Name It and Claim It

Some fragmented thoughts on what we have hereby claimed, the power of love, brisket fried rice (again!), and Dolly Parton

The 155th Day after Coronatide*
Grand Rapids, Michigan

Greetings, dear reader.

Whew. What a week this has been—and what a year. The portrait I keep locked in my attic has aged a century over the past eleven months.

We had some fun on Twitter yesterday after President Donald J. Trump wrote, “we hereby claim the State of Michigan,” then going on to make an evidence-free allegation that votes for him had been “secretly dumped.”  

If he’s going to claim things that legitimately do not belong to him, then we can too!

People hereby claimed all kinds of things: freedom from debt, multilingual skills, new bodies, world peace, the papacy (that was a Presbyterian pastor). The altruists hereby claimed LGBTQIA+ equality. The lovelorn hereby claimed partners, boyfriends, and decent husbands. One woman hereby claimed a beachfront home in Maui, a man the entire Greek island of Mykonos. A nakedly ambitious person thought more holistically and hereby claimed the entirety of Jeff Bezos’s wealth, which I suppose would enable the purchase of property on both Maui and Mykonos and most islands in between. 

Another person hereby claimed queso and chips.

What do you want? You can have anything in the world!

Eh, honestly? Just some queso and chips.”

So pure. So modest. I wish I could just stop by a taqueria and pick up an order for him.

You know that I don’t believe in name-it-and-claim-it theology or tweetology. Otherwise, don’t you think I would already have hereby claimed true justice, more hope, and an H Mart for Grand Rapids? 

Tuesday’s election changed things tremendously—and in other ways it changed nothing at all. This is still the same country it was on Monday, the country that has elected Democrats as well as Republicans, the country that has welcomed immigrants and rejected them, the country that has embraced diversity and refused to honor it, the country that has proclaimed liberty and justice for all while withholding liberty and justice from many, the country that is far more interested in “freedom from” than “freedom for,” the country that has been a land of dreams and possibility as well as a nation of nightmares and tears.

Just before Election Day, I received an email from someone close to me. It wouldn’t particularly matter how the vote went, the email said, because “God is still God” and “God is still on the throne.” Yeeeeeeeccccccchhhhhhhh. And of course it’s true: No political party, no officeholder, no administration, can deliver salvation. 

Also true: Such platitudes can feel pretty empty, because they seem more concerned with easy absolution and superficial comfort than solidarity, mutuality, or care. 

Also true: The call on those of us who believe in some version of that God is the same today as it was before. If God is still God, people are still people—and we are called to incline our hearts to divine love. The greatest commandments are still the greatest commandments: We are to love God and to love one another.

Unfortunately, we can’t just tweet that we hereby claim that we have fulfilled the call of love and have it be so. We’re in the predicament we’re in—not just unequal but also inequitable, not just divided but also hostile—because a nation that so many claim to be Christian has failed to keep those greatest commandments. (They forgot the “hereby” in the equation, so that was probably what doomed it.)

However this election is resolved, it’s just the beginning, not an end. If the current administration is sent home, and it’s no mystery that this is my hope, some of us will breathe a sigh of momentary relief. Then the hard work will begin. So much hurt has been inflicted over the past four years, especially on some of the most vulnerable among us. As a Chinese American and as a gay man, I have felt that personally in some ways. But others have been harmed far more than I have—and one of the challenges is to broaden my perception beyond myself. When we say “we the people,” who else has been excluded? Who has gone unrecognized? Who has carried the greatest burden of racism and white supremacy, homophobia and transphobia, the ableism and the xenophobia, the discrimination and the bigotry that continue to plague this society? Who has been denied the possibility of being among “us,” instead branded as “them”? 

If I believe in a broader, more expansive, more inclusive “we” and “us,” I also have to reckon with the reality that nearly 70 million Americans voted the other way. For one reason or a dozen others, they felt that a continuation of this regime would be right and good, or at least more right and more good than the alternative. Even as I believe love compels me to prioritize listening to those to whom this administration has not listened, it also urges me to empathize with those who felt stronger and more secure under its rule. And though it has so frequently deployed shame and dehumanization, I have to resist the temptation to do the same.

“The power of love, as the basis of a State, has never been tried,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in his essay “Politics.” “Could not a nation of friends even devise better ways?” Even as I type out these words, which seem wildly nonsensical given our current reality, I have to believe that’s true—and I have to hope it’s possible.

What I’m Growing: We went to the community garden yesterday morning because Fozzie needed a walk and we needed a break from the news. Still, the unseasonably warm sunshine felt good on our weary bodies, and there was something therapeutic about moving around the garden plot, tearing up some dead things. Sometimes you just want to be able to accomplish a tiny task, when so much else feels beyond your control. So I took up the rest of the bamboo stakes that had provided support for the tomatoes and the beans. And then I noticed a few plants still doing their thing—bok choy, chives, sage. Nobody told these plants that the growing season is over. I suppose they’ll keep soaking up the sun and drinking in the rain as long as they can. Maybe there’s a small lesson in that.

