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20 March 2005

Secrets of Religion Revealed, Controversies Resolved (& a recipe)

Boy, this really got away from me. But if you stick with it all the way to the end, there's a really great recipe.

* * *

I hang around this church, well, not much, but a lot more than I hang around most other churches.

I'm not much of a Team Player, and I've never been very good at pursuing spirituality in large, choreographed groups, sometimes in a rented stadium, with scripts.

If this sort of thing needs doing at all, my style is more the Alone in a Dark Cave Model, that's how I see me processing the largest volume and best quality of spiritual stuff.

Which I guess is the point, isn't it? Any jerk can make Holy Crap, or Substandard Walmart Brand Spirituality, spirituality that breaks easily, doesn't work very well, and provides many wrong and potentially dangerous answers. But if you're going to do the Spiritual Thing at all, don't you want it to be The Best? I tend to do my Holy Best alone in a dark cave.

I acknowledge that others like to process their spirituality in large groups where everyone tries to stay on the same page (and sometimes everybody shows up wearing the same color). History and the world don't seem to take much notice of or have much use for Bob's One-Guy Cave Cult. But that's the one I'm most comfortable belonging to most of the time.

In some models, you careen fastest to the Godhead with One Guy in charge. He calls all the shots, and what he says goes, and there's an end to it. This structural model also I have lifelong difficulties with. I didn't like it or admire it much in the Army, and it doesn't impress me any more as a model to move hundreds of thousands or millions farther up the path to spiritual perfection.

Well, actually, I like the megalomaniacal autocratic my-word-is-law model of achieving spirituality -- but hold the Followers, just One Boss, me, and nobody running around obeying me. All theological controversies are promptly resolved in a way that makes the most sense to me. A cult of one -- a monocult -- there, that's how I like my organized religion.

* * *

So why am I hanging around this church? It has a couple of thousand members, I'm guessing, has been in business continuously since around 1650, and I think their Major Mission through all these years has been to help the folks get closer to God, and Listen More Carefully to God, and Do What God Wants Everybody to Do.

I'm not the minister, not even a deacon -- heck, not even a member -- and I've never gone to Special Holy School for this sort of thing, so I can misdescribe every aspect of this church and get lots of stuff wrong if I want. I've tried to pay lots of attention to everything I've seen going on at this church, and I'm doing the best I can right now to explain what I think goes on in there, and why they do it.

I do have All The Answers about spirituality! I do! I know all the answers!

But unfortunately, and very inconveniently, several of those Answers require a lot of tables and chairs, and a big kitchen and dining hall, and clean bed linen regularly, and a hefty phone bill, and the use of a truck, and a furnace to keep a lot of people reasonably warm during the bitter New England winter. At various times our community has tried various arrangements to provide these needed sets of 300 plates, bowls and glasses, and the winter heat, and some clothes, and army cots, to the people who clearly need them badly.

But the arrangement that has always been there, since 1650, when people need food, clothing, shelter, some semblence of minimal doctoring, and so on, has been this church, and the churches that followed it and started setting up around town in the 17th century, and the churches that have followed those in more modern times.

Whenever I worked in the church's kitchen and dining room, I was always mesmerized by the palpable, tangible history of the forty salt and pepper shaker sets, how somebody exactly like me had taken them out of the exact same painted wooden cabinet and put them all out on the same tables on a night exactly like this one twenty or thirty or eighty or a hundred years earlier.

It is beyond any archivist's power now to know the name of the woman or man who set up for dinner at the church on that night so long before I was born, and equally lost is the occasion or the need. But every night and every day when the members of the church perceived a need, a church volunteer, or a half-dozen of them, showed up around the hour they'd agreed to show up, and without expecting a penny of recompense, worked for hours so twenty or fifty or a hundred people who needed things could have them, in a dependable, orderly, practiced, effective fashion.

That doesn't seem to have very much to do with spirituality. How the Nightly Dance of the Salt and Pepper Shakers and Plates and Soup Bowls gets us all nearer to God -- there's something not very clear or obvious about how that works, about its ancient holy theology. A woman will park her old beater car and enter the side door of the church, and emerge homeward five or six hours later, without once having mentioned the name of Jesus, or quoting a single word He ever said. She cooks and serves chicken or stew or spagthetti and meatballs and wipes down tables and does the dishes, and then turns out all the lights and locks up the side door of the church, and goes home.

