Thursday, July 07, 2016

I wish I didn't have to preach this Sunday. The call to try to say something that matters, something that makes a difference, that hasn't already been SAID for God's sake, about the Good Samaritan text is overwhelming. We can say it, live it, do it, breathe it, but it just feels so helpless because NOTHING ever seems to change. What difference does it make? What difference do we make? If you call yourself a person of faith, any faith, surely you too are heartbroken and / or furious at the injustice and violence that have occurred in this country and the world this week. If it does not anger you the way that some who call themselves people of faith are reacting (or not reacting), the I invite you to consider this again: "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." Elie Wiesel
I am so tired of holding in my anger and my reactions to the violence and hatred that I see ALL OVER the place. I hold back for fear of offending friends or family members, or adding fuel to the fire, or making things harder or uncomfortable for those around me. I'm tired of sharing only lighthearted kitten posts or articles with which no one can really argue on Facebook for fear of the responses anything more substantial will garner from those who follow me. Surely there is a better place for me to process all of this than on the Facebook Stage, but I don't know where that place is. So for now, I will go to the text for this week, Luke 10: 25-37, and I will try to find something fresh and new to say about this story, and I will pray that maybe, just maybe, someone will hear it and be moved to make a difference.
Adam and I have an ongoing conversation about how to respond to injustice. He gets angry, listens to podcasts and follows social media sites that, in my opinion, do nothing more than to incite further anger in him. He gives me (loving) hell about how I can be so calm, so "unconcerned," he says. I tell him over and over that I am not unconcerned, but that I operate from the Starfish method of justice-seeking. It is not enough for him. He wants to do more, do make a bigger difference. He wants a revolution.
I'd love one son, but I can't do it alone. You can't do it alone. We can't do it alone.
But what does it take? What will it take?

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Craziness in the Kitchen (aka Once-a-Month Cooking)

My life is rather crazy these days. Despite the fact that I have not held a fulltime, for pay job in many years, my hands are in many pots, and there are many things for which I am responsible.  Joel is a fulltime pastor at Oconee Presbyterian Church, we have three teenage boys--Adam is a sophomore at Presbyterian College, and Daniel and Michael are in 11th and 9th grades respectively at North Oconee High School.  I am also the primary point person for my Dad's care.  He lives in a nearby assisted living, so that's not as time-consuming as it may sound, but I am responsible for his medical care and financial affairs, and go visit with him or take him for a meal two or three times each week.   I am an ordained Presbyterian pastor, but my current ministry is math teaching and tutoring. I taught middle and high school math for a few years prior to the boys' arrival, and have tutored for the past twenty-five years.  I currently have both traditional and homeschooled students, and see about twelve to fifteen each week during the school year. I also dabble in pottery, and may one day get an Etsy site up and running.  For now, I sell mugs at Jittery Joe's in Watkinsvlle, and to friends and family here and there by word-of-mouth.  

It sounds like a lot, and some days it feels like a lot.  But mostly I feel blessed to be able to do so many things that I love.

My first venture into once-a-month cooking was when we were in seminary in 2003 or 2004.  We were both in school at the time, and the boys were 5, 7, and 9, or thereabouts.  I was feeling very anxious about our upcoming semester and our tight budget of both time and finances.  I didn't want our health to suffer, and knew we didn't have the money to eat out very often.  So at the end of the summer, once the boys had gone back to school but our classes had not yet started, I gave it a try.  I got the cookbook from my friend Steve Kopp, husband of fellow student Karen Jolly, and began to flip through the pages.  

My first thought was that there were many of the recipes the boys would NOT eat.  They were not overly picky eaters, but at the time they were not fond of anything with more than two food items combined.  So casseroles were out, with the exception of a very few.  And there were nights when I knew I would not need a ready-made meal.  We did wonderful cookouts on the playground each Friday night, we often had church suppers on Wednesday nights, and did occasionally go out to eat when time and money allowed.  So I flipped through the book and found ten or twelve recipes that looked like they would be winners, and set to work.

My kitchen was a tiny galley-style kitchen, but I managed to get a few meals put away. I loved the ability to pull something out of the freezer in the morning, and have a good meal that night.  For me, it's been more like once-every-six-months cooking because 15-20 meals will typically last two or three months.

So I've done this now several times over the past eight years, usually in late August when I know the back-to-school crazy train is about to start.  Then I'll do it again in the early months of winter, when there's little else to do, usually in early- to mid-January.  I've done it enough times that it's no longer daunting, and I have the preferred recipes down pat so that a lot of them are automatic for me.

As for exactly how it all gets done, it's something you'll have to figure out on your own once you decide what dishes to make.  I will say that I highly recommend you doing a mixture of chicken and beef (if you eat both) because if you don't, you'll get really tired of chicken pretty quickly. Trust me.

This is my freezer before. Notice our staple "go-to" meal of frozen pizzas.
I stock up on the good brands (Freschetta and DiGiorno) whenver they are less than $5.00 at the grocery story.  

