Here We Go a-Adventing

Today is the first day of Advent for the Christmas season and if you’re like me, it has snuck up on you while you were focusing on keeping the thanks in Thanksgiving. Am I right?

Our family has traditionally begun the Christmas season on December 1. That first day in December is a much-anticipated one, especially the further down the ranks you go. On that one day, our home is transformed into a Christmas wonderland with nativities in every room to remind of us of the reason we are celebrating – Jesus birth. We deck the halls. We trim the trees. We hang the stockings with care.  And we begin the countdown to the Big Day with devotionals (and activities) that point us to the manger.

If you find yourself looking for something “more” than the usual holiday stresses, shopping and eating leading up to Christmas this year, I suggest trying one of these great family devotionals that you can begin on December 1 with no advanced prep work:

All the Colors of Christmas Devotional – a free, downloadable daily devotional with doable daily activities for the whole family by Focus on the Family.

Knowing Him by Name – another free, downloadable daily devotional with activities that focuses on a different name of Jesus by Focus on the Family

An Advent of Ideas – a daily devotional with activities that our dear neighbor gave us our first holiday season in the neighborhood; our family favorite is still available at Amazon (affiliate link)

51usb1owegl-_sx370_bo1204203200_In addition to our family devotionals/activities during Advent, I plan to focus my own heart on one witness of the incarnation per week with a short devotional. If this appeals to you, too, please check back on Thursday as I begin this short devotional series with Mary.

How do you focus your heart during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season? What family devotionals have worked for your family? I’d love to hear your suggestions for holiday devotionals and activities, both for yourself & your family. Please share links and your great suggestions in the comments section.

 

 

Giving Thanks ‘Round the Table

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Thanksgiving Day is the ideal time to “Give thanks to the LORD and proclaim his greatness. Let the whole world know what he has done.” (I Chronicles 16:8)

Remembering His help, His faithfulness, and His active hand in our life helps shape our own perspectives. It also serves as an organic way to wave faith flags with those you love who have yet to come to know Him in a saving way.

One great way to do this around the Thanksgiving Day table is Gratitude Gab. The link has eleven questions that you can print out and scatter around your table as great conversation starters, or you can come up with your own. Questions like “Describe something that happened last week that you are thankful for and explain why?” are adaptable for everyone, no matter where they are on their faith walk, and help focus our hearts on grateful remembrances.

Another great way to steer conversation around the Thanksgiving dinner table toward what we’re thankful for is this simple conversation starter. Scatter slips of paper with a single word/category around the table – mom, dad, brother, sister, pet, neighbor, job, person on the right, friend, God. Throughout dinner, take turns picking up a category and talking about that particular topic by filling in this sentence – “A time you were thankful for…”

What traditions (new or old) will your family enjoy this year? Please share your great ideas in the comments.

 

Gratitude Game Night

532180_382579435158666_782925171_nFor years I have resented Black Friday. I remember a time not too long ago in which the “thanks” was kept in “Thanksgiving.” It was a treasured time of counting your blessings and adjusting your attitude to one of gratitude.

Not too far in the recent past, however, the commercialization of the Christmas season began it’s hostile takeover of Thanksgiving with the creation of my new nemesis, Black Friday. Not content with preempting the remaining Thanksgiving weekend with a consumerism mindset, early bird specials soon followed – beginning on Thanksgiving Day itself!

In an effort to keep the “thanks” in Thanksgiving, a few years ago our family started the tradition of getting together on Black Friday for dinner with another family, combining our leftovers from the day before and enjoying a good time of family fellowship instead of shopping. The past two years, we have added games to our night of fellowship. This year, we’re planning the whole evening as an extension of Thanksgiving Day with Gratitude Game Night.gratitude

Gratitude Game

Everyone gets two slips of paper and writes one word on each slip of something for which they are thankful. For example, my daughter bought her first car this summer, so it would be entirely appropriate for her to write “car” on one. All slips are collected in a bowl. The bowl is passed around the table with players selecting one at a time. Take turns trying to get the table to guess your word without using that word, similar to CatchPhrase. Alternate version – play as family teams.

