Friday, December 30, 2011

A Star to Behold

Yesterday we decided to make some stars of our own to decorate our home, and to help the Magi find their way to Jesus.

 This technique is called corn syrup painting- it produces a standard picture, but the paint looks glossy when dry.

You will need: 
Black crayon
Corn syrup
Food coloring
Paint brushes

 The recipe is simple: add a little corn syrup to several drops of food coloring to a small dish. More food coloring makes a darker color, less makes lighter. You can do a lot of neat things by swirling colors together as well since they talk a while to combine completely. Regular paint brushes work well for this project, but you may need to soak them in some water before they come completely clean again.
 Take a black crayon and draw your picture on paper. Glossy paper looks extra neat, but regular paper works well too. Remember to make your drawings "coloring book style," because you'll be painting inside the lines.

Then, use the corn syrup paint to color your drawing in! Use a lot of paint for the best effect.

In honor of Epiphany, we drew a bright star in the night sky, with wise men at the bottom. Be creative- yours may be different.
 Some of us didn't get the memo about Christmas being over :), so a few Christmas trees were done as well. I included this picture so that you can see the gloss of the paint. So fun!
This is my two-year old's finished product. Use your imagination here, folks: yellow is the star, dark blue is the night sky, and red in the corner are the Magi.

Leave them to dry for a long, long, time. Where we used the most paint it took a solid 24 hours, so put your masterpieces somewhere they won't be bothered for a day or so.

Epiphany is coming!

Epiphany means different things to different people (after all, we are Episcopalians!), but for the most part we in the Anglican tradition celebrate it on January 6th and we commemorate the magi arriving in Bethlehem to see- and recognize- the newborn King.

So, how can we celebrate this special event in our homes? I've listed a few ideas below, and included a couple of links for you to check out. There's sure to be something that will fit your family's needs.

*Try baking a coin or small (heat safe) item into a cake. Eat the cake (carefully!) as a family and whoever finds the coin in his or her slice gets to be king/queen for the night. You can call it the Kings Cake.

*Since some denominations celebrate epiphany with the exchange of gifts, you might have a gift "unwrapping" party. Wrap a gift several times with paper, and sit in a circle with your family. Play music, and stop it at intervals just like you would if you were playing musical chairs. When the music stops, the family member who is holding the gift gets to unwrap one layer. Whoever unwraps the last layer gets to keep the present.

*This idea was one to be done in church, but I think it could be adapted for home use as well. Each family member gets a ribbon  or bow, symbolic of his or her gift to God. Take a few minutes to think together about the gifts that you have given God over the last year, or the gifts that you intend to give Him in the New Year. Put the ribbons up somewhere in your home as a reminder of your pledge.

*In order to commemorate Christ's "manifestation to all nations," have an ethnic dinner week! Eat a dish from a different area of the world each night this week as a reminder of Christ's importance worldwide.

(Preceding ideas adapted from Anglicans Online. Visit the link for more ideas!)

*Go through the Christmas cards you were sent this year and pick out ones with pictures of the magi. Cut them out and decoupage them onto a serving tray your family will use for years to come. You can even serve your Kings Cake on it!

*Reuse some of the Christmas wrap kicking around the house- make a special treasure box just like the magi might have brought to Jesus. Reuse a gift box and glue or decoupage wrapping paper, tin foil, stickers or other embellishments to make the box "fit for a king."

Check out this link for some more kid-friendly craft ideas. I'll be doing a few of these over the next week and will post the results.

What are some ways that your family celebrates Epiphany?

Photo Credit

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Top 10 reasons to be an Episcopalian

Did you know that Robin Williams (the comedian) is an Episcopalian? I didn't until I read his top ten reasons why our faith is so great. I agree with each and every reason he gives... and it brought such a smile to my face that I had to share this with you.

Try sharing this with your older children- do they understand each of the references? If not, what a great, light-hearted conversation starter. If so, then have a good laugh together!

10. No snake handling.
9. You can believe in dinosaurs.
8. Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.
7. You don't have to check your brains at the door.
6. Pew aerobics.
5. Church year is color-coded.
4. Free wine on Sunday.
3. All of the pageantry - none of the guilt.
2. You don't have to know how to swim to get baptized. 

And the Number One reason to be an Episcopalian:
1. No matter what you believe, there's bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.

Episcopal pride, folks! (Do we need a cheer for ourselves? Hummm...)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Have you taken down your Christmas decorations yet?

I admit it, I have. Taken down my Christmas decorations, I mean.

I don't think I've ever done it so quickly, but this year the advent wreath was made so early, and the tree fell down so many times prior to Christmas... well, it felt like we were hanging on by a thread at the end, so I must admit that it was a bit of a relief to get all of the dying greenery out of my house.

That isn't to suggest that I want to dispense with thoughts of Christmas- quite the opposite, in fact. I want to linger, to remember, to cherish these warm memories of family, generosity, peace, prayer, tranquility and belonging for the rest of my days. There is something magical that happens at Christmas- beyond the presents and the day off from work- something so silent and so powerful that we can't quite describe it. Something- or someone perhaps?- comes into our hearts to gently draw us to our knees in awe of one another, our world, of creation, of our God...

