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.

Impetus

“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
(Lamentations 3:24)

When our small church was unable to meet corporately last Sunday due to a scheduling conflict in the elementary school where we meet, some of our friends and family decided to move our worship outdoors. Because of the unusual opportunity and the beautiful weather, we met to hike a portion of the Fiery Gizzard Trail in South Cumberland State Park.

The plan was to take a 9-mile loop that included a stop at a scenic overlook about half-way. However, due to a, um… slight disagreement about the direction to take after our  stop, we wound up hiking down a steep gorge and back up again. Meanwhile, my intuition, which has been honed by playing, “Hey, guys, let’s see if we can get lost in the woods” with my cousins when we were children, dogged each step with a cerainty that we were headed the wrong way.

As we took the rough stone steps, I recall thinking that our navigator may be in some slight danger of mutiny if we had, in fact, taken a wrong turning. Not until we had climbed to the bottom of the  ravine and back up the other side did we all stop and look at one another with the absolute certainty that we were not on the 4.5 mile loop back to our cars, but on the 8-mile stretch that headed to the trail’s southern end in another town.

Frustrated with himself (and possibly nervous about the possibility of violent mutiny), our navigator took off back towards the way we had come, as, with a few scattered murmurs, the rest of us collected ourselves and followed him.

It was absolutely glorious.  

There is not much I love more than hiking, and this particular trail is on my personal top Mom01110 list. Each step of the way back, I brought up the rear with my mom (who turns 66 today – happy birthday, Mama!). She had tweaked her knee somewhere in all the elevation change and had to take it a little slower. This was fine by me since it afforded an opportunity to drink in all the splendor of my Father’s handiwork.

All told, we hiked approximately 14.25 miles and by doing so answered the question of about how long we would need to plan to hike the Fiery Gizzard end-to-end (13 miles). It’s easily doable in a day, even leaving time for my beloved Nikon if we start early.

And as is my habit, the whole trek got me thinking about my walk with the Lord.

Some of our number who are not as giddily in love with the forests and hills as I found the last leg of our trek to be sheer misery. A fair amount of complaints were vocalized, as were several wistful wishes for extra water or a nice, juicy steak.

But for me, even the accidental detour was delightful. Even through the discomfort of thirst and the annoyance of arthritic feet, I enjoyed the quiet beauty of the woods, the surprising red-orange of occasional mushrooms, the steady plashing of the streams. In my experience, I have found that focusing on trouble only makes it that much harder to bear.

The difference, however, was not only focus but motive. 

True, I chose to concentrate on the scenery rather than ponder hunger or the pain of sore feet. But the bigger reason for the disconnect in our various experiences is that I love hiking for hiking’s sake. A short jaunt into the woods, particularly after a long drive, leaves me feeling cheated, so an entire day spent reveling in the Master’s artistry was a rare and wonderful pleasure.

Likewise, my walk with the Lord – and for that matter, all my relationships – are affected by motive. If my motivation for following God’s trail is solely what I can get out of it, be it blessings, comfort, peace, provision, or anything else, then I stand to be disappointed when things take a wrong turning.

However, following my Messiah for His own sake – well, that, my friends is where joy in the journey is found; not merely joy because of circumstances but even joy despite them. There – in Him – is true and lasting peace.

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.
(Isaiah 26:3-4)