Christmas Present

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake…

Philippians 1:29

It’s that time of the year when peppermint and pine have staged a coup and sent all things pumpkin spice into an ignoble retreat to the clearance shelves.

The North Pole has launched its annual penetration into American homes as well. All over social media, parents are documenting their complicity with the greatest stalker of our age, the Great Elf Himself (you know who I mean – the man in the red suit), by positioning his elvish spy network in various locations throughout their homes. Evidently this is how he sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake…

But of course, all of this martial festivity is a feint to disguise the main offensive which targets our contentment and will lay siege to bank accounts and credit lines for the month of December: the tantalizing lure of the perfect gift.

Ah, Christmas!

Is it just me who sees the irony in all the smiling faces and twinkling lights when the first Christmas was celebrated in the murky stink of a stable? When the first Gift was born to be raised up as the Lamb of God who would be slaughtered to take away the sins of the world?

Perhaps this is why Paul told the Philippian church it had been granted to them to suffer for Christ.

Being a nerd, I had to peek into the original Greek and research the word translated granted. That word, transliterated echaristhe, carries the connotation of doing a favor, graciously bestowing, or giving freely.

Think about this: the Philippian church had been favored with suffering for Christ’s sake.

If you’ve read this blog for long, you’ll know that I have written about the unusual blessing of chronic migraine and what my God has done in me through pain. But I can hardly say I’ve suffered for His sake; I’ve just learned – or rather, am learning – to suffer well for His glory.

But meditating on this verse lately has changed the way I pray for my kids.

Like most parents, I’ve wanted to give my kids good gifts. I’ve longed for them to learn from my mistakes and spare themselves the hardship of self-imposed suffering. I’ve sincerely desired for them to have a better life than mine; to make better choices and live with less difficulty.

But by praying for them to be spared hardship, struggle, and suffering, am I praying to deny them a wonderful, God-given favor?

As I look back over my life, I see suffering that I had no control over, but I see more well-deserved suffering brought on by stubborn attempts to live for myself.

I’ve no right to complain about any suffering, really, when I consider that my Creator chose to join in human suffering despite never engaging in human sin. But I have zero reason to complain when I brought pain down on my own head simply because I refused to obey God – or at one point, refused to acknowledge Him at all.

Yet in His astonishing grace, even the harrowing consequences of my crimes are redeemed. Once I surrendered myself utterly to the Lord, He even turned the most awful, negative consequences of my sin into a glorious gift.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

Romans 8:28-29

And He really does. In the economy of my Sovereign, truly nothing is wasted!

And so, I no longer pray that my young people will be spared suffering.

Instead, I have begun to pray that no matter how or why they suffer in this life – whether brought on by their choices or thrust upon them by others – God will give them the grace to suffer well.

By suffering, I pray they will be drawn closer and ever closer to the redemptive, compassionate heart of God. That they will choose to suffer for Him for a little while so they can rejoice together with Him for all eternity.

And when I think of suffering in the terms of eternity, what gracious favor is offered to us – embrace suffering for few paltry decades with the promise of everlasting joy to look forward to when it’s done.

What a gift, indeed!

Thoughts on Halloween

***This is a partial re-write of an old post…

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Philippians 4:8

Confession: I am a Halloween scrooge.

For one thing, I’ve always suspected a group of economists plotting to stimulate the economy in lagging months are behind certain holidays, of which Halloween is one.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m more than happy to part with my scant dollars to help someone in need, though I prefer not to leave my name attached to said dollars. But when it comes to forking over cash for extravagant costumes, ghoulish decorations, or mountains of sugar-laden junk, I’m less than eager.

Still, the main reason I dislike October 31 runs a bit deeper.

If you enjoy the ghastly and the macabre, riding through zombie-infested forests or being startled by creaky floors and hideous visages in darkened houses, that’s fine by me. You do you. It’s just that I do not find any pleasure in these things.

For me, Halloween is an annual reminder of the old me; a day which recalls pre-Christ fascinations of which I am now ashamed. As a atheistic teenager, I had a morbid interest in the occult.

In the days before the internet and smart phones existed, I would visit the restricted section of my high school library (yes, we really had one) and read up on the wicca. I made my own Oiuja board and toyed with it, and I listened to dark, sinister bands like Danzig.

In truth, I didn’t really believe in such things, but I had an interest in the possibility of a spiritual realm beyond what I could see. In retrospect, I know now that God has set eternity in our hearts, but since I had convinced myself He wasn’t real, my enemy slipped in and harnessed the reality of my heart-longing for his own nefarious purposes.