So here's a glimpse of our family's memories. I am keeping out our nativity because of course the wise men haven't yet arrived to see our newborn king. For the next week they will journey closer and closer, even as Christmas becomes farther and farther from us, to continue the miracle which was begun yesterday. In our family we will continue to read a story and say a prayer by candlelight each night to remind us of the great miracle that happened so many, many years ago...

...and to keep the memories of Christmas, and all of the miracles that happen each year on that day, close to our hearts for just a little bit longer.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

'Twas the Night of Jesus' Birth Story and More

Tony at Ministry-To-Children has generously shared a few free resources that families may find helpful, or at least fun, this Christmas.

Here he has re-written 'Twas the Night Before Christmas to be 'Twas the Night of Jesus' birth. It's a free download and might be a fun read for the family on Christmas Eve!

Here he has posted a "Jesus brings peace" coloring page.

Note: the King James translation of Isaiah 9:6-7 is as follows:
6For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
 7Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.

Below, he has provided some Angels and Shepherds coloring pages, also for free!

Thank You Card Templates

Ministry-To-Children has posted a free set of great thank you card templates for kids to use this Christmas.

I printed these out to use with our children because they are cute and small- not too overwhelming for younger kids, but still a wonderful way to reinforce the concept of gratitude!

Happy card-writing!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Joys of the Season?

This is a wonderful time of year. It really is. We are blessed to spend time with family and friends, to live out our traditions, to pay forward a bit of joy in our communities and watch smiles spread across the faces of strangers. There is nothing better than getting into the Christmas spirit, is there?

On the other hand, there are the hardships at this time of year. How many cookies do I have to bake? The Christmas lights aren't working? Another Christmas party? How much are these presents going to cost? How far do we have to drive to visit the family? The list goes on, doesn't it? It can be hard to remember the feeling of joy that we, as Christians, are supposed to feel at the pending birth of Christ. It can be very hard to remember how blessed we are that God sent Jesus to us, and that His coming was to be the end of our sorrows and strife. It doesn't feel like that when Junior has a cookie swap tomorrow at his Boy Scout troop which he didn't mention until right now...

But we owe it to ourselves, our families, and most of all our God to remain joyful (or at least hopeful until those cookies are done). We are doing important work as we go through even the more stressful of the holiday traditions. What we are doing matters on a larger scale than the success of one or two cookie swaps, holiday parties, or gift wrapping marathons. We are celebrating our Savior's birth, after all, and what could be more cause for celebration than that?

Still...feel free to take it down a notch. Really! We are teaching our children how to celebrate Christ's birth, and they will emulate what we teach them. So, remember that while God initiated celebrations to show Him favor (check out Leviticus if you don't believe me), He never said that we should kill ourselves to do it. What God asks of us is to show Him favor, to worship Him beyond all others, and to show one another love in His name. If that means baking cookies to you, then do it. If that means going to a neighbor's Christmas party, do it. If that means traveling, crafting, caroling... then do it. He is worth it, and so are the little ones in our lives whom we are teaching to love and respect Him.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Adorable Kids Christmas Story Movie

Check out this beautiful rendition of the Christmas story done entirely by children at St. Paul's in Auckland, New Zealand. It was shared with me by a fellow parishioner this week as something that all kids should see this Christmas, and I agree! What a heartwarming way to remember the reason for the season!

Maybe we could do this with a few of our local kids? Parents, what do you think?

Christmas Trivia Games for the Family

Here's a great way to interact with your children while reinforcing the important ideas about the Christmas story... and to brush up on the specifics yourself!

Try these quizzes- how many can you get correct?

A Christmas Quiz: online, 10 questions, free
Quizmoz: online, 14 questions, free
Christian Bible Reference: online, 6 different Bible quizzes with varying questions, all marked with "easy," "moderate," or "difficult" ratings

Christmas Camel Race Bible Board Game: printable from the internet, as many questions as you require, multiple players race to get their camel to Jesus first by answering questions correctly, cost $6.95

Enjoy some family fun with these!

Photo Credit

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sneak Peek of Godly Play Christmas Lesson

For those parents who are interested, here is what the Pre-K/K class and the Grades 1-2 class will be experiencing tomorrow (Sunday).

Go here to view the video lesson.
You can watch this alone to get a sense of what your children are experiencing in Sunday School, or you can watch it with your child to reinforce the concepts and to ask if he or she has questions for you.

Good Behavior is Hay in the Manger


Here's a great idea to promote good behavior and Jesus-centered focus during this last week of Advent:

Each time you catch a child in your home doing something "good," or "godly," add a handful of hay to a homemade manger (ours is a used shipping box). That way, by Christmas morning Baby Jesus will have a comfortable place to sleep, and you will have illustrated the concept of preparing our hearts (and the world) to receive Christ through good deeds.

