Staying focused on what matters

Christmas is my favorite time of year. I love the annual reminder that God loved us so much that he sent his son as a little baby to be with us here on earth and, eventually, to pay the price for our sins.

My daughter came home from school recently, horrified, having learned that some people refer to Christmas as X-mas. “Mom, they don’t even want to say Christmas. They take Christ out completely!”

Part of me was sad that my eight-year-old is becoming more familiar with the ways of the world, and part of me was so thankful that she was deeply troubled by something to which I’ve, sadly, become desensitized. Her reaction was a powerful reminder to me of the importance of teaching my kids to keep Christ in Christmas.

One of our favorite things to do as a family in preparation for Christmas is to decorate our home. We put up the tree, hang up wreaths, and look through last year’s Christmas cards.

But our favorite thing to set out together is our creche. Andy and I have a special set that was a gift from my parents on our first married Christmas. While I set out the shepherds, angel, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, our kids set up a toy nativity of their own. When Henry was two, he set quite the Christmas scene with Jesus in the manger and all his “guys” (Batman, Spiderman, even The Joker) coming to pay their respects to the newborn king.

Another favorite tradition is participating in and attending our church’s Advent By Candlelight service at the start of Advent. There is something so special about sitting next to my daughter and worshiping together, preparing our hearts to celebrate the birth of our Savior.

Each of the past few years, we have received a verse-a-day Advent calendar from that service, and we read it together as a family at breakfast. This, combined with working with my kids to memorize their speaking parts for the Christmas services, is a great start to our days during Advent. (I’m convinced Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is meant to be heard in children’s voices!)

Our family’s biggest blessings in helping to keep us focused on Christ at Christmas are the church and school to which we belong. Worshiping and learning together about the true meaning of Christmas on a daily basis keeps our hearts and minds focused on what matters through the busyness and many distractions of the Christmas season.

Christmas traditions point us to Jesus

“How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Change?! We’ve always had that light bulb!”

Sometimes we Lutherans can get the reputation for being resistant to change. We’ve always parked in the same spot in the church parking lot. We’ve always sat in the same pew. We’ve always brought the same dish to the church potluck.

But our hesitancy to change isn’t always bad. It’s rooted in our understanding of the value of traditions. Traditions help us learn. Our little Lutherans know the liturgy with ever growing understanding because they hear those same words spoken every week in church. We celebrate baptisms and confirmations to show that they’re special. Traditions teach us values and important truths.

And if there’s any part of the year that’s steeped in traditions, it’s the Christmas season. So many Christmas traditions are designed to point us to Jesus. So if we want to keep our kids (and ourselves) focused on Jesus at Christmastime, let’s consider focusing on connecting Jesus to the traditions we already have.

  • Do your kids participate in a children’s Christmas program? Be a part of it! Help them memorize their parts and look up the Bible verses in their context. Show your children how they point to Jesus.
  • Do you have a nativity scene? Consider letting the kids play with it (or buy an inexpensive one they can use). Don’t set out all the pieces at once. Let the kids move Mary and Joseph across the room a little each day during Advent. Put the baby in the manger for the first time on Christmas morning. Then add the shepherds and start the Magi on their journey down the hall to join the scene by Epiphany. Talk about the story and anticipate the joy of the Savior’s birth.
  • Do you buy and eat candy canes? Teach your children how the red and white stripes remind us of the red blood Jesus shed for us, which makes us pure and white as snow. Show them the Good Shepherd’s staff which, when turned upside down, makes a “J” for Jesus.
  • Do you decorate a tree in the living room? Teach your children the symbolism behind the tree and its decorations. The lights remind us that Jesus is the light of the world who rescued us from sin. The angel or star remind us of the good news proclaimed. The garland that seems to wrap around the tree endlessly, and the tree itself—that’s evergreen and points to the sky—reminds us of the beautiful eternity that awaits us in heaven one day soon.

What traditions do you have? What do you do to help you and your family celebrate Christmas? How have you used those traditions to focus on Jesus and on the eternal peace that he gives? Engage in the online discussion here and share your traditions in the comments below. Maybe one from your family will help my family and others look to Jesus this Christmas.

Go with God . . . even on the detours

Our life was going according to plan. My husband and I married a year out of college, purchased our first home, and two years later gave birth to our first child.

Then it happened. God took us on our first major detour together. Our infant son had colic, reflux, eczema, and hernias due to muscle strain during bowel movements. Doctors prescribed various medications and suspected his symptoms could be stemming from possible allergies. Since he was breastfed exclusively, I altered my diet to try to ease his symptoms, but it was difficult to track what was helping or hindering the situation. Nothing brought complete relief.