Thanksgiving Scattergories

One person at a time chooses a letter of the alphabet. Using a timer, each player (or team) writes as many things for which they are thankful that begin with that letter as they can imagine. When the timer goes off, each player (or team) shares their list one item at a time. All duplicated items on everyone’s lists are marked out. The player (or team) with the most items still on their list is the winner!

Wiki-Thanksgiving

Each player thinks of something for which they are thankful. On a 3×5 card, they write a definition of that thing from the general to the more specific. All cards go into a bowl, which gets sent around the table one player at a time. Each player takes one card out, reads the definition to the group and each person tries to 1) figure out what the object of thanks is, and 2) who wrote it.

How does your family keep the “thanks” in Thanksgiving? Please share your bright ideas (or links) in the comments.

Smith Family Camp Out – September 2016

As one friend commented, "you have good knights - in shorts!" And we did! Simon and Jesse set up our camp perfectly while Chloe & I reclined in the tent on air mattresses.
As one friend commented, “you have good knights – in shorts!” And we did! Simon and Jesse set up our camp perfectly while Chloe & I reclined in the tent on air mattresses.
Our sweet home away from home for 5 glorious days at Caprock Canyons State Park. Chloe and I sold everything we could get our hands on from the garage to buy a big 3-room tent and two oscillating fans. It was worth it!
Our sweet home away from home for 5 glorious days at Caprock Canyons State Park. Chloe and I sold everything we could get our hands on from the garage to buy a big 3-room tent and two oscillating fans. It was worth it!
Sunrise and sunset were my favorite times of day...so beautiful. So peaceful. What an awesome experience to walk with God in His beautiful creation during these times of the day.
Sunrise and sunset were my favorite times of day…so beautiful. So peaceful. What an awesome experience to walk with God in His beautiful creation during these times of the day.

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After setting up camp, Jesse walked down to Lake Theo and began catching (and releasing) these little guys. He is an angler to the core.
After setting up camp, Jesse walked down to Lake Theo and began catching (and releasing) these little guys. He is an angler to the core.
(deep, contented sigh...muscles relaxing...soaking in God's presence)
(deep, contented sigh…muscles relaxing…soaking in God’s presence)
I looked up from my Bible to this sweet sight - my boy on the lake, early morning, fishing in his kayak that he saved and bought off Craigslist.
I looked up from my Bible to this sweet sight – my boy on the lake, early morning, fishing in his kayak that he saved and bought off Craigslist.
I discovered how to use the panorama feature on my iPhone this trip. LOVE this feature!
I discovered how to use the panorama feature on my iPhone this trip. LOVE this feature! This is a panorama of our campsite. It is the most private, spacious campsite we’ve ever had! Seemed like we were the only ones around!
Raccoon (whom we named "Oscar" because of his location) stuck in the dump, so he decided to take a nap. Someone put a log in there for him to climb out on and he was gone by evening.
Raccoon (whom we named “Oscar” because of his location) stuck in the dump, so he decided to take a nap. Someone put a log in there for him to climb out on and he was gone by evening.
Saturday - Palo Duro Canyons State Park was breathtaking! It is the second largest canyon in the U.S. We explored it's nooks and crannies all day.
Saturday – Palo Duro Canyons State Park was breathtaking! It is the second largest canyon in the U.S. We explored it’s nooks and crannies all day.

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Spent a LONG time here, hiking in/out/over that cave.
Spent a LONG time here, hiking in/out/over that cave.
Can you spy Simon and Chloe?
Can you spy Simon and Chloe?
Great memory-making day exploring God's magnificent creation.
Great memory-making day exploring God’s magnificent creation.
It was mesmerizing watching Jesse fish with his net for bait fish. I took wayyyyyy too many photos for a sane person, but come on...it's poetry in motion.
It was mesmerizing watching Jesse fish with his net for bait fish. I took wayyyyyy too many photos for a sane person, but come on…it’s poetry in motion.

