Monday, November 17, 2014

Make Your Own Advent Calendar, Part 3

{Only two weeks left until December 1st - how's your calendar coming along?  There's still time to get started!  Click here for Part 1 or Part 2 of this series...}

Making Your Own Advent Calendar: Part 3

All your character pieces finished?  Great!  You're ready to make your title and decide on your final spacing.

Getting Started…

Gather your materials:

  • felt for title letters
  • paper patterns for title letters
  • velcro spots
  • craft glue or hot glue gun

Make Your Title…

1. Cut out your title letters.  (I used red felt.)  Hint: Be sure to reverse your paper letter patterns when you trace them onto your felt; that way your black marker lines won't show when you turn them right side up to glue them on your background.

2. Glue your title letters onto your background, using craft glue or a hot glue gun.

Final Spacing…

1. Double-check your final spacing by laying your finished felt pieces into your manger scene, arranging them the way you want them to look.  Mark the bottom of the manger scene with a pen or scrap piece of felt.

2. Then move all the pieces one by one down to the bottom of your background, making sure they all fit.  Leave enough space near each piece to write in each day's number.

3. Reassemble your pieces into the manger scene.  Glue the bristly side of a velcro spot onto each piece, and the corresponding soft side onto the felt background, in the place where you want it to finally stick. (I used two velcro dots on the stable and the double angels.) 

{Hint: Make sure to glue the bristly side of the velcro onto your characters and the soft side onto the background, so when you roll or fold up the background to store it, it won't stick to itself.  Plus, the bristly side of the velcro on the backs of the characters sticks onto the felt itself in the storage spots, so you don't need a second set of velcro backs.}

4. Number each velcro spot for the manger scene and the character storage places with black Sharpie marker.  (Black doesn’t show up that well on my dark green background, but I tried to make the numbers big enough for my preschoolers to find, and when the manger scene is completed it’s nice if the numbers sort of blend in or are covered up anyway.)  Where the character required two velcro spots, I either wrote the same number under both spots, or put the number in between the two spots.

Part 3 complete!  Great job!  You're almost done!

To read the next post in this series, click here… 

{For a copy of the Christmas story divided into 25 pieces, email me at}


In the Comments:

How are your calendars coming along?  There’s still time to grab some felt and start cutting and gluing… 

Remember, your calendar can look any way you want it to, ornate or simple - the point is to have something Christ-centered to help your children anticipate Jesus’ birth and learn the Christmas story!  

Leave a comment with your progress… I’d love to see a photo of your calendar when it’s done!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Freeze-Frame Listening {November thoughts on listening}

{We leave this Friday night for a 2-month stay in New Zealand, catching up with family and friends after a 2-year absence...  Here are my November thoughts on listening, amidst stress and challenges - trying to find the thread of His voice!  For the rest of my monthly thoughts on my One Word for 2014, LISTEN, click here...} 

What if we could just freeze the frame?  What if, in the moment right before I explode in annoyance at my kid, I could freeze that frame of time and - make a different choice?

I’ve been doing a lot of editing recently - movie editing, that is.  We’re getting ready for a home leave in New Zealand and before we go back we usually try and put together a video of current daily life here in Central Asia to show friends and family…  It’s a long process, involving taking footage (and then more footage since the first lot is too wobbly, not high-res, etc, etc), converting all the clips into a format that works with Mac’s awesome iMovie editing program, picking and choosing the pithiest clips, and then… editing.  And editing.  And more editing.  Squeezing each clip down to its essence, and then squeezing even more until just the barest bones are left - glimpses strung together to make a flowing window into our lives.  

Not being ultra-techie, I feel my way along with these projects, and since I don’t use iMovie very often I always have to re-learn everything I learned last time I made a video.  I pick up some new tricks each project, too; recently, I discovered the “freeze frame” option for the first time.  Cool!  You can right-click in the middle of a clip, choose “freeze frame” from the menu, and the program lifts out a frozen frame of that image and sets it apart separately in your timeline.  You can leave it there in the middle of your video clip, a frozen moment, or you can lift it out and put it somewhere else.  

