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Archive for December, 2012

This past Thanksgiving I finally conquered my gluten free Mt. Everest – green bean casserole.  Frying the onions wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be, thanks to the advice in this post and our little electric fondue pot.  This recipe makes enough onions for a 9″x13″ casserole, but I decided to make a half recipe since it was for our little family of four.  I froze the rest of the onions on a baking sheet, then transferred them to a bag to save for our Christmas dinner.

2013 Update: The onions freeze well and just need to be reheated in a warm oven to crisp them up before adding to the casserole.  Even though the cream of mushroom soup is not hard to make, if you can find Progresso’s GF Creamy Mushroom Soup, it works really well when brought to a boil with 1 T. GF flour to thicken it a little before mixing with the green beans.  (I added 1/8 tsp. pepper to mine this past Thanksgiving.)  However, the homemade version can be made with rice milk for dairy free folks, so it’s a good one if you have multiple sensitivities in your home.  Happy Gluten Free Holidays!

Green Bean Casserole

Gluten Free French Fried Onions

1 med. onion (I used a sweet onion, but any should work)
1 egg
1 1/2 c. milk (I used rice milk)
1 c. GF flour blend
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. xanthan gum (omit if using a blend containing xanthan gum)
Pinch pepper
Canola or vegetable oil for frying

Slice onion into thin rings.  Halve the slices so that you have what looks like little rainbows.  Separate rings and cut outer 3 or 4 pieces in half, so you have uniform sized pieces.  (Set aside a few rings to chop for the cream of mushroom soup, if making the recipe below.)

November 2012 002

Beat egg and milk in a medium bowl.  Add onions and soak until oil is heated.

In a shallow bowl, combine flour, salt, xanthan gum and pepper.  Heat about 1-in. of oil to 375 degrees in an electric fondue pot or med. high on the stove.  (When you’re ready to fry – the oil will sizzle and pop when you flick a drop of water into it – turn down the temperature to 350 degrees or medium heat on the stove.)

While you wait for the oil to heat, line a couple plates with paper towels and gather your utensils.  I recommend using a fork to transfer the onions from the milk mixture to the flour, and using chopsticks to coat them with flour and transfer to the oil.  We used tongs to transfer the onions from the oil to paper towels.  Having separate utensils for each step keeps them from accumulating thick clumps of dough.

GF French Fried Onions

When the oil is ready, turn it down to medium and begin coating about 1/4 c. of the onions in flour, then dropping them in the oil.  Use tongs to turn onions over after a few minutes, then continue frying until golden brown.  Remove to paper towels to cool.  Continue until all onions are fried.  Set aside while you make the soup.  (I’d store them at room temperature, rather than in the fridge, so they don’t get soggy.)

Gluten Free, Dairy Free, Cream of Mushroom Soup
(Equals approx. 1 can of soup – double recipe if making a 9″x13″ casserole.)

4 T. butter or dairy free margarine
1 T. finely chopped onion
6 T. GF flour blend with a pinch of xanthan gum (I used Gluten Free Pantry’s blend)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 c. milk (I used rice milk)
1 c. GF chicken broth OR 1 c. water with 1 tsp. Better Than Bouillon
1/4 c. chopped mushrooms OR half of a drained 4 oz. can of mushrooms

In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat.  Sauté onions in butter until soft but not brown.  (If using fresh mushrooms, sauté them with the onions.  DO NOT try to sauté canned mushrooms or they will jump out of the pan!)

Whisk in flour, salt and pepper, stirring constantly until a bubbly paste forms.  (If using Better Than Bouillon instead of broth, you can stir in the bouillon during this step and just add water instead of broth.)  Gradually whisk in the milk and broth (or water).  Stir constantly until you have a nice, thick soup.  Stir in mushrooms.

To use this soup in the traditional green bean casserole recipe, you may skip the step of adding extra milk, since this is not as concentrated as the canned soup to begin with, or add milk until it’s the desired consistency.  Add 2 cans green beans and desired seasonings according to whatever recipe you traditionally use (some add 1/8 tsp. pepper or soy sauce), stirring in 2/3 c. of your fried onions.

