Friday, November 30, 2007

Christmas: Classroom Decorations

Yesterday, a friend sent me an email quoted from the weekly email newsletter, “The Focus” published by Dennis Wheeler that put a new spin on the celebration of Christmas for me. Throughout the month of December, we’ll see houses, malls, churches, streets, and classrooms all decorated for Christmas. Is it too much, Wheeler poses? When we decorate, are we commercializing the season, a holiday that is steeped as much in pagan as religious traditions? Is it going overboard to strings lights on our rooflines, pin teddy bears ornaments on our Christmas trees, or layer our mantelpieces with plastic evergreen garland?

Then Dennis Wheeler quotes Jack Hayford and, with Mr. Wheeler’s permission, I take liberty to quote him as well:
"If God commissioned angels to roll back the night and fill it with blazing light.
If God provided a mighty celestial choir to serenade a few startled shepherds.
If God graced the heavens with a miracle star.
If God arranged such a memorable entry point as a feeding trough in a stable.
If God went to all this trouble to open our eyes to His entry into our world...
Then we needn't apologize for festooning our home with a few seasonal reminders."

If you were going to celebrate your child’s birthday, wouldn’t you buy gifts, make a special cake and use decorations of some kind to commemorate their special day? Think of the work, hours and expense families go into to celebrate the special milestones of life: an 80th birthday, a high school graduation, a wedding reception complete with catered dinner, live music, and dancing that will last into the wee hours, a 25th, 40th, or 50th wedding anniversary. Bring out the balloons. Buy fresh flowers! Where’s the streamers and the kazoos? Spend thousands on a catered meal. Let’s celebrate!

The greatest event of human history happened when Jesus took on flesh to become our Savior. That deserves our greatest celebration. We can celebrate with abandon and we can teach our children to celebrate inside and outside the classroom in many ways that all honor our Lord’s special day. We can worship in holy reverent praise in Christmas candlelight services and reenactments of the nativity scene. We can feast as we do at Thanksgiving in honor of Him. We can also use visual reminders such as garland, wreathes, lights, snowmen, and nativity scenes to remind us, hey, there’s a celebration happening here! As we involve our children in the decorating process, we can use that teachable moment to tell again the wondrous story.

I like what Dennis Wheeler said at the end of his devotional:

“So, run on out to the store and purchase a few more strands of Christmas lights and present your decorating and decorations to the Lord as a tribute to Him!

Pray before you decorate.
Worship as you decorate.
Give thanks after you decorate."

"Whatever you do or say, let it be as a representative of the Lord Jesus, all the while giving thanks through Him to God the Father." -Colossians 3:17 (NLT)

Amen! Now, how can I decorate my church classrooms this week?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Christmas Inside The Classroom: Jesse Tree

If you teach children or are a parent of young children, here’s an idea to emphasize the gospel message to your kids throughout the holiday season. This year, make a Jesse tree.
This is a super idea that can help your kids connect Old Testament stories with the birth of Christ.

A Jesse Tree is a small Christmas tree that holds ornaments symbolizing Old Testament stories, particularly those stories, characters or prophecies that speak of the coming Messiah. Unlike our modern Christmas trees with their lights, garland and ornaments that rarely have anything to do with the Christ Child, a Jesse tree contains Christian symbols that all point to the coming Savior. Basically, a Jesse Tree is a family tree about Jesus.

This is a great project for a Sunday School class, a Christian private school classroom, a homeschooling family or an activity for your family to create together if you want a different twist on the celebration of Advent. Consider suggesting this idea to your Messianic Jewish friends or use it as a gospel tool for your Jewish friends.

The Jesse tree is not my idea. Nor is it a modern idea. It actually dates back to the 13th century. It is also based on the 11th chapter of Isaiah, remembering the chapter that talks about the branch springing forth from the root of Jesse? Look it up!

