Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunday Dinner: Maple Mustard Chicken and Bleu Cheese Hasselback Potatoes

We were supposed to have company today, but I woke up feeling unwell, and we reluctantly called our friends to reschedule our get-together. But I recovered somewhat during the day, and decided to go ahead with our menu, just for us.

First the chicken. This past week we picked up ten lovely shrink-wrapped chickens from the Amish family where we get most of our poultry, and one of these became our dinner. I marinated the parts in the following:

1/2 cup real maple syrup
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp herbs of choice, or to taste (I used thyme; the original recipe suggested rosemary)
(reserve a bit of marinade for later)

We had intended to grill the chicken, but threatening skies moved the process indoors; I baked it at 375 degrees for an hour, turning and brushing the pieces with the reserved marinade. 

Along with the chicken I made bleu cheese hasselback potatoes, which are kind of a cross between scalloped and baked potatoes. Unskinned baking potatoes are sliced partway through, creating a kind of fan; the potatoes are then placed in cold water, fanning out the slices a bit, and soaked for a few minutes, then dried off, wrapped in some waxed paper and microwaved: 5 minutes; reposition, 5 more minutes. After cooling for a bit, you transfer the potatoes to aluminum foil rectangles that will become their jackets; brush the potatoes with melted butter, opening the slices to get all that buttery goodness inside. Add some thin slices of garlic to some of the slices. Usually recipes for hasselback potatoes call for Parmesan cheese, but we wanted to try bleu cheese, so I stuffed the slices with crumbles of that. Finally, some pepper and salt into the crevices. Wrap up the potatoes and either grill or bake them for about 20 minutes. These turned out very tasty; I think bacon would be another great addition. We also roasted some asparagus to complete the feast.

We were sad that we didn't have our friends around to enjoy dinner, but I was glad we had a successful trial run of this menu...which will return to our plates, with or without guests, in the future.

Note: Speaking of slackage, as I was in the prior post -- I'm a very inconsistent photographer, which means that I'll never be the Pioneer Woman of Lutheranism. I could have taken a photo of our excellent meal...but I didn't. You'll have to imagine the shiny golden glaze on the chicken, the tantalizing promise of a baked potato fan holding treasures of cheese and garlic between each slice, the emerald green of fresh Michigan asparagus in season. Maybe next time.

Notes From Slackerville

Once upon a time I used to be irritated by church slackers. You know, people who show up maybe once a month; who never volunteer for anything; whose seemingly indifferent involvement in congregational life placed a greater burden on the dozen people who always wind up doing everything; whose non-participation killed one program after another and whose silence always left the leadership guessing about what they were thinking, what we might be doing right or wrong.

I used to be irritated by such people. Then I became one.

We are actually on the verge of joining a new congregation. If this were a relationship, we have gone beyond casual dating; we've met the parents, so to speak; we're going steady but haven't set a date. (And for their part, they're between pastors, so things seem a bit in flux there as well.) But we haven't really become joiners; we haven't volunteered for anything other than contributing items to the church yard sale. And, truth be told, we don't attend church as regularly as we used to, even though this congregation is closer to our home.

Sometimes I get the guilts here in Slackerville. But other times -- well, it feels good to simply sit in a church pew without feeling the compulsion to sign up for the lector rota or that new discussion group; without knowing where the congregational bodies are buried and what interpersonal or political Sturm und Drang is roiling beneath the calm surface of the worship service.  Sometimes it feels just as good, if not better, to commune with the Holy in the context of a peaceful Sunday morning with Fellow Traveler and the four-leggeds, sitting in our pajama pants (the humans, not the animals) and enjoying one another's company.

I know that admission will not endear me to some of you reading this; certainly not to the Internet church nerds constantly bemoaning churchgoers who want congregations to do things for them instead of wanting to do things on behalf of the congregation. In my defense, I can only point to a former function of churches that seems to have gotten lost amid the contemporary emphasis on looking outward, not inward: care of souls. I don't hear a concern about that in circles where the compulsion is to scold churchgoers for not being more active and engaged; I don't detect a lot of interest in learning the why of people like me; people who've dialed back their participation in the life of their congregations, or who linger at the margins. Maybe some of the citizens of Slackerville aren't slackers; maybe they're the exhausted, the wounded, who need a stretcher to carry them off the field -- maybe even affirmation that the sidelines are where they need to be.

The thing is...I'm tired. I have been the good church do-bee for a long time, but now, in the words of Scotty the engineer, I canna do it. I canna do it physically or psychologically. When I go to church, I am going there for rest and refuge, not to get an assignment. Perhaps this is a temporary state until my health resolves. Perhaps it's going to define my participation in a congregation for the long haul. I'd like to think that, in the latter case, there would still be a place for me in the Church to just be. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

A First-Class Friday Five

This week's RevGalBlogPal Friday Five asks us to share our "firsts":

Your first "place" - whether it was an apartment, dorm room, or home with a new spouse, the first place where you really felt like a grown-up:  The first of my places that felt like a place was a unique but decrepit duplex, just off campus, that two friends and I shared starting the summer after I graduated from Michigan State. The building dated from the 30's or 40's, had some appealing features like built-in bookcases, round archways, a lovely staircase and large, sunny bedrooms. But it also showed the wear of housing generations of college students. The interior paint seemed to be layered about an eighth of an inch thick, and the newest paint had been carelessly slopped on the glass of the window panes, kindergarten art class style...of course, this paint was probably the only thing holding the glass in the windows. In the wintertime we covered the windows in Visqueen, and on windy days the plastic would billow out like sails on the high seas. We also dealt with the small galley kitchen's perpetually leaking refrigerator and a stove whose oven featured a loose, frayed wire inside that just dangled ominously in the back like a bomb fuse -- not that that stopped us from using it. Our supers, who lived next door, were a contentious couple who loved fighting -- very loudly, usually at 0-dark-thirty in the morning, one party having locked the other party out of their own duplex -- about as much as they loved smoking pot; which may have explained our paint job. But anyway, despite these problems, we loved that duplex. My mom,inspired by the peach-and-gray-tiled vintage bathroom, sewed us curtains for the window above the tub; I planted flowers in the unpromising, rock-hard soil next to our front steps, inspiring our scary punk-rock-band neighbors on the other side to plant a tomato garden. Good times. I cried when I had to move out of that place, and was saddened many years later when I was in town for a visit and found that the entire building had been razed to make way for a strip mall.