The basic process is this:

  • Find your recipes and make a master grocery list of how much meat, produce, freezer bags / containers, etc. you need.  (Make sure you have plenty of heavy duty foil as well as a Sharpie marker on hand.)  
  • Two days before prep day, do all of your shopping. 
  • The day before prep day, do all of your meat cooking.  It takes a long time to brown 12# of ground beef and cook 10# of chicken. While the meat is cooking, you can do all your chopping, dicing, spice gathering, etc.  
  • Then on prep day, it's basically just a massive assembly of recipes--measuring spices, opening cans, blending, and stirring.  

Typically, I dice 6 or 7 onions and 3 or 4 peppers for the recipes I use.  

Browning the ground beef takes quite a while, so plan for that!
And borrow a large pot or skillet if you can to make it go faster.  

So here are just a few random tips, in no certain order.  Except #1 is most important  :-)

1.  Make sure you have a bottle of your favorite beverage on hand on prep day.  You will want it when you put your last meal in the freezer at the end of the day.  For me, it's a white wine in August, and a good red wine in January.

2.  You cannot easily do this with small children in the house, especially the first time.  Farm them out for at least five hours on prep day. Or have someone come over to entertain them while you work.  Or do it on a day when your spouse or partner can be responsible for parenting.

3.  Make sure your dishwasher is empty when you start.  Run it frequently, even if it's not full, or use it to place dishes to drain / out of the way.

4.  A deep freeze / chest freezer is a must for more than 6 to 8 meals.  It's worth the investment, trust me.  And a food processor is highly recommended.  Borrow one if you don't have one.  I will never not have either of those items again.

5.  Start simple.  Do 6 or 8 meals to start, just to get a feel for it.  Maybe 3 or 4 chicken and 3 or 4 beef.

6.  Clean as you go, but don't stress over how messy the kitchen is.  This is a hard one for me, but it's just not worth the anxiety.  Know that it will be clean before you go to bed, and if you are too tired, ask your significant other to clean it for you, or have a friend come clean it for you in exchange for his or her pick of a meal from the batch.

This was taken about 2 hours into an 8-hour day. 
7.  Either plan for one of your meals to be dinner on prep night, or better yet, plan to go out that night--if going out is not too stressful to you because of young children.  I typically will have the tetrazzini for dinner on prep night.

8.  Check the portions for each recipe, and split them if the numbers work better for your family.  Many of the casseroles (lasagna and meatball sub casserole) feed 12, but could easily be split into 3 smaller casseroles for 4 each.  The first couple of times I did this, we had a lot of leftovers each time, and we are just not a leftover-eating family--unless Adam is home from college, then he eats ALL leftovers readily and eagerly.  :-)

9.  Go ahead and make sure you have ALL ingredients for the meal on hand, even though the noodles may not be cooked until the night you eat that particular meal.  A very few require additional ingredients just prior to cooking, and it's frustrating to have something ready to cook and realize that you used that can of cream of mushroom soup for something else, gave those egg noodles to the food pantry, or forgot that you didn't have buns.  For the record, grated cheese freezes very well.

10.  Many recipes call for the old, red-label Campbell's soup.  These are not the healthiest soups, sometimes high in sodium and other nastiness.  Here is a link for homemade cream of (anything) soup if you are really feeling adventurous.  I haven't yet tried it, though.

11  These recipes are not lowfat.  My guys don't really have to worry about that, but I do, so usually I will have a small portion of the entree, and eat more salad or fresh veggies.

12.  Prior to shopping / prepping days, look over the recipes and make sure you have a general feel for the flow of things.  You will definitely want to multi-task, and the more you can do at once, the less time it will take you. I typically have 2 or 3 stations in the kitchen, with one recipe in process at each station, and I have the printed recipe right there at the station so I don't forget what I'm doing!  It might even help to re-do the recipes in a more "step-by-step" visual format rather than paragraph style.

That's all I can think of to share about this.  This is one of those things where DOING IT the first time is really hard, but after that, it's much less daunting.  It's funny to me how folks talk about all the organization or energy or whatever I have when I mention that I do this, but the truth is that I DO IT because I'm not very organized about meals on a day-to-day basis, and don't have the energy at 4:00pm to do anything about it, especially now that my primary work (tutoring) is done between 4:00 and 8:00 each day.  Massive-Meal-Prep gives me an out on those 30 days when I simply cannot decide what to have for dinner, or don't have time to put anything together because my day has been one, big interruption.  

And this is my freezer after--33 entrees, ready to be pulled out to thaw in the morning,
and cooked or warmed for dinner that night!  
If you haven't gotten the recipes from me yet, give me a tap and I will make sure you have access to the ones I use.  But I would suggest that you just browse for some online to see what strikes your fancy.  Every family is different, and now that our boys are older, the meals we like are not as toddler-friendly as they once were.

If you've been thinking about doing this, now is a great time to start.  Go for it!  And if you do try it, I'd love to hear about your first experience.

