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How To Do Advent Right

It’s been many months since I last updated. During that time, I’ve moved halfway across the country and added a fourth child to our family.  So life has been busy! 

The season of Advent has it hard. When Christmas lights—and Christmas presents—take over store displays the second Halloween is over, and radio stations start playing old timey carols before the last bite of Thanksgiving pie has been eaten, Advent can seem a bit sour. Like a mournful little voice saying, “But it’s not Christmas yet! Don’t enjoy those Christmas lights! Don’t sing along to those carols! Don’t nibble those Christmas cookies! You’re supposed to be sad right now!”

But while there may be spiritual as well as health benefits to holding off on the Christmas cookies until after midnight on Christmas Eve, if that’s all we’re getting out of Advent, we’re sadly missing the point. 

Advent’s purple is more about preparation than penance. 

Preparing for what? Well, for Christmas. For the coming of Jesus. 

So, imagine Jesus was coming over to your house, what would you do? 

I know I’d do a pretty thorough cleaning. Mop all those floors. Try to clean up that clutter that keeps piling up on the counters. Wash the windows. Empty the trash. 

Then, I’d start decorating. Try to make the house as inviting and attractive as possible. Put up some nice pictures, get some flowers. 

And then I’d try to plan an amazing dinner menu. The most delicious foods, the best dessert, the finest wine. Perhaps I’d invite other guests, too, if I thought Jesus would like a bigger party. And a gift. 

It would be a lot of work. It might be stressful. But one thing it wouldn’t be is sad. It would be exciting, anticipatory, even fun. Something I’d want to get everyone in the house involved with. 

But Jesus isn’t just coming into your home, he’s coming into your heart. So what to do? 

Well, start by cleaning. Advent is a great time to go to confession. It’s also a great time to declutter your life. What do you want Jesus to see when he comes to your heart? Is the last video you watched really what you want Jesus to see on your counter when he comes to visit?

And how will you decorate? Shining up the old good habits and developing some new ones. Maybe a habit of reading wholesome books is just what your heart’s coffee table needs for when Jesus comes for a visit. Or maybe a nice garland of kindness would look good on the window sill. 

Finally, the planned dinner, the party activities, the other guests. 

Advent is a good time to think about the future. It’s like New Year’s. A time to start new things. Do you need a new habit of prayer? Or a new friendship? A new way to bring God’s love to the world? 

Think about it this Advent. That’s what Advent is for. 

And if you’re doing those things, you can feel free to enjoy those Christmas decorations, those songs, and maybe even the occasional sneaked Christmas cookie. (After all, someone has to do quality control, right?) 

This post originally appeared on

If you are looking for last minute gifts for a young reader in your life, I do encourage you to check out the books at CatholicTeenBooks.

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The Case For Family Mission

For as long as I can remember thinking about the dynamics of a marriage that I would want for myself, I’ve known that I wanted to marry someone who had a goal besides getting married. I wanted to join a man on a mission and partner with him in achieving it. Somehow just having a family never seemed like enough of a goal. 

Now according to Catholic thought, the purpose of the family is the procreation and education of children, and the mutual love and support of the spouses. Families are where new people come from. 

So it might seem a little odd to argue that a family needs a goal beyond itself, a mission beyond the spouses having a functional marriage and raising functional children. 

But that’s exactly what I want to argue. Families need a mission. 

Where Mission Might Come From

Now in some cases—perhaps the vast majority of cases throughout history—the overarching goal of most families was simply survival. Every member of the subsistence farmer family or hunter-gatherer family has to work hard just to ensure their survival through the next winter. The sense of mission is built into the life. The mission: survive the next winter without losing any family members. 

A step beyond survival, status can also serve as a mission. Ensuring the survival and renown of the family name. The mission: maintain the family’s power and prestige by whatever means necessary…. Because if you don’t, you’ll end up on the bottom of the pile and likely not survive.

I am by no means suggesting either of these scenarios as an ideal. I am not criticizing prosperity, nor nostalgically pining for some “simpler time.” I simply want to point out that a sense of communal family mission is present in these scenarios, and that this sense is valuable for healthy human life and development. 

