Monday, December 25, 2017

All I Got for Christmas was a Bag of Coal






Today half of the Christian world celebrates Christmas. Some are enjoying lavish tables bursting under the weight of the feast surrounded by loving friends and family. Unwrapping the generosity and goodness of our God in its many shapes and sizes. It’s like heaven has opened its door and poured its favor of those thus blessed.

Some.

Others… not so much.

No loving family. Or at least no loving. No friends. No feast. No presents. Or, even worse, some are actually given the gifts nobody wants - the duds of Christmas... sickness, separations, loss or death.

Some may feel that year after year this Christmas thing is overpromising and underdelivering.

Sure, there are few who may have gotten joy but certainly not all.

For the past twenty some years, I’ve been celebrating Christmas far away from home. Among people who speak a language not my own. As a foreigner with a foreign accent.  

The food is different here. The culture is different. The protocol is different. Different customs, different values, different expectations, different mindset, the whole shebang is different!

I feel like I am constantly out of alignment with the world around me.

During Christmas this becomes painfully obvious.

It’s probably the most frustrating, stressful, discombobulated season of the year.

I feel like the kid in a Christmas play who sings out of tune, who dances in the opposite direction from everyone else.

Awkward, annoying and frustrating not just for him but for everyone else around him.

Sometimes it feels all I get - and give! - for Christmas is a giant bag of coals!

Which makes me wonder if Christmas has anything to offer for the misfits like me...?

A genuine joy in the midst of discordant circumstances?

Then it crosses my mind… that’s what Christmas is all about! The ultimate, all-out cross-cultural experience – God of Heaven inhabiting human world, God living in a foreign country, speaking with a foreign accent. God the Misfit! With the background nobody understands or can relate to. God being misunderstood. Misinterpreted.  Violating the rules and the customs, upsetting the tradition basket.

Suddenly, my Christmas bag of coals doesn’t seem like a bag of coals any more… It’s more like a pot of pure gold…. and with that, the Merry inhabits Christmas again.

Merry Christmas!

… for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:11

He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:10-12

Friday, December 22, 2017

Christmas on Detour





One can only speculate as to the rhymes and reasons that led our tired travelers knocking on the wrong door... But, once it swung open, and they were invited in, I wonder how long it took them to realize it was wrong...

...A split-second lightening bolt kind of awareness? Oh my GOD! What have we DONE?!!??

... Or was it longer?

...A day or two?...

...a  week that dragged on?... I wonder...

And what did they do then?

Did they blame themselves and each other?  I told you we should have stuck to the...

Were they shocked that nobody else in Jerusalem, neither in the temple nor in the palace, was aware that the baby king was born? 

Were they self-conscious about the stir, the consternation they caused in the palace hallways, its stagnant air now filling fast with intrigue, as they overheard bits and pieces of hushed conversations behind closed doors…?

Did the feeling in their gut grew more weird with time, as they waited, watching, listening, listening, watching...?

Did they cringe when Herod used the same 'w' word while all hell danced inside the irises of his eyes? Were they stunned at the inadequacy of the language that allows the use of the same word to cloak unfathomable divine mystery and cover up for... murder?

Were they scared? Did they want to excuse themselves really fast and bee-line towards the closest exit?

Or did they remain calm, poised, unperturbed in their focus…  knowing that the One who led them through the darkest desert nights – even with this odd detour – will eventually bring them to their destination?

Having seen what they’ve seen,

having heard what they’ve heard

was it easy...

or was it hard…

for them…

to distinguish…
  
that despite all the wealth,

despite all the glitter and glamour,


privilege and power;

political, religious,

to the left and and to the right,...

... inside Herod’s court...

...there was...

... nothing ...

...and nobody...

...worthy of their worship?



Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him. Matthew 2:2



Monday, December 18, 2017

The Christmas GPS Malfunction




I often wondered about them. 

Already they traveled so long.  They've been on the road for months, perhaps even years, guided by a star of all things! 

Their personal celestial GPS. 

They covered so much ground. They’ve been through so much, as any traveler would attest that being on a journey has a way of spawning many a strange adventures. But they persevered, they pushed through thick and thin, undeterred. Dauntless.

Now, at last, they are almost there, almost arrived. Almost to their destination. The culmination of their hopes and dreams, the very reason for their existence is almost at their fingertips!

Almost.

I wonder what were they thinking?