Use your creativity to create the symbols. They can be pictures of bible story symbols downloaded from the Internet. Or you can make your own symbols out of paper or other material. Some ideas of stories and their corresponding symbols are:
Creation: Dove
Adam and Eve: Apple
Noah: rainbow
David: crown
Baby Jesus: Manger scene
Jesus: cross or a chi-rho symbol

Here are some websites where you can find more information about Jesse Trees:

I was one of those teenagers that questioned everything. One day, I asked my preacher, “If our Christmas celebrations come from so many pagan traditions, why do we celebrate it?” I have quoted his answer over and over again, “Use every available opportunity to proclaim Christ as Lord.” As Christmas becomes more commercialized, we have to work harder to find ways to proclaim the life giving message we have to share. But it’s worth it. After all, Christmas is the greatest event of human history – when the divine Son of God chose to take on human flesh in order to bring mankind back to the Father. Using a Jesse Tree in your classroom or home gives you one more opportunity to proclaim Jesus as Lord.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Thanksgiving: Ideas of How to Say Thanks

Have you noticed? It’s everywhere. Stores, malls, restaurants and radio stations all have it. And it’s not even Thanksgiving yet. What is it? Christmas music. It’s been permeating our air waves for the last two weeks. Moreover, tv stations are already showing Christmas movies. C’mon guys, it’s November sweeps month. Aren’t there enough top-the-chart movies to show without digging into the Christmas batch?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not the Grinch. I love Christmas music. I even like Christmas movies. But as I wrote in an article that appeared in the November 18, 2001 issue of the
Lookout, Thanksgiving is slowly being squeezed out of existence by those seeking to extend the Christmas consumer shopping season.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It’s one of the few unscathed by religious controversy. Who can argue with a holiday centered on giving thanks? Yet I fear we’re going to lose this holiday, not from commercialism or controversy, but from neglect.

While Christmas music and decorations surround you as soon as you walk out the door of your home, you don’t have to let the Christmas frenzy (or even a football game – whoops, different soapbox) squeeze the thanks out of your Thanksgiving holiday. It’s your responsibility and mine to keep the tradition of Thanksgiving alive for our children so the next generation continues to give thanks where thanks is due. Here are some tips I gave in that article to keep the thanks in Thanksgiving:

*Make it a holiday for friends. We often think of the holiday as a time for family. Yet the Pilgrims and the Indians feasted together to share their thankfulness. Start thinking of how you could encourage your church or community group to hold a thanksgiving dinner and service the weekend before the Big Day so you can worship and thank God with other believers.

*Have a family time of worship. Sing praise songs, have younger children perform vocal or instrumental solos of praise songs. Have each family member share how they have seen God work in the past year, than praise God together for His wonderful works.

*Place several kernels of popcorn by each person’s plate. Have each person name a blessing for each kernel they receive.

*While the Bird is cooking, put your feet up, grab a cup of your favorite hot beverage and write a thank-you note to someone whom God has used in your life recently.

What am I going to do? I’ve already started to gather my favorite praise CD’s that I’m going to play as I prepare our family feast.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! May God continue to shower His richest blessings on you.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Thanksgiving: What an Abundance!

Each week, in the preschool worship class I teach, I lead the children in prayer before their snack. I pray a line, then they repeat it after me. We get very specific. “Thank you God, for Kool-Aid. Thank you God, for cheese crackers. Thank you God for Jesus. Amen!”

Teaching children has taught me to be thankful for the smallest of details. So many times, when I sit down to a meal and I look at the splendid variety in front of me, I’m just overwhelmed with how much God has blessed me. I subscribe to the magazine and email newsletter posted by the Voice of the Martyrs, a Christian group who helps and champions the cause of persecuted Christians. My heart wrenches in pain when I read of the sacrifices these people make for the sake of their faith. Usually, persecution begins with social rejection leading to poverty. They are poor partly because of the country they live in. They then become the poorest of the poor because they are not allowed to get jobs or the provider of the family is in jail.

So when I sit down to my meal of plenty, I am so humbled that God blesses me with fresh fruits and vegetables, more meat than I really ought to have, and a meal that is different than the meal that I had the night before. Even with our simple meal yesterday afternoon of homemade Minestrone soup and herb flavored crackers, I shook my head in wonder at all the ingredients I could afford to put in my soup. I also felt thankful that I had the time and the talent to make homemade nutritious soup for my family.

Thanksgiving is coming, the day we thank God for our simplest of blessings. Like the Pilgrims, we’ll thank God for the blessings of home, hearth, family and food. Like any skill, proficiency at gratefulness needs practice. Get ready for Thanksgiving next week by taking a second look at the meal in front of you and saying thank you to the Lord for each part of that meal. Then, when next Thursday rolls around and your table groans in protest from the weight of the blessings of abundance, you’ll be ready to humbly thank God for the food He has given you and so much more.

What I’m thankful for this week:

1. My good friend Marilyn who has been such an encouragement this week in my newest writing project. Thanks, Marilyn, for our breakfast breaks!

