“Hallow’s Eve”

Today the d’Verse Poetics challenge for today is hosted by anmol(alias HA) and is centered on the subject of geography. I wanted another try at the prompt as I found it quite intriguing.

People who know me know that I am a Whovian who adores Doctor Who. After Steven Moffat’s story entitled “Blink” was released I had a real problem. I am a minister and suddenly I was afraid of living statues. Actually, a nearby town had a statue with the weeping angel shape in their yard and I literally rushed past it in my car for months.

This past Halloween Night, I was on a retreat at the Malvern Retreat Center when a friend of mine from the past two years pointed out that there were lots of statues around. I had never taken a walk in the woods on Halloween. What better time than after the evening service when we were all required to remain silent until morning? In other words, no nervous humming, no music, and nothing but the sounds of the forest on Halloween.

I walked down into the grotto to the largest collection of statues. I would say that my heart was beating out of my chest, but I learned anxiety breathing techniques that kept me from having a conniption. I made it down all the way and refused to run back up the hill.

There was something terrifying about being surrounded by hills and darkness on every side. It was as if I was descending to my doom like some Greek hero descending into the underworld. I wrote this poem to explore the feeling of descending into the darkness down into the depths of a valley with the earth rising up around me on one of the scariest nights of the year.

By the way, the friend almost hid in the woods to scare me, but realized that I would probably have instinctively hit him hard enough that he would have woken up in the hospital. He was probably right.

Down dark paths I tread on Hallow’s Eve
After the silence has fallen on dark paths.
Statuary reminds me of teary-eyed angels
Creeping out through the nightmares of my own imagination.

My heart beats as I descend the path
Into the depths of darkened statued hollow.
Every footfall echoes off of the trees stripped barren
As lights spread themselves too far and too thin for my racing heart.

Leaves whirl across path and confuse sounds
As darkness fills imagination with fear.
I ponder dark cliffs and the path before and behind
I blink one eye at a time as I seek shapes hiding ahead.

In the deep hollow all ways lead up
Darkness falls around in every direction
The statues and I all stand breathless in the darkness.
Primal fear wars with grown mind as I turn, look up, and close eyes:
Curse Steven Moffat’s monsters.

Let us Ramble: Lessons from Yogurt

I recently returned home from the Academy for Spiritual Formation. This last session we discussed the effects of things like stress and anxiety on the body. We practiced breathing techniques, experienced some meditative practices, and looked at various ways that we live our lives.

At one point during the week, I found myself pondering the concept of challenge and the spiritual life. I have always believed that a healthy spiritual life is one that does not shirk from challenge or adversity. There are lessons in the struggles.

The scripture teaches of this reality in Hebrews 12. Comparing our relationship with God to our parents on earth, the writer of Hebrews invites us to consider difficulties in light of the fruit it produces. The author of Hebrews wrote: (Hebrews 12:7-11, NRSV)

“Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

I will admit that it can be hard to face the challenges of life. Sometimes the disciplining of God can be painful, even if it does correct broken or misaligned parts of us. Occasionally, challenges are legitimately less about correction and more about building up strength, but in general, I think the same response is necessary. If God is working for good in us, then we are called to either work alongside God or to willingly let God work in us.

Now, of all places the where I could find inspiration to understand this relationship with God, I found myself inspired in my reflection by a book that I am reading in my spare time. Unsurprisingly, it is a book about cooking. The book is “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Harold McGee. I was reading through the section on dairy that morning and working through the science of yogurt making, which my wife and I have done off and on over the years.

Effectively there are two parts to the making of yogurt. First, the milk being used is heated to a certain level for a certain period of time. McGee describes this process on page 48 of “On Food and Cooking.” Traditionally, this heating process helped to concentrate the number of proteins and to remove some of the liquid, which created.a firmer texture. This process also has the effect of pasteurizing the milk which become yogurt as milk is pasteurized when it crosses 145℉ for 30 minutes during the heating process. (On Food and Cooking, 22)

Even with the advent of the modern technique of adding dried milk powder to increase protein content, yogurt makers still raise the temperature of milk to 185℉ in order to denature the “whey protein lactoglobulin” in order to help the milk keep from coagulating. How? Well, “In boiling milk, unfolded lactoglobulin binds not to itself but to the capping-casein on the casein micelles, which remain separate; so denatured lactoglobulin doesn’t coagulate.” (On Food and Cooking, 20) Caseins, by the way, are the protein molecules that coagulate together to make cheese curd. (Under the right conditions, cheese can still be made from denatured milk. Indeed, almost all cheese is made from pasteurized milk)

Almost there…

What’s needed to move the milk from a pasteurized milk with denatured lactoglobulin is time and fermentation. Bacteria increases the acid content of the yogurt, which allows the casein to coagulate in particular patterns (as the lactoglobulin is blocking some of the connection points). Over time, the yogurt forms together, setting into a gelled mass with pockets for the moisture of the milk.