Your first time away from home. Construe this any way you want. College? Girl Scout Camp? Study Abroad?  My first times away from home for any extended time were summer visits to my aunt and uncle, who lived on a farm a few miles away from ours. These were my mom's brother and sister, who never married; my aunt had struggled with mental illness as a young woman, and although she seemed to have been successfully treated at the state hospital in Traverse City, she abandoned her hopes for an independent career and simply wen back home,, and my uncle felt responsible for taking care of her. They were not prosperous farmers, but they were fiercely self-sufficient and frugal, so a trip to their house was like a trip back in time: my aunt had a huge vegetable garden and an orchard  and preserved countless jars of canned food, the house had a wood stove and no water heater, and meals were pretty much a continuation of the Depression fare my mother and siblings had grown up eating -- fried bologna cups filled with canned peas, tubs of peanut butter on my aunt's homemade bread, pans of fried potatoes.

 My aunt and uncle were great readers and had an eclectic set of interests. My uncle was an expert trapper who supplemented the family income with furs and liked to read informational and adventure books about the out-of-doors; he was something of an amateur expert on the local Native American history and had over the years amassed a large collection of arrowheads and other artifacts found in his farm fields. My aunt loved old books -- old turn-of-the-century young-adult novels featuring smart and plucky Campfire Girls and college students,  literature textbooks, travelogues about exotic locales -- and I spent many rainy-day afternoons in the spare bedroom with a book from her collection. She also loved sewing and crafting, and while I never did "get" quilting, her favorite hobby, she did teach me skills like rick-rack lace-making and embroidery. And both my aunt and uncle were formidable sources of outdoor lore; I also spent many hours with them learning about plants and wildlife and agriculture. (And, like Tom Sawyer, they had a knack for turning tedious low-tech chores into fascinating activities for me.)

This was the first place I ever felt homesick (very briefly, the first night of my first day staying there), and the first place I felt liberated from my parents' routines and problems, like an honored guest.

Your first job in your field of endeavor (so, not babysitting, unless you are A Professional Babysitter today):  My first real job in the realm of writing was only tangentially concerned with same: After slumming for a couple of years in my university town I took a job as an advertising salesperson for a weekly newspaper in a small town near my own. My boss, the editor/publisher, was a pretty interesting individual -- he was a very tightly wound fellow, someone who actually growled like an animal when he was angry (which was a lot of the time) and who once, in a fit of rage directed at our reporter, threw an X-acto knife into the ceiling. On the other hand, he could be very charming on rare occasions (although rarely to the town fathers and local merchants), and he also took his role as local journalist seriousy, right down to his worn trenchcoat and ubiquitous press pass. I pretty much hated the sales side of my job, which was made more difficult by my boss' reputation in the community. I did very much enjoy copywriting and ad design, and I also did a fair amount of typesetting,  which pleased the bosses because I was a good proofreader who cleaned up copy as I went. This job only lasted a year; the economy went south, and I also think the boss figured out I was miserable. But I did learn a few useful things during my short tenure. And I think everyone should have a sales job at least once in their lives; it's good for you, like cod liver oil and juiced kale.

Your first time hosting. Again, construed broadly, this could be a dinner for the in-laws, your first time to have guests for a holiday meal, etc. Believe it or not, was never in a living space where I wanted to personally host any kind of party or dinner or other event until I met Fellow Traveler -- often a guest, never a host. I must have co-hosted Thanksgiving dinner with her that first year; but the meal that I remember was Easter the following spring, when we had FT's sister and niece over and I made leg of lamb with Greek roasted potatoes and other Mediterranean dishes. The food was fantastic; we made a good impression; and my sister-in-law keeps accepting our invitations to dinner.

Your first love.That can be a person or something else!! With apologies to my partner -- my first love was probably the red plaid flannel, faceless doll my mom sewed for me when I was a baby. I slept, teethed on, hugged and dragged that thing around until it was as ragged and funky as an old dog toy. That was the first -- and last -- doll I loved. 

Reader bonus: A cinematic classic on the topic of "first":

Sunday, July 07, 2013


It's hard to believe that it's been almost three months since we lost the oldest four-legged member of our household, 15-year-old Mollie the cat, whom we had put to sleep after a short but precipitous decline in health.

Mollie began her life in the fetid trailer of a crazy cat lady in Maine. When local authorities finally raided the woman's property they found almost 70 cats, which they rounded up and sent to the local animal shelter; after they left, a neighbor noticed Mollie, then a tiny and emaciated kitten, sitting forlornly in the middle of the road. Knowing Fellow Traveler, and knowing she had a soft spot for rescue animals, she gave FT a call. And that's how Mollie came to be part of FT's pet family, eventually winding up in Michigan.

I'd known about Mollie for quite awhile before I actually met her. I was aware that she wasn't terribly fond of people and preferred to spend her days in a seldom-used spare bedroom. She introduced herself to me one morning via calling card -- a mouse's head that she strategically placed on my quilt while I was sleeping. Had I not already been a cat person this discovery would have probably led to a lot of screaming and perhaps some visits to my therapist, but because I know cats I understood this to be a kitty peace offering -- a choice morsel intended to communicate, "Hi. You don't seem that bad for a human." I was flattered -- at least as flattered as one can be staring into the lifeless eyes of a beheaded mouse. I knew I was in.