Friday, January 11, 2013

My Thoughts on Food and Me So Far

Mindful Eating Wordie
Although this is the second time I've done a detox / cleanse, I've had more time to actually think about it this time around. I remember during last year's cleanse being acutely aware of how habitual it was for me to snack while I was prepping food. A nibble of raw carrots here, a bit of apple slices there. That wasn't a problem when I was only cooking for myself, but when I thought about it as a habit, and realized that in my "normal" life, the nibble of carrots was a spoonful of peanut butter, and the bit of apple was the last bit of mac and cheese from someone else's plate, I became more aware of the unhealthiness of that habit. I vowed to work on that, and have been much better about it in the past year.   

In line with that, a part of the process involves being very intentional about what, when, and how you eat. This is very similar to the Buddhist notion of mindfulness. I have to admit that I am still not very good at this. I have a hard time "just eating," especially when I am by myself. I want to read something, or catch up on Words with Friends, or check Facebook. When I sit down to eat a meal alone, it's not just the food and me. But I'm working on it.  I think it would be easier for me to be in relationship with my food when I sit down to eat if I had not been the one to spend the hour or so preparing it. By the time I sit down to a meal that I have cooked, I am well aware of my hunger, and have been savoring the aromas for some time. I feel very connected to the food, and am aware of its textures and colors. I do pay particular attention to the "presentation" of food, and took great care with tonight's meal to use a green plate (since there was little green in the meal), and to carefully arrange the fish and the vegetables to look most appealing, even placing a thinly sliced lemon atop the salmon (which the boys promptly threw away--definitely got some work to do there about mindful eating for sure...!) But in general, by the time I sit down to eat a meal that I have prepared, I'm sick of the food itself and just want to eat because I'm "starving."

But it's more than just meals. What I've realized quite resoundingly in the past five days is that much of what I enjoy doing includes, even revolves around, eating or drinking. Spending time with a friend is usually done over a meal or coffee. A night out with Joel usually includes a meal and / or dessert and wine or beer. Spending time with the boys typically means we'll go for frozen yogurt or go to a movie, which means popcorn and soda. And even driving in the car for a few hours means a stop for coffee or a latte. Just tonight, I found myself really wanting to have a glass of wine while I spent a few hours cleaning up my studio. And oddly enough, I couldn't really get jazzed about cleaning up with a warm glass of lemon water or even a nice cup of hot tea. It's just not the same for me. Yet. 

Food and / or beverages are like the seasoning for all that I do. They enhance my both my tasks and my relationships in the same way that seasonings enhance a meal. And just like the though of eating a plain baked potato is not very enticing, the thought of going about my life without my "seasoning" seems pretty ho-hum. These past few days, I've found myself unable to get motivated to do anything since the food / drink component is no longer there. When I sit down at my desk, I want a cup of coffee by my side. When I run a few errands that I've procrastinated, I want to reward myself with a trip to Jittery Joe's or a run through Zaxby's. When I am working in my studio, I want coffee by day, and beer or wine by night. When I sit down in the afternoon to tutor, I want a hot chai tea by my side, spiced up with brown sugar and a bit of cream. And when I want to really indulge myself, I'll make some of my friend Whitney's Snickerdoodles (recipe here) and enjoy them with a cup of tea or coffee.  The thought of doing any of these things MINUS the food or drink component just does not sound as appealing, and as a result, my motivation has plummeted.  

I'm so grateful that we were never allowed to watch TV
while we ate a meal when I was growing up.
It's bound to be a hard habit to break! 
One glimmer of hope in all of this is that I don't typically eat when I watch TV, although everyone else in my house does. While they nosh on chips and salsa, cereal, or orange slices, I will catch up on Words with Friends, knit, or sleep, depending on what we're watching. But (almost ;-) all the other pleasure of life involve eating or drinking. So what is the solution? Now that I have realized this, where do I go from here? How to I disentangle the things that I do from the things that I consume by eating or drinking? How do I re-learn how to find satisfaction in date nights, family time, creative time, and productivity for its own sake, without their being tied somehow to food and drink? Or is it okay to tie them to food and drink, and just work towards healthier, more nutritious options? Somehow, though, the thought of substituting a cup of coffee for a cup of herbal tea, or a nice glass of red wine with a glass of warm lemon water just doesn't cut it. 

Thankfully, I've never had a weight problem. I can only imagine how hard this would be if I were seriously in need of losing significant weight to regain my health. It certainly gives me a greater sense of understanding for those who struggle with weight issues. And thankfully, I've never suffered from an eating disorder either. I suspect that in may ways, it is the complete reverse of my food issue, with body image and control issues thrown in as well. But both bring to mind the complex relationship that we have with eating and living, and how the two intertwine. We have to eat to live, but we also need to learn how to live without eating. As I continue on this journey of intentional, mindful consumption, this is what I'll be working on. If you have any tidbits or advice to share, I would be happy to hear them!  