There’s a challenge in the process here. You may have noticed the milk’s lactoglobulin is denatured nearly 40℉ above the temperature required to kill off bacteria. In fact, yogurt bacteria can only survive temperatures up to between 104-113℉. There needs to be a cooling of the milk before yogurt can begin to be created.

So, here’s where I came to a realization the other day. I am often a lot like the milk I work to turn into yogurt. There are parts in my life that are filled with all kinds of nasty things. Sometimes the only way God can help me to break free of my own stubbornness is to turn up the heat. God knows what I can handle and like a careful cook, I believe there are times when my life is intentionally and carefully brought to a place where I can both begin to be free of the nasty stuff and begin to be prepared for new good things. In challenge I am both freed and given a chance for transformation.

When I am ready, the heat turns down, I am brought into a place where God’s goodness can begin to transform the parts of me that have been prepared. In those moments, there are a couple of things I can do to help the process.

First, I can be careful about my surroundings. Just as a dirty spoon could spoil the pasteurized and prepared milk, I can cause a world of trouble by diving back into the places where I no longer belong. There are behaviors in this life which are not helpful. It is good to move away from them and to stay away from them.

Second, I can practice humility. A lot of things in life can go in ways I do not prefer. Does that mean all of those challenging situations are bad for me? Sometimes humility requires me to be willing to accept circumstances I would not prefer or choose on my own. It can be very difficult to admit that I do not always know what is best for me, but in reality, most of us have blind spots and areas where we do not see things clearly. If I practice humility, there is a stronger chance I can work my way through situations that normally would be inescapable.

None of this means that I would necessarily prefer to face such challenges, but there is something to be said for realizing that there are moments when challenge becomes both inevitable and beneficial. May we all have the wisdom to know when such situations are before us.

Let us Ramble: On being willing to fail

It has not happened often, but I have been asked a few times over my career as a minister for the best advice I have for people entering the ministry. I credit the scarcity of the question on the fact that I am completing my first decade of pastoral ministry on July 1st of this year. I have been asked a variant of this question a lot more often. How do you keep going in ministry?

I think this second question is prevalent as a result of a number of challenges faced by people entering into the ministry during this time. Our churches are tending to skew towards the higher age brackets, anxiety is rising, and often pastors are held accountable for the overall health of a congregation, even if they’ve been in an appointment for such a short period of time that there has been an inability for trust to be built, for change to occur, or for grief over the loss of a previous pastor to fully develop and be expressed within the hearts of congregants. Pastors are being placed in difficult situations which lead to poor health, poor moods, and unhealthy dynamics in personal and professional lives.

How do you keep going when a new church needs your attention but your daughter is grieving over the loss of her previous community? How do you decide between going to your daughter’s sports practice which you’ve missed two weeks in a row and helping set tables for a church fundraiser, especially when you know church meetings will make you miss her first three games in the upcoming weeks? How do you keep going through the thick and thin of a challenging time in ministry, especially if you don’t have a decade of relationships and trust to work with in your setting?

I give the same answer to both questions. You have to be willing to fail. I often hear the words of advice “Do you really want to die on that hill?” To survive on ministry, you have to be willing to die on some hills. I know that sounds crazy, but to survive over the long haul I believe that you have to be willing to sacrifice the easy path to seek after the life-giving death that comes with seeking after your ideals. I also do not believe this advice is for ministers alone. I think we all need to be willing to live out who we actually are in a very challenging world.

Let me give you a great example. I believe the best food is homemade. I know that there are great restaurants out there with wonderful food that I’ll never be able to make, but in reality, on a regular basis, the most consistent good food you can share with a family can come from your own kitchen.

Why? You know how your ingredients have been treated, you know how they were cooked, and if something goes wrong, you can adjust until you learn how to avoid that problem. You don’t need to rely on a cook that is paid an unfair wage, you don’t need to rely on a server that might be in a bad mood, and you don’t need to worry about the conditions of the kitchen. You can adjust the cooking to allergy needs or personal preferences. You know what is good and what is bad, and frankly, at least in our area, good ingredients like a nice roast and trimmings cost far less than a dinner for four at a restaurant.

