Monthly Archives: July 2019

On the Gift of Story

When I was a child, I remember sitting with my family (and any guests we were hosting) around the table after dinner, and listening as the adults told stories and jokes. I have always loved stories, and this daily experience fed my hunger for them. Throughout my growing-up years, I remember begging my parents to tell me stories from their childhood. Sometimes they’d remember one, and tell it to me, and other times they couldn’t think of any story to tell. I remember adamantly thinking to myself that I was going to remember every single thing from my childhood, so that I would always be able to tell my own children stories when they asked for one. In my childhood mind, that was the best gift I could give to my future kids. (Unfortunately, my memory did not serve me as well as I intended, and therefore many times when my own children would ask for stories, I could not call any to mind! Now that my children are grown and no longer begging for stories, often something will jog a childhood memory, and at last I can think of stories to tell!)

It wasn’t until I was teaching frst grade in a private Christian school that I began to appreciate the gift (and power!) of story. My favorite class to teach in those years was Bible class. One day, I realized why I loved teaching Bible class so much (besides the obvious fact that it was a lesson from the Scriptures). You see, it was in Bible class that I could teach in a way that engrossed my students: through story. Years later, after we had children of our own and I was no longer teaching in a classroom, our family began sharing other cultures with children and their families through educational gatherings which always included folktales. I am confident that the children (and adults) who attended may not remember any of the facts or activities from those gatherings. But if I were to ask them something about the folktale that we told, even years after the event, a light would go on in their mind, and a smile would cross their lips, as they remembered it. Stories are a gift, because they are memorable, and even children can understand them.

What is it about stories that entices children? And is it just a childhood thing, this longing for stories? I have noticed in my adult life that I am much better able to digest concepts if they are embedded in a story than if I am just presented with the idea. I retain much more from walking through a living history exhibit and speaking with its re-enactors than I do from visiting a glass-encased-artifact museum. As our family journeyed toward Orthodoxy, it was Frederica Mathewes-Green’s story of a year in their mission parish, her book Facing East, which made the Faith real to me, not a straightforward theological discourse. Story speaks to the adult me, just as much as it did to the child. I suspect that I am not alone. Given our whole culture’s renewed interest in storytelling (even businesses are utilizing storytelling for increased success!), it seems that stories are for everyone, not just children.

Perhaps this is why, throughout the history of mankind, storytelling was utilized as a means for communicating culture, history, and morals. That’s a tall order! But it was effective. Unfortunately, in the last centuries, we have begun to step away from the gift of story. As we rely more on technology for learning and less on sitting together around the dinner table (or campfire) and talking to each other, the experienced people in our midst are not as readily able to share their wisdom through their stories. This has reduced the organic transfer of culture, history, and morals. The recent “rebirth” of interest in storytelling in our culture is a step (back) in the right direction. Now it is up to us to move beyond interest in storytelling, and begin to actually practice it.

Stories are a gift, because they are a memorable (and fun!) way for life lessons to be beautifully conveyed. Our Lord Himself offered us this gift when He told stories. Remember all the parables that He shared? Many of them were great stories but they also incited discussion because they housed deeper meaning. Christ modeled for us the use of story for teaching.

We should be taking advantage of this gift! As we do, perhaps the stories that we share will come from our personal experience. As a child, I craved stories from my parents’ growing-up years. But even now, as an adult, I continue to savor the stories that they tell me from years gone by. We should not underestimate the value of personal stories. Retelling our personal history allows our listeners to hear what life was like when we were younger. The stories are engaging because they’re real, they’re about someone the hearer actually knows, and they bring the past to life. They can also teach a lesson, especially if we are humble enough to even tell the stories of our mistakes. As we share our stories, let us be careful not to gloss over those mistakes. Rather, let us allow our listeners to learn from them. God gives us opportunities to suffer and stumble and get back up again, not just for our own salvation, but also for the salvation of those around us who can learn from our choices (and even from our mistakes!).

Another way to share the gift of story is through reading books together. They may be Orthodox books and/or books that directly teach an important concept or lesson. At other times, we may share a story from a book that is not Orthodox, and maybe does not even directly teach a concept or virtue, but it opens up a way to speak together about one. Perhaps the main characters in the story actually make the wrong choice. Rather than throwing out the story altogether because of that wrong choice, we can allow such a story to become a launching point, a way to safely talk together about the Faith and our choices and to learn through the characters’ mistakes. This can save us from having to make the mistake ourselves. (Of course, each class is different, and is thus differently able to process the stories that they hear. Because of this, we teachers need to decide which stories are appropriate to share with our students. This requires preparation through careful thought and pre-reading before sharing, but in the long run, it is very worthwhile.)