How The Detox Thing All Started

So I'm far from a regular blogger--more like a quarterly blogger, I guess. It's not that things don't happen that make me think, "I should write about that sometime." It's just that "sometime" never seems to happen. However, as many do at the year's beginning, I've been giving lots of thought to life, goals, habits, etc., and in light of the second annual "detox" that I'm doing, I wanted to write down some thoughts and feelings about it. One, I thought it would be helpful in the way of some type of explanation for those who have asked me, "WHY are you doing that? It sounds awful!" And two, I want to be able to remember the thoughts I'm having when I am NOT in detox mode so that it might help me maintain better eating habits. 

This all started last year with my intern Drew. He and his wife Ellen did the Whole Living Cleanse (aka Martha Stewart) in January, and every time Drew & I were in the car together, he would give me the update. And in the midst of it, I did notice that he looked healthier. He seemed "lighter," and said he definitely felt more energetic. And he was really enjoying the food he did get to eat in new ways. It seemed to me similar to a fast in many ways, but not nearly as difficult. This time last year, I was really in need of some centering--some internal focus and spiritual discipline. Unbeknownst to my friends at the time, Joel & I were just before making a big change. He would be resigning his call at Rehoboth and accepting a call to serve as pastor of Oconee Presbyterian Church in Watkinsville, and I would be resigning from my ministry positions at Oglethorpe Presbyterian and Emory University. I saw the cleanse partly as a distraction from the stress of secret-keeping, and partly as a healthy way to rise above the eating and drinking that sometimes accompanies stress and change for me. So I made the commitment to do it myself, carefully choosing a 3-week period before the birthday months set in, as Joel's is February 20th and mine is March 4th. 

Last year, after perusing the recipes from the website, I realized that I would not be able to manage two part-time jobs AND the rigid shopping and cooking requirements of the cleanse, so I told Joel and the boys that they were on their own for two weeks. I trekked to the Dekalb Farmers Market and stocked up, learning for the first time what parsnips were, what leeks looked like, and where to find white miso. I dove in with full commitment, and was completely ready for a rough few days at first. But they didn't really come. The first day, I noticed I was slightly lethargic, but there was no caffeine headache, which truly surprised me. I missed the taste / flavor of coffee so badly, though! After a brief encounter with something called Teecino (coffee flavored tea--and yes, it's as bad as it sounds at first...), I gave in and went back to decaf coffee in the mornings, with a smidge of sugar and a drop of milk. No worse for the wear. After about three days, I noticed I did actually feel much better. My energy had returned, and didn't wax and wane as it did when I was eating sugar and drinking real coffee and sodas. I made it through the 3-week regimen, even managing to eat out (at Wahoo) and stay on track for Valentine's Day. I did get comments on a few pounds lost, but the best part was the energy that I had and the sense of accomplishment that I felt.  I maintained a certain level of "food awareness" for a few months after that, but clearly by the fall, I had fallen out of health eating's grace. 

I decided the week after Christmas that I was going to follow the regimen again because I knew I had developed some really bad habits post-move, and had also put on a few unwanted holiday pounds. My caffeine intake had definitely increased, as had my fast-food eating. And to be honest, this time around has been totally different, and a bit harder. I no longer have the distractions of two jobs to keep me up and moving, or to keep me from thinking about food or from eating when I'm not really hungry. And also, I don't have the "two-job" excuse not to cook for Joel & the boys. So I'm prepping my own foods as well as doing light cooking for the guys. I'm not tempted by the foods so much as I am tired of all the time in the kitchen. They don't expect me to cook, and would be fine on their own, but I know they eat healthier when I cook for them. It's just how we've rolled for all these years. Anyway, it's finally feeling more like a temporary way of life than sheer torture, so that's good. I thought the four-day headache and lethargy was totally caffeine withdrawal. I took four naps on Monday. Yes, four. I had plenty to do, but no hard deadlines or appointments, so I was easy on myself that first day. But on day four, I thought that perhaps the headache wasn't due to caffeine withdrawal, but dehydration. True enough, downing eight ounces of water before I eat anything has left me headache free.  Yay!  

I'm only on day 5 of supposedly 18 days, and I may not complete my original commitment of 18 days. But I do know that I have already benefitted from the hardest stage of the process, the "detox" week, and that was really what I was seeking. I will continue with week 2 eating (which adds fish and beans to the recipe options) for at least five days, then move into week 3 eating, which adds in some healthy carbs like brown rice and "hearty grains," for at least five days. These weeks are easier because I can include the guys in some of the recipes, definitely making meal prep easier for me. I know that as I move into the better-tasting foods, I'll have to focus on portion control, which has always been my nemesis. Some of the foods just taste so good after having so little variety for a few days! Also, I keep trail mix (a week 1 food) handy for when I get hungry in between meals. It's amazing what just 1/4 cup of almonds, walnuts, dried cranberries and raisins can do to hunger. 

