Advent 1: Season of Hope

“And now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in You.” Psalms 39:7

I watched my siblings open their enormous packages under the tree. They exclaimed with delight as paper, boxes, and bows flew around the room. Opening my small packages, I was confused about the obvious discrepancy. The only thing I had asked for that Christmas was a boom box, which seemed rather unrealistic at this point. I dreamed about using my paper route money to buy cassette tapes playing my favorite music in the privacy of my bedroom. I choked back the tears and expressed gratitude. One of my parents suggested I bring my gifts up to my room, and I complied, happy to escape. I opened my door and, much to my surprise, I found the very gift I longed for, a shiny boom box! Almost forty years later, I can still remember the hope, despair, and the joy that transpired that evening.

This week is the beginning of Advent, the Christian tradition of preparing themselves for the coming of Jesus. They celebrate it through calendars, daily devotions, artwork, music, lighting of candles, poetry reading, and even special ornaments. In the past, my experience with Advent was limited to the cheap cardboard calendars filled with even cheaper candy, not understanding the purpose or history. A few years ago, Terry and I incorporated this spiritual practice into our lives. Much to our surprise, it changed our perspective on Christmas and inspired feelings of expectations and wonder. In the next four weeks, I am going to focus on one Advent word each week, sharing with you how God is using that word to transform my life.

Hope is used throughout the Bible. In the book of Ruth, Naomi told her daughters-in-law to return to their families because she had no hope for the future. Job expressed his despair by saying he had no hope. In the Psalms, David lifts himself above difficult circumstances by reminding himself that he “should rest in hope” and find his hope in the salvation of the Lord. But even more than a word occasionally used in scripture, the whole Bible rests on hope, the hope of a Savior to bring reconciliation and restoration from sin.

Paul defines hope a little more clearly in Romans 8. This chapter is full of the gospel, reminding us we are not debtors, but orphans adopted into God’s family. He reminds us that suffering will happen in our lives, not as punishment, but as opportunities to show God’s glory. He then mentions hope three times in one verse. Verse 24 states, “For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees?” He continues in verse 25, “But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.” Hope, translated from the Greek word “elpis”, means “a joyful and confident expectation of eternal salvation”. According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, it can also mean “that in which one confides or to which he flees for refuge.”

It’s easy to have confidence when the blessings of God are flowing, our health is good, and our family is whole and happy. But this is not hope, it’s actual evidence we can point towards. Hope is when everything is not going well, yet we remain joyful and confident that God is working all things out for our good. Hope is last Christmas, where I found myself in spiritual darkness parallel to the dark December days getting shorter. It had already been a tough year that seemed unending. In a few weeks, Terry lost his job, leaving us without income for six weeks. My uncle Dennis died unexpectedly, and a gift I gave was rejected. Every time I thought I couldn’t handle anything more, something else would happen. I can’t say I smiled extra brightly that season or acted hopeful. But I remember at one point my perspective shifted, turning towards the Lord, choosing to believe that light would shine again in my dark world. I was confident my uncle was with his Lord despite the hard sorrow I felt. I saw God provide miraculously for our needs despite our empty bank account. Terry eventually accepted a new position, and I worked towards accepting the rejection with grace. But none of this happened until I began hoping for light in my darkness.

For four hundred years, God was silent, with no prophecy or evidence that He was still blessing the chosen people. At the time of Jesus’ birth, the nation of Israel was under Roman rule, losing their national identity and faltering under the burden of high taxation. Despite this season of darkness, hope’s fingerprints cover the accounts of Jesus’ birth. It starts with the genealogy of Jesus found in Matthew. He records four women in this lineage: Rahab, Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. When you read the Biblical accounts about these women, you find out that each of them has a broken story, filled with despair and mistreatment by society. Yet, by placing them in Jesus’ lineage, we have hope that, despite our own broken stories, we can be a part of the family of God. Hope continues in the story of Zachariah and Elizabeth who were long past childbearing age. Visited by an angel, they were promised a child who would foretell the coming of the Messiah. Hope is declared in Mary’s words, “Be it unto me according to your word,” even though she faced so much uncertainty. Hope is found in Joseph’s acceptance of Mary’s status and the rumors about her impending birth. The shepherds chase after hope to find a baby swaddled in a manger. The wise men follow hope for miles to bring gifts to an unlikely king. Hope resonates in the voices of Simeon and Anna, two older people who waited and recognized the Messiah after years of studying or serving in the temple.

