Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Forty years and flowers

My first blogpost looked forward to spring, and our fortieth anniversary, and the voice of the turtledove being heard in the land.

Reasonable expectations for the end of March, unless you live in the Midwest. I must have forgotten that. And this year, winter in Chicagoland has been exceptionally long and bleak. A sales associate at an Eddie Bauer store said to me, "We're having a hard time selling spring clothes. People are just too cold to think about them."

The dogs stand at the window by the front door, mournfully remembering when they used to go for walks.

Friends say, "I don't know why I feel so tired all the time."

We were going to celebrate our anniversary locally, but how is that possible when winter refuses to leave?

So, ever optimistic, we headed for a part of the country known for its gray skies and heavy rainfall. The state my mother escaped from sixty years ago, moving to Southern California in search of sunshine. "You came here to get away from Chicago?" said a bookstore employee yesterday, disbelieving. "Why?"

The pictures show why. It's nippy here, and it rains part of every day. But spring has arrived.

The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of the singing of birds is come,
and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

The fig tree putteth forth her green figs,
and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
Song of Songs 2.12-13

Far away from Chicago.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

"You shall delight in rich fare"

Tonight for the Easter Vigil at St. Mike’s, I’ll be reading from Isaiah 55, a stirring proclamation of God’s generosity and bounty, a fitting end to dreary Lent, and a call to the Easter feast! Here are excerpts:
Thus says the Lord:
All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, receive grain and eat;
come, without paying and without cost,
drink wine and milk!
Why spend your money for what is not bread,
your wages for what fails to satisfy?
Heed me, and you shall eat well,
you shall delight in rich fare. . . .

For just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
so shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
—Isaiah 55:1–2, 10–11

Therefore let us celebrate the feast!
—1 Corinthians 5:8


The most dismal Easter service I ever experienced was in an Episcopal church we visited twenty-some years ago. The priest (a good man, but a recent seminary grad) basically said in his homily, “Christ wasn’t really raised from the dead, but it doesn’t matter because . . .”

That's the kind of sermon that makes me say with Mary Magdalene, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” I far prefer novelist John Updike's poem "Seven Stanzas at Easter," which begins:
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
So I appreciated Rachel Zoll's article in this morning's Washington Post, "Resurrection Misunderstood by Many, Scholars Say." Three of the scholars she cites are
Jon Levenson, author of Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, Kevin Madigan, co-author with Levenson of Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews (to be published April 28), and N.T. Wright, author of The Resurrection of the Son of God and the recently published Surprised by Hope.

What do these three theologians--an American Jew, an Irish-American Catholic, and a bishop of the Church of England--have in common? All three, according to Zoll, "have been challenging the idea, part of Greek philosophy and popular now, that resurrection for Jews and the followers of Jesus is simply the survival of an individual's soul in the hereafter. The scholars say resurrection occurs for the whole person -- body and soul."

Get ready to say it tonight or tomorrow morning:
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Beyond Smells and Bells

My sainted father--and I call him that without a trace of irony--once told me that there were two kinds of worship he simply couldn't identify with: charismatic and liturgical. This from a man who studied history and theology, taught worship in a seminary, and wrote a book called And Worship Him. Dad's favorite definition of worship was from Ilion T. Jones: "what a thinking man does as he approaches another thinking being called God."

"We must not seek a brand of worship that is purely aesthetic," my father wrote in 1967. "Worship must be orderly and beautiful, but . . . it should have the functional beauty of a jet airplane rather than the embellishment of a nineteenth-century railway coach." My father liked old-school Protestant services with stately hymns, long sermons, and immobile congregations.

I do not.

My frequent attempts to change my father's views were unsuccessful, however. I should never have taken him to St. Barnabas Episcopal Church; its jet-airplane decor did not sufficiently atone for its Anglo-Catholic liturgy. And if Dad were still living, I probably shouldn't give him Mark Galli's new book either--though I'm quite sure I would anyway. Hope springs eternal.

Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy (Paraclete, 2008) is a short, easy-to-read introduction that explains and defends liturgical worship "for those who find themselves attracted to liturgy but don't quite know why." Galli, an Anglican, draws mostly from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (with occasional quotations from Methodist, Lutheran, or Catholic liturgies) as he sings the praises of liturgy: how it can draw us closer to God and to one another; how it can affect our sense of time and place; how it can transform our faith, our imagination, our entire being.

