The Jesse Tree and Other Advent Resources

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Many families mark the days of advent with a traditional advent calendar, opening a tiny door for each day leading up to Christmas. Our family advent tradition, the Jesse Tree, focuses on tracing the storyline of God’s family from Creation to Cross.

We all have a family tree–branches filled with mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. The Jesse Tree is a way we remember God’s family line and our own place in it. As Christian parents, we remember our adoption into God’s family by his grace. As we teach our children, we pray that God will include them in this family by giving them living faith.

What is a Jesse Tree?

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In our home, it is a tiny one and a half foot discount store Christmas tree. On it, we hang a laminated paper ornament for each day of Advent. Each ornament on the tree represents the story of a person in Jesus’ family tree. In Isaiah 11:1 we read, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Jesse was the father of David, Israel’s greatest king. And it was from David’s lineage that Jesus came. That’s where the idea of using a Jesse Tree to celebrate Advent came from. Before a symbol is hung on the tree, a Bible passage or a story from a story Bible is read. This is the story of God’s family, the story of the Christian family. As we read his Word, we remember that Jesus came for his family. Jesus comes to us, and he will come again. Come Lord Jesus. I've worked on a Jesse Tree project guide with the Arts ministry at our church, Sojourn Community Church--Midtown in Louisville, KY. It includes sample symbols by artist Tim Mobley, beautiful cover art by Elise Welsh,  instructions for how to make Jesse Tree ornaments, and family devotions based on the Jesse Tree.

Other Advent Resources

Over the years, we've used several different devotionals with our Jesse Tree. We've found the following resources to be particularly helpful:

  • Sam Luce has posted about how there are 24 Old Testament stories in the Jesus Storybook Bible that lead up to the birth of Christ. One year, we chose to read one of these each night as we put up our Jesse Tree ornaments.

  • Another helpful resource is Ann Voskamp’s book, Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, which was designed for use with a Jesse Tree.

  • My friend Scott James has written a children's book entitled, The Littlest Watchman, which tells the story of a boy named Benjamin who watches for the fulfillment of the "root from Jesse" prophecy. The Good Book Company has created an accompanying Advent calendar and devotional that includes instructions for making your own Jesse Tree.

  • We have also used Marty Machowski's devotional Prepare Him Room, which unpacks one Old Testament prophecy about Christ's coming during each week of Advent. The devotional has an accompanying 4-week children's ministry curriculum that our church has used during Advent season with our church as well.

  • Finally, you might consider these Bible memory ornaments from She Reads Truth, which provide Scripture memory passages for each day of Advent.

Have you ever used a Jesse Tree in your home? If so, what tips have you found to be helpful?

5 tips for establishing a devotional routine with your toddler

When our daughters were toddlers, we had a regular bedtime routine. It usually involved reading a story, saying prayers, giving hugs and kisses, and listening to some music before bed. Their stuffed toys got involved, too. Mr. Lamb would read along, and Smiley the Dog would share in hugs and kisses. Once the nightly rhythm was established, every part mattered. Knowing exactly what to expect helped our kids feel safe, confident, and secure.

And when one part was missing—well, I remember one vacation to a theme park. We’d been out late watching fireworks, so we skipped some of the normal bedtime steps. On top of that, we discovered Smiley had been left on a tour bus earlier in the day. Needless to say, sleep was fleeting that night! I learned just how much my kids count on a regular rhythm to thrive.

Christians know that rhythm should include religious instruction, but toddlers are always on the move—no wonder most parents struggle to corral them for any sort of formal family devotional time. Adding to that difficulty is the fact that young parents are often on the move, too. They’re busy establishing a career while raising toddlers and preschoolers at the same time. It’s hard to be present with your children when you’re on call or working overtime or third shift.

I believe God is aware of our seasons of life, and I’m thankful he doesn’t give us a family devotions model that’s overly formal. Moses told Israel to teach their kids during the regular rhythms of life—mealtime, bedtime, drive time, and so on (Deut. 6:7).

With that guilt-free vision in mind, here are five quick tips for establishing a regular devotional routine with your toddler.

