Bachelor Food: Saturday Morning Coconut Pancakes

coconut pancakes syrupIt’s hard to write when you’re full. And that’s one thing these coconut pancakes do: fill you up. It’s all the fiber in them, I think. But they’re tasty, easy to make — and grain-free.

So here’s how this little adventure started out.

I love my carbs. Pastas, pancakes, pastries, crusty French bread… They’re the stuff of life. They’re also not great for someone keeping an eye on their blood sugars and lipids.

So I’ve been deliberately cutting out foods with added sugars, and consciously adding more fiber to my diet. (I quietly mutter “Sugar equals death” under my breath when I’m tempted by my favorite pastries, but you know, it kinda spooks the other customers in line, so I just wander away sad and unsatisfied, but feeling just a little bit superior.)

Anyway. I’ve made the switch to whole-grain everything as part of a lifestyle change. Breads with multi-whole grains, whole wheat flour for cooking, whole wheat spaghetti and pastas, and swapping out quinoa and farro (it’s kinda like corn) instead of rice as a side dish staple. All in all, a healthier exchange, since it upped my protein and fiber intake and reduced my net carbs.

But sometimes you just want a stack of pancakes for breakfast Saturday morning.

There are some cool recipes out there using buckwheat and barley, some using almond flour, stuff with a lower glycemic index and higher fiber to make you feel full and keep you from that post-sugar-high crash. Some of them seem a bit exotic (and pricey!), with ingredients I’m not likely to use for much else, so they didn’t seem worth the purchase. But, we’re easily influenced by media (at least I am), and I’ve seen a couple of really enticing photos of “paleo-pancakes” on Facebook recently, so I caved. (Not that I can even imagine a caveman whipping up a batch of pancakes, but hey …)

coconut flourHere’s the killer ingredient: coconut flour. Those crazy Americans. My bud, who lives in Malaysia where coconut is an everyday part of life, never heard of such a thing. Somebody over here, probably with too much time on their hands, thought it might be interesting to grind up coconut flesh and see if bread could be made from it, I guess. And, voila. A flour substance that’s high in fiber, protein, and healthy fats, and lower in carbs than regular wheat flour.

Well, sign me up. So I ran out to my grocery store and picked a 2 pound container. Yes, you can even find it at WallyWorld. I figured if I liked it, I’d try it in other things (imagine making chocolate chip cookies!), so it wouldn’t just sit in my cupboard waiting for the occasional Saturday morning breakfast. And my conscience would be lulled back to sleep when indulging: “don’t worry about it; it’s healthy.”

I did do a bit of background reading, first, before I plunged into experimenting. Turns out, coconut flour is much more absorbant than traditional wheat flour, so it sucks up your recipe liquids (milk, water) leaving your batter a bit thicker. That’s okay. Don’t try to compensate by adding more liquid; your batter will just end up runny. And because it’s gluten-free, you gotta use more eggs as a binder. (Gluten, although it’s gotten a bad rap lately, is the go-to ingredient in wheat that holds all the stuff together when cooking.)* So, you can’t just substitute coconut flour for wheat four 1 for 1. Turns out, it’s more like 1/4 to 1. So, where I used to just whip up pancakes with 1 cup of flour and 1 egg, this time I had to use 1/4 cup coconut flour and 3 eggs.

They taste a bit like coconut, as you might expect, so they have a naturally sweet flavor. Several recipes I compared online added 1-2 tablespoons of sugar (or honey, to stay paleo), but I didn’t think they needed it. Especially if you’re about to pour 1/2 cup of maple syrup over them. One friend recommended adding ground crickets, which would double the protein (he was serious), but I’m not that extreme. Thanks, maybe next time, Shane.

This recipe makes a deceptively small amount of batter. But remember, it’s heavier, so a little bit goes a long way. It’ll make the same number of pancakes as a proportional wheat flour recipe will; the pancakes will just be a bit smaller. But, believe me, they will fill you up.

coconut pancake ingrs

Here’s what you need

1/4 cup coconut flour
1/4 – 1/3 cup milk. (Use coconut milk if you want to stay purely “paleo” and avoid dairy; but I just used my regular 1% cow’s milk)
3 eggs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (Or use coconut oil if you’ve got it)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon baking powder (This is the stuff that makes the cakes rise — and no, it’s not the same thing as baking soda)
dash of salt (Adds to the chemical reaction to help them rise, plus balances out the flavor a little)

And that’s it. See how easy that is? You’ve probably got all that stuff already in your cupboards — except for the coconut flour, which I’m sure you ran out and picked up, like I did, just to try this out.

Here’s what you do

Basically, you want to mix your wet ingredients first, then add in your dry ones.

So, crack your 3 eggs into a bowl, add the milk, oil, and vanilla extract, and beat with a fork or wisk to combine.
Next, dump in your coconut flour, and add the baking powder and salt.
. It doesn’t have to be perfect; some small lumps are fine.
Heat up a little vegetable or coconut oil, about a tablespoon, in your frying pan or griddle.  I’d avoid the “HI” setting if you don’t want to smoke up the whole kitchen. Just sayin’.
Pour about a 1/4 cup of batter for each pancake (I used the same measuring cup as a ladle). This batter is heavier than normal pancake batter, so it won’t bubble when it’s ready to be flipped like you’re probably used to. You’ll just have to peek at the underside using a spatula/turner and flip when the pancake is a golden brown. I had to flip mine twice to make sure they were cooked through, but you don’t want to overcook them. Nobody likes maple syrup covered hockey pucks.
coconut pancakes teaThis batch makes about 6 pancakes, 3-4 inches wide — enough for two people if you’ve got other side dishes, and definitely enough for one, with or without extras.

Depending on how much syrup you pour on, these puppies have a much lower carb/sugar count than traditional pancakes. And with just 1/4 cup of coconut flour and the 3 eggs, I estimated about 24g of protein and about 10g fiber.

Not a bad way to start an indulgent weekend. Enjoy!


P.S.  About using more eggs as a binder, if you have an egg-sensitivity, my friend Rita offered a solution.  You can substitute milled flax seed as the binder. For 1 egg substitute 1 T of milled flax seed and put it into 1 T warm water. Let it sit several minutes until it becomes stretchy. Then add that to the recipe.  I’ll try that out next time I make these …

photo credit: Stephen Schmidt

Bachelor Food: Spaghetti Puttanesca

pasta_puttanesca_ala_stefanoIt’s been a while since we’ve run a foodie post, but the other day when I posted a photo of my dinner on Facebook (yeah, I’m one of those people), a bachelor friend commented that he doesn’t know how to cook and wished I’d posted the recipe along with the photo. So, for you, Jay, here it is.

I’ve been a spaghetti fan since I was a kid. And it’s one of the handful of foods that almost every guy knows how to cook. No big recipe needed, no elaborate culinary planning or advanced shopping needed. Most of us have boxes of spaghetti and jars of sauce in our cupboards, and it’s not much more complicated than boiling water and dumping the pasta in. But after a while, that can get pretty monotonous. I’d begun mixing it up, swapping out tomato sauce for olive oil, using stir-fried vegetables instead of hamburger, and the evolution began. Lots of combinations. I eventually got it down to a savory concoction that I really liked, and made it almost every week for myself.