Modern schedules may no longer allow for the daily extended mealtimes that I experienced when I was a child. This makes it more difficult for storytelling to happen naturally. However, this gift is so valuable that it is worth investing the time and energy required to make it happen. Let us find a way to give the gift of story, and value it when we receive it in return!

Note: We are not all professional storytellers. That’s okay. The personal touch, the time that is offered in order to tell a story, and the beloved voice of the teller is what makes each story valuable and approachable to the listeners, whether or not the storyteller is a pro.

 

Here are some ideas and additional information that may be helpful as you begin to share the gift of story with your class:

***

For inspiration of Orthodox books to share with your Sunday Church school students, check out the “books” tag at our blog site: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/category/books/ Occasionally we share a book there that’s for your own personal growth, so that you can be a better teacher. But more often than not, the books that we share are books you can read to/with your students. We also offer ideas of ways to incorporate those books into a Sunday Church school lesson!

***

A while ago we wrote a series about telling Bible stories, complete with suggested props for some stories. Check out two of our posts about it here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/07/01/bible-story-grab-bags-old-testament/

https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/09/02/bible-story-grab-bags-new-testament/

***

We offered ideas of ways to tell the stories of saints to your students in this blog post: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2016/12/23/saints-of-recent-decades-ideas-for-biographical-storytelling/

***

Want to read more about the value of telling your students stories from your own personal life or from the history of your parish? Check this out: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/what-kids-learn-from-hearing-family-stories/282075/?utm_source=atlfb

***

Many folk tales offer the opportunity for character-building discussions. Check your public library’s 398.2 (nonfiction) section in the children’s department to find a multitude of such books (but, as always, read the stories yourself before reading them to your students. This will give you the opportunity to verify that the book will work for what you’re trying to learn together). There are other character-building stories available, as well. For example, these: http://www.momentsaday.com/storybooks-that-build-character-printable-activity-pages/
While these books and the folktales are not “Christian” books, many of them offer you the opportunity to talk about virtues and other Christian concepts, within the context of a story.

***

Here is a list of picture books that may be helpful to your class, if you are looking for stories that can encourage discussions on character building. (Again, we encourage you to read these books yourself before sharing them with your students.) https://thecharactercorner.com/15-books-to-teach-character-to-kids/

***

Here are some suggested chapter books that may encourage discussions on character building. While you may not have time to read these books to your students, if you have read them, you can reference them in your lessons, or recommend them to your students if you feel that they are particularly helpful.

https://www.notconsumed.com/chapter-books-teach-moral-lessons/

https://thecharactercorner.com/character-building-books/

***

If you want to read more about encouraging character-building through stories, you may find these books to be a helpful resource: https://www.christianbook.com/honey-for-childs-heart-fourth-edition/gladys-hunt/9780310242468/pd/42463?event=ESRCN|M and https://www.christianbook.com/honey-for-a-teenagers-heart/gladys-hunt/9780310242604/pd/42606?event=ESRCN|M

 

On Creating (and Using) a “Godfulness Jar”

Mindfulness is a buzzword in current culture. One of Merriam-Webster’s definitions for mindfulness is this: “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” Many mindfulness practices encourage focusing your mind on positive thoughts. Unfortunately, the thoughts being promoted are not necessarily compatible with our Orthodox Christian faith.

Some of our students are already experiencing mindfulness training in their school. Some teachers are finding it to be a helpful tool in their classroom. (In fact, it was one teacher’s suggestion of keeping a jar of quotes on hand to help students focus that inspired the idea for the “Godfulness Jar”.)

While affirming our own selves is not what we’re about as Orthodox Christians, the practice of focusing our minds should not be a foreign concept to us. We hear often in the Divine Liturgy a reminder to focus: “Let us attend!” It depends upon what we focus that causes that focus to be for our growth or our downfall. If we are focusing our mind on God and on words that point our mind to Him, that focus is helpful – even essential – to our spiritual growth. But focusing on ourselves and/or what we can do cuts us off from growing closer to God. So, instead of the self-focused affirmations encouraged by many mindfulness practices, we need to choose to fill our minds with Godly thoughts including those found in the scriptures, in prayers, and words spoken by the Church fathers. It is important that we teach our Sunday Church school students to do the same.

If anyone in your class struggles to focus, especially during class time, consider making this simple tool which may be helpful to that end. The “tool” is a “Godfulness” jar, a jar that contains arrow prayers, scriptures, and quotes from Church fathers all aimed at calming and soothing the reader’s thoughts by pointing them to God. Keep the jar in your Sunday Church school classroom, accessible to students who need to take a minute to regroup or focus. They can pull a quote (or picture: see idea for “not-yet-readers” below) to read and think about when they feel a need to calm their mind and focus back on God.

