Monday, December 22, 2014

the light in the darkness

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” – John 1:5

The structure of this short sentence has always fascinated me. “The light shines” – present tense. “The darkness did not overcome it” – past tense. The light is shining now, and the darkness did not overcome it then. Why this juxtaposition? Who or what is John talking about? I’m pretty sure that the “light” is Jesus, but everything else about this verse is a mystery to me. 

When faced with a puzzling piece of scripture like this verse in John, it is easy for me to get caught up in the details, to diminish a statement’s power in my attempt to dissect it. When this happens, I have to take a step back, to accept that I can’t fully grasp the verse’s original meaning, and to reflect on what they mean to me in this moment.

When I read this way, with my heart rather than my intellect, the haze around this passage clears immediately. I might not know John’s intention, but I know lights. Lights are the people who refuse to let the darkness, the sadness and pain of the world, overcome them or the ones around them. In particular, at this moment, the light I think of is Lorraine. Lorraine runs a little food pantry out of her home in Lincolnville, South Carolina. I called her last week to let her know that the food bank where I work is providing 50 free Christmas food boxes for her to give out to low-income elderly people in her community. Based on her response, you would have thought I told her she won the lottery. “Thank you Jesus!” she yelled into the phone. “God may not come when you expect Him, but he ALWAYS comes on time!” She forgot I was on the line for about 30 seconds as she rejoiced in the news I delivered. She brought tears to my eyes.

Lorraine is not a wealthy woman; in fact, she could use one of those 50 boxes herself. And the 50 boxes she’s giving out won’t solve the problems in her community, a place where one in five people don’t have enough to eat, hundreds lack access to adequate healthcare, and poverty rates are exponentially higher among people of color. Lorraine knows all of this, but Lorraine doesn’t let these details overwhelm her. She doesn’t let her light get snuffed out, because she knows people need that light, and she trusts that God always sends a little light just in time. So she shines in the darkness, regardless of the facts.

Lorraine is one of hundreds of lights I know, one of millions of lights across our world. I can shine my light with her. You can shine your light with her. God, who sends the light into the world, shines with and through all of us.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Keep shining. The darkness did not overcome the light; the darkness will not overcome the light. Amen.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

good fruitcake (really)

The holidays are pretty different for my family this year. I spent Thanksgiving with my boyfriend Schuyler's family, my first one away from my parents and sister. In October my sister had twins--a boy and a girl!--so we're moving Christmas 200 miles west, from Bamberg to Atlanta. This will be my first Christmas outside of my hometown.

If you know me, you probably know I don't handle change gracefully, or graciously. I like routine, tradition, predictability. But when I reflect for just a moment on the change I've seen this year, I can't help but feel grateful for it. We're welcoming new, healthy, beautiful members to our family (the babies and Schuyler, although I suppose he's not so new to the world as a whole). It feels more like the beginning of a new chapter than the end of anything...although of course it's both.

Perhaps in response to this newness, I've gotten awful nostalgic in my holiday food choices. I baked three pecan pies over Thanksgiving. I made my grandmother's fudge to send to a secret Santa, even thought it turns out her secret recipe is on the back of the Kraft marshmallow creme jar.

And yes, I made fruitcake.

I didn't grow up eating much fruitcake, but every Christmas a brick of it sat on my grandmother's washing machine. (Her washing machine was in her kitchen, for reasons yet unknown.) Fruitcake never held the appeal of fudge. It's not exactly a kid-oriented dessert, what with all the dried fruit and liquor. Now, however, that sounds perfect. Fiber and alcohol in one dessert? Sign me up! Also, I found out last week that if you use real dried fruit as opposed to that day-glo green and red jellied stuff, it actually tastes pretty good. Sort of like alcoholic trail mix, but much better than I made that sound.

If you're feeling a little nostalgic over the holidays, this just might do the trick. If nothing else, everyone knows fruitcake is the classic re-gift.

good fruitcake
adapted from King Arthur Flour
makes one 9"x5" loaf, 6 to 8 mini loaves, or 1.5 dozen muffin-sized cakes

3 1/2 cups diced mixed dried fruit (I used cranberries, golden raisins, pineapple, and figs)
3/4 cup whiskey, rum, brandy, apple juice, or cranberry juice (I used whiskey)

1/2 c (8 tbsp) butter
1 c (15 oz) dark brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground allspice
1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp cocoa (optional, for color)
2 tbsp dark corn syrup
1/4 c apple juice, cranberry juice or water
1 c chopped, toasted nuts (I used almonds, pecans, and walnuts)

To prepare the fruit: Combine the fruit with the liquid of your choice in a non-reactive bowl; cover and let rest overnight. Too impatient to wait until tomorrow? Microwave everything for 1 minute (or until it's very hot), cover, and let rest 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 300°. Lightly grease your pan(s).

To make the batter: Place the the butter and sugar in a large bowl, and beat together until well combined. Beat in the salt, spices, and baking powder. Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping the bowl after each addition.

In a separate bowl whisk together the flour and cocoa. Add the flour mixture and the syrup to the mixture in the bowl, beating gently to combine.

Stir in the juice or water, then the fruit with any collected liquid. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, and stir until everything is well combined. Spoon the batter into the pans, filling them about 3/4 full.

