I attended my friend Bev’s ordination service yesterday. Everywhere were symbols of life, service, sacrament, and ministry. There was music from all sorts of traditions, a drumming circle, children waving ribbons, prayers, candles, stones, and (of course) the sharing of The Table. It was a powerful and remarkable service, each element its own vocal reminder of one aspect of life together with God.
As I sat there watching the ceremony, I began to smell something strong wafting through the sanctuary. It was the unmistakable smell universal to churches, community halls, and kitchens alike: buns and chili.
No matter where I’ve travelled in North America, every church potluck has a few forms of bread — some baked onsite — and at least one crockpot of chili kept bubbling hot until ravenous parishioners join together after all official proceedings are done and we all dig in. More than a few of these get-togethers see multiple crockpots set up around church kitchens and fellowship halls, all sharing any available electrical outlets. At least one brave soul remains in the kitchen during the service to stir any stews, soups, or gravies sitting on hot stove elements.
Brewing coffee only strengthens the smell of baking bread and simmering stews. Even if there isn’t “chili” specifically, or if breads have been baked ahead of time, there is always that warm, delicious smell of shared-food-to-come. It is distinct. You can’t miss it. It makes my mouth water even if I’m not hungry.
The smell also evokes in me the taste of “church juice” — juice made with Tang crystals (or a no named version thereof). Every church I’ve attended or visited has at least one package of church juice hiding in the cupboards. Usually there would be a jug of orange flavour and a jug of grape. Peach flavour would be served on special days. So as a kid, along with chili and bread, I could be reassured that I would also be entreated to a straight up liquid sugar rush.
Whether it was intentional or not, Bev’s service contained the smell of welcome and of sharing. It beckoned people to stay and visit, to be refreshed, to celebrate, and to break bread together. Many hands — young and old — had taken time to produce (ooohhhh this is the time of year for produce!), prepare, cook, and share dishes of all kinds, sandwiches, desserts. And more hands still stirred juice and brewed coffee and tea.
All of these delights could be smelled during the singing of hymns, the readings, and the laying on of hands. This beautiful idea of bringing together humble food for everyone to share wafted across each and every portion of the service. It became the air we breathed — another shared experience — and reminded me of our shared need to breathe and our shared need to eat and to drink.
It reminded me of our shared need to share.
I’ve lived my entire life in church culture, and I know that, for many people, church potlucks are the only community meals they are able to attend. For some, these are the only places they’ve been welcome to participate in. The come for the community of friendship as well as the community of feasting, the ministry of presence as well as the ministry of food.
While visiting and laughing are huge, integral parts of breaking bread, I often find myself far more nourished holding back and watching people engage in this breaking of bread and life together – chili as a form of mutual love and respect. It’s quite a spectacular thing to bear witness to: people being nourished by God and one another in body, mind, spirit and connection.
When I finally arrived home last evening – well after midnight – I looked up was speechless witnessing the enormous starry sky. The crescent moon hung low over the horizon, so the stars dominated the darkness. It never ceases to amaze me how such small lights can overwhelm a dark world when one big bright light moves out of the way a little bit.
The smell of chili and buns during Bev’s ordination reminded me a little bit of this starry brilliant universe: when the big stuff moves out of the way, we can see the billions of lives coming together to create something powerful, wonderful, and nourishing. The many hands, the many recipes, even the ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ moments all come together and become an entire array of life-giving-life and life-giving-to-life.
Next time you’re sitting in church or a club meeting or a retreat and there’s a potluck afterwards, take a break from the sermon (not too long, ha!) and inhale deeply. Take a good long sniff of what’s wafting on the air.
Chili and buns.