Monthly Archives: November 2014

Incorporating “The Akathist of Thanksgiving” into a Thanksgiving Celebration

As we approach the end of November, Americans are preparing to celebrate “Thanksgiving,” a holiday in which we are encouraged to gather together with loved ones, enjoy food and time together, and be grateful for all that we have been given. Although Thanksgiving is a cultural (secular) holiday, it was begun with a holy intent: to thank God. It is an opportunity for us as Orthodox Christians to do what we should be doing daily, anyway: giving glory and thanks to God for His rich blessings on our lives!

The Akathist of Thanksgiving (http://www.orthodox.net/akathists/akathist-thanksgiving.pdf) is a beautiful prayer, a delight to the soul, and a fitting beginning to praising God at any time of the year. It is especially appropriate to pray this akathist in this season of giving thanks. Readers unfamiliar with the Akathist of Thanksgiving can read more about it here:  https://www.facebook.com/notes/orthodox-christian-parenting/giving-thanks/10151817127259702.

Introduce your students to the Akathist of Thanksgiving with a brief lesson. Before Sunday Church School begins, read through the akathist and plan (keeping in mind your students’ age and reading level) which parts to highlight during your class time. Then, print copies of the akathist (see pdf link above) for each student. During class, tell the students the history of this akathist and give them their copy so they can see it for themselves. Read selections from the akathist together as a class and talk about it together. Have they ever prayed this akathist before? What parts resonate with each student, and why? If you have time in class, invite your students  illustrate their favorite part of the akathist, then post the illustrations in your classroom. Send the students’ copies of the akathist home with them. You could also send the following suggestions along. You may also wish to use these suggestions in your own family’s celebration of Thanksgiving!

Ideas of ways to incorporate the Akathist of Thanksgiving into your Thanksgiving celebration:

  • At evening prayers, read the akathist together as a family. If you have young children, read only one or two stanzas each evening, until you’ve read the whole thing. After the reading, talk about what you have just read. How did you see God’s hand in the ways described, in this day? (ie: kontakion 2 says “…the golden rays of sun and the light clouds are reflected in the water…;” a family member may remind the rest, “Remember as we drove to school this morning, when the sun rays shone down through a cloud, and we saw it reflected in that puddle?!?”)
  • Play the akathist on your CD or mp3 player as you prepare for Thanksgiving Day; whether cooking (if dinner is at your house) or even just getting ready to go (if dinner’s at someone else’s house), this akathist can help your spirit be ready to be truly thankful.
  • On Thanksgiving Day itself, chant or read the akathist together as part of your thanksgiving celebration.

After having read/chanted/heard the akathist:

  • Select one stanza (or even just one kontakion or ikos) that seems particularly appropriate to your family this year. Print out the individual phrases, and work together to make an illustrated booklet. You can work together to draw the pictures; or make a collage of magazine pictures that illustrate the phrases; or even take photos to illustrate them. Illustrate a different stanza every year, and eventually you’ll have the whole akathist and can pray it directly from your own illustrated version; savoring the growth and memories collected while illustrating it!
  • Carefully write or print out beautifully-lettered bookmarks of kontakion 13 (for example: http://www.antiochian.org/sites/default/files/the_akathist_of_thanksgiving_kontakion_13.pdf). Use them as Thanksgiving place markers or host gifts, depending if you are hosting or being hosted. Print the kontakion and adhere it to colorful cardstock cut slightly larger than the paper on which the kontakion is printed. Together decorate the edges of each bookmark with crayon/marker, pressed leaves, or seasonally appropriate stamps. On the back of the bookmark, write the name of the person to whom you are giving the bookmark. Laminate the whole thing (contact paper makes a nice laminate), punch a hole in the top, and tie on a bit of ribbon or yarn for the bookmark topper.
  • Use a permanent marker (over scrap paper, in case the marker bleeds through) to write kontakion 13 on a length of wired ribbon. Gently curve and twist the ribbon, careful to keep the words showing, and spread it down the middle of your table or across a mantle as part of your Thanksgiving decor.
  • Select a phrase such as this one from kontakion 1: “I thank Thee for all Thy visible and secret goods, for earthly life and for the heavenly joy of Thy future Kingdom…” Print the phrase at the top of a large sheet of butcher paper. Attach the paper to a door or wall of your home, as a collaborative art piece where family members and guests can add words, cut pictures, or sketches of the “goods,” “earthly life,” or “heavenly joy of [the] future Kingdom” for which they specifically want to thank God.

