Stay With It...Fried Chicken and Soul Thirst

In the days before drive-throughs and chicken fingers, we fried chicken at home. A whole chicken -  a “fryer” my mother bought at the Piggly Wiggly or my grandmother got out of the backyard.  The bird was cut into pieces, battered in some combination of milk, egg, and flour and deep-fried in Crisco in a cast iron skillet. Though the process is probably the origin of the idiom, “hot mess”, the Kentucky Colonel or any other fast food restaurant cannot replicate the flavor.  Back before we knew too much about fat and cholesterol, we ate fried chicken two or three times a week. 

A friend of mine grew up at the elbow of a saint named Ocelene, a second mother who enveloped her in the physical and spiritual warmth of home.  My friend, the youngest in her large family, was often relegated to the kitchen where Ocelene came every day to help her mother by cooking their family’s meals. She told me recently about standing next to Ocelene while she fried chicken. “Stay with it,”  Ocelene would say.  The chicken would burn if she didn’t find just that right moment to turn it. 

I knew exactly what she meant. One of my earliest lessons in the kitchen was that you never took your eye off of bubbling grease on the stove.   As my friend recounted her memory, I could see the battered chicken pieces being dropped into the grease, the pale yellow and then light brown color it turned as it cooked.  There is a point- it’s timing and temperature really - but you watch with your eyes - when the chicken is done.  If you take it too early, the meat is raw near the bone.  If you fry it too long, your batter burns and the meat is dry.  The secret to eating good chicken and no grease fires: “Stay with it,”  Ocelene says. 

I spent last week at The Cove in Asheville, North Carolina, at the School for Spiritual Direction taught by Dr. Larry Crabb. It was an intense week of instruction, practice, self-examination, and worship.  Dr. Crabb encouraged us not to come home and try to quickly review notes before we forget material, but rather to ‘see what lingers’.  “That is the Spirit’s work,” he said.  What lingers? 

He taught that the soul’s thirst for God is our deepest desire and how out of touch most of us are with that longing in us.  We know there’s longing,  but it’s unrecognizable to us and we’re filling it with anything and everything or we’re numbing or escaping because we can’t stand the discomfort of thirst.  

I’ve been a seeker all my life, thirsty for something I could not explain, caught between doubt and desire, when it comes to spiritual experience.  In moments of fatigue, failure or just nothingness, I’ve wanted to walk away from faith; but then there would come a season of intense desire for belief, for union and communion with God, a season of sensing and believing I was experiencing His presence.  

By midlife, vacillating back and forth between doubt and desire felt infantile, and I wanted to “get there and stay there” - wherever “there” is spiritually -  surely a place of desire and not doubt. 

One night at The Cove, tossing and turning, waking every couple of hours, this thought came to me:  “I’m not your experience. I’m neither your perceived presence nor absence of me.”   It wasn’t an audible voice, just an inside whisper, and I’ll leave it to theologians to decide (and not tell me what they think, please) whether it was the Spirit of Christ within or my own head talking.  I’m going with the first and here’s why:  My doubt nor my desire is Him, and I’m greatly comforted by that.  He is beyond both, and within my soul, whether I perceive Him or not.  My experience in any given moment, or lack of desire for any spiritual experience at all doesn’t change His constant disposition of always moving toward me in love, always receiving me back into Himself. 

I sense a shift in my perspective on living caught between doubt and desire. Perhaps it is not something I strive to escape from anymore but rather to accept as part of my humanity. Stay with it - that thirst. It will not  be fully quenched in this lifetime, but it is evidence of a soul loved by Him and thus longing for Him.

“We get sips,”  Dr. Crabb says of the  Living Water and that has been my experience. Sometimes good long gulps, like sweet iced tea chasing salty fried chicken on a hot southern day.  Once in a while, I experience God like a soaking summer rain or a dip in a warm lake. 

But when the dry heat of doubt bears down on me, when I’ve confused His loving presence with my perception or lack of perception of it, that’s when Ocelene’s words linger:  Stay with it.