Holiday family gatherings are right ahead! Are you ready? Even those who anticipate them with uncomplicated joy still ponder the wrinkles involved in merging family units with unique habits and rhythms of life.

Starting to navigate this sometimes complicated season, I wrote down my top five family-gathering aims, as a believer in Christ who is a wife, a mother of grown children, and a relatively new mother-in-law and grandmother. Perspectives will differ, of course, according to different contexts and situations in life. Perhaps others might add good counsel to the list, from whatever stage of life in which you find yourself.

1. Pray in advance. 

So often, holiday gatherings happen in the midst of such busy schedules that we’re consumed simply with the practical arrangements—-of travel, menus, house preparation, and so on. We can be sure God loves to answer our prayers as we take time to ask in advance not just for physical order but also for the ordering of our souls as we come together.

I know it makes a huge difference to visit my children’s homes or welcome them into ours buoyed up with prayer to find ways of encouraging them in the midst of their busy lives . . . prayer that we would find time to talk about important things as well as just have fun . . . prayer that Christ our Savior would be honored among us . . . prayer for tongues to speak not too much and only profitably.

2. Pray for God to set a guard over my mouth (Psalm 141:3). 

I’ve already blown it a number of times in just three years with married children and two years of grandmothering—-not to mention the years with grown single sons. This involves prayer in advance and during and after visits (and phone conversations and emails!). Among those we love the most we can sometimes be the least careful with our words. One couple who also has grown children and growing grandchildren told us that they often look at each other and simply say, “NORTH.” What on earth does that mean? Their response:  “Not Our Row To Hoe!” My husband and I have used “NORTH” now and then. It replaces a lot of other unnecessary words!

The wisdom of the Word teaches us to pray for “gracious words . . . like a honeycomb,” words that bring “sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Prov. 16:24). Ultimately, these are words controlled and flavored by the Holy Spirit who dwells in those belonging to Christ Jesus and who produces good fruit in our lives—-including the good fruit of good words. Lord, set a guard over my mouth, by your Spirit. Flavor my words with gospel grace.

3. Care for different stages of life. 

Often our particular mix involves married children with children, married children without children, unmarried children, elderly grandparents, and various assorted other guests. How do we make everybody happy at once? We probably don’t. But we can think through whether or not there’s something in the course of a visit that especially appeals to each different stage or set of interests. Of course good food is the great unifier—-but, apart from that, we need enough sitting-around time to accommodate the very oldest and youngest, and enough activity to satisfy the others. When we are sitting, we need conversation that visits many worlds, from that of a child speaking her first words all the way to a foreign country one has learned about or visited and perhaps seen God’s hand at work. Putting different family units in charge of various activities often helps draw everyone in—-whether it be devotional times, or meals or parts of meals, or games or outings of various kinds.

What a gift, to share family celebration among young and old, and among those in vastly different life situations, so that we can see God’s myriad ways of caring for us and using us for his gospel purposes.

4. Infuse my plans with trust in a sovereign God. 

“Many are the plans in the mind of a man,” Proverbs tells us, “but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Prov. 19:21). That verse makes me picture all our human plans as clouds of thought whirling around in people’s brains—-in contrast to the purpose of God that stands as the solid reality. Oh how quickly our most carefully conceived big or little plans can change before our eyes! Whether we face a missed plane, ruined dinner, sickness, or something much more serious like grief concerning a rebellious child or a health crisis, our whole perspective is revolutionized by the knowledge of a good God’s sovereign purpose standing solid and firm.

We may still sorrow or grieve. But we also know that at the rock-bottom unmoving part of our souls, as believers, is the Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. His plan of redemption holds together all of history—-and every moment of our lives. With this perspective, then, even when our plans do happen as we had hoped, we won’t be oblivious, but rather ready to acknowledge with proper thanksgiving the God who ordained them.

5. Make time to read the Bible out loud and pray out loud together. 

It doesn’t have to be fancy or creative or long. It doesn’t have to be pointed, for the ones we might think need to hear this or that. God’s Word won’t ever return empty, without accomplishing what he purposes. And to hear each other talking to God, however simply, opens our souls and opens spiritual reality to each other. For the unbelieving guest or family member, it bears strong witness. As one who grew up in a family and then married into a family where fathers have led in these practices, I can testify to the powerful witness and memories of family members gathered with prayers and hymns and Scripture echoing in the air all around us. For the children who might not even seem to notice, this teaches and grows them up in ways we can’t even imagine.

Of course in some families such public witness is not possible, depending on the family members involved. But where it is possible, by God’s grace, what a blessing not to miss!

So gather us, Lord God,

in families unwieldy,

shaped often not as we had planned,

but ordered by your providential hand,

and somehow showing, by your grace,

the working of your Father-love

to pass on life, abundant life,

through giving us your Son.

Grow deep and wide our family circles, Lord,

and give us eyes, we pray,

for more than what is seen –

for heaven and for your heavenly throne,

for life so dear and short,

for life eternal, through your Son.