I didn’t realize it was ridiculously close to a traditional favorite until one evening when I was watching an episode of “Queer as Folk” on Netflix, and Michael’s mom, Debbie Novotny, invited Michael’s chiropractor boyfriend to join them for dinner. “Sit down. I made Puttanesca.” Recognizing it as another spin on my favorite pasta, I decided to look it up on the interwebs. Basically, it’s spaghetti with kalamata olives and capers, mixed in a base of olive oil flavored with hot red peppers, garlic, and anchovies. It’s spicy and fragrant, and if you do it right, it should smell up your whole apartment.

In fact, that’s kinda how the pasta got it’s name. It literally means “pasta of the prostitutes” (we all know the word, puta, right? Well, the Italian version is puttana.) Urban legend has it that ladies of the evening in Naples would lure clients to their doors by sauteing the ingredients in olive oil. The pungent aroma would attract hungry men … and paying customers could satisfy their hunger in multiple ways.

The basic recipe calls for kalamata olives, capers, red pepper flakes, anchovies (or anchovy paste), a few chopped tomatoes, and served with Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese. I’m not a fan (at all) of anchovies, and most of us probably don’t keep capers in our fridge, so I made a few substitutions. Here’s my bachelor version …

puttanesca_ingredients

What you need

  • dried spaghetti (I use the whole-wheat variety cuz it’s got more fiber and protein, and makes me feel like I’m eating healthy)
  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 cloves of garlic (you can use garlic powder if you like, but the taste will be slightly different)
  • red pepper flakes
  • dried oregano or Italian herb mix
  • 1/2 medium onion (any kind)
  • sliced red and green peppers (optional)
  • black olives (instead of kalamata olives; I just used the canned variety)
  • 1 can of diced tomatoes — or some sliced cherry tomatoes if you’ve got ’em
  • grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (optional)
  • sliced mushrooms (Portobellos have a rich, earthy flavor)
  • sliced pepperoni

Okay, these last two items are what I substitute for the anchovies and capers to give the pasta it’s “earthy” and salty kick.

Here’s what you do

1. Boil about 2 quarts of water in a saucepan. Add a little salt (which apparently is always the thing to do when cooking pasta) — say, about half a teaspoon. Throw in your dried spaghetti. The traditional standard for one serving of spaghetti is about the diameter of a U.S. quarter — just under an inch. So grab a bunch, and give it your best guess.

2. While your pasta is cooking, finely chop up your garlic, and slice your onions (and peppers).

3. Heat 4 or so tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. You don’t want the heat too high or you’ll smoke up the place.

4. Add 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon of the red pepper flakes to the olive oil (depending on how hot you like it), along with your dried oregano or herbs. Toss in your chopped garlic, and cook for about 5 minutes or until it’s slightly golden. The idea is to infuse the oil with the spicy heat from the pepper flakes, garlic and herbs.

5. Next, throw in your sliced onion, peppers, olives, mushrooms and pepperoni. (If you’ve got capers, you could add a teaspoon of them here.) They’ll saute in the flavored oil, about 5 minutes.

6. Once the vegs have cooked in the skillet, stir in the canned tomatoes, and bring to a low simmer.

7. By now, your spaghetti should be about cooked. You can test it by pulling out a few strands and chewing on them to see if they’re the firmness you prefer. Most recipes say till al dente — slightly firm — but I prefer it a bit softer. Umm, do I need to say NOT to use your fingers when fishing the pasta out of the boiling water?

QAF-213x3008. Using tongs or a pasta ladle, transfer the spaghetti from the water into the skillet. This will allow just a bit of the starchy cooking water to mix in with your sauce. Mix it all together until the pasta is well coated and your vegetables are evenly distributed. (I always end up adding more olive oil at this stage, but you may not like it as oily.)

9. Pile a generous amount on your plate, and top it off with some grated cheese.

Feel free to tweak the recipe to suit you. If you really like a salty tang, try adding a few finely chopped anchovy fillets (or 1-2 teaspoons of anchovy paste) as the original recipe calls for. Some of my friends swear by it — “It’s not puttanesca without the anchovies!” Me? I prefer the mushrooms. You be the judge.

Now, go dig up “Queer as Folk” on Netflix (the American version, not the British), and have yourself a relaxing evening. See you in Pittsburgh.


photo credit: Stephen Schmidt

Mr Right

Stop Looking for Mr Right

Mr Right 

Today a friend took the gutsy step of publicly posting that he was back in the dating game, and thought that with his large pool of friends on Facebook, he might have better luck making connections by announcing to a wider audience. Sure, why not? What are friends for if not setting you up on your next blind date?

But here’s the kicker, the thing that got me to write this. He added, “for those seriously interested only.” And there it is. I see it a lot in my Christian guy friends. The desire to skip right over the dating process, and go straight into betrothal and marriage. Some of my friends have even taken to the old term “courting”. As in, “I don’t want to date. I want to court someone and then marry.” But it’s the same idea: that dating, spending some time with someone new, drinking coffee, going to movies, having dinner … getting to know someone … is a waste of their time and energy unless there is a specific guarantee that it will result in rings being exchanged.

Put more bluntly (though I’m sure most of my friends would never consciously think this), “people are not worth my time unless I get exactly what I want from them.”

Don’t be so picky…

As the older guy friend, I want to smack them up side their heads (kindly of course), and tell them, “you’re missing the whole point!” I know because I’ve been there. It’s like walking into an upscale restaurant and refusing to look at the menu because you already know you want meatloaf.

Meatloaf is great. But have you tried the lobster? Or maybe the shrimp scampi with angel hair pasta? Or that wonderful Teriyaki steak, marinated in a ginger, soy and pineapple sauce?

That’s what dating is. It’s sampling the menu. Trying out new flavors, discovering things you never knew existed — things you might absolutely love. And yeah, along the way you’ll sample a few things you don’t like. But it opens you up to a world of new possibilities — ones that may never have even occurred to you. How will you know you’re not a fan of oysters if you’ve never tried them? Or think of all the wonderful evening meals you would have missed out on because you didn’t know you absolutely loved pasta puttanesca. So many guys have such a restrictive list of what they’re looking for in a mate, that they refuse to date anyone who doesn’t match perfectly. “Why should I? I know I won’t marry him.”

Meatloaf is great. But have you tried the lobster? … That’s what dating is. It’s sampling the menu. Trying out new flavors, discovering things you never knew existed — things you might absolutely love.

Because dating isn’t just about finding Mr Right. It’s about discovering more about yourself. It’s about broadening your view of the world around you. It’s about meeting different kinds of people, trying new experiences with them, exchanging ideas, learning something new about the world, about life. It’s exposure to the wide variety of humanity out there — the richness of God’s creation. Kinda like that prayer the Apostle Paul wrote for the Ephesians, “so that you might know the glorious richness of his inheritance in the saints” — so that you can experience the beautiful richness of variety in the types of people God created. People even of different faiths. See? If you know in advance that you probably won’t end up marrying this particular guy, you’re free to spend time with him even if he’s not a Christian. You might gain a whole new appreciation for faith and God because he’s Buddhist and explained how he meditates. Or he’s Muslim, or Jewish, or even an atheist.