Transfer to a greased baking dish and bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees, then top with another 2/3 c. onions and bake 5 minutes.  Serves 4-6.

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If you’re looking for a tasty holiday breakfast, this is it!  I modified these AMAZING, flaky cranberry orange scones from a Taste of Home recipe, and it’s hard to believe they’re gluten free.  A food processor makes cutting in the butter easy, and the dry mix can be made ahead of time for easy assembly in the morning.  (I haven’t tried making these dairy free, but I imagine you could substitute dairy free margarine for the butter, coconut milk creamer for the half-and-half, and your milk of choice to brush on top.)

For an extra special treat, serve these with the bacon-wrapped smokies recipe below.  For my husband, the holidays wouldn’t be complete without these morsels of greasy goodness.  

Gluten Free Cranberry Orange Scones

Dry Mix:
1 2/3 c. gluten free flour blend (see recipe below)
1/3 c. potato starch (not flour)
2 T. + 1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. xanthan gum
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/3 c. cold butter

Additional Ingredients:
3/4 c. – 1 c. dried cranberries
1/4 c. orange juice
1/4 c. half-and-half (I used 2 T. heavy cream + 2 T. milk)
1 egg
1 T. milk
2 tsp. sugar

Glaze:
1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 T. orange juice

Whisk together all dry ingredients except butter.  Cut in butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Combine cranberries, orange juice, half-and-half, and cranberries in a separate bowl.  Add to dry mix and stir until a soft dough forms.  (The dough may be in clumps, but will form a ball when squeezed together.)

On a lightly floured surface, gently knead dough 5-6 times.  (This step is what makes those flaky layers.)  Pat dough into an 8-in. circle.  Cut into 10 wedges and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Brush with milk and sprinkle with 2 tsp. sugar.

Bake in a 400 degree oven for 13-15 minutes or until lightly browned.  Cool for a few minutes, then drizzle with glaze and serve warm.

Bacon-Wrapped Smokies

1 package Little Smokies sausages
1 package bacon
Brown sugar

Cut bacon strips into thirds.  Wrap each bacon strip around a sausage and place in a foil-lined pan.  (BE SURE TO LINE THE PAN WITH FOIL.  Trust me, you don’t want to clean out the greasy mess this creates.)  Sprinkle brown sugar over all the bacon-wrapped smokies.

Heat oven to 425 degrees.  Bake 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 400 degrees and bake alongside scones for 15 minutes.  If the bacon isn’t crispy, you may need to turn the oven on broil for a few minutes – but watch it closely so it doesn’t burn.

Brenda’s All-Purpose Gluten Free Flour Blend:

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

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 “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.'” – Luke 2:8-11

Has there ever been a time when you were in pitch black surroundings?  How did you feel when you finally saw light?  These are dark days for our country.  If ever there was a time when we needed the Light of the World, it’s now.  The shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks at night when the angel of the Lord appeared to them.  God could have sent the angel in the daytime, but sometimes we only notice the light when we’re surrounded by darkness.

In the midst of tragedies like we’re experiencing in our country right now, it’s important to remember that our Savior has come to our dark, hurting world to bring hope, healing, and light.  As Christians, I believe we can look to Romans 12 for answers to how we should respond when we feel overshadowed by the darkness of evil that will continue until Christ comes again:

v. 12 – “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”  We pray for those who are suffering, and patiently remember that this world is not our home.  Our time on this fallen planet is short, in light of eternity, and so we patiently wait for Christ’s return, joyful in the hope that he will one day restore his creation and wipe away every tear.

v. 13 – “Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”  While we wait for Christ’s return we have work to do.  We are the Body of Christ, which means we are supposed to continue his work on earth.  If we ignore the needs of our fellow man, then we should not be surprised at their acts of depravity, and according to James 2:15-17, our faith is worthless.  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”  Acts of violence should not make us shrink from the world, seeking solace in our churches and homes, but rather drive us into the world as Christ’s redemptive agents.  Your act of kindness or hospitality might change the course of someone’s life, preventing a future tragedy.