I wish I could do that.  I wish I could freeze-frame the moment just before I yell at my kids, pause everything mid-motion, stop my voice before it explodes out of my mouth, hesitate for a moment, and thinkListen to the Holy Spirit, in that frozen moment.  Tune in.  Calm my beating heart.  Close my eyes and take a deep breath.  

And then speak.  Or act.  Or whatever I need to do.  But I guarantee, after a pause to take a step back, I would probably act differently almost every time. 

Recently, in an attempt to get enculturated for our re-entrance back into Western society, we finally watched the Disney hit “Frozen” as a family.  We liked it; it’s cute, funny,  not scary, and profound in a simple but true way…  

{SPOILER ALERT: if any of you, like us, have also been on another planet and have NOT have watched “Frozen” yet, skip the next paragraph…}  

Our sensitive Will was nearly in tears at the end, when the younger sister Anna, with her last un-frozen breath, steps in front of her older sister to save her from a crossbow arrow, and in the very act her frozen heart finally transforms her completely to ice.  Each of Princess Anna’s fingernails and eyelashes freeze solid into an exquisitely detailed blue-ice statue.  The very moment she saves her sister is literally frozen in time.  

I wish I had a magic wand so I could freeze a moment with a flick of my wrist - just make everything hang stock-still in mid-air, like a movie Pause button, or a crystallized ice-Princess. 

I don’t have a wand.  I just have my imagination.  But I’m learning I can actually imagine pausing my heart / words / thoughts long enough to listen to the Holy Spirit’s quiet whisper in that moment.  

You know, I’ve realized lately that even though I do think of Jesus always being with us, for some reason I usually picture Him as across the room from me: present, but not within reach.  Recently, during a prayer time with a friend, Jesus showed me that He is actually right. next. to. me.  Close enough to whisper in my ear.  Close enough so that even His whisper sounds louder than the world’s hubbub around me.  That’s how close He is, all the timeEvery minute.  Washing dishes, changing a diaper, hosting a friend for tea, breaking up a boys’ fight, walking down the street, talking to my husband, laying down for a nap… Jesus is as close as my breath.  

So, if I can freeze the frame, and remember His nearness, I can focus on listening for His quiet voice.  

And that might make all the difference.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Make Your Own Advent Calendar, Part 2

{Preparing to celebrated Advent with your family?  Why not make your own family Advent Calendar to use year after year?  
For part 1 of this series, click here...} 

I love this story from Noël Piper about their family Advent Calendar:

“Mommy, Mommy!  May I open the next window on the calendar?”  A simple pasteboard Advent calendar with one flap to open on each day in December is probably the most familiar way to help a child understand the wait until Christmas.  In the stores several themes are likely to be available, including Swiss mountain villages and Santa’s workshops.  But since the Advent -- the coming -- we’re waiting for is Christ’s, let’s make sure our daily countdown has a real Christmas setting.

“For our family a more permanent calendar has become a tradition. When our first child was a toddler, I could find hardly any Christmas things that had to do with Jesus.  So I created the Noël Calendar, a burlap banner with plastic and wood figures that by December 25 have been attached with Velcro across the top half of the banner to represent the Christmas story.  Throughout the month, that story is told in increments, starting over at the beginning and adding a bit more each day.  

“The first year we used the calendar, I learned an important lesson: Repetition is an excellent way for a child to memorize.  In mid-December, when Karsten was barely two, my mother-in-law died in a bus crash in Israel.  With little time to plan, we were on our way from Minnesota to South Carolina to take care of my father-in-law, who had been injured.  On an impulse I had tossed the calendar into a suitcase.  In the midst of so much confusion, shock and irregularity, Karsten forgot everything he’d learned about potty training and too much of what he knew about behaving.  But even though he could hardly make a whole sentence on his own yet, he could pick up the Christmas story at any point and keep it going, word for word, as he’d heard it day after day when we did the calendar. 

“...This period in Karsten’s life was the time when I began to realize the place of [repetition and regularity] in my life with my children -- repeating regularly the story that for centuries God’s people had longed to know.  

-Noel Piper, Treasuring God in Our Traditions (emphasis added)

Make Your Own Advent Calendar: Part 2

Getting Started…

1. Gather your materials:

  • colored felt
  • printed out paper patterns for felt shapes
  • sharpie marker
  • scissors
  • Tacky Craft Glue or a hot glue gun
  • safety pins

2. Safety-pin enough allowance at the top of your background piece so you can put a dowel through it later to hang it up.