Mollie never let anyone pick her up, not until the very end when she was too tired and weak to protest. She did appreciate back rubs, head scritches and an occasional tussle with a proffered feather, although she usually preferred to play with her cat toys alone at night. As she grew older, she became somewhat more solicitous of human companionship; around 7:00 each evening she'd stroll into the living room, take her place in our recliner and sit listening to our conversation. At some point she'd usually jump onto one sofa, then the other, and accept brief pettings, never staying for long. She'd occasionally also come out to visit during the day, perhaps snoozing for a bit on a sofa back until she'd suddenly sit upright, look around and scamper off the furniture, down the hallway back to her room. She also became more vocal in her later years, chirping pleasantly in acknowledgement of "Hello, Mollie,"  but loudly scolding if we were too with her morning meal or tardy changing her litter box.

Mollie was a hunter extraordinaire -- never birds, always rodents. Every day she'd patrol the perimeter of our large yard, occasionally disppearing into the bordering ferns to sit and wait. At night she kept watch in our garage. She was proud of her work, and always a bit peeved when humans intervened on behalf of her prey. Whenever we went on vacation, even with a cat-sitter visiting her daily with meals and treats, Mollie would double-down on her mousing -- I think her attitude was, "I'm not sure if they're coming back, and I don't trust this other one, so I guess I'd better start provisioning now" -- so  much so that we quickly learned to do a thorough sweep of the house upon our return in order to avoid festering musine unpleasantness in some forgotten corner.

Mollie's relationship with our dogs over the years was mostly benign; think elderly maiden aunt forced to live in a household with boisterous, dirt-attracting children and you'll get some idea of her attitude toward most of our canine friends. Mollie seemed to have a special bond with my little Cody, when we moved in; maybe because he was almost as small as she was; I'd often catch them touching noses or even sleeping next to each other. Chica adored Mollie in a goofy puppy way; she got more than her share of thwacks on the nose for her overenthusiasm, but they still liked each other about as much as a cat and a dog can be expected to get along; sometimes, if Chica had a sleepover at one of her dog-friends' houses and Mollie was at home alone with us, she'd wander the house mewing, apparently trying to figure out where Chica was.

In the last few months Mollie seemed to be in good health but was sleeping more and more; then she developed a cough, stopped eating and started losing weight. One evening she tried to play-run the way she often did through our living room after her self-allotted family time, arching her back and skipping off to her room; this night, though, she kept listing to one side, almost falling over, and her lack of coordination seemed to surprise and distress her as much as it did us. That's when we decided, tears in our eyes, that it was time to let her go peacefully.

Mollie's death was hard for all of us. Even though she was an old lady cat who'd outlived most of her peers, it seemed so strange that she was no longer in our home. I kept expecting to see her in her room, curled up on her chair or keeping watch out the window from her favorite perch on a nearby table. Fellow Traveler felt the loss of one of the last real connections to her life in Maine. And Chica was sad; she had seemed to sense something final about Mollie's illness, and she didn't exhibit the sort of behaviors one might expect of a fellow pet, like searching for Mollie through the house, but she became very quiet and clingy for the first few weeks. And since then she's developed some odd only-dog obsessions she's never had before, like chasing our resident squirrels away from our bird feeders and standing guard, sometimes for hours under the tree. It's as if, without Mollie, she doesn't know what to do with her time and attention. For a quiet little cat who lived much of her life out of our sight, Mollie made such an impression on us, and left such a void in our lives.

But...that's not the end of our cat story. Days after our mournful resolution to not replace Mollie, one of FT's high school friends, someone we regularly keep in contact with, e-mailed us with a dilemma: She has two cats she adores, who are bonded to one another and who've been in her household for several years; but she's recently gotten engaged, and her fiance' doesn't like cats and is insisting that she find a new home for them. Would we be able to adopt them? FT looked at me; I looked at her; we knew what we had to do.

So by this time tomorrow we will be cat-keepers again. Our new cats' names are Dash and Pumpkin. We have so far been very low-key about all of this with Chica, and have decided to approach this new chapter in the family story with some affected wide-eyed surprise and confusion, a situation needing her assistance as pack lieutenant: "My goodness, Chica -- that lady left these two kitties at our house! What are we going to do? You'll have to help us take care of them!"

I'll let you know how that works.

Why You Want My Partner In Your Church

For reasons that for the sake of discretion/valor/working on my passive aggression issues I will decline to go into detail about here, Fellow Traveler and I find ourselves free agents in the world of church. Actually that's not exactly true; there's an ELCA congregation down the street that we enjoy and where we know people, and we are starting to gravitate there. But, technically speaking, we're in the market; or we could be if, for instance, we decided to move to another place. As far as that goes, there are also days when the infamous "None" starts looking very, very good -- leisurely Sunday-morning wakings-up, brunch in our jammies, the New York Times crossword puzzle, no ironing of clothes...wait; what was I talking about again? Oh, yeah; finding God's perfect church match for us; something like that.

Now, from everything I've read from hipster pastors "growing the church" in innovative ways, we're pretty poor prospects for membership, demographics-wise. Oh, I suppose if you're going for that edgy, see-how-inclusive-we-are vibe in your designer congregation two lesbians may be a more desirable addition to your sociodemographic mix than, say, a straight Swedish-American accountant. But I know that our age knocks us way down the "We want you" ladder; in some church circles, we of the graying hair and comfy pants tend to get blamed for our stodgy worship preferences and attitudes that are driving away our young people and  holding back the next Great Awakening. Sometimes, reading church-growth stuff on Lutheran websites and social media, I feel the way I imagine our elderly retriever Duke felt back on the day Dad took him and a loaded .22 for that final walk behind the barn.

