Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Guest Author Post and Christmas Giveaway!

Author Laura Sassi

As a parent, I often wonder this time of year how I can creatively reinforce the true meaning of the season. I'll be exploring that question in the next couple of weeks on my blog leading up to Christmas. My guest today will help us do that by giving us entry points into the Christmas story itself. Welcome back Laura Sassi; Laura is a trained teacher, the children's book author of Goodnight, Manger (among other titles), and a dear friend. Here are her meaningful words, followed by the giveaway information:

SIX Nativity Themed Activities for Older Kids (Ages 6 - 8)

Thank you so much for having me back today for this special GOODNIGHT, MANGER giveaway. My Christmas bedtime story, about trying to put a weepy baby Jesus to sleep in a very noisy stable, was inspired by watching my then preschooler play with the sturdy little nativity we take out each Christmas. Her sweet play led to some wonderful kid-friendly conversations about the true meaning of Christmas. Inspired by that, I previously shared with your readers 8 Nativity Activities to Teach Little Ones about Christmas. Today I’m delighted to be back with a six more ideas — this time for slightly older children. Enjoy!
  1. Play “What’s Different at the Manger?” Begin by arranging your family’s indoor nativity with your children, taking time to name and explain the significance of each figure in the nativity. Reflect together at the wonder of the Christmas story. Then, take turns having one family member be the “finder.” The “finder” leaves the room, while the “changer” changes one small thing in the nativity. The “finder” returns. Will he/she be able to figure out what’s different? Take turns until everyone has a chance at both roles. 
  1. Ask 20 Questions “Nativity” Style. First, gather around the nativity with a stack of index cards. Then, brainstorm together single-word components of the nativity. Examples include a manger, Bethlehem, angels, shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and a star. Have the children write a word on each card. Then shuffle the cards. One person selects a card. Without seeing that card, the others must guess what the word is by asking YES/NO questions. After twenty questions, the round is over and the person with the card can share what their word was.
  1. Compare Stories. Pick a nativity-themed picture book to read together. Then compare it to the actual account of the Christmas story from the Bible. See if your children can find three ways the picture book is similar/different from the Bible story. The picture book, for example, may reconsider the story from a different point of view — such as the POV of the animals in the beloved nativity-themed picture book Who Is Coming to Our House? Or it might imagine “what would happen if..." such as in my Goodnight, Manger where I imagine what might have happened if baby Jesus cried. Be sure to wrap up the discussion with the reminder that the deeper truth behind each picture book is that Jesus, our savior, is the amazing gift of Christmas.  
  1. Build Your Own Nativity. This is a big, fun project that can be done individually or as a group and will occupy a nice bit of an afternoon (perhaps while you put your feet up and sip some tea). First, have your children list all the parts needed for a nativity. Next, have the kids decide what their building materials will be — Legos, clay, felt, cardboard? The possibilities are plentiful. Third, decide who will build what (if you are working together). Finally, build! Afterwards, have the children take turns retelling the story using their own handmade nativity.
  1. Go on a Nativity Hunt. Here’s an engaging STEM activity that will get you and your children outside on a crisp day. Walk around your neighborhood (or drive around town) looking for nativity lawn scenes. Younger children can name the figures you see and older children can keep a tally of each distinct finding. Their tallies, for example, could include the number of stables, stars, angels, sheep, and baby Jesus figurines they find. Afterwards, they can create a colorful pictograph to show their results. Be sure to wrap up the conversation with praise and thanksgiving that Jesus loves us and came to save us, and that’s why we celebrate Christmas.
  1. Create a Nativity Book of Poems! A Family Book of Nativity Poems is a great way to celebrate Christmas and create a family heirloom at the same time. Using sturdy drawing paper, have one child design the front cover. Another can design the back cover. Each page of the book will contain an illustrated poem. Using the index cards you created for activity #2, have each child select a nativity-themed word. That word will become the subject of their poem.  Have them write the title of the poem — the word — across the top of the page. Then let each child decide on their poetic form. The poem could be as simple as a deeply felt phrase:  

    Example: (for angels) “The angels sang for joy! La, la, la, LA!!!”

