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Monotony

On my way to work this morning, I passed by some open green farm fields. It’s going to be a gorgeous day, temperature should get up to around 85 degrees, sunny, and not a dark cloud in sight. I imagine in the mountains, it’ll be perfect hiking weather, just a little cooler, so you can get a good hike on and not overheat. Every time you stop, you’ll feel a slight chill to make you want to move again, but not uncomfortable. Get to a rock ledge for lunch, and you can lay out on some warm stone in the sun and munch away on your trail mix or a tortilla filled with cheese and jerky. I, on the other hand, just sat down to my desk at work. I’m about twenty feet from the closest window, and the natural sunlight is just a small square glimmer, and I can only just see the cars in the parking lot and a green hint of trees behind. No open sky can be seen.

This is the first year I am going an entire summer without a long distance hiking trip in almost three years. I’m out of vacation time for the rest of the year due to my planned trip to Palestine in October, so the best I can hope for is a brief overnight camping trip. I keep telling myself this is the responsible life I had to choose. I need a regular paycheck and most importantly health insurance. A set of tumors, which turned out benign, were found in my thyroid a few months ago. My hospital bills are currently sitting at just above $6,000 and I can only imagine how that situation would have gone if I were still an unemployed hiker who found growths slowly expanding on my neck and had no way to take care of it. But even with that reminder in place, I still cannot break from an almost unbearable sadness that comes from feeling trapped in this responsible life. Every morning I spend at least a few minutes talking myself out of playing hooky and running away to the woods instead of going to work. If I went into the Daniel Boone National Forest (just a short drive south of me) I’d be out of cell phone range by the time my boss realized I wasn’t showing up for work. I wouldn’t have to be responsible for answering a phone call asking if I was okay.

This is adult life. It is responsibility. It is not fun and it is not exciting. But it is life as I have to live it for now because adventures and good health unfortunately cost money, and I can say from experience that no one is willing to pay to read me writing about them as of yet. So I take it one day at a time for now. Maybe, if I’m fortunate enough, I can save up enough to pay off the hospital bills and go on some more adventures soon, but I can’t hold my breath for that. In the meantime, I have to watch my coping mechanisms. I normally can socially drink without much problem, but lately I’ve had to stop drinking, especially my favorite whiskey, because I almost constantly find myself wanting to just drink a bottle to turn my brain off for a while, and I know it’s easier to not drink at all than it is to drink in moderation when I feel this way. I’ve been taking walks on my lunch break at work and when I clock out at the end of the day to go home. Getting a mile or two in every day walking on a concrete sidewalk is by no means a sufficient replacement for miles and hours on a dirt path, but it’s the best I can do for now. I avoid reading anyone’s trail journals because I know it would just depress me more, but I occasionally follow the news on Facebook from various ATC chapters, or postings from hostel owners and operators talking about the hikers they’r seeing this year. A manageable taste of the thing I crave, trying to keep it controlled so I don’t overdo it. I’ve been reading like a madman. I thought I’d be lucky to finish fifty books this year since I’m not hiking and I’m working full time, but I’ve finished 30 so far only four months in. I can’t get away from the monotony of my life, so I’ll cram my thoughts full of everything else I can.

Trying to write has been a struggle, this post is an indulgence to me because I know I want to get some words down, but honestly I haven’t been able to think about how much I miss escape, and honestly no one wants to read that multiple times a week. I don’t think it would be healthy for me to write about it that often either. I was getting a chance to write regularly when I was posting the recipes, but my weight has spiraled out of control since I started back to work. Sitting for 8 hours a day just isn’t healthy as it turns out. So I’ve had to put some severe controls on my diet. I cut out variety because I found that it was making it too hard to resist the temptation to go overboard, so I stick to a basic diet of mostly vegetables with some salmon or chicken breast thrown in. Again, it’s sustenance and it’s responsible, but it isn’t very exciting to either write about or experience.

I’m trying. I’m taking one day at a time. And honestly, I’m surviving in part because of lessons I learned on the trail. When I’d find myself at the foot of a mountain I never thought I’d be able to climb, pushing up a long snaking trail that I felt like would never end, I’d stop thinking about the end. Take my find off of the entire journey at all and just think about the steps in front of me. Put my left foot down. My right foot down. Stop when I need a break and lean forward on my trekking poles to release some weight from my shoulders and my back. Breath. It’s hard and it’s often miserable, but it’s worth it if you can just continue. You don’t have to worry about if you’re going to get there or if you’re going fast enough. You just have to wake up each day and decide you are going to try, then take the little steps you need. When hiking in Georgia or Tennessee, you’ll go mad if you think only about Katahdin every morning. But you can wake up and think about taking your tent down, making breakfast, or packing up. Don’t get taken away by the end goal, try to focus on the next small thing you need to do. It’s monotonous, it’s boring, but it is life.

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Sitting in the Rain

 

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It’s hard sometimes to remember the bad moments.

Looking back on my hike two years later, I find that rose colored glasses quickly set in. Remembering warm nights at a hostel, gathering with new friends, or a quiet night sitting up at a campsite watching the fire slowly settle in and listening to the distant symphony of crickets sing me to my dreams. There were certainly some magical nights to remember.

But I’m glad I took photos of the other nights. Like my first one. Really, this is of the first morning, but it serves as an excellent reminder of what that night was like. What I thought was a powerful rainstorm I soon came to find out was normal weather for northern Georgia in the mountains. My tent, an MSR Fast Stash was not set up properly, I wouldn’t get the hang of it for another month, and the tent collapsed on me in the middle of the night with the slight wind, pouring accumulated water all over myself and my sleeping bag. This meant the morning chill set in even harder than usual as I desperately tried to bail out my flooded tent bed. Finally, exhausted, I laid down and decided to just embrace the suck for the first of many many times. The tent canopy laid over me like a wet sticky sheet, and the cold settled in like a constant numb noise. I took this selfie in a deep “woe as me” moment.

Even with all of that, there’s times I wish I could go back there to that moment, and just enjoy sitting in the rain.