"In a culture that assumes that truth is a product of the mind, the liturgy helps us experience truth in both mind and body."

--Mark Galli, Beyond Smells and Bells, 11

Galli belongs to a church teeming with Wheaton College students, many with little previous experience of ancient liturgies. His book is tailor-made for them. It is also ideal for their often baffled parents.

Mark is clearly in love with liturgy, but he is not triumphalist about it: he recognizes that liturgy is no guarantee of spiritual life, and he does not denigrate other forms of Christian worship. Readers from non-liturgical traditions may be challenged by his assertions, but they will not feel threatened.

I wish I could test the book on my father. Clearly not attracted to liturgy, he would not be part of the readership Galli had in mind. Nevertheless, I like to think Dad--and others like him--would find Galli's apologia illuminating.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Fat Pack

How do food writers avoid obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other medical hazards of their chosen profession? Many don't, says Kim Severson in her article in today's New York Times, "The Fat Pack Wonders If the Party's Over":

The journalists, bloggers, chefs and others who make up the Fat Pack combine an epicure’s appreciation for skillful cooking with a glutton’s bottomless-pit approach. Cramming more than three meals into a day, once the last resort of a food critic on deadline, has become a way of life. If the meals center on meat, so much the better.

Severson quotes several writers who are defensive about their lifestyle, but others are trying a new approach. Those

who want to lose weight find themselves trying to forge a new kind of diet, one that rejects the conventional strategy of denial and avoidance and embraces the pleasure of really, really good food.

One who is working on reshaping his body while continuing to enjoy eating is Ed Levine. Check out his website, Serious Eats, where on Thursdays he blogs about "his attempts to find food that is delicious and healthy."

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Raspberry sauce for chocolate cake

Last month I posted a recipe for flourless chocolate cakelets. I served it to friends Friday night, and when they asked for the recipe I realized I had not posted any serving instructions.

It is arguably impossible to put too much chocolate in a cake, but these cakelets would overwhelm were they not accompanied by berries (rasp- or black-) and served over (or under) a not-too-sweet fruity sauce. The first time I served them, I took about a cup of Hardy's "Whiskers Blake" tawny (an Australian port), tossed in a cup or so of cherries and raspberries, and reduced it by half or two thirds. It made a great sauce.

This time I took 2 C frozen raspberries, 1 C water, and 1/2 C sugar and brought them to a boil.

I added 1/2 C cognac and let the mixture simmer for a very long time, until it was reduced to about a third of the original volume. I then pressed it all through a strainer to remove the seeds and chilled it until time to serve.

I put a good dollop of the sauce on each of four dessert plates, planted a cakelet in the middle of each dollop, and put eight fat blackberries alongside. Marvelous. Almost too much (though people did clean their plates...).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

King Corn

If you enjoyed Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, or if you're feeling mildly guilty about not having read it yet, here's a way to get a quick [p]review.

Inspired by Pollan, a couple of young New Yorkers decide to study the American way of farming by going to Iowa, buying an acre, and growing their own corn crop. King Corn is their illuminating 90-minute documentary about what they learned. Read more about it at their website, or rent the CD from Blockbuster (Netflix isn't yet aware that it's been released).

My friend Linda, who is an Iowa farmer, liked this film so much that she sent me a copy. If you live nearby, I'll lend it to you.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Genesis Growers

I love broccoli and spinach. At about this time last year, however, I realized how bored I was with my two favorite vegetables. I craved variety. I would do something extreme.

So I signed up with Genesis Growers, a community-supported agriculture program run by Farmer Vicki Westerhoff.

Note: Farmer Vicki provided the pictures included with this post. Go to her website to learn more about her philosophy, her farm, and how to sign up for nine months of great eating.

Every week from April through December I drove to the drop-off point about a mile from my house and picked up a box of produce. Occasionally my boxes contained broccoli or spinach or other lovely greens like chard or beet tops. They often included some of the best baby lettuce I've ever tasted. They provided us with asparagus, melons, strawberries, peaches, carrots, corn, peppers, zucchini, cauliflower, plums, apples, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and many other readily identifiable vegetables and fruits.

They also introduced us--and this was the fun part--to untried vegetables, ones I'd walked past at Whole Foods but had never bought. Here are some of the foods I prepared for the first time, thanks to Farmer Vicki: bok choi, napa cabbage, kale, sugar snap peas, bekana, white icicle radishes, spaghetti squash, mizuna, daikon radishes, kohlrabi, lemon basil, purple carrots (gorgeous raw, sliced on the bias), autumn poem, sessantina grossa.

