journey to Bethlehem

[first published December 25, 2014; updated today]

It all started quite simply, well over a decade ago when Sugar was a toddler, and we used the figures of our nativity scene to act out the Bible story for her.  As Mary & Joseph made their long trip to Bethlehem, they stopped along the way to eat.  (We "stopped" with them, sharing raisins to ensure Sugar's rapt attention).

Each year since then, it's gotten a little more elaborate, until it has blossomed into an annual theatrical production - at least for mealtimes.

So every year now the children insist that we spend the day before Christmas "journeying" to Bethlehem.  I play "Mary," my Farmer plays "Joseph," and the children play our nieces and nephew, traveling in the same caravan en route to our ancestral city of Bethlehem, for the census.  Now that Sugar is nearly 17, however, she's more suited to play Mary than I am!  Time for a switch, maybe, and I can be an anonymous middle-aged aunty ....

The details vary from year to year, but most aspects of the journey are fairly constant:

We spread the blanket on the floor and lay out the food in the center.  We sit around the food in a circle, sharing from the common bowls (handmade pottery, or wood, if possible).  Sometimes Joseph (or, more rarely, Mary, who has also been known to fake pregnancy with a pillow) wears a plaid bathrobe to really get into character.  Conveniently, the children all have biblical names and it's only "Mommy" and "Daddy" which are discarded in favor of stage names.

Another part of our tradition is watching The Nativity Story movie throughout the day - just up until the point when Mary and Joseph reach Bethlehem, before they are shown to the stable.  Then Christmas Day, we finish the rest of it.  It's an excellent movie which I can't recommend enough, but in the early years we did mute and/or fast forward through the sections of it that would have overwhelmed our children (scenes with Herod's soldiers rampaging through Bethlehem to kill the baby boys, for instance; there is also a hanging that Mary & Joseph pass, and the taxation scene gets a little intense).  Watch with caution.  Another favorite, more child-friendly, is the gorgeous clay-mation The First Christmas.

As the years have passed, our "simple traveling peasant" fare has gotten a bit more substantial as the children have gotten larger and hungrier.  From the initial almonds, raisins, and bread, the menu has grown quite a bit.  I offer it here, in case anyone else wants a spark of an idea to ignite their own tradition.

Journey Menus
breakfast:  bread, curds (cottage cheese), dried or preserved fruit, milk, almonds.

lunch:  fish (tilapia or swai are inexpensive, and are tasty baked simply with a pat of butter), barley loaves, honey yogurt, olives, pistachios and grapes.

supper:  lentil stew, tortillas, plain yogurt, goat cheese [I also made risotto one year, since growing children cannot live on tortillas alone, and not everyone at this house had developed a taste for lentil stew yet.  Let's just call it poetic license, shall we?]

There are many possibilities for substitutions, and our menus vary a bit from year to year.  Dried fruits that could have come from that region of the world include raisins, dates*, apricots, and figs.  Fresh fruits include grapes and pomegranates.  Nuts could be almonds, hazelnuts, or pistachios.  Dairy products of all kinds would have been common.  Breads were made from barley or wheat, and other everyday foods might have included lentils or split peas, olives, fish, onions, garlic.  In recent years my girls have taken to straining greek yogurt through a cheesecloth to make a soft, fresh 'cheese'.  They sprinkle it with herbs and it looks quite authentic, to our eyes!  Come up with something else?  I'd love to hear about it!

Christmas Day Feast

After a day of eating "simple" foods in recognition of the difficulties of Mary and Joseph's journey, we pull out all the stops for Christmas day!  Breakfast is supplied in the stockings - granola bars, juice boxes, craisins, (and yes, probably some candy too!) - and lunch is normal fare, or journey leftovers.  [Maybe in another few years I'll manage to pull off the 'shebang' of my imagination:  cinnamon rolls for breakfast!  But for now I've got all I can handle with the 'journey'....]

