Jesus trees, Lent and Christian Easter activities for children

This Easter we are continuing to build family traditions as we focus on the biblical events that are the foundations of the Easter celebration. Here are some of the new activities we are trying out for Easter this year. The ones we like will become yearly traditions, the others we’ll have fun doing just this time. We haven’t actually made any of these yet so they are untried recommendations, however they look like fun and we’ll take the punt that they are worth the time and effort.

We have already missed the start of lent and with our latest baby due any time now we will not be attempting the 40 day count down, but this Jesus tree activity we’ll save for next year. Similar to the Jesse tree that we made for Christmas, a Jesus tree uses picture or object symbols to represent the major biblical stories culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter. My plan for this is to collect 2 large branches and fasten them together to make a natural looking cross. We will then read the bible verses that go with each symbol, colour them in and add them to the cross over the 40 days of Lent. Free printable symbols are available at this blog, with a black and white and colour version as well.

In place of the Jesus tree count down we will use our resurrection eggs to count down the 12 days before Easer. (This year our resurrection eggs contain bible readings that retell the main events of Easter plus little symbols for each part that come from this blog.) I plan to hide one each day for the children to find and read during circle time.

These Easter story pecan cookies have an amazing amount of symbolism woven through the recipe. As each ingredient is added to the biscuits, a snippet of the Easter story is read that relates to that ingredient and even the way it is mixed or prepared has symbolism. The cookies are placed into the oven tomb are hollow when the tomb is re-opened. I can’t wait to do this one.

These resurrection rolls (scroll down at the link to find them) are also very symbolic, with the Easter story attached to the method of preparing and the ingredients used. Rather than buy a prepared dough that we probably can’t get in Australia anyway, I’ll just mix up a basic sweet dough in the bread maker and use that. Even sheets of prepared pastry would work.

We will use these symbols of Jesus to decorate Easter crosses by cutting out just the pictures and make cute cracked egg Easter cards. This article with general information about Lent was helpful as I really didn’t have much of an idea what Lent was all about and we’ll make these simple palm branches for Palm Sunday.

The legend of the pretzel was another great find this year. I had no idea that there was symbolism attached to pretzels or that they were traditionally an Easter food. We will attempt the paper pretzel pattern (although I made one myself and found it easier to do it by trial and error as I had no idea whatsoever how to follow the instructions they gave!) I think the children will have much more fun making real dough pretzels and topping them with a variety of flavours.

Another paper craft was this paper plate tomb and angel and a bunch of Easter lapbook activities from a variety of sites:

More ideas are available in my last post here.

Creating Christian Easter traditions

So much hype surrounds Christmas and with all the decorations, gifts and preparation we naturally spend quite a bit of time deliberately focussing on Jesus and the true meaning of the Christmas celebrations. Easter however tended to be very low-key and while we always read to the children about Easter in the bible we felt that much more could be done to mark this important Christian celebration than we had been doing. After all, Easter is when Jesus dies for our sins so that we may be forgiven and enabled us through His death to be judged fit to enter heaven. Probably the most important time in the Christian calendar and yet almost unnoticed for many families, other than a couple of chocolate eggs and a hot cross bun!

The following are a couple of ideas that we have begun and will extend upon over the following years in order to focus our children on the important meaning behind this time of year.

Decorations: We decorate for Christmas, why not Easter? We have started a selection of symbols, books and Easter resources that we use to make a display leading up to the Easter period. This year we are making a living Easter centrepiece that I found here: http://mustardseeds.typepad.com/my_weblog/2010/03/tutorial-hill-of-calvary.html

Traditions:

  • We use a sand tray to re-tell the Easter story with a yoghurt pot tomb, rock to cover the entrance, pipecleaner people, popstick crosses, etc. and leave it out for the children to manipulate and play with.
  • On Easter Friday we re-tell the story again using a paper mache tomb that we made together a couple of years ago (in the picture above), wrapping a pipe cleaner “Jesus” in a bandage and sealing him into the tomb by rolling the stone over the entrance. On Easter Sunday we get up before the children, unwrap Jesus and leave the cloth laying in the tomb, roll the stone aside and place an angel figurine from our Christmas decorations on the top of the tomb. The first time we did this my then 5 year old daughter was stunned and stood gaping at the tomb saying in amazement “Jesus really HAS risen!!” We had to explain to her that there hadn’t really been any Easter pipe cleaner man miracle!
  • We do allow the children to have chocolate Ester eggs. For Christians wanting the focus to stay on Jesus at Easter, chocolate eggs can be quite controversial. We decided as the children would more than likely be given chocolate eggs anyway, we would use the egg and teach them the Christian symbolism behind it. The focus is on the egg being a sign of new life (Jesus coming alive again) and being hollow inside like the tomb after he rose. We read stories like “The Legend of The Easter Egg” by Lori Walburg which reinforce the symbolism behind the egg.

