For whatever reason, as a child, the world of talking animals was foreign to me. I never read Winnie-the-Pooh or Alice in Wonderland or Watership Down or The Wind in the Willows or The Jungle Book. Sure, my life was full of Disney movies and Saturday-morning cartoons, which are nothing if not talking-animal-story sorts of things. But as far as books go, the closest I ever got was stumbling onto The Chronicles of Narnia as a third grader.
Yet many of the great children’s books are of the talking animal variety. And, for whatever reason, kids really go for talking animals. So now that I’m a father, and one of my jobs is to tell stories to my children, I have some catching up to do.
Thus, at the urging of a friend, I finally started listening to a Librivox recording of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. You might summarize it as the story of Mole and Rat, interspersed here and there with the misbegotten adventures of their friend Toad. But, as with most books, especially those of the talking animal sort, it’s really about friendship and camaraderie.
Anyhow, there’s a scene in the book where naive Mole wanders into the Wild Wood searching for the enigmatic Badger. A stranger to the deep, dark woods, Mole is soon lost and surrounded by strange noises. And then the snow comes. Poor Mole is cold and wet and terribly frightened, hiding in the hollow of a tree, when his dear friend Rat arrives on the scene, cudgel in one hand and pistol in the other. Together they brave the snow for hours until they (quite literally) stumble onto Badger’s house.
When they arrive, colder and wetter than ever, they’re greeted by Badger, who is dressed for bed and halfway there. But Badger welcomes them in cheerily, sets them by the fire, gets them changes of clothes, tends to their wounds, and sets about preparing a feast. To my ears, the hospitality and generosity is staggering, but in Grahame’s world you get the impression that this is just what people (or animals) do. And then this description of the firelit kitchen:
In the middle of the room stood a long table of plain boards placed on trestles, with benches down each side. At one end of it, where an arm-chair stood pushed back, were spread the remains of the Badger’s plain but ample supper. Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs. It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment.
It was that last sentence that really struck me, the one about warriors or harvesters lining up to feast. Perhaps it was the timing of when I heard it. It was near Thanksgiving and we had just planted my grandfather in the ground. He was a farmer, and, although I was never the hardworking farmboy type, I spent some time as a boy helping out on the farm. In the crucible of thinking about him and anticipating Thanksgiving at his house, the thought of meals for weary harvesters brought back a flood of memories—long August and September days chasing tractors through fields baling hay and then stacking it all in hot, steamy barn lofts until the deep purples of the twilit sky were the only reminder of the fiery sunset that had long melted into rows of corn. And then, as soon as we could pack our weary bones into dusty truck beds or on the backs of four-wheelers, the immense meals at the hundred-year-old family farmhouse, with Nana running around apologizing for not having made enough food (mostly from scratch) to last until Christmas, just into next week. The satisfaction of honest, hard labor and aching muscles. Ice-cold sweet tea.
When I look back on those times, the most poignant scenes for me are when we sat down to eat. To this day, when I picture a satisfying feast, I can only picture the farmhouse after a long day in the fields, Nana’s table spread with mashed potatoes and fresh sweet corn and green beans and fried chicken, two or three different kinds of biscuits or rolls, maybe a couple of chicken pot pies for good measure, three or four pitchers of sweet tea, and any number of other wholesome comfort foods, with homemade ice cream and some sort of pie or other waiting until we were too full to even bother trying to squeeze it into the cracks.
But, then, it wasn’t ever really the food itself, was it? Yes, the food was the reward for today’s labors and the fuel for tomorrow’s. But it was also the fertilizer in which relationships grew. As we ate, we unwound and decompressed and recalibrated. We told the stories of the day, or at least the talkative ones did, and my brothers and I had competitions to see who could pack in the most mashed potatoes. The meal did as much to bind us together as the long, hard day of sweating beside one another.
