Lisa Nichols Hickman: Considering Lily

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A “Sesame Street” character designed to draw attention to hunger among American children inspires a pastor to think about the message of the Sermon on the Mount.

On Easter morning, lilies grace the sanctuary and gratify the senses. Often called “the white-robed apostle of hope,” the lily unfolds with a divine message.

Jesus uses the image of the lily to share a gospel message of freedom from anxiety. Matthew offers it this way: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin” (Matthew 6:28 NRSV). These words from Christ convey a message to set worry aside.

Last fall, a “Sesame Street” character named Lily expressed another message.

The children’s television show introduced a new muppet, Lily, in a special episode to share a message about childhood hunger in America. Lily is a 7-year-old with pink fur, a blue dress and red hair. “Sesame Street” introduced her to represent one of the 16 million American children whom the Department of Agriculture classifies as “food insecure.”

According to the World Health Organization, food security exists “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” Food insecurity arises when availability, appropriateness, access or adequacy are compromised for any one person in a household.

Lack of reliable access to food is a real problem for millions of Americans, and yet this problem often remains invisible. “Sesame Street” introduced Lily to draw attention to the problem while also reassuring children who may feel isolated by hunger and scarcity.

The Lily character offered an opportunity for me to engage in “dislocated exegesis” with Matthew 6. In this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to action in three ways. In verse 25, Jesus invites us as leaders to have a new conversation. In verses 26-30, he calls on us to consider -- that is, to pay attention to -- the needs at hand. And in verses 31-34, he asks us to connect with the real problems of today.

These three words offer guidance as we think about hunger in America: converse, consider, connect.

Conversation

Mere words of comfort are not enough for us to offer Lily and her peers, the one in five children in America who don’t have enough to eat.

To respond to their needs, we have to have a new conversation. And that is precisely what Jesus urges in these words from the Sermon on the Mount: stop worrying about the things of low importance. For those of us who have enough to eat, worry is an internal preoccupation driven by anxiety. It prevents us from having deeper conversations that encourage creative ministry. (Of course, for those who experience food insecurity, worry can be deep and all-consuming.)

Last July, the Pittsburgh Presbytery, under the leadership of Sheldon Sorge, created a new conversation at PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Congregations in then presbytery promised to donate $100 or more to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank for every home run made by the Pirates for the rest of the season as part of Home Runs for Hunger. With 43 home runs, donations topped $8,000.

As an institution, the Pittsburgh Presbytery created conversation beyond the usual in the stands at PNC Park. Neighbor turned to neighbor and asked about hunger and the local food bank. Fans hoped all the harder for a home run.

Consideration

The verb “consider” is an invitation to a spiritual practice of discernment as leaders of institutions in the church.

Throughout the “Sesame Street” special, the character Elmo served as Lily’s foil as he repeatedly confessed how sad he was that he had not known about her situation. Elmo was considering Lily’s situation. And so must we.

To faithfully consider is to turn up the soil of our soulless culture to unearth issues that matter. The act of discernment draws on the roots of issues that are not as straightforward as bipartisan politics desires to make them.

To consider is to search for truth, study it thoroughly and pray for steps forward. Faithful consideration blooms as thought is transformed into courageous action.

One example of this is a summer meals program created by the Des Moines Area Food Bank in Des Moines, Wash. Using the “Meals on Wheels” model, partners including churches, businesses, schools and service agencies created a mobile summer meals program that in 2011 served 14,000 nutritious summer lunches and snacks to children at neighborhood parks, playgrounds and other public gathering places.

Connection

Recently the Des Moines Area Food Bank was given an award for this program -- significantly, for “excellence in collaboration” -- for its efforts in making connections between resources and agencies to address the problem.

When we pay attention to the broken world around us, we then are freed to connect in new ways. We need to pay attention to the troubles we see and respond through sustained and surprising connections.

Our church group recently served in a community garden in Detroit. Within a few square miles of inner-city Detroit, there are only eight grocery stores -- and more than 400 liquor stores. According to one study, only 8 percent of Detroit retailers that accept food stamps are grocery stores, while the remaining 92 percent are "fringe retailers" such as gas stations, liquor stores, pharmacies or convenience stores. In response to that study, the Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation planted a garden and opened an adjacent produce market, “Peaches and Greens.”

The prayer behind the garden is a prayer of connection; most obviously, it offers people produce they would not otherwise have. It also helps make connections between people.

When we worked there, we were blessed to meet Derrick. Derrick walked into the garden where we were tending to the weeds. His appearance was somewhat startling -- he was wearing a set of turquoise plastic vampire teeth.

But Derrick started pulling weeds next to Verna, a 15-year-old church member. Together they toiled without anxiety. They prayed for what might start to grow: fresh lettuce, strawberries, a tomato.

Community

The creators of Lily took great care in investing her character with mannerisms that were engaging and believable. Jesus started a conversation with images that common people understood. “Sesame Street” is meticulous with the same form of pedagogy.

In an interview, the muppet Lily says, “A lot of times people don’t talk about things, but when you start you feel better. And then people can find comfort in each other.”

Both teaching forums, the Sermon on the Mount and “Sesame Street,” generate conversations that ask for deep consideration and then meaningful connections to follow. Ultimately, the goal is to build community -- and a society in which Lily and the people she represents no longer worry about food.