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What Would Jesus Do? Ask Him!

Rev. Michael Mortvedt

The tendency of many Christians, especially in the west, is to perceive Jesus as distant. We do sing What a Friend we have in Jesus and Christmas carols about the little baby Jesus, yet there seems to be a perception that Jesus is really someplace else.

There is truth in this perception; God is transcendent, and certainly beyond what we can fully perceive as finite beings. But God is also intimately present in every aspect of our lives. Think of all the church meetings that begin with a prayer asking 'God to be present,' as if God is at another meeting. Where else would God be present? In the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) Jesus promises, 'I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age.'

The message of Christmas is that God is Emmanuel, God is with us in the person of Jesus, and continues to be present with us in the Holy Spirit. Jesus is present with us, but sometimes we need to clear some of the 'clutter' to have space enough to be aware of his abiding presence. That is one important reason why voluntary simplicity is so important for people of faith.

There are many reasons to practice voluntary simplicity: caring for creation by lowering one's carbon footprint, freedom from the burdens, expenses, and liabilities of having too much stuff, eating lower on the food chain so more people can have food to eat, etc. These are some of the reasons I practice voluntary simplicity. The most important reason for me, however, is the spiritual practice of 'making space' to help me be more aware of God's presence in my life.

Advent and Christmas are times when we speak of Jesus being born anew in our hearts. I commend to you any practice of voluntary simplicity that creates spaciousness in your life and that builds a cradle in your heart for Emmanuel, God with us. Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway? 2008 has many articles, stories, and craft ideas that Sandy and I hope will aid you in having a simple, meaningful, and blessed Advent and Christmas.


[caption]Erik entering the place of the Nativity in Bethlehem

Discussion Questions

What would more spaciousness in you life look like and feel like this Advent and Christmas season?

Name several examples of 'clutter' you would be willing to consider clearing to make more room for Emmanuel

In what ways could living into the abiding presence of Jesus change how you celebrate Christmas?

What are the most important reasons for you to practice voluntary simplicity?

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The Most Spiritual Christmas

Cheryl Duke

First Presbyterian Church of Russellville, KY, currently 89 members and growing, is where I landed last June as the new redevelopment pastor. Among the many lovely traditions that I inherited as the redevelopment pastor is a Christmas Day worship service at 5 pm. This tradition had begun through the help of an elder who had come to the US from Syria. Because he missed the tradition in his native country, he worked to begin a service at First Presbyterian Church several years ago. As an introduction, I was told it was a relaxed service which some in the community as well as the church attend. After the Christmas Eve 11 p.m. candlelight service, I was understandably tired and ready to simply "veg out" with out-of-town guests at home. But at 4:45 p.m. on Christmas Day, I dutifully arrived at church with family in tow.

My preparation for this service was to ask an older member who was known for her baking ability to make a Birthday Cake for Jesus. This was a three-layer cake with white icing, delivered on Christmas Eve day. We placed it on the communion table with a tall red pillar candle and seven smaller red votive candles around it. An angel figurine was placed on top of the cake and a red frosting rose (representing the baby Jesus: "Lo how a rose ere blooming"). We added a small bell to ring to the table arrangement. After scripture readings and Christmas hymns, we concluded the service by lighting the birthday candles for Jesus and gathering around to sing Happy Birthday to Jesus. Immediately following the service, the cake was carried to the fellowship hall and folks gathered either to eat a piece of homemade birthday cake or carry it to a friend.

One friend we took cake to was our "back of the church" neighbor, an elderly woman who is a member of another congregation, but who allows the new Presbyterian pastor to park in her carport, since she no longer drives a car.

Another piece went to a wonderful lady who was feeling especially low on Christmas Day because some of her family could not be with her at home. The stories of folk who "stopped by with some cake" and who cheered the afternoon for someone helped convince me that I will always support having this service, because as someone said to me later, "this has been the most spiritual Christmas I can remember."

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl Duke serves First Presbyterian Church, Russellville, KY

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Savor the Coffee

Author Unknown

A group of alumni, highly established in their careers, were talking at a reunion and decided to go visit their old university professor, now retired. During their visit the conversation soon turned into complaints about stress in their work and lives.

