Mundane miracle

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I write with good news of great joy! Not only did ‘the season’ see us celebrate a Saviour, but it also marked my first sourdough success! Partially irreverent* comments aside, in the last few weeks I have baked four loaves of bread based on a starter a friend at college gave me (confession: a batch bakes two). Edible, toastable, very-passable bread – it kind of does seem to me a sort of mundane miracle! The starter managed to survive last semester sans close loving attention and now, having sourced my electric scales from home, it has been rendered productive! Eddie gave me the starter and a very prescriptive (gram measurement inclusive) recipe and, following every line, I can bake sourdough bread! I’m both delighted and grateful and wanted to share!

*NB: They are only partially irreverent because after a lecture on Luther the other week – I can affirm that it is right we celebrate our ‘calling’ to everyday life (bread baking included). I was delighted to be reminded again to do a way with dualistic secular/sacred thinking whenever it tries to creep into our lives, worlds and values. Christians are called, not like monks to a life away and set aside, but to serve God where they are – in their families, in their jobs, in civic life. God uses our work in these places as a means of blessing the world, which in turn dignifies our ‘ordinary’ work and gives meaning to our everyday lives. So sourdough is worth celebrating … while recognizing just how vitally good the news was in those dark fields that first Christmas night too!

Of much worth

A friend (kindly) remarked today that she found my previous post encouraging. To be honest, it was a timely comment. I need the same truth I wrote about a few week ago just as much today as I did then. I think I am a slow learner – sometimes it takes a long time for the truth to sink in. But maybe we all need to hear these truths more than once, repeatedly even. Thankfully this Truth stays the same, yesterday, today and forever! Over and over, day after day, the same reminder that we are so loved, that He has done it all well. That we can breath easy in the wide open spaces of His grace. I gear up, face my to-do list, and struggle through it … till I am reminded to look up. Reminded of words I have said, truths I have known for such a long time. No matter, I still need to hear them over and over, I still need to be reminded less me, more  Him, less fear, more joy. So here I am writing again. Mostly for me, but maybe these words will encourage you too!

Advent : the season of waiting.

In the Northern Hemisphere the images of waiting for light in a dark season ring true. This year, having been transplanted from the Southern Hemisphere into the North, I have been thinking about what we wait for in our warm Australian Christmas season. Rest comes to mind, as the busyness of another school year winds up in a whirlwind. Refreshment, as the waves and sunshine of the beach calls us tired students and workers toward the summer holidays. Maybe even shade and shelter, from the fiery southern sun! Despite the differences that geography makes to our theology, some of our deeper longings may draw us together instead.

 “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Even though we stand in a long line of those who have not valued God for who He is and what He does, the story of Christmas is the story of ‘Immanuel’, literally the story of ‘God-with-us’ in the Hebrew. The story of Christmas is, as Eugene Petterson puts it in the Message, the story of God “move[ing] right into the neighborhood”. We may not have listened to His prophets, we may not have understood His plans and purposes, we may not have even wanted too, but that did not deter Him. This is a God who loves the fragile, stubborn, dusty earthlings He has made with a “never-stopping-never-giving-up-always-and-forever-love” (with thanks to John Mustol and Sally Lloyd Jones). Perhaps you have been avoiding His voice and call, are struggling to hear it over the loud, demanding voices of the world or don’t feel you are worthy of it, painfully aware as you are of your brokenness. Whichever is closest to your story, John tells us that the Word itself, Himself, God-in-Action, came near that first Christmas.

You don’t come near if you don’t care.
You don’t come near if you are indifferent.
You come near when you can’t help yourself any longer.
You come near when being far away a moment more will break you.

The first Christmas marked the beginning of a life that was not glamorous or guarded. He did not hold Himself back, He was not disengaged.  He moved right into our mess because He cared. He wanted us to know that we were worth more than the mess, worth the more than the brokenness, worth coming near. Worth knowing, worth loving and worth saving. He let coming near break Him, His life and death showing, beyond a sceric of a doubt, that He thought we were worth it, worth it all. The whole glorious complex creation, now-broken-but-waiting-breath-bated project was and is still worthwhile to Him.

It is worth knowing then, that while we do wait in eager expectation to see His final (re-)creative handiwork in the full renewal of His creation project, we do not have to wait to know what He thinks of us. Jesus came near, reached out, held hands, partied, mourned, ate and drank with people just like us. Each one “precious and honored” Isaiah 43:4, and of much worth in His sight. So when a dark moment or mood unmoors you, remember Immanuel. Remember that Christmas is the story of God drawing near, of Him moving into the neighbourhood (even when it was not a very ‘nice’ one). Of God giving us “His son, His only Son, whom He loved” (my rewording of Genesis 22:2), showing us how much we are worth to Him.