Photo Credit

Making Christmas Ornaments

While we were working on our Advent Action card about fixing the broken ornaments on our tree, we discovered that many of them were beyond repair. Oh no! I set out to find some ornament tutorials to give us ideas to make our own. Here are a few of our favorites:

I loved this idea from Thrifty Mama- making your own ornaments out of fabric scraps! Of course, I love any idea which promotes re-purposing items we already have around the house, but I liked that this was an easy one for little hands and it can be used year after year. And did I mention that it's so pretty?

Go here for the full instructions.

Here's another fun one from Diamond In The Stuff...

...and another take on that from Flea Market Style.

If you don't like those, try this link to Everything Etsy, which has links to 100 different ornament tutorials. There's no excuse to have broken ornaments on the tree now!

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Power of the Ordinary

Before you read this post, watch this YouTube video. Really.

Why did you just do that? I'll tell you. That (really good) rendition of The Little Drummer Boy was performed by a teenager in Canada with no professional music experience. He performed the music himself, his little sister shot the video, and he edited the final piece on his laptop computer. He uploaded the video to YouTube and it "went viral" (had hundreds of thousands of views in a matter of days).

So why put this story on a blog about living a Christian life? It's not really the video that is the greatest part of this story, although it IS really good. No, I was so touched by this story and inspired to share it because of the reason Sean Quigley made the video in the first place: he was looking for a way to spread the word about the real meaning of Christmas. He is a Christian teen just trying to do his part to spread God's message using his own gifts and talents. Such a humble goal, with an inauspicious start, has now made international news headlines and has reached nearly one million people worldwide!

My point is this: anyone, including young people, can do amazing things with God in your corner. I encourage you to watch the video and to share it with others to help Sean inspire people everywhere with the true meaning of Christmas!

Click here to watch the news broadcast and interview with Sean Quigley. "I just want people to remember what Christmas is all about," he says in the interview. "It's not about Santa, it's not about presents. It's about the birth of Jesus Christ."

Photo Credit

Angel Craft

This one is for the younger set- preschool and kindergartners who like getting messy will appreciate this task!

For complete project directions go here.

Nativity Silhouette Art Project

This one is for older kids, or a younger child with a lot of grown up help. These are just so beautiful!

For complete project directions, go here.

Advent Task: Feeding the Birds

One of our Advent Action Cards this year was to create a birdfeeder to help our little bird friends on their way south... or more likely to help out the squirrels who are still around. :)

Today we are preparing our hearts for Jesus' coming by showing love and compassion to animals. Here's the link to our project this year!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Holy Experience Free Gratitude Calendar

Normally I would have waited to share this link until after Christmas, when the "buzz" has died down some and we begin to reclaim some of the calm... and of course as we start to think about our New Year's Resolutions. I always welcome this time of year (I know, I'm nuts) because I really love the excuse to log a bit of time spent in prayer and personal reflection. I continue to be amazed at how God can build me up greater than I could ever be on my own, and I love to look for ways to try to build upon what He has given me... to remember who I have to thank for my many, many blessings in life.

Ann Voskamp is a blogger and author whom I adore, and who generously gives of her time and talent to share the purpose of God's word with the world. She's isn't Episcopal, but she shares her earnest struggle to be close as she can to God and live as much as she can in His light; I find her honesty and humility to be nothing short of inspiring. Check out her blog here, and check out her book, One Thousand Gifts here.

She is currently offering a free 12 month calendar of gratitude, complete with inspiring photography (hers) and scripture to help Christians to begin the new year with our priorities in line! I had to share the link so that anyone (like me) who needs that daily dose of God's word to help keep things in perspective could be sure to take advantage of her generous offer! You have to scroll down the page a bit to see the offer, but it's there and it's beautiful!


Free Nativity Preschool/Kindergarten Download

There's a great free Nativity printables set at 1+1+1=1 this week. It's appropriate for tots, preschool and kindergarten, depending upon which activities you use. You print out what you'd like to use and not what you don't! We printed the whole set and found that there was a little something for everyone in our family included- even the baby found something to munch on! :)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas Party Brings Out the Spirit

This would have been the greatest (!) place to share some pictures from our wonderful youth church Christmas party yesterday, but amongst all the hustle and bustle of activity and food preparation I forgot to bring my camera! That's OK, the memories will just have to live in our hearts.

For those who don't know, I paired up with some amazing middle and high school youth group members both from our church and other local churches to provide parents with an afternoon of free babysitting. The point was to let them have some free time during such a busy time of year (and maybe get some Christmas shopping done without little eyes peeping), while the kids got to hang out with their church friends and participate in a bunch of fun activities to celebrate the season in their own way.

I was told many times that I was crazy for doing this- we had 32 kids (aged 10 months to 18 years) in the undercroft and we needed to keep them all busy for four and a half hours! Four. And. A. Half. Hours. How would we make it happen?

