Reason and Sacrifice

YOKE blog post 2-27-15 fast

“If it were easy, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice,” my older son said to me this weekend.

And that is simply true. It is early in Lent, and Easter looks a long distance away.

Yet onward with this fast.

Why am I fasting? I have some good reasons – it is traditional, it frees some funds for charity, I need to lose 20 pounds to lessen the burden on my arthritis damaged hips and feet.

It gives my body a break from rich food, alcohol, sugar and meat.

Reasons, good reasons.

Sometimes we don’t have a “good” reason for fasting, though, in the fasting seasons. And then we should simply fast, cutting out meat, dairy, fish, sugar, alcohol. We live for a few weeks the way many people in the world must live all the time.

Sometimes the reason for the fast is simply obedience.

See more at The YOKE:

More on Fasting

produce from a croft on the Isle of Skye

While I think it is beneficial to go on “fasts” from television and the internet or other activities, I am really emphasizing this year that all who can should try a traditional Lenten fast of the more rigorous type. We are spoiled people when it comes to food – we eat plenty, we consume a lot of resources in doing that, and as a culture we are much too focussed on our cravings and worldly passions than we are on responsibility to good health and sound economics.

If you are already eating whole foods, cutting back on grocery expenditures and growing your own food, then you may not need to fast. But if you are wondering how you will ever afford food as prices rise, how you will get meals for your family, how you will improve your health as good nutrition seems to become more inaccessible, then now is the time to commit to a food fast, a period of reducing one’s intake, of eating lower on the food chain, of learning how to cook sustainably.

Yes, give up television, and do it permanently. Give up computer and facebook games – they are a waste of productive time. Find activities that will improve your health and allow you more time with family, with community and with God.

But take this opportunity to learn a new way of life.

Winter Doldrums

The doldrums are the latitudes where the wind doesn’t blow much. Sailing ships couldn’t make much headway. Sometimes the ships’ boats had to be set out and the sailors rowed their vessel into better sailing weather. It could take days. Vessels truly becalmed were sometimes abandoned as water and food ran out. There are stories of sailors just stepping off the deck, mad from the blazing sun and the unremitting boredom.

I started with great plans this month – knitting, sewing, quilting. None of it is done, or even started. I am becalmed by recovery from illness which has taken the winds out of my sails. Since debilitating illness tends to trigger some symptoms of fibromyalgia, I am doubly becalmed. My hands are clumsy and I have trouble concentrating. I manage to do some writing, but it is slow. At least prayer and some scripture study don’t seem to tax my poor brain too much.

The house is fairly clean, we have fresh laundry, I keep the meals coming and the dishes washed. But that is about it. The closest I come to real work is online shopping for the garden seeds. It’s a good thing eBay doesn’t charge me by the minute.

How have your winter plans gone? It would cheer me to hear that others are getting things accomplished!

The Advent Fast

Put away the wreath, the tree and the garlands. Stow the lights and ornaments. It is not Christmas yet. It is the time of spiritual preparation. We all need this. We are not exempt. The bridegroom has gone to prepare His Father’s house for us, and we need to get ourselves ready for the heavenly banquet. Christmas is a remembrance of the Incarnation, of Christ among us, and of Christ’s return. Be prepared!

Out culture rushes us into premature celebration, pushes us to buy things we don’t need so we can give them as gifts, and makes a mockery of Our Lord’s birth and life among us. Let the pagans have their Yule, we have Christ. But He expects nothing less than everything; we aren’t to give His gifts to the world. We must prepare ourselves to be holy people, to receive His holy gifts.

When I recently wrote about the separateness of Christians, I received angry comments, as if we are wrong to be separated, different from the world. One reader insisted that she did not want to be holy if it was exclusive! Of course it is exclusive! Christ didn’t die to make your sins right; He died to make you right! You simply do not get to keep your sinful nature, and once received into the household of God, you must put off your old ways, or out you will go. You cannot bring in other gods, you cannot bring in the gaudy and cheap ways of the world. If you will taste of the cup of grace, you must first wash your hands, clean your face, and put on the spotless garment. God calls you to do this, and obedience is imperative, or the wine and bread will be gall and ashes on your tongue.

