Table Triumphs

I recently finished a book called Eight Flavors by Sarah Lohman, which is a history of several flavors that have become uniquely American. It covers several of my favorites, including vanilla, garlic, and chili powder. (I highly recommend the book. It’s written in a conversational tone, gives lots of stories, and provides surprising information.) Learning about the history of food helps me to appreciate the long, or surprisingly short, histories of the flavors that make up my favorite dishes. It got me to thinking… what are the flavors of my own history?

Honestly, the book has me pegged as far as flavors go. Vanilla has always been used in my house. Now, some houses use vanillin, the artificial extract which, scientifically, does work better in cookies. Growing up, my mother had discovered Mexican vanilla during her trips to Texas and visits to Progresso, Mexico. There is something unique about vanilla produced in Mexico that provides a depth of flavor that makes any dessert truly special. In fact, this stuff is so precious to us that any member of the family that goes near Mexico is charged with bringing home several bottles. To this day, I have a bottle of Mexican vanilla that I bake with, and I am looking forward to sharing this flavor with my little girl once she gets here.

Butter. Scoff all you like, butter was and still is a flavor in my house, as it was growing up with my parents. During the “oil is better” craze in past decades, my parents still believed in butter. Butter added a richness to grilled cheeses, a presence to mashed potatoes, and provided a weight to scrambled eggs that is unmatched in my opinion. Butter was a topping on popcorn, a way to fry food, and a lubricant for pans and baking sheets that did more that create a non-stick layer – it added flavor. Today I live differently by using unsalted butter, but the butter is still ever-present. As I grow and cook more, I’m beginning to truly appreciate butter and how it behaves in the pan and in dishes. My family has never been able to make good friends with margarine, but butter has always been welcome.

Sage. Why sage? It seems like such an odd herb. To me, this herb has just the right about of bite, savoriness, and sharpness to create something magical – see breakfast sausage. Sage is one of the primary flavorings of our breakfast sausage (or at least the way I make it.) Sausage was something that we ate often growing up – Tennessee Country Pride, if I recall the brand correctly. We’d usually go for the mild, but every once in a while we’d accidentally grab one of the hot ones and have quite the surprise at the breakfast table. My dad prepared sausage – and was up earlier than the rest of us, so he made breakfast every morning for us. Sausage and egg days were the best. And then, on the weekend, that same sausage would be crumbled up and made into a cream gravy that would cover our biscuits in a goodness so rich, you’d have to take a mid-morning nap after eating it. Sage’s sharpness would shine through at each stage of that process, providing a lightness to the gravy that might not have been there otherwise.

Banana. And here’s where we take the turn into left field. There is one dessert that will cause me to go out of my way – banana pudding. Call me simple, that’s fine, but even an adequate banana pudding is ambrosia and joy to me. My mother would get a wild hare every once in a while and make these banana puddings, layering pudding with bananas and nilla wafers that I still remember. We’ve always talked about driving over to the Banana Pudding Festival (yes they have one, and it must be a beautiful sight!) near Memphis, but we usually have something else going on that weekend. If you ever go, eat a second helping in my stead. Or, really, whenever you eat banana pudding, go ahead and eat a second helping in my stead… Or better yet, bring me some?

Mint. I love mint. Put it in just about anything and I will be exceedingly happy. My dad and I share this flavor – and it all started for me when I ordered mint chocolate chip ice cream like my dad. My tongue fell in love, and has been adoringly enamored ever since. We both put mint jelly/sauce on our cuts of lamb, and enjoy it in candy bars. To gripe for a second, who at Hershey’s decided that getting rid of the mint chocolate cookie bar over a decade and a half ago was a good idea? No, seriously, and the nasty white chocolate cookie bar survived that purge? Did someone mistake one for the other, because I have been a touch bitter about that ever since – and yes, it was over 15 years ago at this point. I still remember spending the night at my friend Aaron’s house in high school and we would brew tea with fresh mint from his garden. Sure, maybe we were weird, but sweet tea with freshly crushed mint is a delicious treat on any day, especially those hot summer days.

These are just a few of the flavors I love, and that my parents passed on to me. These flavors make up a part of who I am, and are flavors I will hopefully pass on to my kids. See, to my family, food is something to be celebrated and shared… unless it’s unbearably good, and then you stash it and hope no one finds it. Seriously, though, we tend to tell long stories about the meals we’ve eaten, while eating a meal. We reminisce about trips we’ve taken, and the restaurants or snacks we found on the way. My grandfather always said, “All you get is what you wear and what you eat.” And we take the second part of that statement and run with it… right to the kitchen.

