Sunday, January 9, 2011

Eating for Physical Exertion


In this sermon series on “Sports in Scripture,” we began (last Sunday) by thinking about training, and today we move to appropriate diet for those who use their bodies in sports. With obesity on the rise in our country, it’s evident that many of our citizens don’t know how to eat correctly or are unwilling to eat correctly. I have no idea exactly the context to which he was referring, but Benjamin Franklin once said, “I saw few die of hunger; of eating, a hundred thousand.” That’s sobering, isn’t it?

Before we start slamming the people who are overweight, which would be very rude in my presence since I am overweight and have struggled with weight-related issues my whole life, let’s remember that some people have weight problems because of physical and/or mental illnesses. Let’s also remember that much of the obesity in our country is caused among the poverty stricken because they believe they can only afford high calorie/low nutrient food at the grocery store even though it has been proven that an apple, for example, is cheaper than a bag of potato chips. It’s also worth taking into account that there are places in the world where certain societies think “plump is pretty.” You may remember that when Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” was singing about what it would be like to be a rich man instead of the poor man he was, he saw his wife, Golde, with a proper double chin, which the wife of any rich man should have.

All that aside, we know today that the proper weight is important for optimal health--not too heavy, not too thin--and that healthy eating is one of our responsibilities as people who see life as gift to be both cherished and cared for. There are special diets for unique demands made on one’s body by disease or determination.

My younger nephew, who is now a college student, found, to his surprise, that in high school he really liked the sport of wrestling where weight is a huge issue. Wrestlers have to weigh in before every match, and if their weight is one bit over the maximum weight for that class of wrestlers, the wrestler who went over the weight limit has to wrestle much larger guys in the next division up. For that reason, Lucas began aggressively to watch his weight. He preferred to be one of the heavier guys wrestling guys who weighed less than he did but in his same division than one of the lighter weight guys wrestling guys weighing in at the top of a class. He knew that his best friend was lean protein, and his second best friend was his skill as a runner, which would burn off rather quickly unwanted ounces as time for a match neared. Pretty smart boy!

In 1826, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French lawyer and politician, became quite the highly respected gourmet. In his book, The Physiology of Taste, he wrote, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”

German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, published an essay in 1863, “Concerning Spiritualism and Materialism,” in which he made the assertion: “Man is what he eats.”

Speakers of English didn’t start tossing around any similar maxim until the 1920’s and 1930’s under the influence of a nutritionist named Victor Lindlahr. He devised what became called the Catabolic Diet, an eating program that has dieters eating those foods that expend more calories eating and digesting than the food item itself has in it. Presumably, there are those who still follow this diet, eating primarily the hundred or so foods that fall into this category. In an advertisement in a Connecticut newspaper in 1923, he was quoted as saying: “Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.” That was kind of catchy and caught on so You Are What You Eat became the title of a book he wrote and a statement he made frequently on radio broadcasts, and that is when the maxim, “You are what you eat,” became widely known in the English speaking world.

The Apostle Paul ranked healthy eating as a spiritual practice, an ongoing recognition of the value of life and the importance of the body in which we experience life in this world. He asked the Corinthians in one of the letters he wrote to them as a faith community, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” In some mystical--though very real--way, God Godself dwells within each of us. The question Paul asks is, “What kind of temple do you construct and care for with your body knowing that a spark of the divine lives in you?” It isn’t just about beauty or sex appeal, and it’s not simply about maximized physical health--though that is certainly a part of it. Paul’s argument for proper eating and drinking is spiritual: you don’t abuse your body with types or quantities of food because a spark of God dwells within you, and God should be given the best we can manage to offer.

Swiss people are generally regarded as one group of people who take physical health seriously. A Swiss nutrition group says,

A healthy diet is very important for both maintaining and improving your health. A healthy diet is possible by eating fresh, unprocessed foods instead of eating processed foods. A healthy diet is as simple as eating a sufficient quantity of all nutrients and ingesting enough water. This will require a good balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats as well as vitamins and minerals. The importance of a healthy diet on our health is enormous. Maintaining a healthy diet is very important. It can go a long way in the prevention of certain diseases.... A healthy diet can also greatly aid in the maintenance of your mental health. Research shows that eating healthy nutritious food can improve memory and other brain functions.

There’s a Chinese Proverb: “The one who takes medicine and neglects diet, wastes the skill of the physician.” Hippocrates himself said, “The wise person should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings. Let food be your medicine.”

