toast and feast | why artistry in the kitchen is essential

madenewfeast

I remember the summer I fell in love with cooking.

I was 19 years old and on a three-week-long choir tour in Greece. I had been a fan of Mediterranean cuisine long before the trip, but those three weeks awakened me to the joy of cooking.

It was all due to one man named Henri. Our choir was staying at a Christian camp somewhere in Greece, both at the very beginning and the end of the trip. Henri served as the camp chef. The details of his life story were never entirely clear, save that he was a highly-trained chef who had devoted his formidable skills to the service of his brothers and sisters who stayed at that camp, who would feast at his table.

And what a feast it was. I remember the night he served us risotto alongside lamb meatballs with a fresh tomato and parsley sauce. I literally sang the opening bars to Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ upon tasting it, and my choir-mates laughed a little at my theatrics. I meant that outburst – delicious food causes me to worship.

When I came home from that choir tour, I decided I wanted to learn how to cook. I could already follow a recipe well enough, but I wanted to learn to create in the kitchen. I began tinkering more and more. As a child and teenager, my gastronomic efforts were marked by overcooked food. I set things on fire in the kitchen more than once. I determined to leave that reputation behind and learn to prepare food so that I could honor guests with an excellent meal the same way that Henri did.

As I have continued my quest toward being a good cook, I have discovered that food made with artistry blesses a person more deeply than just satisfying their physical hunger. The time spent in a kitchen says that they are worth the time food preparation takes. At its core, cooking is service. Whatever Gordon Ramsay may try to make us believe, being a chef is not a glamorous role. It is hard work for the good and enjoyment of other people. Good food and hospitality should be an offer of rest and safety. It should say, in a world that is intent on making us believe we are emotionally homeless, ‘You have a home here.’

Good food can also help us to reset the rhythm of our lives. In 21st century America, where if things are not instant, they are at least express, taking time to make everything from scratch speaks a needed message: we have time to celebrate the goodness of God in the food he has placed on this earth. We have time to celebrate each other by sharing a meal. That our bodies need regular fuel reminds us that we are finite and inherently weak, even while the process by which we convert food into energy is miraculous and glorious.

In learning to cook, I discovered another element of joy: creation. There are few things as satisfying to me as the pure creative power of taking raw food and transforming, shaping, blending, and flavoring it until the taste I envisioned and could nearly smell in the empty air sits realized and plentiful on my kitchen table. Like all other art, it is then best consumed in the company of friends.

As I look at the purposes of art, good food fulfills all of them. It enriches the lives of those who consume it. It causes me to worship the God who made the ingredients, who allows me the skills and means necessary to prepare it, who made my taste buds, and who decreed that the human body would enjoy and profit from a wide variety of food (and not merely, say, the slop that Mr. Anderson, et al., were forced to eat in the Matrix movies). It allows me to play with color and texture and nuance as I think of new combinations of flavors. It reminds me of my humanity and my need for rest and renewal. Given that Adam and Eve’s first sin involved eating, that Jesus called us to remember His death by sharing a meal, and that, one day, we will feast together at the marriage supper of the Lamb who was slain, it thus echoes the Gospel.

A few weeks ago, I read a quote on the Instagram account of singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson. It said, ‘Let every feast be a declaration of war against all that is not true.’ I’m not sure who said it, but I’m fairly certain he was quoting someone else. Whoever said it has crystalized what I love about good food: it is a beautiful declaration of war. Good food tells me that God loves me. It wages war against the lie that he is stingy. It proclaims to every guest that they are beloved and combats the lie that all they are worthy of is the inattention of a TV dinner.

A good dinner speaks love outpoured from God to man, and then from man to neighbor. Was there ever a better reason to create?

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metaphorically speaking

madenewmetaphor

My daughter recently turned four. It’s possible that she experienced a grand shift to adult-like thinking solely from the knowledge of her new age, although the phases of learning and growing happen so fast these days. Whichever it is – intentional or natural – she’s starting to make connections and distinctions between the physicality of things and their inner nature.

There was a time when death meant that the insect, or the doll, or the grandmother, didn’t walk. She would come up and tell me that her baby didn’t walk, and my new parent mind flashed worry. She’s playing that her doll is dead. What do I tell her? These days, she knows that the dead don’t feel physical pain now, and can’t inflict pain on others. This is a comfort to her, knowing that the body is separate from the actual person at some point. Her brother, meanwhile, learned this summer that you don’t grab recently-deceased yellow jackets. Everything is more complicated than it seems.

