Late evening sun shines on June growth of plants and trees, as well as a homemade sign attached to a barbed wire fence row in Bonlee North Carolina. The sign reads, “Have you considered if Jesus is not your saviour you are going to hell?”
Late evening sun shines on June growth of plants and trees, as well as a homemade sign attached to a barbed wire fence row in Bonlee North Carolina. The sign reads, “Have you considered if Jesus is not your saviour you are going to hell?”
A small single bay clapboard store trimmed with pink paint beside the railroad tracks in Bonlee North Carolina.
Soccer season permeates our house once again, with two children practicing two to three nights a week (not on the same nights, naturally) then playing games on Saturdays, near home and then also hours away at other soccer clubs. These sports seasons have been practice for me too, in learning patience and humility, in not living and dying with every little thing that happens on the soccer pitch, a place in which I have absolutely no control over. That’s hard for me!
I was wrestling with this when writing the following homily (a “homily” is an abbreviated sermon, a short reflection on God’s Word) that I delivered Thursday May 08, 2014 on the Old Testament reading Exodus 20: 1-21 (find the ESV translation here) at the 7am Morning Prayer service at Holy Trinity- Chatham. Whether you recognize that passage in Exodus or not you know it. The passage is on the Ten Commandments.
I hope you enjoy the reflection. For myself I pray that God might teach me that though it may look the contrary, a soccer field full of 9 year old children is a place for boys and girls to test themselves, learn life lessons, and overcome adversity, without the help of their overbearing parents.
“Open our ears, O Lord, to hear your Word and know your voice. Speak to our hearts. Strengthen our will. That we may serve and glorify you now, and always.” Amen.
Instead of a lecture on the Ten Commandments early this morning I want to confess my sin to you, my brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Ten days ago, a late Saturday afternoon, I was standing on a soccer field in Johnston County North Carolina. I was about to watch my third soccer game of the day, what I have done most every Saturday since February. As my son and his teammates took the field to play it soon became apparent that the opposing team had never been told “No” when it came to rough play. One particular boy was amazing in his extravagance in hurting others. Within just a few minutes of play he had knocked a boy down with a full body check, elbowed another in the eye, tripped my son, and stepped hard on the toes of another boy he could not knock down. Between these offenses the referee never seemed to see this 9 year old boy would taunt my son and his teammates, getting in their face, calling them names.
I have always had this personality quirk that seems noble at first, but gets me in trouble with clockwork regularity. I don’t mind so much someone hurting me, but when someone mistreats others, I find it maddening and worthy of action. Enraged by the actions of this player I was fussing. Cussing. Asking loudly to anyone whom might listen if they “knew what was going on here?” “And where were his parents?” As the actions of the boy worsened so did my behavior, and at a moment where the player knocked down a friend’s son, I boiled over. And I called the name of my Lord, Jesus Christ, but not with reverence or even joy. I said his name as if it were trash, to be swept out of my mouth.
We hear today in the Gospel (Matthew 4: 1-11) that Christ Jesus felt led by the Spirit to fast 40 days and nights in the desert. At a nadir in his strength, and tempted by some physical manifestation of the devil he was not led into temptation, and was without sin. His reaction to temptation was obedience to the Father, and being faithful to his love for each of us, even in this desolate situation.
I instead charged into temptation, and broke a laundry list of God’s commandments in a 5 minute span. And at the time wanted to blame the immature actions of a 9 year old boy whom I will never encounter again. I showed no respect, nor love, to this child, though that is my duty to God. And I also ended up disrespecting God himself, the one I feel I know and love.
The minute I uttered those words I felt this buzzing, burning pain, shooting through my head and down through my shoulders, and I momentarily could not see every well. These were not physical pains or true blindness. They were my feelings, of shame and embarrassment at what I had done. But getting deeper into the source of my discomfort was that I had just pulled myself out of communion with God. Not slightly, but ripping apart.
The Ten Commandments seem rejected by many people in our society, though to try and defend their rejection for a moment it may be that their understanding of what “sin” is has been so co-opted and re-branded by our American culture. Movies and books and even some television evangelists have re-defined sin as something always violent or pornographic, ugly and offensive. But the definition of sin is not always that! Our Book of Common Prayer defines sin this way, “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” Being tempted, seeking our way. In adversity we lose our faith. We resist, and ignore God’s will. These are our sins.