Godfulness Jar Illustration

To make your own “Godfulness” jar, fill a clean, empty jar with quotes that can be drawn out and pondered, whenever one’s mind needs to be calmed, soothed, focused, or quieted. However, instead of loading the jar with slips of paper containing personal affirmations (as is encouraged in some mindfulness circles), include arrow prayers, verses, and quotes from saints. Label the jar “Our Godfulness Jar”, since each item inside points its reader’s mind to focus on God.

 

Godfulness Jar pictoral version

Sunday Church school classes with “not-yet-readers” may wish to create a slightly different “Godfulness Jar”. Instead of slips of paper with a quote, prayer, or verse to be read, collect small icon cards, photos of peaceful places, and pictures from church – such as the candle table, smoke rising from the censor, photos of parts of the iconostasis, etc. These cards and pictures can be pulled out of the jar and “read” as needed by a young person needing to adjust their focus. Place these items in an age-appropriate (plastic or glass) “Godfulness Jar”.

Be sure to keep your “Godfulness Jar” in mind as you pray, read scriptures, and read the Church Fathers. As you do so, over time you will collect more and more quotes to add to it, to replace any that have gone missing. Your jar can help your students fill their thoughts with God and His peace. If you think it would help them, perhaps you will want to lead your students in each creating their own jar to take home!

 

Find a starter set of Godfulness Jar quotes here.

 

Here are a few “Godfulness jar” quotes from the starter set:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Gleanings from a Book: “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly” by Mireille Mishriky, Illustrated by S. Violette Palumbo

Author’s note: Most Sundays, a young friend from church comes to sit with me during coffee hour. He wants to tell about his week, what dinosaurs he learned about, what he and his brothers built with Legos, what games they invented, etc. A few months ago, when he discovered that I have Ms. Mishriky’s “Philo” books loaded into my phone, he (and sometimes a brother or two) began to also ask for a story. I happily comply whenever I can. Imagine my joy when I learned that a new “Philo” book was coming out! I looked forward to reading it myself, but I especially looked forward to reading it to my young friend! On Sunday I finally had a chance to read it to him, and we both enjoyed the story and were challenged to faithfulness through it. I was glad to share this book with him, and now I get to share it with you as well!

“Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly” by Mireille Mishriky is an enjoyable story, just as I anticipated that it would be. But it is more than just a nice picture book. As she did in the other books in the “Philo” series, Ms. Mishriky braces her story with underlying truth, which she presents in a child-friendly and clearly understandable package: that is, in the story of a young Coptic Orthodox boy trying to learn how to juggle his Faith and his daily life.

Philo is an ordinary modern-day boy who meets common modern-day struggles head-on, and learns how to face them in a godly way, with the help of the “SuperHolies” (the fruit of the Spirit, each embodied as a superhero). In “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly”, Philo finds himself at boy scout camp for the first time. He struggles to live out the Faith while in such close proximity to other boys who are not Orthodox Christians. The Faithfulness SuperHoly helps Philo choose to continue to live the Faith, even in a tent with other boys.

Violette Palumbo’s illustrations visually bring Philo to life for the young reader. They are appropriately detailed without overwhelming the eyes. Previous friends of Philo will recognize him right away and anticipate “meeting” another of the SuperHolies, “up close up and personal”. Palumbo adds appropriate touches of humor to the story, as well (i.e.: have a look at Philo’s dad’s face as he helps Philo pack; or the illustration of Philo imagining himself as an old man, telling his grandchildren of his experience). The illustrations add to the story, strengthening it.

Children who read “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly” will find themselves mirrored in Philo in some way or another. They will understand his hesitancy to pray and read scripture in the presence of others who do not believe what they believe. They will be challenged to make the sign of the cross to activate the SuperHolies in their own life when they run into such difficulties. God willing, they will also begin to listen to the Spirit whispering in their ear as He tells them what is right to do, just as Philo “hears” the SuperHolies; and hopefully they will act accordingly. And if the adults in the room are truly listening to the story, they will find themselves beginning to be mindful of these things, as well.

I hope my young friend wants to hear “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly” again. Chances are, he will. And when he asks, I’ll gladly read it to him, not just for the story: but also for the Faithfulness it will inspire in each of us.
The AODCE thanks author Mireille Mishriky for allowing us to see an advanced electronic copy of “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly” so that we could write this review.