v. 14 – “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” When we see senseless tragedies, our natural response is to cry out in anger, looking for someone to blame.  We can even turn our anger toward God, blaming him for the violence committed by men.  But God does not condone evil.  On the contrary, “by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).  “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:12).  When we are suddenly thrust into darkness through tragedy, we can turn our backs on others and God, or we can run to the One who knows suffering, betrayal, torture and death.  Only He can heal our wounds and turn our ashes into a crown of beauty.

v. 15 – “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”  As I watch my children eye their presents under the tree, my heart goes out to the parents with presents under their tree for children who will never open them.  We mourn the loss of innocence for the children who survived.  We lift up our grieving brothers and sisters in prayer.  And yet, we continue to rejoice at Christmas because God so loved this dark, messed up world that he sent Jesus, the Light of the World, to save us from our sins so that all who believe in him will one day rejoice in heaven where there is no darkness.

The nighttime message to the shepherds is the same message to those living in darkness today: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”  Joy to the world, the Lord has come!

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I came up with this recipe when I attempted to make the Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Shortbread Cookie mix, only the dough was so crumbly that I had visions of a miserable afternoon trying to roll out fussy dough to make cut-out cookies.  So instead, I squished the crumbs together to make balls for the kids to press into and up the sides of mini-muffin pans.  I filled the cookie cups with caramel, then the kids pressed in chocolate chips (and pecans in a few, which I definitely like).  Part way through, I decided to get out our bag of Nestle’s red and green semisweet morsels to dress up a few for gift plates and parties.  The tasty cookie bites look fancy on a plate, but were a whole lot easier than making cut-out cookies!  If you don’t have a Bob’s Red Mill cookie mix, you can use the shortbread recipe from Living Without magazine, which I made last year and is very good.  (Just cut the recipe in half or use the other half of the dough to make cut-out cookies.)

Shortbread Cookie Cups

Shortbread Cookie Cups

1 package Bob’s Red Mill GF Shortbread Cookie Mix (or homemade dough)
3/4 c. unsalted butter
1 egg yolk
2-3 T. water (the recipe calls for 2, but I added 3 because it’s so crumbly)
Caramel ice cream topping
Semisweet chocolate chips
Chopped pecans, optional

Make the shortbread cookie dough according to package directions.  (It will just be dough crumbles until you squish them together in your hand.)  Grab a small handful of dough and squeeze it together in your hands until compacted, then roll it into a ball that’s about 1 1/4-in.  The recipe makes exactly 36 balls.

Place dough balls in greased mini-muffin pans, then use your thumbs to press the dough down and up the sides until it reaches the top of the muffin cup.  Using a 1/2 tsp. measuring spoon, scoop out 1/2 tsp. caramel topping (you may need to heat it a little) and pour into each cup.  Press about 6 chocolate chips into the caramel, along with a few coarsely chopped pecan pieces, if desired.

Bake at 350 degrees for 14-16 minutes.  Let cool in pan for 10 minutes, then gently slide a knife around the edge of each cookie cup to loosen it and pop it out of the pan.  Cool completely on a wire rack.

Makes 3 dozen.

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If you’re looking for an easy, tasty, gluten free dish to bring to a party or set out for guests with allergies, here is a favorite that doesn’t require “special” ingredients or expensive gluten free substitutes.  The hot wassail punch is always a hit at parties, and is easy to throw together in the crock pot earlier in the day to make the house smell wonderful when guests arrive (and cover up the smell of cleaning products from last minute cleaning – not that I wait until the last minute to clean…).  

We love bringing homemade kettle corn with holiday M&Ms to parties because it’s cheap and serves a lot of people.  For more dessert ideas, check out my previous post with 10 ideas for easy gluten free desserts.  

Buffalo Chicken Dip

Not-Too-Spicy Buffalo Chicken Dip

2 12.5-oz. cans of chicken or 2 cooked chicken breasts, chopped
2 8-oz. packages cream cheese (I use light cream cheese, also called Neufchatel)
1/2 c. buffalo wing hot sauce (I use cheap dollar store brands)
1/2 c. ranch or blue cheese dressing (my family prefers ranch)
1-2 c. shredded cheddar cheese
Celery sticks for dipping
Gluten free tortilla chips for dipping (read labels, since not all chips are GF)

Place the unwrapped cream cheese in a large, microwave-safe mixing bowl.  Heat for 30 sec. in the microwave.  Flip cream cheese bricks over and heat for another 30 sec.  Drain and flake cans of chicken.  Add chicken, buffalo sauce, and dressing to the bowl.  Stir together until you no longer see streaks of cream cheese.

