Why Are They Eating Poison? – Rev. Eva Cameron

Sermon preached by Rev. Eva Cameron, with contribution by Del Carpenter, Worship Associate

Story for all Ages preceding Sermon
Many years ago, when I was a minister at another church, a kid asked me a question that I have always remembered. We were standing at Coffee Hour, and around us people were all munching on the treats that were provided. Now, I need to tell you a bit about that boy, so that you’ll understand his question. This was a boy whose parents home-schooled him. That means that he didn’t know a lot about other people, or other ways, than the way his parents raised him. They were people who were real lovers of peace, and healthy living. The whole family ate healthy, wholesome foods, and the children were taught about some of the things that people in society do that really are unhealthy — watching too much TV. He had only been coming to the church for a short time. So, there we were, in the middle of coffee hour. And he looked up at me, and asked, “Why are they eating poison?” I wasn’t sure I heard him right. “What?” I said to him. “Why are they eating poison?” he repeated, this time nodding in the direction of the treats table. It had big trays of doughnuts, a church tradition each Sunday at that church. I looked where he was pointing and understood. As he added for my benefit, “My father says that sugar is a poison. It makes you sick.” I knew what he was talking about. Sometimes, as I walked by that table, the doughnuts would look good, or smell good, and I’d take a half of one. But soon after I ate it, I was mad at myself for doing that. My body would feel a bit shaky. Usually just about the time that I had to start doing the second service.

I told that boy that a lot of people don’t really know what sugar does to their body. And that they really don’t know, or don’t pay attention to many things that aren’t really healthy for their bodies. So, because they aren’t paying attention, they eat them. And they do feel sick often. Only they don’t know it’s the sugar that caused it. He was a kid, so he wiggled and was done talking with a grown up. But as he ran away to play with his friends, he left me thinking. And every so often, when I see people eating sweets, I think to myself, “Why are they eating poison?”

I remember a while back. I was at an old church, and it was time for the church staff holiday party. Someone had made fresh, sticky, gooey cinnamon buns. And someone else brought in good flavored coffee, made fresh. The bun-maker was urging us all to try her buns while they were hot. I hadn’t eaten much sugar in the past few years; and since I was kid, I haven’t really liked things that were sticky sweet. Don’t get me wrong, I love rich desserts — take me to a European bakery, like you can find in Chicago, and I could eat something new each day of the week. But the American palate for sweets is just too sweet for me. Okay, so here I am at this party, and the sweet rolls look too sweet. So I think I’d better get a bit of coffee to wash all that sugar down. The problem was I hadn’t drunk any coffee in several years, after giving it up while I was pregnant and nursing Irene. It all smelled good; and urged on by gently smiling faces eager to see me “happy,” I had half a roll, and half a cup of coffee. Twenty minutes later, I sat at my desk with my hands shaking so hard I couldn’t write or type. I felt ‘high’ as all that sugar coursed through my blood vessels at breakneck speed, urged on by the coffee, that wouldn’t let my own body regulate the sugar and pull it out of my blood stream. I wondered then, as I wonder now, is this what happens to us when we indulge? Only we slowly become so used to how it feels, we no longer even know what normal feels like?

I’ve read that one of the difficulties about growing up as a bottle-fed baby is that from the very earliest days, your feeding didn’t depend on YOU paying attention to how you felt and stopping when you were full — as a nursing baby would do. But rather it depended on some external person, whoever was holding the bottle, shaking it, looking at the marks on the side, thinking, “Has he or she had enough?” shoving it back into your mouth — “Come on, eat a bit more, you did yesterday, and I don’t want to have to feed you again in a short time.”

This only begins a long relationship our stomachs have with our society _ a society that at once urges us to have bodies that look a certain, healthy, and vibrant way. And at the same time, to totally ignore the messages our bodies are sending us about whether we are hungry or full. Whether a food makes us feel healthy or sick. Whether sitting at the desk all day makes our body hurt, or working on a line in a factory all day doing the same thing makes us hurt. A society that wants us to be emotionally healthy, and yet systematically refuses to acknowledge and provide the most basic of needs to be a child that will allow us to grow into physically, emotionally, spiritually healthy adults.

