By / Nov 22

The holiday season was the time when I learned how to lead my family devotionally. A pastor shared a devotional website with our family, and then we set up a tiny one-and-a-half-foot Christmas tree from the discount store in our living room. As the devotional challenged us, we hung a laminated paper ornament for each day of Advent. Each ornament on the tree corresponded to the story of a person from Jesus’ family tree. By reading through the devotionals I printed out and hanging the ornaments, we developed a habit of reading the Bible together as a family that stuck with us beyond that first year. 

Does your local church or family have a devotional path that you walk each Advent season. If not, take advantage of this holiday season to build new discipleship habits on top of the family traditions you’re already keeping. Last year, I wrote about Advent habits and provided a list of  resources that I thought you might find helpful. Here is a list of five additions that I’d add to that list for the coming year: 

  1. More than a devotional, the Advent Blocks set provides a daily visual and tactile reminder of the Advent season. The wooden blocks are numbered for each day of Advent, and the symbols on each block correspond with the days in the accompanying devotional, The King is Coming.
  2. Brite Families, the homeschool program of Awana International, provides tools for parents to have 30-minute discipleship conversations with their children. Their free Advent resource, “The Promise of a Savior,” is a five-week family resource that will equip parents, grandparents, and guardians to lead intentional time and conversation about God’s promises from the Garden of Eden to the manger in Bethlehem, and celebrate the Savior who came to conquer sin and is coming again. Each week includes a video lesson, devotional, Scripture reading, fun and age-appropriate activities, questions to spur on conversations, and ways to live out what is being learned.
  3. If you’re looking for a simple daily reading, Scott James’s The Expected One: Anticipating Jesus in All of Advent (B&H Books, 2021), is a perfect resource. These revised and updated daily devotions, which can be used by both families and individuals, are meaningful (and doable!) reminders of the true gift of Christmas.
  4. Barbara Reaoch’s A Better Than Anything Christmas (The Good Book Company, 2020) explores 25 reasons why Jesus came. Each day, there is a passage to read together, questions to think about, an explanation, and a prayer. There are also age-appropriate application questions, some for younger children and some for older children, as well as journaling space so that each family member can write or draw their own response to what God
  5. Sarah Rice’s Tracing Glory: The Christmas Story Through the Bible (10 Publishing, 2021) is a 24-day Advent devotional. It begins by looking back at the creation of the world in the book of Genesis and ends by looking forward to the new creation in the book of Revelation, tracing the glory of Jesus Christ from start to finish. In each day’s reading, there is a key Scripture to look up, a devotional commentary to read, and a helpful summary highlighting the key point and showing how that particular Bible passage points to Jesus. This is a book to treasure that young children will grow into through the years as well as a flexible resource that can be used with children of all ages.
  6. And finally, Champ Thornton’s Wonders of His Love: Finding Jesus in Isaiah (New Growth, 2021) is the perfect resource for busy families with younger children. Each week of Advent focuses on one of Isaiah’s key images — the Light, the Branch, the Shepherd, and the Savior. Each week also includes fun stories, discussion questions, crafts, recipes, games, and suggestions for family service projects. 

Advent season always seems to draw our family back to time in the Word together. After all, our Bible-story Christmas tree and the other Advent devotionals we’ve collected over the years are kept with our boxes of Christmas decorations. And when the kids see them, they ask, “Which book are we reading this year?” Maybe this Advent season will be one where your family starts a devotional routine. My prayer is that one of these six resources will help you to begin that tradition this year. 

By / Nov 19

In this episode, Brent and Lindsay discuss drug overdose deaths in the U.S., “QAnon Shaman” sentenced to prison, and religious freedom concerns with the Build Back Better Act. They also talk about National Adoption Month, showing hospitality, and preparing for Advent. 

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  1. Drug overdose deaths in the United States surpassed 100,000 in a 12-month period for the first time; President Biden’s statement
  2. “QAnon Shaman” sentenced to 41 months in prison
  3. Churches’ financial status after pandemic 
  4. Religious freedom concerns for faith-based childcare and Build Back Better Act; ERLC article

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  • The Dawn of Redeeming Grace // This episode was sponsored by The Good Book Company, publisher of The Dawn of Redeeming Grace .Join Sinclair Ferguson as he opens up the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel in these daily devotions for Advent. Each day’s reflection is full of insight and application and will help you to arrive at Christmas Day awed by God’s redeeming grace and refreshed by the hope of God’s promised King. Find out more about this book at thegoodbook.com.
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By / Nov 19

The Christmas season is one of the busiest and brightest times of the year. Houses and store windows shine with twinkling lights, while smart phones and televisions are lit up with dazzling advertisements for the latest and greatest goods. During the month of December, there’s no shortage of hustle and bustle, festivities and feasting. We decorate, cookie-bake, and fill our days with parties, programs, and present-shopping. Whether these activities excite or exhaust us (or both), we can agree that the Christmas season is significant, not only in our culture but in our hearts as well. Although it has been commercialized, there is a glory or “weight” to the season as it completely invades an entire month of the year and our lives.

Are we enthralled by Jesus at Christmas? 

As Christians, we know “Jesus is the reason for the season.” We recognize that all the bright and beautiful traditions and celebrations of December should point us and our children to the ultimate glory of God himself — the God who took on flesh and entered history as a human baby to save sinners. Yet, while we know what is true, the gloriously good news of Christ’s first coming often seems a bit muted next to the flashy glories of the holiday season itself.   

Let’s be honest. The events, traditions, and “stuff” of Christmas tend to enthrall our hearts and consume our minds more than the reality of the long-awaited Messiah and King, who came and is coming back for us again. Our children are more quickly and easily enamored by tales of Santa Claus, with his flying reindeer and bag of shiny new toys, than by the story of the Christ child in the manger. And that’s not too surprising if all they hear is a serene story about a baby born in Bethlehem thousands of years ago to save them. Save them from what? Santa brings kids stuff they can see, touch, feel, and enjoy right now! What does this baby of old have to do with their lives (and their parents’ lives) today?