Because I've not been as busy with life this time around as I was last year, I've had a lot more time to think about the emotional part of the process this week. In the next post, I'll write about some of the things I've learned about my eating habits and the role food and beverages play in my overall life. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Once-a-Month Cooking

Ahhh, the irony. My last post was from early June when we were in Costa Rica--reflective and deep. Today's post is at August's end, and is about cooking--matter-of-fact and practical. And such is the pattern of my days...

A few years ago, I discovered the idea of "once a month cooking." I hit upon it after spotting this while perusing a friend's cookbook collection. Not all of the recipes would be to our family's liking, nor did I need 30 frozen meals, so I adapted a few of them, cut back on number, and gave it a whirl. That was probably in 2007. I am not a regular by any means, but I do tend to have a big cook-fest in late summer / early fall to help me through those busy months at the end of the year. It is great for our budget in two ways.  Obviously, it keeps me from being tempted to suggest going out on those days when I'm too tired to think, let alone cook. And it allows me to take advantage of buying meat in bulk, either at Costco or at bargain prices from Kroger. It also makes late afternoons much more pleasant because I can generally enjoy the afternoon AND have a good meal ready for dinner. And it makes it fairly simply to have dinner guests on short notice if the opportunity or need arises. I have also added this cookbook to my collection as well, although most of the recipes that I use now come from the first one.

The kitchen, about halfway through
So yesterday was The Day. I think this was my 5th or 6th time to do this, and I've finally got a set list of meals to build.  This makes it easy because I also have a set shopping list, so all I have to do is skim it to see what I have on hand and what I need to buy.

Typically, I prefer to shop one day and cook the next, but yesterday I did it all at once, making it a bit more taxing than usual. And I got a later start too, so the day was very long. But by 6:00, I had successfully prepared and frozen 19 entrees, which should last us for at least a couple of months since I typically use two of the frozen meals per week. The other nights are easy-prep things like burgers or tacos, or are planned nights out, like Wednesday dinner at church or our once-a week family night out at Zaxby's, Your Pie, or something like that.

Most entrees are frozen in gallon-sized freezer bags, but a few are in plastic Glad containers. Using a Sharpie, I write what is in each, as well as the preparation instructions, on the bag or lid, making it easier when prep time rolls around.

Here's what I ended up with in my deep freezer. And a small deep freezer is a necessity (the small ones aren't that expensive) if you want to do more than 5 or 6 meals at a time.

The finished product/s--21 frozen entrees, ready to go!
3 bags of herbed chicken *
1 chicken and rice pilaf *
1 Chinese chicken morsels
1 marinated flank steak *
1 savory beef tips
1 biscuit beef bake
1 Balkan / Swedish meatballs
1 taco pie
2 chicken tetrazzini
1 green chili enchiladas
1 oriental chicken
1 wild rice chicken (tip: go light on
        the onions and celery)
2 chicken packets
1 beef pot roast (crock pot meal) *
1 teriyaki chicken (crock pot meal) *
2 easy beef stew (crock pot meal) *

Since I've done this several times now, I have a pretty good system for what to do when, and how to make the most of every minute I'm in the kitchen. For instance, the first thing I did was to put the 16 boneless chicken breasts in a pot of water to cook. While they were cooking, I assembled most of the raw meat entrees since they mainly just involve combining a few ingredients for the sauce / marinade, placing the raw, rinsed meat in a freezer bag, and pouring the marinade over it. (If you are new to the whole process, or want an easy way to have just a few meals in the freezer, fixing just a few of these would be a great way to start. They are marked with a * in the list above.) When the chicken was done, I set it aside to cool while I browned 5 pounds of ground beef. While the beef was browning, I assembled the meatballs and rolled them out, then put them in the oven for a quick broil. I also cooked the pasta for the tetrazzini in the chicken pot / broth. Then I assembled the ground beef items, cut the chicken in bite-sized pieces, and sprinted for the finish line. By 5:30, I had everything finished and was in clean-up mode. We had the chicken packets for dinner (the boys love these), adding some fresh steamed broccoli and sliced pineapples (from a can) to finish the meal off. My preference is usually to go OUT on the night of my cooking day, but I wasn't really in the mood to go out, and neither were the guys, so that was good for all of us.

It's great to look in the freezer now and see all the meals that are ready to go with just a bit of forethought. You do have to remember to thaw them either the night before or the morning of, but then again, that's part of the ease for me because I totally don't have that 4pm "oh-no-what-are-we-having-for-dinner" feeling. And yes, there are some nights when I don't want anything that I have in the freezer, so I will cook from scratch, but that's always a choice, not a necessity, so it's much more pleasant.