However we implement this hymn into our Thanksgiving celebration, let us do so with thoughtful awareness of the words and the worshipful intent behind them. We have much for which to be thankful, not the least of which is our Faith. Hymns such as the Akathist of Thanksgiving allow us to join with the voices of saints from years gone by, in worshipping God.

Indeed, “Glory to God for all things!” ~ St. John Chrysostom

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Here are ideas of ways to focus on the meaning of the first few stanzas of the Akathist of Thanksgiving, either with your own family, or with your Sunday Church School students:

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Kontakion 1 of the Akathist of Thanksgiving says, “I was born on earth as a feeble and helpless child, but Thy angel, spreading his shiny wings, has sheltered my cradle. From that moment Thy love shines in all my ways and miraculously guides me into the light of eternity.” Look together at a few baby pictures of each person, and talk about how God’s angels have protected each of you from when you were born until today.

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Kontakion 2 of the Akathist of Thanksgiving says, “All nature mysteriously speaks about Thee, all is filled with Thy mercy and all carries the seal of Thy love.” Go for a hike in a natural space, with this phrase in mind, looking for (and pointing out to each other) the ways in which you see nature speaking about God and showing us His love.

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Ikos 3 of the Akathist of Thanksgiving says, “Glory to Thee Who from the dark depths of the earth bringeth forth so many colors and scents.” Plant flower seeds, or amaryllis bulbs in some “deep dark” earth, and together watch God bring forth colors (and perhaps scents) from that earth, as they bloom!

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Ikos 4 of the Akathist of Thanksgiving says, “When night falls upon the earth, the stillness of sleep reigns and sounds of the past day become silent; I see the splendor of Thy heavenly mansions. Flame and purple, gold and azure presag the indescribable beauty of Thy home…” Encourage everyone to keep an eye on the sky at sunset during this season, and purpose to stop everything each time there’s a beautiful sunset, and then take in the splendor and give glory to God who is creating that beauty right before your very eyes.

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Kontakion 5 of the Akathist of Thanksgiving says, “The tempest of life does not frighten one in whose heart shines the light of Thy divine fire. Around me are whirling storms and roaring winds; terror and darkness surround me; but in my soul is peace and light.” Discuss what this means, to be at peace in the midst of the tempest of life; and why we don’t need to be afraid in terror or darkness. Make night lights for each child’s room featuring an image that reminds the child of God’s presence: perhaps their favorite icon, a beautiful scene, or even just a block of their favorite color. (http://craziestgadgets.com/2008/12/27/create-your-own-night-light-kit/ is one idea of a place to get a kit made specifically for this activity. Or, you can line a mason jar with the printed image, and add a strand of lights as illustrated here: http://www.realsimple.com/home-organizing/home-organizing-new-uses-for-old-things/new-uses-mason-jars/night-light)

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On Read-Aloud Books

*Note: these notes/blogs are usually written in third person. This one, however, is personal in nature and therefore is written as a conversation with you, the reader. May the book suggestions bring you and your family at least as much joy as they have brought to mine!

 

Welcome to my backyard. Have a seat on my bench, and let me read you a story… Oops, maybe I should clear it off first!?! It is covered in dear friends: favorite books that our family has read aloud and loved. Some of them we’ve read more than once. Most of them have been read (and re-read) by my kids after we read them aloud to the family. I’ll tell you what: let me introduce you to them as I move them!