To purchase your own copy of “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly” by Mireille Mishriky (or any of the previous Philo books, some of which are available in French and Spanish), you will find it here: https://www.mireillemishriky.com/shop

Here are a few gleanings from “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly”, as well as a few related resources that can help you and your students grow in faithfulness:

***

“‘Always remember to activate your SuperHolies, Philo, not only when you are scared, but also when you can’t make a decision. Always let the Holy Spirit guide you, especially during your camping trip next week,’ advised grandpa.” (p. 7, “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly” by Mireille Mishriky)

***

“‘I won’t need my Bible, Daddy. I won’t have time to read it at night…’ said Philo.
‘There is always time to pray and read your Bible, Philo. Jesus comes first. Everything else comes second,’ said Philo’s father as he placed the Bible inside the bag.” (p. 10, “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly” by Mireille Mishriky)

***

“Philo felt sad. He remembered what his mother often told him. ‘Not everyone loves Jesus, but Jesus loves everyone. Not everyone wants to hear about Jesus, but never stop speaking about His love. You might change someone’s heart without knowing it.’” (p. 13, “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly” by Mireille Mishriky)

***

“Before going to sleep, Philo hesitated. He wanted to pray and read his Bible but he was embarrassed and worried that Tom and the other boys would make fun of him. The tent frame looked like a cross, reminding Philo to activate his SuperHolies.” (p.18, “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly” by Mireille Mishriky)

***

“…the Faithfulness SuperHoly was chosen to help Philo, and she started whispering into Philo’s heart. ‘…You are an example to your friends. Your love for Jesus might make your friends curious about Him. You could be the reason your friends decide to visit a Church or learn more about our Lord.’” (pp. 20-21, “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly” by Mireille Mishriky)

***

Before sharing “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly” with your Sunday Church school class, consider setting up your classroom with a “campfire” for storytelling. Import some rocks for the rock ring, stack a handful of wood pieces for the “fire”, stuff a few yellow/orange/red tissue paper “flames” amidst the wood, and insert a flickering light source (perhaps several battery-operated candles?) in the midst of it all, for atmosphere. When the class enters the room, encourage them to sit around the campfire so that you can share stories. Begin with “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly.” Ask the students some questions about the story, to check their understanding and learning. Be sure to include questions like, “How did Philo’s actions earlier in the evening influence Tom?”; “Have you ever seen your faithfulness to God, demonstrated by your actions, affecting others? How?”; “How would you have handled Philo’s dilemma in the tent?”; and “Have you ever experienced something like Philo’s situation?”

This book is perfect for storytelling, so, while you’re still around the “campfire”, invite them to share their own stories. They can tell a Bible story they know that exhibits faithfulness (besides Daniel and the Lion’s Den, since that one is already taken, in the book!). They can tell of a time when they were able to exhibit faithfulness to God, whether or not it had a happy result like Philo’s. They can tell the story of a saint that they admire for their faithfulness. Each student can choose which type of story to share: but, if possible, they should all share a story, or at least have the opportunity to share one.

If you’d like, you could end the class by having them draw or write about their favorite story of faithfulness.

***

If you have not yet “met” Philo and the SuperHolies, we introduced them (with a few other resources that had just become available) here:

https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2018/08/17/a-handful-of-resources-summer-2018/

***
Learn more about the virtue of faithfulness, including quotes from the scriptures and from the Church fathers, here: https://orthodoxchristianparenting.wordpress.com/2018/06/27/on-pursuing-virtue-faithfulness/
Perhaps some of the insights into this virtue will be helpful as you approach reading “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly” with your Sunday Church school students.

***

After sharing “Philo and the Faithfulness SuperHoly” with your Sunday Church school class, if it seems that your class needs to continue to grow in faithfulness, check out the lesson ideas suggested here: https://orthodoxchurchschoolteachers.wordpress.com/2018/06/29/on-pursuing-virtue-faithfulness/

***

 

Gleanings from a Book: “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich

Do you find yourself ready for a retreat because summer – or life in general – is getting to you? Does life feel stormy, or are there clouds threatening the horizon of your heart? If so, a little spa time is just what you need! We often think of pampering our bodies when we are weary and heavy laden. Sometimes physical rest and relaxation is in order, and it truly helps us. But often afterwards, we get back home and into life again, and we find ourselves right back in a stormy, weary place, wishing we could return to the spa…

What would happen if we would choose to spend our “spa” time and energy on preparing to soothe our soul through prayer? We could then set up an all-encompassing prayer space that ministers to our body as well as our soul. We could also make a plan to restructure our life to include spending time in that space each day, praying.

