Saturday, September 10, 2016

I'm tired of "Politically Correct". I'm sure I'm not the only one.

“Politically Correct”

I've come to hate that term and how people spit it out with righteousness or contempt.
When we first started using the term, it was in an effort to highlight prejudices and bigotry while reframing the words and terms we use as a society. It marked an era of people being more mindful of their language.
It is that original intent that is the heart of the problem. We started telling people “that's not politically correct” as a way of saying to them “you're behavior is wrong”. We decided as a society that it was the words that mattered, the way people expressed themselves that was the root of the evil in our society. “Don't say ‘black’ any more. Say ‘African American’. In typical American fashion we addressed the symptom and not the illness. Words spoken are simply a part of our behavior.
I have three young children. If one day I tell them to suddenly stop calling me “mom” and to start calling me “goddess” I would be changing their behavior. However, I can assure you that soon laughter would ensue at the ridiculousness of it all. Whatever good reason I may have for changing the name my children use to get my attention, it would be meaningless if I didn't convey to my children in a way that they understand the reasons for it. When we marched forward with new words accompanied with the challenge for “political correctness” we only set ourselves up to be resented and dismissed.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn't talk about changing behavior and language. At the heart of his message was nothing less than changing the very consciousness of American society. The goal was not merely to change the way things were done but to change the very way black and white Americans thought about one another. The disease was racism, institutionalized and internalized. The cure presented by Dr. King was not only to treat the symptoms of Jim Crow, lynchings, and justice denied, but a direct dose of calling out the mindset that gave rise to those injustices. His goal was to appeal to the better natures of his fellow Americans, reaching forward with compassion in hopes of receiving some in return. This disease has yet to be fully addressed and therefore is far from being cured. We continue to work to modify behavior instead of belief and understanding.
I can ask you to change the name you call me but it means nothing unless I have successfully and passionately conveyed to you the serious pain my previous name caused me and you have welcomed and respected that information with sympathy and a heart of love.
When people hear “that's not politically correct” they hear “you're a screw up and you have bad behavior”. This creates more pain and causes more injury rather than moving our society toward healing and wholeness. A war on words will never work if we do not address the diseases that bear the symptoms of language and behavior.
“Politically Correct” is a throw away term when we either don't understand or don't want to acknowledge the deeper problems that give rise to offensive language. If we fail to open our eyes to see the humanity in one another, it makes no difference what I call you for you will always be “other” rather than “brother”.
Even when the term is used with the best of intents it still is meaningless and impotent. It is a diversion, a denial, an act of culpability.
As a result, the term now is spat out at one another as a means of dismissal and disrespect. If you bring to me a concern from your heart and I respond with “I'm so sick of having to be ‘politically correct’!” I might as well look at you and say “That’s a load of crap!”. I am telling you that your view doesn't matter because I deem it to be nonsense along the lines of you asking me to call you “goddess”. It is a throwaway term through which we throw away opportunities to have meaningful conversations. It is a dismissal and no one likes being summarily dismissed. Tell me to stop being so “politically correct” and I will receive the message that you do not respect me enough to even consider my perspective. I will understand that I mean almost nothing to you, that I am nothing more than “other” and therefore of no consequence.
To all of this I cry “Enough”!
I am sick of it all.
I want to see the world change not because we’re told to or because it's popular. I want to see people treat one another like fellow human beings with the same problems, emotions, family dynamics, hopes, despairs, and daily tedium. Truthfully, the moment I see that you hurt the same as I do, that there is real pain in your life, that is the moment that my behavior towards you will change because my heart has changed. You won't need to tell me what language hurts you because I will see it in your eyes. I will be looking at you and listening at you because I see you. I have not dismissed you.
The symptoms of a mind that acknowledges the humanity of every person is a body that exhibits behavior rooted in compassion and empathy. We do not as easily dismiss a fellow traveler whom we have watched carry a load similar to our own.

Let us stop focusing on the symptoms and instead address the diseases that ail us. Maybe a place to start is with a question “Why does it not matter to you that I am in pain? Why does it not matter to you that your words hurt me?”. That might at least point is in the right direction.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Who is not allowed?

"I’m not allowed to go to church.”

Let that sentence sink in for just a moment.

Not allowed to go to church.

Does it sound ridiculous? Who would possibly say such a thing? What church wouldn’t welcome everyone? Afterall, isn’t that at the heart of what Jesus taught? 

It does sound ridiculous, ludicrous even. Yet it’s something I have heard and not just once or twice.

“I’m not allowed to to go to church.”

Who could feel so rejected by the Christian family they have known and loved? Who could hunger so desperately to go Sunday morning and be fed? That’s the kind of hunger we should all feel, the level of desire we should all possess - to want to come and be renewed by the love of God.

And yet.

This is a sentence I wish I could tell you is never uttered. I wish I could tell you I have never heard it. 

I’ll give you a clue. The people who have shared their lament with me are almost always under the age of 35.

Do you find that shocking? You should. Churches spend hours discussing ways to bring more young adults into the church. Clergy and congregational leaders debate at length the reason young people are leaving the church and seem to hopelessly grasp at gimmicks that might make the church “more relevant” for today’s young adults.