We are given so many gifts by God daily. Get out a piece of paper and begin to write down all of your blessings, and be ready when you need another sheet! And the underlying theme of all of these blessings is God’s overwhelming love for us. But just as there are many gifts in Love, there are also rules. So God brought these Ten Commandments to us, through Moses, to prepare us to do what he asks of us, summed up perfectly in the words of Jesus Christ, “ You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” God simply asks us to stay within that loving relationship he has created for us. With that understanding the Ten Commandments seem less moralistic, controlling commands, and much more the gentle reminders of a loving father.
To close I want to share two things with you, the good news. First, when my son and his teammates came off of that soccer field 10 days ago, they were not fazed at all by the other team. They had shrugged off that rough play, and were now just laughing and joyous as they talked about their play in the game. Our 9 year old children, our teachers in humility.
And here’s the best news. These Ten Commandments, these simple commands we as Christians are asked to follow to better love God and our neighbor…we will fail and we will break them, again and again. God knows this! And what I would suspect is more important to him is that these commandments continue to be strengthened in each of us, through Jesus’s teaching. And that we continue to deepen our understanding that these commandments, rules Christ embodied in his own life, are fulfilled only in our Lord’s perfect righteousness. Amen.
Chicken and dumplings…I count very favorite foods (collard greens and fried okra come to mind first) and foods that connect me with my family (pork barbecue, chicken pie) but chicken and dumplings seem to transcend those on my “favorites” list. Chicken and dumplings, in addition to being a food, also seem part medicine. If stress, sickness or want seep into my bones, and I am in need of strengthening my mental health, chicken and dumplings always sooth me. Chicken and dumplings may be the very best medicine I have ever ingested. I am fully convinced that a bowlful could easily ease my worries over financial difficulty, bodily harm or infirmity, lovelorn matters of the heart, or anything else that might put me on my butt, literally or figuratively.
I want to call chicken and dumplings a “southern food,” one originating in the American South. Though that might not be true. In a quick survey of the internet and cookbooks I own there seem to be recipes all over the U.S. for chicken and dumplings. Though I do notice that recipes from places not of the American South seem to make a royal mess of the essence of chicken and dumplings (putting whole, bone-in pieces of chicken in to “jazz up” the look being a main offender west of the Mississippi).
I think a more accurate depiction of the history of chicken and dumplings is that necessity is the mother of invention. In poor rural places (re: the American South) families that may have nothing definitely had chickens running around the yard, and a bit of flour in the pantry, and these two ingredients plus water can produce chicken and dumplings. The chicken offers most everything for the meal; the flavor, fat, meat, etc. But this “poor food” endures because though it is not much to look at in terms of “presentation” it is just so good, and healing, and in my opinion tastes better than just about any food that is all about “presentation.”
Wherever this humble stew originated, the meal definitely has its regional differences. In the North Carolina Piedmont where I grew up and continue to live I called chicken pieces and flat dumplings “chicken and dumplings.” But my father, who grew up only an hour east (in Eastern North Carolina) called this same dish “chicken and pastry.” And I have seen others in Eastern North Carolina cook the same dish much longer, until the chicken almost dissolves into the much more watery broth, and call it “chicken slick.” My maternal side of the family, from the Southwest Virginia hills above Roanoke, made their chicken and dumplings with not flat dumplings, but what seemed to be billowy pillows of flour. My great-grandmother, who always cooked for what seemed like an army, knew when to save time, and used canned biscuits she would cut into two for her dumplings!
I offer here my way of making chicken and dumplings, not as a way of pretending I am some authority or star chef of this basic dish, but hopefully as a way to help those who want to make them skip the many mistakes I, and others, have made in the past on the way to making this “medicine.”
Chip Millard’s Chicken and Dumpling Recipe
(click on any of the photos for a larger version)
First, bring a big pot of water to boil, the water being about halfway up the side of the pot. Add some salt (I use kosher sea salt) for taste and “to help the water boil faster” (is that true?). Also, add a tablespoon of olive oil, it helps prevent the whole chicken from sticking to the bottom of the hot pot and burning.
