Slow Food and Home Cooking

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I wrote this post three years ago as a guest writer for a Food and Faith series at The Local Cook. It was fun to write and a great way to apply some of the things I was learning in my seminary classes to real life. When my child was a newborn, I assumed I would never cook again. The thought was just too overwhelming. And I was pretty sad about it. I love cooking, I value the slow food movement and the thought that I would have to consume freezer casseroles for the rest of my (young adult) life made me depressed. But I’ve been surprised and delighted to find that I’m cooking more than ever, thanks in part to a baby that goes to bed early. We got a grill in the Spring and I grilled my heart out. Husband’s birthday was over the summer and I made an awesome ice cream cake. We celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas at our house and I contributed quite a number of dishes. And  I make dinner nearly every single night…with joy! So, though this post is nearly 3 years old, it still feels really relevant in my life.You can find the original post here and the full series here

It’s About Time

As Americans, we have a strange relationship with time. Most of us understand time as rigid, segmented, limited and linear, where as many other cultures, particularly agrarian cultures, recognize time as flexible, elastic, relaxed, unlimited and circular. For us, time is tangible and extremely valuable, like a commodity (“Time is money.”) We can save it and spend it and (heaven forbid) waste it. And we dedicate time to those things we care about. We take time to be with our friends and family. We carve out time to spend with friends. We make time to complete a project. We give time to causes we care about.

In the words of Syed and Joyce Zafar, intercultural experts from the Compass Diversity Group, “Americans have internalized the clock to a degree which is beyond the comprehension of many cultures around the globe.” Our lives are literally run by the clock. Frankly, we can’t imagine life without it. Because eating is such a necessary part of our everyday life, we shouldn’t be surprised that our relationship to food has been affected by our time obsession, as well.

Good food takes time. It takes time to grow, time to cook, and time to eat. But really, who has the time? As a full time graduate student who is going through the ringer of finals week, taking the time to cook can easily become a tiresome, mundane chore. I would rather spend my time doing things that I care about. But more often than not, the time I “save” by eating something prepared by other people (either in a factory, a restaurant or a grocery store), is spent sitting on the couch with my laptop surfing Facebook or reading food blogs.

My sister recently attended a parent support group meeting in which the topic of once-a-month cooking came up. The idea involves dedicating one day to cooking and freezing all your dinners for the month in order to save time and money. For many families with very busy schedules and hectic lives, once-a-month cooking is a welcome relief. As a full-time student with suppers waiting in the freezer, I can speak from personal experience! But I do worry that our seemingly insatiable desire to save time is contributing to our ever-growing separation from the process that brings food to our tables. Poet and farmer, Wendell Berry, laments the way our fast paced culture has privileged the convenience and efficiency of food over its quality and care. And this has radically changed the way we think about food. Where it comes from and how it was made doesn’t even cross our mind. We no longer grow our own vegetables or slaughter our own animals. Instead, we rely on a vast network of farmers, laborers and workers to pick, process, package and prepare our food.

Cooking is the one part of the process of the food cycle that demands our time and attention. And in our extremely busy lives, cooking can become a sort of Sabbath from our weekday habits of hurried, careless eating or pre-prepared, processed food.  In many ways, cooking can and should be considered a spiritual discipline. The slow and careful process of washing, peeling, dicing, stir-frying and seasoning are all ways of thanking God for the wonderful gift of food. And as anyone who has ever eaten the seeds directly from the rough hide of the pomegranate knows, food tastes sweeter when you work for it.

This past Lent, I gave up prepared foods (i.e., eating out). Or, to put it another way, I took on the disciplines of slow food and home cooking. The experience opened my eyes to how much I depend upon other people to prepare my meals. Before Lent, it was easy to leave the house without a packed lunch, knowing I could buy something at school. It was convenient to swing by my favorite taco joint on the way home from class or grab a burger from the grill truck parked on the side of the road. I saved a lot of time eating food prepared by some anonymous person with unknown ingredients from distant places. But should ease, convenience and efficiency really dictate our eating habits?

Committing to home cooking involves patience, care, commitment and planning. During Lent, I ate breakfast at the crack of dawn before heading to class. I would pack my lunch, even if I was running late. I would spend some time in the afternoon making my dinner instead of catching up on the latest episode of Lost. My entire life had to change. But, in my opinion, it changed for the better.  Here’s how.

1) I waste less: Unless you are fine-dining, many (affordable) places give you food in throw-away containers. There’s no way around it. Add it all up and you are throwing away tons of plastic and paper every week. But as I started cooking more at home, I was consistently using reusable, washable containers (i.e., plates for dinner, tubberware for a packed lunch, etc.). Furthermore, the food I would buy at the grocery store would go bad before I could use it. Cream would curdle, apples would go grainy, lettuce would rot. Now, I eat everything I buy. Grocery shopping is actually a meaningful, useful activity again!

2) I know where my food comes from: Along with this discipline, I’ve made a commitment to buy much of my produce locally and in season. So, most Saturday mornings, I head to the farmers market where I buy sweet potatoes from the woman who dug them out of the ground and raisins from the man who grew the grapes! I buy bread from the baker, chard from the farmer, and ground pork from the butcher. I know their faces and they know mine. I can ask them about their ingredients and how their crops are holding up. There’s something deeply right about that.

3) I’ve become more self-sustaining: I usually hate mundane tasks (cleaning, organizing), so I was surprised to find that cooking is, in fact, a pleasurable experience! Being fully dependent on my own cooking has taught me a) that preparing food is a gift, not a burden and b) that cooking is a joy. In a small way, baking your own crackers or cooking your own stew is empowering. I don’t need to rely on massive food corporations like Kraft to feed me. I don’t need to eat Nabisco crackers made in a plant a thousand miles away. Cooking embeds me in the holy, everyday work of the household. And that’s worth my time.