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1. Find a Time That Works

In our family, we were able to establish the most regular routine at bedtime. If you work third shift, that’s not going to be feasible. Choose a regular time around the table—maybe at breakfast—instead. You’ll be surprised just how much your kids hold you accountable once a family worship pattern is established. It’ll be something they count on and look forward to. Start with one small thing, like reading a short story or saying a prayer. Be consistent. It’s better to gather the family once per week than to exasperate your kids with failed attempts to meet every day.

You’ll be surprised how much your kids hold you accountable once a family worship pattern is established.

I recently spoke to a dad who for several years worked what he described as the “grave shift.” During that season, a nightly devotional was impossible, so he leaned heavily on teaching his kids in small doses throughout the day. My friend’s wife would read to their kids at night before bed, then he’d take a five- or ten-minute break from work to call and pray with them.

I’ve found his regular intentionality to be incredibly encouraging. While not having a set devotional time may seem less than ideal, a regular, “slow drip” approach to family discipleship is actually quite effective. In this way, we can teach our toddlers that relating to God isn’t just something we check off our list at the end of the day; it’s the way we live.

2. Read Something Simple

Two- and three-year-olds have an attention span of two to three minutes. Their vocabulary is limited to 200 to 1,500 words. Like a careful parent cutting up their child’s food into digestible chunks, it’s important to keep your routine short and understandable. Our youngest kids need to learn the vocabulary of faith—basic Bible words like sinpromiseprayer, and the name of Jesus—before moving to more abstract concepts like forgiveness.

If you’re just beginning a family devotional time with your toddler, find a resource that keeps these developmental considerations in mind. You might try Ella Lindvall’s Read-Aloud Bible Stories, David Helm’s Big Picture Story Bible, or my Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible.

3. Talk to God

Bow your head. Close your eyes. Tell your kids to fold their hands. (So they don’t hit each other during the prayer! That trick has worked for centuries.) Then, talk to God. Make it something quick and memorable; remember their short attention span. In our family, we adapted this short prayer:

Thank you God for [child’s name]. Help her to grow up to love Jesus and trust in Jesus. Please help her to have godly friends and a godly husband when she gets big. Please protect her from harm and danger this night. And from Satan and his schemes. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

4. Use Music for Memory

Our kids wanted to listen to music as they fell asleep at night. A friend recommended an album of lullabies that put the questions and answers from the Children’s Catechism to music. (If I had toddlers today, I’d use the The New City Catechism albums and the music of Rain for Roots.)

Our kids memorized great truth simply because they sang it nightly. Other great music albums like the ones from Seeds Family Worship and PROOF Pirates have more of a beat and are less helpful at bedtime. But we made sure this music was in our car so we could sing along (sometimes loud and silly!) while we drove around time.

5. Give Your Kids Your Full Attention

Your devotional routine isn’t just a time for you to impart information to your kids; it’s time for them to spend time with you. So put your phone away. Look your kids in the eye, and let them know you’re listening to them. Show them affection, and not just when it’s time for bedtime hugs and kisses. Cuddle. Have a short wrestling match.

It’s through the attentive presence of loving parents that kids learn about our loving Father.

This post first appeared at The Gospel Coalition. 

Teaching Kids to Praise

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If you are a parent, then God has commanded you to teach your children about Him.  And He has commanded you to teach your children to worship him expressively. In Psalm 78:4, the songwriter, Asaph, declares: “We will… tell the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.” Asaph is an example of both a father who led his children in worship and a leader who led the community in worship. Asaph wrote worship songs that gave praise to the Lord and reminded the people about all that he did. 

David gives us similar instructions in Psalm 145. He writes 

"One generation commends your works to another;
    they tell of your mighty acts.
They speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty—
    and I will meditate on your wonderful works.
They tell of the power of your awesome works—
    and I will proclaim your great deeds.
They celebrate your abundant goodness
    and joyfully sing of your righteousness." Psalm 145:4-7

This is God’s command for us. One generation declares the works of the Lord to another generation. What do we declare? Look at the passages. We declare God’s mighty acts, his splendor, his majesty, his power, his glorious deeds and wonderful works, his abundant goodness and his righteousness.

