Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Gratitude

I have always said that Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays.  I love that there's no gift giving tradition to leave us all in some variation of anxious and/or disappointed.  I love that the food can be towards the healthy edge of the spectrum.

But most of all, I love a holiday that revolves around gratitude.

Let me now make a list of all the things for which I am most grateful in the past year:

--At my midlife point of losing friends and not just because they move to a new town, I am grateful for the family and friends who are still here.

--I am grateful that my family continues to enjoy spending time together.  I had wondered if we might drift away from each other after the death of my grandmother, but we have not.

--I am grateful for the publishing successes of the past year, particularly my chapbook acceptance and my inclusion in this book that celebrates the Annunciation.  But more than that, I am profoundly grateful for my various creative communities.

--I am grateful for my various jobs and volunteer work--how wonderful to be fed in so many ways.

--I am grateful that my spouse has returned to teaching and that he likes it.

Let me not get so lost in my luckiness that I forget to pray for those who can't be so grateful.  Let me offer a prayer for this Thanksgiving holiday: 

God of abundance, thank you for all the gifts that you have given us.  Forgive us for the times we complain and forget to notice how much we have.  Teach us to share.  Kindle in us the fierce desire for a world where we will all have enough.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 29, 2015:

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:1-10 (Ps. 25:1)

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

Many of us begin to accelerate our holiday preparations about now. Perhaps you've already gotten all your shopping done. Maybe you put up your tree a week or two ago, so you could shift into full celebration mode when you returned from your Thanksgiving travels.

If you're in a festive mood, the readings for Advent must often seem jarring. They tend to be apocalyptic in nature. Take this week's reading from Luke, for example, with its mention of men fainting with fear and the heavens shaking and the return of Jesus--at least, that's a common interpretation of what this text means. Many of the Old Testament readings for Advent will focus on the prophets who foretell doom and offer comfort to the oppressed. If you're oppressed, perhaps you feel fine. Otherwise, you might sit there, wondering why we can't sing Christmas carols like the rest of the world.

It's important to remember that Advent is seen as a time of watching and waiting. We remember the stories of others who watched and waited.

It's also important to remember how often our Scriptures give us stories of the Kingdom of God breaking into our current reality. Many modern theologians talk about the Kingdom of God, and about the mission of Jesus, as both “now” and “not yet.” N. T. Wright says, “Jesus was telling his contemporaries that the kingdom was indeed breaking into history, but that it did not look like what they had expected “(emphasis Wright’s, The Meaning of Jesus, 35). He goes on to clarify that Jesus, like many Jewish mystics, “was bound to be speaking of the kingdom as both present and future” (37). Brian D. McLaren ponders the implications of the message of Jesus: “If Jesus was right, if the kingdom of God has come and is coming . . . if we do indeed have the choice today and every day to seek it, enter it, receive it, life as citizens of it, invest in it, even sacrifice and suffer for it . . . then today our future hangs in the balance no less than it did for Jesus’ original hearers in AD 30 or so” (The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything 180). In later pages, he ponders the kind of decisions that people who believe the impossible is possible might make—and the kind of decisions that people who believe that the Christian way is just too unrealistic and difficult will make (181-182).

One of the messages of Advent is that God breaks into our dreary world in all sorts of ways, some scary, some comforting, some magnificent, and some hardly noticed. The story of Jesus is one of the more spectacular stories, but God tries to get our attention all the time. We are called to watch and wait and always be on the alert.

The message of Advent is truly exciting. God wants us to participate in Kingdom living now, not just in some distant future when we go to Heaven. What good news for people who might find their nerves frazzled by all this celebrating, all this money being spent, all this once-a-year cheer which can seem so false.  What good news for us all.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Creating an Advent Strategy

Soon, we will leave Thanksgiving behind.  Before we get too deeply into the coming Christmas season, let's take some time to plan for how we're going to have a meaningful Advent, how we're going to resist the consumerist, capitalist madness of a whirlwind that tends to sweep us all along.

Let's strategize. How can we avoid a hectic season? How can we invite more contemplation and quiet into December?

--Make a budget now. Just days from now, the Christmas shopping season begins for those of us brave enough to go into stores, if it hasn't already started. Before you go shopping, make sure you know how much you can spend. It's easy to get caught up in the shrill cycle of good deals and fierce desires. Don't buy so much that you'll still be paying off those credit cards in July. Nothing is worth that.