The Gift of Singleness

I was recently invited to speak at my local church, Encounter Vineyard in Newport, Kentucky. I thought I’d share my notes here because I haven’t been able to write much else for the last week or so. I’ll be honest, I was more than a little stressed as this approached. I haven’t spoken in front of people for a while, and haven’t spoken in front of people for this length of time at any point in my life. The notes are slightly different than what I actually said, if you want to listen to the message, you can check it out here.


Hello! My name is James. For those of you who don’t know me, I usually sit in the back. Cliff asked me to share this morning about singleness in the family of God. I guess I’m uniquely qualified as I’m 37 years old and never married, so I can pretty much cover this and maybe a message on gluttony if needed.

I first moved to this area almost twenty years ago to attend Bible college. College is a rough time generally speaking, but among the many struggles I found that the single life in Bible college was especially fraught with worry.

I grew up in the church, attending a Vineyard in north central Ohio, and I can attest from a fair number of youth gatherings, Bible studies, and FCA morning huddles, that the church spends a lot of time talking to young people about dating. This does not change if you go to a Christian college. In fact, I think I’m safe in saying that a significant portion of Bible college culture was focused on what dating was supposed to look like for Christians. Young men and women in attendance there often felt pressure to be actively looking for their marriage partner, and engagements and weddings were a common occurrence among the student body. Sadly, divorces after leaving Bible college also became a common occurrence as these young marriages that were made in the desperation of youth failed to last.

I’ve actually been engaged twice in my life, but never married. I can freely attest to you that in both cases, I felt an urgency to get married because I believed, thanks to society and the church around me at the time, that marriage was the essential next step for every young person. That God “has someone out there for everyone.” Looking back today, I actually find myself thankful that neither of these relationships culminated in marriage, because I believe the heart of that pursuit of marriage for marriage’s sake is unhealthy. That is what we are going to be unpacking today.

When the Israelite were crossing the desert after leaving Egypt, there’s a fascinating story about when they stop for God to deliver the Law to Moses. While Moses was on the climb up Mt Sinai, the rest of the people waited at the foot of the mountain. They waited for Moses for forty days and forty nights, and after they became afraid, they pushed Moses’s brother Aaron, the high priest into making an idol for them. You may have seen this in movies, as the Israelites make the golden calf, and Moses shows up at just the right time to see it, and throws down the stone tablets God had given them in anger.

The Israelites were afraid, and couldn’t trust God, so they made an idol. An idol is anything that takes the place for us of worshipping God, something we turn to when we’re afraid or lose our trust that God will provide.

When I was chasing after marriage, what I was doing wasn’t so different than those Israelites building a golden calf in the wilderness. Marriage becomes an idol just like that golden calf because we are afraid of what life would look like if we don’t have someone. We’re told by too many messages around us that we alone are not enough. We forget that the same God that loves married couples, loves those of us who are single, and that God does not see one as more worthy of love than another.

It is absolutely true that marriage is lifted up in the Bible as a good thing, but singleness is lifted up just as much, if not more. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 7:7 Paul writes “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” and again in verses 25-27 “Now about the unmarried: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife.”

Even Jesus points out that marriage is only a temporary state, when questioned by the Sadducees about life after death he answers ““You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”

Today we’re going to take some time to dig into what benefits we see when marriage and singleness are both given their appropriate places in our thoughts and lives. But first let’s pray.

God, I ask that you join with us today as we talk about what for some might be a painful topic. I ask that you help us see the gifts you have for us regardless of where we are in our lives. Open our hearts to your word, and allow us to sense what you have for us today. Amen.

I want to state at the beginning, marriage and dating are very different now in our culture than they were in the cultures of the original writers of scripture. Marriage did not have as its primary starting point romantic love, but often was driven more as a business agreement, often made as part of merging different family businesses together, or seen primarily through a lens of preparation for the future, a necessary part of your retirement plan, like we would a 401k. By getting married you were helping to ensure someone would take care of you if you needed it. Love was a secondary concern if at all.

Further, dating in these societies simply did not exist, certainly not in the format we see it now. A young couple might be engaged to be married or promised to each other, but these relationships looked very different than what we would expect to see with an engaged couple in our society today. Because of all of this, I’ll interchangeably refer to either marriage or romantic relationships, because from a biblical perspective the two often share the same place of idolatry in our lives. I should also note that over the years, I’ve gotten to know some brothers and sisters who are in the LGBTQ community, and they often come across some of these same struggles. Divorced singles also should know that what the Bible has to say to you is no different than for someone who’s never been married. You are just as loved and respected by God, and your present state still holds the same blessings for you.

As we’ve already referenced, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul takes the time to highlight the importance of the single life for the Christian. In verses 25-35 he expands his thinking:

 

We reflect here that Paul is not saying that absolutely everyone should be unmarried, nor is he saying absolutely everyone should be married. He states that some people will be one, and some people will be another. We may struggle with this, thinking that we should expect one or the other to be preferable, but we can return to verse 7, where Paul says “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”

When Paul says “gift” the greek word here is
, which can also be translated as “grace.” This is one of the words used in the New Testament to refer to the Spiritual Gifts, that is, those gifts given by the grace of God for Christians in the life of the church. When we hear about spiritual gifts, we might think more commonly of things like healing, speaking in tongues, or prophecy, but Paul here is saying that the life of being single and the life of being married are also spiritual gifts.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can say at several times in my life, I have certainly not felt like being single was a spiritual gift! And I certainly would not have felt like it was an equal gift to marriage.

But Paul goes at great pains later in the book of Corinthians to explain that no spiritual gift is more or less important than another. Rather, he explains that each serves an important part of the life of the church. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 he writes:
So we can say that Paul describes both married and single members of the church as necessary parts of the body of the church. But again, how do you know which gift you have?