The thing is, there are a lot of amazing young adults out there who want to be in church. They are looking for a place to belong, to continue in their faith journey, to be fed by a church family and by the love of Christ. But they have been told or made to feel that they “are not allowed”.

Still think I’m crazy? That I’m making this up?

The language of this statement is not to be overlooked. It is not that these individuals are “not welcome” at church, that they’ve been made to feel uncomfortable. It is that these young people have been told, in no uncertain terms, that they are “not allowed” in the very halls they walked as children to attend Sunday School, to baptism classes, to Vacation Bible School. The church has said to them “You do not belong here anymore. We raised you up and found you lacking, we found you unworthy, and you may no longer be here.”
I hope your heart is breaking. I hope you are reading this and wondering who these young people are so that you may find them and share with them the kiss of peace that passes all understanding; find them that you may show them what a true church family looks like, how a church family committed to the love of Christ behaves.

You can. Think of the young adults who just stopped coming to church, who seemed to fade away. Now think about the rumors you may have heard about them, about how they are “not normal”...that they are gay, a lesbian, transexual, wrong, unholy, sinful.

“I’m not allowed to go to church.” Oh. That.

Too many times I have heard this from our young LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Too often they have come to me or come to members of my church family, tiptoeing out of fear that this may be one more place that they are rejected at worst or tolerated at best. They certainly don’t expect to find a Christian community that welcomes them, affirms them, and acknowledges their full worth as living, breathing members of the Body of Christ.

“I’m not allowed to go to church.”

Can we please stop inflicting these near mortal wounds? Can we please stop telling these young people that they are unholy when the truth is that the problem lies in our fear and not their created beautiful selves? At the very least I beg that the wider “Christian” community stop rejecting God’s own beloved children and pretending that is something God ordains. That is not the God I know. That is not the God I preach. That is not the God who has loved and continues to love me unconditionally. And you.

Christ’s table is big enough for everyone. Around it he welcomes everyone. At it Jesus feeds everyone. Side by side we are all not only “allowed” but invited and welcomed. To it we are beckoned.

No one is “allowed”. Instead everyone is beckoned, called, named, and loved.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Will these eggs be enough?

I’m feeding the kids breakfast before school. It’s the first day and I am excited for them. I remember how I felt on the first day of school when it was my turn to pick out the pencils and notebooks, to fill the new book bag and pick out the first outfit. I loved the start of school. I looked forward to buying school supplies with my mom. School started later in the year for us, after Labor Day, a proper time for school to start rather than the first week of August. The soundtrack of the morning of the first day of school still clearly rings in my ears on fall nights and mornings. It is the sound of the crickets greeting the cooler temperatures and hearing their chirps gives me the impulse to run to the store for glue sticks and safety scissors.
Here I am, the parent this time, feeding my kids fuel that I hope will carry them through the excitement and anxious enthusiasm of their first day.
Today is the first day of third grade for our oldest. I remember that year well. It was the first transition year, the first year when we began to say “goodbye” to childhood so we could become “pre-teens”. I really hate that term but also really appreciate all the meaning it carries. I remember some of the girls being more anxious to mature while I was hoping to hold onto every sliver of childhood, every shred of fanciful moment in the land of imagination. I still much prefer the world of play pretend and love watching my children getting caught up in a land only they can see and open to one another.
“I hope Martha Jane* isn’t in my class again this year.” Our oldest is smiling as she enjoys her eggs but there is a slight glint of unease in her eyes.
“Why?” I ask.
“I don’t really like her. She’s not very nice.”
I know this child. I’ve seen her when I have visited my daughter’s class, been on field trips, and joined my daughter for lunch. I also know her from my own childhood. She is a queen bee in the making.
“I can see that. I don’t think she is in your class, though. I don’t remember seeing her name on the class sheet.”
My oldest continues, “She’s so bossy. One day she only let certain people sit at the table with her and made the rest of us sit on the floor and pick up the trash around her.”
I go through the roof. As I said, I know this girl because I know her type. I survived her type.
My daughter and I have a very serious conversation about not letting anyone put us down and “make” us do anything we don’t want to do or that demeans us.
The conversation goes well and I pray I did my best. I was in the sixth grade when I realized a queen bee only has power if you give it to them. I also realized then that I couldn’t value my own life based on “popularity”.
The beautiful thing in this moment is my daughter. She isn’t that anxious. She isn’t that distressed. The possible presence of this girl is more of an annoyance than a deal breaker. My daughter understands what I tell her and already possesses more confidence than I did at her age. She’s got this and she’s thriving.
Last year she and I talked about queen bees and I told her about my own. For years I shared a class with a girl who wanted so desperately to rule the roost and she did. She had the attitude and swagger, the style and the bravado. I told my daughter about her and about how now I look back and can see the insecurity that was behind all of her bluster and abuse. I see now the pain that was the force that drove her forward.
My oldest picks up the conversation, “All the teachers think she’s so cute and so nice. And she is when they’re looking. They don’t see her being mean to the other kids.”
We talk about how easily people can be fooled and how hard some people work to hide from others.
For my daughter, because of her strength and confidence, this is a normal conversation to have on the first day of school. We are talking through a challenge, if only a slight one, and she knows what to do but it still helps to talk.
She smiles and keeps eating as she turns her attention to her brother and sister.
I look at her and lift a thousand prayers. All of them boil down to this:
“Please let these eggs be enough. Will they be enough? Let this time, this breakfast, our talk, my love, her family be enough to wrap her up and protect her so she can grow and hold onto that confidence.”
I already know the answer. It should be enough but this life is uncertain and nothing is guaranteed. What I do know is that for today, this first day, these eggs will be plenty.

