Tuesday, November 29, 2011

If I had to Live my Life Over: be inspired by Erma Bombeck

     If I had to live my life over, I would have talked less and listened more. I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded. I would have eaten the popcorn in the 'good' living room and worried much less about the dirt when someone wanted to light a fire in the fireplace. I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble about his youth. I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed. I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage. I would have sat on the lawn with my children and not worried about grass stains. I would have cried and laughed less while watching television - and more while watching life. I would have shared more of the responsibility carried by my husband. I would have gone to bed when I was sick instead of pretending the earth would go into a holding pattern if I weren't there for the day. I would never have bought anything just because it was practical, wouldn't show soil or was guaranteed to last a lifetime. Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy, I'd have cherished every moment and realized that the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle. When my kids kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, "Later. Now go get washed up for dinner." There would have been more "I love you's".. More "I'm sorrys" ... But mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute... look at it and really see it ... live it...and never give it back.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

10 Ways to Reclaim the Christmas Season

Stressed. Busy. Broke. Hurried. Behind. On edge.  If any of these describe you during the month of December, it may be time for a new approach!  Here are a few helpful hints to turn a joy-less season to the joy-FULL.
1. Ask your family what traditions they look forward to and value the most, then put those on the calendar.  We often put time and energy into doing those things that "we've always done," even if no one really likes to do them! Put the most important traditions down on a piece of paper, and schedule when they will happen if at all possible, then if there is time to do some other things, great -- if not, you've at least experienced the ones that mean the most.
2. Consider simplifying gift-giving.  Some ideas include making homemade gifts (see my blog entry from last year), buying one bigger item that encourages a skill, identifying a need, a want, and a surprise for each child and sticking with those as the 3 gifts (just like the Wise Men), or giving an experience, like a trip to a dude ranch, or a cooking class with a local chef.  I also love those organizations, like Heifer International, that orchestrate the purchase of an animal to give to a struggling family in another country in someone's name.
*Make a list of "gifts to buy or make" and prepare in advance.  Half of the stress we feel is mental because we procrastinate and then panic about getting everything done.
3. Get the Christmas card out early!  My sister does her card before Thanksgiving and she gets the best 1/2 off deals and one of the biggest stresses of the holiday season is crossed off her list before December even begins.  This is a biggie.... do what you need to do to get this done early!  Then have the kids help stuff the envelopes and put the stamps on.
4. Think ahead and buy decorations and gifts in the off-season.  Creating a Christmas home is a part of that "magical feeling" of this time of year, but buying decor can break the bank quickly.  Hit the 50% off sales, or better yet, the 75% off after Dec.25.  You get screaming deals and it is so rewarding when you get everything out the next year, knowing you paid a fraction of the price.  I do this with hand soaps, serving dishes, and other gifts I can give to neighbors, teachers, etc.
Buying gifts throughout the year helps with budgeting also.  I have designated one cupboard in my house as gift storage.  When I see a gift that I know is perfect for someone, or an item at a great price, I buy it then and keep it until Christmas or a birthday.
5. Wrap as you go.  Saving all of the wrapping until the few days before Christmas is exhausting and usually ends up happening late at night (which means no sleep).  I set up a small 4 ft. table in our bedroom during the holidays.  When I buy a gift, I wrap it and put it in one of my labeled bags.   I have a bag designated for each child (for stocking stuffers and gifts), a bag for extended family gifts, friend gifts, and a bag for teacher/neighbor gifts.
6. Find ways to give back and spread the spirit of Christmas.  We often pack shoe boxes for Operation Christmas Child, deliver meals, carol at elderly homes, help local families anonymously, and give a special gift and letter to our Compassion children.  It is so important to reach out to others--this is what the Christmas JOY is about!!
7. Bake throughout the season and freeze.  Cookies freeze beautifully, both in dough form, and in cooked form.  Bake something special each week and freeze what you don't need.  I make my dough and roll it into individual cookies.  I then place them on cookie sheets, freeze until firm, and store in a ziplock.  When ready to cook, I take them out, place them on a cookie sheet, and bake.  Storing dough in a full size ball is another way to freeze.  Make the dough ahead of time, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, then freeze.  When ready to use, de-thaw and proceed according to directions.  The already cooked goods should be thawed unwrapped, or taken out of the bag (NOT wrapped in plastic -- this holds wet moisture in).
8. Prepare meals in advance.  If you do nothing else this time of year, pick a day to do some serious cooking for the freezer with a friend or two, and get some meals ready that you can pull out when you are short on time.  I have a full description of how to do this here.
9. Plan Advent a week before December.  One of the most significant things that we do at our house is our Advent wreath.  This is where we talk about what advent really means and the spiritual implications of Jesus' birth.  There are often activities and supplies that I need to prepare in advance.  If this is done early, the advent tradition is sure to be a central part of our season.
10.  Keep a collection of Christmas books, that only come out this time of year, under the tree in a bucket.  Grab a couple per night and read aloud under the twinkling of the lights.  This will become a favorite tradition for your kids.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Easy hor d' oeuvres for the Holidays: Part 1