I confess that I fell into doubt a couple of times just before the activity began, and wondered how I could ever have gotten myself into this mess? But, as usually happens just about the time I start to think THIS TIME I've really gotten myself in over my head... the grace shown through. I've heard it called a million things- "God breezes," "epiphanies," "moments of truth," but to me it's simply God's grace coming through to little old me waaaaaay down here on earth. It comes through in those moments of uncertainty and calms the heart just enough to allow one to take the bull by the horns once more.

The best part about yesterday, however, was that the grace didn't come from inside my heart- it came from the children that I spent the day with. It came from watching the older kids so tenderly and carefully watching over the little ones: helping them to play kickball, helping them to glue the eyes on their reindeer, and helping them to decorate their Christmas cookies. It came from younger children playing respectfully with peers, and from the littlest following along innocently behind, enraptured by the commotion. The other adult chaperones and I were able to enjoy ourselves so very much thanks to the huge hearts of our parish children!

We've been talking a lot about Advent lately- in youth group, in Children's Chapel and at home. Father Tim even talked about ways that we can prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord last week during his sermon with the children. Watching the kids interact with one another with such love and respect yesterday was all I needed to see to prove the efficacy of our teaching and goals as a Christian community.  I realized that it didn't matter if each little activity went off perfectly as planned because a bigger goal was accomplished: the children of our church spent an entire afternoon serving one another in the Spirit of God, preparing their hearts for Christmas.

(I think they had some fun, too!)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Book Review Tool for Tweens and Teens

I just happened across a wonderful tool offered by Thriving Family Magazine (have you subscribed yet?) which allows you to critically evaluate whether or not a book is a good choice for your teen or tween. It provides a description of the story, then outlines the following topics as they are described in the book: Beliefs, Messages, Sex, Violence, Language, God's name taken in vain, and Other Negative Behavior. You can browse books using their alphabet index to determine which books would be interesting for your child and supportive of your family's values. Parents can use the online tool or check out the printed magazine, which reviews new books with each issue. (The last issue (October/November, 2011) reviewed The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Sweetest Thing, and Shine.)

Photo Credit

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Whose birthday is it?

Our family had a great conversation last night as a result of one of our advent devotions. My son asked quite unexpectedly, "Hey Mom, if Christmas is Jesus' birthday then why do we get presents? Shouldn't we be giving Jesus the gifts?"

Well, you would think so wouldn't you? After all, we are all the recipients of gifts on our birthdays- often many, many, many gifts. So why, on the anniversary of the greatest birthday of all, should we shirk the celebrant and still give ourselves the gifts? In the way that only a five year old can, my son brought to light a very important part of this season that we seemed to be missing.

So we talked about it. "What kinds of gifts might Jesus like for his birthday?" we asked ourselves. After we got past a few of the more immediate responses (my daughter thought he'd like a princess and my son a Transformer), we decided that since Jesus teaches us to love one another, it might be a good gift for Him if we did something(s) to help other people.

Our children are already required to give 10% of their weekly earnings to a charity of their choice, and they've made some great choices in the past including giving that money to the church, to our local animal shelter, etc. But it felt like we needed to go beyond what we normally do in order to commemorate our Savior's birth in a special way. So... what to do, what to do?

We decided to sleep on it, after some discussion. After I put the kids to bed I was checking email and my favorite blogs when I came across this quote at Monkey Munch: 
“And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me."
  Matthew 18:5
They have decided to sponsor a child through World Vision as a present to Christ, and it seems like a pretty good idea to us too! I've also talked to a few families who are giving cows, wheelbarrows, chickens, etc. through Heifer International in the same spirit.

No matter what your family chooses to give Christ for his birthday, I urge you to take a moment to consider it during this very busy season. I believe that we give to Christ in the spirit of simply giving gifts to one another, but perhaps we can all reach out a little past our circle of friends and family this Christmas in Jesus' name to help those who need our gifts most.

What do you do in your family to give a birthday gift to Christ?
Photo Credit

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Amazon Free Children's Book Download

Amazon is currently offering a free download of the book The Other Wise Man, by Henry Van Dyke. This download is specially designed for the Kindle, but you can download a free application here that will enable you to read it on your PC. See the full post of this deal here, at

Find more free Christmas-related ebooks here.

Advent Action Cards

Today in our church was Family Sunday. This is a time, once a month, when children come upstairs and worship with the adults as part of our regular service. It's a time when we celebrate all together as one collective community, and a time when children learn about the worship service that they will be part of when their time in Sunday School and Youth Group is over. It's a beautiful tradition that I am very thankful my children get to be a part of.

Since today was Family Sunday, our rector asked all the children up to the altar to discuss Advent. Instead of using a traditional sermon, Father Tim uses this time to talk with children about some of the major changes/events/traditions in the church. Today, he wanted to talk about Advent and I must say that kids were pretty on the ball! They volunteered that it was a time of waiting for Jesus, and a time when we had to prepare our hearts for His coming. A couple even shared how the season is celebrated in their own homes. I found it interesting however, that when Father Tim asked them about what we needed to do in order to prepare ourselves- spiritually- for Christmas, kids were a little less sure of themselves. They seemed to be thinking out loud up there at the altar, "well, Christmas is Jesus' birthday, and Advent is when we wait, and we light candles..." but it seemed to trail off there. It became clear to me that we need to be more explicit with our kids about how to prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of the Lord- not just as a reminder that he came to earth over two thousand years ago, but also that he will come again.