Consider that food is important, especially in the Bible, as a way to remember. Don’t forget that God commanded a yearly meal to remember the Jewish family’s story of being rescued by God from slavery in Egypt. Jesus instructed his followers to eat part of that same meal to remember his family’s story of being rescued by God from slavery to sin and death. Food tells a story. What story does your dinner tell your kids?

What flavors make up your history? What flavors have you shared with your kids? What are your food stories? What places can you take your family that you went to as a child?

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A Storied Life (My Grandmother)

Everyone has a fun name for their grandmother. I’m not sure which of us actually came up with the name, but it was probably my cousin who called her “Memom” first, and it stuck. Memom is my mother’s mother, and she is a woman who has lived a long, storied life.

She grew up in a large family, and has plenty of stories about her brothers and the trouble they would all get into. Whether it was a scheme as complicated as developing “purple medicine,” scaring one another half to death by jumping out from behind walls, or as simple as locking people into outhouses, her childhood was full of interesting stories. And, luckily for us, she loves telling them. She has worked in food service, and currently works in the optical business. And, truly, she has been working in the optical business in one form or another since before I was born. She knows the “Old Ways” and sometimes her knack for finding solutions borders on magic.

My early memories of her are of playing at her house, sometimes with my cousin, sometimes on my own. I did take a turn locking her out of the house, which, if I recall is something of a tradition in the family. We often got each other wet. I practiced “cooking” at her house, which usually involved dumping a mess of ingredients in a bowl and mixing it up, only afterwards realizing that the combination I had created tasted quite terrible. I managed to eat through a box of high-fiber cereal one weekend… which didn’t end well. There may or may not have been a moment where I ruined a perfectly good VCR with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but the exact details aren’t important.

As far as food goes, Memom introduced me to some of the simpler pleasures. (And, yes, every member of my family has food associated with them. That, too, is a tradition.) She always made great fried okra and mashed potatoes, which we would have at almost every family gathering. She has also always enjoyed the carrot souffle at Picadilly – which for some may sound like a place in England. Picadilly is a cafeteria-style restaurant where you walk down a line and pick your food a la carte style – but the carrot souffle was always a must. Memom also showed me the joy of an Egg McMuffin. To this day it’s one of the foods I associate with memories of her. (And also my dad, who managed to engineer a homemade one.)

Memom has always been a storyteller. She reveled in stories old and new, and has always been an avid listener and reader. As long as I can remember, she has always had at least one or two audiobooks in her car at all times. She wrote one of my favorite interpretations of the story of the ten lepers, giving that one who came back to thank Jesus a marvelous character arc of change and repentance. It was a stirring retelling of the story. Some of my earliest times of service were going to church with her every so often and getting to work the puppets for her church’s children’s ministry. Could be that set me on the path to becoming a children’s minister. Her love of stories certainly passed down the generational line. I love hearing stories from all kinds of places, people, and time periods. I consider myself a collector of stories.

She also encouraged my education. In middle and high school, she would reward me for every A, which meant I worked extra hard to make sure I had a full list of them. She also encouraged me at college by sending me snacks and food so that I could eat well while studying.

She put up with my special brand of strange while making sure that I knew that I was loved, by her and by God. It’s nice to know that I am part of a story that started long ago and is continually being written. And I hope that my part of the story can be as unique and as much of a blessing as hers.

Sex Martyr

Everyone has a period of history that bothers them. At one point, mine was early 20th century American history, the period before and just after WWI. Thanks to Dan Carlin and the Hardcore History podcast, I now have a better appreciation for that period of history. (His Blueprint for Armageddon 5 part series on World War One is a masterwork of historical storytelling and commentary.) Once that hill was climbed, American history in general seemed dull and bothersome. Once again, a podcast saved the day: the My History Can Beat Up Your Politics podcast with Bruce Carlson helped me gain a better understanding and interest in the particulars of American history.

But there is one period that still irritates me because its effects linger on in today’s cultural milieu. (“Milieu” is such a fun word… I never get to use it in Children’s Ministry, so you all get to enjoy fun words with me.) This irritating period is the 4th and 5th Century in regards to Christianity and its relationship with marital relations.

Note: the following is a broad oversimplification of much more complex cultural and societal questions considered from a modern perspective with the hindsight of give-or-take 1500 years. (And also coming from someone who tries to recognize the limits of his own perspective when it comes to complex issues.)

