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Essay

Casseroles and Cakes

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Several years ago, I had breakfast with one of my former professors, whose husband had died unexpectedly a few weeks earlier.  She had never been a religious person or very interested in talking about faith. And yet, when I asked her how she was coping, she answered, “I think I might join a church.” 

I tried to not to act surprised (surprise being a rather a bad response in a life-long Christian, one would think, especially one who had had actual training in evangelism) as I responded with something vague about it being a good place to consider questions of mortality and eternity.

“No,” she said. “It’s not that.  It’s because I’ve always heard that church people bring casseroles and cakes when there’s trouble. And look in on widows.  Help them with leaf raking and other chores. I don’t have anything like that—and it sounds very appealing.  Is it true?”

I assured her we were quite expert in the “casseroles and cakes” division and that care of widows was an ongoing imperative throughout the Bible. 

But I was intrigued.  It would have been easy to dismiss this as her mistaking church for a social service or a club.  Yet, it seemed to me that if she were attracted to the church because of seeing our care for each other, because of seeing a winsome community, maybe that wasn’t the worst thing.  After all, she knew that the “cake and casserole” brigade were Christians, not just a band of random middle-aged women roaming the streets in a hospitality gang. Whoever she had been observing had been pretty effective examples of living an embodied Christian life, what Barbara Brown Taylor calls being “God’s sign language.” 

Maybe we dismiss that kind of witness too easily.  Maybe we too need to be reminded about the testimony of “casseroles and cakes.”

I’ve been thinking about all of this over the last couple of days as very dear, longtime friends face a daunting new medical reality.  I have been glued to the computer corresponding with friends, near and far, as everyone tries to do something to help.  But what do we do when distance separates us?  When words are inadequate, and texts and phone calls fail to convey all we mean and hope?  Or when we are present, but there’s nothing much to be done? 

What has inspired me over these last days is all the ways we do find a way.  And that finding a way is a priority for us.  A website, for example, gets set up to help my friends defray costs—and it is flooded, hour after hour, with new donations. That’s just one example. This week I’ve seen so many, many people come forward, over and again, to compass my friends round in real and practical ways. 

And in so doing, as much as they have been Christ to my friends, they’ve been equally so to me. 

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

One Comment

  • /s says:

    As with baptismal vows, we often fulfill the ones others in the Body of Christ have made, and vice versa, the more so as we became an increasingly mobile society. So it may be with "casseroles and cakes." We do for someone we know not well, become someone we do not know at all is doing it for our distant loved ones.

    On the other hand, these are typically physical issues with practical, physical solutions. Do we bring casseroles and cakes when there's a spiritual illness? Sins? Do we bring forgiveness and grace? Do we bring the Bread of Life as readily as the bread?

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