ash wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. I like Lent, if that can even be said. It deeply suits a morbid, doubting place in my soul, and knowing that the church has made space for such a season in the church calendar reminds me that this part of me is not contrary to my faith, but part of it. Sometimes I find myself envious of those for whom faith comes easy, who are quick to count blessings, who feel God’s presence regularly, who don’t feel like they’re talking to the ceiling when they pray. While I am richly blessed, while I find much joy in my family, friends, and daily life, faith still does not come easy to me. If on Ash Wednesday, most Christians are remembering that they come from ashes and to ashes they will return, then for part of me, it is always Ash Wednesday. Especially after my near death experience, I just can’t NOT be aware of the reality of death and loss.

I need Lent to remind me that not only are these thoughts just part of the package, they propel me for a reason. I need Lent to teach me that this Christian journey isn’t about how much or how deeply I believe, or how hard I try, or how strictly I can keep the fast. I need Lent to show me just how desperately I need Easter, a new day dawning to look forward to. I need Lent to remind me that I’m not apart from the faith, but still in the thick of it, even as like an apostle I pray, “Lord I believe, please help my unbelief.”

And so, I will fast. This year, I’m abstaining from meat. Last year’s failed attempt at a vegan fast definitely showed me the limits of what I can do on my own, and inspired me to take a smaller step this year. Last year I failed in my fast– but that’s kind of the point of the fast anyway, to show us our own limits and failings and to teach us to rely on the abundant Grace of God. This year, aware of my failings, I’m trying again. I am sure I will still need grace. I know it. I feel it. The need rises from me like smoke from ashes.

This year, my prayer is well summed up by T.S. Eliot in “Ash Wednesday:” “pray to God to have mercy upon us / And pray that I may forget / These matters that with myself I too much discuss.” And for you, if you observe Lent, I pray for a meaningful season as you journey through the dark, always heading toward the light.

*Image on this post is via the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, via Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

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Vegan for Lent, Week 2

20130220-105942.jpgThis week in my lenten discipline has taught me something about my psychology: I don’t like being told what to do. The minute there is a rule about something, all I want is to break that rule. I may go weeks without eating meat naturally, but the minute I make a rule that I have to be vegan, all I want are runny yolked eggs, things covered in cheese, and bacon cheeseburgers. I may have taken advantage of Sunday to have both a cheeseburger and cheesy pizza. I could spiritualize this into a nice post about how sinful I am, or something, but the reality is, from the very beginning, people don’t like being told not to eat (of the fruit of that tree, or of the fruit of Five Guys). I may be a bad Christian, but it seems to just be the way people are, and I’m people too. I can’t imagine God not knowing that we’d be this way from the start. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with cheese, really, but doing without it has definitely required me to think harder than I would otherwise think about my food.

Breakfasts are especially difficult. I tend toward the hypoglycemic in the mornings and have always preferred protein to carbs or fruit to start my day. Before, my go-to was homemade Egg McMuffins, or a cheese stick. Rarely I’ll have a KIND nut and grain bar. Now, I find myself having an extra cup of coffee to tide me over, because I don’t want to eat cereal or oatmeal or fruit. So, easy vegan breakfast solutions that are not cereal with almond milk would be appreciated.

Another thing I’ve noticed with being a vegan is: I get bored with the leftovers really fast. Even if a meal was really great the first time, I don’t really want to eat it again very often. This has led to some weird ass dinners when I am avoiding leftovers. The other night I seriously ate a baked potato with green goddess salad dressing on it because I couldn’t face any of the zillions of tupperwears in my fridge. Usually, I’ll put a poached egg on leftovers, or turn them into a frittata, to shake it up a bit, but I can’t do that with this diet.

This week I tried to use some of the online recipes I’d collected on my Pinterest board so you guys can try them too. Here’s what we ate in the last week (it’s so few meals because they always seem to make a ton of leftovers, and because I was home alone for several days, so I did less cooking):

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This gumbo was really tasty served over brown rice, and the friends we had over for dinner who aren’t vegan seemed to think so too! The key, to me, to make up for the lack of sausage is the addition of some liquid smoke seasoning.