*Martha Jane isn’t the real name of the child in question and I don’t know a Martha Jane. If  you happen to be one, my apologies for randomly choosing your name. I’m sure you bear no resemblance to the one in this story.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Review and Reflection: Jim's, Huntington WV

It’s tempting to slide into the booth where President and Mrs. Kennedy once dined and soak in a bit of history. But my kids prefer sitting at the bar and truthfully so do I. From there you see all the action moving in and out of the main kitchen while the line cooks work on burgers behind the bar and the servers fill glass after glass of Coca-Cola.

For several years Jim’s was the stuff of family legend and mythology. The first time I ever set foot in West Virginia was the weekend my husband proposed to me. We had traveled from Georgia for a friend’s wedding and family Fourth of July picnic. For months Derek described the many restaurants of Huntington, West Virginia, but Jim’s was at the top of the list. That visit failed to take me to Jim’s and every visit of the next three years provided the same disappointment. We would drive away from Huntington and Derek would say “I still haven’t gotten you to Jim’s.” I started to the think the place didn’t really exist.

Finally, when our daughter was a year old the family made a pilgrimage to this Huntington institution. It was not what I had expected. The dish Derek had raved about again and again was Jim’s spaghetti sauce. In my mind this translated Jim’s into a kitschy Italian joint with red and white checked table clothes and Chianti bottle candle sticks. I was so very wrong.

Stepping into Jim’s is to join the world of President Kennedy’s era. Jim’s is anything but kitschy. It is an earnest, serious spaghetti and steak house where every moment of a guest’s experience is taken seriously. No attention to detail is spared. As a customer you sit up straighter and put on your best manners, not because the surroundings are intimidating but because you hope to make yourself worthy of this place and all it represents.

Not much in Jim’s has changed in the past thirty years or more. The restaurant is run exactly as Jim did but now by his daughter and grandson. My husband’s grandfather ate almost every lunch during the work week at Jim’s. He can attest to the fact that it is the same as it has always been. Jim’s is the kind of place that helps you understand what our grandparents and parents mean when they lament “Things aren’t what they used to be”.

Jim’s is perfectly designed to respectfully serve its customers. The waitresses (I have never seen a male server at Jim’s) wear 1950s style white starched uniforms with white shoes and a green apron. Their hair is cleanly pulled back from their faces and tightly tied up. They are clean, tidy, and polite. Even at the counter the waitresses pay close attention to their guests, refilling glasses before they ever fully empty without the guest even noticing. They smile with a welcome and friendly word even if they aren’t assigned to you and just happen to be walking by. One of their younger servers during our most recent visit stopped just to chat with my three-year-old about his banana pie and how that was her favorite as well. He felt important and special as she smiled at him and asked him questions.

I have never visited when Jim’s daughter and grandson were not on hand. One of the two of them greets every person who walks in the door. They wear uniforms (of a sort) as well. Jimmie always has on a crisp white jacket and her nephew wears an equally crisp white button-down with a dark necktie. Their dress is as much under scrutiny as anyone else. The two of them watch everything that happens in the restaurant and attend swiftly to any need or issue. On our last visit I watched as Jimmie swiftly but quietly made her way into the kitchen to correct an order she saw was being filled.

As far as the food goes, it is delicious. It also has not changed in decades. Below you’ll find my review of their most notable dishes from their limited menu. But the food is not what I love most about this place. Jim’s is the kind of place that just isn’t done anymore and it’s a shame. It reminds me how formal daily life was, not just formal dinners and Sunday church outings. Our society used to show greater respect for one another. People valued clean lines and proper attire. Men wore hats when they left the house and all women wore them to church.

Now, I’m not about to start ironing all of our clothes. Nor will I give away our yoga pants and gym shorts. But I do greatly appreciate the feeling that comes from enjoying a meal in the tidy and formal fashion of Jim’s. Every need is attended to in a quiet and proper way, allowing you to relax into your meal.

One day the extremely casual nature of our society will go out of fashion. We no longer will tolerate servers who barely stop at our tables and articulate just beyond a grunt to take our orders. We will no longer accept being treated like a third cousin four times removed, someone whose presence in the restaurant feels like a burden at best and an inconvenient nuisance at worst. Instead, we will want to be treated as a guest wherever we choose to dine and will expect places to be run with decorum and efficiency. When that day comes, Jim’s and places like it will be the saviors of the restaurant industry. They will be the ones to set the example because they have never ceased running the place properly with good etiquette, structure, and ritual.

