Ginger

Last week, inspired by a YouTube “How To” video, Anna and I decided to make some gingerbread cookies. Not that we haven’t had enough sugary treats lately, but it is that baking time of year and what could be more fun and traditional than some cute little gingerbread men?

After googling a recipe, we got out a bowl and started mixing ingredients: Oil, sugar, molasses, and milk. Then flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Finally, it was spice time: Nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and uh-oh! Did we really have no ginger? Did I really just mix together all of the ingredients for GINGERbread cookies without first checking to make sure I had GINGER?!

A thorough search of the spice cabinet confirmed my fear: No ginger. Which left us with two options: 1) Push pause, get bundled up, and go to the store or 2) Attempt to make gingerbread cookies with no ginger.

It was cold out there, though – really cold! So I chose comfort over perfection and continued on. They couldn’t be that bad, right?

And guess what? They were totally fine – great, actually! You never would have known they were missing anything.

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Traditions are important, especially during this time of year. Many of our fondest Christmas memories were established in those year-after-year events or rituals that brought our families together and inspired childhood wonder and awe. Most of what we look forward to during the holidays is rooted in tradition – whether it’s the lights, the cards, the meal, the music, or the gifts – we all have some ‘ingredient’ that makes us say, “It’s just not Christmas without the _________!”

It wasn’t until I graduated from college and got married that I began to fully appreciate my family’s traditions. Those things we ‘always’ did – like listening to the “Wee Sing Christmas” tape a hundred times, counting the number of houses with lights on Thompsonburg Road, and crowding extended family into a small house for Christmas dinner – that’s what made Christmas Christmas.

Having seen the value in my family’s traditions, I have of course tried to establish traditions with my own children. Over our 10 years as parents, Tim and I have thought long and hard about what we want our girls to remember about Christmas when they grow up. What is it that will make them say, “It’s just not Christmas without the __________!”?

Traditions shape our families and cultures. Their repetition over generations teaches values and a sense of belonging. But they can also result in a load of stress and undue pressure.

Take the life of Joseph, for example. As a Jew, Joseph was born into a culture firm in its traditions – especially when it came to religion and family. His marriage to Mary was likely arranged by their parents and involved a period of betrothal before the celebration and consummation of the union. This “time between was a sort of testing of fidelity with the couple having little, if any, contact with each other.”*

At some point during this engagement period, though, it was revealed that Mary had become pregnant. This obviously would have been a failure of the fidelity test and tradition told Joseph exactly what He should do in this situation – break off the engagement and “expose her to shame” or go even further and seek justice through the law.**

But though Joseph “was faithful to the law,” he also knew the mercy of the God he followed and “did not want to expose [Mary] to public disgrace,” so he decided to “divorce her quietly.” (Matthew 1:19)

However, “after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.'” (v. 20)

Joseph had a difficult choice to make – he could hold onto tradition or he could obey God. Thankfully, he chose God and “When [he] woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” (v. 24)

Joseph “obeyed God’s call even when it went against common sense” and even more than that, he obeyed immediately – potentially cutting short the traditional year-long betrothal custom.** He risked his reputation as a “righteous man” and his standing as a member of his community and culture by obeying what he believed God was leading him to do.

Traditions are important, but, as Joseph showed us, they should never take precedence over obedience. Author Peter Scazzero states that “God’s intention is that we grow up into mature men and women transformed by the indwelling presence of Christ. We honor our parents, culture, and histories but obey God.”*** Yes, even at Christmas, we have to constantly be evaluating whether or not we are obeying God or merely dwelling in tradition.

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A couple days after baking our gingerbread men, I was surprised to discover that we did have ginger in the spice cabinet after all! I had looked thoroughly, but since I was looking for a red “McCormick” container, the beige “Spice Islands” jar of ginger never caught my attention!

That sentimental, “just like the ones I used to know” Christmas may seem appealing, but it’s likely that the love, joy, and peace we are seeking will be found in a different container than we expect. So as we carry on our traditions and attempt to form new ones, we must constantly be seeking God and asking what He wants us to do.

For many years now, we’ve had a tradition of sending out a family photo and Christmas letter. Every year the process of getting that ‘perfect’ photo is a source of stress and undue pressure on my children and husband and writing the letter is a time-consuming project for me.