The Legend of the Easter Egg

  • We do have an Easter egg hunt on the Sunday. Instead of finding tonnes of chocolate eggs though, we use resurrection eggs. Commercial resurrection eggs are available online and in Christian stores and we do have a set of these, however we have made our own in a variety of forms over the last couple of years and used these. Resurrection eggs contain bible readings that retell the main events of Easter plus little symbols for each part. We usually finish the hunt with one chocolate egg each. This year our home-made resurrection eggs come from here: http://www.annieshomepage.com/eastereggstext.html

  • We have also had a treasure hunt on the Sunday where clues on large paper eggs led from one location to another. Each clue egg had the next part of the Easter story on it which we read together before following the clue to the next paper egg. We finished the hunt with real china egg cups with a chocolate egg inside for each child.
  • “The Lamb” by John Cross is another brilliant book to read at Easter or anytime really. It begins with creation and makes a clear identification between Jesus and the sacrificed lamb for forgiveness of sins. Each chapter starts with a review and has questions at the end to check understanding. Included with the book is a 60 minute CD, providing a word for word narration. I have seen my three year old come ahead in leaps and bounds in her understanding of the gospel, however it was more than sophisticated enough for anything up to teens to read on their own. An excellent resource for circle time, family devotions or just to read together.Only available in Australia here: http://www.goodseed.com/products/lamb-eng-book/


More ideas for Easter traditions and activities coming over the next couple of days.

Family devotions

In my last post I mentioned that it is the Father’s role to lead his family spiritually. In many families this role has been handed over to the church, Sunday school, Christian school or sometimes Mum. While spiritual input from all of these areas can be very beneficial, it is primarily the Father’s responsibility. One tangible way that Dad can take hold of this role is by leading his family in daily devotions (sometimes known as family alter or bible study time.)

WHAT ARE FAMILY DEVOTIONS?

  • Regular bible study with the whole family. This time can also include worship (in the form of singing), prayer, and possibly catechism and scripture memorization. Catechism and scripture memorization are both important, however some families do them separately at other times throughout the day.

WHY SHOULD WE DO IT?

  • In short – God tells us to! It is not enough to take our children to church and youth group and hope for the best. We must disciple our children, teaching them in our homes, with the Father as the primary lead in this area.
  • We become the prime spiritual influence in the lives of our children – it allows us to shepherd our children’s hearts; preparing their hearts for the gospel and salvation, building their faith and strengthening a biblical worldview.
  • Worshiping and communicating with God is vital for the whole family, not just Mum and Dad.
  • It promotes personal spiritual growth, helping us (and our family) to learn the bible, it’s doctrines and teachings in order that we know what we believe and why. If our children do not know God’s word they will be unable to honour, respect and live by it. Children need to learn that the bible tells us what to do and gives us insight for daily life; that it is relevant to them and their everyday situations. As families study together, parents can weed out errors in belief and misunderstandings
  • Worshiping and studying God’s word together builds family unity, strengthening and building healthy family relationships.

HOW DO WE DO IT?

  • The “how” of family devotions changes with each family’s unique situation, time constraints, ages of children and a myriad of other factors. Find a way that works for you and do it – regularly!
  • Decide where; Lounge chairs, around the dining table, on the end of beds, sprawled on the lounge room floor…
  • Decide when; As soon as the family is awake, immediately before or after a meal, after dinner clean-up, just before bed? Ideally choose a time when children are fed and well rested.
  • Decide how long; this depends on the age of the children. Keep it to a reasonable time limit, but not so short that you cannot give adequate attention to God’s word.