I could probably make the whole process a bit less costly--by making and freezing my own chicken broth, or buy truly bargain shopping / store-hopping for the best deals, or by buying in bulk. (This time, NONE of the beef entrees were on sale, but I bought them anyway...). However, I consciously chose NOT to shop at the Wal-Mart SuperCenter because it stresses me out. I did opt for Kroger over Publix, which probably saved some $$. And I did not have many coupons to use because my clipping has suffered these past few months, so I don't have any good ones on hand. (Yes, I do need to use mobile coupons more than I do...). But all-in-all, I'd say 21 entrees for around $250 (I spent $300 at the store, but probably had close to $50 or so of other grocery items in my order.) isn't too bad. That's around $12 per entree. Add the necessary sides, and you're looking at a meal for 4 (usually with leftovers) for around $15, which isn't too bad.

Since I started doing this, there are even more resources on the internet for recipes, etc. I added a couple this time (the teriyaki chicken and the easy beef stew) that I had seen on Pinterest. And there are now several once-a-month cooking blogs out there, too. But if you are interested / intrigued by this, I'd suggest giving it a try. It's really easy once you get the hang of it, and makes meal prep so much easier!

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Something Larger

On Monday, my morning walk carried me not right towards the sands of Langosta Beach, but left, toward the dark, exposed rock that reached out for what seemed like miles towards the crashing low-tide waves.  The absence of open sand would make for a different kind of walk, requiring slower, more careful steps, so I opted for the playlist that I've named “Worship,” made up of songs by Coldplay, U2, David Bailey, Indigo Girls, The Kennedys, David LaMotte, Fourplay, Nickel Creek, & Katie Larue. 

As I sipped the last few drops of coffee from my mug, David Bailey’s words from “Almost Perfect” struck a chord with me.  “Learning to love the moment you are in is the only way time makes any sense.”  I did my best to resist the flood of thoughts that generally find their way into my head as my body awakens with its first cup of coffee. I took the singer’s advice, and tried to genuinely live IN the moment in which I found myself. 

Coffee gone, my body glistening with the first few drops of sweat, I was suddenly flooded with gratitude, and humbled by both the grace and generosity that allows our family the privilege to spend time in this place.  Allowing the flood to carry me, I wandered not down the shoreline, but out, across the black, pocked rocks, toward the morning horizon, to the place where waves meet rock.  The rock was dotted with tide pools here and there, teeming with the early-morning activity of fish and crabs and snails. Venturing farther out, I noticed again how the rock-surface resembles that of a dormant volcano—dark brown and craggy, with fossilized shells and layers upon layers of earth-turned-rock over time.  At the same time, it is also a mini ecosphere, teeming with tiny life forms whose click-clack noises can be heard even above the crashing of waves farther out. 

I became acutely aware of a growing feeling of somehow being at one with something larger than myself. It is a space that I can only describe as prayerful, and for me, if I am totally honest, it is rare. But when it does come, I try to live into it, to ride the wave of it, and to let that Larger Voice have space in my head.    As the music from my own songs of worship played, my mind wandered to various people in my life, and I found myself in prayer for them.

For the friends who have recently lost children to a darker world, I visualized peace, surrender, and acceptance. 

For the ones who have lost mothers or fathers in the past few months, I imagined comfort, strength, and smiles. 

For those traveling far and wide, I hoped for learning, growth, and reconciliation.

And for the one for whom life itself too often resembles the harshness of the time-worn surface of the rocks on which I stood, my only prayer was for real, tangible hope.

For the ones who fear and resist change, I hoped for fresh new promises and a heightened sense of trust.

For the ones who have written lyrics that have the power to carry me to that space, I offered my gratitude.

For the One who gives life, who sustains, and who guides us all…whether we are aware of it or not…I give thanks. 

“The water’s gonna win.  You can’t hold back the tide, you can’t hide from what’s within.  The water’s gonna win.  Feel it move beneath your skin. The water’s gonna win. It’ll keep flowing through, all we are and all we’ve been, the water’s gonna win. Forever and amen, the water’s gonna win.” (Thanks, David.)

May the Water of the One who marks us all find its way into each of our lives today. May we recognize it and give thanks for it.  And in it may we find peace. 


Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Estuary

Today has been the first full day on our family's trip to Costa Rica. This is our second trip here as a family, having been fortunate enough to visit here in February of 2009 as well.  However, it's my third time to be here--my first was in the summer of 1978.  Each time I've been to the same place, and while not much has changed in the past 2 ½ years, it is very different than it was when I was here at the age of twelve. 

Our connection with this place, this land, is thanks to my brother Hunter (1955-1996) and the work he did to help acquire it for H.G. Pattillo in the late 70’s.  I don’t have many memories about exactly what he did, mainly since I had little interest in things like that when I was twelve, but I’ve been told that he was here both to gain the trust of the Costa Rican people, and to help recommend and negotiate the transactions that resulted in H.G. owning the hacienda that is Pinilla.  The memories I have about my time here all those years ago are more vivid.  My first experience with theft was here, when my purse was stolen from our Jeep in downtown San Jose.  One of my earliest small-world connections occurred here when we met a group of tourists from Macon, Georgia atop Volcan Irazu, one of Costa Rica’s still-active volcanos.  My first puka bead necklace was purchased for $2.00 from a young tico selling them to tourists on the beach at Tamarindo.  And my first time to ride horses on the beach was with my brother Hunter when we visited The Ranch on that trip, back when Hacienda Pinilla was visible only in the mind and heart of H.G. Pattillo. 

