Thursday, December 31, 2009

Teetering on the brink of a new year

Every year, the week after Christmas is filled with advertisements for products and services that promise to help you get in shape, get organized, get out of debt, and quit smoking.

(Which means every year I get to feel a little smug that there's one group of products I can ignore.)

But this post isn't the typical list of New Year's resolutions.

In 2009, things happened in my life that threw me for a loop. 2009 held up a mirror and showed me I have some stuff to tackle.

The biggest thing 2009 showed me is that some things are completely outside my circle of control, or even influence.

So I've decided 2010 is the year I begin picking my battles more carefully.

Because those things that are outside that circle of influence?

They're not my battles to fight.

Basically, I'm praying the Serenity Prayer. All year long.


Friday, December 25, 2009

The Nativity

Giotto di Bondone, Nativity, c. 1305-1315

The Nativity
C.S. Lewis

Among the oxen (like an ox I’m slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with the ox’s dullness might at length
Give me an ox’s strength.

Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Saviour where I looked for hay;
So may my beastlike folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.

Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some woolly innocence!


Thursday, December 24, 2009

How we see(k) Jesus

Today is Christmas Eve.

Though gifts may still need to be wrapped (or purchased!), chances are good your Christmas decorating is done.

For many of us, our seasonal décor includes a well-lit Christmas tree standing proudly in the living room, stockings hanging from the mantel, and a nativity scene set up in a quiet corner.

In that crèche, Joseph stands tall enough to bump his head on the stable's doorway; Mary's fair hair is complemented by her pale blue wrap; Jesus' skin is the color of a glass of milk with a single drop of strawberry Quik.

I confess, I struggle with artwork that portrays the holy family as if they were Nordic, rather than middle-Eastern. I hope this is more a concern for historical accuracy than it is pride in my own Jewish ancestry, though I can't say for sure.

Does our depiction of Jesus in artwork influence how we see Him?

I recently ran across an article that takes a different look at this issue. In the article, Elrena Evans tells how a Bible was produced in Mumbai last year which was "the first to be produced by Indians, for Indians in simple English."

Evidently the illustrations, including one depicting the holy family as poor Indian villagers, offended some groups. Their outcry resulted in revisions being made prior to the Bible's second printing last month.

Sidenote: A second printing, a year after the initial print run, in a country whose Christian population is 2.5%! That deserves some celebration, don't you think?

Evans points out:
Remaking Jesus to look like us isn’t a new phenomenon. Any number of famous Madonna-and-child paintings depict the Holy Family looking about as historically accurate as I look fastening a head covering over my red hair to play Mary in my church's Nativity play. Mary in a sari isn’t any further from what the actual Mary probably looked like than I am.
She's right. A trip to a decent-sized art museum will show that painters throughout history often rendered biblical characters to look more like the artists' contemporaries than robed-and-sandaled middle-Easterners.

Maybe we need to think of it another way. Have a listen to the song posted below (lyrics below the video) — especially the final verse.

Some Children See Him
Wihla Hutson & Alfred S. Burt

Some children see Him lily white,
the baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
with tresses soft and fair.

Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav'n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
with dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,
this Savior whom we kneel beside.
some children see Him almond-eyed,
with skin of yellow hue.

Some children see Him dark as they,
sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
and, ah! they love Him, too!

The children in each different place
will see the baby Jesus' face
like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
and filled with holy light.

O lay aside each earthly thing
and with thy heart as offering,
come worship now the infant King.
'Tis love that's born tonight!


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmastime is here

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Growing up, I didn't hear much Scripture.

My family didn't attend church, didn't read the Bible, didn't pray, and didn't discuss God.

But every Christmas, two things happened:

We watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, with the famous scene where Linus recites from Luke 2.

And we played Harry Simeone Chorale The Little Drummer Boy, an album that connects songs using narrated passages from both Old and New Testaments.

Though we ignored Scripture the rest of the year, these two traditions put biblical truth in my head.