For our supper we feast with a Moroccan dish called Lamb Tagine with Dates (adapted from Betty Crocker's New International Cookbook).  We've made this dish with lamb, beef, chicken, and venison, and it's always delicious.  I've followed the directions to the letter, from browning the meat to adding the dates in at the end, and I've thrown it all into a crockpot at the same time, and it's still always a hit.  I think this recipe is one of those rare ones that you just can't mess up.  Here's the all-at-the-same-time version:

Put into a crockpot:

3 lbs meat (lamb, venison, beef, or chicken all work just fine)
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. saffron
2 cups water
1 T honey
1 cup pitted dates*, chopped (don't use your yummy varieties here; deglet noors will do nicely)

Cook on high 4-6 hours, or on low 8-10 hours.  Or whatever.  Crockpots are wonderfully flexible.  This year I put the meat in frozen around 11 a.m. and am hoping it will be done (on high) by 5pm. (I'll let you know if it's not!)

Serve with naan and millet or amaranth if you're having an energetic year.  If not (like me, most years) then plain rice and a vegetable will do fine.  I have some olives left over from yesterday that I'll put out, and we'll have pomegranates and clementines and dates* (the yummy ones!) for dessert, along with some completely inauthentic Christmas cookies that my industrious children made with my mother one lovely day while I was out.

We've also tried lamb a year or two, with excellent results.  This meat is not only authentic, but also beautifully symbolic, since Jesus is the Lamb of God, sacrificed to take away our sins.  It's also a costlier meat, which reminds us of how costly it was for Jesus, who, "being in very nature God, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness" to give up His place in heaven in order to come to earth. (Philippians 2:6-7)

Merry Christmas, & may God bless us, every one!

* a word on dates:  Your health food store may have medjools (which are a lot tastier than the deglet noor variety usually sold for baking), and other varieties if you're lucky.  Otherwise, is a reliable and cost-effective choice for barhi, jumbo medjool, khadrawy, and halawi varieties.  They also have great customer service and a delightful sense of fun.

harried and helpless

We hear a lot about depression in the media.  If you've never suffered from it (20% do in our country*), you may wonder what the big deal is.  Happiness is a choice, right?  Why not just choose happiness??

I recently asked about depression on facebook, and a courageous friend of mine spoke up about her own experience with depression, with a lack of support from a church family, and with do-able suggestions on how we can be a better support to those whose burdens are too heavy for them to bear. 

Her story touched me.  Whether you have suffered from depression, misunderstood it, or just want to know how to help, I think her words will light the way.  Here is what she says:

Speaking from personal experience, if you see someone who is battling mental illness & depression and they "seem to be bright/happy", care enough to reach out below the surface.

There are times that I give in to the shame and guilt of not having a "good" outlook to make my journey easier for those around me (the ones praying & believing for healing), that I put on a mask and give an Oscar-winning show, all the while, just barely under the surface, I am crying, my heart is breaking, bleeding and slowly dying.

Again just speaking from my own personal experience, I stopped going to church as I would leave every time so beaten down it took weeks for the resulting spiral to slow down. Each time left me farther from God, frustrated, alone, afraid to talk to anyone or let anyone get near me. The pain was so severe. My relationship with God has been better on my own with him. It grieves my spirit that we the church (myself included) can't get this right and love like Jesus did, accept like Jesus did.

We don't need someone to be judging us - we already judge ourselves far worse than you could judge us. We need to be accepted & loved just the way we are - THAT is something we can't or won't do for ourselves. If you haven't gone through this personally, you don't know the depths of darkness, self hate, insecurity, helplessness, hopelessness, pain, loneliness - we aren't going to reach out for fear of being judged & hurt.

You don't need to worry about having the "right" words. Just knowing someone cares enough to reach out means more than you will ever know, when someone is willing just to spend time, listen if we want to talk. More than likely we may not want to talk right away. That's okay - talk about your life, things you may struggle with (that will help us feel like you might be human also ).

If talking freaks you out, we understand that too. There are other things you can do that don't require conversation:  Send a card, make a meal or snack to send us. Shovel snow, see if there is something else we need help with. Send or tag us on funny stories, pictures or videos. Find things we have in common, have a game night, movie night, mini golf, whatever.

Spending time helps us feel like maybe we are worth something, maybe someone won't judge us, maybe someone would actually notice if we weren't here (Notice, but would that be a relief that you don't need to do stuff with/for us anymore? Would anyone have taken the time to get to know us on a deep enough level that someone would actually miss us for longer than the funeral? . . . These are the things that keep me up at night.)