Recently, she’s also been exploring the differences between fantasy and reality, something perhaps too few of us have figured out. She used to tell me about things she had experienced that weren’t lies so much as very vivid stories – in her mind, real life. Now her stories are indeed real life, and very clearly delineated from pretend play.

I think I miss it. But then again, I’m not the best at separating out that which should have a healthy degree of separation. Like Heaven and earth.

I live and die by the creative connections I uncover, as many artists do. We are communicators all, and typology, symbology, synthesis, double meanings – these things are our bread and butter.

This is metaphor, that you can have your cake and eat it too. It’s the ever-present mystery that we are physical and spiritual, flesh and soul, finite and infinite, saved and being saved.  There is a world behind this world, or maybe on top of this world, or underneath? I’ve never quite figured out how it works, despite my delving into every multi-dimensional sci-fi flick I can find. There is and there isn’t, is the whole point. Or maybe it’s not.

This weird, wonderful world we live in is, rightly so, teeming with these conundrums.  Heaven is always peeking through the cracks at us, flitting away when we turn to catch what was only in our peripheral at best. Perhaps because we are caught in this intrinsic tension, we have deep difficulty reconciling the differences between heaven and earth in our daily lives.

We are sanctified and saved, fully, in Christ. But our daily lives are more like bloody battlefields, and it’s hard to tell which side is winning.

We eat His Body and drink His Blood, but grow fat on our bread and drunk on our wine.

We uplift the glorious mystery of marriage as Christ and the Church, and fall devastatingly short in our goals of being either one.

We seek transfigurations and find people the same as when we left them last week. We find ourselves to be the same as last week, month, year. What is wrong with us? Shouldn’t our lives here be continual transformations into Christ?

Sorry. I meant, the image of Christ. Perhaps that distinction actually changes things.

The truth of the matter is, Juliet is not actually a flaming ball of fire in the sky, this earth is not Heaven, and we are not Christ. The difficulty with metaphors and analogies is the expectations we project onto them: Husbands should be Christ. Wives should be the ideal Church. Prayer and Bible reading should stop us from Giving In Next Time. God looks like our conception of a perfect Father (if we were to form our expectations out of every biblical metaphor, He might very well look like a mother hen in our minds, too).

So what happens when, inevitably, those expectations are not met?

I started out my meandering train of thought earlier talking about the difference between imaginary stories and real life, as my daughter sees them. I drew a parallel to Heaven and earth, and how we need to make a distinction. But none of you (I hope) would assume from this that I think Heaven is not real. The metaphor breaks down when it becomes the end goal.

The end goal of my argument is this: there is a distinction between Heaven and earth.

This earth will never be Heaven. Why would God make extensive plans for an entirely new Earth if it was on us to fix this one? Expecting to ultimately fix ourselves, others, the environment, poverty, war, pain – this is a futile thing.

When the Bible uses metaphor, perhaps its better for us to take a step back and view it as such, in hopes of determining the actual goal of the text. My wife is not the church, and I am not Christ. We will never be these things.  But I must sacrifice my personal needs and desires to love her unconditionally. This is an ideal, and ideals are good and necessary.  But if I don’t connect this with the fact that my heart is desperately wicked, that I do what I do not want to do, I am in for continual frustration. If I do connect the ideal and my total inability, a bigger Truth looms behind the metaphor, imbuing my earthly life with deeper meaning and good, good hope.

Christians are called to be the most optimistic of pessimists. We look at the world and say, “Yep, that’s a lost cause.” And we keep trying to save it. Wait. That isn’t right, is it?

We keep telling the world Who can actually save it.

Jesus Christ bridged the gap between Divinity and mankind, so we could be reconciled and made new, prepared for the New Heaven and New Earth over time and in ways we could never anticipate and certainly not choose for ourselves. Christ is not metaphor, because metaphor is calling one thing as though it was something else like it. Christ is two-and-the-same, God-Man, and the word for that is not metaphor, it’s Incarnation.

When we talk about our responsibility to make things new here on this blog, we are using a form of metaphor. We don’t actually make things new. We are incapable of that. We are image-bearers only.

