By / Dec 23

Watching is a big part of the Christmas season. We watch plays, movies and musicals. We watch parades. We look at light shows. We are awed by the beauty and décor of Christmas. But the good news of Christmas is that God has posted a casting call inviting us to join his story of redeeming love. One man who quickly accepted this invitation was Joseph.

Joseph was a blue-collar man who made a living as a carpenter in the small village of Nazareth. He fell in love with a young girl named, Mary. They were making plans to be married, but it was discovered that she was pregnant. We can only imagine the sense of loss and disappointment he felt, but he loved her and did not want to disgrace her. So he decided to call off the engagement privately. That is when an angel of the Lord appeared to him to inform him that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit and would give birth to a Son who “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Bad news suddenly turned to good news as God invited Joseph to enter his story. Joseph never hesitated and “did as the Lord’s angel commanded him” (Matt. 1:24).  On the night Jesus was born, the best spot Joseph could find for Mary to give birth to the Son of God was a borrowed stable in Bethlehem. Shepherds visited, and everyone was amazed. A few months later, wise men from the east arrived to worship Jesus.

Despite challenges and awkward moments, Joseph was riding the waves of the miraculous. It was an immaculate conception here and an angel sighting over there. It was one extraordinary event after another. It was everything we would want Christmas to be. And then after the wise men left, the story took an unexpected turn.

“After they were gone, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Get up! Take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. For Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and escaped to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod’s death, so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Matt. 2:13-15).

Joseph had not planned on raising the newborn King as a refugee, but that is what was happening. Now joining the Christmas story was not just exciting, but it was deadly. For Jesus to live, Joseph’s plans had to die, but Joseph never hesitated because he knew who Jesus was.

A right Christology produces a faithful missiology. In other words, a right view of Jesus, knowing who he is and why he has come, leads us to forfeit even our best intentions to do whatever it takes to make Jesus known in the world. Christmas is not a sentimental story to watch, but a salvation story to join. Joseph shows us how.

We join the Christmas story when we listen to God.

Sometimes we think of Joseph as an awkward bystander to the Christmas narrative. He was not the biological father of the baby. He was not royalty. He was not a theologian. He did not even make hotel reservations in Bethlehem. We may be tempted to think of him as the Ray Romano of Christmas, yet Joseph was anything but disengaged or incompetent.

Matthew records Joseph’s genealogy to prove his credentials. The angel appeared to Joseph and invited him to go behind the scenes to see what God was doing to redeem the world, and Joseph readily embraced it all. He was a man who walked with, listened to and obeyed God.

There was no rationalizing, no procrastinating and no excuse making. There was no seeking advice and no praying about it. When Joseph heard from God, he responded without reservation. He must have had many questions, but none of them were more important than listening to and obeying God.

We join the Christmas story when we take what God gives.

Joseph and Mary packed up Jesus and their belongings for a 175-mile hike to Egypt. Historians tell us that, more than likely, the first part of their trip was through rugged terrain. They had the gifts of the wise men to fund their journey and their stay in Egypt. And even in Egypt, they were likely in a community of Jewish refugees who had resettled there to escape the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire.

All of this reminds us that, just because God sends an angel to call us, does not mean he will send an angel to deliver us. The uncommon work of God is often accomplished through common means. When Herod threatened Jesus, God could have miraculously rescued this family. Instead, he warned Joseph, and Joseph strapped on his sandals, packed up their things and walked through the dark desert to relocate his family to a foreign country.

Making Jesus known often means being comfortable with inconvenience, laboring in ordinary work and staying faithful in obscure, uncelebrated and unremarkable obedience.

We join the Christmas story when we persevere into the unknown.

How long would they stay in Egypt? The angel didn’t say. And Joseph never asked.

As it turned out, they likely stayed in Egypt only a few months, but they didn’t know that when they started the journey. They were willing to miss birthdays, funerals and weddings. They were willing to take their only son away from parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends. They were willing to grow old in a foreign land if that’s what it meant to make Jesus known.

God’s activity to redeem the world is always an open-ended assignment. Hosea prophesied, “Out of Egypt I have called my Son.” Joseph likely knew the Law and Prophets, but how all the pieces fit together was a mystery to him. But it was no mystery that God’s eternal purpose was more important than his own plan.

Joseph refused to simply watch the Christmas story from a distance. He gladly abandoned his plans to join God’s redeeming work to make Jesus known. Whatever story, whatever plan, whatever platform, whatever future we think we are building for ourselves, Jesus can build a better one because he is simply a better Savior of the world than we are.

