An Epilogue to the Soup Story

Later that night, after the great soup escapade, I was sharing my story with a friend. “You know how my church has these Lenten suppers,” I began.

“Uh-huh.”

“And each week two people volunteer to bring soup.”

“Oh no,” she interjected. “You didn’t volunteer to take soup did you?” (Ah, she knows me so well.)

“Well… I really thought it was going to work this year.”

“Please tell me you followed a recipe,” she said.

Silence.

“Why?” She cried. “Why do you keep doing this to these nice people? I thought you liked these people.”

“I do!” I said.

“Then stop subjecting them to your cooking! Just stop volunteering. Believe me, they will understand.”

“But I want to volunteer,” I said. “I’m determined that one of these times I’m going to make something good.”

“Then follow a recipe! That’s what recipes are for!”

“Yeah,” I said, not convincingly.

“Or at least try making it ahead of time so you know it actually works.”

“Yeah,” I repeated. Meaning: not likely.

“Look,” she said. “That’s three good options for you. Stop volunteering, follow a recipe, or make it ahead of time.”

“I’m trying to figure out what to do with the leftovers,” I said, changing the subject.

“Really. You’re wondering what to do with the leftovers?”

“I’m not going to throw it out! I’ll doctor it up somehow to get it edible.”

“I’m sure you will,” she said. Meaning: just so long as you don’t feed it to me.

The next day I had a soup recipe in my inbox. Of course, I haven’t actually looked at it yet. But I may. I am determined that next year I will get it right. Last year my soup was flavorless, but soup-like. This year my soup actually had flavor, it just happened to be the consistency of slime. So if I can just combine this year’s flavor with last year’s texture…

Of course, the alternative is that I could wind up with the negative combination of flavorless slime, but we won’t talk about that.

Maybe I should look at a recipe.

Stay tuned for next year’s blog post on how I redeemed myself with the most delicious soup ever. Or else on the foolishness of stubbornly trying to redeem oneself in one’s own way. We know, after all, that we are saved not by the works of our own hands, but by faith in the One who redeems us. We, like sheep (or stubborn recipe-less cooks) have gone astray. Fortunately for me, even when I stubbornly fail and fail again, God patiently gives grace not only to me, but to those who endure my cooking as well.

For now, I’m just glad that someone else is bringing the soup tonight.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

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Cooking Tip #6: The Secret Ingredient

I recently discovered a secret ingredient even more important than cheese.

I know, I didn’t think this was possible either. But it’s true. And this secret ingredient is so unique, it is added not by the chef during cooking, but by the consumer right before eating. Here is the story of how I discovered it.

During Lent, my church hosts Lenten soup and sandwich suppers on Wednesday evenings before service. Each week, two people bring soup and the fellowship committee provides sandwiches. Last week, I volunteered to bring soup. I was determined to improve on my previous year’s contribution that tasted like soggy vegetables in water. This year, I had a plan.

That morning I swung by the church on my way to work. I dumped some rice in my crockpot along with cooked and seasoned chicken, vegetables, diced tomatoes, and chicken broth. It smelled amazing. I was so excited. For once, I was going to make something good. I fired up the crockpot and went to work.

That evening I bounced into the fellowship hall carrying visions of simmering soup. One of the other ladies was bringing my crockpot out of the kitchen, and the sight stopped me dead in my tracks.

There, in her hands, was an erupting mound of primordial goo. It was expanding even as I watched, bubbling and clawing as though trying to escape from the pot.

“I wasn’t… sure what to do…” she began, pot held at armslength. And then seeing the look on my face, “But it will be okay. Here.” She added the tiny can of leftover broth I had left on the counter and tried unsuccessfully to stir it. “There. See. That’s better…”

I stared at my masterpiece in horror. “I must have put in too much rice,” I said. And worse – the rice had cooked down to the consistency of paste.

Enter the rest of the evenings attendees.

“What kind of soup do we have tonight?” Pastor asked

“Um,” I said. “I was going to call it Italian Chicken, but it’s really more like a casserole.”

“Let’s pray,” Pastor said.

So we prayed, and then I bravely dug into my crock pot. If I was going to make these people eat my soup, then I was going to eat it too. I pried a spoonful from the pot with an audible “thwuck.”

And this, my friends, is where the secret ingredient gets added.