Once the water comes to a rolling boil you will want to add the chicken to the pot. I say 4-6 pounds for your chicken because any bigger and you know it is a chicken raised on hormones and other stuff to make it so darn big. I want a regular sized chicken free of most of that because I am more looking for taste and not how big the actual chicken is (only you, the cook, will see the chicken in its “whole” form). Are you now thinking you need a bigger chicken in terms of pounds because you are going to be feeding a lot of people? Stop thinking! It does not matter how many people you are feeding, this chicken will provide! The chicken’s value to this meal is 5% pieces of chicken and 95% the chicken broth that will soon instantly spring forth in your pot.
You will find these smaller chickens not at the big-box stores we all feel we can not live without, but at the smaller regional grocery stores (think “superette” not supermarket). I bought this chicken in our town’s Piggly-Wiggly grocery store, which I refer to as an ethnic foods store (the ethnicity being not Asian or Italian or Polish, but “Southern American”).
Unwrap the chicken and wash it under cold water. If you are not used to cooking whole chickens you are going to be surprised to find “parts” in the inside cavity, gizzards and organs, which you should also rinse, adding them and the chicken to the pot of your boiling water. Add in salt and pepper and thyme. Then start moving the heat down on the burner, seeing how low you can go while keeping that slow boil (bubbling water). Allow this to cook for 40-45 minutes.
After the 40-45 minutes of cooking many worry if the chicken is cooked through. It really doesn’t matter yet, as you will be cooking it some more. But, a quick sign is that the chicken seems to sort of float in the pot (where before it sunk like a lead balloon).
Gather pyrex containers or bowls, and put in your sink. Pour off the liquid in the pot, which is now the best chicken broth in the world (100 times better than the stuff in cans at the grocery store). Try to keep as much as you can. I use a small strainer when pouring, just to gather up some of the smaller bits of herbs or chicken pieces. Set this chicken broth aside.
After pouring off the chicken broth put your pot in the sink and let cold water run over the chicken. Pour off the water, and repeat the process. You are trying to cool the chicken down so it does not burn you. Once the chicken has cooled place a clean bowl beside you and start picking off all the meat on the bird, white and dark, in chunks no larger than your thumb. Be patient here, and do not waste that chicken’s meat! Once complete, set the chicken aside. You will want to bag up the remaining bones and parts and seal it off with a twisty tie before throwing away.
Dice up a rather large onion (I use sweet onions), and also slice up a container of mushrooms (I spend the extra 50 cents for the baby bellas, worth it here). If you have them around and want to use them up dice up a few carrots and celery ribs. But be sure to dice them up. Carrots and celery add flavor to the broth, but I don’t want to see them swimming around in your chicken and dumplings if I am invited over to your house to sup.
With all of these ingredients ready put your cooking pot back on the stove and set on medium heat. Throw in a bit of butter to get the bottom of the pot slick. Dump in the onions, and also the carrots and celery if you chose to add them. Mix in with the butter and cook until the pieces start to become translucent. Add in salt at this step. Again, sea salt, not table salt. Note: Do you fancy yourself a real fancy cook with a PhD in cookbooks and blogs, where every pot or skillet recipe begins with minced garlic? Resist that urge here.
Next, add in your mushrooms. Mix in with the vegetables and liquid currently in the pot. Allow to cook down a bit, a minute or two. You may wonder why mushrooms should be in chicken and dumplings? Because their taste reminds you of the Earthly, low-down, pungent smells that make all the best stews! By the end of the cooking process you will barely notice their presence visually. But your taste buds will not be so remiss.
Once the mushrooms have cooked down a bit pour a slurry of the chicken broth in the pot, maybe a cup. Use this broth, and your wooden spoon (you are using a wooden spoon, right?) to get up all the little tasty bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pot, and move around everything. Then, add in the chicken broth you have been setting aside. Pour in more than you ever think you will need, as it is hard to fathom how much liquid dumplings can absorb. Don’t fill up the side of the pot any more than 3/4 the way up the side, to be sure to have room for the ingredients you will soon dump in. Bring this all to a languid, bubbly boil.