Two years passed, and by this time I had given birth to our daughter who had health issues of her own. She suffered from chronic respiratory infections, ear infections, and intermittent stomach cramping. We took shifts staying up at night making sure she could breathe while she struggled to sleep.

Then it was my turn for complications. I had been losing weight and had large bruises appearing on my body without sustaining any injuries. At a doctor appointment, I heard the words no one ever wants to hear, “We should run some tests for leukemia.” It was with great relief that I received negative results, but I still had no answers.

With two sick children and my own failing health, I went on a quest for a diagnosis. Many doctor appointments later, along with two trips to the Mayo Clinic, we finally learned we had Celiac Disease—an autoimmune disorder that occurs in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine.

Armed with this knowledge, we began the healing process. We changed our diet to strictly gluten and dairy free. Even this did not bring complete relief, so we started a specific diet developed to heal the lining of the intestines. It was very time consuming and involved fermenting our own foods; making our own broth; and eating all organic, homemade, raw (unprocessed) foods. Eventually, relief came, and we could reassess our life.

Our debt from medical bills and the new, expensive, lifelong diet strained us financially, so we decided to downsize our house to better manage our budget.

The hard part was over. We had survived the detour.

Whenever I am asked how we dealt with all these challenges, it is so inspiring to not have to search for answers once again. The answer is simple. When God’s plans altered from ours, he held us close to him as we learned to let go and put all our trust in him. He never put us down as he taught us that hard times can bring blessings, too.

Our Christian friends and family supported us, listening with compassionate ears and never tiring of doing good. We had babysitters for doctor appointments, help with tedious food preparations, and a monetary donation to help pay off medical bills. We even inherited supportive new neighbors in the process. Accepting help was difficult at first, but through this trial, God also taught us how to rely on the help he sends through fellow Christians.

When our children entered school, we again saw God’s love in action. Parents called before parties asking what they could bring that our children could eat. Some sent special non-food projects or toys. Instead of feeling left out, they often felt special. Upon receiving a toy as a birthday treat, my daughter lamented, “I feel bad for the other kids in my class. They ate their treat, but I get to keep mine forever!”

So while life’s detours are unexpected and often unsettling, go with God because he’s looking at the whole road map, leading you in just the right direction. I have learned my life was, is, always will be going according to plan . . . his plan.

Food allergies: A chance to show God’s love

My 14-month-old feverishly scratched at his face. Huge white blisters exploded across his chubby baby cheeks. His lips swelled. He spit the food out of his mouth. He vomited. After a trip to the E.R., we received the diagnosis—my baby had life-threatening peanut and tree nut allergies.

So began a new phase of our life—a constant campaign to keep our son alive. A campaign complicated by many people’s lack of understanding.

Food allergies are on the rise. You know someone who has them. So what can others do to help? Overall the answer is simple—show God’s love.

Please be kind in your interactions with the parents and children dealing with food allergies. Families dealing with food allergies didn’t ask for this—but they have to deal with it on a bite-to-bite basis. Put yourself into their shoes—go one day thinking about every item you put in your mouth or on your body. That hand soap—has almond oil in it. We can’t use it. That popcorn—made in a factory with peanuts and tree nuts. We can’t enjoy it. That dog across the street—eats peanut butter as a treat. We can’t pet him. This is the reality of many food allergy families.

Here are a few practical ideas to show your Christian love and concern:

  1. Keep kids with allergies from harm. Check and double check ingredient labels. Even if the label stated nothing last time about a particular allergen, it may this time. Make sure things are washed up as much as possible if your church/school/family consumes the food allergen—door handles, tables, toys, kids’ faces and hands, etc. And, if a family wants to bring their own food please, don’t be offended and let them do so without guilt. That family’s first priority is the safety of their child. If they are comfortable with you, the Ladies’ Guild, or school lunch program making the food, please save the food labels for them to double check.
  2. Don’t leave kids, their siblings, and families out. Institute ways in your church, school, and home to serve safe foods—or to leave food out of the situation altogether. We have chosen to bring non-food toys/trinkets to school to celebrate our kids’ birthdays. It has gone over so well that one of the teachers asked all of the families this year to only bring non-food items for birthdays—even though there aren’t any food allergy kids in her room.
  3. Ask a lot of questions. If a food allergy individual is coming to your home, church, or school, ask, “What is the specific allergy?” Some with egg allergies are fine with cooked eggs, but not raw eggs, so baked goods would be safe. Some with peanut allergies are perfectly fine with the walnuts in the brownies you made. Check in with the families as to what is safe to eat and what is not.
  4. Know the signs of an allergic reaction and what to do. Have the contact information of the parents and local emergency line. Learn how to use an Epipen and do so before emergency personnel get there. Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) has some great resources for families, schools, and churches at foodallergy.org. Mylan (the Epipen manufacturer) even gives free Epipens to schools in case there are children who experience an unknown allergic reaction. Visit epipen4schools.com.