How do you do that mom and dad? Even if you are not musical like David or Asaph, you can lead your children to worship God. Here are just a few encouragements: 

  1. Slow down and say thanks to God for what he’s given you. David says, “I will meditate on your wonderful works.” One of God’s wonderful works is your children. Your son or daughter is fearfully and wonderfully made. So, the next time they make you laugh or say something cute and you’re tempted to pull out your phone and share that moment with the world… Instead, just take it in. Enjoy it. And remember the Creator who gave you this gift. Stop and say thanks.
     
  2. Put off complaining and put on a life of praise. Kids will wear you out! When they’re babies, it’s those midnight feedings and constant diaper changes. As they grow, you’re running here and there to practice or clubs. Helping a child grow up is hard. And you know what we do? We get with our friends or online and complain about it. We’re complaining when—according to these passages—we should be telling, proclaiming, celebrating, and joyfully singing about God’s goodness and love. So, when you’re tempted to complain, stop and remember that God loves you. Then, celebrate him. Check out the new kids album from Sojourn Music, Clap Your Hands, Stomp Your Feet. Put that music on and sing about God as you drive in the car with your kids. Read a Bible storybook before bedtime, and pray a little prayer of thanks as you tuck your baby in at night. Most of all, enjoy yourself as you're celebrating God! Expressive joy in Christ makes his message believable for our children. You are the curriculum that your child will learn most fully. So, be expressive. It is a good thing to praise the Lord (Ps.92:1).
     
  3. Encourage your kids to be responsive and expressive! You shouldn’t demand outward expression from your kids, but you can encourage it. The Scriptures call everyone to clap their hands to the Lord. It's a universal appeal (Ps. 47:1). So, we should be clear with our children that God is calling them to respond to him as well. Invite your kids to respond to God with their bodies, and explain why we worship the way we do (Ex. 13:8). You have the privilege and responsibility to show your kids the greatness, power, and glory of Jesus. So, take time to talk about the words we sing on Sunday. Take time to ask questions about what a song means and how its words apply to your child’s life. By asking, you can discover how much your kids understand about what we’re doing.

TRY IT THIS WEEK:

(1) Explain to your children why we sometimes raise our hands when we sing or pray. Read 1 Timothy 2:8. Then, explain how we want our kids to get comfortable lifting their hands in worship, but we don’t want them to misunderstand what it signifies. We don’t lift our hands in order to become holy. Rather, we lift our hands as an expression of what God is doing in us.  Lifting our hands shows that God is holy (different from us), and he has made us holy (different from the world). 

(2) Read Psalm 98 together as a family.  Then answer these questions:  Who and what is worshiping God in this song?  How are they worshiping God?  What parts of their bodies do they use? What instruments do they use? Why do they worship God in this way?

Check out the new Clap Your Hands, Stomp Your Feet VBS. This worship themed VBS includes a director’s guide, games guide, craft and assembly guide, printables, and much more. It even includes a studio-recorded children’s worship CD and digital songbook produced by Sojourn Music. Purchase now from New Growth Press. 

Come to the table: How family devotions are like family meals

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Family devotions are times “when family members come together for spiritual encouragement.” Patrick Kavanaugh, now retired director of the Christian Performing Arts Fellowship made this observation nearly 15 years ago in a little book titled Raising Children to Adore God. I encountered the book in 2007, just after our second daughter was born. Around that time, I also began my first full-time ministry job—working with kids. As a young dad and minister, Kavanaugh captured my imagination. He compared having family devotions to sitting down for a meal. Here’s what he wrote:

Obviously, a family meal is a time when the members of a given family eat together. Notice the many thousands of possible variations in a family meal. To begin with, the food will presumably vary day to day. The meal may be a massive Thanksgiving feast or it may be a quick bite. Someone in the family may not be present. At other times, friends or relatives may join in. Still other times will find a family at a restaurant or relaxing around a campfire. The only two factors that a family meal must contain are: (1) members of a family and (2) food. Everything else is quite flexible. So it is with a family devotional.

