Palestine 2018 Trip – Day One

Arrived in the evening exhausted from the flight. I got no sleep on the plane and I’ve been awake for almost 24 hours I think depending on what the time difference does, besides occasionally dozing off randomly. I was struck immediately on the way in how similar everything is. The highway signs look almost identical to what I see in Kentucky, most people spoke English, and it just generally felt like another city. But occasionally people on the shuttle from the airport would start a conversation in Hebrew, or we’d pass large groups of men and women dressed in Orthodox garb and I’d remember I was in a different country for the first time in my life. The buildings initially looked all the same as back home, but as we got deeper into Jerusalem, the buildings took on a different mood. Large gates, wrought iron fences, barbed wire and bars over the windows. There was a crowded and oppressive feeling I couldn’t shake.

 

I’d met two of the team members, Anice and Angela, in Newark where we’d boarded for the flight to Tel Aviv. We met another team member, Chihchun, by coincidence on the shuttle ride here. Once we got to the hostel, we met our team leader, Cory, and one other member, Quinn. We left our things in the hostel and went out to grab dinner from the market. I noticed several spots where armed border guards were stationed, which seemed odd since we weren’t anywhere near the border yet. We get an orientation tomorrow, so I’ll get a better idea of what to expect then.

 

We went to a shawarma shop, which was a learning experience itself. There wasn’t a line, just everyone jammed into the counter and shouting their orders. It seemed like most of the customers were locals, the people behind the counters recognizing them and getting their by what looked like a “ah, here’s your regular” type of routine. It took a while to get my food because I kept sitting back and watching them all, it was fascinating. One of our team members had push through to get the orders placed.

 

Eating dinner we began with some ice breaker conversation. The “two truths and a lie” game is usually a favorite for me, but I was so tired I couldn’t think of anything. We headed back to the hostel and took an early night to bed. I feel like I should be in more shock given that I’ve never left the country before, but I’m genuinely excited about what’s to come

Monotony

On my way to work this morning, I passed by some open green farm fields. It’s going to be a gorgeous day, temperature should get up to around 85 degrees, sunny, and not a dark cloud in sight. I imagine in the mountains, it’ll be perfect hiking weather, just a little cooler, so you can get a good hike on and not overheat. Every time you stop, you’ll feel a slight chill to make you want to move again, but not uncomfortable. Get to a rock ledge for lunch, and you can lay out on some warm stone in the sun and munch away on your trail mix or a tortilla filled with cheese and jerky. I, on the other hand, just sat down to my desk at work. I’m about twenty feet from the closest window, and the natural sunlight is just a small square glimmer, and I can only just see the cars in the parking lot and a green hint of trees behind. No open sky can be seen.

This is the first year I am going an entire summer without a long distance hiking trip in almost three years. I’m out of vacation time for the rest of the year due to my planned trip to Palestine in October, so the best I can hope for is a brief overnight camping trip. I keep telling myself this is the responsible life I had to choose. I need a regular paycheck and most importantly health insurance. A set of tumors, which turned out benign, were found in my thyroid a few months ago. My hospital bills are currently sitting at just above $6,000 and I can only imagine how that situation would have gone if I were still an unemployed hiker who found growths slowly expanding on my neck and had no way to take care of it. But even with that reminder in place, I still cannot break from an almost unbearable sadness that comes from feeling trapped in this responsible life. Every morning I spend at least a few minutes talking myself out of playing hooky and running away to the woods instead of going to work. If I went into the Daniel Boone National Forest (just a short drive south of me) I’d be out of cell phone range by the time my boss realized I wasn’t showing up for work. I wouldn’t have to be responsible for answering a phone call asking if I was okay.

This is adult life. It is responsibility. It is not fun and it is not exciting. But it is life as I have to live it for now because adventures and good health unfortunately cost money, and I can say from experience that no one is willing to pay to read me writing about them as of yet. So I take it one day at a time for now. Maybe, if I’m fortunate enough, I can save up enough to pay off the hospital bills and go on some more adventures soon, but I can’t hold my breath for that. In the meantime, I have to watch my coping mechanisms. I normally can socially drink without much problem, but lately I’ve had to stop drinking, especially my favorite whiskey, because I almost constantly find myself wanting to just drink a bottle to turn my brain off for a while, and I know it’s easier to not drink at all than it is to drink in moderation when I feel this way. I’ve been taking walks on my lunch break at work and when I clock out at the end of the day to go home. Getting a mile or two in every day walking on a concrete sidewalk is by no means a sufficient replacement for miles and hours on a dirt path, but it’s the best I can do for now. I avoid reading anyone’s trail journals because I know it would just depress me more, but I occasionally follow the news on Facebook from various ATC chapters, or postings from hostel owners and operators talking about the hikers they’r seeing this year. A manageable taste of the thing I crave, trying to keep it controlled so I don’t overdo it. I’ve been reading like a madman. I thought I’d be lucky to finish fifty books this year since I’m not hiking and I’m working full time, but I’ve finished 30 so far only four months in. I can’t get away from the monotony of my life, so I’ll cram my thoughts full of everything else I can.

Trying to write has been a struggle, this post is an indulgence to me because I know I want to get some words down, but honestly I haven’t been able to think about how much I miss escape, and honestly no one wants to read that multiple times a week. I don’t think it would be healthy for me to write about it that often either. I was getting a chance to write regularly when I was posting the recipes, but my weight has spiraled out of control since I started back to work. Sitting for 8 hours a day just isn’t healthy as it turns out. So I’ve had to put some severe controls on my diet. I cut out variety because I found that it was making it too hard to resist the temptation to go overboard, so I stick to a basic diet of mostly vegetables with some salmon or chicken breast thrown in. Again, it’s sustenance and it’s responsible, but it isn’t very exciting to either write about or experience.

I’m trying. I’m taking one day at a time. And honestly, I’m surviving in part because of lessons I learned on the trail. When I’d find myself at the foot of a mountain I never thought I’d be able to climb, pushing up a long snaking trail that I felt like would never end, I’d stop thinking about the end. Take my find off of the entire journey at all and just think about the steps in front of me. Put my left foot down. My right foot down. Stop when I need a break and lean forward on my trekking poles to release some weight from my shoulders and my back. Breath. It’s hard and it’s often miserable, but it’s worth it if you can just continue. You don’t have to worry about if you’re going to get there or if you’re going fast enough. You just have to wake up each day and decide you are going to try, then take the little steps you need. When hiking in Georgia or Tennessee, you’ll go mad if you think only about Katahdin every morning. But you can wake up and think about taking your tent down, making breakfast, or packing up. Don’t get taken away by the end goal, try to focus on the next small thing you need to do. It’s monotonous, it’s boring, but it is life.

The Gift of Singleness

I was recently invited to speak at my local church, Encounter Vineyard in Newport, Kentucky. I thought I’d share my notes here because I haven’t been able to write much else for the last week or so. I’ll be honest, I was more than a little stressed as this approached. I haven’t spoken in front of people for a while, and haven’t spoken in front of people for this length of time at any point in my life. The notes are slightly different than what I actually said, if you want to listen to the message, you can check it out here.