I have no desire to argue against either prosperity or comfort. There are obvious advantages to both, and the sense of struggle and striving which we need, can—and should—be supplied in other, nobler ways. 

So what if you have plenty of stuff? What if you live in 21st century America where having enough is relatively easy, and having a surplus common? What sense of mission drives the modern American family? What do they strive for? 

Why Family Mission Is Important

Even if you have plenty of material goods, you still need something to strive for. Humans are built to strive, to fight, to struggle. And so I believe it is impossible—or nearly impossible—to raise children to be truly virtuous adults, unless you set your family a goal beyond just “raising good kids.” 

If you as parents set your goal as a family to “raise children” then what will your children have to do besides “be raised?” Virtue is acquired by repeated acts. And “being raised” is not an action. It is something done to you, not something you do. A child cannot become virtuous by “being raised,” any more than a student can become wise or educated merely by “being taught.”

Children—and all of us—actually have to do something, if they are to become fully actualized humans. Hence the need for a family mission. A goal set for the whole family, that requires action on the part of every member of the family. So how will a family mission help you raise happy, well adjusted, responsible…. AKA virtuous humans? 

The Mission Will Demand Sacrifice

Everyone who wants to raise children to be virtuous people seems to recognize that giving kids everything they want all the time doesn’t lead them to acquire virtue. Setting aside your own desires for the sake of something bigger and higher is fundamental for becoming a responsible, noble, virtuous adult. Not getting your way all the time is an important part of growing up. 

But as a parent, it’s hard sometimes to know how to best present opportunities for this lesson. I can actually afford to buy my kids candy, balloons, or whatever. There is no pressing physical necessity for my small children to push their limits physically or mentally. Our economy is structured such that four year olds don’t actually have to do economically productive work in order to stay alive. (And I am certainly glad I don’t have to send my daughter into a coal mine!) So how do I determine when I’m just being a control freak and a killjoy, and when I’m really “doing it for their own good?” 

A family mission helps with this. If there’s an overarching goal that all family activities are in some way directed toward, then this gives an explanation for why the answer is sometimes no, or why work needs to be done. A family running a true family business, for example, would revolve around that work. “Mom needs you to help make dinner right now instead of watching cartoons, because she needs to wait on a customer.” “We can’t buy that expensive toy today because we’re saving for a new piece of equipment.” 

This is so much more satisfying—both for the parent, and the child—than “You can’t do that because I think it’s good for you to not always have what you want.”  

The Family Mission Imparts Value

Children desperately want to be helpful. They want to do real work, even before they are capable of it. Even toddlers are insulted by being told, “you can help mommy by coloring quietly.” Your three-year-old knows that coloring doesn’t actually help mommy and that he’s just being brushed off. (Even though you could actually get your work done faster if they would just go color!) 

Is the situation different for a ten year old who’s told that his job is to do his school work? All that does is tell the child simultaneously that he’s the center of the world and that he’s a work in progress, who has no value until he’s finished. If the family’s only mission is to have perfectly raised children, then the children will feel like failures as long as they are not perfect—which they never will be. 

But if the family has a mission that the parents can point to and tell their children, “We are trying to achieve this goal. Can you help us?” then the child has a sense of purpose and meaning. They can feel that they and their contributions have real value: that they are doing something that only they can do. Kids might still grouse about chores, but it’s easier to get kids to do chores if they can see a definite purpose for the work than if they suspect they’re being given busy work.

I can see this even with my own four year old. She wants to know that she’s doing something useful, and that her work will help people. “Pick up your books” is far less effective than, “Aren’t you worried someone will trip and fall if those books are on the floor?” 

The Family Mission Gives Perspective

Children learn by example, and one vitally important thing that children need to learn is that there are things more important than their own desires. Having a goal beyond the family itself and its immediate desires allows the parents to powerfully model living toward something and the virtues associated with that kind of goal-oriented life.

If they have a goal they can point to, and say, “We are trying to do this. In order to achieve this goal, we are going to do these things and make these choices,” they can model intentional living. 