I have always been aware of our failings, at certain levels, as I suspect you have too. But when I lived in the Khasi Hills in India for 5 months, I began to have a better understanding at how much the system affects that ability of each person to grow up well. It’s not a perfect system either — but it opened my eyes.

First of all, they are a matri-lineal society. This means that property is inherited from mother to daughter. When I asked about this, I learned it wasn’t just so simple. It’s true that the daughters inherit, but it works like this: The youngest daughter gets all of her parents’ property. They don’t subdivide it. But, she doesn’t just get all of the stuff, the material things, the land, the wealth. With it, she gets the title “Doh doh” and a whole bunch of responsibility. A “Doh doh” must care for her parents to the end of their days. She never leaves the house like her siblings as she reaches her twenties. (This explains the fact that it’s the youngest one, rather than our traditional system of the oldest inheriting.) And beyond that, she must keep her heart and her hearth open to the whole extended family. Her property and wealth aren’t really hers; they are a family trust, to provide stability in times of crisis. There is always a home to return to.

I questioned why it was the daughters who inherited, instead of the sons. That was easy in their minds. The sons and husbands go off to war; if they don’t return, what happens to the children? They are forced into turmoil. The property must be held so that the children are cared for and have the least upset in their lives. And this was at the heart of it all. Their whole society revolved around this property ownership and care for the children and elders. If a young couple got married and bought a house, it was automatically the wife’s house. Why? I would ask the man, “Don’t you want your share of this investment of your funds?” “The children are the most important of all,” he would always answer. We must make sure they have a stable life, and this is really for them.” It makes you stop and think about our system doesn’t it? Where children are the least, figuratively ‘not speaking until spoken to,’ as we all pursue our dreams, our birth-right privilege of having things the way we want them.

What does this have to do with eating sweets? And other unhealthy things? I think it’s got all the world to do with it. I think that from an early age, children in our society are taught not to listen to their own fears, their own needs, because we have established a society with adult needs coming first, and, “When you grow up, you can do it the way you want to!” we are told.

A Khasi kid would never be told this. First of all, they would be expected to be participants in the rules of society even when they grow up. And this urge to be a part of the collective keeps people in relationship _ both young and old. They have an immediate and strong understanding of the interdependent web that they are very much a part of on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis.

What does this have to do with eating sweets? Well, think about it; when you are part of something, there is a large group of people to turn to, to get your needs met. If Mom and Dad are mad at you, there is always Grandma’s bed to sleep in, and your many cousins kitchens to visit for food, for someone to ask you about your day, to smile at who you are, and what makes you you. You aren’t a lost, small individual who has to stop listening to what their own heart and body are telling them, in order to get your basic survival needs met. At such an early age, our way of being teaches us to stop paying attention to what we are being told by our senses. From the baby bottle, it continues. Even in the most loving, caring homes, the lack of extended family, the dependence on jobs for livelihood, the vagaries of our society leave any child, even the most loved and nurtured child, in a wasteland of poverty compared to these little children in the Khasi Hills who grow up in absolute material poverty compared to our wealth.

And the most important thing to remember is that WE are those children. We, who sit in this room, we who live in this Cedar Valley, we who make up most all of the inhabitants of these United States, have been raised in this poverty of interconnection and awareness of our selves. Its odd, but our own rampant love for individualism has led to a society of lonely people. Most people I talk to feel like no one truly knows them, no one truly has taken the time to listen to them and really come to love them for who they are, rather than what they can provide the other person. We live awash with self-help books, and go to church more frequently than most people on the planet, and yet we are desperately hungry. And we eat and eat.

We eat junk food yes. Things with strongly seductive tastes, because we long for stimulation. We have spent so many years not listening to what our bodies are telling us, we don’t know how to listen. Things need to be SHOUTING at us for us to notice them. Advertisements SHOUT. Foods SHOUT with sweet, sweetness; with delicious slippery greasiness, with high-octane, Red Bull caffeine; with slathered with butter goodness, with Little Debbie-engineering to make you crave more delight. I could go on about the foods, but I can’t stop there. We have activities that are SHOUTING at us with their extremes too. We have people bungie-jumping, marathon running, skate board flying, and all sorts of other things to get your adrenalin pumping. We have extreme TV, where people do all sorts of things, eat all sorts of things, act all sorts of ways that seem unnatural in the hopes of keeping our attention from running off to the movies, where we can watch the intimate, gory details of death and destruction in many ways.