4) I’ve learned not to eat alone: In my own cooking, I find it difficult to prepare food for just one person, which is the way it’s supposed to be. When I made my own granola and crackers a few weeks ago, I had a ton left over to share so I sent some off to friends. Eating is most satisfying when done with others. This is what companion means – a friend with whom you break bread. Starting a few months ago, some friends and I began meeting together every other week for a locally-sourced potluck. At our meals, friends gather to share their gifts of time and attention. We feast upon freshly baked bread, sweet potato fries, arugula salad and white bean chili, all made with attentive, caring hands.

The truth is, if we want to embrace slow food and good eating, we need a radical realtering of our concept of time. We must embrace every moment as a gift, rather than a commodity to be saved or spent.  This means developing a heightened sense of gratitude for God’s gifts, including the gift of food.  And I cannot think of a better way of thanking God than the common act of cooking, which brings us into closer connection with God, our neighbors and creation. The practice of cooking as a discipline helps us embrace the miracle, mystery and sanctity of food in our everyday lives.  As Wendell Berry writes, “The miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”

Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), 103.

Questions for Reflection (share your response below for any one of these for an entry in this week’s drawing)

  • Do you or your family have eating rituals that are linked to the seasons (not just to particular holidays?) How about weekly rituals?
  • If we embrace the idea of “slow food,” how can we make sure that preparing it doesn’t become a burden?

Challenge to Action (post one of these on your blog and add a link below to the specific post about this challenge or email me before Friday for an additional entry into this week’s drawing).

  • Make a slow meal; soak beans, simmer soup, knead bread. Invite friends to share it–or make the meal a potluck.
  • Make a list to share of creative ways you can cut down on time cooking without using processed / convenience foods.
  • Get local: Are there resources in your area for those who want to learn how to preserve food? Extension offices, community-supported agriculture farms, food co-ops and others often offer seminars in canning, drying, freezing, etc.
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Dead Man Walking

Here is my second sermon written for preaching class. I was assigned John 11:1-45, the raising of Lazarus. This is an extraordinarily long passage, so I won’t reprint it here. You remember the story, I’m sure.

Several years ago, after I boarded a airplane to visit my grandparents, I felt a strange surge of adrenaline. My breath grew shallow, my heart beat fast and I began to sweat. I realized, with great surprise, that I was terrified of flying. I had flown countless times before, but this feeling of uneasiness was entirely new.  Like many people afraid to fly, I tried to rationalize my fear.  The veil had been pulled back and I was now witnessing air travel for what it really is, certain death. My fellow passengers, on the other hand, calmly read their SkyMall magazines, ignorant to the fact that we are all strapped inside a thin metal tube rushing through the air at an ungodly speed, like a bullet shot from a gun. “But Heather,” my father would say, “Flying is the safest way to travel!” And yet, I still can’t shake the gut-wrenching fear I feel as I sit in a plane, waiting for it to take off.

The truth is, I am not so much afraid of flying as I am of dying. Flying is just a stand in, a scapegoat for the real terror I try so desperately to avoid. So many of our fears are like that. When we get to the bottom of them, we realize we aren’t afraid of snakes or public speaking; we are afraid of losing control of our lives.  Unable to face our own mortality, we deny the existence of death all together. Some theorists argue that this denial is the motivating, energizing factor of human existence.[1] Just think of how our culture copes with death. We develop funny, irrational phobias. We crack jokes and laugh at cartoons of the Grim Reaper. We use quaint euphemisms about death – pushing up daisies, kicked the bucket, bought the farm. We hold our breaths when we pass graveyards, we bless our neighbors when they sneeze, and try not to speak ill of the dead. Despite the many ways we try to distance ourselves from it, however, death remains a devastating, offensive reality in our lives.

In our reading for today, we come face to face with the stench of death.  It floats up from the pages and disturbs our senses. A man named Lazarus is sick and things aren’t looking good. His breathing has grown shallow, his skin is pale and cold. His sisters, Mary and Martha, watch over him with grave concern. Their dear brother is dying and they are out of options. They need a miracle. What about their friend, Jesus, they wonder. Jesus, who calls himself the bread of life, the light of the world,  the one who gives living water. Jesus, who healed a sick child, who opened the eyes of the blindman and fed the hungry crowds. Yes, Jesus can heal their brother, but first they must wait for his return. And what an agonizing wait it is.

Few things are more painful than waiting with your heart in your throat. The seconds feel like hours, hours like days. Just last week, I heard a story from a man whose son was teaching English in a coastal Japanese town near the earthquake’s epicenter. The father saw news of the earthquake in the newspaper, and then  he had to wait nearly 72 excruciating hours before he heard that his son had survived.  So many of us have endured the unbearable delay– waiting of biopsy results, for lines on a pregnancy test, for the chemotherapy to kick in, for the soldier to come home safe. Like Martha and Mary, we’ve all experienced the pain of delay where we can only sit and wait, fighting off the overwhelming darkness of our anxiety with the faint glimmer of hope.

