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These Paleo-friendly muffins are moist and soft with a mild pumpkin flavor, and taste even better the second day (which, I’ve noticed, is common among baked goods made with coconut or almond flour).  For a stronger pumpkin flavor, substitute another 1/2 c. pumpkin for the banana (although this may affect the sweetness). You can vary the flavors by substituting a different fruit puree for the pumpkin, like applesauce or one of the many unsweetened flavored applesauce squeeze pouches available now, and swapping in frozen blueberries for the cranberries.

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These look and taste yummy, but scroll to the bottom to see my latest cooking flop. Seriously, it’s an epic fail.

This time of year, when fresh cranberries are available, I love the tart burst of flavor they add to muffins.  (Helpful Tip: Stock up on cranberries in November when they usually go on sale for $1, then put them inside a gallon-size freezer bag and throw them in the freezer for later use.)  These would make a great holiday breakfast because they’re low in sugar and loaded with protein and fiber, so you’ll at least start the day with a stable blood sugar level – even if you plan to indulge later!

Also, if you want to save money by roasting your own pumpkin, hang on to any leftover uncarved pumpkins you may have bought to decorate your doorstep.  Don’t listen to the fancy-pants food blogs that insist you can only bake with a special “pie” pumpkin (which is code for “expensive” pumpkin).  Lean in, because I have a secret to tell you:

Pumpkins are food.  Food can be eaten.

My grandmother made pies out of our leftover uncarved pumpkins for years because people who lived through the Depression survived by not throwing away food.  I know, shocking.  Some jack-o-lantern pumpkins may be a little more watery, but you can strain out the water with a coffee filter or just adjust the liquid content in your recipes, if needed, although I’ve never had a problem with mine.  I’ve followed these pumpkin roasting directions and simply cut my big pumpkin into chunks that will fit on my baking sheet.  (You may need to do it in batches or extend the roasting time if using big chunks.)

The best part about roasting and pureeing your own pumpkin is that you can freeze it in portion sizes that fit your favorite recipes.  I like to put 1/2 c. portions in quart-size freezer bags, press it into the bottom half of the bag, then press out the air and stack them in a loaf pan to freeze.  To thaw, simply pop one in the microwave for 30 sec. on 50% power, then flip over and repeat.

Now you’re ready to make these delicious, grain-free muffins all winter long!

Grain-Free Pumpkin Cranberry Muffins

1 very ripe banana (the more ripe, the better – just cut out any bad spots)
1/2 c. pumpkin puree (canned is fine, just make sure it’s plain pumpkin)
5 eggs
1/3 c. melted butter or coconut oil (I prefer butter, but have used both)
1/3 c. honey
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 c. coconut flour
1/2 c. almond flour
1 1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice*
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
3/4 c. cranberries, preferably chopped (frozen works)

*If substituting applesauce or a different fruit puree for the pumpkin – I’ve enjoyed using peach puree – omit the pumpkin pie spice, increase the cinnamon to 1 tsp., and use blueberries or whatever fruit you like instead of the cranberries.

Directions:
Mash the banana or break into chunks and mash in your mixing bowl with the paddle attachment.  (Just be sure to place your hands strategically over the bowl to prevent chunks from flying out of the bowl when it first starts.  Ask me how I know this…)  Mix in pumpkin puree.  Add eggs, one at a time, mixing after each one.  Mix in melted butter or coconut oil, honey, and vanilla.  Add remaining ingredients, except cranberries, and mix well.  Stir in cranberries.

Divide batter evenly among 12 greased muffin cups.  Smooth the batter on top, if you can, to avoid crunchy ridges on top of the muffins.  Bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes until golden and the top springs back when you press down on one.  Again, these taste better the next day (and the next day, and the next day), so bake them the night before to make your morning go smoothly.

The Good, the Bad, and the “What is THAT?!!”
As now, as promised, here’s the flip side to my baking success.  I am most definitely NOT one of those artsy-craftsy bakers who makes Pinterest-worthy decorative cakes and cookies.  My idea of decorating a cake is topping it with the sprinkles that come with the can of Pillsbury Fudge Frosting (and God bless the folks at Pillsbury for making the BEST gluten free, dairy free chocolate frosting).  So when my son wanted to turn peanut butter balls into cute little owls, we came up with this:

Nailed it.

As my son put it, “I saw that turning out differently in my head.”  The good news is that when you’re baking with an almost-13-year-old, having your cute little owl morph into a spawn of the underworld is still a win.

Raise your hand if you enjoy struggling.  If your hand is raised, then you are a liar liar pants on fire.  None of us enjoy the uncomfortable feelings that accompany struggle.  And yet, research shows that our brains grow the most when we struggle and work at the edge of our abilities.  So while struggle will never feel enjoyable for most of us, it is necessary for our growth mentally, physically, and spiritually (James 1:2-4).  However, our human tendency is to avoid anything that feels like a struggle.  So how can we deal with the discomfort in a positive way that will ultimately build us up in the same way that strenuous exercise builds muscle?  By learning to struggle well.

A Tale of Two Children
This concept is at the center of my goals for my children, both in school and in life this year.  They both have strongly negative reactions to struggle, but for different reasons.  My oldest child tends to shut down when he gets overwhelmed or frustrated.  For him, the key to struggling well is to put a positive label on the process and teach him strategies for coping with the uncomfortable feelings, as well as training him in how to get himself out of a spiral of negativity through positive self-talk.  (I found this article incredibly helpful in figuring out why my son is this way and how to help him.)

My youngest is a Mini-Me who doesn’t like to struggle because she fears making mistakes.  She is strong, talented, and capable of taking on just about any challenge you throw at her.  But the flip side of being strong and talented is that you can falsely come to believe that you are only loved and accepted when you are doing everything right and pleasing those around you, so failure and mistakes are not an option.  I know because I believed that lie most of my life, and it’s taken years of daily meditation on God’s word to help me uncover the truth that God loves me just as I am, imperfections and all.  So for my daughter, my focus is on praising her for her reaches (a concept borrowed from The Talent Code that applies to the efforts we make outside our comfort zone that stretch us), and rewarding her for improvements in her attitude, rather than just her accomplishments.

Why Struggle Well?
My husband, who is a college professor, can tell you that the ones who cheat in his classes are generally the top students who will do anything to keep their top student status because they have no coping skills when they’re suddenly in over their heads and the work becomes a struggle.  Parents, we have to teach our kids that it’s okay to try and fail and struggle at times.  We do this by modeling it.  When I take risks in cooking or try converting a recipe to be gluten free or Paleo, sometimes it works and sometimes it is an epic fail.  When I get discouraged by (the many) failed attempts, I have to remember that they’re watching to see if I’ll give up or keep trying.  So I keep trying, which gives me credibility when I encourage them to view their mistakes as learning opportunities instead of giving up and insisting on taking the easy, comfortable road.

