Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Help to have Gooder Grammar and the Goodest Writing Style

1. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.

2. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.

3. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.

4. The Passive Voice is to be avoided.

5. Use the apostrophe in it's proper place and omit it when its not needed.

6. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.

7. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, Etc........

8. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.

9. Who needs rhetorical questions?

10. Parenthetical comments when appropriate should be enclosed in commas.

11. Go around the barn at high noon to eliminate Colloquialisms.

12. One-word sentences? Eliminate.

13. Be more or less specific.

14. Don't use no double negatives.

15. Puns are for children not for groan readers.

16. Avoid quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate quotations."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

One Sided Identification - Advent 4

For part 3 click here, for part 2, click here and for part 1 click here

I have a tendency when reading books or watching movies to identify with the good guys, in fact I think a good story is crafted in such away to help emotionally attach you to the heroes. We find ourselves in their plight, their struggles are our struggles, their victories are ours. We have a cathartic reaction, the story on the screen helps us access parts of ourselves. Sometimes we all need a good cry, and a good movie or book can get us there.

The problem is our identification tends to be one sided, it's natural to do so. We identify with the hero because we want to be the hero.

When I read scripture I put myself in the 'heroes' shoes too.

I am the Israelites fleeing oppression.
I am the crowds cheering Jesus on Palm Sunday
I am the Shepherds kneeling at the Manger
I am the Wise Men following a star
(but I remove the whole 'Astrology' part because that is suspect)
I am the Prodigal Son who returns home.

Finding ourselves in scripture is a great thing, it brings the narratives alive to us. But we need to be willing to find ourselves in all the characters not just some.

I am the Egyptians oppressing people for my own ends.
I am the Pharisees who view Jesus as a threat.
I am King Herod who orders all male children 2 and under to be killed.
I am the older brother who is disgusted at the amount of grace shown to his sibling.

When I identify with the Hero it helps bring those traits in me more fully into the light, I have the opportunity to become more noble, loving, compassionate, forgiving etc.

When I identify with the Villain it helps bring my shadows into the light where I can honestly identify them and offer them to God for healing.

I read the Magnificat again this morning

And Mary said:
"My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers."

Today I wondered:

Where am I Proud? Where in my life do I need to be scattered to get some humility? I can be rather arrogant with my opinions sometimes, I mistake my way, for the way.

What 'thrones' do I need to be dragged off of? Where am I defiantly declaring I know best, while all around me the kingdom of my life crumbles into ruins.

Where am I rich? Where have I taken God's abundance in my life and made it into a sense of entitlement?

Tough questions.

Maybe their toughness is why I chose to find myself in the heroes rather than the villains. But for me to become all that God desires for me to be, they are questions that need to be asked.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Finishing the Christmas Cake

I posted a couple of weeks ago about making Christmas cake. Click Here
It is something we would have every year, it almost takes the status of an edible Christmas Decoration - every home has one, you may not particularly like the taste, but Christmas somehow feels diminished without its presence.

Well I took mine out of the pantry on Saturday to ice it and was immediately overwhelmed with the aroma of brandy - hardly surprising giving how much I poured into it!

Now all I had to do was ice it.

First step, turn the cake upside down! It gives you a nice flat surface to decorate and you can hide any flaws at the bottom with icing (sneaky I know)

A traditional English Christmas cake is always double covered. First it has a layer of Marzipan - an almond and sugar paste that was surprisingly difficult to track down. Strange because you can pick up bricks of it all over the U.K. at Christmas.

You cover the top and sides of the cake with warm Apricot Jelly to help the marzipan stick, and then cover.
Not bad for my first attempt since I was 17. After smoothing the top and the sides down I moved on to the next step. When I was growing up we used Royal Icing for this - a mixture of Egg Whites and Confectioners sugar which is notoriously difficult to work with as it dries so quickly. I always wanted to create a nice smooth finish but would always give up in frustration and covering the cake with a stipple effect to hide all the imperfections.

