My super simple Advent calendar

My super simple Advent calendar

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I’ve always wanted to do an Advent calendar with my kids. But somehow, the Christmas season always seems to sneak up on me so fast that it takes me halfway through December to even get in the Christmas spirit.

It seems like the fact that Thanksgiving was so late this year somehow helped me kick things into gear much earlier. I’m not really sure how that works, but it did! It’s not even December and we already have our tree up, our porch decorated and some outdoor lights. I was determined to also create an Advent calendar, and after searching the web for ideas, I came up with this.

My goal was to make the project simple, but cute. I also wanted to be intentional about celebrating the season by coming up with activities in the bags that are a mixture of fun, serving others and spending quality time together as a family.

I started with these supplies, all of which I got at Hobby Lobby:

supplies

  • plain white paper bags
  • gift tags
  • super cute twine
  • and clothes pins

 

twine

 

You could get crazy and paint the clothes pins, but like I said, I was going for simple. I also bought some smaller clothes pins that were cute, but decided to stick with the larger ones.

Next, I created four types of activities to put in the bags:

  • Fun things to go do together.
  • Food to make.
  • Christmas movies to watch or games to play (family game night. Wii night, etc.).
  • People to ambush. Our church is starting this cool movement to coincide with the Christmas season, called Divine Ambush. You can check out the web site and Facebook page, (which I created, by the way 🙂 ) to learn more about it. Anyway, we have already been ambushing people, and our kids pretty much think it’s the best thing ever! So, I included different types of people to ambush each week.

 

clues

I closely consulted my calendar before scheduling the activities. On days when the kids have basketball practice until 6 p.m. and homework, I often gave them a clue to search the house for hidden candy. On the weekends, I scheduled things like watching a Christmas movie or going to the Arboretum to see the Christmas light display. I also came up with some fun food related activities like having a hot cocoa bar, a fondue night or ice cream sundaes (with a variety of special ice cream I plan to buy).

I also kept a master list of the scheduled activities so I would be prepared!

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After that, I just printed out some numbers on circle labels. I made half of the labels red and the other half green. I used one of my go-to fonts, Mandingo, for the numbers.

Putting the calendar together was super simple. I just cut up the strips of paper with the activities and put each one in a bag. I folded down the bag and stapled it closed so that the staple also held the gift tag in place. I put the number labels over the staple.

staple

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Here are the bags hanging across the front of the piano. I’m planning to hang them all somewhere else, but I haven’t done that yet, so this photo will have to work!

bags

 

Now, hopefully, my kids won’t read my blog. They are dying to know what’s in those bags! I’m also looking for a daily Advent devotional to read before we open each bag. If you have a suggestion, let me know in the comments!

So… how about you? Do you have an advent tradition with your family?

 

 

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In a different light

In a different light

I woke up this morning with a sinking feeling in my chest. My heart was heavy with the weight of doubt, disappointment and discouragement. It wasn’t just one thing. It was like a million voices in my head convincing me of everything that was wrong.

I got the kids off to school with as much pleasantness as I could muster and then dropped the 3-year-old at preschool. I sat down at my desk to get started on my to-do list for the week. Every simple request in my in-box seemed impossible to answer. Every line on my check list felt like it would take an army to defeat. I was fighting back tears, and then gave up and decided to cry for no reason.

I remembered that I haven’t been getting good sleep the past few nights, and maybe I was just experiencing the same weepy feeling my kids get when they are sleep deprived. I did what I never, ever do with the 2.5 sacred hours of the day when no kids are at home. I crawled back into bed and pulled the blankets over my head.

A few hours later, it was time to pick up my daughter from preschool. I looked in the mirror and wanted to scream. I wasn’t sure if I could look much worse. My face was puffy. My mascara was runny. My hair was schmooshed. It seemed like my face was actually lopsided.

I tried my best to wipe away the black streaks and push my collagen-deprived skin back into place. As I drove the three miles to preschool, I gave myself a pep talk. “Pull yourself together!” Two of my friends have daughters in the same class as mine. I was imagining that awkward moment if they were to ask, “How are you?” and I erupted into a blubbering mess of crying without even being able to explain why.

I put on my best happy face, and hid at the back of the line. I made small talk with the dad in front of me and tried to avoid being seen by my two friends a few parents ahead of me. They were busy chattering away and I thought for a few minutes they might not even notice me.

Soon, I was spotted.

“Hey, how are you guys?!” I said with as much perkiness as I could fake.

And then I am not kidding when I tell you what happened next.

“You look SO pretty today!” one of them said.

“You do! Your face is glowing and your hair is so shiny,” the other one said.

I walked up closer to them, unable to speak. I tilted my head, completely puzzled. I got closer, thinking they must not actually be able to see me.

“What have you been doing? It looks like you came straight from the spa!” the first one jumped in.

“And your skin is so perfect.”

These two had been smoking crack. They couldn’t possibly be serious.

“You look like you got the perfect amount of sleep!”

At this point, my jaw was on the floor.

I asked them if they were joking, and they both swore that they were sincere. I thought there must be something wrong with the lighting. It must be creating a filter across my face.