But allow me to plead a case here -- not my own case, but that of my partner, Fellow Traveler. You may not know much about her other than her occasional third-person appearances on this blog; but if you did know her, you would want her in your church. Totes want her. Signing-bonus want her. Here are some reasons why.

She is an ex-Roman Catholic. With apologies to my RC friends -- I don't want to be accused of sheep-stealing-- ex-Roman Catholics, especially ones who grew up in old-skool, non-hippie parishes, make terrific Lutherans. They don't need remedial instruction in basic church etiquette. They know the church drill. They know the choreography. They know the lingo. And, unlike newbies from so-called free church backgrounds, they're not going to be bugging you about "why" -- not getting into frowny-face arguments with you after the service about the metaphysics of the Real Presence or why pastors give an absolution after the general confession. In fact,,they're not going to talk to you after the service at all, because they're used to sprinting out the door nanoseconds after "Thanks be to God." No off-the-cuff mini-pastoral-counseling sessions while shaking your hand; they want a nice dinner and a holy nap, and want you to have that too, as soon as possible after the service.

She wants to go to a Bible study. Yes; you read that right. Fellow Traveler wants to study the Bible. And by "study the Bible" I mean actually talk about the Bible in an in-depth, informative way --  not initiate a group therapy session to work on her issues or discuss church business or gossip in the guise of fraternal concern or answer questions like "How does that verse make you feel?" If the study is about the Gospel of Mark, then darn it, you'd better be discussing the Gospel of Mark. But, unlike some people in your Bible study -- unlike the crypto-fundamentalists in your congregation-- you can actually discuss Scripture with my partner in a contextual, critical way without her head exploding in shock and horror.

She can handle contemplative services. Fellow Traveler used to work for the Sisters of Mercy. She used to go to Mass with nuns, and Mass at a monastery. She liked it. When you float the idea of a Taize service or Compline and your praise band people go nuts and the old-timers frown and say, "We don't remember doing anything like that before the merger" -- my partner has your back.

She can help you pwn the Pietists. I remember the first time we attended an ELCA church while on vacation only to find that it celebrated the Eucharist twice a month, and we were unfortunate enough to be in town on a "non" week. "What just happened?" Fellow Traveler whispered when the liturgy suddenly imploded. "Why aren't we having Communion?" She was not impressed, later on during the ride back to the hotel, by my Cliff Notes version of Lutheran Pietism and its horror of over-communicating. If you have recalcitrant folks in your congregation who balk at weekly Communion, Fellow Traveler can give an eloquent testimony to the disappointment felt by church visitors seeking the Sacrament but not having it offered to them. And since I've never heard an eloquent argument in favor of infrequent Communion, certainly never from a clergyperson -- lots of rhetorical WIN for you.

She's got your number, Pastor. Like I said, before her retirement Fellow Traveler used to work for nuns. Prior to that she worked for a pastor in another Lutheran iteration. So she knows from church people, She knows you're not Jesus. She knows you occasionally need to blow off steam or tell impious jokes or otherwise act like a civilian. She knows that there are things you don't know. She won't care, and she won't tell. Seriously, not all new church folks have any of that figured out.

She will call it as she sees it. It is one of the things I really admire about FT, by the way. I grew up in a household where expressing what I really thought or felt did not always lead to positive outcomes, so I became the sort of person who -- well, who says, "I'm fine" when I'm really not fine or who composes rambling masterpieces of diplomatic bullshit in answer to questions about sensitive issues. FT, on the other hand, lets the chips fall. Where I, in response to a question about, say, musical quality in a church, would avoid direct eye contact with the interviewer while murmuring, "Well, sometimes it's, um, hard for me concentrate on the service when the organist, um, doesn't seem...well, very familiar with the music," FT would look the questioner straight in the eye and say, "The music is crap." Unvarnished honesty isn't always easy to take, but if you need a regular reality check on your perception of how things are going in your congregation, Fellow Traveler will give it to you.

I know this proposition is still a hard sell if you have your heart set on attracting a [cue the ethereal chorus] young family or the sort of hipsters who hang out at your favorite coffee joint. But you could do much worse. And since we come as a package deal, you'd also be getting someone who would actually like to edit your church newsletter. Think about it. Call us maybe.

Friday, July 05, 2013

A Flag-Waving Friday Five

Today at Casa Elenas we've been recovering from our annual family vacation up north -- not because it was bad, mind you; it was wonderful -- but a week of pretty nonstop sightseeing with four other adults and a precocious three-year-old can be fairly exhausting. My schedule today included watering and fertilizing my container plants, making dinner, and...well...that was it. Oh -- and writing. Which is why I'm here.

Here's this week's Friday Five Challenge:

How does one typically celebrate your native /adopted land's Big National Holiday?
Here in the Upper Midwest the Fourth of July typically marks the peak of  tourist season. The Founding Fathers wanted citizens to celebrate the birthday of the Republic with great public hoopla, and in most of small-town America that takes the form of community parades and fireworks. Here in the northern vacation lands municipalities aren't the only entities setting off fireworks; we have some pretty impressive displays over our local lakes courtesy of lakeside homeowners with the money and courage (or foolhardiness, depending on your perspective) to create their own elaborate shows. One of my former neighbors, on a nearby lake, spent a couple thousand dollars each year on fireworks for his annual Fourth of July Fellow Traveler likes to say, God bless America.