Thus, the idea of Advent Action Cards was born. Good thing I Googled the term before I put out this blog post- it turns out that I am not the only one to ever have thought that kids might need a little more practice in the physical, daily application of Advent! Here are some great resources that I uncovered in my search- all provide daily tasks which kids can do to help put them in touch with the idea of preparing their hearts for Jesus' coming. (Implement as you like- print out cards to keep in a bowl that kids draw out each day, or put them in a calendar and let kids open one each day...)

Express Life has some great suggestions here,  and Loyola Press offers some great printable options here,. Homeschooled-kids offers this interactive calendar which depicts a scripture and related activity for each day in Advent.

Here are my family's Advent Action Card tasks:

1. Donate some toys we don't use much anymore to our charity of choice
2. Make thank you notes to use after Christmas
3. Help decorate the house for Christmas
4. Make/fill bird feeder for birds migrating south
5. Put together a care package for a deployed soldier and mail it
6. Smile at someone who looks like they are having a bad day
7. Make personal Christmas cards for grandparents
8. Fix ornaments which are falling off the Christmas tree or broken
9. Choose old towels and sheets which can be donated to our local animal shelter
10. Bring a dozen eggs to our neighbor (we have chickens- baking cookies does the same trick!)
11. Share a toy with a sibling (even if you don't want to)
12. Make homemade hot chocolate and drink it together
13. Light the advent wreath candles and let each child say his or her own prayer of thanks for our blessings
14. Read a Christmas story together. Or two. Or three
15. Bake cookies for our church Christmas Fair
16. Set up the Nativity Set
17. Watch The Nativity Story (2006) as a family
18. Gather evergreen and holly from the woods and fill flower boxes outside with it
19. Tell one friend about the wonder of Advent and the true meaning of Christmas
20. Finish making the Jesse Tree ornaments that we didn't get to last year

So you noticed there were only 20 ideas, and that doesn't cover the entire season of Advent? True- but I'm only thinking of this idea now, so next year I'll have to come up with a few more to add to our repertoire! :)

I hope your family finds the time to share even a few of these tasks, and is able to focus just a bit more on the real "reason for the season" this year!

Photo credit

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Poinsettia Christmas Lesson

The Ministry to Children group has posted a wonderful Christmas lesson about the legend of the poinsettia, as told in the story Legend of the Poinsettia, by Tomie dePaola. The lesson is complete with follow up discussion questions to the story, a word find, and an art project.

This is a great post because it can be done with one child, two, three, ten or however many you happen to have around you!

Minstry to Children Free Advent Coloring Pages

Ministry to Children has posted a set of FREE Advent coloring pages for kids to enjoy. You can visit the link and print out any or all of the great original coloring pages to help kids remember the reason for the season!

My oldest daughter went to town on these today! Have some fun!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Interacting with your Nativity Set

Nativity sets are wonderful tools to use to help children understand in a fundamental way what happened so, so, so many years ago, when Jesus came to walk among us. Playing with the characters in the manger and retelling the story themselves are powerful ways to encourage children to have a personal relationship with the true story of Christmas. It will develop in children a sense of ownership, and this is a meaningful building block of spiritual understanding and maturity.

Sometimes it's difficult for parents to know how to encourage such play, however.  We are *ahem* a bit removed from our own childhoods, and it sometimes hard to know how to use the figures of the nativity set both as fun tools and as teaching tools.

I have outlined here the generally accepted timeline of events leading up to Jesus' birth to help your family use the nativity set not only as decoration this Christmas season, but also as fun and meaningful ways to incorporate spiritual learning into your family time.

Week One:
On the first Sunday of Advent, set up the stable.

Week Two:
On the second Sunday of Advent, add animals.

Week Three:
On the third Sunday of Advent, add shepherds to watch over their flocks.

Week Four:
Set up the empty manger. On the morning of the 24th, add Joseph and Mary as they come to Bethlehem. On Christmas day, put Baby Jesus in the manger. Then start the wise men, coming to pay tribute to the new King. Each day they get a little closer, until they arrive on the feast of the Epiphany.

Encourage children to tell the story and to explain why you are moving the figures as you are. If they need help, fill in the gaps or give them prompts. The four week span may be difficult for younger children, who are not yet capable of retaining information for such long periods of time, so feel free to act out the entire story in one sitting, putting the figures back in their spaces when you're finished. If children add play that isn't part of the traditional story, let their creativity flow. There is plenty of time to teach them the "correct" version later- let them make the ideas and the story their own now.

*Note: it's really helpful to have a nativity set which allows Baby Jesus to come out of the manger. We use the Melissa and Doug version at our house, which uses painted wooden figures- one side contains Jesus and the other is empty.