Hello! My name is James. For those of you who don’t know me, I usually sit in the back. Cliff asked me to share this morning about singleness in the family of God. I guess I’m uniquely qualified as I’m 37 years old and never married, so I can pretty much cover this and maybe a message on gluttony if needed.

I first moved to this area almost twenty years ago to attend Bible college. College is a rough time generally speaking, but among the many struggles I found that the single life in Bible college was especially fraught with worry.

I grew up in the church, attending a Vineyard in north central Ohio, and I can attest from a fair number of youth gatherings, Bible studies, and FCA morning huddles, that the church spends a lot of time talking to young people about dating. This does not change if you go to a Christian college. In fact, I think I’m safe in saying that a significant portion of Bible college culture was focused on what dating was supposed to look like for Christians. Young men and women in attendance there often felt pressure to be actively looking for their marriage partner, and engagements and weddings were a common occurrence among the student body. Sadly, divorces after leaving Bible college also became a common occurrence as these young marriages that were made in the desperation of youth failed to last.

I’ve actually been engaged twice in my life, but never married. I can freely attest to you that in both cases, I felt an urgency to get married because I believed, thanks to society and the church around me at the time, that marriage was the essential next step for every young person. That God “has someone out there for everyone.” Looking back today, I actually find myself thankful that neither of these relationships culminated in marriage, because I believe the heart of that pursuit of marriage for marriage’s sake is unhealthy. That is what we are going to be unpacking today.

When the Israelite were crossing the desert after leaving Egypt, there’s a fascinating story about when they stop for God to deliver the Law to Moses. While Moses was on the climb up Mt Sinai, the rest of the people waited at the foot of the mountain. They waited for Moses for forty days and forty nights, and after they became afraid, they pushed Moses’s brother Aaron, the high priest into making an idol for them. You may have seen this in movies, as the Israelites make the golden calf, and Moses shows up at just the right time to see it, and throws down the stone tablets God had given them in anger.

The Israelites were afraid, and couldn’t trust God, so they made an idol. An idol is anything that takes the place for us of worshipping God, something we turn to when we’re afraid or lose our trust that God will provide.

When I was chasing after marriage, what I was doing wasn’t so different than those Israelites building a golden calf in the wilderness. Marriage becomes an idol just like that golden calf because we are afraid of what life would look like if we don’t have someone. We’re told by too many messages around us that we alone are not enough. We forget that the same God that loves married couples, loves those of us who are single, and that God does not see one as more worthy of love than another.

It is absolutely true that marriage is lifted up in the Bible as a good thing, but singleness is lifted up just as much, if not more. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 7:7 Paul writes “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” and again in verses 25-27 “Now about the unmarried: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife.”

Even Jesus points out that marriage is only a temporary state, when questioned by the Sadducees about life after death he answers ““You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”

Today we’re going to take some time to dig into what benefits we see when marriage and singleness are both given their appropriate places in our thoughts and lives. But first let’s pray.

God, I ask that you join with us today as we talk about what for some might be a painful topic. I ask that you help us see the gifts you have for us regardless of where we are in our lives. Open our hearts to your word, and allow us to sense what you have for us today. Amen.

I want to state at the beginning, marriage and dating are very different now in our culture than they were in the cultures of the original writers of scripture. Marriage did not have as its primary starting point romantic love, but often was driven more as a business agreement, often made as part of merging different family businesses together, or seen primarily through a lens of preparation for the future, a necessary part of your retirement plan, like we would a 401k. By getting married you were helping to ensure someone would take care of you if you needed it. Love was a secondary concern if at all.

Further, dating in these societies simply did not exist, certainly not in the format we see it now. A young couple might be engaged to be married or promised to each other, but these relationships looked very different than what we would expect to see with an engaged couple in our society today. Because of all of this, I’ll interchangeably refer to either marriage or romantic relationships, because from a biblical perspective the two often share the same place of idolatry in our lives. I should also note that over the years, I’ve gotten to know some brothers and sisters who are in the LGBTQ community, and they often come across some of these same struggles. Divorced singles also should know that what the Bible has to say to you is no different than for someone who’s never been married. You are just as loved and respected by God, and your present state still holds the same blessings for you.

As we’ve already referenced, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul takes the time to highlight the importance of the single life for the Christian. In verses 25-35 he expands his thinking:

 

We reflect here that Paul is not saying that absolutely everyone should be unmarried, nor is he saying absolutely everyone should be married. He states that some people will be one, and some people will be another. We may struggle with this, thinking that we should expect one or the other to be preferable, but we can return to verse 7, where Paul says “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”

When Paul says “gift” the greek word here is
, which can also be translated as “grace.” This is one of the words used in the New Testament to refer to the Spiritual Gifts, that is, those gifts given by the grace of God for Christians in the life of the church. When we hear about spiritual gifts, we might think more commonly of things like healing, speaking in tongues, or prophecy, but Paul here is saying that the life of being single and the life of being married are also spiritual gifts.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can say at several times in my life, I have certainly not felt like being single was a spiritual gift! And I certainly would not have felt like it was an equal gift to marriage.

But Paul goes at great pains later in the book of Corinthians to explain that no spiritual gift is more or less important than another. Rather, he explains that each serves an important part of the life of the church. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 he writes:
So we can say that Paul describes both married and single members of the church as necessary parts of the body of the church. But again, how do you know which gift you have?

The simple answer would seem to be – if you are single, you have the gift of being single, and should continue to pursue that gift. If you are married, you should pursue the spiritual gift of being married. At some point, you may change from one state to another, in which case you will pursue that gift. Paul mentions that widows who’s husband have passed away should then be able to take the place of single women in the church, serving and caring for others, but that they can remarry if the gift is given. This idea of the spiritual gift is not in and of itself something that should push you from one state to another. If you are single, you should not find yourself saying “I have the spiritual gift of being married” and then rush as quickly as possible into getting married. Rather, as someone who is single, we should press into the discernment and work of the spirit to find how God has equipped us for our present state. I love the way the CottonPatch translation gives verse 7, “Yet each has his own assignment from God, one this, another that.” Singleness or marriage can be viewed as the assignment we currently have from God. It may be long term or even lifetime assignment for some, and for others, it will be a short term assignment. After all, what sets singleness apart from some other spiritual gifts then is that EVERYONE in the church will the gift of singleness at some point in their lives. You may be married now, but at some point you were unmarried. Not everyone will be married, but everyone at some point is single. This cannot be said of many other spiritual gifts we find in the Bible.

But we sometimes can struggle with giving singleness this kind of consideration. If you look back through church history, there’s been a varied struggle on the topic. For a long time in the early period of the church, we had a special respect for those who were unmarried, often taking a celibate life, but failed to create places in the church for those who were married to participate in ministry. After the Protestant Reformation, we began to balance this, but over the past few generations, there’s been an overcorrection in the Western church, where we have begun to focus almost exclusively on marriage, tied up in the same mistaken beliefs of larger society. Presenting marriage as an expected end for everyone to achieve, rather than seeing it as the giftings or assignments that Paul teaches.

