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. 

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.

More is caught than taught

My oldest daughter recently took her driving test for the state of Arizona. She passed the written test without breaking a sweat, but it took nearly a year of behind-the-wheel practice for her to get comfortable driving in Phoenix traffic. In that time, she observed my driving with new interest, noting my safe driving methods or vociferously pointing out my lack thereof. It seems that she picked up more from watching me than from hours of online study. More is caught than taught. What do you want your daughters to “catch” from you regarding faith?

Let them catch you studying the Word. From a young age, I remember waking up and finding my mom in her cozy robe on the loveseat. She would have a cup of coffee in her hand, a sweet smile on her face, and an open Bible on her lap. No matter what happened the night before, she would hug me and tell me she loved me. With those simple, consistent acts, my mom modeled that God’s mercies are new every morning and his Word is worthy of pursuit.

Now that we live two thousand miles apart, my mom and I stay connected through YouVersion. I no longer wake up to her hugs but to notifications that she’s commented on the Bible plan we’re doing together. She lets me see her wrestling with God and submitting to his Word as the final authority. I’ve continued this practice with my own girls. When they comment on the plans we do together, I am amazed by their spiritual insight, their humor, and the emojis my youngest has picked out to go with the day’s reading.

Let them catch you talking with God. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray continually.” However we define “continually,” it’s probably more than before we eat and go to bed. Try this: For one day, take every praise, question, or worry and say it out loud. From gratitude for finding a lost backpack to how we should spend our free time to what we saw in the news that disturbed us—let’s model that we don’t know all the answers, but we know the One who does.

Let them catch you dancing in your role as a woman. American society paints a bleak picture of womanhood: cheap, self-promoting, flesh-serving, male-bashing, and harsh. God has a better way. When our girls catch us respecting our husbands, biting our tongues rather than speaking a dishonoring word, and joyfully sacrificing our “rights” in order to serve others, something clicks in their spirits. This is how their Father designed them to be. Freed from the tyranny of serving themselves, they can dance before the King as his dearly loved daughters.

As I finish writing this article, two of my little girls are snuggled beside me on the couch. They’re catching me in my pajamas as I take the time to pass on to others what God is teaching me. I am not a perfect role model. Too often I am inconsistent and unintentional. But that’s when they catch me going back to God’s grace.

Liz Schroeder and her husband, John, live in Phoenix, Arizona, with their five kids. They serve as lay leaders at CrossWalk Church.

Back to school: Tips for a smooth transition

Are you ready for school to start? Some parents love the freedom and fun of the summer schedule. Some are like my husband and have a countdown on the calendar with a smiley face on the first day of school. No matter how you feel about it, the school year is beginning. Here are some ideas to help the transition go more smoothly.

Routine
Set clear goals right from the start regarding home and school responsibilities. What does the morning routine look like? What gets done the night before to prepare for the next day? (Hint: as much as possible!) What chores does your child have and when do they need to be done? At our house, chores like unloading the dishwasher are done in the morning. Responsibilities like practicing piano can be done after school.
Establish with your children when they are going to do homework and where. Having a specific time and a comfortable place set aside prioritizes homework and provides a structure for study. If homework has been a struggle in the past, consider hiring an after-school helper to provide a different perspective and take the tension out of the parent/child relationship.

Along with setting clearly defined routines, it’s important to practice them. Use the week before school starts to begin getting up at the right time, going through the morning routine, and sitting down to read during the scheduled study time.

Rest
Apparently fifth grade at our school is when every activity possible becomes available for students. Last year, our son decided he wanted to be in cross country, soccer, flag football, band, and chimes—all at the same time. It sounds so well-rounded, doesn’t it? It turned out to be a recipe for anxiety for our son and led to significant physical and emotional issues for the first part of the school year. Kids need down time. (So do adults!) Choose with your child one or two activities to participate in during the school year, and limit everything else.

Along with rest from activities, children need physical rest. It is recommended that children ages 6 to 13 get 9 to 11 hours of sleep. Consistent lack of sleep can negatively impact learning, weaken the immune system, and result in behavioral issues. Encourage good sleep by limiting electronics before bed, keeping lighting low and the temperature cool in your child’s bedroom, and having a healthy snack before bedtime. Routines such as a warm bath or cuddling also help.

Remember what’s important
Finally, as the school year approaches, remember this important truth. Our children belong to God, and he has given us the responsibility of teaching them about his love. Maybe you set aside time for family Bible study. Maybe you sing Christian songs on your way to soccer. We have a devotion and share what we’re thankful for before bed. What your children learn about Jesus and what he’s done for them will be the most important lesson they learn all school year.

Sarah Reik and her husband have four children ages 6 to 11 heading back to school this fall.