To see a picture of the contents of one CSA box, go to this earlier post. In it I also recommend two fascinating books about food.

It's the off season now in the Midwest. CSA farmers are working in their greenhouses, but deliveries haven't begun. Farmers Markets won't open for another six weeks. This weekend I bought broccoli and spinach, still my favorites, but I bought other things too. I was pleased when the cashier at Jewel pointed to my bag of fennel and asked, "What is it?" A year ago, I wouldn't have known either.

If you live in Chicagoland, you can still sign up with Farmer Vicki. Choose spring, summer, fall, or any combination. You can also sign up for fresh eggs--flavor you won't believe--and gently grown chicken. If you live elsewhere, find a CSA or farmers market near you by checking one of these links in the left-hand column: Eatwild, Family Farmed, or Local Harvest.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Come Be My Light

I have begun reading the controversial book about Mother Teresa’s struggles, Come Be My Light (Doubleday, 2007). The author, Brian Kolodiejchuk, MC, sets her private writings in their historical, religious, and biographical context. His description of the mystical tradition of interior darkness, especially as described by the sixteenth-century saint John of the Cross, is both accurate and troubling. Here are some excerpts about “the painful purifications one undergoes before reaching union with God”:

They are accomplished in two phases: the “night of the senses” and the “night of the spirit.” In the first night one is freed from attachment to sensory satisfactions and drawn into the prayer of contemplation....

Having passed through the first night, one may then be led by God into the “night of the spirit,” to be purged from the deepest roots of one’s imperfections. A state of extreme aridity accompanies this purification, and one feels rejected and abandoned by God. The experience can become so intense that one feels as if heading toward eternal perdition....Prayer is difficult, almost impossible; spiritual counsel practically of no avail; and various exterior trials may add to this pain. By means of this painful purification, the disciple is led to total detachment from all created things and to a lofty degree of union with Christ, becoming a fit instrument in His hands and serving Him purely and disinterestedly. (22–23)

I find it hard to reconcile this kind of mysticism with an incarnate God who is the source and redeemer of “created things.” But perhaps I am misreading “total detachment.”

Mother Teresa did not try to escape created things. She did not reject the physical world in favor of spiritual experience. Her lifelong ministry to the poorest of the poor plunged her into more physical reality than most of us could bear.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Road to Cana

Most Wednesday mornings I attend a church history class at St. Mike's. We've been reading the church fathers, and their opponents, on the nature of Christ. In what sense is he human? In what sense divine? How many persons--natures--wills--are present in Christ? Did the human Jesus have access to divine wisdom and power? Did the divine Jesus truly suffer and die?

For some 500 years the church struggled to define the indefinable. The Nicene creed, developed in the fourth century, affirms that Christ is both God and man:

eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven. By the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

Despite the creed, quarrels about Christ's nature raged on for another century and a half. Gregory of Nyssa described the high level of interest among Constantinopolitans:

Every place in the city is full of them: the alleys, the crossroads, the forums, the squares. Garment sellers, money changer, food vendors--they are all at it. If you ask for change, they philosophize for you about generate and ingenerate natures. If you inquire about the price of bread, the answer is that the Father is greater and the Son inferior. If you speak about whether the bath is ready, they express the opinion that the Son was made out of nothing.

As I buy groceries at Trader Joe's, I don't hear a lot of discussion about Christ's nature. Christology is, however, an important theme in Anne Rice's new book, Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana (will vampire lovers and goth kids start reading Athanasius?). My friend Cindy Crosby's insightful review, "Truly God and Truly Man," is Books and Culture's Book of the Week. Cindy writes,

Rather than soft-pedal her beliefs, [Rice] lays them out plainly in the reader's letter at the front of the novel. "I believe in Him as God and Man, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who came down on this earth to be born amongst us, live and work with us, and to save us. This Jesus is Sinless. This Jesus created us." No pussyfooting around here....

Rice wisely seizes on the interior conflict between Jesus as God and as man to create the tension that holds the story together—the same conflict that has seemingly paralyzed other novelists. Rice shows the audacity of an outsider to the Christian publishing world (where most of the novelizations of Christ's life have been created) and rushes in where the proverbial angels might fear to tread. But it is Rice's courage in tackling her subject matter—while still holding her protagonist in reverence—that elevates The Road to Cana above its predecessors in the genre.