Last Sunday afternoon, we had some friends over for lunch. After the meal, we sat in the living room chatting while Christmas music played in the background.

At one point in the conversation, one person said he wasn't sure how he felt about non-Christians singing sacred music like Handel's Hallelujah chorus, since they don't really believe the words.

I responded by pointing to my own experience of hearing God's word within these two annual traditions from my childhood.

Now, when I listen to either album, I'm immediately reminded that I heard His word over and over as an unbelieving child. Although it would be several years before I picked up a Bible and began to believe its words, somehow I didn't reject them in that setting.

More importantly, I'm reminded of the truth that God's word will accomplish what He sends it to do, even if we don't believe the words at the time.


Monday, December 21, 2009

God bless us every one

I love the story of A Christmas Carol.

We own at least five versions of the movie, and have seen several more renditions of the story on stage and screen.

Each version emphasizes different points — some take a more humanistic approach (i.e. Scrooge had it in him the whole time), and others focus more closely on the story's supernatural aspects (i.e. it took a spiritual awakening to force Scrooge to give up his greed and think of someone other than himself).

Some versions do a better job than others at setting the stage for Scrooge's redemption, unshrinkingly depicting the poverty, filth and horrors of London during the mid-to-late 19th century.

Still, we stubbornly cling to an idyllic, Department 56-like vision of Victorian London.

For example, the 1980 movie Ordinary People contains a line that captures this notion of idealized perfection. The scene shows Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore) trying to convince her husband Cal (Donald Sutherland) that going away to England for the holiday is the right thing to do: “You know what I think? I think Christmas in London would be like something out of Dickens.”

I've seen the movie a few times, and every time I hear that line I think, "Huh?" I mean, what part of his work, exactly, would make one want to vacation in Charles Dickens’ London? Is it the air filled with coal smoke and soot, or the streets full of starving orphans and excrement? Puzzling.

In a recent article entitled The Darker Side of A Christmas Carol, Lisa Toland points out that Dickens' London was "a world more brutal than we sometimes imagine," and that his work was actually a "social tirade" intended to "awaken Britain's collective conscience."

We're far removed from Victorian London. Content to see only the charms of Dickens' writing, we may miss the application in our own day.

Who is Tiny Tim in our time? Toland answers compellingly:
While poor children in developed nations are mostly those living in former industrial centers, worldwide poverty and exploitation have even more faces. These are the modern-day Tiny Tims....

The culture of workhouses still exists, though under a different guise. Exploitive child labor and abuse are alive and well. And human trafficking, which preys especially on children, is a reality. For these children, the workhouse may be a house of prostitution. All of these things make our society look much like Victorian London. Fortunately, many governments, relief organizations, and the church—through various ministries and local congregations—are actively combating these hidden injustices.

Between the horror of reality and the fanciful coloring of his characterization, Dickens's classic maintains the power to awaken our social conscience. Yes, we are drawn to the romance of the Victorian Christmas, but we are also gripped and moved by A Christmas Carol's dark portrayals of real life, then and now.

For Scrooge, the ultimate moment of self-examination comes on the third night of his haunting, when he is visited by a silent, grim spirit. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come leads him to a forgotten graveyard and points to a plain slab of stone engraved with Ebenezer Scrooge. At that moment, sinking in his own grave, Scrooge experiences the desolation of death without the promise of redemption.

Then, having glimpsed the ultimate terror, the spirit returns Scrooge safely to his bedroom, where he bursts with joy, immediately calling out his window to arrange the delivery of an enormous turkey to Bob Cratchit's home—one tangible fruit of Scrooge's regeneration.

It's an ending filled with hope and implicit moral exhortation. Scrooge's newfound compassion pushes Dickens's readers of every age and culture to pursue their own courses of charity. For there will always be faces pressed against our windows.
If the Spirit of the One who is Christmas Past, Present, and Future is leading you to make a difference in the life of a Tiny Tim, here are a few organizations to consider:

Compassion International
Heifer International
Women At Risk, International
World Relief
World Vision


Friday, December 18, 2009

7 Quick Takes: Volume 3

Even though this is supposed to be 7 Quick Takes on unrelated things, a theme seems to have emerged today. See if you can pick it out.