The answer is: everything. We just need eyes to see it. In his book What is Biblical Theology? James Hamilton writes: “What we think and how we live is largely determined by the larger story in which we interpret our lives. Does your story enable you to look death in the face? Does your story give you a hope that goes beyond the grave? . . . The world does have a true story. The Bible tells it.”

Jesus Christ is the hero of the world’s true story — a story that’s epic, true, and able to bring meaning, purpose, and hope to our own stories. The world’s story is really God’s story, found in the pages of Scripture and told through many smaller stories that all connect to form one grand narrative. This narrative begins with the creation of the world in the book of Genesis and ends with the consummation of all things in the book of Revelation. Between these bookends, the story climaxes in the life, death, and resurrection of the story’s hero, Jesus the Christ — the one who changes everything about our lives.

Jesus is the connecting thread who binds each individual story and book of the Bible together to reveal something greater. So, when we disjoin his nativity from the larger narrative, it loses its luster, so to speak. In fact, the birth of Christ really makes no sense when removed from the context of the larger story. When we read it and teach it to our children as an isolated event, we fail to realize the personal and cosmic significance — the sheer glory — of Christ coming to earth and taking on human flesh. Without the whole story, we don’t understand why we needed him to come in the first place. 

Helping your family trace glory

Tracing Glory: The Christmas Story Through the Bible is a daily advent reading for the month of December that seeks to help individuals and families see and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ within its proper context of the Bible’s big story. Written with children, teenagers, and adults in mind, it begins looking back at the creation of the world in the book of Genesis and ends looking forward to the new creation in the book of Revelation, tracing the glory of Jesus Christ from start to finish. In each day’s reading, there is a key scripture to look up, a devotional commentary to read, a helpful summary highlighting the key point and showing how that Bible passage points to Jesus, and questions to prompt discussion with your families. 

Tracing Glory was written to help my children and others see that the Christmas story we read in Luke chapter two is much more than a sweet tale of a baby lying peacefully in a manger under the warm glow of the stars. The birth of Christ is the pivotal event in history and the climax of the Bible’s storyline, a story full of captivating themes like good and evil, power, love, war, sacrifice, redemption, mystery, death, victory, and glory. It’s all there, and it’s all true. As we start to truly grasp God’s big story, it draws us in and enables us to make sense of our own individual stories. It tells us why we’re here, what has gone wrong in our own hearts and in our world, and what (or, rather, who) is the solution to our problem.

The reality is that the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ outshines all the flashy glories of this present world, even, and maybe especially, during the holidays. When we truly “see” him, our lives are forever changed. God alone can give us eyes to see, and he does this by revealing the beauty and sufficiency of his Son through his Word and by his Spirit. The goal of this resource is to take you and your family to the Word of God during the Christmas season and help you trace the glory of Jesus Christ from start to finish. As you do, my prayer is that Christ would become more desirable to you and sufficient for you than anything else. During this bright and busy season, may you and your family more deeply love the story and more joyfully reflect his glory. 

By / Dec 22

Taking a miniature Christmas tree to your child’s gravesite is no parent’s wish, but that is what my wife and I did this year for the first time. It’s 18 inches tall with a string of white solar powered lights, navy blue ornaments, and a Nashville Predators—his favorite sports team—ornament at the top.

Our son, Kaleb, died on Dec. 1, 2019. Last year was our first Christmas without him. Our house, including his room, sat decorated for Christmas as we spent the last three weeks of his life at the hospital. Since then, everything has been our first experience of doing things without him here. As we decorated the house for Christmas, we even put his tree in his room like we’ve done each year.  

This Christmas, his gravesite has a headstone. The black granite monument marks where we buried our son’s body to await the return of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead. We know Kaleb is with Jesus (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23), and only the remains of his earthly body are in that grave, but we still wanted to put something out there for the holidays. There’s a strange tug you feel as a parent: you know your child is with Christ in heaven, yet you don’t want them to feel alone at the graveyard. So we placed a smaller version of the tree in his room at his gravesite. 

Kaleb’s story

Kaleb was 15 years old. He suffered with health issues his entire life, some seasons more severe than others. A surgical mistake when he was two months old altered his life forever. A surgeon operated to remove a bad kidney, but instead of taking only the bad one, he also took the good one. It devastated us. We knew the implications were far-reaching. He couldn’t live without a kidney, and a transplanted kidney—which he received two years later—wouldn’t last forever. He could need multiple transplants throughout his lifetime. The medications to suppress his immune system would make him susceptible to infections and viruses that otherwise may never bother him.  

This is precisely what happened when he was 13 years old. Kaleb contracted fungal meningitis. It caused a stroke that left him unable to talk or use his motor skills as effortlessly as he did before. His entire life changed. He never returned to school, played video games online with his friends, or shot hoops in the driveway again. 

This change was hard on him, and our family. He required constant care. Our smiling and fun-loving boy was still there, but his body struggled. His lungs eventually gave way to years of infection, as he could no longer cough on command to keep them clear. He died from respiratory failure, but that was just the last cause in a line of preceding issues that began with the surgical mistake. Our worst fear, which we always knew could happen, happened.  

Lessons along the way

When I think about Kaleb’s life and struggles, and I look at how he handled them so faithfully, there are several lessons worth sharing. These lessons apply to anyone, regardless of what circumstance they are facing.

First, he accepted whatever God brought into his life. We talked to Kaleb about his story throughout his life. He knew what happened to him as a baby. He understood that his daily medical routine and physical limitations resulted from a surgical mistake. He also knew what future prospects could hold. Yet he trusted that God’s plan for his life was unfolding according to his sovereign wisdom. There was no questioning “why” or accusations of injustice levied against God. He received it and understood there was a responsibility to steward his struggles in such a way that gave God glory through them. 

