My new grace-based Christian church has an open coffee bar with only one food item on offer: Otis Spunkmeyer cookies. Every visitor gets a free cookie. Last fall, our Halloween Trunk or Treat was not just a candy fest; it was designed and advertised as a CRAZY candy fest. One of the church’s outreach programs is an ice cream truck.
The pastor pats his tummy as he takes the floor, comments on the too-many donuts he had for breakfast and how he will have to get on the treadmill, although of course he also mentions how much he hates exercise. This is his way of assuring us that he is in touch with our temptations and sympathetic to our carnal inclination for rest and comfort. Perhaps we will hear his exhortation to avoid real sin — adultery, pornography, marijuana — with more openness, believing that the man of God has the same carnal nature as we do.
Donuts, cookies, candy? The Lord would never ask you to relinquish those.
The Church has always had a strong relationship to food. My father remembers the church supper in his Kansas Methodist community as the one hearty meal of the week, featuring hot beef, potatoes and carrots guaranteed to fill up a farm boy’s hungry belly. Hispanic Catholics in my home state of New Mexico offer up chili, beans, and tamales after Sunday service. A slice of cake or pie after a hearty and nourishing meal leaves these parishioners assured that the church cares about more than just their basic needs.
Unlike many of the world’s people, most Americans do not have to go without pleasant-tasting food. After a long day at work, and a long, frustrating commute, there is plenty of comfort food at hand, a lot of it full of sugar. Sugar is killing us. Inflammation, diabetes, and obesity are epidemic — indeed, that’s what drives many to seek solace in prayer. I have seen people add prayers for relief from chronic pain or diabetes to the collection of prayer requests, then sit down to a cinnamon roll or a piece of pie at the reception after service.
In every church I have attended, sugary food is apparently fine with Christ, maybe even an expression of Christian love. Sugary foods says “we care.” The message that the church loves us in Christ is unabashedly conveyed by the ever-present and abundant sugar on offer and by church leaders’ jovial quasi-confessions that they indulge along with the rest of us.
But Christ was a healer. Too much sugar makes us sick. How Christian can cookies be?
The Church of Latter Day Saints and the Seventh Day Adventists set dietary guidelines that emphasize healthy foods. For most of the Christian community, though, the extent to which healthy eating habits are role modeled and encouraged in church varies. Studies suggest that Baptist and Protestant churchgoers are 10 percent more likely than the general population to become obese, yet curricula at most divinity schools continue to interpret “wellness” as a term that applies only to spiritual and mental health.
It’s time for pastors and ministers in training to give up the hook that sugar represents and learn to address physical wellness with clarity of purpose. Church leaders need to set aside resources for educating all age groups about the relationship between sugar and illness.
In high school, one of my friends started a vegetarian diet, but told us that she was including a pepperoni exception. The Church needs to take a long look at its sugar exception. The body of Christ needs to stay healthy to do its work.