(The idea of 7 Quick Takes Friday comes from blogger Jennifer Fulwiler, who hosts it weekly at her site, Conversion Diary.)


This may seem odd in light of my recent post about Santa, but one of my favorite Christmas songs is Kay Starr’s classic jazz tune (Everybody's Waitin' For) The Man with the Bag. This song is so fun, and Starr’s rendition of it can’t be beat (like Etta James’ At Last — often imitated, but never duplicated). Her style is laid-back and perfect, and the band is spot on.

Here it is, set with a slideshow of vintage Christmas cards. Enjoy!


Have you noticed how music affects your mood? It’s like it bypasses the thought process and takes a direct path to the mood center of the brain. I haven’t read any research on this (yet), but I’m convinced there’s a connection. And I’m surprised that connection isn’t being tapped more in the mental health field.


Last weekend I sang in my church’s Christmas program, as I mentioned in takes #4 and #5 here. Although I’ve been singing in choirs for years, this was only my second time performing Hallelujah from Handel’s Messiah. This was a contemporary arrangement, with electric guitars and a rock beat, but still very much the classic Hallelujah chorus.

This time, I discovered something I'd never noticed before. I sing alto, and generally really enjoy it, even though alto parts are notorious for being dull. (Look up Alto’s Lament on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.) Many composers and arrangers seem to like having the alto section sit on one note for long periods. Handel (or at least this arranger) was no exception — toward the beginning, our part rides on an A for a couple of pages.

But later on in the piece, the altos become the utility players. Near the end, we sing “King of kings” with the men, and while they’re holding out their notes, we jump up and sing “Forever, and ever” with the sopranos (on our notes, not theirs, thankfully), and again on “Lord of lords”… “Forever, and ever.” You’ll hear it beginning around 4:57 of the Silent Monks’ video I posted Wednesday.

It’s very fun, and made me think Handel may have appreciated altos for more than our ability to ride a single note forever… (and ever… Hallelujah! Hallelujah!).


If you asked me about my favorite Christmas album of all time, I'd have to say it's Vince Guaraldi Trio A Charlie Brown Christmas. Even though the kids are pretty off-key in places. Even though it's played in restaurants and stores beginning before Thanksgiving. I just never get tired of it.


I often joke that when they start playing “your” music in the grocery store, it's a sign that it’s time to make a reservation for the home. Yeah… my grocery store has been playing my music for a while.

So this week I ran across another sign of my age. (Who am I kidding? I didn’t “run” across it. At my age, I walk carefully and methodically, lest I stumble and fall and break a hip.)

On Tuesday I went to see my doctor for a checkup. My husband had an appointment for his annual physical at the same time. (It’s a group practice.) As we were waiting for the receptionist to check us in, he pointed out a doctor he’d met on a previous visit, one of the practice’s newer members.

Now, when I say “newer,” I want you to know I mean it in every way. This doctor is young. Boyish. I wanted to ask him if he’s shaving yet.

My husband (evidently reading my thoughts) murmured, “I think he’s in his thirties” as I silently mouthed, “He’s twelve.”

Hopefully I won’t get sick when he’s on call. I’m not sure I'm ready to be cared for by Doogie Howser, M.D.


On the plus side of this whole aging thing, I’m looking forward to being able to holler at kids taking a shortcut across our corner lot, “Hey, you, get offa my lawn!” (And yes, I believe that’s exactly what Mick Jagger yells at trespassing youngsters.)


I’m totally kidding about #6. My husband already has that territory covered.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Happy Holidays...

Have you ever wondered what the connection is between Hanukkah and Christmas?

"OK, Pam," you're thinking, "I'll play along. Let's see... they're both December holidays that involve candles and gifts."

Yes, excellent observations. Thanks for humoring me.

Of course, because of my Jewish heritage (my dad's side), I come to this question with perhaps more interest than the typical Christian. And still, I'm just discovering the connections myself.