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These cookies use coconut oil instead of butter, and I veganized them by using applesauce and a little baking powder and soda to replace the egg. The texture was slightly different than the average cookie, but they were decidedly cookie-like and very tasty. They basically taste like a slightly coconutty sugar cookie.

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I wanted to try a cheese substitute, just for the experience, so I largely gave this casserole a try just to use the Daiya cheese. While I couldn’t get the cheese to melt like it claims it will, I found it to have a good flavor, and will buy their products after Lent is over for my lactose-intolerant husband. The casserole itself was a little dry, so I added salsa to my plate. If I made it in the future, I might just pour some enchilada sauce in with the veggie mix to make it saucier.

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This squash and kale bowl had a great flavor but wasn’t quite filling enough to be a whole meal. I might add bulgur or quinoa to make it more filling next time.

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OK, so I didn’t really cook this tofu banh mi. Consider this a plug for The Root Cafe here in Little Rock. All of their food is local and delicious. It was great to know there was a place I could go and have something yummy for a lunch out with a friend.

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This tagine was a dish I had made and liked even before my Vegan Lent, so I knew we’d like it this time around. I was short on zucchini, so I subbed in some frozen green beans, and they worked beautifully. I also didn’t have preserved lemons, so I used lemon infused olive oil, lemon zest, and some extra lemon juice.

2 weeks down, one month to go!

vegan for lent

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I love Lent. I know that sounds morbid, but I think in a way, Lent suits my natural spiritual normal. I am not always an exuberant Easter believer, ready to shout from the rooftops. I’m more given to contemplation, dwelling on mortality, even doubt. And if this was my natural state before my near death experience, it’s only been intensified by my recent brush with the impermanence of my flesh. While I have often wished to be more certain in my faith, the older I get, the more I accept that if the Body needs all kinds, it needs people who over-intellectualize, over-analyze, and who get scared in the middle of the night. So long as it is God to whom I take my millions of questions, even when I question his existence, I will count myself blessed with enough faith. As my “patron saint” Flannery O’Connor said, “When we get our spiritual house in order, we’ll be dead. This goes on. You arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness. Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. It’s trust, not certainty.”

So, though I skipped Lent last year, this year I’m continuing to make my way in the darkness and have decided to pursue a Lenten devotion. Food has long been a faith-like progression for us, and I felt pulled to try to be vegan for Lent this year. Jon has decided to join me, and if you feel so inclined, you can join in as well. Fasting from foods has long been a Lenten tradition in the life of the church. I hope that whenever I experience a desire for say, my favorite food of all foods, cheese, I will be able to first remember that God abundantly provides for my every need, that I will remember that I have never been forced to go hungry, and that others do, every single day. I will also try to practice gratitude for the abundance in my kitchen, gratitude for the earth that produces that abundance, and gratitude for the farmers who steward that earth. It is my hope that the whole experience can be one of mindfulness and gratitude.

Expect to see musings on this experience, as well as some vegan food blogging through this season.

I will say one thing though: I will be ending my fast one day early, as Etta and Claire’s first birthday party (their First Fiesta) is the day before Easter, and I want to be able to eat tacos and cake!

asking for it and enthusiastic consent

Rebecca St. James is clearly asking for it in that turtleneck.

I barely remember her from the bad Christian pop of the 90s, but apparently Rebecca St. James is still some sort of authority on modesty and whether or not someone deserves to be sexually assaulted because of what they are wearing. I say apparently, because Fox News had her on to discuss a recent spate of “Slut Walks,” which I would describe as a sort of updated “Take Back the Night” rally, in which women march wearing whatever they want, in order to make the point that being perceived as a slut, whether because of one’s clothes or other reasons, is not justification for sexual assault. It’s largely based on lampooning the very concept of the word “slut,” since it can’t be an insult or a justification if those to whom it is applied refuse to be shamed by it.