Toilet Paper Nativity Craft

Here's a great craft from Catholic Icing- a nativity set that kids can make and play with (without damaging your nice set from Grandma)!

It's simple: download and print the free printables, color them in, and glue them to toilet paper rolls so they stand up. Voila! Instant fun for the kids, and instant educational tool! (We all know that using manipulatives and encouraging imaginary play is how kids interpret and assign meaning to the information they learn, right?) Well this activity does it all!

Free download: A Family Advent

The group Women of Faith is offering their advent publication, A Family Advent, for free as a download during the month of December! To purchase a hard copy of this book costs nearly $12, but they are offering it as a free gift to families seeking to keep Jesus as the center of the season!

My family has loved it so far! The book is broken up into the four weeks of advent and focuses on one theme per week: Hope, Peace, Love and Joy. It offers a daily scripture passage about Jesus' coming and his life, fun facts, family activities and a daily prayer.

Our family has been lighting our advent wreath for a few minutes each night and reading the short scripture and saying the prayer together. (We also add an ornament to our Jesse Tree.) It takes only a few minutes and has proven to be a very powerful- and much anticipated- nightly ritual.

Names of Jesus Advent Chain

This is a wonderful idea to help kids understand that Jesus has been called many things in the Bible and over time, but that all these names refer to him. What a nice idea Spell Outloud Homeschool had when she decided to use this activity as part of her family's advent celebration! Each chain link includes a name for Jesus and the referenced Bible passage. Here are the directions and the printable chain links so that you can do this activity with your family too.

Free e-lesson from Grapevine Studies

Grapevine Studies is a company which offers curriculum for kids to learn Bible stories in simple, straightforward ways. Their tag line is "stick figuring through the Bible," in fact. (It doesn't get simpler than that, right?)

They are offering a free e-lesson download for the month of December, and it happens to be about how Mary discovered that she would give birth to the son of God- how applicable, seeing that we are now in the season of Advent!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent Song

Here's a cute little song to help kids remember what advent is all about. Thanks Catholic Mom!

 Advent Song:
Sung to: "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star"

Advent is a time to wait
Not quite time to celebrate
Light the candles one by one
Till the advent time is done
Christmas day will soon be here
Time for joy and time for cheer.

"Truth in the Tinsel" product review

For those of us who struggle to bring home the message to our children that Christmas is, in fact, about more than just getting presents, here is a great e-book called Truth in the Tinsel! It's very inexpensive ($4.99 if you don't get the $2.99 special), and it provides a connection to the Christian concept of Christmas on each day of advent. These are simple, family-friendly suggestions which can be done in a few minutes after school/work or during the day, and are great tools to get kids thinking about the true meaning of Christmas!

Also, if you "like" them on Facebook you can get a free page of the e-book and one advent activity with the connecting scripture. I did this before I purchased the e-book and really liked the simple idea of creating a star ornament to connect to Matthew 2:1-12.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ark of the Covenant Craft

Since some of our Sunday School classes talked about the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle today, I came home to search for a fun craft activity to do during the week to extend the learning. Here's the link to what I found: a shoebox Ark to be made by little hands!

This link also details how to make your own 10 Commandments (which we refer to as the 10 Best Ways to Live since we use the Godly Play curriculum at church)!

Need a refresher on the Bible story yourself? Check out this great sermon I found from Rev. Stephen Edmund at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in McLean, VA.

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Teaching Character

Sometimes, when I talk to parents about why they bring their kids to church, they tell me they are searching for a "moral compass." They mean that they want to help their kids to find direction in a sometimes directionless world- they want to instill in their children a guide, a path, a purpose outside of mainstream America. I think that's a powerful and lofty goal, and I applaud these parents for trying to find what's right in the world, and for helping their children to find it too.

But once the choice is made to help children find this "compass," there comes a much more difficult dilemma: how on earth do we teach our kids to be good?! How can we teach them character? The terms themselves are so ambiguous- certainly what exemplifies "good character" to one just may not cut the mustard with another, and what is at least good enough to one may be completely unacceptable to still others. How is one to navigate through the confusion to bring clarity and purpose to a young mind?

Of course, the best way to teach our children is to set good examples in ourselves. After all, isn't that how Jesus taught his disciples? It's never easy to be a role model, as we who are parents can attest, but I think it brings about a mutlally beneficial relationship for both parent and child. While the child is learning to mimick the good behavior of his parent, the parent is constantly practicing restraint and learning to walk in love for the benefit of another. It's a beautifully symbiotic relationship from with both parties stand to benefit.

Is it hard? Yes. Particularly when no has has brushed their teeth, the baby has pulled her diaper off, your purse just fell of the counter and spilled to the floor knocking your full coffee cup along with it, and you're already late for church. (Not that this very scenerio happened to me this morning...) Still, with all the frustration and difficulty that comes along with parenting, isn't it worth the reward when you see your child do something well? Something you've been quietly teaching and modeling for her? Something that shows God's light inside him, clear as day?