I looked up at the lights to try to figure out what could be happening. The florescent light was shining brightly in the yellow hallway. There’s no way it could be casting a flattering glow. What on earth were these women seeing?

What WERE they seeing??

Who did they see? And why couldn’t I see her?

I drove home intrigued by this thought. I tried to imagine myself as the person those two women saw. It made me wonder what other people see. I think I subconsciously assume that most people see the worst possible version of myself.

It made me think about what I see when I look at other people. What’s really happening behind the smile and the cute outfit? What’s the real reason that person is acting cold or unfriendly?

What if I chose t0 see myself in a different light? What if I could see what God sees. A precious child. Someone covered in grace. Someone who is deeply loved.

I almost felt like my friends had been granted some supernatural power to see me that way for those few moments when I needed it most. The experience still seems a bit surreal. Whatever the case, it was definitely a good reminder to me to look at people the way God sees them. And to give myself that same grace. To look at the world in a different light.

 

 

 

 

 

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A promise after the storm

A promise after the storm

“I’ve had multiple abortions.”

“I’m an adulterer.”

“I’m a murderer.”

“My marriage is dead.”

One by one, people turned over large pieces of cardboard sprawled with hand-written confessions. These weren’t made-up examples used to make a point in a sermon series. These were real secrets written down by real people in our church last week. People wrote their secrets on a piece of cardboard in a symbolic act of letting go of the burdens of the past and giving up their secrets to God.

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Today, we ended a sermon series called, “My Secret.” In the past week since people wrote down their secrets, they were paraphrased and then re-written on larger pieces of cardboard to be used during today’s message. Eleven people walked on stage and stood in a line holding the large pieces of cardboard. One at a time, they flipped over the cardboard to reveal someone’s secret.

As each one was turned over, a message of God’s truth in that situation was displayed on the screen. The messages were assurance of His love, His truth, His redemption. His forgiveness. The promise that “there is no condemnation” (Romans 8:1) regardless of how horrible your secret.

I am part of a team of people who plan each week’s service, so I knew this moment was coming. But as I stood on stage holding one of the cardboard signs, I was not prepared for what I would experience. I was overcome with emotion. As each card was flipped, my heart ached. They weren’t just words on a piece of cardboard. These were the words of real people. Real secrets. Real people sitting in that room. Real people who were brave enough to write it down and hand it over and give it up. Real people making the choice not to let their stories be written by the choices of their past. Real people who were choosing to stop believing the lies that they are worthless or hopeless. Real people ready to embrace God’s truth in their lives.

Our second service of the morning begins at 11 a.m. So by the time the “cardboard confession” moment was happening at the end of service, the weather outside was getting scary. Winds were picking up and the emergency weather service was sending out warnings of tornadoes, thunder storms and flash floods.

We ended service quickly and people rushed to get their kids and get to their cars before the heavy rain and hail started. The dark clouds were ominous overhead. The wind was fast and swirling.

In the next few hours, tornadoes ripped through several communities south of us. We heard of one family that is dear to our church who lost their home and all of their possessions.

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A few hours later, we were sitting in the kitchen waiting for the storm to end when all of a sudden an incredibly bright light came beaming through the windows. We ran outside to see what was happening because the light was so intense. A huge double rainbow was spanning the sky. It was a complete rainbow touching the ground on both ends with a second rainbow above it. The bottom rainbow was brighter than any rainbow I had ever seen.

Earlier in the day when we were rushing people out of church to beat the storm, I had wondered why God would cut short such a powerful moment during the second service. But as I thought about the storm, which came and went with such intensity, it felt like a perfect analogy of those secrets written on pieces of cardboard. So powerful and devastating. So intense and life threatening. So harsh and painful.

And then that rainbow. The symbol of His promise to us. So bright. So vivid. So intense. Never failing.

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16 years of aWeSoMe

16 years of aWeSoMe

On Thursday evening, I was walking out of my boys’ basketball games when a friend texted me. I quickly typed my reply and hit send. As I looked down, I noticed my phone connection had suddenly died. “No service,” the phone said.

That was odd.

I drove home, assuming my service would be back in a few minutes. But hours later, it was still disconnected. I turned off the phone for the night and hoped that it would miraculously cure itself by morning.

I woke up on Friday around 5 a.m. to the sound of my husband leaving for work. I tried to will myself to life to at least tell him good-bye before he headed out into the cold darkness to catch his train to the city. I was able to wake myself enough to remember it was our anniversary, but not enough to put my feet on the cold floor.

An hour later, I went downstairs and saw a funny little gift sitting in the middle of the kitchen table. It was a small rectangle box wrapped in pink construction paper. Three pieces of pink yarn connected the box to the light fixture overhead. I know it was my husband’s attempt to be crafty (or something!) but it made me laugh because it looked like a booby trap. Would the box explode if I cut the wrong strand of yarn?

I wondered how he managed to find construction paper and yarn, both of which are pretty well hidden in bins my office, buy he couldn’t find wrapping paper, which is stored in a pretty noticeable spot in plain sight!