Enter ready made fondant!
So easy to roll and work with, it was glorious! Just stick it to the marzipan by wetting the marzipan slightly.
The cake looked great, although as you can see the bottom edge was a bit ragged because the cake rose unevenly (and it's upside down remember)

Traditionally in the U.K. we would tie a large ribbon around the cake, but I didn't have one handy. I was trying to decide what to do when I glanced at the box that the fondant came in. The cake on the box was surrounded by white fondant balls, perfect for hiding uneven bottoms!!!

I then rolled out some colored fondant and decided to hand carve some holly leaves, always a good festive touch, and relatively easy with a sharp knife.

Emboldened by my success with the fondant I decided to try and construct a rosette (as the instructions were also on the box.

Here is the cake with the pieces of the rosette in front drying.
And here is the finished cake. All ready to be consumed over the Christmas holidays - and probably well on into the New Year!!!

It's Jelly Time - WARNING!

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently took time out from my busy rehearsal schedule to meet British Celebrity Chef Nigella Lawson.

Well I was browsing through her new Christmas Cookbook when I saw a recipe for Chile Jam (Jelly for all the American Readers). Now I had tasted Jalapeno Jelly a couple of years previously, served over cream cheese with crackers, and it was awesome, so I decided to make some Chile Jam of my own.

Here is Nigella's Recipe, along with some stern warnings!!!

1 cup seeded and roughly chopped Chiles
(I used Jalapeno the first time and Red Serrano the second time)

1 cup cored, seeded and roughly chopped bell pepper
(Same color as the peppers)

5 cups of sugar

1 box (1.75 oz) powdered fruit pectin
(normally with the canning supplies, in my store near the saran wrap and foil!)

Small 8oz sealable jars -the recipe makes 5-6 cups worth
(I normally run these through the dishwasher on hot to sterilize them!)

2 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar

A few drops of gel food coloring the same color as the peppers.

Put the chopped up chiles in the food processor and then pulse until they are finely diced.

Add the chunks of bell pepper and pulse until you have a finely chopped bowl full.

Dissolve the sugar and the pectin in the vinegar in a LARGE, I repeat LARGE pan over low heat.

Scrape the chile pepper mixture out of the bowl and into the pan. Bring to a boil and leave it at full rollicking boil for 15 minutes. DO NOT TURN YOUR BACK ON IT OR TAKE YOUR EYES OFF IT!!!!!

Take the pan off the heat and stir in a few drops of food coloring to get the desired color. Leave for about 40 minutes to cool.

After 40 minutes give it a stir and then ladle it into jars - a jelly funnel is really helpful here if you have one :)

So why all the stern warnings??? Well as you can see from the picture below, even though the amount of jelly before it boils looks rather feeble in the bottom of the pan, it increases in volume rapidly.

The first time I was making the jelly I was making a double amount in a pan that size, which at first glance seemed plenty big enough - bad mistake. I turned my back and walked away from the stove. From the other side of the kitchen I saw hot bubbling Jam, overflow the pan, flow over the oven, down the kitchen counters and onto the tile floor. I couldn't reach the burner to turn it off straight away as I was barefoot and didn't want to get burns on the soles of my feet. If you make this please be very careful, it is hot and sticky, so if it gets on your skin it burns and is tricky to wash off.

I had to wait until the jelly cooled down and then take the stove top apart and clean EVERYTHING.

Well here are the two jellies I made, sorry about the dim lighting. One is a very festive green (made from Jalapeno) and the other is a christmassy red (made from Red Serrano).

The jalapeno has a gentle warmth, whereas the Serrano has some fire to it!!!

The second time I made the Jelly it actually was a very simple process, although the fumes from the Serrano peppers both while seeding and then while cooking were very very potent - open some windows and turn the vents on!!!

The jellies look festive and they taste great with cold ham.

Irritating, but mildly addictive :)


Saturday, December 19, 2009

NOT the Christmas Cake Recipe I used :)

A Christmas Cake


* 2 cups flour
* 1 stick butter
* 1 cup of water
* 1 tsp baking soda
* 1 cup of sugar
* 1 tsp salt
* 1 cup of brown sugar
* Lemon juice
* 4 large eggs
* Nuts
* 1 bottle Brandy
* 2 cups of dried fruit

Sample the brandy to check quality.