We participate in making things new when we point to the God-Man who actually Makes New. In essence, we uplift the Gospel that is bursting out or seeping from every art form. This world is indeed teeming with Heaven, and some day Heaven won’t just peek through the cracks, it will bust this old place wide open and a brand new Heaven and Earth will emerge.

on labor

laborpost

It took me years to understand a simple concept that obedience might have taught me – the absolute and slightly mysterious need for rest.

During my senior year of college my wife and I made a resolution to set aside our Sundays as true Sabbaths – oases of rest in the week – and to do only things that refreshed us personally.  This was not easy to achieve.  Our church was in the suburbs, far from our downtown apartment, and our involvement was heavy in the music and worship ministry there. Our social calendar was full, and we both had work and homework and hobbies and families… the things we all carry – gladly, of course.  But we made a mutual pact, and probably because it was mutual we were mostly able to keep it.

Our formula was one specific to us, and perhaps to others, and I record it here only as an example:

  1. Worship
  2. Rest
  3. Fellowship

In the morning we had responsibilities, but we determined to view those responsibilities as an act of worship.  Our 8 AM choir rehearsal was not just part of a busy internship, but an opportunity to sing words of thanksgiving and adoration with our church family.  We took comfort in the liturgies and prayers, comfort in the repetition and familiarity, comfort in the new mercies every Sunday morning.  Comfort in a cup of watery church coffee and windmill cookies, served with a smile and the ask – how was your week?  Here, in the church, is where we as fellow laborers, fellow artists, fellow humans, belong and find our being.

As a musician, it took me a long while to let this shape my identity in the church. Viewing our Sunday rituals as restorative, and my contributions as acts of worship instead of career-boosters or networking, was what tipped the balance.

We would often be invited over to lunch following our afternoon choir rehearsal, and we ate in homes of almost all of the parishioners there, learning more about them and answering the dozens of questions.  This was tiring for me – I’m an introvert, after all – but there is something weirdly refreshing about expressing genuine interest in someone else. If you’ll allow the word magical, I think it applies, for it captures how puzzled I am by this phenomenon.

When we returned home, mid-afternoon, we read books that had nothing to do with classes or education.  Stories refreshed us – deep, cool pools full of the sheer beauty of words and action.  Required reading dulled the impact, as always, but a book about wizards from the young adult section of the Chicago Public Library made me think again about learning with a sense of wonder.  Or, if we didn’t read books, we napped.

These days, with three kids, we have to work to keep the afternoon nap a thing.  I fought it as a child, so I suppose I deserve the afternoon combat (“If you don’t go to sleep now I’m coming in there, and you’ll regret it!”)  But in college I dropped off faster than anything.

That was a great discovery – a 20-some-minute afternoon nap, no more, no less, preceded by a cup of coffee and followed by a glass of water – was incredible.  We think we don’t need these things when we grow old, until we try them and realize the absolute necessity.  Kind of like exercise, or eating right.

And in the evenings, after our quiet afternoons, we craved company.  We ate meals with friends, or hosted at our small apartment, or called up random people on a whim to go walking in the city or have a picnic involving nothing more than a gallon of Breyers cookies and cream and five spoons.

We came home, set up our schedules for the week, did some minor homework, and went to bed early.

I think, in retrospect, we were developing an understanding of how we were meant to function as human beings.  We were developing the humility to see that we weren’t invincible, that we needed rest, that we needed community; mostly, that we needed God.

We were also realizing that rest is not necessarily the complete cessation of labor. When we sat and mindlessly watched TV or lazed around doing nothing, we often came out of it more tired than ever. Recently, one of the most rejuvenating tasks I’m engaged in is simply washing the dishes, or cutting up fruits and vegetables for a meal.  These are normal, easy activities that restore and create in the world within which I’m designed to restore and create.

If I were to proffer some sort of encouragement or meditation on this Friday of Labor Day weekend, it would be to put some serious thought and time into planning how you will find rest for your soul this long weekend.  We labor so long throughout the week, sometimes non-stop, we labor at our art, we labor to achieve.  This weekend, labor well, and then stop laboring and take some time to enjoy the work of God’s hands – His creation, His stories, His people.  Look at everything around you, and realize how very good it is, and on the seventh day, rest.  And maybe even extend your Sabbath to Monday…