On a summer evening some years ago, two of the South’s most celebrated writers, William Faulkner and Katherine Anne Porter, were dining together at a plush restaurant in Paris. Everything had been laid out to perfection; a splendid meal had been consumed…The maitre d’ and an entourage of waiters hovered close by, ready to satisfy any final whim.
“Back home the butterbeans are in,” said Faulkner, peering into the distance, “the speckled ones.”
Miss Porter fiddled with her glass and stared into space. “Blackberries,” she said wistfully.
~ Eugene Walter, Foods of the World: American Cooking: Southern Style (1971)
I’ve had some great meals in my life.
A couple of weeks ago, I took a friend to Foothills Milling Company in Maryville, Tennessee to celebrate her birthday. I enjoyed watching her eat as much as I enjoyed the meal itself. Each bite was met with her words or facial expressions conveying the idea of “this is amazing.” From appetizer to dessert, the food was perfect.
I had a steak dinner in a classy establishment in San Jose, Costa Rica one night after a small group of us spent a couple of weeks in the rain forest on a mission trip. We were a ragtag bunch with scruffy beards and safari shirts, but we tried to clean up as best we could to look presentable. When the thick steaks arrived at the table, the tension was palatable. We tried to hide the fact that we had eaten only rice, beans and pineapple for days as we cut into the slabs of beef and chewed them politely but desperately. Our black-tied waiter read our urgency correctly and with grace.
And a friend of mine made grape Jello for me once when I was suffering from food poisoning. I couldn’t keep anything down, and I had the Jello for breakfast. It was the first meal in two days that didn’t result in becoming more sick. I sat on my kitchen floor and cried out of sheer relief.
I have not eaten Jello since that same morning years ago.
But the best meal I ever enjoyed was a hot dog and a Little Debbie snack cake.
I was three years old.
It was a summer day, and my mother and I took a trip to a little town near our home. At the dime store, we picked up a can of Play-Doh for me, and then walked a couple of doors down the street. There, on the corner, stood Sciple’s Grocery. Old men discussing the weather, politics and women occupied worn, “loafer” benches out front on the sidewalk. The brass ring hanging on the string of the faded canvas window shade tapped the door’s glass when we opened it. Walking past antique scales for the produce, past the candy display and cigar counter and bread racks, we meandered to the back corner of the store.
The lunch counter had been there for as long as anyone could remember. We ordered a couple of hot dogs–the only meal offered there. They were slow-fried on a low gas flame in a wide, cast-iron skillet. The buns were steamed and soft. Mustard mixed with a slight bit of relish sat in a thick, white porcelain bowl, ready for the spreading. Spearing the sausages with an ice pick, Mr. Sciple quickly dropped them into the awaiting buns, wrapped each in crisp tissue paper and slid them across the counter to us.
My mother and I sat on the old Coke box in the back with our feet swinging off the edge, the rubber heels of my Ked’s thumping softly. We ate the hot dogs and talked about things I have long since forgotten. For dessert, we picked the raisins from the top of a Little Debbie snack cake before splitting it between the two of us.
That day was one of the best days of my life.
For years, when anyone mentioned “contentment,” this day was brought to mind. The two were synonymous.
It was a day when I knew I was safe, accepted and loved. A golden moment suspended in time, untouched and unblemished by any outside forces.
No pain. No difficulty. No worries.
Play-Doh, hot dogs, raisin cakes, air-conditioning and my mother. All was right with the world. I have said often that all my life has been spent in an attempt to get back to a point like that again.
Many of us have those moments.
A dinner around the table when your family was still happily together.
Your hand slipping into the hand of the one you love.
Fireflies in the stillness of the dusk.
A sunlit breakfast on a cool, fall morning.
But there is something better…
I wouldn’t have believed it either, but it’s really true.
I’m seeing God bring it about in my life. The last few weeks have been a time of God showing me again and again the things, people and situations I have looked to for contentment and how mistaken I have been. True contentment is never circumstantial.
Paul knew it to be true: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13).
Notice that Paul doesn’t deny the reality of his situation. He knows well the pains of hunger and want as well as the comfort of having plenty. He says that he “learned” contentment. It does not spontaneously arise; it is acquired, usually through loss, and pain and acceptance. The view, though the process, is expanded, yet the focus is narrowed. But Paul’s perspective is not based upon the externals, but something eternal.
I am an eternal being. Why would I think anything less than an eternal God could ever satisfy?
I have been asked questions like, “What would you live or die for?” That is too small a question. I am eternal; I will live forever, so my priority must be bigger than my life or death.
The pursuit of fulfillment here will always ache of incompleteness. But the incompleteness I experience here points toward One who is fully complete, in and of Himself, and One who will complete what He started in me (Phil. 1:6).
But I can say, with all confidence, that I am totally in the center of His will at this moment…and I’m content.
Hot dogs and Little Debbie’s can’t begin to compare.