Take a large bowl, check the brandy again. To be sure it is of the highest quality, pour one level cup and drink.


Turn on the electric mixer. Beat one cup of butter in a large fluffy bowl. Add one teaspoon of sugar. Beat again.

At this point it's best to make sure the brandy is still OK. Try another cup... Just in case.

Turn off the mixer thingy.

Break 2 eggs and add to the bowl and chuck in the cup of dried fruit.

Pick the frigging fruit up off floor.

Mix on the turner. If the fried druit gets stuck in the beaterers just pry it loose with a drewscriver.

Sample the brandy to check for tonsisticity.

Next, sift two cups of salt, or something.

Check the brandy.

Now shift the lemon juice and strain your nuts.

Add one table.

Add a spoon of sugar, or some fink. Whatever you can find.

Greash the oven.

Turn the cake tin 360 degrees and try not to fall over.

Don't forget to beat off the turner.

Finally, throw the bowl through the window. Finish the brandy and wipe counter with the cat.

Bingle Jells!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pax Deus? - Advent Part 3

For part 1 click here, for part 2 click here.

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." Luke 2:13-14

The Shepherds on the hillside knew about peace, they were living under the Pax Romana that ran from 27 B.C. to 180 A.D. But the peace they experienced was bought at a price - Roman Occupation. It was a peace created through Oppression, Subjugation, and Conformity. There was no room for dissent or difference of opinion. Conflict was dealt with swiftly and brutally. You kept quiet and paid your taxes, just keep your head down and do what is required and everything will be fine.

It is into this Peace that the angels speak a Declaration of God's Peace. Why settle for Pax Romana when you can have the Pax Deus?

The Pax Romana worked, it produced results as satirized brilliantly by the Monty Python gang in the 'The Life of Brian'.

What have the Romans ever done for us?


Pax Deus may be better, but it is also unknown. God's peace is messy, it is extended on people on whom God's favor rests, and God in his grace extends his favor to everyone. God's favor, God's blessing is the great leveler. Mary sang in Luke 1

My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid;
for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
Because he that is mighty,
hath done great things to me;
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is from generation unto generations,
to them that fear him.
He hath shewed might in his arm:
he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath received Israel his servant,
being mindful of his mercy:
As he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his seed for ever.

The careful order of the Pax Romana is gone. Hierarchy is abolished there is no longer any preference into experiencing the Peace of God. We are all God's chosen people. That is wonderful news, but a burden if you were expecting preferential treatment because of Class, Race, Gender, Economic Privilege, Sexual Orientation or any another possible distinguishing feature you can think of.

And there's the problem, Grace. We Christians like our Hierachy, we like to say who is In and who is Out. It seems that the peace our churches offer more resembles the Pax Romana than the Pax Deus. We get caught up in making sure that the correct people are included and the wrong sort excluded. We may even 'tolerate' some of the wrong sort, but we expect them to keep quiet and pretend to conform.

Where we exclude, God includes.
Where we tolerate, God embraces.

I wish I was more like God, I can be very harsh and judgmental at times. When someone judges me I want to respond back in kind. I find myself wanting to 'Scatter the proud', 'Put down the Mighty' and 'Send the Rich away empty'.

God, let me experience Your peace this Christmas.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Some things must die....

I don't remember when I stopped believing in Santa. We never did presents from Santa as a child, everything was neatly labeled with the giver and the recipient. I know at some point I gave up old St. Nick and entered into the deeper mysteries of Christmas. Giving up childish things didn't diminish my Christmas experience, it just refocused it.

In Re-Enchanting Christianity Dave Tomlinson writes:

'The ancient Hopi people of North America have a fascinating rite of passage for their children as they move into young adulthood. Throughout their life these children have been familiar with the Kachinas, the tribe's masked holy men, who bless the corn harvest and bring toys and gifts for the children like Santa Claus. But one night as the children are brought into the sacred circle, something different occurs: on this occasion, instead of giving them gifts, the Kachinas simply remove their masks, revealing the fact that these figures whom the children thought were gods are actually their family and neighbors - people whom they see every day. It is a moment of sacred disenchantment, when childish naivety gives way to grown up reality.'
(Image taken from this website here)

I'm not exactly sure when I stopped believing in the Christianity of my childhood (strongly Fundamentalist, Conservative and Evangelical). All I know was that I went through a long period of doubt and depression where Atheism seemed very attractive. The Fundamentalism that I embraced did not embrace me back. My inner landscape seemed so different from everyone else that believing no longer seemed an option.

