The terror before tea
If you grew up in a Christian family—or had a Christian friend back in primary school—there is a familiar moment of awkward terror we all share.
You know it well. You've invited a friend to come and play at your house, and everything is going well. The jokes are flowing, the LEGO is falling into place, and your imaginations are pumping. Laughter, merriment, joy—all of the good adjectives—are almost tangible. Life is grand.
Then, you both get called to the dining room for dinner. It smells tantalisingly good, you can't wait to sink your teeth into the burgers and carry on the good-times around the table. But there's a pause, and your Dad coughs awkwardly, before saying, "'Let's say grace.' If your friend is unfamiliar with the church, your cheeks begin to burn with embarrassment. What are they thinking? Do they think we're weird? Has this ruined the good times?
You close your eyes. Someone mumbles out a prayer. You open your eyes, and quickly reach for a burger bun, willing the moment to pass quickly. In a few seconds, it is gone, a distant memory, only to be repeated the next time a friend comes around.
And the situation was made even more poignantly painful when a friend would unwittingly begin eating before the words of grace had been said...
The tension of goodness
Grace. It's a ritual common to most church-going families. Some hold hands; most close their eyes. Someone will be asked to pray, and a fairly rote prayer will be spoken out, often thanking God for the day, the food and 'the hands that provided it.'
I would feel a tension in these prayers as well. We would thank God for the good things he provided us. Yet, come Sunday morning, we would hear there was nothing good, except for God. We would sing about the world becoming colourless and bland in comparison to Jesus. We would be warned of the dangers of loving the world.
So why say grace? Why say, 'Thanks' for goodness, when we didn't believe there was any?
For many years, I was a guilty-goodist. I loved pleasure—by definition, who doesn't?—but would feel guilty if I enjoyed it too much. Did I love this steak more than I loved God? Did this movie give me more pleasure than worship did? Was it bad that I enjoyed a night of laughter and hilarity with my friends more than I enjoyed a bleary-eyed time with God?
Unwittingly, I set God and goodness-of-the-world in competition with each other. They were binary, mutually exclusive. I could love one, but not the other. When I sided with God, I'd feel proud—yet also like I was missing out. And when I chose the good-stuff, I'd feel guilty.
Lessons from feijoas
One day, in 2009, I was sick in bed. I couldn't work, and had spent the day trying to read, devouring lozenges and perfecting the art of feeling sorry for myself.
Late in the afternoon, there was a knock on the door. One of my workmates from church was dropping in to see me, and had a gift with them. A perfectly chilled bottle of feijoa juice. The elixir of life. Liquid perfection.
We talked briefly, then they left and I raced to the kitchen to pour myself a glass. Hurriedly, I lifted it to my mouth and celebrated the sweet-tang of chilled feijoa dancing on my taste buds. It was good.
But, in a moment, I realised that not only was this good: it was better. This drink—this particular bottle—was all the more tasty because it was a gift. As I drank the liquid gold, I not only enjoyed the beautiful taste, but I also enjoyed the love, care and kind-heartedness of my friend.
It tasted different than if I had just bought it for myself. It was somehow more alive, more vibrant, more delicious.
God dances with goodness
Suddenly, I realised that God and goodness weren't involved in a battle, but were in a dance together. A God without goodness, who didn't give good gifts, would not be a very good God at all (Jesus said something like this in Matthew chapter 7). And goodness without God loses its power and potency, as the joy and delight comes from recognising the giver.
When we pursue one without understanding the other, we try to rip the dance apart. But when we understand that God welcomes us into this divine waltz, we can suddenly gain a deeper, more beautiful understanding of God and goodness together.
The world becomes brighter, more colourful, and more tasty—the goodness finds its home.
And the depth of God's sweet love, the understanding of his fiery jealousy, the awe-inspiring nature of his power become all the more real as we taste his creation, delighting in the sweetness of golden syrup, respecting a mighty bonfire, and standing jaw-agape at a vista he has crafted. St Augustine once remarked that 'He loves Thee too little, who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake.' Goodness finds its home in God.
Back to grace
Which brings us back to grace. Far from being a dusty irrelevant relic from the past, I now see grace as a beachhead of hope, that reminds me that food and taste are good, and they are gifts. It is a centering ritual, calling me to re-orient myself to a higher truth—a delightful one—that makes goodness come alive.
GK Chesterton said, 'You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.'
What a call; to be people of grace throughout all areas of life. Grace before the invigorating coffee at the cafe. Grace as I go for a run, and feel the beads of sweat dropping from my forehead. Grace for a quiet night with a good book, and grace as I dance my fingers over the keyboard of a laptop.
More of Jeremy's writing can be found at www.jeremysuisted.com – and he still loves feijoas.