There are a number of benefits we can receive when we correct for a more balanced view of singleness. First, when we appropriately honor singleness we can more fully be blessed by other relationships in our lives. 1 Corinthians 13 is often referred to as the “love chapter” and is read frequently at weddings. But it’s worth remembering in the original text, Paul did not address this exclusively to married individuals. Rather, in context, Paul was describing how a love that is patient and kind, does not envy and does not boast, is the love all Christians should have for each other. But when we look at the single life, it’s often hard for single men and women in particular to socialize without the ulterior motive of dating to enter the picture. But when we place singleness and marriage in their appropriate places in our thoughts, Christian brothers and sisters can truly be brothers and sisters to each other. We can love and help each other, listen when it’s needed, and just generally be a part of each other’s lives.

I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to call out a dangerous and harmful meme that we see in our society. How many have heard the term “the friend zone”? If you aren’t familiar, this is a complaint you may occasionally hear from someone who feels like they’ve been mistreated by a potential romantic partner. They are friends with a person, who may hang out with them, share conversation with them, and just generally socialize. But when the idea of a romantic relationship is proposed, that person declines. Maybe the idea of “we’re too good of friends, I wouldn’t want to risk losing that.” The rebuffed person may then say, “ah, they friend zoned me.” As if being friends is somehow a second place? Or a punishment?

In my life, this has often been a struggle. When I was younger, I too often failed to find the joy in simply being friends with someone. This all consuming pressure of trying to find a partner, which only became worse as I got older, made it hard to simply stop and take joy in friendship. When we see our relationships in life as having a hierarchy, with Christian friendship rated as less desirable than dating, we may feel that we are disregarded when someone does not return the same interest. But if we can cling to the gift of singleness, we can hold these romantic intentions loosely, and respect and celebrate in friendships that do not carry a romantic component. The Spirit of God would tell us to see the other person is a brother or sister first, a potential romantic partner second if at all.

The next benefit we get from properly honoring the single life is that we get the opportunity to open our lives out to others more readily. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:32 and 34, the unmarried can be concerned first with the Lord’s affairs, devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. A family will have any number of other distractions placed on it. Sharing time devoted to each other, pursuing varied interests, and just generally getting about the business of life. But the single person has more flexibility. There is certainly a time and place to reserve in our lives for self care, but also opening ourselves up to taking some of the additional time we have as singles for serving others. Volunteering at community centers, helping out in church ministries, and looking for ways to share our lives with others in the community who may not have social bonds readily available to them.

This runs counter to our normal impuls. We might normally expect that singleness can equal selfishness. That not having a spouse or kids means we can be free to live the fun life, staying out late and going to fun parties. But scripture reminds us that the Christian life, whether married or single is meant to be a life of sacrifice. Our money, our possessions, and perhaps most importantly our time are not ours to spend as we please, but are a stewardship given to us by God for the service of other people. I have been guilty of failing to do this. In my life, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve filled my grocery cart with items I didn’t need, looked at my bank balance and decided it was an excuse to go shopping, or looked at every single minute of my time as something that was mine to spend, and I was angry at anyone who took that time away from me, even for the best of reasons.

Perhaps the most blatant example of this is that for the past two summers, I have spent my time out on the Appalachian Trail. I initially left on this trip, I believe, at the direction of God. It was one of the clearest directions I’ve received in quite some time when I left in March of 2016. I had a six month journey, hiked a thousand miles from Georgia to West Virginia, and had some amazing God experiences. However, I returned home that winter, then decided to go out again the following summer. This second trip was not directed by God, but was taken purely because I could. I was unmarried, had no kids, and had simplified my life enough that I could drop everything and go away for a while.

But after a few months, I became deeply convicted that there was a better plan I needed to follow from God. Instead of selfishly disappearing into the woods, I felt a clear direction to come home instead. I left that life, and while I miss it every day, I know that God has more things to do with me here, interacting with people and working every day than if I were alone in the woods, checking in with everyone occasionally online. As singles, we have this responsibility to take the open time and resources God has granted us, that aren’t directed to a spouse or in some cases children, and use those for the service instead of the church and community around us.

I want to also stop and acknowledge here the responsibility of the larger church itself to singles as well. The single life for the Christian should not equal a lonely life. As members of the church body, a single person should readily expect opportunities to be welcomed into our homes, sharing meals, social outings, and deep friendships, not just with other singles in the church but with married folks in the church as well. When you plan a night out with friends, do you remember to invite singles along, or is it always couples nights? Certainly, there is a place for married couples to help hold each other up and share time, but this should not be the exclusive company we keep. I also will beg you, when you do invite singles into your life, don’t let it automatically include the mission of “setting them up with someone.” If you are going to play matchmaker, that needs to a separate conversation that has as its starting place a respect for the individual’s identity, and not simply seeing them as a single in need of a date.

I have been blessed at various points in my life to be welcomed by married friends from the church to share their life. I currently live with a family I met through church, sharing in chores, paying rent, but also sharing in life. As a single man, it’s been wonderful to have dinner together in the evenings, share chats about our day, and watching their daughter grow up. These blessings have made a tremendous difference in my life, and opened the door for significant spiritual growth I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

There should also be a special place for single parents in the church. Those who are raising children by themselves should be able to expect the church to help them in this endeavor. Consider the divided workload that married couples may have, then remember that single parents are doing that work by themselves. Some churches have had ministries such as offering a single mother’s free oil change, but I’d encourage us to not be locked into viewing this primarily through gender roles. I’ve known many single moms who are quite capable of changing their own oil thank you very much, but could use help with getting the kids from school to soccer practice, getting dinner together, or simply needing someone to vent to after a rough week. Let’s also not forget single dads in our midst, who may feel just as alone and need help with the daily stresses of life just as much.

The need for both positive male and female role models in a child’s life should also not be something that is a struggle for single parents in the church. A single mom or dad should be able to trust that men and women in the church are just as ready to be a loving part of their child’s life, willing to offer a hand when needed, and a safe person to reach out to. There should not be a pressure on single parents to remarry to have these roles filled, as the church as a loving community can and must help lift these burdens.

These certainly can be places where other singles in the church, either with or without children can step in to serve, (remembering to do so without an ulterior motive of seeking to date) but married couples in the church can be equipped to help as well. The church is meant to be a family, not merely a once a week social gathering, and we absolutely can do our part to lift these individuals up in more than simply prayer, but also offering active help in their lives in a loving way.

The final benefit I want to consider that we get from properly honoring singleness is we get healthier marriages this way. Remembering that being single is a complete and worthwhile life by itself removes the temptation to seek and run after a romantic relationship, perhaps before we’re ready or maybe with the wrong person. There’s been a great deal of discussion about the high divorce rate in our culture, and it affects Christians just as much if not more than non Christians. I would argue this is due in some small part to the fact that we exert pressure on people to get married, often too young, and often when they may otherwise be far more prepared for being single. I’ve been fascinated too to read about the unique experiences of asexual individuals in our society, that is people who would prefer to not have a sexual experience, but still pursue social relationships. These places of strife, I believe, exist at least in part because we’ve forgotten the lesson of scripture to respect and honor the place of being single.

