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A Conflagration of Cinnamon Rolls

By Emily Borntrager

Perhaps you’re familiar with this scene: It’s Christmas morning, and your cinnamon rolls have shriveled into tragic little lumps of coal. (You were SURE the recipe said 450° F!) You can’t make another batch. (You’re out of butter.) The stores are closed. (No canned replacements. Or butter.) And if there aren’t cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning exactly like there have been for the last ten Christmases, it’ll unquestionably start the day off on a disappointing (and smoky) note.

Christmas just might be ruined.

Many of us have experienced this scenario in one form or another. Sometimes it’s burned cinnamon rolls. Sometimes it’s an unexpectedly shrunken Christmas sweater. Sometimes it’s being appallingly late to an important holiday event. On any other day, we probably would have shrugged and reached for the cereal, donned a different sweater, or sent our regrets to the host. Today, however, we’re hovering on the verge of tears over breakfast food, getting shrill with the people we love most while the smoke detector chirps ominously above our heads.

It may be tempting to say that it’s just breakfast, that this kind of stress is unnecessary and spoils the morning far more than burned pastries, etc. And all of those things may be true. But in dismissing this difficulty out of hand and scolding ourselves for being irrational, we might be missing something deeper.

* * *

Until recently, I didn’t see the big deal about holiday stress. In my holly jolly naïveté, I thought those who felt tense about the holidays were just too uptight. I thought all they needed was a long nap, a Christmas cookie, and a quick reading of Luke 2. (To be clear, I’m not talking about the stress of family discord, financial hardship, or loss, all of which are brought out in technicolor during this season. I’m talking about otherwise relaxed and sensible human beings suddenly deciding that achieving perfect Christmas brunch casserole is a matter of life and death.) To say “Christmas morning will be ruined without cinnamon rolls” may indeed seem a little silly at first, but perhaps there’s more to it than that.

If we turn this stressful moment upside down and shake it, the underlying desire falls out, which probably looks something like this: “I want to make my family happy by giving them a special and festive Christmas breakfast.”

I’d argue that this desire is perfectly reasonable and good.

The problem isn’t the desire itself. The problem comes when we convince ourselves that there’s only one way to satisfy that desire, that if reality doesn’t match up to the picture in our heads, we’ve failed.

Yet sometimes the best answers to our desires don’t look the way we expect.

Sometimes “special and festive” means red velvet cinnamon rolls and cream cheese frosting, all made from scratch and just begging to be Instagrammed. Other times, “special and festive” means simple cinnamon toast that’s been cut into Christmas tree shapes with a cookie cutter and hastily doused with leftover green sprinkles from Easter. One option certainly seems more impressive and in line with the usual holiday expectations, but they’re both in pursuit of the same desire: “I want my family to enjoy breakfast.” And that can take all sorts of forms. The alternate route can still get us where we want to go. And sometimes it does the job far better than we ever could have expected.

* * *

It’s clear that God has a way of meeting our needs while thwarting our expectations in the most spectacular of ways.

Jesus certainly didn’t appear in the way that Israel had expected.

Israel had been waiting for centuries for their Messiah. Someone to execute God’s judgment, deliver Israel from oppression, and establish his kingdom forever. God had promised them such a person long ago and they were oh-so-ready for him to arrive and start making changes. Preferably he’d start by routing their Roman oppressors.

They expected a strong military and political leader to bring an end to Israel’s earthly woes. And when they were given a baby born out of wedlock to a carpenter, it didn’t go over well.

If we turn Israel’s expectation upside down, what desire falls out? Deliverance, which is a perfectly good and fitting thing to want. And God, being faithful, sent what they needed. But since the people were so hung up on the specifics of how that expectation would be met, they not only failed to recognize their deliverance but did their best to return to sender.

Fortunately for us, God’s plans are unthwartable. Unlike ours.

* * *

Christmas is wonderful to me for so many reasons, but one of my favorites is that it illustrates, in the clearest and most beautiful of terms, that the unexpected answer can be the one God uses to greatest effect. Far be it from me to compare our Lord and Savior to a festive-shaped piece of cinnamon toast, but there are times when the expectations of our hearts are best left unmet so that our true needs can be met in unexpected, unorthodox, and much better ways.

This Christmas, I hope that instead of belittling yourself for feeling stressed over “small things,” you might take a closer look at those feelings and find that underlying desire, the one that might just need a new approach. I hope that in a world that’s watching for salvation from a powerful earthly king, you keep your eyes open when you pass by the stables. And on the days when the cinnamon rolls burn and your reality doesn’t match your expectations, I hope you can feel good about making toast.

Merry Christmas!


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