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Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

The Liturgy Train

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Most of the time, I can tell you why I do what I do.  I’m self-aware like that.

I floss my teeth because I was once read the riot act by my dental hygienist and decided that daily flossing was easier to face than her wrath.  (Also, I’d like to avoid gingivitis.)  I drink Coke (not milk) with chocolate chip cookies because I enjoy the acidic zing of a soda against the buttery richness of the cookie.  I drive in the passing lane most of the way to work because I eventually exit on the left.  I don’t wear big earrings because I don’t want to have saggy earlobes when I’m old.   See?

But prior to last weekend I wonder why I would have said that I go to church.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’d have had a reason.  It would have been rambling and circuitous.  It would have included mentions of my faith, the benefits of the church community, and habits established during childhood.  And, if I’m being completely frank, it probably would have been largely uncompelling.  It’s a little embarrassing to think about, actually.  I’ve been going to church more or less weekly for 34 years and didn’t know why?  How is that possible?  For a smart and thoughtful person (if I do say so myself!) that really shouldn’t be the case.

It’s not that my rambling and circuitous answer would have been false.  I do try to keep a strong faith.  I do believe that for me (and probably for most people) faith experienced via community is stronger than faith experienced alone.  And we did go to church weekly when I was a kid and that ritual is a big part of my life.  But those reasons pale in comparison to the big one.  And I didn’t entirely understand the big one until this past weekend.

I’m actually surprised I absorbed it.  We were running late (normal), and I’d rushed to drop SSP off in the nursery while GAP dropped IEP off at Sunday School.  I’d missed the processional hymn, the acclamation, the opening collect, the Gloria in excelsis, the first scripture lesson, and half of the psalter reading.*  (Okay, we’re not usually that late).  So I wasn’t exactly in a peaceful and contemplative state when the sermon started.  But somehow the priest’s words managed to cut through the din of my busy mind.

He talked about the Holy Spirit (a slippery subject even for the most confident of Christians).  The Holy Spirit helps us talk to God, he said.  And the Holy Spirit is present in the liturgy and the liturgy is our path.  The liturgy is the set of footprints that shows us where Christians have been before.  It tells us where to go and what to do.  Get on the train of the liturgy, he said, and it will carry you.

And all of a sudden, sitting in the sanctuary, I got it:  This is why I come to church.  Sometimes I can’t get to God on my own.  I need the liturgy to carry me.

Many of us can’t always get there on our own.  We need the church, the service, and the liturgy to show us the path and usher us down it.  I need the structure, the guideposts, the emergency footpath lighting that shows me where to go if the power of my faith fails.  Is it a crutch?  Maybe.  Probably.  But does that matter?  I don’t think so.  I want very much to feed my faith and make it strong.  I fear, much of the time, that I don’t.  I worry that my doubts about large swaths of Christian doctrine make me a wobbly Christian.  Or, perhaps more frighteningly, a really good person who isn’t a Christian at all.

And I think this is why I go to church.  It is why I don’t like skipping church two weeks in a row and get antsy if I haven’t been in a while.  It’s why even through college and those tenuous early adulthood years I’ve always gone to church.  I don’t want to be far from God, but without the liturgy that’s where I seem to end up.

Our priest told  a story of someone in government (I don’t recall whom) who had prior involvement in diplomatic negotiations of some sort.  She said that 90% of the work is getting both sides to the table to talk.  That is the hard part.  Once you get everyone to the table, the rest of it is relatively straightforward.  And while I think that his analogy oversimplifies matters quite a bit, I get his point.

When I show up to church I’m there for a conversation with God.  I’ve carved out time and mental space to make my faith a part of my life.  Once I’m there, I have only to climb aboard the liturgy train and let it carry me the rest of the way.

*Granddaddy, please don’t judge me!

The Dominion of Sin

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

If you’ve made it past the title then bully for you.  Sin is a messy topic, full of disagreements and contradictions and diametrically opposed perspectives.  In short, it’s not the type of thing I’d usually address in this forum.  But last Sunday as I sat in church and listened to the sermon the priest said something that caught my attention:

The dominion of sin isn’t the act, it’s the ego.  It’s the wanting to be first.

He conceded that murder and adultery and all of the despicable acts we associate with sin are indeed horrific examples of it.  But he posited that the sin starts much earlier.  The sin begins when a person places himself above other people.  I was fascinated because this had never occurred to me.

I started thinking about sins of all stripes and as I thought through the list of some more garden variety sins I was amazed at how well the priest’s position held up.

