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Five ways to celebrate Advent with children

The Advent season officially kicks off this week. Many churches celebrate Advent every year as a fixed part of the church calendar. But if you didn’t grow up in one of these churches or aren’t sure what Advent is all about, here’s a simple definition, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Advent is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

I love this definition because it describes the season (December 2-24) as both a time of “expectant waiting” and a time of “preparation”. What a wonderful way to view the Christmas season! Not just as a time to prepare our homes with decorations, presents, and cookies; not only as a time to wait expectantly for the big guy in the red suit. But a time to prepare our hearts for Christ and for whatever God is calling us to do, as well as a time to reflect on the glorious gift He gave us, excitedly counting down the days to when we declare “for unto us a child is born”!

If you’re like my family, sometimes the other side of Christmas can get in the way of true Christ-centered waiting and preparation. But here are five ways you and your family, no matter what age your kids are, can celebrate Advent this year:

1. With a daily Advent devotion

A few years ago I bought Ann Voskamp’s Unwrapping the Greatest Gift to read with my kids. It’s a beautiful book that takes your family through the journey of God’s people leading right up to the birth of our Savior on Christmas Day. Each day’s reading includes a story and related scripture, and it was a great way for us to all come together as a family each evening and focus our attention on the reason for this season. I would recommend this for families with children 8 years and up as the readings are a bit long for little ones. However, since buying Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, Voskamp has come out with a pop-up book called The Wonder of the Greatest Gift that looks like it would be more suitable for younger children, although I personally have not seen it in person.

Photo credit: “Reading” by Sarah Elizabeth Altendorf

2. A Jesse Tree 

I first heard about the Jesse Tree when reading Ann Voskamp’s book Unwrapping the Greatest Gift. The Jesse Tree is an interactive way to tell the stories of the Bible that lead up to the birth of Jesus. Each day there is a scripture reading and an associated ornament to represent that day’s lesson. Your family can either hang the ornaments on your Christmas Tree or have a small separate “Jesse Tree” just for this tradition. There are lots of places to buy Jesse Tree ornaments, but you can also make them yourself. I especially love this tutorial from Faith and Fabric.

Photo credit: Weihnachtsdekoration mit Rentier-Kissen und Weihnachtsbaum by marcoverch

3. With an Advent Elf or Kindness Elf 

By now we all know about the “Elf on the Shelf”; but if incorporating that little North Pole spy and all of his crazy antics into your Christmas traditions is not for you, here are some alternative ideas that stick close to the heart of the Advent Season:

  • My friend Lauren from Blacktop to Dirt Road has the Kindness Elf show up to her house each year, beginning December 1st and staying through the Advent season. This cute little guy encourages Lauren’s family to do something kind each day, reminding them of the kindness and character Christ first exhibited for us.
  • Another friend of mine, Anne from Once Upon a Mom has introduced the Advent Elves into her family tradition. These elves help her family with their Jesse Tree by showing up each morning with that day’s ornament. So cute!

4. Intentional prayer as a family

Sometimes something as simple as time set-aside each day to pray together as a family is all you need to keep your heart focused on what’s truly special about Advent. Ask each member of the family to report on how they saw Jesus in action that day, what they did to shine His light to others, and who they saw that needs help or is hurting. Then pray together, praising God for His faithfulness and action, and lifting up those in need. This is simple and requires no pre-planning or materials.

However, if you’d like something a little more structured, check out this Advent Prayer Guide from my friend Bailey Suzio at The Thin Place.

Family hold hands around the kitchen table before their meal

5. Seek Peace Together

Let’s face it, this time of year can be one of the busiest we face, and in our rush and haste it’s easy to lose focus on the real reason for the season, coasting into December 25th exhausted, grumpy, and stressed out. A simple way to combat that is to be intentional in seeking peace. This will look different for each family. For some it may mean cutting back on extra-curricular activities and/or saying no to certain events in order to be home more in the evenings and on the weekends. For others it may mean scheduling family dinners a few nights a week. For my family it means protecting Sundays as our day of rest, as much as possible.

Take it a step further and use that down-time to read what God has to say about peace. You can download my free 31 Days of Seeking Peace scripture calendar and use it as a guide for you and your family. The readings are short, so this can easily be incorporated into prayer time, a Jesse Tree, or other Advent tradition.