Thank you Star for your faithful service and guiding us with uncanny precision thus far, but... we can take it from here…? We got this. Just asking any local would get us there…Excuse us, Sir… excuse us, Ma’am… Are you from here? We are not…

The couple skips the patronizing, ‘that’s kind of obvious’ and being the nice, hospitable people they ask the strange entourage what they need.

We are looking… do you happen to know where we can find the newborn king…we saw his... ?

A newborn king? Hmmm, we didn’t know the queen was even pregnant… Well, of course - a newborn king would be born in the Jerusalem Memorial –the best of the best… that’s where the queens go to give birth to the heirs to the throne.  But, you are going the wrong way – you need to go NORTH from here. THERE! - they emphatically point towards the palace, towards the temple - NOT south!


And thus the well-meaning couple, earnestly desiring to be helpful, convinced they know exactly what they are talking about point the weary travelers in the wrong direction...


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Christmas Misdirected





Earlier in the week on my way to the gym I came across an elderly lady who looked kind of lost.

Do you need any help?, I got off my bike also noticing her untied shoelace.

Are you from here?, she asked, and then explained, I am only visiting.  Her accent, even thicker than mine made that quite obvious.

Since I never know how to answer that question, where am I from, I asked her another.  

What do you need?

She started digging through her purse and eventually retrieved a piece of paper with the address and the name of the subdivision she was after.

She was as some would say, ‘in the ball park’, in the general vicinity of her desired destination – but when I heard the name I exclaimed,

Oh, you need to turn around and go the OPPOSITE way! You are supposed to go SOUTH, NOT NORTH on this road. 

I was very emphatic.  

It’s rather far… I looked at her – she seemed in relatively good shape, but she was in her seventies or perhaps even eighties and her shoelace was still untied. I bent down and tied the knot, then put my hands on her shoulders and gently turned her so she was now facing south.

You have to go THAT WAY, past the gas station and past the light - it should be right there on your LEFT when you get to the second light.

The woman thanked me profusely, so I hopped on the bike, pedaling on with gusto, feeling pretty good about myself. When I got to the second light and her presumed destination my heart dropped into my tennis shoes.  

It was the wrong neighborhood!

All that feel-good drained out of me in an instant...

I meant well.

I was trying to help. 

I was convinced I was right.  

I do know the area, maybe not in details but definitely in generalities…

But, none of that mattered.

I pointed the poor old lady with a foreign accent in the wrong direction.

I thought I was going to throw up.

Somehow through the fog of swirling options and earnest prayers, something else slowly begun to come into focus... another incident involving a group of foreigners on a very long journey who also needed directions…

Friday, December 08, 2017

The Crack that Saved Christmas







Nobody assumed responsibility for the crime.

Perhaps somebody sneezed.

Or coughed.

Or took a deep breath and exhaled too fast.

Or gave them a mean look?

Maybe there was no crime committed at all...

Maybe it wasn’t anything that happened from the outside that caused it.

Perhaps it was the internal weight, the heaviness of the burden inside the delicate vessel over time… and it became too much...

Without a bump, a look, a cough, a sneeze or even a breath, the rocks became too heavy to hold in, and all of a sudden, all by itself, the vase... cracked! 

Just 
like
that.

From 

- the inside -

- out!

I know that most people do not walk around like see-through glass vases, revealing the burdens they carry inside their fragile frame. But the burden is there. And it is heavy.  

Ironically, Christmas season, despite all the good intentions of good people to bring 'good news of great joy', often makes the burdens even harder to bear.  The crushing weight of loneliness, illness, broken relationships, grief and loss is only intensified by the pressure to act happy regardless of how one genuinely feels on the inside.  

No wonder the cracks are appearing all over the carefully decorated facades. 

Tempers flare. Arguments erupt. Depression deepens.

Which makes me wonder if these cracks could be the best gift of the season, after all...

An invitation to forgo the rush…

Let go of the pressure...

Simply skip the pretense…

A call to pass over the unreasonable expectations and demands on time, wallet, mental and emotional energy…

...and take a breath… 

...and another deep breath…

Until we can hear our own soul breathing again.

And who knows? 

The good Lord might surprise us and reveal that 

the Christ Child 

is already cradled there, 

just waiting... 

waiting for us to come... 


Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Matthew 11:28-29


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Rocks of Rememberance





Some time in my travelling career I’ve exchanged the accumulation of miscellaneous knick-knacks for collecting rocks from faraway places.