A successful school year starts in summer?

I personally believe setting the stage for a successful school year starts in summer.

My wife and I try to get our children on a typical, healthy routine a few weeks prior to the school year. That includes trying to get them to settle in to sleep at a reasonable time and helping them adapt to any other changes in routine (including less screen time) so they have a chance to have healthy habits entering the school year and so we do not have the added stress of those changes when school begins. Of course, we do not always accomplish this goal due to the busyness of life and the need for flexibility.

I also believe it is important to speak positively about school and encourage your children to see school as a healthy and important venture and to model that positivity to them about responsibilities in your life. Telling them that your work is important, that God gave us talents and abilities to apply in this life, and that we aim to approach work and school with a thankful attitude can go a long way.

One part I have struggled with is watching my children go through the transition to school with fear and worry. I find myself saying, “How will they do with their friends?” “Will they like their teacher?” “What about their academics?” When I catch myself falling into that line of thinking, I remind myself that it is important to trust God (He helped you through it all, didn’t he?) and to trust your children and the people God has placed around them.

When school finally begins, my wife and I typically try to keep the above routines on track in addition to establishing routines for homework and study time. I also think it is important to try to keep things simple for a few weeks. Managing the back-to-school transition is an exciting time with all kinds of adjustments. It can also be a time when soccer, cross-country, and other commitments come together, and all of that can be overwhelming depending on how your child manages stress. In our house, we try our best to keep things simple in the fall so we are not overcommitted (notice the word “try”) and to allow the children adequate time in the evening and weekends to do things that help them relax, to connect with each other and us, to get homework done, to eat, and to play.

Finally, we pray for patience and trust that over time, the routines will settle in, the children will adjust, and we will be thinking about our plans for the following summer. Moreover, we remember that this time is temporary and we may as well enjoy this time of grace.

Casey Holtz and his wife, Amanda, have three young children ages 2 to 8.

Working through our kids’ natural gifts

My three teenagers experience a fair amount of worldly success in academics, sports, and music. This is not a bragging moment; it is simply an acknowledgement that God has given my kids a range of abilities, which are gifts they can’t take credit for in the same way they can’t take credit for their natural hair color. (Curious about this? Check out Letter 14 in Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis.)

So, for those who are used to consistent success, what happens when they encounter something they’re not naturally good at?

Well, first, we simply accept those weaknesses. Society, in the name of well-rounded kiddos, places an awful lot of pressure on them to do everything. In reality, it’s refreshing to say, “We’re not even going to worry about that.” Not pressuring them to strive for things that aren’t in their wheelhouse gives them a chance to celebrate others’ success and gifts.

Then, after our kids accept their weaknesses, we encourage them not to completely accept their weaknesses (and not just because we’re trying to mess with them!). The parenting cliché “You don’t have to be the best, but you need to do your best” is a good one to use here.

Kids can’t just blow off math or English because it’s not their gift. Certain skills do need to be learned. Plus, with so many things, kids are accountable to a team or a group, so they need to work on their portion of the robotics project or practice free throws or rehearse their music. People are counting on them to contribute. This is where character is built. As kids struggle, they learn perseverance, determination, empathy, and humility. They learn that there is often a greater sense of satisfaction that comes along with hard work than from accomplishments that came easy.

Mainly, it boils down to giving thanks. We give thanks for the natural gifts God has given our kids. Then we give thanks for the lessons they learn as they work through their struggles.

Linda Buxa and her husband, Greg, have two daughters and a son.

“Organized chaos” at bedtime

“Organized chaos” may be the best way to describe our family’s bedtime routine. With six kids ages 2-11 (two girls and four boys), there’s bound to be noise. But we have a consistent routine that works for us. 

The routine 

When we finish supper around 6:15, the kids are dismissed to do their evening jobs. Depending on their age, they tidy the playroom, wash bathroom counters, load the dishwasher, or start a load of laundry. Meanwhile, I clean up the kitchen while nagging —ahem—encouraging kids to finish their chores. 

Around 6:30, my husband gets our toddler ready for bed and reads him a Bible story from My First Bible* by Kenneth N. Taylor. After good-night songs and a prayer, our toddler goes to bed.  

After the older kids finish their jobs, they change into pajamas, brush their teeth, and gather in the living room for an evening devotion. 

We pile on our two couches, and my husband reads the Bible story. Currently we’re re-reading the excellent book Family Time.* After the reading we discuss the story, sing our good-night hymns, say our good-night prayer, and give hugs and kisses. The kids head upstairs. 

By this time it’s around 7 or 7:15 p.m. Our 4-year-old goes right to bed. The big kids (ages 6 and up) are allowed to read or play quietly in their rooms until 8. After that, it’s lights out.  