Waiting for a relationship rather than charging in can be a struggle. We have so many sources in our lives that tell us the appropriate goal we should have is to end up with someone. Look even at children’s stories that often include the theme of a hero and a princess happily ever after with each other. If we remember that God loves us without needing a romantic partner, we can be far more willing to hold out, rather than simply accepting someone just because they are interested in us and we’re afraid to end up alone.

The Christian teacher Gwen Elliott refers to this as “Waiting for David.” The Old Testament tells us how the people of Israel initially decided they wanted a king, because they looked around and saw the nations neighboring them who also had kings. They went to the prophet Samuel and demanded a king be found. God gave Samuel permission to anoint the king, and in time Saul was found. God blessed him and raised him up, but Saul was a failure as a king. He gave himself more importance and eventually disobeyed the direction of God. The next king found was David. David was a “man after God’s own heart” who started out in the fields protecting sheep, and lived his life based on faith in God first rather than trust in himself. It’s echoing those stories that Mz Elliott writes:

“I refuse to beg, plead, and whine over my singleness and thus set myself up to be willing to settle for Saul
When he is not truly who was intended
Time after time Settling for Saul creates rather than solves problems… for nations, for individuals, …
Therefore while Waiting for David, my eyes are focused on the True King whether or not an earthly one appears.
I refuse to be told that I must marry to be complete
I refuse to buy into the lie that you should never settle unless you are running out of time
I refuse the lies that are told by unhappy people who believed the same lies
Instead, I actually observe and think and learn from others. I see the breakdowns. I see the identity loss. I see the consequences.
And so then I seek scripture, surely this is not what God intended for us.
And sure enough, it’s not.
So I continue to wait for David.”

The gifts that God has in store for us, whether that gift is a life as a single who is whole and blessed by God or if it is to be married to a partner who will spur us on and aide us in the mission we have, will always be greater than the life we might chase after ourselves.

In closing, I’d like to remember another Old Testament story. Abraham was once called by God to take his son Isaac to the summit of Mt Moriah and sacrifice him. But at the final moment, Abraham was stopped and God said he would be blessed because he did not hold back his son.

I think for many of us, our idea of what marriage is, or our hope for finding a partner, has become an idol in our lives. God asks us to sacrifice those idols. We have to recognize that the promise of God, the gifts we can find in the Holy Spirit, are more than anything we may find on our own initiative. We can find a richness and fullness of life that isn’t dependant on another person, but a wholeness we can and must find in ourselves. For others here, you may be in a place where you continue to feel alone, and the fear of having no one is still a regular pain for you. We’re going to pray together now, but I’d like to invite you to come to the back during worship to receive further prayer as well.

 

Remembering Batman 

I grew up loving the Batman ’66 TV show. That, along with episodes of the Lone Ranger, was a nightly ritual with my dad when I was a kid. He’d wake me up at 10 o’clock at night so we could watch it. ( I think the reruns were on TBS) As I got older, I never lost respect and admiration for Adam West. I still got a thrill when I recognized his voice. For years, it was a tradition that any new Batman animated series would have a cameo for West, The Batman series even went so far as to cast him as a reoccurring character as the mayor of Gotham. 
For my money though, my favorite will always be “The Gray Ghost” when Adam West plays an out of luck actor who was once famous as the pulp crime fighter (a la “The Shadow”) who was a childhood hero of Bruce Wayne’s. I saw the episode when I was a teenager, and despite the necessary jaded view of that age, I was moved by West’s portrayal of a bitter and angry actor, who feels burdened by the typecast role from his past. 
What’s perhaps most moving though, is that while it’s entirely possible West felt this way, he kept it largely away from the public eye. Instead, he for years referred fondly to the “Bright Knight” as he preferred to call the great Cape Crusader. He treated his adoring fans with class and charm, and he embraced his late in life career resurgence of playing lampooned versions of himself, something it might be hard to imagine other actors being willing to do. 
He’s gone now, but more than the legacy of his time on the screen, we have the many memories and stories of fans who met and were charmed by him. Whether it was a persona or his genuine character, we remember a style that carried a wry smile, and a “chum” for all comers, and represented the possibility that we could all rise to be kinder people. 
Rest well, old chum, and thank you for the adventure. Cheers to the next one.

Book Review: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of NazarethZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Disappointing. The author starts out by giving a well done and well explained historical context for the teaching of Jesus. However, the author then spends the majority of the book presenting a series of arguments from a vacuum. Using an absence of data as his basis, the author presents a very different version of Jesus than is presented by either the gospels or the various traditional teachings. Stripping away what the author feels is anachronistic editing by later teachers, he then adds his own teachings and traditions to replace them, with little or no evidence to support it. Using thin justification, he posits a strenuous – even violent – schism between Paul and the original disciples of Jesus. He presents a background of Jesus as a long time follower of John the Baptist and a picture of Jesus as an illiterate spiritual teacher who struggles to understand the Hebrew scriptures, but is unable to present any compelling textual basis for this theory. The author repeatedly references the Q document, citing passages from it as an authority, then only in a passing comment at the end of the book admits, almost sheepishly, that the Q document is a purely theoretical one, assumed only by an editorial reading of Matthew and Luke. The author casts aside the gospels as any kind of authentic record, but then pulls in verses out of context to support his arguments when it suits him.

The author concludes that his version of the historical Jesus is one just as worthy of devotion and respect as the religious one of the Christian tradition, but gives us no argument to support this. Indeed, after his editing the Jesus we are left with is a boring one, with nothing to set him apart from the other zealous would be Messiahs of the time. Perhaps just as importantly, by removing the distinctive aspects of Jesus, the author leaves us without the rich and meaningful tension of seeming disagreements between the traditional teachings of Jesus and the traditions of the Hebrew scriptures. We are robbed of the chance to rest in those tensions, where we can be stretched and forced to grow, in a place far closer to regular life than some esoteric spiritual Jesus that can only live on the page.

Ultimately, the Jesus the author gives us may be a Jesus that is far more comfortable to contemplate as a historical figure(though again without any historical text to support him), but it is one with no distinguishing characteristics to make him worth remembering thousands of years later

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Lost in the Framing 

After being home for almost six months, I continue to find it surprising how difficult it is to readjust to “normal” life. I’ve gone back to work, found a semi temporary place to live, and overall have struggled with picking my life back up in some shape or form. 

If you’ve followed this blog, you probably noticed that the only posts I’ve consistently made lately have been food related. That’s largely because I’ve struggled with exactly what I want to be writing about now. I haven’t had much chance to go hiking lately. I’ve been working around 50-60 hours a week, not to mention the chiller temperatures in the Kentucky winter. I’ve got a fiction short story I’ve been working on, but it’s coming in spurts and isn’t quite ready to post yet. I’ve put together a few Bible study guides for my local church, but other than that I just haven’t had too many ideas. 

