Category Archives: Christian Faith

Gleanings From a Book: “Everything Tells Us About God” by Katherine Bolger Hyde

Author’s note: This book is so eye-catching! As soon as I saw it, I was excited! The illustrations are so appealing. The book’s backstory adds to its intrigue. I couldn’t wait to crack it open and read it! However, I had other writing that needed to happen, so when the book arrived, I reluctantly set it on the shelf to wait until now. It was hard to not peek, but I prefer to write about a book right after reading it, so I forced myself to wait. It was well worth the wait. This is a delightful book.

This beautiful book invites engagement at a glance. The cover sets the tone for the book: it creates an expectation for beauty, variety, and a joyful revelling in God’s generosity with His people. And then, upon opening the book, the end paper catches the reader’s eye. It is a golden, nearly-completed puzzle. But why is one piece missing? And what does this have to do with the title? Before even reading a word, the reader is curious and determined to know more!

The book begins by telling the reader that the world is like a giant puzzle. God made this puzzle to tell us about Himself. He designed each piece – each part of the world – to help us learn some of His secrets. When we really look at the pieces, we can learn about Him through them!

Page after engaging page, the book points out different things in our world and how God uses them to teach us about Himself. For example, the sun tells us we can’t live without God because His love warms our hearts and helps us to grow closer to Him. The food that we eat reminds us that God always makes sure we have what we need, and that He always takes care of us. The animals tell us about God Himself: elephants help us see how mighty God is; hens and chicks remind us of how He cares for us; doves remind us of how the Holy Spirit brings us peace; etc.

Livia Coloji’s charming illustrations simultaneously cheer the reader and invite interaction. Bright colors, playful perspectives, and soft edges all help the reader to feel the warm message of the text. Readers can savor the images as well as the words. The first time through the book, the reader looks forward to turning the page to unveil the next illustration and the next piece of the puzzle. Every reading after that, the reader anticipates the illustrations, revisiting old friends.

The book concludes by answering the initial question. The missing piece in the puzzle of God’s world is each of us! He gives us life so that we can be part of His puzzle. He wants to show the world part of Himself through us! When we love and serve God, we are able to be a puzzle piece to those around us!

The author’s note at the end of the book offers the reader a glimpse at its backstory. The concept of this book was initially presented to Ancient Faith Publishing by Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory. He had written of a conversation with an elderly bishop on an airport run one day. As they drove, the bishop kept pointing things out in the world around them, and talking about how each thing pointed us to God. Katherine Hyde sent Fr. Thomas her rendition of his idea, but it got lost in the shuffle over the years. Fr. Thomas’ family has given their permission for her to publish it, so now we can read this book and marvel at God’s willingness to reveal Himself to us, one piece at a time!

The end paper at the back of the book shows a completed golden puzzle. The reader now knows why the piece was missing and can see how beautiful the puzzle is with all of its pieces in place. Glory to God for including each of us in the puzzle of His world!

Purchase a copy of this book for your Sunday Church School classroom here:

Here are some gleanings from the book, as well as ideas of ways to use it in your classroom:
“The sun tells us that nothing can live without God… His warmth fills our hearts, and His love shines on us every day.” (from “Everything Tells Us About God,” by Katherine Bolger Hyde)
“The water we drink tells us Christ is our life…” (from “Everything Tells Us About God,” by Katherine Bolger Hyde)
“Rocks tell us Christ is as strong as a boulder… Nothing and no one can ever defeat Him or make him stop loving us.” (from “Everything Tells Us About God,” by Katherine Bolger Hyde)
“Small things, like flowers… tell us God cares about every detail of His creation.” (from “Everything Tells Us About God,” by Katherine Bolger Hyde)
“Animals… tell us what God is like… The mother hen tells us He cares for us.” (from “Everything Tells Us About God,” by Katherine Bolger Hyde)
“Schools… tell us Christ is our Teacher… And He Himself is the perfect student of God the Father: He always does His Father’s will.” (from “Everything Tells Us About God,” by Katherine Bolger Hyde)
“The people we meet… tell us Jesus became human, just like us.” (from “Everything Tells Us About God,” by Katherine Bolger Hyde)
“Some years ago, Fr. Tom Hopko submitted to Ancient Faith Publishing a story… In this story… a young Fr. Tom drove an elderly bishop to the airport, hoping to engage in some deep theological conversation along the way. Instead, the bishop humbly and simply pointed out how everything they passed had something to tell us about the nature of God.” (a bit of the back story of the book, from “Everything Tells Us About God,” by Katherine Bolger Hyde)
Teachers of young students may want to share “Everything Tells Us About God” and then allow the students to color this coloring page from the book:
Teachers of early elementary will want to share “Everything Tells Us About God” with their class, and then engage in a discussion. What “puzzle piece” from the book did they like, and why? How does God reveal Himself to them? If possible, take the class outside for a short walk around the Church building, stopping from time to time to notice “puzzle pieces” that God has placed around your Church, pointing you to Himself. Back in the classroom, invite the students to think of their own “puzzle piece” and draw or write about it on this printable pdf.
Older elementary classes can begin the class with a 100-piece nature puzzle waiting for them as they arrive in the classroom. Students can work together to assemble the puzzle, then admire the scene. Talk about how each piece of that puzzle is important; how it would not be complete without any of them. Share “Everything Tells Us About God” with the class. Ask them what they think the correlation is between the book and the puzzle. How does this book change how we see the world?
Before reading “Everything Tells Us About God” with your students, hand each of them a blank puzzle. Provide watercolor paints, markers, and/or colored pencils and invite them to write a message or create (right on the puzzle) an image that makes them happy. Share the book with them while the images dry. Then have them turn the puzzle over, and on the back of each piece, ask them to write the name of something or someone in their life that points them to God. Who/what are the pieces that God uses in their life to draw them closer to Himself?