Fear not

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” Luke 2:10

Over and against the dark, anxiety, problems too big to carry and crumbling hopes, perhaps this is the call of Christmas. The first Christmas was not a moment for the faint of heart, there were visions, angels, social scandal and political upheaval. The wounds of dashed familial dreams were rubbed with salt – Elizabeth long barren and Mary an unwed mother. The national and geographical skies of Israel were heavy with unrest; God’s special people felt forgotten and abused. The stakes were high and there was much to be afraid of.  It should perhaps be unsurprising then that early in the story Zechariah (Luke 1:13), Mary (Luke 1:30) and Joseph (Matt 1:20) are each called to put away fear.

A quick word search shows that they stand in a long line of those called by God not to fear. Abraham to Revelation, the story of God’s people is the story of hearing those words; do not be afraid. And the reason, the follow up statement, the ‘why’? It begins with God Himself, His character and inclination toward them. They don’t need to be afraid because they have a God who promises to fight for His people (Deuteronomy 3:22) and deliver them (Exodus 14:13). A God who promises never to leave His people (Deuteronomy 31:6) and who promises to do good to them (Zechariah 8:15). He will be their shield and reward (Genesis 15:1). He will hear the cries of even the small and weak (Genesis 21:17). They do not need to fear great battles, great nations, doubt or discouragement because there is no other God besides their God (Isaiah 44:8) and He has determined to help them (Isaiah 41:14).

And the most incredible ‘help’ came one Holy Night in an unexpected way, a tiny baby, “a thrill of hope” in a desperate situation. The wonder of birth and new life bringing so much potential into the world. The angels herald the good news and again, call the shepherds from darkness and fear into something new that God is doing, great joy for all. At last, God among us. At last, face-to-face yet we live. At last, reconciled. At last, peace and rest.

This Christmas I am trying to let joy unseat fear. 1 John 4:18 tells us that “perfect love drives out fear” and Jesus came to demonstrate God’s perfect love for us, bringing peace for troubled hearts (John 14:27). Jesus Himself acknowledges that “in this world [we] will have trouble” but calls us to “take heart! [because] I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). The One who is First and Last (Revelation 1:17) calls us to lay down our fear and rather to look to Him, the conduit of cosmic Love, Joy and Peace. Yes, Advent calls us to wait, but to wait with confidence knowing that “the hopes and fears of all the years” have indeed been met in the One who came and overcame, and “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4 ESV).

Suprise (of sorts)!

The punchline goes like this; “… and so her very-lovely-and-thoughtful husband bought her set of Propert Swift-Whip egg beaters for her birthday”. The story is; however, somewhat more complex than that phrase alone suggests!

It starts a long time ago when, on the occasion of his father’s early death, a young man, the third son, inherited his father’s repetition engineering workshop in Chatswood. While his employees trained him to be their manager – it was his humility and care for them that won their respect and loyalty. One of the regular orders they filled was for the Propert company, small components of their Swiftwhip egg beaters were formed by the metal working machinery in this factory.

The manager was my grandfather, my grandfather who would come home to his big, busy family, his hugs sprinkled with brass splinters as he helped with homework, dinner and bath time. The Swiftwhip egg beaters in our kitchen at home are not only good quality, but they stir up my mum’s memories of a happy childhood, her family and a dad who came home smelling of engine oil. When we cook together, using the beaters, she often shares these stories from her past with me. Especially now that my grandfather is no longer with us, I had begun to think that I would like a set of beaters for my kitchen, to share in this aspect of my family history. I didn’t think I had verbalised this wish until a weekly uni writing task required reflection on a food or drink related artefact and I based my work on the beaters. I shared the task with my husband and my mum, who read it to her mother. Mum and Min were especially enthusiastic, helping me to get the details right – it was special that I had the opportunity to write about something (and someone) so dear to them.

Whether or not I had voiced my interest in finding a Swiftwhip beater set before, at this point, everyone (it turns out), including me, had tuned into my interest. You can imagine my delight then, when I then discovered a set in a Pop-up antique shop in Geralton just before Christmas. I was thrilled with my purchase but a little hurt that my mum was somewhat reserved in her response – I was hoping for a little mutual celebration. My grandma was much more encouraging, texting me back quickly and asking me a few questions. When I excitedly told my husband, he almost looked disappointed and when pressed, pointed out my mistake. I had, inadvertently, broken the un-written rule of family-Christmas-and-Birthday-gift-buying-and-giving spectacularly! The rule in our family is that you can’t buy something for yourself just before either event because this is the time when when everyone else is trying to find you gifts and you may use up their ideas, or worse, ruin their surprise. Which I did.