They can also model dedication and self-forgetfulness. Parents can certainly be—and are—dedicated and self-forgetful in the service of their children, and raising good people is a worthy life-work, but children can see this example of dedication and self-forgetfulness more clearly if it’s directed towards something other than themselves. Efforts directed towards oneself are more difficult to see clearly. It is as though they are foreshortened and distorted by being viewed so closely. 

And while children do learn by example, they learn even more powerfully by doing. 

If children are the parents’ goal, then what is the children’s goal? Themselves? Constantly perfecting their own selves? Putting on their own clothes, doing their own school work, cleaning up their own messes? (All of this is wonderful and necessary, of course, but when will they learn to move beyond themselves? Some people might say that they must learn to care for themselves before they can move beyond, and there is some truth in that. But in my experience, they will learn far faster if they can see the needs of others and begin to see themselves as having power to help others.)

When will they learn to direct their goals and actions to something outside of themselves, if they are not invited to join their parents or community in doing so while they’re still children? 

Having a large family can go a long way toward this. If Mom can’t keep up with the work and the older kids have to pitch in for their younger siblings, this will automatically help the kids learn how to contribute to something bigger than themselves. But what about the younger kids in this family? The stereotype of youngest kids is that they are selfish and spoiled. And it will probably be the reality if their family cannot enroll them in the service of a worthy cause. 

Family Mission Helps Parents

As a side note, I think having a sane family mission can help parents survive parenting as well. Instead of endlessly trying to perfect the child-experience—enrolling children in all the activities, and obsessing over their development or lack thereof, the parents can see their children as co-workers in an enterprise and can more easily direct their efforts for their children’s well-being and happiness. Children with real, purposeful work will be happier and less bored, and more likely to actually want virtue. They will be able to see how virtue makes them more effective. Teachable moments will occur naturally, and not have to be artificially constructed. And parents will realize that there are other things they need to do besides just parenting, and be relieved of guilt for not constantly entertaining (stimulating?) their children…which, in a virtuous cycle, will make the children more independent and easier to parent. 

Choosing a Family Mission

Finding the mission of your family can be hard. As hard as discovering your own vocation as an individual. But opening oneself to the Will of God and seeing where it takes you is worth the effort. Look for ways your family can make your community better as a whole. Perhaps there is a pressing need that a new business would fill, and your family has the ability for it. Perhaps loneliness is an issue in your community, and simply practicing Christian hospitality will bring people closer to God and each other. 

There are as many vocations for a family as a whole as there are for individuals. If we start thinking about family life this way, it will make us happier and better, as children, as parents, and as communities.

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Lenten Anthology from Catholic Teen Books

A boy in ancient Israel, a girl in modern-day America, a young man in the far future; a dozen teenagers in different settings. What do they all have in common? Each of these otherwise unrelated young people is presented with a choice, the same choice that every teen must make at some point in their lives: God or self. Sacrifice or selfishness. (which I have been lucky enough to be part of for the last couple of years) is excited to announce its newest anthology: Ashes: Visible and Invisible. This short story collection, which comes out on January 31, will both entertain young readers and invite them into a deeper understanding of Lent and their faith.

Some characters in this anthology risk being eaten by dinosaurs, others must simply rise to a new level of maturity in their everyday life, while some must choose a higher level of generosity. The stakes my vary but each character learns a valuable lesson about sacrifice as they grow in their faith.

Why Lent?

Lent is an amazing liturgical season that is often misunderstood. Too often it’s just “the time where you give up chocolate” whereas it can be so much more. It’s a beautiful and liturgically rich season of walking with Christ, even as he approaches Calvary. We wanted to explore some of the variety this season offers and make it more attractive and understandable to teens.

I really enjoyed writing a story for this collection, and I’m so honored to join Leslea Wahl, Cynthia T. Toney, Carolyn Astfalk, Amanda Lauer, Ellen Gable, Corinna Turner, Antony B. Kolenc, T. M. Gaouette, and Theresa Linden in its pages.

