Captured in Amber

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that Christ Jesus to hold of me.” Philippians 3:12

Terry and I recently traveled to Rhode Island to visit Ethan, Rachel, and Joel. Excited, we left mid-afternoon, anticipating that we would arrive at their house in six short hours. The last few trips there have gone well despite the chaotic traffic on I-95 in Connecticut. Although this trip would set a record, it was not in the direction we had anticipated. Ten hours later we arrived at our son’s home. The crazy part was all the slow downs happened before we even entered Connecticut! Despite the length of the trip, the time passed quickly. We alternated between listening to podcasts and reading a book aloud. A delightful chapter distracted us from the thirty-minute snail pace it took us to move two miles.

In early August, I wrote Leg Warmers and Body Shame, detailing my attempt to change lifelong messages I had received and accepted about myself. I declared that I was not going to count calories. I would journal about my feelings and work on dismantling the shame. The next day, I left for a birthday celebration only to return a few days later, testing positive for Covid-19. From this point on, nothing has gone as planned. After my initial symptoms disappeared, I struggled to get back into an exercise routine. My stamina was low, and my pace was slow. I also experienced a Rheumatoid Arthritis flare due to my compromised immune system. In essence, my body seemed to be in a bit of shock, and I needed to pay attention to it’s messages by choosing to accept the days I couldn’t exercise. I listened to my body but was admittedly frustrated, sometimes returning to old habits, using food to comfort me.

Recently, I heard a person remark in an interview that its easy at the end of the journey to share some of the important lessons you have learned. It’s harder to be vulnerable in the middle of a journey and offer perspective. She used the phrase “to capture in amber” referring to the lessons learned while still on the journey. “Capturing in amber” is a concept from Michael Crichton’s best-selling book, “Jurassic Park”. In the book, dinosaur DNA was extracted from bugs that had had feasted on dinosaur blood. The lives of these bugs were cut short when they accidentally got stuck in the sap of a tree. While still alive and struggling to get free, the sap enveloped them completely, eventually fossilizing the bug in amber. According to Crichton’s imagination and some scientific knowledge, the bugs captured in amber unlocked the keys for the future.

 I could take a high look back on the past three years and chronicle how I lost my weight and have overcome a lifelong battle of obesity. But this would not be a fair assessment. It took over forty years to put on those pounds along with the messages I received and habits I created to sustain that weight. I am still in the struggle, just like the bug who gets caught in the tree sap. And I need to pay attention to the lessons I am learning on the journey. I need to capture these moments and name where I still struggle. This authenticity helps me move forward and overcome. If I ignore the struggle and constantly look ahead to the end of the journey, I might miss some of the lessons I need to learn.

This journey has never been just about numbers, but numbers do play a role. My weight has crept up a few pounds in the last few months and my clothes don’t feel quite as comfortable as they did before. I find myself looking into the mirror and asking my husband if I look fat again. But as the words spill out of my mouth, I remind myself to show grace. I need to find the balance between numbers on the scale, the reality of my current physical health, and my old habits of using food as a comfort. I need to admit to myself and to others the struggles I am facing instead of reverting to the habits of hiding my setbacks. I must remind myself that this is just a slight delay on my journey to better health.

 In the past, when I have made long trips and have been in traffic jams or slowdowns, I have been annoyed and frustrated. This frustration didn’t leave when we made our destination. Instead, I always felt like I had to take some time to decompress. Although Terry and I were super excited to be out of the car, I didn’t need to decompress after this trip. I could be fully present as I greeted my son and his wife. The difference was I chose to enjoy the journey with my husband instead of focusing on my destination.

I am applying the lesson I learned on this Rhode Island trip to my journey toward better health. I am choosing not to panic about a few numbers on the scale. I am choosing to be honest with myself, and when I find my self over-indulging, I pause, and make a better decision the next time. I move as much as my body will allow, and rest when my body needs it. And in this struggle, I am learning more about myself, the messages I have accepted, and the truth of God.

