Less is More

Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after the wind.” Ecclesiastes 4:11 ESV

About eighteen years ago, Judy Stock, the owner of “Wonderful World” coffee shop in Sheboygan, WI, was a marketing genius. She sold addictive caffeinated drinks for mothers, coupling it with a live folk music half hour for children. Judy played her banjo and jaw harp, singing children’s songs, while I sat at a table with friends, drinking a latte or espresso shake. After spending one morning at “Wonderful World”, I decided to bring home a new treat for my husband: chocolate covered espresso beans. After a little coaxing, Terry tried one bean and found it to be delicious. Six hours later, Terry lay in bed wide awake, realizing eating a small bag of espresso beans right before bed was not the best idea.

The Christmas season is in full swing, with Black Friday gone and the hours left for Cyber Monday slowly dwindling. My home is fully decorated, with gnomes and reindeer having taken up residence. The Piano Guys are on repeat, while my favorite “Jolly” mug is filled with coffee. I love how Christmas makes my home feel: softer with the white garland of pompoms that drapes across my favorite sign, calmer with twinkle lights that add warm glow, and more peaceful with baby Jesus laying in the manger.

Photo Credit to Margaret Collins

For the past few years, I have been changing how I approach Christmas. Too often, Christmas was a season of me trying to capture all the magical moments I could. These included baking dozens of cookies, hosting a hot chocolate party, writing out Christmas cards, trying to squeeze in all the wonderful events in the community, watching all my favorite Christmas movies, and reading some Christmas favorites. Christmas didn’t feel calm or peaceful, it felt like a lot of hustle and bustle. Even typing this list causes my heart to race faster and my anxiety to increase. None of what I was doing was bad or harmful. They were all wonderful additions to add to the merriment of the season. But just like too many chocolate-covered espresso beans that kept Terry awake, too much of a good thing can end up causing some unnecessary stress.

Now, I approach Christmas trying to do less, and finding it gives me more. I buy less, not because I don’t enjoy gift buying, but am more intentional with what I buy. I watch less, because I want to be more present with my husband, by reading a book aloud, or putting together a puzzle. I bake smaller amounts, because I want to have more energy at the end of the season instead of being in a sugar coma. I participate in less activities, making more space to have time for reflection on the true meaning of Christmas.

To be honest, I still do way too much. I haven’t mastered this. Just this past Thanksgiving weekend, I was about to bake two different types of donuts and a muffin for brunch. My wise daughter stepped in and reminded me that two different donuts and a muffin were not necessary. I compromised by only making one doughnut and a muffin. This honey nut squash muffin with maple bourbon glaze was an involved recipe, requiring a long list of ingredients and multiple steps, but resulting in only six muffins. In the end, I was the only one who loved the pseudo-nutritional muffins. I could have saved myself some time and effort by keeping it simple, making only one doughnut.

Coco Chanel, the famous designer, told women when they were accessorizing their outfits, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” I’ve heard interior designers, writers, artists, and chefs echo the same thing about their craft: eliminate one item on your shelf, one sentence in your blog, one flower in your painting and one ingredient in your dish. This simple elimination of one item, makes the room more cohesive, the blog more concise, the painting more beautiful and the dish more balanced. I think Coco Chanel’s philosophy is not only applicable to creatives, but also to our ordinary lives. We need to create room in our lives for wholeness, beauty, and balance. And for some of us who add a lot of extra in our life, maybe we just need to eliminate one thing in our holiday traditions.

This year, as we were putting ornaments on the tree, I realized that we had too many ornaments for our now smaller tree. We got rid of some we no longer liked, simplifying our tree a bit. I even put less on some shelves and kept some of my décor packed away. I think this simplification helped create the atmosphere of warmth, peace, and calm in my home. I want the feeling of peace and calm that is reflected in my décor to be reflected in my heart as well. This will only happen if I continue to simplify my life. So, once again, I am emphasizing that less is more this season.