Don’t get me wrong, here. Those scenes weren’t normal for me, and when they unfolded they didn’t mean near so much as they do now. I’m as much a child of the suburbs as anybody, and a broken home has a way of spoiling the joy of the dinner table, no matter how hard your parents work at it. Maybe that’s the reason these scenes, few as they may have been, stand out to me so much.
So until I did some talking-animal-story-inspired daydreaming and reminiscing (and it’s hard to tell the two apart), it never occurred to me why food mattered so much in those stories. It was a mystery why certain authors labored painting such vivid scenes, in the same way that, for so long, it was a mystery why Nana bothered spending so much time creating them in real life.
It’s ironic, of course, that it took some talking animals to make me think about the nature of feasting. I mean, it’s not like feasting is something animals are known for. Gorging, sure. Hoarding, occasionally. But not feasting.
Squirrels and ants spend their days scurrying about for food, but they never spread a tablecloth. No beaver or muskrat lights a candle or says grace. No dog or rabbit takes care to politely chew with his mouth closed or tips back dangerously in his chair to spin a good yarn.
No, feasting is something that’s strictly human. It belongs exclusively to those who bear the image of God. For every other creature under heaven, food is an end. But for Man, it is a means. And a means of grace at that, if only common grace.
Food has always been a means to something bigger than just filling our stomachs. It’s a means to many wonderful things, big and small, because God made it that way. Just think about it:
When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden, He tied the whole future of the human race to bits of fruit. Eating from the Tree of Life meant worship and obedience and life and eternal fellowship with God and one another. Eating from the other tree meant sin and death and hell and conflict. God could’ve given Adam an abstract concept or a physical boundary to test his obedience, but He gave him food. Have you ever wondered why God calls His Word the Bread of Life? Or why the psalmist says it’s sweeter than honey and better than wine? Or why God made His prophets eat scrolls (and sometimes far less appetizing things)?
Or why He placed sacrificial meals and feasts at the heart of Old Covenant worship, punctuating the calendar year with weeks of food—the Feast of Passover, the Feast of Booths, the Feast of Firstfruits, the Feast of Trumpets, and the Feast of Weeks? And why was the diet of the people of God so well-regulated, with some foods labeled as clean and others unclean? And why was it that, when the Son of God was born, He was laid in a feeding trough? Coincidence, perhaps? And is it just coincidence that a meal is at the heart of how we celebrate the New Covenant?
God didn’t do all that to teach us food is just for fuel or fun. Ultimately, all the sacrificial feasts and the Old Covenant imagery, and all our family meals, even our best harvest feasts, are shadows and types. Jesus is the true Bread of Heaven and the Lamb of God, offered for and to the world. His body is bread, broken for us. His blood is wine, poured out for us.
He is the food we were made to long for, first held forth to Adam and Eve in the Tree of Life, and now to us in His Word and in the bread and wine. Through Him we have fellowship with God and one another. He nourishes us, binds us together, fills us with joy and gratitude, and gives us a sense of place. In Jesus, feasting finds its perfect expression.
Now, it’s been a long and winding road from home to Badger’s house to the nostalgic haze of childhood to here. And, like the Apostle Peter, we could stop and pitch our tents and call it the end of the journey. But if you’ve actually read the stories, you know that no journey is ever complete until you get back to home, sweet home, and that’s where I’d like to end up myself.
In other words, it’s one thing to open up the mystery of why God made food the way He made it. It’s wonderful and insightful and fun. It’s helpful to see Jesus in our harvest feasts and in our storybooks and to begin to understand the significance of the Lord’s Supper. It’s even nice to see how some authors of some stories, Christian or not, have managed to capture a small smidgen of the poetry in how God made the world.
But that’d be a silly place to stop. God never means for us to stay on the mountain of biblical theology. He shows us the big picture so that we can work down from there into the nooks and crannies of our lives. So how do we work this deep down? How do we make the best of this weird and wonderful gift He has clearly built into the fabric of the universe? How do we glorify Him with food and feasting? Well, there are a lot of ways we could go, but the most obvious answers are often the best ones. And the most obvious answer for me, and for any other father, is that I feast with my family when we gather around the dinner table.
