Tidings of (Cocoa) Comfort & Joy

My dear reader,

I have a confession to make.

One day last week, I let Chloe skip school. She wasn’t sick. Or tired. Or injured. She didn’t have an appointment with the doctor, dentist, allergist or orthodontist (or any other person with capital letters trailing after their name). But I let her stay home, stay warm, and stay in her PJs. All the livelong day.

She played hooky… and we made fudge. Now, before you google “truant officers” in my district, let me assure you that this is not a regular – or even once-in-a-blue-moon -occurrence in our household. (Which is possibly why I am not considered “the fun parent” by any of our offspring.) Also, in my defense and Chloe’s, she’d already finished finals, and she’s perpetually sporting straight As. Smarty pants, that one.

So I’m thinking a little midweek merry-making is permissable, right?

At the most wonderful time of the year, merry-making involves fudge-making. And watching “White Christmas” and listening to Kaye and Crosby croon. (We crooned too, in case you were wondering. Chloe can belt out a rousing rendition of “Sisters,” despite the fact that she doesn’t have one.) As we sang and stirred and savored our day together, my girl grinned and giggled non-stop. She had a ball. And licked the bowl. (And the spoon.)

At our house, it simply isn’t Christmas without my grandmother’s secret-recipe fudge. Batch after batch. Smooth, sweet, chocolate bliss. Mixed, melted, poured, and shared.

Oh taste and see that the LORD is good.

Can I get an amen?

The fudge tradition was begun my grandma Ida Rivoire Dickson (Idee to all who loved her, which was pretty much anyone who ever met her). As far as I know, Idee possessed the only copy of a highly-classified document (pretty sure it was a 3 x 5 index card) which contained the secret recipe: exact measurements, ingredients, vanilla extract stains and a genuine chocolate-fudge smudge. Eventually she handed it down to my mom – the recipe, not the highly-classified index card – and then on to yours truly. (For the record, I’m fairly certain the document was destroyed at some point. So it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.)

I have decades of cocoa-drenched Christmas memories. Idee would pull up a chair next to her stove, tie an apron twice around my waist, and hand me a wooden spoon. I wielded it with wide-eyed wonder, like a magic wand. (In hindsight, perhaps it was.) I was trained and supervised in this distinctive culinary art by the finest fudge-maker in all the land: my beloved Idee. Over the years, I was promoted from Butter-Melter to Vanilla-Extract-Pourer to Milk-Measurer to Cocoa-and-Confectioner’s-Sugar-Stirrer to Deputy in charge of Double-Boiler Duty. This was a tricky task, requiring one strong grip on the pan handle and another on the wooden spoon… and it required an occasional adjustment of the stove-top burner setting to ensure the proper timing and temperature for masterful melty-ness. Under my grandmother’s devoted tutelage, I climbed the confectionary ladder (and eventually outgrew the pulled-up-chair too)… and that is how I became an Executive Chef of Secret-Recipe Fudge.

But it wasn’t so much the secret recipe or even the dense, dark, luscious fudge itself that made such an impression on me all those Christmases past. It was the cavities. Just kidding. Although I’m guessing my fudge habit eventually eroded a few divots in my tooth enamel. It didn’t turn out all bad, though: I got silver. And then a crown. (You may call me Princess Wendy, if you’d like.)

What I remember most about Idee’s fudge was this: she gave it all away. Every last tin. To friends and family, old folks and new neighbors, church members and garden club ladies, the mailman and the paper boy (please excuse the gender-specific designations of the late 1960s). All of them were blessed recipients of Idee’s sweet, secret-recipe (and maybe magical) fudge.

And there were others too. People who were sad or suffering, laid-off or lonely, grieving… or just grumpy. She knew that fudge couldn’t cure all those ills. But it might make them a little easier to bear. And it would certainly remind them that someone took the time to see (and stir) and care (and share). In her own kind, quiet, gentle way, Idee taught me that Christmas isn’t all joy and jingle bells for everyone. Sometimes the season brings a whole lot of hurt and heartache.

Undoubtedly, for some, December ushers in bitter-cold and winter doldrums: dismally grey days and dreary, weary nights. December delivers distress: busyness and bills, hurrying and scurrying and worrying about every last little thing. For some, December means desperation, not celebration. Dread, despair, or unbearable isolation. Loneliness burrowing deep and dark. Hopelessness that can bleed dry all the merry and bright and beautiful and worth-living-for.