2. How do you personally celebrate the holiday described in #1? Any unusual twists on the typical celebration? Is it something you enjoy or endure?
We are not parade people. We are not fireworks people. We are not drunken party people. So our Fourth of Julys are usually spent enjoying picnic foods (indoors or out), avoiding local traffic gridlock during our town's festivities and comforting our pets during the noisier parts. While I don't mind fireworks per se,, they don't thrill me nearly as much as they did when I was a child -- and I hate M-80's; hate them with a white-hot passion.  I don't understand them, the way that our dog doesn't understand them. And as far as the day itself, my ongoing  lover's quarrel with my country makes me uncomfortable with a lot of Independence Day jingoism, as well as the ignorance many revelers have of their own nation's history and governmental workings. 

3. What does the word "independence" mean to you, whether in a political or personal mood? How has that understanding changed throughout your life?  
To me the independence I value includes not only independence from oppressive institutions, but also independence in terms of disengaging from popular culture; from expectations about what someone of my sociodemographic segment should think or do or be. The other day I thought about our household spending, and it's funny how atypical it is in terms of the things we value, the things we consume. It's also very freeing. And I love being a cipher, a puzzlement, to others who assume too much about me because of my age or location or anything else.

4. When did you first feel that you, personally, had gained independence? Was there a 'rite of passage' you would like to share?
To tell you the honest truth, I never felt totally independent until after my parents had both died. I think this might be the one disadvantage of being an only child: Even after you "launch" physically and professionally, it's hard to feel separate from your parents, especially when they're emotionally needy and constantly summoning you back home, psychologically if not physically as well. And because I felt compelled to hide my orientation from them, I also put my personal life on hold for many years. It was a sad, lonely moment when I first realized, "You're an orphan now" -- but in the scheme of things, that loss liberated me. 

5. Tell us about your favorite "indie" film, music label, book store...
I'm not even sure what counts as "indie," so I'm taking a stab in the dark here, but one non-blockbuster I've always loved is "Cold Comfort Farm," a quirkily charming English comedy about a city girl, down on her luck but determinedly plucky, who winds up living with her poor, eccentric country cousins in Sussex, whose fish-out-of-water presence in their midst winds up changing their lives in positive ways. Music label? Again, I'm not sure what is "indie" and what isn't these days. At our house we enjoy singer Catie Curtis, who has her own record label; that's pretty independent, right? As far as independent bookstores...Leelanau Books, in Leland, Michigan, is one of my favorite mom-and-pop bookstores; especially nice if you're looking for Michigan authors.

Bonus Question: Is there a time you remember going "against the tide" of advice or precedent, or in some other way? Or perhaps a time you wish you had done so? Share it here!
I majored in advertising in college because it seemed to be a good solution for studying the liberal arts while convincing my anxious blue-collar parents that I was getting a "practical" education. From the git-go I suffered a feeling in my gut (sometimes literally) that this was a big mistake...but after investing a couple of years in the curriculum I felt too afraid and trapped to change my major. I think this is one of the greater regrets of my life, and a case where I wish the promptings of my inner compass had overcome my sense of filial duty and guilt about accepting my parents' money to help pay for my education. On the other hand, had I not set out on the path I chose, I wouldn't be where I am today, in the life I have today, with the family I have today.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

It Takes a Village

Hey, ELCA citizens of the blogosphere and theological kissing-cousins! I have a favor to ask you, by way of our pastoral intern (have I mentioned that she's doing a terrific job?).

First some backstory: Our church, like many others, has a difficult time these days gathering people together in real-time to do religious formation. Those days when parents dutifully brought their children to Sunday School and their adolescents to catechism class week after week on a consistent basis are no more, for a variety of reasons.

A couple of years ago our Education Committee, at the request of frustrated parents, came up with a program of monthly educational packets -- an assortment of lessons, prayers and activities that families could do together -- that we've been sending to families of small children. This is supplemented throughout the year with special educational events/family worship. In our locality, this seems to be a workable alternative to traditional Sunday School.

Now parents of older kids, tweens and teenagers, have asked the Education Committee if a similar program could be developed for confirmation class.

Knowing all the creativity that goes on in other congregations, I am asking my online friends for help in finding resources to create a confirmation-class packet. We have until recently been using a resource called Free to Be, but we need to update and upgrade. And we are open to thinking outside the box in terms of utilizing "homegrown" materials, including online resources, that congregations have developed themselves. I'm also interested to hear how other congregations are navigating religious formation these days when it's so hard to get people (including FT and me) committed to a physical classroom presence on a week-to-week basis.

Thank you in advance for your helpfulness and creativity.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Leave Her Alone"

Today's Gospel lesson

The other day I happened to visit the blog of a certain Reformed-tradition Evangelical author and professor -- it was one of those links-you-stumble-on-while-looking-for-something-else -- who regularly opens his page up to contributing bloggers. Reading through some of the guest-blogger posts, I noticed that whenever a woman was guest blogger, the reader responses became more critical, more patronizing, more preachy; lots of imperious mansplaining going on. (Sidebar: For an interesting discussion of this phenomenon, read Tony Jones' recent blog query "Where Are the Women?", the response of some women, and the response of Jones and other men to those responses.)

"Leave her alone," I found myself thinking as I read through post after post by nitpicking, tall-stick-afflicted know-it-alls dogpiling on one female guest blogger.

Even though this was all going on in a religious milieu different from my own, I felt a certain kinship with this woman. Like most of us, I suspect, I've been at the receiving end of nonconstructive criticism, scorn or outright bullying for being who I am, for saying what I think, for expressing how I feel -- sometimes as a perceived personal attack, sometimes as a perceived attack on a group to which I belong. (This essay, for instance, makes me feel that I'm not young enough, heterosexual enough or fertile enough to be part of this pastor's vision of the Reign of God. What I hear in this "missional" message is, "So die already.")