The simple answer would seem to be – if you are single, you have the gift of being single, and should continue to pursue that gift. If you are married, you should pursue the spiritual gift of being married. At some point, you may change from one state to another, in which case you will pursue that gift. Paul mentions that widows who’s husband have passed away should then be able to take the place of single women in the church, serving and caring for others, but that they can remarry if the gift is given. This idea of the spiritual gift is not in and of itself something that should push you from one state to another. If you are single, you should not find yourself saying “I have the spiritual gift of being married” and then rush as quickly as possible into getting married. Rather, as someone who is single, we should press into the discernment and work of the spirit to find how God has equipped us for our present state. I love the way the CottonPatch translation gives verse 7, “Yet each has his own assignment from God, one this, another that.” Singleness or marriage can be viewed as the assignment we currently have from God. It may be long term or even lifetime assignment for some, and for others, it will be a short term assignment. After all, what sets singleness apart from some other spiritual gifts then is that EVERYONE in the church will the gift of singleness at some point in their lives. You may be married now, but at some point you were unmarried. Not everyone will be married, but everyone at some point is single. This cannot be said of many other spiritual gifts we find in the Bible.

But we sometimes can struggle with giving singleness this kind of consideration. If you look back through church history, there’s been a varied struggle on the topic. For a long time in the early period of the church, we had a special respect for those who were unmarried, often taking a celibate life, but failed to create places in the church for those who were married to participate in ministry. After the Protestant Reformation, we began to balance this, but over the past few generations, there’s been an overcorrection in the Western church, where we have begun to focus almost exclusively on marriage, tied up in the same mistaken beliefs of larger society. Presenting marriage as an expected end for everyone to achieve, rather than seeing it as the giftings or assignments that Paul teaches.

There are a number of benefits we can receive when we correct for a more balanced view of singleness. First, when we appropriately honor singleness we can more fully be blessed by other relationships in our lives. 1 Corinthians 13 is often referred to as the “love chapter” and is read frequently at weddings. But it’s worth remembering in the original text, Paul did not address this exclusively to married individuals. Rather, in context, Paul was describing how a love that is patient and kind, does not envy and does not boast, is the love all Christians should have for each other. But when we look at the single life, it’s often hard for single men and women in particular to socialize without the ulterior motive of dating to enter the picture. But when we place singleness and marriage in their appropriate places in our thoughts, Christian brothers and sisters can truly be brothers and sisters to each other. We can love and help each other, listen when it’s needed, and just generally be a part of each other’s lives.

I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to call out a dangerous and harmful meme that we see in our society. How many have heard the term “the friend zone”? If you aren’t familiar, this is a complaint you may occasionally hear from someone who feels like they’ve been mistreated by a potential romantic partner. They are friends with a person, who may hang out with them, share conversation with them, and just generally socialize. But when the idea of a romantic relationship is proposed, that person declines. Maybe the idea of “we’re too good of friends, I wouldn’t want to risk losing that.” The rebuffed person may then say, “ah, they friend zoned me.” As if being friends is somehow a second place? Or a punishment?

In my life, this has often been a struggle. When I was younger, I too often failed to find the joy in simply being friends with someone. This all consuming pressure of trying to find a partner, which only became worse as I got older, made it hard to simply stop and take joy in friendship. When we see our relationships in life as having a hierarchy, with Christian friendship rated as less desirable than dating, we may feel that we are disregarded when someone does not return the same interest. But if we can cling to the gift of singleness, we can hold these romantic intentions loosely, and respect and celebrate in friendships that do not carry a romantic component. The Spirit of God would tell us to see the other person is a brother or sister first, a potential romantic partner second if at all.

The next benefit we get from properly honoring the single life is that we get the opportunity to open our lives out to others more readily. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:32 and 34, the unmarried can be concerned first with the Lord’s affairs, devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. A family will have any number of other distractions placed on it. Sharing time devoted to each other, pursuing varied interests, and just generally getting about the business of life. But the single person has more flexibility. There is certainly a time and place to reserve in our lives for self care, but also opening ourselves up to taking some of the additional time we have as singles for serving others. Volunteering at community centers, helping out in church ministries, and looking for ways to share our lives with others in the community who may not have social bonds readily available to them.

This runs counter to our normal impuls. We might normally expect that singleness can equal selfishness. That not having a spouse or kids means we can be free to live the fun life, staying out late and going to fun parties. But scripture reminds us that the Christian life, whether married or single is meant to be a life of sacrifice. Our money, our possessions, and perhaps most importantly our time are not ours to spend as we please, but are a stewardship given to us by God for the service of other people. I have been guilty of failing to do this. In my life, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve filled my grocery cart with items I didn’t need, looked at my bank balance and decided it was an excuse to go shopping, or looked at every single minute of my time as something that was mine to spend, and I was angry at anyone who took that time away from me, even for the best of reasons.

Perhaps the most blatant example of this is that for the past two summers, I have spent my time out on the Appalachian Trail. I initially left on this trip, I believe, at the direction of God. It was one of the clearest directions I’ve received in quite some time when I left in March of 2016. I had a six month journey, hiked a thousand miles from Georgia to West Virginia, and had some amazing God experiences. However, I returned home that winter, then decided to go out again the following summer. This second trip was not directed by God, but was taken purely because I could. I was unmarried, had no kids, and had simplified my life enough that I could drop everything and go away for a while.

But after a few months, I became deeply convicted that there was a better plan I needed to follow from God. Instead of selfishly disappearing into the woods, I felt a clear direction to come home instead. I left that life, and while I miss it every day, I know that God has more things to do with me here, interacting with people and working every day than if I were alone in the woods, checking in with everyone occasionally online. As singles, we have this responsibility to take the open time and resources God has granted us, that aren’t directed to a spouse or in some cases children, and use those for the service instead of the church and community around us.

