My husband and I came home from grocery shopping and there in the entryway was a big bag of food—a plate of pumpkin cake, salad and chicken Parmesan. There wasn’t a note or a name attached to the bag so I wasn’t sure if this culinary treat was for us or perhaps for the new tenant who just moved upstairs in the two-family house we are currently renting in Maryland, where I am coming up on a year serving as pastor in what some local folks still describe as “rural Cecil County.” My husband always smiles when he hears this descriptive being applied to the area for “rural” is when chickens greet you on the front porch of the post office as they did every morning when I would get the mail in Vermont. Sad to say, there are no chickens clucking about at the post offices here in Cecil County.
The thing is, while there still can be found rolling hills of corn, the occasionally cow or two dotting the landscape and every so often a barn sitting on an impressive stone foundation and painted white—not the New England red I am used to—reflecting the Germanic influence of the Amish who are just up the road from us in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, rural Cecil County is like many other areas in America—fast-becoming a victim of suburbanization with housing developments eating away at pastoral fields like some insatiable monster.
And so as I peeked into the bag of food sitting in our hallway, wondering where it came from and whom it was for, I found this hospitable act of sharing food with others transporting me back to when I first moved to rural upstate New York as a still single and still somewhat citified girl who was just getting used to the “Reverend” now in front of my name.
It was late November and, as I unpacked the moving boxes and found places for all my stuff in the sweet, yet very slanted 18th century saltbox I had purchased, a knock came from the front door. I pushed back outside the fall leaves that had blown inside through the gaping space at the bottom of the old door, and said hello to one of my new congregants. She was an older woman who came right in without hesitation, paying no heed to the leaves that blew into the house as if this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary and who proceeded to sit right down at the kitchen table to visit with me.
I searched quickly in the boxes for tea or coffee and, as I did I could hear my mother’s voice in my head with her advice that I never paid attention to but now wished I had, “Donna, you should always have coffee, tea, sugar and milk on hand for guests.”
I gave up my search and feebly offered a paltry glass of water, to which she gruffly declined and proceeded to get down to the business of her visit. In her hand was a gift for me. Real butter. Not margarine that she figured I was accustomed to being that I was from the “city” and all.
“Up here, we eat real butter from the cows on our farms, we drink milk with our dinner and our syrup is real maple syrup, not that imitation stuff,” she informed me as I wondered whether the bottle of maple flavored syrup was still out on my kitchen counter in full view or safely hidden away from her keen eyes.
In spite of my worry that she might find me out as one who liked fake maple syrup, her visit was a joy and she entertained me with all the rich history of her family in the area.
As my day of settling in and unpacking progressed more knocks came and with those knocks came more gifts of food. Soon my primitive and narrow floor-length pantry—which boasted a secret door behind hit, which led to a very tiny space spacious enough for two small people, making my imagination race with excitement as I wondered if this little saltbox was perhaps part of the underground railroad, as a neighboring village in the area did have connections to this Civil War movement—was brimming with fresh farm eggs, real butter, real maple syrup, an assortment of homemade jams and jellies and the most delicious homemade oatmeal cookies I have ever tasted in my life.
When I phoned my dad to tell him of the events of the day, I could tell he was not only happy for me, but he, too, was touched by the visits and the gifts of food which weren’t fancy or extravagant, but were filled with love and thoughtfulness. He then joked that I just might find a deer hanging from my tree one day. He was right in a way. The gifts of venison did indeed come, but much to my relief the gifts came in neat little packages ready for the freezer.
But I was not done receiving gifts of food. The following morning as I looked out the window marveling at the beauty of the early morning frost, I noticed an aluminum-foiled loaf of something sitting on top of my mailbox. I threw on my shoes and sweater and ran to get it.
It was a loaf of banana bread and it would be perfect for breakfast. Ooo…and I could warm it up and slather it with the real butter I had! The only problem was there was no note with it and, thus, I had no idea who it came from. It was a mystery and so I hesitated to eat it because I was always told you don’t eat anything in which you don’t know who it came from.
The mystery of the banana bread continued for when I made a public thank you to my congregation on my first Sunday with them, no one fessed up to say the bread was from them. Later at coffee hour, a woman came up to me and assured me it was safe to eat as she thought it probably came from my neighbor down the road.
“That is something I could see her doing,” she said with such certainty that when I got home from church I heated the bread and slathered on the butter (real butter, that is) and enjoyed the feeling of “fullness” from all the gifts of love and thoughtfulness that were sitting in my pantry.
“You know that bag of food has been sitting out there for a few hours now,” I said to my husband. “Do you think it is for us?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Who would leave it?”
I shrugged my shoulders, as I wasn’t sure. Gifts of food didn’t seem to be as common in “rural” Cecil County as they were up north. Or so I thought. Just then a message alert dinged on my phone.
I hope that you got the food I left for you. You weren’t home and I am worried that you might be out for a while.
The food was for us! I hopped off the couch and ran to retrieve the goodies. The salad wasn’t salvageable, but the pumpkin cake and the chicken Parmesan were still good to eat.
As I set the table and waited for our impromptu and unexpected dinner to heat up, I found myself thinking about Jesus when he said, “I am the bread of life.”
I’ve always known he wasn’t talking about actual bread to ease our hunger pains. But while I knew that intellectually, I had never fully known or understood in my heart what he was saying. Jesus was talking about the love, the thoughtfulness, the fellowship and the community that is experienced each time the bread, whatever that bread may be, is shared.
For the gift of real butter is more than real butter. It’s a warm hug of welcome. Real maple syrup is more than real maple syrup. It’s a smile saying I am glad you are in my life. A mystery loaf of banana bread is more than a mystery loaf of banana bread. It’s the acknowledgement that strangers are now neighbors who watch out for one another and care for one another. And the bag in which held a surprise dinner in it, is more than just a surprise dinner. It’s a reminder we are all connected to one another and we all need to be nourished, both physically and spiritually. We all need the bread of life in our lives.
May today the loaves of love and thoughtfulness and community in your life be blessed and broken and shared.