Sunday, November 3, 2013

Halloween Party - Recipe Reviews, Successes and Failures

My husband and I threw our first Halloween Party (aka Harvest Party, Reformation Day Party, All Saints Day Party, Fall Festival Party, etc.) this year.  We had a great time and it was fun to dress up in costumes as grown-ups.  I got most of my party ideas from Pinterest so I thought I'd share my results for future reference.


As you can see, I handmade my invitations.  From the beginning I had the idea that I wanted to have a "pick a holiday" gimmick, to accommodate people who may not like Halloween, to make light of the controversy surrounding Halloween, and to point out that no matter what you call it, the end of October is a good time to dress up in a costume and eat candy.  This invitation is unfinished - I glittered both sides.  It was fun to make them, but next time I'll print the letters.  I don't have time to make them look cute doing them by hand.


The food is the most important part of the party, for me.   I chose recipes that had either autumn flavors like cinnamon, apple, and pumpkin, or some kind of Halloween/fall look.

John Thomas photo Spider Web Molten Pie is indulgent with hot fudge.

Left: original; right: mine (obviously)

This was quick and easy to make because it used two mix recipes.  I tend to like to make things from scratch, so I wasn't sure about it at first, but on the other hand I've also made Oreo truffles so this isn't much different.  I wish I had baked it just one or two minutes less than the instructions said - it wasn't quite as "molten" as it looked in the picture - but on the other hand I made it a day in advance so it wasn't hot either.  Really moist, rich texture, very yummy, and the spiderweb look (although mine wasn't as picture-perfect) adds to the seasonal aspect. A great choice if you want something easy.

Left: original; Right: my less beautiful result

I looked at several different candy corn-themed parfaits and this was the prettiest (in the picture).  Mine didn't turn out so great, but I think that's because I tried to put them in too many bowls.  This recipe does not yield a large batch.  It says "4 moderate servings or 6-8 mini servings" and that is the truth.  I tried making 8 because I had these cute little tiny glasses I found at Walmart ($1.98 for a set of 4!) but I didn't have enough to make the layers really clear.  Also, I skipped the part about putting the mousse into a ziploc bag and piping it into the bowls - big mistake.  It's really hard to spoon the stuff into the bowls neatly.  Finally, I thought the taste was kind of underwhelming - maybe that's because I expected the texture to be more like either cheesecake or mousse and this was more like pudding.  My husband, who doesn't like cheesecake but does like pudding, liked them more than I did.  Try them if you want, but follow the instructions carefully and if you want to serve a lot of people, double the recipe.

Slow Cooker Caramel Apple Cider
Original (I didn't take a picture of mine)

This was easy in that you just put the stuff in the crock pot and let it simmer for a few hours.  It was also easy in that there are only three ingredients: apple juice, cinnamon sticks (use actual sticks, not ground peppermint), and caramel (I used homemade caramel, the recipe for which is below).  I only made half a batch because I didn't have a whole gallon of apple juice.  This stuff was good - very sweet though, so if you're not a fan of that you'll probably want to leave the caramel out and stick to regular cider.

Left: original; Right: mine (not as pretty in plastic wrap)

For me, this is the main attraction.  In my opinion, gourmet caramel apples are the reason fall was created.  Last year I tried making some using a recipe I found on Pinterest, and the caramel came out very stiff and the overall result was really not beautiful.  So I found this recipe that gives very specific instructions but also has tips on how to decorate more neatly, and it helped a ton.  First of all, this caramel is awesome.  I don't think I will ever look for another caramel recipe again - the use of "dark" sugars really adds more depth of flavor, and the caramel is nice and soft - not chewy at all. Also, and I can't stress this enough, use a candy thermometer.  Unless you are a candy-making expert, it's tough to judge when the caramel has reached "soft ball stage" by just eyeballing and testing it.  Also, my caramel was ready in a shorter amount of time than the recipe indicated (which is probably the reason my last year's caramel failed so miserably - I just have a hot stove) - and cooled the necessary amount far more rapidly than I anticipated (like within two minutes).  If you want to try your hand at caramel apples, use this recipe/tutorial.  Read all the instructions and follow them as closely as possible, and the end result is totally worth it.

Pumpkin Fluff Dip  Recipe
Left: original; Right: mine doesn't look pretty because of the lighting but it looked better in person, I promise.  It just wasn't as "fluffy" because I used less cool whip.

This is a more generic recipe you can find anywhere online.  I just happened to save this particular one.  They're all pretty much the same except that some recipes only called for 8 ounces of frozen whipped topping.  I'm not sure if the other amounts are proportionately smaller - it seems to me they weren't - I used just the 8 ounces and I'm glad I did, because I like my dips nice and thick, and plus with a white pumpkin it was nice to have dip that was more orange in color.  Also, I made my own "pumpkin pie spice" mix so if you don't have that particular blend it's no big deal.  This dip was really good with cinnamon graham crackers - I'm not sure I liked it so much with pretzels (normally the combination of sweet and salty appeals to me, but it didn't work as well in this case).  Nilla wafers would probably taste good too, or just apple slices.

I'm sure you can put the dip directly into a pumpkin (I washed mine out with vinegar), but I had to make it several hours in advance so I thought I'd put it in plastic wrap.  Not as pretty, but it worked.

Original (again, I didn't take a picture of mine)

I was dying to try this recipe because I'm not a big coffee drinker but I love the pumpkin spice flavored beverages.  I'm sad to say, this was not as great as I had hoped.  The problem is, if you make it, you have to serve it right away and drink it right away because otherwise the pumpkin will separate and form a film on top of the rest of the liquid.  That is not fun to drink.  If you're hosting an occasion where you can serve this drink right away, go for it, but if not, try something different.

Oh, and on a whim I made some banana bread.  We just had a bunch of bananas that didn't get eaten and I thought some people might like something that's not so much like candy.  I just used Betty Crocker's recipe - always a classic.  (I topped it with powdered sugar on a whim).