Fortunately the Grace of God is so much larger than I believed. God is far more liberal with his grace than I ever could have imagined. Even though wandering away from Fundamentalism felt like wandering into Apostasy, some beliefs need to die. - When I was a child I spoke as a child I understood as a child I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things. 1 Cor 13:11 But nobody ever gave me a road map for dying. As Dave Tomlinson goes on to say:

'Sadly, the church offers no equivalent of the Hopi ritual; there is no 'Service of Disenchantment' to help us figure out what are the 'childish things' about Christianity that should be left behind, and what are the things we need to hold on to. Indeed, paradoxically, experiencing disenchantment with the christian faith is actually fundamental to growing as a christian. It is the reality check that brings into question all that we have simply taken for granted, the acid bath that purges naive assumptions, false religious pretensions and unthinking conformity.'

Working for a church means Christmas comes early- I was composing new christmas carols while everyone else was celebrating Labor Day. It feels like I don't celebrate Christmas, I just facilitate it for others. It can be difficult to enter into the 'Spirit of the Season' (whatever that means), when you are running from planning meeting to worship service, from Children's Musical to Choir rehearsal. The final push to Christmas Day is upon me and I'm feeling a bit indifferent to the whole thing, I've not become Scrooge of the Grinch, but my main focus is on my January vacation. The only Christmas decoration up at the house is a wreath on the door, even my beloved Veggie Tales Nativity set still languishes in its box.

It seems that even my Christmas Celebration is in the process of dying and being transformed into something new. I've made Christmas Cake for the first time since I was 17. Some traditions are being revived, others are up for review and are found lacking in substance. I"m not sure what will emerge the other end, but as the 'death of Santa' led me to a deeper experience of Christmas and the 'death of fundamentalism' led me to a deeper experience of the divine mystery of God I'm finally learning to trust the work that happens in my inner life.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Good News - Advent 2

For Advent 1 click here

We were discussing the Angels announcement to the Shepherds. 'Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people'. It was a phrase I'd heard so many times that I wasn't totally paying attention. Someone in the group asked the question 'What is the good news that you need to hear to bring you great joy?'

The answer that came to mind was immediate and flippant, it was only through excessive use of my filter that I didn't say it out loud. 'Good news? Congratulations Peter, you have just won free liposuction.'

I smiled to myself and then froze.

Sometimes my brain takes me to places I wish it didn't.

"Peter, what is it about your body image that causes you to make jokes like that? What does that kind of joking do for you?"

Earlier this week I'd been reflecting on my need to always have something about me to hate. The object of that hate has shifted over the years, but even though I'm getting emotionally healthier all the time it seems that I still need something to hate to make me feel o.k. Somehow all those sermons about self-denial transformed into thoughts of self-hatred. It's the old tape that still plays in the back of my mind, if I can just hate [blank] enough, then I can use the energy of that hate to change it.

I know that doesn't work. I've written here before about how Hate cannot fuel the engine of Change. But still I keep hating. I see the problem, but I do nothing to change the status quo, nothing to reach toward the solution. If I stop hating my body what will I hate instead? I think that is the fear behind the hatred for me....I need to remember that Perfect Love casts out Fear.

It is easier to cling to self destructive behaviors than reach for healing. Lies always seem so much more enticing than the truth. It is easy for me to convince myself to do nothing.

"Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord." Luke 2:10-11

The message of a Savior is one that I still need, even after all these years that I have walked this pilgrim journey. It seems that the Spiritual Life consists of identifying more and more areas that I need saving from. I need good news of great joy. I need Jesus to remind me that I don't need to hate myself to be loved by Him.

'What is the good news that you need to hear to bring you great joy?'

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Meeting Heros

I've posted a lot about my love for Nigella Lawson and her cookbooks. (You can read and see her Jumbleberry Crumble here, and it was her Christmas cake I made last week) Well she has a new cookbook just out that is all Christmas recipes and I was fortunate enough to meet her at a book signing this evening!

