When I was first apprenticing in agriculture, I met a wheat farmer from Western Oklahoma named Kim Barker. An avid reader, he told me that if I wanted to learn how to farm, I should go to used bookstores and antique shops, searching for agriculture texts that were written before the rise of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. “The old books tell you how to do things,” Kim said, “while the new ones only tell you what to buy.”
That is how, one day, I found myself digging through a dumpster. I wasn’t foraging for day old sushi or expired dairy (though I admire the “freegans” whose stomachs can handle such things). Instead, this dumpster belonged to the Conway County Library where a number of “outdated books” had just been culled. Among them were several farming books of just the sort Kim told me to look for. The best was a slim volume with a yellow cover, the dust jacket wrapped with the usual plastic of a library book. It was Andre Voison’s Fertilizer Application.
Voison was working at the point when synthetic nitrogen was making its way from the bomb factories of World War II to farm fields of Europe and America. And though not opposed to these fertilizers, per se, he came to see that they were not a net positive. As his research showed: apply large amounts of synthetic nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, and other important nutrients in the soil begin to disappear.
Riboflaven, Voison argued, could be diminished in soils supplemented with synthetic fertilizer. Vegetables then grown from that soil would lack sufficient amounts of this protective nutrient. The result, he believed, would be wide-spread diseases of malnourishment among those with more than enough to eat.
Contemporary research has born Voison’s vision out. In England, the Broadbalk research station has continually measured nutrient levels in wheat since 1843. What they’ve found is that since the introduction of modern wheat in 1968 the content of zinc, iron, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, sulfur, and calcium has plummeted 18 to 29 percent. While wheat became more abundant the bread made from it became far less nourishing.
The Gospel of John, of course, was written well before synthetic fertilizers and modern dwarf wheat. Most people lived, more or less, on a bread that was rich and nutritious, with grains grown from soils teaming with the microbes that sustain plant life. And yet, the difference between modern and ancient wheat offers us insight into the the bread of the ancestors and the living bread that Jesus gives. It is a difference of direction and relationship; fast food on the way to something else or a feast at which we linger.
To help his hearers understand what he is offering, Jesus draws on one of the great miracles of the bible—the giving of manna in the wilderness. Manna was God’s life sustaining answer to Israel’s need during the Exodus from Egypt. But this miraculous bread that helped the people of Israel find their freedom, was always meant to be only an expression of the true source of Israel’s sustenance—their abiding relationship with the living God.
The problem, then as now, is that the people paid no attention to the deeper source of their nourishment. Once they ate the manna, they forgot all about continuing to trust in God’s provision and love. As the book of Numbers puts it in its recounting this miracle, “Despite his wonders, they refused to trust him. So he ended their lives in failure, their years in terror.” (11:32b-33a).
This episode was a critical one in Israel’s story. No fewer than three Psalms recount Israel’s refusal to be satisfied with God’s gift of manna, and Jesus’ hearers would have known these verses by memory. When he tells them that their ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness and died, Jesus is not offering anything that would have been news to his audience. The people of God were always facing same old challenge—to be consumers of God’s gifts or participants in God’s abiding life? Jesus’ difficult teaching is that they were once again taking God’s gifts for their own selfish ends, living as users of God’s provision rather than sharers in his life.
Much of industrial agriculture, as the farmer Wendell Berry has put it, follows the pattern of the strip-mine. It extracts but does not replenish. And this pattern of consumption without return is one that is pervasive in our society, even our faith. We are hungry and God has spread a perpetual feast before us. But we opt instead for a cheap substitute, grabbing a bite on the way to the rest of our lives, wondering as, Psalm 78 puts it, why we “can’t stop [our] craving even though the food is still in [our] mouths.”
Jesus offers a different way, one that goes back to God’s gift of nourishment in his covenant with Israel. Jesus is calling for us to move away from the patterns of consumption that will only leave us depleted, however much we eat and to instead participate in the continuous energy available from the everlasting life of God. We move to this participation by way of return and relationship.
A contemporary of Andre Voison was Sir Albert Howard. In his important book, The Soil and Health, Howard wrote that many of our ecological problems are a “punishment meted out by Mother Nature for adopting methods of agriculture which are not in accordance with Nature’s law of return.” The law of return is essentially the law of the gift. Gifts are not things we receive and deposit, storing them away. For gifts to be true gifts they must be circulated, not in exchange but in reciprocity. When we receive the gift of good food from soil, our response should be to return life to the soil with mulch and compost. And the same pattern holds in our life of faith. God is a host who invites us to come, share a meal, to eat together in the continual conversation of love. It is not something we pay for and consume, but rather a relationship we enter through the circle of God’s grace. The Eucharist, when it is eaten as a meal of thanksgiving, is a sign of that sharing and gift, but it is not one we can abide in alone.
Good food is always the result of life together. As Sir Albert Howard wrote: “the problems of the farm and garden are biological rather than chemical.” In the industrial model the soil becomes little more than a medium of inputs for agricultural outputs, exchange rather than reciprocity. But good, sustaining soil—the kind that provides rich and nutritious food—is made through an ongoing community of living relationship. From fungi to protozoa, moles to microbes, good soil is the common ground of a common life. And this too is a truth of our abiding in Christ. It is through the return of our thanksgiving and the life of relationship that we become participants in the divine, joining in the community gathered at the banquet to which God is always calling us. It is a reality, like any good loaf of bread, in which we find our nourishment together.
In seminary, I occasionally baked bread for our Eucharists. There was a rotation, and we were guided only by a common recipe. When it came my turn, I went to a specialty store, and bought flour milled from an ancient kind of wheat, the same sort that likely grew on the Palestinian planes of the Jesus’ day. The wheat was grown by farmers following the renewing patterns pioneered by Voison and Howard, a way of agriculture that focused on sustaining the community of life beneath the ground. I mixed the wheat with olive oil, sourced from a Palestinian cooperative of farmers not far from Bethlehem. At the end, I sweetened it with a bit of honey from a nearby farm in the Shenandoah valley. When we received it together, in the midst of the Eucharistic meal, little bits torn and given, it was a gathering of life and care, of return and relationship. And as we ate the wheat, born of so much life, we were opened to the nourishment of the one whose flesh is true bread and blood is true drink. It is a sign of the meal to which we are invited, the table that God has set before us saying, “come and stay, eat and be satisfied.” Amen.