Glob of soup on a spoon.

My “Soup”

 

The first bite almost made me gag, and I’ve had years of practice with my cooking. But those people ate my soup without wincing, and even made nice comments.

“We appreciate you bringing the soup tonight,” they said.

“Your soup has a nice flavor,” they said.

“My father always said soup was good if you could stand your spoon up in it,” they said.

And I sat there thinking: Only the power of God could equip someone to say nice things about this soup.

I could learn a thing or two from these people. About humility. About gratefulness. About kindness. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23a).

“Be kinder than you have to be,” I read once. “Because you never know what the other person is facing.” I saw this demonstrated first-hand that night. They didn’t have to eat my soup. There were sandwiches; there was another pot of soup that someone else had brought. They could have ignored mine entirely. But they did not. They added a secret ingredient that made even my soup palatable.

Kindness.

Be kind to one another, Paul admonished (Ephesians 4:32).

We all have opportunities a dozen times a day where we could choose to be kind. It’s far easier to be busy, harsh, self-centered, negative, stressed… But whatever we’re facing right now, we are called to make a conscience effort toward kindness.

Take time today to be kind. And when your initial reaction is something other than kindness, please pause and remember that your situation could be worse.

You could be sitting down to a bowl of my soup.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another (Zechariah 7:9).

Cooking Tip #5: How to Crack an Egg

Cooking for Geeks coverNot so very long ago, a friend lent me a book called Cooking for Geeks.  This book was intended to explain, in precise and empirical language that a scientist like me could appreciate, exactly how to do amazing things in the kitchen.  Like fry an egg without causing an explosion.

I’m not sure it achieved its intended effect, but one message of this book has in fact stuck with me.  In one memorable section, this book called on all the laws of physics (i.e., it showed a picture) to compare the effects of cracking an egg on the side of a bowl versus cracking an egg on a flat surface like the countertop.  One of these methods is more likely than the other to result in egg shell in the resulting product.  Do you know which one?

Let me give you a hint.  Before I read this book, I always cracked my eggs on the side of the bowl.  (Now that I have read the book, I still crack my eggs on the side of the bowl.  Then, as I am picking out egg shells, I am reminded that I should have used the countertop.)

The other day as I was once again picking shell out of my egg (it takes a while, so I had plenty of time to think), I was pondering Martin Luther’s exposition on God’s Law.  (This is actually a more logical connection than you might think.  Really.)  Martin Luther said the 3-fold purpose of the Law was to act as a curb (to prevent us from going too far astray), a mirror (to allow us to recognize when we have done something wrong), and a guide (to show us what we should be doing instead).  There are times when we may not even realize we’re sinning until we bump up against that curb… until we’re wiping egg off our face or picking shell out of our omelet.  Maybe we said something we shouldn’t have said; maybe we did something we shouldn’t have done; but sooner or later we get a twinge of conscience.  We bump that curb, and we begin (step two) to reflect upon what we did.  (“Oh, I should not have done that!”)  That’s when the third purpose of the Law becomes manifest.  It’s not enough for us to know what not to do.  We also need to know what to do.  My cookbook tells me how to crack an egg.  God’s cookbook tells us how to live: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27).

None of us can do this perfectly.  We mess up – just like every time I forget and crack an egg on the side of the bowl.  But each time we do, God’s law curbs, reflects, and guides us back to Him.

No matter how hard we try, we will never be able to follow God’s Law perfectly.  We will always forget.  We will always crack the egg on the side of the bowl.  The truth is, when it comes to this analogy, we’re not the Master Chef.  We’re not even the sous chef.

We’re the egg.

The Fall in the Garden of Eden was far worse than anything Humpty Dumpty ever dreamed up, and we’re never going to be able to put ourselves back together again.  That could be the end of the story, but thank God it’s not!  God’s cookbook doesn’t end with the Law.  It ends with the fulfillment of the Law: Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ is the Master Chef.  He picks the pieces out of our lives.  He wipes the egg from our face.  He presents us as blameless before the Father.

When we try to live out God’s Law on our own power, we will always fail.  But when we place our lives entirely into the hands of Jesus, we are the most beautiful cracked egg of all. 

Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this Man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by Him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses (Acts 13:38-39).