Lessons From the Maze

So how can we, as parents, learn to face our own struggles in a way that models for our kids how to struggle well?  Does this mean that we all just need to put our nose to the grindstone, determined to take our proverbial medicine and struggle through every challenge life throws at us?  Definitely not!  My family recently enjoyed a gorgeous fall day wandering around inside a corn maze at a nearby farm.  What made it feel slightly less rat-like was a treasure hunt with hidden stations throughout the maze.  My husband was rockin’ the map like Dora the Explorer – “Saaaaaay MAP!” (sorry if that reference invokes a PTSD episode) – but we still got turned around a few times.  Our experience in the maze gave me a few insights on some creative strategies we can use when we hit a wall, instead of running away from the struggle or just shutting down.

Oct 2014 007

Look Beyond the Problem to Other Possible Solutions
One of the strategies I used when we were lost in the maze was to look through the corn stalks to the paths on either side of us to see if I could spot a station.  When something isn’t working, it’s tempting to just keep trudging ahead, assuming that there’s no other way to reach the goal, no matter how fruitless the way feels.  But sometimes the right path is within reach, if we can force ourselves to look beyond the problem (and how we feel about the problem) to possible solutions available to us.

Maybe that curriculum we bought worked initially or with one child, but it’s not working anymore and needs to be set aside (along with our pride – ouch).  Or maybe the child’s personality and learning style needs to be taking into account, and that same curriculum tweaked to fit each child.

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Look at the Big Picture to Gain Perspective
Our maze had a bridge with a high platform that you had to cross.  At one point, when we were stuck, my daughter figured out that we had to go up on the platform and come down the stairs on the other side in order to continue on our path.  As I stood up there, looking out over row after row of golden cornstalks, I saw something beautiful: the edge of the maze.   Sometimes we need to step back and look at the big picture so we can ascertain whether or not our current struggle is leading us toward or away from our ultimate goal, which is to not only finish the maze, but finish well with our relationships intact!

Sometimes, when we look at our big picture goals, we see that a particular struggle is unnecessary and leading us down the wrong path.  Maybe those music lessons we’ve been forcing or that sports team that dominates all our family time reflect someone else’s goals, not ours.  But if our goals are to develop a love of music or lifestyle of fitness, we can then ask ourselves if these activities are leading our kids toward or away from those goals, then make adjustments accordingly.

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Listen to Others
Another strategy I used when we knew we were getting close to a treasure hunt station was to listen for the sound of voices, because chances are if you hear voices, they just might be gathered around the station themselves.   This actually worked a couple times!  As we met up with others, there were several times when we answered questions and helped them figure out how to do the treasure hunt.

Sometimes we feel so alone in the maze and we forget that there are lots of others on our same journey.  We were designed for community and relationships.  We weren’t meant to struggle through the maze alone.  Just like I encourage my kids to ask questions when they don’t understand something, I need to be willing to ask others for help and be teachable.  Sometimes a timely word of encouragement from someone who’s “been there” is all it takes to help me keep going.

Oct 2014 008

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Off the Beaten Path and Have Fun!
All work and no play makes the maze feel like a rat race.  When we stopped making progress in the maze and started getting discouraged, I whipped out my camera and started staging goofy pictures.  At one point I shocked the kids by announcing, “If it’s in that general direction, let’s just cut through the maze,” and then proceeded to weave through the cornstalks (which, admittedly, took us to an entirely different maze, but the kids got a kick out of it).  Sometimes, in life and in the maze, we take risks that don’t turn out the way we’d hoped.  In those circumstances, keeping your sense of humor intact will make all the difference between a miserable experience and a really good story.

It’s often when I’m feeling “stuck” or frustrated with a child that what I most need is to take a break and go play with that child in a way that’s fun for both of us.  If you and a particular child regularly butt heads, although it feels counter-intuitive to how you feel, go on a date with that child.  If everyone in the house is grumpy, go out for pizza at the arcade or have a family fun night where one person chooses a game, one person picks a dessert, and another chooses a movie.  Laughter truly is the best medicine, so turn on your favorite movie that elicits a belly laugh when you’re in the midst of struggles.  It may not get you off of the difficult path you’re on, but a joyful, positive mindset will make the journey so much more enjoyable for you and those around you.

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Look at the Map and Look Up!
So how do we know when we’re struggling because we need to take a different path or when we need to just hang in there?  What works for me is prayer and regular time spent gazing at the “map,” my Bible.  James 1:5 reminds us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”  The good news is that we don’t have to figure it all out alone!  God invites us to ask for wisdom, not because there’s one right way to do something and we’re hosed if we don’t get the divine thumbs up, but because he loves us and wants us to share the journey with him.  Perhaps you’re at a dead end: a marriage that is hanging by a thread, a sudden job loss, an unfulfilled dream.  You’re not alone.  The God of the universe wants to share the journey with you, help you figure out where to go next, remind you that you’re not alone, and even give you joy in the midst of your struggles.

Keep praying, keep listening, keep reaching out to others, and remember that nothing is impossible with God!  (Even getting out of that dumb corn maze.)

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” – Isaiah 30:21

And now, as promised in my Pledge to be real with y’all, here’s what I’m NOT doing today as I sit on the couch and type in my sweats:

  1. Feeding my kids.  They helped themselves to gluten free pop tarts for breakfast – God bless you, Fred Meyer, for putting them on clearance at 50% off this week.  (I bought 10 boxes.)
  2. Teaching my kids lessons for school.  This is their writing day, too.  (Thank you Julie Bogart, author of the Brave Writer series, for pointing out the value in just letting my kids practice getting their thoughts down on paper so that I can justify my course of action, even though the main reason for “writing day” is that it’s rainy and we’re all tired.)
  3. Laundry.  Here is my messy laundry room, with a case of tomato sauce on the floor – don’t ask me why it’s been there for 2 years – and a dog who regularly decides that the best time to go eat his food is when I’m trying to do laundry in that space (because you haven’t done laundry until you’ve done it while straddling a 35 lb. dog).
Yes, that black thing is a dog.

Yes, that black thing is a dog.