Offering his guests coffee, the professor went to the kitchen and returned with a large pot of coffee and an assortment of cups -- porcelain, plastic, glass, crystal, some plain looking, some expensive, some exquisite, telling them to help themselves to the coffee.

When all the alumni had a cup of coffee in hand, the professor said:
Notice that all of the nice looking, expensive cups were taken up, leaving behind the plain and cheap ones. While it's normal for you to want only the best for yourselves, that is the source of your problems and stress. Be assured that the cup itself adds no quality to the coffee. In most cases it is just more expensive and in some cases even hides what we drink.

What all of you really wanted was coffee, not the cup, but you consciously went for the best cups and then you began eyeing each others' cups.

Now consider this: Life is the coffee; your job, money, and position in society are the cups. They are just tools to hold and contain Life.

The type of cup one has does not define, nor change the quality of Life a person lives. Sometimes, by concentrating only on the cup, we fail to enjoy the coffee.

The happiest people don't have the best of everything. They just make the best of everything.

Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly.

Enjoy your coffee!

Submitted by Linda Cron, Sioux City, IA

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Christmas Greetings to Inmates

Vicki McCuistion

At our alternative giving fair each year, we have a card making table that sends Christmas cards to inmates - typically death row inmates or lifers (their names can often be obtained online). People making the cards are only to put their first name (and age if a child) and the cards are mailed from the church. We receive amazing letters back that are then posted on church bulletin boards. Their messages often convey their regret in living the lives they have lived and are so humbled by the care and concern of the letter writers from the church.

They are so humbled by the care and concern of the letter writers from the church.

Vicki McCuistion, Wimberley United Methodist Church, San Marcos, TX

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Transforming Santa

Barbara Fullerton

As a young mother working as program director in a church camp in the 1980's, I led Advent workshops at the camp and at our church, using Alternatives' original filmstrip, 'Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?' It resonated with the lifestyle my partner and I had chosen for raising our daughters.

Because I was born to missionaries in India where Santa was not part of the culture, he had never been part of my life. Neither did we introduce him to our daughters, concerned that perpetuating that myth as truth would compromise our integrity with them. Because their friends 'believed' in Santa, we cautioned them not to tell their friends Santa is 'just pretend.'

One year, they complained that they felt left out when their friends talked about Santa and wanted to pretend he was real. Together, we agreed to do that, but decided that his pretend visit to our house would not be on Christmas, when we celebrate Jesus' birth. We chose St. Nicholas Day, an opportunity to learn about Santa's Christian roots in the story of the bishop, St. Nicholas.

On December 6, they received 'Santa' presents from Mom and Dad. The rest of the Advent season was calm and peaceful, leading to a special Christmas; a holy festive day with family and friends gathered to celebrate with music, food and a birthday cake for the baby Jesus.

We also celebrated the twelve days of Christmas with family activities planned by the girls. For that story, visit

Scripture: And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Colossians 3:15 NRSV

Invite each member of the family to respond to these questions:

1. Did you ever feel 'different' or marginalized from friends or classmates because of your family's values?

2. How did you (or your parents) engage all family members in making decisions and supporting each other to live out your discipleship together in the world?

3. How did that feel?

4. I wonder what this Christmas would be like if we ___ (fill in the blank)?

Prayer: Holy One, thank you for all your gifts. May the peace of Christ fill our hearts with generosity this Christmas and all year.

Barbara Fullerton serves as Stewardship Development Coordinator for The United Church of Canada (L'glise Unie du Canada).

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The Christmas of the Llama

Victoria Freeman

The Christmas of the llama was my most successful foray into simplicity. As a teacher in an affluent private school, I could count on receiving what my colleagues referred to as 'holiday booty' from my homeroom students. The booty varied from year to year, but usually consisted of bottles of scented lotion, gift certificates to Barnes and Nobles, pounds of chocolate dipped popcorn, and assorted candles.

While these items delighted my family and frequently served as re-gifts, I approached my 30th year in the classroom with a determination to redirect the gift energy. How? The Heifer Project catalogue gave me the answer to that question.

