Thursday, December 11, 2014

For When Christmas Is Both Joy and Sorrow

I always feel nostalgic this time of year.

I suppose everyone does. My dreams and daydreams and quiet moments, rare as they may be, are flooded with memories.

I remember my first Christmas as Jason's wife. Life was new, again. I woke up with my best friend next to me, and yet, he was a stranger. I'd only known him as my husband for 10 days, and I couldn't get enough of how wonderful and new he was to me.

I remember my Dad. Whom I lost just over 10 years ago to suicide. Who loved Christmas and who loved me - just for being me. Over and over, again. I remember my Dad.

I remember the first Christmas I spent with a broken heart. Everyone around me wore happy, plastic faces, and I wore grief. I was an unlikely Grinch, only my heart had been trampled on and refused to grow, and I desperately wanted to sing with the Whos. I couldn't find my song.

I remember the year I got a baby carriage. It's the first Christmas I remember. I wore my blue, polyester "Chatterbox" nightgown - perfect for the "Will she ever stop talking?" little girl who wore it at age six and still appropriate today - as I pushed my new baby doll around our house on Sherman Avenue. It snowed that year.

I remember Christmas 2004 - my first as a mother. My newborn son was my world. He was the baby in every manger I saw, and "For unto us a child is born; a son is given" made my heart cry out a thousand thanks to God every time I heard or sang or read it.

I remember my Playdoh Fun Factory. And, my hand sewn Cabbage Patch Doll because a "real" one couldn't be found. I remember my first pair of Guess jeans and my karaoke machine. I remember the mixed emotions of Mom's new engagement ring and our new Atari and all of it blends together in one big mental montage of Christmases past.

While we decorated our Christmas tree this year, I sat and wept for what had been. I wept for my Dad, whom I miss so much. I wept because I now have four sons and a daughter, and they are the best gifts I've ever gotten. I wept for the beautiful sacrifice my parents made to give us a toy-filled Christmas each year.

I wept for my broken heart 20 years ago. I wept for the broken hearts of those I love today.

I wept because, given the choice, I would never go back to the hurt and pain, but I want to close my eyes and relive the moments and gifts that took my breath away.

As this memory-filled montage plays over and over this morning, this week, this Christmas season - I look back and see how Christmas has been this broken and beautiful mix of joy and sorrow. And, the more I get to know and love people, it seems that's the way it is for most of us.

Here's what I know about Christmas:

I need the baby in that manger.

In the hard things - the ones that have broken and wrecked my heart - I need a Savior.
In the blessings - I need the One True King that brings eternal joy.
In the mix of hard and blessing - I need the Prince of Peace, whose love never waivers with the sway of my heart.

Jesus. He redeems our past. He redeems today. He is the hope for our future.

Friends - while the world around us grapples with both laughter and tears this season - remembering the past, hurting or joy-filled today, confused about tomorrow - we often forget they are listening and watching, and instead, we grab a megaphone to shout how our various Christmas traditions differ: Santa or no Santa, real or fake, Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, colored or white, one present or ten. We can be so easily lured into launching social grenades at one another as we look to defend our way of celebrating Christmas.

This Christmas, if we can tell anything to the broken, the joy-filled, our children, new mamas holding their newborns, the homeless and orphan, the oppressed and hurting, and every soul who gets to hear, see, and read our voice, can our loudest shout be:

"We have GOOD NEWS to share! Do you want to hear it?"

Out of love for the Gospel, that has the power to SAVE and redeem lives, and the hope-filled message of Jesus' birth, let's not squander this season in the name of who is the "rightest" in how we celebrate. We are in the same army. ALL YEAR LONG. Fighting to share with a hurting world the same GOOD NEWS:

• God will never hand you over to despair.
• God is strong and mighty to save and He will never let go of you.
• God is the Hope you are looking for - this Christmas and every day forward.

Our broken and hurting world needs OUR Savior.
Our blessed and indulged country needs THIS King.

Let's fight, together - however we celebrate this time of year - using this Christmas season to tell the world:

Your Hope.
Your Joy.
Your Peace. In all circumstances.

He's here.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Operation Nashville Surprise

Three weeks ago, we had a surprise trip planned for our fab five.

I have three brain cells left this week, so I'm just gonna caption the iPhone photos I took like I did as they unfolded and let them tell the story.

(Once upon a time, I lugged a BIG FAT CAMERA around with me everywhere we went. Now? Capture it with the phone. Move on.)

But, let me just say this: There is VERY LITTLE that I love more than surprising our kids with a trip to ANYWHERE. I mean, yes we could tell them in advance. Yes, that would leave time for them to get excited with us.

But, when we surprise them? THEY FLIP OUT LIKE CRAZY PEOPLE. And we get high off of that and we're in charge and it's totally self-serving, but sue us. So, Jason and I typically don't tell them about any of our vacations until we're pulling out of the driveway.