    Or, they might choose an acrostic:

    Example: (for Mary)

    Mother of Jesus
    Amazing grace
     Resting by the manger
    You smiled at Jesus’ face

    Finish off each poem with a beautiful illustration and bind everything together with ribbon through punched holes. 
And now, do you want to win a free, signed copy of Laura's book? Fill out the form by clicking here before Sunday at noon EST — and watch for bonus entries! 

Want more? I interviewed Laura on my cable TV show, Chaos to Calm. You can watch the episode here. Listen as she shares her heart-felt life story and more tips!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Watch An Encouraging Sermon On Demand Here!

I am pleased to announce my first televised sermon! Please watch, share, and give a thumbs up for this exciting new venture that will only be getting better from here! Special thanks to the WAVE contemporary worship team at Central Presbyterian Church in Summit, NJ and HomeTowne TV who made this happen. 

For those of you tuning in, discover how the everyday image of a rock can provide you with an invaluable spiritual lifeline in uncertainty. Uncover powerful biblical promises through poignant life stories. This on demand recording includes inspirational worship music, a children's message, a sermon and prayer. You can watch this half hour recording here:

I'll be preaching a Christmas service later this month — stay tuned for the link!

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Don't Miss This Thanks at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is upon us, and that means taking time to catalogue our blessings. Yet this activity isn’t only an appropriate seasonal one, it’s food for a solid Christian faith. Paul reminds us to continually have thanksgiving on our lips when making requests to God. The underlying implication is that there will always be things that we want God to do, but noticing what God has already done can give us hope for the future and reassurance right now.  
I remember the handprint turkeys my children used to make in preschool. As they cut them out, each of their fingers would form a feather on the turkey, and each feather would symbolize one thing that they were thankful for. I cherished them because they inspired me. I read things like “My Family,” “God,” and “Cake” on those little feathers.
This past Sunday, I was a Sunday school helper for grades 1-3. While the children didn’t make turkeys, they did something just as symbolic. A teacher drew a mountain, and the children filled it in with their prayers that they printed on slips of paper. I was particularly drawn to the “You are great, God, because…” section of the mountain. I asked the children, “When you think about your answers, think about what only God can do in your life.” They wrote things like:

“You forgive.”
“You move the Earth.”
“You love everyone and me.”

Perhaps my favorite answer, however, read: “You hold my grandmother in your hands.” The young girl who wrote that had asked for prayer earlier in the class because her grandmother had recently died. Her simple words demonstrated a rich theological truth. Indeed, only God could now hold her grandmother — she knew it and was grateful.
As you catalogue your blessings, I hope you’ll include a recognition of what only God can do for you as well. As scripture says, “A little child shall lead them…”

Want to read more? Here's my favorite article on thankfulness

Monday, November 20, 2017

A Prayer to Grow Stronger, Part IV: Leaves

          While some conceive God’s favorite answer is no, I’ve discovered it’s a resounding yes! God not only says yes to our life, but desires us to have an abundant one. Some of the richest biblical images for God involve life and growth. Perhaps my favorite is when Jesus describes himself as the vine, and we are the branches; we simply cannot flourish apart from him (John 15:5). As I seek to grow at God’s direction, as I look to deepen connections to my Source, I offer you this prayer that revolves around the different parts of a tree. Relevant stories illustrate each part. My hope is that we will flourish in our life and service by praying it. This week is the final edition and ends in leaves, which are timely for the season. For last week's reflection on branches and the importance of taking risks, click here.

