Putting Christ in Christmas

**NOTE: This was originally published on 2014, shortly after I began this blog. I thought I’d revive it this month while keeping my digital time to a minimum in order to maximize time with my fast-growing teens…

After studying in James, I have been thinking a great deal about what escapes my mouth. I have been made mindful of overly-harsh tones of voice as well as barely-murmured grumblings, and each instance has prompted repentance. However, I have also become aware of less blatantly sinful words, of vacant phrases that have a pleasing sound, but if not well-fleshed in action and attitude, are nothing but the hollow clanging of bells or the resonance of a gong — indeed, nothing more than pretty noise.

Sometimes I think that Christmas time is the worst for this sort of thing. I have heard my voice among the crowd of brethren reciting cheerful platitudes and yet going about my December days no differently than my unbelieving friends and neighbors.

Saying things like, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” does not, in fact, make Him my focus for the season. It is just a thing to say, a thing that sounds good to the ears but is really a distraction from the true focus on worldly matters often going on within. Oh what a smug fool I have been to utter such blather and yet entirely fail to live it out!

Friends (and others), I confess: I have been guilty of hypocrisy, of stoutly proclaiming, “Put Christ back in CHRISTmas!” while actually putting Him in the “optional” section of my seasonal to-do list. Too many Christmases have gone by in which I was so busy getting ready for the celebration of the Lord’s birthday that I utterly failed to spend quality time with the Guest of honor.

But He is gracious. He has exercised patience with me for years, drawing me closer, humbling my heart, and giving me abundant reasons to love Him more. This Christmas, I have chosen a more lonely-looking path but one that I have found to be more rewarding. I have simplified my celebrations, which sometimes means saying “no” to many fun and even good things so I can say “yes” to what God is telling me to do.

Finally, finally, after years of knowing what I ought to do, I have begun to actually make time with the Lord a priority. Nor is it done out of shame or remorse or even obligation as I confess I have been guilty of in the past. No, now this time is something I crave, an immense yearning to know Him better, an unquenchable thirst for His presence. This time I have not put Him on my to-do list at all. I have turned the thing over to Him entirely and then taken my place at His feet, listening as He tells me what it is on each day’s agenda.

Do I always get it right, then? Am I saying I have this business nailed down? No, I am not saying that at all. In truth, sometimes I listen with half an ear, impatient to get moving or I re-prioritize my day according to what I think is best. But I am beginning to change my habits, beginning to allow my mind to be truly transformed. No, I certainly have not yet obtained it, but I press on toward the goal… and don’t think for a moment that I am particularly gifted or disciplined. By His grace, any of us can do it.

So will you join me in trying something different this year? Let’s resolve not only to put Christ in Christmas–let’s put him in our morning commute. Let’s put Christ in the way we speak to our spouse or our children, in the way we respond to a grouchy grocery clerk, in the way we reply when someone speaks hatefully to us, in the way we react to praise.

Let’s put Christ in the numerous menial tasks that occupy our days. Let’s put Christ in our private thoughts, in our entertainment, in our decision-making, in our giving, and in our receiving. Let’s put Christ in ALL we do for all of our day and on every day, for with joyful exhilaration we can celebrate the eternal gift of Immanuel: God with us. Every single day.

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). Matthew 1:21-23

Tuesday Prayer: Light

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. 

Isaiah 9:2


Light of the world, today we honor You as the one true God, the Light of the world who illuminates the dark places in our hearts and along our paths. When our lives are darkened by sin – some addiction or idolatry that has taken precedence over You – Your light reveals it and Your loving discipline teaches us to repent of it. When the darkness is on the outside – surrounding us and seeming to close in as we walk through our private valley of the shadow of death – Your light is not extinguished but guides us safely through to the other side.

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 8:12

This Advent, we thank You for sending Jesus who is the Light of the world. Thank You for His promise that if we follow Him, we will not walk in darkness but have the light of life. In the same discourse in John chapter 8, our Lord Jesus informs us that His true disciples abide in His word. Thank You for giving us the written word of God so we may know the Father, Son, and Spirit. Thank You for the gift of the Word made flesh in Jesus, whose commandments we love and whose second advent we eagerly await. 