My idea of a wild Friday night

Besides work, I’ve been filling my time mostly with reading. I work third shift now, so scheduling social time hasn’t been terribly convenient. Besides, I honestly just haven’t felt up to it. I enjoy getting on something like social media, where I can have controlled conversations which allow me to think through a response before making it public as well as being able to read someone else’s words multiple times to ensure I have a complete understanding of what they’re saying. In person socialization, on the other hand, is something I find exhausting. This isn’t strictly a post hike experience, in all honesty I’ve always found most social engagements tiring, even with people I like. I simply prefer a more controlled exchange, if I were living 30 years ago, I’d stick to letters, but I find the immediacy of electronic conversation a better compromise. 

A empty booth at the breakfast buffet is a great way to end my third shift day

I am trying to get out of the house more. I’ve been trying to reconsider my area from the point of view of a tourist or a new arrival. I took a long walk through the downtown area, in part so that I could participate in the Women’s March. I was surprised at how much I’d missed of the views of the city from the Ohio River, and the bustling commotion of downtown. I didn’t have time to check out any bookstores or coffee shops, but passed by several I’d like to visit at a later date. 

You have to appreciate a town with artwork like that

The march itself was a different experience tied in with my general mood. I’ve made no secret of my distaste for the newly elected president, and that feeling has only grown in the last few weeks. I find his stances and even more his rhetorical style completely repugnant. I’ve always been someone interested in following the news, but with the exception of supporting my local library and participating in a few groups regarding police brutality, I’ve been far less politically active in the last few years than I was previously. I had volunteered for the Gary Johnson campaign back in 2012, but at the time I was still agnostic in my faith.(technically, I termed myself as an “antagonistic” at the time, but that’s a separate story)  After that I began a return to the church and my Christian beliefs, I found myself pulled in a far more liberal direction. This is interesting  because I grew up with very much the impression that being a Christian and being a conservative were largely synonymous. Having left the faith and then returning though, I’ve found myself re-examining my assumptions and discovering a series of disconnects in that idea structure. The teachings of Jesus are almost universally anti wealth, or at least sharply suspicious of it, and creedos to care for the poor and the abandoned serve as the very center of the faith. What’s surprising is that I did not come to these conclusions by attending a liberal church, in fact I’d say the church I attend is fairly politically conservative. But when listening to comments made from the pulpit defending these conservative values I found myself repeatedly struck by the contradictions to scripture I found being stated. I love the people who I met through that church, and I enjoy the fellowship there. I have slowly found though a disquiet in my spirit as I continue to see these contradictions play out. I firmly believe in the God of scripture, but I think we all do a fairly poor job of listening to what that God is actually saying. Politics is simply the least of the areas this is true, but certainly the more obvious. 

Jesus loved those people with rainbow flags. And the ones with red hats. But I can’t help but think he’s more into the idea of love and servant hood than making a country great again.

As it is, I’m working everyday to find my voice and exactly what it is I’m needing to say. The truth is, I am quite capable of having an opinion on everything, because I’ve yet to meet the topic that I don’t think is worth giving some thought to. However, I do think that it’s worthwhile to find a specific set of topics that I can focus on and give serious efforts to. And what kind of writing will I be able to consistently get put to screen? I can continue to simply write down whatever crosses my mind, but the some point I feel like I should be looking for that niche I’m set to fill. In the meantime, I’ll continue my more mirandering thoughts and we’ll see how many of you decide to come along for the ride. 

Christmas Breakfast Casserole 

Every year for Christmas, my mother makes this casserole. It’s meant to be something you can out together the day before and put in the fridge overnight. Then you toss it in the oven Christmas morning, make some coffee, everybody opens presents, and breakfast is ready. She changes the recipe every time, so there isn’t “a recipe” just a general guideline of what all goes in it. 

This year, my schedule is packed with work. Between two jobs since I’ve come home, I’ll typically go without a day off, or at most have a single day free in a week. I actually spent the two days before Christmas taking cat naps in my car between shifts since I was set for three shifts in a row. Thus I didn’t make it home for Christmas, and was left to my own devices to satisfy my casserole craving. 

I hit the grocery store a few days ahead of time, braving the Christmas week crowds, feeling like Snake Pliskin in Escape from New York. I grabbed the needed ingredients: one red onion, green, red, and yellow bell peppers, a handful of jalapeño peppers, two Idaho potatoes, four garden tomatoes, a pound of bacon, a pound of ham,  a pound of shredded cheddar cheese, a box of pancake mix, a dozen eggs, and whole milk. (note, I ended up with four pans of casserole and will be eating it for the next several days. You may not want that much, so adjust your ingredients as needed) 

I’ll start by dicing up the various vegetables and setting them aside. I’ll layer the onions with some salt to start breaking them down. Then I’ll dice up the bacon and put it in a large wok over low heat. I’m trying to get all the fat out of the bacon, which I’ll use to sweat all the veggies when the bacon’s done. 

Once the diced bacon starts to get crispy, we’ll pull it out using a slotted spoon, leaving the fat behind. Place the bacon on a plate lined with paper towels and let cool. Put the diced onion in the bacon fat and stir a few times to coat. We’ll sweat the onions for a bit before adding the next ingredients. 

I put the diced potatoes in a Tupperware container and filled it with just enough water to cover the potatoes and put it in a microwave for five minutes. This way we won’t have to cook the spuds all the way in the pan. 
The onion at this point should be cooked down a bit, so add in the bell peppers and jalapeño peppers and stir again. I also added a couple spoonfuls of minced garlic that I keep in a jar. Do as you feel here.

After the peppers have cooked down a bit, add in the tomatoes and potatoes. I should have removed the seeds and watery guts from the tomatoes before this because I ended up with way too much liquid in the pan. You could avoid this by cleaning out those tomatoes ahead of time, or do what I did and ladle off the extra juices into a coffee mug and drink it like a nice strong soup while cooking. 

Finally, we’ll turn to the ham. I bought a quarter of a spiral sliced ham, so dicing it didn’t take more than a few seconds. Since the ham was pre-cooked I’m adding it here at the end. If your ham isn’t fully cooked you’ll want to cook it up with the bacon earlier. I’ll stir this whole mass together and let it cook for a few minutes before killing the heat. 

In a large mixing bowl, bring together a small batch of your pancake mix according to the directions on the box. Add in three extra eggs to thin it out then pour it into a 9×13 casserole dish. Again, I’ve got several pans worth, so I did this for each pan. You probably don’t need that much because you want variety in your diet. I, on the other hand, am a savage.  Put it into a 350 degree oven for about 3-5 minutes, basically long enough for it to firm up a little. Remove the dish and add on top your veggie/ham mix. At this point, you can wrap the pan up with plastic wrap and let it sit overnight in your fridge or you can move immediately to the next step. I didn’t really have time to make this ahead, but you do you. 

