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.

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.

 

 

Tuesday Prayer: Because He Knows

Bit of background on today’s prayer:

As some of you know, I have been studying Biblical Hebrew with the goal of someday being able to read the Bible in both Hebrew and Greek. The reason? I just plain love the Word that much; both the Word who was in the beginning and the Book. For real.

At any rate, I was working through a portion of Exodus 3 and came to the end of verse 7 where God says, “I know their suffering.”

Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings…  (Exodus 3:7)

The Hebrew word translated “I know” ( יָדַ֖עְתִּי) is transliterated yadati. The root, yada, connotes several concepts, among which are to discern or find out, to know by experience. It is the same word used metaphorically for carnal knowledge (as in “Adam knew his wife”), which in my mind implies a very intimate knowledge.

Then it hit me. God truly does intimately know the suffering of His people. He even knows suffering by experience, because He experienced suffering as one of us.

By the hands of those He came to save, He endured flogging and blows. By the mouths of those He supplied with the ability to speak, He sustained mockery. By the act of one of His closest companions, He faced betrayal. Upon the wood of a cross made from a tree He created, he bore our shame.

And because He did these things and more, we who are in Christ have a great High Priest who intercedes for us before the Throne of Grace. When we turn from our own way and submit our lives fully to Him, we receive grace. Because the One who never sinned became sin for us, we become His righteousness when we, though faith, become His.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
(2 Corinthians 5:21)

So today, I raise my plea to Him:

El Roi, our God Who sees, we praise You for the simple yet profound fact that You do see us. You see us in all our afflictions, in each celebration, and in every mundane moment in between.

Nothing done in the darkness is hidden from Your sight and no evil passes without Your noticing it. Not only the wrongs others commit against us but also the wrongs perpetrated by us – all alike are noticed by You and wrought for the good of those who love You. For this, our hearts overflow with gratitude and praise.

Not only do You see us, but You know us far better, even, then we know ourselves. Before a word is on our tongue, You know it. You even know the number of hairs on our heads. But perhaps the most poignantly, You know the suffering of Your people because You also lived and suffered as a man.

Thanks to Your compassion and grace, we can trust You in the intimate way You see and know us. Because of Your love, this knowledge does not beat us down but instead inspires us to keep pressing forward, lifting our eyes off of ourselves and our sorrows and onto the Man of Sorrows who is acquainted with grief.

It is Christ’s experiential knowledge of suffering which allows us to approach the Throne of Grace with confidence. Because of what our Lord Jesus did in his time on earth, we have a high priest who has suffered in every way we have yet did so without falling to sin.

So it is today, Lord, that we as Your church humbly approach You and ask for a filling of Your mercy and grace. Please supply us with both in ample supply that we are enabled to serve You with fierce effectiveness, bearing much fruit for Your harvest – fruit that will last and that is rooted in mercy and grace as we share Your truth with others, amen. 

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 4:15-16)

Analog Interaction in a Digital World

For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
(Romans 12:4-5)

Because my time is short, today I hope to give you the nickel version of a topic which deserves much more time. Much more. I want to talk about church membership and why it is important to the believer.

I know, I know, I’ve heard it before. Truth be told, I’ve even said it before: I don’t need the church to worship God. I can worship Him in private. Et cetera.

When I was a young Christian, I believed that with all my heart even though I never did actually stop going to church. But as I’ve walked in some dark and frightening places with the Lord, He has shown me otherwise.

Because, friends, those dark and frightening places were not out there in the world but right here, in my own heart and soul.

I’ve walked with His light shining in the darkness, exposing sin and I’ve learned to call it what it is. My sin. My selfishness and self-protectiveness and approval addiction and other ugly features.

But I’ve no wish to focus on those things today. Many have been dredged up and removed, and while I’m sure there will be many more dead and decaying things dredged up in the future, today I want to focus on the Lord. He is the reason to be a part of a church, because the church is His body.

And you need it. And it needs you.

Friends, here’s the thing. If we are truly the body of Christ, we don’t really get to choose. It’s God who makes the body and He’s the one who gets to decide where the pieces go, what they do, and how they work together to achieve His purposes.

But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.
(1 Corinthians 12:18)

If we take the arrangement of the body into our own hands – even choosing our own part to play – we invite chaos and disaster. In such a case, not only are we taking on the role of the Creator, we are also rebelling against the authority of the Head – a body made of parts with no control center, running amok and doing as they wish without a central purpose or direction.