My one-of-a-kind friend Susan smuggled several on my behalf from her annual pilgrimage to the Holy Land few years ago – a rock from the valley of Elah where David whacked Goliath on the forehead  (obviously it was a different rock). Then one from the field in Bethlehem where angels announced to the shepherds ‘good news of great joy for all people' (there is no record of anybody throwing rocks during that event). 

For my 40th birthday, my one and only sister gave me a piece of ancient Turkish kaldrma she excavated from a cobblestone street in Beograd.  

Last summer we picked up some black lava rocks from New Mexico, riverbed rocks from American River, rocks from San Francisco bay, Colorado Rocky Mountain (of course!). I even hauled a boulder from Grand Canyon all the way to Florida.  I don’t know if anybody has noticed anything missing but nobody has shown up on my doorstep... yet.

It truly is amazing that something so commonplace, practically worthless has become so dear to me. In their dense space, they cradle multitude of memories of countless untold adventures we stashed along life's rocky road.

When I need a break or reprieve from my bustling busy head I like to play with them.  Some may call it ‘stress reliever’ others ‘stress inducer’…  I stack them on top of each other - they tumble and fall all the time, but that makes them even more fun and any success more delicious.

Eventually our counter got so cluttered by the scattered rocks that several weeks ago I scooped them all up and very gently, lovingly - the way you treat real treasures - set them down one by one inside a clear glass vase. They were still there on the countertop, still visible, still available and ready for any amateur sculptor willing to transform them into an impromptu piece of art, just not a chaotic, in-your-face illustration of our chaotic lives. 

Life continued to buzz in and out of our kitchen while the rocks sat quietly on the countertop, watching us with their unblinking eyes through their clear glass window...


Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Secret Sauce






It wasn’t until my sister and I got older and started cooking ourselves that we begun to ask our mom for the recipes.

Mom, how do you make stuffed peppers? 

Mom, what do you do to your sweet cabbage stew?

My mom was always all too happy to explain to us in the tiniest details the making of the peppers or cabbage or anything else in the world. She was delighted that we showed interest in her field of expertise, perhaps because it was so infrequent. She became our culinary Alexa or Siri, including never-tired ‘repeat’ button.

Now, here’s something interesting both my sister and I encountered.

Follow the recipe as closely as we could, our final result was NEVER as good as mom’s.

This was quite mystifying for a long time.

Did you saute the onions until they are translucent before putting in the meat? Yes. Did you put the lid on and turn down the temperature to low? Yes. And still it didn't come out right? Nope.

Not until just recent years, I don't know what but something happened and our mom started sharing her secrets with us.

A secret ingredient for cabbage.

A secret ingredient for peppers.

A secret sauce for…

All this time, she was telling the truth - she wasn't lying - but not the whole truth.

She held back, she kept an ace up her sleeve, so to speak…

When she started getting REAL with us, divulging some of her best kept secrets, it all came together. Now when I make peppers or sweet cabbage, they are as good as mom’s. 

During all these years of practice, I didn't realize I was missing an ingredient. I tried to make a stew or a soup, but, unbeknownst to me, something was left out. 

Following in my mom's footsteps, now, when I share a recipe, I make sure I hold something back... 

I keep an ace up my sleeve... 

... waiting for the right time and the right person... 

When I think of it, it truly is the best kept family secret!


The secret of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he will make them know his covenant. Psalm 25:14

Thursday, November 02, 2017

The Making of An Awesome MESS-AGE





Some time ago I heard a guest preacher say, 

You can’t spell a message without a mess.

Amen to that, I thought. He was wise person indeed. He also talked about junk in the trunk, but that's another topic I won't touch here.  

We all want to bring a message to the world.

Important message.

Even life-saving message.

But, we don't like the messy part. We want to ‘sanitize’ the mess out of message. Make it feel-good, nice, soft and cuddly. Or at least palatable. Less damaging, especially to our reputation. 

We want our message, but not so... messy?

According to English dictionary – as well as real life... 

... if you don't have a mess... you don't have a message.

You think you have a message?

Great! Show me the mess...

But that's not the whole story!

What struck me on that perfect bean soup day, while the bubbling pot was slowly simmering on our kitchen stove for hours, was that sometimes, when you and I are in the middle of it, it’s really hard to distinguish what is that message inside our glorious mess. 