Kavanaugh’s parallel of eating together with practicing family worship rings true to me. I’d say the analogy is distinctly biblical. God wants us to nourish our faith just as we nourish our bodies. When God rescued Israel from Egypt, he gave them laws, ceremonies, and sacrifices to help them remember his great rescue. At the heart of this instruction was a meal.

Family devotions are times when family members come together for spiritual encouragement.

When you read Exodus 12:26-27, it’s clear God expected families to recline around the Passover table together. The kids are there asking, “What is the lamb for, daddy? Why are we eating these bitter herbs and matzo?” God tells the Hebrew moms and dads to stand ready with the salvation tale on their lips (Exod. 12:27). This connection between physical and spiritual nourishment doesn’t end with the Passover festival. It’s likely Moses had in mind reclining to eat a meal when he told Israelite parents to teach while the family sat together at home (Deut. 6:7).

  1. Our families need regular spiritual meals. We all need to eat. If we’re going to feed our kids’ souls as well as their bodies, we must make regular times of family teaching a priority. This will look different in each family, because family schedules are as different as the families who set them. Some parents will pray and read the Bible with their kids each night. Others will have family devotions around the table—during the family meal. In other families, a parent will meet with their children individually to teach the Bible one on one. Whatever the format, consistency is key. It’s better to gather the family once per week than to exasperate your kids with failed attempts to meet every day. Young children respond best to a planned routine—something like Taco Tuesday that they can count on and look forward to.
     
  2. Meals are made for families, not families for meals. While family devotions should be regular, they should also fit your family’s life and personality. Some families will have an hour or two to sit down, read and reflect on a psalm, memorize a catechism question, and sing a hymn every week. But for most of us, that kind of feast is rare. I’m thankful the Bible’s vision for training our kids includes teaching them “along the road” (Deut. 6:7). The most consistent part of teaching my own kids has been the practice of quick prayers while we’re waiting in the carpool line or singing along (sometimes loud and silly!) to Seeds Family Worship and PROOF Pirates while we drive down the highway on a road trip.
  3. Make sure it’s digestible. The Bible gives us a developmental vision for growing up in faith. Christians move progressively from basic things to deeper truth—from milk to solid food (Heb. 5:12-14; 1 Cor. 3:2). It’s especially important to remember this when teaching young children. Two and three-year-olds typically have an attention span of two to three minutes. Their vocabulary is limited to 200 to 1500 total words. Like a parent cutting up their child’s food into digestible chunks, it’s important to help our youngest kids learn a beginning vocabulary of faith—basic Bible words like sin, promise, prayer, and the name of Jesus—before moving to more abstract concepts like forgiveness. Many Bible storybooks are written with these developmental considerations in mind. If you’re just beginning a family worship time with your toddler, consider Ella Lindvall’s Read-Aloud Bible Stories, David Helm’s Big Picture Story Bible, or my The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible.
     
  4. Vary the menu to stretch your family’s palette. Just like family meals, family devotions have thousands of possible variations. Sometimes when I hear what other creative families do during family worship times, I feel overwhelmed and guilt-ridden, thinking, “I should be doing more!” I’m tempted to adopt practices that would be a bad fit for our family dynamics. But my wife is really encouraged by families who are a step ahead of us. She sees concrete ideas as an opportunity to stretch ourselves. Adding variety to our times of family worship helps them become times of discovery. So, don’t get stuck in the rut of simply reading stories. Act them out. Draw and paint. Let a sock puppet tell the story. If the lesson is about serving others, find a way to practice serving right away—like making cookies for your neighbor. You may find that mixing it up helps to keep your kids’ interest as well.

The best meals involve grace and laughter around the table. So it is with family devotionals. They’re an opportunity to model a life that craves the pure spiritual milk of the Word (1 Pet. 2:2), one that helps your kids to taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8). So, make a practice of inviting your kids to come to the table to feed their souls, along with their hungry stomachs.

This post previously appeared at ERLC.com