I have a friend who recently told me he was given a speeding ticket. “Oh, how fast were you going?” I queried. “I was traveling 90,” he replied. This is someone who has already been in a bad auto accident. Why didn’t his very intelligent mind tell him he was racing at breakneck speed down a stretch of asphalt, with many other objects, some moving and some fixed, all potential things to crash into? Why didn’t the little voice in the back of his head kick in “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!”

I think with all this shouting, all this being taught to not listen, that we are becoming soul-deaf. The barriers we erect to survive the pains of childhood, combined with the incredible volume of stuff coming at us through out our lives — these barriers are a survival mechanism. But they are also so fortified that they keep us from understanding ourselves. We can no longer see what that little five year old kid saw, when he looked across a room of church members all munching away on doughnuts. Why are we eating poison?

We do exist embedded in this society. And I can’t argue that we all ought to up and leave and set up a new society somewhere else. Our Pilgrim forefathers and foremothers have already tried that. But we have come to understand that we need to stay and be agents of change within our own corner of this interdependent web of life here on Earth. We will always be connected, there really is no leaving. And we would only carry our ways with us — just like the Europeans carried small pox to this land, and wiped out 90% of the population innocently.

Our job is not to run away, but to learn to listen. That is the very first step. To learn to listen to ourselves. What does eating this make me feel like? What does listening to this loud sound make me feel like? What does watching this show make me feel like? What does spending time in this way make me feel like? What does taking a walk make me feel like? What do I feel like if I sit at my computer all day? What gives me a sense of knowing myself — not momentary sweetness on the tongue, but contented happiness?

Another odd thing about life in the Khasi Hills: When someone would come over to my house, like I do here, I’d offer them some small thing to eat. Very often the guest would reply, “Oh no! I just ate a couple of hours ago. I’m still really full.” For us, a couple of hours ago is a long time, and even if we weren’t really hungry, we’d probably say yes to a cookie. Why? Why can’t we feel that fullness, that sense of satiation, of happiness for a meal that occurred just a few hours ago? To me there is a great irony that this nation of such abundance, of such wealth, is in many ways starving itself to death, as witnessed very clearly by the alarming obesity rates even in children.

I want to share this reading by Sufi teacher, Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan:
“The most important subject to study in this whole life is ourselves. What we generally do is to criticize others, speak ill of them, or dislike them; but we always excuse ourselves. The right idea is to watch our own attitude, our own thought and speech and action, and to examine ourselves to see how we react upon all things in our favor and in our disfavor, to see whether we show wisdom and control in our reactions or whether we are without control and thought. Then we should also study our body, for by this we should learn that the body is not only a means of experiencing life by eating and drinking and making ourselves comfortable, but that it is the sacred temple of God.”

There are many traditions that teach that the body is a temple. Even if you have trouble understanding this because you are stumbling over the language, you can perhaps think about it like this. At your center lies a very precious and central part of who you are, a part that is the most intimate part of who you are — and at once the most interconnected, most open part of who you are. Call it your soul, call it your capacity to love, call it the spark of the divine. We each have such a core.

Speaking of listening, I’ve been enjoying reflecting on this sermon topic with Del this week. He is a thoughtful listener. He has a small personal reflection about mindfulness he’s going to share with us:

Del: To have a bit of fun with a phrase, let me begin by saying, “Mindfulness is a terrible thing to waste”. You, and David Anderson, and Buddha and a lot of others say I should pay more attention to what I eat. Ah ha! I should think more about food. But, so far, when I think more about food, I do more eating. If I want to be mindful of my weight, and Christine and I think I should, then maybe I should think less about food. Something like “Out of mind, out of desire,” seems to work better for my waistline.