  • If I am a bully it is because I care more about feeling big than I do about whether or not you feel scared or threatened.
  • If I am materialistic it is because I care more about presenting a certain image than I do about being a certain kind of person.
  • If I am judgmental it is because I care more about finding myself superior than I do about exhibiting compassion or tolerance.
  • If I am selfish it is because I care more about myself than I do about the people affected by me.

I’m sure the list is endless.

And as I thought through these various sins, some of which I myself am guilty, I was struck by one thing.  Putting yourself first in all of these situations is almost always a byproduct of insecurity.  Put another way, not sinning requires and incredible amount of confidence.

When I feel confident in myself I don’t need to bully.  I don’t need appearances to feel good about myself.  I don’t need to make snide remarks about other people to inflate my own sense of self.  And I don’t want to put myself first if I know that it will negatively affect another person.  When I feel confident I am more patient, forgiving, substantive, and empathic.

The rub here?  Confidence is a hugely difficult thing to develop.  It takes years of cultivation.  Each person requires a different concert of people and experiences and reactions for its care and feeding.  But like a house of cards, it can collapse in an instant.

Yet churches do precious little to cultivate our confidence in ourselves.  As Christians we are taught to have confidence in God; confidence in His omnipotence and benevolence; confidence in His love and forgiveness; confidence in Him to guide us and save us.  And I know that this kind of confidence in God can also lead us to lives of less sin.  (I don’t believe anyone lives a sinless life.)  But I wonder if churches aren’t missing the boat a bit.  Would more sin be eliminated if people had confidence in themselves?  And further still, if more sin is eliminated by fostering confidence in oneself than in God which approach should churches take?  Should it be their chief end to cultivate Christian belief throughout the world or to end sin in the world?

I’ve gone a bit far afield here.  Clearly purpose of faith and the purpose of a church is an enormous topic that I actually do have the good sense not to opine about here.  (Nevertheless, it’s an interesting question, isn’t it?)

The dominion of sin isn’t the act, it’s the ego.  But the great irony here is that it’s when my ego is healthy that my sins are fewer.


Lenten Love Letters*

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

I’ll go ahead and say it:  I’m religious.

Now don’t go painting me with your Pat Robertson brush.  I’m not that kind of religious.  Just because I’m religious doesn’t mean I think you should be too.

But my faith is something that matters a great deal to me.  It always has.  I have attended church weekly (for the most part) during every stage of my life – childhood, college, 20-something singleton, newlywed, and today.  (Also, in case you were wondering, no, I don’t believe that regular church attendance is the only way to have an active faith life.  But that’s a topic for another day.)  I frequently fail at my faith.  I sin every day.  I drift from God periodically.  There are times when my faith is more at the periphery than the center of my life.  But it is always there.

I say all this because today is Ash Wednesday.  Today begins the 40-day journey of Lent that marks Jesus’ period of wandering in the wilderness and leading up to His crucifixion.  Within some Christian denominations (Catholic, particularly) it is common practice to give up something for Lent.  As a nod to Christ’s suffering, we forego something that provides us pleasure or comfort so that we may be reminded of said suffering on a daily basis.

As a child I was Presbyterian (to some extent I still am) and Lenten sacrifice was not a part of my upbringing.  When I began attending Catholic prep school in junior high I became more familiar with the practice.  And having had many Catholic friends over the years I’ve become well acquainted with the tradition of Lenten sacrifice.

Here’s my problem with it.  At least as I have seen it practiced, it tends to be more about the technicalities and not so much about Christ.  People give up chocolate candy but still eat chocolate chip cookies because when hidden inside the cookie the chips “don’t count” as candy.  Or they give up cheese except on Sundays because technically Sundays are God’s day and aren’t part of Lent.  Or they give up meat on Fridays (a tradition derived from Middle Eastern fishing cultures where meat was considered a luxury) and instead (ironically) go out for lobster tail or Alaskan halibut topped with a port wine demi glace.  Or, they stick with their chosen sacrifice for a few days, fall off the wagon, and then blow off the rest of the season altogether.

And I’m not quite sure what any of that accomplishes.  For me to go 40 days without sweets would make me cranky, unpleasant, and more focused on planning an Easter menu geared toward saying “stick it!” to Lent than on really observing Christ.  This prospect leaves me cold.  Today, as an Episcopalian (the halfway point between my Presbyterian upbringing and my husband’s Catholic one), I am inclined to bring the observance of Lent into my daily life, but uninspired by the mere eradication of vices.