I suppose the big kids could stay downstairs and read or play until 8. But to both preserve my sanity and give me quiet time to work on my at-home business, the early bedtime is a good fit for our family. 

Variations 

  • On Saturdays, we go around the room as each family member offers a personal prayer.
  • When we have a nursing baby, I feed him/her while my husband handles the evening routine himself. Unless he’s at a meeting—then it’s pure chaos while I try to juggle it all.
  • At different periods we’ve had two separate Bible story times—one for the big kids and one for the littles. We have found that our 2- and 3-year-olds don’t do as well with the whole family Bible story because they need more focused attention and a story written at their level.
  • When we’re out late at an evening event, we do our Bible story and songs in the car on the way home. Then the kids can go right to bed when we arrive home.
  • Currently, instead of singing our regular good-night hymns, the kids take turns choosing from a songbook that I typed and printed. It includes familiar hymns as well as all the hymns they’ll be expected to memorize at school.

Challenges 

Our routine is great on paper, but real life often intrudes. As the kids get ready for bed, the toddler has a meltdown, siblings squabble in the bathroom, or someone remembers that there’s a paper for me to sign for school the next day. During their quiet time, kids argue about whose turn it is with a book, our kindergartner is upset because his older siblings won’t play a game with him, or the older kids come downstairs to tattle . . . one right after the other. 

Even in the rough moments, I’m learning to remember that it’s a blessing and privilege to serve the little souls right in my house—to forgive them, love them, and exercise patience with them. I thank God for the joy and privilege of raising his lambs! 

Anna Geiger and her husband, Steve, are raising their six kids in Mequon, Wisconsin. Anna is the creator of The Measured Mom, an education website for parents and teachers. She recommends her family’s favorite Bible story books at themeasuredmom.com/favorite-childrens-bible-story-books/

 

*Available at nph.net 

Treasured bedtime prayers and hymns

When our oldest child was a baby, we established a bedtime routine of stories, prayers, and hymns.  

We have a set of four prayers that we speak or sing each night. We speak “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” sing stanzas two and three of “Now the Light Has Gone Away” (Christian Worship [CW] 593), sing a bedtime prayer that has been used by at least two generations in my family, and close with the Lord’s Prayer. This was my childhood bedtime routine, and I’m happy that it is being passed down to my own children. 

After these nightly prayers, everyone gives good-night hugs and kisses to one another, and then my husband or I tuck our two littlest children into their beds and sing them a hymn. Some favorites have been “Jesus, Shepherd of the Sheep” (CW 436), “Children of the Heavenly Father” (CW 449), and “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb” (CW 432).  

Sometimes we sing songs that match the seasons of the church year. Last fall, we often sang all four stanzas of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (CW 200 and 201). The kids quickly memorized the entire hymn, and they joyfully sang along at the Reformation services we attended. At Christmastime, we often sing “Away in a Manger” (CW 68). Our three-year-old daughter loves “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” (CW 61), while our five-year-old son’s favorite is “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” (CW 152). Now they request those hymns all year long! 

As our children have gotten older, we’ve added a new tradition after our nightly bedtime prayers. We help the kids to create their own prayers. We ask them to share things for which they’re thankful and think of people for whom to pray. Then we put their thanks and requests into a prayer. As the children have gotten older, we encourage them to think of and speak their own prayers. Then, my husband and I also add our own prayers.  

Sometimes the kids’ prayers reflect their age. After a Christmas of Frozen-themed gifts, our youngest daughter thanked Jesus for her Frozen castle, water bottle, and suitcase—for three months! But as they’ve grown, we have seen them learn to recognize that people around them need prayers. Our children pray for family members or friends who are hurting and people affected by disasters in the world. They also thank God for blessings big and small. 

Busy family schedules sometimes keep all of us from participating in bedtime routines every night. So, we try to find a little time to connect with them every evening on a meaningful level before they go to bed. It doesn’t always work, but it is our goal. We hope that the habits we’ve established with our bedtime routine will last throughout our children’s lives, and they will create a bedtime routine for their children that helps them to pass on the faith too. 

Emily Gresens Strey and her husband, Johnold, have four children ranging in age from 3 to 13.  

What legacy will you leave your children?

Math word problems were never my “thing.” But math was my dad’s forte. As a paper scientist, he loved its logic and precision. I would struggle for what seemed like hours with “One train starts from Chicago at 10 a.m. . . .”—then go to Dad. He would look at my scratchings, smile, and say, “Okay, let’s start fresh—a clean piece of paper is a clear mind!” Then off we would go as he explained how to solve it in a way my young mind could grasp.  