Be prepared to sacrifice ease and pleasure. Be prepared to give up some of the little benefits of our wealthy culture – the food especially. We are an indulgent people, easily cossetted, greedy children. Fasting is a healthy exercise.

This is traditional Christian fasting: No meat, eggs, or dairy. No alcohol. No refined oils. Whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruit. Very light seasoning. Olive oil and wine can be added on the weekends. (We may add eggs or dairy on weekends, as well, depending on our health.) Nut butters are a staple in fasting season. Hummus made without olive oil is also a good choice. Falafel can be baked instead of fried. The Russians eat sea salt on bread in the fasting season, rather than butter. Since beans without fat are rather bland, cook them with vegetables for flavour – tomatoes, onions, carrots. There are lots of online sources for the fast.

We are starting the fast late since we are in the process of moving, and I may have to adapt it a bit to accomodate my husband’s health issues. I can certainly use a fast, since I gained weight over the last year. I need to get back into my old eating habits. Part of my fast is going to be daily exercise. The dog and I really need it. I restrict her food intake to suit her lower level of activity, but I didn’t restrict mine. This is a fault on my part; I do know better! The fast helps us get our bodies back in line, makes us stronger, and teaches us discipline. It reminds us that all good gifts come from God.

And may I suggest that this year that we do not break the fast with a sumptuous feast, but a modest one? Rather than spending one hundred dollars on your Christmas meals (and that’s just a convenient number – don’t bother telling me “I never spend that much!”) spend fifty; if you usually spend fifty, spend twenty-five. There is no church canon that says you must have turkey, eight side dishes, and five desserts. A smaller turkey or ham or beef; potatoes, beets and other winter vegetables, avoiding the expensive imported ones; and a pie or two should suffice. Give what you save to your local food bank as cash, not canned goods. They need the money to get people through the rest of the winter.

Instead of gifts for the family, give to a family in need. The Salvation Army and other charities have programmes to help people buy heating oil. Donate to one of these. Give to one of the charities that provide farm animals or vegetable seeds to poor communities. Do something with your gift-giving money that doesn’t involve Walmart or the mall.

God calls us to be His people, not people of the world. We are blessed in simplicity and humility, not extravagance and arrogance.

Pinball Wizards and the Church, But Mostly about Hospitality

Mother Kay and I watched an old episode of the reality show “Ace of Cakes” last night. (We are cake voyeurs.) Duff, the owner and head chef at Charm City Cakes, brought a pinball machine to the bakery to inspire a commissioned cake.  (Which was really a set display piece and not a cake, which must have been very disappointing to people who saw Duff deliver the cake at the pinball convention.)  Then the Stanley Cup came for a visit. The bakers play with light swords and helmets when they make Stars Wars cakes. They really get into their work.

I’m not a culture junkie, but let’s face the facts – we all want to have some fun at work. We all want to laugh a bit. We all like some games and a modicum of silliness. The great saints weren’t dead serious all the the time. They had a glass of wine with the monks, told jokes and ridiculous stories, and even Mother Teresa laughed and joked and hugged and partied a bit, in the midst of the tragedies that surrounded her in Calcutta. Fun and laughter engender creativity, which is part of our holy image.

I encourage churches to plant gardens. There’s a great deal of God-partnering creativity there, and who doesn’t laugh and smile when they see a garden growing and blooming? I used to have my confirmation students take on craft and art projects – big paper banners to hang in the church on special occasions. It wasn’t expensive, it wasn’t anything to last forever, but they got to contribute to the liturgy and the church environment. They had fun doing it.