The Heifer Project provides livestock to families who need help. The livestock choices which range from a rabbit to a llama--quite frequently allow family members to break the poverty cycle by starting a home business.

After going through the catalogue with my homeroom and discussing my desire to get closer to the real meaning of Christmas, I encouraged the students to forego my teacher gifts and take on additional chores to earn project money. I was reasonably certain that we could get a goose or a flock of hens with our money.

How delighted I was when the homeroom mother called and told me we had collected enough for a llama. We put the llama's picture on the homeroom bulletin board and as the result of a naming contest named her Lagniappe which means an unexpected extra gift. According to the girl who entered that name, 'Working for this llama was the first time I've really worked to get a Christmas gift for somebody who needed it. I feel good. Christ came because we needed him; so, I think, he understands our wooly gift.


Discussion Questions

1) What is your first memory of working to provide a present for someone else?

2) What is re-gifting? Why might it be a positive thing to do? What are its dangers?

4)How might you apply this teacher's idea in your own world?

Mark 12:31 - The second is this, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. . . .

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'RULES' for Buying

Lynn A. Miller

R = recyclable. Whenever possible, look for the 'recycle potential' of your purchases. What happens to the container when it is nearly empty. For example, when you buy fresh yogurt from the shop near Park Circus Maidan in Calcutta India, the ceramic bowl and lid are make from clay, and when you are done with it you simply break them up into pieces and mix them into your garden soil where they quickly dissolve.

U = used. Why do I think I need to buy a new anything when something used is not only normally cheaper, but often nicely 'broken in'? When I can get a pair of very usable jeans for $2. at my local 'et-cetera' shop, I not only save money, I also save the wash water it takes to get the excess indigo dye out of the new ones.

L = local. We are so used to buying the cheapest option from those available, no matter where they are manufactured, that we forget there is often a local variety of what we want, and that buying locally might help strengthen our local community. For example, when your church is thinking of replacing those beaten-up folding tables in the fellowship hall, call the local 'sheltered workshop' that provides employment for the disabled and see if they have a wood-working shop that could build new ones for you.

E = enough. Somewhere in the 'pre-buying' phase of any purchase should be the question of how much would be 'enough' for you. For example, if a car is the item in question, part of the decision needs to be some serious thought as to how much car would be 'enough' for us, and what would be 'too much.' Then when you are looking at the options you will know your boundaries and are much less tempted to become a victim to buying more than you need and the resulting over-expenditure.

S = sustainable. Finally, ask this when you look at the item you are considering buying 'will buying this item add or subtract to the 'sustainability' of this earth and its ecosystem'? Is the resource from which this item is made a renewable resource, like wood? If it isn't, ask yourself what the hidden costs are of this purchase, those that will be paid by someone else in the future.

Lynn A. Miller served as stewardship theologian for MMA, Goshen, Ind., until his retirement in 2006. He is a graduate of Wilmington (Ohio) College and Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind.

Lynn is a popular conference and congregational speaker. He has been a pioneer in the study of first fruits theology and its application to a life of faith. Author of the books Firstfruits Living and Just in Time: Stories of God's Extravagance, Lynn and his wife Linda Jean (Pine) Miller, now live their lives seeking - and finding - ways to give themselves away in the service of God.

If you enjoyed this article, you'll also like Lynn's recent book The Power of Enough.

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Fun Activities

Homemade Christmas Gifts

Kent Ira Groff

It was the first Thanksgiving for our children to have no living grandparents or aunts or uncles. (My wife and I were both born of older parents and had no living siblings, so they had very few gifts to open.) That's the year one of us got the idea to draw names and make a homemade gift for the person whose name you drew on Thanksgiving Day. For more than a decade the five of us -- my wife and three children -- continued the ritual.

One year my 12-year-old son sneaked into my workshop and cut out DAD+ from a pine board with my hand coping saw. I heard the saw from my study next door, but never said a word. I see it on a bookshelf as I write this. I'm also looking at a quilted 'tree' with deep roots -- a 24in.x30in. wall hanging my older daughter made while in college. Often when I meet with individuals for spiritual companioning, I point to it to illustrate the balance of our active life in the world and our deepening life of contemplation. Then there's the clown mask my younger daughter made that hangs next to the door of my den to make sure I don't take myself too seriously.