(find blank puzzles online – for example, this one:;
or in a local craft store – for example, this one:



Gleanings from a Book: “Time and Despondency” by Dr. Nicole Roccas

As soon as this book arrived in the mail, I resolved to read it and share some gleanings from it with this community. My thought process was somewhere along the lines of: “It will be great for parents and teachers to read this book so they can help their despondent kids.” In my mind’s eye, this book had the makings of an excellent tool for young people or for adults with teens in their life.

I was right.

And I was wrong.

Nicole Roccas’ “Time and Despondency” takes the reader on a journey through time and thought as it addresses the relationship between time and despondency, which is “no less than a perpetual attempt by the mind to flee from the present moment, to disregard the gift of God’s presence at each juncture of time and space.” (p. 15) The book offers much to ponder, including quotes from church fathers and other noted Christian authors, all pointing to the fact that despondency is a real problem for Christians. Not just teens and young adults encounter despondency. It is a struggle for Christians of all ages. Parents and teachers, too. Myself included.

But this book does not merely shake a finger in the face of its readers, scolding them for not caring or for abandoning the present or God, Who meets us in the present. Rather, the book extends grace to the reader. It encourages them to do the same to themselves and to others. Then it walks the reader through a host of ideas of ways to begin to heal and step away from despondency; whether with counter statements from scripture or with stepping stones built on virtues and disciplines.

As it turns out, I needed to read this book. Perhaps someday it will be helpful to me as I relate to the teens and young adults in my life. But right now, I needed to read this for my own salvation. Maybe once I have “removed the log from my own eye” I can begin to help others. I encourage you to read it, as well, so that we can journey together out of despondency and back to the present, where we find – and connect with – God.

You can purchase a copy of “Time and Despondency” here:

Listen to Dr. Nicole Rocca’s podcast here:

Find her blog here:

Note: when I read a book so that I can write a “Gleanings” blog post, I mark potential quotes to share by adhering sticky notes beside the quote. When I take a photo of the book to use for the blog’s illustration, I usually remove those sticky notes. This book, however, is so highly quotable that it garnered many, many sticky notes. I left them in the book for this illustration photo so that you can see for yourself that the gleanings I am sharing are not nearly all of the ones I’d have liked to share! There is so much to ponder in this book. Here are some gleanings from it:

“‘Despondency is the impossibility to see anything good or positive; it is the reduction of everything to negativism and pessimism. […] Despondency is the suicide of the soul because when man is possessed by it, he is absolutely unable to see the light and desire it.’” (Dr. Nicole Roccas quoting Alexander Schmemann, “Time and Despondency”, p. 23)
“Despondency has an infinite array of disguises and symptoms. Among the most universal signs is inner restlessness, yet this can present itself in countless ways, depending on the person. For some, the restlessness makes it problematic to sit alone, to read a book to completion, to pray for any length or intensity, or to finish a task at work. Others can perform all of these activities but find themselves hounded by a stubborn anger or boredom while doing so. For still others, despondency begins as an inclination towards sleep, eating, distraction, or worry.”
(Dr. Nicole Roccas, “Time and Despondency”, p.26)
“Just as the poison of spiritual sickness begins in the soul, so too does healing. Even after despondency has affected the body or those around us, restoration starts within us and unfolds a new directions to revive all aspects of a person’s self and life…. In other words the restoration of a single human soul has almost limitless transformative effects that ripple throughout the rest of the world.” (Dr. Nicole Roccas, “Time and Despondency”, pp.34-35 )
“Time is the dimensional fabric that allows relationship and action to happen. Without it, there would be little prospect of communion, forgiveness, or change of heart—all life-giving possibilities hinge on the interaction of time and eternity in the here and now of our existence. When we begin to look at these two realms from the vantage point of Christ and human relationship, it seems that eternity is not as far off as we often assume. In fact, eternal life—and with it, healing from despondency—begins when we start to exercise that capacity to ‘realize’ life while we live it every, every minute…” (Dr. Nicole Roccas, “Time and Despondency”, p. 44)
“…time affords us: the opportunity to turn toward (or away from) God, life, love, and goodness. Like a lover or a friend, God left space for a path back to relationship. In the fullness of time, Christ entered our world to pave this path for our sake. His Incarnation and Resurrection open the door for us, as God’s creatures, to ‘redeem time’…” (Dr. Nicole Roccas, “Time and Despondency”, p. 48)
“Viktor Frankl wrote, ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.’ Lest these words be dismissed as cliche, it’s worth mentioning that Frankl honed his thinking on human psychology while a prisoner in Auschwitz. Whenever I make excuses for my attitude, this quotation offers a suitable reality check.” (Dr. Nicole Roccas, “Time and Despondency”, p. 61)
“The opposite of this despondent condition is not happiness nor jubilation, but rather love—a turning outward from the self to one’s neighbor, God, and Eternity. The latter is crucial; in the view of the Church Fathers, the “every, every minute” we fail to realize in this life consists not merely of love or beauty but of eternity itself. Time then, becomes not only the vehicle of relationship and eternity, but the path of transformation we can travel to get there.” (Dr. Nicole Roccas, “Time and Despondency”, p. 65)
“Every day, every moment is accounted for in the church, and not just on an abstract levels but physically and concretely through the fasts, feasts, and seasons, all of which seek to manifest Christ in and through time. The Church calls not just our minds but our whole being and all our wandering loose ends back into existence, back into presence… Every juncture of sacred time links us to the Incarnation, the reaching of Eternity into this world, and in doing so, unites us not only to Christ but to the realization of are very selves as icons of Him. (Dr. Nicole Roccas, “Time and Despondency”, p. 88)
“Prayer is like a coin with two sides, doing and being. The ‘doing’ of prayer includes all the externalities—the words we articulate (audibly or not), the candles we light, the prostrations we make, the spaces we designate for prayer. In Orthodox Christianity, we have an abundance of highly developed rituals and practices to help us cultivate the journey inward. We sometimes burn incense, or use prayer ropes, or set certain corners of our homes apart for prayer. These rituals are not meant to be rote or mindless, but to nourish reverence and to remind us that we are incarnational beings—our bodies must learn to pray as well as our minds.” (Dr. Nicole Roccas, “Time and Despondency”, p. 98)
“We may not have chosen our disease, we may have no control over its remedy, but we can still choose to remain rather than to resist. ‘Abide in Me,’ Christ beckons us (John 15:4)—Stay. Endure. Surrender. Anyone in the midst of great pain knows it is a thousand times harder to accept this invitation than to give our hearts over to bitterness or despair. To stay with Christ where we are (rather than to seek Him where we are not) requires surrender and longsuffering, both of which move us to choose between him or hardness of heart.” (Dr. Nicole Roccas, “Time and Despondency”, p. 122)
“I’m of the opinion that the inverse of thanksgiving is not ingratitude but rumination, a relentless mental preoccupation with resolving the unfavorable aspects of our circumstances… Among other things, it suggests we may be living too much in our minds—that our mind is not dwelling in our heart, but oppressing it.”(Dr. Nicole Roccas, “Time and Despondency”, p. 141)
“Work that is good for the soul is hard enough that the mind must focus on it, but easy enough that the work can be sustained for long periods of time… There is a humble creativity in performing ordinary tasks like making the bed or folding clothes… When we can manage such tasks with even a hint of grace and care, they are transfigured into something holy.”
(Dr. Nicole Roccas, “Time and Despondency”, pp. 151-152.)
“…one of the most beautiful things about sacredness is that it’s not all or nothing—it comes to us in small, ordinary things and times, and asks us to see the holy in finite moments. For whatever reason, we humans can only understand or encounter holiness in small morsels at a time—in a chalice, a piece of bread, a sip of wine. Any encounter with the sacred reminds us that it is enough to start somewhere, anywhere—it is enough to put one foot forward, to turn to Christ for one real moment. Wherever we begin, Real Life will seep out into the other areas of our existence.” (Dr. Nicole Roccas, “Time and Despondency”, pp. 166-167)
“The liturgies of the Orthodox Church are punctuated countless ties by a simple supplication: ‘Lord, have mercy.’ To modern ears, such a prayer may sound stifling and self-diminishing: is God really so vengeful we must beg His forbearance at every turn? But in Orthodox conceptions, mercy is the balm of salvation, and to ask it of God affirms that He is merciful and loving in the first place.” (Dr. Nicole Roccas, “Time and Despondency”, p. 175)
“Redundant as it seems, worship in the liturgy turns time into a pilgrimage back—not back to our shame and feebleness, but through our feebleness and back to engagement, back to communion, back to Christ, one Kyrie eleison at a time.” (Dr. Nicole Roccas, “Time and Despondency”, p. 175)


Several Divine Liturgy Resources for Young Children

We have previously shared the lovely board book “What Do You See at Liturgy?” by Kristina Kallas-Tartara. As we mentioned in that blog post, the book consists of a gentle rhyme paired with pictures of what a child will see when they go to the Divine Liturgy. We continue to recommend this book as a helpful tool to help little ones enter into the service when their attention needs to be redirected.

Recently, it came to our attention that Kristina has written a second beautiful board book for young children, and that she has created other useful resources as well. The second book she has written is called “What Can I Do at Liturgy?” It carefully walks a child through the liturgy, emphasizing the things that they can do. Too often, children experience the “can’ts” in church. It is easy for us adults to slip into “can’t” mode when shepherding young ones through the Liturgy. We say things like, “No, you can’t run around right now; You can’t go out for a fifth drink of water; You can’t make siren noises as you pretend to put out the fires you see;” etc. This book offers us the opportunity to find and encourage the “cans.” Every page is full of pictures and suggestions of all that children CAN do (and SHOULD do) during the Liturgy. From lighting a candle to signing themselves with the cross to communing to looking at icons to singing, praying, and sharing. This book is packed full of suggestions of things that the children can do in the liturgy! Here is an example: one spread shows a series of Orthodox children, each doing part of the sign of the cross. 26805494_10213524190090905_3951597830320811227_nThey’re ordered sequentially, and using a hand that young readers will mirror to correctly make the sign of the cross. (What a brilliant idea, to use the left hands of the children in the photos so that the readers will naturally mirror it and use their right hand!) We highly recommend this beautiful and useful book to any parent, godparent, or Sunday Church School teacher who is helping young children to more fully participate in the divine services.

The author has another fine resource which we recently discovered. She used the photos that were taken to create her two charming books to create an Orthodox “memory” game! The durable “chunky” photo cards can be utilized in a variety of ways. Parents and teachers can employ the cards for vocabulary review, to play a matching game, or to play a number of other games. Directions for 6 different games and 4 fun classroom activities are included with the card set. This little set of cards will be used again and again by families and Sunday Church School teachers. They offer a fun way to learn, and are yet another way to “bring home the faith” with children.