Back in our mixing bowl take four large eggs and beat with a whisk till they turn a slightly paler color. Add in a cup of whole milk and half of our cheese. Beat thoroughly. Pour the whole thing over your casserole. Shake the pans a little to let everything settle in. The  sprinkle over with your remaining cheese and the bacon crumbles. Put back into the oven. 

Based on how dense your mix turns out to be and how even your oven heats, you may get some variance in how long this takes to cook. Mine took about thirty minutes until it looked mostly solid. Eggs will continue to cook when you take them out if the heat, so we don’t want to wait until this is completely done, otherwise it’ll be overcooked when served. 

Let it cool for about ten to fifteen minutes, then cut into square pieces. You can serve this with sour cream or eat as is. I highly recommend playing some Harry Potter movies in the background and drinking a strong cup of coffee, because that’s how I had mine and I loved it.

This doesn’t need to wait for Christmas, nor does it have to be a breakfast thing. Overall, I think it’s a pretty solid meal and like I said, this hour of cooking work is gonna feed me for a week. 

Either way, have a great holiday week and a wonderful new year. 

Memories and identity 

I’ve been going through the book “Dawn” by Elie Wilson. There’s a scene where the main character, a member of the Jewish resistance terrorist cell who’s been assigned to execute a British soldier prisoner, meets the ghosts of everyone he’s ever known. He asks why they’re there. One of the ghosts respond that because he’s about to become a murder, it will make all of them murderers. That the actions a man takes marks all the people who have had an impact on the man. That he would not be able kill if it weren’t for them. That everything they’d said or done to him had led him to that moment. 

I’m not going to kill anyone, but I’ve been thinking a lot about memories and how they impact you as a person. The idea that who you are is a summation of your memories, the things that have happened to you, and how you’ve allowed those things to impact you. If you have things missing from your memory, either because you’ve forgotten or because you’ve chosen to forget them, then you have edited your identity in some way. 

I remember a moment while I was on my hike, I stepped on a black walnut fruit. I stopped to pick up the fruit and in that moment I remembered one of the houses we lived in when I was a kid. There was a large black walnut tree in the front yard and I spent a full summer collecting the fruit. I somehow believed that I would be able to sell the fruit and make some money. I was maybe seven or eight at the time. 

Then as I was standing there, my memory shifted and I remembered a night when we came home to that house. My dad hit play on the answering machine (remember those?) and there was this message from the landlord. She was asking where her money was, and I remember thinking that her voice was the nastiest and most cruel thing I’d ever heard. Or maybe I’ve overlaid that in my memory. Either way, as we stood there in the living room, even though I didn’t really understand what was going on, I knew that something was wrong. I could tell my parents were worried. I knew that things were uncertain, which is a terrible feeling for a child. 

I think I stood there in the woods for a while. It might have been ten minutes, it might have been a half hour. I felt this wave of time wash over me as the memory rushed out, like opening a linen closet and becoming buried in old sheets. I hadn’t blocked the memory out, per se, but I certainly hadn’t thought about it in years at least. Was I a different person now that it had resurfaced? Had that memory affected who I was even though I didn’t remember it before? I don’t know that woman’s name, based on her age at the time I’d guess she’s no longer alive, but had she become one of those ghosts that will follow me around? 

For a Christmas Eve service at my local church, I volunteered to be interviewed for a video being played at the service. For the video, I had to answer the question “What’s your favorite Christmas memory?” and also had to talk about a present I remembered getting. There were some technical issues with the video and I had to repeat the story several times. In the case of both questions, I found myself dealing with memories I hadn’t really given direct consideration to in quite some time. With each repeated telling, I found myself pulling out more and more details, until I had to be reminded to cut some for time. Even after leaving, I found myself continually walking back through those memories and emotions. 

I wonder sometimes, who I am. One of the earliest memories I have is my mom taking me to radiation treatments when I had cancer, she had to pull over so I could throw up on the side of the road. We stayed with my great aunt in Columbus to make the drive shorter. I’m not a sick little kid anymore, but that kid is a part of me. I remember being picked on in junior high so much that I fantasized about the other kids dying in some kind of spontaneous attack at the school. (this was years before the shootings at Columbine high school) I’m not that angry kid anymore, but I still remember and understand how he felt. 

The truth is we’re all a mixture of those people. More ghosts for our crowd of followers. But who we are is something beyond that. We aren’t just the collection of the memories, but we’re also how we view those memories. Do we remember only our own pain or do we open the lens for the pain of others? At the time of that answering machine message, I only knew my own uncertain fears and angers. The knowledge that things were out of control and I was powerless as a kid to do anything about it. But now looking back, I also see that scene to a certain extent through my parents eyes. The fear of not knowing how to solve the problem. The anger of knowing their kids had heard the message. Wanting to protect them and not knowing how. When I think of being beaten up in junior high, tossed in a locker and left in between classes, I also consider the kids who did it. Were they simply responding out of fear themselves? Or simply raised in a way that they had no notion of this being unacceptable? It’s easier to make the assumption that everyone who’s hurt is were clearly the villains of the story while we’re the heroes,but as we grow older and gain perspective, we adjust these memories in our vision and we open up the possibility of changing who we are as well. We can unpack the boxes in our minds, allowing them to mix and match with each other in new ways. If we allow it, we can refilter and purify those memories that have been a poison to us. Finding those places where we have been hurt and identifying how the injury has spread. We can wander through our mind and find ways that the memories connect and led to pain we may have caused for others. 

This process unfortunately is not simple. I’ve found the best tool for the process is meditation, taking the moments of memory as limited items at first, considering them in my mind as if they happened to someone else, perhaps being relayed to me as a story or viewed as a play. Then I can think through the emotions as separate from the facts of the memory itself. There’s a possibility to remember that the facts of a memory are not really the “truth” of that memory for us. Rather, the actual truth that the memory holds is in our emotional reaction to it. “Such and such happened to me,” we say, but the event is not really what matters. Instead it’s how we felt about the event that create its impact on our identity. Two people may have the same experience, having a father go to prison when they’re a child, for example, but in addition to the variety of variables that may also exist (what their family unit was like before he left, what their mother or other family members said about the father in his absence, etc) the crucial difference in how this event affects the two individuals is how they reacted to it emotionally at the time. You may say this is a simple and obvious observation, but it is nonetheless more significant than we may at first consider, largely because it is so obvious. By reviewing the memory first as removed facts then as pure emotion, we gain an opportunity to individually observe the full effect of the memory. 

I think of when I was 12 or 13 and I bought a cassette of the Beach Boys album “Pet Sounds.” The cassette had a feature that if you tuned your stereo sound to the right, you’d you’d hear only the Instrumental tracks of the album, and if you tuned to the left you’d hear only the vocals. This allowed me a greater appreciation at the time for the full musicality of the album. I could hear the harmonies the group used so masterfully, then the instrumentation that was so revolutionarily different even from their own previous work. 

In much the same way, we gain a deeper appreciation for the memory and how it’s impacted our identity by viewing it in this isolated track, seeing where it lies in the overall plot of our lives, how one event led to another, and then how we absorbed it, took the event to heart. How it resonated within us and in our spirit. 

