Holy Smoke: Barbecue with a Side of Faith

I think of my vegetarian friends like I think of my Jewish friends.  I love and respect them, but we are of different faiths.  I believe in barbecue.

To the casual observer those who gather for a church barbecue have found an excuse to overeat, but to serious students of the Bible and church history, we are doing God’s work.

Deuteronomy 12:15 says, “Yet whenever you desire you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it.”

You may want to crochet Deuteronomy 12:20 on an apron for a beloved carnivore, “When the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as God has promised you, and you say, ‘I am going to eat some meat,’ because you wish to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you have the desire.”

Ezekiel 24:10 was written by a prophet who knows his way around a pit, “Heap up the logs, kindle the fire, cook the meat well, mix in the spices, and let the bones be burned.”

This is the Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Food is more than a means of sustenance.  The Old Testament is filled with dietary laws, cooking instructions, and Martha Stewartlike details on what to eat during holidays.  The royal feast is the primary image of the coming kingdom of God.  Isaiah describes the messianic banquet:  “The Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food filled with marrow.”

The menu for the kingdom banquet varies from church to church.  More lime Jell-O is sold in Utah than in any other state, because Latter-day Saints take it to potluck dinners.  Greek Orthodox churches are famous for baklava.  Catholics still eat fish on Friday.  The bread at Episcopalian gatherings is likely to be fresh-baked—from an upscale French bakery.

Barbecue brings a variety of Christians together.  The perfect combination of smoke, meat, and fire creates a meal and a moment when we taste and see that God is good.

Church barbecue has a long, rich history.  In the first half of the nineteenth century, evangelists enticed crowds to camp meetings with scented smoke and sizzling meats.  Before restaurants like Porky’s Last Stand, Adam’s Rib, and Bubba Lou’s Bodacious BBQ you could not order one barbecue sandwich.  You ate barbecue only when an entire animal was cooked.  In order to avoid waste, everyone was welcome at a barbecue.  Revival barbecue was one of the few times there was more than enough food.

Barbecue is a religious experience—especially in African American churches in the South.  In Texas, there are church-connected barbecue restaurants, like New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbecue in Huntsville.  Pit masters are called “preachers” and their barbecue pits “pulpits” from which the holy word is served.

Some barbecue joints try to avoid the sectarian divisions that divide the barbecue belt and claim to serve “nondenominational barbecue.”  They do not see that the divisions—Kansas City, Memphis, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas—are denominations making distinctive contributions.  (All should, however, agree that liquid smoke is an abomination.)

God creates the low, indirect heat that produces hickory-smoked, baby-back ribs.  Watching someone combine science and art in the act of barbecuing—the expectation, the understanding that you do not really want the meat to fall off the bone, and the savoring of each bite—is a means by which a church becomes a better church.  Barbecue should be served with a side of faith and a prayer that barbecue will be served in the afterlife.  Is it too much to say that barbecue is to Christians what the Passover lamb is to the Jews?  (Yes, it is way too much to say.)

Robert Capon said of a fellow he knew who was counting calories, “His body may or may not lose weight.  His soul, however, is sure to wither.”

Barbecue keeps our souls from withering.

In a 1902 article about a Methodist church barbecue in Denver, Columbus Hill, a pit master who understood the spiritual aspects of barbecue, said:  “This method of serving meat is descended from the sacrificial altars of the time of Moses when the priests of the temple got their fingers greasy and dared not wipe them on their Sunday clothes.  They discovered then the rare, sweet taste of meat flavored with the smoke of its own juices.”

Praise God and pass the sauce.

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The Problem with the Third Time across the Brooklyn Bridge

BrettontheBridgeI like running to Manhattan and I love running back to Brooklyn—though running may not be the right word. I have trotted across the Brooklyn Bridge three times. I go slow enough not to miss much.
According to an unreliable source, more than 4,000 pedestrians and 3,000 bicyclists cross the bridge each day. No one is counting the scooters, skaters, and skateboarders. The great majority are not from around here. The parents wear Yankees caps they bought 15 minutes earlier. The children wear foam Statue of Liberty headdresses. They debate the merits of a New York key ring versus a New York key chain—which I’m pretty sure are the same thing. They gawk, gaze, and ogle. Their eyes are wide. Their jaws are slack.
My third trip across the bridge was on July 4th. For the first time I reacted like many real New Yorkers. I was annoyed.
The lanes are clearly marked. Distracted pedestrians to the left, racing bicycles to the right, and sluggish joggers on the line that divides them. There is room for three people to walk side-by-side, so tourists tend to spread out in groups of six. This puts the slow-moving runners on a collision course with the fast-moving bicyclists.
Tourists take lots of pictures. The selfies are bad enough, but the selfie sticks are infuriating. These monopods allow the photographers and their enraptured subjects to be six feet apart and send everyone into the high-speed lane.
When I pass a shutterbug I wave. I am part of several Iowans’ photo albums of their trip to New York. These omnipresent tourists make you understand why New Yorkers keep selling the bridge to them.
I want to say, “If you want a New York experience, don’t rent a pedicab, get in line at Grimaldi’s, or buy an Empire State Building mug. Get a bagel at Cranberry’s and read The New York Times.”
I am at my most annoyed when, a block from home, a family from Czechoslovakia has their smiling seven-year-old—whose English must be the strongest—ask, “Where to walk Brooklyn Bridge?”
I am jealous. They are more excited about the bridge than I am.
Here’s the problem. On your third trip across the Brooklyn Bridge you might not notice how many love-struck couples write the date and their initials on a padlock, latch it on to a cable, and throw the key in the East River. This romantic act represents the love that will last until the city sends workers to cut the locks off.
On your third trip across the bridge you may cease to be curious about the bridge on which you saunter. If you don’t read the historical marker the first time you may never read it. You might not notice that the bridge is 133 years old. At the opening, they had a band, fireworks and President Chester Arthur. The bridge cost $15 million. 27 people died during its construction.
On your third trip across the bridge you might not even care that early on there were rumors the bridge was going to collapse, so P.T. Barnum led a parade of 21 elephants over the bridge, or that they used to store wine under the Manhattan end, because it was easy to keep at 60 degrees.
What if I stop being amazed by this amazing bridge?
I live in the greatest city in the world. What if I start taking it for granted? What if I stop hearing the multiplicity of languages? What if I cease to be astonished by the ethnic restaurants? What if I stop noticing the Statue of Liberty?
I want to be a tourist—wide-eyed, slack-jawed, and surprised. People come all over the world to visit my hometown, because New York is busy and beautiful and something astounding is going on all of the time.
My hometown has coffee places not named Starbucks, book stores not named Barnes and Noble, and pizza places not named Domino’s. We have neighborhoods that do not look like the next neighborhood. I want to feel surprise when I see dogs in baby strollers and feel peace when I sit on my stoop. I want to be a sightseer.
We get so used to the extraordinary that we stop seeing.
To be a person of faith is to be a tourist. In some ways, the longer Christians are at the business of being Christians, the more difficult it is. We are dulled by our familiarity with what we have been given. We do not feel the excitement a visitor feels.
When the community of Jesus’ followers acts the way Christ dreamed we would, there is nothing like it. We pay attention to those around us. We listen carefully, speak kindly, and overcome differences. We find grace in welcoming strangers. We are amazed.
I plan to keep running on the Brooklyn Bridge, so the tourists can teach me to see.

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