I believe Idee knew this… simply because she noticed. Somewhere along the way of life, she had slipped off the lenses of self-focus and slipped on a pair of bi-focals:

Amity and Empathy.

Idee was no stranger to dismay. Her life was not “all roses and no thorns.” She endured more than her share of sadness and strife. But along with those thorns, Idee was given great faith and hard-won wisdom. Which she kindly passed along to me:

It’s important to help bear one another’s burdens… and maybe bring a little tin of treats too.

Idee never failed to deliver tidings of (cocoa) comfort. And bone-crushing hugs.

My mom followed her lead, visiting nursing home residents at Christmastime… and every other season of the year too. She would come and sit beside her dear, elderly friends and talk with them and read to them and deliver hugs. And yes, fudge.

And now, Chloe and I will carry on the family tradition.

We will honor my grandmother (and my mother too) by doing what they did: delivering a little sweetness to someone who is feeling bereft… or barren… or bitter.

We’ll deliver fudge and big hugs to a beautiful young mother facing her first Christmas without her own dear mom. We’ll take a tin to our neighbor whose wife is away caring for a sick relative. We’ll send some fudge to friends who just moved here… and still ache for “home.” And we’ll bring a batch to Clinton, our favorite cashier at Kroger who always has a ready smile and warm greeting (and a speedy-quick checkout line) for all his customers and their kids. Even the crying ones. And the extreme Coupon-Clippers. (Clinton deserves a medal, I tell you.)

For some, Idee’s secret-recipe fudge will be irrestistible melt-in-your-mouth MERRY. For others, it might be just enough sweet to help bear the bitterness or brokenness of a blue, blue, blue Christmas.

Whatever your state of mind this Christmas, I pray that someone, somewhere, somehow, some way will deliver a little sweetness to your home. And your heart.

May God bless us, every one.

~ Wendy

P.S. I’ll pass along a copy of my grandmother’s secret recipe to ONE lucky new subscriber. Simply click the “follow” link and sign up to receive my blog via email, and you will be entered to win a top-secret 3 x 5 index card containing Idee’s fudge recipe!

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Snow Flurries and Fresh Starts

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My dear reader,

First snowflake sighting today! Just a few flurries, but I’m happily humming “Let It Snow” in an effort to invite those big, beautiful, fluffy flakes to fall like confetti from the clouds. This first snow was the perfect “post-script” to the holiday message I shared last weekend at a Christmas event in St. Louis:

The countdown to Christmas is nothing short of magical, isn’t it? Fresh-cut trees and frosty windows and crackling fires set to a soundtrack of Christmas carols. Hot cocoa and cozy throws. The only thing better than dozing under velvety covers on a cold night is waking to a brilliant blanket of fresh snow. A winter wonderland! Sunlight glistening on countless sparkling snowflakes. A pristine, picture-perfect, white-washed snowscape.

Morning glory, indeed.

Yes, in case you didn’t already guess, I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.

I have such vivid childhood memories of sparkling, snowy Christmases past… My parents would load presents and pillows and suitcases and kiddos into our Torino, and we’d make the drive from suburban Chicago to a postcard-perfect little town in Connecticut. Literally, “over the river and through the woods,” to grandmother’s house we’d go. And once we arrived, all the cousins would spend our days traipsing through the blanketed forest, inhaling the woodsy fragrance of fresh spruce and gathering pinecones for my grandfather’s kindling.

We’d build snow forts and toss snowballs and make snow angels ’til our toes burned cold. And then we’d run inside and warm ourselves by the fire and count the days and hours until the Christkindl would come and bestow His bountiful blessings. Then the next morning, we’d bundle up again – pulling on long johns, snowpants, coats, boots, hats, scarves, mittens and mufflers – and race back outside for another fun-filled snow day.

I remember way back then, standing outside, my head tilted skyward, catching snowflakes on my tongue. I loved to watch the snowflakes drifting, drifting downward. Sometimes, I would try to catch them, but of course they would quickly melt into little drops of water in the palm of my hand. It was the most amazing thing, for that brief moment, to examine the intricate design of one single snowflake. Even as a little girl, I knew that only a magnificent God could design something so complex and exquisite.