Let me say it again. There is so much freedom in dating when you know that you’re not gonna marry this guy anyway, so you’re free to enjoy him for who he is rather than what you want him to be.

The encounter is meant to enrich you. You expand your mind, your heart, your portfolio of experience because he introduces you to things not a regular part of your world. He might take you to a late night jazz session, or to an art exhibit. He may play selections from his vintage rock collection, and open new musical doors for you. He might take you to his church or mosque, to some place you’d never have gone to by yourself. New food, new wines or beers, new music, new parts of town you’ve never seen. New perspectives on God. If you’re lucky, he’ll share a part of his soul with you. You become a better person by dating.

Unless, of course, you’re completely self-absorbed, and not really interested in the men you date at all except to see if their initials will look good on your monogrammed towels.

That sounds a bit harsh, but honestly, that’s how some of you sound. “I only want to date someone whom I could settle down with” comes across very much like “you’re not good enough for me, and I shouldn’t waste my time on you.” Of course you don’t mean it. But you’re robbing yourself. Hell, you’re robbing them, all those guys you refuse to date, of seeing the kind of person you are, of the chance to learn something from you, to realize that there are people of your caliber out there in the sea for them to find, that maybe they don’t need to settle for the first “suitable” guy who comes their way. And you too. You’ll meet a variety of guys who might fit your definition of “marriable”, but you’ll discover that you don’t need to commit to him just because he fits what you thought you wanted. By dating a variety of men, your checklist may expand. You’ll add new desirable traits to your dream — and likely add to your list of characteristics to avoid. All because you learned something new by meeting a variety of people.

Open yourself up to guys outside your normal “marriage criteria,” just for the sake of greater exposure and personal experience. You’ll grow in ways you never imagined.

Let your heart get broken once or twice

“But I don’t want my heart to get broken,” you may be saying.

And yes, that is a very real possibility. But here’s the thing. You should get your heart broken. Because that means you had a genuine connection with a real human being. It is part of the authentic human experience, and you cannot isolate yourself from that and expect to be a healthy person. Real people have hearts. Their hearts become engaged with people they spend time with, who they grow to care about. You will not go untouched. But you will be a better person because you were touched. Dating changes you. Dating deepens you.

Dating has gotten such a bad rap in some Christian circles, especially among faithful guys who are “waiting for marriage.” But cutting yourself off from the people around you, just because they don’t match your checklist, actually cheats you.

So stop looking for Mr Right. Stop being so picky, so restrictive. Be open to dating a variety of guys. You’ll have a lot of first (and only) dates. That’s fine. That’s part of the discovery process too. And when you do encounter that guy who really makes your head and heart sing, you’ll have a much broader basis of comparison to judge your suitability by. They say “you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.” But it’s because you kissed those frogs that you recognize who your prince is. And, realistically, you’ll get to kiss a lot of princes in the process too. You’ll just be better prepared to pick which one you finally settle down with.


photo credit: Fantasyland Station, cc.

Not So Blessed: When disaster hits your enemy

 

TonyPerkinsHome-1024x768

I had to resist rubbing my hands together in a weak moment of delighted schadenfreude when I read that Tony Perkins — rabid right-wing, anti-gay leader of the Family Research Council — lost his house this past week in the floods of Louisiana. The same guy who preached that natural disasters were God’s vengeance on America for tolerating gays, abortion … and whatever in-vogue sin of the day is tolerated in our society. Maybe you’re not so blessed, so privileged as you think.

“Karma,” some of my friends were saying. “With the measure you use, it will be measured back to you,” someone quoted Jesus. “You reap what you sow.”  All just different ways of saying the same thing: that there is some kind of cosmic reward and retribution system built into the fabric of our existence.

Okay, Tony Perkins is just one of the thousands effected by the floods. A dozen people died and 40,000 homes were destroyed in southern Louisiana this week. It would be tragic to overlook the devastating effects of nature on so many people, just so we can grab a few seconds of delight in the misfortune of one of our enemies. Surely karma is also concerned with the plight of the innocent. God takes no pleasure in the suffering of others. So maybe let’s not be so quick to get happy over the news.

Otherwise, we’re just as guilty — and mistaken — as those same people who’ve blamed other tragedies on us, on our “sins” and grievances against a holy God.

Jesus never gloated when his opponents were humbled. He never threw a stone, even at those who seemingly deserved it. And when people came to him wanting to point out the sinfulness of those who died when a tower in Siloam fell on them, or when a Roman governor slaughtered a group of people in the temple, Jesus rebuked them harshly. “They were no greater sinners than you — so if that’s the case, you’d better watch out for what’s coming your way” (Luke 13).  That’s a paraphrase, but that’s the gist of it. God doesn’t dole out to us what we “deserve.”  In fact, speaking of himself, giving himself a name, God declares, “this is who I am: the LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness …” (Exodus 34).

But enough sermonizing. My fleeting moment of hubris over wanting to rub Tony Perkins’ face in it, in reality, was quickly shouted down by my own conscience. This is not who we are — or how God works. We’re better than this. We’re called to be better than this. To look upon even our enemies with compassion. And not be so quick to point the finger of judgment. Especially in moments of tragedy.

Bad stuff happens to good (and bad) people. That’s not an “act of God.” God’s hand actually moves through us when we do something to help each other.

My hope (and prayer) is that Tony Perkins, and those who follow him, will take this moment and rethink their theology. I hope real life will temper their theories, give them a reason to weigh the ugliness, the coldness and inhumaneness of this aspect of their beliefs. Good theology is born out of life experience. It can’t be just academic or based on a simple, literalistic reading of a holy text. That way leads to legalism, to hard-heartedness, to death. It dishonors “the compassionate and gracious God” it claims to reflect.  Bad stuff happens to good (and bad) people. That’s not an “act of God.” God’s hand actually moves through us when we do something to help each other.

This wasn’t a shining moment for me either. This harsh moment of history when people are suffering is making me pause and rethink my own “gut reactions.” It’s a cold look in the mirror of my soul.  I’m in need of some personal transformation as much as the Family Research Council is in need of some theological transformation.

May the tender, correcting voice of God’s Spirit work in us all.  And then may we move past our moments of introspection and theologizing to actually step up and help take care of those impacted by these so-called “acts of God.”

 

Ways to help & donate:

Salvation Army’s Gulf Coast fund – volunteer or donate to help
Operation Blessing relief fund – providing hot meals and helping in recovery
Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans & Acadiana – distributing food, water, and supplies to flood victims

 


photo credit: Tony Perkins’ home after the flooding. Taken from Tony Perkins’ Facebook page.

Breaking Up Was One of the Best Things to Ever Happen to Me

BreakingUp

A couple of friends on social media have posted recently about the difficulties they’re having after breaking up with their boyfriends. I can empathize. That emotional vortex can tear you apart for a few weeks and make you feel like your whole life is destroyed. But, for me, it turned out to be one of the best things to ever happen to me.

