Dystopian Inspiration

Joyfully, I have recovered my writing laptop from the place where it was charging. Who would have guessed it was plugged in on my desk? The next thing you know, I’ll find my keys hanging on the key-holder by the door.

For today’s blog, I wanted to bring in an outside source from the kind of stuff I usually quote. I am a sincere believer that everyone needs to put their hair down occasionally. In fact, even the Desert Abbas and Ammas occasionally understood this idea. I adore the story of the hunter who comes across Abba Anthony and questions the good Abba about what he sees. The Abba and several other monks were enjoying themselves in the desert. The Abba challenges the hunters perception by asking him to repeatedly draw his bow and fire an arrow. In time the hunter protests. Overusing the bow will break it. Abba Anthony replies that the same is true of people. If you stretch them too much, they will break.

“A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, ‘Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.’ So he did. The old man then said, ‘Shoot another,’ and he did so. Then the old man said, ‘Shoot yet again,’ and the hunter replied ‘If I bend my bow so much I will break it.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.’ When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.”

From “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” translated by Benedicta Ward on pages 3-4.

I put down my hair by reading science fiction. I enjoy space operas, dystopian tales, and short stories. I was recently reading through “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection” as edited by Gardner Dozois. In particular, I was reading “The Hunger After You’re Fed” written by the authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franch operating together under the pseudonym of James S. A. Corey.

In the story, there’s a society where everyone can have what they need. People are offered an allotment and should have enough to live off if they are careful with how they spend their resources. Unfortunately, even in science fiction people are often people. A few particular lines of the story stuck out:

“Money only ever fixes the troubles that money can fix. All the others stay on. Yes, yes, yes, we suffer less. We suffer differently. But we still suffer over smaller things, and it distracts us. We begin to forget how precious butter and bread are. How desperate we once were to have them. Spices that meant something deep to my mother or to me? In a generation they’ll only be tastes. They won’t mean anything more than their moment against the tongue. We should nourish our children not just with food, but with what food means. What it used to mean. We should cherish the moments of our poverty. Ghosts and bones are made to remind us to take joy in not being dead yet.”

James S A Corey, “The Hunger After You’re Fed” in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection” as edited by Gardner Dozois.

Now, I underline my religious books on my Kindle regularly. I am 30% through this collection of short stories and this is the first highlight in the book. Let’s be clear that I enjoyed many of the stories. This quote from James Corey just leapt off the page at me in a special way.

I believe one reason it connected with me is my hobby of cooking. At this moment, I have am working on making a compound beef stock to enjoy throughout the cold months of winter. It has taken a lot of effort to make the beef stock. It would be far easier to just purchase a container of beef boullion from the grocery store, but there’s something deeper at stake for me.

I want my kids to have something true, something real, and something they can identify. I want my kids to recognize the taste of leeks and carrots in a stock. I want my kids to see how long it takes to cool and remove the fat from the top of the stock. I want them to understand why the food they eat at home tastes different from the stuff out of a can in the school cafeteria.

Truthfully, there are no bones left behind for the kids to see at the school. My kids see the bones the broth comes from in our house. When making chicken stock, they see the chicken paws come out from the freezer and into the pot. There was once something living and breathing that went into that soup. The vegetables they see cooked to oblivion to get nutrients and flavors into the stock? Those vegetables came from farms where farmers worked hard. In the summer, the kids often meet those farmers at the farmer’s market or at the coop where my kids see the chickens that produce their eggs.

I have a colleague named Grace Hackney who is big into the ministry of food through the ministry “Life Around the Table.” At the Academy for Spiritual Formation we have had several deep conversations on food and spirituality. We have various differences of opinions on small matters, but I agree with her assertion that the ways we feed our bodies affect how we feed our soul. Living out of a place of gratitude means not only giving thanks for what we have on the table but also being aware of how it came to the table. Proverbs 13:25-14:1 states:

“The righteous have enough to satisfy their appetite, but the belly of the wicked is empty. The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands.”

Proverbs 13:25-14:1, NRSV

Proverbs is a book which is very black and white. There are righteous people who suffer want and there are wicked folks who have never gone hungry. As Jesus states in Matthew 5:45, the sun rises and the rain falls on people of all varieties. Still, there is wisdom to the saying “Don’t throw away the baby with the bath water.”