A taste of what’s inside:

  • When Liz’s faith journey hits a roadblock, will an unexpected detour and chance encounter set her back on track?
  • A teen’s future was all set—before his tragic loss. But his friend’s secret past just might save it.
  • Justin’s religion is outlawed. When an unbeliever asks him about the meaning of life, what can he say?
  • Could God be asking Paul to sacrifice a piece of himself for Lent—literally?
  • A modern American teen discovers what faith, life and love are like in seventeenth-century Scotland.
  • Asher’s desire to prepare for the Messiah intensifies after he’s robbed by bandits. But would fighting alongside the Zealots be the best way?
  • When a risky Ash Wednesday mission to sterilize T. rex eggs goes wrong, fasting is the least of Joshua, Darryl, and Harry’s worries.
  • A medieval girl stranded on a forsaken path confronts threats from without and turmoil from within.
  • Struggling with loss, hunger, and temptation, Ethan finds himself walking in the steps of Jesus

What other people are saying about it:

The Catholic Teen Book authors have done it again! We loved this book from page one; it’s a great way to dig deeper into Lent with your teens. The book has a story for everyone, and they all share the faith in different but wonderful ways. Highly recommend!
Jennifer & Kate Waldyke,
Co-hosts of Catholic Mom and Daughter

‘Ashes’, the latest compilation of stories from provides teen readers with plenty to think about. This compilation focuses on the theme of Lent, Easter, and our own mortality. In each of these stories, there is an encounter with death. Sometimes a death is pending or has just occurred or is threatening nearby. But the experienced and very talented
authors at have not presented a depressing, frightening or dark anthology here. Instead, I was surprised to find that each story is uplifting, hopeful and very inspiring.
What binds these stories is that each young person must make a leap of Faith, take a step into a fuller, more mature understanding of their Catholic Faith. Characters are called to forgive, to resist temptation, to be courageous, to be steadfast and responsible. All of them come to understand on a deeper level the sacrificial nature of Love. I highly recommend this collection of stories from the authors at
Melinda Harrington
Catholic Children’s Stories

This is the fourth anthology from the authors at the Catholic Teen Books collective. Each has been a great read. This Lenten volume is also, to be honest, my favourite of the four now. Each story was remarkable. Many of the contributors to this collection, in their own way, imitate Christ and are master storytellers in our own generation. I have a great deal of respect for the ten authors who contributed to this series. And a couple of them are among my all-time favourite authors. And I read a couple hundred books a year. This anthology is Amazing!
Steven R. McEvoy,


Click here to enter a giveaway for this book and some other cool lent-themed items. 

Click here to preorder the book

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Ask Nicely!

“I want a sandwich!” “I want more juice!” “Juice!” “Give me that!” 

Children never seem to ask properly for the things they want. I was making a sandwich for my daughter’s lunch today when she came into the kitchen and demanded it. And suddenly I didn’t want to give it to her anymore. Like most people, I don’t like being ordered to do things. I don’t like being yelled at. I appreciate being treated with consideration.

I also want my daughter to understand that she cannot tyrannize over everyone, demanding that others kowtow to her will. I want her to be polite.  

But somehow, my kids never seem to ask properly the first time. Never. They always have to do it wrong first and be reminded. Surely, we adults think, it’s not so hard to say, “please may I have a sandwich.” or “Please can you get me a drink of juice.” And yet somehow the kids never try that first, after whining, yelling and demanding. It’s always an afterthought; something they have to be reminded to do. 

We adults think that we always ask politely first, and that it’s not so hard. That kids could do it if they just tried. As I imagine most parents do, I frequently apostrophise my children on this topic. “Why can’t you just ask nicely to start with?” 

DO we ask nicely? 

It occurred to me today, though that maybe we adults don’t always ask nicely the first time. Certainly there are muscle-memory habits of saying please and thank you for things.  We generally do ask “please pass me the salt” at the table, because we have learned from long experience that it is the easiest way to get the salt. 

But in the things that really matter and that are not so socially scripted, I think we are far less courteous about how we ask for things than we think we are.

Courtesy is Hard

My children don’t say please the first time, because politeness—even the most basic forms of politeness like saying please and thank you—requires thinking first of another person’s wants, feelings, and desires, rather than our own. 

