We should be more like cats.

[Editor’s Note: This post was originally posted on our previous blog and has been relocated here and backdated.]

An integral part of my morning routine after I get out of the shower is to sit on the bed and pet my cat. Every morning when I get out of the shower, she is there, eagerly waiting for me to sit down so she can sprawl across my lap and scratch her ears. She purrs contentedly while I look at my phone and delete a new batch of spam mail, until eventually, I tell her that I really must go to work and she has to get up. She objects, of course, to the idea of getting up and anything that interrupts my petting her, so I continue to scratch her ears until my wife yells that we really really must go. Then I begrudgingly put the cat down and head out to start the day.

It is fascinating to me how utterly “in the zone” of relaxing my cats are when they are relaxing, which is basically all the time. When she is dozing in my lap while I scratch her, she is clearly not thinking about all the upcoming trials of her busy cat day. She isn’t concerned about all the food she will eat, or chasing her favorite mouse toy, or spending 45 minutes opening all of our kitchen cabinets, or finding time to get in her massive nap quota. There is just me, and her, and ears that need to be scratched.

We should be more like that. Our culture is increasingly busy, distracted, disjointed. Our interactions with real humans are conducted in between text messages from people who aren’t there, but we find more interesting than the people who are. We rarely live fully in the moment. And if our relationships with people suffer from chronic distractions, how much are our relationships with God? How often do we catch our minds wondering when we are supposed to be focusing on the Lord? Mentally making grocery lists during the sermon, sending a quick email in between worship songs, interrupting a prayerful meditation to check the score of the latest game.

We’ve all done it. Most of us do it a lot.

But we should be more like my cat. We should be wholly devoted to our moments with the Lord (and our beloved human and feline companions) because they deserve our full attention. Psalm 46:10 says “Be still and know that I am God.” It’s a beautiful verse, but maybe it could be translated in the Cat Living Standard Version to say, “Take some time to forget about everything else, and love me while I scratch your ears.”

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The Chores of Faith

[Editor’s Note: This post was originally posted on our previous blog and has been relocated here and backdated.]

I was doing a little housework the other day because the piles of dirty dishes and laundry had finally reached critical mass. As I scrubbed pots and vacuumed, I repeated my usual litany of hollow vows to keep the place cleaner and not let our apartment get in such an appalling state of disarray. (Check back in a week to see if that really happened. Spoiler alert: it won’t happen.)

However, in a moment of reflection, spurred on by a mixture of wanting to avoid dirty dishes and feelings of guilt for not having posted anything in a while when Russ is churning out massive posts that could constitute a small book, I saw some parallels between the way I do housework and my spiritual life.

My mother has always been a good homemaker. She keeps the house clean, the kitchen counters clear, laundry and dishes are always caught up. It is a stark contrast to my (and my wife’s) own style of domesticity, which is one of mitigation and appeasement. We occasionally try to be more regimented and proactive about keeping up on chores, but it inevitably fails. How do people find time for that kind of thing? We have jobs, church, grocery shopping, social events, friends having babies, plus Game of Thrones is not going to watch itself. Life gets in the way, so we fit in housework when we can.

Spiritual life is much like that. Some people are very dedicated to setting aside 15 minutes every day to read selected Bible verses and pray over them. For years I have listened to passionate pastors tout the necessity of a daily “quiet time,” such that at times I felt like a backsliding heathen if I didn’t have one. If that works for those people, then good for them. It does not seem to work for me. I have gone through phases of doing that myself, mostly when I was younger, with varying levels of success. I have tried to be the sort of guy who gets up ridiculously early to pore over the sacred texts and begin my day with deep profound thoughts about God. However, much like with housework, life tends to get in the way. In recent times, I realized I have evolved into a more “take as needed” prescription for Scripture. Just as when the pile of dishes starts to brush the ceiling, I break out the soap and sponge, when I feel the need for a particular answer, I look to the relevant passage in the Bible. Sometimes it may be more of a general longing or desire for inner peace that requires some quiet prayer and contemplation. Mostly I try to look for God in the little joys of daily life, like loving my wife or having an impromptu lunch with a friend.

I think that setting aside a certain time to be spiritual carries an inherent risk of compartimentalization. We can think, “Well, I thought about God from 7:45-7:57 AM this morning. Check. Moving on.” If we don’t confine spiritual thoughts to a certain time every day, we leave ourselves more open to unexpected spiritual encounters throughout the whole day. I find that in my life, setting a regimented time can feel very forced and unfulfilling if you are stressed or distracted and not in the right mindset to do spiritual thinking at X time every Y day. God can reach us at any time, so we have to remain open and sensitive to the Spirit at all times, not just in the alloted 15 minute appointment we make with the Lord every morning.

I should clarify that I am not bashing the regimented daily quiet time model. It works for a lot of people, and that is great. I am saying I have found it doesn’t work for me, and I do think it has flaws that we should be aware of. However, with that being said, I am also not saying we should not choose certain times to be intentional about our thinking and prayer. It can be very fruitful to set aside some time occasionally to study Scripture and meditate as you feel the need. Similarly, it is good to have times of fellowship with other believers set aside for intentional sharing and encouragment (ie, small groups) and sometimes those times evolve organically over a pizza when the Spirit moves you in that direction.