If you want to learn more about Jim’s, I commend to you a simple Google search to call up article after article about the place and about Jim himself. Look for his tradition of giving silver dollars to first-time guests (I always carry with me the one Jim’s widow gave our oldest when she was only a year old) and Mohammed Ali’s presence at Jim's funeral. It is a place and people worth knowing. For most favorite restaurants,we love the ambiance or a certain dish or two, or the people there. Rarely do we love the whole of the place, it’s ethos and essence. I love everything about Jim’s, from the people, to the food, to the appearance, to the inherited family and community memories it contains.

Food Favorites:

SLAW!!! I am so picky about my slaw. I grew up in Georgia and we don’t eat much chili, much less on our hotdogs. Slaw is a staple, whether on a hamburger or hotdog or as a BBQ side or picnic and potluck offering. It is huge for me to tell you that Jim’s has the best slaw on the planet, hands down. It is good by itself, as a side to any of their entrees, or to take home and put on your hotdog. It’s one of the few dishes I cannot completely replicate at home. And I don’t really want to because I like missing it between pilgrimages to Huntington.

Pies. I’m embarrassed to say that it was not until this year that we ever ordered pie at Jim’s. We’ve known how famous their pies are (just ask any local about the anticipation leading up to strawberry pie season) but we usually aren’t hungry for dessert after our meal. This year we went in for an afternoon snack, perfect pie time. It is better than anyone will tell you. Hannah had the Boston cream pie, which was good, but William had the banana pie, which was to die for.

Spaghetti, of course. I made the mistake of ordering the ravioli on my first visit to Jim’s and will never be so foolish again. "Spaghetti" is in the name of the place and Jim's has its own unique flavor. We have a recipe for “Almost Jim’s” spaghetti sauce. It’s close but it’s not Jim’s. Again, this is a taste of Huntington that we miss between visits and love sharing with our kids.

White fish. Everything about Jim’s is unique in some way, and that includes their white fish. I’ve never been served perfectly squared blocks of fried fish before, but that’s exactly how Jim’s serves it up. And it is delicious, especially with their house-made tartar sauce. Seriously. This is the best tartar sauce in the world.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Stories We Tell

When I visited my friend Heather in her kitchen to bake for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, we spent two hours talking before we started baking our first batch of cookies. My time in Lina’s kitchen was spent half around the stove and half around the table as we enjoyed some of the food Lina had made. In the kitchens of both Talat and Anca we visited as we waited for curries to bubble and breads to bake. People collect in my kitchen while I’m cooking to chat between slicing onions and slinging pans in the oven. In all of my visits we have talked as much as cooked.

I have come to one universal truth: The kitchen is as much the place for storytelling as the dining room table, sometimes even more so. Personally, I prefer the stories told in the kitchen. Working with someone in their sacred space gives the act of listening a conspiratorial air, as though the dining room table is the public forum and the kitchen is the place of secrets.

Instinct compels us to repeat our stories. Our survival depends on the stories we tell - from the information we pass to the next generation, to the legacy we pass on about our very identities, to the act of keeping our minds sharp through the act of recounting our memories. We are programmed to spin a good yarn, and God gives us as children the eagerness to listen.

In Heather’s kitchen I heard the stories of relatives who survived or fell victim to the Holocaust. She pulled out an heirloom family history book to share family trees and the family lore collected by a beloved uncle. For me her storytelling hearkened back to her ancestors telling the story of the Torah around a fire long before anyone thought to set the stories to paper. She shared her own experiences, some good, some bad, but all a part of who she is.

Lina transported me, by her cooking and stories, to the Syria of her youth. This was not the Syria ripped by war with seas of refugees fleeing. Instead I looked through the window of her mind to see her as a teenager chewing on seeds and gossiping with her school mates before heading home for dinner, which surely included a delicious and perfectly round loaf of bread.

As Anca prepared the dough and we waited for our loaves to bake, I heard how she came to the United States from Romania in search of a better future for her daughter, who has cerebral palsy. She knew the U.S. could provide better services and opportunities for her only child, and she took a great leap of faith to come as a single mom by moving across the ocean to a new land. I met in her memories the Jewish woman who became her benefactor, a woman who insisted on putting up a Christmas tree for Anca’s daughter because she knew Anca was Greek Orthodox and it was an important tradition for them.

With Talat the stories rose as heavy and rich as the smells drifting up from the curries on the stove. Three women cooked as Talat’s sister and I watched. Talat told of her experience as a Muslim woman from Pakistan making her home here. One friend from India shared of her Hindu faith and traditions while another spoke of being an Indian Baptist worshiping in the United States. Talat’s sister, a beautifully quiet woman, brought yet another perspective as a Pakistani Muslim who lives on the island of Mauritius in the Indian ocean. Theirs are stories of immigration, relocation, finding unlikely friends, and making a home in a new place.

We tell our stories, not only to share who we are with others, but to remind ourselves of who we are and the journey we took to arrive where we are.

For one summer I worked in a Honolulu hospital. I fell in love with a local expression there. I would step into a patient’s room, and he or she would invite me in for a visit. Often he or she would smile at me and say “Let’s talk story”. “Talk story”. This is so much more than the polite “Tell me something about yourself” or “Where are you from”. It’s an invitation to share who you are by telling the stories of your life, not just the things that give those details life and definition. Most small talk in 
America is about a list: Where do you work? Where are you from? We already have started an inventory based on the person's appearance and we want to complete this by certain perfunctory questions. Instead, "Talk story" is an invitation to spend some time together, to actually sit long enough to spin a tale rather than make cursory cocktail conversation.