And last, but not least, Kristina Kallas-Tartara has a blog called “Raising Orthodox Christians”. Its byline is “Helping Children Experience the Orthodox Faith”. On this site, you will find activities, lessons, recipes, and more. Parents and teachers will find ideas for educating their children and students at this site, and may want to follow the blog so as not to miss new resources that she posts! Check out her blog site here:

We hope that you find these resources helpful. What other Liturgy resources for small children do you recommend to the community?


If you missed the blog post introducing “What Do You See at Liturgy?”, find it here:

Find Kristina Kallas-Tartara’s book “What do You See at Liturgy?” here: .

Kristina Tartara’s book “What Can I Do at Divine Liturgy?” is available here:


In case you missed it, a few years ago we shared some thoughts on how important it is for children to be part of the Divine Liturgy in this blog post:

In case you missed it, this blog post offers ideas of ways to help children participate in the Divine Liturgy:

To purchase the Orthodox Matching Game, visit:



On the Liturgical Year for Teachers: Great Lent (part 4 of 7)

This series of blog posts will offer basic information and resources regarding the liturgical year. It is our hope that Sunday Church School teachers will find this series helpful as they live the liturgical year with their students. The series will follow the church year in sections, as divided in the book “The Year of Grace of the Lord: a Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church” by a monk of the Eastern Church. May God bless His Church throughout this year!

Great Lent consists of the 40 days leading to Holy Week, which, in turn, immediately precedes Pascha. Since its early days, Great Lent has been observed as a time of penitence, spiritual growth, and illumination. Although it is a time of great spiritual struggle, it is also a time of deep joy for Orthodox Christians, as we prepare our hearts to experience Christ’s Passion and Resurrection.

In the early centuries, Church practice included baptizing people at the Paschal Vigil. This was also when Christians who had gone astray and returned to the Faith were reconciled to the Church. In order to train and prepare these people for joining (or re-joining) the Church, an “intense period of preparation, which included fasting, began forty days before Holy Week… it gradually became a universal institution, observed by catechumens and faithful alike for its salutary effects on the life of the Christian community.” (1)  

The monk-author of “The Year of Grace of the Lord” points out that the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts reminds us that “Lent… commemorates Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, those forty years during which the chosen people…went forward with faith towards the far-off promised land…” (2, p. 109) He goes on to remind us that these years (as well as during Great Lent), God’s people relied on Him fully, and He provided physically with food as well as spiritually with His presence, the Ten Commandments, and many miracles. The monk continues, “Lent recalls the forty days that the Lord Jesus spent in the desert during which he contended with Satan, the tempter. Our Lent must also be a period of fighting against temptation… During the time of Lent, the Church leads us, as if by the hand, towards the radiant paschal feast. The more serious our Lenten preparation has been, the deeper we shall enter into the mystery of Easter and gather its fruits.” (2, p. 110)

Bishop Kallistos Ware said, “The primary aim of Great Lent is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God.” (1) We are encouraged to focus on three things during Great Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lent is a time for repentance, that we may turn from sins and earthly cares to focus our whole being on Christ and His glorious resurrection, which heals us completely. This truth grants us great joy amidst the struggles we encounter during Lent.

“Let us begin the lenten time with delight.. Let us fast from passions as we fast from food, taking pleasure in the good words of the spirit, that we may be granted to see the holy passion of Christ our God and his holy Pascha, spiritually rejoicing.” (from Vesper Hymns)

Let us participate fully in the life of the Church throughout Great Lent. As we do, let us also struggle to properly prepare our hearts and the hearts of our students for Holy Week and Pascha. If we do, when we arrive at the Feast of feasts, we will be prepared and filled with joy!


  1. Calivas, Rev. Alciviadis C., Th.D., (1985, 8/13). “Orthodox Worship”. Retrieved from
  2. A monk of the Eastern Church. The Year of Grace of the Lord. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press; 2001.


Here are some related links, including ideas for teaching students about Great Lent:


Here is a blog post about Forgiveness Vespers, the beautiful way in which we begin Great Lent:


This blog post suggests ways to help your students begin Lent well. It includes links to resources such as a daily lenten calendar that helps families learn about the themes of Great Lent with suggested activities for each day, among others.


This blog post about the Presanctified Liturgy is geared towards families, but could be helpful to share with your students’ parents to help encourage them to attend these Lenten liturgies:


During Great Lent, we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. Here’s a blog post that can help you teach your students about this feast!

(An additional helpful resource is the quarterly publication “Blessed Children,” published by St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral, Pittsburgh, PA. Volume 4, Issue 1 is all about the Annunciation and contains articles related to it: ranging from the icon to the church of the Annunciation to a challenge to say “Yes!” just like the Theotokos did.)


The second Sunday of Great Lent is the Sunday of St. Gregory of Palamas. This blog post may be helpful as you help your students learn more about him:


The fourth Sunday of Great Lent is the Sunday of St. John Climacus. Here’s a blog post that could be helpful as you prepare to teach your students about him:


The issue of “Little Falcons” magazine that is called “Fasts” is filled with articles related to fasting. “What Can We Do for Great Lent?” (pp. 20-21) offers practical suggestions of things children can begin to do during Great Lent to grow closer to God and to be more like Christ. It would make a fabulous discussion starter near the beginning of Lent; and your class could return to it later in the fast, to give yourselves a “checkup” as to how you are doing in these areas. “Fasts” is Issue #30 of Little Falcons. It is available as a back issue here:

Gleanings From a Book: “Sasha and the Dragon” by Laura E. Wolfe

Author’s note: I would have loved to have read (and re-read) this book with my children when they were younger! “Sasha and the Dragon” is a powerful story of a boy who conquers his fears with the help of St. Michael the Archangel. Although it is a picture book, “Sasha and the Dragon” is appropriate for Orthodox Christians of many ages because of all that the book addresses. This story opens the door for conversations about how strange a new country feels to the person entering it; what to do when you are alone and afraid at night; the reality of the saints’ readiness to come to our aid if we ask them to; and how the light of Christ illumines our world when we invite Him to do so!

