Snowed in until about 10:30 a.m. this morning by low priority, unplowed subdivision roads, we skipped church.Sunday School classes were cancelled, but I think that they went ahead and held church for anyone who could make it. A lot of people live in the surrounding neighborhoods, so they might have had a good turnout from them and the bolder folks who crave a little adventure.We, wimpier in winter than most Hoosiers, live about 20 minutes away on a dry-pavement, low-traffic day. The cars wore a layer of ice over everything from the windshield wipers to the door handles. It would have taken us a while just to get inside. A while longer to shovel the driveway. Then there were the drifted streets.I, wimpiest of all, proposed that we stay home and make Jesse Tree ornaments.Everybody cheered and stayed in their jammies. We ate oatmeal and English muffins. I made hot tea; The Belgian Wonder brewed some coffee. The kids poured juice.I printed off some devotional thoughts with Scripture passages along with some line drawings that the kids could color.It was all very relaxed and spontaneous.The trouble with spontaneity is that things don’t always go smoothly. While the Jesse Tree idea had potential, I think that by throwing it together, I held it back a little.First, as I said, I printed off this simple devotional, which goes with these preprinted ornaments. I should have just used that combination and kept things simple.But the kids wanted to cut and color, so instead of the preprinted ornaments, I substituted these extremely simple line drawing ornaments. The drawings and the readings didn’t match. That was a bit confusing for the kids.We read some of the passages and talked about the original story. Then I improvised some questions that led to a discussion about how each story pointed to Jesus (these were not always in the devotional itself). The ram represents the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, but there’s no mention of Jesus’ sacrifice. Similarly, they included the Passover Lamb story, but didn’t point out that Christ is our Passover Lamb. They may do this on purpose, expecting the parents to do a little more work.I was impressed with the children’s ability to tap into their years of AWANA Bible memorization and Bible stories read at home and retold with felt figures in Sunday School. They made all kinds of connections between the Old Testament stories and Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law and Prophets.I kept thinking about the two on the road to Emmaus. The risen but not yet ascended Jesus started walking alongside them, but they were kept from recognizing Him. They told Jesus all that had just transpired in Jerusalem. He responded, saying, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.Wouldn’t that have been wonderful, to hear the Lord Himself explain how all of the prophecies and stories pointed to Him? No wonder their hearts were burning within them! This Jesse Tree discussion made me think of that story in Luke, as we tried to look back to Moses and the Prophets, hunting for the clues that were there all along; signs that this Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God and Son of Man, the Savior of the World.And it was all happening at the Kroeker’s kitchen table.We called out stories and Scripture passages that we thought might relate, each child taking turns retelling the stories. Then we would corporately ponder how accurate or probable the connections were. It was a wider perspective than we usually take during Advent. I enjoyed the exercise very much, as the stories were unified by Jesus Himself. Then came our minor problem–the kids colored in confusion, wondering where the missing ornaments were, and what were the extras? They would hold them up and ask, “Is this one with the wheat supposed to be about Joseph saving the people from famine? Or is this coat supposed to be his?” We sorted them out and made sense out of it as they colored and cut, punched holes and placed them on the little tree I’d set up in the corner of the dining room.Overall, the experiment in Jesse Tree devotions went well, but I recommend not trying to invent something on the fly. Instead of attempting to mix and match, stick with a package concept–one (showing the line drawing versions with their respective devotional), or the other (the preprinted ornaments with their devotions), or something else entirely.That last one, by the way, has a devotional page written at a higher level for the parents to ponder. I haven’t studied it, but at first glance it looks informative.Tonight after dinner, we’ll light the next Advent candle. As I mentioned last week, the candle could represent:Joy, Shepherds, or John the Baptist.Since the angel of the Lord that appeared to the Shepherds said, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (emphasis added), I think with one story we can cover two out of the three symbolic possibilities.Rejoice!
A few years ago we bought a preformed Advent wreath at Michael’s. I wrapped some ribbons and beads around it, stuck some plastic red berries into the greenery here and there, and deemed it ready for service. It was hardly an example of artistic brilliance, but it would serve us fine. It was festive. It would hold the candles.
