SEMI-HOMEMADE CUPCAKES

It seems that there are two types of people in the kitchen, those who prefer cooking and those who prefer baking.  I am one who prefers crafting a great meal that is hearty and satisfying, to the patience and precision pastry work requires.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly enjoy eating dessert.  And a celebratory feast doesn’t feel complete without a sweet finish.  I just prefer putting the bulk of my efforts into the main dish and then wrapping up a shared meal with something simple.

For cooks like me, semi-homemade is the best way to present a dessert that says, “I think you’re really special and I love to celebrate you – or a holiday or an event” – without expending the time, skill, and patience required to craft a spectacular homemade confection.

Thus semi-homemade cupcakes are my go-to dessert.  Because a few added techniques and ingredients enables you to craft a beautiful celebratory treat in a fraction of the time.

First start with the best quality boxed ingredients you can find.  

Add a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste (or the seeds of a fresh vanilla bean) to the batter made from a box of white cake mix before filling cupcake liners.  This simple addition will brighten the flavor, as well as add the aesthetic speckles of vanilla beans into the cakes.

Then elevate the frosting.  I wouldn’t put canned frosting on a list of quality ingredients.  But the day I made these birthday cupcakes, I didn’t have time to go to a second store.  And Chocolate Fudge Funfetti was my best option at Target.

So I put the canned frosting into my stand up mixer (and hand mixer will work as well), and whipped it on medium speed for about 4 minutes until the frosting transformed into something light and fluffy.


Next, use a rubber spatula to put the frosting in a zip lock baggie.  Snip the corner with a pair of scissors.  And pip the fluffy frosting onto the cupcake in a swirl.

I finished the cupcakes with rainbow confetti.  And ta-da!! Bakery worthy cupcakes in a fraction of the time.

Happy Celebrating!

REFLECTIONS FROM MY MIDLIFE CRISIS

Hi there!  It’s been a while since I’ve written.  Not just for my website, it’s been months since I’ve written anything.

Like everyone else, I’ve been busy. But the whole truth is that I’ve been busy having a midlife crisis.  Not a major one.  Not the kind where I abandon my life and my people.  Nor the kind of midlife crisis where I buy something really expensive to distract me from troubling thoughts and emotions.

I’m just experiencing a run-of-the-mill, forty-something, midlife crisis that provoked me to retreat into my thoughts.  Questioning and over processing everything.  Evaluating and examining every decision, and every investment of my heart and soul so far – family, friendships, purpose, calling, work, vocation, ministry.  And feeling like so much, especially me, comes up short.

The existential ponderings of my personal crisis are so cliche that it’s almost comical, and yet the struggle is indeed real.

But I am also discovering that there is comfort in the overused expression of midlife as a crisis, because everything I’m wrestling with connects me to the shared experience of aging.  And viewing my midlife crisis as a shared experience reminds me that I’m not alone.

The proverbial midlife crisis seems to be a communal rite of passage – like puberty, #adulting, and receiving your welcome letter from AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons…which I recently learned arrives – unsolicited – in the mail shortly after your 5oth birthday).

Rites of passage are important, as they create opportunities to reaffirm solidarity with our community.  As we participate in this hard work of continually maturing, transforming connections are made as we share our raw and unfiltered thoughts with trusted friends as we pass through the portal of a major life milestone hearing the words “Me too”.  

Almost everyone my age is evaluating the fruit of whatever they have poured their heart and soul into the past 20 years – whether it be marriage, family, career, ministry, or something else. Us 40-somethings all seem to be scratching our heads and asking the same questions.  

Beginning with something like, “Really???”

Followed by, “THIS is what a 20 year investment in _____ looks like? Huh. Not what I expected.”

And then the resulting feelings range from disappointment, to dissatisfaction, to despair.  Cue the midlife crisis.

During my own season of midlife crisis, it is tempting to simply berate myself for whining – because nothing in my life is truly horrible  – and then get on with it.  But I do believe that when we wrestle with unbecoming feelings rather than convincing ourselves that we are foolish for having them – beautiful growth eventually blossoms from owning unhappiness and letting it teach us something we need to know.  

The trick is keeping ourselves tethered to the wisdom of God and others who speak constructive truth into our discouragement and keep us pointed in a healthy direction while we wander in our lament.  You can read more about how I participate in this type of soul work by clicking HERE.

In my recent months of existential crisis – evaluating and questioning the point and value of everything that makes up my life – I’ve been steadfast in praying and reading and talking and listening and thinking.  All the while my belief has remained strong, and yet being what I believe has been much harder.  