Hor d'ouvres can sometimes be the last thing we consider when we are preparing for the big holiday meals.  Here are a couple of easy ideas:
Arrange crackers, rolled meats, and block cheeses on a platter.  Behind:  Layer pickled asparagus, pepperocinis, kalmata olives, and mozzarella balls.  
Nestle red grapes in between chocolate dipped strawberries and specialty cheeses.  The cheeses on this tray are:  Cougar Gold, Parmesan, and Brie.   This tray goes well with a quality bottle of wine.  
My favorite way to dip strawberries, carameled apples, etc. is with this deep dipping bowl.  It's called Back to Basics Microwave Gourmet Apple Dipper.  Simply put the chocolate in the microwave, melt according to directions, and dip!  

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Heart Like Katie (an anecdote to a critical spirit)

   I just spent a couple of days with my best friend from childhood.  Let me introduce you...or actually, let Ben, her son, have the honor....
This is Katie.  
We met in 3rd grade when another girl from our class stole her Hello Kitty tape -- a hot commodity.  I stepped in to rescue the tape, and it was history from there.  Our lives have paralleled each other ever since.  We stayed close all throughout school, despite different friends.  We were headed to different colleges, both to play our various sports, but in the 11th hour Katie was persuaded by the University of Puget Sound coach to come run for them instead. There was more than running at stake in this decision. God intended for us to walk those years side by side.  We met our husbands on campus, and after college married within two weeks of each other (she delayed their honeymoon to be in our wedding).  We now both have three boys and can share the unique journey of raising sons.  She is is a GIFT to me, always has been.  But I am not alone in seeing the value of this woman.  From the time we were little, she was the one EVERYONE loved, and I mean EVERYONE.  She has a way about her that makes people feel simply cared about -- for who they are -- ACCEPTED.  She is kindness lived out -- driving a friend with cancer to her appointments, befriending sisters of her sons' friends, speaking gently to her boys and showing them they are valuable, offering coaching and friendship to fellow runners, holding out hope to people by sharing her faith, teaching children at her church's women's Bible study, unifying her extended family with intentional effort, and showing her husband respect and gratitude.  Though she has many qualities that I admire, there is one that stands out from the rest.  For 32 years I have reflected on this quality in my friend, and now as an adult, I think I have it named:  the lack of a critical spirit.  
     Katie has me thinking about the effects of this trait in our lives.  Take a look at webster's definition of criticism:
Criticism:  the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.
     When I read this, I cringe.  This is the polar opposite of how I want others to feel around me.  Of course people can't feel comfortable around those with critical spirits -- there is only fault and disapproval to be found, and who wants to be seen for their faults instead of their strengths?  Not me!  And yet, how often am I guilty of this?  How often do I find myself thinking the negative about someone instead of the positive?  If I'm honest, probably more often than I'd like to admit.  Thankfully, God has been turning this soil in my life for some time now.
     Notice in the definition it doesn't say "true" faults, it says, "perceived" faults.  This means that it is a subjective viewpoint.  It starts with how we are seeing others in our own minds' eye.  This is an area I have been working to re-train for the last 5 years.  There has been a KEY concept that I read in a Peacemaker's Ministry resource that has changed how I think about people.  
The concept is this:  Always assume the best about others.
Another way to put it -- give people the benefit of the doubt.  When we are tempted to think negatively, train the mind to stop that thought, and turn it around.  This simple exercise alone will revolutionize how we see and treat others.  For example, when you are slighted by a friend, instead of telling yourself how self absorbed and thoughtless she is, train your mind to say, "she must be struggling with something right now.  It probably has nothing to do with me.  What can I do to show her some extra care?"  Or when your spouse forgets to do something that is really important think, "He is really preoccupied with work.  This does not show a weakness in his character.  I can take care of this for our family or help him do it so that it gets done."  Or how about when you are offended by someone close to you?  What about saying, "I know she probably didn't mean to offend me.  Prov. 19:11 says that it is to my honor to overlook an offense.  I am going to choose to overlook this right now."  See what I mean??  What happens when we start to do this?  UNITY DEVELOPS.  There is more peace in relationships, more servanthood, and Christ is glorified.  Relationships will flourish when this kind of thinking is the rule rather than the exception- with friends, spouses, children, family.  Don't we all want that?  Isn't the journey so much better when we are living out a life of love?