By / Nov 25

For many, love, family, and favorite foods stir up happy dreams of coming home for the holidays. For others, gathering with family is more like a nightmare. Dashed hopes, unmet expectations, and disappointments lead to family fissures and intentional distancing. While this applies to any family relationship, this can be particularly difficult with in-laws. But, in the midst of what seems impossible, the good news is that God can bring hope into the most hopeless and hard relationships.

Everyone has a dream

The mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship can be especially complex. Each woman comes to the newly-created family with a dream. A mother-in-law may dream of carrying on with her traditions. Or, she may look at the relationship as a way to start over and make right what she did wrong in the past. Likewise, a daughter-in-law may dream of starting traditions of her own. And while she knows confidence in her new role will take time, she expects respect for her desire and effort. 

So, what could go wrong with wanting to spend time together as a family? Us! Our broken world and our own broken hearts stain our best efforts. Sin twists our good desires into unreasonable expectations. Unmet expectations can lead us to manipulate or guilt trip those we love best, and we get full of anger and resentment. But our emotions shouldn’t control us. We can ask God to show us where our good desires went wrong and plead for the grace to change. 

One year I started to dream of a holiday celebration with those I love most. Like a playwright, I turned my precious dreams into a complete story. I planned to a fault. I wrote mental notes of every scene imaginable. No one had access to the script, but I expected everyone to play their part in my dream perfectly. It didn’t take long, though, to realize that each person in my family came with their own dreams. I was surprised and hurt by unmet expectations.  

I’ve recently written a book with my daughter-in-law Stacy titled, Making Room for Her: Biblical Wisdom for a Healthier Relationship with Your Mother-In-Law or Daughter-In-Law. Writing together has helped us have some good conversations. We’ve learned a lot about loving each other well. Frustrations are certain. But we need to remember that we love each other, and our expectations usually arise out of good intentions. 

A better dream

Though working through these relationships can be frustrating, the answer isn’t to throw our hands up in the air and give up. God created relationships to help us see what his real love looks like. Your relationship with your mother-in-law or daughter-in-law — and every family member — is no exception. Our relationships are designed to not only show us what God’s love for us looks like, but also so that we can embody that kind of love. If you give up now, you’ll miss out on a chance not only to know God better, but to become more like him. 

Maybe you think, “Holidays will always be tough. You don’t know my in-law. I can’t love her. I’ve tried and tried — nothing I do makes any difference.” Here’s the truth: When you received Christ’s salvation by faith, God forgave you, and he did not leave you to try and live the Christian life on your own. He filled you with his Spirit (Gal. 3:14), and will do in you what you cannot do for yourself (Gal. 5:13–15; 22–23). 

Love for your in-law is the fruit that grows in your life by the Spirit’s power working in you. Notice what this means: You cannot produce this love on your own. Let this truth encourage you. Love is a fruit of the Spirit. If you could naturally love your in-law, it would be a fruit of your personality or your emotional intelligence. True love never happens without God’s Spirit working in you. 

God’s bigger dreams 

How does love keep growing in your heart? The same way it began: by faith in God. Faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). And God’s Word assures us that he loves us and will give us all we need to produce the fruit of love. Even in the most difficult of in-law relationships, God fills us with his Spirit so we keep growing in his love by faith. Only he can do it, so let’s ask him. Here are a few ways you can pray for you in-law relationships this season. 

Ask God for love. Pray for more love for him, your husband, and your in-law. Commit to pray for your in-law. Let your life and words be filled with courtesy and grace. 

Ask God for contentment. Pray for rest in your in-law role (Phil. 4:10–13). Take stock of how God blesses you every day, no matter how your role changes. Add your in-law to your list of blessings. Embrace her as a companion to your entire family. Realize her presence brims with beautiful potential. Trust in the Lord and take delight in him (Psa. 37:3–6). Commit your way to him and he will give you more love, joy, and peace. Choose to view your in-law in the ways you hope she’d view you. Trust God to help you grow to cherish her presence in your life.

Ask God to help you recognize your blind spots. Pray he’s help you repent quickly of jealousy and pride. Stop comparisons. Don’t view your relationship as a competition. Your in-law does not have it all. She needs your support, not your insecurity. Just like you, your in-law has problems, trials, and weaknesses. Ask God to help you learn to celebrate your in-law’s joy and success. Seek to reconcile, not to win. 