This trip to Nashville?

They were SO excited.

So. Here we go. Come with us as the week unfolded.


Jason sat the kids down in the family room this morning and told them he had to leave right away for a business trip and he'd be back on Friday. The entire room deflated. BUT then he asked them if they might wanna come with him.

For the whole week.

To Nashville.

Operation Go On Dad's Week-Long Business Trip Surprise:

Success. #herewego

Oh, hey Gatlinburg, heeeeeey. #doyouwannabuildasnowman #ONNOVEMBER1ST #WHA?

We stayed at The Park Vista and went to Waterslide Baptist for church.

Gatlinburg really is beautiful. Gorgeous scenery. Not-so-gorgeous parents. #sleepwho

"Mom, remember that time we went to Tennessee and you made us all climb on that fake bear for a picture?"

Yes, I do. Now go get me my dentures. And a glass of wine.

{After arriving in Nashville...}

I've learned so much about love from Jason.

It's a million little things and even more big things and I miss so many of them because he never expects ANY praise from me or anyone else for the quiet way that he loves us.

Today - that quiet love cut up waffles and poured milk and passed out bananas while dressed in business attire, never eating anything himself, and surrounded by people peacefully enjoying a cup of coffee before work. And then he picked up a briefcase and handed out hugs and kisses to five little faces that know not that he's made any sacrifice at all, but that he simply loves them.

On his business trip.

Just like every day before.

Downtown Nashville.

No. We're not tourists.

Why do you ask?

#meetDolly #ournewfamilypuppy

After successfully terrorizing the city for a spell, Jason took us all to Puckett's for dinner.

Fried pickles, fried green beans, sweet potato fries, chicken fried chicken - we tried it all. Tomorrow, we'll eat through a nice green leaf.

But tonight, just two Southern belles LIVIN' IT UP.

Breakfast at the golden arches.

"They're lovin' it." #imnot

Attempting to culture them with something other than Bluegrass and fried everything, we saddled up to the Frist Center for Visual Arts - an interactive art museum with over 30 stations where they could create different kinds of art.

It. was. amazing.

*Kandinsky station - "Listen to the music. Paint what you hear."

Have I ever told you that my kids aren't rule followers?

Four masterpieces. *So is their art. #hollyphotobomb

Dear hotel pool,

In the name of all that is holy and sleep-deprived, PLEASE wear them out.

While the kids and I spent the day swimming and hanging out at the hotel, Jen Hatmaker was hanging out with this guy.

Lucky girl.

President, Pool So Hard University. #myRAVENSpeepsgetit

We took them to dinner and the LEGO store one evening at Opry Mills.

(Where I did some serious financial damage because BEST.SHOPPING.EVER and Jason corralled them for me for an hour BECAUSE HE KNOWS MY LOVE LANGUAGE.)

Oh, Lincoln. There were two...princes here before you, but you - my sweet middle - are straight up joy in my heart.

These littles.

They spent all week living in a hotel.

They handled a one-hour time change PLUS the end of Daylight Savings Time like absolute rock stars. And more than anything, they heaped loads of undeserved grace on me even though I was a RAGING lunatic at times trying to manage it all.

I'm so proud of them.
For the way they love.
For the kids they are.

For giving their mama 10,000 reasons to thank God for them every day.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Company's Comin': 12 Make-Ahead Recipes for the Holidays

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Thanksgiving is just around the corner.

So, company's comin' to visit. Or, you're headed to Grandma's house.

For the one big meal, everyone will pitch in and Grandma and aunts and sisters and cousins will all gather in and 'round the kitchen to help prepare the biggest meal of the year.

But, what about the other meals for the days surrounding Thanksgiving?

The late-night snacks during game night?
The breakfasts?
The post-shopping get-togethers?

Bring on the leftovers, but after about five open-faced turkey sandwiches, I'm ready for somethin' else.

But, does anyone really wanna cook at the stovetop after spending an entire day (or two or three or four) in the kitchen? I sure don't.

Here is a collection of recipes to keep you out of the kitchen and enjoying time with your family. All of these recipes can be assembled or made ahead of time. Some more ahead of time than others. I've included a bit of everything - appetizer, main dishes, side dishes, desserts, and of course, breakfasts!

Because I know some of you will be up and at 'em at the crack of dawn on Black Friday and that means there is no time for slaving over the stove that morning.

I really love each of these recipes. They're all tried-and-true and I have made all of them many, many times. I know some of you have tried them, and I'd LOVE to hear which ones you've made!

So, here are 12 Make-Ahead Recipes that will help you feed the family, and not miss a thing!

Overnight Sticky Buns. Oh, how I love these. Assemble in 5 minutes before you hit the sack. Bake for 25 the next morning. These are evil. So incredibly good. A delicious oxymoron.