I love fall decor.  Love, love, love.  I've already mentioned some of the things I did to decorate in a previous post.  Here are some other things I did and their inspiration.

White Hutch

I saw this great monochromatic decor for Halloween and though, with all the white in my house, I can do something similar (this was, of course, just after I repainted my hutch).  I knew someone who had a pumpkin patch with white pumpkins, so she gave me several.  I turned my white canisters around and printed jack-o-lantern faces, which I cut out and glued to the backs to look like little ghosties.  The candles are from different places around town - anywhere you can get candles cheap (unscented cost less), but we have the world's most sensitive smoke detector about fifteen feet away from where these are set up, so they only stayed lit for a short while. :(

The glitter spiderwebs were tricky.  I found that Tacky glue was much easier to pipe in a continuous line, and was more flexible when it dried than Elmer's.  I only made one Elmer's glue web and it seemed very brittle - some of the spokes (is that what they're called?) broke and I had to tape them back together.  I'm not really sure what I was supposed to use to put them on my hutch though.  I used Scotch tape, which was fine, but very visible.

Book Hutch
My little block letters spelling "trick or treat" made a nice touch on my other hutch.  I picked up the angel statuette at a yard sale for maybe 50 cents.  I made the little flower arrangements and printed out the subway art, and everything else I've had for at least a year.


I wanted to see decorations on all the walls in the living room, so I just printed out some more free stuff - Happy Halloween banner letters and a few pictures to frame.  The plaque in the middle is also from a yard sale.


I saw this cute scarecrow makeup on Pinterest and thought, I actually have a scarecrow costume (well, it's my mom's, but I've worn it before) - I can do that.  So I did (not exactly the same).  I used eyeliner and cheap Halloween makeup crayons from Walmart.  I think it turned out pretty well.

My husband was Jason Voorhees.  Nuff said.

 Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Being More "Mere" Part 5: The Wages of Sin

First of all, I would like to apologize to my husband for the delay of this post.  I've been caught up with Nutcracker preparations, baby-sitting, job-hunting, and um, Minecraft, for the last few weeks.  I'm continuing a series on basic Christian doctrine, using John Stott's book Basic Christianity as a reference, to summarize the core tenets of the Christian faith - beliefs that all Christians hold in common, although they may differ on the finer points and complexities.

So today's topic is the consequences of sin, a subject even less popular than the last one.  Sin has consequences; think of it as an extension of Newton's "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction."  What goes around comes around, you reap what you sow, you get out what you put in - the concept of actions having repercussions is not uniquely religious; it is just common sense.

Individual sins have individual consequences, either as part of a legal system (you steal something, you go to prison) or part of the way relationships work (you break someone's trust, you damage or lose their friendship), but there are also more general consequences for sin in general.  Stott identifies three general consequences for sin, with three different objects:

- alienation from God
- bondage to self
- conflict with others

These three things are interconnected, but I'm going to talk about them separately.

Alienation from God.  Stott writes, "Man's highest destiny is to know God, to be in personal relationship with him.  Our chief claim to nobility as human beings is that we were made in the image of God and are therefore capable of knowing him."  Christians believe that our purpose on earth is not just to live a happy life, raise kids, have a successful career, help the planet, and make a positive difference on the people in our sphere of influence - although those are all really good things and I hope we all try to achieve as many of them as possible.  For Christians, there is a more eternal purpose, to know God, to love God, to enjoy God's presence and live in shalom (peace, harmony, wholeness) forever.  But because God is a person (already established), not simply a concept that we buy into or a state of mind that we are working to achieve, our actions can affect our relationship with him just as our actions can affect our relationships with other humans.  When we sin - be it against other people, ourselves, creation - we sin against God.  How does that work?  Because everyone we could sin against is a creation of God, and he takes that relationship very seriously.  Have you ever talked to an angry parent who thinks you wronged their child in some way?  As a ballet teacher I've been there, and let me tell you, it is terrifying.  When a parent feels like his or her child has been treated unfairly, they can turn into a mother grizzly bear, because they love their child and they will do whatever they think they have to in order to protect them.  That's why God is so serious about sin.  It's not because he's really uptight or a buzz kill or he just doesn't like humans, it's because when one of his precious children is being harmed, he won't stand for it.

But sin can affect our relationship with God more directly.  When we deliberately rebel against God, we drive a wedge between him and ourselves.  If you are married or in a close relationship of some kind, you've experienced this.  If you do something that hurts the other person - something selfish or insensitive or invalidating or demanding or manipulative or what have you - you're attacking your own relationship.  There's going to be a wall between you and the other person that is impossible to get past until it's dealt with.

Separation from God can manifest in different ways.  Many people experience an emptiness or feeling of yearning, or of distance from God, when they are not in relationship with him or when there is sin causing a rift between them and God.  Other people tune God out completely and never experience the joy of knowing him.  And yes, living apart from God on earth will result in being apart from him after death.  Christians may disagree about the nature of hell, its purpose, or what happens to the human soul there, but we all agree that you don't want to go there.  I don't want to start a discussion on the nature of hell so I'll leave it at that.

Bondage to self.  To quote Stott again, "Sin does not only estrange; it enslaves.  If it alienates us from God, it also brings us into captivity."  Sin is like a drug in that it's self-perpetuating.  Again, this concept is not purely religious; it's practically Newtonian.  Like water flowing downhill, human behavior tends to follow the path of least resistance.  Once you start going in a certain direction, it's easier to keep going that way than to turn around.  If you make a habit of being a bully in school, you will probably also be a bully at work.  If you get accustomed to lying to your parents, you will likely lie to your spouse.  It's not determinism, but you have to admit, once you've done something wrong once, it's usually easier to do it a second time.  We've all seen enough after-school episodes to be familiar with the paradigm of telling a lie to avoid getting into trouble, but winding up in bigger trouble through telling increasingly bigger and more complicated lies.