What made it worse was that my grandmother had tried to buy a set of beaters for me too, but when Asher also bought some and told my mum, she managed to avert the first disaster by organising Min to give her set to someone else. Either way I would have spoiled the surprise with my spontaneous purchase!

What made it funny was that one of Asher’s student’s had given him something very similar to what I had for him for Christmas (a gift I knew he would love) – so we were both in the position of being a little disappointed that our lovely surprise gifts were both spoiled ahead of time!

In the end, really, the rigmarole has only made my two sets of Propert Swiftwhip beaters more precious. People precious to me had heard my wish for beaters that were precious to my family and now we have some in our kitchen, plus an extra set! I imagine that this story will be told again, over a bowl of eggs beaten for custard or egg-and-bacon-pasta, to our kids in the kitchen. I hope I will be able to hand on a heritage of happy family memories and shared time in the kitchen to our kids too, maybe even some decent beaters as well.

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Holiday Baking Revisited 1/3 – Light fruit Cake (in its Christmas incarnation!)

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… and we are back! Despite the impression that my long, long blogging holiday break may have given, I do want to keep writing and sharing some of the things I’ve been making and thinking. I’ve decided that now, in late January, I needed to share some of my holiday baking adventures before it is absolutely too late! So to begin, this is my grandmother’s recipe for light fruit cake. It is very versatile and has been used over the years to celebrate birthdays, weddings, Christenings and Christmases alike. Rich with fruit, nuts and sherry, it is a recipe worthy of celebration! It would be fair to say that my appreciation for it has grown significantly in the last few years. Although it has taken a long (long) time, I have almost become one of those grown-up people who might sometimes enjoy cooked fruit or even baked goodies laced with dried fruit. And, for me, sometimes it is really more about the preparation and process of creating something edible and attractive anyhow, especially if I know that there are others around to enjoy it for me! So, with an essay on the evolution of cake (more on this to come!) behind me and Christmas on the horizon, I turned again to my recipe books and oven to make some homebred gifts. I chose to divide the mixture evenly between three ceramic ramekins (couldn’t find small cake tins the right size … and I didn’t have to line these with lots of newspaper which you need to when using a cake tin, a bonus for me!) so I could make a few gifts in one go. Two small cakes works well too, as does one lovely big generous one! I hope you might be able to celebrate something special by sharing this cake with friends and family one day too!

Ingredients
250g caster sugar
250g butter
5 eggs
200g sultanas
150g currents
150g fruit medley
100g glace cherries
150g chopped, blanched almonds
375g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
250ml sherry (in Australia it’s now labeled Apera, true ’sherry’ is made in Spain)
extra blanched almonds to decorate

Method
1. Preheat oven to 150o.
2. Soak the dried fruit in the sherry.
3. Double line the baking tins with butter and baking paper (to protect the cake from browning too much).
4. Wrap the outside of the tin with newspaper and tie it on with twine (again, to prevent burning the sides and base before the middle is cooked, only necessary if using traditional cake tins, this step is not necessary if you use ceramic ramekins as in the pictures).
5. Cream butter and sugar till light and fluffy using electric beaters.
6. Add eggs one at a time, beat well till combine the mixture as each egg is added.
7. Add flour and baking powder and beat gently till combined.
8. Finally, add the sherry, fruit and almonds, mixing till combined.
9. Place mixture into the tins, dividing mixture evenly between the desired number of tins. Decorate with blanched almonds.
10. If baking one large cake*, bake at 150oC for 1 hour, then reduce the temperature to 100oC and continue to bake for another, about 2 hours.
11. Remove from oven. Pour over another cup or so of sherry (share this amount between all cakes if more than one has been baked) then wrap the whole cake and tin in clean tea towel and let cool slowly.

*If baking two small cakes bake at 150oC for 45mins, then reduce temperature to 100oC and cook till done, about 1 ½ to 2 hours.
If baking three small cakes bake at 150oC for 25mins, then reduce temperature to 100oC and cook till done, about 1-1 ½ hours.
These are just a guide and its worth just keeping an eye on your particular cake depending on the vigour of your oven!

Christmas Bunting

Christmas is an event I’ve grown up celebrating. My family celebrates the birth of a baby who would come into the world and change history, to make history ‘His story’. Definately worth making a fuss of. Worth decorating. Worth caroling. Worth gathering together for (with all the cooking and serving that entails). Worth remembering. A time and a season that bears marking.

So, without wanting to drag the thoughts from lofty to slightly frivolous, bunting belongs at Christmas. Something pretty to be-deck a home. To bring beauty. To point to a celebration. To remind us of the Celebrated One. Maybe I’m pushing it too far. But I wanted to make some pretty gifts and bunting has a way of making people smile. So here it is. Christmas bunting. I hope it reminds you that we are celebrating something big and that this makes you smile too!

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