The heart of true religion is, not surprisingly, the heart. But in saying this, I want to borrow and reapply the term from Michael Behe, and acknowledge that true religion is also much larger than the heart, and is irreducibly complex. The entire system can fail at any number of points. A man can die of heart failure, but liver failure and kidney failure can also do the job.
This might seem like an odd opening for an Advent meditation, but bear with me. A father who wants to lead and disciple his family needs to remember that the one thing he must cultivate is heart loyalty. He must of course connect that loyalty to scriptural and worthy objects, but if he does not have heart loyalty, childrearing will simply be one grief replaced by another.
Chaos in the Home and the Heart
Jonathan Edwards called them the affections. I am calling them the heart, or loyalty, or attitudes. And bringing up your children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” is fundamentally a matter of directing, shaping, molding, and forming attitudes (Ephesians 6:4 KJV).
And what is Christmas for a child but a churning cauldron of attitudes? These are attitudes just waiting there to be discipled (and often not quietly).
Unfortunately, parents often have their very own cauldron of attitudes. Like Martha, it is easy to be cumbered with much serving, and to wind up missing the central point. The tree got put up and decorated, the presents all got wrapped, the tricycle with assembly instructions in Chinese got put together, the ham made it into the oven, and yet — why is the general home atmosphere so rancid?
Preparation in Gladness for Gladness
The reason is that we fell into preparing for Christmas from the outside in, instead of from the inside out. The season should be preparation in gladness and joy for a day that culminates with more gladness and joy. Those who grumble their way through all the preparations are like those who ski down a bare, rocky mountainside, hoping to find snow at the bottom.
Thus far I have been speaking of the mundane hassles of Christmas prep that sometimes get to us. But for those who mark the days of Advent, there is another temptation. In the minds of some, Advent is supposed to be a penitential season, one devoted to self-inspection and repentance.
Now I would not want to breathe a word against true repentance because the Christian life is a life of repentance. But real repentance needs to be a retail operation, day by day, not a wholesale event, a couple times a year. And ongoing repentance that actually deals with sin is thereby marked with joy and gladness. And so Advent, if it is the real deal, is a season of joyful expectation and preparation — preparation in gladness for gladness.
Help Your Children Love to Obey
Let us return to the jumble of attitudes your kids are experiencing. Your task as a father is not to get your kids to conform to the standard, but rather to love the standard. As discussed above, you start with this by loving the standard yourself, and doing so visibly with your kids.
The attitudes you must deal with will be a true mixed bag. There will be loving concern, natural delight, envious complaining, greedy anticipation, thoughtful generosity, instinctive competition, and so on. Of course, when a sinful attitude flares up, there must be correction, and such correction teaches. But don’t limit your teaching to those moments of correction.
If you have Advent readings in the evening, conclude each one with a brief exhortation to the children, urging them to guard themselves against pride, envy, comparisons, and so on. In their place, also exhort them to kindness, charity, forgiveness, and so on. This is not so you can fill the season up with hectoring, but rather so that you can (as a family) deal with sin promptly and together, and can maintain your joy.
Don’t Be That Guy
Christmas is supposed to be happy. Peace on earth, good will toward men, remember? And virtually everyone has that expectation, treating a happy Christmas as something of a constitutional right — which is why we get so upset with those who (in our view) are sabotaging it. And this is why there is nothing quite so miserable as a miserable Christmas.
You are the one shepherd who was off somewhere else when the angels appeared, and because you were so grumpy about that, they left you to watch the sheep while they went into Bethlehem. And then it started to rain. You made it into no nativity sets, and yours was the original blue Christmas. One of your spiritual descendants has been wrecking family reunions ever since. Don’t be that guy.
Joy is the hallmark of Christmas — joy to the world, the Lord is come — and so anticipatory joy needs to be the hallmark of Advent. So take your kids by the hand, and walk them through it. And do the same next year, only deeper and richer.