Over the past several months I’ve attempted to write and share posts on this blog, but just can’t seem to click on that Publish button.  Why?  I’m sure you couldn’t care less because there are so many other voices on the internet telling us how to live, eat, parent, decorate our homes, dress ourselves.  (What did we do before we had the internet to tell us how to live?  Shudder.)  But that is the very reason why I couldn’t bring myself to add to the noise.  Who needs another blog telling you all about their successes, leading you to think that they must also be successful in everything (which, when I’m reading blogs, usually translates into “everything I’m NOT”)?

I’ve debated the issue over and over in my head (and it gets pretty loud in there).  I – and I’m assuming most other bloggers – want to share ideas that will inspire and encourage others.  After all, that’s why we women go to the internet, to get inspired.  (No one goes trolling on Pinterest to see someone’s brown bag with PB&J, chips and an apple.)  But when us women find an inspiring post, our thought patterns go something like this:

Wow, what a great parenting idea!  I should try that with my kids.

(Positive, right?  Wait for it…)

Look at all those other posts on parenting.  I bet she’s an awesome mom – I mean, look at those cute little shapes she cut her organic, non-GMO, kale and chia bread sandwiches into!

(Here it comes.)

I really should eat more healthy and stop feeding my kids spaghettios.  That organic stuff is so expensive, but I just know I’m giving my kids cancer with all our Wal-Mart produce.  I bet THAT mom doesn’t feed her kids spaghettios with a side of cancer salad.

(And now we have the knock out punch.)

And look at how clean her kids’ craft area is, with all those cute labels on her bins.  I bet her kids clean up after every craft time.  My house is such a pit.  I suck.

Aaaaaaand that’s why the internet is sucking the joy from moms.  We go looking for inspiration, but because we never get to see beyond the picture perfect image presented to us, we instead find condemnation.  Because those “perfect” images are one-sided.  And so we fill in the blanks, assuming that someone who’s good at one thing must also be good at everything.  (When, in all likelihood, THAT mom probably spent all her energy that day cleaning the room where that picture was taken, served her kids spaghettios for dinner because all her energy went into staging her photos and blogging, and she’s probably too exhausted now to play with her kids who are being entertained by an endless loop of videos on Netflix.)  Who among us is rockin’ it on all fronts at all times?  Not me, that’s for sure!  This is why I haven’t been able to write; I don’t ever want to be “THAT mom” to anyone.

My Pledge
So starting now, here’s my pledge to you: If I share a successful parenting strategy, homeschool solution, recipe, whatever, I will also share the flip side of that success.  The flip side is what I didn’t do or had to sacrifice that week in order to achieve that success or create that experience.  Because that’s how it works in the real world.  We all make choices each day in how we spend our finite amount of time, money, and resources.  Each decision we make affects future decisions.

For example, when I’m in a creative groove in the kitchen and spending lots of time cooking, that means I’m not spending lots of time cleaning or creating fun homeschool lesson plans.  Likewise, when I’m in a creative lesson-planning season, my family is likely eating a lot of chili cheese fries for dinner.  When the mess finally gets to me, or I decide to host a party, then everything gets put on hold while we focus on getting the house in order.  I only have so much creativity and time, and I can’t do all things well at all times – and neither can you, by the way – but you and I can have seasons of creativity in a particular area.  So when I share what I’ve learned or created in one of those seasons, I will do my best to also share what I was NOT doing, which allowed me the time and energy to create.

Seasons and Cycles and Hormones – Oh My!
In addition to seasons of creativity in particular areas, all women are subject to the effects of – ahem – monthly cycles.  (Sorry, men, but if you want to understand your wife, hang in here with me.)  If you’ve never charted your monthly cycle, you need to start.  Now.  It has been so helpful for me to realize how my energy level and creativity are tied to the ebb and flow of hormones each month.  I am super creative and energetic in the first 2 weeks of my cycle.  Knowing this, I try to leave space on my calendar for spontaneous field trips, parties, freezer cooking days, etc.  However, what goes up must come down, and there is usually a week or two when I just.  Don’t.  Care.  That party that seemed like such a good idea when I planned it during my peak of creativity, now feels like an albatross around my neck, as I grudgingly clean and kick myself for committing to a social event when I’d rather just watch a movie marathon while the kids eat peanut butter and crackers for the next few days.  If I read a blog post with all kinds of creative ideas during the upswing of my cycle, I’m inspired to be my best self – yay me!  If I read that same article when my hormones have left me in the dust, devoid of energy and creativity, I will beat myself up for not measuring up to “THAT mom” and not even giving a rip about it.  Because I just.  Don’t.  Care.

I should also note that there are seasons of parenting, as well.  The kinds of things I do with my middle school-aged kids I could not do when they were babies and toddlers (like putting the words into sentences making).  For instance, I have trained them to clean which frees up time for me to focus on other things.  When they were babies, I wasn’t planning gourmet meals.  I was trying to make it through the “witching hour” as quickly as possible so I could get them to bed!  Lord, keep us from idealizing someone else’s parenting season or thinking that we should be able to do all things well when we have babies who are sucking the brain cells out of our heads with every middle-of-the-night diaper change.  Amen.

The Truth
So there it is; the truth that you rarely find in the blog world.  You are not perfect.  I am not perfect.  We all have our moments of glory/facebook-worthy status updates.  And we all have our moments when we’d rather be hiding in the closet from our families, eating chocolate.  Welcome to the wonderful world of moms.  We’re gloriously messy and messed up at times, but we love our families fiercely and really want to get this mom thing right.  So let’s encourage one another to be the best moms we can be – you being you, me being me, and Pinterest being a place where we tread lightly, aware of the false gods of perfection that loom there.  And for the love of chocolate, please don’t go there when you’re PMS-ing!

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I’m hoping to share with you in the coming months all the awesome things God’s been teaching me, my journey of healing on the Paleo diet for the last 6 months (a.k.a. “Please Tell Me I Never Have to Eat Another Salad As Long As I Live”), and our exciting transition in our home school to the Scholar phase (a.k.a. “Homeschooling on Steroids” or “Why I Won’t Be Sleeping Much For the Next 6 Years”).  But if I don’t find time to write, you’ll know it’s because I’m too busy schooling my kids to write about it, and every “yes” to my family requires a flip side “no” to something else.

The Flip Side
In the meantime, let me leave you with this little gem.  While I was being a “Mary” this summer and sitting at Jesus’ feet, having an awesome time learning about who God is and who I am in Christ, I was NOT cleaning out my garage, as I had planned.  (Martha takes a lot of flack in sermons for complaining to Jesus that she needed some help in the kitchen, but somebody’s got to do the work at some point.  Jesus isn’t calling us to sit at his feet all the livelong day – otherwise, sign me up for that gig!)  So when I get around to sharing with you all I learned this summer, you’ll know that as a result, I get to look at this every day.  Bless it.