Yet, hope didn’t end with the birth of Jesus. It didn’t end with Jesus’ life of ministry and miracles. It didn’t end with his death and resurrection. It didn’t end with the infilling of His spirit inside of me. Hope continues in the promise of his second coming, when we are united with him forever, where all suffering, tears, and pain ends. And the writer of Hebrews says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.”

My 1980s boombox is probably still decomposing in a landfill. This item that I hoped for, felt despair over, and later felt joy over while listening to music, doesn’t exist in my home. It’s a memory of a bygone era, where cassette tapes are archaic and radios with antennas are mostly obsolete. My hard Christmas is also gone, but there is no guarantee that my life will be full of ease and comfort. Death will come again, as will rejection and disappointment. But my hope is not based on the ease of my situations, it rests in my declaration of trust in the only one who is faithful. And in Jesus, I find a place of refuge despite my circumstances.

I close with the song, “After December Slips Away” by First Call. I hope you listen to this song and let the words minister to you as they do to me every Christmas. Advent is a season that ends quickly, but “no matter how many hopes come true, I know that all I have begins and ends with you”.

Let Them Eat Pie

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” James 1:17

The French peasantry looked to the extravagance of their king and queen with envy and resentment. They could barely feed their families, often making hard choices of which child would get the largest piece of carrot in an already thin soup. The peasants began to protest while begging for bread, the staple of their diet. This eventually led to the French Revolution, and the guillotine for the monarchy. Years later, the queen, Marie Antionette became immortalized with her callous response to the peasants, “Let them eat cake!” Although there is no historical record of her using these words, the euphemism has been used in any situation where someone is being oblivious to the plight of others.

Years ago, the leader of a weight loss program handed out a paper plate to each of us. She encouraged us to think about our goals and not let the holidays sabotage our efforts. We were to envision our Thanksgiving dinner and write down the foods that were most important to us, calculating to stay within our prescribed limits. She also suggested recipes to help us stay focused, such as crustless pumpkin pie. I left the meeting, taking my paper plate with me, resolved to stay in these preconceived limits. And it’s quite likely that I succeeded, that year.

But not all years have been what I deemed a success. I have vacillated between two spaces. The so-called successful years I spent time analyzing my caloric intake for Thanksgiving. Other years, I ignored calories, eating to the point I felt physical discomfort. The energy I spent analyzing my food intake was wasted by not being present with my family and friends. The amount of time I spent overeating and feeling ashamed of my discomfort also took time away from family and friends. One way or the other, I have either felt anxious about the impending holiday or felt guilty after the holiday.

I have heard a lot of interesting comments since I have lost weight. Most have been related to my appearance like, “You look great!” While I appreciate those compliments but the ones that have meant the most have not been related to my appearance. These included, “I bet you feel better” or “I am sure it is easier for you to get around.” But the compliment that stands above all others came from my sister, Cheryl. She said “Sherry, you are so much stronger than you were before.” That word “stronger” echoed in my mind, articulating the feeling that I hadn’t been able to name before.

I’ve been learning more about intuitive eating versus following diet culture. I’m just in the beginning stages of doing research and in no way have I formed any opinions. But I do know God doesn’t want me to live in this place of anxiousness and guilt. I do think it is important to be healthy, but I no longer want to define health by the numbers game. Feeling healthy should be defined by my energy levels, flexibility, and strength. God gave me a body as a blessing, to help me do the work He’s called me to do. As with all blessings from the Lord, He requires me to be a good steward.

What does it mean to be a good steward? It involves having a relationship with Jesus and allowing Him to speak into all areas of my life. Some areas include the principles of Jesus’ teachings like living in moderation, being anxious for nothing, making sure nothing becomes an idol, and seeking wisdom. I also think, “food is good gift from a good God”, as stated by Asheritah Ciuciu in her book, “Full”, is an important concept to remember. It’s also about finding the right balance, and not allowing either gluttony or deprivation, to control me.

