About ten years ago, I traveled with a group of seven seminarians to Myanmar, or Burma. The purpose was to learn about, develop relationships with, and support the Anglican Church in Myanmar. I could talk for days about that four-week trip, but one of the experiences that lingered with me was the food. Part of why the cuisine lingered with me was because each of my three years in seminary we had one or two Burmese students at the seminary. After the trip, we took to having reunions at a local Burmese Restaurant. We found the meals reminded us of the flavors of that trip, the food comforted our Burmese friends, and the fellowship kept the experience vivid and meaningful for years to come.
This past weekend I was traveling in the area of my seminary and made a trip to the restaurant for lunch. I ordered my two favorite, most potent memory-invoking dishes: mohingar, a fish-based soup, and pickled tea leaf salad. I had been looking forward to the food for weeks – so much so that I was salivating by the time I pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant. What I was not expecting was the wave of emotion that accompanied the food. As the heat of the salad opened my sinuses, I was reminded of multiple episodes on our trip where funny food-related experiences happened – a too-hot pepper eaten, the presentation of tiny birds as an appetizer, an avocado milkshake. As I sipped the mohingar, the warmth in my belly reminded me of all the times the food, though foreign, was exceptionally comforting – like discovering a comfort food you never knew you missed. As those memories and feelings emerged, I became overwhelmed and found myself fighting back tears. The rush of emotions was completely unexpected and disorienting, and I could not be sure whether I was sad or profoundly happy.
I have talked a couple of times about the power of food, taste, and memory (both here and here) to connect with our spiritual life. But what I realized this weekend (as I tried not to cry into my mohingar) is that food and taste point to the powerful experiences that can happen in faith communities. For the team that traveled to Burma, the food was a tool for bringing us together and sharing memories. For our Burmese friends and fellow students, the food was an opportunity to experience intimacy and trust that I do not think would have happened in the classroom alone. The taste of the familiar dishes were not simply familiar tastes. They were also tools for creating and sustaining community, and honoring that community through the senses.
This week, we will be starting a new summertime worship service at Hickory Neck. Though rooted in our Episcopal and Anglican identity, the service is a departure from our Sunday morning services. We are using different prayers and music; we are settling into a more casual style of worship and preaching; and we are even changing small things like the type of bread we eat for communion. Part of the changes are certainly meant to shift the sensory experiences of worship. But another part of the changes is meant to shape community a bit differently – to create a sense of intimacy, familiarity, shared spiritual journey. I am not sure if pita bread will be able to accomplish all of that, but I hope you will come out and give this new offering a try. Who knows what memories, relationships, and encounters with God you will create?!