Christians disagree about whether humans are inherently good, inherently evil, or inherently neutral.  But I think everybody who's ever raised a baby can agree that humans are at least inherently self-centered and undisciplined.  A baby's only concern is itself, not because it's deliberately refusing to acknowledge the needs of others, or because it consciously wants to hurt others, but simply because that's all it knows.  This is what the Bible calls our "flesh," our basic mortal nature whose only priority is self-preservation.  As we mature from infant to child to adult, we can either feed this nature or discipline it.  It's okay for a baby to think only of itself; it's not okay for an adult, because they should know better.  But if all we do is feed the impulses of our "flesh," then we become slaves to our base desires by learning to put our needs ahead of every other priority.  A person like that can't love God because that requires acknowledging something more important that himself.  A person like that can't love others because that might be inconvenient or painful.  A person like that can't even truly love himself because what is good for him requires a certain amount of suffering and sacrifice.  If sin had a conscious agenda, it would be to turn us into this person.

Conflict with others.  This consequence is inextricably tied to the first two. As I stated above, God's design for humans is to live in perfect harmony and shalom with him.  If we did that, it logically follows that we would also live in harmony and shalom with each other.  But because we are separated from God's shalom, we live in conflict with others around us.  I really don't think I need to waste any words trying to prove this point.  Instead, I'll point out that to hate, resent, or otherwise be antagonistic toward a fellow human is by necessity to hate, resent, or otherwise be antagonistic toward God (the mother bear thing again).  Also, as sin enslaves us, the more we allow ourselves to give in to our natural selfishness, the more we will be at odds with each other.  You can't have a relationship or a community where it's "every man for himself."

We like to blame things like society, the government, and video games for the problems we have with each other, but really it boils down to what I said in my last post: we ourselves are the problem.  Our own sin - at the heart of which is our selfishness and our pride - pits us against others and prevents us from living in harmony.

If we want to fix this last problem, we have to fix the other two issues as well, because as we saw, they are inexorably linked.  And the only way to treat the consequences of alienation, bondage, and conflict, is to treat the cause: the fact of sin itself.  In my next post I'll discuss God's plan to do just that.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fall Is Here!

I don't know about you, but I feel like this summer just flew by.  One minute I'm decorating for the Fourth of July, and the next minute everyone's going back to school, my Pinterest home page is full of Halloween costumes, and the Dollar Tree has one shelf with Christmas ornaments - yes, really.  It doesn't help that it's been in the mid- to high-90s all month.  So it's been hard to feel okay about the season change.

One thing that does help me get in the fall spirit is fall decorations!  I am not big on the colors red, yellow, and orange in general, but put them on maple leaves and pumpkins and I love them.  And so far I've spent less than $10 on decorations thanks to garage sales, the Dollar Tree, and Hallmark downsizing.

When our Hallmark closed this year they sold all their store decorations for really cheap (except their Christmas trees were not so cheap).  I bought several bags of fall foliage for a few bucks each and made a second Fall Leaf Garland for our living room hutch.  I don't think it looks as full as the other one, but it looks.  

I really love Subway Art.  I got this one from Hopscotch Studio Designs blog.  I print stuff like this on card stock so it'll last longer.

I love this little pumpkin candle holder ($8 from Walmart two years ago).  I put floralytes in them so I don't have to worry about burning my apartment down when they're on a shelf like this.  Also, this picture displays our awesome hardbound edition of the Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the cool bookends my brother got us for Christmas last year. 

This pumpkin candle smells great (I think $5 from Walmart two years ago).

More shots of our fancy books.  Several of them are actually from the Goodwill store in Benton, Arkansas (you have not been to a Goodwill store until you've been to that one, or one equally huge).  The Sherlock Holmes anthology is from Barnes and Noble, and it's terribly edited.  Probably at least one typo per page, but fortunately most of them are minor enough that it doesn't interfere with comprehension.

A close-up of my new leaf garland, plus our salt covenant display from our wedding.  Don't spend $40 per bottle on the same merchandise you can stick a letter in and throw in the ocean.  Check out local stores that sell housewares - these were less than $20 each in a little downtown store (can't remember the exact amount - I want to say $16).

I found this totally cute project on Pinterest.  And no, mine isn't as awesome as the one in the tutorial, but I made mine with whatever leaves and flowers I had on hand, so it cost basically nothing.

This is a Dollar Tree vase that I spray painted (not very well) white.  The sticks are from an elm tree in my mom's neighborhood shortly after a major storm (we're talking tropical storm-strength winds).

My husband and I love this little angel I found at a yard sale.  It says "Heaven helps those who cannot help themselves."

Our kitchen hutch, newly repainted.

Another printable, this one from The Creative Paige.

I also put up my sunflower ribbon wreath, but it is looking a little pale, partly because the ribbon patterns I used are kind of transparent.  So I may be updating it or creating a totally new wreath soon - not sure yet.

Anyway, so after doing all this I am starting to get excited about the new season!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Hutch Paint Job

One of the downsides to living in an apartment is being stuck with all white walls. I don't have anything against white per se, but I have two white hutches in our living area, and I had a lot of white and glass stuff up for summer decor, and after a while it was just too much.

I've seen a few people on Pinterest who covered the inside of a hutch with wallpaper or painted the inside yellow, and I thought that looked nice but I didn't want to buy wallpaper.  I also think yellow is super cute but it wouldn't go with anything.  So I went with a greenish blue because we have a lot of that in our apartment.

I kind of wish I'd gone with a lighter blue, but when you're mixing the colors yourself it's hard to get exactly what you want.  If I decide I don't like it I'll just buy a small can of the exact shade I want.