[Sidebar: If you are an observer of Lenten sacrifice and feel that 40 days without alcohol or red meat really does bring you closer to God, then more power to you.  I certainly don’t mean to insult.  And I’ll be the first to admit that what doesn’t work for one person may be quite successful for someone else.]

There is an alternative, though.  That alternative is to do the opposite.  Rather than take something out of your life to mimic suffering, you add something to your life.  Perhaps you might carve out more prayer time.  Or volunteer at a homeless shelter.  Or become involved with a charity.  It is this path which I will travel for Lent this year.

I will write letters.  Real letters.  I will write and mail one each day of Lent.  This means that 40 people will hear from me in the next 40 days.  They will open their mailboxes to find something unexpected, and hopefully something which will make them happy.  I have been quite blessed with a life filled with wonderful people – family, friends, and colleagues – and far too rarely do I reach out to many of these people to fan the flames that keep a relationship burning.  There is a lot of love in my life, and I would do well to acknowledge it and to express my own love in return.

To be sure, like so many aspects of my faith, I will fail at this too.  There will be days when I forget to write.  Or days when I run out of stamps.  But one thing I will commit to is bouncing back from those failures, rather than allowing them to sabotage my Lenten observance altogether.  Because if there’s one thing that the Christian faith offers, it’s forgiveness.  And if there’s a second thing, it’s redemption.

*Large portions of this post were originally published in February 2010.  Those paragraphs which are reproduced here are as true today as they were two years ago.  My actual Lenten observance plans have been updated to reflect my intentions for 2012.

Not for Everyone

Monday, February 13th, 2012

This past weekend IEP was sick.  Triple-digit fever Friday night.  Phlegmy cough.  Runny nose.  A walking, talking (and yet still adorable) germ.  Lovely.  Needless to say, we operated on an abridged schedule.  To that end, we skipped church yesterday morning so that IEP wouldn’t infect the other kids at Sunday School and while the boys hung out at home I was able to squeeze in an extra trip to the gym.

As I pedaled away on the Helix machine I flipped the pages on a back issue of People and came across a story about a young girl, just a couple of years out of high school, who had entered a convent.  She spent one year at a large state university, trying it on for size, but ultimately decided that she was called to serve God in a more direct way.  It was a decision that she’d been weighing for some time.  According to the article she first felt called to become a nun at the age of five.  She spent most of her childhood and adolescent life enjoying life as a normal kid – playing sports, having sleepovers with friends, and attending her junior prom – while quietly keeping the convent at the back of her mind.

As I read the article I got to thinking about how I might react if one of my children made a similar choice.  Granted, we are not Catholic, so unless there were a conversion to Catholicism a life in the ministry would not mean the same sacrifices that it did for the girl I read about.  But let’s say for a moment that we were Catholic.  What then?  Life as a priest would entail some incredible sacrifices for my sons.  No wife.  No children.  No conventional career.  No means to travel the world.  Having attended Catholic school for many years as a teen I have some sense of what this life is like, but I still struggle to imagine it for one of my own children.

The girl in the article (I couldn’t find it online to provide a link – sorry!) talked about how she weighed the loss of a family into her decision, but still felt a stronger pull to the ministry than to anything else.  She felt that a family life wasn’t for her.  After all, it’s not for everyone.  She now sees her family eight times a year during four-hour Sunday afternoon visitation sessions on Sunday afternoons.  There is a quote on the number of letters she can write and phone calls she can make.  And she is okay with this.

I, on the other hand, wasn’t so okay with it.  Not as it related to this girl.  It’s fine for her, of course.  But I kept thinking about my own kids.  I see the joy that I find in my family and I want that for them.  I want for them the feeling of waking up next to your spouse in the morning.  I want them to see their babies smile for the first time.  I want them to know the feeling of fullness when a tiny child wants only you.  I want them to know the gut-busting laughter that is brought by living with a three-year-old.  But anyone who enters the Catholic ministry will never know these things.

The truth is, I should be okay with this.  All these things about family life that I just listed?  They bring me joy because they are what was right for me.  I would feel imprisoned in a convent.  But perhaps for someone who feels called to life in the ministry the daily life of a working mom would feel like torture.  I was given the freedom to make my own decisions and I’ve ended up in a life that makes me exceedingly happy.  And that is what I should want for my children – the ability to choose the path that will bring them joy – not that the same things that brought my joy will bring theirs.

IEP and SSP are their own people.  They will develop their own interests and passions.  Perhaps those interests will overlap with mine and perhaps they will not.  But so long as their life choices are safe, healthy, and bring them joy, it should be irrelevant to me exactly what those choices are.