Anyway, back to Rebecca St. James, she of 90s CCM fame. This is what she said on Fox News (video here):

“I think there has to be responsibility though for what a woman is wearing,” St. James told Hannity Monday. “When a woman is dressing in an immodest way, in a proactive way, she’s got to think about what is she saying by her dress.”

“They’re asking for sex,” she continued. “They’re asking for sex if they’re dressed immodestly.”

Here’s the thing. ONLY ACTUALLY ASKING FOR SEX CAN BE CONSIDERED ASKING FOR SEX.

What someone is wearing, whether or not they are drinking, what kind of neighborhood they are walking down the street it: these are not ways of consenting to sex. I’ll put it a bit more clearly:

ONLY ACTUALLY CONSENTING TO SEX CAN BE CONSIDERED CONSENT TO SEX.

St. James seems to believe that rape is an appropriate punishment for women who dare to dress in a way that does not meet her cultural standards of modesty. She also seems to take the very negative and insulting view of men that suggests they are sexbeasts who cannot control themselves in the presence of female flesh. And, possibly, she seems to hold the beliefs that women don’t really want sex, and are unlikely to enthusiastically, verbally, clearly consent to engage in it, and that sex is something men must convince or coerce women into having, either by raping them, or exchanging gifts and time (it’s called dating, romance, or maybe even marriage– since an engagement ring is the ultimate gift) in exchange for sex.

Here’s what I think. Sex is natural, sex is fun, sex is best (and should only happen) with someone who wants to be having it with you. Both men and women enjoy and desire sex. Sex should only be had with someone who very clearly, obviously, verbally has expressed that he or she wants to be having sex with you. It’s called a standard of enthusiastic consent, and it handily does away with slut shaming, and “gray rape” and other points of confusion about consensual vs. nonconsensual sex. You don’t have to wonder if someone is sending you signals by their clothing, or by where they happen to be walking, or by what they happen to be drinking. You’ll know.

an earthy good friday

Today is Good Friday. Today is Earth Day.

I saw a tweet about how today you can choose to celebrate the Earth OR you can choose to celebrate the One who made it. As if that were an either/or proposition. I’d like to suggest that in taking care of the Earth, we serve and indeed worship our Creator.

In the past few years, my faith has sort of shifted directions. I feel like I’ve gotten to know Jesus better and been drawn closer to him. As this has been happening, my understanding of what is important about Jesus has shifted slightly. Rather than being focused solely on Jesus’ death and resurrection, I’ve broadened my focus to what Jesus said his mission was– to proclaim the gospel that the Kingdom of God is at hand (that is, available to us right here and right now), a kingdom characterized by resurrection, renewal, and the return of all of creation to the way things were meant to be. This means the saving work of Jesus, which was his life, death, AND resurrection, is not just for my soul, but for all of the earth. And that’s where Earth Day comes in.

Part of the beauty of the Creation story* is that we were placed in a beautiful garden in order to enjoy and care for it. As I mentioned in a post about faith and food that was inspired while listening to a Rob Bell sermon, God told Adam that he was put in the garden to work and to take care of the Garden.  Bell noted that the Hebrew words for “to work” and “to take care of” used to describe Adam’s (if I was going to get literary here I’d say that at this point Adam is a symbol for why all of us were created) role in the garden are usually used elsewhere to describe the act of serving and worshipping God.  Basically, to worship God was to TAKE CARE OF what God created in the garden (aka the world).

I believe a great window into just how far we have fallen from the ideal to which we were created is to see just how warped our relationship with creation has become. A relationship that was supposed to be characterized by reverence and care has become a relationship characterized by exploitation, destruction, and abuse. This is also reflected in our relationships toward our fellow creatures, human and nonhuman, and even in our relationship toward God. We cannot properly love the Creator while destroying the creation.

When Jesus put on human skin and lived with us, he preached the coming of the Kingdom. He modeled Kingdom life, a way of living characterized by right relationship: to God, to each other, and to creation. He taught us to live as children of God, that we might be a blessing to all of creation, as described in Romans 8:18:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

The saving work of Jesus, the liberating work of Jesus, is for us, and for creation itself.