Sometimes a child would make a calendar of family photos for each month; create a photo collage; write a poem, a story, or a cartoon strip; frame a hand-drawn picture of our family dog; wrap a person's favorite snack in a fancy container; make a coupon for a homemade dinner, washing the car or a gift to the Heifer Project or Habitat for Humanity. Sometimes I'd re-frame an old picture and give it back.

Then there's the way they gave the gifts: follow the clues (go to the place where the dog sleeps, or to where you brush your teeth, etc.); huge boxes stacked with the tiny one buried in the center.

'Coy,' the coyote puppet one child made for her mother, hangs on the newel post of our stairs as a reminder to our grandsons to be creative and give from the heart.

Scripture verse: Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.-- Romans 12:10.


Discussion Questions:

Think of a time when you received a simple homemade gift from someone. How did it feel to receive it?

Think of a time when you gave something you made to someone. How was it received? How did you feel as you made it?

Can you imagine making a simple gift for someone? How does that feel different from trying to buy the person a gift?

Can you think of some context in family, friendships, or work where you might draw names and try this or a similar idea?

Kent Ira Groff, founding mentor of Oasis Ministries in Pennsylvania, is a spiritual companion for journeyers and leaders, a retreat leader and a writer poet living in Denver, Colorado. For simple exercises to renew life and faith, see his books What Would I Believe If I Didn't Believe Anything?: A Spiritual Compass to Point You Home and Writing Tides: Finding Grace and Growth Through Writing. www. kentiragroff.com

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Sneaky Gifts

Rachelle Ankney

My boyfriend and I had been dating a little over a year by the time Christmas rolled around last year, and this was the first time we would be negotiating the holiday season together. I wanted to forego gift giving, which can be tricky enough for those who have grown up together, let alone burgeoning relationships. He agreed, but things didn't work out exactly as we had imagined.

We simply couldn't resist getting each other small gifts. But now we had the excitement of being extra sneaky about it, since we weren't supposed to give anything. Those little presents became a lot of fun as we tried to be casual and pretend they weren't really gifts. For example, 'I saw you needed some gloves and picked these up for you while I was out.'

There was no wrapping paper in sight, no waiting until a particular day, and no stress about finding that 'just right' gift. Instead, we had the chance to share in the true delight of giving.

Maybe in some small way we were imitating God's first Christmas gift to us many holiday seasons ago--It was on a bigger scale than our gifts, to be sure, but it came with no fancy wrapping paper or gift tag. In fact, the angel had to describe it to the shepherds with a strange sign (a cattle feeder) so they'd be able to find the gift. And it was sneaked right into the back stables of that inn on a night that up until then was no different than any other work night for those shepherds. Luke 2:12 --This is the way you will know him. You will find a baby wrapped in a cloth, lying in a box where cows feed. (Worldwide English New Testament)

This year I want to try the following exercise:

Make a list of holiday traditions.

Ask which of them I could forego for one season and why or why not.

Pick just one tradition to keep this Christmas season and discuss it with those involved in the tradition.

See what I learn about a real Christmas from NOT doing things I have assumed were Christmas-y.

Please, God, let me see through all of the traditions of this season and find the things which truly point me to you.
Please, Jesus, let me find ways to be more loving and more like you as I celebrate your birthday.
Please, Holy Spirit, teach me deep in my soul about real Christmas.

Rachelle Ankney is a math professor in Chicago, IL. She is involved in a Simplicity support group at Resurrection Lutheran Church in which the members encourage each other to de-clutter their lives and live more freely.

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Bob Sitze

Christmas is coming and you've done what's right -- you're an Alternatives' reader, for goodness' sake -- so you're ready for what's ahead.

Something's gnawing at your soul, though, and it feels like fear. You've been here before -- when the kids were little, when the stock market started to tank -- but you've always carried along a little packet of hope for those times. This time it's different: The ecological clock is ticking more quickly, the pages of the environmental breakdown calendar are flipping faster, and all around you are the signs that something's fundamentally awry this Christmas.

