The Gospel and Casseroles

In 2006, I am a new wife in our two bedroom apartment in St. Louis, the apartment far away from everything which was once familiar to me. Though I am surrounded by nine hundred square feet of my own furniture, clothing, and my late mother’s Pflatzgraff dishes, I feel very alone. I am so overwhelmed by the unknowns of what it means to be married, what it means to live out the role of wife, the new to me role of regular church attender, and the stomach churning role of lady married to the man in the pulpit.

The furniture and picture frames which surround me look and feel familiar, but I don’t feel like I am living the life of the girl I once knew, the girl whose face is the the pictures which hang in the frames on the wall. In 2006, in a two bedroom apartment, I feel inside out and upside down. Logically I know I am in need of new friends. I know in lonliness my demons have too much power. Logic tells me I need others surrounding me to keep myself out of my own head.

My job as a first grade teacher won’t begin for a few more weeks. Michael Craddock is swamped with his studies for Summer Greek, so he is able to read the New Testament in its original language. Instead of spending another day at the apartment complex pool alone with a book or another night over a TV Tray in front of Wheel of Fortune, over a phone call, a far away sorority sister speaks truth into my life and reminds me, I am a social and (mostly) likable person. I hold onto this truth and decide I will prepare the house and a meal so Michael Craddock and I can have some new people over for dinner. I am social and mostly likable, I breathe deeply and assure myself I can make a new friend.

While my husband is studying Greek and I am trying to embrace this new role of future pastor’s wife, I also decide, I too, will try to learn something which is quite Greek to me, the art of how to make church people food; I decide I will learn how to host with casseroles.

Over the years of my life I can see how God has been gracious to slowly unravel me from perfectionism, but as new wife, in our two bedroom apartment during our seminary days, I worshipped the ideal of appearing perfect to a watching world.

That day in 2006, I spent most of the day scrubbing the house, vacuuming, dusting the picture frames which had been hanging on the walls for only a few weeks, and searching the Internet for a recipe for the perfect casserole.

In this moment, as I prepare for our company, I am operating with a skewed and warped lens for how I see myself and the world. When embracing perfection and the need to appear as if my home is perfect, I am completely joyful, happy, content, fulfilled, and strong, I can’t let people see who I really am. When embracing perfectionism, the real me is afraid to be seen so I layer on falsidies to hide my lonliness, fear of the unknown, fear of the stomach churning roles, and the insecurities. I layer the idea of looking cleaned up on the outside to protect anyone from seeing the tangled up messes which lie beneath the surface.

At this moment, similar to my husbands Greek studies, casseroles are quite Greek to me. My parents are both from the east coast and growing up I don’t recall eating many meals in the form of a casserole. For some reason, I believed, in order to appear good enough in this Greek to me role, I needed to make a casserole on this particular day. In my limited experience with people who I had met at church, the after-church-party tables were usually laden with casseroles. Pretty much anything could be made into a casserole. I was fascinated by the many different things one could add to cream of chicken soup, shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream and crushed up crackers. Broccoli, hamburger, corn, chicken, ham, taco, green beans, sweet potatoes, rice, and even a long list of breakfast items can be combined in a 9×13 casserole dish and baked at 350 degrees.

To me, knowing how to make a proper casserole was a requirment for being a good Christian wife. A requirement I assigned to myself. I believed I needed “perfect casserole maker” on the resume I was writing for myself to been seen, known, and accepted as an adequate pastor’s wife.

I had zero experience cooking a casserole and very little experience with the oven in our two bedroom apartment. I’m not the best cook, but I usually do well following a recipe. On casserole day, I followed the Internet recipe directly. Preheated the oven, greased the baking dish, cut up the chicken breasts into cubes, mix together sour cream, sherry cooking wine, cream of chicken soup, top with poppyseeds, crushed up ritz crackers, drizzle with butter. Bake uncovered for 50 minutes.

My house was cleaned, my casserole was in the oven, I had even made sweet tea and put together a salad. I was feeling so prepared and excited. I couldn’t wait to wow and impress our guests with my domestic diva-bility. Beneath the surface I desired to been seen and approved of with my perfect entertaining so much more that I actually desired vulnerable human connection. My clean house, pressed outfit, and prepared dinner protecting me from being seen as the chaotic, insecure girl I was beneath the oxy-clean surface.

When we sat down for dinner, we prayed with our new friends, and then I went to serve my casserole. The church people food I was hoping would please the crowd. As I scooped into that 9×13 baking dish, what I saw was raw chicken on my serving spoon. My casserole was not cooked perfectly. The chicken was not even edible. My thoughts begin to swirl in chaotic self-deprecating banter. How could this have happened? I followed the instructions perfectly. I had nothing else to serve and I was completely mortified. Our new friends were gracious and waited with us as I placed the casserole back in the oven. But in this moment I was so concerned with how well I could execute hosting new people in my home as a new wife, I could hardly recover from almost poisioning my guests with raw chicken.

While still holding fast to the unbelief that I need to appear to be a perfect housewife, ultimately this moment crushed me. My expectation of being a perfectly put together domestic diva and the reality that this moment was a domestic disaster collided. I didn’t know who I was in failure.

What I know now is, in this moment, I didn’t know who I was without appearing impressive to others. I am not even sure that in this moment I was able to love myself in a moment of imperfection. Even two years after hearing the gospel, that I am a sinner in need of God’s grace and mercy, which is fully given to me by the atoning blood of Jesus, even with this good news of grace and freedom, I still find myself deeply disappointed over a casserole of raw chicken. This disappointment skews the way I view myself and my world. When this happens, I recognize, I am still drinking from a broken cistern of muddy stagnant water. In this moment, the old self is still hanging on and tangled up in the new self.

