24 December 2009

Advent Update

This year, we set out some unusual rules for the kids. No Christmas music or DVD's, no treats or sweets, no special Christmas teas or hot chocolate - at least until today. I almost felt like the Grinch. But it was so worth it. The last few weeks have been wonderful - not something I can usually say at this time of the year. December is usually harried and frazzled. Because we decided to postpone Christmas this year, December was much more calm and peaceful. I had that time I always long for to examine my heart and contemplate the Incarnation and the Lord's redemption, as well as taking time to prepare practically.
Today we went looking for a live, cut tree (my husband said that, if we were going to wait to put it up, he wanted a real one instead of the artificial one that lives in the attic for most of the year). We weren't sure we'd find any at this late date. We drove past a few of the tree lots that we'd scoped out, but they were gone, the proprietors probably heading home to spend the holiday with their own families. We drove past a few nurseries that had signs posted, but no inventory left. We pulled into Home Depot, just in case. I spotted three lonely Noble firs standing in a corner of the nursery. We got out and looked them over. Two were pretty nice and one of them was beautiful. They were also marked $60. Drew went to find a manager to see if he could talk him into a discount. Gary came out to answer our questions. He asked if we'd picked one out yet. We told him that we had and the kids and I held our collective breath. What would he say? How hard would Drew haggle? Gary's response: 'Merry Christmas! Load it up and take it home!' Yes, he gave it to us!

So, now, our beautiful tree is decorated; all the presents are wrapped and piled underneath. The house is cozy and Christmasy. The penguin soap dispenser sits by the sink. The Christmas dishes are out. The stockings are hung with care - not by our chimney, as we don't have one, but on a mantel with hooks that sits on top of a book shelf and is weighed down by a set of encyclopedias. Sitting on the mantel are two Lego houses that the boys built - snow-covered Victorian homes. Christmas music wafts from the holiday playlist on the iPod. Candy dishes grace all our end tables and snowman salt and pepper shakers sit on the table. Most of our family is headed to our church's Christmas Eve service (rumor has it that it'll be rockin'), but we'll all go to a more traditional ten o'clock service after a dinner of meat pie and veggies, followed by Christmas tea and hot chocolate and maybe A Charlie Brown Christmas.

And, best of all, I've had time to think about the Incarnation, the amazing, unimaginable, incredible, mind-boggling Incarnation. God himself came to earth as a helpless, vulnerable baby. He didn't come to the rich and powerful, but to a lowly carpenter and his wife, announced to a flock of shepherds, outcasts from their society.

This isn't a story man could or would have come up with on his own. All religions of the world, both past and present, set forth a list of rules that must be obeyed so that salvation can be earned. Only God himself could dream up the Incarnation. He would come to earth himself to offer grace and mercy to sinful men who cannot earn their own salvation. He would pay the debt we owe, the debt, deeper than any ocean, that only he could pay.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. He didn't send him into the world to judge the world, but that through him, the world might be saved.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men.

08 December 2009


Last night's dinner was a simple pot roast, but I changed it up a little and it was better than ever. And it didn't take much extra time or effort.

Instead of adding water to my green-with-white-speckles roasting pan, I added a carton and a half of beef stock. I put the veggies (carrots, onions, potatoes) in first and then sprinkled them liberally with salt and parsley. Then I placed the roast (still frozen because of a miscommunication with the kidlets) on top of the veggies, where it sat above the level of the broth and the juices would run down onto the veggies.

After roasting for 4 hours (I told you it was frozen), we removed everything from the pot and covered it with foil to keep warm. Normally, I serve the juice alongside the roast, but yesterday was cold (for Arizona) and rainy and I felt like making some gravy.

I got out my trusty Culinary Artistry and looked up 'beef'. We strained the juice into a pot, which I then turned on to simmer after adding some chopped shallots, basil, red wine, and a bit of salt and white pepper.

On another burner, I made a blond roux in a small skillet. (I would have made a darker roux, but my family was as hungry as a pack of wolves, so I thought it best to speed up the process a little.) Once the roux was cooked sufficiently, I added a little of the broth to the skillet to begin the process of loosening up the roux to make it easier to incorporate into the broth. Then I whisked the loosened roux into the pot of broth and served. It was the first beef gravy I've ever made, and the best beef gravy I've ever eaten.