A great deal of my most intimate contact with and understanding of this church -- I would describe my particular theological activities this way: "Here is how God wants us to make thirty gallons of coffee." Since they built the first meeting house in the wilderness -- at that time, the church and the town government were identical, you paid your property taxes to this church -- my guess is about sixty percent of everything this congregation has done has fallen into the Make the Coffee and then Serve the Stew category.

They have had more than their share of noisy, even bitter theological controversies about who God is, what He expects of us, and under what circumstances He will let some of us into Heaven and fling the others into Hell. Over the centuries, sometimes the church has even fractured over these theological controversies.

But the details of most of these ugly theological dustups have been long forgotten. Now their minister and my church's minister chat cordially when they run into one another on Main Street, and work together on all sorts of cooperative church alliance projects. Neither has threatened the other with Damnation for centuries.

But tonight or tomorrow night, thirty of our neighbors, and a few folks just passing through, need some stuff badly. And that is this church's unbroken thread of service, that's what their Holy Mission looks like most of the time when you peek through the side door and look inside.

I'm sure I'm getting this all wrong, and reaching all the wrong conclusions about this church, what it's there for, what the most important things it does are, and what it hopes it will accomplish this week, this year, and on the road to Eternity. I'm sure I've been bumping into so many big trees that I'm completely missing the forest.

But I've reached the conclusion, erroneously, that 92 percent of The Finest Spirituality involves making gallons of stew and washing the bed linen and airing the blankets.

* * *

How I ended up hanging around this particular church was entirely an accident; there were about a dozen churches involved in this program, and someone (a professional social-service provider) told me to go to This One tomorrow night.

It certainly wasn't the theology, because I wasn't even raised a Christian or Sunday-Schooled in any church, so I was wholly oblivious of this church's theology and beliefs.

It's a Protestant church, and I knew a few crude details about the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther, but nothing more detailed or expert than what might get me a B on a high school test on the textbook's Reformation chapter. (Something about indulgences, and he nailed 95 Theses to the church door, right?)

Okay, well, so now, several years later, I've myopically and ignorantly concluded that It's All About the Stew, and this church has a very important and sacred relationship with its ancient furnace, and the boiler room is about the most important room in the whole edifice, especially when the boiler is on the fritz. All other times, the Central Soul of this church is the kitchen, and if I'd ever bothered to read this church's detailed theology, I wouldn't be shocked to find lots of recipes that serve 25.

What astonished and flabberghasted me was that while I was setting up the dining room tables, I actually had stumbled onto a Central Theological Controversy which, in times past, had authentically led to lots of hard feelings, violence, wars, riots, executions, and locking neighbors' ankles in the stocks on the Common. I was just entirely clueless about it, I'd never heard of it before.

It's the controversy between Good Works, and Faith.

The first time someone (who had gone to Sunday School) told me about this raging, ancient theological controversy, I replied, "Oh, well, that's obvious! Good Works!"

Then he had to explain that if I'd blurted that out in 1530 or 1630, in lots of large zones in Europe and the Americas, I'd likely have been stoned, or imprisoned, or hanged, or burned at the stake, and certainly damned all to Hell. And even today, probably at one of several other churches in town, I can get my face punched for saying: Good Works! This controversy is anything but resolved, tempers are still hot, and the boards of trustees of huge, prestigious theological seminaries are regularly embroiled in nasty fights for seeming to be too Good Workish, and not being Faithish enough.

Color me Stupid (I've been painted this hue before, you won't be the first), but it seems to me that if you want to put this theological controversy to a test, just serve thirty real hungry, cold people a big heaping bowl of Faith when they show up at the shelter tonight, see how that works out.

I am being thick. Ten years ago a pal of mine went off to seminary, and I spent his Divine-in-Training years relentlessly pestering him with all kinds of nosy questions about the Revealed Truths of His and Everybody Else's Religion. I know a little bit about the internal combustion engine, and some calculus, but this was the first time I'd had a chance to ask anybody in a position to know lots of Nuts and Bolts stuff about Theology. (God has tens of thousands of little details and specifics and characteristics, half of them were Settled by violent wars, aren't you at all curious about them?)