The gap between genuine belief and actually being hopeful, peaceful, joyful, and loving feels like an immense desert. 

In her book “When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions”, Sue Monk Kidd describes her midlife struggles and how God nurtured and protected her weary soul through the process of cocooning – or active waiting.  And while God was always with her – equipping her with strength and endurance – the work of emergence was hers.  Because the God who created everything knows that once a caterpillar completes the wonder of metamorphosis, it’s final preparation to thrive in the world as a butterfly can only be completed by making it’s own way out of the cocoon.  If a butterfly is rescued from it’s cocoon she will never gain the strength she needs to survive long enough to fulfill her life’s purpose.

I think the same is true for metamorphosis-ing forty year olds.

And while I feel like I still haven’t made my way to the end of this dreary desert, the blurry image of it’s edge far off in the distance seems to be taking shape.  

One of my favorite verses is found in the book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 2, written about the Israelites wanderings in the wilderness for forty years between fleeing the tyranny of Egypt and entering The Promise Land:

“Then the Lord said to me, ‘You have made your way around this hill country long enough.  Now turn North.'” v. 2-3.

They still had quite a distance to travel until they reached the end of their desert experience, but the season of aimless wandering was over.  

It’s time to turn North.

A RALLY CRY THAT WE ARE ALL HOMEMAKERS

“Homemaker”. It is what I write in the box for occupation.

As a stay at home parent I spent my younger years rallying for acknowledgement that I too am a working mom.

But as I age and grow – and my perspectives enlarge – I realize how one sided my soap box issues have been.

In my early twenties I needed boxes to organize my rapidly changing life.  As I navigated a big, overwhelming world filled with so many options, putting boxes around my roles helped me to contain life’s wild uncertainty and possibility.  In the season of emerging adulthood, when the I had to make huge life choices – without the benefit of wisdom learned through life experience – boxes helped me define who I was and who I was becoming.

Maturing has invited me to an awareness that life is alive and active and dynamic and evolving.  Lines will always be blurry and moving and changing.  And all of us are so much more than the labels we use to complete a standardized form.

I am a homemaker.

And working moms are homemakers as well.

Men and women are homemakers.

Singles and couples are homemakers.

People who have launched kids, and people who never had kids are homemakers.

Furthermore, I’m not just a homemaker for my sweet family of five.  I am a homemaker for everyone who comes through my front door.

And so are you.

Today my rally cry is that the calling of Homemaking is for all of us.

Because a home is defined as “a persons residence; the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.” 

Home is not defined by size or location, whether you rent or own, or the relationships of the people who live there.

And maker?  Well a maker is defined as a person or thing that makes.  Maker – with a capital M – is also a synonym for  God.

So a HOMEMAKER is someone who intentionally makes their residence a place where love and kindness are the center.

All of us are Homemakers every time we invite others to gather around our tables to be loved and fed through the nourishment of belonging, unity, and connection.  

We are Homemakers when we invite others to our tables not based of what they do or what they offer, but because of who we all are.  People who are enough.  People who are worthy of friendship and acceptance and being truly known. 

And in this process we find that our homes become a reflection of the force making earth as it is in heaven.  A great feast of goodness and love where everyone is invited.

We are indeed all HOMEMAKERS.  

Let’s invite someone to our tables and get to work.

CLEANING REALLY IS OPTIONAL

Hospitality and entertaining are not the same thing.

“We invite people into our home to create moments that matter, not moments that impress.”

This is one of my mantras.

I keep saying it because I believe that it’s true.  And it’s what I practice.

On Easter Sunday we invited our community to join us for a hot dog lunch and backyard wiffle ball.  This was the climax of a very full weekend.  That morning I woke up tired and so I chose to sit in my chair to enjoy a cup of coffee before the Easter service instead of cleaning my house like my hair was on fire.

It was lovely.

So when people came over after church the beds were unmade, clothes were strewn across the bedrooms, hand towels were hanging haphazardly in the bathrooms, and my kitchen was cluttered with dirty dishes and items on the counters waiting to be put away.

And you know what…we had a great time.  We laughed and played and ate and shared life.  Even though my house actually looked like imperfect people live here.

When our desire is to gather people around our table to connect in meaningful ways, cleaning really is optional.

TIP #4: HOMEMADE FOOD IS OPTIONAL

I love to love people with food, and this is one way to love guests with pizza delivery.

The heart of hospitality is not serving great food to your guests.  It is inviting people into our homes to receive the gifts of care and belonging.  Sometimes I have the energy to do that with homemade food, and some days I don’t.  The trick is honestly assessing what can I graciously provide with the resources available to me every time company is coming – and that includes not just financial resources, but time and energy as well.