I believe that it is, indeed, worth the challenge. We become the best people we can be by modeling our behavior after those whom we love and trust. For our children, they model us. For ourselves, we model Christ. In the end, we create a "moral compass" almost by default because when we seek to align our daily lives with our spiritual purpose, our true potential is realized. 

Still wondering where to start? Here are a couple helpful links with lessons, printables, games, etc. to help your children identify, evaluate and practice good character in their lives. Enjoy!

Five J's Bible Curriculum link includes 12 traits to study and learn, with accompanying activities.

Parenting Methods has a great Fruits of the Spirit lesson with printable rewards chart, based on Galatians 5:22 which can help you to both enumerate, and to recognize/reward positive character building in your child's life.

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Books of the Bible Word Search

I found this fun activity today on a Christian homeschooling blog which I follow called Five J's. The object of the game is simple: read the paragraph and try to find 30 books of the Bible within it. Go here to try your luck! Don't worry- the answers are there too.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Jesse Tree Tradition

Have any of you ever tried to have a Jesse Tree? I admit that I had never heard of this lovely Christmas tradition until last year, but it has quickly become a family favorite around here. The jist of it is simply to use a tree (or a large branch found in the backyard, in our case) and each night of advent the family adds one ornament to the tree. These aren't just any oranaments, though. These are specially crafted to represent the legacy of Jesus and to illustrate how he used his life to teach us. Each ornament is symbolic of one of the miracles or events significant to his life.

Last year we worked furiously to make clay ornaments in time for each day, and we really didn't do as well as we could have. Some came out really well, others did not, and still others didn't get made at all. When I saw this link to a set of printable ornaments to color in and hang up I was excited because that's a bit more realistic for first timers! Feel free to supplement with clay or other trinkets as you see fit!

This really is a wonderful way to share the true spirit of Christmas with your family, and to reinforce the real reason for the season!

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Joseph's Coat Preschool Craft

I saw this wonderful craft today to help children learn about the story of Joseph and his colorful coat. It uses a paper bag and lots of colorful paper and odds and ends to replicate the wonderful coat that Joseph must have worn.

I am always looking for crafts and activities to bring the Bible to life, and this craft was an excellent way to do just that! Go here for a great tutorial!
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While we're at it, here are several great coloring pages for kids to use who are learning about Joseph and his coat of many colors.

Try here, here, and here.

Oh yes, and if you don't know this wonderful Bible story, then read on! Joseph, eleventh son of Jacob, was given a coat of many colors, which his brothers took as a sign to show their father's favor. Joseph then had dreams which told him that he would assume leadership and even his brothers would bow down to him. In a jealous rage, his brothers threw him into a pit and later sold him into slavery to a passing group. The brothers then dipped Joseph's coat in goat's blood and told their father that he had been slain. Instead, Joseph had been sold into slavery in Egypt and worked very hard to continue in God's favor by being a faithful servant to Him.

While he was in Egypt, Pharaoh sent for Joseph because he had some dreams which he could not understand. Joseph told him that there was a hard time coming for Egypt and that the Pharaoh should begin to prepare. Pharaoh was happy and he let Joseph go free. Pharaoh asked him to stay and help him to prepare for the hard time to come, which Joseph agreed to do. Thanks to Joseph and his faithful reliance upon God's word, Egypt did not go hungry.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Do we have to teach prayer?

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For adults, prayer is sometimes taken for granted. Yes really- sometimes we take for granted that we know what to do when we make mistakes and need forgiveness, when we are fearful and don't know which way to go, when we are hurting and need comfort. We become silent, shut out the world for a few moments and visit the inner peace that God has bestowed upon each of us.

But is this knowledge innate? Are we born knowing how to seek this solace and ask for God's peace? I don't claim to know the answer to that question, but what I have found, in my own experience, to be true is that children benefit from some guidance when it comes to prayer. I believe that children in some ways are closest to God thanks to their innocence and naivete, but I don't forget that part of my job as a parent is to prepare my children for adulthood, even now when they are still children.

To me, instruction on how God wants us to pray, and how we can use prayer to gain access to our inner connection with God and His will, is a valuable tool for children to have as they seek to know God throughout their lives. As Episcopalians we are called to use Scripture, tradition, and our own reason and insight to live godly lives. What kind of parent would I be if I didn't help to prepare my children for that journey by teaching them how to pray for strength, mercy, grace, and guidance?

So, when I find resources which lend themselves to teaching children about the art of prayer, I get excited about it and want to share!  I found a great free printable resource over at Homeschool Creations today. While the pack isn't specifically Episcopal, I really liked the author's presentation. Here's the link:

Good luck!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Is there anything too small?

Earlier today I was helping my son, age 4, to open a fruit roll up that his auntie bought him and I was having a difficult time doing it. The candy was so sticky that it wouldn't even roll off the cellophane wrapper and my son was desperate for the whole thing to be unrolled without a tear. I worked on it for a minute or so and then resigned, telling my son matter-of-factly that I wasn't going to be able to pull the candy off in one whole piece.