Second, he lived with joy despite his physical struggles and the limitations that came with them. He didn’t just exhibit trust in God’s plans for his life, but he lived with joy through them. It’s one thing to begrudgingly accept what God places in your hands, it’s another thing to find joy in it, especially when that thing is suffering.

We do not grieve as those without hope. We are hopeful sufferers because we know the baby born in a manger is the King of Glory who sacrificially died and rose again on the third day.

Kaleb’s light shone out for everyone around him to see. His smile radiated with substance. His joy wasn’t airy, or a consequence of trivial happiness. It had depth. If you knew the health issues he dealt with daily, and you watched his life, the only conclusion you could draw was he was tapping into a well available to all, but pursued by few (John 15:11). 

Third, he longed for the world to come. Trials and suffering have a way of loosening your grip from this world. Kaleb knew what awaited him upon death or Christ’s return. We spoke constantly about it as a family from the time he could comprehend it. His body stayed sick most of the time. It was weak and frail. But he looked forward to a day when Jesus would eradicate sickness forever.

Many today rarely focus on the world to come. We get entangled in trying to improve our temporal comforts and live as if this life is our forever home. But the promise of Scripture is that this life is but a shadow of the real thing. Total health. Fullness of joy. And dwelling in the presence of God forever. These things await us.

Kaleb’s life teaches not only those who hear his story, but it ministers to his mom and me. We embedded a theology of suffering into his life from a young age, but he walked it out in reliance upon Christ. We learned to walk it out as a family. We knew what the Scriptures taught, but we learned obedience through our suffering. 

Come, Jesus

Our daily lives are drastically different without Kaleb here with us. Cherish those around you. Remember the preciousness and shortness of life. We grieve Kaleb’s absence from our Christmas traditions and gatherings. 

But we do not grieve as those without hope. We are hopeful sufferers because we know the baby born in a manger is the King of Glory who sacrificially died and rose again on the third day. He purchased our salvation and secured for us an inheritance that is imperishable, and unfading, kept in Heaven for us. One day he will return to make all things new. He will wipe away our tears, restore our lowly bodies, and usher in life eternal with a renewed heaven and Earth. 

Our family longs for that this Christmas. We all should. It should be our cry now, as it was for his people prior to his first coming, “Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free.”

By / Dec 17

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. James 1:17

As a younger mom, I was a master at creating Christmas traditions for our little family of five.  Some of these were carried over from my own growing up years (or my husband’s), and a few were new traditions designed just for us. The obvious ones included decorating the Christmas tree, baking cookies, and opening little windows on an Advent calendar each day.  Others were unique to where we grew up, such as eating tamales on Christmas Eve (Texan folks will get this).  Still, other traditions were, let’s just say, “pinterest fails” such as creating a special activity to do every night of December. I exhausted myself by Dec. 2 and called that one off. Caroling the neighborhood with hot cocoa didn’t last long either—though we still enjoy the cocoa by the fire on cold evenings. Christmas represents the perfect opportunity to help teenagers grow in their faith and long for the coming of their Savior.

Meaningful Christmas traditions

As my children have grown into teens, I have found that our Christmas traditions have become even more meaningful and important. 

Jesse tree: What used to be an Advent calendar meant to open daily with a piece of chocolate turned into creating a Jesse tree to add an ornament to each day and unveil the entire Christmas story starting with creation. 

Reading Scripture: My husband and I felt it was important that as our kids were getting older, they could begin to understand the full redemptive narrative of Christ, not just the celebration of his birth. So, we let our teens take turns reading the scriptures that point to Jesus throughout the entire Bible—Old Testament and New. We have marveled at the depth we as a family have experienced by adding this tradition to our Christmas season each year.  

Christmas represents the perfect opportunity to help teenagers grow in their faith and long for the coming of their Savior. 

Giving more: We have also “flipped the script” on the tradition of gift-giving with our teens. Not too long ago, our kids were lavished with many gifts, from us, their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and so forth. Now that they are older, we encourage them to be gift-givers, not only receivers. My daughter has a job, so she likes to shop and buy her brothers small things that she knows they want. My boys have no cash, so I encourage them to offer gifts of service, such as offering to do a chore for a sibling, or help their dad with yard work (with a great attitude!). 

Knowing that grandparents enjoy handmade gifts, sometimes they even get around to creating an ornament or simple stocking stuffers to hand out on Christmas morning. More than anything, this tradition has helped them understand that biblical truth, “It is better to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). In the age of mass consumerism, I am happy for them to receive less and give more out the abundance of love they have for others. This ultimately points to how we worship Jesus, out of the overflow of love for him because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).

It’s important to note that we haven’t thrown out all the childhood traditions. That would make my “big kids” quite sad. We still bake and decorate sugar cookies with my grandmother’s famous recipe. We still watch The Grinch and Polar Express with hot cocoa, and, yes, we still get a chocolate Advent calendar to count down the days. I may or may not have my very own dark chocolate version each year. However, as the years I have with them under my roof start to grow fewer and fewer, I don’t want to miss the chance to deepen their affections for Jesus. Christmas represents the perfect opportunity to help teenagers grow in their faith and long for the coming of their Savior. 

By / Dec 8

I didn’t know about Advent growing up. We had an Advent calendar—a blue cardboard illustration of Bethlehem with punch-out doors that revealed mini Bible verses—that my sister and I dutifully unpacked every year and remembered to open in fits and spurts. I heard the term in church from time to time during December and ultimately came away with the idea that “Advent” was just a grown-up word for “Christmas season.”

But Advent is not the same as the Christmas season; at least, not by default. A person can do Christmas-y activities every day without observing Advent. But participating in Advent inevitably leads to a celebration of Christmas.

