Not my best photo

Last Tuesday, I wrote about my first work of mixed media painting.  I finished it on Thursday, and delivered it to my friend on Friday.  And here it is:

Flourish as a flower of the field


I should have cropped that better.  What looks like an off center tan mat is actually the wall in my house that I hung the picture on in order to photograph it.

The green lines circling and criss-crossing in the center constitute the logogram for the Mayan world tz’ak – which is mostly a mathematical symbol, having to do with wholeness, completeness, or adding to make a whole count.  My friend is a linguist, and she especially loves indigenous languages of Latin America – and I happened to have come across an old National Geographic article about Mayan glyphs as I was getting started on the painting for her.

This photo leaves a lot to be desired – I used several coats of glossy Mod Podge (rather than matte) on purpose – so that it is easier to view from some angles than from others – and the result is that it is not too easy to photograph!  The sparkle Mod Podge that my daughter added at the end to highlight certain areas does not help matters!  So there are bits that are in there that are invisible.

I am already planning my next piece.

Cooking for Friends

I love cooking for people! Last night, I made a big pot of chicken and rice soup – enough to feed both my family and one other, and still put some up in the freezer.  I had been meaning to make soup for weeks, but committing to this friend of my daughter’s and her family (They just had a baby! Mazel Tov, Sadie!  Mazel Tov, Rex and Cynthia!) gave me the extra push I needed to get to chopping and simmering and stirring.

There is something hypnotic about making soup.  It is slow work.  The ingredients have their order, the stirring has its rythmn, there is a slow bass beat of bubbles popping, together with the treble rattle of the pot lid.  And the smells… Spending time over my soup draws me back in time – and all too often my memory takes me places where I would just as soon not go.

A friend of mine, a pastor, recently posted on Facebook regarding funerals, and that took my mind back to my last visit with a parishioner who died about a year after I left the parish.  She had been fighting breast cancer for years, and that day – less than a week before the moving company came to whisk me off to North Carolina – that day was precious to both of us.  I believe that we both were fairly certain that we would not see one another again this side of the Second Coming.  And so I took the opportunity to tell her how much she meant to me:  what a tremendous witness her faith was to me, and what a beacon of love she was to others.  And she replied, “You really think so, Sarah?  I have always had my doubts about my witness, since I never cook for anyone.  [My mother-in-law] is always making casseroles for people who are sick, and [this friend] and [another friend], but I never do, and I just worry that I am not behaving like a Christian.”

This really struck a nerve with me.  I had not long before received an e-mail from someone who was angry at me, and who decided to illustrate how I “talk the talk but don’t walk the walk” with my failure to make a casserole for a family living 20 minutes away.  My first thought was to defensively point out that I was only a couple of days past having been on food assistance myself, having a 2 week old baby who screamed non-stop when not nursing something like 14 times a day, all the time preparing for my probationary elder’s interviews – a four hour ordeal that was immovably scheduled to take place when my daughter was less than a month old.  But an older and wiser pastor suggested that it was better for me not to respond.  As the pastor, it was not my job to make casseroles.  As the pastor on maternity leave, it was not my job to be available to the congregation for really anything.  Hence the word “leave.”  But it kept eating at me.  I called my Dad, and he said, “You have to let it go, Sweetie.”  But he couldn’t tell me how – he was an expert at having some parishioner or another angry at him, and inexpert at letting anything go.

And here was this dear woman, whose charitable heart knew no bounds, somehow receiving this same message that because she did not cook for others in need, she was not “walking the walk.”

I remember pulling out my Bible and reading about how we are all given different gifts.  “Can you imagine what would happen if every woman in this county showed up with a casserole when someone was in distress?  It would be more than the recipient could even freeze!  Why, we would just get sicker, trying to politely eat everything that was brought to us!”

“Maybe you’re right, Sarah,” she said with a laugh.  But she still sounded uncertain.  And maybe that is because I had yet to learn a better answer…

As I stirred the soup, I thought of what Rex had written in an e-mail in response to the hastily organized supper brigade: “I have to admit, I never experienced this kind of hospitality growing up and living in [urban center not in the South!]”

He didn’t say, “Wow, you guys are really good Christians!” – and rightly so – most of the other parents probably wouldn’t self identify as Christian.  Instead, he saw this response to their new baby as “Southern hospitality” – we were witnessing to our Southernness.

Here I am, for the second time in less than a month paraphrasing Matthew 5:43-48:

Do you cook food for your friends when they are sick or have a new baby or have a death in the family?  Every Southerner does that.  You are only proving that you are capable of conforming to cultural norms.  Do you wish to witness to your Christian faith?  Then consider:  how do you demonstrate your love for those who oppose you, who would seek to do you harm, who undermine cultural norms, or who have nothing in common with you?