In my opinion, one should not open a gift unless in the presence of the giver. And since I have the curiosity of a 3-year-old, I knew this was going to be torture to walk past that gift all day, wondering what was inside. “It must be chocolate,” I told myself. What other gift would he leave for me to open when he wasn’t around?

I went back upstairs and distracted myself by turning on the phone. Still no service. I was playing with all of my settings and turning the thing back off and on when my sweet 11-year-old son came in the room.

“I think you should really open that gift on the table, Mom,” he instructed.

Well, if he insisted, then I would do it. The curiosity was going to kill me anyway. It HAD to be chocolate, I reasoned, because the only thing that would make me feel better about my phone not working is chocolate. It was only 6 a.m., but I already needed some chocolate!

The pink construction paper was wrapped tightly in tape so I had to get a knife to start cutting my way through. The box was so dense and heavy that I was thinking about what type of chocolate it could possibly be. Did he stack candy bars on top of each other to make it a perfect rectangle?

Once I cut through enough to see the white box inside, I had another funny thought. “My husband really has a lot of nerve wrapping chocolate in his old iPhone box. That might make a girl a little disappointed.”

Finally, my brain stopped thinking about chocolate for two seconds, and I figured out that this wasn’t his old iPhone box. This was a NEW iPhone box holding a NEW iPhone.

I immediately felt so overwhelmed by how wonderful my husband is. He knows that buying me a gift from the Apple store is the equivalent to how many women feel about getting something from the jewelry store. But it hadn’t even occurred to me to WANT a new iPhone.

Yeah… I mean my old one had a ton of problems. The volume would mysteriously turn itself all the way up at random times, blasting my eardrums. My notifications didn’t work. It would rarely beep or make any sound when I got a phone call, text or any other message. I guess I didn’t really have time to think about getting a new one. So, I wouldn’t allow myself to go on the Apple web site to learn about the latest products or their features. Way too tempting for me.

I wanted to scream. I was so happy!

How could he know what gift I wanted before I even knew how much I wanted it?

I guess that’s what 16 years together does. My joy at that moment wasn’t just about the phone. I couldn’t believe I could be so blessed to be married to someone so thoughtful, kind, caring and observant. (Oh, not to mention, handsome, talented, funny and just generally wonderful!)

He is the one person in this world who really knows me. Sometimes, I think he knows me better than I know myself. I can’t even imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t found him. I’m so thankful for the amazing gift of my husband. Happy anniversary, babe!

**

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Oh, so… want to read our story? It’s always fun to remember how this whole thing started: The beginning of us.

 

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In perfect Harmony

In perfect Harmony

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I walked along the sidewalk, kicking up leaves as I went.

“Swoosh. Swoosh. Swoosh.”

The leaves were six inches thick. Their swooshing sound was all I heard on this quiet street in this quaint little town on a Sunday afternoon.

I had just walked through the downtown, three blocks of stores that looked like they hadn’t changed in 100 years. A distant relative owned a doll shop here. Antiques. Coffee. A pharmacy.

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Next came several blocks of homes, some with wrap-around front porches and wicker chairs. Then a rest home “for women.” A few blocks later, and I came to the park. This was the place where the huge trees had dropped a blanket of leaves on the sidewalk. The park was a paradise of play equipment, but no children in sight. Just the sound of the leaves brushing between my feet.

gate

I was headed to the Labyrinth. It was a circuitous path through tall hedges leading to a domed building in the center. It was meant to be a place of quiet reflection.

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Around and around I went. The sticky bushes were snagging my sweater. I thought about the perfect weather. It was starting to get cold at home. I would have needed a coat. I thought about the bright blue sky. And the moon so bright in the afternoon sky.

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Not another person in sight, I wondered how long it would take me to wind my way through this maze and if anyone would see my head above the shrubs if they came looking.

I was mostly intrigued by the people who created this place in southern Indiana. A group of people known as the Harmony Society settled here in 1814 with the goal of creating a utopian community. They attempted to live as a communal society, sharing income from a spinning factory, vineyards and a winery. Although the experiment failed after just a few years, the town they created, New Harmony, became known as a center for advances in education and scientific research.

I grew up about an hour away, but this was my first time visiting this fascinating little town. We had a family lunch at a wonderful restaurant, and then I went for a walk to explore the unusual sites. Around the main hotel, people walked down the middle of the street or drove golf carts. It seemed like most of the people were tourists, which seemed so odd out here in the middle of nowhere.

With the perfect weather, the bright sunshine and the people just milling about, I felt like it would be perfectly normal to hear someone shout, “Good morning, Truman!”

roofless

I wondered what it would be like to attend a service at the roofless church.

door

These huge wooden doors greeted visitors to a large grassy courtyard with a large dome in the middle.

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A few blocks away was the Atheneum. This modern white building is a museum telling the story of the town’s history. It seemed so out of place with nothing around it but an old wooden fence. Across the street, in sharp contrast, sat the rustic log homes of the people who had settled this town.

 

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I felt like I didn’t have nearly enough time to explore this little town.

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Its quaint churches, homes and shops.

 

garden

The meditative garden and walking trails.

trees

And peaceful streets. They are already calling me back for another visit!

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