The word “advent” simply means the beginning of something important or the arrival of someone important. In the case of Christmas, it means both. In the four weeks leading up to Christmas, we think about, look forward to, and finally celebrate the advent of God’s incarnation—his showing up on Earth as a human. That’s a very big deal, and it is very hard to understand. Christ’s coming was anticipated for a long, long time, and it foreshadows another, final advent of Christ that hasn’t happened yet. It’s a lot to think about. No wonder Advent is so long.

Part of what I love so much about Advent is that it doesn’t carry the same expectations that Christmas sometimes does. There is no pressure to be cheerful, no need to get everything (or anything) just right. Advent is about waiting. It is about struggling with weighty thoughts and sitting with the reality that things aren’t as they were meant to be. It’s about accepting all over again that we need saving.

Yearning for Advent 

It wasn’t until I was a new mother—new not only to motherhood but to the world of rare genetic disease and medical fragility and disability—that I found myself yearning for an Advent practice. 

My son’s life started with a long stay in the NICU. Then a feeding tube. Then seizures. Then a diagnosis that told us nothing certain other than that things would be difficult. By that Christmas, I had been living in pure survival mode for months, barely functioning during some of that time. More than any other time in my life, I felt myself deeply wrestling with the thought, This is not how it’s supposed to be. And in response, I felt my soul cry, Come, Lord Jesus. Advent resonated with me that year in a way it couldn’t have before, and I wanted to participate in it meaningfully.

Advent is about waiting. It is about struggling with weighty thoughts and sitting with the reality that things aren’t as they were meant to be. It’s about accepting all over again that we need saving.

The sensible thing would have been to choose a simple practice, perhaps a daily reading to start with. But I craved something hands-on. My life was so messy and up in the air that it felt important to me to make something concrete and beautiful.  So, together with a couple of friends, I hatched plans and made craft store runs and worked and worked and worked. What I ended up with was a hand-crafted Advent calendar consisting of a garland of hand-sewn felt envelopes, each embroidered with the number of the day. I selected my own progression of Scripture, wrote each out by hand on fancy paper, cut it with fancy edges, slipped it inside the envelope, and fastened the hand-sewn button to seal it up like a present. 

My family did use that calendar for years, but it was the making of it that impacted me most deeply. It was unnecessary and over the top and felt desperately important. Every step of the process echoed the wonder of Christ’s birth back to me in the midst of some of my darkest hours. Christ’s coming is an affirmation that our physical world matters to God. Therefore, what happens in it matters. And, therefore, my suffering matters. Simultaneously, his coming is a reminder that our physical world isn’t everything. It isn’t the end. In a way I didn’t fully grasp at the time, making the calendar was stepping into those truths. With my hands and my time, I was crying out, I need You so much more than I ever knew. I need to be reminded of the promise of beauty and wholeness to come.

Even though the crafting of that Advent calendar was so meaningful for me, it was not a sustainable tradition. I never took on a task of that scale for Advent again. But it did teach me the importance of doing something tangible during the season when I’m turning my mind to God’s physicality, to his humanity. 

A stick-with-it approach to Advent 

As my son got older and was joined by cousins, my sister and I wanted them to establish their own hands-on Advent practice. The trouble was that we couldn’t find resources we could stick with through the whole month. Some had too many words for little ears and some required too many steps or supplies for tired moms. So, we started experimenting with designing our own activities. Over time, our project evolved into Unexpected Gift, a storybook and activity book set that was published this year

Our goal for Unexpected Gift was to provide an all-in-one resource that would make the observance of Advent meaningful and accessible for a wide range of ages, abilities, interest levels, and life situations. It needed to be simple, hands-on, and gospel-centered. For several years, the development of the books was part of our own Advent practice, and we still use the completed materials every year.

In our home, we don’t have a regimented program for practicing Advent, but more of a small handful of (more-or-less) daily rhythms that quiet us down and focus our attention. These days, our Advent practice involves three main things:

  1. Slow down. After Thanksgiving, we start to wind down for the year. We shed commitments as the month of December goes on, stopping therapy sessions, ending school early, backing away from regular social commitments. We slow down and make space wherever possible. The point of Advent is to prepare him room in your heart and mind and life, and that can be tricky if you’re cramming too many extra things, no matter how fun or good, into already full days.
  2. Do one day from Unexpected Gift. I help my son make the day’s craft (we almost always do the most basic version), we read one page and one verse (from the ornament). Sometimes we’ll talk or pray about it a little bit. It’s just right for us.
  3. Shut down early. In the evenings, we stop a few minutes early. We turn off our screens, turn down the lights, and sing one Christmas carol together. Everyone takes turns choosing and sometimes we try to learn more verses than we knew the year before. Most nights, this little ritual turns into extra minutes of closeness and quiet. Ten easy minutes well spent.

If ever there was a year to establish an Advent practice, this is it. We are all carrying more fear, more sadness, and maybe more anger into this holiday season than we have in a long time. I encourage you to choose something simple, tangible, and gospel-centered: a touchstone for the coming December days. Let it remind you that your life on those days matters and that Jesus came to us to give you the promise of beauty and wholeness.

By / Dec 3

If you’ve had kids and know how they make all sorts of requests, then you’ll also know the favorite parental answer: “Maybe; we’ll see.” When one of our sons was four and received this reply, he said to my wife, “Just say, ‘Yes,’ mom, that’s much better.”

Yet saying “No,” often feels like better parenting. I find myself occupied with protecting my kids from whatever might harm them. We’re vigilant because the dangers are real: the risks of social media, of online pornography, of politically-correct indoctrination, of bad friends, etc. We don’t want our kids to be hurt physically, spiritually, or emotionally. So we teach our children what (and why and how) to say “No” to ungodly worldviews, actions, and temptations.