But if gingerbread cookies can be gingerbread cookies without the ginger, then “Christmas can be Christmas without the _________!”

So this year, we replaced that tradition with a new one. We traded hours of stress for hours of fun together as we baked ginger cookies (my grandmother’s famous recipe) to package up and hand out to our Youth@Hope volunteers and some other people who have served our family so well this year.

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Don’t worry – we had the ginger this time!

*https://gotquestions.org/Joseph-and-Mary.html
**The IVP Bible Background Commentary (New Testament), Matthew 1:18, 1:19 & 1:24-25
***Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero

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Ice

Brrrr… Winter has officially arrived in Pennsylvania. Below freezing temperatures and wind chills are upon us, so get out those warm coats, hats, and gloves – or better yet, just stay inside!

Last Friday morning, I fought the urge to sit in my cozy house and went for a run. The temperature was under 30° and the wind was whipping. After a mile-and-a-half I was still chilled, but it was good motivation to just keep moving!

At one point, though, I looked off the trail and decided it was worth the pause to get a picture of this:

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No matter how much I don’t like the cold, I love ice. The idea of fluid, formless water taking shape and becoming solid is fascinating! The smooth, soft surface of a frozen pond – or even a puddle – reflecting the light of the sun on a crisp winter day = perfection.

Unfortunately, no matter how pretty it looks – ice can also be dangerous! When we were little, my sisters and I knew we weren’t allowed to begin skating on the pond in our neighbor’s backyard until the ice was deep. The air temperature had to be cold enough for long enough to penetrate and affect the water below the surface. We knew (and probably found out the hard way) that some ice may look solid, but if you step on it before it’s fully frozen, you’re gonna get wet!

As Christians, I feel like we should all come with a “Danger: Thin Ice!” warning label. When we first come to know Jesus, we feel a revolution of change as we see our lives being impacted by His love, His grace, and His power. A solid, initial layer of God’s transformative work has occurred.

But, due to the nature of our society and our humanity, it can be really easy to stay there. It can be really easy to make some surface changes and begin to ‘look’ like a follower of Jesus. We learn new behaviors, add some new activities, and season our language with a little Christian ‘salt’ so that we look smooth, sparkly, and solid from afar.

Eventually, though, the pressure’s gonna hit. Maybe it’s just a pebble or a stick someone threw out there and we can handle it. But at some point, someone’s foot is going to come down and we’re going to crack.

This is especially true when it comes to our pain. I’ve seen so many students meet Jesus or experience a revival of their childhood faith in their high school years. They become excited about God, eager to know more about Him, and expect Him to work in their lives!

At the same time, through a combination of their developmental stage and the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, they are becoming more aware of their sin struggles and patterns – as well as the hurt that others’ sin struggles and patterns have caused them. Unfortunately, instead of dealing with their pain – instead of confessing and finding accountability, instead of processing their issues with a mentor or counselor, instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to penetrate to the deep – they put on a surface layer of “God’s got this!” and pretend “It’s all good!”.

You know what happens next – the pressures of college and ‘real life’ start to crack and disintegrate that thin layer of “faith” they thought they had. Some will realize what’s happening and seek out the help they need, some will simply hope to repair the cracks by getting their God-fix when they come home and attend church, but many will walk away from their faith altogether.

When God commanded His people to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength,” (Deuteronomy 6:5) He was telling them that this ‘religion’ was way more than ‘religion’. He wanted to be sure they understood that having Him as their God would go way beyond duty, attendance, and outward morality. As their God, His work in their lives was intended to penetrate to the innermost parts of their entire being.

And it wasn’t just about their love for Him. In the Psalms we’re reminded that His “benefits” apply not just to “sin”, but to our whole lives – our well-being, our emotions, our pain, and our desires (Psalm 103:2-5). Psalm 130:7 says that “with him is full redemption”. His love for us has the power to fully permeate, transform, and restore even the most broken parts of our hearts and minds!

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If you’ve ever looked for a place to skate in the great outdoors, you know that your best bet is to find a pond or lake. The moving water of a river is much less likely to be deeply (and therefore safely) frozen. It’s in the stillness that the water becomes solid.

It’s so easy, especially at this time of year, to just keep moving. There’s so much to do and even when there isn’t anything pressing, we have devices full of entertainment and mind-occupying social media in our hands. We know the pain is there, but it’s so much easier to just say “God’s got this!” and pretend “It’s all good!”