Consider that, for the most part, the Jewish culture had a fairly positive view of sex as part of a healthy life and the creation of subsequent generations to carry on the name of God and His praises. There was a sense of obligation, joy, and worship in the making and sustaining of a family, which models God’s own choosing and sustaining of the Jewish family. (I find it amazing and a testament of God’s faithfulness that the Jewish people continue to thrive despite the hardship they have faced.) Genesis is very frank about sexuality and what constitutes a right, faithful sexual relationship. (See previous post.) Sex in the Torah seems to connect the ideas of procreation and faithfulness with marital relations, and sex outside of that system leads to long-and-short-term conflict. (See Abraham, Sarah, Hagar; Lot and his daughters; Jacob and his wives; Abraham and Issac lying about their marriages to foreigners; just to name a few.) On a complementary note is the Song of Solomon which, on its face, seems to be a celebration of the pleasures of sex as enjoyed by two impassioned lovers. (Or at least the enjoyment of the anticipation, since upon closer inspection the lovers never get closer than being on either side of a door.) So, we see multiple aspects of sex illustrated throughout the Hebrew Bible: procreation, faithfulness, and pleasure.

With the entrance of Christianity things got more complicated (than they already were.) Around the 4th and 5th centuries, though developing earlier, the church began to separate sharply from its Jewish roots, tending to lean more often on Greek philosophy and modes of thinking to interpret the Bible, Gospel accounts, and letters written to churches. (Despite, however, the overwhelming Jewish nature of both the authors and their intent to further the Jewish story by pointing to its ultimate end with the incarnation and return of the Messiah to put all things right.) This entering of Greek thought also lead to the entertaining of Gnostic ideas, such as the utter separation of spirit and physical matter. Simply put, the spiritual was good, and the physical was bad. (This despite the Creation account in Genesis having God call his creation good, and the subsequent outpouring of God’spirit on that physical matter and even more important sending of Jesus as fully God and man, a unity of spirit and matter on a scale we still can’t quite grasp entirely.) Suddenly, amidst persecutions and the rise of Gnosticism, the church found itself sorting out complex theology concerning Jesus, the Spirit, and how these concepts applied to the life of the church and its sacraments.

Following the gradual dying out of the official fire of persecution, the church found itself in an odd place. This place was a church that had survived persecution, but now had a bevvy of new recruits that were clamoring to enter because of the change in status of the church, not only of the recognition of, but alongside official imperial support of, the church. No longer did the church have martyrdom, dying for the faith or persevering through intense persecution, as the pinnacle of holiness for its members to strive towards so it sought a new form of martyrdom. Based on the idea that physical pleasure is, at best, a temptation and enslavement to it something to be avoided, or, at worst, simply evil, asceticism became the new standard. Asceticism is any intentional lifestyle designed around self-discipline which can include abstinence from luxury, self-deprivation, isolation, or other practices intended to bring about a spiritual holiness via purification of the body. Some of the early ascetics were the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) who left the cities in search of isolation where they would spend their days in fasting, prayer, and meditation on the scriptures, battling the spiritual evils. Following this, a more organized effort was launched in order to create intentional communities of fellow ascetics who all sought to aid one another in their spiritual disciplines by holding one another accountable.

Some of those writing around this time found that voluntary celibacy aided one in maintaining spiritual purity. Young men and women were encouraged in these writings to abstain from any sexual activity, and in marriage, sex was only to be used as a method of procreation… and even then enjoyment was out of the question. One thing to consider is that many of those authors whose writings we have from this period espousing this view were themselves voluntarily celibate, and were writing from that viewpoint. While I can get behind the idea of celibacy as a choice for some, who for their own reasons don’t desire a sexual relationship or are dedicated enough to make that decision, I find more problems with celibacy being required in order to have a sense of “holiness.”

This idea seemed to persist in different forms through the centuries where it still seems to have a place in mainstream Christian thought, if not in practice. In some ways we have swung perhaps a bit too far the other direction, which shows up in the pestering of singles to get married instead of enjoying that period of their life as one of adventure and discovery. However, I still hear stories of women terrified of marriage because of the sex involved, the stories they have heard. I still hear talk of sex being “dirty” and “not a topic to discuss in church.” If the church won’t talk about sex, how can we expect people to have a healthy attitude toward it?

Today, secular society seems to be in the thrall of three gods: Mammon, Mars, and Venus. Money, Violence, and Lust rule the roost. CS Lewis, in a lecture series that turned into The Four Loves says that Eros, erotic love, is a fickle, angry god, but can also be taken too lightly and made into a vulgar joke. Sex, in and of itself, is good because God made it. A healthy attitude toward sex includes an understanding of its goodness, of its symbolism as an act of ultimate faithfulness, of its place as a sign of joyful love, and of its place as the method of human procreation. Things that are necessary for survival can be enjoyable. A cool glass of water is both needed, and pleasurable after working in the sun. A delicious meal is pleasurable even though it is necessary. The act of reconciliation, while challenging and painful, can also lead to the joy of a renewed relationship. And, sex, while necessary for the continuation of our species, is, when done right, enjoyable.