Please note the red wagon with an old motherboard that my son duct-taped together to make a "Mars Rover."  Creativity is messy!

Please note the red wagon with an old motherboard that my son duct-taped together to make a “Mars Rover.”     Creativity is messy!

 

 

 

We’re supposed to go to the water park today.  The forecast is partly cloudy with a 20% chance of rain.  Immediately, I start weighing whether or not it’s worth the risk to go, if there’s a possibility of rain.  But then I realize that a 20% chance of rain also means an 80% chance of no rain.  I’m no math wizard, but I do know that 80 is greater than 20, yet that 20% chance still makes me nervous.

And so it goes with parenting.  All of us parents are keenly aware of our children’s weaknesses.  They may have a boatload of strengths and wonderful qualities – 80% – but we can so easily become fixated on their weaknesses – the 20%.  I speak from experience because I just got whacked upside the head with the reality that my fears over the 20% have been robbing me of my joy as a parent, and sometimes blinding me to the 80% good in my kids.

One child, in particular, has struggled in many areas, and at times it felt like the ratios were flipped, with an 80% chance of rain all the time.  But the truth is, this child is not the same kid he was back then.  He’s growing into a thoughtful, more responsible, funny, articulate, sweet young man who loves God and wants to please others.  And yet, when he went on a recent 6-day choir and missions trip, I waited in anticipation for the rain.  I knew what his past struggles were, and assumed they were here to stay, not believing that all my years of discipling, teaching, training, praying for God to help him and me, exposing him to uncomfortable experiences so he could grow, had actually made a difference.  But then one of the adult sponsors told us what a great job he did and how much he’s matured this year.  My son also blew us away by telling us what a great time he’d had doing all the activities that were centered around…sports.  Sports?  Really?!!  The kid who previously hated all things sports-related had a good time?  And he wasn’t even with his good buddies?  How could this be?

Listen up, moms – yes, I’m talking to you, mom who’s apologizing to everyone at the playground for her preschooler who is throwing bark dust – our kids have a greater capacity to change and grow than we give them credit for.  We pour out all our energies on trying to prevent that 20% chance of rain, but the truth is, childhood is full of moments of sunshine and rain for all kids.  Every child will have ups and downs, but we will miss the joy of the ups if we live in constant fear of the downs.  So much of what we obsess over either never happens, or if it does, we realize it’s just another opportunity to learn from mistakes and grow.  We tend to project their current weaknesses and struggles far into the future, ignoring the reality that time and maturity – and all that love we pour into them on a daily basis – can soften, and sometimes erase, the jagged edges of their personalities.

Instead of seeing our kids as they are now, we often cling to painful memories of the past, and overlook all the growth that’s taken place.  It took being away from my kid for 6 days for me to realize that I still see him as that struggling 2nd grader who was drowning in public school and needed me to rescue him.  The truth is, he’s no longer that same kid.  Yes, he has areas of weakness that we still work to address, but so does every other kid his age.  (What 12-year-old boy is not awkward or weird in some way?)  I have a good friend with a Mary Poppins child – “practically perfect in every way” – and it blesses me every time she starts listing all her fears for him.  Why?  Because it reminds me that no mother is immune to the 20% dilemma.  We ALL can get so fixated on what might go wrong, that we miss out on enjoying all the is going right!

Not only do we risk missing out on the joy of parenting when we live in fear of the rain, we demonstrate a lack of faith.  If I have given my child to God and asked for God to help me be the parent my kids need, am I really trusting in God’s provision when I worry and fret over those aspects of his personality that God may just have given him on purpose?  I have heard “worry” defined as planning for the future without God.  Raise your hand if you’re not guilty of this.  (Mine is down, by the way.)  I would go a step further to define worry over a child as making assumptions about your child’s future based on the absolute worst case scenarios regarding all his or her weaknesses being magnified to the degree that they crowd out any possible good.  I’m not saying that if we all would just chillax, everything will come out sunshine and roses.  Parenting is hard work and not always rewarding.  Some kids make really bad choices and suffer tough consequences, and we can’t (and sometimes shouldn’t) always prevent that.  But neither should we live in fear of that day from the time they are 2 years old!  It’s tough when kids don’t live up to our expectations, and we can beat ourselves up and train ourselves to be on the lookout for clouds as a result.  But where’s the joy in that?  Where’s the faith and hope in that?  Who wins?  To quote the Song That Shall Not Be Named, it’s time to “let it go.”  We can trust God to give us wisdom.  We can trust God to help us love our kids, even when they’re going through tough phases.  And we can trust God to shelter us under his wing when the rain comes.

So today, I’m resolving to let go of my past images and assumptions of my child so I can see him for who he really is, “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for [him] to do” (Eph. 2:10).  Today, I’m going to the water park.  It might rain or be too cold and cause us to leave early, in which case we’ll have a funny story to recall together later.  Or it just might be awesome.  I’m putting my hope in the 80% chance of sun because I know Who created the sun, and he works all things together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).  All things.  100%.  I like those odds.

Whether you’re planning a “staycation” this summer, or just looking for some fun day trip ideas to stave off summer boredom, Southwest Idaho’s Treasure Valley has some fantastic, family-friendly attractions like Roaring Springs Water Park and Wahooz. But for those of us who don’t have wads of cash lying around, there are plenty of less expensive destinations for family fun.  Last summer, I made a point of visiting several of these hidden gems and discovered that there’s really no place like home!  Here are some of our favorite summer activities that are either free or cost a fraction of what you’d pay at the usual summer hangouts.

Instead of an Expensive Water Park, Try…

Eagle Island State Park
Eagle Island State Park – Located on a curve of the Boise River in Eagle, this “island” has a playground and long length of beach that’s perfect for building sand castles and cooling off in the water.  The swimming area has boundary ropes to keep kids from going too deep, and there are several shady trees where parents can watch kids play, since there are no lifeguards on duty.  (However, I’d suggest bringing a beach umbrella or free-standing shade if you can, since the park can get busy on the weekends.)  If you want your kids to enjoy the thrill of a water slide without gouging your wallet, the park has an old school water slide on the weekends that costs $1/slide, $8/10 slides, or $12/day.  When we go, I spend $8 on the 10-slide band which comes with tear-off tickets my kids can share, since after 5 slides they’re usually ready to go back to the beach.  We bring our own float tubes, which you can air up at the park for $.50.  I found 38-in. tubes with handles for $6 at Target, and these last for years.  If you spent $10 on the State Parks Passport when you registered your vehicle (since this pass is tied to vehicle registration), you can get into the park for free.  If not, it’s only $5/vehicle.