Sasha has just moved to New York City from Russia. He misses the familiarity of his old village near the river: its sights, smells, and sounds. He felt safe there, and close to God. His new home, however,  is filled with shadows and seemingly uncaring people. It is grey and cold, and no one seems to know or love God or His saints. Other boys his age seem to mock Sasha at every turn instead of befriending him. Even his new house is not a very comforting place: his Baba who used to sing to him lies still in a scary room at the end of the hall. Sasha is afraid of everything in New York City.

Night time is the scariest for Sasha. Even though he signs himself with the cross before going to bed, he always feels the grey, unfamiliar shadows of the city lurking. One night, as Sasha lies in bed trying to go to sleep, he hears sounds under his bed, which he discovers to be a huge dragon. To his dismay, the dragon comes out from beneath his bed. Sasha is terrified and just wants to hide under the covers. Instead, he finds the courage to do all the right things: he kisses the cross he is wearing and then prays for help! An icon of the Archangel Michael hangs on the wall by Sasha’s bed, and Sasha is confident of the Archangel’s help. He asks St. Michael to kill the dragon with his sword.

As the dragon approaches, St. Michael’s icon begins to radiate heavenly light into the dark room. He races out of the icon on his great red steed and kills the dragon with his sword. As he does so, the room is filled with peace and hope. Sasha drifts happily to sleep. The next morning he wakes to find a slash from the dragon’s claw still remaining in the floor of his room, covered with a golden feather from St. Michael’s wings.

That very morning Sasha begins to notice and enjoy New York’s colors and good smells. A scarlet feather drifts into his hand as he walks. When he meets up with two of the mocking boys, instead of cowering or retreating, he surprises them by offering the feather to them. Sasha even braves the spooky hallway to take the golden feather to his Baba. Her delighted smile encourages Sasha, and he begins to sing to her, for he is no longer afraid!

This story is a delight, and Nicholas Malara’s drawings fit it perfectly. The art in this book is part “normal” picture book, part superhero story. The figures that are the most realistic are the accurately styled icons found on some of the pages. The tone of the illustrations changes from gloomy greys and muted colors at the beginning of the story to cheery bright colors at the end. This change is clearly intentional, and it greatly strengthens the story.

“Sasha and the Dragon” is an excellent addition to an Orthodox Sunday Church School’s library. It has a great story which also presents multiple possibilities for classroom discussion. It can be used with students of varied age levels, because it offers opportunities to discuss so many different relevant topics for children of different ages.

“Sasha and the Dragon”  is available from Ancient Faith Publishing here:

Here are a few discussion ideas and suggestions of ways to learn together with your students after reading “Sasha and the Dragon”:

If you have younger students, consider bringing a few basic props to class when you share this story. After you have read it to the class, invite them to act it out as you re-read. Possible props: a beanie and/or jacket for “Sasha;” a head covering for his mom; head covering and blanket for Baba; shawls/hats/baskets/etc for other New Yorkers; hats for the “mean boys”; icon of St. Michael that someone can hold “in Sasha’s room”; blanket and pillow for Sasha’s bed; dark gloves and hoodie for “dragon”; plastic sword for “St. Michael”; a red feather; a “gold” feather (spray paint or spread glue on a feather, then sprinkle it with golden glitter)
After acting it out, talk together about the story and what we can learn from it. Help each student to create their own gold feather and/or St. Michael icon to put in their room to remind them of his constant watching and willingness to help if we ask him to do so.


How does a new world feel to those entering it? Have you ever gone someplace completely different? Did those around you speak your language? Is anyone near you experiencing this right now? How can you help them feel most welcomed instead of making fun of them (as the boys did to Sasha in the book)?

With middle-years or older students, talk about why many Russians immigrated to the United States around the time that “Sasha and the Dragon” appears to take place. Look online to find some ideas and additional information. (For example, offers a short description along with actual photographs.) Discuss what it would be like to come into a completely foreign place and try to live there. Then think of any refugees that you already know, or look into how you could connect with refugees who have recently settled in your area and may feel like Sasha did in the story. Brainstorm ways to make them feel at home. Select one of those ways and do it!


“Sasha’s Dragon” features a little boy who has recently moved to New York. Perhaps he was a refugee. Help your students learn about what a refugee is (if the term is new to them), and how a refugee’s life changes radically when they arrive in their new place. This (non-Orthodox, but helpful) website suggests a activities and lessons you may wish to share with your students in a discussion about refugees:


Who is St. Michael? Learn more about him on the page dedicated to him in the back of “Sasha and the Dragon.” Look up other icons of him and compare them to the one in Sasha’s room. Read a real-life miracle that St. Michael and his spear caused to happen here:


Discuss the following with your Sunday Church School students: What does our priest mean when he says at every Divine Liturgy, “The light of Christ illumines all!” and how does that affect us? What does it mean for our life? In what way does the light of Christ illumine Sasha’s life in the story “Sasha and the Dragon”? If your students are older, you can share this article (quoting Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory) as part of your discussion:

With older children, discuss the story. Also talk about the meaning/symbolism behind the story and many of the illustrations. For example:

  1. In the beginning of the story, everything in Sasha’s world is dark, grey, hushed, shadowed, and Sasha’s baba’s room “smells like the dead crow he had found at the park”. Why do you suppose it is this way? Do the shadows reflect how Sasha feels in any way? How do the pictures in the beginning of the book make you feel?
  2. Sasha sees dragon shadows everywhere at the beginning of the story. They are not mentioned in the story, per se, but show up in the illustrations. How many dragon shadows can you find in the book? What do  you suppose is the reason that the illustrator included these shadows in these illustrations? What do you think they represent?
  3. How do the other children respond to Sasha at the beginning of the story? Why do you suppose they do that? Does Sasha like it? How do you know? Have you ever felt that way around other children?
  4. What does Sasha do to help calm his fears? What do you do when YOU feel afraid? Can you tell about a time when you did something just like Sasha does, and it helped you? Why do you think it helped?
  5. The dragon in Sasha’s room was very real to Sasha! Do dragons exist in the world? What do you think Sasha’s dragon was or represents? Do you have any “dragons” in your life?
  6. Why did Sasha turn to St. Michael for help with the dragon in his room? What do you know about St. Michael that makes him a good saint to ask for help with your own “dragons”?
  7. What other saints can help us with the “dragons” in our life? How can we get them to help us?
  8. The illustrations in the book make us look hard at the difference between God and His angels and saints and satan and his “helpers” (for example, in this book, the dragon). How do the illustrations help you to see the difference between the two? Does that difference appropriately illustrate the difference in real life?
  9. Sasha does something that shows his complete trust in St. Michael’s ability to save him. What does he do? When you are feeling afraid and attacked, to whom do you turn? Do you have the courage to trust God and His saints fully to help you in those times? Why or why not? Try to remember Sasha kneeling on his bed, pointing right at the dragon, and shouting, “Kill it with your sword!” every time you are feeling afraid!
  10. How does St. Michael enter Sasha’s bedroom? Why do you think the author included smells and sounds in her description of his entrance? How does it make you feel about St. Michael’s presence with Sasha?
  11. Describe St. Michael’s victory over the dragon. If you were there, what would you have thought? Did St. Michael accomplish what Sasha asked him to do, or did he accomplish even more? What makes you think that?
  12. Is Sasha’s life any different after St. Michael kills the dragon in his room? Just by looking at the picture, how can you tell?
  13. Sasha finds a feather on a gash in his floor. What is special about the feather? How would you feel if you found a feather like that in your room? What would you do with it if you found one?
  14. How does Sasha’s world change on the morning after St. Michael’s visit? Describe what Sasha sees as he goes out for a walk with his mother. Is anything different? What is missing?
  15. What does Sasha do with the two feathers he receives? Why do you suppose he does that? How do the others feel after they receive a feather from Sasha?
  16. Compare the first illustration in the book to the last page of Sasha’s story. Are these illustrations alike or different? How so? And how did it happen that they came to be that way? Then compare Sasha at the beginning of the book to himself at the end. Is he the same, or different? How can you tell?


“Sasha and the Dragon” author Laura Wolfe has created lesson plans (for varying ages) which incorporate her book. The plans can be used to teach about “arrow prayers”, big feelings, and helping others. Find them here for use with your SCS class:

On Acts 2:42: “They Continued Steadfastly in the Apostles’ Doctrine and Fellowship, in the Breaking of Bread, and in Prayers.”

Note: the Antiochian Archdiocese’s Creative Arts Festival 2018’s theme is the inspiration for this blog post. We will take a closer look at the theme, to help to prepare our students for the festival in case they will be participating. Whether or not they participate, what we can learn from this passage in the book of Acts is applicable to all of us, not just the children participating in the festival!

The 2018 Creative Arts Festival for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America is focused on Acts 2:42, “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” If our Sunday Church School class is participating in this festival, we need to understand what this verse means before we will be able to illustrate or write about it accurately. Actually, regardless of whether or not our students will participate in the festival, this passage is worth a look. It helps us to think about our roots as the Orthodox Christian Church, and gives us an idea of how the apostles lived, which can serve as an example to us today.

We will begin by looking at the verse itself. Our Sunday Church School students may need us to define some of the words in the verse before they can begin to understand it. The unfamiliar words in this verse can be explained in very simple terms like these:

“Continued” means they kept on doing something without stopping

“Steadfastly” means firmly, without turning away or quitting

“Doctrine” means a set of teachings or beliefs

“Fellowship” means friends spending time together, hanging out

So it could read something like this, “They kept on going firmly without stopping, following the teachings of the apostles and hanging out together, breaking bread and praying.” The simpler terminology might help our students understand the gist of the verse, but part of the verse has innuendos that our children will not catch unless we look at the verse through the eyes of experts.

So, let’s look at the verse as it is explained by trusted Orthodox scholars. The Orthodox Study Bible’s notes on this verse state that “Central elements of Orthodox worship—apostolic teaching, liturgical prayer and the Eucharist—are present from the very beginning of the Church.” It goes on to explain that the prayers referenced in the verse were the liturgical prayers of the Church, and that “the breaking of the bread” refers to the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. In other words, from the very beginning of the Church, the Christians stood firm in what the apostles taught, fellowshipped together, partook of the Eucharist and prayed the liturgical prayers of the Church.

The Orthodox Christian church, begun by the apostles themselves, has continued in this steadfastness and passed it along from generation to generation. We know that today we still have the opportunity to follow the apostles’ doctrine, while also experiencing the opportunity for fellowship, Communion, and prayers when we gather together. So, essentially, this verse gives us an idea of how our Faith should look: full of steadfast belief in the scriptures and traditions handed down by the apostles all the way to our current bishops and priests; hanging out with our Church family to encourage, challenge, and purify each other; and regularly partaking of the gifts offered to us in the Church: especially Holy Eucharist and prayers. The verse also reaffirms that our Faith is The Faith: for it is as old as the early Church! What a blessing it is to be part of that Church today!