Dad is gone now. But his lessons live on. What legacy will we leave for our children and grandchildren? Dad supported my dream of teaching, and, after nearly 40 years in a Christian classroom, I’ve gleaned a few “dad” lessons.  

Enjoy the adventure! From the time our little ones arrive to the day they leave home is a precious window. It’s easy to get caught in the everyday grind. Before we know it, they’re gone and we wonder, “What happened?” The diaper days, toddler years, school days, and adolescence—they all pose challenges. Do your best to treasure those times. Make the most of your hours with your sons and daughters. The Lord promises “a time for everything” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). 

Play show and tell”be involved and supportive. Dads need to intentionally “be there” for their children, building relationships and making memories. “Teaching them the way they should go” (cf. Proverbs 22:6) means talking, asking questions, hanging out together. Know your children’s dreams and be their cheerleader. Most important—tell them that you love them. Dads can have a hard time sharing those words their children long to hear. Remember to “show and tell” them they are loved. 

Be yourselfnot your kid! Guard against forcing your own “agenda” of unmet needs on your children.  

Discipline in love. Children make lots of mistakes. They sin often. We sin often. A life of forgiveness is what we need to model. We have been forgiven much. Avoid disciplining in anger and shaming your children. God reminds dads to never “exasperate” their children (Ephesians 6:4). 

Live your faith and be honest. Children are God’s gift to us. Being a Christian dad isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s messy; often we’ll fail. That’s the nature of our Christian walk. Our heavenly Father knows that. His Word is our guide. He offers full and free forgiveness. We need that forgiveness from our children as well. Being authentic and honest in our faith walk will leave a lasting legacy for our families.  

And just for the record—I jotted these thoughts on a clean sheet of paper.  

Dave Payne and his wife, Joyce, have four adult children and two grandchildren. Dave serves at Fox Valley Lutheran High School, Appleton, Wisconsin, and is a member at Eternal Love, Appleton. 

Kids and cell phones: What’s right for you?

Disclosure alert . . . my husband and I are definitely not the poster parents when it comes to cell phones and kids. In fact, I originally declined writing this article because we have made so many mistakes along the way—it’s embarrassing! But if someone had laid it all out when we were having the whole “I need a phone” conversation with our first child, who is now 18, I’m pretty sure we would have done things differently.  

It’s true. The pressure is huge for kids to get a phone. All of their friends have them, and as a parent, you see it as a way to keep them safe. But be cautious—once you enter this realm, there is no going back. Be over-prepared in this journey and plan it out. Here are just a few things we have learned along the way with our kids and their phones. 

 Start with the basics 

Back when we were kids, no one had cell phones. Today, if we forget our phone at home, it’s like we have lost a limb. That feeling of safety and convenience when your child has a phone is undeniable. But do they really need a smartphone? A basic cell phone really can be sufficient, especially when they are in grade school.  

I’ll be honest—we fell into the trap of “everyone has a smartphone at this age,” thinking it must be the right thing to do. I wish we could go back and start our children off with a basic cell phone. Sometimes I think parents are just as worried about fitting in as their kids are. Try not to let the crowd decide what is best for you and your family.  

 Set limits 

Phones truly do become a huge part of our kids’ lives, so you need to know and own this fact: YOU are the one that needs to be the enforcer of limits. Before you purchase a phone, sit down and think through exactly how much phone/screen time your child should have, and then make that happen. Be intentional. Tons of apps are available that limit screen time. OurPact (ourpact.com) is one that a friend recommended to us. It can block Internet and app usage on your child’s phone and set a schedule for activities like school, dinnertime, or bedtime. Also, take the phone out of their room at night—even if they tell you they need it for their morning alarm (yes, we hear that one all the time). 

Personally set limits on your phone/screen time. Consistently take time to do meaningful things with your kids that don’t involve technology. It’s amazing how different we are as a family when phones are put away and we are playing games without that constant distraction. 

 Social media 

Snapchat, group rooms, Instagram . . . these are lifelines for our kids. It’s the way they stay connected with each other, but it can also be a place where they can get seriously torn down. It is crazy what kids will write on social media sites that they would never think about saying in person. Remind your kids that what they write on those sites is there for all to read . . . potentially forever. And if you don’t think they are ready to be on these sites, stand your ground—even when their friends claim they have to be on a particular site for their “group project.” They’ll find a different way to connect. 

Okay, so yes, you probably will end up getting your child a smartphone. It’s the world we live in. But my biggest piece of advice for you is to have a plan, and, of course, pray that God will guide you in this huge growing-up process for your child. This little piece of technology has the potential to change your child’s life in a big way—so make sure you do everything you can to make it positive. 

Ann Zuleger and her husband, Matt, have four children—Zachary, 18; Faith, 16; Isaiah, 13; and Ellis, 10.