My Christmas Wish

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Luke 2:7

There it is, recorded for posterity in anticlimactic language – the moment God came to be not only with us, but as one of us.

When I really meditate on the implications of the Almighty Creator as a human infant without even the ability to control His limbs or focus His eyes, it fills me with an emotion there are no words for. How can any act of humility be too great for me to submit to in light of what He’s done for me? How can I not feel awe and reverence and wonder?

But then… I think we humans have a great capacity to trivialize. We see the image of that first Christmas everywhere this time of year, but it is sanitized and greatly altered from the reality. Modern Nativity scenes are filled with a couple of peaceful animals, a Western-style barn, a lovely winged lady, and a small gathering of predominantly white people.

Not remotely realistic. Nor very awe-inspiring.

I wonder sometimes if in this age of rapid technological advances and torrential information overload, we’ve lost our sense of wonder? When we can describe a chocolate bar as divine or a movie as awesome, have we lost our sense of what Divinity and Awe really are?

If we have Westernized and sterilized the Nativity to the point of losing that peculiar mixture of terror and joy brought about by the Most High’s astonishing incarnation, it’s no wonder we so easily lose sight of the purpose of His birth.

Forgiveness of sin. Eternal life. These are tremendous, staggering concepts, but we so often treat them as background information – a side show to the really important stuff of shopping and eating and watching shows. Or at least that is what an objective observer would likely think by the way we spend our time and dollars.

However, no matter how fleeting our thoughts on the Blessed Event of our Savior’s birth, no matter how little value we place on the priceless gift He gave by His death and resurrection, I guarantee there will not be a single human being unaffected by His future return as King of kings!

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.

Revelation 19:11-13

Visualize that moment. It’s hard for me not to feel awe. And the crazy thing is, no matter how easy Yeshua may have been to overlook at His unassuming, anticlimactic First Advent, He will not be easily dismissed at the Second.

So today, this season, spend some time reading and reflecting on what it means that the Creator God came to earth as a human child…

That He learned to eat, crawl, talk, walk…

That He experienced the range of human experience and temptation without falling into sin…

That His only experience of sin was on the cross when He bore the weight of all of our crimes…

That He did this for YOU…

That despite the humiliation of an ignoble birth, a life devoid of worldly success, betrayal, the shame of public execution, and all of that, He will come again, but this time in all His power and splendor…

And that next time, you will recognize Him and honor Him whether you believe now or not.

Next time, there will be no decision to make; your decision will be made already – too late for some. Next time, if you haven’t chosen to surrender to Him willingly now, you will surrender… but it will be too late to be saved.

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11

So my Christmas wish this year is this: Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, consider my Lord Yeshua. Read His story. Think about these things. And give your life to Him so that we can talk about the wonder of His mighty saving grace for eternity.

Choose Jesus, Yeshua Messiah. Choose life.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days…

Deuteronomy 30:19-20a, emphasis mine

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!

Book Review: The End of the Magi

After Yeshua was born in Beit-Lechem in the land of Y’hudah during the time when Herod was king, Magi from the east came to Yerushalayim and asked, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

Matthew 2:1-2, CJB

I discovered Patrick W. Carr quite by accident while browsing through my library’s catalog. The Shock of Night‘s back cover description promised to fulfill the vague “something different” I’d been looking for, and the story well-satisfied it’s promise.

I devoured the entire Darkwater Saga and followed it up with the Staff and the Sword series before I decided to research the author. To my delight, his website offered the opportunity to help promote his newest book, The End of the Magi. I jumped at the chance.

The End of the Magi is a different genre for Mr. Carr – historical fiction rather than fantasy – but it did not disappoint.

The book tells the story of a young club-footed Persian man, Myrad, whose adopted Jewish father is one of the magi in Ctesiphon, the ancient capital city of the Persian empire. Myrad dreams of a strange star and wakes to find his father has had the same dream.

On the very day Myrad’s father decides to seek the youth’s promotion from apprentice to full magus, Musa, the Roman concubine of King Phraates sets a bloody trap for the magi who oppose her aspirations to become queen.

In the resulting chaos, Myrad’s life is thrust into an unexpected trajectory, though he continues his father’s work on an ancient calendar marking the days until the fulfillment of ancient prophecies of the Jewish Messiah – a day that may occur during Myrad’s lifetime!