Thursday is Thanksgiving, once again. I am going to be surrounded by family and friends, enjoying each other’s company while feasting and expressing gratefulness. This Thanksgiving, I want to reclaim the phrase that embodied callousness. Instead, my cry for Thanksgiving is, “Let them eat pie” without judgment and condemnation. “Let them eat pie” without calculating how much exercise I will need to work off the whipped cream. “Let them eat pie” with a reasonable portion that satisfies and is accompanied by laughter and good conversation. Finally, “Let them eat pie” with God’s blessings without making the pie the idol!

No More Disclaimers

“It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man.” Psalm 118:9

We have all seen the television ads for new drugs that will deal with any number of diseases. They typically show a video of a healthy woman or man whose lifestyle has been altered since starting this new drug. They are now playing with their grandchildren, building a deck, or dancing with their loved ones. At the end of the ad, for a solid fifteen seconds, the announcer rapidly reads off the list of disclaimers: this drug is unsuitable if you have any history of heart disease, any time in Southeast Asia, any history of high fevers, etc. The disclaimers are important, because not every drug works for every person. But as they rattle off the list, I start to lose confidence in the drug’s effectiveness.

Thanksgiving is next week, and my table will be spread with turkey and all the fixings. Preparation will start early, with some dishes being made a few days earlier. It is a challenge to get everything on the table at the same time, even if you have a double oven. Renowned chefs say it is one of the hardest meals to prepare well. After everyone is seated at the table, I find myself criticizing my food: apologizing for the turkey’s lack of flavor, or if the stuffing has too much celery. The “I’m sorry” or other similar disclaimers continue when I serve pie and coffee at the end of the meal. This habit is not just limited to the Thanksgiving table. I regularly apologize about the meals I have prepared for my family and friends.

It’s a habit that even carries itself beyond meal preparation. My daughter-in-law, Rachel, and I tripped over each other with the words “I’m sorry” when I was at her house for two weeks. Whether it was forgetting to thaw out a meal, or thinking a dish didn’t turn out right, it was a race to say, “I’m sorry.” At one point, we both recognized the absurdity of our apologies. She just had delivered a baby, and was navigating recovery, nursing, and lack of sleep. I was there to help make her life easier by cooking some meals, cleaning the house, playing with Joel, and getting baby snuggles. There was no need for apologies, and even though we declared a moratorium on “I’m sorry”, they continued.

The words “I’m sorry” are important. They signify a recognition that your actions were hurtful or disrespectful towards someone else. I should apologize when I respond harshly to my husband. I should display remorse when I treat a friend unkindly. I should ask for forgiveness when my actions were intentionally harmful. But they lose their meaning when I apologize for something that needs no apology.

Why do I feel a need to apologize to others when I am serving or providing a meal? By nature, I am not a perfectionist. I’m okay if my sheets are not folded perfectly, or if my silverware drawer is a little awry. And, although social media pressure to be a perfect hostess may play a role in my apologies, this habit was in place long before the inception of Instagram. Additionally, it’s a habit I see manifest itself more in women than men. If a man offers to help out his buddy with mowing his lawn, you will rarely hear him say, “Sorry, I didn’t get those perfect lines in your grass.” What are the roots of this obsessive need to apologize?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, it’s my fear of disappointing others. I apologize in advance, because I want to lower the perceived standards I believe others hold for me. It’s my need to stay in their good graces and to find approval. And this puts unhealthy pressure on my relationships with family and friends. My approval needs to be found in my relationship with God, not with others. God calls me to serve, not to have perfectly salted chicken or chili with the perfect amount of cumin. I should always do my best, but God doesn’t demand perfection.

Julia Turshen, one of my new favorite cookbook authors, wrote in “Simply Julia”, ‘“Disclaimers don’t taste good. If something didn’t turn out how you planned it, there’s no need to tell your guests what the original plan was. Just say, “dinner’s ready!” You made someone a meal! That’s a gift.”’ Those words struck me! When I am hosting and serving, I don’t need to offer any disclaimers. I am offering the gift of help and/or hospitality. My goal should not be to create a perfect meal, but to create a place where the other person feels welcomed and important!