And if you think of it in those terms, it’s more than a trifle ludicrous.

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.
(1 Corinthians 12:14-15)

It’s also somewhat mutinous. Just think of your own elbow deciding it would much prefer to digest food than be a hinge. Ew. Or your heart imposing a preference of beating on the outside where all can see his might instead of dutifully thumping away in a cage.

Or what if the heart bore a grudge against his bony housing and decided he would not beat at all as long as the ribs remained in their place? That would not be a healthy body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
(1 Corinthians 12:21)

Aside from that, there’s a simple fact we cannot afford to ignore. It is not in spite of the church’s fault but because of them that we need it.

By learning to be rejected and overlooked, by having our toes stepped on and stepping on the toes of others, by being burnt out or just burnt; in short, by belonging to a group of redeemed sinners in various stages of sanctification, we strive together and grind against one another and wear on one another.

We grow to be more Christlike because we learn to endure mistreatment like Christ. We see how far we are from being Christlike because we are forced to see how we mistreat others. Our pride is exposed and humility begins to take its place as we learn to submit to the Headship of Christ together.

In putting aside jealousy and self-importance, we learn to celebrate others’ success and mourn others’ losses as if they were our own. We become a single Body, living and breathing and worshiping no longer for self but for the eternal glory of our Head, Jesus Christ our Lord.

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
(1 Corinthians 12:26-27)

And as much as I love the blogging community, I also realize the limitations of digital relationships. There’s zero chance of an awkward encounter on the web. We aren’t forced to get through relationship difficulties on the internet; we can just unfriend,  mute, or ignore. Even delete. And we can’t blurt out something accidentally offensive. We have time to read and edit.

That is why in this day and age, we need to foster our face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder relationships, growing together and building one another up in love.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
(Ephesians 4:15-16)

For more on this topic, check out: Hurt by Church? Me Too. Let’s Chat.

Tuesday Prayer: Free

My friends, it is crunch time for me. My hope is to post twice a week – Tuesday prayers and something different on either Thursday or Friday. However, a deadline is closing in on me. Before September 20, I need to get as much of the book edited as I can, polish the first 3 chapters to a high gloss, and assemble a full proposal.

Because of this, any time I am not tutoring, carting teens around, spending time with my husband, or washing endless dishes will probably be spent on the book. So if I’m slow to respond or n ever get around to reading your blogs, it’s nothing personal. I’ll be back soon enough, Lord willing. 

Now on to my prayer for the Church:

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.
(Romans 6:20-21)

Our King, gracious and merciful, You are slow to anger and Your covenant loyalty is perfect beyond the farthest reaches of our imaginings. You are majestic in holiness and mighty in power. There is no darkness so complete that Your light cannot penetrate nor sinner too distant that Your hand cannot reach.

Today we lift up our voices in praise and gratitude. Thank You for rescuing us by the willing death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. You have broken the chains of sin which bound us and lifted us out of the pit of rebellion. We are Yours, Lord; save us and keep saving us again and again from our sinful proclivities.

When we dawdle around the pits of our imprisonment to sin or finger our broken chains, we beg for Your help in changing our hearts. Fill us with Your Spirit and give us the desire to want more of You and less of the world. Remove the fascination for sinful things far from us. Help us to not only say we are more than conquerors through Christ but to live it out.

Oh God, forgive our unbelief and help us to overcome it! Help us to live as free men and women, no longer held fast by the enticements of the world. Instead, remind us of the bitterness of fruit grown in sin and give us a craving for the good fruit of righteousness and of the Holy Spirit. Make us into oaks of righteousness, plantings for the display of Your splendor. Grow in us good fruit – fruit that will last – and align our hearts, minds, wills, and motives with Your perfect plan, amen.

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound …
… to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.
(Isaiah 61:1,3)

 

Wholly Holy

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
(Romans 12:1)

We humans have a rather silly tendency to compartmentalize our lives.

It would be wonderfully convenient if this tendency were limited to unbelievers; if, for example, we could point our collective finger and laugh at science as it grapples with where the platypus fits into the man-made categories of the animal kingdom. Then we could offer a smug smile when a whole new category is created to house this beast.

But in an honest moment, most of us have to admit that we compartmentalize, too.

We tend to have tidy little sectors of life which we believe do not affect one another. On one hand – our sacred places – we can agree that lying is evil and shake our heads in horror at the appalling falsehoods some government official or celebrity is caught in. A bare minute later, we participate in a little white lie of our own: dishonest reporting for a homeschool year in which the actual days of school fell dismally short of the state-mandated attendance requirement, or a decision to keep the wrong change from some transaction because the balance is in our favor.