After all that, my bottom line is that we all have different styles of staying in tune with the Lord. We should find a style that suits our needs, but the important point is to remain open to listening to the Spirit at all times, in all of the trials and joys of every day. And lastly, do make some intentional efforts to keep your spiritual (and real) house clean, but don’t let spiritual (and real) chores get in the way of your actual life.

Burger Ratings: Smashburger and P. Terry’s

[Editor’s Note: This post was originally posted on our previous blog and has been relocated here and backdated.]

As promised, my first official burger review. As a bonus, I’ll be reviewing two places this time. For information about my burger rating system, check out this post.

Smashburger

First up is Smashburger, which recently opened a brach near my apartment. With counter service and midrange prices, Smashburger falls squarely in Tier 2 of fast casual places. They pride themselves, as the name suggests, on smashing the burgers into the griddle, which gives it a patina of crispiness on one side, while the other remains soft. This gives it a unique texture. Without further ado, the breakdown of each category is as follows.

Taste: This is a solid burger. The patty seems to be cooked in a generous helping of butter, which adds a nice smoothness. The bun, a high point, is soft and artisanal. The overall taste is good, but a little on the mild side. I give it a respectable 7/10

Construction: I ordered a “big” patty, which apparently does not come with a commensurately large bun. The result is quite a bit of meat dangling over the edge of the bun, certainly a less grievous offense than bun dangling over the meat, but it is still annoying. It ruins the homogeneity of the burger experience. An ideal burger should have exactly equal proportions of meat, bun, cheese, and sauce in every bite. Otherwise the construction is fine. 6/10

Peripherals/Fries: The beverage selection is standard. The fries are handsdown the best part of Smashburger. The Smashfries are cooked in olive oil and seasoned with rosemary. The oil really comes through and gives the fries a great flavor. These are not merely edible ketchup scoopers; these fries can stand alone. They are thin, in a shoe string style. My only minor complaint is I wish they were a bit crispier, so I give it 9/10

Atmosphere: The interior is a bit cramped, and the furniture is the sort of modern metal furniture that is designed to encourage you not to stay much longer after you stop spending money. Par for the course. 6/10

Service: Service was adequate and prompt. +0.1

Composite: 7.4 out of 10

P. Terry’s Burger Stand

A reliable Austin classic, P. Terry’s is the local answer to high end fast food places like In-N-Out. With burgers starting at the bargain basement price of two dollars, it is definitely Tier 1 fast food, but delivers big returns on a small investment.

Taste:  The “P” in “P. Terry’s” stands for “Pretty tough to beat.” The burger is well-balanced, with a good meaty flavor. Locally-grown tomatoes add a nice tang, and lots of creamy cheese blends it all together. The only thing wrong with this burger is that you eventually run out of burger. 10/10

Construction: These burgers are built to a modest price point, and thus are on the small side. I recommend getting a double and still wish it was a bit bigger. 7.5/10

Peripherals/Fries: The fries are adequate. They have a “homestyle” vibe, so potato peels are left on, and they lean more towards soft than crispy. Not my favorite. Some points are recouped for the good selection of delicious milkshakes, including a root beer one. 7/10

Atmosphere: P. Terry’s has several locations, each with its own charm. The South Lamar location is all outdoor seating, which is fun in nice weather. The Parmer/MoPac location has a spacious interior. 8/10

Service: I had my milkshake in hand before I even finished my order. +0.1

Composite: 8.8 out of 10

Burger Rating System

[Editor’s Note: This post was originally posted on our previous blog and has been relocated here and backdated.]

My inaugural post promised an occasional burger review, so I will be doing that soon. However, before we dive into the greasy ground beef deliciousness, I must make a few general remarks about my reviewing strategy and overall burger philosophy.

There are, in my mind, five primary tiers of burgers. They are as follows:

1.   Fast Food Burgers

  • Cheap, quick, edible. The workhouse of burgers.
  • These are the McDonald’s, Whataburgers, and Sonics of the world.
  • Whole meal is usually less than 8 bucks.
  • Fast food burgers places are often defined by the presence of a drivethru window. Nothing says “I’m not putting much effort into this meal” like not even bothering to get out of your car.