Finally, just like hearing the disclaimers of a new wonder drug, when I am on the receiving end of a friend’s disclaimers, it makes me feel a little uncomfortable and a need to praise excessively. Food then becomes the object of the hospitality, not the company of my good friends.

This Thanksgiving, I am hoping to offer no more disclaimers, but to enjoy the company of my family and friends. I will not apologize for my turkey or make excuses for the stuffing or make a disclaimer for the pie. Instead, I will be enjoying my family and friends, extolling the goodness of God!

Magical Thinking

“You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples.” Psalms 77:14 ESV

We sat across the table from each other, both of us eating our apples, dipping his into peanut butter. Landon, my favorite five-year-old, smiled with his vivid blue eyes and thick eyelashes and said, “Sherry, do you want to know something? Sometimes I feel magical!” He continued sharing with me how he feels like he has wings that allow him to fly over his world. I texted his parents and my husband, sharing with them this delightful insight.

I spend a lot of time with children. It seems as if God always puts little people in my path. I can take the high road and claim that I am a blessing to a lot of different families, often serving by providing childcare. This may be true on some levels, but these little people help me keep my sense of wonder, delight, and curiosity.

Landon Horne with his magical thinking, Credit to Frankford Photography

Feeling magical is a way of viewing your circumstances in a beautiful or delightful way, removing yourself from everyday life. I think this little man’s statement is not only delightful, but full of pure wisdom. Too often, I get so caught up in my list of things to do, goals to accomplish, and places I need to be, that I forget to dream and imagine life differently. I forget my limitations are not based on external circumstances, but on ones that I place on God.

Two weeks ago, I saw one of my favorite local farmers advertise a job for another organization they partner with. I followed the link and read the description. The job fascinated me, combining all my current passions in one position. I told Terry about the position but listed reasons I shouldn’t apply for the job: no experience, no recent positions to share transferable skills, and no applicable references. All I had was a lot of passion, energy, and a lot of research. Terry encouraged me to apply for the position. I wrote an interesting cover letter and submitted it with my updated resume.

For the past year, I have been living in a place of waiting: waiting to move, to finish my book, to start a new blog, to get a job, and to become more involved in my community. So many obstacles seem to be in my way, like the reasons I listed why I shouldn’t apply for the job. I ordered in my mind how things should happen: first, I need to move, then I will get a job and then I will get involved in the community. But if I apply Landon’s magical thinking to my circumstances, maybe A doesn’t have to happen before I do C. Maybe I just need to dream big, but still put my hands to work with all the opportunities that God has given me. Maybe I need to stop treating this like a waiting period, and trust God for good things to happen in my life.

The Bible is full of men and women who placed qualifications on how God should or should not do something. Moses believed that his stuttering would hinder him as God’s spokesperson, but God still used him to lead his people out of bondage. Esther was afraid that she didn’t have enough influence with her husband, the king, but God still used her bravery to save her people from annihilation. And Martha told Jesus that if he had been there earlier, her brother would not have died. All Martha could see was the dead, stinky body of her brother laying in the tomb. But Jesus envisioned a miracle of epic proportions, thanked God, and then called Lazarus forth. For the first time, a man who laid dead in his tomb for days, had risen from the dead. This miracle spread throughout the community, arousing more curiosity about the carpenter from Nazareth.

I received a reply for the position, and although I can’t say for certain, I don’t think I am in the running for the position. But applying for this position has opened my eyes to new possibilities. I am going to volunteer with some local organizations. I am going to stop treating this like a waiting period and organize my time better to accomplish the many opportunities God has given me. I am blocking time out to finish my book, so that I can move it towards publication. Finally, I am going to trust God in some of the big things we need to happen, including moving, and declare His miracles when it happens.

Landon, I, too, sometimes feel magical. It doesn’t involve any superpowers like having wings. Instead, it is learning to trust God and His plans.