Be a blessing to these families. Little gestures let these kids and their families know you care about them no matter the setting.

Rachel Learman and her husband, Paul, have four children. They live in Milwaukee, Wis.

Fear of success

It can happen around age 12.

Your daughter suddenly quits the team. Refuses to enter the music contest. Starts getting Bs when she’s always been an A student.

It isn’t laziness. It isn’t fear of failure. It’s fear of success.

Near the onset of puberty, your little girl who once out-ran all the girls and out-mathed all the boys wakes up one day and says, “I can’t,” when you know—and she knows—she absolutely can. Why?

Because sometimes success brings negative social repercussions, especially for adolescent girls. Insecure boys don’t like to be outdone, so they reject her for the girls who make them feel stronger and smarter. Competitive girls resent her achievements, so they kick her down the social ladder. In a hundred ways, her peers punish her for outpacing them, no matter how humbly she does so.

What’s a parent to do?

It might be tempting to sit that girl down and remind her, “To whom much is given, much is required.” That God demands she use her talents, not bury them.

Let’s not. Let’s not use the law in this way. Even if such tactics succeed and your daughter starts using her gifts faithfully again, she’ll be doing it out of guilt. She may even begin to resent the God whose love, it seems, comes with strings.

Instead, build her up.

  1. Tell your daughter you’re proud of her when she works hard, whether her efforts are successful or not.
  2. Be generous and specific with praise.
  3. Stop saying, “You can do anything, honey.” She knows it isn’t true, and it only makes her wonder whether your other praise is empty too.
  4. Make your home a safe place, where your daughter can say, “It felt so cool to win!” It’s honest, and having permission to say it at home may eliminate that feeling to seek praise in public, which really will hurt her social standing—and rightly so.
  5. When you see jealousy or pettiness in any of your kids, put your foot down. The family is a support network, not a rugby scrum.
  6. When you see jealousy or pettiness in your daughter’s friends, help her recognize it for what it is and try to understand the pain and insecurity that causes it.
  7. Foster humility by helping your daughter recognize that every person is gifted, whether those gifts win plaques at award banquets or not. And some of those gifts—humor, empathy, work ethic—will count far more in adulthood than fine free throw shooting. Your daughter may be gifted, but so is everyone else.

One of Satan’s favorite tools is to shut down Christians’ talents. He’ll tempt our daughters to make themselves smaller than they are, to sabotage themselves, to feel guilty when they faithfully use the gifts God gave.

Let’s not let that Liar win. Let’s help our daughters humbly and faithfully say, “I can do this. For my Savior I can do this.”

“I cah-h-h-n’t!”

“I cahn’t! I-I-I cah-h-hn’t!” The lament of my three-year-old grandson as he fit together jigsaw puzzle pieces. Within two minutes the puzzle was complete and he was on to another puzzle. But the chant continued. “I cahn’t!” Cute.

Doubting one’s adequacy may be cute at three. It loses charm by grade school. So how do we best love our kids when they insist, “I can’t,” but we parents know they can? I have five guidelines as a conversation starter.

Show grace

Lead with love, not law.  Let your self-skeptical kids know they are loved.  Loved by you.  Even better, loved without measure by our God.  Try, “I’m sorry you don’t think you can do this.  I want you to know I love you more than anything else.  And Jesus loves you much more than that.”

Don’t only begin with an emphasis on God’s grace. Throughout your conversation circle back to your love.  A love that won’t diminish because of your child’s failures. A love that is driven by God’s love for you.   Make God’s grace tangible with your actions: a hug, a smile, a back rub.

Yes, laying down the law has a place. Refuse to start there.

Seek to understand

Ask, “Why do you think you can’t do this?” Your child is believing a lie. Expose the falsehood to the warmth of truth and the problem evaporates.

There are many reasons we might doubt our abilities. For example,

  • Others’ negative opinions.
  • Fear of failure.
  • Prior failures.
  • Peer pressure.

Share your positive evaluation

Gently offer your own view of the gifts and abilities God has given your child. Suggest evidence for your view. “I know you can do this. Remember how you swam across the pool and surprised us all?”

