More Confusing than Mystery Meat

Time at college, camps, mission trips, and with distant relatives typically includes at least one experience with mystery meat.  I could pretty easily live life without any meat, but mystery meat is particularly unappetizing to me.  I’d rather eat just about any other type of protein (tofu included).  Being unable to recognize a texture that used to belong to an unidentified animal just isn’t how I want to spend a meal.  Yet, living in the Deep South for over a year has caused me to discover a food more confusing than mystery meat (though there are plenty of new mystery meats here too).

That food is grits.

Until moving to the Deep South, I thought Oklahoma was pretty southern.  I was absolutely wrong.  I honestly don’t know where Oklahoma fits geographically, but it’s certainly not the Deep South.  In the Deep South grits are served with practically every meal.  People mix grits with foods I would have never considered: cheese, shrimp, bacon, sausage, ketchup, honey, berries, cream cheese, corn (which seems slightly redundant in my opinion)…you name it, it’s probably been added to grits at some point!  While I have instant oatmeal packets on hand at all times, many of my southern friends have grits.  (I had no idea instant grit packets even existed!)

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike grits.  I just don’t really get the point.  They’ve always seemed kind of bland and unnecessary.  Until recently.

At the country club where I work employees get a free meal per shift.  While the country club members eat gourmet meals, we are given less exquisite dining options.  Regardless, I am grateful for these meals.  There is always something satisfying to eat.  (The few times there was a mystery meat I just couldn’t stomach, there has always been a salad bar with at least lettuce, tomatoes, eggs, and dressing.)  A couple weeks ago I was really hungry while I was heading to the break room.  As I was walking up there I kept repeating “just something good, just something good.” I arrived and saw something new served (which is unusual, it’s basically an unpredictable rotation of certain meals).  I was excited to see chicken and vegetables, but there was also some sort of grain that I couldn’t identify.  After getting the chicken and vegetables, I decided to give the grain a shot.  (After all, once I couldn’t identify an item and it turned out to be bread pudding.) The grain turned out to be grits, but these grits were seasoned like rice or potatoes.  They actually enhanced my meal!

Admittedly, my eating habits at the country club resemble those of a toddler.  I’m normally not a picky eater, but for some reason I often have to trick myself to finish each meal.  (Don’t worry, I’m not pretending my spoon is an airplane.  It’s more like mixing things together to hide the flavor of certain foods.)  I normally eat the food as a discipline, not a joy.  I only do that because I know the purpose of food, even when it’s as confusing as mystery meat or grits.

This confusing discipline reminds me of prayer (though I’ve experienced a lot more overall joy through prayer than I have any food, especially the country club’s food).

I don’t understand prayer.  It’s more confusing to me than mystery meat or grits.  There are so many questions with prayer.  God already has a plan, so does it really make a difference if I pray? When I pray for something and it doesn’t happen, is God just not answering? There are all sorts of Bible verses or theological books I could reference, but ultimately prayer is still confusing.

Yet, we still pray.  Maybe we pray out of desperation.  Maybe we pray out of thankfulness.  Maybe we pray out of adoration.  Maybe we pray out of brokenness.  But sometimes we just pray out of discipline.  Like eating or maintaining any relationship, sometimes we just pray to survive.  We may not understand what’s going on or even necessarily look forward to it, but we do it anyway.  Sometimes we feel about like we did before praying, but other times we feel better.  Like some foods don’t visibly enhance a meal, prayer may not always seem to visibly enhance our lives.

But prayer is a spiritual lifeline, just like food is a physical one.  We can’t survive without it.  I don’t understand every intricate detail involved in digestion (nor would I want to), but I’m not willing to risk physical starvation just to test instructions I’ve been given.  I may not have experienced starvation, but I’ve heard of people starting.  I also know how bad it feels when I miss even one meal.  Similarly, I don’t understand every intricate detail involved in prayer, but I’m not willing to risk spiritual starvation just to test those instructions either.  The Lord’s protected me from spiritual starvation as much as He has from physical starvation, but I’ve also seen numerous people starve spiritually.  I also know how bad it feels when I go even a short time without prayer.

The Screams After Dark

I’ve mentioned before that the seminary campus is beautiful.  It’s truly a 75-acre oasis in the middle of New Orleans.  The architecture and landscape is lovely.  It’s also incredibly safe.  This safety is a stark contrast from the surrounding area.  Parts of Gentilly are beautiful.  There are many gorgeous homes, schools, and trees.  Parts of Gentilly are also really run-down.  Poverty certainly runs rampant everywhere, but this is a poverty like I’ve never seen.  Trash is all over the streets and parking lots.  Police officers regularly man the doors of grocery stores.  People of all ages are seen pushing carts along the street.  The space underneath bridges is always filled.