Yet the impulse to say “No”—to keep distance between those we love and what God hates, must be joined by the impulse to say “Yes”—to keep together what God loves and sin separates. Ever since the fall, sin has created division. Like a wedge, it has put distance between God and humanity, between humans and the natural order, and between human beings themselves. 

Lessons from Isaiah

Yet through Christ, God is restoring all that sin ruined. He’s uniting in Christ what sin divided. That’s not only the message of Ephesians, for example. It’s also a lesson we find in the prophecy of Isaiah.

 Let’s help the next generation take in the vastness of God’s work and Word—a plan that spans spiritual and physical, old and new, encompassing both justice and mercy.

The book of Isaiah is packed with prophecies about Jesus the Messiah. Some examples, especially familiar at Christmastime, include Isaiah 7:14; 9:6; 11:1–2; 25:8; 40:2–5,11; 53:1–6. I hope you’ll take time to discuss some of them with your family this Advent season. As you read, notice what Isaiah’s prophesies are doing, uniting what we might tend to keep apart.

  1. Connecting the spiritual and the physical. Isaiah’s prophesies speak of virgins,  infants, trees, and fruit, wolves, lions, roads, and roots, mountains, valleys, flocks, and shepherds. God is at work in the real world. Sometimes our Bible lessons might seem like God is only interested in character qualities or spiritual truths, but he came to Earth as a real human with hunger pains, tear ducts, sweat glands, and blood vessels—to save real humanity. If we talk to our kids as if God and Jesus and the Bible are good for the invisible world—for the heavenly realm—but not for real life, then we’re not only miscommunicating God’s Word, we may also be communicating that what God says is not real. Instead, let’s help our children see that God’s Word describes the real world.
  2. Connecting the Old Testament prophecies to the coming Messiah. When the New Testament authors quote the Old Testament, they cite it as the very Word of God. It’s not just that God said something (in the past tense), but that he continues to speak through those ancient Scriptures (in the present tense) today. For example, Matthew writes that Isaiah “says” (Matt. 13:14 citing Isa. 6:9); Luke writes that the prophet Isaiah “says” (Acts 7:48–49 citing Isa. 66:1–2), and Paul writes that Isaiah “says” (Rom. 10:11 citing Isa. 28:16). When we read Isaiah to our families, we hear him pointing to the Messiah. And we hear God speaking to us today. As such, the Bible has never mainly been a book that we examine. Instead, it’s always been a book that examines us. So as you read Isaiah to your family, remind them that all of God’s Word, both Old and New Testaments, speaks to us today with God’s own authority.
  3. Connecting actions and accountability. Some of Isaiah’s most striking prophecies contain stunning metaphors of judgment. A stubborn donkey refusing to obey (1:2–3); the stench of rotten fruit (5:1–2); a tree stripped of its fruit (17:6); a swimmer attempting a run away from God (25:11). Isaiah paints dark and terrible pictures of the person who rebels against God. If the sinner does not turn back, he will face judgment, the kind that is as terrible as it is unavoidable. There’s an unbreakable connection, then, that exists between the responsibility of human actions and the justice of God’s response. If somehow we paper over this livewire, we neglect to serve the next generation well. Yet even this does not cover the breadth of his plan.
  4. Connecting weakness with strength, freedom with forgiveness. Isaiah’s prophesies startle us not just in their statements of judgment but in their promises of mercy. Who among us would ever have created a hero who is also weak and unattractive, disfigured and despised (52:14–53:3)? Yet this is the One who saves the day—a baby, not a warrior (7:14), a tiny shoot out of the dry ground (11:1–2; 53:2). Our human nature wants the mighty and majestic to win. That’s why we feel good about ourselves on our good days, and bad on our bad days. We traffic in the currency of what we feel we’ve earned. Yet the one who came in weakness and misery meets us where we actually are. We don’t have to become strong to meet the Strong One; and we don’t have to become attractive to access the Beautiful One. He meets us and forgives us not because of who we are or what we deserve. Therefore his forgiveness is completely free—wine and milk without money and without cost (55:1).

So let’s keep together what God has put together. Let’s help the next generation take in the vastness of God’s work and Word—a plan that spans spiritual and physical, old and new, encompassing both justice and mercy. As we read the ancient prophecies of Isaiah this holiday season, let’s help our children hear God’s own voice of authority and love. A voice that always says “Yes and Amen” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).

By / Nov 27

In a year when every circumstance seems to conspire against feeling festive, traditions have a star role to play. You may not have the typical budget for buying presents; may not have the energy to cut out cookies, take a family photo, or address 100 cards; and may not even be permitted to celebrate with friends and family, but there is one wise custom with the power not only to direct our emotions regardless of our circumstances, but also to fill us with hope. That ritual is the intentional observance of Advent.

I have good memories of “doing Advent” as a young girl. I remember my parents bringing down a centerpiece wreath from the attic and lighting the candles incrementally each Sunday as they read from the Bible. They impressed on me the joy of marking the weeks leading up to Christ’s birth, building expectation. I knew they were intent on teaching us that when it came to Christmas, what mattered most was the birth of mankind’s Savior.

From Jesus to Santa

For generations, Advent was a central part of the liturgical calendar. Christians marked the days, preparing to glory in the birth of Christ. This was the most important part of Christmas. 

Not one to miss an opportunity to sell something, retailers have gotten in on the Advent action. My favorite grocery store tried a few years ago when it introduced a pricey, high-end chocolate Advent countdown calendar. While it’s true that imported Swiss, Dutch, and Belgian chocolates would be a vast improvement over the cheap waxy stuff behind the mini-doors in most dollar-store Advent calendars, they missed the point entirely. Getting serious about Advent has nothing to do with confections, or counting down days till Santa comes, but with conviction: teaching children to eagerly anticipate, and celebrate, the baby who came.  