Relationships are wonderful things. We humans seem to crave them. We can feel isolated, lonely, and incomplete without them, as if our lives have little or no meaning unless someone else is there sharing it with us.  And there’s good reason for that. We are by nature social beings. (Most of us, that is. There are always those rare birds who thrive on being unattached.) I think it’s built into our DNA — the only thing recorded in the Genesis creation story that God said was not good was that man should be alone.

But what happens when those relationships end? For whatever reason — irreconcilable differences, death, infidelity, or simply growing in different directions — the sudden absence of someone who up till that moment played a significant role in your life, in your identity, can leave you reeling. You have to begin to pick up the pieces and rebuild yourself, rebuild your life.  And that can be a wonderful thing. A gift. An awe-inspiring blessing. It was for me.

We’d been together for 15 years. It was a rocky relationship, full of its ups and downs. Emotional highs, heights of passion, random warm moments, holidays, birthdays. Arguments, shouting matches, feeling completely misunderstood or neglected, … holidays, birthdays. Yeah, all of it. But in the final analysis, we weren’t happy. Not that we expected each other to make us happy — we both knew happiness was our own responsibility. But when the chemistry of two radically different personalities creates more negative reaction than positive, it’s time to reconsider the relationship. And we did. And we mutually agreed to end it.

The separation didn’t happen overnight. We discussed who’d get what, who’d move out, who’d stay, which dogs would go with whom. And we allowed time for that to happen. I kept the house (since I was the main bread-winner and he couldn’t have afforded to keep it), and he made plans to move across state to be closer to his family. And I itched almost every day, waiting for everything to fall into place so he could be gone.

When the day finally came, we packed up a U-Haul truck and moved him out. And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Literally. It felt like I could breathe again.

BreakingUp2The first thing I did was rearrange the furniture. I was going to make the house “mine.” Then came all the other little changes. The decisions. I decided to eat better, to cook more, with more organics and meat that was humanely raised — and even for my dogs to eat better.  I decided to drink better quality coffee. To live more earth-friendly. To improve my social life. Dating — sure. (The whole world had evolved since the last time I’d dated. AOL was the thing back then. My friends had to clue me in about Adam4Adam, OkCupid, Match, and the host of phone apps available to help meet new people.) But also simply spending more time with my friends, going out to dinner, theater, movies … just rebuilding my life without him in it.  (I wrote about some of this back in the early days of my new-found singleness in “BYOB – Gay and Single (Again) After 40.”)

And this one word kept going through my head. “Rediscovery.” I wasn’t just “re-inventing” my life. I was rediscovering myself, who I was, digging back up those aspects and activities I used to love that had somehow become buried over the years together. Things he didn’t like to do. Parts of my personality that got overshadowed by the “us” of being with him. I rediscovered what it was like to be “Steve.”

I even stuck an index card on my refrigerator to remind me every morning —

“Create a life for yourself
that reflects your values,
builds on your gifts,
fulfills your purpose,
and satisfies your soul.”

The power of those words burrowed deep into my soul. “Create a life for yourself…”  It was an active process, not something I just sat back and let unfold. I spent time re-evaluating just what were my values, my gifts, my purpose? What satisfies my soul? I had the chance to re-create my life. I had that power. It was like a rebirth.

Oh, and yes, I did jump into the dating game. I was online every day, checking my apps multiple times during the day. Going on coffee dates (the safest thing for first dates, I discovered), getting to know different guys. There were months of feeling almost desperate: “I gotta find somebody. I wanna be married again.” I got emotionally attached to a couple of guys, even knowing there was no real long-term possibilities there. Got my heart broken once or twice. But gradually, as the clouds of desperation slowly faded from my mind, I woke up one morning realizing that I actually liked being single. I enjoyed my freedom. I loved the fact that I could meet someone, spend time with them, but go home afterwards to my own place, my home, my refuge, my dogs. And be okay unwinding on the couch, grabbing some movie off Netflix. By myself. Without having to worry about what someone else wanted to do.

I began to love myself again — and to like myself.  Whoever the guy was who’d eventually play a significant role in my life again, he’d have a pretty tough act to follow. He’d have to treat me and love me better than I loved myself. I wasn’t gonna lower my standards.

It’s been 4 years now. I’ve found someone who doesn’t trigger my red flags, who doesn’t irritate me (most of the time), who treats me with great respect, who has a depth of character and integrity that is a “must have” for me, and who has a life already established for himself. He’s good for my soul.

But more important than that. I’m happy. I wake up in the morning, grab my first cup of coffee of the day, and gather my thoughts. I pray. And I thank God for this good life. I think about the things I’m grateful for, the things I’m relieved about, excited and expectant about. The future. The present. The simplicity of things. A deeper spirituality. And the second chance at building my life.

The breakup gave me that chance. I got to re-think, re-define, re-discover who I was, and re-introduce elements of life that bring me joy and peace. Even my friends have commented on the change. I’m a better person now than I was before, and my life is richer. That break up with my ex was one of the best things that ever happened to me.


A version of Stephen’s post originally appeared on The Good Men Project.
Photo credits: Jonathan Emmanuel Flores Tarello, cc; “Bachelor Pad,” crystalsquare apts, cc.

Please, Don’t Invite Someone to Church This Month

invite-someone-to-church

We’ve got some big problems in the Church these days. That’s no great revelation. Just ask anybody on the street what they think of Christianity, especially during election season, and you’ll get an earful.  We hear it so often, in fact, that we in the Church turn a deaf ear to it. We tune it out. We’re callous to criticism. And we just go on our merry way, carrying on as good soldiers of the Cross. Well, at least on Sundays.

So when I drove by this sign stuck lazily in the ground by the side of the road, insisting I “invite someone to church this month,” all I could do was shake my head in wonder and dismay.

That lawn sign for me, with its tone of religious obligation, was an all-too-accurate metaphor of American churchianity. Stuck in the ground so half-heartedly that the person couldn’t even bother to push it in all the way.

And it leaves me with this one begging question: “Why?”

Why should I invite someone to church?

At the core of my cynical reaction to the sign is the doubt that it would make a single bit of difference in a person’s life.  Of course there are churches out there that are legitimately changing the world, making a difference, with their people walking out the church doors and impacting lives around them in love and compassion and even power. But realistically, they are few and far, far in between.

Let’s get real for a minute. The current mass exodus from mainstream Christianity isn’t because people aren’t showing up to church on Sunday; it’s not because church-goers aren’t inviting others. It’s because we are showing up, but we’re more often than not walking away just as empty as when we walked in.

… It’s because we expect that pastor and the staff to do God’s work. We’re just there to be fed.

… It’s because our own encounter with God is too often limited to those 20 minutes of praise and worship once a week.

… It’s because we hear sermons week after week laden with guilt-inducing messages about how wretched we are, how we need to read our bibles more, pray more, and yes, invite people to church more, and how if it weren’t for the unmerited mercy of God, we’d all be doomed to hell.

… It’s because we good and faithful church-goers, singing hymns about amazing grace and love, pour out of the building at noon every Sunday and head to our favorite buffet — and then gripe at the servers. And leave lousy tips.