On a more serious note: To the extent that I am what I eat, then am I also what I think? If what I think about affects what I become, then can I become better by improving what I think? If yes, then I can become a kinder gentler person by thinking kinder, gentler thoughts. It is easy to say I will think better thoughts. But how could I actually do that? Can I practice some kind of thought medicine on myself to achieve better thoughts? Could I go on a diet of better thoughts? It seems difficult to avoid my own junk thoughts. Maybe I could herein attempt to “doctor” myself by adapting the physician’s first dictum: “Do no harm.” One way to do no harm is to avoid harm. In a diet sense, I could reduce my junk thought intake by changing my TV choices from shows like CSI: Miami or Criminal Minds to something with less nastiness. Or I could skip violent movies like Blood Diamond or Apocalypto. So, maybe I can improve my thought diet by avoiding junk thoughts just as I can improve my food diet by avoiding junk food. Christmas seems like a season made for reducing junk thoughts and becoming kinder and gentler. Maybe I could improve enough I’ll get an indulgence from Eva for some Christmas-style junk food.

Eva: This is the Christmas season. The time to wish everyone a “Merry Christmas,” as our culture has now proclaimed it preferred to the toothless acclamatioN “Happy Holidays.” I can understand the hope to not lose the meaning of the holiday in the hope not to offend. But with it being a time of “Merry Christmas” or even “Happy Holidays,” why am I picking on you? Why am I not just preaching of holiday good cheer with a small plea tacked on to send money to hungry children in Outer Mongolia? Why not allow you your fun, and merriment at this time when so many things are so unhappy?

I could. It would be easy. I’m great at baking. I could whip a big batch of sweet rolls, brew up a nice big pot of coffee, and urge you to make yourself happy eating all these sweets. And for a moment, in that moment when it lay on your tongue, you might be happy. Or at least think you were happy. But I doubt that the small and most intimate part of you _ your soul _ is craving more sugar, more stimulation, more adrenalin. I think it wants you to pay attention to it. Not by following my rules, or anyone else’s, about how to be healthy. Although listening to what others have discovered about their own bodies may offer you clues about just what to listen for with your own.

I want to share this small reading from Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen: “Actually, we are all more that we know. Wholeness is never lost, it is only forgotten. Integrity rarely means that we need to add something to ourselves: It is more an undoing than a doing, a freeing ourselves from beliefs we have about who we are and ways we have been persuaded to ‘fix’ ourselves to know who we genuinely are. Even after many years of seeing, thinking, and living one way, we are able to reach past all that to claim our integrity and live in a way we may never have expected to live. Being with people at such times is like watching them pat their pockets, trying to remember where they have put their soul.”

This is not something that you’ll change overnight. It’s not something you’ll perfect. None of us will. But we can begin to listen. Begin to love ourselves in ways that lift up the best that we have to give the world. This is what it means to me, to understand that our body is a temple. It’s written in the sacred Christian texts: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body,” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). I like this language “Glorify God in your body.” To me, this means your life, your living offer the chance to communicate to the world. Use that chance to show the most loving, most just part of your being, as a model that others may follow.

The Buddhists might say, “Right thought leads to right action. And right thought comes from right mindfulness. Right mindfulness comes from right concentration.” To me this means: take some time to meditate — this is the concentration part. From this your mind will be more aware of your relationship to the world. And with this understanding, you will be able to act in ways that alleviate your suffering, as well as that of others: to avoid what the Buddhists call the three ‘mind poisons’ _ greed, hatred and ignorance.

In this season of many, many ways to overindulge, to poison the most important part of who you are, my wish for you is that you find it in yourself to love yourself enough to visualize that temple, to visualize that small, innocent and bright child of God that is within you, and care for it with all your heart. Wrap your arms around yourself. Give yourself a big hug. Love yourself. Listen to the deepest part of you. Let it whisper to you. Allow this love of your soul to give birth to a new relationship with yourself. And deeper relationship with yourself. Begin, by giving yourself a hug everyday. Christmas is a time to celebrate of the birth of God. Within each of you, with in us all dwells a spark of life some call God, some call love. Let us celebrate this Christmas season by focusing on the birth and nurturing of this indwelling divine baby. Yes, the baby can be in you, in doesn’t have to be outside, laying in a manger. Try giving yourself this Christmas present. It will be the best Christmas treat you’ll ever eat. The best game you’ll ever play. The happiest party you ever attended. The sweetest sounding music you’ll ever hear. I promise you it’s the best Christmas present you’ll ever receive.

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