All I see is a grand mess, but I can’t detect, I can't decipher a message.

This is where my slow-simmering pot of soup comes into play.

See, to make good bean soup, it takes time. A LOT of time, in my humble opinion. Not just the time to peel and chop, shred and saute. That's just preparation. That's just the beginning! What follows is four to five hours of slow-simmering on the stove-top, or inside a crock pot. Now, to me that's approximate definition of eternity, especially considering that you are going through all this trouble for a single meal which will be consumed and then forgotten in one sitting!

This little fact makes me wonder how much longer must it take to make some good, hearty, soul-nourishing life-soup out of all our heartbreak and failure, disappointment and disillusionment, weakness, blindness and sin?

Your and my amazing, life-saving, messy messages don't need just mess alone. The mess needs some time to process, to digest, to AGE

That, my friends, is how the yummy messages are created.  Put your mess in a pot, fill it up, then slow-simmer for a much longer while than you think is humanly endurable... until all the different flavors of the mess inside come together into one pot of pure deliciousness. 

And, voila, you got your MESS-AGE!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Recipe for Disaster




I realize I treat God in much the same way I do my mom.

Dad?

Yes, darling?

I need a recipe. A really good recipe….

Recipe for what darling…?

What do you mean ‘for what?”… for LIFE, of course! My life stinks and I could really use help…

Sure, I’ll help you…

Well, that’s not exactly what I meant.  I don’t need your help…. Actually, I do need your help, but I just want you to give me a recipe… A simple recipe that I can follow…  Maybe four or five easy steps that guarantee awesome results.

I don’t want you to follow a recipe. I want you to follow Me.

I hesitate a bit because I know this is can be a sticky point. But I feel like I have nothing to lose, so I go out on a limb.

Well, no offence but you are kind of hard to follow. It would be much easier if you would just give me the recipe…. 

...

Recipe please… 

...

Pretty please?... With cherry on top?

...


I don’t know how it is for others, but for me, God’s silence speaks louder than Klipsch surround sound system. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Creativity on Auto-Play





I used to ask my Mom for recipes.            

What I meant by ‘recipe’ was really a precise, fail-proof, perfect-every-time science experiment that I can repeat in my kitchen at will. A simple outline to follow, that can be done with my eyes closed, or in my sleep, if need be.

I wanted all the right ingredients, in their right order and precise measurements ready to dump into the pot, walk away from it, come back in 45 minutes and have dependable ‘perfect’ result each time.

I didn’t really want to learn to cook.  To understand what each ingredient brings to the common pot.

I wanted an easy, disengaged, mechanical culinary creativity. Creativity on auto-play.
  
No brainwork. No guesswork.

Luckily for me, my Mom had different idea. 

She wanted me there in the kitchen with her.  Cry the onion tears. Smell the bacon fat.

Her recipes were more along the following lines:

Peel one or two onions, a bunch of carrots…

Is it one or two?

Depends on the size…

She would continue in the similar manner, peeling and chopping, wiping her onion tears with the corner of her apron. Adding sliced carrots, bay leaves… adding a little bit of this and a little bit of that…

How MUCH is ‘a little bit’?  My right brain was turning into a bobbing pot of exasperation. 

Well, it’s according to taste… depends on what you like…

She was introducing wildly subjective, left-brain categories of 'taste' and 'like' which felt like rocket science to my half-brain of choice.

But, I would watch her taste and tweak, and tweak and taste… Pause and think, as if scanning the invisible spice racks inside her mind, looking for just the right ingredient, then light up as she reached into the pantry to retrieve the missing piece of the culinary puzzle.

Frustrating as it was at the time, I learned to appreciate her approach. Eventually, without even trying I begun to emulate it... to the exasperation of all the terrorized right-brain children who want fail-proof recipe that would ensure the delivery of 'perfect' results every time. 


Friday, October 13, 2017

The Exquisite Art of Self-Sabotage







Making bean soup is not rocket science, or brain surgery. Truly, it isn't.

All you need is a nice hunk of smoked meat, onions, carrots and, of course, beans!

But, just like everything else in life, once you put away your mama's cookbook, close the Allrecipes tab on your computer, the moment you whip out the largest pot in the house and turn on the stove, you discover there is a bit more to it than you thought at first.

Because, the soup  - real soup - is made in the doing, not in reading the recipe, or talking about the recipe, or even writing a blog post, or an entire series - about the recipe. 