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

John 8:31-32

As we wait on Your appearing, Lord, we pray for those who walk in darkness still. Help us to scatter Your light wherever we go – in the packed-out stores, in traffic, in line at the post office, in the privacy of our homes, even in the secrecy of our thoughts. May our choices reflect Your light to all men, and may You be honored not only by the way we conduct our lives but by our responses to others. 

Through our obedience, open doors for conversation so we may proclaim the truth that has set us free to those who are still in bondage. We each have friends and loved ones who walk in darkness, enslaved to the prince of this world and unaware of their plight. Please, Lord, whether by us or by others, shine Your light into their lives. Reveal the hideousness of sin and the lies of the enemy for what they truly are. Brighten the dark places of despair and hopelessness and give them hope and new life in Christ.

This Christmas, we ask for a mighty outpouring of Your Spirit in our lives, our families, our churches, and our communities. Set the captives free. Bind up the brokenhearted. Open the eyes of the blind, and save those who unknowingly walk the broad path that leads to destruction, bringing them to know You and to crave the light of Your everlasting love, amen. 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…”  And he [Jesus] began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:18-19, 21; see also Isaiah 61:1



To My Atheist Friends This Christmas

I beg the indulgence of a few minutes for any of my friends (or really anyone at all) who scoffs at the notion of the Babe in the manger, the joy of Christmas, and everything else associated with “Immanuel, which means, ‘God with us.'” (Matthew 1:23b).

In our few minutes together, allow me to ask a favor. Forget anything you think you know about Jesus Christ and anything you’ve seen perpetrated in His name on social media. This Christmas, I humbly ask you to consider the singular Person, Jesus Christ, though perhaps not for the reasons you may think.

My reason is an honest, heartfelt desire to share with you the One in whom you may find peace, even in a turbulent and troubled world, because He has overcome the world. He’s even lived in it and knows what it is to suffer as a man.

Once an atheist myself, I have found in Christ an unshakeable peace, an overflowing hope, and even a purpose for pain. I’ve found so much more, but in the interest of keeping this brief(ish), allow me to share an excerpt from Orthodoxy, a book written by another former atheist, G. K. Chesterton:

“That a good man may have his back to the wall is no more than we knew already, but that God could have His back to the wall is a boast for all insurgents forever …

… Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point — and does not break. In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologize in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in the terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt…

…When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.” (emphasis mine)

The message of Christmas is not a message of good tidings so all people can have a good life. It is a message of good tidings because at the birth of the Christ child, a unique event took place in the history of everything. The Most High God, Creator of all that is seen and unseen, laid His glory aside and confined Himself to the frail substance of His own creation in order to do what mankind could not – save them from a hopeless eternity, from a propensity for evil, and from their own stubborn pride.

Or to put the thing into more bite-size portions: The Creator learned to crawl. The One who spoke the world into existence learned to speak his mother’s name. He endured puberty, He felt hunger, He felt sorrow and sickness, joy and zeal, betrayal and ridicule and everything else a human being can feel but without falling into wrongdoing. Ever.

The message of Christmas is almost too difficult to put into words because the first Christmas put an infinite God into a finite form. How do you phrase that adequately, really? Words fail.

Where we have weakened and given in to temptation, Jesus saw the thing through to the uttermost. In fact, He alone among humankind knows the fullest extent of temptation because He alone among men never caved in to temptation. He alone never fell.

He even knows what it is to desire something other than the Divine plan and yet submit to it anyway. Not only that, but He came to offer Himself as the blood price, not for good and holy men, but for all of us. For me. For you. And you and I know, in an honest moment, that we’ve done some pretty reprehensible stuff.

He knows you, friend. He knows what you struggle with, and he loves you anyway. He’s felt temptation, too, but He has also overcome it. That is the hope of Christmas. That is the hope we can share in Christ Jesus.

I so long for you to know my God – the Pauper King who lowered Himself in order to give us an opportunity to rise ridiculously far above our station. I want you to experience the greatest and most breathtaking love you will ever know on either side of the grave.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
(Hebrews 4:14-16)

I pray He will open your heart as He once opened mine so that some day, we can celebrate together how we both found grace and mercy in our time of need.