And so I think that I am one step closer to learning how to “let it go,” as my father prayed that I might do.  I love cooking for my friends.  I do it because I like to do it – and because, when my daughter is out of the house or feeling cooperative, it is something that I now am able to do.  But I do not deceive myself that cooking for others is something that I do because I am a Christian – it is not something that is rooted in my life of prayer and worship, or in my study of the scriptures.  I am a Southern woman who likes cooking, and so I cook for my friends when they need someone to cook for them, and when I have the time and energy to do so.  When I am doing something because I am a Christian, it usually looks very different – often it looks weird and sometimes even dangerous – usually it involves transgressing cultural norms.  Not to knock cooking for our friends – it is very rewarding for everyone involved!  But doing it or not doing it doesn’t witness to much – except to whether we are living into the expectations encoded in the notion of Southern womanhood.

The gift of experience

In December, we predictably find a lot of articles on gift giving.  What should we give?  To whom should we give?  Why should we give?  Do we give too much to some people and not enough to others?  One of my favorite articles of this type was written by Matthew Yglesias for Slate, and posted late enough in the season to give most people an opportunity to view their own pile of packages with remorse.  It evaluated the “deadweight loss” of much giving (the difference between what the giver paid and how much it is actually worth to the person who receives it,) and asserted that gift giving should be “redistributive.”  It also made a good case for spreading out our giving through the year (particularly through serendipitous giving), rather than doing the majority of it during a brief window at the end of the year.

Another suggestion he made was that it was better to give an experience than an object.  This distinction – between object and experience – seems clear at first.  As the tagline at the top of the browser puts it: “Scarves, no.  Surfing lessons, yes.”  But on Christmas day, I found the more helpful advice to be the author’s broader: “embrace risk.”  After all, while the dichotomy between scarves and surfing lessons is clear, other objects carry experience within them.  And the gift certificate for surfing lessons may go unused, which would transform the certificate into the most worthless of objects – a used piece of paper.

My idea of a good Christmas, from a “what cool stuff did I get?” perspective, hasn’t changed very much since I was a child.  No matter what else I unwrap, I want at least one thing I can play with right away – that afternoon.  I want at least one object that carries an (immediately accessible) experience within it.  As a child, that was easy – there were any number of toys that I could begin interacting with right away.  As a grown up, amidst the alluring springform pans (make a cheesecake!), the exciting lessons (learn a new skill!), the brand new clothing (look different!), there are few items that fit the demand, “entertain me now!”:  a new gadget, new music, or (most often) a new book.

There is, of course, danger in giving a book – even a book that the recipient has asked for.  If they do not like it, the best case scenario is that it is transformed back into an inert object, collecting dust on a shelf.  The gift also contains the possibility inherent in all gifts: the incredulous “why did s/he think I would want that?” Giving a book that you have not yet read could result in discovering later some embarrassing content that you did not realize was there.  Then again, it gives you a defense (“Sorry! I hadn’t read it!”) that you do not have if you have in fact read it.  The latter can reveal a rift that was unknown until the recipient discovered something disturbing on page 173 – something that the giver blissfully glossed over when reading the book months earlier.

But in the best case scenario, the book is read and enjoyed, and so becomes (no less than surfing lessons) an experience.  The hours spent with the book are hours spent re-categorizing ideas and events, re-evaluating previously held beliefs, re-visiting other, older experiences.  The book inspires, the book moves one to speech, exclaiming, “Yes!” and then reading passages aloud to others in the room.  The book creates a sense of community with the author and with others who have read the book – a reassurance that the reader is not alone, together with a new, clearer articulation of the inchoate scraps of thought swirling just beneath the surface of her/his conscious thought.

Of course, Christmas is not primarily about gift giving – or at least it ought not to be.  It is a celebration of the Word made flesh for our salvation – the Feast of the Incarnation – a day for remembering the one who came for the purpose of bringing us back home to God.  As such, I would build on the economist’s idea that we “get the most bang for our gift-giving buck” – and suggest that in all of our giving (but particularly on Christmas), our aim should be to reveal Christ through our giving – to be the vessels through which others are brought closer to God.  There could be no greater return on our investment.

I don’t know how much of this went into my brother’s thinking (who is, himself, a Christian who holds a degree in finance), and how much instead he was simply struck with, “I bet this is something that Sarah would like for her birthday!”  But his gift of William Abraham’s Divine Revelation and the Limits of Historical Criticism was all that my childish “entertain me now!” impulse might lead me to desire.  At the same time, it has revealed Christ to me anew, at a time when I was especially needing to better articulate what it means that God speaks.  Especially in the face of my conviction, growing over the past ten years, that certain “reasonable” limits accepted in modern theology exposed the functional atheism of many who wished to continue to proclaim Christ for whatever reason.

A book IS an experience.  Thanks, James, for giving me Abraham’s book, instead of surfing lessons.  Though I wouldn’t be surprised if surfing lessons top Hannah’s list in about ten years.