I think the church hall could use a pinball machine. The hall could use a glass of wine and some music, too. Our hospitality to others and to ourselves is so weak. Don’t just serve lemonade on the lawn, serve it on the sidewalk! Have a meal after church service, a good meal, not a cheap meal, and put up signs all over the town “Join us at NOON Sunday for a celebration of joy!” If people know we are joyous and a fun bunch of people, who are that way because we love God and each other, they may join us at 11 am on Sunday. And if they don’t, well, they got to see a group of Christians who care.

All those meetings we have in the church – oh, lots of them, too many to count – they need to involve some fun components. Serve good coffee and snacks, creative snacks, not just the box of Tim’s doughnuts or the fruit tray. Bowls of yummy home-made granola. Fresh-baked bread and good cheese. Chocolate dipped strawberries.  (As an aside, seminarians learn to find the free food, usually laid on for the higher-ups like board members. And the skill persists. Nicholas and I were at someone else’s seminary a couple of years ago, working in their library. This wasn’t even our denomination; I was cataloguing a unique collection and he was reading John Howard Yoder. Their local clergy had sponsored a seminar and they left an unattended coffee buffet outside the auditorium. A quick glance up and down the corridor, and several muffins and a couple of cups of coffee walked away. At university, we theology students found that the business department that bordered our wing sponsored occasional buffet brunches.  They had chandeliers and couches in their lounge. We had plastic chairs out in the hall. We paid as much in tuition, so we felt no qualms about walking through the adjoining door and helping ourselves to the Friday fruit salad and danish.)

I’m not sure why we make people sit through church before we reward them with coffee and stale mini-donuts. Shouldn’t we set up a coffee and tea service in the narthex so people can refresh themselves through the sermon and the choir anthem?

I could say something here about food charity. Okay, I will. When buying for the food bank, don’t be stingy. There are just pennies difference between the cheap soup and the good soup, between oatie-o’s and the Gen’ral Mills brand that rhymes with Tear-ios. Poor people are always having to buy the cheaper brand. Buy them the good one! (And please stop donating the cans of black olives. You don’t like them, either.)

As for distant hospitality – why aren’t we fighting harder for food and water aid in places that have neither? Are we keeping it for ourselves, as if we needed all of it? We don’t. There are surpluses. Maybe I’ve said this before. If the U.S. Army can move entire military bases thousands of miles and set them up in hostile territory, why can’t they set up aid bases where they are needed? The “local corruption and war lords” argument is not working for me. There’s no money in it for oil companies, armament suppliers and the Pentagon overlords, so it doesn’t get done. Fight for it, out there! Write letters, email your bishop, throw some good demonstrations when and where they count. Forget the G8/G20 conferences. They never see the protesters, who now are known as thugs and troublemakers. (Fair or not, that’s how they are viewed.) How about a big sit-down protest at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC? Or in front of Westminster Abbey, or Notre Dame? Lots of signs saying “Feed the world now,” some speeches by celebrities, and don’t move for three or four days.

Hospitality is more than coffee after church; it is everything from a cup of cold water given in love to massive movements of rice and medicine in the name of the Lord. Are we stingy? Are we cheap?

If it were Jesus asking for bread, would you give Him a stale crust, or reach for the freshly baked whole wheat loaf?

Friday Food Waste

I threw out a few slices of forgotten cucumber. They were yellow and a bit bitter, so I didn’t give them to the dog, who loves cucumber. My girl loves most vegetables; she used to pillage the compost for scraps, which was a big nuisance if I didn’t catch her in time – stuff spread all over. Oh, well, it was as good as turning the pile.

We don’t eat out much, but we stopped for a fast food meal while driving home from the maritimes. The “large” sized beverage was about a quart, I think. I was appalled. It lasted us two days! The burgers were good, but expensive. Nicholas noted that they were quite tasty and fresh, and I answered, “They should be – they cost as much as a pub burger!” If we did that regularly, I would think it a great waste of food becaus eit was one meal for the same amount of money that should sustain us for two days. And how much waste is generated in fast food restaurants – food prepared and never sold, so it’s discarded, things overcooked or less than picture-perfect, damaged buns, fries and so on that get trashed. And what about the food that people don’t finish, and toss? Thos mammoth cups of soft drink, for instance – who ever finishes one? Sit-down restaurants aren’t any better – lots gets wasted in the kitchen and on the plate.