The ease with which I came up with The Answer to the Faith-v.-Good Works controversy rests on a common and gaping fallacy called the Tuesday Night Fallacy.

It's Tuesday night and there are thirty hungry people, and they obviously need Stew. (Also a tooth brush, and a shower, and fresh socks and underwear, and a cot and clean linen.)

But I'm cluelessly fallacious, and Doomed to boot, because It's Not About Tuesday Night. Everybody screams loudest about what everybody needs on Tuesday night. But that's only an Illusion (sometimes attributed to the Devil, it's a trick of the Devil) that these Tuesday Night Needs are what's most important.

It's really about Forever, it's really about Eternity.

And for Eternity, and any hope of Salvation, Stew is completely beside the point. You need Faith. And if you get too myopic, or if the Devil fools you into thinking it's about Stew (a.k.a. Good Works), so that you don't give Faith its theological priority -- well, it's Hell Everlasting and boiling sulfur for you, Boyo.

If that's how I do indeed end up, boy, will I be surprised, and pretty pissed off. I cleaned the tabletops with a weak Clorox solution, I did the dishes, I made sure the furnace stayed warm, I made a couple of phone calls and found a free dentist for the woman with the tooth problem.

And Hell is my reward? How fair is that?

But roughly one half of Christendom believes, and demands everybody believe, exactly that. Stew is nice on Tuesday Night, but it's totally The Wrong Answer for Eternity. This is what the seminary student, now an authentic certified Divine in charge of actual peoples' Souls, had to patiently explain to me.

This is all new to you? Well, do what I always do when I have profound theological questions: Google "Faith" and "Good Works" and then stand back. Prepare for 112,321 hits which predict Hell in your future for cooking the Stew but skipping the Faith. And another few hundred thousand websites which guarantee you Heaven because you cooked the Stew on Tuesday night, and pretty darned good rib-sticking Stew it was.

Boy, this has gotten Large. Well, maybe it should be. Hashing out this theological controversy has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and it's still not resolved, so if I'm going to tackle it at all, it should take a few dozen paragraphs.

But here's a little bit of Original Theology from Bob. Okay, so it ain't Reinhold Neibuhr. This is a damn blog written by a Certified Heathen with a Toyota pickup truck, this ain't Union Theological Seminary. But it's the best I got and it's the best you're going to find in this blog for now.

I used to have keys to the church and I was in and out of it and through all its ancient labyrinthine rabbit-warrens all the time. When I'd have to go into the pitch-dark, empty, cavernous sanctuary ... well, yes, I'd be tempted to climb into the pulpit and "preach."

Oh, like you never? You're not tempted by an unoccupied pulpit and an empty sanctuary? Not when you were twelve in Sunday School? An empty pulpit is the spiritual equivalent of an unoccupied fire truck cab.

But anyway, settle down, put your hymnals away, and here's today's Sermon:

* * *

Our Faith is facing a crisis. The crisis will be upon us tonight, starting around 5 pm. It involves a lot of cold, hungry, exhausted, chronically sick people. One of us must serve them a lot of food.

But it is late in the winter, and they are very tired of spaghetti and meatballs. They have grown weary of the same three or four dishes night after night after night. Even beef stew -- if they see beef stew again, they will scream and begin to cry. They have eaten so much baked chicken that some of them are beginning to resemble baked chickens.

But what else can we serve them? We cannot serve really unusual or goofy foods, or foods with French names, because they are suspicious of unusual foods, even fancy foods, and they will not eat these foods.

We can't serve fish, half the guests will not touch fish. It smells fishy.

If we surprise them with a healthful, goody-goody vegetarian meal, if we leap upon them with Tofu Delight, there will be a riot, and they will curse us, and they will not eat the Tofu.

But Lo! I bring you a New Recipe for the shelter! We will serve them Sausage Stew.

We will go down to the SuperColossalMart, and go to the sausage section.

From it, we will pick every crazy kind of different ethnic sausage they sell. Linguica. Hot dogs, regular size and foot-longs. Bratwurst and Knackwurst and Weiswurst. Cheddarwurst. Irish bangers. Kielbasa. Italian sausage. At least ten different kinds of crude, blunt, savory peasant ethnic sausages.