I wouldn’t describe myself as paranoid.  I try to be safe, but I’ve also spent a lot of time out at night and safety is not something I’m constantly anxious about.  However, living here has caused me to implement a few cardinal safety rules:

  1. Never stop at a gas station in Gentilly or the Ninth Ward after dark. I’ve literally taken the interstate a few miles with my gas light on just to go get gas elsewhere.
  2. Day or night, don’t put air in your tires off-campus. I have filled my tires up near my church, which is in a better part of town, but now I only use air compressors on campus.
  3. Take as little to the store as possible. There are some instances where I just can’t do this, but most of the time I try to only bring cash or a card, my phone, and keys into the store.  I figure if those items are taken, I’ll be less inconvenienced than I would be if I had my entire purse.
  4. Don’t shop after dark, especially by yourself. Working nights during the school year makes this rule pretty easy to follow, but it can definitely be inconvenient at times.  I have stopped at stores in different parts of the city after dark or gone with a friend that can’t go to the store during the day, but I don’t shop by myself near campus after dark.  Except this one time…

The one time I broke rule #4 I had just gotten back from a trip, worked a 13-hour-day, and desperately needed groceries.  The next day I had a potluck in the middle of a 15-hour-day and didn’t see another solution.  That said, I would still handle this situation differently if I were given the chance.

I got to the grocery store a little after 8:30pm and quickly gathered each item on my list.  The check-out lines were packed, so I picked what looked like the shortest one and waited.  The two guys in front of me each had two bottles of alcohol and were clearly tourists.  They were laughing with each other when we heard a scream to our left.  We could not see the source of the scream, but there was no missing the deafening wail coming from an adult woman.  Soon an employee came over the intercom calling all available managers to the pharmacy.  We saw several people scurry over there.  The cries continued off-and-on until a police officer came to escort a middle aged woman out the door right before I checked out.

Thankfully, my one after-dark experience at the store was not one where I was harmed in any way, but hearing this woman’s screams was enough to make me never want to go to the store that late again.  Her screams were unsettling, the kind that penetrate your soul.  Her face and demeanor were desperate, leaving me aching for her.

I could easily make a few assumptions about this circumstance, but instead I left remembering why I implemented these safety rules in the first place and caring deeply for the people that live in my community.

Manna from Heaven

Has something ever tasted heavenly when you’re famished and mediocre when you’re only mildly hungry? I have a feeling most of the things I cook in my dorm will have this same disappointing effect if I attempt to make them five years from now (when I hopefully have an actual kitchen).  Regardless, I’m convinced that the bread I made a few weeks ago was truly manna from Heaven.  Not because I made it (believe me, that’s never to any food’s benefit), but because the Lord provided it.  The week before I made this bread, I’d been praying the Lord would provide food until my next paycheck.  At the time, I had approximately 3 cans of black beans, 1 protein bar, 3 cans of tuna, 1 individual bag of pasta, peanutbutter, bags of frozen fruit, oatmeal, carrots, jelly, and baking items (like flour, spices, etc).  Oatmeal and smoothies would cover two meals a day for at least a week, but I was still missing another meal (and a lot of calories).  As much as I love black beans, tuna, and peanutbutter, it’s hard for me to eat those plain for very long.  I really needed some sort of bread.  That day I learned the importance of the prayer “give us this day our daily bread.”  So I got on my knees, prayed, and here’s what happened…

I was at work the next morning worrying about the next couple weeks (I’m excellent at worrying in case anyone ever needs a lesson) and the Lord reminded me to pray.  The Lord promises that His unfathomable peace will come if we pray.  As always, He was faithful to keep that promise and peace quickly covered my anxiety.  Being more peaceful, I was able to start thinking through some more logical responses to the food issue (other than mixing black beans, peanutbutter, and tuna).  I started praying for creativity.  Throughout the day the Lord flooded my mind with new thoughts.  It took hours of dead ends for me to finally find something that worked.

Without yeast, baking powder, eggs, or milk, my options were limited.  I also had no vegetables to do something like zoodles, cauliflower tortillas, etc.  I finally discovered a recipe for bread that required no yeast, eggs, or milk.  The only catch was it did require baking powder.  At first, that discouraged me.  Then the Lord helped me find an alternative to baking powder that was actually in my dorm: lemon juice and baking soda.  The instructions I found online were pretty complicated (math also isn’t my strong point), but I just prayed (and laughed) as I was making the dough that the Lord would help it turn out okay.  If anyone else tasted this bread, they might turn their nose up, but I thought it tasted wonderful.

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I ate it plain, with honey, and made it into a PB&J.  I probably could’ve eaten the entire loaf in one sitting.  I kept thinking about Exodus 16:30 where manna “tasked like wafers made with honey” (HSCB).  How much sweeter is the Lord’s provision? If I had relied on my own resources, I would have paid a bill late or borrowed money to buy bread that would not have tasted as good.  Or I might have just eaten scoops of peanutbutter by itself.  Yet, the Lord truly provided food that I could rejoice over eating.  I just had to wait on Him and trust His plans.  I too often take matters into my own hands, unwilling to wait and trust.  I worry that He does not have things under control, forgetting to remember the work He’s done.

(And to all the moms out there, I promise I didn’t just eat bread, honey, and oatmeal all week.  The Lord provided some other recipe ideas that helped make my other pantry items come to life.  He also provided some other food unexpectedly.)