This process can sometimes be assisted by speaking it aloud to another person. I meet with a spiritual director who I often discuss such things with and find it incredibly helpful. A therapist can also be of tremendous assistance, providing you with guidance as you go through the steps and their trained ear helping you identify the importance of individual items. It’s worthwhile to note here that you must not wait until you are “sick” to see a mental health professional, just as it’s worthwhile to get regular checkups with your primary care doctor long before you actually get an illness. Journaling can also be helpful, especially as you aren’t likely to edit yourself as you would when speaking with another party since you know the journal won’t be shared, but you still have the chance to review the items in a more detached way. 

Hopefully, taking such steps, and at least carrying a more mindful view, can help you to better know and identify, your growth and experience 

(cover image courtesy of Flickr user Automatt) 

Why do bad things happen? 

The other day a friend hit me with the question, “Why does God let bad things happen?”

Over the course of a conversation I tried to answer that in the space of about 45 minutes, plus a few follow up emails. This is barely scratching the surface. I thought I’d take a second here and lay out a sketch of these thoughts, more for the organization of my own thinking than anything else. Plus, honestly, I’m struggling to come up with blog ideas lately.

I should start by saying that these answers have been gathered over most of my adult life reading, plus growing up in the church. My thoughts on the subject are influenced by authors ranging from C.S. Lewis to Isaac Asimov, but I’m not sure what came from who, so while I won’t be able to cite individual works here, I’ll admit up front none of this is entirely original to me.

I’ll also say that I don’t believe that there’s any one answer to this question. The fact is different bad things happen for different reasons. We will not always be able to trace which reasons stand behind which bad things, (more on this in a minute) and we should be incredibly cautious to claim to do so.

I believe that there are fundamental laws that oversee our existence. These are metaphysical laws in much the same way we understand physical laws, at least as far as our own understanding can reach. Ultimately, we lack any real meaningful perspective on the universe itself given that we are inside it. In much the same way that a person born and kept sitting inside a room would struggle to describe the whole house, we have been born on this planet, and have barely left it, let alone our solar system, so describing not only the universe but what may lay over and above that remains firmly outside of our grip. However, in order to pursue understanding we might both embrace and yet press against this lack of understanding. The first of these metaphysical laws then that we might describe is what I would term the Law of Free Will. (or self determination) In order for our choices to carry consequences in a meaningfully moral way, we must first have the ability to make those choices by our own will. This means we have the power to do both good and evil. This means that we can have both good and evil done to us. This is perhaps the first principle we had explained to us as human beings.

I do not necessarily hold that the opening of Genesis is a literal depiction of the beginning of the universe. I think it’s not only possible, but indeed quite likely that early people would have had a struggle to understand the beginning of life itself, let alone the launching of existence. For God to describe via revelation how life was formed and stars were set ablaze using higher level mathematics would have been difficult at best, so instead we get “In the beginning, God initiated the heavens and the earth.”

With that in mind then, I can say that we are told in the scripture that Adam (meaning simply “human”) was formed along with Eve and given this power of choice. It’s certainly possible that the story of a fruit being the first foul choice is a literal one, but I think it’s at least equally likely, if not more so, that some early mistake that we can’t really understand from this side of history took place. Genesis says that God formed the universe whole and good, and that somehow, by our choice as a species, death and decay entered it. This brought in chaos. The Law of Choice lead to the Law of Sin. And I do not simply mean “sin” as “people doing bad things,” I mean Sin as a metaphysical expression of the physical Law of Entropy, or rather vice versa. The clock was set to perfect time, but microsecond by microsecond it’s further and further off, and somehow the choices of humanity may have played some kind of point in that. This leads to esoteric sins such as cancer and hurricanes. I do not mean this in the foolish way some might describe it, “you got cancer because of your greed,” the stage play of Job seems to show that equation does not play out the way we might have thought it did. Rather it is the existence of Entropy/Sin that causes these things to exist, a wild sand storm across what might once have been the perfect desert of life.

Further, in what might be an even deeper parable, the Bible tells us that there is an Adversary. Not an equal to God, but at least a being above humans in the hierarchy of existence that works to stand in opposition to the plans of God. This is the snake that first tempted the Great Sin that let death enter our world. This is the accuser or Satan which stands in our hearts. This may be an actual personality, or it could be a series of non human beings, or it could simply be a personified metaphor for a human predilection. Either way, this conflict between the being and God is laid out as a further cause of strife and destruction on earth. We are caught up in this larger story, and in some ways we further it. The being of Satan seems to only have the strength we choose to give it. God cannot simply squash Satan without also breaking our free will. Jesus used the parable to describe weeds that couldn’t be removed without harming the wheat.

There’s also always a possibility that what we see as a “bad thing” isn’t. I don’t know where i first heard it, or how genuine it is, but I recall what was told to me once as a Chinese parable. A man lived long ago and had a son. One day his sons was working out in a field and found a wild horse which followed him home. The man’s neighbors congratulated him on this find adding to his herd. The man replied, “We will see what we see.” A few weeks later the man’s son was trying to train the wild horse and it kicked him, breaking his legs. The man’s neighbors came and offered him condolences on his son’s injury. The man replied, “We will see what we see.” Later the local Lord decided to go to war with a neighboring province and sent men to draft all the  young men of fighting age. However, the man’s son still had the broken legs and couldn’t go off to war, saving him from bloody battle. Again, the man’s neighbors came to congratulate him and he replied, “We will see what we see.”

Obviously the story could continue ad infinitum from there. Seemingly bad things followed by good outcomes and vice versa. We never really know how something might turn out when we are in it. What’s more, we may never know the full scope of the ramifications of a particular event. Imagine sitting in a valley following a road. You cannot know for sure all of the twists and turns the road will take as it climbs out of the valley and over the next ridge, but you can choose to continue following it because you’ve placed some faith in whoever designed the road. This is a simplistic picture, but it helps us understand some of what’s happening when we struggle with time. We sit in a valley of the moment, unable to see what’s happening next and often have an unclear picture of what’s passed before. We therefore can struggle with identifying why a certain event may be occurring in our own perception of that time in regards to a loving God’s plan.

It’s worth noting here that none of these categories are necessarily distinct. An evil event may have more than one source. We may have something foul occur in our lives, then over the course of time a redeeming event may come out of it. That doesn’t mean that the initial foul event was something initiated by God. I had cancer as a child, this plus growing up in an environment where my entertainment and creative outlets were severely limited due to my family’s financial background, is part of what lead me to being an individual who prefers to read or write over sports or video games. This should not be taken however to mean that God gave me cancer at the age of six. That may have been a result of the chaos of the universe. It may have been a directed attack by the personified Satan. It may have been a result of the fact that years later we learned that the federal government in the wake of World War II improperly disposed of radioactive material in the area I grew up. (thus making my cancer a result of someone or a group of someones free will choices) It could be a blend of all of those. God then acted in reality, though divine will and guidance of others in my life, to bring about a positive result from the initial evil event.