Spread mixture evenly into a greased, 9″x13″ baking dish.  Sprinkle with cheese.  Bake 20 min. at 350 degrees until cheese is bubbly and starting to brown a little around the edges.  Serve warm with tortilla chips and celery sticks.  (We like to cut the recipe in half and make it in a 7″x11″ pan for an easy football game snack.)

Wassail
(Double this recipe for groups larger than 8 people or for tasty oatmeal*)

4 c. apple cider
2 c. cranberry juice (either cranberry juice cocktail or 100% juice blends work)
1 c. orange juice
1 11.5-oz. can apricot nectar (found in non-frozen juice aisle or Mexican food section)
1 c. sugar (can be reduced to 3/4 c. if using cranberry juice cocktail which has added sugar)
2 cinnamon sticks

Stove Top Directions:
Combine all ingredients in a large soup pot on the stove and heat over medium until warm, stirring occasionally.  Reduce heat to low and simmer at least 20 minutes.  (The longer it simmers, the stronger the cinnamon flavor will be.)

Crock Pot Directions:
If you’re using a crock pot, mix everything together and heat on high for 3 hrs., then turn to low for the party so guests don’t burn their tongue.  I usually heat it on the stove about an hour before the party, then transfer it to the crock pot to keep warm.

*We love to use leftover wassail to make homemade oatmeal.  Just substitute it for half the water in your oatmeal and stir in some dried cranberries, if desired.  So easy and yummy!

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Looking for some easy, gluten free, holiday recipes to make with your kids that don’t require you to blend a bunch of flours together?  Whether you’re new to the gluten free lifestyle, baking for gluten free guests (and have no idea what a “flour blend” is), or just looking to add a few easy recipes to round out your holiday baking, you’ll find that these recipes are both delicious AND fun to make with your little bakers.

We do a lot of “dipping” for Christmas goodies because it’s something the kids can easily help with, and because everything tastes better dipped in chocolate!  There are some tasty gluten free products that make wonderful substitutions in some of our favorite chocolate-dipped, holiday desserts.  Plus, if you’re giving away plates of goodies to friends and neighbors, you can easily use the “regular,” less expensive wheat versions and still make some gluten free goodies for home!  (Just be sure to always dip the gluten free items in chocolate first, before anything containing wheat, so there’s no risk of cross-contamination.  Also, label the waxed paper where you set the cookies to harden so you can tell which ones are gluten free when you’re finished!)

Some favorite, kid-friendly goodies with gluten free substitutions include:

  • Chocolate-Dipped Glutino Pretzels.  You can actually buy these dipped in chocolate already, but we like to dip them in white almond bark (according to package directions) and sprinkle them with colored decorators sugar (my daughter’s favorite activity).  Glutino’s gluten free  pretzels are better than wheat pretzels, in my opinion, and can be found online at Amazon and Vitacost.  To make this super easy for the kids, we get the stick pretzels and let them dip them half-way, like wands.  It makes a nice sweet/salty combo.
  • Pretzel Turtles with Glutino Pretzels.  This was the first holiday goody my kids helped make, starting when they were 2-years-old.  Have your child place some pretzel twists (the regular shape, not sticks) on a foil or parchment-lined baking sheet.  Your child can then unwrap a Rolo candy (with help from you, if he’s really young) and place one on top of each pretzel.  Melt the chocolate slightly in an oven preheated to 250 degrees for 3 minutes.  Set out pecan halves, red and green M&Ms, or whatever you’d like on top.  When the chocolate has melted, your child can gently press a pecan half or M&M onto each Rolo to squish it down.  Just let it cool and that’s it!  If you’re concerned about the hot baking sheet, you can slide the foil onto the counter for the last step.  WARNING: Be sure to get regular Rolos.  The new mini Rolos and other new miniature versions of gluten free candies (like mini Butterfingers) are NOT gluten free.  Always read labels on every new product, even if other variations are gluten free.
  • Chocolate-Dipped Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies.  These sandwich cookies that we used to make with Ritz crackers were always a hit at parties, and my personal favorite.  We’ve found that the Glutino original round crackers work just as well (although they’re a little less salty).  Kids can make peanut butter cracker sandwiches, then simply dip them in melted chocolate almond bark.  (I use a baby fork to gently turn the cracker sandwich over in the chocolate, then lift it out, tapping the fork on the side of the bowl to shake off excess chocolate before placing the cookie on waxed paper to harden.)  The best thing about this recipe is that it’s ready to eat almost immediately!  The downside of the Glutino crackers, though, is that it seems like half the crackers in the package are broken.  So we just try to match up halves and make half-sandwiches to dip.  They still taste good, even if they’re not round – plus you can call them “reduced-calorie”!
  • Mint Chocolate-Dipped KinniToos (gluten free coookies that taste just like Oreos, only they’re a little softer).  Similar to the recipe above, we dip half of a KinniToos cookie (available at Amazon and Vitacost) in melted green mint chocolate chips (we use Guittard chips, but you could also pull out the green chips in the Nestle mint chocolate chip bag).  If you can’t find the mint chips, dip the cookies in white almond bark and sprinkle crushed candy canes or decorative sprinkles on top for a festive looking treat.

Some of our favorite recipes are naturally gluten free, like Peanut Butter Balls.  I like to make the peanut butter balls early in December because I freeze the balls for dipping in chocolate, which means I can dip a few now and save the rest to dip later for Christmas parties (or for Valentines Day fondue!).  For guests or kids with multiple allergies, check out my recipe for Gluten Free, Dairy Free, Soy Free, No Bake Cookies (which can also be made peanut free by substituting sunflower butter).  My 11-year-old son likes to make these, and does most of it by himself.

Another naturally gluten free holiday goody is fudge.  The recipe I came up with is so quick and easy that my 8-year-old daughter made it all by herself this year.  It can easily be dressed up by sprinkling Andes Peppermint Bark Chips (found next to the chocolate chips) on top to make festive looking Mint Fudge.  You can also make Turtle Fudge by mixing in some chopped pecans right before spreading it in the pan, then drizzling some caramel sauce on top and pressing in a few coarsely chopped pecan halves.  (I like to save the caramel dipping sauce that comes with apples at McDonald’s for little baking projects like this.  Yes, I’m THAT cheap.)

Christmas 007

Brenda’s So-Easy-An-8-Year-Old-Can-Make-It Fudge

3 c. chocolate chips (I use semi-sweet)
14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
2 T. butter
1 tsp. vanilla flavoring (not extract)

Line a 9″ square baking pan with foil and grease with butter.  Pour the chocolate chips into a microwave-safe mixing bowl that is completely dry (otherwise you’ll end up with frosting instead of fudge).  Add sweetened condensed milk and butter.  Melt chocolate in microwave at 70% power for 90 seconds.  Stir until smooth.  If necessary, heat the chocolate for another 15 sec. at 70% power and stir.  When chocolate is melted, stir in vanilla (and pecans, if making Turtle Fudge).  Immediately transfer to pan and smooth top.  If desired, press Andes Peppermint Bark baking chips into half or all of fudge – I like to make half mint and half plain – or top with caramel and pecans for Turtle Fudge.

Another easy recipe is Rice Krispies Treats made with gluten free Rice Krispies (be sure you get the box labeled “gluten free” – the regular cereal is not GF).  My mom used to add food coloring to the marshmallow mixture and shape the treats into trees, with silver candy balls on top.  You can make all sorts of fun shapes by using cookie cutters (and decorating like sugar cookies) or checking out the myriad variations on the Rice Krispies website.

Of course, if you want to bake, you can make my Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies as bars, using the Nestle Tool House holiday morsels that are red and green (if you can find them) or red and green M&Ms.  Or you can make Peanut Butter Kiss Cookies with the dough by pressing an unwrapped Hershey’s Kiss into the cookies as soon as they come out of the oven.