For me, stewardship means being able to trace back the foods I eat to the earth. If you hand me a chicken and vegetables, I can make broth. I don’t enjoy butchering chickens, but when pressed I can clean and cook a chicken. Grocery store vegetables are pretty, but if you hand me a bunch of malformed carrots, I can use them fine.

I am capable of these tasks, understand the effort they take, and thus do not throw useful things away without reason. In fact, I’m sure I drive my wife crazy with my obsession over leftover bones. I’m also certain she appreciates I can bring good food to the table for two or three days after roasting a chicken without driving up the grocery bill through the roof. I do so in part because there’s nothing more damaging to our budget than a grocery budget blown out of proportion or a trip out to dinner every night of the week. We have enough and some to spare in part because we do not let the foods we eat tear down the house in which we live.

We are trying to live out the wisdom of Proverbs 13:11 as a family: “Wealth hastily gotten will dwindle, but those who gather little by little with increase it.” There are days when the food on the table does not taste as good as the food at the restaurant, but there are moments when practice results in success. There are days when it is easier to just buy a kit from the store, but there are also moments when we turn the tide against the world insistent on telling our kids that any taste can come from a vending machine. Little by little we resist the drive to buy every shiny thing at the store. Bit by bit we regain what was once lost to us.

Thank you to some generous drivers approximately 80 years ago

Today was my wife’s grandmother’s memorial service in Olean. She’s being interred out west, so this was my family’s chance to formally pay our respects. The affair was meaningful, deep, and faithful. Grandma Betty was a really wonderful woman and I learned a lot about the woman whom I sat next to for many a holiday meal. Apparently her stories were not done catching me off guard even after she crossed to that other shore.

This evening I sat at our kitchen table and contemplated Ephesians 3:1-4. In particular, I was drawn to the concepts of mystery and grace. The contemplation was deep as I spent my time with these words. As I contemplated the growth of this one moment in time, I found myself caught in a million questions as I lifted questions to God in my heart.

“…for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation…”

Parts of Ephesians 3:2-3, NRSV

Contemplation roamed for quite a while on questions of whether this commission of God’s grace would be received well in today’s church. Would we welcome one of the villains of our stories into the doors of our church if he were to come in repentance? Would we welcome a former persecutor into our midst? Would we welcome someone who was passionately into another culture that many would consider counter-Christian into our midst? Would we have the grace to walk with them through transitions which are usually less dramatic than that of Paul?

I contemplated these questions for a while, but I kept being drawn back to the concept of mysterious grace. The early church was blessed by the unexpected life story of Saul of Tarsus. I have been blessed by unexpected stories too. I learned of a new unexpected story today at the memorial service in Olean.

My contemplation candle holder… It burns often on my table.

I heard the story of a hitchhiker in the west who went to play at a tent revival with some friends. A local girl found God at that tent revival and hitchhiked to the Bible College where that hitchhiker attended. This young lady was a graduate of a class of 12. This girl from a very small area was married and had kids. Those hitchhikers were my wife’s grandparents.

Hope was not falling asleep easily tonight, so I was holding her as she settled while I prayed and contemplated. I realized in the middle of my contemplation that if it were not for some random person picking up a hitchhiker on the other side of the country nearly 80 years ago, my daughter would not have been in my arms. It was a powerful moment of realization. My blessings in this world would be very different if it weren’t for a hitchhiking evangelist getting a ride to a small town with a graduating class of twelve to lead a tent revival. My blessings would be different if those evangelists decided the small town was not worth their time.

Earlier today on the ride back from Olean, my daughter and I were listening to the audio book for “The Good Doctor” by Juno Dawson. In that audio book, the eponymous Doctor of Doctor Who made the statement: “There’s only two things I don’t believe in, and one’s coincidence…” Apparently, being a time-traveler makes you skeptical of randomness.

Now, I am definitely not a predestination proponent, but there’s something powerfully moving when you realize that your daughter possibly wouldn’t be in your arms if someone had not decided to give one of her great-grandparents a lift, but I would rather contemplate something besides an argument that has raged for centuries like predestination versus free will.