I want to also stop and acknowledge here the responsibility of the larger church itself to singles as well. The single life for the Christian should not equal a lonely life. As members of the church body, a single person should readily expect opportunities to be welcomed into our homes, sharing meals, social outings, and deep friendships, not just with other singles in the church but with married folks in the church as well. When you plan a night out with friends, do you remember to invite singles along, or is it always couples nights? Certainly, there is a place for married couples to help hold each other up and share time, but this should not be the exclusive company we keep. I also will beg you, when you do invite singles into your life, don’t let it automatically include the mission of “setting them up with someone.” If you are going to play matchmaker, that needs to a separate conversation that has as its starting place a respect for the individual’s identity, and not simply seeing them as a single in need of a date.

I have been blessed at various points in my life to be welcomed by married friends from the church to share their life. I currently live with a family I met through church, sharing in chores, paying rent, but also sharing in life. As a single man, it’s been wonderful to have dinner together in the evenings, share chats about our day, and watching their daughter grow up. These blessings have made a tremendous difference in my life, and opened the door for significant spiritual growth I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

There should also be a special place for single parents in the church. Those who are raising children by themselves should be able to expect the church to help them in this endeavor. Consider the divided workload that married couples may have, then remember that single parents are doing that work by themselves. Some churches have had ministries such as offering a single mother’s free oil change, but I’d encourage us to not be locked into viewing this primarily through gender roles. I’ve known many single moms who are quite capable of changing their own oil thank you very much, but could use help with getting the kids from school to soccer practice, getting dinner together, or simply needing someone to vent to after a rough week. Let’s also not forget single dads in our midst, who may feel just as alone and need help with the daily stresses of life just as much.

The need for both positive male and female role models in a child’s life should also not be something that is a struggle for single parents in the church. A single mom or dad should be able to trust that men and women in the church are just as ready to be a loving part of their child’s life, willing to offer a hand when needed, and a safe person to reach out to. There should not be a pressure on single parents to remarry to have these roles filled, as the church as a loving community can and must help lift these burdens.

These certainly can be places where other singles in the church, either with or without children can step in to serve, (remembering to do so without an ulterior motive of seeking to date) but married couples in the church can be equipped to help as well. The church is meant to be a family, not merely a once a week social gathering, and we absolutely can do our part to lift these individuals up in more than simply prayer, but also offering active help in their lives in a loving way.

The final benefit I want to consider that we get from properly honoring singleness is we get healthier marriages this way. Remembering that being single is a complete and worthwhile life by itself removes the temptation to seek and run after a romantic relationship, perhaps before we’re ready or maybe with the wrong person. There’s been a great deal of discussion about the high divorce rate in our culture, and it affects Christians just as much if not more than non Christians. I would argue this is due in some small part to the fact that we exert pressure on people to get married, often too young, and often when they may otherwise be far more prepared for being single. I’ve been fascinated too to read about the unique experiences of asexual individuals in our society, that is people who would prefer to not have a sexual experience, but still pursue social relationships. These places of strife, I believe, exist at least in part because we’ve forgotten the lesson of scripture to respect and honor the place of being single.

Waiting for a relationship rather than charging in can be a struggle. We have so many sources in our lives that tell us the appropriate goal we should have is to end up with someone. Look even at children’s stories that often include the theme of a hero and a princess happily ever after with each other. If we remember that God loves us without needing a romantic partner, we can be far more willing to hold out, rather than simply accepting someone just because they are interested in us and we’re afraid to end up alone.

The Christian teacher Gwen Elliott refers to this as “Waiting for David.” The Old Testament tells us how the people of Israel initially decided they wanted a king, because they looked around and saw the nations neighboring them who also had kings. They went to the prophet Samuel and demanded a king be found. God gave Samuel permission to anoint the king, and in time Saul was found. God blessed him and raised him up, but Saul was a failure as a king. He gave himself more importance and eventually disobeyed the direction of God. The next king found was David. David was a “man after God’s own heart” who started out in the fields protecting sheep, and lived his life based on faith in God first rather than trust in himself. It’s echoing those stories that Mz Elliott writes:

“I refuse to beg, plead, and whine over my singleness and thus set myself up to be willing to settle for Saul
When he is not truly who was intended
Time after time Settling for Saul creates rather than solves problems… for nations, for individuals, …
Therefore while Waiting for David, my eyes are focused on the True King whether or not an earthly one appears.
I refuse to be told that I must marry to be complete
I refuse to buy into the lie that you should never settle unless you are running out of time
I refuse the lies that are told by unhappy people who believed the same lies
Instead, I actually observe and think and learn from others. I see the breakdowns. I see the identity loss. I see the consequences.
And so then I seek scripture, surely this is not what God intended for us.
And sure enough, it’s not.
So I continue to wait for David.”

The gifts that God has in store for us, whether that gift is a life as a single who is whole and blessed by God or if it is to be married to a partner who will spur us on and aide us in the mission we have, will always be greater than the life we might chase after ourselves.

In closing, I’d like to remember another Old Testament story. Abraham was once called by God to take his son Isaac to the summit of Mt Moriah and sacrifice him. But at the final moment, Abraham was stopped and God said he would be blessed because he did not hold back his son.

I think for many of us, our idea of what marriage is, or our hope for finding a partner, has become an idol in our lives. God asks us to sacrifice those idols. We have to recognize that the promise of God, the gifts we can find in the Holy Spirit, are more than anything we may find on our own initiative. We can find a richness and fullness of life that isn’t dependant on another person, but a wholeness we can and must find in ourselves. For others here, you may be in a place where you continue to feel alone, and the fear of having no one is still a regular pain for you. We’re going to pray together now, but I’d like to invite you to come to the back during worship to receive further prayer as well.

 

The Traveler Sets Forth

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I was absolutely not ready to hike the Appalachian Trail.

At over 320 lbs, standing at 5’6″ tall, I was out of shape. Having never successfully camped outside overnight in my entire adult life, ( I slept in my car on my shakedown after I discovered at the time I could not fit into my sleeping bag because I was too overweight) I was supremely unqualified. Having spent most of the last ten years working in some form of tech support, and my principle hobby being cooking, I was absolutely not ready to spend days or even weeks away from civilization.