You know its name: Eco-despair, the feeling that the world's environment has already passed significant tipping points and that 'downhill' isn't just a kind of skiing. You wonder whether the entire civilization is about to collapse.

You and your family have two choices: Join the fearful ones or remain among the hopeful ones. You can be (very) afraid, OR you can be (very) hopeful. You can start hoarding firewood or money, OR you can remember that this God still loves the people of the world no matter how much we foul our nests. You can be grim and careful, OR you can be joyful and generous. You can fear God's punishment, OR you can see God's abundance even in the middle of downhill slides.

The choices are up to you. As for my family, we're betting on hope. It lasts longer and works better, long-term. And we have Christ's work to do!

God cares for me, his humble servant. -- Luke 1:48a (CEV)
Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope. -- 1 Peter 3:15 (CEV)

Lord of Hope,
Keep us mindful of the example of your Son, whose birth we soon celebrate. Remind us of the hopes he brought to people who were crushed by oppression. Make us instruments of your will for the world.
In Christ's name,

What specifically prompts eco-despair in your soul?

Where do you see signs of hope regarding the world's environment?

How does God help you to be hopeful?

Visit the blog www.ecologicalhope.org and mine its authors' words for hopeful signs.
Plan how you will order and plant a fruit tree or berry bush as a sign of hope.

Bob Sitze, author of Starting Simple: Conversations about the Way We Live, formerly served as Hunger Educator for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

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Family Stories Make a Family Calendar

Waverly Fitzgeald

Writer Waverly Fitzgerald* (www.schooloftheseasons.com) has created a "family history calendar" using old photographs and information she collected about her mother's family. Each calendar page includes a photograph and text about a person or place, and each month includes important family dates: births, deaths, marriages and so forth.

Collecting family memories can be overwhelming, but this is an explicit way of turning family stories into a meaningful gift. Why not pull out a box and start organizing photos, memorabilia and other items so you'll be ready when the time comes?

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Christmas Activity Chain

Barbara Howard

Fill the days of Advent and Christmas with prayers or simple things to do by making a colorful chain. As a family write one idea on each link, such as. . .

Use purple links for each day of the first two weeks of Advent, pink links for the third, and purple again for the 4th week of Advent. Use white for Christmas Day and yellow for each of the 12 days of Christmas. Attach the links to a picture of the Holy Family (you can get from clip art online) or a poster stating a favorite bible verse or "Jesus is the Reason for the Season."

To commemorate the season, consider taping each link to a page in a notebook and write what each person chose to do or how what they did changed them or someone else in a positive way. Talk about the entries each week at family meeting or devotions.

Barbara Howard, Mooresville, NC

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Christmas Bowling

Barbara Howard

A way we've simplified Christmas over the years actually came from my husband's aunt who decided to share her love of bowling with the family. Instead of buying individual gifts or even individual family gifts, she throws a party at the bowling alley in early January. All the aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren gather for hours of fun. A game of bowling, a meal together, pool, air hockey, and other video games makes this day a fun day for everyone. The younger children love to cash in their tickets for little remembrances too. Now other donors have chipped in instead of buying gifts as the family continues to grow. It's a great way to enjoy each other's company during the Christmas season and for everyone to get back together in the New Year.

Barbara Howard, Mooresville, NC

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Nothing New for Christmas

Meg Cox

My favorite idea for simplifying Christmas is a promise among family members to give each other "nothing new" for Christmas. Instead, they shop thrift stores and consignment shops, or make gifts from things they find already in their own homes. Not only does the giver often save money, but many worthwhile items are saved from ending up in landfills.

Cathy Ode, St. John's Episcopal Church, Boulder, CO

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Family Giving Project

Melvin and Lois Leidig

At our church we have monthly "mission projects" and always make school kits for Mennonite Central Committee in the summer. One family in our church uses this as a family project. They have married children and instead of purchasing lots of gifts for each other each family buys items for the kits and when they have their family Christmas get-together they put the kits together as a family project. Imagine the impact this is having on the children who will see Christmas not only as a time for getting presents, but more importantly a time to give to those who have need.