How do you get to the point where that can be a reality? To bring the best to the table, you have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to set an achievable goal and then seek after it heart and soul. You have to find a purpose that is worth your time and go after it, even if you’ll likely fail, because people cannot live on fast food alone. People need depth. People need macaroni and cheese made with carrots snuck in to get veggies into picky kids. People need a good marinated chicken breast that hasn’t sat in a refrigerator for weeks past when it should have been cooked. People need good food in their bodies.

My first attempt at gluten-free communion bread rolled to different thicknesses…

Let’s take this example as a good start. On Friday, my Sabbath (or as I like to refer to it my ”bread day”) I made my first attempt at making flatbread with gluten-free flour. To be fair, it is actually based on a recipe for Indian flatbread called roti. I substituted some Gluten-Free flour, tried to make the recipe as indicated, realized the dough was wrong, and began to adjust through the addition of things like binding agents and additional moisture.

The first attempt is gone. I rolled it too thin, decided to see how it tasted without eating breakfast, and then had a breakfast of far too thin roti which was both piping hot and delicious. I noted my problems, tried to roll it thicker, realized there was still a problem, added moisture to the edges, and tried again. All it all, I made six “loaves” of gluten-free bread, all of which probably won’t cut the mustard for use in church. It tastes great and a great tasting mistake is okay in my book, but it won’t do what it needs to do for my purposes.

Now, let’s say it will take three more attempts before I get this right. Maybe I’ll need to try something different a time or two. Perhaps chia seeds won’t be gelatinous enough to bind the bread together without eggwhite. Perhaps adding more xantham gum will make it taste awful. Let’s say I get to communion Sunday, bring something that is made to the best of my ability, and receive nothing but criticism. What will I do?

I can tell you what I will do. I will hold my head up high, take the criticism, and go back to the kitchen to keep working. Why? Why not take the easy path? Why not try another loaf of gluten-free bread that has been sitting on the shelf in the store? Why not buy the dough frozen? Why not quit while I am ahead?

The plain and simple reason why is that I do not want to quit. I keep going in ministry because I decide there are times when I am willing to die on a hill for the sake of that person who won’t come to communion because they’re embarrassed. Who am I to walk away when I know there is a concrete need in front of me? I am willing to die on a hill for the sake of making sure the means of grace is available to those person while we are all sharing from one loaf as one body of Christ. I am willing to die on that hill because it is better to die with integrity to my spirit than to live with a broken heart.

If you are going to be in ministry you are going to face difficult times. Ministers are many things. We stand up front talking about God and so people will take out their anger with God on us. We talk about inclusion in the body of Christ, so we will bear the brunt of criticism when a member of our church does something exclusive to hurt others. We are the person up front helping put together worship in a way that honors God and that might mean leaving out a favorite hymn of someone for a period that they feel is too long. We will face criticism for that as well. Doing your job as a shepherd means not everyone will be happy.

Spoiler alert: Those words apply to more than just ministers. Teachers, parents will complain. Nurses, patients will continue to buck the advice of the doctor despite your best efforts. Bus drivers, “the wheels on the bus” sung fifty times in a row might be a far better way to spend a given day than to hear cranky kids, wet from the rain, bicker all the way to school. All of us will be challenged and all of us will face situations that demand we make a choice of how we want to live our lives. Sometimes that will lead to us facing hardship, challenge, and occasionally persecution.

We will all face difficult times. The question as you face your difficult times is whether or not you can find things you are passionate about and be happy to die on the hill for that passion and for the sake of your own soul. To be fair, I have found that most people will understand why you are doing what you are doing if you explain it to them. Is gluten-free communion important to you? Explain it with passion, explain your willingness to keep trying, and express that this is one of those places where you have to maintain integrity with your own spirit and most mature people will try to work with you.

Actually, sometimes following your passion frees others to follow their passions. You might die on that hill, but when that resurrection love of God brings life back into your broken bones, you may just open your eyes to see people living into their own personhood all the more powerfully as a result of your example. People can be inspired by sacrifice as much as by success, and that’s important to remember as well.

In the meantime, if you are going through a hard time, whether in ministry or not, I want to encourage you to find a hill that you’re willing to die upon. Stand up for your heart and soul and sacrifice. Jesus taught us that “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Sometimes we need to stand up against that which we hate and be willing to find ourselves on the other side of our resurrection with life everlasting.