     What happens when this doesn't exist in relationships?  Critcism comes in, takes over, and drives stakes of conflict, strife, and disharmony.  So what is at the root of a critical spirit?  This article from the Peacemaker's ministry answers that question:
        A key step in breaking free from the habit of making critical judgments is to trace them to their source and cut them off at the root. To do this you must deal with your heart. James 4:1-12 describes two of the most common sources of critical judgments. The first is selfishnessWhen others stand in the way of what we want, we strive to remove their opposition by tearing them down and diminishing their credibility and influence in any way we can (vv. 1-3).  
Pride is another source of critical judgments. Thinking that we are better than others, we set ourselves up as their judges and begin to catalog their failings and condemn their actions. As we saw earlier, when we do this we are imitating Satan by trying to play God (vv. 7, 12). Pride can also reveal itself in the inclination to believe that “I alone understand the truth about things.” I think that my beliefs, convictions, theology, and doctrines are true, and I look down on anyone who disagrees with me (cf. Gal. 5:26). Matthew 7:3-5 shows that self-righteousness is another root of critical judgments. When we have done something wrong but we do not want to admit it, one of the most natural things we do is to draw attention to and even magnify the failures of others.
Insecurity, which is a form of the fear of man, is a related root of this problem. When we lack confidence in our own beliefs and positions, and fear that they might be disproved, we often conclude that the best defense is a good offense. Therefore, we attack others’ views and judge them before they can judge us.
Jealousy can also lead to critical judgments. As we see in Genesis 37:11, Joseph’s brothers were jealous of his close relationship with God and his father, and they repeatedly interpreted his motives and actions in the worst possible way. As their jealousy grew, it culminated in their selling him into slavery.
Another cause is self-pity. On occasion, many of us find a perverse pleasure in feeling sorry for ourselves. Therefore, we tend to interpret situations in a way that hurts us the most. One of the best ways to do this is to interpret others’ actions as a form of betrayal.
Prejudice is frequently a cause of critical judgments. When we have preconceived, unfavorable opinions about others simply because of their race, religion, gender, or status in life, we will consistently seek to validate our views by interpreting their beliefs and actions negatively.
Unforgiveness can also lead us to look for the worst in others. If someone has hurt us, and we do not forgive him, we will look for ways to justify our unforgiveness. Finding more faults in the person who hurt us is a convenient way to conceal the hardness of our own heart.
Of course, the ultimate source of critical judgments is a lack of love. Where love is deficient, critical judgments will be the norm. Conversely, where love abounds, charitable judgments should abound (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
Wow.  That is a lot to take in. The full article goes into greater depth on how to identify and cure a critical spirit.
     So, what happens when there is a legitimate concern with someone?  A critical spirit is ruled out and there is a true issue at hand that needs to be addressed?  Hear this clearly:  I am a proponent of conflict resolution.  However, I have come to the conclusion, through life experience, that conflict handled carelessly will leave a trail of destruction and damage that is hard to repair.  If there is a true concern that needs to be addressed, I HIGHLY recommend that you read the foundational principles on the Peacemakers website.  Even if there are only a few of these nuggets put in your pocket, you will be better for it, and it WILL lead you in the how of conflict resolution. When we follow Biblical instruction, it works!  
     The challenge before us lies in discernment.  In what areas do we simply need to let go of a critical spirt?  Is there some serious weeding in the garden of our hearts that needs to be tended to?  
     Did I tell you Katie is a national championship runner?  She was in college, and at 40, is still competing in insanely difficult races...and winning them!  Don't you love this picture of Kate and her husband, Jeff, at the Transrockies Run in Beaver Creek, Co?  Their team name was the Caba-nators.  They pulled each other up thousands of feet of mountain to win the race. But that is not the only race she is winning.  She continues to pass on a legacy of great love and grace to those around her, and in God's economy, that counts more than any medal.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Amish Crock Pot Apple Butter