Absolutely stunning in their symmetry, aren’t they? Each solitary snowflake reflects the beauty and ingenuity of its Designer. We catch a little glimpse of God’s glory in every last one. Our Creator crafts each ice crystal and orchestrates exactly where it will fall. Not one single snowflake forms or descends outside His divine design. I’m awestruck by that thought.

And here’s the thing: only a magnificent God could design something so complex and exquisite… as you.

Each of us is utterly and profoundly unique: so wondrous and winsome to the One who created us. God’s word says that He created you in His image. Ponder that for a moment.

God knew the day, the hour, the minute, even the millisecond of your birth. How? He was there. He knew the exact color of your eyes and the shape of your little lips and the sound of your newborn cry… because He knit you together. Regardless of the circumstances of your birth (or the dysfunction of your family), know this:

God divinely designed your DNA and skillfully crafted every tiny detail of who you are, from your fingerprints to your tastebuds, your cheekbones to your vocal chords, your passions to your personality.

You are beautiful and full of wonder. Because you were created in the image of the One true, tender and mighty, wise and wonderful, great and very good God. And since you share His likeness… it means you can think, imagine, relate, create.

God designed you to reflect His radiant image… and He loves you with an everlasting love.

Think of it, the Creator of the cosmos, the One who aligned the planets and flung the stars, the One who commands wind currents and ocean tides… He knows you. And He adores you.

How can this infinite God be so incredibly intimate too? It’s astounding, really. His love follows you wherever you go. It is with you, always. When you’re at work or at school or at home, when you’re racing through the grocery store or sitting in the dentist’s chair or standing in line at the DMV… or reading these words, right this very minute. His love doesn’t depend on what you do or how well you perform or how much you accomplish. His love depends on who He is. It never ends and nothing in all the world can separate you from His love.

Sometimes it’s hard to feel that love.  Most of us have doubted God’s love – or even His existence – at one time or another.  Or maybe, most of the time.

But how you feel doesn’t change the truth: God created you, and He loves you, just the way you are. His love is true love. And all the love songs in the world cannot begin to describe it. It’s higher and wider and longer and deeper than our minds can grasp. It’s steady and strong and stunning in its perfection and purity and beauty. His love is lavish and gentle, fierce… and always, always faithful. And here’s the best part: IT. NEVER. EVER. FAILS.

The One who loves you with that unshakeable, unbreakable, boundless, endless love wants you to know Him, personally. He isn’t some far-away Super Power in the Sky. He isn’t just an Intelligent Designer or some Cosmic Force that created the universe but can’t be bothered with planet earth… or your puny little life, for that matter. He’s a loving Father that longs for an incredibly close daddy-daughter (father-son) relationship.

And because of that, He wants you to experience all the fullness of life. His word describes it this way:

Jesus knocks on the door of your heart and wants you to open up and welcome Him in. He wants to make Himself at home there… in your heart… and share your life with you.

When you’re feeling weak, He can give you strength. When you need someone to listen and really, truly, deeply care, He’ll be there. When you’re sad, He longs to comfort you. When you’re weary, He offers sweet rest. When you feel guilt or shame, he wants you to know that He forgives so completely that He chooses to simply forget. His fervent desire is to give you a fresh, new life. Like freshly fallen snow: breathtaking and exhilarating.

Wait a minute. Fresh snow? To some of us, that just sounds like a whole lot of shoveling. New life? Well, what about the dirty slush and salt residue all over the place in our past? How do we get rid of that dingy snow and dangerous black ice? How do we shovel our way out of the ugly messes we’ve made of our lives? The broken relationships and past mistakes and painful consequences and foolishness and failure?

The truth is. . . we can’t. And God knew it. So He chose to send someone to rescue us. It was a daring rescue mission… and it began in the most unlikely of places.

One starry night, long ago, a baby boy was born in a sleepy little town called Bethlehem.

He was born – not in a birthing suite – but a stable. Tucked into a trough, because there was no bassinet. This infant was called… Immanuel. Which means “God with us.” Immanuel.  Jesus.

Born to be the Savior, born to be a sacrifice, born to show the whole wide world what perfect love looks like. God gave His Son… and Jesus gave His life… for you and for me. He took all our dirty slush and salt residue and carried it to the cross. He died, so we can live. Forever… Forgiven and free. Covered and clean.

Without Jesus – and His willing self-sacrifice and His death-defying resurrection – we would have no hope. None. Not a snowball’s chance in… well, you get the idea.

