Cooking Tip #4: Beware of Frosted Cookies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Through

I had a screen saver on my computer in college that rotated through inspirational quotes.  I don’t recall exactly where I got it.  I think my roommate received it from someplace; maybe it came with a bookstore promotion. That part doesn’t really matter.  What matters is there was one particular quote that always resonated with me: The best way out is always through.

This is the only quote from the whole lot that I remember, even though I probably stared at that screen for hours.  I’m not sure why I liked this particular quote so much, except for the potential that God knew better than I what was coming down the road.  He let this thought sink in during the fun times.  He was preparing me for the challenging times.

It has been said many times that if God brings you to it, He will bring you through it.  There is a hymn that reminds us “All the way my savior leads me.”  God himself reminds us that he will never leave us or forsake us (Joshua 1:5). Unfortunately, I can know these things intellectually and still not feel them in my heart.

During some of my darkest times, I came to curse my “favorite quote.”  It would roll again and again through my head like the drum beat of a death march.  And that’s exactly what “through” felt like: like death itself.  I didn’t want to go through.  I wanted to go anyplace except through.  I wanted to go back.  I wanted to go around. I wanted to go over.  I did not want to go through.  But again and again that cursed quote would pound through my head: the best way out is always through.  Seriously, God?  Seriously?

The 23rd Psalm is referenced so frequently that my eyes often glaze over the moment I begin to think about it.  But I was thinking of this Psalm the other day, and how we jump frequently to the pleasant parts, but don’t dwell much on that very powerful line in the middle:  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” (Psalm 23:4).

Did you see it?  Even in this psalm that is used so often as a source of comfort, the path described is through the valley.  God does not lead David around; He leads him through.

There are a lot of valleys in life.  Some are small and inconvenient.  Some are large and overwhelming.  Some are so long and dark we get part way through and can’t see light out either end.  The most frightening are those where we stand at the entrance looking down a path that seems to be pointing in… and no further than that. Just where exactly is God taking me??

God’s rod and God’s staff can comfort us, but there is no denying the fact that the valley is terrifying.  And there is no denying the fact that we eventually reach a point where we have to walk through it.  Sometimes God’s rod and staff not only comfort, they prod.  Us.  Forward.

I’ve been through a valley like that. I went in kicking and screaming and trying to convince God and myself that there was an alternative route.  But no matter how I tried to turn the other way, I came right up against the cold hard fact that the best way, the only way, was through.  No matter which way I tried to turn, God kept prodding me forward.

Someplace in the middle, when I was still clawing my way through the dark, my plea changed from “Please let me go a different way” to “Please help me through.”  This was not an easy transition.  But through that valley, I eventually learned in my heart what I initially knew only in my head.  In some of the darkest and most terrifying valleys, there is still a path forward.

The best way out is always through.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me (Psalm 23:4).

Cooking Tip #3: How to Peel a Banana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The RLT Principle

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).

I call this verse the RLT Principle.  This is not to be confused with the BLT, which is a delightful deli sandwich comprised of bacon, lettuce, and tomato.  Instead, the RLT Principle stands for the Right-Left Turn Principle, and it goes something like this:  God is guiding you no matter which way you turn. 

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).

Sometimes it’s hard to hear that voice.  In fact, there are times it does not feel like we are being guided at all.  There are moments we cry out for guidance and seem to receive only silence.  But even in those moments, God is watching.  God is guiding. 

It is like a story I heard recently about a business man from China who was launching a new venture.  Someone asked him to describe the company’s strategy for this new and unknown territory.  “Strategy?”  The man replied.  “We are crossing this great river by feeling the rocks with our feet.”

Isn’t that exactly what our guiding moments feel like?    It is like we are standing on a stepping stone in the midst of a raging current praying for God to tell us which way to move.  And sometimes we receive only silence.  “Why, God, have you left me stranded here all alone?!” 

Only God hasn’t really left us stranded.  He is simply waiting for us to reach out with our foot and feel for the rock that He has placed there.

We notice God’s guidance most when we are struggling for a foothold amidst life’s raging current.  But the RLT Principle doesn’t apply only to those “Big Decision” times.  The RLT Principle applies to all the little moments, too.  The ones we don’t even think about.  The waking up, and the going to work, and the caring for family, and the Monday morning meetings, and the Friday nights off.  God’s guidance is as real in the quiet moments of everyday living as it is during the precarious river crossings.  Even when we don’t consciously choose a direction, God knows where we are headed.  “I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord (Jeremiah 29:11).  And wherever we are going, all along the path, there is a voice telling us, “This is the way; walk in it.”

It may not be a physical voice.  In fact, it’s probably not.  But as Christians, we have the Spirit of God guiding our lives.  Even when we do not see it or hear it or even feel it, it is there.  We are being buoyed along like a wiffle ball caught in an updraft of wind.  And we are guided, like that wind-blown little ball, to wherever the Spirit of God takes us.  The wind blows wherever it pleases, Jesus told us. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (John 3:8). 

Sometimes God’s guidance is floating and effortless.  Sometimes it’s a terrifying process of stepping into the unknown.  But whether we feel the gentle push of the wind or face the raging currents, we can go in confidence knowing that God is indeed guiding our lives.  Whether we turn to the right or to the left, we are being guided both by the Spirit who takes us where it pleases… and by the solid Rock Who forms our stepping stones.

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).

Cooking Tip #2: When all else fails…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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