Meanwhile, Jesus has received the sisters’ news that Lazarus, whom he loves, is very sick. “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” This is just like Jesus – cool, calm, collected, virtually unmoved by the news that his dear friend is sick. This Jesus isn’t thwarted by even the worst of ailments. We can breathe a sigh of relief. We’re about to see God’s glory. And then, in a bizarre and disturbing twist, Jesus does nothing. He does not drop everything he is doing to return to his dear friend’s bedside. He doesn’t send a note to comfort the distraught Martha and Mary. No, instead Jesus stays two more days, biding his time as he waits for Lazarus to die. Listen to the ESV: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” So. Accordingly. Therefore. This being so. Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus, so he stayed away. For the distraught sisters of Bethany, the love of Jesus meant watching their brother die. By the time Jesus returns, Lazarus is rotting in the tomb.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha tells Jesus when he shows up in Bethany. No doubt there is an edge to her voice. “If you had been here…” Mary wail to him, weeping at his feet. If you had been here, Jesus, the earth under Japan would have ceased its quaking at your command. If you had been here, Jesus, the gunman would have dropped his weapon. If you had been here Jesus, my child’s brain tumor would have vanished into nothing.

The season of Lent is a painful time of waiting. Like Mary and Martha, we wait anxiously for Jesus to return. Like Mary and Martha, we cry out in faithful Lament, “Lord! Death is terrible! Death stinks! What’s taking you so long?” During Lent, we refuse to deny the excruciating nature death. We weep with Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus; we grieve for all those who have died waiting for resurrection. This is the season for solemn reflection and penitence, the season when we stand up to our death-denying culture and say “From dust we came and to dust we shall return.”

But this is also the season when we declare that the death does not have the final word. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Jesus asks Martha. “Do you believe this?” Jesus asks us. It’s one thing to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead. But me? And you? Lazarus who rots in the tomb? Do we dare believe that Jesus has power even over the grave?

Wiping away his tears, Jesus commands, “Take away the stone.” But Lord, in case you missed the news, this man is dead. The stench of death will overwhelm us all. He’s gone. You’re too late. Our hearts are broken. Be gentle with us.

And then, without warning, Jesus yells, “Lazarus, come out!” And low and behold, Lazarus lurches into the light, bandaged like a mummy, blinking and filled with bewilderment. Indeed, we have seen the horrifying glory of God, for the dead walk, the dry bones rise up and dance.

By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus declares power over death. But he does not render death incompatible with the Christian life. After all, though Lazarus has been yanked from the grave, he will return to the tomb just as he did before. The miracle is not that Lazarus rises from the dead, but that in our living and in our dying, we are never separated from the love of God. Christ waits for Lazarus to die because he loves the disciples. He waits for him to die because he loves Mary, Martha and Lazarus. “For your sake, I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” Through the death of Lazarus, God’s glory is revealed. And through the death of God’s only son, all of creation is redeemed. This is the paradox at the heart of our faith: death leads to life, the cross leads to eternal glory. In the words of the poet Auden: “life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die.”[2] To be a Christian means learning how to die, so that we might find life, and that Life may find us.[3]

In these forty days of Lent, we are called to live our lives as a reminder that death has lost its ultimate power.  Paul tells us that, in Christ, our last great enemy has been defeated: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”  Yes, death is real and agonizing, but Christ, who is the resurrection and the life, has gone before us. He has experienced the agony and has transfigured death in his very body. And we now live with the confidence that death ends in eternal life. Just as we were created out of dust, Jesus tells us that we will be raised up from the ground. This is the promise of the final resurrection. Out of the formless dust, out of the great abyss, the dark pit of despair, the tomb of our unmaking, we will be spring forth, dead men and women walking in resurrected glory.


[1] Will Willmom, “The Last Enemy” Christian Century, 101 no 10 Mr 21-28 1984, p 293-294

[2] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being

[3] Michael Hardeman, “The Stench of Death and the Promise of Life,” RCA Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought (March 2006).

My first sermon

This year, I took (what I thought would be) the most terrifying class in Divinity School, the one I put off until the very last semester of my very last year, the class that almost convinced me to switch to an MTS degree — Introduction to Preaching. Ahhhh!!! Yes, public speaking blows. And most people fear it more than death. But I actually quite enjoyed the class and the practical nature of the subject matter, as well as the opportunity to write freely and creatively about Scripture. And, it was fun to hear my classmates preach.

For my first sermon, I was assigned an Epistle passage (gag me, I know….no offense, Paul). It could use a bit of editing. The moves are a little muddy and convoluted. But after I threw in a few basketball references, ribbed (or skewered?) the LEADLEADLEAD obsession of my dear seminary, and inserted a carefully placed cuss word, I believe it came together nicely.

1 Corinthians 4:1-4: Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. 2Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. 3But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. 4I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.

Foolish Wisdom from a Cross-Shaped Apostle

Perhaps this has happened to you. You sit down at a computer in the library to check your email, only to find someone else’s email account already open. Here is an email from someone you don’t know to someone you don’t know about who knows what. And yet, your eyes linger just long enough to see that this email is part of a heated exchange. You are both intrigued yet disturbed, not only because you are reading someone else’s email, but because you assumed your fellow Divinity classmates were sanctified, benevolent people. After all, future ministers never fight or disagree, and they definitely don’t use language like that!

Hearing Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is uncomfortable because it feels a lot like reading someone else’s mail. In these few short verses, we are given insight into the nasty conflicts that were plaguing the church in Corinth. And we are distracted, jarred even, by the language Paul uses. Servants and stewards? Mysterious things? If these aren’t enough for us to hit the X at the top of the screen, we undoubtedly squirm at the mention of the J word – judgment. The J word is rarely used within the hallowed halls of our beloved Duke Divinity School, unless that J word is Justice or Jewish Identity. Or JJ Reddick. No, judgment makes us uncomfortable, not to mention judgment we overhear in letters that aren’t even addressed to us.

But, brothers and sisters, as we said only a moment ago, this is the word of God for the people of God…for us. As future preachers and teachers called by God to live our lives in conformity to Christ, let us lend our ear to Paul so that we may become faithful stewards of God’s mysteries. And let’s wrestle with words like judgment.

