It’s OK To Say “Happy Holidays” To Me.

I’m only dimly aware of the ongoing ‘debate’ and (largely manufactured?) outrage over supposed ‘wars on Christmas,’ which is possibly the least-endangered of holidays celebrated in America, but my friend Michelle Van Loon’s excellent post, “Sexy ‘n Spiritual Tees For Jesus” (doesn’t the title just make you want to click?) reminded me that that’s a thing. She writes:

“purchasing Jesus-y fan swag isn’t too far removed from more familiar consumer expressions of Christian team loyalty: boycotting retailers who say “Season’s Greetings” instead of “Merry Christmas,” or lining up around the block to buy deep-fried chicken sandwiches as a sign of solidarity with a Christian business owner. All of these decisions share an underlying assumption: The world will know us by our consumer purchases.”

American Christians are excellent at wielding their considerable consumer power to protest the atrocity of non-religiously-affiliated companies offering non-specific holiday greetings to customers in an increasingly diverse and non-religious society, but, as I hinted in my article on the Bangladesh factory fires, many are slower to embrace things like concern for justice and fair trade: these things smacking, as they do, of “liberalism.”

I, for one, don’t have a problem with “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings,” even though we mostly only celebrate Christmas (New Year’s Eve is for people who either don’t have kids or for people with kids that actually sleep in once in awhile). After all, there are quite a few Christian holidays in this ‘season,’ even if they’re not all popularly celebrated among Anglo-Americans. There’s St. Nicholas’ Day, St. Lucia Day, and Three Kings Day…and that’s before we even get to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

Have you ever been in a foreign country when they’re celebrating a holiday that’s not one you’ve ever even heard of, much less celebrated?

When we lived in Germany, we experienced a few of these. The shops are closed, everyone is celebrating in their homes or even in the streets (the Germans love their fests) and you are sitting there alternately wishing that you could be in on the fun or that the grocery stores would be open and you could get on with life.

If someone said “Happy [Whatever] Day” to me on one of those festagen, especially without inviting me to share their festive celebrations, I would have felt even more excluded.

Screen shot 2013-12-11 at 3.56.49 PM

Not everyone celebrates Christmas, but if you do, trust me: saying “happy holidays” to people, especially if you aren’t sure they celebrate Christmas, isn’t a betrayal of your ‘values.’ It’s a friendly way to let other people in on the joy you feel this season without wishing them something that amounts to “Happy [Whatever] Day” and makes them feel more excluded than they may already feel.

There are better ways to express your values this season. Like buying fair trade. (Here’s a great shop!) Like sharing with those who have nothing. Like offering a kind word (or an invitation to share the holiday feast?) to one who might otherwise be excluded.

After all, hospitality, unlike saying “Merry Christmas!” is one of those things Jesus actually urged us to do.

{repost from a previous season.}

What I’d Like My Children to Know About Politics and Jesus (w/ a recipe for Non-Partisan Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Brownies)

A few nights ago we were talking politics at dinner, much to the boredom of my children, one of whom finds it hilarious to proclaim, loudly, that he is going to vote either for John McCain or for “Bushel.” We’ve explained that neither of these people are candidates, but it seems not to matter to him. He is only four.

My seven year old, on the other hand, is bored by politics (“why all this talk of PRESIDENTS?” he’ll say, sounding vaguely Biblical somehow) yet wants to know who we’re voting for and why. It’s been an interesting challenge to explain to him what we think and why, and how that’s different from what others think (and why), without making anyone out to be the “bad guys.”

I slipped up, though, at dinner the other night, clutching my head and moaning, “What if [Candidate X] wins?” as if his victory would slay me. “What does it really matter?” Aidan said.

And I didn’t explain why it did, even though it does. Instead, I turned the tables and asked the kids:

“Hey, guys–who or what could bring hope to everyone in the world–not just this country. Not just us?”

Graeme (4), without hesitation: “God!”

Aidan (7), solemnly: “Yes. I agree.”

There you have it–out of the mouths of babes, as they say.

My post today was going to be partisan, I’ll admit. But then I couldn’t bring myself to hit “publish.” There has already been so much talk, and, really, at this point, I’m convinced that the Undecided Voter and the Sasquatch are one and the same. Even Family Circle has created a way for you to show partisanship–you can bring Ann Romney OR Michelle Obama cookies to the office, you know?

And in any case, the hope of nations is Jesus, not any of the candidates nor the USA.