I also wasn't sure if I would like the blue with my fall colors, but actually I think the contrast of blue and orange is nice and vibrant. I wish I had something else to paint the inside of but my other hutch is open in the back.  But now I'm excited for fall!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Being More "Mere" Part 4: In Which I Use the "S" Word


There, I said it.  This post is about sin.

In case you missed it, this is the fourth post in my series on what C. S. Lewis called "mere Christianity."  This series comes from a personal desire to reexamine the basic tenets of the Christian faith, the things that are at the core of what all Christians believe.  I'm using Basic Christianity by John Stott as a reference because I find Stott's book to be, as the title suggests, very basic in terms of doctrine.  It's not the Westminster Confession, and it isn't Love Wins either.  It's also not Mere Christianity, which most people are already familiar with.  It summarizes the doctrines that I believe all Christians hold in common, no matter our background, denomination, or theological affiliation.

So maybe it's fitting that the first chapter in this section is one of the most controversial: the fact and nature of sin.  I know the word "sin" has become pretty loaded.  It conjures up images of fire and brimstone sermons, protest signs at funerals, scarlet letters, holier-than-thou looks of derision, abuse, hypocrisy . . . I could go on, but I think I've covered the basics.  A lot of people, including a lot of Christians, are uncomfortable with words like "sin," "wickedness," and "evil," especially if they or someone they know has experienced some kind of ill-treatment from other Christians regarding that word - as my earlier sentence indicates.

I'd like to respond to that by referencing NBC's hit show The Office, from season 5 episode 22.  ***SPOILER WARNING: This paragraph contains spoilers to The Office through Season 5.  If you want to avoid them, skip to the next paragraph.  If you've already seen it, or if you don't care, continue reading.***  Andy has recently called off his engagement with Angela because she was cheating on him with Dwight.  Still hurting and very sensitive on that point, Andy begins to think Jim and Pam may be in a bad relationship too, and proceeds to see if he can figure it out.  Jim picks up on this and plays along, acting like Pam is controlling and making him miserable.  Andy takes all this seriously, and finally makes an announcement to the whole office to be nicer to Jim because he's having a hard time.  Phyllis informs him that Jim has just been messing with him, which leads to a key exchange between Jim and Andy.  Jim says, "Two things I need you to understand.  One, Pam and I are very happy together. [. . .] And two, that stuff that happened with you and Angela is a bummer, and I know you don't think you're ever going to find someone else, but you will.  I promise you, you will."  This statement tells us two things: 1) Andy's pain is legitimate.  Nobody should be treated the way he was, and he didn't deserve what happened to him.  2) Jim and Pam are not experiencing what he experienced, and Andy should not assume they are, much less demand that others do the same.

For many people, the word "sin" triggers past experiences of injustice, or feelings of shame and self-loathing, and other terrible realities.  It's true that some people have been brought up to hate themselves or others because of sins (real or imagined), and it's also true that some people can't focus on their past without feeling a huge wave of shame that drags them down almost to despair.  To those people, I can only say, I'm sorry those things happened to you, and I'm sorry you've been made to think that way.  That isn't your fault, and it isn't the gospel either.  And maybe this post isn't for you as much as it is for me.

However, as with Andy in The Office, I don't think we can assume that the experiences some people have are the experiences everybody has.  For some people, talking about sin brings about the emotions I have already described.  For others, like me, it brings incredible relief and joy that I have been set free from my sins, that God looked at me, with all my scars and scabs and ugliness, and wanted nothing more than to take me into His arms and make me part of His family.

So when we talk about sin, I think we have to be aware of these two realities, and I think we have to be sensitive to both.  People who are relatively "undamaged" should recognize that people have been legitimately hurt by false teachings or an unhealthy overemphasis on sin.  A lot of Christians think we need to emphasize human sinfulness more because people don't believe they are sinful.  Here's a news flash: most people already know they sin.  They may disagree about what qualifies as sin, and they may or may not admit it to you, but chances are they are fully aware of their shortcomings.  You have to be pretty thick to think you're perfect, and I've actually only encountered one person who claimed to be sinless (this person was a Christian who believes in the contemporary Holiness doctrine, the idea that once you're saved you can no longer sin - very different from the original Holiness doctrine taught by John Wesley himself).  

On the other hand, people who have been damaged by the Church's teachings in this area also should be aware that not all churches, and not all Christians, have had this unfortunate experience.  The doctrine of sin, properly taught and seen in its correct context, is extremely important to Christianity.  We need to know that sin is a real human problem, and that it is a personal human problem, in order to understand so much of the Bible, of Jesus, and of the world we live in.  And talking about sin does not necessarily lead to the shame and despair that many people have unfortunately experienced.

So I'm going to talk about sin, and I hope that I will be talking about it in the right way.  If I mess it up, I hope you'll understand.

Christians have different ideas about why man sins or how sinful man is, but I think we can all look at the world - and more importantly, at ourselves - and agree that the way things are, is not the way they should be.  Call it brokenness, wickedness, rebellion, missing the mark, selfishness, immaturity, or any number of other words - the bottom line is, we are far from perfect.  In Stott's words:

"Much that we take for granted in a 'civilized' society is based upon the assumption of human sin.  Nearly all legislation has grown up because human beings cannot be trusted to settle their own disputes with justice and without self-interest.  A promise is not enough; we need a contract.  Doors are not enough; we have to lock and bolt them.  The payment of fares is not enough; tickets have to be issues, inspected and collected.  Law and order are not enough; we need the police to enforce them.  All this is due to man's sin" (emphasis mine).

What exactly is sin?  I'm not going to sit and make a list of every specific action that counts as sinful; that's above my pay grade.  Suffice it to say that there are two "types" of sin, which Stott describes as a "negative" type and a "positive" type.