Then there’s our holy side again at church on Sunday as we lift our voice to a praise song, one hand raised and tears running down our cheeks. Come next Friday night, we lift the same voice to quite a different song with lyrics that belittle the marriage relationship. Or we lower our voices to a friend as we tear our spouses apart in slander.

We can have a smug criticism for the corruption within Hollywood and yet funnel our dollars into movies and shows which aren’t “that bad,” thus we fund the very corruption we condemn.

My goodness, we really are a ridiculous spectacle when we stop to think of it! But of course, there’s grace to cover all that. No need to worry. Right?

Well, actually…

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
(Romans 6:1-2)

In truth, there is no partition between what we say and do inside our worship gatherings and what we say and do in our workweek or our weekend labors or entertainments. If Christ has redeemed us, He has done so completely.  We are either all His – or not.

This is not to say we will never stumble. But it is to say we will, by the Spirit of God, be brutally honest with ourselves and not call our conscious choices “stumbles.”

We will not divide up the arena of our lives so that one does not bleed into another. To believe we can even do such a thing is to believe a grave lie.

Instead, we can walk in naked honesty before God and our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can recognize that we are whole beings, and that one part affects the whole. All is sacred for those who are in Christ. All is secular for those who are not.

For those outside, we do not rage but weep. For our fellows on the inside, we are firm against sin but forgiving in love because we have been forgiven in love.

We set our faces against sin everywhere it lurks: in our own hearts, in our families, in the Church. We recognize our ability to choose and hold one another accountable to choose Truth.

Recognizing that we who are in Christ no longer belong to ourselves but to Him, we present our entire being to the Lord Our Righteousness for His good pleasure.  Then, together, we rejoice in His Kingdom and His righteousness now and forevermore!

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.
(Romans 6:12-13)

… You are not your own, for you were bought with a price…
(1 Corinthians 6:19b-20a)

Tuesday Prayer: Ambassadorship

… in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…
(1 Peter 3:15)

O Lord Our Righteousness, Your name truly is Holy – the Name above all other names. It is only by Your grace that we share in the righteousness of Your Son and not by anything we have done. This gift – Your righteousness – is a gift we could never earn even if we were given thousands of years to try. It is by Your hand and by the obedience of Your Son alone that we are given a chance to clothe ourselves in His righteousness and be called by His name.

As the world around us seems to spin out of control in a downward spiral of rage, argumentativeness, name-calling, and finger-pointing, remind us who we are in Christ. May we bear His name well in all we do, allowing His righteousness to guide our words, our thoughts, our entertainments, and all decisions whether small or large. Let us be good ambassadors and show us what it means to be always prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in us.  May we never forget to do so with gentleness and respect.

Keep our consciences clean, Lord, and forgive us when we have entered wrongly into debates with unbelievers and answered hostility and arrogance with more of the same. Though our intentions may be good, we too often get tripped up by our emotions and simply fuel the raging fire of panic and anger.

Instead, when we speak with those who do not know You, remind us that we were once blind, poor, and fatally sick in our sin before You saved us. The people who rage and fume, the people who seem to be at war against Your Church are not actually our enemy. They are deceived and pawns in the hands of the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

With that in mind, help us to keep our sharpest discipline and judgement on the inside, directed at our own hearts and churches, just as Jesus had the sharpest words for the religious leaders of His time. When it comes to those outside the Church, let us share with them our genuine joy in the Good News of our own rescue.

Lord, teach us to walk so closely with You that every single response which falls from our lips is seasoned by Your Word and guided by Your wisdom. Help us not to become frantic or fearful as the darkness closes in but remind us that Jesus warned us it would happen. And yet, no matter how dark the world becomes – and it has been dark since the first man and woman sinned – our King is still the Light of the world. There is no darkness which can overcome You.

So help us to trust You, Lord. Guide us to peace and confidence in Christ, speaking the Gospel from a place of genuine trust and absolute conviction that Your word will do what You send it to do. You are faithful, Lord, and You will bring to completion Your own perfect plan. We can rest in that, cooperating with You as Your people and not falling into the mistake of blending with the culture around us.  Teach us to be proper ambassadors for You, appealing on behalf of Christ, “Be reconciled with God!”

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
(2 Corinthians 5:20-21)