Cooking Tip #4: Beware of Frosted Cookies

My grandmother exhibited the best of Yankee wisdom. She lived out that old adage, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Nothing around her was wasted. Everything was used and re-used until it was indeed completely used up or worn out. Like so many in her generation, she had lived through the great depression and knew the value of a little. She knew how to make do with what she had. It is a trait that I admire greatly and try to emulate in many aspects of my own life. Except for one area. Namely, cookies.

My brother and I learned at a very early age to be wary of my grandmother’s frosted cookies. My grandmother used frosting in much the same way that I use cheese. Frosting was a clear sign that something had gone wrong during the baking. I remember stories of my own mother taking a bite of a cookie and grimacing. “Goodness, mother!” She’d exclaim, “What did you do?” To which my grandmother might reply, “Well, I used chicken fat.”

Let me tell you, there’s nothing like replacing butter with a little leftover chicken fat to lend a uniquely avian flavor to a chocolate chip cookie. By that afternoon, the cookies would be frosted.

I distinctly remember being someplace with my mother once and politely declining a plate of proffered cookies until my mother, knowing exactly what I was thinking, whispered: “It’s okay. These are supposed to be frosted.” It was the first time I realized some recipes actually called for frosting.

Cookies aside, my grandmother was a much better cook than I ever plan to be. Her lemon meringue pie was literally legendary among every friend, family member, and church supper attendee. But when it came to frosted cookies, it was wise to be wary. One could never be too sure what lurked beneath that tempting looking sweetness.

As Christians, it’s also wise for us to be wary when presented with other types of tempting looking sweetness. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves,” Jesus told his disciples. “Therefore, be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Some of these “wolves” come as overt temptations. Such sins appear sweet, but we know, deep down, that they are wrong. Consider Proverb 5:3-4 which says, The lips of an adulteress drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword. We could insert other types of temptations in place of adulteress, too. Greed, envy, selfishness, idolatry, drunkenness, hatred, jealousy, anger… The fact is, all kinds of sinful pleasures appear sweet, but in the end they lead to destruction and death. God’s Word tells us to flee from temptation and to resist it. My Son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them (Proverbs 1:10).

Overt temptations are difficult, but at least they are generally recognizable. Other sins are so well frosted that they are not only tempting, they are downright deceptive. It is far too easy to be lead astray by thoughts that not only appear sweet, but also appear right. Jesus warns: Watch out for false prophets. The come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Such prophets can infiltrate the flock completely undetected, and then wreak havoc from within – within the church and within our own minds. This was happening to the first century church in Galatia, and Paul’s pleadings are also valid today: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:6-8).

False prophets can spread heresy from within the church, and they can also attack our individual minds. John warned that many false prophets have gone out into the world (1 John 4:1) and Paul notes that Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:15). Deceptive philosophies, ideologies, and theologies can sometimes appear remarkably appealing. We must always test such ideas against the truth of God’s Word. We must always be wary of what may be lurking beneath the sweetness. “Watch out that no one deceives you,” Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 24:4. Watch out that no one deceives you.

Certainly not all sweet things are bad. As I learned in my youth, some cookies are supposed to be frosted.  David himself noted that God’s Word was even sweeter than honey (Psalm 119:103).  But among the many life-giving lessons I gleaned from my grandmother, foremost among them is this: We should all exhibit a prudent wariness when offered a plate of frosted cookies.  Before you snatch up some delectable temptation, make sure you know what’s lurking under the frosting.

The discerning heart seeks knowledge, but the mouth of a fool feeds on folly. Proverbs 15:14

Cooking Tip #3: How to Peel a Banana

You might wonder what there is to learn about peeling a banana.  The answer will surprise you.

Years ago, I was taught how to peel a banana by my Girl Scout leader.  At the time, she was working toward her degree and would often regale us with educational insights from life after high school. She taught us, for example, that the most economical packaging is spherical because a sphere has the largest internal volume for the least packaging surface area.  But we rarely find spherical packages on grocery store shelves because people perceive taller objects as bigger, even if they really aren’t.  We are much more likely to buy tall skinny boxes, cylindrical cans, and elongated bottles, because we think we are getting more for our money.  Perceptions can be deceiving.