So how does this tie in to Good Friday? On Good Friday, we remember a savior who came to teach us how to live as we were created to live, but who allowed us the freedom to refuse to live it out. He allowed us, rather than responding to him in the relationship that we should have, to reject him and subject him to violence. He modeled a love that, rather than lashing out against enemies, tells us to put away the sword and then reaches out to heal even the one who comes to kill us. He modeled a love that, even as it hung suffering and dying on the cross, was moved to forgiveness. He modeled a love that somehow is not destroyed by evil, violence, and death, but which submits to it, only to come back again. Through this love, we are enabled to transcend evil, violence, and death. Through this love, we become partners in first dying to the old ways, and then in rising to participate as partners in the resurrection and renewal of all things, which will culminate in the New Jerusalem, a place here on earth, in which everything works the way God planned it, and everything is made right.

So on Good Friday, we sit with the wrongness. We sit with the brokenness. We sit with the realization that we are fallen. Fallen so far that we would kill the one who came to save. And we marvel in the love that would let us. And this Sunday, we rejoice in the love that was not destroyed, but resurrected to bring renewal to us and to all things. The experience of Holy Week is very spiritual, but it should move us to very earthy action.

*I believe the creation stories in Genesis are less statements of fact than they are statements of purpose. They tell the “why” of creation rather than the “how.” Thus, I believe in evolution, even as I affirm a Creator God who made everything with divine purpose. As a literature student, I find the language-centered aspect of the story, that God literally spoke things into being, particularly fascinating, but that’s not particularly important for the scope of this post.

i am a christian because…

Rachel Held Evans, whose blog is really fantastic and which you should be reading, shared yesterday why she is a Christian, and asked her readers to do the same. I really relate to Rachel because she is often a doubter and a skeptic and writes a lot about her experiences living an examined, questioned faith. Her post was about how the major reason why she’s a Christian is because she was born where she was born, when she was born, into the family she has. And I think it’s a really great answer, because honestly, who knows where I’d be if I wasn’t born in the Bible belt to people who raised me in church, and who knows where I’d be if that church hadn’t been an awesome Presbyterian church which nurtured my curiosity, wasn’t afraid of my questions, and didn’t belittle me for who I am. But that’s not why I’m a Jesus-follower today (I don’t usually prefer the word Christian, but I’ll go with it for the sake of this post and because that’s how Rachel phrased the question).

I mean, if I had my way, I might not be a Christian today. Often I am frustrated with what feels like my own lack of belief, though in those moments, I always seem to end up praying to God to give me my faith back…

Anyway, this is how I answered Rachel’s question:

I am a Christian because, despite my doubts, despite the fact that my cerebral nature often keeps me from ever making a true leap of faith, despite my stunning capacity for existential crises in the middle of the night, despite my inability to believe every word of the bible or check every box in any creed…Jesus will just not let me go. He calls me back to his simple Way again and again, and I am unable to stop loving him or to stop believing that the way he lived is the most authentic, human, kind way to live. I am a Christian because I love Jesus. Not because I believe everything the church says about him.

Every time I walk away, something draws me back.

Image via Flickr user Megyarsh.

When I wanted to abandon my faith because I lost someone I really cared about; when I woke up with a frozen and panicked feeling in the middle of the night, night after night, terrified that nothing I believed in was real; when I felt my furthest from God…at that moment, this totally non-Charismatic Presbyterian girl was given a strange spiritual gift. I say strange, because this “gift” was the weird habit of sobbing, uncontrollably, whenever I thought about God, whenever I tried to pray, whenever others talked about God, whenever others around me sang songs to God. For a period of several months. (This was super awkward at a missionary conference where everyone talked about God for an entire weekend, and I was the strange girl sobbing the entire time.) And while at first I thought this sobbing was just grief, the way it kept coming up, only in connection to God, eventually clued me in. And the best I can explain it is, God gave me tears when I had no words to show me that I didn’t need words. Which is a big deal for someone as wordy as I am. God gave me tears so that God could wipe them away. So that God could surround me with arms to hold me that reminded me that God’s arms are always holding me. God gave me tears so that I might know God’s nearness.