Am I encouraging Christians not to vote, or not to care about the elections? Not at all. There are real and important issues at stake in this election, and I believe voting can be an important civic duty, though not the only one that Christians have. There are good and sincere Christians all along the political spectrum.

And, though there have been ugly words on all sides, some of the worst of which are those insinuating that other Christians are not ‘real’ Christians, in the end, we follow a risen Christ who spoke peace and showed it, too, in the breaking of the bread.

That is why some Christians are starting an inter-denominational movement for Election Day Communion.

It’s not that there are not real differences between parties and denominations, for there certainly are. It’s that the breaking of the bread crosses all the lines. That’s what Jesus did. Oh, it didn’t win him popularity–quite the opposite, in fact–but he did it.

And in the early days of America, there were no magazines hosting partisan cookie contests. In those days, people had to travel such distances to vote that hosting towns would bake and serve Election Day Cake as a gesture of hospitality, presumably, the cake was shared regardless of affiliation.

Now that’s an American tradition worth reclaiming, no?

So instead of a partisan post–or partisan cookies!–I decided to offer this recipe I’ve created, Peaceful Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Brownies, as something seasonal to bake and to share with Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and non-voters.

To speak peace in the breaking of the brownies, as it were.

And so, the recipe…

He’s envisioning world peace. (Or, whirled peas.)

Peaceful Pumpkin Brownies

I make them without leavening; the absence of baking soda or powder is not an error. That makes them chewier, as I lean chewy on the chewy-cakelike spectrum of brownie politics. If you are on the other side, please don’t feel marginalized–just add 2 tsp. baking powder and an extra egg.

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, (spooned and leveled)
  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin-pie spice
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 and 1/4 cup pumpkin puree, cooked down to 1 cup, and cooled (or skip step 1 and use 1 cup pumpkin)
  • 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips dusted thoroughly with 1 tsp. flour
  1. Cook your 1 and 1/4 cup of canned pumpkin, stirring constantly, until reduced. But you can skip this step, and I will not judge you for doing so. Just use 1 cup puree instead.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with baking parchment. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, pie spice, and salt; set aside.
  3. Cream butter and sugar together until smooth; beat in egg and vanilla until combined. Beat in cooled pumpkin puree (mixture may appear curdled). Mix in dry ingredients until just combined. Fold in flour-dusted chocolate chips.
  4. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out nearly clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool completely in pan, before lifting out and cutting into squares.
  5. Share across party lines.

{And they were very good.}

How to Use Food to Comfort Others

Americans receive a lot of criticism for our eating habits and food culture, but to give credit where credit is due, there are aspects of our food culture that–while not wholly unique, are particularly American, and, in my view, lovely and worth encouraging and emphasizing.

So without further ado, here are 6 ways to connect with and comfort others through food and drink in the Spirit of the Living Bread:

6. Participate in Potluck Meals

Many of us may not have the time or the energy to host multi-course dinner parties, especially for large groups of people. Potlucks are a time-honored tradition, and a particularly good opportunity to make diverse people feel welcome as members of a group. As an alternative to the more hierarchically structured “soup kitchen,” invitations to potlucks can be extended beyond the church family to include those in the community who may not get enough to eat in a way that embodies the inclusive table fellowship of Jesus.5. Visit Old People with Coffee and Treats

Let’s face it. Visiting ‘Old People’ (however you define that) can be awkward for some of us. Some of us have a real aversion to institutional care homes. But through cooking for Mr. and Mrs. S, I’ve discovered something: it’s easier with food. Maybe that’s because it takes a little of the conversational pressure off. Maybe it’s because the care you can sometimes can’t put in words goes into the food? I don’t know what it is, exactly. It doesn’t have to be a multi-course meal. Last week I dropped by the nursing home with coffees and donuts for Mr. and Mrs. S, and they were received with such thanks that I wondered if I should just bring donuts and coffee every time, instead of a meal (this week it was organic hot dogs on homemade rolls, brownies, and coleslaw made with cabbage from the end of the garden.)

4. Bring Dinner to Someone Else’s House

This is a good one for busy folks (um, most of us!) because it means that only 1 person or family has to clean while the other does most of the cooking. It also works well when, for example, friends who have kids who go to bed early have friends without kids. Friends without kids bring dinner and the grownups can have a grownup dinner party sans enfants.

