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.

 

 

Relationships in the Void

By the time this post goes live, I will be figuring out where to go and what to do for the conference I’m attending. The thing is in God’s hands. His will be done, and may He be glorified whether I come away with a contract or not. In keeping with the relationship theme of the week, I leave you today with an old post from my first blog:

We love because he first loved us.
(1 John 4:19)

It is quite impossible to live on this earth without having an impact on anyone else. In order to avoid having any effect on any other person – even a slight effect such as causing them to wonder briefly if you are in a bad mood – one would have to live in a relational void with absolutely no contact with another human being.

To put it very bluntly, this simply means that it is impossible to hurt oneself without hurting others. There are no crimes perpetrated against self only; they all have repercussions to others.

For example, a drunk or a drug user does not merely poison his or her body. Relationships are poisoned as well. If an addict drives under the influence, he or she risks – and sometimes robs – the lives of others.

If such a one is married, puts the bottle comes between spouses. If a father or mother, an element of embarrassment and confusion is added to the children’s view of the parent. That’s the best of situations. In the worst, the user brings fear and suffering into the parent/child relationship. Often, children raised this way are condemned to live and grow within the abuse cycle, either becoming abusers themselves or accepting abuse as normal.

No matter how self-contained this one may seem, if help is not sought and the habit kicked, self-destruction occurs and brings heartache to loved ones. A drunk or drug user does not merely harm him or herself, he or she is an indiscriminate inflictor of harm.

Another common viewpoint is that any sexual act happening between consenting adults is harmless. This is also bunk, unless the consenting adults in question happen to be permanently committed to one another in marriage. Otherwise, the promiscuous couple carry emotional baggage (and sometimes physical consequences) which they impose upon any future sexual partners without regard for the feelings of the other.

In this case, “the more the merrier” falls short of truth. The more baggage, the more emotional debris is strewn across the relational landscape.

If, by some flight of complete idiocy, one or both of the “consenting adults” is already married, they by their self-serving act bring an emotional wrecking ball into the marital relationship. If children are present, they are ruthlessly battered  in the process.

Sex, then, fails to be a personal and private act unless it is kept between permanently between two people. Otherwise, it is somewhat clownishly public.

I will confess the pre-Christ me was party to both of these points of view, and therefore I have no qualms in railing against them. In doing so, I rail against my own past and my own foolishness. I am the clown; I am the idiot of this story. Too many were wounded by the shrapnel of my former self-destruction.

However, I am delighted to say that this human quality of inter-connectedness works in more pleasant ways as well. Love, too, can trickle out from others and bring succor to war-ravaged emotional landscapes. Scars may be left behind, but healing can be complete beneath them.

I found this love in no other but the one the Jews call the Messiah. I was far too damaged at the time I met Him to even see it in others. It was the stunning realization of His love and humility that caused me to see past my own pain to the harm I caused others.

Once enough healing had taken place that I could limp along a bit on my own, He began to show me the messy, imperfect, and glorious love found in the community of true believers.

Now I find it is my duty to love others rather than to loathe myself. It is at this time my fervent prayer that love will be my whole motive, that selflessness will replace selfishness, and that those who were wounded by shrapnel in my battle with myself will find the same healing, the same peace… and the same shock of cold water waking them fully to the Absolute Truth.

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
(1 John 4:20-21)

 

Legacy

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
(1 Thessalonians 4:13)

Just over a week ago, a lady I have immense admiration for passed from this world. She was an absolute beauty and the wealth she left behind is a fortune of dizzying proportions.

But neither her wealth nor her beauty were notable by the standards of this age and culture.

In fact, her body showed the wear and tear of her 96 years. Small of stature, I doubt she weighed 90 pounds fully dressed and soaking wet. The last few months saw her in much pain and often in a wheelchair, yet she was cheerful and had a smile and kind words for everyone.

Nonetheless, she was truly lovely. Hers was the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit – a beauty which has followed her and found its fulfillment in her permanent home with the Eternal God.

And her fortune… How can I describe it? It is one of the largest I have ever seen. A spiritual legacy spanning four generations. A wealth of faithful obedience to God and of love and compassion which staggers the mind. It is a fortune of far greater value and permanence than any dollar amount.

Her son and daughter-in-law, their children, and their grandchildren have all been heirs of this vast treasure. I see the same gentle and quiet spirit in them. There is joy and laughter and love all around.

Of course, there is pain and strife, too. But when error or rebellion rise up here or there in the family, mercy and grace abound. Within the family and for those who know them, there is not a soul who has reason to doubt that they are loved and important, not only by the family but also by the Lord.

But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.
Psalms 103:17-18

One of my close friends, a prayer and accountability partner, comes from this spiritual inheritance and so I, too, benefit from it. So do our daughters who are also close.

Of course there is mourning for the temporary loss of this precious woman of God. Yet I must say they grieve splendidly, for in the family’s grief, there is also a streak of joy – the joy of knowing she has arrived safely Home.

All of us, myself included, look forward to our own Homecoming. Some future day, we will see her again and once more worship the King of Glory together, but better than before. Then, we will no longer encumbered by sin, weariness, or pain.

And in the meantime, all of us have seen in her an example of eager expectation of the day the Lord calls us home and faithful, uncomplaining endurance if He leaves us here – even if leaving us here is the most difficult part.

So today, my prayers go out for these, my friends. But even more so, my prayers reach out for those friends and loved ones who do not have this hope. My prayer is for my Lord to draw all who are consumed by sorrow and despair to Himself that they may share in an inheritance beyond all imagining.

