Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Cheesecake Faith

I recently made my first visit to a Cheesecake Factory restaurant. I enjoyed my entrĂ©e—Hibachi Steak (certified Angus hanger steak with shiitake mushrooms, onions, bean sprouts, wasabi mashed potatoes and tempura asparagus)—very much.

Since one cannot—or at least should not—go to a place called the “Cheesecake Factory” without eating cheesecake, my good wife and I set about perusing the massive cheesecake menu. We finally settled on the White Chocolate Caramel Macadamia Nut Cheesecake (WCCMNC) because, I mean, why not? We did have to give it some thought, though—they had around forty different varieties of cheesecake on the menu and most of them looked quite delicious. The WCCMNC was, I must say, marvelous.

Usually, though, if I’m going to eat cheesecake, I want plain old cheesecake—nothing extra on it, nothing extra in it—just cheesecake. I am at heart a simple man with simple tastes.

The truth is, though, that I was in college before I ate “real” cheesecake. According to that reputable culinary source Wikipedia, “Cheesecake is a sweet dish consisting of two or more layers. The main, or thickest layer, consists of a mixture of soft, fresh cheese, eggs, and sugar; the bottom layer is often a crust or base made from crushed cookies, graham crackers, pastry, or sponge cake.” Sponge cake? Anyway, “real” cheesecake is a tad heavy.

At least it’s heavy compared to what I grew up thinking of as cheesecake.

You see, my mother served us a “cheesecake” that was not heavy; in fact, it may not have even been cheesecake, although, to be fair, the recipe that she cut out of a newspaper (we still have it) is entitled “Cheese Cake.” Here it is:

Maybe the whipping made the difference. (Mama sometimes seemed to think it did, but I digress.) Anyway, for some reason, her cheesecake was simple and light and fluffy and delicious. It was not “real” cheesecake, but it was good cheesecake. And thankfully, since we have the recipe, it is a cheesecake to which I can sometimes return. I have learned to like the heavier and more complicated versions, but I still like to go back to the simpler cheesecake of my mother and of my childhood. It is foundational for me in my experience of cheesecake.

As I have lived--sometimes thriving and sometimes surviving--I have developed a heavier, more complicated, more informed and more nuanced faith. It has been necessary and helpful. My experience has been deepened and enriched by different ways of thinking about God, about faith, and about life.

A story—one that is too good not to be true—is told about the influential Swiss theologian Karl Barth who, while on a speaking tour of the United States in 1962, was asked by a University of Chicago student if he could summarize his theology in one sentence and Barth replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

That White Chocolate Caramel Macadamia Nut Cheesecake was amazing; I look forward to trying other varieties. I am glad that my tastes have matured.

But I never stop going back to Mama’s cheesecake …

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Taking the World Series(ly)

It is World Series time and I’m wondering why I don’t care more.

There was a time when every fiber of my being looked forward to the World Series. The first one to which I paid much attention was the 1967 Series—I was nine years old—between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals, which is, as it turns out, the matchup that we have this year.

I watched every inning that I could of the classic World Series in the 1970s in which those great Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Oakland Athletics teams were involved. I hung on every pitch of the 1975 contest—the greatest series of my lifetime, so far as I’m concerned—between the Reds and the Red Sox. The ‘80s are a bit of a blur what with seminary, the beginnings of my career, and the birth of our children, but I know that I watched as much as I could. The enduring memories of that decade are the homerun by a gimpy Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers off Oakland’s closer extraordinaire Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 tilt and the earthquake that struck during the Oakland vs. San Francisco Series of 1989; both events shook the world in their own way.

I suspect I’ll watch some of this year’s Series but I’m not planning my life around it. I guess it’s partly because I just have other things I’d rather spend my time doing; after all, with each passing moment life becomes more and more scarce and thus more and more valuable so I’m trying to spend my time creatively and well.

I suspect that the main culprit behind my increasing lack of interest in the World Series, though, is the Atlanta Braves baseball team.

I’m a Braves fan. I started following them when they moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta (something for which our son’s Wisconsin in-laws have never forgiven them) in 1966. With a couple of exceptions (1969 and 1982, when they won the Western Division Championship but were swept in the League Championship Series), for the first twenty-five years of their Atlanta residency, the Braves gave us little hope of a World Series experience. Most seasons they were out of the race by the All-Star break. Most seasons we knew that they were really out of the race before Spring Training began.

Then came the most exciting season in Atlanta Braves’ history—the worst to first season of 1991. With young stars in the making like pitchers John Smoltz and Tom Glavine and outfielders David Justice and Ron Gant, with grizzled veterans like Terry Pendleton and Sid Bream, and with role players like Greg Olson and Rafael Belliard, the Braves went on a remarkable run that led to an Western Division championship, a win over a highly favored and frankly, far superior Pittsburgh Pirates squad, and an epic seven-game World Series loss to that year’s other worst-to-first team, the Minnesota Twins. That year began a remarkable run in which the Braves won their division title for fourteen consecutive years. They made four more World Series appearance in the ‘90s, winning the title in 1995.

What an experience it was to have my team in the postseason every year and to have them appear in the World Series in half of the years of the 1990s! I only thought I had been interested in the Series before; now that my team was in it, I lived and died with them during every moment of every contest. But now, when the Braves are not there, which they have not been in a long time, I find myself not being very interested.

That’s only natural, I suppose, but I find it troubling. After all, baseball is a great game—the greatest game, I would argue—so I should care about it for the sake of its intrinsic beauty and grandeur, not just because I have a team in the game. I should love baseball for baseball’s sake. And I do. I just need to reclaim that first love, a love I had for the sport of baseball that rose above the fortunes of my favorite team. I need to refocus on the game at large rather than on my little corner of it; I need to appreciate and celebrate the joy that fans of other teams feel and to understand and empathize with their frustrations.

All of this has implications for how we think (or don’t think) about the Nation, the World, the Universe, and the Church—and our little pieces of them …