I used to make gravy with milk shaken together with flour and poured into whatever base I was using. In order to avoid lumps, I had to stand over it and whisk it constantly (and hope I'd added enough flour to thicken it, but not too much milk to dilute the flavour). In order to get rid of the floury taste, I had to simmer it for quite awhile (whisking the whole time). It was a hot and steamy business.

By using roux, the gravy comes together much more easily and I know it won't taste floury, since the flour is cooked more efficiently in the skillet than in the base. And since the butterfat coats the flour particles, they don't clump together, which gives me a smoother gravy with less effort.


07 December 2009

Spiritual Disciplines

The subject of spiritual disciplines has been on my mind lately (got there in a round-about fashion, but more on that later).

Several years ago (a decade or more?), we celebrated the Passover. In my typical Toad-of-Toad-Hall style, I decided if we were going to do this, I would make sure it was done right. So I decided to clean out all the leaven from the house. I started with the obvious: yeast and baking powder. Then the conspicuous loaf of bread sitting there looking smugly at me - okay, tossed, along with hot dog rolls and hamburger buns. But wait. Do those cookies have baking powder? Uh-huh. Okay, so the cookies went. Oh, that cake in the freezer has leavening. Gone. What about those crackers? Yup, they have baking soda. Okay, so they're gone, too. Self-rising flour? Flung into the trash. Okay, all done.

Wait. There are lots of crumbs on the shelves of the pantry. I bet some of them have leavening in them. So, I cleaned the pantry. Done! Except that the kids have dropped bread and cracker crumbs on the dining room floor and, in the course of regular sweeping, some of them got pushed under the baseboards - time to clean the baseboards. And the kidlings sometimes would take crackers (or cookies) into their rooms (no, not with permission) and so we had to clean out the bedrooms. Oh, and we grown-ups occasionally snack in bed while reading before turning out the lights (with permission) - time to deep-clean the master bedroom, too. And crumbs stick to our feet when we walk through the house, so the bathrooms, living room, and school room also needed a deep cleaning. But crumbs tend to nestle down into the carpet and our vacuum wasn't strong enough to get them all out, so we rented a carpet cleaner. Etc., etc., etc.

It seemed that every time I cleaned the leaven from one place, I thought of another where it could be hiding, and another, and another, and another. Hmm …

Jesus continually warned his disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. And I know somewhere in there, Scripture equates leaven with sin. As I worked and worked to clean the leaven from my house, I learned a lot about the insidiousness of sin. I finally understood the Jewish custom of starting Passover with a plea to God to remove whatever leaven was missed in this giant spring cleaning. I've heard that described as a lazy and frivolous cop-out, but I think it's a serious appeal to God's grace, an acknowledgement that we can't ever entirely rid ourselves of our own sin. Only his mercy and power can do that.

The physical discipline of trying to clean all leaven out of the house taught me powerful spiritual lessons that I've never forgotten. And this, I'm beginning to see, is the power of spiritual disciplines. I'd avoided them in the past because I saw them as a way to try to earn God's favor (and I wanted none of that), but it's dawning on my that they can be a source of discipline and spiritual training for my soul.

So, since we celebrated Passover so many years ago, why is it coming up now? Well, I'll tell you. A friend recently mentioned that Advent used to be considered more of a season of preparation to celebrate Christmas and not a season of celebration itself. This resonated in my soul.

Another description I've read is that it's 'a kinder and gentler version of Lent'.

And yet another blogger described it thusly: 'Perhaps the most important thing for me (a baptist girl with liturgical longings) in trying to keep Advent is making a conscious effort to postpone Christmas. I must admit that when I first began doing Advent it was more as a way to prolong Christmas. This shift from "doing" to "keeping" and from "prolonging" to "postponing" has been slow but significant.'

This makes sense, given that the twelve days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day and run to January 5, with the celebration of the Epiphany on the 6th.

I've shared some of these insights with my husband and he's intrigued. We're beginning to try to think through what this change of mind will mean for us. So this will be a kind of 'transition Christmas' for us. We're thinking and researching Advent and Christmas based on a more liturgical calendar. We got a late start this year, but will do our best and continue to think about this throughout the year.

I hope to post more about some of the changes we're planning to incorporate this year and some of the spiritual lessons I'm learning.