The love between my brother Hunter and me ran deep.  He was eleven or twelve when I was born, and Mom said he thought of me as his own child more than he did a sibling.  I adored him, in part because of the childish silliness that he never seemed to outgrow, and in part because of his intelligence—there was nothing that he didn’t know as far as I was concerned.  So I was eager to spend a few hours horseback riding with him, and even more excited to ride on the beach.  Also, Mom and Dad seemed quite apprehensive about our trek, which made it all the more enticing to me at the time. 

It was the rainy season then, so we had to stop at every flora and fauna spot we passed, particularly the known orchid locales.  While I would love this now, then it was less than exciting to me.  I was eager to ride on the beach, and didn’t really enjoy the winding route we took from the barn to the water.  But as was typically the case when Hunter was involved, we did it his way, and I was thrilled to be along for the ride.   

We finally made it to the beach, and had to cross what seemed like a smallish creek at one point to continue down the shoreline.  I learned then from Hunter that what we were crossing was an estuary, which is a partially enclosed body of water along the coast where freshwater from rivers and streams meets and mixes with salt water from the ocean.  At low tide, estuaries are generally knee-deep with gentle currents, but at high tide, they can become deep rivers with dangerous currents.  We crossed the estuary easily at low tide, with the horses barely kicking up enough water to wet the hems of our jeans.  However, at my pleading, we rode farther than we should have before turning around, so when we reached the same estuary on our return trip, the gentle stream had become a bit of a river, at least three feet deep with swirling currents of significant strength.


Hunter seemed mildly concerned, which was enough to cause me great concern since he was generally unflappable.  “Looks like we rode a bit too far, Jill.  We’ve got to cross now, though.  It’s only going to get worse since the tide is coming in.  It will be fine—the horses are strong, and they can swim.”  

Into the currents we went.  I took comfort in two things:  One, while Hunter was concerned, he didn’t seem overly anxious, and two, neither horse seemed to balk at entering the fast-flowing water.  It was probably 25 to 30 feet across, and my apprehension grew with each step as the water got deeper and deeper towards the halfway mark.  The water was at my feet, then at my shins.  At one point, I seem to recall that the horses were no longer walking, but swimming.  Finally they stumbled a bit as they regained their footing, then just like that, we’d made it past the deepest part and my feet were no longer under water.  The horses’ gaits quickened as we reached the other side and their strong legs were no longer fighting the harsh current.  Their gait was, I might add, in negative correlation to my heart rate, which had begun to slow down once it seemed the danger was past.   

“Let’s not mention this part of our ride to Mom & Dad, okay?  I don’t want them to worry after the fact, y’know?”  I nodded in full agreement. One of my favorite things about spending time with any of my three older siblings when I was younger was that, as the adult in charge, they could make decisions about what I could / should and could / should not do that were generally must less stringent than what my parents would typically allow.  They were cool like that. 

My memories of that estuary-crossing all those years ago reminded me that Hunter had both a confidence about him and a way of believing in me that was unique only to him.  Those that knew him well can attest to that.  As I wandered around the Langosta Estuary this morning on my walk and reminisced about that dangerous crossing, which was admittedly probably not as dangerous then as it is in my memory, I reveled in the inner confidence that memory brought forth in me.  I vowed to call up that confidence in the days and weeks ahead as we continue this crossing upon which we have embarked—from the place we’ve loved and called home for almost ten years now to a new and different place, with new faces and new challenges. 

Later this afternoon, Daniel and I walked from the Beach Club to the estuary at Avellanas, which was most likely the estuary that I crossed with Hunter all those years ago.  The tide was receding, and we thought we might be able to cross it, but after only a few steps in, I realized how strong the current was and insisted that we play it safe and turn back. 

My general tendency is often to play it safe and turn back. And so today in particular, I thank God for the memory of the estuary, for the bold confidence of my beloved brother, and for the faith that I know he still has in me, despite the fact that he left this life almost sixteen years ago.  As our family approaches the halfway point of THIS crossing, my prayer is that all five of us will find solid footing along the way, and that our confidence both in ourselves and in each other will remain strong as we venture through the strongest currents of change, looking forward to the new adventures that lie ahead! 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Not So Hospitable House...