Tuesday Prayer: Worship

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. 
(Hebrews 12:1-2)

Lord, as we celebrate this Christmas season, let us not forget You as the Founder and Perfecter of our faith. You are the One true God, holy and pure, and in Your unfathomable mercy, You have established the ability to worship within the human heart. In fact, You created us to worship with the intent that You would be the recipient of our cravings and our praise.

Today we confess that we too often allow other things to eclipse Your glory in our lives. The Christmas season can be especially so, for although we sometimes say things like, ” Jesus is the reason for the season,” our actions sometimes betray where our true devotions lie. We can get so caught up in the busy-ness and the secular pressures of buying and giving that we forget Whose birthday it is we celebrate.

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
(Luke 10:41-42)

So it is that we look to You as the Author and Perfecter of our faith. Lord, take our small faith and make it grow. Hone it, refine it, purify it, and make it into something which reflects Your glory to others. Take away all that eclipses Your majesty in our lives, turning our eyes from worthless things and giving us life in Your ways. Make us to love Your Scriptures more, reminding us that it is the very Word of Life to us.

 Give us a passion for Your Kingdom, a hunger for Your presence, and a never-ending thirst for the Living Water. Forgive our lack of trust and help us to trust You more. Fix our eyes on You and ascend the throne of our hearts as our rightful King. May it be that our worship of You is evident to all, shining like a light in the darkness of this world and acting as a guide to bring others to walk and live in the light of Your love, amen.

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.

 

 

You Keep Using That Word…

Among my (admittedly many) favorite quotes from the movie, The Princess Bride, the sword-wielding Spaniard’s response to the rotund little Sicilian’s exclamation, “Inconceivable!” ranks pretty near the top:

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. 

– Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Which reminds me…

This coming Sunday marks the official beginning of Advent, which is probably my second favorite season in all of Christendom; surpassed only by the culmination of Lent on Resurrection Sunday. In many ways, the two seasons are inseparable to me.

Almost annually, I find myself saying something to the effect that I cannot gaze upon the Babe in the manger and fail to see the shadow of the Cross. Nor can I separate my thoughts from the helpless child of the First Advent without eagerly anticipating with fierce joy and dread reverence the future return of the King of kings.

One of my personal traditions during Advent is to reflect on the many Messianic prophesies of the Savior and upon the events and people recounted in the story of His birth.

Which brings me back to Inigo Montoya… sort of.

When I think of Mary, the mother of Jesus, I often wonder if she might respond similarly to our fictional fencing friend if she heard the ways we tend to use the word blessed in the Christian community.

What do I mean? In answer, let’s take a peek at an early portion of the Nativity from Scripture:

And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!
(Luke 1:41-42)

When Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, heard Mary, she exclaimed to her young relative, “Blessed are you among women…!”

And so Mary was, without a doubt, eternally blessed to be the mother of the Son of Man. And yet…

Take a moment and mull over the temporal implications of her blessing.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
(Matthew 1:18)

From a social standpoint, Mary’s obedience to God in this matter of motherhood was nothing short of annihilation for the reputations of both herself and her family.

An unmarried woman showing up pregnant was simply not acceptable in her culture. If no one believed her story about an angelic messenger and the Holy Spirit and the miraculous virginal conception (and honestly, would you believe your daughter or friend?), well then she was in serious danger of a grisly and uncomfortable death by stoning.

From a socially acceptable standpoint, her best bet was to appeal to her betrothed and ask him to claim the child as his own. Of course, she would be asking him to discredit himself as a Torah-observant Jew and a citizen in good standing, not to mention critically injuring both his reputation and his business… and his ability to care for her and the Child.

This scenario leaves only the ticklish business of convincing her future husband that the pregnancy is an actual miracle; a pregnancy without promiscuity, if you will.

Evidently, however, Joseph did not initially embrace the joyous news:

And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
(Matthew 1:19)

Once Joseph received his own angelic visitor and was convinced that his bride-to-be was honest in her claims to virginity, the social stigma would have still remained and made life in their community less pleasant. I have to wonder if they were not somewhat relieved to take the journey to Bethlehem and so escape being the prime source of juicy gossip around the town well…

At any rate, we’ve only touched on the social ramifications of this blessing. There were many others.