"You can do it, Mom!" His sure little voice replied. "Anything is possible with Jesus! Just ask him for help!"

Well. I didn't see that coming. I probably should have told him that he was right, and said a little prayer right then and there, not just for a safe delivery of the fruit roll up out of its wrapper, but also of thanks for my son's insight into the things that really matter.

I didn't though. I giggled a little and told my son that Jesus was probably helping others with bigger problems and maybe we shouldn't bother him with our small challenge. My son accepted this statement readily enough because by this time he had his candy in hand and was on to other tasks. I'm sure he's forgotten about the whole exchange by now. But I haven't.

I missed out on an opportunity here. In the classroom we called these opportunities "teachable moments," and they were the most powerful teaching tool we had. These were the moments when a child opened himself up and allowed you to see into this thoughts and his heart; when he asked you a genuine question simply out of interest or shared a personal insight, and allowed you to teach him something through his own experience. I realized- too late- that such an opportunity had passed me by today, although it wasn't what my professors in grad school might have intended when they taught me this concept.

Today it wasn't about what I should have been teaching my son; it was the reverse. My son taught me today. He reminded me that God knows all of our struggles- even our little ones. He reminded me that it's never a bad time to pray for grace, even if it is only to handle a difficult candy wrapper. We should, as believers, put our faith in Him and remember to ask for help when we need it because no man, woman, or child lives life alone. It is all to easy to fall into the trap of self-importance, but in reality it is through humility and prayer that we become great, because it is through these things that we realize our true purpose in life.

Sometimes it just takes a child- and his candy wrapper- to remind us of what is truly important, and that nothing is too small to ask God for help.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Religious Guilt?

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A friend recently told me that she was amazed that I brought my children to church. According to her, she chose not to include her children in a religious community because she feared the "guilt thing." I've heard it before, but I asked her to explain. "Oh you know," she began, leaning closer and whispering conspiratorially, "I don't want my kids to think that everything they do is wrong, and that they are inherently bad. They're good kids- they don't deserve to live life feeling guilty about every little thing they do." At the time, I simply nodded as if I understood and the conversation moved on, but I couldn't get the thought out of my mind. It kept coming back to me, and I replayed the conversation in my head over and over and over. Why didn't I feel that way? Was there truth to my friend's concern?

After mulling the conversation over for a couple of days, I finally emerged with what I wished I had said to my friend at the time of the conversation. Religion isn't about guilt. I know that sometimes popular culture paints it that way, but truly it's quite the opposite. Here's why.

Because my family follows Christ and his teachings, we don't have to carry the guilt of our deeds around because we're forgiven. It's not about guilt at all; it's about forgiveness and freedom from guilt! The Christian faith isn't about making people feel badly about their sins, and making them carry the pain of transgression around for a lifetime. Rather it is about encouraging people to seek God no matter what their past deeds are and where they are in life so that they may be freed from the guilt of sin and the terrible feelings it causes within us. Christianity offers it's patrons an unbelievable gift: the ability to lift the guilt we experience by confessing when we've made mistakes and continuing to improve ourselves. How could such a gift possibly foster or encourage guilt or shame in children?

Indeed, in my own life I have struggled tremendously with guilt relating to past deeds. Anything short of perfection seemed to be unforgivable in my mind, and I have spent a tremendous- ridiculous- amount of time dealing with that issue. Ironically, it wasn't until I became an adult Christian that I began to forgive myself for mistakes I'd made in the past; it wasn't until I truly understood the power of Christ's love and his gift to his people that I began to view myself differently. I wasn't saddled with guilt over past failures and wrongdoings any longer, but rather was supported and enriched by those experiences because I began to view them as teaching experiences rather than indications of my lack of character. Jesus taught his disciples that they must seek God's forgiveness for wrongdoing and then learn from their mistakes so that they could lead more fully Christian and compassionate lives. Jesus offers us the same bargain: admit that you've done wrong, ask forgiveness, and be healed. Be cleaned. Be forgiven. Allow the guilt to melt away. There is nothing Christ denies us his forgiveness for, so long as we approach him with a heart intent upon learning to do better. What could be more pure and encouraging?

So, had I the moment to do over, I might have reacted differently to my friend's comment. I might have described for her the feeling of grace- the understanding that you are free from guilt because you follow Christ (and go to church), not suffering because of it. I might have shared with her that my children will learn the difference between right and wrong thanks to their spiritual training, but better yet- they will learn what to do about it. When they err, they will know to seek God's forgiveness and to use the experience to help them make different choices the next time they are presented with a similar situation. They will learn that when they know Christ has forgiven them, forgiving themselves is much simpler.  Likewise, they will learn that because we all share the human condition of imperfection, we must be quick to forgive others when they make mistakes which hurt us.

To me, this seems like an avenue of growth and prosperity, not one of pain and guilt. Perhaps that's the message I should have shared with my friend when I had the chance. But I won't waste time feeling guilty about it- now that I've had time to think about what I could have, and should have done, next time I'm presented with the chance I'll know what to say. And that, I think, is the point.