Ask God to help you forgive. The natural barriers between mothers- and daughters-in-law can make unforgiveness grow. We all need constant reminders to forgive. Has she hurt you? Has she wounded you? Ask God for a heart to forgive any slights. Don’t wait until you feel like it or she apologizes. Talk to her when the time is appropriate, and be ready to forgive her. Committed love promises forgiveness. And do not allow self-pity to eat away at your relationship. As you repent and forgive, God will teach you to love your in-law for who she is, not for what she will give you (Eph. 4:31–32). 

Our dreams for the holidays and for our lives are so small. God’s dream is always greater than we can imagine (Eph. 3:20). Your relationship with your in-law is a building block toward God’s greater vision. Begin now to ask Christ to make your in-law relationship part of his strong foundation for many faithful generations of your family to come (Isa. 58:12) — and to make this a happier, enjoyable holiday. 

By / Nov 3

Our hearts are never fully prepared for a drastic change. But loss does that to you — it changes your course. Over time, the once raging grief finds a softer place to live, but when special days or holidays approach, those wounds can be reopened. As a widow, that loss and change stings every inch of your life and is certainly amplified during the holiday season. Each date on the calendar and special occasion screams the absence of your loved one. 

Even though it is painful to grieve, it’s not harmful. Grief is the process that leads to healing. We must walk through it, but as believers, our journey is accompanied with certainty and assurance. We have God’s promises to cling to as we grieve. His promises aren’t simply a wistful hope: the promise is Christ. The cross is a constant reminder that we are never forsaken or alone in our grieving. 

I would like to offer some practical advice, first to the widow or widower and then to local churches to help those who have suffered a loss not just survive the holidays, but thrive during them.

To the widow or widower

The loss of a spouse is disorienting and seems impossible to make it through. But the Lord is faithful to walk with you every step of the way. There are several things I’ve learned as I’ve navigated the loss of my husband — especially during the holidays — that have helped me grieve, heal, and grow. 

Carve out time to grieve, privately if needed. Holiday get-togethers are special, but they will be emotionally difficult. It is joy and sorrow hand in hand. It’s joyful to celebrate with family and see one another, but there will always be the backdrop of loss looming. Set aside private time in your schedule to grieve what needs to be grieved. 

Slow your pace. Slow down. Too many activities only add stress. Do whatever you need to in order to reduce extra stress by remembering the holidays are a season, not just a day. Spread out your visits and responsibilities over days.

Communicate. Talk with your family sooner rather than later about the schedule. Let them know you need your pace to be slow and easy. Tell them you may need alone time, and reassure them that your absence will only be temporary. 

God understands. Remember that although no person will truly understand the weight of the significance of your loss, God does. We serve a God who sees and knows every crevice of our hearts. He not only sees it, but his mercies are sufficient to meet our grief with strength. Lean into the grief, and take it to the Lord. You need his Word more than ever, so get into it, and meditate on it. Rediscover the joy of the Lord this holiday season!

To the local churches 

Your fellow brothers and sisters suffering from loss need you. They need the community, care, and comfort God designed you to offer. Though the holidays are busy for you, too, please don’t miss the chance to hold out the hope of Christ. Here are a few ways I was ministered to by the body of Christ.

Engage the bereaved. What an opportunity for ministry. First, know that tears are a gift from God. They help us release emotional grief. Too often, we avoid engaging the bereaved in an effort to help them avoid tears. But not acknowledging the loss of a widow or widower hurts more than crying ever will. So, engage those who are hurting. Isn’t that what Jesus did? Sit down, look that widow in the eye and say, “How are you”? Then, listen. If he or she cries, let them. Remember their loved one together, share stories, and mostly, just listen. There is nothing more Christlike than loving one another, and one of the most loving things you can do is mourn with those who are mourning. 

Encourage with the Word. Time doesn’t heal, but our God does. Send encouragement from the Word. Human words are good, but God’s Word is best. Send cards, texts, or emails of with Scripture. God grows a faith that gives new life by revealing himself in the midst of our deepest, most painful places. And we most often experience him through his Word. Be a life-giving Word-giver this holiday season. I promise it will nourish a broken soul. 

Equip widows or widowers to be ministers. As a widow, I have been entrusted with suffering toward a divine purpose: to minister to others and comfort those who need comfort (2 Corinthians 1:4). Encourage your widows to minister to one another. The goal of grief in God’s hands isn’t healing — it’s holiness. Holiness is healing plus purpose. God can use your widows and widowers to minister in your church like no one else. Remind them of Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Equip them slowly and gently, as they are ready. Don’t be pushy; just watch for where God is working and help them see it too. 