We are working very hard to build up the membership of Silverside Church, not diminish it through any means, but for the sake of information only, I will share with you the five healthiest places to live in the world as of 2010. None of them are in the United States--or in France either even though France has been tapped repeatedly as the country with the finest health care system.

By the close of 2010, the healthiest place in the world was New Zealand. Next on the list was the Shangri-La Valley in Panama. Third, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. Fourth, the Island of Sardinia off the Mediterranean coast of Italy. Fifth, Vilcabamba, Ecuador, nicknamed “the Valley of Longevity.”

According to Natural Health Magazine, the healthiest city in the United States in San Francisco, and this was reported in an article at very end of December 2010. San Francisco was followed by Washington, DC, which shocked me--then Seattle, Washington; Atlanta, Georgia; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Healthy eating is one of the keys to health and longevity, but the positive effects of healthy eating can be undone is exercise is absent in one’s life and if there is out of control stress in someone’s life. Obviously, environmental factors enter into the protection of health too. If we live where industry poisons us with its waste or exposure to what threatens human and animal life, then a great diet will not see us through. Also, if we poison our own bodies by smoking or drinking alcohol to excess, the benefits of a great diet, even a perfect diet, will be down the tubes rather quickly.

It’s important for us to realize, too, that we can do all the right things and live in all the healthiest places and still find ourselves plagued with disease because of genetic factors and/or biological/chemical accidents in our bodies over which we have absolutely no control. The best we can do is eat well, exercise properly and sufficiently, and live in the healthiest place we can. There is no question that these will enhance our physical health, but eventually our bodies, not designed to last forever, wear out; and that is a part of being human.


Professional as well as amateur athletes, the smart ones, realize that their diets have to be of a certain standard in order for them to maintain peak performance in their respective sports, and surely there is no “one size fits all” for every athlete in a given sport. Here, too--especially here--it’s the diet and exercise combination required for optimal performance, not one or the other.

What athletes need to eat in order to boost their athletic performance is a sub-speciality in the field of nutrition these days; it’s called “endurance nutrition.” What should I eat and what should I avoid eating if I want to give my best in a football game or if I’m going to go out and climb a mountain or if it’s getting to be about time for my tennis game or if a serious volleyball competition is coming up later today? Endurance nutrition says that while different diets may be required by athletes depending on the intensity of the sport, one thing all sports diets should contribute is proper alkaline pH level in blood and tissues. Also, mostly across the board, meals leading up to sports competition should be comprised of 60% to 70% carbohydrates.

Now, I have no idea what was carried out to them, but long before David was King of Israel, he was still just a shepherd boy back home working with and for his father Jesse. He was one of Jesse’s eight boys; he was the youngest, the baby of the family. His three oldest brothers were in Israel’s army, and they were fighting a war against the Philistines not so far from home. These brothers were Eliab the firstborn, and next to him Abinadab, and the third Shammah.

Jesse sent David to check on his brothers as well as to carry them some food to sustain them through the exertion of combat. This is what the writer of 1 Samuel tells us about that combat cuisine: “Jesse said to his son David, ‘Take for your brothers an ephah of this parched grain and these ten loaves and carry them quickly to the camp to your brothers; also take these ten cheeses to their commander.’”

An ephah was close to what we call a bushel today. So this wasn’t one meal. Their dad sent them a bushel of parched grain--sun-dried or cooked just enough so that it wouldn’t spoil. He also sent them ten loaves of bread. Presumably these were large loaves intended to last a while. So David’s brothers got their carbs; what they didn’t get in this particular delivery was any protein. Jesse sent their commanding officer ten different cheeses--quite a variety. Maybe a tasty gift to the commander would have something to do with keeping his boys as safe as possible. Who knows?

The book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible tells of the 40-year sojourn of the Israelites in their wilderness on their way away from their Egyptian slavery to the land God had promised to them, wherever that was, and they literally had no idea where they would end up or how long it would take them to get to their mystery destination. Only God knew where they were supposed to end up, according to the Hebrew version of the story. The Islamic version of the story, this part of the story anyway, is very different.

So here’s the thing. In Egypt, the Hebrews had been slaves to the Egyptians, but they had shelter and food provided for them by the Egyptians. Out in the wilderness, they had no steady food supply, and there was a really big bunch of them. They started whining and complaining, and you’d have done the same thing so don’t look down on them for that.