Check Spacing…

Check to make sure you have room on your background for everything you want to include: 

  • the title - "The Christmas Story"
  • the finished manger scene underneath
  • the 25 storage spots for all the pieces at the bottom

1. Lay out your paper letters for the title “The Christmas Story” at the top of your background piece. 

2. Under the title, lay out your paper patterns for your manger scene, the way you want it to finally appear on Day 25.  Place a pencil or pen horizontally on your background to mark the bottom of the scene.   

3. Next, shift all your pieces down to the lower half of your background (under the pencil) and lay them out in rows, ordering them from #1-25.  At this stage you're checking spacing and proportions to make sure all your characters fit.

Start Making Pieces…

Now you're ready to start making pieces!  

1. First, if you haven't done this already, make a list of your 25 pieces and write down the colors of felt you want to use for the parts of each one. 

2. Then, start with any piece you like.  I started at the beginning, with Mary, and worked my way down the list.

The patterns I found online seemed a bit plump, so I cut them down a little and traced around Mary’s body, head, and head-covering on colored pieces of felt.  Then I glued them together with generous dots of craft glue.  (A hot glue gun would work better, but I didn't have one of those.)

3. I went on to make Joseph, adapting my friend’s patterns to suit what I wanted.

4. Bethlehem came next: a long rectangle of gray felt behind with a brown square on top, with yellow lighted windows and doors.

5. For the animals, I used my friend’s designs for almost all of them.  The only animal I had to draw myself was the camel, and I must admit I'm pretty proud of him!

I used craft glue to attach a small square of velcro on the back of each character.  {PS: After four years of use, the glue still seems fine overall - only an occasional re-glue needed.}

It took me a couple crafting sessions to finish all my pieces… This is the only time-consuming part - the rest is easy!

All your pieces finished?  Congratulations!  You've finished the hardest part!  Keep going!  

To read the next post in this series, click here… 

{For a copy of the Christmas story divided into 25 pieces, email me at}

Monday, November 3, 2014

Make Your Own Advent Calendar, Part 1

{This November, I’ll be reposting my popular series, Make Your Own Advent Calendar.  Want to make a calendar for your family this year?  Keep reading to find out how...}

Ever since I came across the idea in Noel Piper's book Treasuring God in Our Traditions, I wanted to make one.  

In her wonderful book, Noël expounds on and gives practical examples of the Piper family belief in creating “God-centered traditions, Bible-saturated family patterns, and grace-laden heirlooms”.  

I couldn’t agree more.  

Here’s how Noël describes the season of Advent:   

“Advent is what we call the season leading up to Christmas.  It begins four Sundays before December 25, sometimes in the last weekend of November, sometimes on the first Sunday in December….  

“For four weeks, it’s as if we’re reenacting, remembering the thousands of years during which God’s people were anticipating and longing for the coming of God’s salvation, for Jesus.  

“That’s what advent means-- “coming”.  Even God’s men who foretold the grace that was to come didn’t know “what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating” (v.11).  They were waiting, but they didn’t know what God’s salvation would look like…  

“We Christians on this side of Jesus’ birth are a God-blessed, happy people because we know God’s plan.  The centuries of waiting are over.  We have the greatest reason to celebrate.

“And yet we are still waiting.  Our spiritual redemption came to us with the baby of Bethlehem.  Nevertheless, as Romans 8 says, “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (v.23).  There is suffering and tragedy still, even for Christians.  Someone we love is dying.  We may be in pain.  Sometimes we have trouble believing God’s promises.  In other words, our redemption is not complete.  We are waiting for the redemption of our bodies--waiting for Jesus’ second advent, for him to come again.

“So here we stand in the middle.  Advent is a season of looking back, thinking how it must have been, waiting for the promised salvation of God, not knowing what to expect.  And at the same time, Advent is a season of looking ahead, preparing ourselves to meet Jesus at his Second Coming.”  

