Advent devotions keep family’s eyes on Jesus

During most of the year, our family gathers each evening for a Bible story and song. But we take a break from our regular devotions for the month of Advent. Instead, we sit at the dining room table around a lovely handcrafted Advent tree, a gift from my father-in-law.

Simple Advent devotions
First, my husband lights one or more candles, depending how close we are to Christmas. Then we choose a Chrismon (a Christmas decoration with a Christian symbol) to hang on the tree. My husband leads an impromptu devotion based on the symbol we’ve chosen, and we conclude with a verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

The short devotions are often simple. The cross reminds us that Jesus died to take away our sins. The shell reminds us that God forgave our sins and brought us into his family through baptism. The lamb is a symbol for Jesus, the Lamb of God.

Sometimes our devotions are little more complex. We may talk about the fish being an ancient Christian symbol because the letters of the Greek word for fish stand for Jesus. We may talk about the Chi-Ro, which looks like a P with an X on top. These two letters are the first letters of the Greek word “Christos,” which means Christ.

Our five oldest kids (4, 6, 8, 10, 11) take turns doing different jobs. One chooses the Chrismon, another places it on the tree, a third child turns out the lights, a fourth child passes out the music, and a fifth has the favorite job of blowing out the candles. Because our youngest will be turning 3 this Advent season, he will be part of the devotions as well. I suppose we will need a sixth job . . . but I don’t think we’re ready to let the kids take turns lighting the candles!

A meaningful tradition
With a houseful of young children, I wouldn’t exactly call our Advent devotions peaceful. And the proximity of children to open flames keeps my husband and me at the edge of our seats. But all of us look forward to this simple family tradition. Not only does it distract us from the hustle and bustle of the season, it also keeps our eyes on our coming Savior.

Anna Geiger and her husband, Steve, are raising their six kids in Mequon, Wis. Anna is the creator of The Measured Mom, an education website for parents and teachers. Interested in using Chrismons in your family’s Advent devotions? Click here

Seeing the Lord this Christmas

I can see the candlelight in her eyes. It flickers there in the dark sanctuary. It lights up her small face in constantly new ways as the flame dances pushing shadows off her face. It was Christmas Eve 2014. She was singing “Silent Night.”

I almost lost it. I hope it wasn’t just sentimentality. I doubt it was. I long for something as a father. I pray for it more than most anything else in my life. It makes me do things like ask my daughter every day on your her way to school, “Who are you?” Just to hear her say back, “I’m a blood bought child of God.” It makes me haul out my little devotional every night at dinner or lay on the Bermuda grass outside just so I can point to the stars and say, “Look at what God did.” I want my daughter to see the Lord just like Job once did (Job 42:5).

There are few better places to see him than the manger. I’ve got no secret sauce for that. I’m not sure we even have totally rooted family traditions yet around Christmas. I do know that I’ve done some things now for a few years. I love to walk with her up to the Chrismons. I love telling her what they mean. I love talking to her about the lights on the tree and how they point to the Light of the World. I love talking to her about the Christmas lessons she learns every year at Sunday School. I love interrupting her occasionally to remind her to back out of the commercialism and ask her what the season is really about. I love to open the presents with her and tell her where they all ultimately come from and what the best gift of all is. I love to bust out the hymnal and sing a Christmas hymn before we go to sleep. I love to help her with her recitations just so I can make a comment to her about what they mean.

I hope you know I’m not slavish about how I lean into unique Christmas moments. I’m not. There is a time and a place for everything. Sometimes it’s best simply to grab some Christmas cookies together and laugh about how crazy her dad is. I do, however, at Christmas time maintain the regular ways I disciple my daughter and always look for opportunities to use the uniqueness of the season to connect truth to her soul. No, it’s not a secret sauce. It’s just real life trusting the Spirit to use the Word in my daughter’s life.

I love my daughter. More than anything else I want her to have the joy of seeing the Lord in her life. I want that because I know that is what will chase away the shadows and darkness that lie within her and will make light dance in her little heart in new ways all year long.

Jonathan Bourman is a pastor at Peace, Aiken, S.C. He and his wife, Melanie, have a six-year-old daughter.