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First, I’d like you to meet some of our family’s favorite picture books. From before my children were born, and throughout their childhood, I have read to them with great frequency. Even though both of my kids are teens now, they still enjoy hearing a great story. Once in a while, we even *still* read picture books together. Here is a sampling of our favorites:

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It is great fun to learn about other cultures through their stories. I am especially drawn to folktales from those other cultures, so my kids have heard hundreds of folktales. Here are just a few examples of ones we have enjoyed:

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Our family loves to laugh. We like the clever use of words in silly poetry. Here are a few of the books we’ve giggled over again and again. Some of them we still quote on a regular basis!

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We have always read stories from the scriptures with our children. Books like these have been helpful to bring the stories to the kids’ level, telling them in ways the children were able to understand. Now that the children are teens, we daily read the Epistle and the Gospel as well as a saint’s story from a spiral-bound calendar from http://livesofthesaintscalendar.com/. Here are a sampling of Bible story books we read together when the children were younger:


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We have read many Orthodox Christian books together along the way. Unfortunately for you, dear reader, we tend to lend these books out when we finish them… So, favored tomes such as “Facing East” and “The Scent of Holiness” are gracing other homes at the moment and could not be included in this photo. But we do currently have part of our great Orthodox read-aloud material still at home. Here are a few examples:

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Probably the best loved of all the “friends” in that first picture are the chapter books. These have been read, re-read, and discussed from the time when our children were little through the present. These are stories, yes, but they also become springboards to discussion. Chapter books provide opportunities to delve into the lives of others and point out what they’ve done right and wrong, without judging another person. They offer the chance to strengthen our children’s faith as together we read about, discuss, and thereby learn from the characters and what happens to them in these books. (And apparently we are not alone! Listen to this podcast about how quality literature led an atheist into the Faith: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/recollectingglory/interview_with_holly_ordway!) Many of the friends pictured here are just one part of a series, all of which we have inhaled and lingered over. Have we loved them? Look at their book covers and decide for yourself:

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Aaah! Now we can see the bench!  Have a seat (pardon the sap drops from our pine tree)! I’d like to read you a story.

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Which one should we read first?

*Added note: following are a few examples from many of the children’s book categories above, that will hopefully inspire you to think of ways to use children’s literature in your Sunday Church School classroom!

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Here are a few of my favorite picture books from the photo above, with descriptions that may help you think of ways to use them in the Sunday Church School classroom:

“Tacky the Penguin” is a story of doing what is right in the face of ridicule and danger, in order to save others. It also contains a strong message of being who you’re created to be; not what everyone else seems to think you should be.
“Pink and Say” is the story of great love between friends, regardless of race.
“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” lends itself to discussion about attitudes and how to handle when things do not go our way.

There are so many picture books that are appropriate to use with lessons in the Sunday Church School classroom. Children of many different ages will enjoy hearing these stories, and they can be a great springboard to discussion. Challenge yourself to read a new-to-you picture book frequently (they don’t take long to read!), and keep a list of any books that you could possibly add to your curriculum. Remember to also list their theme(s)!

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Because of their very nature of having been created to entertain while teaching, folktales are an excellent resource for Sunday Church School teachers.

Some are directly related to Christian life: for example, “The Tale of Three Trees” is a folktale that tells the story of three trees with big dreams that ended up being the manger, a ship, and the cross of Christ. The story alludes to the fact that it is good to have big dreams, and God can use us best when we are faithful in the work He lays before us, whether or not it is ‘what we dreamed of doing.’

Others are easily related to our lives as Christians: for example, “The Mitten” would lend itself to discussions of hospitality and/or helping others who are in need. (An aside: see interesting background information about the book at http://www.janbrett.com/bookstores/mitten_book.htm!)

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There are many Bible story books available to read aloud. Find a variety of Bible story books at http://www.christianbook.com/page/bibles/childrens-bibles/bibles-storybooks. You could also read some Bible stories together online at  http://theminiark.com/. Or let me read a Bible story to you: listen to this week’s Gospel re-telling or reading, voiced by the author of this week’s note/blog, at http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/letusattend.