But how would we go about creating such a space and implementing such a change? “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” offers solutions to this question. The book is full of reasons for us to bathe our souls in peaceful prayer. And it doesn’t simply scold us with reasons to straighten out our prayer life: it gently takes us by the hand, introducing us to practical means to do so.

This book is, in itself, a retreat. Each entry is simultaneously soothing and thought provoking. It is written thoughtfully, and every page is poetry which engages the mind while challenging the reader’s thoughts. Themed chapters help the reader think from a distinctly Orthodox Christian perspective about topics related to prayer. They are as follows: Mind…Body…Soul; The Five Senses; Your Prayer Plan; Inner Stillness; An Offering; The Hours; Tools for Therapy. (Readers will likely find the “Tools for Therapy” chapter to become the most visited chapter. It includes a few ideas for ways to invite your body to join in prayer, as well as pages and pages of prayers, ranging from Psalms for each of the Hours to morning and evening prayers.) The author’s near-exclusive use of lower case is intentional; whispering her ideas and findings instead of shouting them, enhancing their soft allure. The final pages of the book are supplements that include a reproducible prayer card for your daily prayer plan, pages of scripture verses to memorize and pray, and recommended books (featuring an important quote from each) for further growth.

In Orthodoxy, we often invite the world to “come and see” what The Faith is all about. The same applies to this book. Attempting to describe it is one thing: but experiencing it is something else completely. The author’s intent with the book is “to bring the hidden wisdom of early christian luminaries to those in the twenty-first century who may not yet have come to experience this tangible way to love your God, your neighbor, and yourself within the fabric of daily life.” (p. 108) She has succeeded. “Prayer Spa” is at once a tall drink of cool water on a hot day and a sturdy lighthouse in a stormy sea. You may wish to “come and see” for yourself.

Whether or not we adopt all of the ideas in “Prayer Spa,” let us embrace its challenge to be intentional in our prayers. Let us indeed commune with God daily, with our whole self, through prayer, thus nourishing our soul. This is the kind of “spa time” that we truly need. Anchoring our life in prayer brings calm and peace to our souls, even in the storms of life.
Thanks to Paraclete Press for sharing a copy with the AODCE so that we could read it and write this review.

Purchase your own copy here: https://paracletepress.com/products/prayer-spa

(Note: although this book may not be applicable for use with your Sunday church school students, its effect on their teacher will certainly impact their lives for the good! And perhaps it will stir in you ideas for growing prayer in your students’ lives.)

Here are a few gleanings from the book:

***

“train your mind to pierce

through the roar of voices

undistracted, to a single focus.

this recalls the stillness of the desert

where our monastic fathers and mothers

honed their communion with a personal God…

 

…massage your attention span

to align and extend its reach.

memorize prayers, scriptures, and psalms

to lift mind and soul

wrap them in together in white cloth.” (p. 15, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

***

“prayer is a way toward theosis—union with God

sharing in His divine nature, through grace.

this is a long, narrow pathway

which must be sought after with great humility and perseverance.

 

yet spiritual refreshment is available to any person

who wishes to partake in the tangible beauty

of a life seeking the Holy in this grace-infused world.” (pp. 28- 29, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

***

“at the beginning, you must force yourself to pray

but soon, prayer becomes essential to a day well lived.” (p. 33, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

***

“…by carrying God’s presence deep in the center of your heart

you may one day become, through grace

a person who has been turned into prayer.” (p. 47, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

***

“father anthony bloom taught a method

for gathering the crumbs of wasted time

and transforming them into something holy.

 

the secret of this contemplative exercise is to find joy

simply being with God

as you listen for His voiceless presence  within your heart.” (p. 48, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

***

“a fourth-century aid to contemplative prayer

the christian prayer rope is a way to offer time

kairos time, in the moment … not chronos time, by the clock

 

traditionally it is tied with knots made of nine crosses

one cross representing each order of the angels

 

to use the prayer rope, simply repeat the Jesus Prayer

while moving from knot to knot with the thumb and forefinger…” (p. 56, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

***

“as creatures contained in time, we can sanctify our days

savor the remembrance of God

by praying “the hours.”

 

the “major hours” consist of morning and evening prayers.

 

you may choose to expand your offering to include

the seven “divine services” throughout the day

spoken on their designated hour, or adjusted to fit your schedule.” (p. 66, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

***

“if you have children, let them catch you praying.

share these short remembrances of God with them.

let them discover your own yearning for prayer

as a treat you quietly prioritize each day.

remember, you too are a child of God, beloved.” (p. 69, “Prayer Spa: Ancient Treatments for the Modern Soul” by Jennifer Anna Rich)

***