Lucky Peak

Sandy Point Beach at Lucky Peak Reservoir – Another beach lies just outside of Boise, and is also free with the State Parks Passport (or $5/vehicle).  The swimming area is much larger, but remains shallow all the way out to the water fountain in the middle.  There are lots of great shade trees that are closer to the beach, so this is a good park for families with toddlers who need to stay a little closer to parents.  The downside of this beach is that there can be a lot of geese in the area, but it didn’t bother us when we visited.  They’ve recently installed a Frisbee golf course, which we look forward to checking out.

Floating the Boise River – For some kid-friendly thrills, try taking older kids floating down the Boise River (and by “older,” I mean kids you will enjoy being stuck with in the middle of a river for 1 1/2 – 2 hrs.).  It’s best to do this mid-summer when the river has warmed up and the water level is a little lower and slower.  (A 90 degree day is perfect for rafting, although you may prefer a warmer temperature if you’re tubing.)  If you’re like me and have inherited a raft from parents who are willing to drop you off at Barber Park (where you can air up your raft for free), then wait for you at the exit point in Ann Morrison Park, then this activity is free.  If not, you can take 2 vehicles and drop one off in Ann Morrison before continuing on to Barber Park or take advantage of the $3/person shuttle available at Barber Park.  They also have raft and tube rentals there.  We enjoy a raft and tube combo by tying one of our tubes to the raft so kids can take turns floating in the tube, but then hop back in the raft when we get to the “rapids” (which are just a few very mild waterfalls, but add to the excitement for kids).  A word to the wise, though: Stay away from the edges, and when you get to a fork in the river, take the path everyone else is taking, unless you want to get out and carry your raft back to the river.  And don’t forget the sunscreen!

Parks with Splash Pads – If your kids are too young to float the river, Kleiner Memorial Park (near The Village) and Settlers Park in Meridian are two fabulous parks for little ones with splash pads for water play when kids get too hot on the jungle gym.  They also both have concession stands.  Kleiner, with its unique playground equipment, is a nice size for toddlers because it’s smaller and easier for parents to keep an eye on kids.  Settlers Park has a huge playground and splash pad that can keep my kids entertained for hours.  There’s not a whole lot of shade, though, so you may need to bring your own if you have a large group.  Settlers also has a music play area, climbing area, tennis courts and more, so bring flip flops or water shoes that will allow your kids to go back and forth between activities and water play.

Instead of Expensive Fun Parks for Mini-Golf, Arcade Games, and Bowling, Try…

Ridgecrest Wee 9

9-hole Golf at Ridgecrest - Ridgecrest Golf Course in Nampa has a great deal for families on their Wee 9 course every Saturday and Sunday after 4 p.m.  As long as you have at least one child golfing with you, the cost is only $5/person for 9 holes – cheaper than mini-golfing at Wahooz!  (They have some clubs available to use, if you don’t have children’s clubs.)  This is an annual activity for us because it’s a nice course with a beautiful view of the mountains, there are special kids tees (in yellow) so the kids can start closer to the hole, and it’s great exercise.

Frisbee Golf – No golf clubs?  No problem!  There are lots of Frisbee golf courses in the area, including a nice one in Boise’s Ann Morrison Park.  Settlers Park and Eagle Island State Park have courses set up in the winter.  Our favorite course is at West Park in Nampa, which ends at a playground.  Any old Frisbee will do, but it is easier if you use the smaller discs (found in any sporting goods store) designed for Frisbee golf.  You can find a decent putter for $10, and that’s all most of us need.  To play, simply find the tee marked #1 and aim for the metal basket.  When you reach the “hole,” you should be able to see the next tee.  (You can often find course maps online, which takes away some of the guesswork.)  We don’t keep score in our family, but we do have the kids practice proper etiquette by waiting for the person farthest from the hole to throw first before they throw their disc (which also prevents kids from getting whacked in the head by a Frisbee thrown behind them).  This is also great exercise, and even little kids can have fun throwing a Frisbee as they walk along the course.

Celebration Park Atlatl Range

Celebration Park - Instead of playing the same old arcade games in a dark, noisy room, take a short drive to Idaho’s only archaeological park, situated on the scenic Snake River.  You can throw an atlatl/prehistoric spear in the atlatl range and walk among petroglyphs that are 100 to 10,000 years old.  The visitor’s center is open from 10 – 2 p.m., and there’s a $2 entrance fee.  (This is a county park, not a state park, so the state passport doesn’t apply here.)  Bring a picnic to enjoy down by the river, and be sure to take the kids across the historic Guffey Railroad Bridge.

Dollar Days Bowling – When you’re tired of getting baked in the sun, bowling can be an inexpensive way to beat the heat.  Through the Kids Bowl Free program, kids can bowl 2 free games every day all summer long (although you still pay for shoe rental).  This is a national program and all you have to do is register online.  If you go to Nampa Bowl on Dollar Days (Tuesdays, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. or Fridays, 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.), shoe rental and games – as well as hot dogs, fries, and drinks – are only $1 for all ages.  So a family of 4 can bowl for the price of 1 person at one of the arcadepalooza bowling alleys.  It is a smoke-free facility, and they have bumpers to make bowling more enjoyable for kids (and…um…moms).

Looking For Free Educational Activities to Stop The Summer Brain Drain?  Try…

MK Nature Center & Municipal Park – Tucked away in a corner of downtown Boise is a lovely stream-walk nature path where kids can view and learn about native fish, as well as enjoy some beautiful scenery.  The visitor’s center has some hands-on learning activities for kids, and it’s all free!  Bring a picnic and enjoy the afternoon at nearby Municipal Park which is on the Greenbelt path that winds along the banks of the Boise River, and part of the Idaho Birding Trail for bird viewing.  Don’t forget your binoculars and bird identification book!

Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology & Quarry View Park – Not far away from Municipal Park is Quarry View park, to the left of the entrance to the Old Penitentiary.  While the playground will mostly appeal to younger kids, there’s a large block of sandstone nearby with plaques that outline the area’s fascinating geological history.  (I’m not a geology nut, but I found it to be very interesting, and my kids enjoyed climbing on the rock.)  We stumbled upon this park on a visit to the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology, which sits next to the Old Penitentiary.  While the Old Penitentiary and nearby Idaho Botanical Garden cost money, this museum is free and quite interesting.  (It does not have air-conditioning, however, so go in the morning!)  The Botanical Garden is definitely worth a visit, and has a lovely picnic area.  But if you want to picnic for free, check out Quarry View Park after you visit the museum.