The willingness and ability to sit and “talk story” with one another is a practice quickly fading from the American landscape. I believe this has contributed to Americans’ alienation from one another. “Just the facts and only the facts” has left us grayed and lifeless, nothing more than demographics and statistics to one another. It feeds the more dysfunctional human impulse to reduce another person to an outline and, therefore, “other” and somehow less human. Think about our labels: black, white, male, female, tall, thin, short, fat, Southern, Northern, Italian, Greek, English, Native, rich, poor, impoverished, under-served, overworked -the list goes on. In it all is a desire to categorize and file each other away in some drawer for ease-of-use.

We invite one another into our homes less and less, whether figuratively or literally, and we refuse to open our busy schedules to accommodate more time to “talk story”.

But those stories are the birthplace of relationships, compassion, care, concern, and kinship. They hold within them the keys to unlocking the gates of the barriers that divide us, including the ones we build for ourselves. If you’ve ever managed to lock your child in the car while the car is running while simultaneously locking yourself out of your house, you’ll understand how precious keys can be. Yet we fail to recognize the most valuable keys at our disposal, ones that will make our lives richer than ever be imagined: the stories of those around us, both known and unknown.

God forgive us for not stopping to ask, to listen, to tell, and to share, thus squandering a most precious gift.

Some of the amazing people we've stopped to "talk story" with so far:

My dear God-brother, Alan, in DC. 

Our cousins in Arkansas.

Celebrating Ramadan with Talat and family.

Rangers in Chickamauga.

Ralph in Independence.

Dear friends Tar and Jim with new friend Bob in Nebraska.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Lessons of Friends

You don’t learn to be a priest during seminary. You learn aspects of the vocation like preaching, some pastoral care, how to plan a service, and the like. But seminary cannot teach the bulk of the work you will do when you enter the field because every day is different from the day before and the one that will come after. The truth is that you learn to be a priest from other clergy, both inside and outside of your own tradition, from your parishioners who have worked with many priests before you arrived, and from good old trial and error (and failure!).
One of our sabbatical journeys took us to Tallahassee, FL, where I found myself on a Sunday morning sitting between one of my first Senior Wardens and the first adult I ever baptized. As we stood to sing, sat to listen to the sermon, kneeled to confess our sins, and walked together to receive communion, a wave of gratitude washed over me for the two of them and for every lay person who has taught and continues to teach me what it means to be a priest.
Chris and Cindy entered my life during the first year of my vocation, just a few months after I met Derek. Our church was very small and visitors were more than noticeable. I remember meeting Chris and Cindy their first day and feeling how well they would fit with our church family. We went to lunch or dinner, I don’t remember which now, and they shared with me how they had come to visit our church in the first place. It seems neither of them were deeply rooted in any church or denomination but both felt they needed a church family in their new married life. They went online and researched different church traditions and thought the Episcopal Church best fit their views. They had decided to visit all three Episcopal churches in our area and ours was the first.
It was also the last. My sense (and hope!) that they suited our church family was correct from day one and in short order they became central figures in the life of the congregation. The November after they joined we bought a large plastic tank (I actually think it was a trough!) and filled it with water in the church yard. During the All Saints Sunday service Cindy crawled in to take part in the resurrection of Christ, emerging as the newest saint in the church. It was a blessed day and a moment I will never forget.
Just over a year later Chris became the Senior Warden of the church, a position also known as “the rector’s warden” because the clergy chooses someone from the vestry to fill that position. It is someone the rector or vicar knows she will work with well in leading the congregation. Chris and I met every month over lunch between vestry meetings to go over “the list”, a notepad on which he kept a running record of projects and ideas from our conversations.
I didn’t lack confidence, passion, or energy in my first years as a priest. In fact, I split my time between two ministries – the church and a college chaplaincy gig – which translated into 60-80 hour weeks for me because I was so excited to be in the field. What I did lack was the knowledge to actually do that work. I knew how to examine text and prepare a sermon, how to examine myself and my actions after a pastoral care visit, and the basics of running a vestry meeting. Beyond that, I didn’t know much; all of it is knowledge that only can be gained “in the trenches”.
It was in those first three years of ministry that I started a running list of things you don’t learn in seminary. For example, how to: 1) mop up septic tank back-up in the men’s bathroom the day before the church’s big Advent Lessons and Carols service and get rid of the smell; 2) use desktop publishing software to produce Sunday bulletins, event fliers, and newsletters; 3) understand web design and work with a communications specialist to assist with evangelism; 4) clone yourself when you desperately want to be at the bedside of a dying member and also in the home of another who’s child has just died. Nor does it teach you that you will love the members of your church with a passion and depth only God could describe and how to receive their love and allow them to minister to you in your own time of need, especially when you don’t even recognize it yourself.
We left that first church over nine years ago now and Chris and Cindy moved away almost two years ago. Over the past eight years Chris and Cindy have traveled wherever we are to hold each of our children in turn as their godparents and say:
Celebrant            Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?
Parents and Godparents              I will, with God's help.
Celebrant           Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?
Parents and Godparents              I will, with God's help. 
(Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, Baptism Service, Pg. 302)
This time we traveled to them to see their new life in Tallahassee. As newly married couples we built our relationship around church and food. Chris and Cindy both have worked in the restaurant industry and love to cook. When Alton Brown’s “Feasting on Asphalt” first came out, we gathered each week the show aired and cooked a meal together based around the theme for that evening’s show. For this trip, Chris and Cindy showed us around their town as we feasted at some favorite spots. It has been a couple of years since we had a good visit together but each time is like slipping into a favorite pair of shoes: the miles walked together in the past come back to cradle you perfectly for the miles ahead.
When we first met I was learning to be a priest, Derek was learning to be a priest’s husband (a real challenge!), and Chris and Cindy were learning how to be active and faithful Episcopalians. We learned many lessons together in those early years and as I watched them play with our children, their godchildren, in Tallahassee last week, I realized we’re still learning lessons together: how to love despite distances and different settings; how to share our lives with others in a way that they are a part of us, not just our lives; what faithfulness looks like in friendship, marriage, to children, and to God.
For more details about Tallahassee, places we visited, and where we ate, visit my husband’s sister blog at