Talk about grace and giftedness

Go beyond offering your evaluation. Talk about grace’s evaluation. Grace insists your child is unimaginably precious to God. The Son of God coming to be our Savior proves that. But in addition, God’s grace means your child is spectacularly gifted as the exact person God wants on this planet today. Consider Ephesians 2:10, “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Offer appropriate assistance 

Consider providing appropriate help. You might say, “What if you and I do this together?” “I’ll show you; then you can do the rest.” “I’d be willing to get you started on this project.”

Different kids in different situations at different times in their lives need to be approached differently, of course. What advice would you add?

Turning a “can’t” into a “can”

It’s hot in South Carolina in the summer. Sunny too. How’s that for stating the obvious? The solution? Go to the pool. That’s where my daughter’s “can’t” came to life in a way stronger than anything I’d seen in her before. She didn’t want to dunk her head, but at the same time she did. She was at war with herself.

Saying, “no,” to something one can do is sometimes about an inner tension for a Christian. We’ve all felt it. One minute you’re making the grand pronouncement, “I can do it all by myself.” And the next, just like my daughter did, you stare at what’s in front of you and you say, “Daddy, I can’t.” Sometimes it’s the unknown you don’t want to step into. Sometimes it’s the fear of failure that grips you. Other times it’s the easiness of inertia that captures your heart.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to overcome the “can’ts.” But helping our children know how God has recreated them in baptism is important. God didn’t baptize us into timid lives or shy choices or despairing attempts at worthwhile living. He certainly did not want us to face life fearing every event. Confidence in our love for our children and especially God’s love for them is a factor in moving forward. He baptized us into lives of confidence, love, and self-discipline. And so for me, saying “can’t” when you can isn’t just a matter of merely pounding on the will or somehow gaining compliance; it’s a matter of understanding the gospel itself.

That’s why I relished my daughter’s “can’t” moment. I saw it not as a moment to develop more grit in her but rather to set loose the grit she already possessed in her recreated self. And I believed that turning her former “no” into a full-bodied “YES” wasn’t really a matter of pushing on her will. I believed it was a matter of putting down her old will that was holding her back and raising up her more powerful, recreated will so she’d turn into the dolphin I knew she could be.

How do you do that in real time, real life living? You apply law and gospel. Was she scared of her underwater attempt? I gave her the safety net of a father’s gentleness and ever-present love. Was she being lazy or combative? That’s not who God recreated her to be, and I don’t have time for that. Some variation of “Git’er done,” was occasionally the right medicine for the moment. Was she emotionally tapped out? It was time to float with the noodles, take a break, and try again later.

My goal throughout? Nurture her recreated self and put down her old one. How’d that turn out for us this summer? Honestly? I’m happy to report that she has now officially turned into a dolphin. And better yet, she is living her recreated life more powerfully making waves for Jesus. And not just in the pool, either.

It’s okay to cry

In 2013, my dad unexpectedly passed away from complications of pneumonia. I hadn’t ever dealt with that level of extreme grief, and it hit me HARD.

Henry (18 months) had never met my dad but was old enough to notice that I was sad. Anna (5 years) knew my dad, and I dreaded telling her he was gone. To this day I am so thankful for the strong, comforting, supportive man I married. Andy took care of details I never would have thought of in my state of shock. He held my hand and did most of the talking when we told the kids.

We were honest and gave age-appropriate details. We told Anna that Grandpa Denny had died in the night. We wouldn’t see him on earth again. We told her that we were sad because we would miss him, and she would probably see me crying. And it was okay if she needed to cry, too. Anna’s first response was that it wasn’t fair—Henry hadn’t even gotten to meet him! (A sentiment I shared—they would have adored each other.) Then she asked if she could watch TV.

Later she needed to cry and had some questions. We hugged and cried together. We talked about good memories of my dad. I told her that even though we have the joy of knowing heaven is waiting for us, it’s okay for us to miss people who aren’t here on earth anymore.

We still talk about my dad often. Henry, who is now four, has grown up hearing stories about my dad, knowing he died and that I still miss him and feel sad sometimes. His favorite story is about my dad living on his sailboat—after all, pirates live on sailboats!

He asks me what would happen if Andy and I died. Who would take care of him? What if Anna died too? I think the knowledge that loved ones can die raises many scary questions for little ones. I try to address these concerns when they arise. Usually a simple answer is all it takes (we will always make sure you are taken care of; you would be very sad, but you will see her/us again in heaven), and then he moves on.

Sometimes we still cry. And I always tell them that it’s okay to do that.