I also like to use the red and green M&Ms to add a festive touch to my allergy-friendly Homemade Kettle Corn, which I often give as a Christmas gift in a jar or ziplock bag that the kids have decorated with holiday stickers.

In addition to the 10 flourless recipes above, if you have the ingredients for my flour blend, you can also check out my recipes for:

  • Gluten Free Sugar Cookies that don’t require frosting, only a little decorators sugar
  • Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookies (by far, my most popular dessert recipe) that can be made festive with Nestle’s red and green morsels or holiday M&Ms
  • Gluten Free, Dairy Free Brownies that taste as good as any boxed mix I’ve ever had, and can be dressed up with chocolate chips, peanut butter cups, or anything else you’d do with a boxed mix.
  • Brownie Pie that uses Pamela’s Pancake and Baking Mix for the flour, and tastes AMAZING with mint chocolate chips.

I’ll do my best to add pictures as I bake throughout the month, but I wanted to share the recipes right away for you early birds.

Merry Gluten Free Christmas!

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The Race to Christmas

If you are a mom, chances are that when December rolls around, it feels like you’ve been signed up for a marathon/obstacle course to complete before Christmas.  You barely digest the turkey you slaved over on Thanksgiving and suddenly you’re off to buy Christmas presents, decorate the house, get your cards and gifts in the mail, start the holiday baking…  The December calendar is filled up before you even start the race, and the overwhelming sense of obligation to fulfill everyone’s expectations can be a huge hurdle if you’re trying to run the race with joy.

“Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:1-2

Throw Off Unnecessary Obligation
The writer of Hebrews reminds us that if we are to run life’s race with perseverance, we’re going to need to throw off whatever is hindering us – particularly any sin that’s tripped us up. The main thing that hinders me during the holidays is feeling like I’m obligated to follow a set script of activities and menus whether I want to or not (i.e. baking particular recipes, putting up decorations that are a pain).  Traditions that were once enjoyed can suddenly feel like obligations if we’re under stress in another area of our lives, making the tradition feel like a burden when it’s added on top of everything else.

Sometimes, giving yourself permission to temporarily let something go is all it takes to turn an obligation back into a tradition you enjoy.  And sometimes, we need to just. Let. Go.  Repeat after me, moms: Just because you do something once or twice does NOT mean you have to do it every year for the rest of your life!  Not everything your family likes has to become a yearly tradition.  If obligation and unrealistic expectations are hindering you from running the race with joy, share how you feel with your family and find solutions together that will allow you to enjoy the traditions you choose to keep.

Fix Your Eyes On Jesus
When my eyes are fixed on myself, I’m more likely to get bogged down in my endless to-do list, but when I look up and invite Christ to be Lord of my list, he often rearranges my priorities and reminds me why I’m doing them in the first place – out of love for God and my family.  Sometimes, we can’t throw off something that’s hindering us, like financial strain, health problems, relationship struggles, parenting issues, job stress.  We can, however, choose to live unhindered by them if we fix our eyes on the One who exchanged the glories of Heaven for a lowly stable so that you and I could have a personal relationship with him.  It’s in this daily walk with our Lord who knows all about suffering and hardship that we find joy, hope, and strength to help us run with endurance.

Sometimes, however, it’s guilt that we need to throw off.  Like guilt over not being emotionally moved by hearing the Christmas story for the bazillionth time.  You know what?  It’s not the baby Jesus who “endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” – it’s the grown man, Jesus.  If fixing your eyes on the miraculous birth of a baby is not meeting your spiritual need, then by all means, skip the Advent devotional and open one of the gospels – Matthew is my favorite – to read about the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, not just as a baby but as a man (John 1).

How do we fix our eyes on Jesus?  Just as we identify with Christ’s sufferings during the season of Lent in preparation for Easter, we can engage in spiritual disciplines during the season of Advent to prepare our hearts to receive our King who will return once again.  There are different kinds of spiritual disciplines; those of engagement that involve some sort of action on our part, and those of abstinence that involve refraining from something.