I'll give you a few hints:




This year, Hanukkah is celebrated from sundown Dec. 11 through nightfall Dec. 19. May I challenge you, during this season of celebration, to find out a little more about the link between these two holidays?

Here are a couple of articles to help out:

Do They Know It's Hanukkah? Christianity Today
No Hanukkah, No Christmas Chosen People Ministries

Happy Holidays. And I truly mean that.


Friday, December 11, 2009

7 Quick Takes: Volume 2

Last week, I tried my hand at a 7 Quick Takes post. Let me know in the comments if you like this feature enough to see it every Friday.

(The idea of 7 Quick Takes Friday comes from blogger Jennifer Fulwiler, who hosts it weekly at her site, Conversion Diary.)


I’m realizing how many of my post titles are taken from songs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… but I wonder, is it a cop-out? Or does it make a nice lead-in to the post?

Your opinions are welcome.


A couple of weeks ago was the anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. He died a week shy of his 65th birthday, on Nov. 22, 1963.

Most people are astounded when they learn that Lewis died on the same day as John F. Kennedy. I know I was.

It’s been said that Lewis was a very private man who didn’t want a big fuss made over his death, so the fact that media attention was elsewhere would have suited him.


I considered posting to mark the anniversary of Lewis’ death. (Is there a less cumbersome way to express that? Deathday — too morbid. Death anniversary? Yikes.)

Two things stood in the way of that (or any) blog post that week: first, a school project and exam prep for the final week of my addictions class (see take #7 here); second, extra rehearsals and the annual concert of the community choir I sing with. The performance fell on the anniversary itself.

Blogging definitely takes a back seat with all that going on, but I feel bad not to have acknowledged the date, since C.S. Lewis is probably my favorite author of all time. I hope to do better next year.


Tonight and tomorrow, I’m participating in my church’s Christmas program. It’s set up as a dessert theatre, and the production includes seven songs with the main choir, as well as several solo and ensemble pieces. It’s intended as an outreach, and I’m praying people will see and hear the real Person who is Christmas. (And I don’t mean Santa.)


Prior to the main part of the program, our small a capella group will be dressed in Victorian-era costumes, portraying Dickens carolers, roaming from table to table, singing for the guests in each part of the room. We’ll be singing contemporary arrangements of traditional carols.

For some reason, I'm finding it very amusing to sing a 21st century arrangement of an 18th century carol while wearing a 19th century outfit.


If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you know I have issues about poor punctuation. (If you know me personally, you know I could have ended that sentence before the final phrase.)

I will confess to a fondness for all things spelling- and grammar-related. (Note: I do not claim to be perfect at it.)

Of my (many) pet peeves, homonym misuse is near the top. I’ve even thought of launching a Web site that would guide visitors through their homonym confusion.

(I mean, come on, people… my Slovak friend figured out the difference between threw and through; surely a native English-speaker can get the difference between sight and site.)


One great thing about reading people’s blogs is this: I get to develop tolerance. Every time I see someone use it’s when they mean its (or vice-versa), I get a chance to take a deep breath and demonstrate grace by not blasting that person in the comments.

Although maybe I'm not growing as much as I think I am. To quote one of my favorite bloggers, Jon Acuff, “If you make a point of telling someone you ‘took the high road’ in a situation, you're probably already off it.”


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

I need a little Christmas

I've had a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit this year. It's been a rough year in some ways, and I'm just not feeling it.

Not feeling like decorating, shopping, baking, putting up a tree... nothing. (That beautiful wreath-decked door in the picture? Someone else's house.)

Even my bright red sweatshirt — screenprinted with Mickey Mouse wearing a Santa hat — isn't doing it for me.

(Yes, I am that woman — the one who wears something seasonally appropriate every day from Thanksgiving through Christmas. Or at least, I was once. The sweatshirt is a souvenir of those days.)

In the movie One Magic Christmas, the main character is a woman so discouraged and beaten down by her circumstances that she can't even bring herself to wish "Merry Christmas" to those around her.

