I have been on the road this week. I got to explore New York City for three days while my daughter worked at the New York Times Travel Show. Then, we traveled to Niagara Falls, a bucket list item for her. It has been beautiful but quite cold, as we experienced the edges of the storm that impacted much of the Northeast yesterday. The Falls are beautiful in the ice and snow and, while we were not the only tourists here, we certainly were not fighting crowds! Eleven of us watched the IMAX movie this afternoon, for example.

Traveling carry-on in the winter is a challenge. It is much easier to do carry-on in the summer than in January, when heavy coats, boots, gloves, hats, and sweaters need to be packed. However, with the airlines charging for baggage for each leg of a trip, it becomes costly, especially with a three-legged trip such as ours.

I confess to testing the limits on this but respect the airline rules of putting only my roller bag up above and keeping my smaller bag and my purse under the seat. I strive to honor the intent of their rules while acknowledging that I am still pushing the envelope.

Very full carry-ons have made me realize that I think I require a lot to do my daily life. My toiletries, vitamins, perceived clothing requirements, even when pared down to a bare minimum compared to home, still creates a lot to haul around. I have been mulling over what simplifying my life might look like, on the road as well as at home.

I have far too many clothes, for example. Yet, I continue to acquire more without getting rid of any. When I pack what I think I require to “live” each day, it makes me stop and evaluate those requirements. I did forget a couple of small items and guess what, I have still had a great time! Were they really necessary? Probably not but at one point, I thought they were.

I plan to do a serious clean-out of my closet when I get home. I also plan to look at my skin care and make-up stashes and even more seriously evaluate my food intake as well. In a first world country, it is so easy to mistake a “want” with a need.

It will be good to take home memories of what I have seen and done as well as a renewed realization that all baggage, physical as well as emotional, is tough to lug around through life.

Well, it is an interesting weekend here at this old house: prison, funeral, a Christmas party, and Cartier! I don’t remember every having quite a combination of events like that in one weekend.

It began last night when I went to prison. The visitation pastor at church is also the Chaplain at the state’s women’s maximum security prison. As she pointed out to me, these women aren’t in there for jay walking. They have worship on Friday nights and I went to play the piano, something they don’t usually get to have. They had two women who led the music on guitar and with strong voices but they are now out, leaving the remaining members of the choir to find a “new normal.” I led a choir rehearsal with the women, doing some teaching on what it means to be a church choir and teaching them a new song, and then helped them lead their worship service.

I could type for a long time about all that I learned, the stereotypes that were destroyed for me, the weirdness of feeling like I was on a junior college campus surrounded by razor wire, of reconciling the beautiful young women who came to choir practice with heinous crimes. However, I will simply say this: a cup of cold water is the perfect visual for what happened last night with those women. My playing a few hymns and songs transformed and empowered them in ways I could have never predicted. I need to always remember that what seems simple and obvious to me can be deeply life-giving to someone else. They, in turn, reminded me that one can be a faithful disciple regardless of one’s circumstances in life, a concept that is not theoretical in the state women’s correctional facility.

This morning, I played for a funeral that involved a lot of tears. The person had been ill but was seemingly doing better. Those services are always a good reminder to never assume we have tomorrow, for ourselves or with someone else.

Tonight, friends, who work for the church, are having a Christmas party. There is so much behind-the-scenes work in a vibrant faith community that people arriving for Christmas services have no clue about. Advent is a lot of “heavy lifting” if you are a conscientious clergy person, church musician or office staff. These friends also go visit family during the 12 Days so they have a “Christmas lasts a bit longer” party every year during Epiphany. While there is snow on the ground, it is sunny and low 50s so it will be hard to shift back into Christmas mode! It will be a fun event, though.

Then, to round out this “whip lash” weekend, we are going to the Cartier exhibit at the Denver Art Museum tomorrow afternoon. The iconic jewels have been a source of joy and inspiration as well as the downfall for many throughout their history. It makes me think of the women in the prison and how many are there for theft of some kind; it will bring the weekend to a full circle closure.