As best I could tell, this young girl’s parents are supportive of the path she’s chosen.  I applaud them for that.  And I thank them for setting such a worthwhile example for the rest of us.  It can be a challenge to embrace someone’s choices when they would not personally suit us.  Nevertheless, that is just what we should do.

What a Gift It Is

Friday, January 27th, 2012

In mid-December I got a text message from my work friend Layla* asking for prayers for her brother’s family, as his pregnant wife had been diagnosed with pre-eclampsia at 32 weeks and was having to be induced.  The next day another text told me that the baby had severe health problems (entirely unrelated to the pre-eclampsia).  Layla and the rest of the family convened in her hometown where her brother and his family still live.  Shortly thereafter the baby was airlifted to a larger city with a larger hospital for more advanced treatment.  It was also there that they learned the baby’s diagnosis: Trisomy 13.

Apparently only 10% of babies with Trisomy 13 survive pregnancy and make it to birth.  Of those that make it to birth, only 10% live a single day.   The doctors told Layla’s brother Jack and his wife Meaghan early on that their little boy wouldn’t be able to overcome his conditions, and so they treasured every day they had with him, knowing that the end would come soon.  This little boy fought for his life for nine days.  He was truly amazing.

It is worth noting that December is an emotionally grueling month for my friend’s family.  Her birthday falls in December.  One of her niece’s birthdays falls in December.  And her youngest sister Catherine’s birthday is in December.  Two years ago Catherine was home for Christmas and out of the clear blue died of an undiagnosed heart condition.  She was in her mid-twenties.  They buried her on Christmas Eve.  And then again this past December tragedy struck again.  Indeed, December is filled with heartache for this family.

Jack and Meaghan have two beautiful little girls, May and Emily, who are about four and two years old, respectively.  When their brother was born they were told that he had arrived, but that he was very sick.  After he passed May asked her grandmother what had happened to him.

“Well, you know how your Aunt Catherine went to heaven and now she flies around with all the angels?”

“Yes.”

“Well, your brother went to heaven to become an angel too.”

And then May said the thing that makes this whole, miserable, heartbreaking story worth reading.  She hollered to her little sister, “Hey, Emily!  Did you hear that?  There are baby angels flying around all the time and our brother gets to be one of them!  Isn’t that wonderful?!”

What a gift it is to see the world the way a child sees it.  What a gift it is to see joy where we only saw pain.  Whether you believe in heaven and angels or not, there is something inspiring about the way these children experience loss – with a silver lining that not only softens the blow, but supersedes it altogether.  What an incredible gift it is.

*All names have been changed.

Hot Cross Buns

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

My mother made Hot Cross Buns on every Good Friday of my childhood.  And while I have lovely memories of coming home from school to find a fresh batch on the kitchen counter (sometimes with extra frosting left in the bowl!) my favorite Hot Cross Bun memory comes from my adulthood, and from China.  This story is not meant to be thought-provoking or challenging in any way.  Rather it is a cherished moment of my life that I felt inspired to share. 

If you’re not familiar with Hot Cross Buns, you can learn a quick bit about them here.

I was 26 years old.  I was less than a month away from my wedding.  I was in Shanghai in the middle of a two-week business trip to my company’s Japan and China offices.  So things in my life were pretty calm at the time.  Right.

I’d spent the first week of the trip in Japan.  Sushi, tempura, industry trade show – all the usual suspects.  The second week took us to Shanghai for a 5-day training session with our Pac Rim distributors.  We were staying at the St. Regis hotel which was then, and is still, the most mind-bogglingly luxurious hotel I’ve ever stayed in.  I had a personal butler assigned to me at check-in.  The room was huge and stunning; the bathroom even more so.  Every time I left my room – even if it was just to run down to the hotel gym for a quick workout – someone came in and refolded the towels, tidied my toiletries, smoothed the duvet, and tucked under the corners of the toilet paper.  And every afternoon around 2:00 a snack was delivered to my room on a silver tray.  It was usually a pastry of some kind.  Something delectable that made me slide to the floor and want to never return home.  (What wedding?  GAP once lived in China.  Surely I could find a back-up version of him running around somewhere, right?)

I spent each day in a hotel ballroom, giving presentations on the key selling points of my company’s products, changes to the competitive landscape, and pricing and discount structures.  I’d eaten all of the local fare that was served and had, for the most part, been delighted by how much I loved it.  Cuttlefish, jellyfish, whole roasted fish, seaweed salad, etc.  Business dinners each evening featured dishes that rotated among the traditional menus of our distributors’ home countries – Thai, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia.  I was lost in an international smorgasbord.   