Which brings us to the banana.  According to my Girl Scout leader – and I have no reason to doubt her or her college professors – researchers have observed that non-human primates peel bananas from the non-stem end.  They do this because it is easier.  People, on the other hand, typically start from the stem end.  We grab that stem like a handle and pull.  And we frequently mush the tip of the banana in the process.  Have you ever had a stubborn banana that just would… not…. peel…?  It would have been much easier if you flipped it over and tried from the other end.  (Try it sometime.  I dare you.)

If it is so much easier to peel a banana from the non-stem end, why do we insist on peeling it the other way?  The answer, I think, is the same reason why marketers line our shelves with tall, wasteful packaging.  Human perception sometimes leads us to things that are not as they first appear.

Jesus knows this about us.  He warned us about it.  Not so much about how to peel a banana (I suspect He doesn’t really care one way or the other about that).  But He cares very much that we do not allow ourselves to grab onto what at first seems obvious and easy when there is actually a better way.

Enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus tells us. “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). 

 In other words, don’t grab onto that big obvious stem the way the rest of the world does.  There is a better way. 

The obvious way to peel a banana will frequently lead to mushy fruit.  The obvious way to live a life will frequently lead to a mushy life.  Jesus is warning us that just because everyone else is ruining their bananas – or their lives – doesn’t mean we have to ruin ours.  There is a less obvious way that we can choose.  For a banana, it means taking our eyes off that prominent stem and looking at the smaller end.  For life, it means taking our eyes off the world’s culture and looking at Jesus.

Jesus specifically said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9).  Jesus may not seem like an obvious choice in today’s culture, but then, He told us that the gate was small.  We shouldn’t expect it to be obvious.  The road to follow Him is narrow, but if we commit to it, He will keep us on it.  He will use His law to convict us, His grace to save us, and His spirit to guide us.  When we trust Jesus, we become empowered by His very presence in our lives.

It’s not always easy to stay focused on Jesus.  Just like reaching out and grabbing that banana stem, we often reach out and grab onto everything but Jesus.  We get overwhelmed with our jobs, our families, our concerns.  But we shouldn’t let our perceptions fool us.  There is more than one way to peel a banana.  And when we take our eyes off the obvious things, we will find something more.  Jesus is here.  He is opening the gate for us.  He is showing us a better way to peel that banana.

 “Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Cooking Tip #2: When all else fails…

This is a tip that I learned early in my cooking career.  (Since things failed frequently, I had a lot of practice.)  The tip is a single word that completely revolutionized my cooking habits.  And if it could transform my cooking, it can most certainly do the same for you.  Are you ready?  The word is: cheese.

Yes, cheese.  This miraculous ingredient has rescued more inedible dishes than any other substance known to man.  It does not matter whether it is meat or vegetables or that amorphous substance known as “casserole.”  When all else fails, smother it in cheese.

There is no such thing as bad cheese.  In a pinch, even fake cheese will do. (Cheese in a can, anyone?)  But when I am faced with a cheese-worthy crisis, there are two key principles I abide by.  First, the stronger the cheese, the better.  There is nothing like an extra strength aged cheddar or a roquefort bleu cheese to deaden the senses to anything else contained within the dish.  These are two ingredients no hapless cook should ever be without.  Depending on your particular flair, there are also specialty cheeses that may be summoned for a specific cause.  Think smoked gouda for that pot of scalded potatoes, or limburger for anything that comes out smelling like feet.  (Wait, you’ve never had anything come out smelling like feet??  Well then, never mind that one.  Let’s move on.)

Second, there is no such thing as too much cheese.  The more severe the crisis, the more cheese may be required.  Unless you are lactose intolerant, you can pile on the cheese knowing that a) you are increasing your households level of calcium, which happens to be a very important nutrient and b) you are supporting America’s dairy farmers, some of whom happen to be my friends and many of whom are becoming my friends as my cheese purchases pay off their mortgages.

Ahh, cheese.  You are indeed the miracle ingredient within my kitchen.  When all else fails, cheese can come to the rescue.  But – it pains me to say it – even cheese has its limits.  Smothering my homework in cheese, for example, is not going to help.  Coating that business deal in cheese… not recommended.  Mending a broken heart, struggling with doubt or fear, reaching out to a friend: For that, God has given us a different ingredient.  One, believe it or not, that is even more powerful than cheese.  This is also one word that can transform our lives forever: prayer.