Lord, I want to live subject to your Spirit. May my obedience further your church as I connect with your people and reach out to the world. Thank you for being a God of jubilation — like a leaf, I want to dance!
            I’ve noticed when there’s a storm approaching, tiny leaves can actually make an awful lot of noise. I marvel at how thousands can move on their branches as the wind brushes past them. I’ve come to understand what the psalmist meant when he describes the trees as “clapping their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). It’s humbling to watch them move harmoniously to the rhythm of our Creator. But this scene holds more than a simple reflection of God’s majesty — it holds instruction too.
            There’s wisdom in imagining ourselves as one of those leaves. When I think about a leaf blowing in the wind, I remember the Bible describing the Holy Spirit as breath and wind, and I imagine living my life in accordance with the blowing direction of the Spirit. A leaf shakes at the smallest gust; I wonder how I can better obey the Spirit’s tiniest promptings. I’m also challenged to view my role as a single leaf in light of an entire tree. A tiny leaf can make a roar when it is connected to its source and joined with others in motion. The same can be said of us as we join with one another in Christ’s service.
            So often faith is a solitary enterprise today. From competing church commitments to a penchant for individual spirituality, the body of Christ is easily neglected. And while a single leaf on the ground can make a crunch, it misses the swaying, spectacular dance. Beautiful things can happen when a community comes together for change; the same can be true of the church. That's why I link arms with my local congregation. And as I desire to make a difference at the Spirit’s prompting, I remember of the humility and power of a leaf.

In the past four weeks, we have explored vital elements to Christian growth that are symbolized by a tree’s roots, trunk, branches, and leaves. As you think about your own life in the weeks to come, consider episodes when God has directed your growth respectively by giving you deeper roots, a patient heart, an exhilarated soul, or a jubilant obedience.

Closing Prayer
          Lord, grow me in each element above toward a unified vision of my life that’s flourishing. Help me to find true fulfillment in your service. Thank you in advance for your faithfulness! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Thank you for joining me in praying these past few weeks! If you've enjoyed this series, please bookmark this prayer to come back to and share it today with a friend!

Monday, November 13, 2017

A Prayer to Grow Stronger, Part III: Branches

          While some conceive God’s favorite answer is no, I’ve discovered it’s a resounding yes! God not only says yes to our life, but desires us to have an abundant one. Some of the richest biblical images for God involve life and growth. Perhaps my favorite is when Jesus describes himself as the vine, and we are the branches; we simply cannot flourish apart from him (John 15:5). As I seek to grow at God’s direction, as I look to deepen connections to my Source, I offer you this prayer that revolves around the different parts of a tree. Relevant stories illustrate each part. My hope is that we will flourish in our life and service by praying it. For last week's reflection on the trunk of a tree and the importance of patience, click here.

          Lord, speak to my soul and equip me for the risks worth taking. As I listen for your voice, help me to take hold of your hand. May I live the exhilarating life you destined just for me!
            When I was younger, there was a particular tree that I loved to climb at a neighbor’s house. You had to be a certain height to throw your arms around its lowest branch and hoist yourself up. I remember the day I was first able to do it and the fun that ensued. At first, I mounted up the tree slowly and carefully. But the tomboyish spirit of my youth quickly won out as I swung from branch to branch. I felt tall, strong, and invincible. Luckily, the worst repercussion I ever experienced while climbing was a random splinter or scraped knee.
             There’s a balance of exhilaration and danger that a tree offers a young child, and I find the same to be true as I follow my calling as an adult today. On a daily basis, I need to have a comfort level with risk and sometimes, an appetite for adventure. From trying something new in ministry to writing vulnerable words on a page, when I get it right, the thrill feels like it did the first day on those high branches — it’s exhilarating! At the same time, there have been things that didn’t work, outcomes that I didn’t desire, and pushing through those bumps and bruises is a part of the process.
          American author and professor John Shedd once wrote, “A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.” {Tweet that.} I’m convinced that a well-lived Christian life will involve risk; otherwise, faith would not be necessary. It’s no mistake that “do not be afraid” and its derivatives is the Bible’s most repeated statement. In fact, Jesus says it almost three times more than anything else. He knew we’ll never know the fun — nor view — that awaits us if we don’t have the willingness to grab that first branch. Today, he's saying to you, "What are you waiting for?"

Are you new here? Thanks for stopping by! You're reading Part III of a four part prayer. To read week one, click here. To read week two, click here. And be sure to come back next week for the conclusion! Thank you for reading — and praying — with me!

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