How observant are you?

I had lived in my apartment two years when I decided it was time to invest in some renter’s insurance.  I had slowly accumulated enough stuff that the cost of replacement was making the cost of renter’s insurance look downright appealing.  Plus, the apartment building directly behind mine burned down.  I guess you could say I was feeling the heat a little bit.

So I began price shopping for renter’s insurance, and was seated at the local friendly insurance agent’s desk answering questions.  “Is your apartment building wood frame, brick, stone, or a combination?”  she asked.

I froze, trying vainly to picture the front of my building.  I was pretty sure the second story was wood, but was the bottom wood too?  Brick, stone?  Now mind you, I had lived there two years, and could not tell the agent with any real confidence whether my building was made out of wood, brick, or stone.  (I still wouldn’t, except that while I was writing this I took a stroll outside to look.  Just for the record, it’s brick on the bottom level, then wood frame.)

When I was younger we used to play observation games during family road trips.  We did the usual “I spy” and things that begin with letters of the alphabet, and after restroom breaks we’d drive away arguing over what color the floor tile was, how many stalls there were, what color shirt the lady standing at the next sink was wearing…  I always said I was going to be more observant the next time.  Clearly, I never was.

Our brains have an amazing capacity to sift through information.  If we could remember every sensory perception coming at us at any given moment we would be paralyzed with information overload.  With advances in technology we have at our finger tips more and more complex computer systems with larger and larger memory storage, but still, they do not compare to the instantaneous ability for the brain to filter through the colors, sounds, feelings, and smells and identify, without us even consciously pondering the situation, the all-important conclusion that the second stall on the left is empty.  And really, as long as you can tell that, who cares what color the tile is?

I’ve heard it said that Einstein always had to look up his number in the phone book because he didn’t want to waste valuable brain cells storing information that could easily be obtained elsewhere.  Whether true or not, the anecdote does make me feel better for having to walk outside to see what kind of material my apartment building is made of.  It also raises an interesting point.  While I clearly have no problem ignoring the finer nuances of my immediate environment, it’s not always so easy to sift through the sensory overload of life in order to remain focused on what is truly important.  Too often I find myself like Martha (Luke 10:38-42), carried away by an infinite string of details that would be better left alone.  I spend hours adjusting the color palette on a PowerPoint presentation when what really matters is the message.  I fret over menu items when what really matters is spending time with friends.  I carefully wrap presents when what really matters is something that can never be wrapped and ribboned.  It is times like these I must consciously step back and ask myself, “In this situation, what really matters?”  And then ask God for the focus to go and do that one important thing.

Sometimes being observant is less about noticing the details and more about noticing what is most important.  Then pursuing it with all the urgency of a road trip rest stop.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

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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