Recognizing Almonzo

AlmanzoLrgEvery day, after the lunch dishes are cleared away and the baby and toddler are diapered and put down in their cribs, either my wife or I will sit down on the couch with our two older children for story time.

Our kids love story time. For me and Rebecca, it’s a joy to watch their imaginations expand as we share with them beautiful, powerful, and challenging narratives. We read from classic children’s books, a chapter every day, whether it be The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or Alice in Wonderland or The Secret Garden.

Our kids have especially enjoyed the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Beginning with Little House in the Big Woods and stretching through several more volumes, this series tells the (mostly) true story of Laura’s own childhood in a pioneer family in the 1870s and ’80s. It opens up a fascinating window into life on the frontier as the Ingalls family settles successively in Wisconsin, Kansas, and Minnesota, before finally establishing a permanent home in DeSmet, South Dakota.

But one of the books is different. Farmer Boy follows the daily life of nine-year-old Almanzo Wilder as he goes to school, works on his father’s farm, and dreams of being a farmer himself. Though it also presents daily life in rural nineteenth-century America through the eyes of a child, it appears at first glance to have little connection to the story of Laura Ingalls. Neither she nor any other member of the Ingalls family appears in the book, and the action is set in upstate New York, far from the woods and prairies of the frontier.

Nevertheless, Almanzo’s place in Laura’s story is clear from the beginning. Even without reading the later books, in which the two of them do meet, we know exactly who Almanzo is. We have been reading a story about a little girl named Laura Ingalls written by a woman name Laura Ingalls Wilder. It doesn’t take a deductive genius to see that Almanzo Wilder is clearly destined to be Laura’s husband. Farmer Boy really is part of Laura’s story – even though she hadn’t even been born at the time of the events it relates.

Then there’s this other book series that our kids love. We read from it every evening after supper. It’s a much longer and more complex series, but just like the “Little House” books, it also tells a single, true story. Though it can be a challenge at times to make sense of some of the characters or individual chapters and books, it all starts to fit together once you recognize who wrote the story, and who it’s all about.

I’m talking, of course, about the Bible. Especially when reading the Old Testament, it can be easy to come away scratching our heads and wondering what it’s all about. Why should I care about an ancient genealogy? What is the significance of a violent conflict between people who lived centuries ago and whose names I can’t even pronounce?

While taking the time to read the text carefully and study the historical background can certainly help with some of these things, the most important step we can take in making sense of the Bible is recognizing that the Bible, like the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder, is an autobiographical account. God is both the author and the main character of the entire Bible. And just as Laura’s story builds toward her marriage to the hero of Farmer Boy, the Bible builds to the coming of God’s eternal Son as a man, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David and Seed of Abraham.

When we recognize that the entire Bible is the story of God’s redeeming work through Jesus the Christ, we begin to see how all the characters, events, and themes of the Old Testament fit into that story. In the sacrifices of Leviticus, we see foreshadows of the true and final atonement of the cross of Christ. In the flawed heroes of Judges we see God’s pattern of raising up Spirit-empowered saviors for his people, and we learn to long for one who will not be in such obvious need of saving himself. In the stories of the escape from Egypt and the return from Babylon we find a promise of restored fellowship with God. In Moses and Aaron and David we meet prototypes of Prophet, Priest, and King which will find their perfect embodiment in Jesus.

Just like recognizing Almanzo as Laura’s future husband helps us make sense of Farmer Boy, so recognizing the Old Testament as the back-story to God’s saving work in Jesus helps us hear it as God’s word for us. As you read that word yourself or share it with your own family, may you hear his voice and find yourself caught up into his great and all-encompassing story.

 

Image credit: Almanzo Wilder, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1000355

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Seasonal Family Devotional Bookmark

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A couple of months ago, I posted a series of devotional readings for Advent and Christmastide, which walked through the highlights of the Old Testament and the Christmas narratives from the gospels. Then, just last week I shared a plan for reading through the Gospel of Mark throughout the season of Lent, supplemented by messianic psalms on the Sundays throughout Lent and Eastertide.

And now, here’s a printable bookmark that includes both these sets of readings in a handy format you can stick right in your Bible.  I hope you find it useful!

Also, I should note that I shortened some of the Advent readings, since they were potentially taxing on kids’ attention spans. So, if you found them too long, you might prefer this revised version.