What I contemplated was the fact that there a lot of people out there who often look in the mirror and do not know where their life is headed. They see coincidence and fear stepping out of even partial safety to see what might lay outside their door. There are scary things out there in the world which are far more frightening than hitch hiking. People can become paralyzed by fears both of what might happen and what is happening. Here a few off the top of my head:

  • A person lives with someone who is physically abusive. Zie wishes to walk away, but what if zie loses his chance to see hir kids?
  • An alcoholic wants to stop drinking, but all of hir friends drink every weekend. What if zie ends up all alone?
  • A person wants to stop working at a job that is literally physically, mentally, or spiritually killing them. What if zie quits and ends up losing everything?
  • A person has a loved one (friend/child) who is doing something awful that might end up disastrously bad. Maybe it already has gone bad. Zie wants to say something or do something, but what happens if hir loved one walks away from zie forever?

These examples are but a few examples of how life can throw challenges that cause us to stop dead in our tracks in fear. What if our inability to move causes things to go awry? What if someone we do not know in 80 years will be a completely different person if we do nothing?

I don’t know who the person was who gave my wife’s grandparents rides across what sounded like a good portion of the western half of this country, but I am so grateful that they did. If you’re living in fear of doing something that might seem just as crazy, I invite you to have a conversation with a local religious leader, a counselor, or even a good friend. If necessary, speak to the police for an intervention or go to a support group to find help. Your bravery just might change the future.

Let us Ramble: Keeping Focus

I have not posted much lately on my blog. One of the reasons is that I have been traveling for denominational Conferences over the last few weeks. One of the things that I did not realize when I took this appointment was that these meetings would often fall back to back. Another reason is that I have been focusing on doing some more intensive sermon prep given the things going on in our culture.

Let’s try to explain this in parable form. The work of a minister is like that of a baker. Every week they are expected to bake food that will feed people. Some people need sweets and others need something hearty. Some folks need something to build conversation around (like a dippable biscotti) while others need something that will last them for a journey (like… hardtack?). Each week people will come in need of food. A wise baker pays attention to what people need and desire.

Recently, there’s been so much dissension and frustration filling the world that I have felt a need to focus on bringing forth something that will fuel people for the journey. Mix in a little bit of a call for justice, a bit of history, a touch of feminine spirituality, with a whole lot of the Good News… You can see what I have been trying to bring forth and you can see that it takes some focus, some knowledge, some study, and a whole lot of prayer.

Meanwhile, people are going about life while I prepare these sermons. Some people are burning the candle at both ends with a call for justice that is both timely and righteous. I want to encourage such fervor, but also remind people that the journey will be difficult. People more than likely will oppose them and their efforts, no matter how noble or heartfelt their intentions.

Ultimately, the people in the trenches decide how they will relate to other people and the opposition they might bring into their lives. The God that I serve has always laid on my heart a strong belief in free will, so I wanted to share a couple of words from a wise scholar in our recent church past.

Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman was a wise professor and leader within the African-American tradition. These days, Rev. Dr. Thurman is considered a respected and wise figure well beyond the bounds of that tradition. His words were often visionary and deep. He wrote the following in his book “Jesus and the Disinherited:” (pg. 28)

“If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection. It is a man’s reaction to things that determines their ability to exercise power over him.”

Now, Rev. Dr. Thurman wrote these words in 1976, so they’re not entirely in line with modern sensibilities on gender address, but they are still filled with wisdom. I love the simplicity of these words and I love the fact that I came about these words while looking for something completely different.

If someone knows how to throw off your temper or your equilibrium, then you are in a vulnerable place. I don’t know if I would say that you will always be kept under subjection or subjugation, but I do believe that it is almost impossible to act with freedom when you allow yourself to continually be dominated by the actions of others. If your spirit and soul are able to be pushed into a knee-jerk reaction as a result of a simple provocation, then your ability to exercise decision making is highly curtailed.

We live in days where there are folks who continually push buttons both in the world and in the church. I do not believe it is political in the slightest to point out that the sitting president of the nation in which I live (in June of 2018) makes a habit of making strong statements that provoke other people. If anything, he is a great example of someone who attempts regularly to coerce and cajole people to his point of view through throwing people off of their equilibrium.

Friends, many of us have been engaging in ministries that will require time, patience, and perseverance to bring to fruition. We do not have the time or luxury to become puppets to the attempts at subjection and subjugation by others who do not agree. I invite you to ponder Rev. Dr. Thurman’s words and to move forward with care.

Let Us Bake: Roti and Journaling

I woke up early yesterday morning. I had been paying attention to the weather forecast before going to bed and I knew that I would have to snowblow. I woke up extra early to clear the paths. Of course, there was no snow.