TODDLERS AND YOUNGER

  • Give thanks before meals. Hold the child’s hands and encourage them to join in with “Amen” at the end. Encourage them to echo or say simple prayers as they are able.
  • Pray with and for the child at bedtime
  • Have your own devotions in front of the child
  • Read short, colourful bible stories. Perhaps ask a simple comprehension question or two afterwards.
  • Sing simple bible based children’s songs together
YOUNG CHILDREN TO MIDDLE YEARS
  • Bible stories are still important, branching out into the lesser known ones.
  • Spice up your devotion time by acting out stories, using puppets or pictures, involving the children in role play and re-tell.
  • Introduce real-life stories, applications and real Christian “heroes”
  • Ask questions for comprehension and real-life application of what they have read; “What would you do if..?”
  • As children can read, have them take their turn to read out the verses being studies.
PRE-TEEN TO TEEN
  • Discussion, sharing and engagement become much more important.
  • It’s ok to not always have the answer – model how to find out.
  • Personal devotions for the children should be well and truly up and running – perhaps set “homework” and discuss together, work through devotional books together or research tricky questions.
  • Discuss current affairs and politics and the biblical basis for decisions making in these areas. What are the biblical rights and wrongs of what is going on?
  • Teens take time – make sure you plan for it!
MULTIPLE AGES
  • Beware of dumbing everything down for the younger children, they will pick up more than you think.
  • use a mix of resources; some days may cater more for the younger, others the middle or older.
  • Young children may stay for the first part of devotions then head off to bed while the older children delve in more deeply.
  • Involve the older children in planning and running the devotion time.
  • Everyone may do the same bible study together, with younger children having a children’s bible story at night before bed and older children working through separate studies in the evening

FORMAT

  • Sing together. Perhaps a kids bible song, contemporary worship song  and a traditional hymn. Do not neglect the great hymns of the faith; the words in these will teach spiritual truths to children and will lodge in their memories for a lifetime. Voddie Baucham’s article on family worship touches on why we should sing hymns: http://web.me.com/voddieb/vbm/Blog/Entries/2009/11/5_Answering_Your_Questions.html
  • Study the bible. There are many ways to do this. A couple are: Chapter by chapter (simply work your way through books of the bible from start to finish in small chunks), following a theme or topic or read 1 proverb, a section of a psalm and a couple of verses from the New Testament each day.
  • Several great ideas are included in an article by Al Troester here: http://www.wholesomewords.org/family/famaltar.html)
  •  Perhaps Dad could read through the selected text to begin with, then ask those children who can read to take it in turns to read 2 lines each and those who cannot yet read to echo the words of each verse after you. Dad then teaches back through the selected text – children are asked to contribute to discussions or ask questions after he has explained each line or two. Each person finishes the bible study section by telling something they have learnt or can apply to their own lives. Always look for the applications and personal lessons after each reading and teaching time.
  • Pray. All family members take a turn to pray for whatever is appropriate that day. It is helpful to have some kind of prayer journal or recording system to help with purposeful prayer and to notice the answers to prayer that God gives us. Record the date it was prayed for, what was prayed and leave a column to record God’s answer.
  • Catechism. The catechism is a series of questions and answer that children memorise to learn the main doctrines of the Christian faith, building a strong foundation for world view and ensuring they know what they believe. (More info on this another time:)
  • Scripture memorization. (More ideas on how to do this another day too :)


Children who stand strong in their faith: Walking against the crowd

One of the topics raised amongst our GEMS leaders a little while back was how to go about raising children who are able to stand strong in their faith even when no-one else is walking with them and they are away from the sheltering influence of their parents and family. How do we prepare them to be in the world but not of the world; to be able to choose the narrow path and walk against the flow? (Even if that means standing alone because “every one else is doing it!”)

I believe the key is that our children must develop their own genuine saving faith and not be relying on ours to carry them through. They must have the Holy Spirit as their strength and their own conviction to stand on God’s word and to follow His commandments and statutes. Our teaching as parents must be overt, deliberate, ongoing, free from hypocrisy, giving a good role model and above all, reaching the heart of our children. Our teaching will be molding the external behavior of our children, but this must transition to heart knowledge, to the child internalizing the beliefs for themselves. We can only do so much here and pray that God will do the rest. In the end, when a difficult test comes, only if our children have chosen God and His ways for themselves will they make the difficult decisions and stand alone if necessary, because otherwise they simply will not want to!