But God had a plan for me even then, and He answered the prayers of those who faithfully interceded for me during those dark years.

A handful of experiences left me convinced the things I explored were more than myth. One in particular shook me. At my fast-food job, a man approached the counter with a terrifying grin and a knowing look in his eye. He handed me his card – that of a wiccan high priest, and either told me I’d be able to find them or the message was written on the card. That portion of the memory is unclear, but I do recall the message.

Keep in mind this transpired before internet search history even existed. I’d read actual, paper books and used a home made Ouija board. There was nothing tangible anyone could have used to track my interest. It spooked me.

Between this and a handful of other bizarre occurrences, the mask of this world slipped and I saw there was a very real, very present spiritual element behind the shiny surface of the American dream.

Fortunately for me, God had other plans. Rather than drawing me in, these events terrified me and caused me to reject the darkness vehemently. It was one step in the process which eventually opened my eyes and heart to my Lord Christ. I cannot claim any merit of my own for this, only that the Lord had designs on my life and used my youthful interest to awaken me to a greater reality.

This is why, when I finally came to Christ on my knees and broken that I had ever dabbled in things so vile, I had absolutely no trouble accepting the fact that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness…”  

For me, this passage is not a poetic description but a gritty reality. I had seen those spiritual forces of wickedness, faces leering at me, smug in their certainty that I would come as they beckoned. But I did not.

The fact is, there is an actual evil stalking this world today. It can be seen murdering babies in the womb in the name of convenience and in the “you deserve it” mentality of self-gratification. It is found in children’s programming that champions disrespectful and selfish attitudes and in adult programs that endorse negative thinking towards spouses or children.

Evil is evident as sexual and physical abuse, in the modern slave trade, and it lurks behind the refusal to accept responsibility for sin. It lulls human beings into an entertainment-glutted stupor. It gnaws the face off a homeless man, and it quietly swindles elderly widows, sometimes even in the name of Jesus Christ. Evil is both brutal and subtle, shocking and silent. It displays itself brazenly in hideous, revolting ways and it dazzles and confounds with a sly and handsome facade.

 Evil is a reality, and I simply do not wish to parody or play with it in any way, nor do I wish my children to be desensitized to it in even a small degree. For me, Halloween is a reminder of the greater spiritual battle that we face each morning both out in the world and within our own hearts.

It makes me sorrowful for all those who are yet deceived as I once was, lulled into complacency and unaware of the spiritual battle that rages around them. It reminds me that I am the chief of sinners, once rejecting and mocking the King who died as a substitute for me. I am humbled and grateful at the extent of His forgiveness, and because of it I have no wish to revisit in even the most playful or lighthearted way the darkness of my past.

 I want to be clear: I cast no judgement upon others who find enjoyment in haunted houses and zombie makeup. Perhaps it is simply that my faith is too small for me to enjoy these things. . . I am fine with admitting that, for I have yet to move even a small hill or caused so much as a blade of grass to uproot and plant itself in the sea.

There is nothing in my life to point to a mighty or an earth-shaking faith, and I certainly do not think more highly of myself because I choose not to participate in the October 31 festivities. I simply do not need reminders of the evil in this world.

I would much prefer to avoid all that is fearsome and ghoulish and keep my mind fixed instead on all that is good and just and pure and holy–on the Author and Perfecter of my faith. Only enveloped in His presence do I find hope, joy, and peace. And that, my friends, is precisely where I want to be.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.

Ephesians 6:12-13

Good Friday Reflections

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

1 Corinthians 15:17-19

If Good Friday were the end of the story and the Man on the cross merely died, the way I’ve lived my life for the last 17-odd years has been nothing more than a waste.

Without the Resurrection, the sacrifices I’ve made, the pain I’ve endured, the hours spent in prayer and Bible study, the money gifted to the Church and missions – wasted. Useless. Meaningless.

But don’t ask me. Ask Moses, a Ugandan man who’s been run out of his home along with his wife and 6 children because of his decision to follow Yeshua instead of Mohammed.

Or Sukbati whose husband was murdered for his faith and who now must support five children in the midst of her grief. Yet she has said she will not give up on Jesus.

Without the Resurrection, Good Friday is no longer good. It becomes just a day that another man died – one of billions. And Moses and Sukbati and millions like them suffer needlessly – giving up ease in this life for no reason at all.

Worse yet, without the Resurrection, we are all still in our sins. Me, Sukbati, and all believers. Believe it or not, friends, that’s worse than any persecution or pain this life can throw at us.

It means an ancient and creeping death sickens our hearts and decays our spirits, destroying any hope of restoration with our Creator and making mockery of the innate desire for immortality we all hold deep within. That is what sin is, and how rightly we should feel horror at it.

