Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hope For Adult Picky Eaters
(And Leaders In The Church)


Last week I wrote a post I called "The Delicious Discipline of Eating Well (and why it may be at the heart of the Gospel)." In the wake of that post, the thing that has most surprised me is the generous reading the post has found among the nutritionist community. After all, in a real sense, I don't know what I am talking about. I have read and practiced much of Ellyn Satter's work, especially in my role as parent, but nutrition is not my "gig." Even within my family, my wife is infinitely more knowledgeable in these matters than I am. So I am encouraged that those who are better positioned to see the potential of the questions and connections I am trying to explore see these questions and connections as worthwhile.

That I am not a nutritionist may explain why it has taken me so long to learn to ask these questions. I have been following Satter's work since the birth of our firstborn (she'll be 4 in August), and have been a priest for going on six years now, but - strangely, I think - I have only recently begun to see Satter's work as a gift with much to teach the Church - especially the Episcopal tradition - in which our central act is the sharing of a common meal. 


[Note: the centrality of the Eucharist for Episcopalians leads me to believe the connections I am making with Satter's work are more than merely analogical. One could argue that Christians are a people whose primary calling is to learn what it is to eat well. When I read Ellyn's definition of normal eating, my heart is thinking bread and wine and words like "satisfied" and "abundant life."]


A few days after The Delicious Discipline, I think the one thing in all of this that I find most hopeful for the Church is the conviction that leadership that grows can be healthful - indeed, that leadership is measured best by the health it promotes. This may sound very basic - like not a very ambitious thing to hope for - but there is so much essential life in it. Many are the examples of growth at homes and in churches by coercion, guilt, false obligations, and shaming - that is, by appeals to the default scripts we adopt in our heads and which Satter works so hard to silence. I met a man once in a parish who asked me if I knew he had become the scheduler for the church's lay reader ministry. I told him I had. He asked if I knew what had happened to the last scheduler before him. I said no. "What?" "Twenty-six years he did it. Couldn't get out. Then he died." A long silence. "And now I'm him."


With my own children, I like to think I am beginning to have a handle on *mostly* replacing these unhealthful scripts with a trust in the the wisdom of their bodies. But what about adults like my friend (and including myself), in whom these destructive scripts are all put framed on the mantle of the heart?


With that question as my motivation today, I found and read Satter's short article entitled, "The Adult Picky Eater." She lays out the challenge this way: 
Everybody dislikes some foods. For most, it isn't a problem. It becomes a problem when you like such a short list of foods it's hard to get the nutrients you need. It is even more of a problem if you feel singled out, shamed and criticized by others for your food preferences. Your picky eating most likely comes from too much food pressure when you were a child, lack of exposure to unfamiliar food, or both. You, like many children, may have been especially sensitive to taste and texture. However, you could still have learned to like a variety of food had you been repeatedly exposed to unfamiliar foods without pressure to eat them.
Exposure without pressure. Yes. The Church must be about this.

Ellyn goes on to replace the old scripts and their pressures with these new norms:
At mealtime, it is socially acceptable to:
  • Pick and choose from what is on the table
  • Decline to be served.
  • Eat only one or two food items.
  • Leave unwanted food on your plate.
  • Take more of one food when you haven't finished another.
It is not socially acceptable to:
  • Draw attention to your food refusal.
  • Request food that is not on the menu.
And I think about the teaching of the 1979 Prayer Book, in which children may receive the Eucharist from the moment of their baptism, which, if they are like most Episcopalians, they will be too young to remember. In other words, they will be too young to remember a time in which they were not trusted to eat or refuse to eat without drawing attention to their refusal.

Additionally, feel how Ellyn's new norms depersonalize what might otherwise become highly personalized conflicts. It is acceptable to pick and choose, to decline to be served, to eat only your favorites, to leave food on your plate, to go back for more. It is acceptable. Feel how these norms begin to decrease the penalty for adventurous choices - or non-choices. My father-in-law likes to say of "pot lucks" that they are so named because of the treacherous amount of luck involved. See how these new norms, in the context of the Body of Christ, offer a freedom consistent with the love and trust and grace of the Gospel. "Once you have learned to say no," says Satter, "you can learn to say yes."

It is acceptable. 

I wonder about my friend and his realization that he was serving a sentence that would end with his death. I wonder about the fear some leaders carry, that their ministry won't be perpetuated after they move on. What scripts prevent them from letting go of these fears? I wonder about the anxiety that fills our hands as we lift them up to receive the bread. It is acceptable. 


Dare we believe this? Dare we lead out of it?


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