If you find yourself already feeling anxious and it is not even the first of December, maybe try to follow Coco Chanel’s advice: look at your calendar and eliminate one thing. And, just maybe, this will help the season be calmer and more peaceful for you.

Daily Gratitude

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances;” 1Thessalonians 5:16-17

Thanksgiving is almost here. My menu has been planned, house has been cleaned and I have already started prepping for the big day. All my family will be here in a few hours. This has always been one of my favorite holidays, indulging in some family favorites while expressing gratefulness to God for His many blessings. Its time spent around the table, laughing, reminiscing, and remembering God’s faithfulness.

 About ten years ago, I read Ann Voskamp’s “One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are”. It chronicles her spiritual discipline of recording God’s simple gifts every day. These are not limited to a surprise visit from a friend, or an increase in pay. Instead, these blessings are found in the mundane events of an all-too-ordinary life. This practice shifts her focus to God, and, in turn, transforms her thinking. Ann writes, “And when I give thanks for the seemingly microscopic, I make a place for God to grow within me.” She later concludes, “A life contemplating the blessings of Christ becomes a life acting the love of Christ.”

I would love to encourage all of you to rush out and buy your own copies of this book. Read it not just once, but maybe make it a habit to read every couple of years. Underline passages that speak to you, take notes, and ponder her thoughts. However, I recognize her poetic prose may not speak to everyone. So, I will share with you, in my not so poetic prose, how practicing the spiritual discipline of gratitude has changed my life.

Photo Credit taken by Terry Collins

I have a bright orange “Wake Up & Be Awesome” journal that I have been using to record my daily gratitude. Sunlight usually streams through my window, as I sit in my favorite chair with a cup of coffee, reflecting on the previous day. I think about what has transpired and record thoughts like “looking at baby clothes for my grandson”, “puddles of maple syrup in my oatmeal”, and “the soft glow of my pink salt lamp.” Some days, thoughts come quickly, and I record them with passion and joy.

 But, like most people, some days, tears blur my vision and it’s hard to see any blessings. Those are the days when disappointments seem like mountains, hurts feel like stab wounds that bleed continuously, and God seems so far away. Yet, I force myself to write in my journal that almost mocks me with its brightness. I sigh deeply as I consider what I can write that would express sincere gratefulness. And then, a moment flashes in my mind. It might be “a simple text from a friend saying she was thinking of me”, or “a hug from my husband that made me feel safe”, or a “picture of Joel up to mischief that Rachel sent”. Although my situation may not have changed, the simple act of writing down blessings shifts my focus from what is hard to a reminder of God’s faithfulness and promises. These holy moments result in miracles of peace and contentment inside my soul.

I’ve learned that gratitude is easy when blessings flow, life is smooth, and all is well. However, I have also learned that gratitude is easier when life is hard if I have cultivated the practice on a regular basis. Like all habits, it can be hardwired into my brain to respond to all situations with a grateful heart. This is not ignoring the tough situations or viewing them through rose-colored glasses. Instead, it is reframing them through the eyes of God and His perspective. It doesn’t erase the hurt or pain, but it reminds me that God has a plan, and His plans are good!

My brightly colored journal will be filled at the end of this year. For my birthday, I received a new grateful journal from my son and daughter-in-law. It’s not bright yellow, but snowy white with the words “Simply Grateful” etched in gold on the cover. This guided journal has a space not only to write down what I am grateful for in the morning, but also space to reflect in the evening. I am excited to start a new practice, ending my day with written thoughts focused on God. I’ve seen the fruits of daily taking a few moments of being grateful, and I eagerly anticipate the work God will do in me when I end my evening reflecting on Him!

Thanksgiving, by its very name, is the holiday focused on being grateful. Yet, in 48 hours, my fridge will be filled with leftovers, autumn decorations will have been taken down, and Christmas merriment will have begun. But, as I continue the practice of thankfulness in my daily life, true thanksgiving will continue to lead to eternal rewards! And that is a discipline that keep on giving!

