Today I Saw God

Julia ChildYou've Been Chopped

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Maybe you watch food TV or food Network. Being a major foodie all my life, I love watching cooking shows. I was probably the only kid in my neighborhood watching Julia Child on the weekends while all my friends were watching The Banana Splits, Lancelot Link, and Scooby Doo. Recently there has been a new phenomenon in cooking that actually has occurred everywhere else in our entertainment world: competition. Gone are the days of Julia's molded salad not coming out of the mold, the lobster falling out of the pot, or the turkey sliding off the tray. Nope, today a cook like Julia would be chopped; no classic French cuisine here. Could she make a dessert from red bean paste, smoked oyster sauce, organic grass fed Yak's milk and duck confit in 20 minutes? I don't know. I don't think she would want to.

Competitive, stress filled, crazy, dangerous, and downright uglythat's just my drive from Ashburn. I'm disappointed that cooking has taken on so many of these characteristics. Cooking and eating are for me, very spiritual experiences. I can't think of any one thing that brings so many people together, sets us at ease, puts smiles on our faces, melts away stress, and builds community faster than food. They have done research that shows that a family that eats together regularly is emotionally healthier and the kids stand a much higher likelihood of staying clear of many pitfalls that can be life altering. Amazing really, that something so basic and available can have such a positive effect.

The Bible is filled with references to breaking bread and eating as a setting in which Jesus teaches, performs miracles, references the kingdom, and even tells us to ask for daily. Yet for most of us this has become another competition on how quickly it can be made, served, and eaten. Say Grace? Well, it's more like, "Good God, good food, let's eat!" Thanksgiving is right around the corner and even that, the feast of feasts, has been reduced to quick, precooked, table ready dishes, with the meal eclipsed by shopping at 12:00 a.m. Time, preparation, love, connection, familyall that is and can be good is right there at the table. He invites us to eat, to consume his love and forgiveness. Spending time together around a table is the perfect setting in which we can stop and find the Spirit in each other.

It is another case of priorities I suppose. I'm just as guilty as the next guy trying to squeeze another activity into our lives and the lives of our kids. We so quickly dismiss the importance and the power of a basic meal together. I'm really bummed my kids don't have Julia Child and all her wonderful quirky awkwardness to look to. She encouraged, gave confidence, helped to show that anyone could tackle the kitchen; not very stressful, on the edge, or crazy, yet not valued much today either.

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Taking Care of Family

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I wrote the check and once again was struck by the generosity. It's money my father could keep for himself but instead he gives it to my mom. Every month a portion of my father's retirement is deposited into an account that he and I share. The money is then placed in a trust that is used to care for my mom who has Alzheimer's. Dad has been giving Mom money since they were divorced in 1972. Over the years, as the cost of living has increased, he has increased the amount that he gives. Dad could have stopped giving Mom money long ago. He could have stopped when he married Jean in 1979, but he didn't. He could have stopped when my sister and I were no longer living with Mom, but he didn't. He just kept giving. Who does that? Well, generous people do.

Born in 1929 and raised during the Great Depression, my dad is the definition of frugal. He chooses to wear sweaters rather than turn up the heat, maximizes natural daylight rather than turn on lights and clips coupons rather than buy groceries at full price. It's not that he doesn't spend money. He's just penny-wise. His penny-pinching allowed him to retire at 55 and to purchase not one, but two beach houses: one in Bethany Beach, Delaware and one in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. When he spends money, he's far more likely to spend the money on his family rather than himself. For example, he paid for my sister, me, our families, and my mother to travel to Walt Disney World a number of times.

It is this model of generosity that has impacted my view of money. Dad is generous because he has been prudent. He exercised sound judgment and managed his finances carefully. His thrifty lifestyle provided me with an example of what is important in life. It's not the fancy car or the big house; it's time with family that matters. You see, my dad considers my mom family, and as he says, "You take care of family." The two houses, well they were purchased as much for my sister and me as they were for Dad and Jean. He did this so we could enjoy the beach with our families in both the summer and the winter seasons. What seems extravagant was actually grounded in the value of family.

I hope to one day be as generous as my Dad. I know that in order to do that I need to have my priorities straight: God, others, me. When I put myself last there's an amazing economy that goes to workthe economics of generosity. That's what my Dad exhibits. He demonstrates selfless generosity.

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Apple Butter

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My extended family gathered to make apple butter at my cousin's house this weekend. Apple butter making is an old tradition that requires fires to be lit under two 40 gallon copper kettles early in the morning so that 20 bushels of apples can be cooked all day. Late in the afternoon we add copious amounts of sugar, cinnamon and cloves and pour it into Mason jars for the months ahead. I spent the best part of that day catching up with family while we took turns stirring the kettles with large wooden paddles. One of those kettles was passed down by my Great-Uncle Charles, a family patriarch who was kind and gentle and a man I admired as long as I can remember. He was hard-working and good-natured, a man of gentle humor, good sense and deep Christian faith. I admired him more as I grew older, when I learned of some of the deep heartaches he endured. Despite all that came to his life, he persevered.

He once told us that this kettle was given to him by his grandmother, and if the family memory is correct on this, it was first used in the late 1800's. My cousin shared this with me in the morning and all day long I kept thinking about all the people who had stood around that kettle stirring and talking. I considered all that happened over those years. That kettle saw young men go to Europe in WWI, the roaring '20's, the stock market crash and the Great Depression. I wondered if they made apple butter during WWII when they would have had less people to help and sugar was rationed. I went through the decades one by one, imagining how people dressed as they stirred that kettle. As it was cleaned at the close of the day, I considered how many generations had laid their hands on that old copper kettle. While the country faced good times and bad, crisis times when all seemed lost, and periods of economic expansion when all was well, people gathered around that kettle and carried out an unchanging tradition in the midst of an ever-changing and uncertain world.