Cabbage Patch and Repentance

“…not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” Romans 2:4b

Around Christmas of 1983, outside of Kohl’s Department Store, in the bitter Wisconsin cold, a line of women waited for the doors to open. Their mission: to find the “Willy Wonka Golden Ticket” in the form of a Cabbage Patch doll. Elementary-aged girls, including myself, desperately wanted to adopt these dolls with hard plastic heads and cloth bodies. One of these women was my grandmother, who managed to purchase one for me that day. Upon receiving my doll, I quickly filled out the paperwork and waited for my official adoption papers to arrive in mail for my little Oliver Xavier. A few years ago, I found my doll in a crate. He was stained, scuffed and, to my surprise, one of the ugliest dolls I have ever seen! As an adult, I have no idea why these dolls captured the imagination of my generation. Despite its ugliness, I remember treating this doll like a real beautiful baby.

 A few years ago, I made a rude comment to a family member. I called this person out publicly on what I perceived as hypocrisy in a situation that, frankly, was none of my business. I justified it by claiming righteous indignation. Even though there was truth in what I said, my attitude and response were completely wrong. I offended someone that I cared about, and even though I tried to rectify the situation, my sinful response damaged that relationship permanently.

 My heart breaks when I think of how many times my responses towards others have been sinful. Like the situation above, I have justified my actions and words. These justifications have often been rooted in my own insecurities, hurt feelings, and pride. My feelings were real: I did feel diminished, shamed, excluded, and humiliated. But no matter what I was feeling, I had no right to diminish someone else’s self-worth or character.

Recently, I heard a sermon by Timothy Keller where he juxtaposes the concepts of grace and legalism within Christianity. His sermon is so full of incredible insights that I am linking the totality of his message here. His concept of repentance changed my paradigm of how I want to approach God. Keller says, “the legalistic repents out of fear and anxiety, the Christian repents out of gratitude for what Christ has done for him or her, and for a desire to be like Christ.” This simple statement helps me to clearly see the God that is written about in scriptures, especially the scripture in Roman 2:4, where Paul writes, “not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.”

Although I have sung songs about his kindness that leads to repentance and have read that scripture, it didn’t totally resonate with me. I didn’t see God as some do, a terrible judge who was ready to pounce on me anytime I did something wrong. But I also didn’t see God as this benevolent father whose grace would inspire me to repentance. Instead, I landed somewhere in between, often repenting out of a sense of duty and obedience, which lead to feelings of guilt and shame. After repenting, I worked hard to discipline myself, focusing on character flaws like my unruly tongue. I would then study out scripture on what God expected of me and desperately try to align myself to His word. Then situations in ordinary life would test my resolve and I would find myself failing again instead of measuring up, repeating the cycle of repentance, discipline, and failure without success all over again. This approach closely aligned itself to the legalistic paradigm of Christianity. I certainly didn’t have this sense of gratitude that Timothy Keller talks about, until recently.

 Gratitude is defined as an appreciation for someone else’s kindness. In the case of God, it is appreciation for His unmerited kindness. When I mediate upon how He loves me despite the times I have been insulting, spoken words out of anger, and been unkind, it shifts my perspective. It humbles me that, despite my apparent ugliness, the creator of the universe loves me! Not only does He love me, but that He wants to spend eternity with me. His desire was so strong that He was willing to pay a debt I couldn’t pay. He was abandoned by his friends, publicly humiliated by the religious leaders, stripped naked, beaten, and, ultimately, hanged on a cross to satisfy my debt of sin. He did all of this because He loves me. And when I think about the cross and Jesus’ love for me, I am forever grateful. Now, when I sin, which I am prone to do, I repent out of gratefulness and my desire to be more like Jesus.

 After seeing my once prized Cabbage Patch doll through adult eyes, I decided that this ugly doll was not worth keeping. I chose to throw it away. I am so thankful that God never decides we are not worth saving. He sees the ugly stains of sin on us and chooses to invite us into a relationship with Him. He knocks on the door of my soul and waits patiently, even when I ignore Him. And because of this kindness, I can truly repent with gratitude!

The Two C’s: Cookbooks and Connection

“Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” Matthew 15:32

Terry and I are bibliophiles, a fancy word for people obsessed with books.  We have friends who still mention the trauma they felt twenty-five years ago when carrying twenty huge plastic totes filled with books upstairs into our apartment.  The number of books we have owned has waxed and waned over the years.  At one point, we had well over a thousand books crammed into a dozen bookshelves.  Our library cards always have items checked out on them, our books-to-be-read list continues to grow, and we explore new places often through their bookstores.