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Orthodox books are wonderful read-alouds that can be used in the Sunday Church School classroom. They can add to the learning experience, whether or not they relate directly to the lesson being taught. Finding time to read them to the children can be a challenge, but if your students are eating their snack in your class after Divine Liturgy, they can certainly listen while they eat! Or, if you have a planned craft or art activity that associates with the lesson, you could read to them while they work.

Books like “Grandmother’s Spiritual Stories,” that are full of stories of the saints, can be read one chapter at a time, exposing the children to the lives of the saints in a child-friendly manner.

“Basil’s Search For Miracles” is an excellent modern-day story of a boy’s encounter with miracles, which leads him slowly to following Christ and loving the Church. Again, one chapter at a time would be a great way to share this book.
“Sweet Song” is a lovely picture book that tells the story of St. Romanos and how he became ‘the melodist,’ in a miracle that happened on Christmas Eve. This book lends itself to discussions about miracles, saints, sacred music, and works well to be used around Christmas because of the timing of the miracle!

 

As you consider books to share in your classroom, be sure to check out your church’s bookstore or library, and seek great Orthodox options!

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Sunday Church School teachers may not be able to read entire chapter books from mainstream children’s literature to their students because of their length and the time constraints of the SCS class period. As a teacher, however, you should be aware of what is available in children’s literature, so that you can point students to books that relate to your lessons. There could be time to read selected portions of appropriate literature to add to the discussions in your classroom, as they fit.

For example, a selection from “Many Waters” would enhance a discussion on Noah and his family, for older children. “Mrs. Piggle Wiggle” contains chapters on selfishness, bickering, etc., that could easily fit into lessons about these topics. The “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” chapter about Father Christmas is lovely to read around Nativity, and the chapters on Aslan’s death and resurrection would be great ones to read around Pascha.

The more familiar you are with wonderful children’s literature, the better you will be able to read selections or recommend to your Sunday Church School students, so that they can read the books themselves. What is the best way to learn about what is out there? Read it for yourself!!!

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As the Nativity season approaches, Sunday Church School teachers may want to consider reading aloud books that will help the children to prepare for the Nativity. Here are a few Advent/Nativity books that can be helpful to that end:

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On “Saving” Time

It is that time of year when many countries in the world enter “Daylight Savings Time” and collectively shift their schedules accordingly. Interestingly enough, this schedule shift occurs near the onset of the “holiday season” in North America. The implication of saving time, combined with the culturally-imposed busyness of the forthcoming season creates an interesting juxtaposition in thought. Pondering this clash of ideologies brings an important question to mind: How can we as Orthodox Christians truly “save” our time; even during the “holiday season?”

An important measure that we can take to that end is to go through our schedules now and prepare them before they are overtaken with other plans. There are a number of things that we should schedule into our “holiday season” immediately, so that we are certain that there is time for them. Here are a number of priorities which we should schedule in order to truly “save” (redeem) our time:

