Years ago, while working at an archaeological site in the Jordanian desert, I was invited with my colleagues to attend dinner at the home of a local family.
Although the village was poor and rural, our host planned to treat us to a feast: lamb, served on great platters piled high with flavored rice. As mealtime approached, we chatted with our hosts in a mixture of broken English and even more broken Arabic. At last, our host announced that it was nearly time for supper; we snapped to attention in anticipation. One woman from our group was designated the guest of honor and asked to step outside. The honor? She would stroll out to a yard in which several young lambs grazed ... and select the one to be slaughtered and served.
When the gasps of horror (and in a few cases, laughter) subsided, the mortified guest of honor was permitted to designate a pinch hitter to go outside, stare an adorable baby lamb in the eyes and condemn it to death. I chalked it up as just one more moment of culture shock, but a decade later, I can still remember my instant loss of appetite at the prospect of killing and eating one of the cute animals we passed by on the way through our host's front yard. It was deeply unpleasant to be so close to the violent origin of my food, but it nevertheless felt like a healthy and valuable experience for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate.That awkward scene sprang immediately to mind as I read Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's explanation of a somewhat alarming tweet he had sent: "I just killed a pig and a goat." Zuckerberg elaborated in a statement on his Facebook page:
Every year I have a yearly personal challenge. It's a good way to explore different things I wouldn't normally do and challenge myself. Towards the end of last year I reflected a bunch of how thankful I was that we were building so many good things and things have gone well so far and I decided to make this year's challenge around being more thankful for what I have. I struggled for a while about how to implement this, but eventually decided that forcing myself to get personally involved and thank the animals whose lives I take in order to eat them was the best day-to-day way to remind myself to be thankful. So every day when I can't eat meat I am reminded of why not and how lucky I am, and when I do get the chance to eat meat it's especially good. This challenge also has the benefit of making me generally healthier, and I'm also learning a lot about sustainable living.He's talking about something that every city-raised American can relate to: a sense that we're very disconnected from the food we eat, and that this isn't a good thing. Most of us acquire our food at the tail end of a very long chain of activity that began months or years earlier with the birth of an animal or the planting of a crop. What began its life as something individually distinct ends up packaged, processed and thoroughly stripped of any unique touch given it by its Creator.
I'd like to focus on the heart of Zuckerberg's statement: the question of gratitude. Do we lose our ability to express true gratitude for something when we're separated too far from its point of origin? Many of us are accustomed to offering a brief prayer of thanks to God over meals. To be sure, we can be genuinely grateful for life-giving food no matter what it is or where it came from. But is there something different - weaker - about our gratitude when it's expressed for a microwaved dinner, or Chinese takeout, or a Happy Meal?
I'll confess I feel a bit silly when praying over such things, although of course I'm grateful. Try imagining this man praying over a Hot Pocket instead of a homemade loaf of bread. It's not a perfect analogy, but imagine this scenario: a friend gives you an intricate, hand-crafted clock as a gift. You're thankful, and there's nothing false about that. But would your gratitude be more authentic somehow if you visited your friend’s tool shop and witnessed the hard work he put into shaping the wood, adjusting each gear and painting each piece over the course of months?
In the same way, is our gratitude to God more authentic when it's the result of firsthand experience with the complexity of the animals and plants he has placed under mankind's stewardship? And if our gratitude for something becomes more meaningful the closer one gets to the original source ... well, what else are you grateful for?
(Photo of Mark Zuckerberg courtesy of By Robert Scoble/Wikimedia Commons.)