Sunday, June 12, 2016

"I fixed her"

My heart hurt in the midst of the smiles and the laughter. From my place of privilege and optimism I like to think our society and nation are farther away from the days of bigotry, rudeness, and hatred than we actually are. The truth is much different from what my eyes would like to see and my ears would like to hear.
My friend Heather invited me into her kitchen to teach me about the Jewish festival of Shavuot and some of the foods cooked for that holiday. Heather and her family are Jewish and she and her father Pete were telling family stories as we worked in the kitchen. Mostly they made me laugh but at one point the stories turned to personal experiences of discrimination based on their faith.
Heather owns an incredible treasure in the form of a family history book. A relative spent four years traveling the world to record first and second hand stories of family members and assembling a most remarkable family tree. In the pages of the book is a story of relatives who were executed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The tale is horrific: an entire family had just finished dressing for the day when they were yanked out of their house and lined up on the street to be gunned down by a firing squad.
Some time passed as we chatted in the kitchen and Pete began recollecting some experiences he had as a thirteen-year-old visiting family in Miami. This would have been in the years soon after WWII but before desegregation. He had walked down the road to see a luxury hotel only to find a sign prominently displayed in the yard “No N*****s and Jews Allowed”.
On hearing these stories, I was sad to reflect on the way the world has treated many of its citizens. But these are things of the past, right? We expect them of Nazi Germany and the segregated South. That is the stuff of history books and we have evolved as society enough to recognize bigotry and not spread it, right?
Just as my optimism and naïveté wanted to take hold and redeem our world, Heather said “Oh yeah. I went through it just last year.” I turned to listen to her thinking, Surely she hasn’t been subjected to someone’s prejudices here lately! Again, my place of privilege was getting the better of me.
Last summer Heather went to a local pool for the afternoon. She sat and finished her book as families packed up their pool supplies for the day and started to head home. One family, however, was just arriving with their bikes for a ride around the park. They were getting ready near where Heather was sitting and the husband struck up a conversation with her. It seemed his family had vacationed on the same lake as Heather’s years ago. He said they had enjoyed it until “too many coloreds started coming.”
I was nonplussed by this statement. This was one of my contemporaries using a term that to me was a part of the language of previous generations, not mine. But here was a man likely close to my age using it in regular conversation with a perfect stranger. Of course, if he began his conversation in this vein, you might guess that there was more to come.
Heather had noticed that his wife wore a large crucifix around her neck, not uncommon except for the fact that this pendant was exceptionally large. As Heather and the man spoke he looked down and noticed Heather’s necklace. She regularly wears a pendant that is her name spelled in Hebrew. He saw the Hebrew lettering and said, “You Jewish?”. Heather responded, “Yes.” He smiled and threw a thumb at his wife saying, “She used to be Jewish but I fixed her.”
Even writing about this exchange days after hearing it makes my heart hurt. “I fixed her.” There was something wrong with her that needed changing, repairing, and he was proud of having accomplished the task.
Remarkable to me was the way Heather and Pete shared these stories. They weren’t bitter or enraged. The stories were interspersed with ones that made us smile and laugh. Heather told this story with an air of a shrug and “What are you going to do about it?”. She was smiling as she recounted a man’s ignorant airing of his own bigotry to her. She was gracious in her response to him, said a light “Oh.” and allowed the conversation to end naturally.
But that “Oh” contains world of meaning.
That “Oh” means I’ve been through this before and I refuse to let it make me bitter.
In that “Oh” was the knowledge of You’re an idiot and a bigot and have been rude to me without even recognizing or knowing it.
In that “Oh” was forgiveness, even. It was a refusal to accept the magnitude of hurt that could have come with it.
I have experienced prejudice in my life but nothing compared to centuries and millennia of experienced bigotry by generations of the same family. Would I have the strength to be as graceful and faithful as Heather? Could I smile even while telling my stories?
I don’t know. I do know that I wish the world was different for my friends who experience prejudice every day. I wish our society looked more like how I picture it on my most optimistic of days and less like the reality that lifts a bigot to represent a major party in a presidential election.
I also know that the depth of faithfulness and capability for forgiveness in the hearts of men and women is enormous. It must be because the women and men who constantly experience prejudice widely cast out this faithfulness and forgiveness to include us all, include a system that at times permits bigotry and at times breeds it.
“I fixed her.”
Would that we would throw our efforts into fixing the world instead.