This is because, for a family, food is a means to glorify God with grateful hearts as we pray before the meal and then enjoy it together. It’s a means to fellowship and joy and laughter as we tell stories and jokes around the table, catch up on the day’s events, and get to know and understand each other better.
It’s also a means of reconciliation and peace, because, let’s face it, sharing a meal is too intimate a thing to do while angry. Besides, staying angry while slurping noodles is difficult enough in the first place, and it’s even more difficult to take seriously. Meals have a natural way of forcing conflict out into the open and causing it to be dealt with.
In other words, sharing a meal with one another, really sharing it, requires a lot of relational work. It requires conflict and discipline and reconciliation. As a father, it’s my job to lead in all of that.
It’s my job, in fact, to make sure that the family table, as often as God allows us to share it, is the highlight of the evening. Which means I can’t let the joy and peace of my table be hijacked by whining and complaining children or petty fights or quarrels or my own selfishness. My job is to bring order to my home, to focus our mealtime on Christ.
My job is to take this table work head on, and to see it as a God-given opportunity for leading my family to Jesus. It’s an opportunity to deal with the conflicts of the day, to reconcile quarreling brothers and sisters, to encourage and to warn my children. It’s an opportunity to listen to my children and to learn what makes them tick and to draw each of them into the shared life of our family. It’s an opportunity to teach and instruct and catechize and correct. It’s an opportunity to tell my wife and kids about my day, to give myself to them and allow them to share in my work, in my joys and struggles. It’s also an opportunity to apologize to my wife, and ask forgiveness of my children, and to lead us all to hate our sin and love our Savior. In other words, it’s an opportunity to give grace to our families.
When we do our jobs as fathers, the dinner table is filled with laughter and joy and peace and unity. And when we don’t, everyone tends to avoid the table altogether, because who likes to eat in the midst of tension? Who can bear that for more than two meals a year?
Without this sort of order, pretty soon everyone ends up eating on his own time. We find a million reasons to not eat together—it’s inconvenient, we’re too busy, we’re too tired. We’ll even fill up our evenings with things we hate in order to avoid sharing a meal with one another.
And when we do this, we lose so many things. Mindfulness of others and the art of conversation and the ability to deal with conflict and a healthy relationship with food, for starters. But, above all else, what we lose is intimacy. Healthy relationships. Our sense of place.
The more that I’ve come to think about food this way, the more I’ve understood why The Wind in the Willows had to have descriptions like the one of what Mole and Rat saw in Badger’s house. In a story about relationships, friendship, and camaraderie, of course food had to be central. It’s obvious once you realize what food is for. But not until then.
Hopefully, you’re the sort of person that knew all this without having to read a talking animal book.
But whatever sort of person you are, if you remember nothing else, remember that when it comes to food, it’s context that matters most, not content. Not nutrition. Restore the dignity of the family table in your home, because food is not an end. It’s a means of grace. Common grace here, special grace there, but grace, through and through.
One final note. I know I’ve romanticized it a bit, but really, you don’t need to recreate a scene from a talking animal story or restore an agrarian vision of the family farm. Leave the vests and pipes and mouthwatering descriptions of freshwater shrimp garnished with cream and rose leaves and whatever to Mole and Rat and Badger. In other words, don’t place yourself in a false yoke. I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but you are probably not J. R. R. Tolkien, and you probably don’t live on a bucolic old-timey farm in the English countryside, and you’re not the hero of the story, Jesus is. So don’t be a Christian poser. Your kids won’t buy it and you’ll end up doing more harm than good.
Instead, sit down and enjoy one another. Say grace, and give grace to your children. And let it be funny and goofy and even awkward from time to time. Don’t get me wrong, try to make it nice once in a while. But at the end of the day, if you live by faith in the Son of God, you’re the real harvesters and heroes, and no poetic flourishes will ever touch the scenes that surround your table, even when the feast consists of corndogs and ketchup. You’ll put the animals to shame.