I’d gone sight-seeing with a colleague one afternoon and eaten dumplings purchased from a street vendor that have never been matched by any I’ve eaten since.  The bread was fried crisp on the outside and chewy underneath.  The broth inside was rich, salty, and surprisingly hot.  It dripped all the way down my forearms and I actually licked some of it off.  The bite of pork in the middle was tender and fatty and melted on my tongue.  I was in a food nirvana.   

I was also reaching a saturation point of visual stimulation.  Ancient gardens, Confucian temples, giant Buddhas everywhere.  My colleague and I had a personal local tour guide for two days who took us into nooks and crannies of her city that we’d never have found (or braved) on our own.  I was absorbing the culture around me like a parched sponge.  I had moments of homesickness, but for the most part I’d been able to separate myself from the impending wedding and gotten lost in the world around me.  And so it was that when Good Friday rolled around at the end of my trip I was barely aware of it.

That day our business agenda reached its scheduled afternoon break.  I returned to my room upstairs where I looked forward to slipping out of my heels, collapsing onto the fluffy bed, and delicately tearing into whatever scone, éclair, or other confection might be awaiting me.  I opened the door, walked into that now-familiar and serene retreat of a room, and stopped cold.  There, on the silver tray, was a porcelain plate with two Hot Cross Buns. 

They were beautiful.  Golden dough glazed with egg whites and studded with raisins.  Iced by hand with careful, but not perfect, crosses.  I was so touched by the gesture that I almost couldn’t bring myself to eat them.  But I did.  They lacked the delicate crumb and subtle sweetness of my mother’s, but it was irrelevant.  I was as far away from home – geographically, culturally, metaphorically – as I’d ever been.  And yet a hallmark of my childhood sat before me on a silver tray.

I still don’t know the answers to all the questions that spun through my head as I ate my Hot Cross Buns.  How did they know these tiny details of Christian culinary heritage?  Did they know I was a Christian?  Did everyone in the hotel get Hot Cross Buns for their snack that day?  Or was it just for the Westerners whom they thought might enjoy a taste of home.  Did they have any idea how their thoughtfulness would strike deep to the heart of me?

Since I’d left home after college I’d never made Hot Cross Buns of my own.  I guess I didn’t realize what meaning they held for me.  But in that moment I became keenly aware of their significance; significance to which I’d been heretofore oblivious.  The next year I made my first batch of Hot Cross Buns.  Neither did they measure up to my mother’s, but they were good.  And they were mine.  And it felt good to take my traditions into my own hands.  I have plenty of time to perfect my technique.

I haven’t made them every year.  But I will make them this year.  I think IEP would like them very much.  And I want his memories of them to be as ingrained as my own.

*This post was originally published on Good Friday last year.  I loved it then and thought it worth recycling this year.

Chivalry or Chauvanism?

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Even if you aren’t a Christian, you probably know the story.  It’s from Genesis and has been leveraged into literature throughout Christendom.  It goes like this:  Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden.  God tells them that they may eat the fruit of any tree in the garden except for the tree in the middle of the garden otherwise they will die.  Then the serpent comes along and says, “Yeah, God was not totally honest with you.  That tree over there in the middle is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  If you eat its fruit you won’t die, but you’ll know of good and evil and you’ll also realize that you’re naked and you’ll probably want to cover up.”  So Eve buys into the serpent’s story (which, by the way, was accurate), takes a bite, and peer pressures poor Adam into jumping off the bridge with her.

This story was the Old Testament scripture lesson in church yesterday, and when the priest kicked off the sermon he did something that caught my attention.  As he began to make analogies that would carry throughout the sermon, he attributed the disobedience to Adam alone.  He talked about Adam setting the course for the human race by eating the forbidden fruit.  Per the sermon it was Adam’s decision to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Eve was not edited out of the scripture reading (thankfully) but she was wholly cut out of the sermon.

As the sermon progressed I thought about this glaring omission.  I thought maybe it was an attempt at political correctness.  Perhaps it would have been a faux pas to blame the woman for sending all humans on a crash course to sin.  Perhaps it was a decision based on chivalry.

But the priest’s neglect of Eve’s role didn’t sit right with me.  Political correctness aside, the truth (per scripture, at least) is that Eve took the plunge first and exerted her bad girl influence over her unsuspecting husband.  So why leave her out?  Was it an attempt to mitigate Eve’s role in a pivotal moment of the Bible?  If so, I’d call that straight-up chauvinism.