Don’t Yuck My Yum!

“So God created man in his own image” Genesis 1:27

A few weeks ago, I spent some quality time with my six-year-old nephew and seven-year-old niece. We explored a museum, fed lettuce to giraffes, played a few games, and read lots of books. Like most children (and even most adults), they have definite opinions on what they like to eat and often voiced their disgust about certain types of food or cuisine. My sister, in trying to teach her children that not every opinion needs to be stated, has a family saying, “Don’t yuck my yum!” The motto came in handy when my niece and nephew commented on the smell of Indian food. I quietly reminded them, “Don’t yuck my yum!” However, it backfired on me when I told them that I didn’t like baked beans and my niece said, “Hey, that’s my yum!”

The concept of being created in God’s image is an old one, found in the very beginning of the Bible. But, until recently, I hadn’t fully comprehended the implications of what it meant. I understand that, as humans, we all have intrinsic value in the sight of God. What I didn’t understand was that all of us bear His image. Yes, we are individuals with different personalities, likes, interests, talents, styles, and tastes. But these differences should not separate us! Instead, these differences reflect different aspects of God and His innate creativity. For example, some lean toward the extrovert side of the scale, while others lean toward the introvert side. Both extroverts and introverts reflect the image of God and neither way of operating in the world is better than the other. Like the pieces of a puzzle, God made each of us different so that we could work together in community, allowing our differences to complement each other, create something beautiful, and illuminate God’s glory!

Photo Credit to Margaret Collins

Mother Teresa once said, “If everyone could see the image of God in his neighbor, do you think we would still need tanks and generals?” I am not using this quote to engage in a discussion on the validity of the military, but if I extrapolate it out and apply it to my little corner of the world, I ask, “If I could see the image of God in my neighbors, would I be so quick to judge or label them?” The answer to this simple question changes my world in several ways.

 First, I need to align my definition of “neighbor” with Jesus’ definition in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The good neighbor reached out to someone who would have rejected him under normal circumstances. Too often, my neighbors are people with whom I share similar histories. It is easy to drop off a meal to a friend, but harder to reach out to someone who is not in my current circle. But isn’t this exactly what God expects me to do? He doesn’t encourage us to love our family and friends, He charges us to love our neighbors, those who are different from us.

Next, if I see them as an image-bearer of God, I am less inclined to see their differences as difficulties or obstacles for me to overcome. Even more so, I need to activate my curiosity in getting to know my neighbor, hearing their stories, and learning to understand their differences. These differences are shaped by their life, and, more importantly, their experiences need to be validated by God through me. As I become more curious and express genuine interest in their lives, I will be able to establish a relationship with them and love them the way Jesus loves them!

Finally, when I see others as image-bearers, it widens my view of God’s kingdom. When used to bring glory to God, our different talents and giftings can be more effective for the kingdom of God! For example, for years I thumbed my nose down at graphic novels. I considered them sub-literature. But a few podcasts that I love have extolled the virtues of a few well-written graphic novels. It has caused me to change my opinion and be more open-minded. Although I personally connect with the writings of C.S. Lewis and Ann Voskamp, others might connect better with a Christian graphic novelist. God can be reflected in any kind of writing, and I need to validate that and be willing to surrender my opinions and learn something new.

My sister is using the simple catchy phrase “Don’t yuck my yum!” to help her children be more polite. In a world that has become increasingly divisive, applying this phrase in my life is helping me to work at maintaining peace. I am choosing not to engage in polarizing opinions and choosing to listen to the heart of others who may have different opinions. I am looking at differences as an opportunity to learn and cultivate discussions. I am choosing to see my neighbors as image-bearers of God!