"Leave her alone." "Leave them alone." Sometimes I'd love to hear those phrases resounding from heaven.

But, thinking about this week's Gospel lesson, I wonder about the times when I'm the one needing a calling-out by Jesus for disparaging other people's expressions of faith.

This past month our church has been collecting surveys from parishoners. They ask what's been working for people and what hasn't in terms of worship, education and so on. FT and I completed our surveys after a particularly unfocused Sunday that just seemed to highlight things about our parish life that tend to drive both of us crazy, and so we expressed some of those frustrations in some detail. It felt very brave and liberating at the time. But in retrospect -- what if some line item we've chalked up to carelessness or incompetence is actually just the act of someone who, like Mary, is simply "doing what she can," however inexplicably or imperfectly, for the love of God? Even with the understanding that we were being asked to be candid and specific, were all of our critical observations valid, or were some of them simply projections of our own psychological stuff? I mean, I can be OCD; I'm someone who notices typos and crooked pictures hanging on walls and flat notes. If there are enough of those things going on, I get anxious and wanting to get busy "fixing" so the world is returned to my idea of wholeness. At what point is does that element of my personality cross the line from being a useful quality in a community setting to being a destructive force? How do I know?

But nowhere in this story do we hear Jesus telling either Mary or Judas, "Leave me alone." And maybe there's a lesson in that, whether we're the beleaguered recipients of others' negative judgments or the highhanded judges ourselves. That gives me hope.

Sunday Dinner: Latin Spice Roast Chicken

Sunday dinner (or what some of you would call supper) is a big deal at our house; it's a kind of holy Sunday afternoon project for us that allows us to take care of one another in a fun, creative way. (And  it's even more creative these days, with FT on a soft-foods diet while her reconstructed jaw joint mends.)

Here is what we had for dinner today: Latin Spice Roast Chicken, using a plump, beautiful bird from Graham's Organics in Weidman. We paired it with FT's Spanish rice. The chicken was wonderful without involving a lot of fuss; it was second-helping good, in fact. The chicken rub's smoked paprika has a flavor reminiscent of chipotle without the heat intensity, and the lime adds some citrus zing. If you're like me you might be skeptical of the hot oven, but this is the second time in the past month that we've roasted chicken start to finish in a 400-degree oven, and both times the resulting bird was appealingly golden on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside. (Sorry, Mom-who-always-roasted-meat-at-350.)

If you follow the link, head farther down the rabbit hole and visit the original recipe that inspired this one, for an orange-enhanced version. I might also use both lime orange next time -- there will be a next time -- or I might play around with more Spanish-inspired flavors.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Bored by the Bible

FT and I had lunch the other day with someone who does children's ministry in our congregation. While  telling us about some of the things she was doing with the younger members of our church she confessed that she was finding it difficult to keep the youngsters interested in Bible stories. You see, she's a masterful storyteller who can make up tall tales on the fly; and the kids, frankly, get much more engaged in her own highly imaginative stories than in the Scriptural stories the tall tales are intended to lead into.

I have to admit that, many if most days, I'm with the kids here. Sometimes, to me, the Bible is pretty boring. Sometimes boring on the level of slogging through the Gilgamesh saga, one of my recent Great Books projects and one of the most neuron-numbingly incoherent and dull stories I've ever encountered; sometimes boring on the level of, say, sitting in a church council meeting where some concrete thinker has spent the last 20 minutes parsing an obscure line in the church constitution that may or may not really have anything to do with buying a part from Home Depot to fix the broken furnace, and while sitting there wearing your meeting game face you're actually thinking (unless you've already dozed off), "Who the hell cares what it says in the footnote to line 10 of subarticle D?"

Leviticus...Numbers...I and II Chronicles...great swaths of the New Testament epistles...Revelation...for me they're kind of like the Gilgamesh bromance and/or the Council Meeting From Hell.

Yes, it's true: It is sometimes very difficult for me to engage with Scripture, especially the non-narrative texts, in a lively way. I can fake it by reading commentaries and contextual aids, looking for new insights there, or by reading sermons and essays describing what other people in my religious milieu have gotten out of their own Bible reading; but just reading it to read it-- not so much. 

I'm sure some of my readers will find this distressing or appalling. But in the spirit of Lent, even in the context of my very minimal observance of Lent this year (which is pretty much, "Oh -- I'm observing that now it's Lent), confession is good for the soul. 

The last time I was really geeked about Scripture was when I was in training for lay ministry and got to study and discuss it  in an academic way with professors who knew what they were talking about and who were able to convincingly articulate the idea that the whole of any given text, and of the canon of Scripture as a whole, was greater than the sum of its parts. But that mojo is hard to keep going outside a particular kind of supported atmosphere.

It makes me wonder how other non-fundamentalist Christians -- people who don't have an oracular, magick-book approach to reading the Bible, but who read and study it in different ways as part of an ongoing spiritual discipline -- power through the drearier parts. What keeps you reading? Have you ever consigned a particular book or part of a book to the land of  "been there, done that, ain't readin' it no more"? What are some pluses of tackling the entirety of Scripture -- good, bad, ugly, boring? I'm genuinely interested in how others deal with this dilemma...or if it even is a dilemma.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Wired Friday Five

This week's RevGalBlogPals Friday Five questions have to do with our relationship to technology: 

1. What types of technologies, like cell phones, computers, tvs, etc., do you routinely use? How frequently?
At our house we have two televisions, one in the living room and one in the bedroom (contrary to common wisdom, we sometimes find it helpful, after a tiring day, to unwind watching TV in bed, with no negative afteraffects); we each have a smartphone, the last-generation Samsung Galaxies that we generally love; we each have a laptop computer; and we each have a Kindle -- I have a tablet-like Kindle Fire that does pretty much anything, and Fellow Traveler just got a used Kindle from her upgrading sister that we need to add to our account. So we're pretty wired around here. We are usually within arm's reach of a phone or a laptop, and I do a lot of bedtime reading with my Kindle. Oh...and we have a seriously underused iPod somewhere on premises (I think in the family technology drawer under our DVR -- wait; there's another thing). I don't really enjoy "portable" music when I'm walking around; it feels like I'm missing out on important voices and sounds around me, especially when I'm walking outside. 