Bake the cakes on the middle shelf of the oven, as follows: 50-60 minutes for the individual cakes; 60 to 70 minutes for the small loaves; and approximately 2 hours for the 9"x5" loaf. The cakes are done when a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

Remove the cakes from the oven, and brush them with liquor or liqueur of your choice, simple syrup, or flavored simple syrup. When the cakes are completely cool, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap, and store at room temperature for up to 6 to 8 weeks (how good they are after 8 weeks is yet undetermined).

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

For John.

Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings,
with your most gracious favor,
and further us with your continual help,
that in all our works,
begun, continued, and ended in you,
we may glorify your holy name,
and finally, by your mercy,
obtain everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A friend of mine died last week. I don’t know how else to put it; or rather, I don’t want to put it any other way. I hadn’t spoken to him in several months, since I left Nashville, and I didn’t even know he was sick until three, maybe four weeks ago. What do people do? What do I do? This seems like the silliest, most obvious of questions, but really I don’t know.

I suppose the thing to do is not to ask that question, not to ponder my response to make sure it’s timely, appropriate, enough. It will never be enough. John has died. This fact leaves a gaping hole in life, in lives many more than my own.

A few minutes ago I was trying to conjure up my grief (yes, I have to do that sort of thing), and I rummaged through my closet to find the card that has on it the prayer above, the prayer from Weavings, a journal John edited for years. We read this prayer at the beginning of every weekly meeting John and I had during the year I spent under his guidance at The Upper Room. As time went on I found it more and more surprising that John wanted us to recite this prayer so regularly. It seemed so orthodox, so Anglican, so Jesus-y…so unlike what I expected from a man as progressive in his thinking as John was.

Why did we pray this prayer? I never asked. I wish I could say I have an answer now, but no. I have a feeling I won’t for years, perhaps many of them. Still, it brings me…something. Not peace, exactly, or even comfort, but just a bit of memory, a bit of John. Is that what prayer is? Memory? Presence? The memory of presence? If it is, then I’m on board with it more than I’ve ever been. Not that prayer needs me to be on board, but I need to be on board with prayer, or at least with some act, any act, that makes the dead come alive again.

I wanted to write this to, oh, I don’t know, process my feelings, or to use what I learned as a hospital chaplain this summer, to allow grief to enter and to welcome it. Now I’m not so sure. But, I am utterly convinced that not enough people knew John because the whole world didn’t. I am writing this, and sharing it, so at least another handful of people know how good he was, or is. If not the whole world, I want a few more creatures to remember him. Amen.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

might as well bake a cake.

I think it's safe to say that as I write this, almost everyone I know is in a place that is really, really cold. According to my omniscient iPhone, in Nashville it's 16, in Charleston 32, in Atlanta 19, and in Bamberg 30 (and on top of that it's hailing there). So, I win the coldest place contest, but to be honest it's not a victory I want to claim.

I don't know about you, but when it's cold (read: under 50 degrees) all I want to do is wrap myself in a blanket, read novels, eat carbs, and drink wine. (I hate how much that sounds like the start of a chick lit novel, but I suppose mass marketing gets you somewhere.)

Anyway, since "read The Witness of Preaching" and "write a paper about theology and suffering" are not on the list of things I want to do, I figured I'd put them off by writing something about a cake that I made before Christmas. This is no ordinary cake. I asked for a cookbook specifically because of this cake. It's quite the project, more like two desserts in one, as it involves peeling and poaching pears on top of making batter and a glaze. So, what I'm really saying is that it's the perfect project for a snow day. If you're stuck inside, why not make something beautiful and delicious?

A couple of small but important notes: 1) make sure you poach the pears until they feel tender enough that you think you could eat them easily with a fork. I didn't poach mine long enough and this made the cake a bit difficult to eat without a knife; 2) if you don't want a huge cake, you can cut this recipe in half and make it in a loaf pan, which is how it was originally written.

cardamom cake with whole pears & white chocolate
adapted from homemade winter, by Yvette Van Boven
serves 16-20

for pears:
6 medium crisp, firm pears, peeled but whole, with stems left on
1 (750-ml) bottle dry white wine
2 1/2 c sugar
8 whole cloves
6 star anise
16 cardamom pods
4 cinnamon sticks

for cake:
1 lb (4 sticks) butter, softened
2 c sugar
8 eggs
3 c self-rising flour
2 tbsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp salt
6 oz white chocolate, cut into chunks

Poach the pears: in a large saucepan, combine the pears, wine, 2 1/2 c sugar, cloves, star anise, cardamom, and cinnamon and poach for 30 minutes over low heat, or until you can easily pierce the pears with a fork.

Take the pears out of the poaching liquid and set them aside to cool. Add 2 1/2 c water to the poaching liquid, turn to medium-high, and boil to reduce the liquid by half. (Watch this carefully so you don't burn it--which is what I did!) Let cool.

Make the cake: preheat the oven to 350. Using a mixer on medium speed, beat the butter and sugar in a large bowl until creamy. Beat in the eggs one at a time.

Sift the flour, cardamom, and salt over the batter and gently fold it in with a spatula.

Grease a large tube pan, and spoon the batter into the pan. Press the pears into the batter, stem ends up. Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Allow cake to cool in the pan, then gently remove it to cool completely on a wire rack. (You might want to find a helper for this part--you have to flip it twice to make it right side up, and it can be tricky to hold this massive cake with one hand without breaking off the pear stems...or just breaking the cake! But I have faith in you.)

Melt the white chocolate: set a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water, and stir the chocolate in the bowl until melted. Using a spoon, drizzle the chocolate over the cake.

Let the chocolate dry for a bit before serving the cake in thick slices, with the reduced pear syrup poured on top.