community first! village, Uncategorized

soap-making & surrender

“Entrepreneur” is not a word I’ve ever used to described myself. I admire the term’s association with energy, independence, dedication, and creativity. But people who call themselves “entrepreneurs” also seem to have a fascination with the new: starting a new business after selling their first successful start-up; seeking out new markets, exploring new avenues for profit.

This desire for “the next thing” drives much good in the world, but it makes me nervous. By nature I’m conservative, consistent, a refiner and reviser rather than an innovator. I’d much rather spend thirty years perfecting a craft than an hour worrying about how to monetize or market the goods I make. On the other hand, I’m always eager to read a new Victorian fairy tale or to try a new sewing technique, because these actions sustain interests I’ve cultivated since childhood. When I took my university teaching post at the age of twenty-eight, I expected–with joy–to be doing exactly the same kind of work for the next forty years or more.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself, at thirty-one, starting a soap-making business when I knew nothing about either soap or, for that matter, business.

I agreed to take on soap-making because someone needed to (we have goats at the Village, but no dairy to enable us to make any food products with their milk), and because, months before my marriage and move, I was dimly aware of the crisis of vocation that would come as I left academia, moved to Texas, and tried to discern a joint ministry with my new husband. In other words, I needed something to do.

For my first few months of marriage, soap-making was a gateway to belonging. While scores volunteers and staff bustled across the property, collecting herbs for made me feel a part of the work of this place. Making soap in my tiny RV kitchen gave me something I could share with volunteers and future neighbors. And having sample bars of honeysuckle-scented soap to give helped me vault over my shyness. I didn’t know if anyone here valued the poetry I had spent years studying, but I knew they could hold a bar of soap and call it good.

These virtues notwithstanding, I quickly I realized that I don’t like making soap at all. I enjoy formulating recipes and learning about different oils, herbs, and additives. I relish the pride of completing a batch. But I don’t much care for the process: having to wear gloves and goggles, the mess and equipment, the dangers of the lye, the washing of so many dishes afterward. I can understand why some people love it, but I simply don’t.

I thought my dislike was simply my insecurity, and I imagined that months and years of practice would “normalize” the tedious parts of the process. I tried to focus more and more on the elements I enjoyed (learning about herbs, for example.), but even so, the idea of a future full of soap did not thrill me. Furthermore, after a few months I was working (as a volunteer) full-time alongside my husband, helping get the Village’s on-site Community Inn up and running. By summertime I received the green light to pilot a program very near to both my own and my husband’s heart: a missional apprenticeship program called the Community Corps. Suddenly soap no longer felt like my only gateway to belonging here; it became a burden on my already-full and stressful weeks. When I was officially hired in August, I was told that I could drop soap-making whenever I needed to.

The problem, however, was that my little soap business turned out to be really successful. A fairly simple product with a good profit margin, our soap began to sell incredibly well when the Village’s Community Market opened, and I soon realized that it could produce a steady income for several of my formerly homeless neighbors. To simply drop it would mean withholding a valuable opportunity for meaningful, dignified work.

To a true entrepreneur, the solution to this problem is obvious: find someone else to manage the actual soap making event, or even to lead the program entirely. My husband, as well as my many wise colleagues, advised this throughout the summer. Pray for God to bring someone to take soap, they said.

These admonitions brought me little comfort. After a difficult year, I felt trapped in a world of scarce resources, and I was having trouble believing in God’s abundance. But I prayed, haltingly and angrily, believing that God could but not convinced that he would relieve my harried hours.

I prayed, God, bring someone to do this work with joy. Bring someone to do it instead of me!

The change came more quickly than I expected — not in the form of a person, but of a renewed spirit. With some changes to our weekly scheduling, the event moved from the end of a long day to a quiet afternoon — more restful already. As the soap make I had been training grew more confident, I realized I could let him work independently while I research recipes or techniques. I found my curiosity returning, and then she came.

An eager, capable woman. Someone who had dreamed of making soap for years, but hadn’t had the resources. Someone whose heart was committed to the work happening at the Village.

Just like that, I was “free,” baffled and blessed by God’s abundance and His timing.

In this freedom, I realized that making soap was teaching me a hard truth: for months, soap felt like a burden because I assumed that I was doing it for myself — that my own delight or pleasure was somehow the fundamental justification for doing a thing. When I first agreed to learn soap-making, it never occurred to me that I might be cultivating a skill or building a program in order to give it away.

Getting soap in your eyes stings, and it hurt to see myself so dragonish, unwilling to steward a treasure that was not mine to hoard.

***

Over one of our long Christmas drives, my husband played a podcast that offered a helpful alternative to my understanding of entrepreneurship: entrepreneurs, the speaker said, are those who find ways to add value wherever they are.

I didn’t want to own soap-making, and I cheated myself out of months of joy by thinking I was supposed to. Little did I know that my true commission was simply to steward it for a season, enriching, strengthening, stabilizing it, and then to hand it to its rightful master.