So even though there are some really random events in these three days, they all relate to each other. In Christmas, we see the face of God in Jesus and know that God’s love is enough. We don’t have to covet or steal. We can rejoice in God’s provision and redemption. When we forget the Incarnation, Jesus born as a baby to save the world, we can forget the other side of a story a Christian funeral witnesses to. Many of the women in prison have strong faiths, some developed during their incarceration while others brought them inside. We all do stupid, horrible things; some just have a higher price tag to them than others. And, of course, death is the great equalizer. One per person! It can keep our values in this life in perspective as well as give us hope when things are awful in this life.

So, a full, good, much-to-think-about kind of weekend that is also emotionally draining in many ways. I think a nap is the next item on the agenda!

 

 

Lots of cooking going on in this old house today. We are having former neighbors for dinner and we are making it a modified retro event: hamburgers on the grill, oven fries (in duck fat with blue Persian salt on top), salad, and a gluten-free red velvet cake in the shape of a small swirled Bundt-style pan. The pan is a ceramic Emile Henri baking dish I got years ago on sale. It makes a nice size cake for a smaller group. Plus, it is fun to bake with. I like the weight and feel of the ceramic. It is a cheery pan, white inside and a marigold yellow on the outside. It is molded all in one piece so the hole in the middle doesn’t go all the way through if you have a lot of batter in there (which I did). However, this means that as the frosting drips down the inside, it pools in the bottom indentation, making the cake frosted almost completely on both sides. I do like frosting!

The traditional red velvet layer cake was often made for my childhood birthday celebrations. When I was much younger, a plastic doll would be inserted in the middle of the layers so that the cake was her “skirt.” Frosting would be pulled up over her chest to make the bodice of the “dress.” I have fond memories of those cakes and I have the recipe my mother used back then. It is in her handwriting and she used a red pen when she copied it out for me!

Today, when I make these, I use Red Velvet Cake flavoring, instead of the two ounces of red dye her recipe called for. Her recipe also used eggs; mine does not. My recipe calls for more cocoa powder in it than hers did and, of course, I use an all-purpose gluten-free flour blend that can be substituted one-for-one in most recipes. The only place it is really obvious is with my pie crusts. They are thicker than my old Betty Crocker canola oil  pie crust recipe but since they are mostly “sugar and grease,” as my husband points out, how can it not taste good!

I also had some whipping cream languishing in the back of the frig. Today, I made a mocha madness ice cream recipe (espresso powder and cocoa) which was then cranked in my Cuisinart electric ice cream maker. The very full dishwasher is running as I type. As I have written in this blog before, I love my appliances!

It has felt very good today to do something creative, rescue ingredients that needed using up, make something useful, delicious, comforting. While this is the season when many of us are trying to not eat those kinds of treats, the horrific events at the Charlie Hebdo office and Jewish market in Paris has me trying to respond with life and love and goodness. If we cave in, respond with the old “an eye for an eye” philosophy, we become no better than those who sought to serve their god through killing and maiming. Misplaced martyrdom is a scary thing and baking a cake seems almost counter-intuitive to fighting that kind of evil. Yet, if those of us who desire life, abundant Life, respond to death-giving acts with life-giving and creative ones, maybe we can turn the tide in the minds and hearts of those who are waffling between good or evil choices.

Wayne Miller once wrote, “Once people feel nourished and refreshed, they cannot help but be kind; just so, the world aches for the generosity of a well-rested people.” I think a break for cake and ice cream might help as well.

 

 

It has been a lovely Christmas week here in this old house. With the secular holidays behind us, we have been able to settle into Christian Christmas, enjoying quiet times of reading, meals with friends and family, listening to Christmas carols, and a more relaxed work schedule. We have loved sitting by the Christmas tree, lighting the candles on it at times, sharing our current read-aloud book together. More peanut brittle has been made to share as we have gone visiting. Worship with others marked the turning of the year on New Year’s eve, reminding us that all time is in God’s hands.

Since Christmas Day, we have had about 20″ of new snow here at this old house and it has started snowing again as I write. We have also had some record cold days and sub-zero nights. I have Stabilicers, a brand of strap-on cleats especially designed for walking on ice and snow. They have allowed me to walk at a normal pace over snow-packed, and even icy, trails when the weather has permitted such outings. I do appreciate my exercise walks but confess to being a “fair weather” walker. When it is bitter cold or the snow is falling hard, I tend to pass on going out of a morning walk.

