Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The People or the Land?

Alyssa and I have evolved a lot over the last year of our life together. We've begun asking questions—specific questions—about our future as a couple that has committed to serving others for the rest of our lives.

Life is smoooooth sailin'.
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But lately, as we have settled into our cushy suburban community, I have begun to feel...well...comfortable

We have a front porch that is perfect for sitting, and enough space in the house for two families to live comfortably. I have a nice job working for a nonprofit in the city, and Alyssa is a manager at a coffee shop in downtown historic Liberty. As I sit in Starbucks writing this, sipping on my iced coffee and occasionally checking facebook on my fancy iPod Touch that my sister gave me, I am less than 30 miles from almost any restaurant or chain store anyone could possibly dream of wanting to spend time in.

And not too long ago, at a house concert that Alyssa and I hosted for our friends Derek and Nathan, one of the folks in attendance looked around at the house, the porch, and the well-groomed, safe, white neighborhood, and remarked, "I could never live in  place like this."

Now, 1,900 years of Church Tradition has reasoned that Jesus didn't really mean the things that he said—when he said, "Sell what you own and give to the poor," he didn't mean actually sell what you own and give to the poor, but instead, "Be a generous person" (obviously some rich folks in the ancient church had an issue with that one). When he said, "Blessed are the poor and blessed are the peacemakers," and "Foxes have their holes and birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head," he didn't mean for his followers to be poor, to become peacemakers, or to live their lives as homeless wanderers. 

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I don't agree with this line of thinking. To me, the suburban life and the Christian life are incompatible. To live a Christian life is to "take up your cross daily, deny yourself, and follow Jesus." To live a suburban life is to be comfortable. Whew! You want to talk cognitive dissonance? I am a really comfortable person.

However, admittedly, it has become popular to move to the inner-city and be poor. It's really rad for white middle-class kids to relocate into at-risk neighborhoods (whatever that means) and "do art," or swoop in with the "great white savior" mentality. I call this hipster gentrification, and it is just as dangerous as being comfortable. Creating a subculture in the world of the poor but not of the world of the poor is not what Jesus had in mind. This is not anavah. This is not the mindset that says, "You have something to teach me, perhaps even more than I could possibly teach you."

Lately, I've been thinking more about simplicity and sustainability. I've been greatly inspired by the so-called "Tiny House Movement." I have thoroughly enjoyed working together in community with my dearest friends on our small garden plot. I've been researching simplicity in the way I eat and the way I eat with others. I've been overjoyed in learning how to make my own bread completely from scratch. This is the life that is appealing to me—you put in a little hard work, and you are satisfied with the fruits of your labor. The simple life is increasingly capturing my spiritual imagination more than the inner-city New Monastic life. 

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I grew up in the country. I mean, some people say they were raised in the country, but I really was. One of my grandpas raised and sold cattle; the other grandpa raised donkeys and mules. At Christmas, my entire hometown gets together and reenacts the story of Stone Soup and then gathers around a large lit cedar and sings "Welcome Christmas," just like they do in Whoville. My dad was a conservation agent for the Missouri Department of Conservation, then later a resource forester for the U.S. Forest Service. Growing up, I was taught to appreciate the land. And lately, in my readings of Wendell Berry and in my own feeble attempts at a simple life, I have begun to miss the land. Sometimes I yearn for the land so much that my heart aches. "Put your hands into the earth," Berry says. "Live close to the ground. Gather round you all the things that you love, name their names."