31 Days of Seeking Peace

Whatever you do, I believe by spending a little bit of time each day to come together as a family and remember the special gift that God gave us not only keeps us focused on the reason for this season, it prepares our hearts to celebrate and accept that gift today and throughout the year.

If you or your family have other traditions for celebrating Advent, I’d love to hear about them!



A Back-to-School Prayer

The first day of school is always a weird jumble of emotions for me. I vacillate between being ecstatic that they have some place to be other than home, happy for a normal routine after a long summer without much structure, and pushing down that giant lump in my throat that forms knowing they are one more day closer to walking out the front door for good.

I think I’m probably not alone in this and most parents have a little bit of worry inside about what lies ahead for their children at the start of a new school year – will they like their teacher? Will their teacher like them? Will they choose kind friends? Will they get picked on because of their lisp/birthmark/crooked teeth/loud laugh/weight? Will they be pressured into doing something they don’t want to do? Will they come home crying because their best friend said they can’t be friends anymore? The list goes on.

At different times throughout the last 13 years of sending my little ones off to school, my heart has been burdened with all of these things. And unfortunately, many of these worries have become a reality at some point. If I’m not careful, I will carry these fears with me as I wave goodbye and send them off for another year, feeling helpless to do anything to protect them once they are out of my site.

But then I remember, there is something I can do: I can pray for them.

Here is a back-to-school prayer I wrote for my children, perhaps you will want to use this to pray over yours:

Dear Heavenly Father,

Please protect my child(ren) as they begin a new school year. I know that my daughter is uniquely and wonderfully made in your image, and I pray that she will remember who she is and be unafraid to be her true authentic self. You have blessed her with many special gifts and talents, but perhaps the most important is her ability to love others and be kind. Help her remember this and seek out the unlikely friend, the lonely classmate, the shy teammate.

When he feels scared, hurt, confused, angry, sad, or pressured by the world around him, please help him to remember You are there and so am I. When school is hard and my son feels inferior, unable, or incapable of what is being asked, help calm his mind and lead him to a teacher, aid, coach, or administrator that will show compassion and gently guide him in the right direction. And Lord, let him trust me enough to help, and help me to listen — truly and earnestly listen — to what he is trying to tell me instead of always trying to fix everything. At the end of the day, I pray that his struggles will make him rely on You more, and have more empathy and compassion for others.

Finally, I pray you will guide her friendships. Lead her to others that will love her for who she is, and not care about the clothes she wears, the backpack she carries, or how she fixes his hair. Help him find friends that lift him up instead of making him feel like he is not enough. And when there is conflict or hurt feelings, as there surely will be, help her to be humble enough to apologize first, and gracious enough to forgive without reservation.

May they always keep their eyes fixed ahead on You and your path.



Originally posted on the Today Parents Parenting Team Community.


photo credit: woodleywonderworks first day school bus ritual via photopin (license)

Dear camp counselor

Dear camp counselor,

September is here. Backpacks are packed, pencils sharpened, and yellow school buses wait at the corner. Orange and brown leaves are starting to cover our yard and the sun is coming up later and going to bed sooner. Alas, summer is officially over.

Despite the excitement and energy that surrounds a new school year, there is one bit of summer that lingers in our house; one topic that resurfaces at the dinner table, in the car, and at bed-time. Of everything my kids did and experienced this summer (and it was a lot) the one subject that comes up again and again is camp.

While you camp counselors have returned to your college dorms and apartments or your regular jobs, my children are still singing those same songs 100 times in a row, re-enacting that silly skit and arguing over who gets to play what part, and trying to teach their school friends how to play spit and color tag .

Out of 12 weeks of summer vacation they only spent two with you, but they are the two weeks that live on in our house. And sure, they did some pretty cool stuff at camp. I mean, who wouldn’t remember a week canoeing down the Shenandoah River, horse back riding on the Appalachian Trail, or an afternoon of caving? But really, in the midst of the stories and the songs and the laughter, what I hear most are your names.

I hear stories told over and over about how Jake did this, or Sarah said that. My kids will say to each other, “remember when Dan and Tori did that skit?” and bust out laughing while trying to explain it to me (for the 78th time) and I still won’t get it, but they will laugh hysterically anyways. Then they’ll ask, “mom do you think Nick/Julie/Dalton/Jayme will be my counselor next year?”