It's a twist on the It's a Wonderful Life story. Unlike George Bailey, who got a chance to see what things would have been like for others if he'd never been born, Ginny Grainger gets a chance to see what life would be like for her without those she loves. Just like George, Ginny's outlook changes, even though her situation doesn't.

George's attitude adjustment came courtesy of an angel named Clarence, a man who died in the 19th century and had been awaiting his wings ever since. Ginny is also visited by an angel, a cowhand from the old West who drowned while rescuing a child.

When I watch movies like this, I wonder: where did we get this idea that angels are actually people who've died? Every Bible passage about angels is clear they are a creation entirely separate and different from human beings. Yet the myth persists.

Obviously, screenwriters are taking their cues from somewhere other than Scripture.


And just like that, I have the solution to my problem.

I think I'll go read Luke 2.


Saturday, December 05, 2009

Stocks: still a good investment

This is the life-changing recipe I promised in yesterday's post.

This is not, nor will it ever be, a food blog. But I like to cook. There's one thing I make all the time that makes me feel like a rockstar in the kitchen, and it couldn't be simpler: stock.

(You might call it "broth" at your house, but there's a difference.)

In fact, I'm amazed more people don't make their own stock. In this age of conserving resources (or recycling, pick your favorite term), stock is the ultimate conservation project.

You're basically taking stuff you'd normally throw away and making more food out of it. (OK, that didn't sound right...) When you buy stock in the grocery store, it will set you back at least $3 for a quart. And for what? Water that's had bones and vegetables and herbs and spices simmering in it.

It couldn't be easier to do: take the remains of a roast chicken (it doesn't have to be homemade — a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store works well too) — bones, skin, wingtips, etc. — and toss them into a slow cooker. Scrub a couple of carrots and a rib or two of celery, cut them in two or three pieces, and throw them in with the carcass. Wash an onion — no need to peel it, but do remove the label if it has one — cut it in half, and throw it in. Add a few whole peppercorns, maybe a bay leaf and some thyme. Cover the whole thing with water, slap the lid on, and cook it on low for several hours or overnight.

(Edited to add: I prefer to use a slow cooker because I don't have to monitor it. Traditional stock recipes instruct you to periodically "skim the foam" off the top. For whatever reason, that instruction put me off the whole idea of stock for a long time. But with a slow cooker, foam doesn't happen — a bonus for those of us who like our cooking low-maintenance.)

(Sidebar: I once read that fancy restaurants have a stock pot going all the time, and they toss in various peels, ends and trimmings of vegetables and herbs as they're prepping. Carrot ends, onion skins, fresh herbs that are a little past their prime, even salad greens... as long as it's not too strongly flavored and there's not too much of one thing, it goes into the pot. I adapted that approach, and gather that stuff in a ziploc bag for stock-making day. If we haven't had a roast chicken that week, I make vegetable broth. Same process, shorter cooking time.)

In the morning, turn off the heat and let the cooker and its contents cool down a bit. Strain out the solids (you'll be discarding them) and pour the liquid into a large container. Refrigerate for several hours, then strain the solidified fat off the top.

Violà — chicken stock! (The method works for turkey, too.) You'll note that you just made about $10 worth of stock for the price of a few veggies. Not only that, but you're in charge of how much salt and other flavorings are in it.

You don't have to use it right away — stock freezes well. I'll sometimes pour it into ice cube trays, freeze, then pop the frozen stock cubes into a freezer bag. This makes it easy to grab exactly as much as I need.

What's stock good for? Well, besides the obvious applications like soups and sauces, stock is a great way to add flavor to a lot of things you might otherwise use water for (like rice or couscous). And some dishes (like risotto and polenta) usually call for stock.

So make your own, and you can be a rockstar in the kitchen too!

If you're here from the link on Fiddledeedee, welcome!


Friday, December 04, 2009

7 Quick Takes

Lately I've been struggling to find blog fodder. Well, not really struggling to find it as much as struggling to piece together a coherent train of thought that leads to a single conclusion, instead of a random smattering of unrelated weirdness that leads nowhere.