The "negative" type of sin is failure to do what is good.  One of the definitions for both the Hebrew and Greek words translated "sin" is "missing the mark," as in shooting an arrow at a target and missing, or as in missing the correct path.  The idea is that there is a standard of goodness or rightness that we fall short of.  Every society, religion, and individual has standards of right and wrong.  Some people set the bar higher than others do; the funny thing is, no matter what your standards are, chances are you sometimes fail to live up to them.  Am I right?

The "positive" type of sin is doing what is wrong.  Stott writes, "sin is transgression.  One word makes sin the trespass of a boundary.  Another reveals it as lawlessness, and another as an act which violates justice."  I like that last definition the best, because it includes things which I think we Christians often like to overlook.

Whether you believe in total depravity or tabula rossa, I think we can all see that the entire world is implicated in the above descriptions.  Moreover, I think we can all agree that we are personally guilty (another trigger word; substitute a different one if you want) of sin.  You can blame Adam or society or the devil, but ultimately the responsibility lies with each individual.  Sin is not merely external; it is inside us, like a cancer seeking to overtake and kill us from within.  Only by acknowledging this fact - by diagnosing the disease, as it were - can we ever hope to find a cure.

There's a famous story about how the London Times once asked G. K. Chesterton to write an essay answering the question, "What's wrong with the world?"  His response was brief and to the point:

Dear London Times,

I am.

Sincerely Yours,

G. K. Chesterton

Okay, so there was sin in the world before I entered it, and there will be sin after I depart, and I am not responsible for all the wickedness in the entire world.  But there is something very important about recognizing and admitting our own culpability in the problem of evil.  And the thing is, this puts us all on a level playing field.  Sure, some sins are more damaging than others, and some people may sin a lot more than others, and nobody likes the implication that they are "just as bad" as the Really Bad Sinners (and to be fair, there' a biblical case against the "all sins are equal" idea).  But on the other hand, it also means nobody is better than you.  So anybody who claims to have it all together is either deluded or lying.  Hey, we have something in common!  We've got issues.  As the saying goes, "to err is human."

In my next post I'll move on to the next chapter of Basic Christianity, which deals with the consequences of sin.  No, it won't be a discussion on the nature of hell.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

I'm on a Budget, and I don't Clip Coupons . . .

I actually enjoy grocery shopping.  When I get really good food without spending a lot of money, I feel really clever, like I'm beating the system.  It's a great feeling.

I have spent hours reading the blogs of supermoms who share their secrets for saving money on groceries. I've browsed websites where you can print all kinds of coupons.  And after all that, I hardly ever clip or use coupons.  And I'm okay with that.

There are a few reasons why I don't clip coupons.  First of all, couponing in the Northwest is pretty much a wash.  We don't have double or triple coupon days - well, maybe Albertsons still does that, but we don't have Albertsons in our town.  And when I can only use three manufacturer's coupons per purchase, it kind of takes the fun out of the whole idea of coupons.

Secondly, coupons don't always give you the best deal.  Maybe our grocery stores (Safeway and Leprekon Harvest Foods) are just really expensive, but most of the time when I see a coupon I want to use, the discount is not as good as just shopping at Grocery Outlet.  And once in a while neither the coupons nor Grocery Outlet are as good as Walgreens' sales.  This week Safeway has milk on sale for 14 cents cheaper than the cheapest milk in town and eggs for 30 cents cheaper.  But tomorrow Walgreens will have milk on sale for 20 cents cheaper than the cheapest milk in town and eggs for 70 cents cheaper.

Thirdly and most importantly, most coupons are for stuff I don't buy.  I make most of our meals from scratch (or nearly scratch), I don't have a pet or a baby, and I make my own cleaning and laundry products.

Now, I do use some coupons.  Safeway's "Just for U" program lets you "clip" coupons online to your Safeway card, plus they offer personalized deals.  When I first joined Just for U, I did the majority of my shopping at Safeway and was saving 30-50% off Safeway's retail prices, which was awesome.  But after the first couple months, I stopped getting so many good deals, and since part of the personalized offers are supposed to be based on stuff I already was buying, I can only assume that Safeway realized they were losing money by giving me 30% off produce on top of the sales on apples, grapes, and tomatoes, so they just cut back on things like that.  So now I hardly ever shop at Safeway, but once in a while they'll do some really good sales so I have to keep checking every week.

Anyway, so in addition to Safeway, this is how my husband and I save money on groceries:

1) As I said before, I make a lot of stuff from scratch.  Generally, the more stuff you can make on your own, the more money you will save.  I'm sure there are exceptions.  Personally, I don't make my own cheese or buy sprouted wheat.  I figure I'll be doing well if I can whip up a batch of mayonnaise later this week.  But the things I choose to make rather than buy, do cost less than the store version.

2)  I plan meals.  This takes a little bit of time (not as much as you might think), but it saves even more time (not to mention money) at the grocery store.  I plan meals based on our schedule (because one of us has to have time to make the meals), current sales, and what we already have in our pantry.

3)  We make a list, and we stick to it.  This is probably the most important thing.  If you wing it at the grocery store, you will definitely buy stuff you don't need or will never eat (especially if you shop when you're hungry).  Or you may forget things that you do need.  But making a list is pretty pointless if you don't stick to it.  I have a bad habit of getting additional stuff that's not on the list, but it's usually just to meet the quota I need to get a punch in my punch card, or because there happens to be a great sale on something we already buy.  My husband is a great list shopper.

4)  We comparison shop - to an extent.  This is a no-brainer, but we go where prices are the best.  However, if getting the best price on a product means driving out of town (we don't have Costco in town), then forget it.  For our family of two, spending $30 on gas per trip plus an annual $50 membership is not worth the potential savings, especially considering that we don't have the space to store all the items we would have to buy in bulk in order to save money.  Now, I know some people who do make regular trips out of town, shop at Costco, and it seems to work for them.  You have to figure out what works for you.