… It’s because on that eventful Sunday when the guest we invite does show up, she hears about a Jesus who probably wouldn’t even be welcome in our building. The guy who talked about giving up our wealth, who talked about loving our enemy — and not just in some warm-fuzzy way, but in wallet-emptying ways: feeding and clothing the poor, caring for the homeless, visiting (helping!) the sick who can’t afford medical care. That guy, Jesus, would never be offered the pulpit. His gospel would be too demanding, and he would likely be quietly ushered out the back. Not a good candidate for our country-club Christian comfort zones.

People aren’t coming to church … because we good and faithful church-goers, singing hymns about amazing grace and love, pour out of the building at noon every Sunday and head to our favorite buffet — and then gripe at the servers. And leave lousy tips..

… It’s because all those good words read out of the Good Book bear little resemblance to the anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-immigrant political propaganda coming out of so many preachers doing their best to defend “traditional American values” instead of “Jesus values.”

And honestly, if a new person did walk through our doors, would they meet God in our eyes and arms, or are they just supposed to absorb God from the singing and prayers offered? “You won’t leave here like you came, in Jesus’ name.” Lord, I wish that were true.

So, stick that sign out by the side of the road; let’s invite someone to church this month. Not even this week – don’t knock yourself out. Just any ole time this month will be just fine. Let’s fill these pews. Pack this place. Cuz that’s what this world really needs.

Instead, why don’t we invite the church out to the world this month?

How about instead of focusing on church Sunday morning, we come out Saturday night to offer warm soup on the street corner to the hookers? Or to hand out McDonald’s gift cards to those guys living under the overpass so they can have a hot meal for once this month, instead of having to beg for change or dig through trash?  Or how about we go down to the gay strip, and instead of passing out tracts trying to get people saved, offer them free bottled water or BBQ sandwiches to cut the alcohol in their system so they can drive home safely? Or maybe even pull an extra $20 bill out of our Gucci wallets and Michael Kors bags to help finance that shelter for homeless youth?

Let’s set aside for the moment the suggestion that we actually volunteer at the county jail or state pen in some program to benefit the prisoners, or to go up to the hospital and just hold the hand of our fellow church member who’s alone and afraid. That’s too hard. (Hey, I don’t do that either — so I’m not just throwing stones at others here.) I won’t ask that we actually participate in that Soup Kitchen on a regular basis, as part of habitually walking out our Christian beliefs.

It’s hard enough getting people just to step out of their — our — self-absorbed lives long enough to smile at the cashier at Walmart. Oh sure, we’ll say “Have a blessed day,” but exercising just a bit of patience when that cashier is having a hard time with her register and making us wait in line too long — that’s just a bit too much effort.

Invite someone to church this month? No thanks. At least not until the church we’re inviting them to is actually doing something outside the building on days other than Sunday. Not until we who go week after week are actually being changed, transformed, by those good words. Not until we show that we actually care about the people around us, until a little light actually shines from us in this dark place we call urban America.

When churchianity becomes authentic Christianity, when we’re doing some legitimate Jesus-following, we won’t have to invite someone to a service this month. And we won’t need signs to remind us. People will be knocking on our doors wanting what we have.

But until we have it, please. Please. Don’t invite someone. We’ve got enough church-goers in this country already.

photo credit: Stephen Schmidt, cc

 

An Introvert’s Guide to Following Your Peace

coffee_alone

Today, another moral dilemma for an introvert. One of the guys in the company I work for put in his notice, and the managers want to do a “going away lunch” for him — today. Short notice. And it kinda freaks me out. I really don’t want to go. I hardly know the guy, I hate work-related social events, and especially without adequate time to mentally prepare myself. So, should I go or not?  “Should I.” That’s the operative phrase.

When chewing on this … and getting texts from a friend who also happens to want to do lunch today … I asked myself an odd question (it just popped in my head, so I ran with it): Which brings you greater peace?

Well, that’s obvious. Not going makes me feel all warm and comfy inside. LOL. Like I said, I hardly know they guy. I interact with him maybe once or twice a week, and he’s decent enough. But I hate these big “to do’s”, these group activities with people who are not really my friends. They’re just work-acquaintances — people I see almost daily but have little quality interaction with.  And at these lunches when we go out, we end up sitting at a group of tables, and really only the people sitting closest to guy will chat with him over their gourmet burgers and sweet-potato jalapeño fries.  So my being there would just be as another warm body filling a seat, a body count.  And frankly, I’ve got a long history here of not going to these things — company picnics, corporate junkets to Las Vegas and Disney World … and the office birthday gatherings in the breakroom, where I make an appearance, give my best wishes, and then make a quiet escape. Nobody is surprised that I’m not a company partier. And luckily for me, I’m not the only one. My officemate is the same way. So when the boss walks in and asks, “You guys coming?”, he already knows the answer.  “Just thought I’d ask,” he says as he walks towards the door.

Don’t think I don’t know how lame that sounds. You extroverts won’t get it at all. You’ll think I’m being antisocial, or worse, a snob. That I somehow think people aren’t good enough for me, not worth my time. But introverts get it. It’s not about me being better or worse than anyone else. It’s a lot of energy to expend with people I have little invested in. Is it worth the “cost” to me? Usually the answer is no.

So, if I “go with my peace,” the answer is clear. Works for me. And (hopefully) since my absence won’t be blatantly conspicuous — not likely to hurt the guy’s feelings — I’m okay with that.

But it also made me think of times when “going with my peace” can leads to the wrong decision — especially because I’m an introvert.

What about those times when other people are counting on me, or where it’s important to them? Yesterday, for example, I was all comfy at home, wearing sweats, ready to make dinner, and I get a call from my boyfriend. He’s on the other side of town doing his thing, and he’s gotta come back to the city center for a show he’s doing. But he left part of his costume at home. Could I bring it to him? Of course, I will. It’ll be a 40 minute round-trip for me, but I love him. I’m invested. Doing something for him is like doing it for myself. BUT, my “peace” would have preferred staying home, settling in. (Having people in your life can really mess with your peace sometimes. Just sayin’. 🙂 )

Okay, that one was obvious. We all do stuff like that, we all make little sacrifices for the ones we love. (And if you’re not, you might want to reconsider that. As God once whispered to me, “it’s the little acts of selfishness that destroy a relationship.”)

On a different level, when we run across someone in need — whether financial or emotional or … just needs help with something. Our first reaction — our “peace” — might be to decline.  It’ll be inconvenient. It’ll put us out a little. And human nature doesn’t like to be put out.  But, if we’re decent people, we override our “peace” and just do it. That’s called being a decent human being. That’s called “good”. That’s part of “love” in the broadest sense. So when my long-time bud is moving out of his house into another place and asks if I’ll help him move the big stuff … yeah, sure. That’s what friends do, right? — even if I may be groaning on the inside.

