This is long. Get a big cup of coffee.
I have been reflecting a lot, lately, on the times and events of my childhood and coming of age. It may be that I’ve been reading and re-visiting some “coming of age” stories (Catcher In the Rye, On the Road, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, to name a few) or that I have been spending some glorious afternoons hiking in the woods, which always brings me back to my childhood summers. Whether my dalliances with the memories of my childhood have been ignited by literature or sensory experience is not important; it is the content of the memories and, even more, what the experiences of my past have rendered- and how they shape my “now” and my “tomorrow”- that is key.
In my work in the next year, I hope to shift my focus from the “Year of Listening,” to “Our Year of Discovery. “ Those of you who have heard me speak of my initial “Three Year Plan” for my episcopacy, know that Year One has been designed to ground me in Listening and learning all that our diocese can share and that I can absorb, Year Two is focused on Discovery of ourselves as Disciples of Jesus in the 21st century, and Year Three will be spent charting, collectively, Our Way Forward. It has been important for me to not only lay out this initial plan, but to be disciplined about taking the time to honor this diocese and her history, stories and people, in this first year. This has been a year of great growth and learning for me, and I suspect (and hope) that my experience of the beautiful people and place of Central Pennsylvania will only deepen in years to come.
But back to today… and our near future.
I am preparing to shift our focus, when summer turns to fall, to Discovery. This does not mean that I will stop listening (!) but that the focus will zero in on how we understand ourselves as disciples. I want us to learn about how Jesus calls us, today to “follow” and how our modern lives reflect our engagement with the teachings and Way of Jesus. I want to continue to listen to lots and lots of stories- about your lives and how they make sense in your formation as disciples of Jesus- and to watch and listen as you share them with others. We call this “building your spiritual library” of stories. And I can’t wait to begin.
In the next year, I will be sharing more stories of my own life with you all in this blog. While a certain amount of self-disclosure is healthy and good for relationship building, I have a bigger agenda: I want to discover with all of you, some new insights in to my own story as a Christian, to offer a model of storytelling and invite you to your own reflection and sharing. Oh, sure, I’ll still blog about awesome adventures around our diocese, “hot topics” in Congregational Life and the odd idea that wakes me up at 3 AM, but I hope to focus on the craft of spiritual storytelling for a portion of our “time” together. I hope you will be inspired to share some stories of your own.
To wit, here’s a story:
There’s a trick to getting just the right amount of crispiness on the edge of a fried bologna… to coax it, with just the right amount of heat into curling up into a cup shape… and then, to deftly slide an orange square of American cheese into the center of the cup and let it melt, creating the filling for a 1950s-style sandwich that looks more like a science experiment than a meal. The trick is using just the right pan (cast iron), just the right amount of heat (medium high) and just the right kind of fat (butter) to turn the pale, flabby round of luncheon meat into a crispy, hot-doggish treat, topped with gooey cheese. Add two slices of soft white bread and a squirt of ketchup, and it’s a lunch fit for a ten-year-old.
OK. It’s just a sandwich. But we all know that food, and the sensory experience that it provides, can create deep and important impressions on us that we carry for a lifetime and, the memories, themselves, transform into something much bigger (ie: “ …when he had given thanks to you, he broke it (the bread) and said, ‘This is my body, which is given for you…’”)
Fortunately, in the past forty-seven years, my taste and food sensibilities have grown some and, these days, I tend more towards a “flexitarian” diet that focuses on eating more plants than animals and fewer factory-created foods than in my early years. I still love a good Pop-Tart or Oreo, and the smell of that crisping bologna brings me right back to the skinned-knee days of my childhood, because there is always more to the sensory experience than smell, taste or nutrition (?!), alone.
Fried Bologna spells independence, freedom, and delight to me.
Fried Bologna transports me to the summers of my youth spent canoeing, swimming, fishing for bass, playing in the woods, catching night crawlers on our wet lawn with the aid of a flickering candle stub, and listening to Rubber Soul (1965) and the White Album (1968), memorizing every lyric, and every guitar riff.
We were very lucky to spend our summers in a house in the northwestern hills of Connecticut, a part of the state that is dotted with lakes, farms and cornfields (It’s a little bit like a miniature Central PA). The countryside is lush and green. Black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s lace, Indian Paintbrush and Cornflowers stick their heads out into the roads, spilling over in a kaleidoscope of color, planned only by the Great Creator. Hot summer days smell like honeysuckle; the mornings, like the deep earth; and the nights like citronella candles and calamine lotion. This is the place where we abandoned our shoes in June… and went looking for them at Labor Day. Where we went all summer without a proper bath and took turns at helping our mom with chores- hanging the wash on the line, hand-washing the dinner dishes, and sweeping the porch. We learned to filet fish, right capsized canoes, tie knots, swing an axe, and identify poison ivy. We captured snakes, turtles, frogs and salamanders. One time, we even collected a pair of newborn chipmunks- but that’s another story for another time.
Back to the bologna.
There was a not-so-subtle “class system” in our family that was divided by age. My older brother and my older twin-sisters were the “big kids.” (Another, bigger brother, was also an occasional figure in our summer lives, living with us at the lake between his college years.) And then, there were the “little kids:” my younger brother, my baby sister, and… me. I was in the middle, really, between the big and the little kids, but I usually ended up in the grouping, decided by my mother, with the younger set.
We all got to roam, freely, during the day (except for my little sister.) We were “free-range” children- because that was just the way it was done in those days. We learned most of our lessons the hard way, and some of them (how to remove a fish hook from one’s ankle) with the help of an adult. We had breakfast in the big country kitchen around a table covered with oilcloth, and dinner at an eight-foot army surplus picnic table on the back porch.
But the bologna. The bologna. It created a dividing line for us. There were those who were allowed to make their own lunch, (the big kids) and those who were helped by our mother (the little kids). The big kids made fried bologna. And the little ones got cold bologna… or … peanut butter & jelly.
The day that I stepped up to the stove and my big brother taught me the magic of fried bologna was something. I had arrived.
Truth be told, it’s not that hard. Use the right pan, the right heat, and just aim the cheese for the center. Have the bread ready to go, and the ketchup close at hand and it will be clear that your own coming of age is as simple as that: delivered in a sandwich. There was a whole world beyond that kitchen-lesson of making fried bologna: late nights at the boathouse, waterskiing, hitchhiking to the General Store for penny candy and magazines, rolling cigarettes from dried mint, and midnight swims to the Big Raft.
Who knew it would all begin with a sandwich?
Each of us has moments in our lives that serve as hinges between one developmental phase or another, and icons of those moments that mark significant transitions. The transition from childhood to teenager is one example, marked for me by a sandwich. And there are others: first cars, first kisses, moving away from home, finding meaningful work, the shifting roles that we take on as lovers, spouses, parents and, sometimes in our later years, as caregivers to our own parents. In all of these roles and phases, we are loved by God, delighted in by our Creator, and, if we listen and pay attention, we’ll see that we are guided by the Holy Spirit. While our lives change, our souls deepen and our experiences add up, the one constant is God’s unrelenting and unyielding love for us. I wonder if we spend enough time noticing that- the ostinato line of God’s love - that carries us through our lives?
What have been the hinge moments in your lives?
Is there a fried bologna story in your spiritual library?
Care to share it?