Ultimately the “why” of a particular event is generally impossible to say. We lack the divine perspective because we are trapped in time. We cannot step back far enough to clearly see the whole picture, with the river of causes and effects that lead both to and from a particular incident. It’s in this struggle that we must first sit in grace. We also have a responsibility to still weep with those who weep, we must show compassion where it is needed. An esoteric discussion of what so many might refer to as “the Problem of Pain” is not the correct response to an individual person’s pain. Love is the force we must lean on first, I will choose to love someone in the same way I believe God loves me. 

Exploration of a Mistake (Chocolate tiramisu cheesecake)

So it’s been several weeks since I’ve posted at all, not mention several “Food Fridays” that have gone by. I’ll talk more some other time about why, but for now, I’m fighting through the procrastinatory glory to get back on track.

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Pictured: “Procrastinatory Glory”

Last time, I shared a little bit of the process of how I made a recipe when I gave it some structured thought. This time, I think it’d be interesting to show you how that works when I make the mistake of failing to give that kind of structured preparation.

I’ve been sitting in a training class for my new job all week, and for our final day, I thought I’d make a dessert to bring in to share. I’ve been playing around in my head all week with an idea for making chocolate blintzes. However, I couldn’t think of a way to prepare that ahead of time for a group to bring in. I also had a craving to make tiramisu. I decided to try and mix these two ideas to make a new dessert. It’s with this vague idea in my head that I started in to prepare the dessert.

I started with two blocks of cream cheese at room temperature. I whipped these to both soften them and make it easier to incorporate other items. I then mixed in one container of ricotta cheese.

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So much dairy. So much flatulence. So worth it.

At this point, in another mixing bowl, I took four eggs and blended them with sugar. This allowed me to cream the eggs and add the first dose of sweetness to the dish. The eggs will deliver protein and thus structure to the final dish, as well as adding to the overall mouthfeel.

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Incredible, edible, sugar

Once both of these items are blended, I mixed the bowls together. With ricotta cheese, cream cheese, sugar, and eggs, we’ve got our basic custard constructed. This basic mix would work well for any number of recipes. We could bake it up for cheesecake, run it through an ice cream maker for a rich frozen dessert, or take it any number of other directions.

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Ladies and gentleman, magic sauce.

I let this custard sit for a bit while I laid out my cake pan and began to prepare it to receive the magic that would eventually be coming. Again, my primary inspiration here was tiramisu, an Italian dessert that consists of custard layered with espresso and rum soaked ladyfingers- a light, cake-like cookie. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find lady fingers at the grocery store the night I went shopping, (On a later trip I found them right where I swore I’d been looking, they must have been hiding) and I definitely didn’t feel like making them from scratch, (I’ve never actually done that and it sounds like too much work for not enough reward) so I bought a container of sugar cookies instead. I then soaked these in cold strong coffee blended with sugar before laying them out on the pan. Normally, I’d also be adding rum to the soak, but since the plan was to take this dish to work, I’m skipping that.

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Resist the urge to simply eat the cookies soaked in sugar and coffee. Not because that’s bad for you, but because once you start, you won’t stop.

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Now back to the custard. I had an idea that I wanted to prepare this over a double boiler. I thought this might make for a smoother texture, with the end product being closer to tiramisu-which is what I ultimately wanted. I set up the glass bowl over a pot of boiling water, stirring regularly. This is an incredibly useful tool setup in the kitchen when you need to heat something gently. It’s great for some sauces (hollandaise for example), melting chocolate, or for cooking a custard. You’re allowing the heat to seep into your dish slowly and more evenly, which is important to keep sauces from breaking- both by letting proteins coagulate at a more controlled rate as well as letting fats and liquids emulsify while preparing your dish.

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Please ignore the fact that I really need to clean my stove top. I’m…not great at cleaning up after myself.

The downside to this method is that it…is…so…slow. After a half hour, my custard was not setting up. In fact, it had done the opposite. The fats had liquified and turned it runny. Despite cooking on the double boiler for almost half an hour, I was getting no results. It was getting late and I really wanted to go to bed. My impatience was beginning to play factor in the cooking process. This generally doesn’t go well.

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C’mon, c’mon, c’mon. I need sleeeeep

So I poured this warmed custard out into the pan with the cookies and put it in a 350 degree oven. Also, somewhere along the line between when that picture was taken and when I actually poured the custard out, I added several tablespoons of cocoa powder to the custard to turn this into a dark chocolate dish. Why? Because chocolate. I’m not sure what other reason you’re wanting here. I baked the dish in the oven for about 45 minutes, checking it every ten, then pulled it to set. I put it in the fridge to sit overnight and it would be ready to serve in the morning.

Except that didn’t happen. The cheesecake (which is what the dish is at this point) set up fine, but by the time I got up and was moving around in the morning, I looked at it and I just wasn’t satisfied. It was cheesecake sure, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I think if I’d laid out the cookies more thoroughly, making a crust, I might have been happy with that as a final result, but with them spaced out it was this weird cheesecake tiramisu hybrid that just didn’t seem to pull together. I didn’t want to take it in, especially since this would be the first time I brought in food to my new job. As you can probably guess, my cooking plays a part in my personal sense of identity. I’m ok with the fact that not everything I make turns out great, and I usually just try to approach my failures as an opportunity to learn. When it comes to introducing my food to someone, however, I consider that to be a way of showing a part of who I am to that person. If I don’t know them, I’m going to edit myself far more than I would for someone I’m more comfortable with. I’ll write a blog post about my views on the Appalachian Trail for all the world to see, and I may even mention some of my struggles in that post. But I’ll only write to a dear friend about how personal some of those struggles may have been. If I’m going to bring in food to a work gathering where I don’t know everybody, I’m not taking in something that’s half finished. I’ll serve a dinner to family at home that I feel didn’t come out quite right, but I wouldn’t serve that to strangers. That’s too personal.

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Pictured: Personal

So I went to work, told everyone I forgot my dish, and stewed on it for the rest of the day. On my way home, inspiration struck. Bourbon whipped cream.

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Inspiration

I stopped by the grocery store on the way home (this is when I spotted the lady fingers I couldn’t find the day before. Right next to the freaking sugar cookies. What the heck, Kroger. Taunting me?)  I picked up a quart of whipping cream and some powdered sugar. When I got home, I put the two into a mixing bowl and began to beat them on high, along with about a half a cup of bourbon.

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Were I forest animal, this would be my mating cry.

And this looks good, something I could put on top of the cheesecake. The dark cake topped with white whipped cream would create a nice color contrast and it would look like and complete on the plate. Simple but elegant.

Screw simple and elegant, I’m adding cocoa powder to this whipped cream to make it chocolate.

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Let’s face it, chocolate is almost never a bad idea.

It’ll look like a mess on the plate, the perfect thing for me to eat at ten o’clock on a Friday night, telling myself it’s ok that I didn’t get a chance to bring dessert into work. I’ll get a chance to cook for them later, for now I’ll soothe myself by considering the fact that I have an entire pan of cheesecake to myself for the weekend. Don’t look at me.

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Who needs dating?