Standing in my dining room laden with disappointment holding an undercooked and imperfect casserole exposed that I still needed God and perfection. In this moment, God alone was not enough for me. The undercooked casserole in my hands exposing what lies beneath, even in a time of my life when I had a daily quiet time every single morning, I am still prone to wander over to living a life of adding my efforts to the gospel.

Seven years later, my husband is the assistant pastor of youth and children’s ministries at our church in Mason, Ohio. It is February, gray, and cold in southwestern Ohio and I am eight weeks post c-section. I have three boys in my care that morning as I wave goodbye to Michael Craddock when he leaves a little earlier to get over to the church for the missions conference. I am holding my eight week old son, my seventeen month old son has just recently began to walk, and my three year and one month old son, is well three year old and quite busy. I need to be at the church in about an hour and there is a breakfast casserole in the oven. A breakfast casserole which has been assigned to all families attending the church missions conference with last names which begin with letters A-L.

In the next hour, I need to nurse my baby, change his diaper one-three times, change my seventeen month old at least once, pray no one spills anything on their church outfits, dress myself, get spit up on, redress myself, pull the casserole out of the oven, and load all four babies in the car. The casserole being the fourth baby, of course. Then show up at church looking rested, joyous, and casseroled just in time for the missions brunch.

Once again, my expectations and realities collide and I find myself running late and pulling the casserole out of the oven ten minutes before I needed to be through the doors of our church and in the sanctuary. I burn my hands moving the casserole from the oven and into the pyrex carry bag, then angrily load my babies into the minivan. Again, I find tension between the kind of woman I am and how well I can excute showing up to a church function appearing rested, joyous, and casseroled. I wrestle with the same demon of perfectionism, even after almost of decade of faithfully walking with Jesus.

Once I arrive at church, I am exhausted. The stress, the loading, and unloading of three small children in and out of the van have physically taken a toll on my eight week post c-section body. I load the kids in the double stroller, have my three year old hanging onto the edge of the stroller, and I carefully balance my breakfast casserole on the handle bar as I push the double stroller through the parking lot on that February morning. The parking lot is full of cars but emptied of people. I am late, as usual, and alone. I find myself one “how are you doing” away from tears, but I choose to hide behind an “I’m fine” smile on my face and warm cheesy casserole in my hands.

As I enter the church and place my casserole on the long table along the back wall,  I can see everyone has already gone through the food line, and my casserole will most likely will not be eaten. I can also see a packed room and in my husband’s busyness he has unintentionally forgotten to save a seat for me with him at a table near the front. I walk my older two boys to childcare and head back into the sanctuary with my newborn. I find a seat near the back next to the sound booth. It will soon be time for me to excuse myself from the sanctuary to nurse my newborn boy. There is little time for me to eat, little time for me to listen.

I am trying to hide alone in the back of the room, but God sends someone in the few moments I find myself in the sanctuary during the program, despite my efforts to hide, I am pursued. This friend asks my how I am, and I immediately begin to cry. She then asks, “Rachel, why don’t you forget about the casserole? What if you just came empty handed?”

Once again, this idea of what I have to be collides with reality and what lies beneath the surface of my heart is exposed. Even after all this time, I still don’t know who I am with empty hands. I still don’t know how to operate in imperfection. I still need to appear perfectly put together to a watching world, because deep down, I do not believe I am enough when my hands are empty. I do not believe I am enough when I can’t measure up to the expectations I have for myself as a mother, wife, friend, and pastor’s wife.

And now, in 2017, eleven years from the two bedroom apartment in St. Louis and an undercooked casserole, even though I am more experienced in baking casseroles, I don’t always sign up to bring one, and sometimes when hosting new people in my home, I serve hot dogs and potato chips from a bag.

Now I recognize this distorted desire of trying to impress a watching world. Now I find peace, freedom and rest from the yoke of slavery of impressing others, through hot dogs and showing up empty handed. Now, so many years later, this perfectionism demon still haunts me, but because I can recognize her, I also know how to battle her a little bit better.

And it is only in this new found freedom that I can see my true self, unearthed from all those false layers of wanting to impress a watching world. Now I find I am so much more free to embrace the woman God has made me to be, and truly, this draws me more closer to new friends than a perfectly cooked casserole ever could. It is only through bare-boned vulnerability, from the freedom from perfection, that we can move towards others and love well.

Walking with Jesus is a constant waltz. It is a constant putting off of the old ways, turning from them, snd walking in the new ways of Jesus. With each layer of old that unravels away, I find the woman, God is making me to be in Christ. This woman is a recovering perfectionist, social, and mostly likable by humans but deeply loved by God.

Assuming that you heard about Him and were taught in Him as the truth is in Jesus Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 4:21-24

2 thoughts on “The Gospel and Casseroles

  1. Kathy Toth says:

    God has blessed you with a way that weaves wonderful storytelling with reality! What a gift of grace is God’s unconditional love for us! I wish I could tell you that at 60 & 43 years of following Christ I no longer struggle with perfectionism but now I understand that dying to self will. be a lifelong process for me. But what joy to know my story will not end there. One day God will re-make me & my struggle will be over. Until then I need to be reminded how much God loves me. Thank you for reminding me of the truth today!


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