Let us, therefore, have as our goal to also “continue steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.”

Here are some ideas of ways to help our students (whether or not they will be participating in the aforementioned Creative Arts Festival) to learn about this passage:


If your parish will be participating in the Creative Arts Festival, you can find information about it here:


Did you know that the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education has already provided a lesson plan about the Creative Arts Festival theme for your Sunday Church School students? Find lessons at all levels, which can be used for any age student who is elegible to participate in the festival, here:


Find creative and fun suggestions of ways to help your students to think about the theme throughout the year here:


There are a myriad of ways your students can interpret this year’s Creative Arts Festival theme. Find an inspiring list here:

Suggestions include:
*Depictions of early Christians worshipping
* People worshipping during Divine Liturgy today
*Receiving Holy Communion
*Learning about things Jesus taught the Apostles by listening to the Epistle and Gospel readings
*Helping one another like the early Christians did by donating food or clothing, serving at a homeless shelter, etc.

This non-Orthodox-but-helpful lesson that includes Acts 2:42 offers several wonderfully hands-on learning activities that you and your students can do to interact with this scripture.
Of course not all of the suggestions will work in an Orthodox context, so you will need to be selective or make adjustments. For example, the students can’t prepare the Eucharist, as suggested, but they could help prepare prosphora, and perhaps your priest would be willing to do a demonstration of how he prepares the Eucharist, or do a “teaching liturgy” so that they could learn how the Eucharist is prepared.)


Teach your students the Creative Festivals theme song (found here: After singing it a few times together, look closely at the words. Talk about them together, comparing the stanzas to see how the early Church and the Church today are alike. Ask your students to share other ways (not mentioned in the song) that we are like the early Christians. Are there any ways that we are different? If so, should we change any of those ways? Why or why not? Before dismissing the class, take a field trip to the fellowship hall or to find your priest and sing the song for them, encouraging the rest of your Church family to keep working towards living like the early Christians did, as well!


Gleanings from a Book: “Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent” by Elissa Bjeletich

Author’s note: This book has been sitting on my shelf for a few months – ever since the author sent it my way. I promised to read it and share it with you, but wanted to wait until nearer the time of the Nativity Fast so that it would be more fresh in our minds as the fast approaches. Every time I saw the book sitting there waiting for me I inwardly smiled as I anticipated reading it. The Nativity Fast is the one we anticipate next, and we can begin to think about it, so I finally allowed myself to pull this book off of my shelf and read it! As expected, it did not disappoint.

This book reminds me of just how very much I love stories from the Scriptures. From Creation to Noah to Abraham to Joseph, on through the kings and prophets, all the way to the birth of Christ; each of the 40 stories in this book helps the reader to learn more about Christ and how God prepared the world for His coming. Every story points us to Christ in some way, and they build on each other, referencing previous stories throughout the book.

I grew up hearing Bible stories over and over again. They are my old friends. It was delightful to re-visit so many of these friends as I read this book. There are also a few stories with which I was unfamiliar, so I soaked them in like a sponge, and made some new friends! (I was raised Protestant, so the stories such as those of Tobit and Tobias, not included in the Protestant scriptures, as well as many details from Holy Tradition about the Theotokos’ upbringing and marriage were unfamiliar to me.) The stories in “Welcoming the Christ Child” are written in a manner that is true to both Scriptures and Tradition while also remaining understandable to children.

While I loved reading the stories themselves, I also really enjoyed the insights which the author has included after the stories. Every story has at least 3 related questions (and their answers, too!) that can help readers think about the story. There is also an advanced discussion suggestion for each story. Between the stories, the questions, and the advanced discussion suggestion, every story’s important role in pointing people to Christ is explained in a way that is very easy to understand. Families with young children may only want to read the story. Those with older children can also include the questions. Those with even older children will want to take advantage of the advanced discussion. Families with children of varied ages will find aspects of the book helpful for each child.

Every story in the book has a watercolor illustration either embedded in or immediately following the story. Some of these illustrations are simple, featuring a detail from the story. Others are more elaborate, illustrating an important event in the story. All are colorful and eye-catching, painted in an icon-like style that can help children make better sense of the icon for the story.

This book is set up for families to read together. It would make an excellent very-early Christmas present for your students which you could give to them at the beginning of the fast so that they have it to share with their family! If you choose to give each of your students a copy to read during the Nativity Fast, and want to do something in class related to the book, you could spend class time on the Sundays leading up to Christmas helping your students to create each week’s related ornaments. This would take a lot of planning (and collaboration with fellow SCS teachers to make sure that not every child is bringing home a book and an entire set of 40 ornaments!) but would offer your students a gift that they would likely use during the Nativity Fast for years to come!

So, as we approach the Nativity Fast, let us begin to make our plan of how to grow throughout it. We fast in order to prepare our hearts for the birth of our Lord. One way we can prepare is by spending some time each day reading about Him and about those whose lives pointed to Him before He was born into our world. This book is an excellent way for us to do this very thing and to encourage our students to do the same. My only regret with the book is that it was not published 10 years ago, when I could have used it with my own (now grown) children!

Purchase your own copy of “Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent” by Elissa Bjeletich here:

Here are some gleanings from the book, followed by related ways to encourage your Sunday Church School students to grow in their faith during the Nativity Fast.


