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

The Sabbath is Your Day. Enjoy It!

shabbat
Shabbat Shalom, y’all

I grew up hating Sundays. (My poor mom is probably feeling all guilty about that now. Sorry, mom.)

Sunday was church day. It was “the Lord’s Day”, and we were supposed to honor God by getting dressed up, sitting through tedious (to me) sermons, singing some dreary songs, spending the afternoon quietly resting (impossible for us kids), and then enduring another church service in the evening. And, seemingly all too often, the day ended with an after-service scolding for bad behavior during church. I couldn’t wait for Monday to roll around again.

Somehow we got the impression that Sunday was reserved for somber activity. It was not to be profaned. It even had one of the big 10 Commandments protecting it. It wasn’t until I got to spend a lot of time with Jewish friends that I discovered the heart of the Sabbath.

Okay, first, let’s dispense with the academics. Yeah, Sunday is not technically the Sabbath. Saturday is. So, can we Christians get off our high horse about protecting the “holy day” considering we’ve even got the wrong day? And “the Lord’s Day” does not mean the day belongs to the Lord — everyday belongs to the Lord. That term came into use during the earliest days of the Church to commemorate the day Jesus was resurrected, and mostly among Gentile believers. Jesus’ first disciples were all Jewish, and they continued celebrating the Sabbath on Saturday like Jesus had done.

Honestly, though, I don’t think God is terribly concerned about the correctness of the day. He is more concerned that we honor its purpose and intent. That we take a much-needed break from doing our normally scheduled routine, that “sweat of the brow” stuff, and use the day to re-energize, relax, enjoy some peace, get back in touch with real priorities in life, and even renew our connection with him. It’s a day when we’re not preoccupied with everyday chores and concerns. So, with that in mind, here’s a little gift of liberty to my hard-working friends: if you can’t take off work every Sunday (or Saturday), use whatever day you do have off as your Sabbath. Going to church or temple is not a requirement of the day; it’s just a perk.

And here’s another key distinction: the Sabbath is for “celebrating”, not sitting around, “quietly resting” as though we were in mourning. My Jewish friends would gather for a huge Friday night dinner (Shabbat begins sundown Friday and ends sundown Saturday). Fresh flowers would be on the table. Candles would be lit. There’d be prayer, thanking God for the food and for the gift of the Sabbath, recognizing how he sanctified it, setting it apart, for special use. And then there’d be wine, and good food, laughter, talking, enjoying each other’s company, and maybe even dancing. We “honored” the Sabbath by celebrating it as a holiday. So much so, in fact, that it’s tradition to eat three festive meals during the day. It is a gift from God for our enjoyment. As Jesus himself reminded us, “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27).

Sure, there are some restrictions on the day. That’s part of its purpose. My religiously observant friends wouldn’t drive on the Sabbath. They wouldn’t cook — that’s work, so all meal preparations were done the day before so we could just enjoy the day. Some of them wouldn’t watch TV or carry things. As a Christian embracing liberty as my spiritual right, I sometimes found some of their personal choices a bit over the top, but that was their way of ensuring they reaped the full benefit of the peace of the day. “Shabbat Shalom”, the blessing spoken to each other, is a hope and a prayer that we would find sufficient grace and peace to restore us and equip us for the coming week. And that, I firmly believe, is what is in the heart of God when he instructed us to “keep the Sabbath”.

It’s not about being quiet. It’s not about whether you watch football on TV or go to the movies on this holy day. And (sorry, Pastor), it’s not even about whether you make it to church or synagogue. It’s about taking time off to gather together, enjoy each other, and enjoy God in our company (that’s where church fellowship can be a special blessing). It’s about recognizing this amazing gift of grace given to us — a day every week when we can shift gears, slow down, reconnect, and celebrate life. God planned it that way from the beginning. And not just for my Jewish friends. For all of us — it was given to Adam and Eve before there was any such thing as Jew or non-Jew. It’s our birthright as humans, for anyone who will receive it as part of God’s design for us.

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath, … if you call the Sabbath a delight, and the LORD’s holy day honorable, … then you will find your joy in the LORD …”, the prophet Isaiah tells us (Isa 58:13-14).