Hebrews 5:8-9 is one of the most profound verses as it relates to suffering. It says this, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” Christ didn’t need to learn obedience, as if he wasn’t doing something. He willingly submitted to the experience of suffering in the flesh and experienced persevering in obedience. He tasted death on our behalf and made the way for our deliverance. For those who are approaching the holidays under the cover of grief, this gives great hope. Our suffering Savior has made a way for us to hope in the midst of our hurt and minister to those around us. Cling to God’s Word this holiday season and remember the joy of your salvation. I am praying for you.

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 / 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.

By / Nov 24

The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year are commonly associated with spikes in emotional distress. According to a 2014 survey from the National Alliance for Mental Illness, nearly two-thirds of adults with diagnosed mental health conditions said the holidays made their symptoms worse, with nearly 25% describing themselves as “a lot” worse.

What might we expect with the holidays falling in the middle of a pandemic? How can churches promote connection and provide support during the most unique Christmas season most of us have ever experienced? Here are five ways churches might support the mental health concerns of members and attendees in the days and weeks ahead.

1. Prepare to offer mental health support, especially during the two weeks after Christmas. An article in the journal Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience examined the scientific research on psychiatric symptoms associated with the Christmas holiday. While more people report feeling sad or unhappy over the holidays, reductions in mental health service utilization and decreases in self-harm, suicide attempts, and hospitalizations are observed in the weeks leading up to Christmas. But this is followed by a spike in psychiatric emergencies of as much as 40% above baseline rates shortly thereafter, when many church offices close and staff take time off.

Consider how someone from your church might access help in a crisis. If your church doesn’t have a current referral list of mental health professionals, treatment centers, and facilities for individuals or families in need, this is a great time to compile such a list. According to LifeWay Research, only 27% of churches have a plan to assist families affected by mental illness, even though the church is often the first place families turn to for help. 

2. Seek to maintain as many of your church’s Christmas traditions as possible during the pandemic. While most evangelical churches don’t have lots of rituals, customs and traditions are especially important in unpredictable times, providing relief from anxiety by promoting a sense of order. Consider how your church might incorporate collective rituals in special events during the holidays. An example of a collective ritual is the tradition of everyone holding lit candles while singing “Silent Night” at Christmas Eve services. Such rituals promote connection with others engaged in the activity. Consider how families unable to attend in person because of COVID-19 might meaningfully participate in these rituals during online services. 

3. Prepare regular attendees and guests for modifications to their customary church experiences. Children and adults with anxiety disorders have brains that are “hard-wired” to overestimate the risk involved with new or unfamiliar situations. A picture is truly worth a thousand words in relieving anxiety. One strategy for reducing anxiety with in-person services is to take pictures or video of the cleaning crew keeping worship spaces as safe as possible and post the images prominently on your social media platforms. Take lots of pictures during worship services in the weeks leading up to Christmas for your website, especially pages guests search for information on special holiday services. 

Given that attendance at in-person worship services is running at 36% of pre-COVID levels, many people haven’t yet returned to church—especially attendees with anxiety disorders. The more your members and guests can visualize their experience at church, the easier it will be to overcome their anxiety about attending live services.

4. Consider the unique emotional needs of college students and young adults during COVID-19. Young adults represent the population most affected by mental health concerns during the pandemic. This study reported symptoms of moderate to severe depression among adults ages 18-24 during October. More than one-third described suicidal thoughts—10 times the rates observed as recently as 2013-14. Many college students will find themselves back home for two months or longer, disconnected from the support of counselors and campus ministries. 

There’s never been a more important time for us as the church to share the hope of Christ with a fearful and uncertain world. And we’re most effective in doing so when we care for and support one another.

The Grace Alliance offers Redefine Grace, a 10 session, Christian-based mental health education and support group model to encouragement young adults with mental health struggles. Student and young adult ministries might consider how they can address loneliness and social isolation experienced by youth home for an extended time. 

5. Finally, take steps to ensure the people of your church aren’t forgotten in this unique season. The children’s ministry team at my church is calling every family they haven’t seen since indoor worship resumed in early October. How many attendees have left your church since the onset of the pandemic without being noticed? Some may have stayed away because of medical vulnerabilities or the need to care for someone at high risk. Others may be withdrawing from church and other important life activities because of depression. Consider how the people of the church might mobilize to look after one another. 

Cards, notes, phone calls, letters, e-mails, texts, and offers of prayer all represent important touch points. Encourage seniors to call one another, small groups to check in on members who live alone, Bible study leaders to reaching out to folks who have dropped off Zoom sessions, children’s ministry to make cards for the elderly, and student ministry to run errands for individuals with disabilities or medical conditions that have left them homebound during COVID-19.