2. A free week from teaching this coming Sunday. I love to teach, but I need my spiritual batteries recharged. It just so happened (yeah, right) that I’m “off” for both Sunday School and preschool worship.

3. A clean kitchen! I had a late night meeting last night and my daughter not only loaded the dishwashers, she washed the rest of the dishes that wouldn’t fit and cleaned the counters. What a beautiful sight to come home to!

4. Beautiful weather. Tuesday afternoon in northeast Ohio was beyond beautiful. I think God sprinkles in days like that in the midst of winter just to help us keep going in the colder months and to remind us winter won’t last forever.

5. Food sales the week before Thanksgiving. Need I say more??

Monday, November 12, 2007

Organization in the Classroom: Making My List and Checking It Twice

Since I teach a high school Sunday School class and a preschool worship class each Sunday, I’ve learned it pays to be organized. Yesterday proved however, that organization is not always a guarantee of success!

This past week, I beat the record books on organization. I studied my lessons on Monday. I bought supplies, and prepared the craft project on Tuesday. I wrote out my lesson plans on Wednesday. On Thursday I gathered the supplies I had purchased for a snack activity in one bag, making sure I had extra plastic knives and napkins. Since we have a dog that has a nose for food and thinks she owns the couch, the couch was not a safe place to leave my bag of snacks for preschool worship. So I decided to put that bag in the car. That way, I wouldn’t forget it and the dog wouldn’t have a belly ache from OD’ing on graham crackers.

Sunday morning, I decided to do a double check on all my supplies. Fifteen minutes before we were to leave for the church, I went out to the car to make sure my snack bag was in the back seat where I had put it. I almost didn’t check, knowing I had put it there. Yet, I checked anyway because I’m so paranoid about forgetting anything. It wasn’t there! For the next twenty minutes, my husband, older daughter and I searched both cars, inside and out. We searched upstairs, downstairs, the sun porch, the carport, the cupboards, the closets. My snack bag was not to be found. We realized we had taken two kids to camp Friday evening and my husband must have rearranged things in the car. Knowing I was walking around the land mines of my minister husband’s already normally high Sunday morning stress level, I delicately tried to get him to reconstruct what he must have done with the contents of the car over the last few days. He couldn’t remember. He came close to swearing he had never seen such a bag. I insisted he wouldn’t have missed it. It had a huge package of napkins poking out the top. We agreed it could have migrated to the church although we didn’t know how. I wanted to check the trash cans but my husband said that would be overkill; no way would we have put it in the trash.

We got to the church. He checked his office. I checked the kitchen and classrooms. No snack bag. At this point, time had run out. I had to decide to ditch the snack activity. I would have to punt. I had more kids than usual in preschool worship, church ran longer than usual because of a congregational meeting and the snacks left in the room from the previous week were skimpy to say the least. I could have used that snack bag. Yet, in the scheme of things, it worked out and the children were none the wiser and a whole lot healthier for not having made the snack of my plans.

Sunday evening: Jack got a glint in his eye. “I want to look one last place for your snack bag,” he said. He came back from somewhere in the bowels of the church building triumphantly if not a bit sheepishly holding the missing bag. When I asked him where he had found it, he at first said, “I’m not telling!” Then the truth came out. He had brought his wastebasket from his office to empty in our garbage can at home, then returned the empty wastebasket to the car trunk. In his haste to make room for camp luggage, he had stashed my bag in his trash can, thinking both were going back to the church anyway. Absent mindedly, he had carried his trash can into his office and set it in the usual spot in a corner of his office. Yep, my snack bag did end up in the trash, just not in the trash can we expected!!

Organization can prevent many a disaster inside the classroom. But you can’t plan for every contingency. That’s why teachers need to develop a strong sense of flexibility. You have to be able to surf confidently over the unexpected complications. Besides, teaching sessions are just like weddings. If everything went smoothly, according to plan, it would be boring. Worse yet, you wouldn’t have any stories to tell.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Halloween: Should We Celebrate It?

Halloween is a week behind us. Those of us who have children or work with children’s ministry may be going through a time of self doubt about our level of participation in Halloween or lack thereof in my case.