GAP (who is wise about such things) pointed out to me that some scholars believe that the blame was placed on Eve to diminish the role of women – to position them as easily manipulated by male-centric authors of the day.  Our church takes scripture more literally than I do.  (I think a lot of people see the Old Testament this way, but I apply a fairly non-literal interpretation to much of the New Testament as well.)  I believe the Bible was written by fallible, human men.  It was written in pieces 100 to 200 years after the crucifixion  when memories had faded and oral tradition had allowed stories to evolve.  So I was surprised at this departure from the written word in the sermon.  The priest who spoke yesterday is younger than our other priests.  I am heartened to believe that his interpretation of scripture might be more akin to my own than to the literal interpretation of the older priests.

I don’t have an answer here.  But I was intrigued by the decision about Eve.  Chivalry and chauvinism don’t often show up in lock step.  But I wonder if yesterday’s sermon might have exhibited a little bit of both.

A Heritage, Abridged

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

I am from three shelves of family photo albums whose pages have grown brittle and yellow with time, a set of brass and wrought iron fireplace tools that were handed down and are worn from use, and a red and green leather bound set of the complete works of Charles Dickens.

I am from a single story ranch style home with two fireplaces, a broad deck, and an extra bedroom with blue carpet where my mother watched us in the back yard as she ironed, learning to parallel park between coffee cans on the riding lawnmower, and the sounds of the high school marching band floating through my open windows in early September.

I am from zinnias and marigolds and phlox, giant elm trees that split down the middle during the biggest ice storm of my childhood, and azaleas that flush hot pink for a fraction of a moment each spring.

I am from family vacations filled with silly putty, mint flavored Chapstick, endless games of travel bingo, and stops at every historical marker, Sunday dinners of roast chicken and mashed potatoes and “at least one green vegetable”, and unflappable precision in the matters of grammar and usage.

I am from a cultural polyglot, from operas and rodeos, minor league baseball and Broadway musicals, roadside motels and historic B&B’s.

I am from casseroles and whole wheat bread and after school snacks, bedtimes and phone curfews, and weekly chores for your weekly allowance. 

I am from the belief that life is a banquet table from which I may choose, that you address your friends’ parents as Mr. and Mrs. unless they tell you otherwise, that you don’t have to like it but you have to try it, and that maintaining relationships with family over distance is always hard and always worth it. 

I am from a childhood on horseback, fitted breeches and tall dress boots and banded collars, fringed leather chaps and size 6 7/8 hats, the number 477 pinned to my back and ribbons pinned to my bedroom wall, strong legs and a graceful torso, and greater confidence astride a mare than on solid ground.

I am from Sunday school and the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, a large steel cross that loomed over my head in the sanctuary and whose replica sits on my nightstand, red choir robes with white stoles, and silver trays that were passed down the pews on Communion Sunday.

I am from weekend outings to tiny rural towns, chicken fried steak and cherry cobbler from rusty diners with linoleum tile floors, and the news from Lake Wobegon.

I am from a Catholic prep school with magnificently pitched roofs and a three-story tower with a spiral staircase, pep rallies for Friday night football games, unparalleled teachers, and unreasonable levels of peer competition.

I am from a small private college where everyone knows your hometown and your major, chatty sorority chapter meetings and raucous fraternity parties, and professors who were known to call your dorm room if you overslept for a final.

I am from Bob and Rosemary and Jack and Frances and Jeff and Jan, from hand-stitched quilts and homemade pie pastry, from handwritten letters, hugs and I love yous. 

I am from a family that is not perfect but whom I love, the need to carry them in my heart, and the willingness to try things my own way.

With my entire family arriving shortly for the holiday weekend, I have thoughts of heritage on the brain.  In that vein this post was inspired, with permission, by Lindsey’s poem at A Design So Vast.  As a related aside, I will be taking Friday and Monday off from blogging to spend time with my family, and I will see you back here next Wednesday.  I hope you all have a lovely holiday.

Hot Cross Buns

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

As I mentioned yesterday, I am newly obsessed with The Pioneer Woman’s blog.  Yesterday when I pulled up her site I was delighted to see that her latest recipe was for Hot Cross Buns.  My mother made Hot Cross Buns on every Good Friday of my childhood.  And while I have lovely memories of coming home from school to find a fresh batch on the kitchen counter (sometimes with extra frosting left in the bowl!) my favorite Hot Cross Bun memory comes from my adulthood, and from China.  This story is not meant to be thought-provoking or challenging in any way.  Rather it is a cherished moment of my life that I felt inspired to share. 