2. What social media and/or games do you like to play? How often? On which device do you occupy yourself? Which method of social media do you prefer?

I am not really big on online games. I do enjoy playing Scrabble with FT and assorted others (even though I tend to play for words, not for points -- it's just a thing); I went through a Words With Friends phase last year during our Florida sojourn but got pretty burned out on that; every so often I play Word Drop 2 or mah-jongg. If I play, it's usually on the laptop; I have such fumble-fingers, it's hard for me to play especially timed games on my phone. As far as social media -- for me it's Facebook (far too much Facebook, frankly). I don't have enough Deep Thoughts to tweet, and other social media outlets either seem too kiddish or too much like work.

3. Do you separate online activities between home and work? Or is it all the same everywhere?

Well, since I don't have a "real" job at the moment, it's all the same. 

4. Do you have a smart (or I-) phone?

Oh, yes. At times our phones are smarter than we are. FT and I especially rely on our phones for directions, since we're both directionally challenged. We have named our GPS app Priscilla, and she has gotten us safely through LA and Chicago -- no small thing. Again, because of my clumsy fingerwork, I don't do an awful lot with my apps, but I do like my weather app, my Yelp app, my compass app and my emergency flashlight app. And I recently discovered Evernote for my laptop, and downloaded the Android version onto my phone for tasks like finding grocery lists. I'm open to suggestions, though, for good apps.

5. What do you wish you had--or do not have--in relation to these devices?

I can't think of a single other piece of technology I need, other than bionic fingers.

Bonus: What is the difference between your attitude towards these means of technology and a generation older or younger than you?

Around here I think it's less of a generational difference than a difference of place. I am shocked by the lack of technological literacy in the area where we live. Part of it has to do with lack of access, both because of low incomes and because of lack of reliable high-speed Internet in some neighborhoods. But perhaps a bigger barrier to use is a sort of localized cultural aversion to technology. I was shocked, for instance, a couple of years ago, to hear an otherwise savvy young woman in our congregation state that, "My husband is the one who uses the computer. I'm afraid of them." We hear variations on that theme all the time around here from 20-somethings on up; although I think the era of smartphones is eroding that sort of Luddite refusal to engage with information technology.

And now...this exercise has reminded me that I don't know where my Kindle is. Gotta go!

Friday, March 01, 2013

A Neat and Trim Friday Five

This week's RevGalBlogPals Friday Five question, in honor of the United States' sequestration dilemma and almost inevitable government spending cuts, asks participants what in their lives could also use a good pruning.

Hmmm....lemmee see...

1. My hair. This seems to be a common theme among many RevGals/Pals. In our household we're about two weeks late for our regular haircuts; Fellow Traveler has had to delay hers because of her jaw surgery -- until recently the scalp on the right side of her head was just too tender -- and as for me...well, I've just been too busy. So my perky bob has, over the last month-and-a-half, turned into kind of a retro Moe-of-the-Three-Stooges mop. I have very thick hair, too, so this sad state of affairs makes me reflexively run my hands through my hair all day long, something that drives my partner and me both crazy. It's just too much hair. It's coming off next week though, finally.

2. My Facebook time. You know, I always intend to pop on for a few minutes just to see what people are doing; and then before I know it I've watched several cute baby animal videos, exercised my righteous indignation over various current events, played a few rounds of Scrabble and Word Drop, given advice/encouragement/random know. Facebook is the online version of a black hole, sucking us and our precious time on earth into its bottomless vortex. I could probably do with less Facebook...although these days it's the primary means for me to keep in touch with most of you.

3. My weight. Thanks to my genes and my love of food, this is a challenge that I suspect I'll have to struggle with for the rest of my life. Now that FT is on a limited, soft-foods-only diet that has made her shed pounds too fast, I feel extra pressure to lose weight too -- not only for health reasons but because we wear the same size clothing, and life is just a whole lot easier with an interchangeable wardrobe. Maybe if I made myself eat the pureed pork chops and pasta I make for FT, I'd lose my appetite.

4. Reading the Comments section below any news article on the Internet. I really need to wear a rubber band on my wrist and snap it smartly whenever I am tempted to read the deep thoughts of vox populi  regarding news stories. It's not a good way to inculcate confidence in the goodness and intelligence of the human race.

5. Sleep. Most people, I know, do not get enough sleep. And I've gone through insomniac jags where I wasn't getting enough sleep. These days, though, instead of luxuriating in my nightly eight hours, it always feels like too much the next morning; leaves me draggy. I'd like to shave off about an hour, and wake up at 6:00 am. That's the time that has always felt right to me, that seems to optimize my day.

I hope that your personal "pruning" is all voluntary and beneficial!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Temptation, the Gospel and How I Learned to Love the AARP

Today's Gospel lesson

Back when I was in my thirties, my parents joined the AARP. I should say, my dad started paying for an annual membership so he could get a discount on homeowners' insurance; he actually thought that AARP was part of The Communist Plot, but it was a deal with the devil he was willing to make. (That actually doesn't have much to do with the point of all this, but it's a little ironic, considering.)