There is so much more churches could do to help walk alongside those who are struggling. The church as a whole I think does better with illnesses that have a fairly clear path/time frame. Chronic illness - mental and physical - the church needs and MUST do better. Those with chronic illness mental or physical (for me it's both physical & mental) suffer mainly alone in silence. It's hard for people to understand something that is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, with no clear treatment timeline.

If that overwhelms them how do you think it feels for us?

All that to say, sometimes I make the choie to put on the "happy face mask" and then the acting and lies start: "I'm doing good," "I feel great," etc. It might look like I'm happy & doing good, but it's not even skin deep.

Living that life is exhausting, but helps block some of the pain/judgment from those around us, because that takes a lot out of us. It's painful to watch others accept who we are pretending to be, instead of who we really are, so we opt to not attend social events.

Many of you will probably attend a church tomorrow.

For every 100 people in your church, 20 of them are likely to be currently suffering from some form of anxiety or depression, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

If there are 20 people in your small group, or in your Sunday School class, it is statistically likely that 4 of them are suffering with sadness and fear beyond their ability to manage.

                        How do you perceive their suffering? 

                        How do you act in the face of their pain? 

                        How can you help? (How might you harm?)

"When Jesus saw the crowds, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." Matthew 9:36


*Statistics from the ADAA website:

~ Major Depressive Disorder: about 6.7% of the U.S. population age 18 and older suffer in a given year.

~ Persistent Depressive Disorder:  approx. 1.5% of the population suffer

~ Seasonal Affective Disorder: 6.8% of the U.S. population suffer

~ Generalized Anxiety Disorder: 3.1% of the U.S. population suffer

~ Panic Disorder: 2.7% of the U.S. population suffer

thoughts on mothers

Today is Mother's Day.

In recent years the internet has been peppered each May with articles disparaging the insensitivity of Mother's Day and its conventional celebrations.  It's a day fraught, for some, with strong feelings of loss for what they did not get, and sometimes, resentment toward those who did.  I have stood on both sides of this fence:  although today I love and feel loved by my mother, for many years our relationship was characterized by conflict and misunderstanding.

Just yesterday, I read for the first time a story about two orphans who discover a temporary escape from their unloved life of hard labor:  a red bird leads them to a magical land of eternal spring, called Sunnymead, to which they daily steal visits during the brief weeks in the winter when they are permitted to leave their work in order to attend school.

Watch as the orphans discover Sunnymead:

Then Matthew and Anna followed the other children across the meadow to a little cottage, and there was Mother. 
You could see that it was Mother: she had a mother's eyes and a mother's hands, and her eyes and hands were enough for all the children who crowded around her.

She had cooked pancakes for them and she had baked bread, she had churned butter and she had made cheese. The children could eat as much as they liked of everything, and they sat in the grass to eat. 
"This is the best food I've eaten in my whole life," said Anna. 
.... They said thank you for the food they had eaten and Mother stroked their cheeks and said, "Come again soon!"

Although this is not their own mother (she died when they were young), this Mother represents all that is good in Sunnymead.  She feeds them food made with her own hands (the farmer for whom they work gives them cold potatoes dipped in herring brine, and they are always hungry).  She speaks kindly to them, her hands are gentle.  In Sunnymead there is love, abundance, welcome, color - the opposite of everything in Myra, where they live in grey poverty and want of all kinds.

Before winter ends, Matthew and Anna make permanent their escape from the hardships of life:

.... And Matthew took her hand and led her through the door, into the everlasting spring of Sunnymead, where the tender birch leaves smelled so sweet, where a thousand small birds sang joyfully in the trees, where the children sailed their bark-boats in the spring brooks and ditches, and where Mother stood in the meadow calling, "Come, all my children!"

You may be suspecting that Sunnymead serves as a metaphor for Heaven, and you're right.  (If you know the story, you'll remember that the orphans' eventual "escape" comes through death from starvation and cold, but we'll leave that for a different post.)

Do you see what, for them, constitutes Heaven?  Warmth, sunlight, color, nature, play, food, and love.  

Love personified by a Mother.  