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Spent the day at Copper Breaks State Park. Unanimously, we do not recommend this park. This shot reminds me of Huck Finn, so I thought I'd share it.
Spent the day at Copper Breaks State Park. Unanimously, we do not recommend this park. This shot reminds me of Huck Finn, so I thought I’d share it.
On our way out, we did enjoy some time with some longhorns the park keeps.
On our way out, we did enjoy some time with some longhorns the park keeps.
The second of MANY upclose and personal encounters with the bison herd back at Caprock Canyons State Park. This pic is taken through the open door of our Suburban. He's not even a really big one, either!
The second of MANY up close and personal encounters with the bison herd back at Caprock Canyons State Park. This pic is taken through the open door of our Suburban. He’s not even a really big one, either!
Ribs and salad kind of night...yum!
Ribs and salad kind of night…yum!
Another early morning on the lake with Jesse as he enjoys his favorite past time.
Another early morning on the lake with Jesse as he enjoys his favorite past time.
As our vacation progressed, our interactions became closer and closer with the resident bison herd. They were around every corner, literally.
As our vacation progressed, our interactions became closer and closer with the resident bison herd. They were around every corner, literally.
This was the day we explored every nook and cranny we could at Caprock Canyons State Park. I cannot state clearly enough how you should visit this gem of a state park. It is beautiful. It is clean. The weather is COOL, believe it or not. The campsites are PRIVATE and it is hands-down our favorite campground to date.
This was the day we explored every nook and cranny we could at Caprock Canyons State Park. I cannot state clearly enough how you should visit this gem of a state park. It is beautiful. It is clean. The weather is COOL, believe it or not. The campsites are PRIVATE and it is hands-down our favorite campground to date.
Fun with panorama selfies! Can you see all of us?
Fun with panorama selfies! Can you see all of us?
That blue sky...
That blue sky…
This is right before we discovered Cedar Flies...and their tenacity...and the fact that they bite...hard. This is the canyon behind our camp site.
This is right before we discovered Cedar Flies…and their tenacity…and the fact that they bite…hard. This is the canyon behind our camp site.

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LOVE this shot of the three of them watching the bird flying high above the canyon.
LOVE this shot of the three of them watching the bird flying high above the canyon.
Simon and Jesse heading out on a 2 mile trail. Chloe and I picked them up on the opposite side.
Simon and Jesse heading out on a 2 mile trail. Chloe and I picked them up on the opposite side.
This is what Chloe and I did while the guys were hiking...
This is what Chloe and I did while the guys were hiking…

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...and they are back!
…and they are back!

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The photos just don't convey the vastness, the depth, the beauty of Caprock Canyons SP.
The photos just don’t convey the vastness, the depth, the beauty of Caprock Canyons SP.
The guys loved the 2-mile trail so much they took us back on it. We discovered a great natural bridge/tunnel. Obviously, it needed to be explored.
The guys loved the 2-mile trail so much they took us back on it. We discovered a great natural bridge/tunnel. Obviously, it needed to be explored.

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Sunsets were a daily ritual for us and so breathtaking.
Sunsets were a daily ritual for us and so breathtaking.
Last night - (decaf) coffee before bed for this modern-day knight of mine.
Last night – (decaf) coffee before bed for this modern-day knight of mine.
En route home, we stopped at a fourth state park (gotta love those state park passes, right?).
En route home, we stopped at a fourth state park (gotta love those state park passes, right?).
The guys fished while Chloe and I played Rummy and Whist in the Suburban. This place boasts a prairie dog town, but Simon said it was more like an infestation. We all agreed.
The guys fished while Chloe and I played Rummy and Whist in the Suburban. This place boasts a prairie dog town, but Simon said it was more like an infestation. We all agreed.
Brave. Boy. I shudder to imagine how many snakes are in there with Jesse, but he's a wild-at-heart kind of manling like his dad, so...
Brave. Boy. I shudder to imagine how many snakes are in there with Jesse, but he’s a wild-at-heart kind of manling like his dad, so…
Bonus - Jesse asked if he could make dinner when we got back, so he used stuff on hand (plus some kale I went to buy) and made this ABSOLUTELY DELICIOUS SOUP from scratch! It's his own creation, people. He's 16!
Bonus – Jesse asked if he could make dinner when we got back, so he used stuff on hand (plus some kale I went to buy) and made this ABSOLUTELY DELICIOUS SOUP from scratch! It’s his own creation, people. He’s 16!