What I’m Cooking: We ate our way through the stress of the election. That’s a statement of fact, not a confession, not an invitation to judgment, not a lifestyle recommendation. We sought out comforting food and drink—the smoked brisket that had been waiting in our freezer since Tristan brought back from Texas some weeks ago; chips and guacamole; chili and cornbread; barrel-aged gin from the Ann Arbor Distilling Company.

On the eve of the election, I made fried rice. I know I’ve written to you about fried rice before—if you missed the “recipe” the first time around, you can find it here—and now I’m writing to you about fried rice again. I keep making it and I keep writing about it for one of the same reasons that those of us who identify as Christians take communion over and over: to be reminded about the things that matter. 

Fried rice, more than any other dish I cook, speaks to me of redemption, resurrection, and hope. Also, it’s delicious. And brisket fried rice in particular tells a story about our unlikely little household. The brisket—fragrant with oak smoke, spiced with charred pepper, dripping with beefy fat—sings of Tristan’s native Texas. The soy, sesame, jasmine rice, and my grandma’s old wok layer in Chinese flavor and tradition. The scallions and chives come from our Grand Rapids backyard, the eggs, spinach, and onions from the local farmers’ market a few blocks away. Oh, and we got the salt, pepper, and oil from Costco; fried rice doesn’t shy from mundane realities.

Monday night’s brisket fried rice. Tristan said it could have been more “brisket-forward.” And I should have added more spinach, since it cooks down so much.

Side note: I’ve realized some of you are real Fozzie partisans. You might be wondering, “What about Fozzie?” Look, no metaphor is perfect. I haven’t figured out how to weave Fozzie into this one yet, and I’m not so weird that I’m going to put some of his food into ours. He did, however, get some brisket scraps. He loves brisket too.

On the eve of the election, I made brisket fried rice because it represents the United States of America that I want. It harmonizes cultures, honoring each and not diminishing any. It is infinitely adaptable, making room for new versions and novel spins, none of which detract from what came before. It tells a story of second chances, of belonging, readily embracing all manner of leftovers; something that’s been languishing in the fridge—I’ve chopped up sad, half-dried mushrooms; remnants of onions; a wan, faded scallion; a half-moldy bell pepper (but for the love of God and the sake of your digestive system, cut the moldy parts off and compost them)—can be warmed back to life, revivified and re-dignified with sesame and soy and egg. It does not shy from confronting the things of death and even finds the possibility of redemption in them; the wood that pit master Tom Micklethwait uses to smoke that brisket is Texas post oak, from a a local rancher who chops up the dead trees on his land and sends them to feed this worthy fire

Laugh at me if you want for hyper-analyzing a bowl of brisket fried rice, but I am who I am. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for any number of weeks, you’ll know that overthinking is one of my gifts. I’m not sorry! In times like these, we need whatever comfort, nourishment, and meaning we can cook up. 

On the eve of the election, I made brisket fried rice because it centers me in gratitude for what I’ve been given, it reminds me of who I want to be, and it gives me a bowlful energy for the journey ahead. I’d love for you to imagine and to tell me about what dishes do the same in your kitchen and for your body and spirit.

What I’m Reading: Calvin University English professor Debra Rienstra posted a lovely essay called “Not Consumed” last week. It’s a meditation on our current moment and on the two burning bushes in her yard. “How wise of the creatures to carry death in their bodies, to shed their leaves, to seek a hibernaculum at the proper time,” she writes. Hibernaculum! What a word. “They are not avoiding their work, they are doing it. Carrying death is precisely what they must do in order to carry life, too, when the seasons pass and the light and warmth awaken them. This is how God designed them.”

What I’m Listening to: During an especially painful, tumultuous season, Dolly Parton wrote “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.” Other singers have recorded very good cover versions more recently, but Dolly is Dolly! This recording is, I believe, from 1977, when the song was released. “It’s been a long, dark night, and I’ve been waiting for the morning,” she sings. I don’t know if I believe, as she says, that everything is going to be all right, at least not this side of heaven. But I’m glad to rest in the glory of her ginormous hair and her rhinestone ridiculousness for a few minutes.

My mind is all over the place this week. I hope something I’ve written is semi-helpful. If not, well, there’s always next week. 

If you’re the praying kind, send up a prayer for me, because I’m preaching this Sunday. Cobbling together this newsletter was torturous enough. I have no idea how I’m going to write a sermon, especially one that, at a moment like this, can speak to a congregation that is politically and theologically diverse.

I’m so glad we can stumble through all this together, and I’ll try to write again soon.

With hope and gratitude,
Jeff

*I’m still counting my days from June 1, when my governor, Gretchen Whitmer, lifted Michigan’s stay-at-home order. With COVID-19 cases rising to all-time highs, I wonder whether she might impose a new order, which I’d welcome, because it doesn’t seem like we have the resolve on our own to do what’s necessary to keep ourselves and one another safe. For the love of God and your neighbor, please wear your masks, keep your physical distance as much as possible, and stay safe.