Savory Croissant Breakfast Pudding. A delicious breakfast casserole. It's enough to feed a huge crowd, and can be assembled the night before and baked in the morning! (I finally tried making it the night before - turned out perfectly!)

Banana Nut Crumb Muffins. These are my favorite muffins. Make today. Freeze. Eat for breakfast the day after Thanksgiving. Perfect with a cup o' joe and a chat with Mom!

Chicken Empanadas. A great appetizer or game night snack. You can make these this week, and freeze them until you're ready to get your game on.

Chicken Tetrazzini. One of my favorite dishes on this blog. I make this dish every month at my house, and make two or three pans and freeze them. This is the best casserole on earth. Prove me wrong and I'll send you $50.

Date Night Fajita Nachos. Grill the chicken and sauté the onions in advance. Assemble and broil for 5 minutes when you're ready to eat. Great crowd pleaser and perfect for dinner OR game night!

Spicy Black Bean and Corn Chicken Chili. My favorite chili. You can assemble and freeze this chili, then cook it in the crockpot or on the stovetop. Everyone raves about this chili. Especially new Mommas. (Make it as a layered dip - see the recipe for instructions!)

Broccoli Casserole. Getting steamed veggies done perfectly is tough when you're trying to manage the rest of a meal AND a crowd. Make this casserole ahead and freeze it. Pull it out and bake for an easy, savory side dish.

Cheesy Mashed Potato Bake. Who wants to peel more potatoes after peeling 10 pounds at Thanksgiving? Make these mashed potatoes covered in cheese ahead of time and freeze, if needed. Thaw and bake. (For a complete meal, make Broccoli Casserole and these potatoes ahead of time. Serve with a rotisserie chicken!)

Oatmeal Crisps. After eating pies and heavy desserts for a few days, a light, crisp cookie is the perfect, sweet after dinner snack. Make these ahead and store in your favorite cookie tin.

Pine Bark. Easiest dessert ever. And, perfect for munching on a piece here and there when you (or your company) have a hankering for something to satisfy that sweet/salty combo.

Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Frosting. OK, so some of us want a rich dessert even after consuming pies and cakes. Freeze these cupcakes and refrigerate the frosting. Assemble when you need them . Chocolate and peanut butter are simply amazing together in these cupcakes. Then again, when are they not?

I'm so hungry now.

I would love to have one of those sticky buns sittin' on a plate in front of me.

There you have it: 12 Make-Ahead Recipes that I know you (and your company) will love. And, if you need to take something with you to Grandma's house, any of these will travel and you can contribute to feeding the crowd and won't have to cook when you get there.

I'm so excited to see my family over Thanksgiving. And, I love that we get to spend time together - even after the big holiday - snacking and sharing meals and game and movie nights together.

I hope these recipes give you some ideas for how to feed your family in the days before and after Thanksgiving - and help keep you out of the kitchen and enjoying every minute with the ones you love!

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Family Schedule: Are We Blocking Our Kids' View of God?

I carry a card in my daily planner.

It's tucked in the back pocket - where I reach for my pens every day - so that I will see it.

Every time I reach to plan for our life.

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Why this card?

What's so special about it?

Several weeks ago, we visited some dear friends at their church. Throughout the sermon, I looked over at Jack and noticed that he was taking notes. Which he does regularly when he's sitting in church at home with us.

After church, as we were leaving, I looked down at what he'd written.

And, I was instantly brought to tears.

"You will be [generous] when you live around [generous] people."

Yes, yes, and yes!

"We have a loving and [generous] heavenly father."

YES. We do.

"We should be loving and [generous neighbors].


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But, it was the end of his notes that left me totally undone.

"Some fathers block the view of God."

And, then Jack added his own thought:

"But, not mine."

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(I cried ugly, y'all. UGLY.) Because Jason - he leads and loves them (and me) right to Jesus.

{He would tell you otherwise - that he is royally screwing all of us up which makes him even more annoyingly lovable, dang it.}

I now keep this in my planner - where I see it EVERY DAY - because when I plan and dream and schedule what our family life will look like, I want to NOT block their view of God.

With hurriedness.
With impatience.

And, that is SO easy for me to do.

We need family space and margin - to live and love each other well. We need quiet, we need dinner together, we need time to talk and share. We need to NOT overschedule so that we can pour the Gospel into them. Every day.

God has been so good to us. He's the very breath we breathe. But, can they see Him in all the busy?

I struggle to find balance here - to live good life with them and LIVE BIG and FULL.

So now, I carry a reminder. That card up there. So that in the midst of life and schedules and appointments and sports and play dates and vacations and fun times together...

I am ALWAYS planning with purpose - thinking, and asking:

Can they see Him today?