7 Quick Takes.

The idea here is to take the stumpy little ideas that are floating around in a blogger's head, gather them into a tidy group of seven (why seven? Well, why not?), throw a number above each one, and call it a post. The beauty of this is, it doesn't have to lead anywhere. In fact, it's almost better if it doesn't!

Well. As all my friends know, I have no trouble coming up with pithy observations about random stuff.

So I'm giving 7 Quick Takes a shot. Sing out in the comments if you think it should be a regular Friday feature.

(The idea of 7 Quick Takes Friday comes from blogger Jennifer Fulwiler, who hosts it weekly at her site, Conversion Diary.)

OK, enough introduction. In the words of Peter Pan, "Off we go!"


Somehow I overlooked the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall on November 9th. I really should have blogged about it. I'm still amazed that it happened.

I visited Europe as a kid, and in my mind, I can still see that horrific wall standing as tragically solid as it did in 1972. But there's a section of it permanently installed in the lobby of our local public museum that reminds me that it's down. It's a surreal experience every time I see it.


And speaking of walls...

I've blogged about removing the wallpaper in my master bathroom. I haven't, however, blogged about finishing that project. That's because I haven't.

I stalled out partway through the project and haven't been able to bring myself to get back to it. Which means the walls look like an unholy mess. (My fingernails, however, look great!)

It seems the original paper was applied to walls that had not been primed first, so removing it has taken hunks of the drywall paper off. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to get the walls smooth enough to look good under semi-gloss paint.

But I may have found the solution in... more wallpaper. This time, it's paper that looks like old-fashioned beadboard, which is a look I've always liked.

Maybe this project will eventually be completed!


I've been reading the archived entries of a blog called The Julie/Julia Project. This is the blog that became the book that became the movie Julie & Julia (...that lived in the house that Jack built).

It's interesting to see the blog page, formatted just as it was in the movie. Reading the blog is almost like being there and watching the whole thing unfold. But that by itself wouldn't be enough to keep me interested. Julie Powell is just a really good writer.

Here's the link to the first post in The Julie/Julia Project. (If you follow it, be forewarned that Julie uses four-letter words as liberally as Julia Child used butter.)


Speaking of food... and blogging... and blogging about food...

This isn't a cooking blog, but there's something I make all the time that is so simple, so basic, so fundamental, and yet so mysterious to most people, I feel I must share. It's life-changing.

I'll post a recipe soon. Like maybe tomorrow. Stay tuned.


And now, for something completely different.

Christian psychologist Phil Monroe recently blogged about psychological testing. He observed that people tend to either: 1) overestimate the value of tests, or 2) dismiss them altogether.

I've seen several tests used in different settings, and of the two camps Monroe talks about, the people in the first camp scare me the most.


I went to the library last week. That in itself is no surprise — I go there often. But when I looked at my stack of books, I realized I had unintentionally gathered no fewer than five books on self-improvement in various forms. Evidently I'm gearing up for some serious New Year's resolutions.


I just completed my first course toward an addiction counseling certification (CAADC). Since I've worked and done research in that area, I felt like I already knew quite a bit about addictions and substance abuse. Oh, how wrong I was.

The class I just finished dealt with some of the physical aspects of substance use. I've been away from that aspect of the counseling field for several years, so it wasn't a surprise that much of the information about stimulants (or uppers) and depressants (downers) was new.

But when we got to the chapter on alcohol, I thought I was in familiar territory. I was in for a shock. I knew about alcohol's effect on the liver, but I was stunned to read about the toll long-term heavy drinking takes on the heart. (Trust me, you're glad I didn't post a picture here.)

I also had no idea about the dangerous potential of heavy alcohol use in combination with seemingly safe over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen, ibuprofen... and aspirin. It seems the first can lead to liver failure, and the other two can lead to serious intestinal bleeding.

And yes, armed with these new bits of information, I'm a wonderful party guest. All set for New Year's Eve.