But to stop and be still and allow that wind to chill us to the bone seems uncomfortable and something we’d much rather avoid. We know that if we let God in, it might hurt. We might find there are parts of us we haven’t let Him touch – parts of us that we don’t even realize exist yet. And even worse – He might ask us to take those solidifying steps of accountability, counseling, or making this ‘stillness in His presence’ thing a regular habit.

Yes, God does have this and yes, it is all for your good and His glory. He’s got “this”, but does He have you? Does He have all of you?

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:23‭-‬24)

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Good

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Growing up is hard – especially when you have to learn to do hard things like tie your shoes! Learning how to properly hold those laces, wrap them around each other, and then pull tight without undoing everything you just did can be frustrating. And the fact that you’re usually doing it in a hurry because it’s “Time to go!” doesn’t make it any easier!

Thankfully, for us modern parents, there are now several time- and sanity-saving ‘shoelace alternatives’. One in particular that we’ve made good use of in our family are ‘elastic laces’ – these bungee-like cords thread through shoes like regular laces, but are easily loosened and tightened with the squeeze of a button.

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This summer, after buying a new pair of sneakers for one of our girls, I sat down to replace the laces. When I did this for the first time a few years ago, I found the process to be intimidating – things need to be measured and cut, the plastic pieces are complicated, and it all involves a very specific order of operations! But, having successfully installed several sets over the years, I thought, “I’m glad I’m so good at this now!”

A few minutes later, though, I realized my confidence was unfounded. After incorrectly measuring the first lace, I made the cut too short and once that cut was made – there was no going back. I had to throw it away and start all over again – what a waste! But I think it was my pride that was cut the shortest.

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As a “church kid” I grew up with a solid understanding of “right” and “wrong” and I seemed to have been born with an inclination to follow the rules. Behavioral standards seemed like common sense to me and I can count on one hand the number of times I was spoken to for even coming close to breaking a rule during my elementary school years!

Religiously, I also considered myself “good”. I believed in God, knew all the Bible stories, had perfect attendance at Sunday School, and was nice to people (although my sisters may beg to differ on that one!). If you had asked me if I had a relationship with God or if I thought I was going to Heaven to be with Him someday, my answer would have been, “Of course! I’m really good at this!”

It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that my eyes were opened to the truth. It was during those years that God so graciously allowed me to see how good I wasn’t. I may have been a “nice” person in my actions, but in my thoughts I was judgmental and mean. I may have been a “rule follower” when the world was watching, but behind closed doors I was allowing selfish desires to rule my choices.

By the spring of my junior year of high school I finally understood the truth of Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” It turned out that in all those years of believing I was “good,” I was doing exactly what the prophet warned God’s people about when he said, “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord.” (17:5) With all of my confidence in myself and my “good”ness I was actually turning my heart away from the Lord.

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.” (Jeremiah 17:7)

This truth has always been at the core of our faith, but in our human nature we tend to get things a little twisted up. Those of us who have an easier time obeying certain outward commands tend to think, “I’m good! I’ve got this!”. And even those of us who are on some level aware of our shortcomings still tend to think: “At least I’m trying, right? Isn’t that good enough?”

But if the message you’ve gotten about Christianity is that “good enough” is “good enough,” then you’ve been sold a bill of goods! “Good” isn’t the standard – holiness is – and that’s not something we can ever achieve on our own.

When Jesus came to earth, He didn’t do it to model a “good” life and hope we would try to follow His example. He didn’t do it so He could humbly see what it was like and then return to Heaven to put in a good word for us. He was holy and He gave His holy life as a sacrifice so “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

To “trust in the Lord” by “believ[ing] in Him” is the only way to meet God’s standard. And it’s not just a prayer you prayed the day you first accepted Christ – it’s a present tense, constant, every day and every moment choice!

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Sometimes we look at the Christian life like learning to tie our shoes. We think we’ll just try a few times, figure it out, and then we’ll be “good”, securing our position on God’s good side. But when we put our trust in our our own flesh, we’re actually headed in the other direction altogether.

If someone was to ask you today why you believe you’re spending eternity with God, what would your answer be? That you hope so because you’ve been “good” or that you know so because you’re trusting in Jesus? It’s not too good to be true – it is the truth – and it’s never too late to put your confidence in Him!

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