5) We use cash.  "Cash" to us doesn't mean a debit card - it means actual physical bills.  We take a certain amount to the store, and what's left over is our allowance.  For me, personally, using cash is a really good incentive to be frugal because I can actually see how much I have left and how much I'm spending.  For both of us, the knowledge that splurging (buying extra stuff we don't need) means less allowance money, is great incentive to stick to the list.

Anyway, there are lots of ways to save money, whether it's on groceries, clothes, toiletries, utilities, or anything else.  Most of the money we spend is discretionary - that is, we have some say in how much we spend.  From time to time we evaluate our current spending plan and see if it's working.

What do you do to save money on groceries?

Friday, August 30, 2013

Being More "Mere" Part 3: The Goodness of God

This is part 3 in my series on basic Christian doctrine.  I'm using Millard J. Erickson's book Introducing Christian Doctrine to outline God's attributes, not because I think it's the best book on earth but because its chapters on God's nature are very clearly laid out and easy to follow (and because I own the book so it's accessible).  This post discusses the moral traits of God, or God's goodness.
The Goodness of God

1.  Moral Purity - A lot of people use words like holiness, righteousness, and perfection interchangeably.  This is fine as far as it goes, but there are actually differences between these words.  Perfection, for our purposes, can actually fall into the category of life, from the last post - biblically, the word "perfect" means complete.  God is not a work in progress, like we are; He is not in the process of improving.  He is completely whole already.  Holiness is another oft-misunderstood word.  The word "holy" literally means "to cut off" - set apart, separate, different from.  God is not like us; God is not like anything or anyone. This is part of what we mean when we talk about the transcendence of God (see my last post), the concept that God is other.  Read the book of Isaiah starting around chapter 30.  Righteousness is the one that refers to pure moral rightness.  God does not sin, nor does he tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13). There is some debate among Christians whether God gets to arbitrarily define good and evil, or whether there is an external standard of good and evil that God merely adheres to.  Erickson suggests something of a compromise - that there is an objective, inherent reality of rightness and wrongness in existence, but that it is part of God's own essence rather than something external to him.  In my belief, this means God cannot do evil and call it good (like in Frost Nixon, when Nixon says an illegal act isn't illegal if it's the president who does it?  America disagreed).  Therefore, I think any doctrine of God which involves him doing something evil is probably a false or misinterpreted doctrine.  Just a suggestion.  Justice means two things; first that God always adheres to his righteous standards, and secondly, that he is the arbiter of justice, that is, he holds others accountable to his standards.

2. Integrity - This aspect relates to God's truthfulness.  That means that God is first of all genuine - he is a real, actual being, not a construct or make-believe concept.  The Bible calls our God the "true God" (cf. Joh 17:3, 1 Thessalonians 1:9, 1 John 5:20, Revelation 3:7, etc.).  No matter how great Christianity sounds, it's useless if it isn't true.  Beyond that, genuineness means that God doesn't merely seem to be the attributes that describe him; he actually is these things.  He's not putting up a front, embellishing his résumé, or showing only the best side of himself.  He is in every way exactly what he claims to be.  Another aspect of God's integrity is his veracity.  Veracity means that God doesn't lie (Titus 1:2).  Hebrews 6:18 says it is "impossible" for God to lie.  It's not just that God doesn't lie; he actually cannot because to do so would defy his nature.  "But I thought you said before that God can do anything?" you say.  Can God do something that is contrary to his character?  Lewis says this kind of question is nonsense, existing in the same category as "can God create a square triangle?"  He says that with God's omnipotence it is more correct to assert that God can do everything that is intrinsically possible - that is, everything that is consistent with his character.  Finally, integrity means that God is faithful.  In Erickson's words, "God is true [genuineness], he tells the truth [veracity], and he proves true [faithfulness]."  God keeps all his promises (1 Thessalonians 5:24); he never goes back on his word (Numbers 23:19).  Again and again Scripture calls us to trust in God's faithfulness, to believe that he will always keep his word, and to take comfort in this knowledge (Lamentations 3 is my favorite passage of Scripture for this reason).

3. Love - Many theologians believe that love is the most central attribute of God - that if you had to pick one word to describe him, this would have to be it.  In the classic novel The Hawk and the Dove by Penelope Wilcock, Father Peregrine points out that the Bible asserts "God is love" but never "God is justice" - there is a subtle but important difference between saying "God is loving" and "God is love," and between saying "God is just" and "God is justice."  The attribute of love is, I believe, central to the doctrine of the Trinity - and I know there are denominations of Christianity that don't affirm the Trinity, but if God is love, that means he has always been love, even before creation. Love always has an object, and divine love is inherently selfless (or so God tells us - cf. Romans 5:1-12 and 1 John 4).  So before Creation, whom did God love?  Only the Trinity can attempt to answer this question with any satisfaction:  the object of God the Father's love is the Son, and the object of the Son's love is the Father (John 14:31).  God has always existed in relationship, within the Trinity.  And I'm not saying you have to believe in the Trinity to be a true Christian (in my experience, many people who claim to believe in the Trinity, when asked to define the term, give the definition of what we now call "Oneness" doctrine).  The Trinity, like Oneness, is man's attempt to understand an incomprehensible God.  I just think the Trinity is probably the closest approximation to the real thing that we can currently think of.

One aspect of God's love is benevolence.  This means that God is concerned about the well-being of those he loves.  As I mentioned earlier, this divine love is inherently selfless - it is for our sake that God loves us (Deueteronomy 7:7-8), not because he needs us to fill some void in himself.  God's benevolent love is for all creation, not just for Christians; and his love is not just a feeling but moves him to action, so that he acts for the good of his creation (Matthew 5:45).  Another aspect of God's love is grace.  Grace means treating people not the way they deserve to be treated, but the way they need to be treated (cf. Psalm 103).  Parents don't love their children on the basis of what they deserve or don't deserve; they love them simply because they are.  Mercy is the third aspect of God's love.  It is closely tied to grace; another word for it is compassion.  God feels for us (Mark 1:41, Matthew 9:36, Matthew 14:14), and this feeling moves him to act on our behalf.  Finally, God is persistent.  Another word for this is long-suffering, or patient.  Another of my favorite passages in Scripture is 1 Peter 3, which talks about God waiting for us to repent, withholding judgment as long as possible.  God's heart is always for reconciliation.  He will always forgive (1 John 1:9), just as he instructed us always to forgive.