Saturday was very full. I worked all day and hosted out of town friends for dinner. I opted to take a nap in-between work and dinner, and then order pizza rather than cook.  Because exhausting myself in the kitchen and then feeling fried when my friends arrived completely smothers the beauty of gathering friends and family around our tables.

I set my alarm to wake up from my nap in time to order pizza, set the table, light some candles.  I served my guests a lovely meal that took 5 minutes to prepare.  And so at the end of a busy day, I was refreshed and glad to spend the evening visiting with life-long friends around my dining table.

People are always more important than the food. And our tables can be just as inviting with take-out when our motivation is to make meaningful connections by sharing a meal.

Homemade food is optional.

MEET KRISTIN

“I love hospitality but really dread actual entertaining. True entertaining highlights my weaknesses and feels very intimidating to me.  I’m probably the most non-Martha Stewart person out there, and trying to make my home and table look ‘entertaining ready’ and perfect feels like a huge burden.  Feeding my neighbors is different than entertaining.  Feeding my neighbors and friends feeds my soul.”

I’m so happy that I get to introduce you to Kristin Pavon.  A married mother of two young kids (Zoey, a 5 year old daughter; and Brady, a 3 year old son).  Kristin began her career as corporate recruiter for Starbucks in her hometown of Seattle, and is currently a full time stay-at-home mom living in San Diego, CA.  In addition to caring for her family, Kristin serves her alma mater (Washington University in St Louis) as the “Executive Chair for the Alumni & Parents Admission Program”, and also as the “Alumni Club Co-Chair for San Diego County”.

And at least 2-3 times a month, this self proclaimed “non-Martha Stewart” woman invites her neighbors, friends and their kids into her home for family-style dinners.

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Kristin and her husband Mike are raising their family in the neighborhood of North Park.  A diverse, urban community that is just northeast of downtown San Diego.  “North Park is a neighborhood where kids still go around knocking on doors to ask if other kids can come outside and play.  The dinners I host weren’t planned in the beginning.  They started spontaneously as parents on our street came outside to watch their kids play and chat in our front yards.  One day it was getting close to dinner time, and none of us wanted the conversation to end.  So I invited families to come into my house to eat dinner together. And we’ve continued to do so about once a week.”

These neighborhood dinners typically include 3-4 families.  And the menu is most often a buffet of frozen lasagna, veggies, and garlic bread (purchased ready-made from Costco), served with a jug of lemonade, on paper plates.  Kristin prepares the food and then many of the parents pitch in to get everyone served.  The kids sit around the patio table eating and giggling, while their parents eat and visit standing in the kitchen or sitting on the living room floor.  The happy result of having more people gathered to share a meal than there are chairs.

This is hospitality at it’s best.  Simple meals enjoyed in a casual, homey setting.

And this picture beautifully illustrates Kristin’s philosophy of hospitality, “It is a blessing to go to someone else’s house and be fed.  People don’t care if the food is homemade.  Even sharing take-out is a way to love other people.  Sharing a meal – regardless of how it is prepared – is just a great way to care for people and relieve some of life’s burdens.”

Before she started inviting neighbors into her home for dinner, Kristin had chatted with the other parents on her street, but she didn’t really know any of them well.  Sharing meals has created a not only a sense of community in her neighborhood, but deep, life-giving friendships that create a network of support that now stretches far beyond a weekly meal.

Kristin traces her love of hospitality back to her roots of growing up in Seattle in a large Catholic family that gathered often in each others homes to celebrate holidays and significant life events.  “Many members of my family didn’t have large houses.  But we always got together, sharing a potluck meal, bumping elbows at a crowded table, laughing and talking, while the kids ran around.”

And then as a young single adult living and working in downtown Seattle, Kristin started the “Tuesday Night Dinner Club, also known as TNDC”.  She and several friends would gather once a week in their studio apartments to learn how to cook together.  Hosting duties rotated each time they met.  It was the responsibility of the weekly host to set the menu, prepare the main dish, and assign side dishes to other people in the group.  And Every Tuesday after work, they would arrive at the host’s tiny urban apartment to share their dishes and the love of family.

These treasured memories are the basis of her understanding that when it comes to hospitality, the size of your home and your mastery or desire for cooking doesn’t really matter.  “If I am comfortable, then everyone else is comfortable.”  Because Kristin has learned through experience that people don’t need the ideal set up to eat and connect; they simply need an invitation.

If you are considering being more intentional about inviting your friends and neighbors into your home to share a meal, Kristin wants to encourage you to “Just do it!”