In the West, Advent is increasingly being viewed from a commercial standpoint. (You might think I’m being a little harsh toward the Advent calendar makers, but lately I’ve even seen calendars for dogs and cats!) We’re letting the world steal away a prime opportunity for teaching children the truth about Jesus’ birth. 

Rethinking priorities

December has often been marked by the flurry of getting more baking done, rushing to the mall before the sales end, and the looming Dec. 25 deadline—that’s what Christmas can feel like: a shopping deadline. What if I don’t have an equal number of presents? What if they sell out of that must-have toy? What if I run out of money before I finish buying for everyone on my list?  

For all our “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” sentiments, we tend to do what we most value. Some years I think I must have most valued being busy. Doing the most. Social media only adds to that pressure to perform, and perform in picture-worthy ways. But suddenly that expectation has vanished. No one will expect proof of large, stylish gatherings this year. Quite the opposite. 

No matter what happens between now and the start of the new year, showing our children unwavering hope in the God who took on flesh is the best gift we can give them.

The question remains, what will we do with this upheaval?

How we feel about canceled parties and limited travel will reveal a lot about what we value most. Some sorrow over not being able to carry out all of our traditions is natural. But rather than mourning your way through a disappointing December, why not use the opportunity it offers to take measure of what’s most important to you? If you find that worldly ideas about celebrating Christmas have crept in, replace them with hope-filled truth.

Let this be the year we change course. Rather than complaining about all we can’t do this December, embrace this Christmas as a great opportunity to focus on what we can

Trees, books, songs

Wanting to give our own kids more than visions of too much sugar and materialism, we sought to celebrate Advent intentionally early on. The first few years, we read Old Testament prophecies and New Testament fulfillments. Then we added some homemade ornaments to accompany the readings and adorn a small tabletop tree. We’ve used family devotionals that include Scripture with a short reflection (Scott James’s The Expected One) as well as a story (Arnold Ytreeide’s Jotham’s Journey), and one that suggested related carols (Christopher Ash’s Repeat the Sounding Joy). 

There is a host of faithful resources to choose from with even more being added this season. Books from John Piper, Paul David Tripp, Barbara Reaoch, Marty Machowski, David Mathis, and Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth come to mind. For younger ones with busy hands, an activity like Truth78’s Good News of Great Joy, or a do-it-yourself Jesse Tree, or felt-and-ribbon countdown can help build the anticipation children feel as they look forward to Jesus’ birthday. 

The most important aspect of a Christian Advent is that it anticipates Jesus. “For four weeks, it’s as if we’re re-enacting, remembering the thousands of years God’s people were anticipating and longing for the coming of God’s salvation, for Jesus,” says Noel Piper. “That’s what advent means—coming.”

When deciding how to structure your study, look for books and activities that fit your children’s ages. It’s best to keep your readings and activities concise and regular, bearing in mind the attention span of your youngest children. A little every day for 31 days is better than an hour on Dec. 1 that leaves everyone weary of trying again on Dec. 2. Unlike many Christmas traditions that are annual one-time events (think Christmas Eve service, watching your favorite movie, lighting the tree), Advent’s repetition, daily (or weekly) meditation throughout the month, is part of what makes it powerful. The rhythm and routine have a formative effect on children.  

Powerful patterns

In his Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis described ritual as “a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance” (Oxford University Press, 1952, p. 21).

If ever there were a Christmas at risk of being hijacked by our feelings, it’s Christmas 2020. Returning to the rhythms of Advent traditions––and if you’ve never had them, starting them––is more important than ever. The earth may tremble, the mountains may fall into the heart of the sea, but we will not fear if God is our refuge (Ps. 46:1-2). No matter what happens between now and the start of the new year, showing our children unwavering hope in the God who took on flesh is the best gift we can give them.

By / Nov 26

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg tells the story of how football coach Tony Dungy turned around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Leading the Bucs was Dungy’s first head coaching job, and when he arrived in Tampa in 1996, Tampa Bay was among the worst teams in the league. Previous coaches had trained the Buccaneer defense in several complex formations. Defensive captains would try to read what the offense planned to do and then choose the best defensive strategy. They were trying to make the smartest decision possible in the moment and then get their teammates lined up correctly. 

When Dungy arrived, he didn’t bring a more complex playbook. Instead, he simplified Tampa Bay’s approach, building on habits they’d already put in place. His defense had fewer and less complicated formations. And instead of waiting for their captains, he taught every player to read the offense. He wanted them to line up in a split second as a matter of habit. The result was a defensive unit that began to play with greater confidence, began winning, and even made the playoffs the following year.

A simple approach to developing habits

Children’s ministry leaders and family pastors want to equip parents to teach the gospel to their children. But it can be tempting to overthink our approach—to try to build complex ministry programs and strategies for family discipleship. But what if we took Tony Dungy’s simpler and more habit-driven approach? What if we simplified our strategies? Moms and dads, what if we all built little discipleship habits on top of the family rhythms we are already keeping? 

Much of how we respond to life is rooted in our habits, and there may be no time when habit and tradition shows up more clearly than at the holidays. As a matter of tradition and habit, we gather with the family for turkey and the fixings on Thanksgiving and then settle in the family room to watch the football games over the course of the weekend. We set up the tree, hang the stockings and lights, and put on the Martina McBride Christmas album—at least that’s the habit in our house. 

For me, the holiday season was also the time when I learned how to lead my family devotionally. A pastor shared a devotional website with our family, and then we set up a tiny one-and-a-half-foot Christmas tree from the discount store in our living room. As the devotional challenged us, we hung a laminated paper ornament for each day of Advent. Each ornament on the tree corresponded to the story of a person from Jesus’ family tree. By reading through the devotionals I printed out and hanging the ornaments, we developed a habit of reading the Bible together as a family that stuck with us beyond that first year. 