Once the bubbly boil begins it is time to add dumplings. Here’s where some purists are going to call “fowl” (get it!). Most of the time I use store bought dumplings! I do make them from scratch sometimes, especially if I want to make black pepper pastry (super thin pastry strips loaded with black pepper mixed in the flour) or green herb dumplings (ravioli-sized dumplings full of cut up green herbs, such as parsley and basil). But this is one step where the dumplings these companies make and package for us taste just as good as what you can make at home, and this pre-packaged step can save an hour of time (not having to make your own) in an already long process.
I use Mary Hill Dumplings, almost exclusively. They are as good as any I have found, but Mrs. Hill lured me in with her expert packaging. The stripes get my attention to start. The very plain “Olan Mills church directory” photo of her makes me feel as though she is very down to Earth, and her dual slogans are some of the best I have ever seen. The first is “Made especially for you with love.” (Can’t you hear your mom or grandmother saying that?) And the follow up, almost as an aside, proclaims “Yes to Dumplings, No to Drugs.” There is a lot of simple wisdom in that statement (you will figure that out once you calm down from laughing!). If the stripes, photo and logos are not enough, Mary Hill also adds in a Bible verse on the back of the package. I used to roll my eyes at that kind of thing, utilizing Scripture as a sales aid. But in this hateful, secular world we currently live in it seems more a badge of courage in the face of the liberal mobs who perpetuate the culture wars. I like that kind of grit.
Begin to drop in the dumplings, one at a time. There’s a trick here, you can’t let the dumplings touch when they first hit the liquid, or they will stick to each other. I leave the wooden spoon in the pot, then drop two or three dumplings on top of the stew (kind of like laying out bacon in a skillet). I let the dumplings sit there for 20-30 seconds, then dunk them with the spoon. I then repeat that process, over and over, until all dumplings are in the pot.
Allow this all to cook on a bubbly, low boil, for 20-30 minutes.
At this point you can see that the dumplings have started really soaking up the juice, and they appear to have doubled in thickness. Also, little bits of flour have fallen away and thickened up the liquid in the pot. You have a stew on your hands! Add in the chicken pieces now, and mix in, then allow to simmer for 10-15 more minutes.
Grab a spoon out of your drawer, the type you eat food with. Taste the chicken and dumplings and evaluate what is needed, as they are about ready to eat. More salt needed? Or no? You decide, based on what you like. Also add in black pepper to taste. You are trying to get the stew to being just about being done, in cooking and in seasoning.
Now, time for the secret weapon, a mix of a few items that make all non-tomato based soups and stews ascend to the next level. Add in four ingredients that for some reason know how to make magic together; milk (or half and half, or heavy cream, whatever you have, I had vitamin D milk this day), an orange of some sort, nutmeg, and hot sauce (Tabasco brand, here).
Pour in 1/4 cup to a full cup of milk, enough to turn the liquid from translucent to milky white. Add in nutmeg, a teaspoon would be good. Zest an orange (or tangerine or clementine) and dump the zest in. Finally, dash in hot sauce, the amount being a couple of shakes up to a dozen of the bottle. Once all of these are present, mix the magic four ingredients in to the stew, and immediately turn off the heat (remember, this mixture is piping hot, internally, and will continue to cook as it cools to eating temperature).
It is hard to explain why these four ingredients added to stew or soups at the last minute are such a taste bud game-changer, so I will not try. All I can tell you is I learned it from studying the way Bill Neal (of Crook’s Corner fame) cooked and thought about food in his cookbooks, and if you know anything about Bill Neal you know that if that is the way he did it, that is really all the explanation you need.
As they cool and sit, these dumplings are ready to serve and eat. You cannot eat just one bowl, so encourage trips to the pot for seconds and thirds, and make it easy for people to help themselves (this is why you made such a big pot!).
A confession here, I am the world’s worst at eating leftovers. I am always reaching over the leftovers in my refrigerator to look for something new to eat. But there is an exception to every rule, and the ever dynamic chicken and dumplings is that leftover dish! In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that chicken and dumplings taste better as leftovers, left in a cold area overnight for the dumplings to soak up more of the liquid and spices.