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So I've begun to consider some options. What if, rather than a communal home somewhere in the forgotten corner of an inner city neighborhood, Anavah instead took the form of a small 20-acre farm within a half-hour of a larger city? My thoughts have shifted to allow me to believe it would be spiritually and physically gratifying for a small group of families (say, three or four, perhaps) to all pitch in funds to buy a small plot of land, build a series of tiny houses on that land, and then proceed to work the land for sustenance. The Backyard Homestead, a book that I have been reading lately, suggests that it is possible for a medium-sized family to comfortably live off of about a quarter acre; imagine what great things a small, organic farm could produce, if a few people were willing to live in community with the land and with each other! We could go off the grid, running off of solar or wind energy, and live comfortably and simply in our tiny houses, and perhaps even have an extra "barn" that could serve as a guest house and a common area for worship and study, and maybe even the occasional music jam. We could essentially be a Missouri version of Koinonia Farm! It's the perfect plan!


There's that whole Jesus thing again. I believe that to be a Christian is to be outwardly focused (some people as of late have taken to calling this "being missional," a fluff phrase for which I've had little use). In order to live out the gospel and the teachings of Christ fully, we must be zeroed in on the needs of others—particularly the plight of the poorest, the "least of these." And for the life of me, I can't quite bring myself to rationalize my desire to be a hermit farmer with my perceived obligation to live and work among the poor. 

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I don't want to live in the city. People get shot in the city. There's no fresh air there. It's crowded and there are so many rude people that cluster in America's cities. But this is exactly why I feel Jesus would want me there. People without homes live in the city. There are junkies whose families have turned them out. There are children who live on the fringe of society because they have been cast away from civilization. How can I speak for the voiceless if I am not  near the people who need to be heard? This is quite the existential funk.

So where do I go from here? Do I commit my love to the land, or to the people? Are those two mutually exclusive? I have no idea. And I don't necessarily feel that God is very interested in helping me figure that one out. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sourdough Bread Recipe

Tonight I made my second loaf of homemade sourdough bread. I made my first loaf a couple days ago, and it didn't turn out as well (I used whole-wheat flour, and it was much heavier—it takes some experimenting to get it right). But tonight's loaf turned out to be one of the most delicious, most beautiful loaves I've ever baked (if I do say so myself). Here's how I did it:

In order to make homemade sourdough bread, you have to begin with a starter. There's a really cool tradition of sourdough starters that goes back to the Gold Rush in the early 19th century. Due to the fact that many miners considered their bread starters as precious as the gold they panned for (fresh yeast bread was hard to come by in the western frontier), some even carried their starters in a small container hung around their neck. The putrid mingling of the bread batters with—let's not kid ourselves—outrageous body odor led to them earning the nickname, "Sourdoughs."

Anyway, enough with the history lesson.

Making a starter is simple, but it's a little involved. After all, the active yeast is a living thing.

Sourdough Starter
In a medium-sized tupperware, combine about a cup of flour with about 3/4 cup water. Add a tablespoon of honey (this is to help feed the starter; some folks use sugar, some even use pineapple juice). Stir with a wooden spoon until it resembles a thick pancake batter. Then, cover it! This is important—when the starter begins to ferment, it will attract fruit flies unless it has a lid on it.

Repeat the same action the next day, and again the next day. Eventually, the starter should get kind of bubbly and frothy, and smell kind of...well, sour. This is how you know it's working.

When you end up getting a good three or four cups of starter built up, begin taking away and discarding about half of the starter each time you feed it (by this time, you'll only need to feed it once every few days). If—like me—you feel kind of wasteful and uneasy about simply throwing away half your starter, you can give it to a friend for them to start their own, or you can begin making bread!

Sourdough Bread
Once your starter is good and bubbly, you can start making bread. Literally all you need is pretty much flour and water and starter:

—3 cups bread flour (I use King Arthur Flour, since it's a small business with a social and environmental conscience)
—2 cups water
—3/4 cup of starter
—1 teaspoon salt (optional)
—1 tablespoon butter (optional)

Combine the flour, water, and starter and mix until it makes a wet dough. You may need to add more flour to keep the consistency of bread dough. However, with sourdough bread you want to make sure the dough is a little bit wetter than regular bread dough. Fold in the butter and salt, and knead for about 5 minutes.