But for some reason, at the time I didn’t feel nervous. I didn’t second guess myself. I honestly didn’t feel that excited either. It just felt like the next thing to do. One day I was clocking in and sitting down at a desk with three computer monitors, a mere three days later I was disembarking a Greyhound bus and setting out for the great unknown.

Most of my gear wouldn’t survive the week. That fly fishing vest was a Walmart purchase and was left at the Top of Georgia hostel in Hiawassee. The wide brimmed blue hat was a $5 impulse buy from Amazon and turned out to be sweaty itchy cotton and was dumped in the first week at a hostel in Suches. The boots were a pro deal I was endlessly proud of and wound up getting dropped in Frankly, after only a hundred miles because it turned out they no longer fit my swelling feet. The pants were a cotton pair from Meijer, and had to be used because I simply couldn’t fit into anything else. (Quick dry hiker pants simply didn’t come in a 70 inch waist size)

I’m not sure even now why I truly wanted to do it.  It was something I’d dreamed of for years, but I don’t think I could really pinpoint for you what set that year apart from the others. But it was the beginning of one of most magnificent experiences of my life.

Chicago Style Deep Dish Pizza

When I was a junior in high school, I joined the show choir.

This was both a totally expected and yet bizarrely unexpected development. In high school, I absolutely belonged to the “music kids” clique. I had been in the band since my freshman year, and played in every group available, including something called the “Hobo Band” which was exactly as ridiculous and awesome as it sounds. I joined the choir finally after spending several months singing at the top of my lungs with my friend Nathan on our commute to work, who then pushed me into first joining the concert choir, then the show choir. But I was also an overweight and uncoordinated buffoon who had foot surgery right before the start of the school year. So I not only joined this song and dance crew as a horrible dancer, I joined it as a horrible dancer with a gigantic cast on his leg. I literally managed to dance off the back end of the stage at one point, and had the risers collapse on me at another.

However, the rest of the group was very very good, and I managed to make nominal enough improvement (as well as being strategically placed in the backstage of every routine) that we were accepted to go to a competition in Chicago. This was a massive event for me at the time, and for years represented the furthest from home I had ever been. There were so many memories from the trip that lived with me for ages, including my first ever latte followed by my first espresso, my only trip to Medieval Times (which remains my favorite restaurant experience), and most relevant to today’s discussion, my only taste of Chicago style deep dish  pizza.

This memory was then haunting me lately for some unknown reason, and I became increasingly determined to revisit that lost flavor. However, as should not surprise, Chicago deep dish pizza is not exactly easy to find in northern Kentucky. So I turned to the internet and looked over several recipes to get a feel for what I would be needing, then set out to make it happen, setting aside an entire Saturday for the mission. I had decided that as much as possible, I’d make the pizza from scratch myself, with homemade sauce and a homemade crust. So it was that at 10 o’clock in the morning, I was starting my dinner with this:

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Looks delicious, doesn’t it?

Two cups of warm milk, mixed with an envelope of instant dry active yeast. I allowed the yeast to sit and bloom for a half hour before I began the rest of the process.

I have freely admitted my admiration for a man by the name of Father Dominic Garramone, known by many as the “Bread Monk” who not only has a series of baking cook books available, but also his book on prayer “Bake and Be Blessed” is one of the most formative books on the spiritual life I have ever read. (check out his blog here!) So it’s no surprise he was on my mind this morning as I began baking. I took a page from his book and utilized a technique he often recommends, incorporating leftover mashed potatoes into my bread dough. Though I certainly chose a more low class version than his leftover made from scratch mashed potatoes, as I wanted to use up a packet of instant roasted garlic mashed potato flakes I had from a previous attempt to make mashed potato-breaded fried chicken. (That recipe may get posted at some point down the road, but I need to work with it a bit more) I took the warm milk and yeast mixture and added it to my instant mashed potato flakes in a large mixing bowl.

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You can tell it’s high class because of the shiny plastic packaging.

From here I’ll begin incorporating the rest of my crust ingredients. Now I’ll be honest, I don’t have an actual recipe for this. I’ve been trying to bake more often by touch and feel, which is taking some practice. I started by adding two eggs, some all purpose flour, a tablespoon or two of honey, and a few glugs of olive oil. I then started mixing using a metal spoon, ensuring that I’m scraping up the bits stuck on the sides of the bowl. As the dough comes together, I’ll add a few splashes of water and flour as needed to keep it together, letting a shaggy dough form.

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This is a shaggy dough. A Scooby dough would look completely different.

Once this dough as formed, I’ll cover with a tea towel and let it sit for a few hours to let the yeast do it’s magic. I’m expecting the dough to double in size. I go sit in the living room and binge watch a few episodes of Bojack Horseman when I should be getting caught up on my Bible reading or my book club selection “A Gentleman in Moscow” which is due next Friday. I will repeatedly walk back into the kitchen to lift the towel and check on the dough, looking forward to the opportunity to start kneading.

This is the part of bread baking that is actually the hardest for me. I hate letting the dough rise if I don’t have something to distract me. (Bojack is great an all, but doesn’t do the trick) Rest is all too often hard in life. Kneading the dough is great, because I can feel active and a part of the process. There’s a  visceral joy I get from having my hands on the dough and smashing the flour and water particles together to form a nice strong gluten. (My vigorous enjoyment of the kneading process is a part of why my home baked doughs always come out a little on the tough side) But resting is an entirely different story. It just has to sit while some microscopic flora (or is it fauna) does all the work. Our part as the baker is just to sit and anticipate, hopefully while enjoying the yeasty smell of rising dough as it permeates the entire household.

Unfortunately, this did not go according to plan, after an hour or so, the dough had not risen at all. So I decided to take some matters into my own hands. I added some warm water and honey to a small glass, then let that sit for about ten or fifteen minutes while it got nice and bubbly, then added it to the dough with some more flour. I’m guessing when I heated the milk to make the mashed potatoes I heated it too hot and killed the yeast. I’m hoping a second dose will save the day. I’ll knead the dough a bit on a floured kitchen counter, then toss it back into a mixing bowl lightly coated in oil, then cover back with the tea towel and wait.