I decided to make some roti for breakfast out of one of my favorite cookbooks. I adjust the recipes to my kids tastes and share my adjusted recipes in person, but still feel somewhat hesitant to share recipes online that have too strong a basis on someone else’s work, so kudos to you Mr. Solomon. If it makes you feel better, Mr. Solomon, I often recommend people buy your book before I give them the recipe.

Anyway, my less spicy roti were prepared about half an hour before the kids were supposed to get out of bed. I heated up my pan, prepped the dough, and tossed the first roti on the pan to cook with what I imagine was an ironic look of satisfaction on my face. I ruined the first roti, which promptly wiped that smug look off of my face.

You see, I never flatten my roti flat enough on my first attempt. Every single time I make this recipe I refuse to remember that I ruined the first roti of the last batch. So, I make a super thick roti which is doughy in the middle and burnt on the outside. I then proceed to be my depression-era grandmother’s grandson. In other words, yesterday I ended up dunking my burnt/raw roti into my coffee to make it palatable while my kids and wife ate proper roti with homemade jam.

I never learn. Well, I should say that I am trying to learn through a very basic idea, but I will probably burn the roti at least once more. I have begun a cooking journal that I keep in my kitchen. When I try out a new recipe, adjust a recipe, or even just adjust a cooking method, I write down what I am doing in my notebook with an explanation as to why I have done what I have done.

I’m doing this for at least three reasons. First, I want to learn to be a better cook. I know that I have a tendency to be a bit of kinesthetic learner, so cooking the recipes is a good first step towards learning to cook them with excellence. Practicing helps me to learn, but so does the very act of writing out the recipe, the adjustments, and the reasoning behind what I have done on a given day. I become more intimately connected with my cooking by my writing in my cooking journal.

An excerpt from my cooking journal…

Second,I occasionally get something completely right. The other week I was working off of a recipe for cucumber salsa from one of my preserving books when I realized that half of the ingredients I needed were locally seasonal, were hard to come by in the middle of winter, and were completely out of stock. Rather than give up, I decided to start substituting for the missing herbs and peppers. I went way off of the chartered course with a basic knowledge of the necessary ph-balance for the canning method I intended to use. The salsa turned out fantastic. I write down my cooking methods, especially when wandering afield, so that I can recreate the accidental inspirations later.

Third, I know that my cooking will be a part of my children’s memory of my life. I want my kids to know how I made that one meal, to see how I tended to experiment with herbs, and to be aware that not everything I made turned out perfectly. I hope that they will not only have a record of how I cooked one day, but also the opportunity to create alongside me even after I pass away.

All of this being said, there is a distinct possibility that what is true of my cooking journal should be seen as true of my personal journal. Yes, I will leave my kids some of the poetry I wrote in notes. Yes, they will likely be able read some version of this blog. Yes, I am almost certain that there will be copies of my sermons kicking around in some dusty corner or another. All of this is true, but my journal is partially a record of my soul’s journey. They may not be able to know all of the circumstances, but the journal could be another piece of the puzzle for them to riddle out after I am gone.

Yes, I can try to remember when I make a spiritual breakthrough without writing down a record. There have been many points in my past where I have learned something powerful in my spiritual life that has moved me deeply. Just like baking, there’s a certain part of me that remembers when I learn something. I remember the first time I learned that I could make a bagel without a hole that was just as tasty! Still, there’s the lesson of the roti. Just because I learn something does not mean I will remember learning it later. A physical journal can become a repository of the things that I have learned even if I forget them for a season.

Yes, I can learn kinesthetically through some of the spiritual disciplines. Yes, I can have fond memories of my time engaging in physical worship in places like my seminary campus, the churches I have served, and the Academy for Spiritual Formation in Malvern. Yes, I can remember praying in Convention centers and in District Offices, but there is a power behind the kinesthetic action of writing in a journal. To reenter the same story every time that I write in the same book is to create a powerful kinesthetic bond between this spiritual practice and my spiritual life.

There are many reasons to journal both in one’s personal life and in the kitchen. I hope that is evident by this point in the post, Regardless, dear reader, if you have come this far, please feel free to join in my laughter. I know that my daughter actually believes the recipe I prepped for breakfast this morning calls for the ingredients in that recipe over there. She even copied the recipe into her handmade cookbook. Someday she will realize I threw in more cinnamon and nutmeg as well as substituted pure maple syrup for brown sugar.

Maybe I’ll tell her later today. Maybe…