Walking with Jesus: Devotional Readings for Lent and Eastertide

On March 1st, many Christians around the world will begin observing the season of Lent, a period of forty days of preparation (not counting Sundays) leading up to the greatest day of the church year – the feast of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This feast begins yet another forty day season – Eastertide, which commemorates the forty days Jesus spent on earth with his disciples before his ascension into heaven.

stained-glass-1234424As with Advent and Christmastide, our family takes a break from reading through the whole Bible in our daily devotions to follow a special reading plan for Lent and Eastertide. Every Sunday throughout these seasons, we read a psalm that depicts the Messiah’s sufferings (during Lent) and victory (during Eastertide). In addition, on the weekdays of Lent we read through the entire Gospel of Mark.

Of course, unlike Advent and Christmas, many evangelicals are wary of Lent, and with some reason. For much of Christian history, Lent has primarily been a time of mandatory fasting. Because the Bible nowhere commands such a practice, the protestant reformers rightly championed the freedom of Christians to ignore the ecclesiastical laws prohibiting the consumption of meat during Lent. Many of the churches that embraced their recovery of biblical teaching have thus downplayed or outright opposed the celebration of Lent.

I am in full agreement with this response to the imposition of extra-biblical requirements. After all, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration, or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). This means that, while fasting is a good and helpful spiritual discipline, no one can tell anyone else when and how they should fast. Observing a man-made festival does not make one a better Christian or more acceptable to God than someone who does not observe it.

All that to say, I don’t think observing Lent (or Easter, or Christmas, or any other traditional festival) is required of believers. But I do think that it can be a useful tool. In particular, I and my family have found the preparation time of Lent to be helpful in underlining the importance of Easter. This matters, because Easter really gets the short end of the stick. Whether it’s the fact that the date of Easter moves around in a wacky and arcane way (it depends on the calculation of “ecclesiastical new moons“) or because the birth of a baby is easier to incorporate into superficial religiosity than the death and resurrection of the Son of God, Christmas is a much bigger deal in our culture and our churches than Easter, which is much more central to our faith.

In our family, we treat Lent in somewhat the same way as Advent – a time of preparation. As with Advent, we light candles at dinnertime. Only this time, instead of lighting more candles as we draw near to the celebration of Christ’s incarnation, we begin with seven lit candles in the shape of a cross and then extinguish one each Friday, symbolizing Jesus’ willing laying aside of his glory and humbling himself unto death. Then, on Easter Sunday all the candles are lit again and continue to be lit each evening until Ascension. We also spread out the consumption of our Easter Candy throughout Eastertide to savor the joy of the resurrection. And, of course, we read the Gospel of Mark on the forty weekdays of Lent and Psalms on the Sundays.

We’ve been following this reading plan for the last few years, and we’ve really found it a great way to renew our focus on Jesus and to dig deeper as a family into knowing him through his word. Mark is probably the earliest and certainly the shortest and most action-oriented of the four gospels, and our kids really get into hearing the story of Jesus directly from the Bible. The readings from Mark are mostly fairly short (though they get longer during Holy Week), and I’ve endeavored to organize them into groups that reflect the structure and message of Mark. The Psalms are selected especially on the basis of their use in the New Testament as prophesies or foreshadowings of the Messiah. We would love to have you join us in this devotional journey, either as an individual or as a family. If you’d like to give it a try you can download it here.

It is my prayer that God would use his word to draw my family and yours into a deeper sense of gratitude for the person and work of Jesus and a greater joy in the salvation we have through his death and resurrection.

Image credit: matt coley, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/stained-glass-1234424

From Longing to Rejoicing: Devotional Readings for Advent & Christmastide

Updated 2/28/2017: After some beta testing, I’ve slightly revised this devotional plan to make some of the readings shorter and more suitable for reading in a single sitting.

Twelve days from now, Christians around the world will begin taking the the four weeks leading up to Christmas to observe the season of Advent. The name “advent” comes from the Latin word for “coming” (adventus). Advent is thus traditionally a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, both as a re-enactment of the expectation of believers in the Old Testament and as an expression of our continued longing for Christ’s second and final coming.

I really love both the anticipation of Advent and the celebration of Christmastide. This year, I’ve designed a new Bible reading plan to guide our family’s observance of this special time of the year. We’ll walk through the grand gospel story of how God prepared the way for the coming of his Son, from the promises to the patriarchs to the deliverance of Israel to the visions of the prophets, culminating in the good news of the birth of Jesus Christ. Along the way we’ll be infusing the New Testament descriptions of Christ as Lion and Lamb, Prophet and Priest, Son of David and Seed of Abraham, with the richness of their original Old Testament significance.