Publishers Weekly's starred review, quoted on Amazon's web page, praises Rice's theologico-literary feat:

If it is possible to create a character that is simultaneously fully human and fully divine, as ancient Christian creeds assert, then Rice succeeds.

Gather round, children, and listen--good stories make good theology.

Monday, March 3, 2008


From Garrison Keillor, Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon (Viking, 2007), 166:
Dorothy said she believed in letting bygones be bygones and each to his own and live and let live. "There is too much backbiting and malicious gossip in a small town and that is the truth and everybody knows it," she said. "It wouldn't hurt people to be a little more forgiving and tolerant. That was how Evelyn was. She used to say, 'There's a lot of human nature in everybody.'"

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Give me a break--or a Sabbath

Years ago while driving in England, my husband and I encountered a "no" sign by the side of the road. Trouble was, it didn't tell us what not to do. Did it mean no parking? no overtaking? no hitchhiking? no tractors?

I grew up in a Sabbath-keeping community. Every Friday at sundown, a nonspecific "no" sign seemed to hover over our town. We knew it meant no working--that was straight from the book of Exodus. Our parents were pretty sure it meant no TV (except when JFK died on a Friday), no radio (except for stations that broadcast classical or religious music), no newspapers (though we could read religious magazines).

What about play? Well, probably not your usual games (so my friends and I invented "Bible ping-pong," where you shouted out a memory verse every time you served). Certain games had been developed for our limited market--Going to Jerusalem, Bible Seek--but they were about as exciting as Chutes and Ladders.

That left us with interminable nature walks. Sitting around the house with our parents and their friends. Or, more likely, hanging out with our own friends, gossiping and plotting what we would do as soon as the sun went down Saturday night. Sabbaths were long. God must have invented them to give us a taste of eternity.

In retrospect, these days of enforced inactivity sound idyllic. Maybe we didn't appreciate them because people had not yet learned how to be maniacally busy. Our parents worked hard, but they were usually home, off duty, by dinnertime. They did not generally help us with our homework (in those days, it was assumed that school was for the students, not their parents), and they rarely carpooled us to extracurricular activities.

For that matter, we didn't have all that many activities beyond the school day. A sandlot baseball game now and then, a "young people's meeting" at the church Friday evenings, a weekly piano lesson (generally within walking distances, and we walked a lot)--that was about it.

The biggest difference, though, was that we didn't live electronically. The personal computer had not been invented, so we did not have e-mail, blogs, facebook, computer games, blackberries, or Google-assisted net-surfing. Our ears were free of ipods and bluetooth headsets. We communicated by handwritten letters, which took from three days to a week to cross the country, or by telephone; and the only way to move around the house while talking on the phone was to buy an extremely long coiled cord which inevitably got tangled up in whatever else we were trying to do at the time.

Multitask was not a word.

We had Sabbaths then, and we didn't appreciate them. We are on call 24/7 now (and proud of it!), and we are desperate for relief. Check out Mark Bittman's excellent article in today's New York Times, "I Need a Virtual Break. No, Really," in which he recommends restoring sanity by keeping a secular Sabbath. Writing this on my computer on a Sunday morning before church, I think he's absolutely right.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


The wife of an aging, infirm relative informs us that he is now on Marinol, a synthetic marijuana (who knew)? Contrary to her hopes, it has not yet made him mellow. Rather, he is acting like an insane three-year-old. It has, however, cured his anorexia.

Uncle Sam doesn't eat local

Can't find the fresh food you crave at Jewel or Dominics? King corn (and soy) may be at fault. Check out this op ed piece in today's New York Times.

Jack Hedin, a Minnesota farmer, writes that "consumers who would like to be able to buy local fruits and vegetables not just at farmers’ markets, but also in the produce aisle of their supermarket, will be dismayed to learn that the federal government works deliberately and forcefully to prevent the local food movement from expanding. And the barriers that the United States Department of Agriculture has put in place will be extended when the farm bill that House and Senate negotiators are working on now goes into effect."

If you haven't yet read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, get yourself a copy at your bookstore, the Morton Arboretum gift shop, or Amazon (only $9.60!). It is absolutely not a tendentious, finger-wagging book. It is full of fascinating facts that you will find yourself reading aloud to patient family members. You'll really empathize with Farmer Hedin after you've read Pollan.