Children are so immediate in their perception of the world that they find this nearly impossible. My daughter sees a sandwich and she wants it. So she says so. She comes across as rude and unpleasant simply because she’s self-absorbed, as all children her age are. And as most adults are. She doesn’t think first about how her way of expressing herself will make me feel. 

But who of us really do? I try not to berate my kids in demeaning ways at least, but I often yell at them in a demanding tone to get what I could probably get more effectively by asking nicely. And in my relations with other adults, I am often so focused on what I want or need that I don’t notice that I’m hurting others and simultaneously sabotaging my own chances of getting what I want. 

Sometimes hurting other people’s feelings is unavoidable, but we should always at least try to figure out where they’re coming from before trying to change their behavior. 

To be clear, I will still make my children ask nicely for the things they want. I will still try to help them develop true courtesy, and in the meantime at least learn the social scripts that mimic it.

But hopefully I’ll be a little more patient with them in the meantime, and I hope their innocent rudeness will remind me to work a little harder on my own practice of courtesy. 

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Why They Really Complained About the Manna

In the book of Exodus, the Israelites are brought by God out of the land of Egypt where they were enslaved, and taken into the desert. God has worked miracle after miracle for them by this point, ten plagues, walking through the Red Sea, but once they find themselves in the desert, the Israelites complain that they have no food. Somewhat understandable. After all, they have no food. But then God literally makes it rain food. Food appears every morning except on the Sabbath, and all they have to do is go pick it up. 

But then they complain about that! When I was a kid and read this story, I thought, “Those dumb Isrealites! God has given them absolutely everything, and now they’re going to whine that they don’t like the way it tastes! What a bunch of ungrateful brats!” 

And there’s something to that. We complain about our blessings too. We forget just how amazing the things we have are and whine that they are not exactly to our liking. And there was likely some of that in the Isrealites complaint. 

What really bothered them about the manna

But I think there was more to it than that.

The manna came down every night (except the sabbath) with the dew, and melted away with the dew. They could only gather enough for each day; there was no saving up, no planning for the future. 

That, I think, is the real reason they complained. They had to trust God for their food, every single day. They couldn’t rely on their own efforts. They couldn’t plan ahead, store up, or anything. They just had to radically trust that God would keep sending the mysterious food. 

We humans like to feel in control. We like to think our lives are in our own hands—and we do certainly have agency. But ultimately we are thoughts in the mind of God, utterly dependent for our very existence on His continuing to think us. We are as dependent on God as ideas you’ve never expressed are to you. If you cease thinking that thought, its existence ends. 

We hate to be reminded of our radical dependence. We hate to be reminded that we aren’t in control, that we aren’t permanent, that we can’t know all the answers. And that’s exactly what the manna was doing. It was God saying to His people, every single morning, “Remember, I am God, and you are not. You cannot live unless I provide your food.”

I think that’s why they complained. Because none of us want to be reminded of our ultimate dependency. 

The things I complain about

I certainly don’t like being reminded that I’m dependent and temporary. I realized lately that the things that upset me the most are precisely the things that remind me of my dependency and the impermanence of material things. 

I am furious when my kids break things or waste things. And I’m somewhat justified in that; they shouldn’t be doing that. But my anger is out of proportion to the cause, and I think it boils down to the same thing: I want the order that I have set in my world to remain. I want to feel that I am in control of at least my little corner of the world. 

Besides waste and damage, the other thing that I find most frustrating in my life as a parent is the constant changing of plans. I organize a fabulous plan for my day…but then the toddler throws up. I envision a workflow for making dinner, but then the toddler wants to “help.” (Yes. I visualize a workflow for making dinner. You don’t?)

I imagine a schedule…and then my child can’t find her shoes…again. 

Little things, all of them. But frustrating. The degree to which I find these little things frustrating, is, I think, a sign that there is more to it than the thing itself. 

Perhaps my anger and frustration with my children comes from the same source as the Israelites’ complaints about the manna. I just don’t enjoy being constantly reminded that I am not God. 

Both the manna and our children are direct gifts from God, and they serve the same, not always welcome purpose: to remind us that we are dependent on God for our “daily bread.”