Dads should be leading their family spiritually. There are many ways to do this, including holding family devotions, leading world view discussions on current affairs, discussing what they believe and why and relating that back to the bible. Be deliberate in teaching the bible, memorizing scripture, training character, reading inspiring books with a message and praying together. Soak your children in the beliefs, understandings and world view you want them to have well before a time of testing will come. Decisions made ahead of time without the emotions and pressure of the heat of the moment, decisions that have been discussed, thought through, prayed over and become an internalized way of life will not be overturned quickly. We all can think of actions and decisions made in the heat of the moment that we wish we could change and would have done differently had we previously thought through the issues involved.

You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

(Deuteronomy 6:7 ESV)

We need to keep the lines of communication open; talking about everything. Make time alone to share, bond and discuss those innermost thoughts and feelings. Work to surround your children with peers who are being raised with similar convictions, standards and beliefs. Two or more standing together is so much easier than one standing alone. Foster a close relationship. Fill their love tanks. A child who knows that they are unconditionally loved by their families will have an extra inner reserve of strength to stand firm. A needy, empty child will turn to those who fulfill those needs that are not being met at home.

Certain personalities will be more naturally able to take a leadership role and less likely to blindly follow the crowd. All of us need to be able to make the hard decisions though and learn not to follow when the leaders are leading in the wrong direction. Teach your children about personality types and love languages. Help them to identify their own strengths and weaknesses and areas that they will have to be particularly vigilant in. Help to identify why they feel the way they do and to be able to be objective about their decision making.

Guard your child’s ear and eye gate. Give them excellent literature to read that portrays great role models and biblical worldview; do not pollute their innocence with worldly ideas through literature, magazines or on screen. Choose television programmes very carefully or better still get rid of the T.V. completely. The more exposure to non-biblical thinking we give our children the more they will be subtly bought into the idea of the world’s norms and tend to adapt them as their own. Slow attitude change is often hardly noticeable but Hollywood has its own agenda and it shouldn’t fit with ours as Christians. If the role models they are watching and listening to are “doing it” then children are being nudged in that direction and may begin to normalize non-biblical behaviour and accept it as ok.

Shield your child by not putting them into situations that will likely test them before they are ready to handle it. Be aware of the scenarios faced at sleep-overs, parties, weekends away and the like. I had good friends who were fairly like-minded, with careful parents. It was only through the grace of God however that I came through the parties, sleepovers and get-togethers we attended relatively unscathed. I’m sure my parents would have been horrified to know what went on at some of the places we went to – even those with so-called responsible adults in attendance!

Substitute inappropriate situations with alternatives if there are such available. For example, the end of year 11 was a time to go away camping with all the highschoolers and a time of drinking, partying and a lot of other things we don’t need to list. There was no way my parents were prepared to let me go away unchaperoned and luckily for me many of my friends’ parents felt the same way. My Mother volunteered to take us all camping and attended as the supervising adult (much to my embarrassment at the time.) She did turn out to be remarkably “cool” and as it was this or nothing everyone came and we had a great time together.

There are no easy answers and no quick fixes. Equipping our children to stand strong on their convictions is a process and we build on to that equipping every day for years.

  [9] And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

(Galatians 6:9 ESV)

Our Jesse tree symbols and readings for Advent

Day 1: God's creation. (This decoration reminded us of the planets around the sun)

As we seek to focus our family on the true meaning of Christmas, we have been taking deliberate steps to create yearly Christmas traditions and memories. I have finally finished all the symbols and readings for our Jesse tree for Advent this year. The children have been involved in searching for and choosing the symbols for each day (some alternative ideas here.) Most were found in discount variety stores, some were gathered from around the house and we even made a couple. I spray-painted them all gold to keep a constant theme (and just to look nice!) and it was amazing how good even the cheap plastic animals look with a coat of gold. The readings we chose came from some of the many online choices available (links at the bottom of this post about Jesse trees.)

Bible reading scrolls

I have typed up the bible readings, printed them out onto thin card and hot glue gunned on thin craft sticks to make scrolls. Each one has a small circle of ribbon to hold it closed that can be slipped off to read the scroll. Each night the children will take it in turns to open the scroll and unwrap each symbol after the reading. (I thought wrapping the symbols would make it even more exciting and they could guess what symbol would represent the readings we had heard before seeing what it was.)