How do you deal with take-out and restuarant leftovers? Do you eat out regularly?

How to Bake Prosphora – Altar Bread

I baked prosphora for Pascha. Usually, Anglican churches use those unleavened wafers bought by the gross, but they are boring. No one wants boring altar bread on the most exciting Holy Day of the year.

The Orthodox have used this bread for millenia, so don`t give me any Puseyite leavened-unleavened debate. Use unleavened bread for seder, but it doesn’t matter, as far as I am concerned, at communion.

Prosphora is easy, but it requires attention. You will need: 2 cups hot water, about 2 tablespoons of dry yeast, a teaspoon of salt, and at least six cups of flour. I use white flour for altar bread.

Before you start, pray that the work of your hands will be a blessing to others. There are formal prosphora prayers, but I don’t worry too much about it. Intention is more important.

Dissolve the yeast in the hot water, and add one cup of flour. Stir a bit, then cover the bowl and leave in a warm place. Check it in 15 minutes, and stir again. The yeast should be blooming – starting to multiply. Now stir in the salt.

Start adding flour, a cup at a time, stirring it in well. When it gets to be a coherent ball of dough, pulling away from the bowl, then knead in some flour by hand. When it isn’t quite as sticky, turn the dough out onto a floured surface – a kneading board, a tabletop (not finished wood, however) or a countertop. Sprinkle a little flour on it, and start to knead, folding the dough over and pushing it with the heels of your hands. Keep the work surface floured lightly, and use a little flour on the dough to keep it from sticking to your hands.

Knead the dough for about twenty minutes. This is a long time for kneading, but it is necessary to get a close-grained frssh bread that won’t crumble. You may need to take a break or two, or get someone to help you. It is exercise!

Once kneaded, it will be a smooth, glossy dough that is starting to rise. Flour the dough ball, and put it back in the scraped out bowl. Cover with a clean cloth – a large napkin or a tea towel. (Don’t use a terry towel, or the dough will stick badly if it rises against it.)

Let the dough rise for an hour, or until it is doubled in size. Take it out of the bowl, flour the work surface, and knead it again for about five minutes.

I spray a baking sheet with a vegetable oil pan for baking. And unless you have a prosphora seal, you will need to shape the bread in a certain way so you can mark the loaf with a cross. Divide the dough into two balls, one slightly bigger than the other. I just shape it into a flattened round about seven inches across; some people use a bowl upside down to make it a more perfect round. Then shape the other ball of dough, slightly smaller, wet the top of the bigger ball, and place the smaller one on top. Transfer to the baking sheet, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, then flour a sharp knife and mark the top all the way across with a cross. I let it rise maybe ten minutes, then put it in the oven. It will take about 45 minutes to bake, and should be brown top and bottom. The bottom of the loaf will sound hollow when tapped if it is done. I lightly cover the loaf while cooling so the crust doesn’t get too tough.

There are two ways to use the prosphora in a non-Orthodox church. (Orthodox priests have their own way – it’s complex.) Remove the top when it is placed on the altar, and use that for the fraction, then the priest tears the loaf into pieces as he/she gives it to the communicants. Or remove the top half, put that on one plate, and cut the bottom part of the loaf into small pieces and put them in a basket or bowl. The priest blesses the pieces and uses the top half with the cross for the fraction (the breaking of the bread.)

This is a delicious, sweet bread, and if there is a lot left, the priest should take it home to be eaten at the next meal, or it can be served at coffee hour. The Orthodx take the extra and hand it out at the door as antidoron. Serving the bread at ameal will give some people the uptights, but this is good bread and shouldn’t be wasted by tossing it on the ground like extra consecrated wafers. Eat what is put before you, and enjoy the meal.