Wrestling is an apt metaphor for our task because Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is pretty rough and tumble. Up until this point, Paul’s been pulling his punches. But in chapter 4, Paul rolls up his sleeves and gets straight to the point. The Corinthian Christians are judging Paul, or, as the Greek suggests, they are examining him, sizing him up and comparing him other leaders. The Corinthians are fed up with Paul’s ineffective preaching and his underwhelming leadership style. They are ready to leave him in the dust.

This is a pastor’s worst nightmare. According to Cynthia Hale, who has been a minister for over 30 years, the judgment of the Corinthians is all too commonplace in our churches today.  As an African American woman, Hale’s “appropriateness” for ministry has been questioned time and time again. She’s spent much of her career defending her motives, her methods and her “adequacy for the task.”  She writes, “I can testify that [ministry], the very thing that makes me incredibly happy… can at the same time drive me absolutely mad…”

How does Paul respond to the examination he receives from the Corinthian Christians, who are, undoubtedly, driving him “absolutely mad”?  Paul says to them, “It is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or any human count.” In other words, Paul is telling them he couldn’t give a damn what they think. Their examinations are of no consequence. Paul doesn’t even judge himself. Any attempt to cast a verdict before Christ returns is both presumptuous and premature.

So, what exactly is Paul saying? That we have no right to judge anyone? Is Paul delusional? Out of touch? Over-confident? It brings to mind the image of a cantankerous, washed-up pastor, whose gifts for ministry have dried up long ago, yet he clings to the pulpit for dear life. Could Paul be this clueless and stubborn?

This lack of accountability and unwillingness to receive criticism often results in entrenched forms of self-deception and egoism. The first example that comes to mind is the Miami Heat basketball player “Lebron James. “King James,” as he calls himself, is known by many as the most arrogant man in sports. He frequently refers to himself as “the best,” the most talented player on his team, a “superhero.”  American essayist, Chuck Klosterman, argues that James is operating under the mantra, “Only God Can Judge Me.” Klosterman states, “What we are seeing is real confidence, not that kind of confidence we have come to accept, but a real kind of confidence unrelated to how others see him.”

As future pastors and teachers, we would do well to take advice from Paul and NOT Lebron James when it comes to our future vocations. The arrogance, perhaps even cluelessness, of Lebron James is related to his absolute indifference to public judgment. This is certainly not what Paul is advocating for when he says “It is the Lord who judges me.” In fact, Paul’s pastoral authority displayed in this letter can serve as an antidote to the hyper-confidence of many leaders today. Whereas Lebron models the puffed-up arrogance of the Corinthians, Paul remains a “servant of Christ” and “steward of God’s mysteries.”

This is the heart of Paul’s argument. The Corinthians have become their own authority, allocating judgment as if they, themselves, were God. But Paul, the leader of this community, is defining himself as first and foremost a servant of Christ. He is a steward, a manager accountable to one master. And so, Paul’s ministry isn’t about winning personality contests or pandering to the well-to-do members of his congregation. He takes his orders solely from Christ Jesus, the crucified Master of the household of God.

This does not mean that Paul is throwing judgment out all together.  When we look elsewhere in his letter, Paul calls the Corinthians to mediate community conflict. But what Paul is doing here is reframing the Corinthian judgment of his authority in light of the mysteries of the Gospel.  And what exactly are these mysteries? They are the death and resurrection of Jesus, the secret wisdom of the Cross which, according to the world, looks like utter foolishness. Mysteries are mind-boggling  and the mystery of Christ’s self-giving love on the Cross has quite literally boggled the minds of the Corinthians.

Paul, on the other hand, is a man haunted by the Cross, a man who has been crucified with Christ, who died to his murderous, contentious ways and was reborn a fool for the servant king. He is servant to a servant, steward to a slave.  And it is through that relationship that Paul derives his authority – not in eloquence, in wisdom or in rhetorical power, but in conforming his life to Cross of Christ. Paul states, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of powers, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (2:1-5). The cruciform nature of Paul’s leadership may look uninspired, but it has an authority rooted in the radical reality of the Gospel, not in the groundless wisdom of the world.

So let’s get this straight. Paul, the church’s most influential missionary, didn’t have much charisma or charm. This paradigmatic minister came to Corinth as a weak, tremulous man who couldn’t speak well. According to the Greco-Roman conception of leadership, Paul was a dud, an “anti-leader.” He was not the most articulate, the most distinguished, the best and the brightest.  But as America’s best theologian once said, “Best is not a theological category.” Therefore, these sorts of judgments have no bearing on Paul’s authority to preach the Gospel.  For aren’t church leaders mere stewards who perform  the thankless tasks of housekeeping, servants who toil in the field and work site, foolish clowns and low-class buffoons? According to Paul, these are our models for ministry. And guess what? This is GOOD NEWS!

How many of us have questioned our calling to ministry because of the misguided judgments of others or own self doubt-– I’m not charismatic; I’m too old; I’m too young; I’m a woman; I’m a white male; I’m a person of color; I’m not a theologian; I’m not very smart; I’m afraid to speak in public; I’m inexperienced; I’m in debt; I’m disabled; I have a family; I don’t have a family; no one supports my call. Paul tells us that these things have zero consequence for our vocational calls. Zero. Instead, our call to ministry and our assurance in our vocation is rooted in our willingness to die with Christ and conform our bodies, our lives, our very selves to the crucified Lord.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes, we often look for visible signs of human authority “because genuine authority…appears to be so unimpressive….The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and [one another].” Ministry has little to do with talent, brilliance or excellence but with faithfulness to the Gospel by encouraging others to imitate us, just as we imitate Christ. It is by this and this alone that we will be judged. And it is Christ, the lamb who was slain, who sits on the judgment seat, not your board of ordained ministry, not your congregation, not your professors, and not yourself.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, go forth with this word of comfort, knowing that your authority as a future pastor, teacher or leader may seem like mind-boggling foolishness to the world. But it is a foolishness that is more true than all the wisdom and knowledge of this age. Let the marks of Christ’s wounds you bear on your body be the sign of your call. Amen.