--Instead of buying stuff, buy experiences. Most of us have too much stuff. Why not give someone a meal out or a movie? Give the gift of your time.

--Instead of buying stuff, donate to charities. I'm lucky enough to be able to buy just about everything I need (and my needs are fairly simple). I am haunted by all the charities that are underfunded. I am haunted by the gaping needs in the world. I would prefer that people give money to the needy than to buy more stuff for me. Chances are good that lots of people on your gift list feel the same way.

--Plan your social calendar now. And keep it simple. Choose only one or two events per week-end. Declare that you won't go out on school nights. You can't do everything, and you'll only feel irritable if you try. What's most important to you and the ones you love?

--Purge the traditions that have ceased to have meaning. This one is tough. For example, I often find myself bored and irritable as I sit through The Nutcracker. I always think I'll love that ballet, probably because I loved it as a child. I don't love it as an adult. Why spend the money and time? Of course, if everyone else in the family adored it and wanted to go, it might be worth it. But now is a good time to have a frank discussion, before we're caught up in the sentimental sweep of December.

--Streamline some of the traditions. Do you really need to bake every kind of cookie that you remember from past holidays? Maybe you and your friends could have a cookie swap. Or get together to bake cookies together. Have a wonderful afternoon of cookie dough and wine and leave with enough cookies to get you through the holiday. For years, I did a cookie bake/swap with friends, which grew into a dinner swap, which we'd still be doing today, if I hadn't moved 700 miles away. Consider other ways to make the holiday meals simpler. Maybe this is the year to simplify the holiday card tradition. Ask yourself which church events mean something to you and which you're attending because you always have.

--Take time to help the needy, and bring your children along. Some of my favorite holiday memories involve helping others. My Girl Scout troop used to go caroling at nursing homes. The church of my adolescence assembled gift baskets for homeless women. The words of Isaiah are knitted into every fiber of my being: "learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1: 17). My parents, along with social institutions like church and school, modeled the good behavior of working for social justice. It's stuck with me. Advent is a great time to train the next generation in the habits of social justice and charitable work.

--Maybe today, as we begin to prepare for Thanksgiving, we can think about how we'll have some meditative time during the upcoming season of Advent.  Will we have an Advent wreath?  Will we start the day with a devotional time?  Will we listen to sacred music during our commute time?

It's important to remember that even with all the best plans, we may find ourselves overscheduled and cranky.  Plan now to forgive yourself for those times.  Plan now for how you'll get back on track.  Plan now to get yourself back to the waiting and watching state that should be our Advent mindset.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Report: Quilting for Refugees

Yesterday at church, we quilted for several hours.  People came and went and came back, and we got 2 quilt tops knotted to 2 quilt backs.  We started one and finished it during the morning, and we finished knotting the one that we started back in September.  I also sewed together 2 quilt backs for later quilts.

I tend to forget how much we get done when we do these events.  At the last event in September, we got much of a quilt top finished and about half of a quilt top knotted to a back.

But there are still so many quilts that we could make.  And on Saturday in the grocery store, I saw a woman from the church I used to attend.  She keeps track of me via blogs and Facebook, and she offered the quilting material that she can no longer use. 

Of course I will take it.  But I do wonder how we will ever get these quilts made.

The answer:  day by day, hour by hour.  At the end of the year, there will be more quilts going to refugees than there would have been if we did nothing.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Recipe for a Rainy Sunday Afternoon: Fruitcake!

My friends who live to the far north are getting some holiday snow.  It looks to be a very rainy day down here in South Florida, the way it was yesterday afternoon when we decided to make fruitcake.

I had bought a variety of dried fruit a few weeks ago when I thought I would make bread for All Saints Day.  I know that dried fruit will keep for a long time, but I also don't have much storage space.

My spouse loves fruitcake, and for years I've wanted to try making one in our kitchen.  In The Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts, I found a recipe that I thought would work.  I wanted a cake that we could eat right away.  I didn't want to keep it in a cask for months while I watered it with brandy.  I don't have that kind of time.

Readers, it was delicious.  I would make it again.  I like to think it's slightly healthier than many desserts, with its fruit and lower fat (only three tablespoons of butter or oil in a dessert!).  And it's fragrant--the house smells like Christmas still.