“Why would Adam need company? Because he is made in the image of God, and God is love; God is a community of three Persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and Adam is created in God’s image, so Adam is also created to be part of a community of love.” ~ p. 10, Advanced Discussion Idea after “God Creates People,” a reading in “Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent” by Elissa Bjeletich


“We sometimes say that the Holy Church is like Noah’s ark – it is built according to God’s specific instructions so that we can be saved: He tells us to love one another, to fast and to pray, to receive the sacraments. We trust God and His Word, and God protects us inside our Holy Church from the storms outside.” ~ p. 20, part of the answer to “What if Noah had not followed God’s careful instructions and had built the ark in a different way?” a question after “Noah’s Ark,” a reading in “Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent” by Elissa Bjeletich


“The Church Fathers describe Joseph as being, in many ways, like Jesus. He didn’t do anything wrong, but other people envied him… both of them were betrayed for a small amount of money… Both went into a pit – Joseph was thrown in the dark pit until the slave traders came, and Jesus was in the dark pit of Hades after His crucifixion.” ~ p. 35, part of the Advance Discussion Idea after “Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors,” a reading in “Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent” by Elissa Bjeletich


“Rahab was not one of God’s Israelites, but she learned about God and chose to serve Him and His people… Rahab was rewarded by being allowed to live in israel, but she also received another reward: she was given a place in the line of Christ. …Rahab, a harlot from Jericho, became a part of that royal line that led to the king of kings, for God loves all people and includes all of us in His family.” ~ p. 70, part of the Advance Discussion Idea after “Joshua and the Battle of Jericho,” a reading in “Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent” by Elissa Bjeletich


“God actually used David’s weakness to teach us. When he fought Goliath, the fact that David was small and weak showed us that God must have helped him win. Later in his life, David’s other weakness, his sinfulness, enabled him to teach us how to repent; he wrote beautiful Psalms about repentance…
The prophets reveal God to us, but they are not perfect. Sometimes, God uses our weakness to reveal His glory.” ~ p. 86, part of the Advance Discussion Idea after “David the Psalmist,” a reading in “Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent” by Elissa Bjeletich


“Why did God give so many hints about the coming of His Son?

He wanted the people to know He was coming so that they would be ready for Him; they should expect Him and be prepared to follow Him. he gave them details so that they could recognize Him when He came. ~ p. 120, discussion question and answer after “The Prophet Isaiah,” a reading in “Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent” by Elissa Bjeletich


“The Fathers call Mary the new Eve, because in the Garden of Eden, the first Eve disobeyed God’s commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree, causing mankind to fall – but Mary is like a second chance, and this woman is obedient to God’s will and wishes only to do what is pleasing to God and best for mankind. Where Eve ignored God and did what she wanted, Mary does not worry about her own desires or wish to explore other ideas. Mary trusts God, and is happy to cooperate with God’s will, so she says yes to the angel. The child she bears will fix the fall, saving mankind from death and opening the gates of Paradise.” ~ pp. 147-148, Advanced Discussion Idea after “The Annunciation,” a reading in “Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent” by Elissa Bjeletich


“God can do anything, and He could have arranged for His own Son, the King of Kings, to be born in a palace but He did not; He chose for His Son to be born in a humble cave… He came to live in the humblest way, to share the most basic human experiences…He would live like the poorest people and suffer alongside us through all of the indignities of our world. The first people called to worship Him were poor and uneducated shepherds, because God does not care whether we are important to the world; every one of us in important in God’s eyes , and our Lord has come for each and every one of us.” ~ p.159, Advanced Discussion Idea after “A Child is Born in Bethlehem,” a reading in “Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent” by Elissa Bjeletich


Are you acquainted with the Orthodox Jesse Tree as a way to prepare your heart for the Nativity during that fast? ( describes it, and lists all of the scripture passages) If you are, then “Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent” will seem very familiar to you. The book is set up to be read daily during Nativity Lent, and is patterned after the Jesse Tree Project.


Jesse Tree ornament options:
#1: Soon there will be a set of Jesse Tree ornaments available for purchase which go along with “Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent” by Elissa Bjeletich. We will post the link to the ornaments as soon as we have it!
#2: Teachers with younger students may want to help them make their own 3D ornaments such as these which coincide with these Jesse Tree readings: Many will coincide with the writings in “Welcoming the Christ Child…”, but you will want to cross-check the lists and may need to come up with a few ornaments of your own if you are reading the book as a family.

#3: If your students like to color, check out these printable ornaments for an Orthodox Jesse Tree: Again, many will coincide with the writings in “Welcoming the Christ Child…”, but you will want to cross-check the lists and may need to come up with a few of these, as well.


Teachers of teens will enjoy having the discussion questions called “Advanced Discussion Ideas” at the end of each meditation in “Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent,” by Elissa Bjeletich. The teens may prefer to use the readings (straight from scripture and the Prologue) found here during the days of the Nativity Fast, instead of the more simplified readings in the book: But regardless of which way you get the information (online or from the book), be sure to include a discussion of the book’s “Advanced Discussion Ideas.” They are thought-provoking.


You may wish to invite your students to create their very own set of ornaments in response to the stories in “Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent,” by Elissa Bjeletich. For this option, you would probably want to send a stack of 40 copies of this Welcoming the Christ Child printable home with your students, so that they could do the activity at home after they read each day’s entry. You’ll also want to send directions, such as: “Work together each day, or let each family member take a turn to complete this page after you read and discuss every story in the book. Cut out the “ornament” on the page, make the illustration(s), and then add it to a basket, clip it in sequence on a string, hang it from a gold-sprayed-many-limbed branch, or add it to a small evergreen tree: whatever display method works best for you and your family!”