The "Haunted Wastewater Tour" was...um...haunting.

The “Haunted Wastewater Tour” was…um…haunting.

Boise WaterShed Environmental Education Center – From 10 a.m. to noon each Wednesday during the summer, all ages can participate in interactive exhibits, do arts and crafts, and enjoy scientific demonstrations as well as hands-on presentations relating to environmental issues and conservation.  At 11 a.m., you can go on a tour of the wastewater treatment plant – a perfect educational activity for the tween boys in your life.  (Closed-toe shoes are required because ew.)  We went on the “Haunted Wastewater Tour” that’s offered in October.  It was literally the crappiest family outing ever, but lots of fun.  Please enjoy the above picture of my husband and son during this tour, as there will be no pictures of me in a hard hat on this blog.  Ever.

Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park & Observatory – Who needs snow when you can sled down the largest single-structure sand dune in North America!  About an hour east of Boise is Bruneau Dunes State Park, where you can climb the sand dunes and sled down, then cool off in the lake – although it’s not the greatest swimming spot, in my opinion.  (Be sure to bring bug spray and sun screen, and don’t forget your sled!)  The sand gets hot in the summer, so I’d recommend visiting in the morning if you’re planning on climbing the dunes.  However, if you prefer the evening, there is an observatory where you can gaze at the night sky on Friday and Saturday nights.  (Please visit the website for times and check the weather report before you go, to make sure your view won’t be obstructed by clouds.)  Although the observatory tour and orientation program are free, it costs $3/person to look through the telescopes (5 and under are free).  Entrance to the park is free with your State Parks Passport or $5/vehicle.

Instead of Blowing Your Budget on Babysitters and Summer Blockbusters at the Megaplex, Try…

Drive-In Movie – If you’ve never gone to a drive-in movie, you’re missing out!  It’s so much fun to hang out under the stars with other families and their pajama-clad kiddos.  This is an annual activity for our family, usually in May or September when the showtimes are earlier and the weather is cool.  The Terrace Drive-In is on the edge of Nampa in Caldwell, and you can’t beat the price for a double feature: $8/adult, kids under 12 are free.  You can bring your own food there, so I usually pop some popcorn at home and bring cookies and water bottles.  If it’s going to be cold, I’ll put hot chocolate in a thermos.  We throw tons of pillows and a couple sleeping bags in the back of the van with the back seats folded down so we can open the hatch and let the kids get cozy for the movie(s).  Typically, the first movie is a family-friendly feature.  Then little ones can crash while Mom and Dad (and older kids) watch their flick.  (My youngest usually poops out before the second movie, so we give her earplugs and let her go to sleep up front with the sound in the rear speakers for us.)  My husband and I bring camping chairs and sit outside under the stars – a great date when you can’t find (or afford) a babysitter!

$.50 Kids Movie Matinees - Another cheap summer treat is the “Family Days in the Summer” program at the Reel Theater.  Every Monday and Wednesday, the 10 a.m. showing of the kids movies that are rated G or PG costs only $.50/person or $2.50 for 3D movies (including adults).  With so many fun movies coming out this summer, if you have the patience to wait for a month or so, you’ll save a bundle on movie tickets.  (If you haven’t been there in a while, they have new leather reclining seats and all digital screens – not bad for $.50!)

Free Movies in the Park – Several communities show free family movies on an inflatable screen at dusk (around 9 p.m.), like Settlers Park in Meridian.  This year, Nampa is joining in the fun and showing family movies (like Frozen and The Lego Movie) on select dates at Nampa’s Optimist park.  Bring your blankets and lawn chairs for some free fun with your community.

So what are you waiting for!

You can write some of these activities on your calendar before the summer fills up, or jot down items from the list to place in a “Summer Fun Bucket” that you draw from when the kids start saying, “I’m booooooored.”  If you want to be able to spontaneously hop in the car and just go, I recommend keeping a backpack stocked and ready to grab on your way out the door.  Here’s what I keep in mine:

  • Camera (because my phone only makes phone calls)
  • Hats and sunglasses
  • Waterproof Sunscreen – I like the spray on kind for quick application
  • Bug spray
  • Antibacterial wipes – for cleaning dirty hands or other messes
  • Paper towels to eat off of and for clean-up – roll up several of the half-size towels, secure with a rubber band and store it in a ziplock bag (since sometimes you need an emergency ziplock bag to contain a mess, make an ice pack, etc.)
  • Magnifying glass, binoculars and bird identification book
  • Local parks/trails maps
  • Granola bars, fruit leather, etc.
  • Plastic grocery store sack for storing “treasures” the kids find (which you can throw away when you get home)

We always fill up water bottles on our way out the door, and usually fill our small cooler with easy picnic items like turkey breast cubes, cheese sticks, crackers or multigrain chips, carrots, and grapes or dried fruit.  I also like to keep the following items in our trunk:

  • Picnic blanket
  • Camping chairs (usually just 2 for my husband and me to sit on while the kids explore)
  • Magazine (for the aforementioned sitting)
  • Frisbees, playground ball and bases (for kickball)

Have a fabulous, inexpensive, fun-filled summer!  (Just don’t forget to “schedule” some lazy days, too.)

What are your favorite summer family activities?

This moist, delicious chocolate cake is the only dessert recipe you need to serve all your loved ones with food allergies – unless they’re allergic to awesomeness!  It is not only free of the top allergens – wheat/gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, nuts – it is super cheap and easy to make.  But most importantly, your guests won’t know what they’re missing.  When my gluten-eating family members come to a birthday party, they eagerly ask, “Is this THE chocolate cake?”  When I served this at a party with gluten-eating friends, one of the teenagers – a TEENAGER, people – said, “This is gluten free and dairy free?  It tastes better than regular cake!”  She is wise beyond her years.

The secret to the moist crumb is vinegar and baking soda for leavening instead of eggs.  I know, it sounds weird, but I promise you won’t taste the vinegar.  This cake is inexpensive, and doesn’t need refrigeration because it contains no milk or eggs.  Like most GF chocolate baked goods, it tastes better the second day, so it’s a perfect make-ahead dessert.  For a finer crumb to make cakes in molds, just omit the extra tablespoon of water and beat on medium speed for 2-3 minutes.  To keep it from sticking to the pan, grease the pan and dust with cocoa.  The cake won’t be as moist and dark, but it will hold its shape for fancy cakes like my son’s Lord of The Rings, ring-shaped cake (a.k.a. One Cake To Rule Them All), which I baked in a tube pan.