A friend of mine told me about something that happened to him when we were back in seminary. While I was immersed in my books and study groups and small circle of seminary friends, he was out doing speaking engagements. He even had an agent booking him at events. He was out “doing things.”  This one particular time, he was doing a week-long seminar/revival at a church in another state, and he was staying with a family from the church (a horrifying situation for an introvert; but in his case, no big deal. He’s a classic extrovert.) This family had agreed to host him, drive him around, feed him, and then get him back to the airport when the week’s services ended. On that last day, the man of the house suddenly “didn’t feel a peace” about driving him the hour to the airport, and my friend had to scramble to get a taxi to drive him. The guy disguised his own laziness in spiritual language — and armed with sloppy religious teaching that we should always “follow our peace,” he found a ready excuse. And my friend was left out in the cold to fend for himself. Nice.

To everybody except himself, that man’s behavior was reprehensible. Totally unchristian. Lacking common decency. But he followed his “peace” and I’m sure he had a comfortable Saturday morning. Maybe even managed to squeeze in 9 holes of golf.

When someone is counting on you, when it’s your time to step up, following your peace may not be the best option. That is, unless you know for absolute certain that God is leading you in a different direction. As people of faith, we must learn to be sensitive to our gut, to the promptings of the Spirit. Lives can depend on it. But that also means we have to be able to discern the difference between a “spiritual peace” — one guided by the Spirit’s leading — and a “selfish peace” — rooted only in our carnal laziness.

What about when we need to stretch for our own good? Back to my boyfriend. He’s an extrovert, and he’s heavily involved in social activities, for his job, for his vocation … for his quality of life. My default tendency (my “peace”) is to let him do his thing while I stay home doing my thing. But if I’m not careful, I could easily slip into the life of a recluse. I need sometimes to break out of my comfort zone and do things with him. It’s important to him, for me to share in his life, and it’s important for me, to be a part of his life as well as to broaden my exposure to new activities, new experiences, new people. Sometimes I need to say yes — because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s a good thing all around.

In those cases, my “peace” has to take the back seat. It’s uncomfortable for me to do those things — something Jake doesn’t really understand, but makes an effort to accept about me anyway. They take a real toll on me, and I often need time afterwards to recover, re-energize, find my balance again.  But almost always, afterwards, I’m glad I did them. They enriched me. They added to my life. And that’s worth a little discomfort and inconvenience now and then.

It’s all a matter of discerning the difference, knowing when your peace is spiritually guided and when it’s just based in physical or emotional comfort. We gotta know the difference: Is this God telling me not to do that, or is it just me?  And if it isn’t God, then it becomes about priorities. Is helping someone out worth losing a little “peace” over? Is doing good, doing the right thing, acting in love, worth the sacrifice of a little comfort? Most times, yes.

I’m an introvert. And I have shy tendencies on top of that. It’s a horrible combination sometimes. But most times, I can tell when it’s just me not wanting to be stretched or inconvenienced, and when that lack of peace is legitimate divine guidance. You know what I mean: like when you’re thinking about buying a new car, and you’re wrestling inside about it. Tapping into which answer gives you peace can be a good indicator of what’s right for you. Or if you’re choosing between jobs (as I did), that sense of peace showed me which one. Or when we’re considering whether we should date someone, or get into a relationship with them. Your spiritual sensitivity can be crucial.  But honestly, in most everyday cases, that “sense of peace” for me is more often just my own personal preference: Do I want to do this or not?

I admit, I do tend to “follow my peace” in most things. When the outcome isn’t important. When people aren’t relying on me. When it’s not a matter of love or simple goodness. And when it isn’t a potential growth opportunity.  That’s how I stay balanced, now I stay sane.  But I also know that if I give in to my natural tendency toward “peacefulness” too often, I’ll miss out. Life will pass me by while I’m comfy on my couch watching Netflix.  Cuz life and personal growth happen mostly outside our comfort zones.

For me, barring a sense of input from the Spirit, when I recognize that the “peace” is more about my own natural inclinations, I have to weigh the cost versus the benefit. And as a general rule, if it involves helping someone, the expenditure of energy is worthwhile. Other times … ya know, God gave us wide latitude in deciding things for ourselves.

And this company farewell lunch … yeah, I think I’ll pass. This time. I’ve got a lot going on right now and really don’t need that extra stress this afternoon. Would Jesus go? Sure. But then, Jesus loved parties. Me? I get more restorative peace from a quiet cup of tea — with or without friends.

 

photo credit: Kristel Jax via Flickr, cc.

 

Growing Beyond the Formulas

formulas1aI just saw a cute meme on Facebook. Sounds almost like the beginning of a joke, right? But I really liked it. It was tasteful, unlike so many of the religious-themed ones. It had a message I liked.  And it was simple. But … It was also simplistic.

As far as memes go, this one was probably as true as any of them. General encouragement, general principle, general instruction. Generally helpful.

But the problem is that it was just that: general and simplistic. It could not address my specific situation. It reduced a complex and free-flowing relationship with God and our circumstances into a formula. And God is bigger than that. And so are we. And so is life.

I do believe that God intervenes in our lives in powerful ways. But I also know there are times when it feels like he’s left us hanging out to dry. Like he doesn’t see our problems. Like he is ignoring us, and we’re in it all alone.

I don’t think he’s doing that at all, but sometimes it sure feels that way.

And the thing is, sometimes it is absolutely the right thing for us to be going through: the trouble, the hard times, the rough circumstances.  Diamonds aren’t polished by speaking nicely to them or setting them in red velvet. They’re polished by grinding, by cutting. And if you don’t think God wants to add a little polish to your life, well, then what is he involved in your life for?

What little I know about God, I’ve learned from the bible and interpreted through the lens of life experience. Theology isn’t theology until it’s lived out.  And ya know? When you begin opening yourself up to God, when you lift your eyes off the immediate circumstances, and you focus your thoughts and your praise on the One who sits above it all, holding it all in his hands … sometimes that power enters your life in dramatic ways. And sometimes it just lifts your spirits so you can plow through those circumstances.

formulas3In those moments, by all means, hold on to the general truths – of God never leaving you, of his great and loving plans for your life, of the certainty that he will ultimately work things out for your good.

But trying to force a specific outcome by quoting a promise given to someone else in Scripture and may not be applicable to you or your situation at all, just confirms that you’re trying to operate outside your own personal relationship with God.

From Abraham waiting years for the promised son, to Joseph sitting in Pharaoh’s prison, to Moses tending goats on a mountain, to David waiting 15 years for his rightful throne, to Elijah running away to a holy mountain because he heard bad rumors, to Paul spending years in the wilderness and then more years as a disciple before really being ready for his apostolic call – it all depends on who you are and where you are in your journey.  It takes time. It takes a little suffering. It takes experience. It takes a little maturity – born only from that experience.

Dropping 10% into the offering plate and claiming your multi-fold return may or may not trigger a spiritual tidal wave that washes away your debts.  Quoting healing scriptures and trying to lay hold of your atonement-rights doesn’t always bring the healing you’re looking for. Claiming your authority as joint-heirs with Jesus, and the fact that you sit “in him” at the right hand of the Father, may or may not bring the change to your job, your relationship, your health, … your situation … that you’re trying to “manifest.”

formulas2aGod doesn’t listen to formulas. God cannot be manipulated. “Where were you when the foundations of the earth were laid?” Do you think you can make God perform by quoting his own words back at him, or by stroking his ego? He is not a genie, he is not a coke-machine. You don’t plug in your quarters and get your selection.