This time definitely does the trick, the whole house now smells like fresh bread and the dough has doubled in size. I’ll punch it down lightly, then turn back onto a floured surface to knead some more. I’m also adding in some Parmesan cheese (the cheap stuff that resembles sawdust) as well as dried oregano and some corn meal for a deeper flavor and texture. I’ll then let it sit again for a while, then get started on my sauce.

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Seriously, not only is kneading bread dough a great upper body workout, there’s something amazingly cathartic about it. And unlike other expensive workouts, you get fresh bread at the end!

Now, I had intended to get some photos of my sauce process, but it honestly slipped my mind. I started by cutting up some sweet Italian sausage, then cooking it in the pan with a touch of olive oil and a few tablespoons of water. The water lets the fat render out of the sausage to help fry without burning the meat. Once the water has evaporated, enough sausage fat has rendered out to not only cook our sausage, but serve to cook our vegetables next. I’ll remove the sausage just before it’s completely cooked through, leaving all the fat in the pan. Next, I’ll use that fat so sweat some diced onion, carrots, and garlic. The carrots may surprise you, but I take it from some traditional recipes for bolognese I’ve used, and merely a tablespoon or two of finely diced carrots will bring some balance and sweetness to the sauce you’ll appreciate. Once the vegetables are sweated, I’ll add a can of crushed tomatoes, fennel seeds, oregano, and parsley. I should also be adding basil here, and I swear I had some but after searching through the kitchen, none can be found, so we’ll do without. Also add back in the par cooked sausage, and I’ll cook this on medium high heat until it starts to bubble, then reduce to a simmer for an hour.

 

Once the sauce is done, I’ll start preheating the oven to 450 degrees, then get out my favorite kitchen tool, my cast iron skillet. I’m going to coat the inside with a liberal amount of olive oil, dust with some corn meal, then set it aside. I’ll roll out my dough to be just a few inches larger around than the skillet, then place it inside. Layer directly on the dough some fresh mozzarella and provolone cheese, about a half a pound each. Shake on a liberal layer of the Parmesan cheese, then ladle in our sauce. We’ll take the sauce to just below the top of the cast iron (I was lucky enough to have made EXACTLY the correct amount of sauce!) then we’ll fold over our remaining dough to cover, making an open pie construction. Brush this extra dough with some olive oil and shake on some dried herbs like oregano, parsley, or basil (if you have it, I didn’t) and some Parmesan cheese again.

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A romance more important than Romeo and Juliet, pizza and cast iron

I had some extra dough, (side effect of needing to add the extra yeast) so I rolled out the extra dough and tossed it on a sheet pan, docked it, then brushed on some olive oil, dusted with some of my herbs, and a healthy sized layer of cheese. Delicious bread sticks!

Put the deep dish pizza in for about 25-30 minutes, checking every ten. If the top crust gets too brown, cover with aluminum foil and let it continue cooking. About ten minutes before it’s done, put in the breadsticks. Once everything is completed, pull and allow to rest for at least 20 minutes. This will allow the pizza to set so that we can cut the pieces without the lava hot sauce flowing all over the place.

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If patience were easy, it would not be a virtue

Now we’ll slice up the pizza and serve. The breadsticks were a bit dry, so I recommend melting down some butter and warm olive oil with garlic to make an excellent dipping sauce, but your carb and fat heavy dinner is now ready to roll!

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Be sure to set aside a nice dry bottle of red wine to go with, and then put in an hour at the gym.

Why I left the Trail, and why I want to go to the Middle East

I’ve been home from the Appalachian Trail now for about four months, and I’m still working to settle back into a “regular” life. When you’ve spent months on end hiking up and down mountains, getting caught in the rain, and living a life of complete adventure, coming back to sitting at a desk eight and a half hours a day, commuting back and forth via car, and regaining weight at a rate that leaves one feeling like a beached whale much of the time is, for lack of a better term, a “downer.”

So why did I do it? Why not stay out on the Trail, or if I had to come home for the winter, why not take a short term job so I can plan on going back out to hike next summer? Why not take a temp job near a trail town so I could still get hiking in on the weekends instead of returning to my home in Kentucky, far enough away from the Appalachian Trail to make short excursions difficult if not impossible? For me, it all comes down to privilege.

“Privilege” is a loaded term, both in our current societal discussion and for me as a whole. I did not grow up in a wealthy or even firmly middle class background. While I love my family and my parents worked hard to provide a healthy environment growing up, and had a strong social net that helped them achieve that, we nonetheless certainly had our difficulties and struggles. So when I hear the term “white privilege” it can certainly bring a conflicted set of emotions to the forefront. Having periods of homelessness not to mention years with pediatric cancer in my life means I might balk at the idea of saying I am from a privileged upbringing. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as an adult though is that saying I was privileged does not mean I had it easy. It simply means I had opportunities and advantages that someone else in a similar situation would not necessarily have had.

Now for most of my adult life, this was not a debate that carried much meaning for me. I struggled through most of my adulthood just to get by. I first left for college at the age of 17 believing I had been “called” by God to serve in the ministry, attending a traditional Bible college to major in preaching ministry, however even with financial aid, I simply could not get by paying tuition, and I had to drop out. I was determined that I was still supposed to push forward on this path though, so I took a job initially washing dishes and unloading delivery trucks for the campus cafeteria. This allowed me to stay on campus and audit courses as a non traditional student. I was never able to complete an accredited degree, but I was still able to spend years studying the Bible and learning through a dedicated community. (This is also when I began to hone my cooking skills with the help of Brian, Chef Eddie, and the rest of the kitchen crew to boot) Eventually, I left the campus to pursue ministry, taking first a job as an associate preacher and youth pastor at a small country church in southeastern Indiana. After a year there, I moved to take a job working on a large staff in children’s ministry at a megachurch in northern greater Cincinnati. But even this was a struggle, as I repeatedly was laid off while working for churches, and never had a ministry job that paid more than the cost of gas and a portion of groceries. I continued to work full time jobs, usually in the food service industry, and usually for low wages, as I had to find jobs with little responsibility to allow a flexible schedule to be as open and available for these ministry positions as possible. In addition, to this, I began taking classes through another unaccredited training program to try to further my training.