Ring Cake

I substitute cornstarch for 2 T. of GF flour because that’s how you make cake flour.  However, if you have a corn allergy, you can substitute potato starch.  If you don’t have sorghum flour, or are using a flour blend that contains sorghum, just substitute 2 more tablespoons of your flour blend for the sorghum.  I’ve made this with both my flour blend (below) and Pamela’s Artisan Flour Blend (in which case I don’t use sorghum or add xanthan gum since this blend contains both).

For frosting, I have yet to come up with a chocolate frosting that tastes better than Pillsbury’s Fudge Frosting.  It is dairy free, but contains soy, so if you have a soy allergy you’ll need to make homemade frosting.  However, the original recipe I modified calls for a dusting of cocoa on top, so you could also try that instead of frosting.  If you want a white frosting that’s allergen-free for a birthday cake, I’ve made one using canned coconut milk that tastes really good (recipe below).

Moist Chocolate Cake

Allergy Friendly Chocolate Cake
Makes one 8″x8″ pan or 8″ round, or 12 cupcakes

1 c. sugar
3 T. cocoa powder (I use Hershey’s cocoa, found in the baking aisle)
1 1/4 c. GF flour blend*
2 T. sorghum flour (or use additional flour blend if yours contains sorghum)
2 T. cornstarch (or potato starch)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. xanthan gum (omit if it’s in your flour blend already)
1/2 tsp. salt
6 T. canola oil
1 T. GF vanilla extract (we get ours from Costco)
1 T. apple cider vinegar
1 c. + 1T. warm water (or more, if needed to get a loose batter)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  It’s important that the oven is ready to go and the cake goes into the oven as soon as the vinegar and soda are mixed, otherwise the cake will be flat.  For this same reason, be sure to grease your pan or muffin tin ahead of time.  If you’re planning on making a molded cake or removing it from the pan to frost, dust the greased pan with cocoa powder, as well.

Use a whisk or the whisk attachment from your mixer to combine the cocoa and sugar in your mixing bowl.  (I just hold the whisk attachment from the mixer to blend the dry ingredients, then attach it when I’m ready to mix in the wet ingredients.)  Once the cocoa is thoroughly blended with the sugar, to keep it from clumping, add the remaining dry ingredients and whisk to combine.

Fill your 1 c. liquid measuring cup with hot water, then set it aside while you add the wet ingredients, starting with the oil.  Add the water last and mix on medium low for about 30 seconds, scraping the bowl occasionally and adding the additional tablespoon of water to get a thin batter.  Do not overmix.  If you use a different flour blend that absorbs water more, you may need to add another tablespoon of water to thin it.  The loose batter guarantees a moist crumb.  (See notes above if you want to make a molded cake that requires a finer crumb.)

Fill greased pan or muffin cups and immediately place in oven.  Bake square or round pan 25-30 min., or 20-22 minutes for cupcakes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  (Use the shorter time if using a dark, nonstick pan.)  Cupcakes should rise to the top of the pan, but a square cake will not rise all the way up, so don’t worry that it didn’t turn out!  What it lacks in height can be made up with frosting…

Cool completely and frost or dust with cocoa powder.  Store tightly covered at room temperature.  Serve with vanilla ice cream – for a dairy free option, we like So Delicious brand coconut milk ice cream – drizzled with Hershey’s chocolate syrup, which is also dairy free!

Allergy Friendly Frosting:

1/2 c. dairy free margarine (I imagine coconut oil would work, with a dash of salt)
4 c. powdered sugar (this contains cornstarch, so do not use this recipe for corn allergies)
1/3 c. full-fat canned coconut milk (in the Asian food aisle, NOT the kind in the carton)
1 tsp. vanilla extract

In a large mixer bowl, cream margarine and half the powdered sugar until light and creamy.  Add coconut milk and vanilla.  Gradually add remaining powdered sugar, beating until smooth.  Add a little more coconut milk if frosting is too stiff, or a little more powdered sugar if too thin.  This will have a mild coconut flavor that complements the cake well.

Chocolate Variation: I haven’t tried this, but according to my cookbook, you can replace 1/2 c. of the powdered sugar with 1/2 c. cocoa, sifted together with the remaining powdered sugar for a chocolate frosting.  For a mocha frosting, blend 1 T. instant coffee powder into the margarine.

*Brenda’s GF Flour Blend – I triple this and store it in a gallon freezer bag in the fridge:

1 c. rice flour
1 c. brown rice flour
1/3 c. cornstarch
1/3 c. potato starch
1/3 c. tapioca starch/flour
1 T. potato flour
1 T. sweet rice flour (also called sticky rice flour)

I hear you.  Your holiday checklist is not even close to being checked off.  Christmas is right around the corner and you’re just sure you’re letting everyone down this year.  There is so much to be done and so little time.  Having a “simple” Christmas sounds so alluring, but in reality, makes you feel like you’re just being lazy.

Can I respectfully enter your guilt trip for a moment and whisper a word of grace to you?  May I suggest that, perhaps, instead of a Pinterest Perfect Christmas, your family just wants you? I know that this time of year, Mom is the one who makes the “magic” happen, and it feels like a huge responsibility – because it is.  Perhaps, unrealistically so.  But the warmth that makes us fondly remember Christmases past comes from the feelings we felt with our loved ones – not the decorations, the food, nor even the presents.

This year I resolved to have a simplified, more joyful Christmas, and I can tell you that it’s worth it to say NO to the guilt monster.  Here is how I am having the most un-Pinterest-worthy and BEST Christmas ever, and my letter to “future stressed-out me” (which, perhaps, might encourage you, too):

Let Go Of Feeling Responsible For Everyone’s Merry Christmas
This year, for the first time in 17 years, we’re not writing a Christmas letter or printing family photo cards to send out.  Will some people be disappointed?  Probably.  But I am not responsible for their happiness.  Say it with me, moms: I am not responsible for everyone else’s happiness.  I realized that because of social media, we’re connected to the people on our list already.  If they want to know what’s going on in our family or see pictures of my kids, it’s all right there on my timeline.  However, I’ve also chosen to hand-write Christmas cards in response to those who took the time to send me one, and I respond to their letter with a much more personal note than the generic “Merry Christmas from our house to yours,” printed on a card that will likely end up in the trash.  Whether you’re stressed about cards, the gifts you’re giving (or not giving), or are just feeling guilty that you don’t have the energy to do all the things that please your family, give yourself permission to give what you can, not what you can’t.