Spring Breaking

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IMG_1078While others were buying bathing suits & plane tickets, reserving massages or checking out destinations, I was busy planning our Spring Break staycation.

I compiled two lists of activities (see below) and put them into a clear jar, displayed on our dining table.  We’ll randomly draw an activity out of the above-pictured jar each night at dinner. The activities are simple, cost-effective ideas that will give us daily memory-making times together, without spending the entire day on the go or breaking the bank. (My youngest two are teenagers, so sleeping and taking a break from constant activity are, thankfully, much-appreciated Spring Break activities.)

Here is a sampling of activities we’ll choose from:

Spring Break activities
NOTE: The two in the middle are what I chose for factory tours because we’ve never been to either. There are a variety of other factory tours available to the public here or you could substitute a day trip from the list here.

Blank copyI’ll share each day’s activity – complete with photos, cost breakdown and our family’s feedback – on the blog at at the end of the week. Feel free to share with me, too, in the comments, either here or on Facebook! I’d LOVE to hear the creative ways your family is making your Spring Break staycation memorable!


 

And because I know so many of you are creative geniuses, here is a blank page to print and fill in with your own ideas.
Because I know so many of you are creative geniuses, here is a blank to print and fill in with your own ideas! Right click the graphic, save to your desktop and then print.

A Newbies Take on Fat Tuesday

Fat Tuesday is February 9th.
Fat Tuesday is February 9th.

Four years ago we accidentally participated in Fat Tuesday and it has since become a new Smith Family Tradition. Here’s why.

We decided to take the kids out to a favorite local eatery on a whim for dinner one Tuesday night a few years ago. When we arrived, we were greeted by live music, colorful beads and a fun atmosphere. Extended families were gathered around tables pushed together to accommodate their large numbers.  There was laughter, storytelling – just family togetherness at it’s finest.  The atmosphere was one of celebration and it was infectious! We asked one of the servers what the occasion was and were told that it was Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent began.

Lent we were becoming familiar with.

Fat Tuesday?  That was new.

Fat Tuesday, we learned, was a day of feasting.  Like Lent, it is not a Biblical celebration, but it does have history within church tradition.  In contrast to Lent, however, it focuses on satisfying the lusts of the flesh (specifically food).  It serves as “one last hurrah” before the season of Lent begins with its focus on sacrifice in preparation for the celebration of Easter.  (You can click here for more details on Fat Tuesday.)

I mentioned last week that observing Lent was new to us. We are still getting our feet wet and exploring Lent within the context of our own family.  Since Fat Tuesday added another element to our ever-expanding Easter experience, we wanted to give it a try.

My husband is a fan of redeeming things, so we decided to include Fat Tuesday as one such opportunity for redemption. Instead of focusing on indulging the flesh, however, we set apart Fat Tuesday to focus on the upcoming season of Lent.  We talk about the past Lenten season – what worked, what didn’t work.  We introduce the devotional* we’ll use to walk through the upcoming season & the reasons we chose it.  We share with our kids about the sacrifice(s) we want to make during Lent this year & why we are focusing on them. We discuss possibilities for our “Silent Saturday” activity (future post Easter week!).  And we look ahead to how we want to celebrate Easter on the other end of the season.  (Getting to enjoy good food in a fun atmosphere on Fat Tuesday is just a bonus!)