Day 2 Adam and Eve (The forbidden fruit)

Day 3 Noah's ark (birds sent out 3 times to find dry land) There are lots of bird decorations out this year so these were easy to find.

Day 4 Abram (descendants as many as the stars)

Day 5 Isaac (ram as sacrifice) This is just a plastic ram sprayed gold but it looks great!

Day 6 Jacob's ladder (This ladder came from a bird cage set.)

Day 7 Joseph (Sold for 30 pieces of silver into slavery)

Day 8 Moses (in basket) This miniature frame had what looked like reeds around the edge.

Day 9 The 10 commandments (Not quite a stone tablet but as close as we could get.)

Day 10 Joshua (The battle of Jericho) This was a cheap plastic tower with a plastic knight to build inside. We used the knight's shield and sword for Gideon so 2 for the price of one!

Day 11 Gideon (A sword for the Lord and for Gideon)

Day 12 Samuel (His Mother takes him a little coat each year) My least favourite decoration - fabric does not spray-paint well.

Day 13 David (5 stones for Goliath)

Day 14 Elijah (fed by the ravens)

Day 15 Hezekiah (empty enemy tent)

Day 16 Isaiah (Tongs and hot coal)

Day 17 Jeremiah (Known as the weeping prophet) Made of salt dough.

Day 18 Habakkuk (His watchtower) Already dropped and broken and we haven't even got it on the tree yet!! More salt dough.

Day 19 Nehemiah (Rebuilding the city wall) A previously useless gate from a plastic doll's house - perfect for this.

Day 20 John (baptizing in the river) Think laterally!

Day 21 Mary & Elizabeth (Messenger angel) It's impossible to find male angels!

Day 22 Zechariah (Tablet and stylus) The modern day version.

Day 23 Joseph (Loves and marries Mary) The rings are wedding favours that come in bags of 50.

Day 24 Magi (3 Wise Men's gifts to Jesus)

Day 25 Jesus' birth (Star of Bethlehem) There are 2 readings and 2 symbols today - the second symbol is tree lights which are turned on to represent the light of Jesus now shining in the world.

The Sorting Out Prayer (Sibling conflict)

Product: Parents Arise Image

After using the “Children Arise” CD’s with my children for circle time I was interested in reading the story of how they came about in “Parents Arise” by Janine Target. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and recommend having a look. (Here at Koorong or here at Growing Families) With the author’s permission, I am reproducing below just one of the ideas she presented in her book and I think it was worth purchasing it for this alone.

We have always had our children apologise (say “sorry”) for mistakes and accidents and ask for forgiveness for deliberate sins (acts of unkindness etc.) They are required to reconcile by making eye contact, naming the specific sin, asking for forgiveness (I’m sorry I spoke unkindly to you, will you forgive me?) and then hugging the offended person. (There is just something about physical contact that melts hearts and helps siblings to reconcile. Older children, especially boys, are required to shake hands.)

Once they have worked through this process, they spend some time praying about it and asking for God’s forgiveness and help for future events. Janine’s sorting out prayer takes this part of the process a couple of vital steps further and I will be introducing it as part of our family pattern for making things right with God and between family members from now on.

Here it is as it appears on page 102 of her book:

The Sorting Out Prayer

1. I forgive ……….. for…………

(Matthew 6:14,15)

2. Dear God please forgive ……….. for ………….

(Luke 23:34)

3. Please forgive me for getting angry.

(1 John 1:9)

4. Please take all the anger and upset out of me.

(1 John 1:9)

5. Please bless ………

(Luke 6:27, 28)

In Janine’s words; “It keeps us free from resentment, kept our forgiveness up to date, and it helped create an environment for strong and healthy emotional growth in each of our children.”

Family Devotions with Joel Beeke

I highly recommend listening to Joel Beeke (here) as he speaks at the Conference for Pastors on Family Worship. He gives a simple yet profound message on the importance of family worship (family devotions/bible study time) with tips on how to go about doing it successfully. I think most Christians would agree that having time together as a family to study God’s word is important, but many find it difficult to know how or where to start. This talk may be what you need to get you equipped and off and running as you seek to lead your family to Christ.

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