by Cara Strickland—
I first learned about soup suppers a few congregations ago. It was early in my journey to more liturgical worship. During that particular Lenten season, the congregation was engaged in a video series to explore our faith more deeply—but first, the soup.
At first, I had no idea what to expect. Walking in, I found three crockpots laden with concoctions from our church community. Sometimes there would be vegetable soup with rice or pasta. Other times there would be brown or white. It wasn’t uncommon to see a hamburger soup of one stripe or another.
Alongside other midweek gatherers, I’d load up my bowl (taking an extra piece of cornbread if it happened to be there), then settle in at one of the white, molded plastic tables in the fellowship hall. This was where we met for coffee hour after worship. It was also where we dipped bread into soup and connected with each other Wednesday nights.
Over the years, I’ve been to many congregational soup suppers. I don’t remember specifics about the programming anymore, only that I found much of it meaningful at the time. What stands out to me about those suppers is the sense of belonging I felt when I walked into the room, the comfort of scooping a bowl of hot soup among other people of faith and the warm conversations with those sitting near me.
When I was little, my mom read me the classic children’s book, Stone Soup—about a magical pot of goodness into which everyone added something they had until the pot was brimming with flavor and enough food to feed everyone.
I don’t think it’s an accident that we use soup at our Lenten suppers. Soup is endlessly forgiving. If extra people happen to stop by, it can be stretched and an extra place can be set at the table. If you’re short on cash, soup is a good way to eschew expensive ingredients like meat or spread them over more meals. Most soups are also easy to preserve in a freezer without ill effects.
During Lent, we examine ourselves, choosing to pull back from excess and feasting. We are called to soup. This is a good time to think about people in our communities who make soup to stretch their dollars, who aren’t thinking about bisques and fancy mushrooms, but about how they will feed their families, to sustain them for the days ahead.
While soup can be stretched, it’s also true that people who are stretched often take comfort in soup. Over Lenten soup, we sit with and remember those who inhabit the “soup kitchens” of the world. Hopefully, our memory moments will build on each other, and move us to action. Many of us, as congregations and as families, have partnerships with organizations who feed the hungry. Taking time to serve others during Lent can bring new meaning to the idea of a “soup supper.”
Soup is endlessly versatile. When you hear the word “soup,” it’s likely that many images flood your mind as you sort through your own experiences with this simple meal. I think about my mom’s turkey rice soup. After every Thanksgiving dinner, she would painstakingly pick meat off the turkey carcass, not wasting anything. That carcass would provide stock, boiled long on the stove. She would add carrots, celery, onion and seasonings that seemed mysterious at the time—and finally, rice. The pot of soup seemed enormous, going into countless containers until our freezer was full. The smell of turkey stock still takes me right home to that time.
You might also think of chunks of butternut squash, cooked until soft, spun in a blender, a version of fall you can eat. Or perhaps you remember the chili your grandma used to make, with a special something extra, like canned corn.
While we may have memories of soups that left us hungry after a couple of hours, so many soups can leave us completely full and satisfied, from a slow-cooked stew to a chunky loaded baked potato soup. Whatever kind it is, it fills us up to the brim.
Just because soup is often simple doesn’t mean it can’t be filling or delicious. It’s a low-budget way to feed lots of people; and it’s a wonderful gift with myriad variations. Nearly everybody has one or more soup recipes up their sleeve. Though there may be a few similarities, I don’t know that I’ve ever had the same exact soup twice at a soup supper. Everyone brings a little piece of their history to the table—that recipe that’s been passed down through family or friends, that soup they made at the beginning of their cooking life when money was tight, that recipe they found when they were tired of the basics. The potluck of soup reminds me of the richness and diversity of our community. In the pot as well as in the pew, disparate ingredients belong and work together for the good of the Body.
Depending on where you are in the world, the Lenten season can be chilly. Though Lent has long been associated with penitence and austerity, sometimes it’s hard to remember that in the face of hot soup.
As we gather to learn and fellowship, what are we doing if not being warmed? Our encouraging of each other lights a fire under our gathering, pointing to light and life in the world. This is not a time for cold sandwiches, but a time for soup.
When we enter or welcome newcomers to our congregational spaces, we hope for a sense of warmth. We talk at length about how to make newcomers more comfortable—we want them to feel the warmth of our hospitality. We Lutherans are not alone in offering steaming cups of coffee and bowls of soup to those coming through the doors, but we are known for it. There is something to be said for following through on that hospitality with something tangible.
It’s not just newcomers who need to experience that warmth. So many in our congregations experience sorrow, loss and moments when hope is fleeting, or they feel left out in the cold in some way. Warm soup and conversation can be a bit of a balm for those feelings, coupled with pastoral and congregational care.
There are few places where I can completely focus on the moment in front of me. (I’m trying to get better at this.) For me, cooking is one of those places. It’s a centering practice if ever there was one.
I’m not sure about you, but I know I can get lost in all that I have to do. I’m not focused on what my senses are telling me; I’m just concentrating on my to-do list. But in the kitchen, I have different priorities. I must pay attention, often to just one thing at a time, or things will go haywire. And often, cooking takes longer than I would prefer.
Have you ever made stock? It’s one of those things that is about 5 million times better when it’s homemade. It’s also not a lot of work. Find a good recipe, drop everything in a big pot, and turn the heat down low for a long time.
I do other things when I’m making stock—I don’t have to babysit it for hours on end. But throughout the day, I breathe in the delicious smell that means something good and nourishing is happening.
I’m beginning to think that our lives—faith lives included—are a lot like stock. You add a few normal ingredients, nothing fancy, and let them marinate over a long period of time. You could rush it—try to turn up the heat or buy stock at the store—but the results would be different, and I’ll argue, not as good. It is the long, simmering journey that extracts the flavor from components you’ve added.
Lent is only one season, but our self-reflection and growth shouldn’t happen for just 40 days once a year. Like good stock, we should always be simmering, allowing new insights to infuse us with perspective.
Back in the kitchen, there’s the chopping. You can’t turn your mind off for this one. If you do, you might end up with a slice in the wrong place. Each chunk of asparagus, carrot or celery is a chance for meditation. The pieces don’t all have to be perfect, but the soup will be better if they are bite-sized. When I allow myself time for this simple prep-work, nothing calms my spirit more. All these little things matter to the whole. Just like I do.
You don’t have to make soup to be mindful about it, either. You can think about all of these things as you enjoy a spoonful of soup made for you. We often talk about food being made with love. Consider this amazing truth: When you consume soup at a Lenten supper, someone took the time to slice and dice, maybe make stock, perhaps whir everything together in a blender—for you.
When we gather as a body, during Lent or any season of the church year, we, too, gather like soup, to nourish each other. May we stretch, fill, warm and bring mindfulness to ourselves and bring mindfulness to ourselves and those around us.
Cara Strickland writes about food, faith and life from her home in the Pacific Northwest. You can read more of her work at carastrickland.com.
This article is from the March 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.