I used to have the “weaker brother” attitude toward Halloween. As long as it didn’t lure me or my brother or sister in Christ to do things violated our consciences, it was all right to do. After all, several holidays are based on the dates of pagan holidays such as Christmas and Easter. As the Church conquered lands in the early centuries, in their efforts to change the hearts of new believers, they shrouded pagan holidays with a veneer of religion. Thus Halloween, or all Hallow’s Eve celebrated the lives of the Saints as it led into All Saints Day, November 1st. Isn’t this about as “pagan” as the situation the first century church faced in the dilemma of whether to eat meat offered to idols? (1 Corinthians 8)

Yet several things this year have swayed me toward a more cautious stance toward Halloween. Christmas and Easter actually celebrate the birth, life and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. Those are true historical events and very much worth celebrating. Yet Halloween is basically a holiday of death, so contrary to my Christian beliefs. In our society, the seemingly innocent traditions of distributing candy and dressing in costumes, easily lure our children into more gruesome and despotic celebrations. One cannot even turn on the television the week before October 31st without needing to do a fast switch on the remote past the horror flicks. Children turn into teens who become enamored with dabbles into the occult and witchcraft oriented groups. I’m horrified to hear from my college age daughter of some of the practices at her campus. She literally hides in her room on Halloween night to avoid the ghoulish or lust invoking characters that walk her halls or the promiscuous orgies that take place on other parts of the campus.

The Bible tells us to avoid even the hint of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22). It also tells us to have nothing to do with the occult or witchcraft (Deuteronomy 18:10). Behind the surface of Halloween, these things abound. How can I as a Christian, as one who celebrates the hope and life giving love of my Savior, how can I indulge in a holiday that celebrates death and the darkness of the spirit world, and encourages greed and self indulgence?

Yet, I know as a parent that it’s awfully hard to fight these things, especially when all the others kids are doing it, even the ones at church. Too often the church has been guilty of wagging our finger of condemnation in the face of those who do participate in questionable activities without providing alternatives. Giving an alternative will teach our children how they can live their lives differently than how the world suggests. We can use alternative programs to reach out other children. In a time when it’s becoming more and more unsafe to let children roam the neighborhoods collecting candy, the church can provide children a safe and spiritually healthy haven on Halloween night.

While I’ve come to the conclusion that Halloween is a holiday I don’t want to celebrate, I also believe that God is in the business of making redemptive use of bad things and so should we. I’d like to suggest a few alternatives, programs I’ve seen done and some I’ve tried myself. In making these suggestions I want to give two caveats. One is the weaker brother rule. If your activity will lure someone to violate their conscience, don’t do it. The other is check and double check your motives. Are you doing your activity to redeem this evil night or are you doing it to compromise and conform to the world? If it’s the former reason, go for it.

1. Elkhorn Valley Christian Camp holds a reality walk each year, a walk through the woods that presents tableaus on a subject. This year’s theme was “Sin: It’s deadly.”

2. A church in North Carolina held a “Tract and Treat” where kids went door to door to pass out tracts about the church.

3. A church in Colorado had their children dress in non-scary costumes then took bananas to distribute to the residents of the nursing home. “No trick just a treat” was their slogan. The residents loved see the children.

4. One year, I held a church camp reunion for the children who attended the week of camp my husband and I were deans for. The theme of camp had been Fully Rely On God or Frog It. So we had a frog party. Every one was invited to dress in bible costumes or something green (no scary costumes) and bring a snack that had to do with frogs. We had cupcakes with gummy frogs, lily pad cookies, and rice krispie cookies decorated with plastic flies. My children still talk about that party.

5. Another year two other families joined us for a fun night. We played “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” and broke a piƱata in the backyard. We had parents work with their children to create masks of their favorite book character out of paper bags and art supplies. Then one of the fathers gave a devotion on the masks human beings wear to hide who they really are, but God sees us on the inside and loves us anyway.

6. When my children were teenagers, we invited their friends for a pumpkin carving party, providing patterns of goofy faces and famous characters with their choice of music. I still have fond memories of girls dancing in my kitchen to the music of Billy Joel, holding wooden spoons as microphones.

7. Pantano Christian Church in Tucson, Arizona has held for years a “Pumpkin Patch” carnival with booths, games, foods and fun activities. Before the event begins, volunteers “pray the premises,” praying for God’s protection and presence, that all that is done and said might be to His glory. It’s one of the church’s major yearly outreaches to children.

How can you redeem this holiday and provide a God-glorifying alternative? Share your idea in the comment link below.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Thanksgiving: Prerequistes to Gratitude

It’s that time of year where we turn our hearts toward contemplation of our blessings. We ask our children what they are thankful for. We fret whether we are teaching them to merely mouth the words, “Thank you” or whether their response is from the heart.