Pat the dough into a ball, and then place in a well-greased bowl. Cover the dough with plastic wrap, and then cover the bowl with a towel.

Here's where things vary:

If you're in a hurry for bread, you might try placing the bowl in the oven with your oven light turned on. This will help it rise faster. Then again, if you're in a hurry for bread, why are you making sourdough?

Otherwise, just leave the dough on the counter, covered in the towel. Keep an eye on it until it is doubled—the rising could take anywhere from a few hours to just over a day. When the dough is doubled in size, carefully scoop it out of the bowl and fold the ends in, overlapping them into a round loaf.

For baking, you will need some sort of covered pan. I have seen covered stoneware bakers, but I just use a small chicken roaster that we've owned for as long as I can remember. If you're in a pinch, you can also use two deep-dish pie pans—simply use one as the pan and one upside-down on top of it for a lid. The reason for this is that it helps trap the moisture from the dough inside the pan, creating a thick, shiny, golden-brown crust that you see on most sourdoughs and baguettes.

Before you put your dough in the oven, take a small kitchen knife and make three or four cuts in the top of the loaf, then three or four more cuts to make 90 degree angles. This helps the dough to expand easily while baking.

Set your oven to 500 degrees (no preheating necessary), and place your loaf in the oven immediately. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for 10 minutes, or until the loaf is golden brown.

Homemade Butter
What's better to go with homemade sourdough bread than homemade butter? Even though almost everyone has made butter this way (maybe when you were a kid), I'll post it anyway.

All you need is some heavy whipping cream and some salt. Pour about 2/3 of a cup of the whipping cream in a glass jar along with about a teaspoon  of salt (or more, depending on taste). Screw the lid on and shake pretty thoroughly for about 10 or 15 minutes, or until you can feel/hear that all the liquid in the jar has solidified. Unscrew the lid, and you should have a jar full of creamy, tasty white butter to go with your sourdough.

I enjoy the spirituality of making bread. There is a deep, soulful connection that comes with producing your own food and investing the time and energy it takes to provide your own sustenance. Besides: someday, in the post-apocalyptic not-so-distant future, you're going to need skills like breadmaking and canning! (kidding)

Best of all, though, with a bread recipe that literally only has three ingredients, you can feel good about making conscientious, simple food! Enjoy!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Love or the Ax?

Anyone who knows me or who reads my blog with any regularity can tell you that one of my favorite movies is Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis's novel, The Last Temptation of Christ. Actually, it's kind of a joke among my friends that I quote the film more than I quote the Bible.

One particular reason for my fondness of the film is that it captures a single but important tension that I have struggled with now for years. Not long after Jesus is baptized in the film, he is sitting with John the Baptizer discussing the tension between the love of Yahweh and the wrathful judgment of Yahweh:

Later, when Jesus is driven into the desert and is tempted, he comes to the realization that the "tree is rotten to the core," and receives a vision of John, who shows him an ax and an apple tree, which Jesus proceeds to chop down.

Upon returning to the disciples from this period of solitude, Jesus proclaims, "God is inside of us. The devil is outside of us, in the world all around us. We'll pick up an ax, and we'll cut the devil's throat. We'll fight him wherever he is: in the sick, in the rich. Even in the temple. I'll lead you. If you have sheep, give them away. If you have family, leave them. I believed in love. Now I believe in this..." He punctuates his point by brandishing an ax.

To me, almost all Christian belief boils down to the question of what medium we choose to deliver the message. Love? or the Ax?

Jesus? or John the Baptizer?

Oh yeah? Well to Hell with you! Literally!
One of the reasons I appreciate Scorsese's depiction of John the Baptist is that I have a huge fondness for the Hebraic tradition of prophecy. When I was in college I began to study the Minor Prophets, because since we didn't talk about the prophets much in church, my only understanding of them was that they were judgmental and wrathful. They probably wanted to send you to Hell for premarital sex, or cussing too much, or something.