~Noel Piper, Treasuring God in Our Traditions (emphasis added)

A family Advent calendar is one way Noël's family keeps Christmas Christ-centered.  When my oldest child was 2, I made a calendar for our family, and it's the part of "getting ready for Christmas" our three kids are already looking forward to.  Our calendar hangs on a prominent wall in our house during the month of December, and is something personalized and unique to our family that we will cherish for years to come.  The best part is - it's PORTABLE!  Perfect for our sojourning lifestyle.  (This year we will be using it in New Zealand, as we visit my husband's family for Christmas.)

When I was getting ready to make my own calendar, I initially contacted Desiring God to see if they were still selling them (why reinvent the wheel?), but… alas, they’re not making them anymore.  

So, back to square one: making it myself.  I googled Noël’s calendar and found several sites with pictures, and also came across another creative mother who’s made one for her family and freely offers felt patterns and even DIY kits on her site(When I made my calendar 5 years ago her kits weren’t available, and I wanted to make a few changes to our own calendar anyway. I’m really happy with how ours turned out.)

Why couldn't this be the November you make an Advent Calendar for your own family?  Just follow my easy, step-by-step instructions in this series to create a beautiful, unique Advent Calendar your family will enjoy year after year.

Make Your Own Advent Calendar: Part 1

Getting Started…

1. Map out your Calendar on paper first.  Figure out the basic proportions of your finished manger scene compared to the storage section for the pieces. 

On our calendar, I put the title at the top, with space for the completed 25-piece manger scene underneath (the kids will place one piece each day).  At the bottom I left enough space to store all the pieces in rows.  Feel free to arrange your calendar any way you want to.

2. Next, print out the paper patterns and cut out enough pieces to see how they will fit on your background.  My initial end result looked a little crowded; in the end I cut my actual felt characters down a little smaller.

3. If you like, go ahead and make an initial list of the characters and the colors of felt you want to use for each one.  This will save time later and also give you an idea of how much of each felt color you will need.

4. Google “alphabet block pattern” and choose a simple style of lettering you like.  Print it out, and cut out paper patterns for the letters in the title: “The Christmas Story” to make sure all the letters will fit across your felt background piece.

Part 1 complete!  Great job!  

See you next week...

To read the next post in this series, click here… 

{For a copy of the Christmas story divided into 25 pieces, email me at}


In the Comments:

How are you planning to celebrate the season of Advent as a family?  

Leave a comment with a description of an Advent memory, an idea for an Advent tradition, or an insight into the meaning of Advent.  I’d love for this post to become a collection of creative ideas for celebrating the season of Advent with your children! 

Let’s have fun together coming up with creative ways to keep Christ at the center of Christmas!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Happy Birthday, Ben! You're FIVE!

Dear Ben,

I love you SO MUCH!!!  You drive me nuts some of the time, but you are always ready to come back with a kiss and a cuddle, and snuggle in to be forgiven.  And I have to ask you to forgive me a lot too, for yelling and getting impatient, and you always say, “I forgive you, Mama,” and cuddle in close.

I have been so proud of you this year, Ben.  It’s not easy being a younger brother, and you have persevered in learning to play well with Will and expressing in words when you’re feeling frustrated and left out, instead of hitting or lashing out.  Your words will be the thing that saves you, if you learn to use them well.

When Will started school last month, I saw you blossom at home.  You started being more responsible to get dressed and make your bed in the mornings without being asked; you are playing well with Ruby and helping her kindly; and you are happily sitting up at the table with me for school-time and working so hard at your letters and numbers.  Way to go, Ben!  You are even starting to learn to read with our 100 Lessons book, and as long as I can keep you moving and hopping, you concentrate and finish the lesson.  Woohoo!

You love to move: basketball, soccer, rugby, cricket, tag, climbing trees, running, jumping, somersaults, gymnastic tricks, tricks on the swing, the ropes, the play-hut… you are a blur of motion!  And you are strong and coordinated and brave to push yourself to try new things.  It’s awesome to watch!


Then, every afternoon, my favorite time of day with you is when we cuddle up together in your bed and I read you stories.  You have an insatiable appetite for stories, and you absorb them like a thumb-sucking sponge.  The rest of the day I hear you weaving your own stories with your brother and sister, or by yourself, out of all the bits and pieces you remember.  It’s amazing what you remember, and your imagination is beautiful to watch and listen to.  Never stop telling and acting out and reading and writing and living stories, Ben.   It’s what you were made to do.  