We’re famous!

As I may have mentioned previously, some PBS folks came out to Anathoth about a month ago to do a story for their program, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, which appears nationally on PBS. Well, here it is! You can read the transcript here and see the short video they made. Yours truly makes a brief and pretty hilarious cameo appearance stating something obvious about some vegetables. You’ll also see Kate, my rad, very pregnant supervisor (and director of the garden) and Norman Wirzba, one of my professors, and other lovely people with whom I work at Anathoth. Enjoy!

Anathoth Community Garden

Last month, a reporter came to the garden and interviewed many of us that were working there that day. She said she was writing a story for WUNC about how the garden began. The story is a bittersweet one, one that involved a fair amount of racial prejudice, a terrible act of violence and a turn towards reconciliation. The story aired this past Wednesday on All Things Considered. You can listen to the story or read the manuscript here.

The garden doesn’t feature prominently in the story, which is unfortunate, and none of the interviews the reporter did at the garden made it in. The story focused largely on the history of the garden, but talked little about its present day life. Because much of our grant funding dries up within the next year, we are hoping for us much publicity as we can get in hopes that some generous donors will see us as a worthy cause. But, a little publicity goes a long way, so here’s hoping. There will also be a PBS story about the garden coming up soon on their Religion and Ethics show. I’ll let you know when that airs.

Furthermore, the story was a bit edgy. At my lay training committee last night, I was sitting with members of Cedar Grove Church who, in the story, are characterized as a racist bunch. In reality, change is hard, particular in rural communities where life moves at a slower pace, but I can only imagine what many of the old-timers at Cedar Grove were thinking when they heard the story. Perhaps it had to be said? I wasn’t around 6 years ago when everything went down, but it sounds like an interesting time in the community, if not challenging. Anyway, happy listening!

If you want to learn a little more about Anathoth, you can check out their website (which is in major need of updating) or read one of the many news articles or grant proposals written about/for the garden. Just google “Anathoth Community Garden” and see what comes up! Also, check out these awesome videos someone made about the garden. These were my first introduction to what Anathoth is all about!

Jesus, the racist?

It’s difficult to peg Jesus, but we so often try. To the Marc Driscolls of the world, Jesus is a violent, manly, “heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose dude”. To the average mainline liberal, Jesus is loving, non-judgmental, tolerant and open-minded. For others, Jesus is a personal guardian angel who walks with us, or a great moral role model for daily life.

But what do we do with Jesus in Matthew 15? A Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus to cure her demon-possessed sister. She is desperate. She is assertive. She is terrified. But what does Jesus do? According the NIV, “Jesus did not answer a word.” Not a single word. He meets this woman’s desperate cries for help with total silence. It was only after the disciples urged Jesus to “send her away” because her crying was disturbing them that Jesus turned to her, saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Only. Jesus said “only.” Not all. Not many. But only. When the woman debases herself to kneel in front of him, screaming, “Lord, help me!”, his response to her is shocking and scandalous: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” She is not even human to him but a dog, unworthy of his attention or his grace.

Who is this Jesus? He is not the assertive, responsive go-getter of the “muscular Christianity” movement (though his dismissiveness towards a woman is not so far off), nor he is the loving, tolerant, peace-loving beatnik of the liberals. And his actions (or un-action) seem hardly exemplary or caring. This Jesus in Matthew’s 15 chapter explodes the categories we so often place him in, reminding us that he doesn’t fit comfortably in any of them.

In this story, Jesus should make us uncomfortable, mad, concerned. This is not the Jesus we thought we knew and our explanations for his actions hardly make up for the trauma of rejection and total loss of human dignity that this poor woman experiences in the story. Could this possibly be the same Jesus who welcomes even infants into his arms, who heals the unclean and the outcast, who has come to set the prisoner free? Or is this a different Jesus? A schizoid Jesus? A misogynistic, racist Jesus? Can we really worship this Jesus?

What does it mean to worship Jesus, God Incarnate, a man born into flesh and time, culture and history, ethnicity and sexuality? What does it mean to worship a human,  a human that is also God? To say we worship Jesus is, in part, to say that we worship a Jewish male, son of a carpenter, son of Mary, son of David. It is to say we worship a person, not just an abstract being. As we’ve been reading in Torrance, we cannot say that we worship Jesus without his Jewishness. To do so would be docetic. Therefore, to worship Jesus is to risk rejection and come face to face with our own un-chosen-ness, our own damnation. We are Gentiles, the faceless mass of non-Jews who are not a part of God’s covenant, who are “hated”, not “loved.” We are the Canaanites, the rejected and the lost and the done-for.

To worship the Jewish Messiah is a bit absurd. Maybe even Jesus thought this was the case in Matthew 15. Maybe even Jesus was surprised. Can I, the messiah of this peculiar and particular people, Israel, really have anything for you? “Lord” she calls him. “Lord, help me.” She is no lost sheep. Is she? She is no Israel? Or perhaps God is expanding our understanding of Israel through this man, Jesus. Perhaps Jesus himself doesn’t even know it yet. And maybe this woman, this Canaanite, is the bearer of this strange, radical message – The Jewish Messiah is the Messiah for the world, for all people. Our of Israel comes salvation for all humankind. And somehow or another, the Canaanite woman knows this, even before Jesus and his disciples.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Does he still not know what this woman knows? That she, too, is a child of God?

“Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Who is the master here? To whom is this woman submitting? What aspects of her identity have been debased, laid low? To whom is she loyal? To whom does she seek help and counsel? To whom does she kneel?

Jesus is astounded. Something has been revealed to him through this woman, this desperate, pitiful woman begging for her daughter’s life on her knees. Jesus has seen true faithfulness, a faith he rarely witnesses in his own (Jewish) disciples. This woman, an outsider and an outcast, has spoken back to God with humility and courage. This woman has bent the knee to the Jewish messiah.

Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Skin bleaching products: Becoming (literally) white

Another post from my Race & Theology blog for my Black Church Studies class:

I found this video through TrueCampaign.org, showing an Indian woman with “darker skin” whose lover left her for a lighter-skinned woman. At the end of the commercial, she sees an advertisement for Pond’s skin-lightening cream that “gives you a radiant pinkish-white glow.” Apparently you can choose between “pale white” or “pinkish white.” And yes, the cream is actually called “White beauty”. It doesn’t get more in-your-face obvious than that.


Perhaps the most interesting thing about the 45 second commercial occurs right at the beginning. The camera first shows the man taken back his half of the heart necklace (presumably a symbol of their relationship) and kissing her goodbye, sad music playing in the background. This is not a “bad” breakup, the result of infidelity or basic incompatibility, for both are very forlorn. Yet, the viewers are made to believe that the breakup was somehow inevitable and fated. This man simply could not be with this woman because of her dark skin, no matter how much he loved her, no matter how much he wanted to be with her. Her skin tone created a great, impassible divide between them.

How do we know this? Because, 10 seconds later (or, three years later, according to the commercial’s “time”), the woman spots her former lover on the street with a very fair-skinned woman, who is presumably not Indian at all but Caucasian – ultimately white. He shares a moment of recognition, perhaps even a moment of regret, but then turns back and walks down the street, arm-in-arm with his lovely, white bride. Magically, this woman sees an advertisement on the street for Pond’s “White Beauty,” the answer to all of her problems and all of her insecurities. As she watches the commercial (just as we are watching it), she fingers the her half of the original heart necklace, still around her neck, clearly indicating her motivations and plans.

This is the first “episode” in a series of Pond’s commercials. There are five episodes together and they read pretty much like a soap opera. After the woman lightens her skin with Pond’s miracle cream, he sees her and begins to have regrets, ultimately leaving his current white girlfriend to return to his formerly dark, newly white lover. Good thing she whitened her skin.

I was pretty appalled by this when I first saw it. It’s so…obvious, so raw and naked. “White beauty”? They’re kidding, right? But skin lightening products are not abnormal. They’ve been around for a while, in various forms. We shouldn’t forget that pale skin was the beauty norm for centuries (and only recently has tanned skin among white women become the norm – a sign of the leisure class who can afford exotic travel and long weekends at the beach). Pale skin meant you lived life in doors in high society, feasting and dancing and barely breaking a sweat. Dark skin meant time lower-class labor in the fields. Later, with the advent of colonialism and modern slavery, darker skin meant racial mixing. Men and women alike used lead-based powder to whiten their skin, which (should be obvious) often lead to lead poisoning (pun intended).

Nowadays, most mainstream cosmetic companies offer such whitening products. However, as white women seek the ultimate “bronzed” look, skin lightening cosmetics are being marketed to brown women, as seen in the Ponds commercials.  There is a website that’s actually called “Whiter Skin.” And this one, Fair and Flawless, is particularly interesting because it shows women of “color” who are ALL THE SAME SHADE! Also, be sure to check out F&F’s FAQs:

“Myths and misconceptions abound when it comes to caring for skin of color. Choosing to lighten the color of your skin, and to improve its texture and tone for a smoother, more even skin color, are deeply personal decisions. Some might ask:

  • Why would you want to lighten your skin at all?
  • What about the dangers of skin lightening?
  • Who cares about discolorations, scarring, or uneven skin tone?

Well, you do. And that’s why you’ve chosen one of the F&F Collections for Skin Care.”

They ask the question “Why would you want to lighten your skin at all?” and the answer is, “Well, you do.” Nothing else. No explanation. So bizarre. I read a story a while back about women in Nigeria who couldn’t afford “real” skin-whiteners, so they put straight bleach on their faces and came away with severe burns and scarring. It’s a really pervasive problem – the cult of white beauty.

I would like to explore more the “cult of the tan” in white beauty culture, because I think it has something to do with exotification and commodification of the brown body. Like skin bleaching, tanning has great health risks and, when done without restraint, can cause serious health problems. Perhaps I will explore tanning in a later blog post. But for now, please check out the Dark is Beautiful campaign, which  seeks to draw attention to skin color bias, and “celebrates the beauty and diversity of all skin tones.”

Open?

I don’t claim to belong to a denomination that has it all together by any means, considering the ECUSA has birthed the likes of John Shelby Spong and whose presiding bishop has said some disturbingly classist remarks regarding  those who have lots of babies. But, I am a Christian, which means I have a stake in all denominations, because we are all, in some mysterious sense, one Body. Therefore, I am going to lay into the Methodists for a moment. As Dr. Steinmetz said in Church History today, in one of his hilarious tangents, “What do we Methodists stand for? Openness? … We Methodists will affirm anything that moves. And we believe in a polite God who always knocks on the door and waits, never barges in, never interrupts our lives.  This was not Martin Luther’s God.”  He’s referring to the United Methodist marketing campaign slogan often found on church signs and bulletins: “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” Now, I won’t begin to interpret what this could all possibly mean to Steinmetz (who has apparently been a Methodist for something like 50 years). But it was funny and truth-telling, nonetheless. (Side note: It’s ironic that Methodists believe in a polite God who waits outside an already-open door.)