Your names are spoken with a tone of admiration, love, and familiarity as if you’ve been in their lives forever, not someone they just met in June. You are the coolest/funniest/smartest/nicest/craziest person they know. And I get it. I was a camper for 7 years, and thought the same thing about my counselors. Twenty-five years later and I’m still friends with some of my camp counselors, and probably my biggest regret is never getting the chance to be one of you.

Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp - campers with counselor winning the golden broom Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp counselors

But, as awesome as I thought my counselors were when I was a camper, as a parent I have an entirely new perspective. And I’ve come to one simple conclusion: y’all are insane! You spend eight weeks in a row where every waking moment is dedicated to caring for other people’s children! I mean really. I love my kids, but after 5 days of them being home with me I am secretly re-setting the clocks three hours ahead and trying to convince them it’s bed time at 5 o’clock.

It’s not just that you spend all this time with these kids, but you are constantly doing all these things! Like outdoor, in the heat, constantly moving things! You take them hiking and swimming, canoeing and climbing. You play games in open fields where bugs fly up your nose and in your eyes. You have to oversee ten 9-11 year old boys cooking their own dinner over an open fire, in the woods for crying out loud! I can’t even get my 9 year old son to put his plate in the dishwasher!

And after all of that hiking, and swimming, and cooking, and playing, you sit with them on the porch and wave away the gnats as you tell them about God’s hand in everything they did that day. You patiently answer their questions, overlook their foolishness, and hug the ones who miss home. Then you remind them, five more minutes till the flashlights have to be out. Because you are the last to sleep and the first to wake. And you do it all over again the next day…and every day for 8 weeks straight. Honestly, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp - games in the field

Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp - canoe campers

But you know the part that gets me the most? It’s that when I picked my kids up at the end of week 8, you had just as much energy and joy as I saw in you back in week 2. And because no one ever became a camp counselor to get rich, I know that joy and energy must be because camp is in your soul. It is inside of you and fills your heart and overflows into the space around you. It’s contagious. My kids have caught it. Camp is inside of them. Not just while they are there for those two weeks, but every day throughout the entire year.

Yes, y’all are insane. Beautifully, wonderfully, certifiably insane. And I, for one, am so very thankful for it.


A former camper-turned-mom of three lucky campers

Parents, send your kids to camp! It will be the best week of their summer. Our personal favorite is a magical place here in the Shenandoah Valley called Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp.or check out the American Camp Association’s website to find a camp near you!

Photos by Nicole Todd, courtesy Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp


PLEASE READ BEFORE SHARING: Since this blog post was first published on September 3rd, 2015 it’s been viewed over 40,000 times! I never in my wildest dreams expected this kind of response, and I think it’s a testament to how much camp impacts and changes lives. While I am always happy to have a post shared via social media or email, I have a couple of favors to ask:

  1. If you would like to use this post in your camp or church newsletter/magazine/website, I simply ask that you link back to this, the original post, and give credit to the author (me).
  2. Please do not alter/edit/change the content of this letter.
  3. Please do not use the photos in this post without express permission from Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp.
  4. If you do share the content of this post in a publication or on a website, I would absolutely love it if you dropped me a little note to let me know the publication name and date shared! You can email me at jelise@neitherheightnordepth.com

Why we do Halloween

As a general rule I have tried to avoid controversial topics on this blog because I want it to be a place of support and encouragement and not division. I find that, in general, we Christians can get too hung up on the little things and let them divide us, instead of coming together as a unified voice for spreading the good news. And I fully believe that the enemy uses our tendency to argue the little points to bring division and prevent us from being more effective disciples — because a house divided cannot stand.

That being said, I have been called out recently by a few family and friends for my observance of Halloween, and I feel compelled to respond to their questions as to how I support or justify celebrating this holiday as a Christian.

In this house we do Halloween. We dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating. We carve pumpkins and have even been known to hang up a few decorations when I can find the time to drag them out of the storage closet. And here’s why: it is a little dose of make-believe fun in a very serious world. But I’ll get to that more in a little bit. Firstly, I think it’s important to recognize why there is a debate over Christians celebrating Halloween in the first place.