I love this book for many reasons. I thoroughly enjoy that the main character, Myrad, is not a typical, flawless storyland hero but a man with a club foot who overcomes obstacles through tenacity and determination. Mr. Carr touches nicely on the Biblical story of Jesus from an interesting perspective – that of the magi who the Bible tells us “saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”

Mr. Carr does a fantastic job speculating on what little is known about the magi and combining it with some historical facts that are known about the region and time period. It’s a unique look at some of the lesser-known empires and on what life may have been like in the midst of the constant conflict between Rome and those lands she had yet to conquer.

There are some wonderful twists in the story that kept me engaged. I want you to read it for yourself, so I won’t spoil them here! However, I would like to say that I also adore that this is not just another Christmas story ending with the birth of Yeshua (Jesus). Mr. Carr looks beyond that one extraordinary event to an even more extraordinary one which stretches the understanding of Myrad and the rest of the wise men.

The End of the Magi is one man’s search for truth and purpose in a world filled with conflict and competing worldviews. In a modern setting, it could be my story. It could even be yours.

Either way, like Myrad, we are all faced with the choice of what to do with the knowledge of Yeshua. Some will choose to reject it, scoffing. Others will acknowledge it but venture no further. Still others will embrace it and structure their lives around it.

Read this book to find out Myrad’s choice. Then give some thought to your own decision. What will you do about the Jewish Messiah?

Tuesday Prayer: The King’s Birthday

I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life. I am yours; save me, for I have sought your precepts.

Psalm 119:93-94

My Lord and King, today is the day we celebrate Your birth as a human child. Though we don’t know the hour or the date, we do know that our almighty and eternal God did something incomprehensible: You stepped down from Your throne of glory and clothed Yourself in the flesh of Your own creation – not to proclaim Your might as Sovereign but to set us an example of humility and service by Your death. Truly, You are Immanuel – God with us.

Lord, no act of humility or service I can offer You will ever come close to matching what You’ve already done for me. Nothing in creation is worthy of wrapping up and giving to You. I have nothing to offer You on Your birthday; nothing to give that You haven’t first given to me.

All I have is my love for You and my will, such as they are. Though it may be a feeble thread of what ought to be, I offer You my love. I surrender my will to Yours and pray for the grace to remain in a posture of surrender forever.

I give You my adoration, my mind, body, and soul. These are the only gifts I can give my King, and even those exist only because You created them in me. And so as I celebrate Your birthday this year, I give You back what You’ve already redeemed as Your own. I am Yours, Lord; save me. Amen.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Isaiah 7:14

Tuesday Prayer: Two Advents

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. 

Revelation 19:11-13

Word of God, on this last week of Advent, we look back at Your historical first coming; a time when You laid aside Your majesty to clothe Your splendor in the substance of Your own creation, being born as a tiny infant – the Son of Man. But there is more to Advent than the past. We also look forward to that great and future Day when You will appear as the conquering King, ready to reclaim the world You’ve redeemed and rule it with justice and equity.

Oh Lord, You are the living Word of God given to mankind that we may know of Your mercy and grace. You are also Faithful and True, the only just Judge who will one day mete out the sentence for all who have refused Your generous offer of salvation in the righteousness of the Christ. Yet for those who have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus, there is no condemnation but only the imputing of His sinless perfection and a grace we cannot earn.

This Christmas season, Lord, help us to be mindful of the incredible wonder of this, the greatest Gift ever offered. May the contemplation of Your Son be larger in our consciousness than any baking, buying, decorating, or anything else. And as we contemplate His beauty, teach us to delight in Him more and more and in this world less and less. Indeed, Your word warns that friendship with the world is enmity towards God, so please show us where we need to reject the world’s way of thinking and being in order to fully embrace Yours.

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

James 4:4

Not only for ourselves, but for those who we will encounter this Christmas season, not only our loved ones, but our co-workers, those who we see in traffic, the clerks and waiters who serve us in our purchasing and celebrating, and even for our enemies or those who treat us poorly, remind us of the urgency of the message of Christmas. Remind us, too, how we once walked as people who were dead in our sins and give us compassion for others.

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 5:44-45a

Break our hearts for those who stand condemned in this world and give us opportunities to share Your truth with them. Open our eyes to those who lack the hope of Christ to make life’s pain bearable. Even if they are hostile towards our efforts, still goad us to diligently pray for them even as we praise and glorify You by our actions, words, and choices in their presence. Lord, if we could ask for one more gift this Christmas, please give us the privilege of seeing many come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ our Lord, amen. 

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

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.