It’s about joy. It’s about rest and reconnecting. It’s a celebration of life. The Sabbath is a “delight”! And we should treat as such.

So … Shabbat Shalom, everybody. May whatever day you choose as your Sabbath be one of joy and refreshment, family and friends, good food and fellowship. It’s your inheritance from God. Enjoy it.

An Ox on the Sabbath

Compassion trumps correctness.
Relationship is more important than being right.

Over the past few weeks, my brother and I have been having a lengthy theological discussion over a point of Scripture.  Both of us see our stance as reflecting the heart of God, both see our point as being crucial to the future of people’s lives and immortal souls, and both of us seem committed to our respective sides of the truth.  (Hmm, could it be that we’re both right?)  I won’t prejudice the discussion by elaborating on it here since it is still ongoing, and although it is unlikely, knowing our personalities, that we’ll reach a point of agreement, what is remarkable to me is the willingness on both our parts to even have this dialogue. 

I respect my brother.  He is an honest man, one who seeks after God’s will, and as far as I can tell, he is a commendable husband and father and a successful businessman.  More important than all of that, I love him.  If we never see eye to eye on this particular “crucial” issue, I hope it never becomes a wedge in our relationship.  Oh, that this were how I felt about other people in my life with whom I have serious disagreements!

In the Bible, after hanging around Jesus for a while and slowly learning what is important to his master’s heart, Peter begins feeling a bit proud of himself, a bit holy.  He’s made strides in his spiritual life, he’s in tight with God’s appointed Messiah, and has been promised a prominent position in judging the tribes of Israel in the coming kingdom.  At one of those confident moments he asks Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Mt 18:22).

We’ve all had these thoughts.  Usually over some matter of personal offense: a common source of disharmony between close people, and a poisoner of relationships.  Peter probably thinks he’s going over the top with his generous offer. Seven times!  (Jewish tradition at that time suggested that one ought to forgive an offense up to the fourth time — that is, forgive three times, but the fourth offense has crossed the line — so Peter’s offer is twice the going rate.)  Jesus’ answer shocks everyone and puts Peter’s generosity to shame.  “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”  Even today, we devoted believers find this number hard to swallow.

But along with the point that we shouldn’t be counting offenses and should forgive as many times as we’d like to be forgiven ourselves, Jesus illustrates the point that we should never let our disagreements, our offenses (no matter who is right), be cause for breaking fellowship. We’re to put up with each other’s faults, bearing in mind that we’ve got plenty of our own — that whole “don’t try to remove the speck from your brother’s eye when you have a log sticking out of yours” thing.  The relational bonds between people are more important than being right, or getting our just deserves.  Everyone needs forgiveness, everyone needs compassion.  We’ll never reach perfection in this lifetime, so we’re going to need as much forgiveness and compassion as we can get.

This is a spiritual law higher, and more important, than other laws we seem to become preoccupied with.  It is too easy for us to focus on our differences, to see what is clearly wrong with someone else.  It is too easy to hold grudges, to cut that person off, to dismiss them from our lives, or to surrender to the position of “irreconcilable differences” over matters that are in reality insignificant.  We focus on the trivial; we love the letter of the law.  We love to critique each other, and show how the other is falling far short of the standard.  This is our basic instinct, our flawed human nature.  But, borrowing an image from common life in ancient Palestine, if an ox falls into a pit on the Sabbath, isn’t it better to break the law forbidding work on that holy day, and save the poor beast out of simple human compassion?   The law of love, the principle of compassion, the bonds of relationship, override other considerations.  It makes all other disputes insignificant in comparison. 

What does this mean in real life?  Where does the rubber meet the road?  Whether it’s some major doctrinal disagreement between brothers, or a deep, grievous personal offense among co-workers at the office, disharmony is the greater evil.  Letting the offense fester and become a bitter source of division is a bigger wrong.  In the long run — and I believe, in God’s eyes — who is right is less important than preserving fellowship.  Being correct is less important than dealing compassionately with one another.  After all, God’s presence, his power, and his love are displayed most clearly when people united by a more powerful bond are gathered together.  And isn’t that a better thing than being right?