"She had a mother's eyes and a mother's hands, and her eyes and hands were enough for all the children", writes the author, and regardless of our own experiences of motherhood (received or given), we don't have to be told that "a mother's eyes" are kind and accepting, and "a mother's hands" are gentle and giving.

No, this is not always the case with biological mothers, but the very fact that we grieve the lack of gentle hands and accepting eyes tells us that we know the way it should be, the way it's meant to be.

And isn't that what Mother's Day really celebrates - the way a Mother should be?  Not one among us had a perfect Mother - or is a perfect Mother.  

No one deserves the cards.

Not one, of the many mothers I know, even comes close to our aspirations for motherhood.  We feel our failings on a daily basis.  And yet, the love we have for our children makes us yearn - strive - to be more than we are - more accepting, more gentle, more loving, more kind.  

Surely we all - no matter what kind of mother we've had, or been, or been unable to be - can relate to that desire to love well, to love better than we have it in us to love?

If, this Mother's Day, you mourn the loss of your dream of motherhood (whether the giving or the receiving), can you lay aside your lack, and join the ranks of those who are cheering on the mothers who are trying, with whatever they've been given, to be a Mother, in the richest sense of the word, in that way that we all long to mother, and be mothered.

Let's make Mother's Day a time for us to encourage each other, however and whoever we mother, to have "a mother's eyes" and "a mother's hands", and above all ...

... let's give thanks to the only One who can lead us closer to that goal, and who alone is "enough for all the children."

And I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have the power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide, and long, and deep, and high, is the love of Christ, that you may know this love that surpasses knowledge, and that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  {Ephesians 3:18-19}

one homeschooling Monday in February

The three daughters' silence has a conspiratorial quality to it, and I find out why when they come around the corner with this agreed-upon question on their grinning lips:

"It's warm, Mommy! Can we have off school today?!!"

I send them off to do a little school-log math, and they come back to tell me that if they do 16 and a half days each month till May [when a full month is 20 days], they will still have enough for the required 180 by years' end.

Well, how can I refuse that?

So today, when I badly need a nap from last night's restless-leg-inspired insomnia, my children will all be outside helping their Daddy with aquaponics construction, and enjoying the eastern version of the Chinook.

Thanking in a new week (an old habit, happily revived):

That I did eventually sleep last night, albeit on the sofa, four hours after I first went to bed.

That my Farmer wasn't disturbed by my restlessness.

That I am so loved by him.

That it's warm today, and I have children who love to be outside.

That they love to help their Daddy!

That there is grace for me to recover today.

That this season of change could birth a few new habits to help me.

That I am learning to trust.

That "not my circus, not my monkeys" applies to so very many situations!

That gratitude doesn't need numbers.

That good friendships don't need seafood bisque, brownies, chex mix, crab dip, coloring books, British comedies, antiquing, and good conversation to flourish, but it sure doesn't hurt.

That I daily receive undeserved gifts from God, who is the giver of all good things.

That the sun colors the sky morning and evening, summer and winter, and the moon and stars glow in their places, because He loves us.

That God sends his rain on the just and the unjust alike.

For mercy.

life is short

{written yesterday morning}

I am 42 years old today.

I'm sitting in my bed, glasses on and hair ferociously ruffled from sleep, waiting for my children to bring me breakfast in bed.

Just fruit, I told them two days ago when they asked if they could.  I have a cold.

It's Day 15 (or so) of this cold, and although I said this a week ago, I think it really is on its way out, now.  It has been a most terribly thorough cold:  sneezing, congestion, fatigue, runny nose, postnasal drip, dry cough, productive cough, nasty disgusting hacking cough, wheezing, sore throat, laryngitis - you name it, this cold has served it up!

But!!  Its days are surely numbered, as are all of ours ....

I feel reflective on this first day of my 43rd year of life.  Where have I been, and where do I want to go?

An older and wiser woman asked me last week if I was mentoring anyone.  When I said no, no one had asked me to, she confidently told me that someone would, this year.  Would I be ready if someone does?

A friend earnestly called me "so wise" a few days ago.  Could it be true?  I wondered.  Has God begun to answer that fervent and frequent prayer of mine?