If you’re not familiar with Hot Cross Buns, you can learn a quick bit about them here.

I was 26 years old.  I was less than a month away from my wedding.  I was in Shanghai in the middle of a two-week business trip to my company’s Japan and China offices.  So things in my life were pretty calm at the time.  Right.

I’d spent the first week of the trip in Japan.  Sushi, tempura, industry trade show – all the usual suspects.  The second week took us to Shanghai for a 5-day training session with our Pac Rim distributors.  We were staying at the St. Regis hotel which was then, and is still, the most mind-bogglingly luxurious hotel I’ve ever stayed in.  I had a personal butler assigned to me at check-in.  The room was huge and stunning; the bathroom even more so.  Every time I left my room – even if it was just to run down to the hotel gym for a quick workout – someone came in and refolded the towels, tidied my toiletries, smoothed the duvet, and tucked under the corners of the toilet paper.  And every afternoon around 2:00 a snack was delivered to my room on a silver tray.  It was usually a pastry of some kind.  Something delectable that made me slide to the floor and want to never return home.  (What wedding?  GAP once lived in China.  Surely I could find a back-up version of him running around somewhere, right?)

I spent each day in a hotel ballroom, giving presentations on the key selling points of my company’s products, changes to the competitive landscape, and pricing and discount structures.  I’d eaten all of the local fare that had been served and had, for the most part, been delighted by how much I loved it.  Cuttlefish, jellyfish, whole roasted fish, seaweed salad, etc.  Business dinners each evening featured dishes that rotated among the traditional menus of our distributors’ home countries – Thai, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia.  I was lost in an international smorgasbord.   

I’d gone sight-seeing with a colleague one afternoon and eaten dumplings purchased from a street vendor that have never been matched by any I’ve eaten since.  The bread was fried crisp on the outside and chewy underneath.  The broth inside was rich, salty, and surprisingly hot.  It dripped all the way down my forearms and I actually licked some of it off.  The bite of pork in the middle was tender and fatty and melted on my tongue.  I was in a food nirvana.   

I was also reaching a saturation point of visual stimulation.  Ancient gardens, Confucian temples, giant Buddhas everywhere.  My colleague and I had a personal local tour guide for two days who took us into nooks and crannies of her city that we’d never have found (or braved) on our own.  I was absorbing the culture around me like a parched sponge.  I had moments of homesickness, but for the most part I’d been able to separate myself from the impending wedding and gotten lost in the world around me.  And so it was that when Good Friday rolled around at the end of my trip I was barely aware of it.

That day our business agenda reached its scheduled afternoon break.  I returned to my room upstairs where I looked forward to slipping out of my heels, collapsing onto the fluffy bed, and delicately tearing into whatever scone, éclair, or other confection might be awaiting me.  I opened the door, walked into that now-familiar and serene retreat of a room, and stopped cold.  There, on the silver tray, was a porcelain plate with two Hot Cross Buns. 

They were beautiful.  Golden dough glazed with egg whites and studded with raisins.  Iced by hand with careful, but not perfect, crosses.  I was so touched by the gesture that I almost couldn’t bring myself to eat them.  But I did.  They lacked the delicate crumb and subtle sweetness of my mother’s, but it was irrelevant.  I was as far away from home – geographically, culturally, metaphorically – as I’d ever been.  And yet a hallmark of my childhood sat before me on a silver tray.

I still don’t know the answers to all the questions that spun through my head as I ate my Hot Cross Buns.  How did they know these tiny details of Christian culinary heritage?  Did they know I was a Christian?  Did everyone in the hotel get Hot Cross Buns for their snack that day?  Or was it just for the Westerners whom they thought might enjoy a taste of home.  Did they have any idea how their thoughtfulness would strike deep to the heart of me?

Since I’d left home after college I’d never made Hot Cross Buns of my own.  I guess I didn’t realize what meaning they held for me.  But in that moment I became keenly aware of their significance; significance to which I’d been heretofore oblivious.  The next year I made my first batch of Hot Cross Buns.  They too didn’t measure up to my mother’s, but they were good.  And they were mine.  And it felt good to take my traditions into my own hands.  I have plenty of time to perfect my technique.

I haven’t made them every year.  But I will make them this year.  I think IEP would like them very much.  And I want his memories of them to be as ingrained as my own.

Observance, Forgiveness, and Redemption

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

I’ll go ahead and say it:  I’m religious. 