If you have never made chicken and dumplings before it is time to end that curse and make a pot! Chicken and dumplings are cheap, easy to make, and always please, despite the humble ingredients and lack of presentation. A perfect dish for Sunday Dinner! Let me know if you have questions, or want to invite me over when you serve chicken and dumplings the next time.
The past 4 months have been some of the busiest (with work, always with work) I can remember, and the fact that the last post in this blog was September 30, 2013 mirrors that fact. The four months have been, well, boring. If anything has brought me joy it has been spending precious time with my family, and also friends. And getting the chance to work on the below, a homily (do you know what a homily is? In the words of a good friend, “it is another word for a sermon that suggests brevity”) delivered to a group I meet monthly with to learn theological and practical elements of Anglican life. There are few things that feel like a more life-giving privilege than proclaiming the Word of God. May those who do always find happiness in this opportunity.
Let us pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” Amen.
This AMP program has already been such a blessing to me. I am so eager to learn the theological and practical elements, and I am emboldened by the friendships we are developing. Something almost stopped me from participating though, the requirement that I would be called upon to deliver a homily even though I have never before delivered one in my 40 years. Compounding my fear was the realization that I would be offering this homily not to my peers, my parish congregation, but to a room full of bishops, priests, deacons, canons, archdeacons, M.Div grads, PhD’s and professors!
I put away that fear, telling myself the Gospel lesson assigned to my homily date would be an unfamiliar passage. I could offer something new to you learned men and women! Last October Donnie emailed us the preaching schedule and I immediately checked the Gospel assigned for today’s daily office. The “Good Shepherd” passage from John, Chapter 10!? One of the stories everyone, even non-Christians know? That day I was seized with pangs of abject horror, and disquiet!
Disquiet would be a great way to describe the mood of the day in which today’s Gospel passage opens. Jesus has just healed a blind man, a man that has been cast aside as a beggar not so much because of his physical disability, but of the belief in those days that his blindness since birth was caused by his sin, or the sin of his parents. Jesus restores this man’s sight by mixing his own spit with dirt to make an ointment he rubs into the man’s eyes. Furthering the authorities’ unease, he proclaims to the crowd the man was not blind because of his family’s sin as the authorities maintain, but so the “works of God might be displayed in him.”
Those in authority, feeling threatened, question Jesus so that all can hear, and he answers them. Not satisfied by his answers, seeking to discredit him, to maintain their authority, they continue to question. Jesus answers again, but this time he directs his answer to the crowds, the witnesses that day. And in his timeless speech, directed now to us, sitting here this morning.
He answers in the form of a metaphor, comparing himself to a shepherd, an occupation familiar to all who were within earshot in that time and place. Within this metaphor he indicates three times what his greatest gift to each of them, and to us, would be, his coming death, a propitiation of our sins.
He first references those in authority, those denying he is the Son of Man. He calls them thieves, only interested in stealing and killing and destroying the sheep. But he, Jesus, is the door to the gate, and reminds us if we, the sheep, will just enter by him we “will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.”
He then compares himself to a hired hand, a man who is paid by another to manage his sheep flock. At first sight of a wolf approaching the hired hand measures the paltry wages he receives to protect the sheep against losing his life to the wolf, and he flees. But the Christ, Jesus, he sees the sheep that he knows as his own. And he comes running to lay down his life for the sheep.
The third time he states he will lay down his life down for the sheep, he reveals to the assembled people a coming event they do not yet understand, and that they will at first only marvel at. He states emphatically, and I am paraphrasing here, “So that there will be one flock, one shepherd, I will soon lay down my life, for all sheep, that I may take it up again.” Jesus is telling them very plainly his gift to each of us, probably the main reason we, only very recently strangers, are assembled in this room as brothers and sisters. We are still marveling at the fact that Jesus Christ did lay his life down for us, his sheep. And through his death, resurrection and ascension he conquered death for each one of us in this room, allowing us to be reconciled with the Father, and have eternal life. And all that is asked of us is to enter through Christ’s shepherd door. If only we believe, these gifts are bestowed.