In my online class, a practicum in the spiritual disciplines, I have the students choose a bodily discipline to accompany their learning of the spiritual disciplines (Prayer, Meditation, Study, Fasting, and so on). Many find that after eight weeks of accountability related to exercising more or giving up sugar or caffeine, they have made a good connection between what they do with their body and what happens in their soul. It is a circle that feeds on itself, either for health or for ill. I know that after two days of being housebound due to cold and snow this past week, I was feeling lethargic in body and soul.

There is a reason that the body and the soul have been linked together in disciplined practices throughout the centuries. The Gnostics, a heresy that is alive and well today, believe that the body and material world are “bad,” that only the things done in and for the mind or spirit are worthy of one’s attention. Since the Christmas season is about the Incarnation, the coming of Jesus in the flesh, Christians embrace both body and soul as good-but-fallen, both worthy of redemption by God and worthy of our care. Christians care for the earth because they worship the Creator of the Universe. A Gnostic worldview believes that the earth will be thrown into a cosmic trash can at the end of time and so what we do to it or to our bodies is immaterial (pun intended). Fortunately, Chris- in-the-manger explains John 3:16, allowing us to embrace God’s good world and to take care of our health, physical and spiritual, without any feelings of guilt. All those New Year’s resolutions related to diet and exercise really have a basis in Christmas!

Meanwhile, as the snow is now falling harder, I am glad to have finished my exercise walk and be tucked in all warm and cozy for the rest of the day…until, that is, we go out to a friend’s Christmas party this evening!

 

We are most joyous in this old house that the secular holidays are nearly over and Christian Christmas has begun. While I saw Valentine’s Day stuff out in two stores today, we are still treasuring Christmas and will until January 6th, Epiphany. The Church sets aside 12 Days each year to focus on the Incarnation, Jesus come in the flesh, and the implications of that for him and for us, as his disciples. We are invited during these 12 Days to move quickly from the manger (which the world can handle as nearly everyone likes a cute baby) to the martyrdom of Stephen (December 26) followed by the remembrance of  John the Evangelist (December 27), who was Jesus’ closely earthly friend, and then to the Slaughter of the Innocents on December 28th, those young children killed in Bethlehem by Herod who was trying to “protect his interests.” I bet there aren’t any greeting cards that fit that gruesome story.

Yet, the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has seen fit to keep us from getting maudlin with the glow of the lights, the sweetness of the carols, the wishes for peace and goodwill, the extra giving many of us do. Right away, the Church reminds us that Christmas is not primarily a “family holiday” but the beachhead of God in this world in the battle to redeem God’s creation from sin, death, and the devil. That vision does not fit well with Hallmark’s movie and card themes. Nor ours, too many times.

Christian Christmas is not for the sentimental nor the faint-hearted, which is why many Christians probably stick to the secular holiday motif. Christian Christmas is about a young woman, pregnant out of wedlock, making a long journey to a poor town to give birth so as to not be stoned as an adulteress by her relatives back home. Christian Christmas is about children being murdered because of this Child, people focusing on God’s love for the world while in a Roman penal colony, people being rejected or killed by their clergy for their faith in this Christ, something that happens in countries today.

We like the secular holiday version of the Christmas story because it is a warm-fuzzy we can grasp and control. Christian Christmas is about a wild God who enters the world under the radar and becomes a savior in ways too many people miss and/or outright reject. Christian Christmas draws a straight line to Good Friday and Easter. Many of us sing that connection in the second stanza of “What Child is This”:

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and donkeys are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spears shall pierce him through,
the cross he bore for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
the Babe, the Son of Mary.

The mystery of the Incarnation is not something that can be absorbed in a lifetime, let alone a 24-hour time period. The 12 Days of Christmas invite us to meditate on what Christian Christmas is really all about. I know they help me survive the madness of the secular holidays.
As I write, we have another nine days to celebrate. Merry Christmas!

 

 

Next Page »