On another personal note, I think God's attributes have to be the starting point of our theology, and any conclusions we come to in our doctrine have to be consistent with our findings here.  If other doctrines call into question God's goodness or his greatness, I think we have to reexamine those doctrines.  As we move forward in this series, let's keep these traits in mind.  Next time we'll start going through Stott's book, Basic Christianity.

More in this series:

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Being More "Mere" Part 2 - The Greatness of God

So last week I started a series on the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, to focus on the common ground that Christians have rather than on the differences between denominations and traditions.  I'm going to use John Stott's book Basic Christianity as a reference, but for today I have to go into another text as well.  Basic Christianity begins with an examination of the person of Jesus Christ, but the context is apologetic - that is, to prove that Jesus' claims about himself were true.  It's a very good internal argument for the deity of Christ, but the purpose of this series is not apologetics, but a reaffirmation of agreed upon doctrine.

I think that an overview of theology needs to start with God.  That makes sense, right?  So I'm going to write about God's character, or to use the theological term, attributes.  Attributes are not descriptions of God's actions or  emotions; they are essential aspects of His nature, as much as being human is to our nature.  This also means that everything God says, thinks, does, or feels comes out of these attributes and is consistent with these attributes.  I'm going to base these next few posts on the textbook Introducing Christian Doctrine by Millard J. Erickson for this post, mostly because it was my theology book in high school so I happen to have it on hand, and also because I think the way it breaks down the attributes of God is very clear and systematic.  

I should note that depending on what church you go to, the "list" of God's attributes may not look exactly like this one, but basically this is what we all as Christians believe about God.  I'm not going to go verse-crazy with this, but I'll provide a few references if you want to look them up. 

Erickson divides God's attributes into two basic categories: greatness and goodness.  Greatness refers to God's divine power, while goodness refers to his personal or moral nature.  Today I'm going to focus on the former because I don't want this to be super incredibly long.  So without further ado - 

The Greatness of God

1. Spirituality - that is, God is Spirit (John 4:24).  He is not confined to a body as we are, and is therefore not subject to the limitations and restrictions associated with being a corporeal being.  The Bible often uses the word "invisible" to refer to the spirituality of God (John 1:18, 1 Timothy 1:17).  References to physical features of God - hands, feet, eyes, etc. - are not literal descriptions of what God looks like, but are anthropomorphisms.

2. Life - God is alive, full of life, the source of life.  God's personal name YHWH (Exodus 3:14) is most likely derived from the infinitive verb "to be."  One of the implications of this doctrine is that God was not created or caused by anything or anyone.  He has always been, and he will always be.  This is one of those concepts that will mess with your mind if you think about it very much.  Another implication of this is that God doesn't need us.  God doesn't lack anything or miss anything without us; he was perfectly complete on his own.  And that suggests that whatever motives God had for creating us were selfless rather than selfish - it wasn't for his own sake but for our sake that he made us.  Lewis says that if God does need us, it's because we need to be needed (Mere Christianity somewhere).

3.  Personality - meaning, God is a person.  Sometimes we forget this, especially when we start getting really deep in theological discussions. We start treating God like a concept, an idea, or a state of mind, rather than a personal being with thoughts and feelings.  This means that our relationship with him is, in many ways, a lot like the relationships we have with other people.  God's not a machine that we can program or control or coerce.  We can also know him personally, and know about him.  I'll come back to this in a bit.

4. Infinity - God has no limits and cannot be limited.  This refers to his omnipresence (without spatial or temporal limits, able to be present anywhere and everywhere, in any and every dimension, at any and every time - not only that, but he does not exist within time or space but outside them - another mind-boggling concept - because they are part of his creation), omniscience (He knows everything, not just in an encyclopedic way, but in an intimate, experiential way), and omnipotence (God's power is without limit; he is capable of doing anything he wants to do).  

5. Immutability - Erickson refers to this as "constancy."  God cannot, does not, will not change (Malachi 3:6).  Probably my favorite part of the book of James is where he writes that God "does not change like shifting shadows" (1:17).  This means what was true of God before creation is true now; what was true of God in the person of Jesus Christ was true of him in the Old Testament; what was true of him today was true of him in the garden of Eden.  This doesn't mean that God is like a statue, stagnant and unmoving, but that his nature doesn't change.  We don't have to worry that God will someday be limited, or no longer living, or no longer good.  His character will always be the same.

A final note on God's greatness is the tension between transcendence and immanence.  Transcendence means that God is beyond us, above us, unknown and unknowable to us (Jeremiah 55:8-9, Isaiah 6:1-5).  Think about this: the only reason we know anything about God's existence is because God has revealed himself to us.  God has revealed himself to us in nature, in Scripture, in the Holy Spirit, and most of all by coming to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.  So while he is transcendent, God is also immanent.  He is with us (Isaiah 7:14); he works in and among us. My husband Justin wrote a great blog post a few days ago on God's nature, and I loved what he had to say on this subject:

"This vastness is so incomprehensible to man that even with the Bible we've only begun to understand a pinprick of the vastness of God.  There's always gonna be more to explore. [. . .] Despite all this vastness, we are not Deists, we believe God is Here, and Now, interacting with us, guiding us, ultimately loving us and wanting a relationship.  He is beautiful because He makes Himself knowable, and explorable, even now . . . while God is knowable, he is not fully known and never will be."