If you’re familiar with the Jesse Tree, this is basically the same idea. The key difference is that I’ve planned these readings to reflect the historic distinction between Advent and Christmastide. As I’ve already mentioned, Advent is traditionally a advent-1430862time of preparation, while Christmas is a time of celebration. But this doesn’t mean that we need to cram the whole party into December 25. Christmas Day is actually just the beginning of the season of Christmastide, which runs for a full twelve days (yes, that’s where the song comes from) leading up to the feast of Epiphany on January 6, which is usually associated with the visit of the Wise Men. (In some cultures, Epiphany is known as “Three Kings’ Day.”)

Advent is about longing; Christmastide is about fulfillment. During Advent, our family chants, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” every evening when we light our advent wreath. In Christmastide, we give each other gifts and sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!”

I find this distinction really helpful for keeping my focus on Christ during the holiday season. While all the world around is caught up in a frenzy of sentimentality leading up to a big crash on December 26,  we get to experience the rising anticipation of Advent culminating in a full twelve days of feasting to savor and celebrate the good news that the Promised One has finally come to save us and reconcile us to God.

In this new Bible reading plan, the weekdays of Advent are spent tracing the high points of the Old Testament story, while the Sundays highlight visions of the final coming of Christ. Then we spend Christmastide soaking in the first few chapters of Matthew, Luke, and John. Because Advent begins on the fourth Sunday preceding Christmas, it varies in length from 22 to 28 days, so I’ve designed this plan to be able to expand and contract by including several optional readings. As it happens, this year we get the longest possible Advent, so we’ll get to do all 28 readings!

In my last post, I noted the importance of gaining an understanding of the main storyline of the Bible. This reading plan can be one way of building and reinforcing that foundational perspective on the overarching message of Scripture. That’s a big part of why I’m looking forward to leading my family through these readings year after year. Because the Bible is God’s word, I take seriously my calling to feed my kids on it directly every day. We read a chapter of the Bible together every evening after dinner; if we keep it up, each of our kids will have been through the whole Bible three or four times before they leave the house. But, while I love getting my kids into direct contact with all of Scripture, I don’t want them to lose the forest for the trees. Taking a break every year to review the big picture should help us all keep our bearings as we dig into God’s word together.

If you’d like to join us on this journey, you are more than welcome. You can use this plan for either family or personal devotions, and you can even use it at other times of the year if you’re so inclined. If you’re interested in checking it out and giving it a try (or using it as a springboard for creating your own plan), you can download it here.

I hope and pray that reading these passages builds your anticipation of Christ’s coming and joy in the good news that the Lord has come. Let every heart prepare him room!

Image credit: Veronica Moore, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/advent-1430862

Making Sense of the Bible (including the weird parts)

You need the Bible. If you’re a parent, your children need the Bible too. I’ve written before about the importance of personal and family devotions.

But let’s be honest: the Bible can sometimes be hard to understand. I mean, if you stick to easier parts (most of the New Testament), it’s not so bad. But try making sense of the dietary laws, genealogies, obscure prophecies, and ancient battle records that make up a significant chunk of the Old Testament.

bible-1417720Many Christians, of course, simply avoid those parts of the Bible. They have their favorite books (or maybe just their favorite verses) that they return to again and again. But in this way, they effectively deny that the hard parts are really God’s word. Others, convinced that they really ought to read every part of the Bible, dutifully grit their teeth and force their way through the Leviticus part of their read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan, thankful that they can mostly just pay attention to the New Testament and Psalms as they do so.

This isn’t how it is supposed to be. After all, Paul was talking about the Old Testament when he said that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, correcting, reproving, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). All Scripture – not just the parts modern, western Christians find interesting – is not only inspired, but directly beneficial for our daily living. Even Leviticus.

The key to profiting from the reading of each part of Scripture is learning to see how it all connects to the whole. As we see the big picture – the central point and main themes – we can begin to work out how particular details that seem strange and irrelevant connect to the gospel, and thus to our own lives.

Because, as it turns out, the gospel of Jesus is the unifying center of the Bible. He is the goal of every passage from Genesis to Revelation. In fact, he says so himself: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). “And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27).

Too, often, we approach the Bible as if it were centered on us. This not surprisingly makes much of the Old Testament seem irrelevant and out of place. But when we approach Scripture as the story of Jesus, we begin to see how things fit together. We see how the events and people of the Old Testament are part of the process of how God brought us salvation through Christ. We see how particular elements of the biblical story foreshadow and reflect the great story at their center. We see why the authors of the New Testament keep bringing in the imagery and categories of the Old Testament to explain the Christ who has finally come.