My husband was a pastor and our family has been actively involved in peacemaking and justice issues for many years. I just read a piece our daughter wrote about what has shaped her life (she has always worked in social work/counseling types of positions) and one of her first memories is as a four or five year old, marching with her dad in front of a real estate office in an attempt to promote open housing back in the early 60's. We are now retired and my husband has limited vision, but we still attempt to be involved in the challenge of justice/peacemaking issues of which there are many in our world today.

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Water Ritual

Meg Cox

Many of us make a New Year's resolution to take better care of our bodies and one of the easiest ways to fulfill that is to simply drink more water every day. To make it more likely, head to a local house wares shop or flea market and buy one single beautiful glass. It can be crystal or plastic, expensive or cheap, but pick something that truly pleases you. Whether you take it to work or leave it at home, drink water and only water from this special glass. To further the ritual, create a short message or toast to say to yourself each time you drink a new glassful, something simple like, "To my health!"

Enter the New Year with gusto and innocence. Play, work, read, cook and observe the world with an intense, new focus, as though you've just emerged from a coma and need to reclaim what matters to you. Try new things. Be good to your family.

Love, Meg
Meg Cox's Ritual Newsletter

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The Gift of Your Family's Story

Meg Cox

People are desperate to give those they love an object that will fully express their feelings. They search the malls and catalogs and come up short.

But here's an idea: share a family story. Make that your special, unforgettable gift. No batteries. No lines. No lead paint.

Making Your Story into a Concrete Gift

Ken Burns' remarkable series about World War II moved me like it did many others. I loved that he chose to tell the stories not of commanders and heroes, but of ordinary men and women.

The lives of both my parents were marked by that war. My father went off to fight and wound up, among other things, as a lieutenant in Algiers, running an officer's club. I like to think of him as a less morose version of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. After all, his heart wasn't broken: my mother was waiting for him back home.

Like many women on the home front, my mother itched to do more for her country. A quiet artist and bookworm, she took flying lessons and then got accepted into an Army program to train women pilots for the war effort. She flew to Texas to start training, but the program was disbanded. But she still wanted to serve and she wound up working for the OSS in Washington D.C., as a cartographer. One of her assignments was working on maps for the Normandy invasion.

Here are four different ways to turn your family story into a holiday gift:

ONE: Find a symbolic object and wrap it with a story.

Elaine Mellon has many fond memories of the grandmother who raised her, and when the woman died, she wanted to share stories with her fellow grandkids, who didn't know the family matriarch as well. Last year, Elaine saw a vintage clown-shaped Bosco chocolate syrup bottle and it brought back vivid memories of her grandmother. "I thought, 'I bet these are sold on eBay,'" recalls Elaine, and they were. She bought a handful of the vintage Bosco bottles and "gave them as Christmas gifts along with a message about this bottle and the memories it represents."

What objects remind you of your parents and grandparents? Or maybe you could buy a simple toy from your own childhood, like marbles, and teach the game to your kids. Maybe you even have an old photo of yourself with this special toy or object.

TWO: Audio and video records.

I've experienced the heartbreak of making an audio recording of my father's war stories, only to have the entire tape recorder stolen from my dad's apartment just months before his death. Capture the voices of your elders now because once they're gone, they are lost forever!

Whether you make an audio or video recording, asking a family member to share stories is very effective and is better than open-ended awkward conversation. If you're getting together with family this month, make a recording at that time and send copies out as gifts later.

There's an excellent story in Oprah's magazine called "Tell Me a Story" by Dave Isay, the guy who founded Story Corps (www.storycorps.net). From the magazine, here are some questions Isay says elicit good stories: "What was the happiest moment in your life? What is the saddest? What is your favorite memory from childhood? Would you sing the song your mother sang to you as a child? Who has been the biggest influence in your life? What are you the most proud of? What's your favorite memory of me? Is there something about you that you think nobody knows?"

THREE: Themed scrapbooks.