She had been talking and signing books for an 90 minutes by the time I went through the line, and she was still wonderfully energetic and polite - I'm glad I got to meet her :)

Friday, December 04, 2009

If in doubt, add more brandy!

I did some reflecting this week to help with the Advent retreat I led on Thursday. One of the questions was around what aspects of Christmas Past poured life into you. When I looked at them, there were 3 broad categories. Food, Weather and Community. I can't do much about the weather I decided but I could do something about the other 2 and in that moment the insane desire to make English Christmas Cake was born!

A couple of years ago I blogged here about my Mum's Christmas cake and the wonderful kitsch decorations. I haven't made Christmas Cake since I was 17.

I sat down in front of the fire a few days ago curled up with 2 different Nigella Lawson cookbooks and eventually worked out what I was going to make. I made a few interpretive decisions in terms of ingredients (adding cranberries!) , but I'm so excited about how it's going to taste.
Here is my big batch of mixed dried fruits after they have been soaking all night in a cup of brandy - Nigella recommended 1/2 a cup, but that was barely enough to get them moist. I reasoned that a cup of brandy would also counteract the tartness of the cranberries. Christmas Cake in my family was always liberally doused in alcohol, I think it was partly to disguise the taste.

The cake itself always requires a bit of 'Blue Peter' fiddliness (though without the sticky-backed plastic). First line the sides of the cake tin with parchment coming up about 4 inches above the height of the pan. Then line the inside bottom of the pan with parchment too. Then wrap the outside of the pan in brown paper, also rising about 4 inches above the rim of the pan. The cake cooks for 3 hours in a 300F oven. I believe the paper helps funnel the heat in some way. I've no real answer for why, but Nigella's cookbook told me to do it so it must be important!

Here is the yummy fruit cake batter carefully placed inside all that paper and ready for the oven. You should have seen me trying to hold the brown paper together and tie a one handed knot!
It baked for 3 hours, filling the house with a glorious fruit cake aroma. As soon as it's time was up I took it out of the oven, poured yet more brandy all over it and then wrapped the entire cake and pan in foil. It stays like that until cold, the foil traps the steam and helps keep the top of the cake soft and moist while it cools.

It will now live in an airtight container in the pantry for 3 weeks and then comes the icing.

The completed fruit cake will be covered in Apricot Preserve. On top of that goes a layer of Marzipan and covering all of that is a layer of White fondant or Royal Icing. I'm opting for the fondant icing this year for ease of decoration! Put some ornaments on top, tie a ribbon around it and voila English Christmas descends.

And the best bit of all was that the weather decided to get in the Christmas spirit too.

I had the fireplace roaring away and John Rutter Christmas Carols playing on the ipod. Sometimes I am such a cliche!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

World Aids Day

This is a re-post from Dec 1st last year, but it seemed an important memory to share, especially as I read this morning that the number of new cases of hiv has risen for the first time in years and is spreading primarily through heterosexual relations.

Today is World AIDS Day. I was reading an article about whether the Global AIDS crisis is overblown. It's an interesting thought provoking article, but one line just made me smile -

"Everybody talks about AIDS at cocktail parties," Oldfield said. "But nobody wants to hear about diarrhea."


Back in the 90s Churches in the U.K. did special services on World Aids Day, today it just seems to slip by almost unnoticed. I remember attending a service in Nottingham - I attended because a friend of mine was speaking. I recall sitting there and being aware that some of the people who were sitting across the aisle from me were living with AIDS. It was the first time I'd seen someone with the disease. It put a face to something I'd just heard talk about. Suddenly AIDS became much more real to me.

After the sermon they played the song 'Empty Chairs at Empty Tables' from the musical Les Miserables, they played it in memory of people who had died from the disease.

As the song echoed around the church I began to see people sobbing over friends, colleagues and partners they had lost. I did not know anyone who had died from the disease, but the grief was so palpable I began to weep too.

It was at that point that AIDS ceased to be a 'homosexual problem' or a 'third world problem' instead it was simply a 'Human Problem'.