But the good news of Good Friday is that it did not end when Yeshua declared, “It is finished,” and gave up His spirit.

Firstly, His death was an act of purpose – He gave up His spirit; it was not taken from Him. He died on purpose, giving His perfect life in payment of the debt we have all incurred by our rebellious ways.

Then, on the first Easter Sunday, God raised up His one and only Son, so that the final victory over sin and death has been won. Sin brought death into the world; the sinless life of Yeshua Messiah, Christ Jesus my Lord, took on death and defeated it by His return to life.

Now we who are in Christ live a life of self-sacrifice – not because we are good people or for some hope of self-improvement – but because we are grateful for the Man who bought back our souls from death.

The life I live, I do not live for the praise of others but out of sheer thankfulness. If He gave His perfect life for me, I can certainly give my broken mess right back to Him. It may not be much, but it’s all I have. And I give it willingly, grateful even if I am ever called to suffer the rest of my years for His sake, because He already suffered for mine.

The hope of Easter is not a hope for today or for any earthly good at all. It’s a hope for a future far beyond today; a hope that in 100 and 1000 and countless years beyond, those of us who follow Jesus now will be following Him still, rejoicing in His presence, forever freed from sin, death, and despair.

Forever adoring the One who first adored us so much that He gave up the life of His one and only Son that we may join Him in eternal worship.

Hallelujah! He is risen!

When Relationships Chafe

We love because he first loved us.
(1 John 4:19)

Ready or not, the holiday season is upon us.

In my country, the official kick-off was Thanksgiving Day – a day of feasting and gratitude ironically followed by the slightly sickening commercial festivity known as “Black Friday” which actually begins Thursday evening until “Cyber Monday” takes over and filches more dollars from the American pocket. But I digress…

This year, my family had a phenomenal Thanksgiving week. We were blessed to spend some time in Florida with my dad and stepmom. One of my sisters and her family came, too, and what with the great company, fantastic weather, and delectable food, I doubt we could have concocted a better way to spend the week.

But I realize not everyone is so fortunate.

For many people, the family time aspect of the holidays spells nothing but frustration. We all have those family members who tend to be more querulous, and some among us spend the holidays biting our tongues – or wishing we had.

Every family bears a bandaged wound or two. Every family carries scars from past hurts. It’s a part of being human in a fallen world. The brutal truth is that our real-life family gatherings are more apt to resemble a Griswold family Christmas than a Hallmark movie.

The enforced familial closeness of the holidays can and often does cause simmering tensions to boil over.  But you know what? Even then, family time is good.  In fact, I would venture to say this season is wonderful because of the relational difficulties.

You see, one sunny Florida afternoon, I walked back to my earthly dad’s house and talked with my heavenly Dad along the way. In particular, I was praying over the absence of one other sister at our feast. One of our family’s bandaged wounds.

As I prayed about the situation and about others who are more difficult to love, the Spirit of God whispered the words of 1 John 4:19 into my heart. We love because He first loved us.

Naturally, I went back and read the rest of the chapter and I see what He means. When we are faced with prickly relatives or with co-workers, members of our church family, or even strangers at the grocery store who are a little more challenging to endure, it is at precisely this point that we have a choice to make:

Will we love only those who are easy to love? Or will we love them because our Lord first loved us?

I feel now is a good time to mention that this “when He first loved us” moment was hardly one we can boast about. Romans 5:10 reminds us that we were enemies of God when He loved us enough to offer the dearest part of Himself as ransom for our crimes. He didn’t love us when we were lovable but when we were in full-tilt rebellion against Him.

Our Lord Jesus, Himself, tells us more than once to love our enemies (see Matt. 5:44, Luke 6:27, 35, et al). And back in 1 John 4, the beloved disciple has a great deal more to say about love, not the least of which is a sobering reminder that love isn’t lived out in Hallmark moments but in the gritty and often painful moments of forgiving the unforgivable and answering sharp words with graciousness.

Not because those who hurt us deserve it, but because neither did we. And yet, He loved us anyway.

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
(1 John 4:10-11)

While we’re busily putting Christ back in Christmas and squeezing in Advent devotionals between shopping sprees and holiday parties, let’s be certain that our daily choices match our lofty sentiments. Let’s try to keep in mind that forgiving can only be done when there is something to forgive. Grace and mercy can only be shown when they aren’t deserved.

In love, let’s hold one another accountable to living and loving in humility and with the grace God extends to us. Not necessarily because our families and associates are worth it, but because HE is. And we trust Him enough to obey.