“Think the opposite of themed, beautiful, and ready,” she advises, “Throw all of that out the window and just feed people what you have.  Invite people into a lived in home.  And get over worrying about the mess.  Embrace the mess.  It a sign that people are being loved.”

WHY PERFECT MEANS EMPTY

I love to set a beautiful table.  It makes me happy.

But setting a beautiful table is the easy part.  It’s a controlled environment.  I can place everything exactly how I want it.

However, if I want my table to stay perfect, then it has to stay empty.  And there’s really nothing beautiful about that.

If I want a full table – chairs filled with people that I love and people that I’m getting to know – then I have to accept the messiness, and the occasional broken dish, that will spread across my perfectly constructed space by the time the candles are burning low.

And yet – somehow – the disarranged place settings and the smiling faces and the messy dishes and the balled up napkins and the good conversation and the dripping candle wax at the end of a community meal creates something extraordinary.

Something with far greater meaning, value, and worth than an exquisite arrangement.

I always find that I like the beauty of people lingering around a messy table after the meal even more than that moment when everyone sits down at my perfectly set table commenting on how lovely it looks.

I’m learning that the same is true if I want a full life.

It is always so tempting to want the highlight reel.  A stream of picture perfect moments that demonstrate a life being well lived.

But a life that is merely a collection of pretty pictures is likely a life that is empty.  Because to fill up a life, you have to give up control of your tidy environment.  You have to add people and relationships.  And people always eventually make a mess.

For many years I wrestled with the tension of evaluating all aspects of my life through a perspective of being either good (beautiful and picture perfect) or bad (messy and broken).  But maturity is teaching me that this is a false narrative.

The truth is that I am both.  All the time.  As are all of the people in my circles of family and friends.  And my circumstances as well.

Peace is claimed in the acceptance that life was and is and will always be both.  Joy exists within profound difficulty.  And profound difficulties will always be a part of the best stories.

I’m done trying to work through the bad stuff so that I can get back to the good parts.  Or holding on to the good stuff with a white-knuckled grip, begging for nothing bad to take it away.

Because I believe that God can expand my soul to be big enough to hold all of it.  Joy amidst sorrow.  Hope within despair.  Love within hurt.  Forgiveness within disappointment.  None of these experiences are mutually exclusive.

I don’t have to just hang on and wait for one to end before other can begin.

I choose to experience a life of love and laughter and friendship at an imperfect table strewn with dirty dishes, broken plates, and balled up napkins.

Because a full and beautiful life is created by lingering there together.

WHY COMMUNITIES NEED RITUALS

Earlier this week I shared a post about the community of people who were My People when I was a teenager working as ride operator at Six Flags Magic Mountain.  If you missed it, you can read that post here.  During that time I learned some significant values about developing community, even though it just seemed like silly amusement at the time.  Funny how we just intuitively know some things about group development as teenagers, that are taught as reliable methods later on in life through research, textbooks, lectures.

Reading comments on that post from my Magic Mountain friends – who I’m still in contact with almost 25 years later thanks to Facebook – reminded me of our ride ops rites of passage.  How a new crew member was assimilated into our established group was important.  And our traditions usually involved dumping a five gallon bucket of water over a co-workers head when they were least expecting it.

Similar antics occurred on one’s last day of employment.  We felt it was our duty to liberate our fellow comrades from their service to Magic Mountain by dousing them with water and shaving cream on their way out.  Unfortunately my last day ended up being the unexpected last day for two of my good friends as well.  Apparently management frowns upon these traditional events taking place too close to the electrical panel of a prominent roller coaster.

A significant truth is found within these juvenile traditions.  When we are developing and nurturing a community of bonded people, how we welcome new people in – as well as how we send them out into their “what’s next” – matters.

Movement of people within a group is healthy.  And creating community should not be bound by trying to keep our group static.  New people entering often brings a sense of refreshment to an established group.  And seasoned members moving on provides an opportunity for authentic community to be replicated in other places.

However, if you want to create a community of belonging among a shifting group of people, you need to be thoughtful about establishing meaningful rituals.  Consistently engaging in unifying practices that clearly mark the moment that someone enters into the fellowship of your group.  As well as establishing a personalized tradition that affirms the specific and unique ways that a member’s participation in the group mattered when they leave.

Therefore, we have established two important traditions with the twenty-something community who meets in our home for dinner every week.

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Whenever someone new begins coming, they are invited into our group by signing their name on our table with a permanent pen.  A visual marker that establishes them as a full-fledged, life-time member of our community.