If you’re a church member, consider how you might encourage and support your ministry leaders. Ministry demands upon pastors and church staff are overwhelming in a “typical” December. Factor in discouragement from lower attendance, economic concerns from diminished offerings, and disruptions in family routines, and our leaders are especially vulnerable. Take the initiative to check on others in your church and encourage others to do so to relieve some of the burdens on your pastors during this season.

We have what hurting people most need: hope! It’s a hope that comes from knowing and believing in Christ. There’s never been a more important time for us as the church to share the hope of Christ with a fearful and uncertain world. And we’re most effective in doing so when we care for and support one another.

By / Nov 20

In this episode, Josh, Brent, and Lindsay discuss Coronavirus being as bad as it has ever been, the CDC warning people not to travel for Thanksgiving, the FDA approving at home rapid tests, Biden filling the west wing, and Michael J. Fox. Lindsay also gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Jared Kennedy with “Why every Christian should care about family ethics: Understanding what the Bible teaches and recognizing we’re all part of a family,” Jamie Aten and Kent Annan with “What you need for Spiritual First Aid during COVID: Biblical and research-based guidance to help churches respond to needs in a disaster-filled world,” and the ERLC staff with an Explainer on “What you should know about the COVID-19 RNA vaccines.” Also in this episode, the hosts are joined by Dr. Russell Moore for a conversation about life and ministry. 

About Dr. Moore

Russell Moore is President of the ERLC. In this role, he leads the organization to connect the agenda of the kingdom of Christ to the cultures of local congregations for the sake of the gospel. He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of several books, including The Storm-Tossed Family: How the Cross Reshapes the Home, and The Courage to Stand Facing Your Fear without Losing Your Soul. He and his wife Maria are the parents of five boys. You can connect with him on Twitter: @drmoore

ERLC Content


  1. It’s as bad as ever
  2. CDC Warning for Thanksgiving
  3. FDA approves first rapid at-home test
  4. Biden fills his West Wing
  5. Race To 2020
  7. Americans’ finances are in best shape in decades
  8. Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes First COVID-19 Test for Self-Testing at Home
  9. The Lucira COVID-19 All-In-One Test Kit
  10. Michael J. Fox is retiring from acting due to declining health


 Connect with us on Twitter


  • End of Year Giving: If you’ve benefited from the content shared on this podcast, would you please consider making a year-end donation? Any individual donations we receive, apart from the Cooperative Program, goes to placing ultrasound machines in pro-life pregnancy centers, advocating for religious liberty, and human dignity here at home and across the globe.
  • The Christmas We Didn’t Expect by David Matthis. 25 daily reflections for Advent will help you to adore Jesus—the one who came to save us and make our futures certain.
By / Jun 19

Today, Americans will be celebrating Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery. Here are five facts you should know about the longest running African-American holiday.

1. On Sept. 22, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln announced that if the rebels did not end the fighting and rejoin the Union by Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves in the Confederate states would be free. The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation read in part, “. . . on the first day of January . . . all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” The proclamation applied only to states that had seceded from the U.S., leaving slavery to remain unchallenged in the six border states. (Four of these states—Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia—abolished slavery before the war ended. Delaware  and Kentucky only abolished slavery when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in December 1865.)

2. Although President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official on the first day of January 1863, the news didn’t arrive in Texas until two and a half years later. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston with word that the war had ended and that those who were once enslaved were now free. One of Granger’s first acts upon landing in the Lone Star state was to read Texas General Order #3, which stated:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

3. To honor this anniversary, an annual tradition sprung up known as Juneteenth, a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth.” From its origin in 1865, the observance of June 19th as the African American Emancipation Day has spread across the United States and beyond. “The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went,” wrote Isabel Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

4. By the early 1900s, economic and cultural forces led to a decline in Juneteenth activities and participants, notes State-sponsored segregation, which often banned African Americans from using public parks, made it difficult to hold large-scale celebrations. The result was that, outside of Texas, observances declined for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s that a resurgence of interest in the tradition began. In 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader’s Poor People's Campaign held a Juneteenth Solidarity Day, giving the holiday a new prominence in the civil rights movement.

5. In 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. By 2008, 47 of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday, a ceremonial holiday, or a day of observance. (The three states that do not recognize Juneteenth are Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota.) The U.S. Senate passed a resolution last year recognizing "Juneteenth Independence Day" as a national holiday, but it has not yet been approved in the House.