To be fair, I can sense these thought patterns in myself. The word “pleasure” contains for me an almost lustful sensuousness about it that makes me wary of typing or saying it. Is that true, though: pleasure as something deemed concerning or controversial? I should probably stop and sum up my thought before I end up on another several thousand word philosophical tear about the rightness or wrongness of pleasure.

TL;DR Version:

The church has a history of downplaying sex in particular, and pleasure in general, tending to view it not as something good to be enjoyed in proper context of covenant faithfulness, but as a tool for procreation to be used in the proper context of covenant faithfulness. I have come to the understanding that this belief has its roots in secular Greek thought rather than Jewish thought, (or even Pauline, though even making that any distinction with Paul and Jewish thought is a false dichotomy) though I am open to rebuttal.

How do your discussions of sex sound? Do they reflect a healthy, God-reflecting view of sex? What has your experience of church discussion surrounding sex been? What are your personal views of sex and its place in in the life of a Christ follower?

Outrunning Racism in Borrowed Shoes

Americans have a mythology that has been an identity for a couple of centuries now. The mythology is that American was founded, and sustained, by self-made men who struggled against injustice to establish a land of equality where all would be able to pursue their goals. This is a nice, packaged ideal that has very little grounding in actual history.

America has been won and sustained not by self-made men, but by people who have, from the outset, been opposed to injustice and oppression, but who have often succumbed to the temptation to oppress others. And then that oppression has been fought against, triumphed over, only to be replaced by injustice in a subtler form. This is the American pattern, slowly, but surely, rooting out injustice and replacing it with a sense of equality, not in means or stature, but under the law.

And at the moment we are at a moment of decision. We have reached another boiling point where the felt injustice of one group is threatening the comfort of another. We’ve all heard the anecdotes about conviction rates, prison populations, attacks, shootings, etc. And I could go into the graphic, gritty details, but instead, I want to set a pair of shoes in front of you to try on.

This pair of shoes belong to a black parent. As you wear those shoes, begin to develop a conversation in your head to explain to your young son, who is also black, how life is going to be different for him. Explain to him how he will have to be above reproach in every aspect of his life. Explain to him how his behavior, speech patterns, and way of dress will all be taken into account more so than his white friends. Explain to him that he will need to keep his car in immaculate condition and check it regularly to make sure there is never a reason to be pulled over. Rehearse with him the words he must use when conversing with law enforcement should the need arise.

If you were as uncomfortable imagining that as I was writing it, then we can both admit that there’s a problem. The excuse “I have a black friend” or “I adopted a black child” does not excuse us from facing the reality that others live with daily. I wonder at all of the young black men who haven’t heard from their white parents how reality might be different from expectation.

Our story as people of God should be different than the traditional American story. Our story includes a people who lived in slavery in a strange land in order that they might have respect for the stranger in their own land. Our story includes a man who was excluded from his own people and sentenced to die so that we might identify with the excluded and sentenced to die. Our story is one that from its earliest days until now includes people who suffer and die on account of their belief, so that we will not look down on others who face the same. Our story is one of role-reversal in order to relate to the stranger, the Other, the different. We should be a people who wear other people’s shoes, who walk in them, walk beside them, and work to make a better world.

We are a people who are called to mourn with those who mourn, to love our neighbor, and care for the Other – because they, too, carry the image of God. Can you look into the eye of your black neighbor and tell them that everything is fine and racism doesn’t exist? Can you look into the eye of the Syrian refugee and tell them to go home, when home is a pile of rubble? Can you look into the eyes of your Muslim neighbor and tell them that it’s their individual responsibility that violence happens?

More importantly, can you look through the eyes of your black neighbor and feel the pain of hearing that your experience doesn’t matter? Can you look through the eyes of the Syrian refugee turned away from sanctuary? Can you look through the eyes of your Muslim neighbor and feel the fear at being told “your people” are the problem?

Jesus simply told us that whatever we do for the least of these, we have done for him. Whenever we recognize the suffering of another, we recognize his suffering. Whenever we relieve someone of their burden, we are caring for Jesus.

How have you responded to your children when they ask about the news? What conversations have you had with your children about racism, about strangers, about neighbors, and those different from you? How does your faith affect the way you talk about these things?

photo credit: Running Shoes,  Josiah Mackenzie via  http://www.flickr.com,