And when people are no longer able to come to our weekly dinners because they are transitioning in to a new season of work, graduate school, marriage, etc – we send them from their final weekly meal with used silverware from our drawer, and a note saying “Because you’ll always have a place at our table.”

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We also go around the table and each person speaks an affirmation or blessing over the person leaving.  Every community member states how that person contributed to our group or our lives.  And for newer people who aren’t as familiar with the member leaving, we invite them to offer a blessing instead of an affirmation.  Because it’s important that this time is sincere, not contrived.  No one needs to make something nice up if they don’t know a person.  You can read more about this tradition in this previous post.

If you are developing and nourishing a community in your home, what can you do to foster a sense of belonging for the people who are new to your established group?

And how can you intentionally send people on, knowing they are loved and that their investment in the community mattered?

Our ideas of table signing and used silverware are very significant to the characteristics and unifiers of my community.  But what resonates with Your People might be very different.  Be authentic, creative, and personal in whatever you decide to do to commemorate these significant bookend moments for your group.  But do something.

I’d love to know about the traditions you have established to welcome new people into your beloved community.  Or how to you bless people when they leave.  Please share your rites of passage with us in the comments section.

WHEN YOU NEED A BREAK FROM COMMUNITY

“How do you manage your prayer life?”  I asked my senior pastor.  “How do you spend time with people and invest in their lives and find time to pray for the growing list of needs and requests that you become aware of?”

His wise reply spoke into another need.  One that I didn’t even realize I had.

He responded that I didn’t need a prayer plan to help manage my life.  I needed to spend more time by myself.  Not by myself going through my prayer list.  Just by myself doing solitary things that nourish my soul.  Things that fill me up as I pour out.

My husband and I have adopted a lifestyle of radical community.  Our front door is always open and our home is often filled with people that we love, and people that we are getting to know.

And I love it.

I speak often about my belief that we are created to be in community.  Some people are hard wired to be reclusive and need solitude to recharge.  And some people draw their energy from being with others.  But regardless of whether we are an introvert or a extrovert – we all need to intentionally engage regularly with at least a few people who truly know us.  We need to spend time in places where we are really seen.

Because knowing people well and loving them in spite of their flaws – as we are also honest being about our own imperfections  – is how we develop empathy, compassion, and grace for others .  And for ourselves.

My conversation with my pastor about the intentional practice of solitude helped me make a connection that I wasn’t grasping.  The reverse of the truths about community that I so easily profess is just as true.

The practice of solitude is equally important even if isn’t natural for an extrovert like me.

We are all created in God’s image.  Introverts and extroverts – together – reflect the wholeness of His nature.  And regardless of our personality, we all need to practice a life rhythm that includes both community and solitude.

Since that conversation with my pastor, I have adopted some patterns in my daily and weekly schedule to ensure that I’m spending some time by myself.  I set my alarm to wake up 30 minutes before my family to enjoy a cup of coffee in a  silent house.  I protect my running time as a solitary activity.  I quit a beloved community group that I attended at a local church to make more space in my week for my mind and my heart to be quiet.

I never needed an effective technique to manage my prayer life.   I just needed some quiet space to strengthen and support the stretched spaces of my soul.

Last week was busy and full and fun.  I enjoyed consecutive activities with family, friends, and community.  Sunday morning I woke up early to do some Superbowl food prep before church.  Standing in my kitchen, sipping a cup of hot coffee, I suddenly felt very tired.

Not the usual trying-to-wake-up tired.  A weary-to-the-bones tired.

On that beautiful Sunday morning, what I needed most was to disengage from community and allow my soul to be refreshed in solitude.

So I stay home from church.

I turned on some worship music and sang along while I cooked in my jammies.

I listened to a podcast of a dear friend preaching a beautiful sermon while I did some restoration work on The Table.

And I prayed for God’s blessing over my community while I touched up their signatures.

It was a holy morning.  Spent in solitary activities.  In the presence of God.

And by lunchtime my soul was at rest and my heart was full.

I LOVE my church, corporate worship, and the people there.  I LOVE the community that has made roots in my home.  I LOVE my family and my friends.   They are My People.  They are the tethers that keeping me grounded to everything that matters most.  I’d be lost without them.  Really.  I think I’d just float away to an awful place of meaninglessness.

But sometimes I need a break from people.  Even My People.  Because the example of godly living that Christ models in scripture is a life that is not spent just in community OR only in solitude. Nor did he live his life by stringent time management OR by being constantly unstructured.

He lived his life with a rhythm that held space for all of those things.   And I want to do the same.

How do you recharge?  How do you feed your own soul so that you can nourish relationships that matter most?

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