     Apple butter takes me right back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania Amish country where I first sampled this thick, spice infused goodness.  The laundry, hung out to dry, flapping in the wind next to rows and rows of corn filled my window that morning.  A black buggy driven by a stately man dressed in all black with the Amish style beard waved as he rode by.  I couldn't help but feel that I had stepped back into time, and I pretended that I was Amish -- for like 5 minutes.  For those 5 minutes, I really thought I'd try to fall in love with an Amish man and join this simpler, peaceful way of life.  Anyway, now you know that I am completely fascinated by the Amish, and if I had to join any group, it would probably be them.... because they make amazing apple butter...like this one.  I just changed it a bit for the good ol' crock pot!
     The one thing I don't like about traditional apple butter recipes, is that you have to use your hard-earned homemade applesauce to make it, and it cooks down to nothing.  THIS recipe is made from the apples directly, so there isn't that extra step of turning it into applesauce before cooking.  
STEP 1:  Peel, core, and slice the apples.
 STEP 2:  Place the apples in the crock pot and mix in seasonings and sugar.  Cover and cook for 8-10 hours.
 STEP 3:  The apples should have turned in to apple butter by the end of the cooking time.  I like mine smooth, so I puree the mixture with an immersion blender.

 STEP 4:  Adjust any seasonings or the sweetness and ladle into jars.

 STEP 5:  I like to can my jars in a water bath, but they can also be frozen at this point and kept in the freezer if you don't want to can.  
 STEP 6:  Enjoy!

6 lbs. mixed variety apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 3/4 cups apple cider
2  cups sugar
2 1/2  cups brown sugar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp. salt
1  tablespoon cinnamon
3/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
Place all ingredients in the crock pot and mix well.  Cook on the high setting for 2 hours, stirring periodically. Turn the crock to low and cook 7-8 more hours.  Puree with an immersion blender if desired for a smoother consistency.  

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Kids Fall Keepsake Craft

I just did these darling fall trees with my kids and my son's 3rd grade class. They make a great fall keepsake for years to come!  
You will need:
*4 different colors of paint (I used brown, gold, burnt orange, mocha, and black to deepen the brown)
*14x17 sheets of drawing paper (Strathmore's medium Drawing Paper is what I used)
*5 Foam paint brushes
*5 plastic bowls for the paint
*Water & rags
STEP 1:  Paint the forearm of your child in brown and have them make the tree trunk.  I did not do this with the class, as it was too messy, but at home it was doable.  In class, I just had them paint the tree trunks (narrower at the top, thicker at the bottom)
 Step 2:  Rinse the brown paint off of the arm, and paint a hand in a color.  Direct them to pull straight up off of the paper so it doesn't smear.  Have them do 2-3 handprints per color.  
 Step 3:  While the child still has that color paint on their hands, have him make fingerprint leaves at the bottom of the paper around the trunk, or falling off of the tree.  
 Step 4:  Repeat with the other colors of paint.

 Each one turned out unique and different, and that is what makes them special!  
Happy fall crafting!