This article was originally published in Ransom Fellowship’s newsletter, Notes from Toad Hall, on February 2004.
There’s a reason why those free range, organic chicken breasts in the supermarket are called “Smart Brand.” You have no idea how smart that purchase is. My husband and I tried raising and butchering chickens back when our thinking was crystalline, and we also tried to convince everyone to become urban farmers and save the earth. We planned to raise earthworms in our backyard. I forget exactly why, but I think the worms were supposed to transform our hard New Mexican soil into loam, and the sale of leftover writhing boxfuls was going to fund our retirement or something. We actually did grow a large garden, raise bees, and breed rabbits — the French equivalent to chickens. I can’t remember how I got my husband to agree to the rabbits. He is no carpenter, but he managed to build three sturdy rabbit cages; I believe a friend helped him.
Through the want ads we bought a big, white New Zealand buck and two does. One of the does was also a New Zealand white who cast huge litters of pure white bunnies. Our son, Jerem, was two-years-old when he set them all free in our backyard one afternoon. It looked like it had snowed in a Looney Tunes cartoon, as bunnies ran in drifts, joyfully leaping and kicking off the back wall. Our second doe was a mixed breed the color of burnished chestnut. She reproduced dozens of babies with color combinations only God could think of. Pairing the white male with her hidden genes made bunnies of pure black, black and white, brown and white, Siamese, and gray with delicate black points. We fell in love with them, forgetting that the end of this short food chain meant we were supposed to kill and eat them.
I remember every detail of what it took to dispatch and cook them including our daughter Marsena’s suspicious questions at the dinner table: “What is this?” And my quick lies: “Fried chicken — it’s just fried chicken, so eat it.” I won’t recount the butchering details for you, but I did come across a quote in Best Food Writing 2000 that is very close to our experience; I shudder and hear the sounds. Smell the blood. Michael Ruhlman writes about Thomas Keller, the star chef of The French Laundry in Napa Valley.
“The purveyor appeared with 12 live rabbits. ‘He knocked one out, slit its throat, pinned it to a board, skinned it, gutted it, the whole bit,’ Keller remembers. ‘Then he left.’ Alone in the grass behind the restaurant with 11 little bunnies, he lurched for the first victim. ‘Rabbits scream,’ Keller says. ‘And this one screamed really loud.’ Keller tried to kill it, but the rabbit struggled to get away. The rabbit nearly broke free, but Keller gripped it by the leg, and the leg snapped in his hand. Terrified and now likely in great pain, the rabbit could no longer run, and Keller managed to kill it.
Thus did Keller learn how to butcher a rabbit, and it had been an unhappy experience . . . killing these rabbits had been so horrible for him, had so humbled him, he would not squander their lives. He determined to use all his powers as a cook to ensure that these were the best rabbits ever.”
Americans have moved so far away from the process of butchering and a lot of us have sworn off eating meat due to health reasons, or for the sake of morality, that we can’t bear to trap the mice living in the couch or the spider making a web behind the toilet. Most of us are removed so far from the family farm and rural life that we have lost even secondhand experience of the cost of blood and butchering. If we buy meat at all, it is sealed in plastic and perched on a white tray with a diaper underneath to absorb offensive liquid. Some of us are lucky enough to get a tiny jolt of reality when the child we take to a petting zoo suddenly connects a silky feathered crowing rooster with that piece of lean white meat thawing on the counter for supper.
Last fall our five-year-old granddaughter went with Grandpa to a farm where he picked out our Thanksgiving Day turkey. Manessah swore she would never eat turkey again, ever. It is hard. But when the day came, she was won over by the rich golden smell and the juicy slices of breast meat on the platter.
Feasting with God
Raising those rabbits and forcing ourselves to kill them had a special reward, which may be hard to believe. I don’t think it’s meant to be easy, but I get what it means to take the life of another living creature and eat it so that you can live. I’m also grateful that God blessed the ritual of eating meat together by doing such things as accepting an invitation from Abraham to stay for lunch.
