience, I am usually the one who experiences the shame, other people don’t even notice the things that I am trying to hide.  Shauna calls us all to open our doors and stop missing the great blessings that come when we share life and food with each other.  

I was inspired as I read this book.  I was reminded that cooking is about practice.  Cooking is action and doing, not just reading or watching Iron Chef on the cooking network.  Sure I’ve seen a lot of cooking shows, but as last nights potatoes would show, I have no idea how to dice or chop.  The same is true of our Christian faith.  We can read about Jesus, we can study theology, but nothing takes the place of action, of putting one foot in front of the other and seeking to act like the Scriptures ask us to.  There is no substitute for actually surrendering your life to Christ.  So, if I want to cook, I need to turn off the TV and pick up a knife.  If I want to experience the joy of deep friendships, I need to open the door and invite people to my table, and if I want to walk with God, I need to surrender my life.  All of it requires practice.

I have three critics of the book, and the first isn’t even really a critic.  But seriously!? Who does the dishes! The thing that stops me most from cooking is the clean up afterwards.  Or rather my wife stoping me from cooking so that she doesn’t have to deal with my mess.  Secondly, for those who are introverted Shauna will seem like a storm ripping at your sails.  She appears almost effortless in her love of noise and people and doing.  So the challenge will be to find the balance that suits you.  How do you practice table fellowship and hospitality in a way that doesn’t simply drown you. From what I see Shauna is an extroverts extrovert.  If that is not you, do not feel shame for the way God created you.  You are who you are and you have the limits that you have.  Hopefully being at peace with this will allow you to take what you need and just shake your head, with no shame, and say, “I could never do that.”  At the same time, be inspired to be hospitable and share your life and table in ways that are comfortable for you.  Finally, I was struck at the end of the book how often she talks about sharing the table with the people you love, and I was reminded that part of what made Jesus’ own table fellowship so troubling to those in his time was the way he offered love and acceptance to those on the margins.  In the church that I am a part of we have been talking lots about missional communities, and mission and one of the great dangers for Christians is that they will clique together in a small group and never look beyond their own circle.  Jesus constantly pushed the circle bigger by including new people at his table, people who would never have been invited to the table before.  When I finished this book I was struck with the question, what does it look like to practice Jesus like hospitality around our table? I believe that it means extending the table beyond those we love so that others can experience the love, acceptance and grace of Jesus through us.  I don’t imagine that Shauna would disagree with me at all, however, it is something that is not mentioned and would have been a good addition to the book.

This is a great book, and I hope that you will read it.  In the introduction Shauna writes, “My prayers is that you’ll read these pages first curled up on your couch or in bed or in the bathtub, and then after that you’ll bring it to the kitchen with you, turning the corners of pages, breaking the spine, spilling red wine on it, and splashing vinegar across the pages, that it will become battered and stained as you cook and chop and play, music loud and kitchen messy.  And more than anything, I pray that when you put this book down, you’ll gather the people you love around your table to eat, and drink, to tell stories, to be heard and fed and nourished on every level” (10).  This is exactly what I plan on doing... as soon as I get it back, because I have already loaned it out.

Full disclosure. I received this book for free from for a review.  I was under no obligation to give it a positive review... But it is totally awesome!

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