Are you planning to participate in the season of preparation we call Lent?  I’d love to hear how your family observes this tradition.  Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

 

*Amazon affiliate link

Exploring Lent

New clothes.  Church service.  Family feast.  In my head, these traditions were an important part of celebrating Easter.  They are how my parents celebrated the holiday while I was growing up and I continued the same traditions with my own family.

My sister, Angie, and me - Easter 1970
My sweet big sister (Angie) and me – circa 1970 – in our new Easter outfits.

As an adult, however, I noticed that Easter more than once caught me off guard and I felt unprepared to celebrate it “properly.”  One year I was aghast to realize that Easter was upon us and it was too late to recognize it as I had always done.  I would have to suffer the humiliation of my kids wearing their same old church clothes on Easter Sunday (ridiculous thinking, but true – don’t judge). Last minute plans had to be made for Easter lunch.  I felt like I had dropped the ball and I was kicking myself for it. In my frustration, I commented to my husband Simon that it was a shame that there was no build up to Easter, no way to really prepare for it.

“There is,” he replied.  “It’s called Lent.”

Simon’s response was what propelled us to first explore Lent. We discussed it and decided to give this Lent thing a try the very next year.  Easter should be the most sacred and important part of the year for the believer, we thought. Why had we only passively participated in it until now? We had high hopes for the next year!

The  first year we chose to simply give up sweets for Lent. That seemed to be what everyone online suggested when I researched it, so we jumped on board that train.  It seemed like a doable first for our family of six.  And it worked! Every time we were offered a sweet treat (which was more often than we thought it would be), we were reminded that Jesus had sacrificed so much more on the cross.  We walked toward Easter with more enthusiasm that first year and with a new appreciation of it.  It was a day of celebration, of merriment, of remembrance, of gaiety, of festivity!  (And admittedly, of dessert!)

Over the years, foregoing sweet treats has morphed into a once-a-week fast for my husband and myself, but our children still choose to sacrifice sweets.  (And if you’ve ever gone a long period without any type of sweet treat, you understand what a sacrifice that truly is!)

In addition to fasting something, we began to include a devotional as part of our Lenten experience several years ago. Some years, those were personal devotionals like this* or this* or this. Other years, they were family devotionals like this.  It has been difficult, however, to consistently find devotionals that we felt we easily connected with which is why my (ahem, published) husband wrote this free Lenten devotional last year.  He is passionate about using pop culture to create Mars Hill-type experiences for the next generation and Lent became a natural avenue to do that.  Using popular movies to aid in showing the powerful significance of Easter, Emptied & Humbled is an excellent resource for understanding Christ’s sacrifice on the cross through an in-depth study of Philippians 2.

This year, we will walk toward Easter differently than in the past.  As a couple, my husband and I will look at Lent through the lens of faith. We want to be taught and challenged by the faith of those who have walked faithfully before us. We want to hold their tried-and-true faith up as a mirror and see what is reflected back. We want our faith to grow and be strengthened, ultimately becoming contagious as we walk it out in real life.  This is a self-study that I hope to share with you in the future. In addition, we are using this* as a family devotional in the evenings with our teenagers.  Written for youth, Seven Days That Changed the World is a discussion-based devotional focusing on the Biblical passages of Jesus’ life during the seven days preceding His crucifixion and (victorious!) resurrection.

Before we take our first purposeful steps on these roads to Easter this year, however, we will partake in another tradition.   A few years ago, we accidentally participated in our first Fat Tuesday celebration at Big Shucks and have since added that to our ever-expanding list of new family traditions. While Fat Tuesday doesn’t have the most pristine reputation, Simon and I decided to redeem the day and we now use it, too, as part of our preparation for Easter. (I will share more in-depth on how we redeemed Fat Tuesday next week.)