He is a person. He responds and reacts in relationship. And sometimes, because he is in relationship with you, he will lead your through tough times. He will allow you to sit in a dungeon cell for a while. He may leave your “thorn in the flesh” in place. Why? Because it’s good for you. Because a spoiled child is of no use to anyone.

That doesn’t mean God doesn’t care. Or that he is indifferent to your suffering. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want you to be blessed. Perhaps he wants to expand your understand of what “blessing” is – and what it means to be a blessing to others.  (Ever gotten unwanted advice from someone who’s had an easy life? Yeah. You gotta earn your cred.)

I believe in God’s power. I believe God wants us to be happy. I believe he put us on the planet to enjoy our lives – hey, he put Adam and Eve in a garden – AND to be a benefit to others. I believe God does work out all things for our ultimate good. And I believe God wants a one-on-one, intimate friendship with each and every human being – and that includes you, even while you’re going through the muck.

By all means, do your part. Give up part of your pay check for the good of others. Lend a helpful hand to your neighbor. Plant seeds of peace and acceptance; be nice to each other. Lift your voices to the heavens and thank the One who holds the Universe together. Memorize scripture. Recite it to yourself to strengthen yourself, to remind you of who He is and who you are. Especially when you’re going through periods when none of it seems to matter.

You matter. And He is interested in walking through life with you, helping you become the person you were designed to be. And that doesn’t happen by working spiritual formulas or reciting isolated verses as though they were magic incantations. The Word of God is what the Spirit is speaking to you at the moment, specific to where you are right now. And you can’t manipulate that.

Our spirituality, our maturity, has to grow beyond the formulas. Beyond the clichés. Beyond the biblical sound-bites. Learn who He is, who you are, and how you two work together. That kind of spirituality will rock this world.

 

The Sacrament of Cooking Bacon

frying_bacon

 

Growing up as a Protestant, I had an inherent distaste for ritual. Liturgy, routines and orders of worship (even though every church has one) … were all equated with “religion,” the imitation of true relationship with God. “Religion = Death” was a mental slogan, even if the words never quite formed that way in our minds.  Even habits. You hardly ever heard about “good habits.” Mostly, habits were referenced in the context of sinful things we did, that our “flesh” compelled us to do. Habits that needed to be broken. The genuinely spiritual person was free — free from form, free from ritual, free from habits.

And surely, those poor Catholics who “mindlessly” recited the rosary were missing out on a real connection with God. And all that incense waving and candle lighting … all imitations of spirit. Cheap substitutes that were empty of meaning and devoid of power.

Of course that’s not true. It was just the fuzzy logic floating through my head as a Protestant kid who probably thought too much about incidental things. I had no appreciation for the sacramental, no understanding of the connectedness between things of the world and things of the spirit, how one can help enrich the other.

Now, witnessing the “multi-tasking,” “spontaneous” activity of so many of my friends — myself included — as we flip between phone apps, texting, snap-chatting, tweeting, clicking photos to share on Instagram … all that freedom. And is it really freeing us, or just making us prisoners of the immediate? With our 1500 friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter, do we even know who we are anymore? Are we even in touch with ourselves?

mind full - mindfulYears ago, when we thought about our elders growing senile, we used to say that they’re reliving fond memories, that it’s okay that they don’t remember our names or faces: they’re in happier times.  Recently the thought occurred to me: am I even making memories to relive? I’m so busy jumping between projects, between shows on Netflix, between apps and games and programs. What would I be “reliving” when I’m 85 and have lost my mind? “Oh yes, those golden days. I remember this one tweet …”

This struck me more powerfully the other day when I was frying up some bacon. I’d finally learned how to do it right, without smoking up the whole house or covering the stove top (or the inside of the oven) with bacon grease. It’s a bit of a slow process, frying up 2 pounds of bacon (I cook up a batch and store it in the freezer for quick snacking), and I caught myself going from stovetop to laptop: flip the bacon, check Facebook. Add another slice to the skillet, post another comment online. And I stopped myself.

I was missing out on something. The simple joy of the experience. The sensuous sizzle of the bacon in the pan. The smell of the smoked meat as it crisped up, filling my nose with that hardwood saltiness that makes the mouth water. The heat from the rapidly accumulating grease as I added more slices to the pan. The changing color of the meat as it cooked. The popping of randomly splattering grease. Sights. Sounds. Smells. Sensations. And I forced myself to stand there and just take it all in. Facebook can wait. This is living in the now.

This! This is wonderful. Bacon is wonderful. It’s a gift from God (apologies to my Jewish and Muslim friends). Let me just enjoy the full experience, this moment of grace that is doing something unexplainable to my soul.  I’m smiling. I feel good. I’m looking forward to munching on ALL these delectable slices of heaven piling up on the plate next to the stove. This is a memory I might enjoy reliving in my twilight years. Even if not, it’s doing something to me now.

It was an exercise in “mindfulness,” of being present. Of dismissing the distractions, and the A.D.D.-driven activities. It was a sacrament, an instrument of receiving divine grace.

Over-stimulation is killing our souls.

There is a place for ritual in our lives. There’s a need for it. Familiar routines fire “comfort” sensations in our brain. Our thinking slows. Our nerves unravel. We become calm, peaceful. And in those moments, more receptive to the world around us. More in tune. Whether it’s a morning run outdoors, a late-night workout, or quiet times of prayer and meditation, routine grounds us, makes us stable. It makes us happy.

We need to slow down a bit. Maybe buy a French press, and make your morning coffee a drawn-out ritual. Even if just on the weekends. Make tea, in a pot. Let it steep a few minutes before your drink it. Sip it with both hands. Taste it. Really taste it. Experience it.  Cook more; eat out less. Allow yourself the luxury of chopping vegetables, of making a salad with multiple ingredients, of grilling a steak. Bumping into your partner as you both maneuver the kitchen. I even started making a cake on Friday evening, just to help slow down, as I mix the ingredients and wait for the oven to preheat. Doing something with my hands since I work all week with my brain. And a Sabbath! We should all get back to the habit of taking one day a week where we just relax, where we hang out at home or do simple errands… to unwind. Refresh. Or just sit on the patio for an hour with a book.

We need to build moments back into our lives where we can receive grace. That life-restoring energy, reconnecting us here and now.

cafe_au_laitWe need to cultivate rituals — things to make us pause for a moment and just appreciate what is right in front of us. Even if it’s the simple delight of pouring real cream into your French-roast coffee and watching the color change. Or holding your favorite mug in your hands. Buy yourself some wind chimes, and occasionally turn off the TV just to listen to them for a few moments.

Like God on the first day of creation, impose some order and peace on the chaos that our lives have become.

We Protestants have missed out on this aspect of worship, of reverent living. We don’t do rosaries. We don’t recite prayers. We haven’t built mechanisms into our lives that allow us to slow down, to relax the brain and the rampant rapids of our thoughts. To find stillness. Even our Sabbaths are hectic. Maybe the simple act of lighting a candle can help reconnect our faith that our prayers are ever-ascending before the Throne of God. We are human, and we need tangible objects, simple acts, to help focus our thoughts, our prayers, and our lives.