Back at the church kitchen,
we will slice each sausage into two or three pieces, and begin gently frying this big-ass mess of sausages over medium-low heat in the bottom of the church's biggest stew cauldron.

The bubbling juices and fats erupting out of the lightly browning sausages will be the grease in which to sautee a half-dozen colossal yellow onions, coarsely chopped up.

After the onions,
we will smash and chop a half-dozen big bulbs of garlic. You cannot have too much onions or garlic. The sulfur compounds in the garlic and onions lower the blood pressure.

We want to arrive at the church in time to assemble this amazing stew and let it simmer gently for at least an hour.

NO TOMATO SAUCE! No extra sauce at all! All the juice and gravy and all the spices in this Wonderful Stew will come from within the wonderful sausages themselves. You don't even have to add any salt, and certainly no pepper.

Separately cook up a huge pot of canned beans, a half-dozen different kinds -- dark red kidney beans, fava beans, butter beans, black-eyed peas, frijoles negros. You will know these beans when you see their cans on the shelves. They will tell you which cans to pick. Some of them will speak their names in Spanish, in the Goya section.

Fancy rice packages are cheap. Fill up a big electric rice cooker, if you have one, with Latin-style packages of rice, or rice and dry beans. Try to have the canned beans, the rice, and the sausage stew ready at about the same time: dinnertime. Six big loaves of French bread, for ripping and dipping up the goop.

As each guest pokes his fork through his stew bowl, he spears and recognizes grandma's favorite ethnic sausage from childhood, and whispers: Linguica! She smiles. Chorizo! He eats grandma's sausage, which he hasn't tasted for decades, sausage he had almost forgotten.

Someone's bringing a few gallons of store-brand ice cream for desert.

That is what the Lord wishes us to do tonight. This is what should be going on inside the House of the Lord. Serves twenty-five or thirty.


Blogger SteveHeath said...

Ok, this was so solid a Message within a message within a....that I have no Quippy Remarks at all.

Which tells me it's time to just wield the Thank You card.

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Thank YOU! And you're very welcome.

I forgot to throw in a big bunch of fresh scalions/green onions in the onion-garlic sautee. And any other fresh greens that look good. I'm not going to get into the theology of Love here, but onions/garlic/fresh greens will go a very long way when you need to distribute a lot of Love.

If you or anybody have more information about the Faith side of the big controversy, please don't be shy about posting it. Clearly I am way lifelong doh clueless about this. I went to some years of religious school when I was a kid, but I was sort of the Huckleberry Finn of Sunday School, I just kept gazing out the window and wishing I was running barefoot through the woods.

Right now the most stuff I know about the Faith side is the brief summary of that term paper for sale, and I'm not buying the rest of it for $35. I'm not saying theology isn't worth anything, but I've never paid hard cash for any of it yet, and I'm not starting now.

Blogger Bob Merkin said...


Just 2 or 3 packages of the very familiar ordinary white round mushrooms. Pop out and discard the stems, wash the caps, and break each cap into 2 or 3 pieces.

Even though these shrooms are almost tasteless, some people don't like mushrooms, but if they haven't been oversliced or pulverized, everybody can pick the big mushroom pieces out of his/her bowl.

But this recipe REALLY does great things for mushrooms, and vice-versa! Baby Belas taste better, but a lot of soup-kitchen/shelter guests are scared of brown forest-looking mushrooms.

... For good reason, I should add, it's a good instinct to not want to eat mushrooms that look like they came from the woods. In Europe, gathering wild shrooms from the forest used to be a hugely popular family hobby (until Chernobyl). The occasional identification error which left a family of six dead with their faces in the soup never diminished the hobby's popularity. Grandma survived the last mistake Papa ever made that I read about. She just never liked mushroom soup. Everybody was dead except Grandma, and she hadn't touched a drop.

But these grocery-store packages of white or Bela mushrooms didn't come from the woods. They come from huge dark damp industrial caves in Pennsylvania. If even one package has a drop of Deadly Nerve Poison in it, the Campbell's Mushroom Division will go out of business overnight.


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