As the story goes, God heard their whining and complaining and understood. God came up with a plan. Every morning manna, a bread-like substance would fall from the sky, and after the dew dried up the manna could be picked up and eaten. God had a rule: take only as much as you need for the day; if you take more than you need it will spoil before you get to eat it anyway. There was their source of carbs, but they were getting no protein. God answered that complaint by saying that quails would be sent from out of nowhere every evening in time for dinner so their endurance nutrition for the hike that seemed like it would never end was manna--morning bread--for carbs; and quail in the evening for protein. God would not, however, send them more of either than they needed for that day only. That diet got them through.

When St. Francis of Assisi organized a group of friars to share with him in his ministry to the poor and the hungry, he decided that his troop of friars would be mendicant friars, a begging order. He had the same rule for his companions that God had for the Hebrews trying to find out where in Sheol the Promised Land was. You may not take more than you need for today. If some gracious person offers you more; you must refuse it.

Other than the Last Supper that Jesus had with his closest followers before his execution, I suppose the most famous meal talked about in Christian scripture was not for people exerting themselves in any active way at the time they ate, but rather for 5000 men and their families who were gathered to hear Jesus preach. They did have to walk home after the long sermon ended, but evidently that wasn’t very far because none of them had brought any food with them, which was silly in that context if you were going to be gone from home for any length of time at all. The interpreters of Jesus’ life told a story about how Jesus was able to take a lunch one little boy’s mother had packed for him, bless it, and somehow come up with enough food to feed all those men and their families with lots of leftovers. It’s a great story about how sharing multiplies goods for the wellbeing of all involved.

Preaching can require great mental and physical exertion--the physical part for those preachers who are very animated and maybe run up and down aisles as they preach or jump over the pulpit to help make a point or take a run through the sanctuary jumping from the top of one pew to the next. John the Bapitst’s preaching, partly because he was fiery and animated as he preached and partly because he preached in the wilderness, which sapped his energy, required for him a special diet. He found it right out in the wilderness where he lived. He ate locusts and wild honey. I assume he roasted the locusts and got himself some good crunchy protein that way. Part of the reason he wasn’t a sickly guy was that he ate that wild honey each day. That sustained him. Surely he ate other foods from time to time, but these two items sustained him.

No doubt, going back to the day when many small congregations in the South didn’t have money to the pay their pastors and paying them instead with food items--or, in the case of Kentucky and the hills of Tennessee, whiskey--there evolved a belief that became widespread, namely that preachers, every last one of them no matter what their denominational affiliation, loved fried chicken. I don’t know now widely that the perspective is held today, but in my younger years in ministry it surely was--especially when I served southern churches, New Orleans excluded. When I was a student preacher and later when I was a grown up visiting preacher here and there in the south, all families served fried chicken every time I ate with them, whether that was one time if I were a guest preacher or ten times if I worked in a church they attended.

Friend chicken is fine. It’s not my favorite dish, and I was grateful that anyone expended any effort hoping to please me. Inevitably, there would eventually be something said of a joking nature about how much preachers LOVED friend chicken. I was paranoid about it, and under no circumstances would I ever take a second piece. No telling what I’d have had to listen to, probably from the man of the house, if I’d dared to eat more than one piece of friend chicken. Now days, with my white hair and my white goatee and what remains of my southern dialect, no way I’m willing to be associated with friend chicken in any way.


King Jehoiakim was ruling in Judah over the more southern tribes of the Hebrew people. Israel was the northern kingdom; Judah was the southern kingdom. The center of Hebrew life, the greatly revered city of Jerusalem, was in the south.

The Babylonians under their very powerful King Nebuchadnezzar were expanding their holdings, and they decided to take Judah. Eventually, Nebuchadnezzar would destroy the Temple, but during this first visit, some of the sacred and very valuable vessels in the Temple were taken to Babylon and placed in shrines erected to the gods of the Babylonians.

Many of the Hebrews were taken into Babylonian exile, and the King had an interesting plan for some of those exiles. He wanted some young Hebrew men, from royalty and nobility, brought into his palace to learn first hand core Babylonian teachings and ways of life. At first blush, this sounds like quite an honor for someone in exile. I mean, sure, it would have been better to have been back at home in the comfort of one’s own surroundings, but if you had to be in exile, and the King of your captors said you could live like his own people to whom he gave special privileges and opportunities as opposed to living in a prison camp, you’d have the best of what exile could offer. Upon closer examination, however, what was being offered or required was the perfect way for the brightest and best among the young Hebrew men to lose their Hebrew identities and begin to think as the Babylonians thought.