2.  Fast Casual Burgers

  • More expensive than Tier 1, generaly 8-12 dollars.
  • Usually counter service
  • Examples include Five Guys and Mighty Fine

3.  Premium Burgers

  • The crème de la crème of browned cow meat on a bun.
  • Most expensive category, burgers can cost upwards of 12-15 dollars
  • These are served in real sit-down restaurants with table service and waitstaff.
  • Example: Hopdoddy

4.  General Restaurant Burgers

  • These are burgers from places like Chili’s or Applebee’s or your local hometown diner that don’t focus on burgers, but do serve them
  • This tier is considered comparable to Tier 3 due to price and table service; however, quality can obviously vary widely with the quality of the establishment

5.  Shut Up and Eat It Burgers

  • This tier is what you eat when you are starving and nothing else is available
  • Includes burgers from concession stands at football games, Comic Con, and truck stops
  • Prices usually wildly overinflated, but quality is reliably low
  • You are lucky if it doesn’t give you botulism

The tier system is an important but oft-overlooked aspect of burger ratings. Each tier serves a specific purpose and has different goals. A Tier 1 fast food place like McDonald’s is trying to put out a decent product cheaply and quickly, while a Tier 3 place like Hopdoddy is tries to provide a high quality meal experience, complete with ambiance and amiable service. If you pay 2 dollars for a burger, it is simply not going to taste as good as a 14 dollar burger, so comparing the two directly is unfair. It would be like comparing the acceleration of your $20,000 Honda Accord to a $200,000 Ferrari and then criticizing Honda for making a poor product. Honda and Ferrari both make good cars, but Honda sells cars that fulfill a different need than Ferrari. Ergo, the features and pricing structure reflect that.

Burgers are the same way. Each tier of burgers should be judged individually on how well they meet the needs of the specific tier within the budget constraints of that tier.

I am not a fan of reviews that condense the entire dining experience down to a single rating because that does not reflect the complexity of the issue. I see reviews on Yelp that say things like “Burger was great, did not like fries. One star.” This review does not reflect the quality of the burger. Perhaps if you want only a burger and no fries, then this place is perfect for you and deserves five stars. Thus, I will rate the burgers, peripherals, and atmosphere of each place separately. However, it seems to be human nature to want to reduce everything to a single score so that things can be ranked. So, as a concession to readers who don’t want to sift through a detailed analysis of each category and just want to look at the final conclusion, I offer a composite overall score which consists of a weighted average on a scale of 1 to 10.

The categories burgers will be scored on are below, along with the corresponding weight each contributes to the composite score.

Taste: If a burger doesn’t taste good, this race is over when the gate opens. Taste gets the heaviest weight with 50%

Construction: Nothing is more irritating than trying to eat a burger that is falling apart. A good burger should be sturdy, and the condiments and vegetables should be carefully arranged for maximum taste. Weight is 15%

Peripherals: This mostly means fries, but also includes beverages or other specialty sides that may be offered. Fries are in integral part of the burger experience, so they get a sizeable weight of 25%.

Atmosphere: The actual food is not everything in a meal, and the atmosphere matters more to some people than other. I tend to lean towards the camp that would eat in an outhouse if the food was good enough, but I do think the environment should get some consideration. Atmosphere gets a 10% weight.

You might notice I did not cover service. Service can be included in atmosphere to some extent. However, in my opinion (and I realize not everyone will agree with me here) service tends to be a binary experience. Either my burger was prepared correctly and delivered in a prompt fashion, or it was not. It is a pass/fail situation. I don’t require a lot of small talk or empty pleasantries from the waitstaff, so long as they are efficient. Service is also difficult to judge because it can be very hit and miss at even the best places. You might be at a restaurant that has 20 great servers, and you get a terrible one, or perhaps that person just happens to be having a particularly bad day. Thus, I do not think one incident of bad service should sink an establishment’s score, but it does warrant a small ding. The service will be scored on a pass/fail basis. Those places that provide prompt adequate service will receive 0.1 points added to the final composite score. Those places that fail in the service category will have 0.1 points subtracted. This will serve to distinguish places with good service, but will also ensure the focus of the score is primarily on the food. Note that points for good service will still be awarded if there is a mistake in my order if it is corrected quickly and politely.

As a final note, some food reviewers advocate that food should be ordered “as is” from the menu, without modifications. This is supposed to guarantee that the food you review is most true to the chef’s original vision. I appreciate this philosophy, but I will not be following it. The primary reason is that I hate onions. I really really despise onions. If there is an onion on my burger, it automatically gets 0’s across the board and the restaurant is immediately blacklisted. They do not pass “Go,” and they do not collect 200 dollars. Thus, I will be ordering all my burgers without onions, and also in many cases without lettuce. Some people argue that is not truly representative of the restaurant, but I disagree. I have an idea of what a good burger tastes like to me, and so I will order the burger that I think most closely achieves that. That burger most definitely does not include onions. Lots of people have different preferences on onions, pickles, mustard, etc., and a good burger should be able to accomodate those varied tastes. If you think the entire burger hinges on a single slice of onion, then that is a problem. Also, I am paying for these meals myself, so I will order them they way I want them, and then I will review that configuration of burger. Each consumer and reviewer always has different tastes, so if we have similar tastes, these reviews will be helpful. However, if we have vastly different tastes, then my reviews may not mean much to you anyway, and that is okay. Such is the nature of culinary reviews.

Well, I think this concludes my philosophy on rating burgers. Maybe some day I will describe what I think constitutes an ideal burger, but for now I will rate burgers periodically when I find one that I think is worthy of a post. Happy burger hunting!