Anyway, this whole tangent in class reminded me of recent post regarding my sister and her husband’s upcoming search for a church now that they have moved back to Virginia. She writes, “We’re not interested in a church where ‘welcoming’ means abled, white, upper-middle class suburbanites who are straight and gay and preach about how Jesus is ‘nice.'” As previous posts have have revealed, I, too, am completely turned off by this conception of the ‘welcoming’ church, not to mention the pithy “welcoming” mottos that seem eerily similar to slogans for your local bank or a certain university in Oregon.

Now, bless their hearts, they mean well. But a slogan like “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors” stands for literally nothing. Nothing. And it only creates a sense of false (or, shall I say, poor?) advertising when unsuspecting first-timers enter the church doors, sit down, and (hopefully) hear a story preached  to them that is wildly Other, a story about God coming to earth, about the dead rising to life, about needing to die to Self, about giving up everything you have ever known or owned, about loving your enemy even when staring down the barrel of a gun, about sacrificing your self-sufficiency and acknowledging your brokenness, about affirming Jesus Christ as the Way, Truth, and the Life, about being adopted into a new family that transcends time and borders, about being made into radically new human beings who will never be the same. This doesn’t sound like openness/nothingness/anythingness to me. This sounds like a God invading my life and setting me ablaze, whether I like it or not, whether I believe it or not, whether “my truth” is affirmed or not, whether my way of life, my sexual preferences, my spending habits, my cultural identity or my “personal beliefs” are affirmed or not.

If I could, I would change the slogan to “Hearts, Minds, and Doors Open to the Invasive Power of the Triune God.” That sounds a lot more honest to me. I wish churches would stop selling the Gospel short for the sake of visitors. Visitors don’t need another “open” amorphous blob-o-sphere in which to reside. They need  a place that tells them the Truth in a world that is utterly hostile to it. And I wish churches would stop relying on pithy slogans to acquire visitors. We are not a corporate institution, we are not a volunteer organization, and we are not selling a product. We are the Church, the Bride of Christ. We are here to speak the Truth by the grace of God.

16 days and counting…

My time in l’Arche is coming to a close. Two communities (Portland & DC), three roles (respite, assistant, and home life coordinator), and 23 months later, I am finishing up my time — at least for now. Since graduating from college in 2006, this has been my way of life: preparing massive nightly meals, flossing teeth, playing silly games, administering meds, watching Oprah on the couch, filling out droves of paper work, baking cookies, attending multiple weekly meetings, singing songs, shoveling snow off the driveway, dropping people off at work, praying after dinner, sweeping the floor, buying a ton of groceries, leading prayer nights, going on retreats. The day-to-day changes, the various challenges and opportunities, the multiple avenues of growth have proven to be really good fit for my personality. I thrive on change, on each day being different. Monotony tends to deaden my soul.

This life has been a strange mixture of stay-at-home parent, social worker, pastor, and event coordinator. Good, practical life skills earned, for sure, not to mention learning how to posture myself towards the vulnerable and how to identify/come to terms me with my own vulnerabilities. There was a time where this sort of work was frightening and foreign. Though I felt I embodied certain abstract notions of kindness and positivity before coming to l’Arche, I never understood myself as the type of person who could love others in practical, physical ways. Nor could I have ever described myself as a patient person, a listener, a selfless caregiver, a gentle presence. In fact, I think most people who come into l’Arche wouldn’t immediately characterize themselves in these ways. And those that do will find that they’ve never had opportunity to practice patience, forgiveness, generosity. We just don’t live in a society where these virtues can naturally be practiced. They have to be conjured up, dusted off, put to good use, else they will atrophy and dissolve.

L’Arche is a place where we can be more fully human. It is a place where we can practice the long-forgotten disciples of simplicity, peace-making, and presence. And it is a place where we can express our hopes, fears, joys, and pains in real, tangible ways. L’Arche provides us, core members and assistants alike, with the opportunity to live righteously in a way that our larger society cannot. We cannot expect the woman in front of us at the post office to treat us with dignity and respect, because this is not the culture of bureaucracy. There, efficiency is paramount, as well as detachment, isolation, and autonomy. We cannot expect the driver behind us on the Beltway to practice selflessness, because this is not the culture of the Beltway. In these places, we have no common culture that informs our behavior or tells us how to love one another. We may have basic common courtesy, but it’s a politeness rooted in Kant’s Social Contract, not in the theological narrative of the Church.

In a more broader sense, we need the Church to be our common culture, the Body that informs our way of being and doing, of buying and voting. Just as l’Arche has established a way of life for its community members (based on the Beattitudes), the Church must provide a place for us to act out the tenants of our faith. This is why disputes within parishes or dioceses that are settled in a secular court provide no witness for the Church as an alternative culture. This is why parishes that are more comfortable modeling themselves off of the social and fiscal policies of the Republican or Democratic parties have lost their prophetic voice.

L’Arche’s uniqueness to the surrounding culture, as well as to any other organization that cares for the developmentally disabled, is so telling. People come to l’Arche and are changed because they’ve never experienced anything like it before – not in their places of work, their families, or even their churches. Guests who come to dinner talk of their experiences as “brief encounters with Jesus.” Core members enter l’Arche after years of living at home or in institutions, and finally, finally they become fully alive. Assistants come to serve and find that they, too, are experiencing healing and growth as they never have before. L’Arche is a different place, an alternative way of being. And it’s appeal is wide-spread.