When Dr. Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist, was taken to the first of six concentration camps in which he would be imprisoned during Hitler’s Holocaust, the death camp officials took everything from him they could take to rip his “old” identity from him, leaving him easier to manipulate as a prisoner. In his profoundly moving book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he tells how he survived the Holocaust emotionally, he details the intake procedures during which the Germans took from him everything he’d brought with him. They took his clothing. They took a manuscript that represented his life’s work up to that point in time. They took his name and changed it to a number. They even shaved all the hair off his body to try to rob him of his past. We should keep this in mind when we notice what all Nebuchadnezzar was offering these Hebrew young men.

He directed his palace master, Ashpenaz, to pick out the cream of the crop from the young Hebrew men now under Babylonian control. They could have no physical defects of any kind. They had to be handsome, and since beauty is in the eye of the beholder I don’t know what constituted “handsome” in the eye of Ashpenaz. They had to be well educated, and, beyond being well scroll-read, they had to be naturally insightful people. I don’t what kind of test Ashpenaz put together to be able to determine who was suitable and who was not. He must have pleased the King, and he needed to since these young men would be eyed for future professional positions in the palace.

As I mentioned earlier, the whole goal for this program devised by the King was to teach these Hebrews Babylonian language, philosophy, religion, literature, and ways of life. Eventually, they would be living as Babylonians and not as Hebrews.

The King himself became very involved in the running of the program though he wasn’t a hands on guy. He called all the shots from his throne, though. He decided everything from what they would eat to what they would to how long the program of indoctrination would last.

Among the group of young Hebrew men selected were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. One of the first things the palace master did as the three-year program got underway was to toss their given names and replace those with Babylonian names. Remember what I told you about Viktor Frankl! Their new names were Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

I loved this story when I was a little boy, and it wasn’t until I was much older than I learned what their Babylonian names really were. As a kid, I thought the pastor kept saying, “Shadrach, Meshach, and to bed we go.”

Daniel realized that the rich food fed to the King and members of his court wasn’t designed to keep one physically fit for health and sports participation. He asked the palace master for permission to be excluded from that diet and fed instead pulse and water; no rich food and no wine. His three buddies asked for the same concession. Pulse was a combination of some kind of meal, perhaps corn meal, mixed with peas, beans, and lentils. There you have your carbs and your proteins.

Something that is easy to overlook here is that there would have been no way the Babylonian upscale menu would have honored Hebrew dietary laws to which Daniel and his friends were absolutely committed. How they ate was a part of their religious commitment.

This dietary control was yet another way the Babylonians were trying to knock all the Hebrew out of them. This is exactly what the United States government endorsed when Native American children were stolen from their parents and forced to live and study at the so called “Indian Schools.” Administrators there cut the beautiful long hair of Native American girls and boys, something that every tribe prized. Their tribal clothing was taken from them, and they all had to wear identical uniforms that happened to look very European or American and nothing at all like Native Americans would wear. Sad chapter in our history.

The palace master told Daniel and company that he had no objection to their request, but that the King was running the show and that, to be honest, he was afraid to ask the King to make any exceptions. If the King should pull a surprise inspection and find Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego pale and scrawny, he would do some investigation and find out that they weren’t eating the prescribed foods. The King without hesitation would call for the royal executioner to chop off the head of Ashpenaz.

Daniel understood that and struck a bargain with the palace master, Ashpenaz. He said, “If you will just allow us a ten day trial, I can guarantee you that my buddies and I will be healthier looking and acting that the others who eat the fancy food and drink wine every day.” To this Ashpenaz agreed.

As Daniel had predicted and promised, after ten days, he and his pals showed off their healthy, muscled bodies having lost no ground whatsoever. In comparison, were their other Hebrew colleagues who after ten straight days of heavy food and wine were already starting to show physique decline--nothing serious yet, but the way of the future was easy to predict. This being the case, the four Hebrew men who chose the vegetarian diet with water and no wine were allowed to continue that pattern. They grew healthier and healthier, which had something to do with why they excelled in all other aspects of the program. They never forgot who they were, however. Other tests were ahead of them, but they never forgot who they were. Eating healthily prepared them for whatever physical or mental challenge would come.

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