I wonder if Paul had this idea of Christ as the Good Shepherd on his mind when he implored in his letter to the Colossians these words,
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
How is Jesus shepherding us? In Paul’s words Christ is making us alive with him in God, forgiving our trespasses, canceling our debts, and triumphing over evil!
Those feelings of anxiety I told you about before, on having to deliver this homily, they stayed with me for days last October. The next Sunday I was scheduled to volunteer in our children’s ministry, called the “Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.” This program is hard to explain succinctly, but the idea is that a separate space, the Atrium, is built for children, handmade materials are brought in as teaching aids, and the teacher objectively presents the Word of God, and a small lesson, then allows the children time to explore this on their own, and grow in their understanding of God in their own way.
This particular Sunday I was assigned to the younger class, and I was trying to keep up with two new boys, 3 years old, just old enough to participate, who were new to this Atrium experience. They felt freed of any constraints, and were all over the place!
In the very center of the room is a small table with a green tablecloth. Atop the table is a handmade wooden model toy of a fence with a working door, and wood figures of many sheep, and a wooden figure of Christ Jesus, in shepherd’s clothes, a small lamb over his shoulder. Beside this is a small book, containing the words of today’s Gospel passage, broken up into small bits on each page, to make it easier for a child to read.
One of the boys sat at the table, and started to play with the figures. He asked me to come over to read to him, jabbing his finger at the book. I got on my knees, and did just that, reading this Gospel passage over, and over, slowly, while he started to bring the sheep figures in and out of the gate while Jesus looked on. This boy, who a minute ago was a bit rambunctious, was now quiet, almost serene, a smile on his face as we experienced the words of Jesus as the Good Shepherd together. Comforting words.
He eventually stood up and moved to another area, but before I could get up off of my knees the second boy came over. He grinned at me and pointed at the book, and I took this to mean he wanted me to read it to him too. He also started to play with the wooden figures, but not before I began reading. His quiet smile was deafening!
In this interaction my dear brothers Jonah and Drew taught me exactly what to offer you in this homily. Jesus, through metaphor, offered us these comfortable words, in the guise of a shepherd that we still today understand to be one that is a guide, a leader, a minister. Reminding us that if only we believe in him, he will always be there for us, our protector. He spoke it to those in his presence that day, he spoke to me and my young friends in the Atrium, and he is speaking it to you today! Jesus is that shepherd in Psalm 23 that leads us beside still waters, and green pastures, and paths of righteousness, no matter what is going on in our lives. And that goodness & mercy he offers, it is forever!
Why do we need to hear that? Because, we are only human! Each of us is broken by sin, however small or large. We then go to church to confess our sins, and repent, and they are absolved in the work of Christ. But, we might very well sin again this week, or the next. And we feel the effects of sin. Sins that have sought to steal, or kill, or destroy small parts of our sheep.
We all need to hear this message, over and over, even those of us in this room! We are all here because we feel led to lead, whether in ordained or lay ministry, in an Anglican church, to mimic this metaphor, shepherds leading sheep. But in the reality of Christ the Good Shepherd, it does not matter how much we think we know, or have achieved, or who we lead. His presence reminds us we are but sheep, dependent on his care. Left to our own, we would follow paths of trouble. But Jesus, in his love for us, will guide us. A simple, child-like faith, clinging to the Good Shepherd, is where we all are before God.
A personal story on how essential this is. My priest, Fr. David, knows my history, and thoughts I have shared with him, that I have trouble trusting other people, and thus in the Eucharist each week when he offers me the Bread and announces “this is the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven,” he always adds for me, “Know that Christ loves you and will never forsake you.” I am 37 years older than the toddlers in my church, yet I need to hear every week that Jesus is my protector, and that he will never leave me.
In this metaphor Christ Jesus gives us that picture in our mind that we need to remember, and hold onto. He as our protector, that loves us with such a ferocity, without hesitation laid down his life to protect us from the wolves that bay and claw at the doors of our lives daily.
I pray that you will remember that, feel Christ’s comfort and protection, and I ask for it in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.