Chicken Nuggets, Chesterton, and The Marriage Supper of The Lamb: A Defense of the JBU Cafeteria
Recently, I, like many of you, sat down to eat a large, diverse collection of foods with a larger, more diverse collection of people. To put it in more traditional terms: I had Christmas dinner with my family.
More recently, I, like—hopefully—many of you, sat down to read a G.K. Chesterton essay.
Even more recently, I, like—I am assuming—all of you, sat down to eat yet another large, diverse collection of foods with an even larger, more diverse collection of people. I refer this time not to a family dinner but to an average night in the JBU cafeteria.
I will discuss these three appetizing events, as Christ would, in reverse order—the last shall be first.
I must admit that when I sat down in the Kresge Dining Hall tonight with my nutritious meal of four chicken nuggets, two slices of pizza, and a bowl of cereal, I was by no means thrilled to be there. Back in the same old caf with same old food and the same old people. One of these same old people happened to bring up the strange instance that often in the Dining Hall—especially on Sundays—one can find a much literally older populace present within the cafeteria than usual. On Sunday afternoons and evenings, we discussed, these alumni and Siloam citizens choose to pay for food at the cafeteria when they could be eating anything else. Why on earth would they do that?
The night before, I lay awake, burning the midnight oil and progressing through a collection of Chesterton’s essays entitled Tremendous Trifles (if you get nothing better out of this article, get this: read these essays as soon as you can. They will make you laugh, make you wonder, and make you see the world in a new light).
I was reading a particular essay called “The Riddle of the Ivy,” and if you want to know this riddle, you’ll have to read it. But in the beginning portion of the essay, Chesterton tells an anecdote of a morning in which he was packing for a trip abroad. His friend walked in and asked him where he was going. “To Battersea,” Chesterton replied. This would seem a reasonable answer, save that the town Chesterton occupied, the town in which the tale took place, was Battersea. Chesterton went on to explain that he was “going to Battersea via Paris, Belfort, Heidelberg, and Frankfurt.” He explained further: “I am going to wander over the whole world until once again I find Battersea . . . I cannot see any Battersea here. I cannot see any London or any England. I cannot see that door. I cannot see that chair: because a cloud of sleep and custom has come over my eyes (emphasis mine). The only way to get back to them is to go somewhere else . . . The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
As I read, a different sort of cloud of sleep came over my eyes, and I drifted off into the night.
Several weeks (and several Tremendous Trifles essays) earlier, I sat at a table with relatives young and old. Those of you with large families that gather at Christmas know what this is like. For those of you who don’t, just know that the holiday classic Christmas Vacation isn’t too far from accurate. Anyway, as I sat at the kids’ table of the family Christmas (at this point, I’m convinced that marriage is the only right of passage to coveted adult-table membership, just as I am convinced that it may be the only way to senior status at JBU…), enjoying the slow-roasted turkey at my table and the slightly swifter roasting of those with differing political views than those of my family at the nearby adult table, I had a strange thought: I wish my JBU friends were here with me. What would Nate say about this? What inside joke could I make with Shae or Isabelle? What quippy remark or Office quote would Josiah come up with?
Not that I don’t enjoy family Christmas as it is. Some of my best memories are of Christmases past and I look forward to spending time with loved ones every year. But another part of me truly wishes my friends were there as well. There is some truth to the Pinterest/coffee mug/inspirational cat calendar quote that “friends are the family we choose for ourselves.”
So, even if just for a fleeting second, in the middle of a high-quality, bona fide, 5-course Christmas dinner, I missed the JBU cafeteria.
Clearly, as we’ve discussed earlier in the narrative, all such sentimental feelings were gone by my first night back on campus. Only a few days into the semester and it was already “the same old” food, “the same old” place, and “the same old” people.
We sat there discussing the curious influx of non-JBU students into the dining hall, and someone suggested that “maybe they come here for the community.” Something in that remark set my mind turning. Suddenly, visions of older people enjoying the same food and company I take for granted, and even complain about, came flooding into my head. Then came the Chesterton essay I had read the night before. Then the memory of that Christmas dinner when I had wished to be where I now sat.
Somehow, I, like Chesterton in Battersea, can no longer see the JBU cafeteria. I cannot see it because “a cloud of sleep and custom has come across my eyes.” I cannot see it for what it truly is, simply because I have seen it so many times.
If someone were to describe to me a great, all-you-can-eat feast in which many of the people I love most are seated near me, and we are surrounded by a larger company of people from many tribes, tongues, and nations—all of us gathered as one unified people under Christ—my first thought would be that he or she was describing the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. But they could just as well be depicting the JBU cafeteria. The fact that these two are even remotely comparable means something astonishing, and it means something is astonishingly wrong with the way I view the nineteen meals a week I spend in the cafeteria. If I get bored and ungrateful after a few days, how am I going to handle eternity? If you cannot love the cafeteria which is seen, how can you love the Marriage Supper which is unseen (yes, I know, this is a paraphrase that would make The Message Bible look like the original Greek, but bear with me)?
Chesterton also notes this tendency to lose sight of the things we often see in his great apologetic work Orthodoxy:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
And I might add that we (or at least I) have grown old, and our elders are younger than we. Perhaps my friend was right about the older people in the cafeteria. Perhaps they know something I don’t. Perhaps they were once students here, and did not realize till now, many years later, what a blessing it is to have a place to gather, eat and fellowship with so many people you love. Perhaps they took it for granted then, and are coming back now, younger and wiser. Perhaps I can learn from them now, while I’m still here.
So from this point forward, I am going to see things differently, and I hope you will too.
I have traveled, not so that I could see foreign land, but so that I can at last set foot in the JBU cafeteria as a foreign land. From this point forward, I will see the cafeteria anew, and thus see it for what it is.
From this point forward, God help me, I will relish every moment I have in that sacred place. I will enjoy food I will sometimes like with friends I will always love, and I will look forward to an even greater feast to come.
I like to think that God has a sense of humor, and I like to chuckle and imagine that when we are all seated at that great wedding feast, the first course I’ll be served just might be a green plastic tray with wax paper
and four chicken nuggets.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not claim to reflect the opinions or views of the Defendant or its staff members.