All of this led to burnout. I was constantly broke and tired, and growing increasingly frustrated with God. I certainly didn’t feel privileged by any stretch of the imagination. I felt used up and wasted. Finally, after another layoff, I gave up. On the Church, on God, on my faith, all of it. So I took an opportunity to jump into a full time tech support job and never looked back. I pursued a more stable family life and 9-5 existence. I’ve detailed elsewhere how this eventually lead to my returning to my faith and eventually casting that 9-5 aside to pursue the outdoors, but even in this phase of my life I think I would have struggled with the idea of being privileged. I still made little enough money to barely pay the bills, constantly had to work to find affordable housing, and felt at all times that financial ruin was merely a car breakdown away.

Hiking gave me distance though. Especially in my first summer on the trail, I had time to finally get some sections of my life into a broader perspective. What’s more, I took the time to consider the absolute blessings I’d had in life. True, there were several struggles, but if it weren’t for the family and church support we’d had as I was growing up, the fortunate chances I’d received, and the hard work and upbringing of my parents, my situation could have been much much worse, and what’s more there was no connection between those opportunities and the work I’d personally put in. I definitely worked hard, but those unconnected opportunities made the difference.

On my second hike, this question of privilege became far more prevalent in my own thoughts and meditations. I spent a significant amount of time reading and learning about backgrounds outside of my own, putting a concerted effort into reading more non-white and even non-Christian authors to gain greater perspective, to say nothing of broadening my own social interactions. But I still came back to the issue that while I could certainly admit to some privileges in my life, I couldn’t help but also count all the disadvantages I’d also had. Then came the story of Esther.

Esther has always been one of my favorite books of the Bible. Setting aside any moral or spiritual lessons, it is simply good story telling, in a succinct passage you get a story of a young woman forced into extraordinary circumstances, and an entire people group saved because of how she reacted to those circumstances. But listening to the story again while hiking, I heard it from a different perspective than I usually had considered it before. Esther was a victim, pure and simple. She was as a Hebrew woman disadvantaged in her society both because of her race and her gender, she had little or no voice on her life, and because of her beauty she was taken advantage of, and forced into a life of captivity in a palace, where she was required to serve for the sexual gratification of a king she may have had no reason to love or respect. Indeed, despite marriage playing a central role in the story, love does not – nor would it have for any royal marriage of the day. Esther is merely seen as a package to display the power and influence of the king, she is treated as a mere object for the court’s amusement.

But the story isn’t about Esther fighting against her oppression, rather it’s about her using her privilege. Despite her clear victim hood, she still has privilege over Mordecai, her uncle, who even though as a male he has more autonomy in their society, and doesn’t have to fear his own abduction and sexual enslavement, does have to fear the execution pole of Haman. Esther is someone who utilizes her incomplete privilege to help someone else. The key theme verse of the story is Esther 4:14 “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” 

Privilege, be it white privilege, financial privilege,  does not make you the bad guy, nor does it mean you are living the easy life. Instead, Scripture makes it clear that privilege such as this is simply an opportunity for you to help someone else who does not have that advantage. A significant chunk of the Law of Moses lays out ways that privilege should be used to protect others, be it leaving gleanings in your field or ensuring that if you have a home it is built and cared for in a way that protects the community.  This is a core principle of the Kingdom of God as displayed in the texts but does not often get attention in most western white evangelical churches.

So as I considered this perspective on my own privilege, I was forced to confront some uncomfortable questions about how I was living my life. I certainly had set aside some privileges to go out into the wilderness, no longer earning a regular paycheck or living in comfort, but I nonetheless was transferring that to a different set of privileges of freedom and rest. What’s more, I did not set aside these privileges in the service of others, but did so for myself. I certainly met several wonderful individuals who told me that my journeys and my writings inspired them or gave them hope, but that had not been the core concern when I set off on my journey. My core concern was largely self serving.

So what to do then? As I continued to pray and examine the world around me, I became increasingly troubled. Following the news back in civilization did not give me good heart either, rather I became increasingly concerned that there were things to be done and I was hiding out of the way instead. So I made the difficult decision to come home. I wasn’t sure what my next step would be at that time, but I felt the need to lean into my opportunities a bit. I would return to a stable job with some decent (though certainly not great) pay, and work for an open schedule that would allow me the opportunity to put myself at some kind of service to others. Again, I am not in a place of complete comfort and certainly not wealth, but I was able to establish a base from which to work.

I’ve pursued a few smaller opportunities, giving financially to organizations I feel are doing necessary work, as well as giving time, going into a local homeless shelter to help out during extreme cold, going on outings with local churches to give out food, and generally try to look for opportunities in my daily life. But I couldn’t help but feel like more was called for.

After returning home, one thing I found as crucial to jump into as quickly as possible was to establish new social connections, and as a part of this jumped at an opportunity to join a monthly book club. The first reading choice was “Kindred” by Octavia Butler, a fantastic book I’d highly recommend that further brought these issues to focus for me. The main character finds herself dragged through time as an African American woman in the American slave south who repeatedly saves the life of a white slave owning ancestor. There is so much to unpack in the story, but the dynamic of privilege kept coming to me. How the main character was certainly not “privileged” as we might normally view the term, but she certainly had a situational privilege which she put to use to save her white ancestor, a decidedly unworthy recipient of such care. What’s more, a secondary character, her white husband who was also dragged back in time at one point in the story, is disturbingly unaware of how the position of his own skin color affects the different experiences they have in the past, that is until he is forced to remain there for an extended period of time, at which point he throws himself into helping on the Underground Railroad and providing cover for slaves where he can.

I again was forced to ask myself if I was sufficiently using my position of privilege to pursue a better world for others. If I was considering for “just such a time as this” I was intended to do.