We’d never celebrated Advent as a family, so this was an experiment. The church we attended at the time didn’t observe a liturgical calendar, so we didn’t even have a traditional corporate Advent experience. We were on our own to figure out the meaning of the candles and unearth some appropriate Scripture verses and devotionals.
From time to time, I dream up ideas like this as a potential family tradition, but I never know if it will “take.” You know what I mean? Sometimes I suggest some clever outing or activity, trying to force it to happen…then it turns out not to be right for our family. Or maybe the idea was fun, but nobody asks about it again. Then it just fades away–it might serve as a pleasant memory, but not a lasting tradition.
Then there are those times when it works. It “takes.” It becomes something to ask for, something to look forward to, something to count on, something that brings back memories and builds on them.
When that happens, it becomes a tradition.
The Advent wreath turned out to be one of those things that worked. It “took,” and now it’s a tradition.
When we bring out that ribbon-adorned wreath and set it up in the center of the table, its appearance and presence for the next few weeks says, “Christmas is coming–time to reflect.”
I look forward to the hush that comes over the family when we turn off the lights and gather around the table. The kids who can read eagerly anticipate looking up verses to share. We take turns reading passages, listening for the key words. Sometimes we try some creative activity. Sometimes we try to sing a carol. Sometimes we have a good conversation about it, and sometimes we meander and get off on tangents. But three things are consistent: we light the candles, try to bring it back to the Bible verses, and end in prayer.
I love how it ushers in a quiet moment at the end of the day, so still, so reflective–a countermeasure to the hectic pace of the surrounding culture; an antidote for the poison of consumerism that dominates the Christmas season. As the years have progressed, I think it’s proven to slow us down for a few moments in order to focus on Jesus Christ and the Incarnation in particular.
The candles each represent something. I’ve seen several suggestions for what they can stand for:
Week 1: Hope, or Prophecy/Prophets, or the Patriarchs
Week 2: Peace, or Bethlehem, or the Prophets can be this week instead of the first, or the Holy Family
Week 3: Joy, or Shepherds, or John the Baptist
Week 4: Love, or Angels, or the Magi, or Mary
So …pick your favorite combination, I guess, unless your church traditions insist on a particular series.
This week’s candle could represent peace, Bethlehem, the Holy Family, or the Prophets. The Boy insisted that it was the Holy Family candle. His Sunday School teacher said so. I was hoping to focus on Bethlehem and Peace.
So I asked him, “Who is the Holy Family?”
“Joseph, Mary….and….the donkey?” he replied.
We talked it over and determined that while the donkey was very useful, he probably wasn’t considered family. We came up with a more appropriate family member to take its place.
I pointed out that Mary and Joseph were just a couple until they got to…brilliant segue here…Bethlehem. Then that’s where Jesus was born, so that’s when they became a Holy Family. In Bethlehem. I was hoping to talk about Bethlehem and peace. All the verses I’d looked up were about peace. And there are a lot of verses about peace. We couldn’t get to them all. Here are some that we read:
- Isaiah 9:6-7 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.
- Micah 5:5-6 He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace.
- Luke 2:14 (heavenly host appearing before the Shepherds praising God) “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
- John 14:27 (Jesus speaking) “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
- Romans 5:1-2 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.
- Colossians 1:19-20 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
- Colossians 3:15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
As we read them, we listened for the key word: Peace. Every time the kids heard it, they were to hold up their pointer finger like a candle.
There are so many important verses about peace. We missed some good ones. I think we should revisit the best ones and look up the ones we missed.
We remembered that this morning at church we sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” I love that song. We tried to sing a verse or two tonight as a family, but we’re not very strong singers. It’s too bad we couldn’t enjoy the carol, because the lyrics are so great. They tie all those possible candle concepts together:
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!
How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.
Where children pure and happy pray to the blessèd Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
You’ve got the Holy Family, peace, and Bethlehem, all wrapped up on into one carol.
I grabbed the lyrics from the Cyber Hymnal, where they included a short detail about Phillips Brooks’ inspiration as he penned the lyrics:
Brooks wrote about his horseback journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he assisted with the midnight service on Christmas Eve, 1865:
I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth.
“Again and again,” he wrote, “it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the Wonderful Night of the Savior’s birth.”
Again and again, year after year, Advent after Advent, generation after generation, we tell the story of our dear Savior’s birth.