Resilience with Mashed Potatoes

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:” Ecclesiastes 3:1

Terry’s family had a secret to “holiday-worthy mashed potatoes”. Being a new cook and wanting to incorporate their family traditions into our newly married life, I followed their secret: one can of evaporated milk. I had never even heard of evaporated milk before, unsure of where to find it in the grocery store. As a novice, I opened the can, spilling the thick grayish milk all over the counter. But I continued, wanting to impress my new family. I peeled seven pounds of potatoes, diced them, and cooked them until tender. I softened butter and began mashing them, adding the canned milk until the right consistency. Salted and peppered, I served them in my grandmother’s red Pyrex bowl on the table. But while others were indulging in the feast, I plopped the glossy looking potatoes on my plate, disappointed by the gummy texture and quickly apologizing to everyone, knowing I had made better potatoes in the past.

This tradition continued for years with the same results, until one year I had a revelation: it was the canned evaporated milk that ruined the holiday potatoes. And from that point on, I decided to break with that tradition: I was making mashed potatoes my way. I started by switching the potatoes from russet to golden. I added cream cheese, along with half-and-half and butter, to add a slight acidic tone to the potatoes and give it body. The potatoes were still served in my grandmother’s Pyrex dish, but they looked light and fluffy, and tasted amazing. That was the first year I didn’t apologize for my mashed potatoes.

November begins the holiday season for our family. I usually start breaking out Christmas music in early November. We typically have our Thanksgiving feast late afternoon and put up our Christmas tree the day after. In the past, our house was full of Christmas cheer, spilling out in every room. As a family, we watched certain movies and read certain books that, for us, embodied the Christmas spirit. I baked dozens of cookies and made candy that filled platters during the holiday season. And for eight years, we ended the season with a big bang: a huge Hot Chocolate Party with homemade peppermint marshmallows!

Traditions are important, they help anchor us and create a sense of community and family. But they are not meant to be so inflexible that they lose their value. I spent years making these “traditional family mashed potatoes”, hating one of the most important dishes of the Thanksgiving meal. The crazy part of breaking this tradition, my father-in-law, the inventor of the “traditional family mashed potatoes” commented on how delicious my new mashed potatoes were.

Change is hard and, like most people, I dread the notice Apple gives me when they say my phone is due for an iOS update. I know that along with the so-called benefits of these updates, I may have to adjust to a new way of operating my phone. These changes are uncomfortable and sometimes unwanted. The word change itself seems to evoke unpleasant emotions. But, like my iOS updates, seasons change in my life, and I have an opportunity to either embrace these changes or cling to the past. I’ve explored this topic before in To Everything There is A Season, but I think it is something that bears repeating. And I also think its time to choose a different response to change.

Resilience is a buzzword I hear often in podcasts on spiritual growth and mental health. It means the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties or the ability to spring back into shape. I believe it’s the antidote to change in my life. I can choose to cling to the past or be resilient, not only embracing the changes, but creating a different reality. Elizabeth Edwards faced a lot of changes in her life including the death of her son, a presidential campaign with her husband, and, later, her husband’s infidelity while facing a terminal cancer diagnosis. She said “Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.”

This is our first holiday season as empty nesters, and I am choosing to be resilient. I am letting go of some old traditions and looking forward to creating new ones with our family. We are moving Thanksgiving to an earlier lunch and eliminating the huge brunch to accommodate schedules better. We will be celebrating our Christmas early, due to our Rhode Island family being here only at Thanksgiving. I have streamlined our Christmas décor, and we will be watching less Christmas movies. I will still bake, but am looking forward to maybe having smaller, more intimate groups of people over rather than the huge Hot Chocolate Party. And yes, I will still be making homemade peppermint marshmallows, because I love them! Finally, Terry and I are choosing to create a new Christmas Eve tradition, one with books, chocolate, and candles.

Reader, I recognize that being an empty nester and adjusting to new traditions during the holiday season may seem trivial to some. I know that some of you who read this blog may be facing the first holiday season without a loved one due to a death, or maybe you are facing a health crisis, or maybe life is just hard. I, too, have faced hard seasons. And maybe, this year, there is one tradition you need to continue with to make sense of the chaos swirling around you. But I encourage you, hard season or not, take some time to do an “iOS update” on your traditions. Do they serve you and your family well? Do they add to the chaos on your life, or do they bring joy? And if you decide to let go of some traditions, do something different to add joy to your life. And just maybe this new thing, will become a new tradition!