You are the perfect guy to be right in the middle of our family.  You help Will to imagine fun games, and you are compassionate and expressive towards Ruby.  She really looks up to you - she copies everything you do and say, including your attitudes… So we really need to keep working on your bad habit of sulking and pouting when you don’t get your way, huh?  Because now Ruby’s starting to do it, too.  Uh-oh, right?

But we know Jesus is living in your heart, we know you trusted Him as your Savior and Lord when you were 3, and every day we see Him rescuing you from your sin and filling you up with the fruit of His Spirit - love, gentleness, kindness, self-control.  You have his JOY in full measure - it bubbles out of you and makes the rest of us so happy!  You are a bright spot in our family and on our street, and you will be a shining light for Jesus in this dark world, Ben.

I love you SOOOOOOOO much!  Mm-MMM!  

Happy Birthday to our big, cuddly, 5-year-old 


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

when listening really counts {October Lessons in Listening}

{MOne Word for 2014 is "listen".  I'm posting every month with a new lesson or thought - you can read  the rest of my thoughts on listening here.}

The Skype call sound rings from my laptop.  Familiar, friendly voices float out of my speaker, women who are also wives and moms living overseas like me.  We have a good, challenging conversation.  There is give and take.  I ask as many questions as I answer.  I share thoughtful and sometimes even humorous anecdotes, but I'm careful not to go on too long.  I try not to interrupt, to let whoever’s talking have their whole say.  I try to convey my point of view in a sensitive way, especially if it differs from the others’.  I listen.  Intentionally.  Deeply.  Attentively.  Inside I feel calm, aware, settled.  

While we’re chatting I think to myself,This is a far cry from how I would have felt and acted in a similar situation nine months ago, before I started this experiment in listeningI would’ve pushed my own agenda, felt an overwhelming urge to talk about myself, felt awkward during any silence, uncomfortable leaving space for others to think and respond…  

After the call, I feel gratified.  Satisfied.  Encouraged.  I’m growing!  I’m really learning this listening thing!  

A little while later, it’s lunchtime.  My husband comes home from work.  He tries to tell me about his morning; I’m distracted, getting the kids fed.  He attempts to relay a telephone conversation he’s had; I “mm-hmm” without really paying attention.  After the kids run off to play and we linger over our usual mid-day cups of tea, he starts expressing some pieces of the stress he’s currently feeling; I’m checking Facebook on my phone, mind elsewhere, not paying attention.  

Finally, my usually mild-mannered hubby lets me have it.  “Boy, for someone who talks a lot and wants to be listened to, and gets mad if I even start moving away during a conversation, you sure don’t listen very well!  And I’m supposed to be the one who doesn’t talk very much!”


I looked up with shocked face.  My phone went face down on the table.  Believe me, I started listening.

But it was too late.  The moment had passed.  Lunchtime over, my best friend went back to work, feeling unheard, alone, and probably unloved.  I had failed to listen, and I rued it the rest of the day.

This month I have learned another valuable lesson.  While the things I’m learning about listening might be penetrating my outer “public” layer, I still have a long way to go to allow these changes to reach my inner “home” layer - the arena where change really counts.  If the most important relationship in my life doesn’t feel listened to, if I can’t enter his world with real attention and interest, see life from his perspective, what - really - is all this “learning to listen” about? 

This is where the rubber meets the road.  Will I, can I, learn to listen to the most familiar voices in my life with fresh ears, fresh attention, fresh love?  Or will these lessons in listening remain just an external shift in how I present myself in a group, a needed self-restraint from a temptation to monologue, a healthy exercise in compassion?

It’s crunch time.  Stay tuned.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Happy 2nd Birthday, Ruby Grace!

Happy, happy Birthday to my sweet, sweetie-pie!  

When you were in my tummy, I SO hoped you would be a girl.  I thought it would be fun to have a daughter after two sons, but I didn’t know it would be THIS much fun!  I love every single thing about you: the way your eyes crinkle when you smile, your chubby kissable cheeks, your sweet little voice, your infectious giggle, your spunkiness, your tender-heartedness that wants to kiss and cuddle anyone who’s hurt or crying, your eagerness to help me with anything I’m doing… “Doing, Mama?  Doing?  Hep me?”   

