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

Freedom

So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 4:31-5:1

I’ve probably mentioned before, but this is the busiest season of my life to date. Just keeping up with my teenagers takes up many hours of my week. Thus my erratic posting…

At any rate, a recent read of the Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass coupled with a study of Galatians has me thinking through Christian freedom.

As briefly as I can, I think I’ve spent much of my journey with the Lord grappling with the idea of freedom. It’s taken me some time to come to grips with exactly what it means to be free.

Perhaps this is due to the bizarre misunderstanding of the term, “freedom” my culture embraces. When most of us think of “freedom” in Christ, the mental picture we seem to conjure is more akin to licence than to actual freedom.

Freedom in Christ is not freedom to do whatever one wants. It’s so much better! The freedom Christ died to give is freedom from enslavement to sin. Freedom to choose not to sin, not freedom to engage in it.

The enemy of our soul is a liar whose goal is to steal our freedom and sell us a cheap substitute instead: a free-for-all instead of freedom. Licence instead of liberty.

Interestingly enough, the slavemasters of the 1800s apparently took a lesson from the ancient snake. As Mr. Douglass writes:

Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labelled with the name of liberty. The most of us used to drink it down, and the result was just what might be supposed: many of us were led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum.

Fredrick Douglass

It’s the oldest trick in the Book. What God offers is genuine Joy, actual Liberty, a glimpse at real Life and honest Love, and our own self as we were created to be.

The enemy asks, “Did God really…?” and makes us question the Divine motive.

The snake makes love look like it’s withholding some mysterious and desirable thing. But in truth, he wants to bind us up in chains of addiction, sorrow, guilt, despair, anxiety, fear – all the nasty things we struggle under.

And that old serpent is so good at the game by now that he manages to convince us that our chains are freedom; that God wants to take something from us rather than turn us loose to live without fear and crippled by the shackles of our own cravings run amok.

The enemy glories in taking our liberty and sells us addiction, imprisonment, servitude. It especially feeds his miserable, vengeful core if he can sell us our bondage and make us think we need it to be happy. But he knows, friends, the greater the bondage, the less happiness we receive from it.

Oh how he loves to watch us squirm.

But Christ does offer freedom. Real, honest freedom.

Freedom to not need drink to have fun. Freedom to not need a hit or the next fix – of whatever.

Freedom to face death without fear, to let our kids go out into the world without anxiety, to meet the worst possible circumstance with a smile and confidence that whatever may happen to us here, our future is secure in Christ.

Freedom to live and die in victory, knowing that for those who are in Christ, death is really only the final freeing of our self from the temporary shelter of our mortal bodies, so that what is mortal can be swallowed up by Life.

Let freedom ring!

… For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.

Daniel 9:18b-19

Lord God, our King and our Redeemer, today I come before Your throne in humility and in repentance. Once again, I have allowed fear to eclipse my faith in You. Once again, I’ve given way to anxiety instead of clinging to Your promises. Again, my mind has strayed from contemplation of Your faithfulness to mull over my own failures.

We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…

2 Corinthians 10:5

Forgive me, Lord, and help me to truly take every thought captive to obey Christ! Let me not fall prey to despair when my family seems to be far from You, but help me instead to rejoice in You no matter what.

Forgive me for being silent in the face of those who resist discussing Your goodness. Instead, Lord, let my mouth be full of praise to You and my heart filled to the overflow of my love for You. Remind me that even when it seems I walk alone, I am never alone. You are with me.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4

Despite my frailty, despite my weakness and my ineptitude, Lord, You are still King. You are still on Your throne. Help me to be mindful of this fact, trusting that You can reach the hearts of my family and awaken in them a knowledge of the true depths of Your grace – even if I have failed in every way to present You to them.

For though You are gracious to use me, You do not need me to do Your work, Lord. Like a loving Father, You allow me to participate in Your work. But You are the Craftsman. You are the Master – the One who reshapes my blunders and does the work I cannot do.

But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.

Isaiah 64:*

I look to You to bring all of my family into right relationship with my Lord Yeshua Messiah. I look to Your Spirit to move in their hearts, shattering idols, quickening true passion for the things of God, slaying pride, and stirring up a keen desire for righteousness and holiness.

I cannot do this work, Lord, nor can my worry over it accomplish anything more than exposing the weakness of my faith. Return my mind once more to a contemplation of the glory of my King, and keep my eyes fixed forever on the light of Your goodness and grace.

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Colossians 3:2-3

May my heart be so filled with Your Spirit that the natural overflow of my lips is praise to You. Let my vocal and constant worship of You point others ceaselessly to Your glory.

And Lord, do a mighty work within my family, please. For Your Name’s sake, do not delay but act. Change our hearts so that we seek first Your Kingdom and Your righteousness in unity, together walking in Your light through this dark world. May our family truly be one who can say, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord;” Amen!

Tuesday Prayer: Save

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Psalm 103:2-5

Blessed Savior, I am thankful for all You have done for me! When I was blind, held captive by sin and shame, alone in the darkness and without hope, You called to me. You opened my eyes to see my sin and my caused heart to long for the way back to You.

Though my crimes were against my Creator and deserving of death, You traded Your life for mine. By laying down Your life, You paid my debt. By taking up Your life once again, You gave me a hope and a future, a new life free from bondage to sin.