Here are a few ideas for spiritual disciplines to help us fix our eyes on Jesus as we run the race to Christmas and beyond.

Engagement:

  • Study – Get into God’s Word through a devotional book or daily scripture readings, perhaps in a different translation than the one you usually use.  This year, we’re engaging our kids in Advent by incorporating Jesse tree ornaments along with daily readings (in the New Living Translation instead of the familiar NIV) that tell God’s story from Genesis to Jesus.  (Check out this site for free printable ornaments that little ones can color while you or an older child read the accompanying scriptures.)  For adults who desire to fix their eyes on Jesus in a new and fresh way, I recommend reading Philip Yancey’s, “The Jesus I Never Knew.”
  • Creativity in Worship – Take a walk when the stars are out and discuss what it must have been like to see the sky filled with angels proclaiming Jesus’ birth.  While driving around to look at Christmas lights, discuss why Jesus came as the “light of the world” and pray for the Holy Spirit to fill you and make your light shine before others, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).  Pause to reflect on the meaning of traditional Christmas carols, then sing them intentionally to God.  Light candles in an Advent wreath each Sunday leading up to Christmas.  (Or if you’re me, put battery operated candles in the wreath so your hair doesn’t catch on fire from the candles – again.)
  • Prayer – If you’re struggling to experience joy, focus your prayers on thanksgiving for God’s blessings.  Write down favorite scripture promises and blessings, and pray them over your family.  Some personal favorites are Rom. 15:13, Eph. 1:17-20, Isaiah 26:3, & Psalm 139.  As Christmas cards arrive in the mail, pray for the senders.  Invite children to pray, too.
  • Service – Look for opportunities to bless others through acts of kindness as a family.  Perhaps your family could deliver some cookies to an elderly neighbor or extend an offer of babysitting to a single mom so she can do some Christmas shopping.  We keep a bucket of hay next to a doll cradle and allow the kids to put in a handful of hay each time they perform an act of kindness, as their way of preparing for Jesus.  When we lay a baby doll in the soft bed of hay on Christmas morning, we talk about how our love for God and others shown through acts of service is our gift to the Christ child.

Abstinence:

  • Secrecy – Isaiah 45:3 says, “I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness–secret riches. I will do this so you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name.”  In Matthew 6:3-6, Jesus tells us to pray and give in secret.   When we give to others in Jesus’ name only, the glory goes to God and we are in turn blessed by God with “secret riches.”  Giving in secret can include gifts, but it can be as simple as quietly doing a chore for your spouse (and refraining from trumpeting your good deed if he/she fails to notice), shoveling the snow from your neighbor’s driveway, or leaving an anonymous note on your co-worker’s desk expressing your appreciation for their good work.
  • Frugality – We all know we need to set a budget and limit our spending to that which we can afford, but this discipline is about choosing to find satisfaction in spiritual riches rather than store up treasures on earth. “Godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Tim. 6:6-8).  If we don’t make a conscious effort to choose contentment, we are likely to be caught up in the tidal wave of consumerism (and its companion, financial stress).
  • Rest – Isaiah 30:15 gives this warning: “This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: “Only in returning to me and resting in me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength. But you would have none of it.”  If we’re exhausted and running on empty, our witness will suffer, as will those closest to us.  God knows this – which is why he ordained that we should take a day of rest each week.  But how many of us actually do this?  It’s hard to fathom resting during what is typically the busiest time of year, but how different would your Advent season be if you actually rested each Sunday?  Rest falls into the spiritual discipline category because it takes discipline and planning to accomplish it.  Try putting dinner in the crock pot on Saturday night so you can simply turn it on Sunday morning.  (My favorite crock pot Sunday dinner is Lazy Barbecue Chicken or Ribs with baked potatoes that cook in the oven on a timer.)  Plan to do restful, relaxing activities – but don’t spend the day pinning items on Pinterest or clipping ideas out of magazines if it will make you feel anxious about all you “should” be doing.  Meditate on God’s promises and his love for you; his quiet whisper, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

So how do we run the race with perseverance?  By responding to Jesus’ invitation:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” – Matt. 11:28-30.  

When you just can run another step, rest in Jesus and fall in step with him.

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