Our experience of Lent is ever-changing, always morphing to meet the needs of our family as we grow. We are enjoying the exploration of the long-honored church tradition of Lent and the opportunity it affords us to look forward toward the empty tomb.  By introducing Lent to our family, we have grown to appreciate Easter with renewed enthusiasm.  Easter no longer sneaks up on us, but is now eagerly awaited.  Through observing Lent, we now experience the build-up to Easter that I longed for years ago.  We prepare for our most sacred holiday with something more than new clothes.  There is a new eagerness, a new excitement and yearning, a new hunger, a fresh zeal for what we are truly celebrating on Resurrection Sunday.

And we have Lent to thank for that.

Shameless second shot of my big sister Angie and myself, dressed to get our Easter on, circa 1973.
And just because I couldn’t choose which picture to use, here is a shameless second shot of Angie and me ready to celebrate Easter (circa 1973). Note: Angie’s fancy dress would soon be mine. She had the best hand-me-downs a girl could ever want. Beside the point, I know, but girls get this.

 

*denotes Amazon affiliate link

 

Girls Only Weekends

Once a month, these two head out for a weekend of camping and adventure. These are special weekends spent bonding over learning new outdoor skills, cooking over a campfire, and growing ripe from days without bathing - you know, boy stuff.
Once a month, these two head out for a weekend of camping and adventure. These are special weekends spent bonding over learning new outdoor skills, cooking over a campfire, and growing ripe from days without bathing – you know, boy stuff.

For years now, the girls and I have been having what we call “Girls Only Weekends” once a month while the boys go into Bear Grylls mode.

When my sister and niece lived nearby, we included them in our adventures, like this one to an indoor ropes course…

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My daughter was fearless! This is right before we found out she needed glasses, but still. She earned a ton of street cred that night.
My niece was brave and tore through the challenges like a boss!

Over the years, we have also made some great memories with fantastic Mom & Daughter Duos like these at our Pinterest Party –

This Pinterest game was so fun...
This Pinterest game was so fun…
...the Moms decided to give it a go!
…the Moms decided to give it a go!
Making some good memories with these sweet Moms & Daughters
We made some good memories with these sweet Moms & Daughters, one game at a time.

These sweet Mamas & Daughters joined us for a Back-to-School Hair Bash one year –

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Sometimes we do something completely new, like here when we volunteered with these cuties at a For the Nations Refugee Outreach event –

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Or here when we volunteered in the community at the annual Plano Balloon Festival

First we work...
First we worked…
...then we played!
…then we played!

Or here volunteering to walk four-legged friends at the local animal shelter –

My sweet girl has such a soft spot for furry friends. Volunteering at the animal shelter is her most requested Girls Only Weekend activity.
My sweet girl has such a soft spot for furry friends. Volunteering at the animal shelter is her most requested Girls Only Weekend activity.

We’ve camped out at a state park, just the two of us in the tent…

Thankfully we travel with books because this campout, it rained. We spent a lot of time chilling on the bed reading about the Netherfield Ball.
It rained, so we read about the Netherfield Ball – together.

And we’ve hit the trails, like here –

Groupon. Rocks.
Groupon. Rocks.

Tonight is another such night.  It is the annual Mother/Daughter Lock-In at my church, where we have bonded over things like fashion shows and scavenger hunts, like here –

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My daughter is too old for us to attend now, but the two of us will still arrive early & leave late…as volunteers. We will serve alongside other Moms & Daughters who have “aged out”, setting up, cooking, helping with crafts, organizing games, taking pictures and cleaning up. And in the doing of these things, we will add another mental image to the photo album of our daughter’s childhoods.

You, too, are in the midst of making the memories of your daughter’s childhood.  Look for ways to turn the ordinary days into extraordinary ones.  These are the days that will stand out in her mind in the future – and she will have shared them with you.  Seize the circumstances that present themselves! Create your own opportunities! Invite other Moms & Daughters to join you.  Or keep it simple, just the two of you.  Ride a bike. Have a picnic in your daughter’s bedroom.  Pick something from here or here or here. Just do something. Don’t put it off.  They are memories that will be enjoyed by both of you long after the moments have passed.