A simple Christmas

It’s almost Christmas. Time stops for no one. So we dash through the snow to pick up kids. Buy the latest toy. Find dresses for the girls and suits for the boys. Bake Christmas cookies. Help the kids memorize their Christmas services. Set up Christmas get-togethers with our family and friends. Bake more Christmas cookies. Schedule and wrangle crabby kids to take family pictures for the two hundred Christmas cards we have to order, address, place in envelopes, buy stamps for, and send. Decorate upstairs. Decorate downstairs. Decorate outside. Did I mention bake cookies?

My house, inside or out, doesn’t look like a Pinterest page. My kids might be wearing hand-me-down dresses and suits for the Christmas services. My gifts might not be wrapped until the night before Christmas Eve (and might just be placed into a gift bag!). We will eventually get the Christmas tree up. And perhaps a string of lights outside . . . if we’ve taken them down from last year. My cookies just might be bought from the local grocery store. But, this is what allows our family to savor and enjoy Christmas. The simplicity.

You don’t have to spend hundreds of hours or dollars making a perfect Christmas. We already have a perfect Christmas with the most perfect gift—Christ Jesus. Our focus should be not on making more work for an earthly perfect—one that takes the center of attention away from the true meaning of Christmas—but on how to bring our loved ones closer to the manger.

First comes our beautiful Christmas Eve service filled with children’s voices, praises to God for sending his Son, and the comforting passages and hymns we have committed to memory.

Then, our family continues in sharing God’s goodness in our living room. Sharing the blessings he has given us, reminding our children of the best gift that allows us to give them gifts, and reveling in the love of family—one of the most marvelous gifts God has given us on earth.

Traditions are wonderful and can be an amazing blessing to you, your children, and your grandchildren. But in the busyness of Christmas, might I suggest keeping it simple?

Set aside time to spend with your family;
Find a Christmas service or two;
Remind your loved ones of the greatest gift of Christmas;
Breathe in the crisp winter air;
Take in some twinkling lights;
And feel the love of Jesus envelop you.

Rachel Learman and her husband, Paul, are raising four children in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

How can I help my son grow into a godly man?

“What does it mean to be a man?” That question ran through my mind as I considered that this might be my last year to have much influence on my oldest son, Josiah. Living in Alaska, my wife and I planned to send Josiah to Luther Preparatory School in Watertown, Wis., for high school. And that meant that his eighth-grade year was his last year at home. So, here’s what I proposed to Josiah: “Let’s challenge each other to ‘man up’ in three areas of life. To show our thanks to Jesus, let’s grow stronger physically, mentally, and especially spiritually so that, with our strength, we can help others.”

That became the beginning of the “Man-up challenge” for Josiah and me. So, what did the “Man-up challenge” look like? We discussed it and agreed that we would take Saturdays and Sundays off (or use them to “catch up” where we fell behind), but each weekday we would do push-ups (starting with one on the first day of school, doing two on the second day, etc. until we reached 100 push-ups per day), read a few pages of a book that would help us become lifelong learners (hoping to work through one book a month for ten months), and read a chapter of our Bibles (it just so happens that there are 260 chapters in the New Testament and almost exactly the same number of weekdays in a year). We printed out monthly charts that we could “check off” when we met the challenge for the day. And we left Saturday and Sunday to make up what we missed.

At the start of the school year, we both struggled with 20 pushups. At the end of the school year, we could consistently do 100 pushups (sets of 25 four times a day), felt leaner and stronger, had some great discussions on what it means to be a godly man (looking for that theme in the books we read and especially in the New Testament), and grew in our relationship and in our faith.

I asked Josiah what he learned over the course of the year and wasn’t surprised to hear him say: “I learned it was tough to keep our commitment. And I learned it was way easier when you pushed me to do it.” That’s what I learned too.

Lesson #1: We need each other. “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9,10).

There were many days that I really didn’t feel like doing any more push-ups. But I knew that as soon as he got home from school, Josiah was sure to ask, “How many push-ups have you done so far today, Dad?” And I didn’t want to let him down by saying, “Zero.” So I got to it and did a set or two. Likewise, there were plenty of days that Josiah didn’t want to read a chapter of a book on church history I had chosen. But he knew I was going to nag . . . er . . . encourage him when I found out he had skipped two days in a row. We had to encourage each other along the way.