3. Take Your School Child Out to Lunch

I have no idea if this one is even practical anymore, but I urge you–find out if it is and DO it if you can! When I was in kindergarten and first grade, my mom worked part time nearby to my school, and from time to time she’d pick me up from school to take me to the pizza place for lunch, where I’d have a slice and then an Italian ice…but I was only allowed to get a lemon ice, which wouldn’t stain my dress for the rest of the day. I’m 30 years old now, and this is still a very, very sweet memory for me. While kids can actually go home for lunch some places, in many others, that’s not quite feasible. But if there’s a good place to eat near the school, you could take your child there to eat, or else bring some kind of picnic. You never know! It might mean the world.2. Bring Soup and Popsicles to Sick People

Is this a no-brainer? Maybe. I don’t know. But I do know that when my mother, father, and I all got influenza at the exact.same.time in 1994 someone brought some chicken soup and some popsicles to us and that kind of kept us alive. There are a few tricks to making a really great chicken soup, and I, for one, believe wholeheartedly in its curative powers! Learn to make a great one and bring it to sick people!

(I recommend you check out Ina Garten’s recipe. I think she’s actually Jewish, which probably matters for this recipe. It’s not called Jewish Penicillin for nothing.)

1. Plan meals for families with new babies and other crises

When I lived in beautiful St. Andrews, Scotland, it seemed like everyone in our little graduate-student community was always having babies. Because we were. Because it was “that time” for many of us and, yeah, because having a baby on the NHS is free. Imagine, no bills or “explanation of benefits” or co-pays or pre-approvals or referrals! But, you know, having a baby is still a big deal! It wipes you out big time. One of the coolest things our little community of expatriate student-families did to help one another was create “meal rotas” for each pregnant mom. We’d collect volunteers for 14 meals, to be given every other evening for a month, according to a schedule arranged with the family. I was at the receiving end of this incredible ministry when I had my son Graeme in 2008, and it’s truly amazing how knowing that dinner is coming frees you up from the many anxieties and stresses of those early baby days, letting you have a little babymoon while letting your friends love you in such a tangible way.

But this doesn’t need to be just for babies. Meal ‘rotas’–a schedule of turn-taking, basically–are great for people who’ve had major surgery, miscarriages, deaths in the family, or other disrupting and upsetting events. You meet a practical need while expressing your concern in a tangible, delicious way.

What other ideas do you have for using food to minister to others?

Gifts of Grace in Bread, Wine, and Words

We’re back!

SOMEone turned SIX on our trip!

It was a wonderful trip, 9 days of visiting friends and family, most of whom we haven’t seen for a long time, because although my husband and I both went to college in the Northeast, we are back in this general area after 4 years in Europe, 2 in California, and nearly 2 in Chicago.

wagon ride on the streets of Harrisburg

A few weeks ago I had a post on the Christianity Today women’s blog on why it’s good to have people over to your house for dinner, even if it can feel vulnerable and awkward. I didn’t say much in that piece about how accepting hospitality also involves some vulnerability. It means accepting the kindness of others, which in our culture can sometimes feel like weakness. I suspect that’s one of the reasons some of us find it easiest to meet at “third places,” like restaurants and cafes. It’s easier to just go out to eat and order what you want and pay for yourself so that your friends don’t have to serve you and clean up after you.

Accepting hospitality is, I think, a little like accepting grace. You can’t earn it. You can’t make yourself worthy to receive it. Which is why it’s uncomfortable to accept. Accepting grace means admitting you need it. Accepting hospitality means accepting a gift of someone’s time, effort, and resources. Sure, you might bring a thank-you gift or card, but only a cynic would regard that as payment.

But staying with friends, eating with friends in homes–there is something almost miraculous going on there that I can’t quite put my finger on. I guess I can see why Jesus did so much of it. Even where I experienced nervousness at being so close to people I hadn’t seen for years (or, in some cases, hadn’t yet met), joy overwhelmed the nervousness. There is something precious about meeting people in their homes, seeing them with their children and in the place where they are (I think!) most comfortable. You can see that they are not so different from you–whether it’s in the quirkiness of their decor, the occasional crankiness of their children, or the unpredictability of pets, meal plans, and laundry piles.

another lovely PA farm…all the more lovely because of the people we love who live there!

(More than once, our children were cranky, rude, or whiny, prompting our various hosts to say in all sincerity, “your kids do that, too?” Tim & I joke that it’s our ‘ministry’ to help other parents feel better about their kids’ behavior…)

We are home now, but the joy of communing with friends on this trip has made me crave more hospitality in my life–more times of connecting over food and drinks and conversation, more times accepting and offering gifts of grace in bread, wine, and words.

we all should have friends who have grandparents who have ponies!

Thank you for your sweet hospitality, dear friends! We love you so much.