Heather and Pete

Heather with the prized heirloom family history.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Cookbook Wisdom

Today please enjoy another post from a guest writer. This essay is from Jennie Ashlock who attended the writer's retreat over Memorial Day weekend with me in Valle Crucis, NC. You'll quickly see why I loved Jennie's essay and asked her to share it with you. Enjoy!

Making love and cooking scrambled eggs are very similar. A friend, who owns a local café, likens the two processes because each “is a skill requiring a gentle heat, slow stirring and a gradual increase of temperature so as to not burn anything.”
This, along with other memorable food quotations, I diligently record in a recipe book my Mother gave me thirty-one years ago. I know this because she signed the inner cover, “Merry Christmas to Jennie!  12/1984 . . . Love Mom.”  The three-ring binder, stained with an array of unidentifiable ingredients, is only partially filled with hand-scribbled directions for Dodie’s Whole Wheat Muffins, Texas Sheet Cake and Squash Pie.  I treasure it also for the culinary quotes providing nourishing memories of meal-time conversations with close friends, some still living, some who are not.
One of these quotes came from my first love who said, “Sundays are good for baking” and I fondly think of him while kneading my weekly loaf and pray he is well and happy. During a dinner discussion about our favorite foods, another dear friend emphatically stated, “If I could change any absolutes in the world, I would make fat and salt good for you.” With similar conviction, a local bookstore owner told me, “If God didn’t want us to eat bacon she would not have invented angioplasty.”
The futility of drinking decaffeinated coffee was confirmed by a co-worker who said, “That’s a waste of stomach space.” And those of us who worked in food service would likely agree with author Maeve Binchy in her description of a restaurant’s wait staff who, as they observed their diners, agreed among themselves that “no other job is quite as interesting as watching the human race at feeding time.”
Some quotes are my moral teachers. On the inside back cover is a quote from Leah Chase, chef at Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans. I heard Mrs. Chase, a long time African American resident of that southern port city, comment that the restaurant, which is still in business, was a place where people came together during the days of segregation. Food was the great equalizer and she attracted customers with how, not just what, she cooked: “I tell people all the time you have to be in love with that pot. You have to put all your love in that pot.  If you’re in a hurry, just eat your sandwich and go. Don’t even start cooking, because you can’t do anything well in a hurry.”

You can’t do anything well in a hurry. Love offered in a hurry leaves one feeling empty or, worse yet, used.  Eggs made in a hurry taste like rubber. Coffee drunk on the run makes for an upset stomach and bread baked without care and attention tastes lifeless.   Time taken to knead in the memories of meals cooked and shared allow Love’s yeast to rise slowly into something that sustains and merits the title, “The Staff of Life.”
Grief, like love, cannot be experienced in a hurry.  In the past year, five dear friends left the table when they had finished eating and walked out the door into eternity. I do not seek to pass over this strange nourishment offered by grief. What I do seek, and find, in this small binder is the truth of joy and love to complement life’s sorrows. These ingredients, like salt and spices, give life depth and flavor.
Words scripted in blue ink at the bottom of a worn page speak to why I keep these seemingly silly little quotes. After a long, hot drive through South Carolina, friends and I anticipated a culinary revival at a favored eatery. The waitress greeted us at the table with words frequently heard in Southern restaurants, so frequent they often pass me by.  In retrospect, however, they remind me that when loss and pain are on the table, peace and goodness are being prepared in the kitchen. Like a prophet promising manna from heaven, the truth of ready sustenance flowed down to us as she gently said, “I’ll be right back, baby, with biscuits and sweet tea.”

Thursday, June 9, 2016

"You Can't Hide In Your Kitchen"