When all else fails in cooking, cheese is splendid.  When all else fails in life, prayer is our lifeline.  Just like with cheese, the stronger the prayer the better.  And just like with cheese, there is no such thing as too much prayer.  But there is one more important analogy – perhaps the most important one of all, and it is this:  Cheese isn’t just for emergency, and neither is prayer. 

The Bible tells us to Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16).  And, In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (Philippians 4:6).  As Christians, we are called to smother not just the bad times, but the good times, too, in prayer.  Prayer is our conversation with our heavenly Father.  We are called to pray alone, and together, and for each other.  Prayer is sharing our joy in the good times and our struggles in the bad time.  Prayer is requesting God’s good will to guide us and to guide those we love.  Prayer is the single most powerful ingredient we have.  Indeed, cheese may have its limits, but there is nothing outside the scope of prayer.  There is nothing too good or too bad or too scary or too embarrassing or too overwhelming that we cannot take it to our Father in prayer. Prayer is an ingredient we always have on hand, and we should use it everyday, all throughout the day, to stay connected to Him.

So there you have it.  Prayer and cheese.  Two ingredients that have revolutionized my cooking and my life.  And now I must go.  Because while I would much rather sit here and type, my smoke detector is telling me that my casserole is ready for the cheese.  Rest assured, I will be praying along the way.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (Philippians 4:6).

Cooking Tip #1. Do Not Microwave Cool Whip

I had a friend in college who used to microwave her ice cream.  Apparently it was too cold straight out of the freezer, so she warmed it up a bit.  We laughed at this idiosyncrasy for weeks… until we all started doing it too. 

Such is the nature of friendship.

Now it seems to me that if microwaving ice cream is a good idea (don’t knock it if you’ve never tried it), then microwaving Cool Whip would also be a good idea.

Okay, maybe this isn’t really a logical conclusion.  After all, ice cream is made out of things like sugar and cream, while Cool Whip is made out of things like xanthan gum and artificial flavoring.  But I didn’t really think that through at the time.  I just pulled the frozen whipped topping from the freezer and didn’t want to wait the recommended 4 hours to thaw it in the refrigerator.  A few magical seconds in the microwave and – Voila! I was left with a thick yellow syrup barely coating the bottom of the previously full tub of whipped topping.  Frozen to liquid in 5.2 seconds.  Amazing!

Now just in case you ever disregard Cooking Tip #1, let me advise you with a subpoint.  We’ll call this Cooking Tip 1a:  After microwaving Cool Whip, do not try to put it back in the freezer.  It will indeed solidify again.  But into a solid yellow brick that would be more appropriate for the back porch’s foundation than your piece of pie.  Trust me on this.  I learned it the hard way.

Perhaps if I had been paying more attention to Solomon’s wisdom, I could have avoided this whole incident.  Not that Solomon wrote much about Cool Whip and microwaves, but he did say Desire without knowledge is not good—how much more will hasty feet miss the way! (Proverbs 19:2)  In modern lingo, I think that could be translated as: Do not microwave Cool Whip.

In cooking, as with other things I don’t particularly enjoy, I often want to be done quickly.  I want to finish cooking so I can move on to the fun part of eating.  Unfortunately, this hasty desire frequently usurps what little knowledge I do have.  And as Solomon attests, such hastiness often misses the way.  If I had taken the time to just look at the tub of Cool Whip, I would have noticed it specifically says “Microwaving not recommended.”  (Whether I would have tried it anyway is debatable, but I think that’s a topic for a different piece of Solomon’s wisdom.)

Regardless, my hastiness on that particular night led to a syrupy mess.  This was quite sad, since I’m a fan of Cool Whip even if it is made of xanthan gum and artificial flavoring.  But ruining a tub of Cool Whip should be the least of my concerns. There are far more serious circumstances where I could act on my hasty desires without thinking through the consequences… or without even knowing what the consequences may be.  There are times when taking the time to glean a little knowledge could make a big difference in the outcome.  So let the lesson of the Cool Whip shine forth: Truly, desire without knowledge is not good.  And sometimes hasty actions are not so easily undone.

Cool Whip Brick, anyone?

Desire without knowledge is not good—how much more will hasty feet miss the way! (Proverbs 19:2)