A younger friend complimented my way with words and suggested I start a blog.  :)  Will I get any closer this year to my half-hearted goal of writing a book by the time I'm fifty?

.... And speaking of fifty, it's quite chilly this time of year in our un-insulated, unheated, north-side-of-the-house bedroom.  My Farmer's alarm clock thermometer reads 50 degrees!

I hope there's coffee with that breakfast....

I don't know what the children got me for my birthday, but I asked my Farmer for coloring books, and my own set of colored pencils.  I could use new spatulas, and potholders, and maybe a silicone baking lid for my 9x13, but life is too short (and I am too old to waste opportunities for joy) to ask for household items for my birthday.

Sunlight is coming in one of the five windows in this room, yellowing the white muslin curtains and casting the illusion of warmth a few feet into the room.

I find that it's easier to be reflective when my nose and cheeks are not quite so chilly ....

Then they traipsed up the stairs, all five of them singing "Happy Birthday."  Lil' Snip came first, carrying a green bell for me to ring if I needed anything.  Sugar carried the breakfast tray.  They'd brought me a kiwi (cut in half), a clementine and two chocolate pretzels arranged on a glass dish, a banana, a gold-rimmed glass bowl of grapefruit sections, a mug of coffee, a tiny lit candle, and a Russell Stover chocolate from someone's Christmas stash.

There was also a basket of gifts, borne proudly by Nice.  Torn wrapping paper and bows lie beside me now in a pile on the bed.  My loot:  a bar of dark chocolate (wrapped with great cunning to disguise its shape), a king-size package of Reese's Peanut Butter cups, silver cherry-blossom stickers for my wall or mirror, and a small rose-scented jar candle.

I used that bell, of course.  When my coffee mug got empty, I rang, and all four children tumbled over each other trying to get to me first.  Spice won (no surprise, there), but the others came up anyway, to see what I might want.  I like that bell.....!!

All that's left now on my tray (a laquered Japanese tray painted with carnations and, in gold characters, a verse from 1 Timothy - a wedding present from our church in Wakkanai) are the skins and peels of my fruit and an empty coffee mug.  (I ate the Russell Stover, and the chocolate-covered pretzels, despite my professed belief that sugar is not good for a cold.)  The candle shines on the windowsill now, against condensation from the cold outside the pane.

It's 8:37, an absurd hour for a mother of four to still be in bed, unshowered, but there are a few more thoughts in my head I'd like to get down on paper before I bustle into my day and lose them forever.

You know how you plan backward for cooking a meal?  "I'll need 30 minutes prep time, and then the chicken will need an hour in the oven, so I should start about 3:30....." - ?  Well, the same woman who asked me about mentoring told me she does her life that way - sort of  goals backward, year by year, event by event, by asking herself "At the end of this, what will I want to look back on?"

So I've been thinking about that.  Next year on my birthday, what will I want to look back on?

... I would like to see how I watched patiently and trustingly for God's plan to unfold in my Farmer's livelihood.  I want to have prayed, full of faith, for heavenly wisdom for him as he made decisions, planned, and worked, and I want to have trusted him to make wise choices.

... I want to have learned how to trust God, how to be free from needing to control or manipulate (or even, always, to understand) the actions of others around me.

... I want to have gotten back into reading Scripture.  God, open the way for me to satisfy my hungers in you!

... I want to have reached a place of easy camaraderie (or even, please God, wholly renewed friendship) with my estranged friend.

... I want to have found physical restoration:  my strength back, my zest for living restored, my joy firmly in place and spilling exuberantly and life-givingly onto all who need it.

... I want to have found a hairstyle I can live with!

... I want to have discovered and embraced and refined a structure for my days that balances my needs for creativity, beauty, novelty, and order, and enables me to fill my roles as a woman, a wife, a mother, a teacher, daughter, sister, friend, member of a congregation of believers, etc., etc., all in a wholesome way.

That's what I want to look back on, next year at this time.

[I don't ask much of a year, do I?]

The coffee's all drunk up now.  The wrapping paper thrown away and the presents stashed in a safe place.  The bell's back in its place (till Mothers' Day).  I don't know what all I'll look back on in a year, but today, I'm looking back on a day of feeling loved.

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