In my last post, I talked about the need for adults to model gratitude to the children we impact. Yet, this can’t be phony either. Our kids need to see us truly thankful for what we have, for what God has given us and for the people God has enriched our lives with. Before we can be thankful, we need to learn contentment. In order for the lesson of gratitude to be authentic, we need to teach our kids to be content as well.

That’s a tough order in our possession oriented society. Temptations of all the things we could have if we wanted them abound on the tv, billboards, in other kids’ lunchboxes and on the Internet. Millions of dollars are spent each year on marketing alone to try to convince us that even though last year’s item still works just fine, we just have to have the latest model, style or upgrade.

Hebrews 13:5 says “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you.’” If our children are to learn the lesson of contentment, we need to model this for them. We need to be careful not to go overboard in buying the toys heavily advertised for this year’s Christmas. As parents we need to be cautious in buying the latest upgrade too quickly, even saying to our children, “the old version still works for us. We’ve going to wait awhile.” We need to zip our lips when we’re tempted to gripe in front of our children about how slow our computer program is, the faults we find in the caror house we just bought, or the increased price of milk. As teachers, we need to model contentment about the supplies we have in the classroom, the snacks someone donated to us, or the antiquated video equipment that doesn’t work when we want it to.

We can teach contentment by showing kids that it’s fun to make do with what we have. My family calls meal leftovers, abundance meals, and so they are! Teachers can show kids how to “make do” by making a creative craft out of the materials on hand instead of saying, “We could do this craft project if only we had. . . .”

Someone gave me a poster when I was in college that read, “Happiness is wanting what you have, not having what you want.” If we’re always aiming toward having what we want, we’ll never feel content, because there will always be something more that we could have. This week, pray that you can find a way to model contentment to the children you encounter. Then thank God together for the blessings that you have.

Hebrews 13:5 gives us the reason why we can be content. God will never let us down. He will always provide us with what we need and many times, blesses us beyond what we need.

What I’m thankful for this week:

1. My 15 year old Kitchen Aid mixer with a dough hook that still works just fine and has helped me make many a loaf of bread for family and friends.

2. My favorite gray hoodie that keeps me warm around the house so I can turn the thermostat down to save energy.

3. My Welsh Corgi who is always glad to see me when I come home and gives me Corgi kisses on the tip of my nose.

4. A new computer program that magnifies my computer screen. Better yet, it also inverts colors so I can change the font to white on black, cutting down on painful light glare.

5. A car and money to buy gas so we could go see our daughter at college this weekend whom we miss very much.

6. Two new adult classes at our church and teachers to teach them. The adult classes brought in children to our Sunday School classes. I didn’t have any seats left in my high school class yesterday. Praise God.

What are you content with this week? Share it in a comment below.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Thanksgiving: What's In Your Wallet?

During the month of November, those of us who live with and work with children will be emphasizing the need to be thankful. It stands to reason that if I’m going to tell children they need to be thankful, that I need to do the same as well. When I’m thankful for all that God is given me, I’ll be better able to model an “attitude of gratitude” and my children will learn best from my example.

So, to help me be more grateful this month, I’m sharing a list of things and people that I’m thankful for this month. Share some from your list in the Comments feature at the bottom of this post:

Who I’m thankful for this week:

1. The clerk who ran out into a cold parking lot without a coat on to bring me my forgotten bag of purchases.

2. The manager at this great restaurant who made me a made to order milkshake including the half size I requested.

3. This kind, caring optometrist who worked with me for an hour to get a glasses prescription just right. He’s prescribing some prescription sunglasses and some glasses just for use at the computer, a first for me. May God bless him richly.

4. My husband who greets me on the telephone with “Hey Beautiful.”

5. An elder at our church who suggested we start a new class for young adults and who volunteered to teach it.

6. My older daughter at college who prefers to spend her time walking to and from classes talking to Mom and Dad on her cell phone.

7. My younger daughter who actually likes to read and talk about my writing.

8. My wonderful sister who is willing to keep working at snags in our relationship.

9. Our church secretary who never gets frazzled no matter how much work is thrown at her.

10. The pharmacist at our drug store who is willing to call my doctor’s office for me to make sure the directions on a prescription are correct.

Do you remember the Capital One commercials that end with “What’s in your wallet?” Well, now it’s your turn. I’ve got a wad of thanks sticking in my wallet of life. What’s in your wallet?