OK, so it struck me that many recent Gospel readings in the Lectionary have been about food, one way or another - seeds growing, plants being sorted, Jesus feeding the five thousand. It may be coincidence, but this sits uncomfortably with me in the light of the East African crisis. In the parables that we have heard recently from the book of Matthew, it's clear that harvesting sustenance from land and sea were resonant metaphors for peoples of the New Testament. Two thousand years ago, people often lived hand to mouth, relying on the vagaries of climate to provide them with nourishment. Many of us in the Western world rarely think about food production. The importance of bread as a physical source of fulfilment, of course, still resonates through the Eucharistic expression of spiritual nourishment by Christ himself as he taught His disciples, to take and eat - "this is my body." Praying "Give us this day our daily bread" refers to asking and thanking God for both physical and spiritual fulfilment.
The emphasis on this metaphorical depiction of Jesus as the bread of life, and our disconnection from our food sources, may have also lead us to neglect the Old Testament histories that tell of peoples who were starving, searching for a fertile area in which to settle. Yet, it's important for us to underpin the spiritual dimensions of the Eucharist with the real physical hunger of the wandering Hebrews, for whom God provided manna to sustain their bodies as well as their souls. Revisiting the story of Jacob's family in Genesis reminds us that Jpseph was God's instrument in alleviating the problems caused by famine at that time. Then, as now, being unable to access food and clean water was a matter of life or death. People trusted in God to provide.
It is this sort of faith in God controlling the elements, of choosing to bless (or punish) with the provision or lack of sustenance, that some people (including some Christians) associate with Christianity. Do good deeds, and you will be fed. Trust in Him, and you will be safe from drought and famine. Similarly, many wonder where God is in a time of crisis. If so many are dying, where is He in this? Many of those who are starving will also be praying. Does the persistent failure of crops and added complications including civil war in a region mean that God has abandoned it and its people, as the Hebrews wrote in the Old Testament books of Kings?
But reading this through a New Testament lens, things are absolutely clear - God IS here, He IS doing something about the crisis, because He is working through humanity - we are doing His work, here on earth. When people fail to donate to famine relief, are unable to see what a difference even a small amount can make or think that it is up to someone else (God or otherwise) to sort out these problems, they need to think again. Jesus, as God in human form, showed us how it is possible to help others in the world simply by loving and taking care of one another. Whether in the form of a divine miracle, such as feeding the five thousand, or a small act of kindness, such as giving what we can to charity, it can still be enough. View every meal we eat as a gift from God. And pass it on. BE God's instrument in this.
After attending two church services yesterday which referenced the loaves & fishes, Exodus & other lines about to the bread of life/heaven, and partaking in the Eucharist, I felt powerless myself. Other than throwing money at (another) seemingly insurmountable East African crisis, I felt there was little else I am unable to do, which frustrated and saddened me. PRAY, said a friend, which is one answer. But I think another answer is - we need to get past frustrated. We need to get past our feelings that things like this keep happening, and that we can't fix them We just need to PERSIST. We need to persist in promoting taking care of one another as a familial, local and global responsibility. We need to recognise that we can't do it all, but that all of us can do something. We need to self-educate, and hope, and pray, and continue to hope. And we need to ACT.
I'm not saying that God has passed the buck and that He isn't hard at work in East Africa right now. Nor am I suggesting that Western politicians or charities have it sussed and that their attitudes and policies towards dealing with persistent famine always work - they don't, and there needs to be more research, and more long-term investment, and yes, possibly these areas where people and their ancestors have lived for thousands of years may not be viable places to live. But the fact is, people are living - many barely living - in harsh conditions and they need help. And we CAN do something to help them.