I mention this recipe here, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, because I know we may spend part of the coming week with family to entertain, with children who need something to do when they're cooped up in the house, with making the transition from preparing for Thanksgiving to preparing for Christmas.


Italian Fruitcake (which tastes like U.S. fruitcake)

3 C. dried fruit (I used a combination of ginger, mango, cranberries, dates, and pineapple)
3/4 red wine (apple cider for those avoiding alcohol)
3T. butter or olive oil
1/2 C. honey
grated orange or lemon peel would be nice too, but I didn't feel like grating

Combine the above ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil.  Simmer for 3-4 minutes and then set aside, off the heat.

Preheat oven to 350.  As the oven preheats, toast the nuts (see below) and 2 slices of bread for breadcrumbs.

Combine the following in a big bowl:

1/2 C. almonds, toasted and chopped
1/2 C. walnuts, toasted and chopped
2 C. flour
1 C. toasted bread crumbs
1 C. brown sugar
the recipe calls for 1/2 C. chocolate chips, which I didn't use
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
2 tsp. baking soda (I am just realizing that I used baking powder--it worked fine)
2 eggs

Add the fruit mixture and combine until all of the dry ingredients are moistened.  I had to add a bit of water.

Put the batter into a greased springform pan or a bundt pan.

Bake for 60 to 70 minutes.  Let cool in the pan for 15 minutes and then remove from bundt pan or release the side of the springform pan.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Quilting for Refugees

Today the JoAnn's fabric store nearest to me has its grand re-opening.  Ordinarily, I would stay away.  But I need supplies for church tomorrow.

Yes, it's another quilting day at my church, and I am the one who leads it all.  We need supplies:  batting, fabric for backing, embroidery floss for knotting the layers together.  We have many quilts in progress; hopefully tomorrow we can actually finish some of them.

There are days I beat back despair.  I love doing the quilting projects and the thought of helping refugees with these quilts.  But we complete so few of them a year.  How many refugees do we really help?

I don't indulge in that thinking for long.  We don't help as many refugees as larger churches with cadres of people who quilt in different teams.  No, that's not us.  But we do have a church with a wide variety of people who want to help.  We give them an outlet.  Even people who say that they cannot sew--those people can help knot the quilts together.

Along the way, we do old-fashioned consciousness raising.  Because of our periodic projects to help Lutheran World Relief, you won't hear a lot of anti-refugee rhetoric coming from our members.  We understand that many people have fled horrors that we can only barely understand and often they flee with very little resources.  We are happy to send them quilts and hygiene kits.

If you're in the South Florida area and would like to help, come to Trinity Lutheran Church, at the corner of 72nd and Pines in Pembroke Pines, across from the South Campus of Broward College, on the south side of Pines.  We'll be quilting from 9 to 1 or so, and we'd love to have your help.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Convincing Care in the Carrot Peels

Yesterday afternoon, after taking care of various teaching and administrative duties , my colleague friend and I headed over to a local, high-end barbecue place .  Since my spouse wouldn't be home until 10:15 after teaching his evening class, I decided to have an early dinner.  My friend had a coupon for a free appetizer, so we shared a smoked fish dip.

It comes with tortilla chips, but my friend is trying to watch her carb intake.  She asked if she could have celery or cucumber to go with it.

The bartender who was waiting on us said that she would see what she could do.  But the only vegetable they had was carrots.

She brought us a beautiful plate of carrots.  Later we found out that she had peeled and sliced them herself. 

She said her boss had said, "Why are you doing that?  Now they'll expect that the next time they come."

She replied, "And if I'm working, I'll peel carrots again."

Of course, one of the reasons that we return to the restaurant is because of the level of care shown by that particular bartender. 

I thought about her attitude, which she's displayed even before we got to know her.  She's always been warm and welcoming, like we're her best friends who just walked in the door.  She's always made sure the glasses are filled and that the food is good.  She goes the extra mile by peeling the carrots.

What would life be like if we all showed that level of care?

It would be much closer to the world that God desires for us all. 

The peeling of carrots is not traditionally thought of as a spiritual gift, but done with the right spirit, it can be an important one--an aspect of the all-important spiritual gift of hospitality.