Between the two of us, our interests cover a lot of different genres.  We love classics, both for adults and young people.  We read a lot of personal development books based on Christian principles and we love good biographies.  However, we differ in some areas.  Terry loves a good science fiction story, thriller, or mystery.  I love both literary and historical fiction, along with memoirs, travel, and nature books.  Recently, I discovered a new genre that has pleasantly surprised me: cookbooks.

I have always loved beautiful cookbooks.  The glossy pictures of different recipes have inspired me to try new dishes in my kitchen.  I have sometimes purchased cookbooks solely based on the quality of their photographs.  But my interest in cookbooks has been limited to the list of ingredients and the steps of the recipes.  In my opinion, cookbooks were just beautiful instruction books, until this year.

Some of my personal cookbooks along with favorites from the library. Photo credit Terry Collins

My journey of cookbook enlightenment started with Shanua Niequist’s “Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes.”  In this book, each chapter is a short, memoir-style essay that closes with a recipe that has captured her heart.  These essays and recipes tell stories about her life: the highlights, the challenges, and her growth personally and within community.  She states in her introduction, “Food is the starting point, the common ground, the thing to hold and handle, the currency we offer to one another.”

 I read this book, cover to cover.  I even discovered more insights into what are called the “headnotes” of a recipe.  This is the short blurb after the name of the dish but before the ingredient list.  I found myself reading the recipe itself, noting any tips or suggestions she offered.  It was the first time I have ever had a visceral experience with a cookbook!  Just like a novel, I not only felt sad that it ended but also wanted to share its delights with others.

I wondered to myself, do other cookbooks offer this much insight into life through their recipes?  Can I find the “common ground” that Niequist refers to in other books as well?  Immediately, I went to the library and found “Ripe Figs” by Yasmin Khan.  It sparked joy as soon as I picked it up with its beautiful cover photo of perfectly sliced figs bordered by an exotic blue and white graphic design.  This cookbook explored food and culture through migration in Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece.  Khan not only shares some of the that hardships refugees experience but interweaves them with her own struggles recovering from a miscarriage as she explores different cultures.  She attempts to recreate the recipes she loved in her own kitchen with ingredients that can be easily found in most cities.  Her sentences danced across the page, enticing my palate with foreign spices, fruits, and vegetables.  I loved the book so much, I immediately searched for more of her cookbooks and bought “Ripe Figs” for my sister on her birthday!

Since then, I have checked out several other cookbooks, usually focused on Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine.  These books have allowed me to armchair travel, exploring other cultures through food.  When reading “Chaat” by Maneet Chauhan, I could sense the busyness of Indian railway stations with vendors selling their delectable bites to travelers passing through.  In “Sumac: Recipes and Stories from Syria” by Anas Atassi, I wanted the linens on my tables to create memories for my family similar to the ones that Atassi experienced as a child in his grandmother’s home.  While reading “Parwana” by Durkhani Ayubi, I got a timely lesson on the Afghan people through the eyes of one family and their food.

These books have not only exposed me to different ingredients and cultures but have also reminded me of the importance of gathering around a table with family and friends.  We were never meant to be alone, God always intended us to be in community.  It struck me that when Jesus performed miracles, instead of sending the people home afterward, he invited them to have dinner despite his lack of food. Through His hospitality, He performed a miracle that not only provided them with physical nourishment for their bodies but let them know He cared about all their needs.  Like any good host, I imagine Jesus walked through the crowd asking each family if they had enough.  This personal interaction probably made each person feel like he was not just a number Jesus could record as a miracle, but that he or she was valued as an individual.  This means of connecting though food is illustrated throughout the gospels with records of Jesus dining not only his with chosen disciples and friends but with people of ill-repute as well.  Despite criticism from the religious elite, Jesus chose to connect with people through food.

 If social media Is any indicator of trends, our current world is filled with divisiveness on all sides covering all sorts of issues.  This is not only causing discord in society but between family members, friends, and the body of Christ.  In “Bread and Wine”, Niequist says, “The heart of hospitality is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved.  It’s about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment.”  That is the desire of my heart as well!  I don’t mind having lively conversations on controversial topics.  But more than my desire to debate or enlighten, I want my guests to feel seen, heard, and loved.  I want to connect across the able over a steaming bowl of soup, a comforting dish of pasta or a savory roast.  Like Jesus, I want to welcome people to my table, no matter their background, beliefs, or opinions.  Just like the authors of these cookbooks have connected me with their cultures, I believe that through this simple act of hospitality, miracles will unfold that connect us to one another!