“Good Enough” Can Be Best
One of our traditions that’s developed over the years is the observance of Saint Lucia Day, a Swedish holiday that we discovered one year when I was teaching my kids about the holiday customs of countries where we have ancestors.  In the past, I would go all out with a fancy breakfast for my daughter to serve, which is why she loves this holiday.  This year, I felt like I “should” get up early and make cinnamon rolls for the celebration, but decided instead to spend my morning sipping coffee and reflecting on scripture by the Christmas tree (which fills my bucket), and grabbed some gluten free doughnuts from the freezer for my daughter to serve instead.  Guess what?  It was just as special, and because I didn’t spend the morning in the kitchen, I offered to braid my daughter’s hair like her Swedish “Kirsten, an American Girl” doll.  She loved it!

St. Lucia Day

This time of year, it can be tempting to think that all our family needs from us is a feast of all their favorite foods, but taking a short-cut or two so you can offer your time instead can be so much more rewarding for all of you.  Why decorate every square inch of the house when a Christmas tree and a few clusters of decorations will do?  Maybe you have gorgeous Christmas china, but maybe your family would be fine with dinner served on festive paper plates so you can play games with them after dinner instead of doing dishes.  Because I had made time for self-care in the morning on St. Lucia Day, I had the energy to join my family at the Christmas Chemistry Show that night, which I usually delegate to my husband so I can stay home and wrap gifts.  I can’t tell you how excited my kids were to finally share this experience with Mom.  While they enjoy the things I do “for” them, what they really want is to do things “with” me.

Speaking of Gift Wrapping…
I am, perhaps, the laziest gift wrapper on the planet.  (See how “simple” makes us feel “lazy”?)  I reuse the same gift bags every year, and don’t even label them.  I simply assign a different color of tissue paper to each person, and it drives my children crazy because they don’t know which gifts are theirs.  <insert maniacal laugh>  Unfortunately, I usually forget whose gifts are whose by Christmas day, and end up peaking at all the gifts before I hand them out.  But still, it takes me less than a half-hour to wrap everyone’s gifts, which frees me up to do the holiday activities I enjoy, like reading with my kids by the Christmas tree.  This is perhaps my most freeing discovery: If I take advantage of time savers on the stuff that’s not meaningful for me, it gives me more time to focus on the things that are.

Do Crafts With Your Kids Only If You Enjoy It
Some years, I’ve given the kids plain gift bags or paper to decorate with stickers or stamps for extended family members, and the result is definitely not like the pictures of hand-made wrapping paper you see in Family Fun magazine (which, I’m pretty sure, were not actually decorated by children).  If you enjoy doing craftsy things with your kids, then go for it!  (Just stick the ugly packages under the back of the tree.)  If you’re like me and an afternoon of frosting a gingerbread house with your kids makes you borderline homicidal, then just say no.  If you do not enjoy making ornaments with your kids, find something to do with them that you DO enjoy instead (like baking, ice skating, playing games, putting together puzzles, etc.).  Just because there are women out there who love to decorate ornate packages with their children’s drawings and make fancy shmancy decorations with their kids out of stuff you and I put in the trash can, doesn’t mean we all have to do this.  Can I get an amen?

You Don’t Have To Leave Home To Make Memories
This year, because of my husband’s insanely busy work schedule, we’ve passed on a lot of community activities – and it’s been great!  Some years, you just can’t do it all, and that can be a wonderful thing.  My daughter was disappointed that we stayed home from the church Christmas party because my husband was sick and we’d had activities the previous two nights in a row.  So I decided to have an impromptu Family Fun Night.  My daughter got to pick a family game, my husband chose a holiday movie, I chose a holiday book for us to read together, and my son got to choose the dessert from a list of already made goodies (that included Reese’s Peanut Butter Trees because I don’t do marathon baking days).  We had a great time together and it took zero work.  The best thing about leaving white space on your calendar (or crossing some things off) is that it makes room for spontaneity which, I’ve discovered, is essential to my enjoyment of the holidays.  If the holiday “script” stresses you out, then make room on your calendar for some unscripted fun.  (And remember our mantra: I am not responsible for everyone’s Merry Christmas.)

But Do Leave Home If That’s What Energizes You
Holiday busyness can also take a toll on us and leave us feeling lonely and isolated.  However, you don’t have to clean your house from top to bottom and throw fancy parties to connect with friends and loved ones at Christmas.  Sometimes, the simplest get-togethers are the most enjoyable for everyone.  This year, we met up with a couple families at a theater to see a movie together, then went to a nearby family fun center for (gluten free!) pizza and burgers while the kids played arcade games with their friends.  We had a great time connecting with friends, and it energized us instead of exhausting us.  Especially if you are an extrovert, make time for people.  But you can do it while walking through a pretty area with Christmas lights or sipping eggnog lattes at your favorite coffee shop.  Have little ones?  Meet friends at a McDonald’s playplace and let the kids run around while you enjoy a $1 coffee.  Joy to the budget!

Remember That Jesus Is Not A Baby; He’s Your Savior
To be honest, some years it’s felt like the Baby Jesus was just one more child I had to serve at Christmas.  Can you relate?  However, Jesus didn’t come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28).  Have you let him minister to you recently?  This year, instead of trying to wring every ounce of meaning out of Luke 2 for a month, my family is finishing reading the Old Testament.  It’s been fun to play “Where’s Waldo” with the prophecies of Christ as they pop up in our readings.  Not only that, by avoiding reading the Christmas story until Christmas day, it’s creating a sense of anticipation and longing for the promised Messiah – exactly what Advent is all about!  Sometimes, we need to remember amid the hustle and bustle of Christmas, that God didn’t just send us a baby; he sent his only Son to fulfill his promise to save all who turn to him.

What do you need from Jesus today?  Joy, peace, patience?  Do you need him to whisper, “Be still and know that I am God” to remind you that you don’t have to be?  Hear the kindness and gentleness in his voice as he offers you this invitation:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message)

He is our joy this Christmas.  Let him lift the heavy burdens of false guilt and expectations from your shoulders.  Rest in him.  Christ is not interested in giving us a Pinterest-worthy Christmas; he wants to give us himself.  Likewise, when we work alongside our Savior to bless our families, Jesus helps us to let go of “ill-fitting” burdens so we can simply give the gift of our ourselves.  O come let us adore him, for in Christ we find freedom, rest, and joy!

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