Yes, yes, my time in l’Arche has taught me about myself, about relationships, and community, and loving in tangible ways. But most profoundly, l’Arche has provided me with a vision of what the Church Universal ought to be. It’s said that l’Arche is not a solution but a sign to the world, pointing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. More often than not, the Church believes that She Herself is the solution, when in fact She is called to be the vessel of God’s Good News, pointing others towards that which is greater than Herself. If the Church was less concerned about solving problems and more concerned about faithful witness, orthodox theology, and communal identity as a people bound up in the narrative of the Christian faith, perhaps our experience of church would be more transforming, life-changing, challenging, and disciplining, just as l’Arche is. Perhaps the Church would finally start acting like the Church.

Will Willimon

I’m no United Methodist, but I’m dating one, and I’m about to attend a UM seminary. On top of those things, I’ve found myself particularly enamored with Will Willimon, former dean of Duke Chapel and bishop of the North Alabama Conference. I didn’t know much about Willimon (or Methodism, really) before I started to listen to and read some of his sermons, essays, and interviews. I only knew that he was good friends with Stanley Hauerwas and co-authored the book, Resident Aliens. But, thank you Itunes, I’ve had the opportunity to hear the wise, gruff, no-nonsense voice of Willimon piped directly into my basement room at l’Arche via his podcasts. As I said, I’m not a United Methodist (and very often Willimon preaches directly to or about the UM church), but I am an ecumenist, and can appreciate the unique gifts and strengths and struggles of other church traditions.

I appreciate Willimon for the same reasons that I appreciate Hauerwas — neither are willing to bend the knee to the liberal Protestant deism that’s profoundly shaping many mainline churches today. Willimon refuses to believe that the Enlightenment is the greatest thing to happen to the Church, nor does he tolerate the idea that theology steeped in individual experience (a liberal AND conservative epidemic) has anything to do with the Gospel. Instead, Willimon believes that the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is present in our lives, shaping us into disciples, and calling us into relationship. Mainly, Willimon just speaks the truth to conservatives and liberals who’ve attempted (and often succeeded) at founding their churches on the values of the Republican or Democratic party, rather than the Christian story. Needless to say, what he has to say is extremely refreshing, especially for Christian who can’t seem to find a church that speaks out against war and greed AND takes Scripture and church tradition seriously.

As I was searching around for some Willimon gems, I came across a keynote address given at Christ College at Oxford University. It’s entitled, “What if Wesley Was Right?” I realize that I know very little about the essence of Wesley’s theology, which is why I found this piece particularly interesting, especially in light of the changes and fractures occurring in my own church (the Anglican Communion) and the repercussions those changes have on the Church catholic. It’s long, and worth the read; though I can’t really do justice summarizing the entire address, here are some parts that made me shout “Amen!”

  • To ask, ‘What if Wesley was right?’ is to allow ourselves to be challenged by Wesley’s grasp of reality. And if we should be so engaged by him, interrogated by him, and if we find ourselves thinking about God with him, why, we might again become theologians ourselves.
  • Rather than assume that the task of the interpreter is to make the text more meaningful to sophisticated, modern people who drive Volvos, Wesley seems to assume that the task of the text is to make the interpreters’ lives more difficult.”
  • Too troubled by our expectations of what our audience could and could not hear, we reduced the gospel to a set of sappy platitudes anybody could accept and no sensitive, thinking person could resist. “Open minds, Open hearts, Open doors.” Our testimony got reduced to whatever the market could bear.
  • Spent Calvinism, sliding into a renovated Deism, has triumphed… God is all distant concept, abstraction, and essence (Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity) and never speaking, revealing, troubling subject. We’ve got just enough God to give our lives a kind of spiritual tint without so much God as to interfere with our running the world as we damn well please.
  • Of course, most congregations that I know love such moralistic Deism. The subtext is always, You are gods unto yourselves. Through this insight, this set of principles, this well applied idea you can save yourselves by yourselves. Whether preached by an alleged theological conservative or would be liberal, we’re all Schliermachians now. Theology is reduced to anthropology because unlike Wesley, we’re obsessed with ourselves rather than God. God is humanity spoken in a resonate, upbeat voice backed up with power-point presentation. Our noble Arminianism really does degenerate into Pelagianism when the divine gift of divine-human synergism loses its divine initiation. My image of us United Methodists on Sunday morning is that we come to church with pencil and pad ready to get our assignments for the week, not from God but from the preacher: “This week church, work on your sexism, racism, and be nice to sales clerks. Come back next week and I’ll give you another assignment.” God thus becomes the patron of politics of the right (IRD) or the left (NCC) in a last ditch effort to give God something useful to do.
  • Today the Methodist movement, at least in it North American and European vestiges, suffers from the debilitating effects of a truncated theology. We are attempting to revive a church on a too thin description of God.
  • When asked, “What qualities do you most desire in pastors who are employed to start new congregations?” Borden replied, “They must be joyfully Trinitarian and orthodox in their theology, stressing the redeeming work of God in Jesus Christ.” I thought I was hearing Wesley.
  • On the cross, Jesus didn’t just do something about our guilt; Jesus defeated the kingdom of Satan and established the Kingdom of God; Jesus recreated the world and us, making us into a new people who had a fresh start in life.
  • It’s not radical for us to think that we save ourselves by ourselves. What’s radical is to assert a God who is able to work signs and wonders… The Enlightenment still holds our imaginations captive and that captivity is killing us.