Now don’t go painting me with your Pat Robertson brush.  I’m not that kind of religious.  Just because I’m religious doesn’t mean I think you should be too. 

But my faith is something that matters a great deal to me.  It always has.  I have attended church weekly (for the most part) during every stage of my life – childhood, college, 20-something singleton, newlywed, and today.  (Also, in case you were wondering, no, I don’t believe that regular church attendance is the only way to have an active faith life.  But that’s a topic for another day.)  I frequently fail at my faith.  I sin every day.  I drift from God periodically.  There are times when my faith is more at the periphery than the center of my life.  But it is always there.

I say all this because today is Ash Wednesday.  Today begins the 40-day journey of Lent that marks Jesus’ period of wandering in the wilderness and leading up to His crucifixion.  Within some Christian denominations (Catholic, particularly) it is common practice to give up something for Lent.  As a nod to Christ’s suffering, we forego something that provides us pleasure or comfort so that we may be reminded of said suffering on a daily basis. 

As a child I was Presbyterian (to some extent I still am) and Lenten sacrifice was not a part of my upbringing.  When I began attending Catholic prep school in junior high I became more familiar with the practice.  And having had many Catholic friends over the years I’ve become well acquainted with the tradition of Lenten sacrifice. 

Here’s my problem with it.  At least as I have seen it practiced, it tends to be more about the technicalities and not so much about Christ.  People give up chocolate candy but still eat chocolate chip cookies because when hidden inside the cookie the chips “don’t count” as candy.  Or they give up cheese except on Sundays because technically Sundays are God’s day and aren’t part of Lent.  Or they give up meat on Fridays (a tradition derived from Middle Eastern fishing cultures where meat was considered a luxury) and instead (ironically) go out for lobster tail or Alaskan halibut topped with a port wine demi glace.  Or, they stick with their chosen sacrifice for a few days, fall off the wagon, and then blow off the rest of the season altogether.

And I’m not quite sure what any of that accomplishes.  For me to go 40 days without sweets would make me cranky, unpleasant, and more focused on planning an Easter menu geared toward saying “stick it!” to Lent than on really observing Christ.  This prospect leaves me cold.  Today, as an Episcopalian (the halfway point between my Presbyterian upbringing and my husband’s Catholic one), I am inclined to bring the observance of Lent into my daily life, but uninspired by the mere eradication of vices.     

[Sidebar: If you are an observer of Lenten sacrifice and feel that 40 days without alcohol or red meat really does bring you closer to God, then more power to you.  I certainly don’t mean to insult.  And I’ll be the first to admit that what doesn’t work for one person may be quite successful for someone else.]

There is an alternative, though.  That alternative is to do the opposite.  Rather than take something out of your life to mimic suffering, you add something to your life.  Perhaps you might carve out more prayer time.  Or volunteer at a homeless shelter.  Or become involved with a charity.  It is this path which I will travel for Lent this year.

Taking a page from my sister’s play book, I am going to adopt the practice of recording my gratitude and my prayers in a daily journal.  Through this practice I hope to become more aware of the many blessings in my life, and more mindful of those in need of my prayers.  I think on these topics frequently, but not regularly.  And I hope that ritualizing the acknowledgement of them will make me more aware of both.  (And if I’m being truly honest, I was very excited to shop for the perfect journal.)

The second Lenten observance does not relate so much to my faith as to my family; and I struggle with this one a bit for that reason.  I will tell you why I’m moving forward with it in spite of these concerns in a moment.  This is a step that GAP and I have decided to take together.  For the season of Lent we will eat dinner at our dining room table.  We eat dinner together every night; and almost every night it is something I have cooked from scratch.  But we almost always eat on trays in front of the television.  Now while we are a couple that communicates well and often, I can’t help but believe there are aspects of our lives getting lost in the shuffle for want of dinnertime conversation.  As for my aforementioned concerns?  It is my hope that through these dinners spent facing each other, instead of the cast of Entourage, we will spend some time discussing our journey through Lent, as well as the ups and downs of our days.    

To be sure, like so many aspects of my faith, I will fail at these too.  There will be nights when I’m dog tired and cannot bring myself to journal before my head hits the pillow.  There will be nights when we say, “But March Madness is in full swing.  Let’s just order carry-out and watch the game.”  But one thing I will commit to is bouncing back from those failures, rather than allowing them to sabotage my Lenten observance altogether.  Because if there’s one thing that the Christian faith offers, it’s forgiveness.  And if there’s a second thing, it’s redemption.