The last few weeks have been difficult for most of us. Watching our elected officials slowly broker a temporary budget and reluctantly overcome their impasse has been disappointing in many ways. Many in our congregation are facing difficult financial situations due to the recent furlough and lost work in the private sector. Some have lost jobs or have had to lay off employees. The uncertainty we feel about our nation's future and our personal lives as a result of the budget negotiations is a time to cling to a deeper faith in the God who is present through all the generations and who transcends all the ups and downs of this world.

Like you, I have felt that uncertainty, because at the end of the day, we are all connected. Last weekend, that old apple butter kettle reminded me of what is good in life: the love of family and friends, the concern people hold for each other, the resiliency of the human spirit, the tie that binds faith in Christ, and the hope that one day after I am gone, another generation may gather in timeless traditions that extend beyond any one of us.

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The Generosity of a Few

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I read the email at 11:30 p.m.

I was pretty tired and once again, I shouldn't have been checking email before going to bed but it's a bad habit that I have. As soon as I saw the subject, adrenaline surged through my body and I suddenly wasn't tired anymore.

"Congratulations! A donation has been made to your account!"

I opened the email and confirmed my hunch. This donation had just helped me meet my fundraising goal for my upcoming December trip to Africa. The donor didn't know this, because I still had some offline donations that weren't recorded on the website, but with this last donation it was official. All the money was in.

In two short months, just two days after Christmas, I will say good-bye to my family and travel halfway across the globe to a continent I've only heard about. I will meet and spend time with children at the Child Rescue Centre in Bo, Sierra Leone that I have only seen pictures of and heard stories about. I will eat food unlike any food I've ever eaten in the United States. I'm told I will be hot, that there will be moments when I am exhausted from traveling for multiple days at a time, and that I will experience incredible joy.

It's been a humbling experience, raising money for this trip. Asking for money doesn't rank high on my list of pleasurable activities. I was scared and hesitant about how things would go.

I was not prepared for the generosity that I would experience from my friends and family. I knew I was friends with some pretty great people, I just never realized how generous they'd be. With each donation, my heart beamed with thanksgiving, knowing I was one step closer to reaching my goal. Each dollar that came in was further verification that this trip was going to be great. It was as if each of these benefactors was saying "I'm proud of you, I know you are going to do great things and be forever changed." I was humbled every single time.

There are 27 names that I will carry with me to Africa. They are the names of the 27 friends and family members that made my trip possible. When I am tired from long days of travel and don't know when I will have a chance to rest, I will remind myself of the 27 people who believe in me back home. When I am laughing and smiling with the children, I will be thankful to the 27 people who gave me this chance to experience joy.

There are countless others who I know will be supporting me while I am gone; a girl can never have too many people praying for her! However, I literally would not be going on this trip if it weren't for the generosity of the 27 families that are financially supporting me. Their financial gift is providing me with an experience that no amount of money could ever repay.

To them I am forever grateful.

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I was recently in New York City and attended a predominately African-American Church in Harlem. The church is mostly made up of people who are in some form of recovery, people who have seen some very hard times. And when they say that they need Jesus, they say it like it is still true.

At the service I attended, the choir sang gospel music, and they were worth the trip without all the other wonders of NYC, of which there are many. This choir had some standout performers. They started with the good-looking young man who had a fine voice. He was smooth and had a great range and knew how to hold his notes to gain greater meaning from them. There was the woman who took the microphone and established herself as a gospel diva, which requires vocal authority with a dash of humility. But the humility is all appearance because she can just plain sing. Then there was the tall, powerfully built man who was the mighty bass. You listened carefully to him because he made you think of the lightning and thunder that must have started when the Lord realized that the children of Israel were already making a golden calf, even though Moses had only been gone about twenty minutes. One by one they all came forward and sang songs of praise while we clapped and smiled.

Then this old guy steps up and takes the microphone. Rather than sing, he hesitates, like he is getting his musical bearings. They play a note for him. Still, he pauses. Some people call out, "Sing it Simon! Sing it!" Now he smiles. I can't tell if he needs the encouragement or if he is demanding payment before the song begins. "Sing it now, Simon! Sing it!" they yell. He begins to sing a song about the way Jesus' love has lifted him up. You can tell that Simon is working a lot harder these days to hit the high notes. He still has it, but he once had finer musical days. He was once good-looking and smooth. But I am looking at the people in this church, and I can see that of all the music that has been shared, Simon's is the most meaningful to them. They call, "Amen" as he sings. They smile and sing along. They close their eyes and soak it in. When he finishes, there is tremendous applause as the old man takes his place back in the choir. I realize that Simon has a story. Simon does not sing gospel, he embodies the gospel. Maybe in how far Jesus has brought him. Maybe in how good a man he has become by living out the Christian life. Simon has gravitas: dignity, seriousness or solemnity of manner.

I once asked a friend of mine if his pastor was a good preacher. I'll never forget his comment. He said, "He's really not a very good preacher. But he is such a good Christian person that I listen to every word he says."

The Bible tells us that we should do whatever we do "as unto The Lord," which means that you have to offer your best and not make laziness a reason for being poor. But there is this other dimension people also attain that is even better when you add it: good Christian person trumps good singer, good preacher, good whateverevery time.

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Author Tom Berlin
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