I’m not about to sell my 50″ flatscreen. I’m not going to cancel my subscription to Netflix. But I’m enjoying the tactile sensations of cooking again, the simple pleasure of my favorite red coffee cups, the random music of the chimes outside my living room doors. I jealously guard my Saturdays, when I (mostly) ignore my phone, and take my dogs to the park. Or my Sunday afternoons, after the hub-bub of church, when I can grab some quiet time on my patio with a book. I need those slow-down moments. You do too. Being quiet. Being present. Being in the moment, in the now. And receiving a touch of grace. Even when it’s just cooking up some bacon.

 

photo credit: I Believe I Can Fry, via Flickr, cc.
“Cafe au lait,” NukelarBurrito, via Flickr, cc

now_feature

Now is the Time of Your Breakthrough. Or Maybe Not.

 

now_feature

“God has a plan. God is working his plan. God’s plan includes you.”  Those were words printed in bold letters on a sign hung above the pulpit in a church I used to go to in Tulsa. The pastor wanted her people to know that their lives were not just stuck in the mud, that God was doing something in them and through them. God was working.

We all need that hope. We all need that reassurance that we’re part of something bigger, that our lives have significance and purpose. Or at least, many of us do. I do. And every once in a while we need someone to remind us that we’re on track.  That’s where encouragers come into play – I mean legitimate encouragers, those sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings who can offer words directly from God to those of us going through moments of self-doubt. I do not mean those false “prophets” who post memes on social media about “Now is the time of your breakthrough …” or “This is your year. This year God will bring all your dreams and plans to success.”

now2
general words of encouragement are great …

God does have a plan, and God does want your dreams to come true. He planted them in you, in your DNA, even before you were born. They are woven into the fabric of who you are. They’re not selfish, they’re part of the bigger picture, a piece in the cosmic puzzle, and without you fulfilling those dreams, that larger picture will never be complete.

But that does not at all mean that “now” is the time.

And while we all need general words of encouragement to “press on” from time to time, other well-meaning but misguided words claiming divine authority can do more damage than if they were never spoken at all. False prophets are dangerous. They can lead you down the wrong path or prompt you to do something way before the right time. And a good thing or even a well-meaning act at the wrong time can become a very, very wrong thing.

A couple examples …

Let me throw a couple of bible examples at you.

now1
… specific “prophetic” words broadcast to the public, not so much …

Anybody hanging out in a Word-based church in past few decades has probably heard sermons on Abraham “Ishmael-ing it”.  God tells old Abe that he will have a son, and makes some stunning promises about how his descendants would affect the course of history. Abe is thrilled, of course, but he is also 75 years old. He waits for it to happen, but after a number of years of waiting for his wife to become pregnant, he thinks “now is the time” and gets the bright idea to have a child with his wife’s slave instead. Ishmael is born. There are some family complications, and Abe finally has to send Ishmael and his mother away. He missed it. And the son he was promised finally came when he was 99 years old – almost 25 years after the promise.

Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph has a divine dream, two of them in fact, that he would be a great leader of his people. He’s a hot-headed, spoiled little punk, and rubs his brothers’ noses in it. They end up selling him into slavery, and he ends up in an Egyptian prison for several years. Ultimately, all that works out to make him a well-equipped leader when he finally is appointed Prime Minister of Egypt … about 15 years after the inspired dreams.

And we all know the story of “The Ten Commandments.” Who hasn’t seen the movie? Moses is the chosen deliverer of the Israelites suffering in slavery in Egypt. At the age of 40 he decides “now is the time,” and ends up murdering an Egyptian man who was abusing a fellow Israelite. And then has to flee Egypt to escape justice. He ends up tending goats and sheep for the next 40 years before God finally calls him through a burning bush.

The New Testament opens with stories about this exotic character, John the Baptist. He has a miraculous birth, born to elderly, barren parents, complete with angelic visitations and prophesy. He was called and destined to be the forerunner of the great Deliverer of Israel, yet he ends up living in the wilderness, wearing shabby clothes eating bugs. Then one day, “the word of God came to him while he was in the wilderness.” “Now is the time,” and he began his famous preaching.  But he had to wait, to live his life, until that time came. He had to wait until the authentic “word from God” said “go.”

Even Jesus – now there was some miraculous birth scenes. Immaculate conception, Holy Spirit impregnation, angelic proclamations – that whole scene from “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” where Linus quotes from the gospel of Luke: “… and there in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid …”  Yet even Jesus did not begin his ministry until he was baptized by John and the Spirit descended upon him, empowering and affirming him: “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased…” Only then does Jesus’ miraculous ministry begin.

The bottom line

The button line is that just because God has a plan, just because he’s given you dreams, does not mean that those dreams start now. You may not be ready yet. In each of the biblical examples just mentioned, there was a time of preparation.  The gospel writers say of both John and Jesus that they “grew in wisdom and in stature, in favor with God and with men.”  That is, they had some growing up to do. They weren’t ready to launch out into God’s promised plan or into their dream vocation right way. It took years before they were ready. And they had to wait for the divine green light: “now is the time.”  But that green light was legitimately divine, not just some positive word spoken by a feel-good, encouraging “prophet.”

God made some astounding promises to Abraham about his descendants, the nations of Israel and Ishmael. But they didn’t happen overnight. In fact, at one point, the nation was conquered by the Babylonians, and many of the people were yanked out of their homeland and taken into captivity to Babylon. They had their prophets claiming that God was about to rescue them and restore everything to its proper place.  But they lied. They were well-meaning, but they were wrong. And Jeremiah, a legit prophet of God, had this to say to them: “Settle in. Increase, grow. It’s gonna be a while, but I have plans for you …”

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD.

This is what the LORD says: “When 70 years are completed in Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise … For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future…”  (Jeremiah 29:4-12)

We all love to quote that last verse: “I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD…” But we almost always quote it out of context. The verse right before it says “When 70 years in Babylon are completed …”  There is a necessary period of development, of preparation and growth. There is a timetable for your dream, for God’s plan.  But “Now” may not be that time.

now3So when you hear the so-called prophets and diviners making these warm and happy claims that “this is the year of God’s favor for you, now is the time for you to step into your call and to fulfill your dream…,” take note. Listen inside yourself for the genuine voice of God. Is now really the time, or are you still in the prep stages – like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus?

Don’t get frustrated. Don’t become impatient. Don’t lose hope.

There will be a time when you get the green light from God, when the “word from God” will come to you in your wilderness. That will be the time to launch.  God does have a plan. God is working his plan. And God’s plan does include you. Your job in the meantime is to prepare, to learn, to grow in wisdom and in stature, in favor with God and men – to get ready for the right time. To wait for the appointed time.

“Now” may – or may not – be the time.  Discern for yourself. Wait for your own specific word. Don’t jump the gun – or you might just end up wandering around a mountain tending goats for 40 years.

photo credit: “High Fly,” Abhinay Omkar via Flickr, cc.

This post originally appeared in IMPACT Magazine.