But what I found in the Prophets was the continual painful admission that we live in a despicable world. Consider Amos, who is sent to Israel from Judah to call the rich out for trampling on the poor. Or Hosea, who is told to marry a prostitute, and to give his children names like "Not-My-People," and "Not-To-Be-Pitied," to symbolize Yahweh's estranged relationship with the Jews. Or think of Jeremiah, caught between an angry God and an angry people, sent as a young boy to bring a message of repentance to the Hebrew people—a message which ultimately costs him his life.

Living is painful, and that pain is usually brought on by our own rotten actions, or the rotten actions of those in power—in today's terms, think of banks that foreclose on the homes of the poor, or bankers and CEOs who still receive millions in yearly bonuses while people are starving on the streets of our country's cities. Or, in a more immediate sense, think of the hate or greed in our own hearts, and how that hurts the people around us.

I. am. PISSED. And I feel like God is too, and that God has something to say about it.

However, this can lead to closed-mindedness, fear, and more hatred. People are usually far too anxious to take on the role of prophet, which is why we have Chick tracts and bullhorns.

Jesus: "Trust me, this hurts me way more than it hurts you."
What about love? Is there a way of avoiding calling out the sins of the world, and instead simply trying to live out Christ's teaching to love our enemies? My heart sees the injustice of the world, and is disgusted by it. Do I attack with all my might and risk falling away from the love and humility of Jesus? Or do I practice love and humility instead of getting angry?

The problem is, I want to believe in both. I want to scream at all the injustice of the world. I want to chop the rotten tree down. I want to burn the infested forest until there is nothing but a pile of ash from which we can start over. I want to be a prophet.

But I also want to be like Jesus. I want to love my enemies. I want to practice self-control and discipline. I want to speak intimately with God as a friend. I don't want to worry about what tomorrow will bring. I want to forgive others.

The problem is, Jesus seems pretty conflicted on this whole struggle, himself. It doesn't take an in-depth reading of the gospels to see the things that enrage the Son of Man. Look no further than the so-called "cleansing of the Temple."

So which is it for you? Love? or the Ax?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Feast of St. Clare

A couple years ago I had the fortune to come across a copy of Mark Pryce's Literary Companion to the Festivals, and have enjoyed reading some great literature associated with or inspired by the powerful and moving stories of the Saints. On this Feast of St. Clare of Assisi, the reading is a liturgical letter; a poem that Clare sent to Agnes of Prague in the thirteenth century:

When You have loved, You shall be chaste;
When You have touched, You shall become pure;
When You have accepted, You shall be a virgin.
Who power is stronger,
Whose generosity is more abundant,
Whose appearance more beautiful,
Whose love more tender,
Whose courtesy more gracious.
In Whose embrace You are already caught up;
Who has adorned Your breast with precious stones
And has placed priceless pearls in Your ears
and has surrounded You with sparkling gems
as though blossoms of springtime
and placed on Your head a golden crown
as a sign to all of Your holiness.
      (source—Literary Companion to the Festivals, by Mark Pryce)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Albert Schweitzer on Jesus

In the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man, [Jesus] lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign.

—Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Wrestling with God

Around Abraham's rackety grandson Jacob are woven several engaging tales of outrageous cheating and deceit, and they culminate in an all-night wrestling match with a mysterious stranger who overcomes Jacob and is able to give him another name, Israel, meaning 'He who strives with God'. Out of that fight in the darkness, with one who revealed the power of God and was God, began the generations of the Children of Israel. Few peoples united by a religion have proclaimed by their very name that they struggle against the one whom they worship. The relationship of God with Israel is intense, personal, conflicted. Those who follow Israel and the religions which spring from his wrestling match that night are being told that even through their harshest and most wretched experiences of fighting with those they love most deeply, they are being given some glimpse of how they relate to God.

—Diarmaid MacCullogh, "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years" (p. 50)