Unexpected Gifts

By Kyle Meyaard-Schaap

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved meat. It was the foundation of every childhood meal. It was a part of every special birthday night out. Its sizzle and fragrance was the centerpiece of every summer cookout. Its comfort on Sunday afternoon, warm from Mom’s crockpot, was almost as Sabbath as the services beforehand or the nap that came after. Meat was a constant, uncomplicated companion of mine for years, and I had no reason to believe that it would ever be otherwise.

That is, until the summer of 2007. My older brother/hero-who-could-do-no-wrong came back that summer from a semester in New Zealand and disclosed a shocking new truth about himself: he was now a vegetarian.

For context: we grew up in the meat-and-potatoes Midwest. I had never in my life met someone who had voluntarily forgone the pleasures of meat, and considered anyone who would to be a bunny-hugging, granola-crunching hippie at best, and perhaps slightly brain-damaged at worst. But now, someone that I loved—nay, revered—announced that he was one of these heretofore unspeakables.

I realized that I had a choice to make: continue in my ignorance and label my brother/hero a wacko (which was painful), or suspend my judgement and listen to his reasons (which was difficult). My love for my brother and my curiosity for his choices won the day, and I have never been the same since.

That choice to hear my brother out and to suspend my prejudices opened the door for one of the most treasured times of my life: our late-night talks. For the next several years whenever our paths converged—when we were home together from college or, after he graduated, during the short stints when he would come back to my parent’s house to catch his breath before jetting off again—we had a ritual of staying up together late into the night and talking. It often revolved around things like the environmental impacts of industrial animal agriculture, the horrors of modern confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and the ethics of eating humanely raised meat, but just as often it was about other things entirely: politics, jobs, relationships. And I began to see the gift that was unfolding before me: what had started as an attempt to learn more about my brother’s new dietary ethics had blossomed into a ritual of mutual vulnerability and support; of love and challenge; of doing the hard work of weaving together belief and behavior in the modern world together.

And it all started with a choice. A choice to listen and to suspend judgement. A choice to follow the line of questioning, wherever that would lead me. A choice to abandon my blissful ignorance in pursuit of a more authentic and gospel-rooted life. And I have seen over the course of the last nine years how this one choice has spawned so many others, all with their own blessed unexpected gifts. The choice to pursue the subject further in college by taking classes, attending lectures, and focusing research meant that my now-wife and I got to go to lectures together and grapple with the things I was reading in class, setting us on the same path that we continue on today. Gradually beginning to say “no” to certain foods meant that I learned how to cook other foods and that I got to know the source of my food more intimately than I ever had before.

People often say things to me like, “How could you give up meat? Don’t you miss it? I could never do that?” Behind all of these responses is the assumption that giving up meat is somehow an unqualified sacrifice; that the choice to not eat meat has no perceivable benefit beyond the realm of the ethical (which is no small thing). Which is why when I hear these sorts of things, I love to tell people about all of the unexpected ways that this journey toward compassion has blessed me. I love to tell them about the relationships formed and deepened, about how my love for, appreciation of, food and its origins have expanded. I love to tell them about all the new foods I have come to love that I had never even heard of before. I love to tell them about how this one choice has rippled out and touched my life in ways I never could have imagined or expected.

And there it is again: choice. I’m starting to realize that what I had always understood as my choice to cut out meat from my life was rooted in a deeper choice: God’s choice for me. God’s choice for my life; a piece of the unique way that God has called me to live more authentically, to love more deeply, and to serve Christ’s coming kingdom with everything I’ve got.

And for that gift, I am truly grateful.