This switch doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, reading the whole Bible as one great story centered on Jesus is a skill that cannot be mastered in a lifetime. But there are some good tools to help you get started on your way. For adults, God’s Big Picture by Vaughn Roberts is an excellent and approachable road map that charts the major thoroughfares of the Bible’s message. For children and their parents, David Helm’s Big Picture Story Bible is the best guide I know.

But, of course, these are supplementary tools. There is no substitute for sitting down day after day with God’s great story about Jesus.

Image Credit: zizzy0104, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/bible-1417720

Nurturing the Spiritual Life of My Kids

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These days, my four-year-old son is learning a whole host of new skills, like writing the alphabet, singing in tune, riding a bike, and drawing ladybugs. He’s making up jokes and figuring out how to cut a sandwich (see picture) and covering his mouth when he coughs. He’s developing the desire and ability to be genuinely helpful with everyday tasks like getting dressed,  setting the table, and getting the stroller out of the garage. Seeing him growing and maturing – and helping that process along – is one of the most satisfying things I have ever experienced.

There are lots of things I want my kids to learn as they grow up. But what’s most important? What is the biggest lesson I want my kids to learn during these few years I have them in my home before they get launched out into the world?

As a Christian, I know the answer: the most important thing I can teach my children is to know, love, and trust in Jesus Christ. This means more than getting them to pray a one-off prayer asking Jesus into their heart; it means training them for a life of trusting and following him no matter what. It means nurturing a faith that will stand the test of time.

Nurturing my children’s faith can come in many forms. It happens when I rebuke them for self-serving and rebellious behavior, or when I ask them to forgive me for my own sinful actions and desires. It happens in everyday conversations about our gracious Creator when we’re looking up at the stars or talking about where cheese comes from. It happens when I sing over them while they’re falling asleep at the end of the day. It weaves its way into all of life; we talk about God and his goodness when we sit down and as we walk along the road and when we wake up and when we go to sleep (Deuteronomy 6:7).

A crucial part of my job of nurturing my children’s faith is the discipline of family devotions. While there are opportunities to disciple our children all throughout every part of our daily life, setting aside (i.e. “devoting”) a regular time to focus on God and his word is absolutely indispensable. It anchors and enables all our other efforts and spiritual nurturing. Stopping everything else to listen to God’s word consciously and explicitly demonstrates that God’s purposes are more important than ours. It reminds us all that faith in Christ is not some optional extra that we can just plug into our own agendas.

Just as my own spiritual growth and health depend on getting a personal daily devotional time, so my children need me to nurture their spiritual life by leading them in family devotions.

So, how do we do it?

In our home, we do devotions in a couple of different ways. Most mornings, Rebecca reads to the kids from a Bible storybook. (Our favorites so far are The Big Picture Story Bible and The Jesus Storybook Bible.) Every evening after dinner we pray for one of the missionaries pictured on our fridge and then read a chapter of the Bible while we eat our dessert (because God’s word is sweet!). Then we talk about what the Bible said, pray, and get ready for bed.

There are, of course, lots of pre-packaged devotional resources out there. Some of them can be helpful, and like I said, we do read Bible stories out of picture books in the mornings. But we really want our kids’ main devotional diet to be the Bible itself. They don’t understand everything, of course, but that’s OK. They’re picking up things as they go, and we help them by re-telling the story and explaining the message. (A bonus of this is that it forces us to really think about and understand the Bible ourselves. Knowing you need to answer someone else’s questions is a great motivator!) And there will be opportunities for review; we’ll cover all this material a couple more times for each of our kids before they turn 18.

Advent is actually the one time of the year when we don’t just read straight from the Bible. Instead, we go through The Advent Book, which contains a slightly-reworded version of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth hidden behind 24 exquisitely-designed paper doors. This year, we’ll also be reading some passages about Jesus’ first and second comings on the four Sundays of Advent. On November 29, we’ll read Isaiah 40:1-11; on December 6, we’ll read Isaiah 9:1-7; on December 13, we’ll read Isaiah 11:1-9; and on December 20, we’ll read Revelation 21-22.

If you want to develop a practice of nurturing your kids with regular family devotions, Advent is a great time to start! You can follow the same plan we do, find another one you like better, or make up your own. Whatever you do, get your kids (and yourself) into God’s word; then watch them grow in loving and following Jesus.

I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth (3 John 4).