Millions of Americans keep scrapbooks, but think of something you can do that's focused on your family story rather than family activities. One idea: Make a scrapbook about the faraway country where your family originated. Include old photos, maps, and recipes. Write memories and stories on paper and include them. Make a copy for every grandchild.

For a personal example, I'm eager to make a scrapbook about my parents' war experience for my son. I could include ration cards, a photo of my dad leaning on a Jeep and another of my mother grinning next to a Piper Cub airplane, fragments of Dad's war stories that I recall excerpts from the box my mother kept of wartime love letters. What a wonderful way for my son to learn about these two people who died before he could know them well.

FOUR: Create a storytelling ritual.

OK, so you've got all these people getting together for the holidays who will be sitting around opening presents, eating too much food, and watching television. Why not send out invitations asking each family member coming to your house to bring one or two funny or sad stories from his or her childhood to share? Start a fire in the fireplace if you have one, pull up chairs, and let the yarns rip. Put the camcorder on a tripod and send everyone a tape or DVD later.

Meg Cox's Ritual Newsletter

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New Strategy for Charitable Gifts

Meg Cox

A few years back, Emily Sagor's extended family got bored with the practice of drawing names from a hat and giving a token gift to that aunt or this cousin. "It was somewhat unfulfilling because you would ask what they wanted, then buy that thing," says Emily.

The new ritual is much more popular. In September or October, nominations are collected for charities about which family members care deeply. Each person who nominates a charity explains what it does. Then the family votes and the winning charity is announced. Checks flow to Emily's aunt, who writes one big check to the organization in the name of the whole family.

Emily says the "winning" charities have included a hospice that sent a volunteer "to help with my grandmother's last few months of life." This new holiday gift-giving strategy has produced some unexpected rewards: "Each year, we end up not only learning about organizations that are worth our attention, but we also learn more about each other and what matters to each of us," explains Emily.

Meg Cox's Ritual Newsletter

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The Best Gift I Didn't Get

Sandi Baete

As Christmas approaches, I know I will be asked, "What do you want for Christmas?" Now, if I think about it, and look around on the Internet, check out magazines and catalogs, and window-shop at the mall, I am sure to come up with a long list of things that I really want. Most of which I probably didn't even know exist until I started looking for thing to "want."

So last year, before the question was asked, I did a little soul-searching. And the truth that I found was this -- I didn't really want anything. On top of that, there wasn't anything I needed either. So, this was my answer to the "What do you want for Christmas?" question. "I want you to take the money you were going to spend on me and find someone who truly has a need. I want you to help that person, and then on Christmas, tell me what you did. That will be my gift." The more people I told, the more I meant it and looked forward to seeing what I "got."

This is what I "received" -- $50 donated to Habitat for Humanity, $20 given to a homeless woman looking in a dumpster for food, towing service paid for a stranger whose car had left them stranded, Christmas gifts provided for a Salvation Army Angel Tree, and a yearly gift made in the form of a monthly pledge to the ASPCA, a group dedicated to ending cruelty to animals.

Not everyone heeded my wishes; I still received some "real" gifts. But the funny thing is, I was more excited with what I didn't get. I can truly say I was filled with joy, knowing that others have been blessed. I guess I had a small glimpse of what Jesus must feel when we do the thing He wants us to do.

I know that even as adults we can get caught up in the excitement of getting gifts at Christmas. I'll admit it's fun to get a present. But really, do any of those things bring lasting happiness and joy? If the truth be known, I bet most of us can't even remember what gifts we received for Christmas last year. So what do you have to lose? Just give it a try. I bet you'll find a whole new meaning in the season.

This year, I am praying earnestly that I receive nothing. After all, my Heavenly Father has already given me everything I need.

Sandi Baete lives in Henryville, IN.

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Parties with a Purpose

Sandi Baete

Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart - Psalm 37:4

My husband and I own a rental and party store. Because of that, most people assume that we are "party people." Nothing could be further from the truth. On the weekends, you can most often find us at home with our three children or spending time with a small group of friends, just enjoying each other's company. However, for the past three years at Christmas time, I have felt led to host parties. Now, before everyone gets all up in arms about such frivolous activities and waste of money, let me explain.