Fall into Beauty

“The grass withers and the flowers fail, but the word of our God endures forever.” Isaiah 40:8

 It is the beginning of November with peak fall colors painting the landscape in southern PA. The brisk air invigorates me as I go about my daily walk, pausing occasionally to pick up a perfect leaf flaming in red and orange. I share Emily Bronte’s sentiment that “Every leaf speaks bliss to me/ Fluttering from the autumn tree.” This has always been, and will always be, my favorite season. The colors, smells, tastes and textures of autumn create this atmosphere of energy coupled with a sense of coziness that is hard to describe. It’s the time of the year when I wish life was a musical and I could sing about pumpkins, bonfires, and sweaters. As long as I live, I will never stop extolling the virtues of fall.

In looking back at previous blogs, I realized that I have written opposing perspectives relating to fall. In 2019, I wrote To Everything there is a Season about learning to let things go.  In 2020, I wrote about Autumn Abundance to remind myself of the importance of living an abundant life. In many ways, I think autumn is the season where we handle dichotomies with the most ease in our natural rhythms. The temperatures are dipping, as we welcome cozy sweaters and warm blankets. Trees drop their leaves, while squirrels dash to preserve seeds that may become future trees. The final days of harvest fill bins at the markets, while fields have become barren wastelands. The flowers on my patio slowly wither and die back while forests create the most magical displays of colors that I could ever hope to put in a vase!

The deeper significance of these dichotomies is in remembering that even as things die, there is still beauty to be found somewhere. I’ve seen this play out in my life repeatedly. This summer was a hard season due to some medical issues we faced. Vacations were cancelled, some dreams were put on hold, and goals had to be redefined. Yet, in the middle of the hardship, my husband and I managed to pick blueberries at Yellow Hill Farm, a local business that is as delightful as its name. I also made some syrup and froze some berries to be used later.

 Last week, we again faced some hard situations we have little control over. I admit, I was feeling stressed and a bit hopeless. As we ran some errands last Saturday, my mind was whirling around, analyzing the situations. and coming up with worst-case scenarios in my head. One of these errands including picking up a variety of apples at a local orchard. I went to bed that night, desperate for a sign that God was hearing my heartache.

That Sunday, God ministered to me in a deep way in my Life Group, the small groups our church uses to foster community and spiritual growth. After asking my friends to pray with me, I felt God was comforting me and reminding me that He was orchestrating things behind the scenes. Although nothing has changed and the situations remain uncertain, I have a peace that God IS working!

Photo credit by Terry Collins

 Monday morning, I took the blueberries of my hard summer and the apples of my challenging Autumn weekend and made what I call a taste from heaven: Blueberry Vanilla Applesauce. I have been known to hide bags of this in the freezer and pull them out in secret, hoping my family won’t know it’s available. It takes what was a boring childhood staple and, elevates it to a decadent treat for adults. As I was stirring the pot, the beautiful bluish-purple sauce bubbled, creating a combination of flavors only God could imagine. I then realized that my two hard seasons had made something beautiful.

Below I am sharing this simple recipe. I hope as you make this recipe, it reminds you of some of the hard moments in your life that God has made beautiful. And if, like me, you are still facing hard moments, that it reminds you that God is still working. Lysa Terkeurst wrote this thought in “Forgiving What You Can’t Forget”: “What things look like from an earthly perspective God sees differently.”   I see hard situations, but God sees growth and beauty!

Blueberry Vanilla Apple Sauce

4 lbs. of apples, I use a variety of sweet and tart apples, peeled, cored, and diced (around 12 cups); 2 c. blueberries, fresh or frozen; 1 T. fresh lemon juice; 1/2 c. unsweetened apple cider; 1T. vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste

Combine all ingredients in a large pot. Bring liquid in bottom of pot to a boil over medium high heat. After it comes to a boil, lower to medium heat and cover, cooking for 45-60 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes until apples are soft. If you want a smooth apple sauce blend in batches in a food processor. I prefer mine a little chunky. Freezes well for a year.