And that’s not just true of a “Man-up challenge.” It’s true in life. There are times that I need a brother in the faith to pull me aside and lovingly rebuke me and offer a word of encouragement. It is so hard to preach the law to yourself, perhaps even more difficult to preach the gospel to yourself. We need each other. We need to cultivate close friendships with other Christians who will hold us accountable, lovingly tell us when we’re doing something stupid, or encourage us to keep going when we’re ready to give up.

Lesson #2: We need more than each other. “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24,25).

As we made our challenge known to other men in the congregation, they too would hold us accountable in their own way. They wouldn’t nag us but would occasionally ask, “How’s the challenge going?” or “How many push-ups are you up to today?” or “How far into the New Testament have you made it?” This not only encouraged us to keep going, but it also encouraged them. Some joined us in reading their Bibles. Others tried the push-ups themselves. It became a bit contagious.

But then, some of the men of the congregation got involved directly in our challenge. “Your son needs to learn how to change the oil in a car. I know you can’t do that, Pastor. So come over on Saturday. I’ll show you both how.” “I’ll teach you how to operate a chainsaw, Pastor, so you can teach your boys.” It takes a village to raise a child. And I am very thankful for the godly men in our church who taught my boys some life skills, but even more so, who modeled a humble and quiet confidence in God’s promises and a willingness to serve others in thanks.

And this is true not just in a “Man-up challenge,” but in life. God puts us together in communities, in the body of believers, where some are gifted with some skills and others have gifts in different areas. We all need each other. And what better place to find that community than in the church. Of course we need to go to church to hear the Word and receive the Sacrament. But we also need it for each other to spur one another on and to encourage each other in our faith and in our life.

Lesson #3: We need forgiveness. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

We didn’t always do well. A day off of school, a busy week in Lent, or a week of tests would break the routine, and no push-ups or reading would be done. When we fell too far behind to catch up (400 push-ups is a lot to do on a Sunday afternoon!), we would declare a “Day of Jubilee” where all debts were cancelled. We’d do a “reset” and start over on Monday, forgiving all the times we missed.

We didn’t do the “Man-up challenge” perfectly, but when we failed, we owned it, we gave and received forgiveness, and we started all over again. And each time we reset, we did a little bit better than we did the last time. While it wasn’t a perfect run, we are both better—stronger mentally, physically, and spiritually—having made the attempt.

Of course, this too is a lesson for life. We need forgiveness. Often. We need a regular reminder of what our Savior has done to win that forgiveness. But that forgiveness isn’t a license to wallow in our sin. It frees us to get back up and try again . . . and again . . . and again. And when we mess up—and we will—we go back to the cross to find forgiveness and the strength to give forgiveness. And that forgiveness drives us to try again to live for him with all that we are—body, mind, and spirit.

Lesson #4: Celebrate the success! “The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great” (Nehemiah 8:17).

When the challenge was over, Josiah and I hiked to the top of a mountain. At the top, even though we were already tired from the hike, we “manned up” and each did 100 more push-ups. We talked about the lessons that we learned during the “Man-up challenge,” the things we wanted to continue, the things we’d try to do better.

At the top of the mountain, I then presented him with a set of printed “dog tags” that reminded him that he would always be loved—by me, but more importantly, by God. I gave him a copy of a book that I’d been editing over the course of the year—a book written by the godly men in his life—church members, uncles and grandparents, teachers, and strangers that he’d never met but who helped me to “man up.” They all shared their thoughts on what it means to be a Christian man and gave their advice to Josiah.

We descended the mountain and continued the conversation over lunch to conclude our celebration. And with a sense of accomplishment, we gave thanks to God for helping us grow as men. We still have a lot of manning up to do—both of us. But we’re on the right track. And with God’s help, we’ll continue to grow stronger—mentally, physically, and spiritually—that we might better help others in thanks to God for all he’s done for us.

Rob Guenther and his wife, Becky, are raising four boys. They recently moved from Kenai, Alaska, to New Ulm, Minnesota. To read a compilation of the advice Guenther received for his son, check out Man Up, Josiah! Advice on Being a Godly Man at amazon.com. To hear more from Rob and Josiah about the “Man-up challenge,” watch this webcast