And though I can say that I’m not charismatic, I had then, and have had since, strange, mystical, deeply emotional encounters with God. Moments when someone told me words I needed to hear. People who crossed my path at just the right time. Encounters that point the way to Jesus and remind me that God refuses to let me go. (A commenter told me this sounds a lot like Calvinists’ view of irresistible grace, to which I have two responses: 1. The Calvinists won’t take me because I can’t check all their boxes, and 2. I believe I am very much free to walk away from Jesus at any time. His love is a healthy kind of love. It gives me a say in the matter.) And so I keep coming back to my faith. Because somehow, that strange experience with the sobbing, the kindness I am moved to do for others, and the kindness others are moved to do for me are all bound up in this person of Jesus who makes broken things whole and then tells them to go and do the same.

People often try to pin me down, ask me if I really believe the Bible. Ask me if I really believe this or that doctrine. And I’ve just never been great at really wrapping my mind around any of it. Which is, on the one hand, entirely against my entirely analytical nature, and on the other, entirely of a piece with it. All I can say is, I love Jesus. I love the way he lived and loved and lives and loves. I want to be like him. And I want to be among people for whom that is enough.

I’m not particularly interested in proselytizing. But I do love to explore and question and wonder and discuss (and, I must admit, even argue!). So I ask: why are you [whatever word you would use to describe your faith]?

Beatitudes Part III: Hunger, Thirst, Righteousness, and Mercy

This is part III of a series of posts on the Beatitudes. Check out parts I and II if you missed them.

We’ve now reached “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” I have traditionally heard this preached as “God loves the goody two shoes,” as if it says “Blessed are those who want to be good little Christians all of the time.” The problem with this reading is that this is not a light yoke or an easy burden. Those who want to be good little Jews all the time would be the Pharisees. This is not our Jesus. He didn’t go around recruiting the goody-two-shoes. He picked the folks who don’t have it all together. It would not be good news. So there must be another way to read this.

To me, righteousness is when things go the way God planned and designed them to. When we exist in right relationship to God, to each other, and to all of creation. Some folks call this right relationship God’s “shalom” which means peace.

To hunger and thirst are downright visceral feelings. To me, to hunger and thirst for righteousness is like that sick at your stomach feeling you get when you encounter something that is just so not right with the world. Something that is so clearly not God’s plan for the world. To experience the tension between what God created the world to be, and what it is like right now. But in that tension, in that lack, in that fallenness, in our frustration, and heartbreak, and longing for things to be made right, God is with us. God’s sick at God’s stomach too. God’s heart is broken too. God longs for things to be made right too.

This verse in some ways reminded me of the Japanese earthquake. Though some like John Piper might claim that God caused the earthquakes in order to teach us a lesson or send us a message, ours is a God who hungers and thirsts for a world in which these things don’t happen. Not a God who causes these things to happen. God is with us when horrible things about the world break our hearts. Not when we get them all fixed, but when we struggle, when we wonder, when we question, when we feel the disconnect between the way things are and the way they should be. This is great news, because it’s easy for bleeding hearts like me to get overwhelmed and feel hopeless and powerless because we can’t fix it all or even do something about it all. But God is with us in that place.

God can handle it when we feel like Habakkuk (Ch. 1): “How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.” God can handle our anger, can handle our sorrow, can handle our concern. In fact, God is with us in that feeling. To me, that is good news.

God is also with us when we move from tension, anger, and sorrow into action. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” To me, this is where the Beatitudes begin to move from conditions (mourning, poverty of spirit, hunger and thirst) to action. To be merciful is to have compassion for another and to be moved to action to change that situation or express love and care. I don’t have much to say about this particular Beatitude, because it seems fairly straightforward, but I will point out that it seems rather interesting that Jesus seems to be advocating a salvation based on works if we look at this line alone. Do mercy, get mercy.