Each year when we light those candles, we start the story again. Whatever passages we read or songs we sing, whatever we emphasize week after week during Advent, we’re basically telling the story to each other, passing it along–the truth of Christ incarnate, fully God and fully man. We keep passing it down along the long line of believers. For now, it’s our responsibility.
This morning during the offering, a musician in our church sang with his wife a song that he wrote. The message of the song was just that–the passing along of the story down through the generations, the story of Jesus Christ, of salvation, of the virgin birth, the cross, the resurrection, the Holy Spirit. Makes me think of two other hymns. They aren’t Christmas carols, but they are a good reminder of what this whole season is about: telling the story.
I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true;
It satisfies my longings as nothing else can do.
I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story; more wonderful it seems
Than all the golden fancies of all our golden dreams.
I love to tell the story, it did so much for me;
And that is just the reason I tell it now to thee.
I love to tell the story; ’tis pleasant to repeat
What seems, each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story, for some have never heard
The message of salvation from God’s own holy Word.
I love to tell the story, for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song,
’Twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.
Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,
For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.
Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and His love.
Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,
That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.
Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning has passed away at noon.
Tell me the story softly, with earnest tones and grave;
Remember I’m the sinner whom Jesus came to save.
Tell me the story always, if you would really be,
In any time of trouble, a comforter to me.
Tell me the same old story when you have cause to fear
That this world’s empty glory is costing me too dear.
Yes, and when that world’s glory is dawning on my soul,
Tell me the old, old story: “Christ Jesus makes thee whole.”
This Christ Jesus, born in Bethlehem, makes us whole.
May you enjoy the story this week, the truth, the Christ.
May you experience His peace.
The Tree: The tree is up, its lights are lit, and numerous homemade ornaments glued together from popsicle sticks, plastic spoons, doilies, glitter, and sequins have been hung with pride and sweet remembrances.The Advent Wreath: The Advent wreath is centered on the dining room table atop a festive green tablecloth. We use the thick, white unity candle from our wedding day as the center “Christ” candle. We’ll start a day late, however, since I couldn’t find the right taper candles, nor could The Belgian Wonder when I sent him off on some errands. So much for staying on schedule.Christmas Dinnerware: Then we swapped out our everyday plates for the gold-rimmed Christmas plates with holly berries around the edges. I thought those might be nice for special occasions. Then I realized we don’t host very many special occasions during the Christmas season, so I decided not to let them sit around gathering dust. Now we use them every day during Advent.Countdown Nativity Figurines: The “Journey to Bethlehem” is set up on a small table in the kitchen. Here are some photos of our incredibly humble tradition. It’s merely meant to serve as a visual countdown to Christmas, but you wouldn’t believe the value placed upon moving Mary and Joseph forward one stone–the honor, the thrill! I’ve had to mediate disputes over whose turn it was to move them. I never had great aspirations for expanding on this little scene until I saw this amazing display. I’d love to create something like that, but I think we’ll stick with our pathetic little version. The kids still love it.The Manger: The kids also resurrected, so to speak, another tradition that I thought they’d forgotten. We’d been given a magazine rack that was shaped like a manger. I decided to inspire some love and goodwill among siblings one year by placing a long piece of yarn in the manger each time someone did something sacrificial, thoughtful, or kind for someone else. If the manger’s bed had enough yarn and was soft enough to hold baby Jesus, maybe something would show up in it on Christmas morning. Sure enough, plenty of kindness led to plenty of yarn, so the first year some sweet little baby dolls were there on Christmas morning, one for each child. Another year, small personal-sized Nativity scenes were nestled in the yarn-bed. Another year, a picture book with a Christmas theme rested there, waiting to be read by Advent-candlelight.Then we skipped a year, maybe two. Last night, before youth group, one of the girls came up with the magazine rack, and another girl busily snipped long pieces of yarn and placed them in a basket. What’s more, they were even kinder than normal at breakfast, serving each other cereal, milk, and oatmeal with exaggerated pleases and thank-yous.From where I’m sitting, I can see about five strings at the bottom of the manger. What will appear this Christmas morning?Outdoor Decor: I’ve got to step out in the freezing temperatures and tie red bows on the porch lights and mailbox today.It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.And it’s the reason I haven’t blogged for two days.