It warms my heart every time you push a chair up to the counter to “help” wash the dishes, or stir batter, or poke your fingers into bread dough.  You like to hand me the wet clothes from the basket while I’m hanging them up, and take the dry ones from me to put in the basket.  “Hep me, Mama, yaundry.”  You help me straighten the blankets on my bed, too, and “Tie up!” (tidy up) your room and your toys.  You are SO much more interested in all of this than the boys ever were!  It’s wonderful!  

Your latest new thing is your “BCB’s”.  Ben has started learning to write his alphabet letters, and you demand to sit right beside him and do your “BCB book” too.  You make tiny little “O’s” all over the paper and say, “Yook, Mommy!  BCB’s!”  One morning I was journaling in bed and you woke up early so Daddy brought you in to cuddle in our bed.  As soon as you saw me writing, you started asking, “Doing, Mama?  Witing?  Me, Mama?  BCB’s too?” When I wouldn’t give you a turn with my pen, you started kissing my glasses, over and over… 

You’re Daddy’s girl, that’s for sure.  Whenever you sit still long enough to let me do your hair, after I’m done you pop up saying, “Dad-dy?  Dad-dy?  Yook, Dad-dy!” and run to wherever he is.  You preen and twirl and he always tells you how beautiful you look - it seems to matter so much more what he thinks than what I think, and that is just fine by me!    

I love how you like to play tea party with me (just like I hoped!).  We make your bed into a “house” by putting your blanket over the top, and we crawl in there together and set up your doll and teddy bear. You are a great little hostess, offering “moah tea?”, pouring out tea for both of us, asking if I want “muk?” and “shoogah?” and then stirring something up and saying, “Cake?” 

I love how you cuddle your dolls and stuffed animals and put them to bed and kiss their owies.  But you also love playing “Tahguh Tickuw” (Tiger Tickle) with your brothers, and playing with their cars, trains, LEGOS, and anything else you can get your hands on!  

You really have a compassionate spirit.  When we took care of our various pets this year, you were the one who always remembered it was time to feed them in the mornings, and made sure they had blankets so they didn't get cold.  You smothered them with cuddles, and were so gentle.  Maybe you'll be a nurse or a doctor or veterinarian - or mommy - one day...

You ask for your favorite songs every single naptime and bedtime - “Happy Cap Cap” (If You’re Happy and You Know It) and “Joy Joy Joy” (Down in My Heart).  You do all the motions and say all the words in the right places and grin at me the whole time.  It’s completely adorable.

You’re starting to pray at mealtimes: “Deah Jee-judge.. (moment of silence)… ey - MEN!” and at bedtime you’re starting to listen to stories about Him.  You’re beginning to learn how wonderful He is, and I can’t wait to teach you about Him and watch you come to know Him for yourself. 

You’re great at interacting with our local friends here - you say “Ashalom” (Assalam Aleykum) to my helper when she arrives, with a little inclination of your head and your hand over your heart.  She just melts!  All our neighbors love you and call you “Rubeeshka”, the Russian affectionate nickname, whenever we go out for a walk.  And you regularly ask about our best friends down the street by name: “Noda come howoos?” (come to our house)  She came to your birthday lunch and you were so thrilled to share your “Cake” with her.  

You have so many words now.  I loved how you talked over your birthday tonight before you went to sleep.  “Wooby birfday?  New trike?  Cake?  Boys?  B’lloon?  Gamma Skype?  Noda came?  Cake?”  This morning I softly came into your room singing a quiet “Happy Birthday to you…”  You were lying down on your blanket, but when you saw me you quickly sat bolt upright and said, “Cake?”

As you approached this birthday, you started saying “Shelf!  Shelf!” (self) all the time.  You really want to try things on your own: putting on tights (how’d that work out for ya?), reaching for your toothbrush, cutting your own pancake, putting away your stack of clean clothes.  (Yeah, just shove ‘em in there!)  You are so independent and already quite competent for such a little person - a force to be reckoned with!  

Yes, you are your mother’s daughter - verbal, stubborn, endearing, relational, affectionate, possessive, lovable, independent, spunky, cuddly, obstinate, winsome.  We love every minute with you, our precious little jewel,

Ruby Grace