As a new year begins, I’m thankful that the time and energy soap-making has demanded are returning to me, providing more time for my reading, my writing, and my needlework. Nevertheless, I’m thankful for what soap has taught me about calling and ownership: that sometimes our call is not to follow our own passions, but to surrender them, pouring our treasures into something that was never ours to keep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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poetry, prayer

And Yet We Wait: An Advent Prayer

Last week, Lord, we gathered and gave thanks,
tasting your goodness,
wondering at the laden table,
holding tight to hands we love.

Today, we rise to empty rooms,
scatter back to distant homes,
savor simpler, sparser meals.

So much seems lost,
so much postponed,
so much beyond recall.

And yet we wait,
not failing nor forgetting,
not rushing nor delaying,
but welcoming the change we cannot see.

For daily bread, O God,
for the kingdom here and coming:
for you, our bread, our king,
we wait.

Amen.

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baking, everyday parables, prayer

Prayers Like Pie Crust

“Promises, like pie crusts, are made to be broken.” So goes the old saying, and it’s hard to dispute the analogy when you spend much of a November morning rolling out rich, thin dough for Thanksgiving pies. You think you’ve shaped the pastry to the perfect circumference, only to see a hole forming where the dough has been stretched too thin. Or the dough sticks when you attempt to transfer it from the counter to the dish. Or you set it in the oven to bake and watch the crust slide down the sides of the plate, muddling into a buttery lump in the bottom of the dish.

However many ways there are to break a pie crust, I think I discovered them all this week. However, as I mixed the dough, rummaged through the cabinets for a rolling pin, rolled and re-rolled, pressed into a pan, it was not promises, but prayers that I was imagining.

Prayer was much on my mind as I prepared for Thanksgiving this year. While I mixed extravagant quantities of butter and flour, my parents and my fiancé were traveling hundreds of miles from the north and the west. This would be their first meeting, and while the particular concerns of each person around the table is family business, the fundamental truths would be true for nearly any table in the world: we were gathering in gratitude, but also in brokenness, our hearts stretched thin by disappointments, fears, and cares.

As I watched and waited for my guests–my family–to arrive, my prayers seemed as fragile as my pie crusts: they were messy, oddly-shaped and stretched much to thin. I would begin one, then doubt its strength, scratch the whole thing and try again. It seemed impossible that my requests for guidance, or peace, or love, could cover all of us. I worried that they would not bear the heat of our need.

In the end, however, I found hope in my little kitchen parable. So my crusts were frail and broken: what else could they be, coming from human hands? Of course, I could have gone to the store and purchased pre-made crusts, buying peace of mind instead of working for it. My prayers were uncertain, too timid, and seemed much to small, but as I prayed them, they reshaped my own heart, pulling into something more strong and vast than I have ever known it to be.

Feeling this strength, I did not give up on my prayers, just as I did not give up on my pie crusts. I took a deep breath and put them to work, filling them with rich pears and spicy ginger, homegrown pecans and hearty sweet potatoes. When we brought the pies to the table, everyone could see and smell that they had done their work. Everyone, whether joyful or fretful, took a bite and pronounced them good.

Prayers, like pie crusts, are made to be broken, not because they are weak, but because it is only in the breaking that they feed us. Like human hearts, like Christ’s body, when our prayers break, they begin to transform us. Break, taste, and see.

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Watching for these everyday parables has become one of my most challenging and rewarding spiritual disciplines, and I find that I notice far more about the life of the spirit when I am working with my hands. If you’re interested in exploring how prayers are like pie crusts–or if you simply want a delicious, easy pie crust–here’s the recipe I love to use.

Bethany’s Simple Pie Crust

(adapted from Elise Bauer’s No-Fail Sour Cream Pie Crust)

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 sticks unsalted butter, cubed

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar (omit for savory recipes)

1/2 cup Greek yogurt

Cube the butter and set aside. Whisk together the flour, salt, and sugar (if using). Add the butter and use your hands to incorporate the butter and flour mixture. Continue mixing until you have a crumbly dough with only a few chunks of better visible. Using a fork (or your hands) to mix in the yogurt. Mix until the dough is consistent in color and texture.

Form dough into a ball and cut in half with a knife. Flatten each half into a disc and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for at least thirty minutes.

Before rolling out, sprinkle your work surface with flour. Each disc will roll out to 12-14 inches, enough for a single 9-inch pie plate.

Use the crust according to your own purposes: if you do not pre-bake the crust before filling, you may wish to place it in the freezer for 30 minutes, so that it sets before you fill it. Unless your recipe says otherwise, the crust will bake to done in about 20 minutes in a 350° oven.

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prayer

A Thanksgiving Prayer

Beautiful Savior,
let us rest today in the symmetry of grace:
teach us to trust before we see the fruit,
to celebrate the ever-promised harvest,
but also, Lord, to notice what has come:
the heavy branch, the sweet windfall,
the lover’s voice, the reconciled friend.

And as we come, your wistful people,
fill our works and words with grace:
the beauty of a mother with her child,
the strength of a father’s laugh,
the bustle of a crowded table,
the wisdom of an athlete in his race,
the skill of a spider with her web,
the trust in the eyes of a loyal hound,
the ache in the hands that have done good work.

Clumsy and fretting, we stumble into you.
O God of our Thanksgiving, give us grace.

Amen.

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