And here’s the thing. I’m not always consistent with family devotions throughout the year, but the Advent season always seems to draw our family back to time in the Word together. After all, that devotional Christmas tree and other Advent devotionals we’ve collected over the years are kept with our boxes of Christmas decorations. And when the kids see them, they ask, “Which book are we reading this year? Are we going to hang the Bible story ornaments?” Then, as a matter of habit, we’re beckoned back to our habit of discipleship—to the kind of rhythm that the prophet Jeremiah describes as a “well-worn path.”

Much of how we respond to life is rooted in our habits, and there may be no time when habit and tradition shows up more clearly than at the holidays.

Does your local church or family have a devotional path that you walk each Advent season. If not, take advantage of this holiday season to build new discipleship habits on top of the family traditions you’re already keeping. Here is a list of resources that I think you’ll find to be helpful. It includes great picture books to read with preschoolers, devotional adventures—including a few with Bible story ornaments—for grade school kids, and two great books to read with your teens or your spouse. 

Four picture books for preschoolers

Lizzie Laferton’s There’s a Lion in my Nativity! (Good Book Company, 2020) tells the story of a school nativity play. The girl playing Mary thinks she is the star of the show, but as the play goes on, she finds that every scene has been stolen by an unlikely character or object—a tent, a phone, a lion! With warm and colorful illustrations, this rhyming book unpacks the true meaning of Christmas.

Dan DeWitt’s The Bright Light and the Super Scary Darkness (B&H Kids, 2020) reminds kids that the light of the gospel will win in the end. This excellent book for the Advent season emphasizes how Jesus came at Christmas as the Light of the World. It reassures preschool age children who struggle with fear and anxiety and offers them courage in the truth that Jesus’ love remains strong no matter how dark life may seem.

My friend Annie Kratzch’s Just Nicholas: A Story Older Than Santa (Matthias Media, 2015) is one of my favorites. It tells the true story of Saint Nicholas of Myra, the man who gave what he had to help others because he was grateful for what God had given him. As a young boy, Nicholas learned the story of Jesus from his parents. When he grew up, he lived out his Christian faith in a unique and selfless way that we still celebrate today.

Also, my newest Christmas book, Jesus Came for Me: The True Story of Christmas (New Growth, 2020) is a durable board book that teaches toddlers and young preschoolers that Jesus Christ, our great God, was born as a little baby, and his birth is good news and great joy for all people! The book begins with the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth to Zechariah and ends with the visit of the wise men. The book’s three stories can be read to young toddlers and ready by first readers. They’ll help your little one know that Jesus is always present, and that he helps us to believe and wait for him.

Four devotional adventures for school-age children

Our friend, Scott James, has written The Littlest Watchman (Good Book Company, 2017), which tells the story of a boy named Benjamin who watches for the fulfillment of the “root from Jesse” prophecy. The book has an accompanying Advent calendar and devotional that includes instructions for making craft ornaments.

Unexpected Gift by Annie Kratzch and Tessa Janes (10Publishing, 2020) tells the story of the incarnation and the story of the people who hear that news. The accompanying activity book includes 25 hands-on crafts and 25 Bible verse ornaments that will help children to prepare for Christmas day. 

Ronnie Martin’s The Best Gift Ever Given: A 25-Day Journey Through Advent (Harvest House, 2019) teaches kids that toys and games are great, but the best gifts are from God, because they last a lifetime and beyond. This devotional will help your family understand the Bible points toward Jesus. Each day kids learn a key Scripture passage, interact with modern illustrations that correspond with the passage, answer open-ended questions that help to apply the day’s reading, and read a prayer that reinforces the Bible passage’s key truth.

Marty Machowski’s Prepare Him Room (New Growth, 2014) unpacks one Old Testament prophecy about Christ’s coming during each week of Advent. The accompanying family activities—which include baking cookies and taking them to the neighbor with the best Christmas decorations—are a great way to form family habits, and the accompanying four-week children’s ministry curriculum can help groups of churches use it during Advent season as well.

Two books to warm the hearts of teens and adults

Daniel Darling’s The Characters of Christmas (Moody, 2019) helps us take a fresh look at the Christmas story by introducing some of the minor characters that played a part in Jesus birth. His book can help your teen to slow down and engage their imagination. And the discussion questions and Christmas song suggestions at the end of each chapter make this book perfect for engaging your whole family.

Finally, Russ Ramsey’s The Advent of the Lamb of God (IVP Books, 2018) reminds readers of how for centuries God’s people awaited the coming of a Savior. In the midst of a world of trouble, they hoped for one who would deliver them from evil and restore them to true life. The story encompasses the whole of the Old Testament and all of human history, unveiling God’s long-suffering, loving pursuit of his people.

By / Nov 25

Have you heard about the gender-fluid doll from Mattel? Yes, you read that sentence correctly. Last year, Mattel debuted The Creatable World doll collection. With the toy, children are able to select the doll’s hair style as well as its type of dress in order to “give [children] the freedom” to make the doll a boy or a girl or a boy again. The “doll line [is] designed to keep labels out and invite everyone in,” Mattel said.

What would you do if one of your relatives gifted this (or another present of a similar type) to your child on Christmas? How would you react? Would you let her or him keep it? How would you explain what is wrong with the toy? Would you instruct your child that he or she could only play with one set of accessories that corresponds to one gender?

To a certain degree, toys are never just toys. They are also teachers. Baby dolls “teach” little girls the basics of mothering. Legos teach children the basics of engineering and construction. And Mattel’s latest doll line teaches children switching genders is normal. 

As present-shopping kicks into full swing this Christmas season, Christian parents should ask themselves a key question: What is this toy teaching my child(ren), whether inadvertently or purposefully?