“The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed. . . .” Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.”
We understand that in a few minutes the little calf who so unknowingly stood beside its mother was going to become grilled steak for the most esteemed guests a human could imagine. What a strange, historic day for a man napping in the shade.
The Scriptures teem with symbols and rituals meant to remind us of what it cost God to pay for our sin. This includes the slaying of animals for food, clothing, and sacrifice. From the beginning of Genesis in the Garden of Eden, when God sent Adam and Eve away after dressing them in leather, to the courtyard of the Jerusalem temple, something had to pay for what was wrong. For generations Israel slaughtered lambs, ate them, and waited for the Messiah to come and do it for real, forever. It’s been a bloody mess and we are the fault of it.
Paul reminds us of the fatal breaking of Christ’s body: “and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:24-26)
Now in the Church we celebrate the Lord’s supper. To celebrate is to observe an event with ceremonies of festivity and rejoicing. To reach the point of celebration over Jesus’ death, it helps to try and understand the outrageous cost of His suffering.
Loving Christ’s Body
Before Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion was released in 2004, it became a huge media event and I grew tired of all the hype, the interviews, e-mails, and reviews.
I value The Passion for its unblinking look at the physical suffering Jesus endured in His last hours of life — the beating, the staggering to the place of execution, the drinking of life’s poison, and the crashing of all His systems. That’s what this movie does well. Its power may lie in its ability to confront me with my tendency to make the cross just another bad day in the life of Jesus. Another day in which we have to butcher a gentle calf or the baby rabbits.
I may be in touch with what it costs an animal for me to live, but I can callously ignore what it cost Jesus to forgive me. I am filled with an enormous capacity to excuse my small infractions (see above the lie I told Marsena). And furthermore, every time UPS delivers us another review copy of some new book I twitch with envy. Yes, I think: Someone has written another book? I’m also quick to note how others have wronged me. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, says there is something gone wrong with our spiritual memory — we remember hundreds of times longer an insult or an unanswered prayer while our ability to remember something good is, oh, maybe thirty seconds. For example, although it has been more than a month since we’ve received this message on our answering machine from “Joel” in Minnesota I remember every word: “I’m calling with a request to be continued on the mailing list for Critique (my husband’s publication), but would not care to receive Notes From Toad Hall (my publication). So if you can continue to do the mailing for Critique, that’s all I’m really interested in.”
And toward Denis, who I love more than anyone in all the world, I can be . . . well, Denis and I have had some marital snaps. I feel insulted by his pointed questions about my problems with Microsoft Word. I take it very personally when he peers at my computer screen and says, “What have you done?!” “I’VE DONE NOTHING AT ALL. BILL GATES DID IT,” I say. Though Denis swears no personal defamatory intent, I am certain he does have some. And off we go — snap, snap, snap. We are both maligned and affronted. One moment we’re so in love we can’t believe our luck and the next we’re ready to bite each other’s heads off. This depresses Denis. I’m more callous. My response is: This is merely life. I forgive you, you forgive me, and now let’s cuddle like we always do. Okay?
This is why Jesus fell on the road to Calvary? This why He had to ask, “My God, My God why have You forsaken me?” To pay for my stupid little arrogance? That’s hard to get my mind around. That He should care enough to drink my poison. And that’s why Gibson’s artistic depiction of Christ’s suffering in those final hours reminds me to cast my entire lot in with Christ, for how can we resist such love?
This love is what makes Easter such a celebration. That, and knowing the ugly things we’ve done weren’t able to keep Jesus dead after all. God raised Him and man, we should be dancing in the streets. If only we weren’t white Norwegian Presbyterians!
During a recent week Margie Haack fell through the porch screen while feeding the rabbit a dandelion, shattered two glasses and a platter, sucked her socks into the vacuum, and backed into a parked car — proof that safety lies in writing more and leaving the desk less. So says her husband. Margie blogs at toadsdrinkcoffee.blogspot.com.