The roots of Halloween can be traced back over 2,000 years to the merging of All Hallows Eve (the day before All Saints Day), a celebration within the early-Christian church, with that of an ancient pagan festival celebrated by Celtic people, in which the Celts believed that the dead could walk among the living at this time (source: World Book Encyclopedia). While most historians agree that it was never the Christian church’s intent to merge the two, but instead an attempt to replace the pagan tradition by moving All Hallows Eve to be the same date, what has emerged as the modern October 31st holiday is in fact a bit of a co-mingling, and dare I say blunder of the early church. (For more on the history of the two, here is a well-researched, factual article written from a Christian perspective by Travis Allen).

The reality is that most people who participate in modern-day Halloween activities are neither attempting to honor the Saints by observing All Saint Day, nor are they intending to hide from the walking dead by dressing in costumes. Certainly there are still people practicing pagan religions that use Halloween as a time to practice witch-craft and necromancy. But I dare say that is not the intent of most of the parents dressing up their little darlings as Disney Princesses or comic book super heroes and taking them door-to-door looking for candy.

Often this verse from Deuteronomy 18:10-12 is referenced as a valid reason for Christians to distance themselves from Halloween. It says, “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you” (NIV). I certainly understand and respect why some Christians are anti-Halloween, or really anything loosely associated with any of the pagan practices mentioned in this verse. But, let me offer a bit of different perspective.

As I mentioned above, I don’t think the majority of families observing Halloween are promoting or engaging any of those activities mentioned in Deuteronomy. I can certainly attest that in my house we are not practicing sorcery, engaging in witchcraft, or consulting the dead on Halloween. In fact, there is nothing remotely religious about our observance of Halloween — Christian nor pagan. It is entirely a silly, secular holiday that we participate in because my kids love to pretend. They love to play dress-up and get to wear silly costumes. They love an excuse to come together with their friends and have fun. They most definitely love candy. And as a parent, I don’t blame them.

mmm, candy

We live in a very serious world with a lot of grown-up issues. Issues that my kids are very aware of.  We discuss poverty and crime, hunger and violence, divorce and death with my kids because these are the things they see and hear about every day. I don’t even allow my kids to watch TV during the week, but still they know these things, they hear about them and they ask questions. We talk about how we can put our mark on the world to end these things, to help people, to spread the love of Jesus.

Life is serious and being a Christian comes with a lot of responsibilities in today’s world. My kids carry this with them, certainly much more than I did 30 years ago when I was their age. My kids are growing up fast, too fast for my liking. So when we have opportunities to just be silly and have fun, to let loose and embrace a little make-believe, to pretend for a few moments that we are a little yellow minion, a gorilla fresh from the jungle, or a pirate hunting for buried treasure, then we take it. And for us that’s really all it boils down to.

little duck

Little Bo Peep found her sheep That time Spiderman, Princess Jasmine, and the butterfly went trick-or-treating together little cop, big prisoner

Could we do this some other day of the year that doesn’t have pagan roots? Sure. And we do play dress-up other times. But we choose to do it on October 31st, too, and fill our plastic pumpkins with candy that will be rationed out in small doses until December arrives and we have to dump the left-over Halloween candy to make room for the Christmas candy. And yes, we hang stockings for Santa to fill in this house, too, but I won’t go there right now.

It’s OK if you disagree with this. I know we won’t always see eye-to-eye on our approach to parenting. And it could very well be that I’m getting some of this wrong. But when I see their happy faces as they skip from house to house, arm-in-arm with their friends, when I look back at photos of them dressed up as ducks and butterflies and bumblebees (both the kind that transform and the kind that go buzz-buzz) from year’s past, I don’t see anything un-biblical. I don’t see any recognition of pagan acts or dark magic. I see kids  being kids, exercising their imaginations and delighting in a little make-believe. I look into my heart and ask myself “am I going against biblical teachings and promoting something unsafe or allowing evil to invade my house?” And the answer is no.

If you look into your heart and have a different answer that’s totally cool. Absolutely no judgement here. If you want to turn off your porch lights and not answer the door when we ring your bell tomorrow, we won’t begrudge you that choice. In fact, I will respect that you are doing what you think is right. I just ask that you show me the same courtesy and not assume that I’m uneducated and ignorant to the history and roots of this modern-day-secular-holiday.

And please, can we not let something like this divide us? Let’s not create a situation where non-believers can point at us and say, “See those Christians? All they do is fight among themselves and point fingers, I don’t want to be a part of that.” Instead, let’s show tolerance and respect the same way our Savior did and each take our own conscience before God. And then, let’s  come together in unity and get to work on the really important mission of being disciples of Christ.