We held a memorial service for my dad about a month after he passed away. We invited friends and family to share memories of him. A few people came up to speak. At last call to the microphone, Anna unexpectedly walked to the front of the room. I grabbed Andy’s hand, not knowing what she planned to say but admiring her bravery. Her speech left all of us reaching for tissues.

“My name is Anna. Denny was my grandpa, and I love him very much. I will miss him, but I know I’ll see him again in heaven.”

Grandma is in heaven

Talking to your child about the death of a loved one is never easy. Death is simply not natural. It’s the result of sin. No sin—no death—and no need to talk about it.

Certainly the circumstances surrounding the death can impact a child and family, but as parents, my wife and I have found that preparing for death is a natural part of our Christian life. Starting with baptism we receive the forgiveness of sins and become heirs of eternal life. Death is defeated! As parents we then have the opportunity to help our children grow in the Word so the Holy Spirit can nurture their faith in Christ and they can be confident of life in heaven. Talking to children about the death of a loved one can then bring us the opportunity to comfort one another and be reminded of the certainty of eternal life in heaven.

Nine years ago my mother, Helen, died after fighting cancer for 18 months. My daughter Kayla was five years old. We lived nearby and had many opportunities to see “Humma” as Kayla liked to call her.

Eighteen months of cancer treatments and a slow decline of health gave us all time to prepare. We would specifically plan “Kayla and Humma” days where just the two of them could spend time together. Kayla was always excited to see Humma, and the door to Mom’s house would always open before we could even knock. Imagine the big smile and hug of a grandmother as she swoops up her granddaughter in her arms. That time was not only important for Kayla, but it also gave my mom a sense of peace knowing that she had the opportunity to have a loving relationship with all of her 14 grandchildren.

The only thing that troubled Mom was that she would not be present at Kayla’s confirmation some day. So mom and I pulled out the video recorder, and we recorded a message that could be played on Kayla’s confirmation day. This last May, Kayla was confirmed, and she had the opportunity to have one last Kayla and Humma moment together.

The day did finally come when the Lord took Humma to heaven. How do you tell your five-year-old that Grandma died? The nurtured faith of a child is simply outstanding. It was hard for me to tell Kayla that her grandmother died but easy for her to remind me that my mom was in heaven. That response can only come by hearing the Word that has been shared at school, at church, and at home from family—including from a very special Humma.

Helping children understand heaven

When my Grandma Pearl died, a cousin wrote a letter to the family that started like this: “Well, the fourth chair is once again filled. The pinochle cards have been shuffled and dealt, and Alvin has the manhattans already mixed.”

He was talking about four Christians—his parents and my grandparents—who’d been friends for decades, bound by blood, marriage, and serious card playing. Pearl had been the last of the four to go to heaven, so he imagined them reuniting at the card table.

Are we all scandalized? I hope not. The letter writer’s a pastor, and he was doing exactly what Jesus did—using the finer things of earth to help us see the unseeable and imagine the unimaginable.

We can help our children understand heaven in the same way—especially those plagued by fears and questions. I have one child like that. This child worried that angels would be scary, that the daily routine would be dull, that if they got to heaven first they wouldn’t know where to go.

Realizing it’s impossible to capture the infinite bliss of heaven in finite earthly terms, I tried anyway, saying things like:

  • You won’t be alone in heaven. Even if you die today, you’ll blink your eyes once and we’ll all be there together—because in heaven there’s no such thing as time.
  • Heaven isn’t boring. You won’t float on a cloud, playing the harp. What’s the most fun you’ve ever had? Were you swimming or laughing so hard milk came out of your nose? Multiply that by a million, and that’s what heaven will be like.
  • In heaven you’ll still be you. You won’t walk around in a trance, chanting to other identical floaty beings. You’ll be yourself—but the best version of yourself! No sickness. No sins. You won’t get the flu. You won’t be tempted to hit your brother.
  • Best of all, Jesus is in heaven. And Jesus is all love all the time. He’ll call you by name, and you’ll run into his arms, and it’ll feel as if he’s known you forever. Which he has.

Death is still horrible. Contrary to Disney’s Circle of Life, death isn’t a natural part of the life cycle. It’s an intruder in God’s perfect plan. So when someone dies, it’s good to cry. Jesus himself cried at his friend Lazarus’s funeral, even though he knew he’d be raising him from the dead in about ten minutes.

Death is hard. But heaven? Heaven is amazing.

My cousin finished his letter like this: “At this very moment, Pearl is more alive than any of us. . . . Pearl has already seen the Master’s welcome smile, his outstretched arms, and has heard him say, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Your sojourn on this earth has proved a blessing to many. Welcome to the joy that has been prepared for you from eternity.’ ”