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.

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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

A City that Has Foundations

A few weeks ago, our family was rocked by the news that we had sixty days to find a new place to live.

Our home is special to us. It’s kind of like the Old Granville House in It’s a Wonderful Life; it’s not necessarily in the best of shape – the windows are drafty, the floors are scuffed, and the whole living room shakes if you stomp on the floor – but it is full of charm and many, It's_a_Wonderful_Life_old_homemany precious memories. We’ve lived there ever since we got married, and our kids have never known any other home. It’s a part of us, and now we’re about to leave it forever.

We will miss this place deeply. But the shock of our new situation doesn’t arise primarily from that fact. By many measures, our family outgrew our current space a long time ago, and it’s not getting any smaller! So, even before we were given notice, we’d been talking about when and where and how we should move. No, the thing that makes this deadline so daunting is not knowing where home will be just a few weeks into the future. And, since we live in a pricey area, finding a place that actually fits our little family means we don’t even know what state we will live in.

It’s scary to know you have to take a step without being able to see your next foothold.

In the midst of all this, my daily Bible reading has taken me through the book of Genesis. People often think of Genesis as telling the story of the creation and the flood, which it does. But most of the book is taken up with the story of a single family which is chosen by God as his means for blessing all the families of the earth. At the center of it all is one man named Abraham, who was called by God to pack up his family and leave his home behind without knowing where he was going.

That sounds familiar. It’s relatable. In fact, it could be easy to make it a story all about me and make an easy bid for comfort: God met Abraham’s material needs, so I can trust him to meet mine as well. And that is true on one level. But if I stop there, I’m completely missing the point of the story.

You see, Abraham doesn’t get to settle down in a newly renovated prairie-style 4BR, 3BA single-family dwelling within easy walking distance of shopping, entertainment, and grazing lands in the highly coveted Hebron school district. He lives in a tent. Unlike his nephew, Lot, who moved into a house in prosperous Sodom, Abraham never settles down in one place. And lest we think that he just loved his free-wheeling nomadic lifestyle, we should note that at the end of his life – when he’s negotiating the purchase of a gravesite for his wife, because he doesn’t own an inch of land himself – he describes himself as “a stranger and an exile” on the earth (Genesis 23:4; Hebrews 11:13).

The book of Hebrew points us to the deeper meaning of Abraham’s call to leave his home. The fact that Abraham died without receiving the land God promised him means that God had a different and greater kind of land in mind. God did not fail to keep faith with Abraham; the fact that the Lord continues to reveal himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” means that their story did not end with their burial in the cave of Machpelah that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite (Exodus 3:6; Hebrews 11:16). As Jesus himself makes clear, this is not merely the dream of some ethereal, disembodied afterlife; it is the promise of a glorious resurrection (Matthew 22:32).

God promised Abraham a real, concrete land, and he meant it. But the land of his sojourning, the land that would be occupied by his descendants centuries later, was only a foretaste and a shadow of the real thing. However incompletely they may have understood it at the time, the patriarchs we meet in Genesis lived their unsettled, rootless lives in the hope of a home that this broken and unstable world could never provide. Or, as Hebrews puts it, “By faith Abraham lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:9-10).

In retelling the story of Abraham, Hebrews is presenting him as an example for us to follow. We, too, are sojourners and exiles. This world cannot be our home, because its foundations are made of shifting sand. It’s a place to pitch a tent, not a place to build. Sometimes it can be a beautiful campground, for with all its brokenness, it is full of the glory of God. But it is not and will never be home.

Living in a tent means living by faith. It’s not easy. I so want to be able to settle down here and now, to find a foundation I can build on by my own effort and will. But God calls me to put my hope not in building my own city here and now, but in the city that he has prepared for those who trust in Christ. This, after all, is the pattern of the gospel. Jesus himself was homeless, rootless, and excluded, from his birth in a stable to his death outside the gates (Luke 2:7; Hebrews 13:12-13). And the amazing thing is that he freely chose this life of exile. He chose to be humbled, to be poor, to have no place to lay his head, to endure the cross, despising its shame in the confidence of the joy set before him (Philippians 2:5-11; 2 Corinthians 8:9; Matthew 8:20; Hebrews 12:2). And all for us. He became homeless to secure us a home.

I don’t know why God wants my family in our present situation. It’s unnerving to look into the future and not see our next foothold. But maybe part of the reason we can’t see that next step is so that we will learn to look past the immediate future to the end of the journey. This world can never fully satisfy our longing for a home, a haven, a place to lay our heads. But that desire was made to be satisfied, and one day, it will be. “We have here no lasting city, but we are seeking the one that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).

Image Credit: National Telefilm Associates – Screenshot of the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17630836