Fresh snow gives us a striking image of God’s grace. It makes us clean, fresh, pure. It falls gently, settling over our souls like a velvety soft blanket of love and mercy. Our scarlet-red sins washed away by the scarlet-red blood of Jesus. Forgiveness. A fresh start. A brand new life.

And for those of us who have already trusted Jesus… we aren’t without need of a fresh start either. We doubt, disregard, disobey. We choose to do life our way, even when we know it doesn’t please God. We’re half-hearted and weak-willed. (I know I am, anyway.) I shortcut and compromise, and then I try to justify my actions and duck the consequences.

Maybe like me, you walked with Jesus awhile. . . and then you stumbled and fell. Or maybe the pain and suffering and sorrow of this world broke your heart and that heartbreak caused you to turn away from the only true Source of hope and peace and lasting joy. Maybe you think you’ve failed God miserably because of your own hypocrisy or apathy or unbelief.

Even when we try to trust God and obey, we inevitably fail. We doubt and defy. We trip and tumble. And we get dirty all over again. We just can’t keep it clean, can we?

The answer is a resounding no.

We so often and so easily fall into pride and worry and fear… even fury sometimes. We go on grieving God’s Spirit with our greed and gossip and grousing. Our lying and loathing. Our selfishness and scorn. Be encouraged, though, even if you’ve wandered away or fallen into a great big slushy mess, God will never leave you or fail you. He hasn’t wandered one step from you. His faithfulness is unending. And His compassion for you is fresh and new every morning.

He goes on forgiving as often as we ask. Morning dawns, and His mercy falls again like whirling snowflakes. A blanket of grace. A whiteout of wonder. A blizzard of blessings.

In the Bible, God tells us that He has given us everything we need for our lives, both now and forever. Not only did Jesus come to rescue us, not only does He offer unlimited forgiveness and grace… but through faith in Him, He issues an open invitation to heaven and boundless beauty and glory and goodness there.

When my kids were little, I used to tell them “Heaven is better than Disney World!”  And they would look up at me wide-eyed and slack-jawed because, to them, Disney World was a place – THE PLACE – of unspeakable joy and wonder and excitement.  Rockin’ roller coasters and princess teas and blizzard beaches and a Tollhouse Cookie Shop serving warm, gooey, chocolate chip bliss for breakfast!  Seriously.  Cookies for breakfast. What could be better?

I don’t know what you’ve heard about heaven, but let me tell you what it isn’t gonna be: It isn’t gonna be boring! Got wanderlust? You are gonna TRAVEL, my friend. You’re gonna see things that will take your breath away… and do things that will blow your mind… and explore corners of the universe that astrophysicists can’t even fathom. Need a little peace? Heaven offers more sweet serenity than unlimited shiatsu massage treatments at a resort spa in Bora Bora. Are you a thrill seeker, an adrenaline junkie?  Buckle your seatbelt, baby. (Well, actually, you won’t need one of those… or airbags either.) Sky-diving is gonna seem like puddle-hopping by comparison. Get ready for elation and exhilaration beyond your wildest dreams!

That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.”

All you need to do is take Jesus at His word. Believe in Jesus. It’s that simple. You know all that lovely Christmas decor with the word “Believe?” It doesn’t mean jolly ol’ St. Nick.

The real Spirit of Christmas is God’s Spirit. Christmas is Christ Himself. Jesus. He’s the One who offers the fresh start. And He’s the One who invites us to heaven. Open your heart to Him. Just ask, and He says He will start building you a home in heaven. Completely custom and probably palatial. (Because in God’s house, I’ve read that there are many mansions.)

Exquisitely designed by the finest Architect and finished by a master Carpenter. Jesus Himself. If you invite Jesus to take up residence in your heart, one day He will welcome you to your real home. And you can take Him at His word. It will be… heavenly.

So if Jesus was willing to go to the cross to give us access to heaven, shouldn’t we trust that He can take care of us in the here and now?

The things we truly need and desperately want can’t be  wrapped in pretty paper and tied with holiday ribbons. Don’t look under the tree for your most precious gift… look up to the heavens. The Maker of snowflakes and starry nights and awestruck little girls and boys is the Giver of good gifts and fresh starts.

Fresh snow, anyone?

~ Wendy

P.S. May all your Christmases be white…

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