All toys are manufactured in a fallen world. They are all made by sinners, people who apart from Christ have thoughts and actions that are dominated by the “the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life” (I John 2:16). This does not mean every toy manufacturer is consumed thoroughly with these desires, driving them to create toys that directly push one or more of these sin categories. Nor does it mean every toy line is corrupted by the sin of the people who create them. It does mean, though, their work is affected, to one degree or another, by sin. So Christian parents must determine to what degree the world’s brokenness may be communicated through the toys we purchase for our child(ren). 

Here are three big scriptural truths parents should consider when purchasing toys:

First, mankind was made to image God’s character.Mankind was made “in the image of God” (Gen.1:26–27). The implication is that we are not the reference points for our own existence nor the source for the purpose of our existence. The reference point for who we are—the reason for our existence—is found in God.

The invisible God was made fully visible in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. As a consequence, mankind has the benefit of knowing who God is. In the Old Testament, God revealed himself as the universe’s Sovereign, the ultimate Judge, the model Father, and, through Christ, as the Creator. Mankind also knows God the Son united with human flesh. He is made manifest as the dearest Friend, the Divine Humanitarian who cares for the least of these, the Good Shepherd, and the Savior of sinners. 

Mankind was designed to show forth these dimensions of God’s life in miniature. We were made to image God, to display, without addition or modification, who God is in character, deed, and word. In light of that truth, we must ask, do the toys we purchase communicate—explicitly or implicitly—that mankind has been made to image God? Here are some great questions to ask:

  • With respect to God’s character, we might ask, do these toys communicate God’s character or the character of the sinful nature? Do they promote love, patience, beauty, creativity, justice, compassion, and sacrifice?
  • Humanity is flawed and does not always image God’s will perfectly. Minifigures in a toy line will often replicate this reality, but we must ask, are the flaws glorified by the toy company or are they presented as negative qualities that must be overcome, changed, or properly dealt with?
  • With a series of toys, it’s also helpful to know the narrative arc of that particular toy line’s “universe.” Does this narrative align with biblical virtues based on God’s character or does it promote secular beliefs? A case in point would be the Harry Potter line of toys. I don’t believe it’s wrong to buy Harry Potter toys for a child, but I do think it’s unwise for a parent not to also help the child understand that the spells and other wizardly aspects of Harry’s world are fictional. It’s also helpful to see—as Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs points out—that the books “are always on the side of life.”
  • Another question related to a series’ storyline is this, does good triumph in the end? Is there justice? Justice figures prominently in God’s character. God sometimes executes justice during a person’s life in accordance with his sovereign timing, but he also delays justice until the end of the age. Justice for Satan, for instance, has been delayed but it will one day come in full in accordance with God’s perfect will. How does a toy series’ storyline mirror God’s justice? Does justice come immediately? Is it delayed? Does it come at all? It’s wise for parents to have conversations with their kids about the presence or absence of justice in a toy’s story.

Second, mankind was made to reflect God’s design in our life and actions. Mankind is not the source of his own life or her own skills or features. Mankind’s existence reflects God the Creator’s discretion. There is a proper use of the life we have been given, and there is an improper, destructive use of it. Our skills and features reflect his beauty, intellect, and power. Just as the moon reflects light from the sun and not vice versa, so we should not act as our own originator and determining force. So, we might ask: 

  • Do the toys on our to-buy list portray mankind as the author and executor of his own destiny? This is where the Mattel toys miss the mark so severely. It is not possible to both follow God’s design and make your own “Creatable World” where, if you so desire, you can change your gender.
  • But the danger of building a “reflection” apart from God isn’t limited to gender-fluid toys. The danger of a corrupting philosophy can be equal in toys that are gender stereotyped. Does a girls’ toy series promote physical beauty as the ultimate achievement? Is the perfecting of one’s appearance the main point of the toy? Does a boys’ toy series advocate a certain form of masculinity based on occupation or physical shape?

Finally, mankind was created to represent God with our words. A representative speaks and acts on behalf of another person. He does not create and develop his own talking points. Rather, the representative shares the thoughts, communicates the emotions, and clarifies the desires of another. A defining verse on speech is Colossians 4:6, “Let your speech be always with grace.” Paul Tripp explains this verse by saying our words are to “bring health into a person’s life.”

By being intentional with the gifts you select and by having good conversations with your child, your children can both learn to identify worldviews that are contrary to God’s design and also form a more God-honoring worldview.

Speech is to be used for enrichment, not as a wrecking ball or a poison. To speak with grace, God’s representative must listen to gracious speech. Sin-filled speech can easily pollute the mind and corrosively impact the heart. So we must take great care—particularly when selecting books, videos, and music for our kids. 

  • On a basic level, does the media being considered advocate virtue or vice? Does it present pride, lust, and materialism in a positive light or a negative one? Does it mock virtue or present a diluted version of it? Does it describe or hype sinful activities done in secret of which Christians should be ignorant (Eph. 5:12)?
  • Finally, does the media being considered advocate a humanistic worldview? Is it filled with self-exalting words that glorify people and not God?

This is just a sampling of questions you may consider as you look for gifts for your children this Christmas season. As you consider these questions, you might ask, do concerning answers to one or more of these questions mean that a toy, book, video, or music shouldn’t be purchased? Maybe, maybe not. As mentioned before regarding the Harry Potter series, buying some toys may not be wrong, but it would be unwise not to have a conversation with your child about the toy and its universe’s good and bad elements. 

Every toy that has been created is shaped by its creator’s particular worldview. And as your children play with toys, they are exposed to the philosophy of its designer—a philosophy packed with views on the origin of life, the concept of life (self-identity), the purpose of life, and the utility of life (morality). This worldview can shape young hearts and children’s views of who people are and how they are to live in both helpful and harmful ways.

But by being intentional with the gifts you select and by having good conversations with your child, your children can both learn to identify worldviews that are contrary to God’s design and also form a more God-honoring worldview.