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Romans 6:8-11

Today, my Deliverer, my heart is heavy for the many who are yet enslaved, captives to fear or circumstance, to addiction, to despair. There are many lost, still blinded by the god of this world and imprisoned in deepest darkness. Some of these, I know. Some, I love.

Lord God, save! I plead for them before the Throne of Grace – have mercy! Open their eyes that they may see; soften their hearts that they may believe. Bless them with a Godly grief leading to repentance and salvation without regret and lead them in the Way everlasting!

Their names You know, Lord, for often I cry out to You on their behalf. Many of them live without any hope beyond the few years we are granted on earth. These groan beneath the weight of their chains. Please grant them freedom in Christ!

Others do not even know they are in captivity, having been lured into a cozy prison by the appearance of comfort or pleasure. Of those, some now grope in growing darkness, trying to remember the way out, not realizing what once brought enjoyment has become their prison.

For all of them – for all of us – You have provided salvation through Yeshua Messiah, Jesus the Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Call to them, Lord, and draw them all to Him. Let them see by His light and lead them through that narrow gate which leads to life.

As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.

Psalm 103:13-14

Please, heal what is wounded in their hearts and restore those who are broken in spirit. Remember that they are dust, Lord, and in compassion, have mercy on them as You did on me. Rescue them, my mighty God, and deliver them from death to life.

How I long to praise You for their salvation! I know that You are merciful and gracious, and I eagerly look for the redemption of those whose names I continually lift up to You. Break down their resistance, Lord, and save them even from themselves, amen.

O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations… For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act.

Daniel 9:18-19a

Wisdom Seeker: Day 31

Proverbs 31

Well, we’ve reached the end of Proverbs and the final day of my semi-sensical ramblings. I’ve enjoyed this exercise and it’s definitely helped me think through the wisdom found in Proverbs as well as practice writing whether I love what I have to say or not… So thank you for putting up with me!

Now, on to today’s thought:

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

Proverbs 31:30

The final proverb has good advice for young men and for young women both. Definitely read it all. What I want to focus on today, however, is the second to last verse.

I am 45 years old. As I write these words (a day early due to an extremely early cross country race on Saturday), my youngest – my baby – is 15 years old.

Fifteen years ago, I gave birth via C-section to my last child, a young lady who attempted to come into the world feet first and so defied my plans of natural child birth. She’s been her own person ever since, and I love her tons. She is a rare and unique delight – as are all three of my children.

Thinking back, fifteen years ago, I was still young. My body looked completely different. My face bore less wrinkles, my head boasted more hair (and none of it gray), and my energy still kept up with the the daylight hours.

Now, youth is fading – fast! I don’t struggle with weight like some women my age do, but I still struggle with the arrangement of the weight I have being entirely different from 20 years ago. The scale reads the same but the clothing from then does not fit the same.

TMI for you fellas here, but I seem to be nearing the finish line as far as the capacity for childbearing goes. I am not young anymore.

But I am more joyful than ever before in my life. Finally, I have a stronger grasp of the extent of God’s grace. Finally, I feel the burden of having to be and do to be lifted. All I have to do is follow Him. That’s it.

It’s not that I feel I’m above the laws and commandments – far from it! The longer I’ve walked with Yeshua, the more I’ve loved Him. The more pain I’ve suffered, the more I’ve appreciate the pain He chose to suffer for me – on purpose.

And the more I love and appreciate Him, the more I find that to obey Him IS joy.

Charm? Not sure I ever had much of that. Beauty? If I had it, it’s definitely fleeting – and I see it fleeing faster and faster these days!

I do fear the Lord, though I prefer all the praises to go to Him. He is worthy!!

Wisdom Seeker: Day 30

Proverbs 30

Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.

Proverbs 30:8-9

Have you ever thanked God for affliction and trouble?

It’s a sincere question. Think about verses 8-9 of today’s reading. The author asks God to keep him in a state of in-between. He asks for neither enough wealth that he has no worries nor poverty where he has nothing but worries.

Not many of us in America fall into the second category. Oh, we may have our share of bills and not quite enough to pay them, true. But few of us have ever been tempted to steal just to fill our empty bellies.

To get to that point of need you’ll have no electric bill nor water bill to trouble your mind. No cell phone or internet service to speak of, so if you’re reading this, you’re not that poor. To face starvation, it’s doubtful you’ll have rent or a mortgage. If you have any of those things, you have something you can trade in or sell that would purchase a few decent meals at least.

It may seem counter-intuitive to actually thank God for hardship, though. After all, would you rather thank Him from a position of unshakable financial security?

I’m sure. Yet for one thing, there is no such thing as unshakable financial security. Not to mention I know of no soul so pious that it isn’t prone to relying more on it’s bank account than on God.

But that, my friends, is a dangerous place.

It’s best if we have enough difficulty in life to remind us of our need for God. The problem with wealth is that, too often, it begins to own us. Like the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-22, we feel so secure in our stuff that we hesitate to leave it behind for the lasting riches found in Christ.

When I think of this thing in terms of eternity – of the fleeting nature of health and wealth in my present state, of the rapidity with which all my earthly security can come crashing down due to an accident, diagnosis, or natural disaster – then yes, I can thank God for adversity.

For me, chronic pain has taught me more about His goodness and mercy than life as a healthy billionaire ever could. And I am thankful.

Lord, thank You for loving us enough to keep us dependent on You. No matter what life may bring, keep our eyes turned to You and our hearts inclined to loving obedience to You, amen.