I am ashamed to even mention this, because it is so incredibly embarrassing.  I can spend an entire day (I am lying… it’s more like weeks and MONTHS!) reading recipe after recipe, salivating over other people’s tantalizing photos, binge watching YouTube culinary instructional videos to the point of utter exhaustion -  and have absolutely nothing, nothing – to show for my efforts.

I call it ‘research’.

I am a researcher.

As a researcher, I can turn the simplest, easiest thing in the world into rocket surgery and brain science, including making bean soup!

But, even for us, researchers, there is place for research, and then there is place to flip the research switch off and do some real life testing inside a real life kitchens.

For some of us, the very thought of this sends shivers down our spine.

What if I fail? 

What if it isn’t any good? 

I think I am not THAT hungry…

Canned soup is good enough…. 

Cooking is for professionals who have their own TV show…

I have outstanding ability to generate an impressive arsenal of excuses to effectively sabotage my own creative efforts.  I don't need anybody else's help or temptation - I do a mighty fine job myself!

Monday, October 09, 2017

The Curse of Canned Convenience







Soups can be super-simple. You walk into the pantry, grab a can, peel the lid open, pour it into a microwavable bowl and heat it on HIGH for 2:30. 

Voila! Your soup is ready!

For some of us, that's the only kind of soup we know, and we love it. A life-saver for busy moms and dads.

It's convenient. 

It's easy.

It tastes fine.  (My mom would disagree. She would rather be caught dead then eat canned soup!)
  
Canned soups are wonderful inventions, I tell myself.

But, some questions remain unanswered.

First of all, do you even know the person who made the soup? What did he or she put in it? How long ago was it made? The expiration date on the bottom of the can years out makes me even more nervous. Imagine a bowl of soup that sits on the pantry shelf for two years???  Would I even consider consuming something like that??!?

Still, canned soups are wonderful inventions for busy, distracted, rushed, on-the-go thoughtless lives we live.  I consume those on semi-regular basis, just like I do the pithy inspirational quotes that pop up in my Facebook newsfeed. They are just enough to take the edge of my soul hunger to keep me from working up a healthy appetite for truly nourishing food. 

They keep me sated, mildly sedated, vaguely unsatisfied and generally unmotivated to sink my teeth into anything of real substance.



Like the mass produced, mass consumed shareable content, a can of soup may fill up my stomach but it leaves me hungry everywhere else. It may silence my growling innards, but leave my body anemic, soul impoverished, and my heart and spirit severely, acutely malnourished. 

It is amazing to me that such conditions can exist on every level of society, regardless of the religious or political orientation, in what is deemed the riches country in the world...

Nobody, I mean, nobody is exempt. 


You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. Matthew 5:6

Friday, October 06, 2017

The Perfect Bean Soup Day







We rarely get them in sunny Florida, but when we do, I try to take full advantage of them.  

The Bean Soup Days. 

Many times it’s just false, empty promises.  Foreboding clouds on the horizon spelling ‘rain in the forecast’ that burn off along with the morning mist by 10 AM. I’ve gotten wiser with age. I don’t trust those clouds anymore. Now, I check my Accuweather MinuteCast for our zip code to ensure that indeed I have a Bean Soup Day that lasts the ENTIRE day, not just through noon or early afternoon at best.  

Yesterday was a perfect Bean Soup Day. The Minutecast glowed in varied shades of green hour after hour, all the way into the dinner time. This is very important, because it’s no use having a bean soup day that turns into scorching steamy sunny day just as you are about to sit down and eat. I’ve done that a time or two, and it’s no fun. 

For an average control freak, it feels rather strange that I can't just decide, I can't simply choose a Tuesday or a Wednesday and make it a 'Bean Soup Day'. At least not where I live. I have to wait and watch, and watch and wait, plan and ensure that most of the ingredients are in stock and handy so when the weatherman says, It's a Go!, I am ready and I go!

If I mess up the timing, what is supposed to be warm and cozy comfort food becomes somewhat of a sweltering, suffocating torture. I've subjected my family to different forms of torture, this being one of them. Conversely, if I miss the window of opportunity, and I am not ready when the timing is right, it may be months before I get another chance. 

But, yesterday the weatherman was abundantly on my side, and I knew exactly what I had to do.


I am making bean soup today! I announced as I was pulling onions and carrots out of the bottom drawer of the refrigerator.