My journey as someone who gave up on my faith and returned to it has gifted me with a special perspective on a number of points because I was forced to re-examine many assumptions I had originally brought along with me. Ideas of what Christianity is meant to look like is often colored less by the Scripture and direct experience of God and more of the cultural conditions in which we live. The early Church struggled with the idea of separating life of a Christian from Jewish dietary and holy day practices, and modern American Christians, at least in the social context I was familiar with, carried it’s own baggage. Perhaps chief among these is a devotion to nationalism and respect for military power. The more I have examined the teachings of Jesus, the more foreign these concepts should seem to be as often taught in the Church. Again, I want to stress, this is based on my own church life, I know of many traditions, even in the United States that do not carry this particular set of assumptions.

Because of this clash of viewpoints that I see as core contradiction between my own faith background and a more “true orthodox” teaching of Scripture as I’ve come to understand it, the greater need I’ve seen for the celebration of a devotion to peacemaking in the Christian life. This then lead me to considering the emission of Christian Peacekeeper Teams. CPT works in areas around the world to pursue a goal of building peace through nonviolent means. They have long term and short term missions available. I certainly could have simply donated funds, but I felt the need to involve myself in a more hands on way. After some prayer, I applied to join their delegation to the Palestinian region. This is a region that has often been on my heart as echoing too closely the tragedies of the Old Testament as the people of God fail to fulfill the promises given to Abraham that through his line “all nations on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18) The recent news of the so-called “Muslim ban” and the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel brought to highlight how my own community of white evangelical Christians in the United States had served to exacerbate the pain of this difficult, fraught, and complicated issue rather than serving as a voice for peace and mutual service.

So that’s why this year, instead of heading back out into my beloved Appalachian Mountains, I’m saving my vacation time and working through the year to prepare for a new journey, that will take me even further from home than I ever have been before, both literally and figuratively. While I’ll still occasionally use this blog to talk about local hiking, cooking recipes, and occasional Bible studies, I’m also going to be working to keep you all up to date on my preparations for this new journey, and what I’ll be learning along the way.

I am also going to be asking you to help out. I am devoting my own finances to this journey, but would like to invite you to participate as well. Donations can be made at https://cpt.org/donate just be sure where it says “If you have a special purpose for your donation, please let us know. I want my donation to be dedicated:” please include a note “James Scott October Hebron delegation.”

I look forward to your questions and our discussions as this journey progresses, I am going to do everything I can to share as much of it with all of you as possible!

 

Picking up where we left off

So I came home from the Appalachian Trail in October of 2017, and since then I’ve been settling back into the regular rhythm of life.

This is often easier said than done, but it’s gone more smoothly than I might have hoped. I was fortunate enough to find a job quickly, and got plugged into a place to live right away. I was also able to get back into regular volunteering with my local church community which was a huge help. All of these things mean that I didn’t get stuck in the kind of emotional morass that I did when I left the trail the year before. Post trail depression is a common occurrence for a lot of hikers, and different things work for different people. For me, getting back to “normal” as quickly as possible was a huge help.

But that said, there are still some things I’m struggling with. The biggest is staying productive as a writer. My favorite luxury I had on the trail was the ability to write every day, and more importantly have something fun to write about regularly. It’s easy to want to document what you did with your day when you’re living under the stars and spending every day hiking on one of world’s greatest long distance trails with a fantastic community. It’s a far different thing to write while spending every day going to an office to take incredibly repetitive phone calls fixing banal computer issues.

I am fortunate to have my job, it pays relatively well and has a schedule that leaves me open for having a life outside of the office. I don’t deal with an overwhelming amount of stress, and there’s enough stability that I don’t have to regularly worry about getting laid off or fired. But it is also fairly predictable and safe, and that does not contribute well to the writing juices. I was able to get an opportunity to write some small group discussion guides for a local church in the Advent season, which kept me in some small amount of practice, but those had a fairly focused purpose so the audience was not very wide.

I have been working in the last few weeks to find ways to expand my opportunities in the world of volunteering, with a local homeless emergency shelter and the local Democratic party. These are things that let me feel that I am serving a purpose, but don’t yet have any kind of writing outlet for me. I’m struggling to catch my spinning wheels on something as I try to find the right road.

But all is not lost, I do have a few projects I’ll be working on this year, and I want to take this chance to share those with you, as well as set some expectations on what the next year is going to look like on this site.

First, I am working on a short story collection/novella (the exact format isn’t set quite yet) that consists of a retelling of the life of Jesus as set in the modern day. I’ve written about a dozen individual stories for this so far, and am working on fleshing those existing stories out a bit more as well as completing others in the collection. Those will be posted here on a regular basis as I complete the series, hopefully for some kind of publication around the end of the summer.

Second, I am going to be working on some kind of larger project covering my time on the trail. This will likely be taking the form of a book, though I’m still undecided what that book will exactly look like. Possibly a memoir, possibly taking on a different topic but using my hiking experience as a metaphor for personal or spiritual development. I’m honestly not sure. As I try to work through this, what I’m going to do is regularly post here copies of blog updates from when I was hiking. I have rough draft notes that I kept each day of hiking, plus almost three thousand photos taken over the course of two summers. I’m going to try blending these into something a little more meaningful post these “enhanced” blog entries on a semi-weekly basis. Hopefully, this will help me get a firmer grip on what a hiking book written by a chubby IT worker slash armchair theologian would look like, as well as put me further on the path to a rough draft edition.

Finally, this October I am going to be taking part in a trip to Palestine with the Christian Peacemakers Team. We will be visiting Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Al Khalil (Hebron) where we will document violence by the Israeli military against Palestinian civilians and help organize peace work within the community. I plan to spend some time this year documenting why I decided to take this step, what I’m learning as I prepare for it, and hopefully document some of my experiences while there.

All of this will be in addition to the continued work on new recipes, Bible study materials, and my occasional comments on the new of the day. I’m playing around with other ideas that are in even more of a rough draft stage, like a possible podcast, and I’m hoping you will all enjoy the journey along the way!