Just a few days ago, the administration of Columbia Theological Seminary, the seminary from which my husband Joel and I graduated, voted to continue discriminating against its LGBTQ students with regard to its housing policy.  Despite the repeated requests of students over the course of many years, and most recently after two years of "careful research of various alternatives, and conversation with numerous people in our diverse constituency," same-sex students in committed relationships are still not allowed to live together on campus.  This is inconsistent with housing policies on other PCUSA-affiliated seminaries, and I believe it is both unjust and inconsistent  with the mission of the seminary itself.  As the current policy stands, single students who wish to live on campus are required to live in single rooms.  Apartments / suites are reserved for married couples or traditional one- or two-parent families only.  If a same-sex couple in a committed relationship wants to live together, they must do so off campus.  If these couples have children, this means they will likely not be able to afford to live in the immediate vicinity of the seminary, which would mean their children could not attend the excellent City of Decatur schools where most "seminary kids" go. They would have to live outside the City of Decatur limits, or would have to live in communities that are far removed from the seminary itself, making the entire seminary experience less than ideal for the whole family.  

The Tolbert in 2005:  Michael, Joel, Adam, Jill, & Daniel

On Friday, Seminary President Steve Hayner addressed this decision in a letter to the student body.  In order to voice our disappointment with this decision, many CTS alums will be writing to President Hayner in the next day or two.  I have posted my response here, and welcome your respectful comments, feedback, questions, etc.  (Note:  Since originally posting this on Sunday, I have edited it slightly, both for typographical errors as well as to better represent my intent.)

April 22, 2012
Dear Steve,

I write as a concerned alumna of Columbia Theological Seminary to express my deep disappointment with the recent decision not to change in the seminary’s housing policy.  While I have the utmost respect for the leadership which each one of you provides for the seminary, and while I honor you and each member of your cabinet individually as brothers and sisters in Christ, I am deeply troubled that you have chosen to continue to allow the seminary to practice such a grave injustice with regard to housing.  To invite or encourage anyone to become a part of the CTS community, then to treat them as less than equal to their colleagues is, I believe, inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

It is equally disappointing that this unfair decision has been defended as if living in a same-sex relationship is an unacceptable “behavior” choice, as if intimacy between two people of the same gender in a committed, loving relationship is somehow inconsistent with life at CTS or the Gospel.   That you refer to a covenantal same-sex relationship as an issue of “behavior”  suggests that perhaps you believe identifying as LGBTQ is a matter of choice—much like a decision to smoke, avoid carbs, use drugs, exercise regularly, have an affair, or use excessive profanity.  Identifying as LGBTQ is not a choice, but is rather a part of how each of us is made—fearfully and wonderfully, in God’s own image.  The decision to continue to discriminate against LGBTQ students and their families reflects poorly on the seminary’s claim to “witness to God’s creative power, redemptive action, transforming justice, and reconciling love.” 

Over the years, many of us have tried to affect changes, large and small, within the CTS community during our time as students, and have often been met with significant resistance.  Some of us are beginning to fear that the administrative approach regarding student-led changes is to simply stall, to “wait us out,” masking the passing of time as time for discussion, discernment, due diligence, and the like.   Let’s be honest:  The reality is that most of us—the star students and the trouble makers--eventually graduate and move on.  We are called to ministries and lives that demand more time than we even have, thereby leaving little time or energy to be voices for change on the seminary campus.  And so we become complacent about what happens on that space between Kirk Road and Inman Drive.  We ignore the issues that were often core to our identities when we were a part of the day-to-day life on the campus of CTS, often leaving the burden of justice-seeking at 701 S. Columbia Drive or 604 Kirk Road to those who come after us.  However, God is at work among us in new ways with this recent refusal to change, and we have been called to action.  We have vowed to the current students as well as to each other that this time, the issue will not simply go away as the original initiators graduate.  Rather, our efforts will be strengthened with each passing year as more alumni voices are added to our chorus.  We are no longer willing to be passive or silent regarding the issue of fair housing on campus.  Our growing insistence for equality and justice with regard to seminary housing will be seen, heard, and felt in ways we will discern both individually and corporately.

As for me, in my continued work with college students and young adults, as long as this unjust policy is in place, I will be hesitant to encourage those who feel called to ministry to consider Columbia.  This policy clearly suggests that CTS does not, in fact, honor ALL of God’s children as full and valued members of its community.  Additionally, I will be prayerfully considering and suggesting ways that financial contributions—my own as well as those of my friends and family--can continue to support ALL of the students in the CTS community, without regard to sexual orientation, family structure, or gender identity.  The honest truth is that the current housing policy does not live up to the values that are professed on its website:  “Because we are a confessional community of the Church, we live under the authority of Jesus Christ as witnessed to in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments;  (We) commit ourselves to diversity and inclusivity, …seek to be faithful to the gospel, and to become a living expression of the Body of Christ to the world.”      

It is with both respect and deep sadness that I write this letter.  I continue to stand in solidarity with many of my colleagues and brothers and sisters in the faith who have a deep love for the Triune God whom we worship and serve, a love for each other in spite of our differences, and a love for the community of faith that nurtured us so wonderfully during our formative years in her daily embrace. 

In Christ,


Rev. Jill Patterson Tolbert, M.Div.
CTS Class of 2007

cc:  Deborah Mullen, Marty Sadler, Doug Taylor, John White