The first year I held a simple party for my three kids and all their cousins. Most of my nieces and nephews do not attend church on a regular basis, so this was a way to remind them of the true meaning of Christmas. As a bonus, we got to spend some time with them and their parents had a little break as well. There were 10 kids, ages 1-16. We watched a movie, read the Christmas story from the Bible ate lunch, painted pinecones for ornaments, and sang Happy Birthday to Jesus before eating cake. We also played a few simple games and each child took a small gift home for their mom and dad.

The next year was quite different. I invited six of my friends to my home for a dinner party. However, there was a "twist." Each of my guests had to invite someone to come with them. The person they invited was to be someone they wanted to encourage and get to know better. In addition, I told my friends that the gifts I purchased were not for them, but instead would be given to their guest. I know, it sounds a little rude on paper, but everyone was very excited. The evening of the party we had everyone from a pregnant, unwed 16-year-old high school senior, to a great-grandmother. We prayed, ate, gave gifts, and made simple crafts. In addition, I shared a small portion of my testimony. Each of my guests took a turn telling their guest why they were invited. It was a very touching and fun evening. The gifts I gave included a Woman's Devotional Bible. One of the women told me recently that she had never really read the Bible before. However, upon receiving this one, she began to follow the one year reading plan and has now read through the entire Bible! I can't begin to tell you how blessed I am to have been a small part of that.

Last, year, I made a big leap and planned a Christmas Vacation Bible School at our church. Yes, you read that right, VBS in the winter. I wanted to refocus the kid's attention on what Christmas is really about. We had 60 children attend, many of whom do not normally attend church. All of our publicity was free. Our local public elementary school even advertised it in their newsletter for two weeks! In our church of 180, we had 55 volunteers who gave six hours of their time on a Saturday three weeks before Christmas! We made ornaments to be given as gifts, sang, played games, watched a movie, saw a skit, visited a live nativity under a tent, and had breakfast and lunch. But the best part was making fleece blankets for the homeless. Everything we did that dad was to focus on the theme, "Jesus is God's Greatest Gift."

I know, some of you may still be thinking "frivolous and waste of money." All I can say to that is, we each are given different abilities, talents and gifts. While I don't feel like planning parties is a particularly noble vocation; spreading the word about Christ certainly is. And if by giving a party I can bring honor and glory to Him, then that's what I'll do.

Sandy Baete, Henryville, IN

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Creating a Creche with Children

Sandy Olson

I thrive on being busy and active, so when anticipating Christmas, I feel the push of the crowds, even in the grocery store. My anxiety builds. So, I take on something new to do with my hands. Last year it was knitting. I was inspired buy a young friend battling cancer. While she was recovering from surgery she had many visitors. Each left with a hat that she knitted during the visit. We have a family picture with each of us wearing a beanie from 'Youngest Son,' who is 20 to grandpa who is 83. This year I am knitting soap sweaters for homemade olive oil soap, that I learned to make from a Palestinian Christian in Bethshour in Palestine on our recent trip to the Holy Land.

Creating Creches at Harmony Club in Dillon, Colorado

Teaching about the story of the Nativity doesn't have to be complicated. Children love to use their hands, be creative. Wooden shapes offer a wealth of possibilities. Create a holy family on a 3 in. flat wooden heart with spools for bodies, round wooden heads, a strip of fabric for the head piece and piece of string for a head band. Glue the wooden pieces together and glue the fabric on the wood figures, shaping it to form clothing. A small dowel stick with a painted yellow star glued to the top makes the back drop. The baby Jesus can be created from a folded piece of fabric and a wooden button head. If you would like to complete the set, add wise people, angels (sparkling chenille stems make great halos) and sheep (cotton balls, of course). Each week of Advent you can create a figure for the manger scene. They give ample opportunity for creativity and conversation. Green chenille stems to form trees. Try palm trees for Bethlehem.

Sandy Olson has worked in Children and Youth Ministry for 30 years. She is an Associate in Ministry in the Lutheran Church and former co-Director of Alternatives.


Carrie Brown-Wolfe
From Soul Sunday

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Page update 6 Nov. 2015

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