Besides the likely scenario of being ostracized by her community, Mary, who was blessed among women, relaxed in the comfort of a well-stocked minivan as her husband drove the couple-hour trip to Bethlehem where they promptly checked into the region’s most renowned birthing center.

No, wait… actually, she endured a long and likely strenuous trek of approximately 150 km (96 miles) during the awkward third trimester of her pregnancy. Fun. Then she gave birth surrounded by the aroma of manure and livestock, laying her newborn Son in the animals’ feeding trough so she could recover from her labor. Many years later, she was blessed by watching her firstborn tortured, maimed, and crucified for crimes that He did not commit.

Nonetheless, she was blessed.

When we use the word, “blessed,” it bears reminding that not all blessings are comfortable or convenient in the short-term. In Christ, we are truly, eternally blessed, and because of this some of our blessings may temporarily seem more like curses.

Nonetheless, every blessing is a blessing because it is preparing us for eternity with the Lord we love.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven… ”
(Matthew 5:10-12a)

And so, in light of Monday’s public proclamation of my intention to honestly give thanks to God in all circumstances, I want to share one of my blessings with you.

I am blessed with chronic pain from both migraine and arthritis in various joints, though I am still in my 40s.

Naturally, I am not precisely excited and thrilled with this blessing, but I do know my God will use it for His glory… as long as I cooperate with Him. And I will.

I trust Him, even in pain. If nothing else, it certainly makes the “friendship with the world” James warns us against less appealing!

And besides, my Father really does know what is best.

 

 

Behold, the Man

Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe…

…So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!”
(John 19:1-2, 5)

This is an invitation open to all: “Behold, the Man!”

What a shocking sight, really. To think that the Most High God, Creator of all things, would actually appear this way to us; bloodied and battered rather than honored and exalted. For just a moment today, let’s imagine the scene.

Behold the Man. What is it we see?

To some, He appears to be nothing more than an utterly defeated man. To the chief priests on that day, he appeared to be a blasphemer worthy of a more brutal death than stoning. Pilate saw a man without guilt. Others in the crowd may have seen nothing more than a spectacle, or a criminal, or may have given Him no notice at all.

Take a moment and behold the Man…

In truth, He is an anomaly; a living paradox — the Son of God and the Son of Man. The Creator clothed as one of His own creatures; the Eternal One submitting to torture and death.

Behold the Man.

There He stands — Redeemer, Savior, Sacrifice. From His unlikely birth to His willing death and beyond even that to His incredible resurrection, let us behold the Man.

Here is our true King, the King of kings, dressed though He may be in our sin instead of the glory that is His right and due. From the purple robe now adhering to the lacerations on His back to the entwined branches of thorns on His head, He is covered in rivulets of drying blood.

Though He had done no more than expose the corruption of the human heart, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and forgive sin, He stands before Pilate and the mob wearing shame, dishonor, reproach — none of which rightfully belongs to Him.

There He stands, clothed in gore-streaked garments of mockery and shame so that we may be clothed in His righteousness.

Behold the Man.

If any in the crowd knew Who He was and what it was He came to do — to give Himself as a ransom, even to offer pardon for the very ones who bloodied Him if they would take it — if any knew, how could they not love Him?

If only we could understand the extravagant nature of a love that would drive the Most High God to confine Himself to the limitations and weaknesses of a Man, even to offer up Himself to pay the penalty of sin.This is a ridiculous love; a love we would not even offer to a friendly acquaintance, much less a sworn and spiteful enemy. But He did.

Behold, the Man — the Holy One who willingly accepted the burden of guilt for a creation that despised and rejected Him many times over; who willingly accepted the cost of my sin and charged it to His own account even though I rejected Him at the time. Behold the Man who willingly did the same for you, if only you will accept the forgiveness He offers.

Behold the Man.

Is He not glorious? Is He not worthy of all our devotion? When I look upon the truth of what He did and the stark contrast to what I deserve, all that I am overflows in gratitude and worship. Oh, what He has done for us; what a price He has paid so that we may not die in our sins but rather die to sin and live for Him, both in this life and in Eternity!

It is no wonder that Paul could write to the Philippian church, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Behold the Man!