Easter Sunday afternoon is a favorite time for me. All of my Holy Week and Easter Sunday duties are complete and I can relax and enjoy the holiday with my family. Last year we went for Easter brunch at a local golf club with my parents. Loaves of bread, decorated eggs, and more were nestled between the dishes of traditional brunch fare. One loaf in particular caught my eye: a beautiful round braided loaf with a red hard-boiled egg peeking out of one side. The Executive Chef, Anca, came out of her kitchen to check on the buffet and I asked her about the loaf. A bright smile bloomed on her face as she told me it was a traditional Easter bread from her homeland of Romania. As soon as we got home that afternoon I made a note to contact Anca this year, hoping she would allow me in her kitchen as she prepared for Easter brunch.
Anne, a member of our church, works with Anca, and this February I asked her for Chef Anca’s email address. My simple hope was to be in the commercial kitchen at the golf club while Anca prepared for this year’s big feast. I did not want to be intrusive or a burden during a busy season for her. I expected an invitation with a day and time to show up as an observer only from the corner of her work kitchen.
The invitation I received was so much more.
“When can you come to my house?” she wrote.
“I don’t want to put you out. I’m happy to come the day you cook for the club.” I didn’t want to interrupt her busy schedule and didn’t want her to think a home visit was what I had expected.
“No! I want you in my home! When can you come?” She was insistent and gracious in her invitation.
I couldn’t believe she would make time out of her busy schedule to host me in her own home! We looked at our calendars and found a Tuesday morning five weeks from then. That put our visit in the middle of Lent for me but I was happy to take a day off from my Lenten discipline to spend the morning baking Easter bread with Anca.
The morning arrived and she greeted me at her door with her same bright smile. Anne joined us mid-morning and over the next two hours we listened to Anca’s story while she baked three delicious breads.
Anca is from Romania and came to America to provide her daughter with a better future. She arrived in New York as a single mother with little to count on but her willingness to work hard and a passion for her daughter’s welfare. These were enough to gain her employment with a woman who became her benefactor and paid for her earliest training as a chef.
Anne and I snacked on fresh vegetables and homemade baba ganoush while Anca showed us how to mix the dough for two of the loaves baking in the oven. She spoke of her life in New York and shared with us about Romanian food. She pulled out one of her prized possessions: a cookbook that was her mother’s. Notes filled the margins in her mother’s handwriting.
I shared with Anca about my Prayerful Kitchen project and its genesis. I told her I loved to be in people’s kitchens to hear their stories, especially how cooking for them was a form of prayer and meditation. The cookbook from her mother was an example of the many blessings I have enjoyed on these visits. She smiled knowingly, recognizing the magical nature of this space and said, “You can’t hide in your kitchen.”
She spoke of her religious observances: she is Greek Orthodox. She showed us her church calendar with information about days of feasting and fasting as well as the stamps she uses on the bread she bakes for communion. We talked about the differences between the Anglican liturgical calendar and that of the Orthodox church. Orthodox Christians observe a strict Lent of fasting, including abstinence from eggs, dairy, meat, oil, and wine. Their commitment is much heartier than that of a typical Episcopalian and our meeting was only the second day of Anca’s Lenten season.
That’s when I realized the full significance of our timing and the depth of her generous hospitality. Lent was half finished for me, a time when most Episcopalians have relinquished with guilt any Lenten discipline they adopted. But for Anca it had only begun the day before I came to be in her kitchen.
She knew this when we set the date and it did not give her a moment’s hesitation. She welcomed me into her home to bake breads she could not eat, breads filled with eggs, milk, cheese, and sugar. The aromas rising from the oven were divine and irresistible. She prepared the doughs, breaking the eggs and measuring the butter, waited for them to rise; all the while knowing she wouldn’t eat a bite. She did all of it to share with and tell us about these traditions. She did it to welcome us into her world, her story, her kitchen where we could not hide. She did it out of love and pride.
When the time was right she pulled three beautiful loaves out of the oven. One was an onion bread traditionally eaten during Lent. The other two were different versions of Pascha, or Easter bread. The first was the gorgeous round loaf hiding the red egg in its folds. I asked her if any other color could be used and she explained that tradition holds that the women laid a basket of eggs at the foot of the cross. The blood of Christ dripped on the eggs and stained them red, thus red eggs always are used. The second shared roots with Russian breads, a bread baked in a casserole dish, filled with sweetened cream cheese, and adorned with a cross made of dough. Anca pulled each from the oven in turn and sliced it, offering Anne and me a taste. The onion bread she ate with us but the other two she gave only to us. As we tried the Easter breads, warm and full of yeast and steam, she beamed from across her kitchen counter.
I marveled at her generosity and welcome. I asked her what she would do with the rest of the Easter loaves since she and her husband wouldn’t be eating them. She said she didn’t know then offered for me to take them home. I remembered I was teaching the children’s class the next night at church and took the loaves with joy to give to the children. It was a blessing to share with them the gift given to me the day before and to teach them about Anca’s traditions and some of her story.
Anca’s words continue to ring in my mind as I work on my project: “You can’t hide in your kitchen.” This truth is at the heart of my work. Someone who loves to cook is most at home in a kitchen. It is a place where we relax and ease out of every skin we wear until our barest bones are visible. It is where I breath most deeply and allow my mind to clear, then wander. “You can’t hide in your kitchen.”
There are places for each of us where we know we are most vulnerable, places where we are the most known. It takes trust to invite someone into this space. For me it is the kitchen, a place both utilitarian and sacred. It is the place I most want to be and join others so that I might see them and know them. I am keenly aware of the trust extended with every invitation and the honor given me by being allowed in that space.
“You can’t hide in your kitchen”.
May we all find those spaces of safety and holiness. And may we all be granted the strength to invite others, welcoming and trusting them in a place where we might be fully known, fully exposed, and fully loved.

Fresh baba ganoush and veggies for snacks!

Anca's family heirloom cookbook with precious notes in the margin.

A few finishing touches before baking.

Stamps used for baking communion bread.

Cutting the lenten onion bread.

The onion bread was delicious with the other snacks.

The finished Pascha loaf with Russian influences, both fresh out of the oven and freshly served.

The loaf that started the conversation!

A smile that blooms!

Coming Out of the Christmas Haze: Favorite Recipes from the Season

Hey, Friends! My apologies for being out of touch for so long. Cooking, dinners, parties, family, friends, more food, more cooking, and a...