Anyway, my first exposure to the AARP was the AARP magazine. And, as a 20-something flipping through it, my reaction was, "Why the HELL would anyone read this thing on purpose?" Because by this time the feisty senior self-empowerment movement I'd remembered from the early 70's had seemed to degenerate (with help, I'm sure, by the sorts of advertisers interested in the magazine's readership) into a kind of sad-sack, victimized whine. Oh, the calls to political organization and self-improvement articles and "Golden Girls" human interest stories were still there, but they were overwhelmed, at least in my young eyes, by an underlying message of powerlessness and sadness: You're getting old. You don't feel good, and it's only going to get worse. Actually, you're going to die soon. And you're probably getting a little soft in the head en route. Mean people are trying to take advantage of you in multiple ways, you poor, weak, crippled, confused old people. We will try and help you, as a needy and pathetic demographic, go more gently into that good night by our advocacy with young whippersnapper politicians who need to be reminded how sad and vulnerable your lives are...and meanwhile, why don't you buy some laxatives and long-term care insurance? Thanks! Look for our next issue!

Needless to say, about 30 years later when Fellow Traveler bought me an AARP membership as a gag gift for my 50th birthday, I had to work to find the humor in it. Getting significant hotel and insurance discounts dulled the pain a bit, but I have to admit that, month after month, my AARP magazine went directly from post office box to recycling bin.

The other day, though, while sitting in the waiting room during FT's follow-up visit with her oral surgeon, I found myself reading the latest issue of the AARP magazine. I actually read it from cover to cover. And damn if I didn't enjoy it. It made me feel like signing up for cardio class and learning another foreign language and making Ina Garten's chicken recipe for my beloved and kicking idiot politicians in their sensitive bits. Apparently somewhere in the intervening decades the AARP had an "aha" moment where it realized its message was losing the interest, and the membership fees, of a good swath of its target market, as well as alienating the coming-up generations. So they got cool. Their magazine spotlights rock and roll icons of my misspent youth, other celebrities and simply interesting individuals whose graceful aging hits the aspirational buttons of people my age. They have an enhanced website where you can do things like play the "brain games" engineered to keep your mentation nice and sparkly. The publication makes a casual reader feel good to be alive -- not only good, but a little defiant, a little in-your-face about it -- instead of anxious and defeated. I mean, there may have been a Depends ad in there somewhere, but I didn't see it.

With all that in to today's Gospel text, and Jesus' temptations in the wilderness. They revolve around power. The devil keeps egging Jesus on, in the text, to use his divine power in ways that would ultimately violate what the Incarnation was all about: as a handy vending machine/magic act; as a means to temporal power; as a way to bypass the physical laws of this world in order to feel affirmed as God's Chosen One.  Jesus rejects every proposal.

While there are certainly ways that reach of us can abuse the own power we've been given in our lives, no matter how disempowered we feel or are told we me, in my own life at this stage of the game, when I have my own wilderness moments with Satan, the gentle suggestions I hear whispered in my ear are not appeals to hubris or manipulative use of power; instead, they're messages to not use the power that I have, period; to just give up. Like the old AARP magazine of my youthful memory, these messages tell me that I'm the helpless victim of my own mortality, of various forces inside and outside myself over which I have no control, of antagonistic or exploitative others.

Just give up on Christianity already. Most Christians are anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-intellectual idiots who hate you, and the ones who don't are in denominations that are swirling the drain, and the whole thing is just an increasingly shallow and unsatisfying mess that doesn't enhance your experience of living. I struggle with that one a lot, even though wilful ignorance, political bloviating, misogyny and homophobia are not things I generally experience on a day-to-day level in my own denomination or faith community. But these tropes are so pervasive in American popular Christian culture that you yourself can  move in the most intellectually lively, woman-affirming, gay-friendly Christian circles around and still feel at times like packing it in: "You know, it's been fun and all, and you're good folks, but I just can't do this anymore. So long; thanks for Bach and all the potlucks."

You're washed up vocationally. Look at you. You don't earn a paycheck anymore. You sell antiques, for God's sake; that's one step up from "Hoarders." There's nothing for you to do at church that fits your skill set -- if you even have one of those anymore. When's the last time you've written anything? Now you're a Hausfrau and not even a good one of those. And -- you're 52! Game over, loser! Stick a fork in you; you're done. Listen to this long enough and you'll find yourself sitting in front of the TV all day watching "NCIS" re-runs while you stuff Doritos into your mouth. In these underemployed, uncertain times, I suspect Old Scratch gets a lot of mileage out of this general script.

You almost died. How long did it take you to get over that medical mishap with the anesthesia? Two years? One moment you were fine; next moment you were checking out; then months of feeling less than competent...being afraid to fall asleep, afraid to take a shower, afraid to walk; feeling numb and  slow and confused. All the organic food and healthy living couldn't save you, could it, from that episode? And don't you think that's affected you permanently on some level? Made you a little more vulnerable? Do you really think that you're ever going to be healthier than you are now? 'Cause you're just running to keep up right now, sweetie. Maybe you should just "number your days," take it easy, keep reminding yourself over and over again how close to dead you really were and how many fewer years you have left. There's a thin it seems, between the hope of second chances and the fear of losing them. And at least for me the devil keeps wanting to nudge me over that line into a life of anxiety and resignation and low expectations of myself physically and mentally.

So far the Holy Spirit has always managed to show up in the midst of these soul-bruising, endless-loop internal conversations, like the disability advocates who picketed Washington with signs reading, "NOT DEAD YET." S/he can be ornery, that one. And she seems to be teaching me, slowly, to be ornery too; to stand up for myself, to make choices instead of making no choice, to defy the voice of Satan disguised as common wisdom and listen for real Wisdom instead. And that is my takeaway from our Gospel lesson, too; not a meek and mild Jesus, but a strong and engaged Jesus giving the devil his due -- which is to say, nothing. I want to be like that when I grow up.