Tomorrow I'll look at the second half of God's attributes - his personal or moral characteristics, if you will.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Resolution: Paperless - Update

At the beginning of the year, I shared my New Year's resolution of reducing the amount of paper I use.  I'm probably long overdue for an update.

So this is what I've done so far.

1.  I got rid of papers I've been saving.  I wrote about this in my earlier post.  Basically I went through every piece of paper I saved from 8th grade through college (because yes, I did save stuff from 8th grade).  I scanned the relatively few important documents I wanted to save (which wasn't very much from high school - sadly, I lost most of the notes from my Theology classes, which is ironic because those were the first things I transcribed to my computer, years ago - I'll come back to this).  I recycled everything else.

2.  I no longer keep receipts.  Well, that's not entirely true.  I used to keep the receipt for every nickel I spent, even if I went to Starbucks with a gift card.  I filed them and kept them, seriously.  Then I started doing my tax returns myself instead of having my dad do them, and I realized that there is no point in keeping personal receipts unless it's for something I might return.  So now I scan receipts that I will need for taxes - anything related to my car, business, medical expenses, etc. - and recycle or throw the paper copies (yes, I admit to throwing away paper and I'm sorry), along with receipts for groceries and other personal expenses.

3.  I back up what I don't want to lose!  When you back up files on your computer, you need to back up your back up.  When I had my first laptop (ah, youth!), I loaded it with documents - my writing, journaling, poetry, notes from theology class, etc.  Then my hard drive got corrupted and I lost everything.  And that's the end of the story.  Much like Strong Bad, my approach to backing up my files was along the lines of "Is that a real thing I have to do?"  This was because my original backup was a 3.5" floppy disk, and then I got a computer that didn't have a floppy drive.  So now I use Google Drive and Dropbox, which are both free programs that will automatically sync your files online.  You really should back up your files in two locations, preferably an Internet folder and an external hard drive (or flash drive, or what have you).  I put my personal and work files in Drive and keep Dropbox for my dance company files.

The notion of going paper-less (not paperless, just less paper) has actually expanded beyond my original intentions.  I've found there are a lot of ways I can cut down on how much paper I use, and I've adopted some of them:

4.  I no longer buy disposable cleaning wipes.  I don't have a baby or a small child, so this wasn't a huge deal, but I used to clean EVERYTHING with Clorox disinfecting wipes.  They are just so easy!  But they do create a lot of waste, and the cost adds up.  Now I use washable Handi-wipes and T-shirt rags with my homemade cleaners, which last a lot longer and are much less expensive (try $2 for 2 pounds of baking soda).

5.  I cut back on paper towels.  This one is much harder for me.  Paper towels are really convenient for everything from cleaning up messes to microwaving bacon, but have you looked at how much they cost?!  To me, that's more outrageous than the amount of waste they generate.  Anyway, I am looking forward to creating my own NON-paper towel roll in the near future, mostly because they can be really cute!  There are lots of tutorials on how to make your own reusable non-paper towel rolls - here's one.

There are lots of ways to cut back on paper in the home; these are just a few.

Are you trying to reduce waste or use less paper?  If so, what are you doing?

Being More "Mere" Part 1: Introduction

MY DEAR WORMWOOD,The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call "Christianity And". You know - Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. 
 (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter XXV)  

At my husband's suggestion, I'm going to do a few blog posts that are on more serious topics than dinner recipes and seasonal decorating projects.  I've decided to do a series on the latter half of John Stott's book Basic Christianity.  

At the risk of getting unto trouble by implicating persons I admire and respect, I'm getting a little tired of the divisiveness I've seen growing within the Christian Church.  By divisiveness I don't mean the existence of different denominations; I'm actually okay with that.  I mean the current trend of taking sides on a variety of doctrinal issues and then each side lining up to shoot barbs at the other side.  And it's not that the issues they talk about aren't important - gender roles, sexual morality, the nature of man, theories about the atonement - these are all really big deals, and we should talk about them.  But I'm not happy that we're talking about only these issues, and more specifically, I'm not happy with the way people talk about them.  If you've been around any of these topics, you know what I'm talking about.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, you might want to keep it that way.

I opened with a quote from The Screwtape Letters, a fascinating and disturbing novel in which the elder demon Screwtape advises his protégé Wormwood on the proper way to tempt his charge, a human being who has become - much to Screwtape's horror - a Christian.  Screwtape argues that Wormwood can neutralize Christians by separating them into different factions, allowing their faith to become no more than a platform for their true cause.  As long as believers are merely Christian - that is, as long as the most central aspect of our faith is Christ Himself, not some other issue (no matter how important or trivial) - the Church remains a force that the very gates of hell cannot overcome.  But if anything else takes Christ's place as the Most Important Thing, our faith ceases to be the gospel that has the power to transform our hearts, our lives, and our world.

So it's not that other issues are not worth discussing; it's just that they can't become the core of our faith - and when they become so important that it leads to the kind of bickering I've seen too much of lately, I think we need to take a step back . . . and maybe reexamine what it is that we have in common rather than focusing solely on what divides us.

You probably wonder why I'm not going to go through Mere Christianity since I've been referring to Lewis this whole time.  That's a great book, but it's also very long, and I think most of the people who will read this blog are already familiar with it.  Stott's book is more concise and therefore easier to use for my purposes.  It's a short (about 100 pages) summary of what the Christian faith is at its core and why it's reasonable to believe it.  I'm writing this in an attempt to find and reaffirm the common ground that is shared among all Christians, to give us more to talk about than just what divides us.  At the end of the day,  "There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:4-6 NIV), and we should remember that.

I admit I've participated in a lot of the debates in the past, and I'm sure I will again in the future.  But for now, I think I personally need to let that go.  I want to get past the "us versus them" mentality and be more merely Christian.  This series, like this blog, is largely personal, a way for me to document my own process and growth.  If you're in the same place as me, feel free to follow along and comment.