  1. “Save” time by prioritizing Church. What better way to redeem our time than to pray, worship, and be in the presence of God? Find out from your parish calendar (or priest) what additional services will celebrated during November and December. Put them into your family calendar, so that you remember them and can attend as many as possible. Challenge your family to attend more services together than you did last year.
  2. “Save” time by prioritizing fasting. The Nativity fast is an excellent way to prepare for Christ’s birth. Remember that fasting is not just about food; but also about refraining from excess/ judgement/unnecessary entertainment/etc. Fasting is also about giving to those in need. “The holiday season” is a perfect time to work at all of these. Brainstorm ways to work at them together as a family. Block out needed time in your family’s schedule for the fasting methods that require time (for example, helping in a soup kitchen or volunteering somewhere to help needy people). Scheduling family time to work at the different ways to fast will help you to do them better!
  1. “Save” time by by prioritizing family devotional time. As families, we should regularly be saying prayers and reading/discussing the scriptures, as well as other books that strengthen us in our faith. If we have not developed a habit of this for our family yet, what better time to begin than in a season when we are preparing to celebrate Christ’s coming? (Read-aloud book suggestions for different age levels will be a topic for a future week. Stay tuned!)
  1. “Save” time by prioritizing down time. Yes, down time. During “the holidays.” One of the greatest challenges of today’s society is the constant requirement for noise, for entertainment, for socialization, etc. Each of these is escalated during “the holiday season,” and it is easy for us as Christians to get sucked into it “because, after all, it’s all about celebrating Christ’s birth!” However, the onslaught of stuff, noise, and busyness flies in the face of the still, quiet preparation that our hearts need in order to be truly prepared to celebrate Christ’s nativity. It is not wrong to say no to the busyness or to choose to miss out on some of the parties or other activities. It is different than the actions/expectations of the rest of the culture, but then again, so is our Orthodox faith! But how can we shape our schedules in a way that allows down time, especially during “the holiday season?” One family suggests sitting down now with your calendar, and blocking out days from now through the end of the year by writing something on the calendar. This family writes the word “something” on many of the evenings and weekends not already filled with church. If someone invites them to an event, they simply say, “Thank you very much for the invitation! I am sorry, but we already have something on the calendar for that day,” and it is the truth. (Note: the parents of the aforementioned family reserve the right to add something to the calendar when it already has “something;” but they take up to 24 hours to discuss it amongst themselves before getting back to the invitation giver, in attempt to maintain down time in the family. They do make exceptions to the 24 hour wait time occasionally.) Of course each family can institute their own version of this suggestion. The main idea is to block in down time, to deliberately NOT do every activity option that comes your way (which, in itself, can also be a form of fasting, too!). Note: if you do this but add things to your schedule instead of the “something” on your calendar, just be careful that you do not always ignore that “something” on the calendar. It is there to remind you to be still!

As we approach “the holidays,” let us be careful to focus on the real reason for our celebrations: the birth of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Let us not be swept into the unnecessary cultural busyness that can distract us from being still and preparing for His coming. Let us do what we can to open our schedules to the things that turn our hearts and the hearts of our children towards Christ and His great love for us.

What ideas do you have to share? Please post them below!

Following are a few ideas of ways to help your Sunday Church School students learn about (and hopefully implement) the above measures for redeeming their time.

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Encourage your students to make coming to church (and Sunday Church School!) a priority, even during busy times like during the holiday season. Talk together about why it is important to come to church. http://catholicblogger1.blogspot.com/2008/10/ccd-lesson-plan-church-respect.html gives a variety of ideas (Roman Catholic, but adaptable) about ways to teach children how to be respectful when in church.

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Older Sunday Church School Students can read one or both of these articles: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/21/opinion/sunday/luhrmann-why-going-to-church-is-good-for-you.html?_r=0 or http://hillsong.com/blogs/collected/2014/september/99-reasons-you-should-go-to-church-this-weekend#.VFwZDTCJOuY. After reading the article, discuss why going to church is good for the students. Be sure to also tell the students why it is good for you. Since it is good for you, encourage the students to think of (and maybe make a list of) ways to make sure that church attendance is a priority for them.

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Find a printable activity page on fasting geared for the middle grades, at http://www.orthodoxabc.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/008-EN-ed05_Keeping-Lent.pdf.

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Teach your Sunday Church School students about the importance of prayer. This three-lessons-on-prayer link may give you some ideas: http://www.kidssundayschool.com/45/lesson/why-pray.php.

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Consider helping your Sunday Church School students make prayer more of a priority in their personal lives by giving them the gift of an age-appropriate prayer book. Possible books could include: http://store.ancientfaith.com/childrens-orthodox-prayer-book/; http://store.ancientfaith.com/special-agents-of-christ/; or http://store.ancientfaith.com/products/My-Prayer-Book.html.

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Check out this article on simplifying your own life: http://ajjuliani.com/5-rules-to-simplify-your-life/. Consider how you can do so, so that you are able to be better at the things that you do, such as teaching Sunday Church School!

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