I was once one of these – hurting and hopeless – and I well know the futility of denying God and living for myself. But He called me out from this pit; called me to die to myself and live for Him.

For my recently departed friend,  for her loved ones, and for all of us who are in Christ, physical death is no longer the enemy to be avoided but the friend to be embraced. It will be the final conquering act over our flesh before our true lives begin.

My friends, my dears, if you have not found love in this dark world, know that it is there. He is there – the One who is Love. The Way, the Truth, the Life.

Find Him. Find hope.

And someday, I pray I can introduce you to Nan – one of my personal heroes.

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
1 Corinthians 15:55

Gross But Good

… the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
(Matthew 20:28)

Last Friday night, I spent some time with my 14-year-old and two adorable little girls wearing a sweatshirt and yoga pants merrily festooned with vomit.

It was glorious.

Well, OK, not the vomit of course…

My Sweet Potata had agreed to babysit for some friends but had neglected to tell me the two previous nights had been sleepless for her. Once my gang arrived home from school, her bleary eyes and slumped shoulders told the tale even before she could confess.

So I decided to tag along and be her wingman. We had a fantastic conversation on the drive over, and the first couple of hours were filled with joyful giggles and silly games. At the appropriate time, my no-longer-little girl tucked the two sweeties into bed we both settled in to do a little reading.

Twenty minutes later, I was bathing the youngest while big sister provided Sweet Potata with a detailed narrative of the differences between her sister’s vomit and the one time she had thrown up.

At this point, I wasn’t sure if excitement or illness had caused the event, but I was thankful God had worked things out so Sweet Potata and I could switch hit. Once the little one was bathed, Sweet Potata sat with the sisters and read books while I cleaned up the crib. Not long after, she had big sister back in bed while I held the little one in another room.

Seconds later, said little one was back in the tub and my clothing had acquired some distinctive new attributes. Even still, it was a wonderful evening.

You see, now that my own children are teens, connection with them does not always come as easily as it did when they were small. They no longer believe I know everything and in fact are often convinced I am not even capable of spelling my name correctly. They definitely doubt my abilities.

But all of it – the pulling away, the incessant questioning of my motives, the disbelief that our family rules are there for the good of each person, the reluctance to believe my insistence on a hygienic household and on the nutritional deficit of Pop Tarts have merit– all of it is a natural and necessary part of growing up.

But as a parent, it is a painful part.

And crazily, as I sat in the floor with the towel-wrapped toddler by my side (because my lap was, shall we say, no longer a pleasing place to snuggle), I had a powerful glimpse of the enormity of God’s love for me.

Like my teenage daughter, I spent much of my life pulling away from my Father. In truth, I rejected Him entirely.

All of humanity did. We all wanted to go our own way, test our boundaries without the pesky interference of thoughts for the future. We all disbelieved His laws were given out of love and concern for us. We all sinned and fell short of His glory.

Yet so great is His love that He did not give up on us.

Instead, He sent His Son away from Glory to immerse Himself in humanity. The Creator subjecting Himself to all the vile things which occur in a human body since the day sin entered and brought decay and death into His creation.

While here, Yeshua reached past the festering reek of leprosy and touched those who were infected by it – despite the social stigma of being unclean.

He raised the dead. He endured being spat upon, mocked, and brutally tortured. It is likely there were times when He was covered in worse things than vomit.

Suddenly, as I sat with one arm wrapped around a sick little sweetie, listening to my daughter’s voice mingled with big sister’s and ignoring the clammy funk of my own clothing, I realized something.

Yeshua came and suffered the nastiness of being human because it was worth it.

To me, all the cleaning up – and yes, even the light coating of vomit – was worth it. That night, I was able offer friends who are dealing with so much a chance to have some time alone together. I had the privilege of offering comfort to one I claim as a part-time daughter.

But most of all, it was worth it to reach through the wall of adolescent stubbornness and bring a little restoration into my relationship with my daughter. To talk with her and enjoy each other as we did when she was small. To know I was there by her side in a difficult situation.

And that is precisely why my Lord came. To restore the connection He once had with His beloved creation. To walk through the yuck with us.

For Him, I believe, it was worth wearing a bit of foulness to walk and talk with His beloved children once more as He used to before sin entered the world.

Which just makes me love Him even more.

For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
(2 Corinthians 1:5)

Just a Prayer

 For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Selah.
(Psalms 62:5-8)

Gracious Redeemer, You are the only One who can restore the wreckage of humanity caused by sin. You, Lord, restore our brokenness when we humbly seek and submit to Your ways. Thank You for coming into our terrible mess and bringing hope and for setting us free from slavery to sin. Thank You for providing in Your Son an example to emulate and a goal to strive for and for Your Spirit who provides guidance for the willing heart.

Lord, break our hearts afresh today for our sin and restore in us a proper awe and reverence for You! Restore to us the joy of our salvation this day and continue to do so in the days to come – a great flood of joy in You which will spill out on everyone in our path..

This day, we also ask for Your help in bringing our hearts to obedience. We confess that we are stubborn and often rebel against Your grace. We put higher priorities on the things of this world – things that will soon pass away – than we do on You and on Your Kingdom.

Forgive us, Lord. Help us to overcome our unbelief. Increase our love for You so that obedience to You is of utmost importance in our everyday lives and is evidenced by the way we live each day. Guide our priorities and show us the way they should be ordered, and teach our hearts obedience to Your ordained order.

Please also help our families. Heal broken hearts and restore damaged relationships and shattered trust. Crush our hearts for our sin towards our husbands, wives, parents, children, siblings, or anyone else and prod us to confess with humility and seek forgiveness.

Where we have been hurt, remind us of how we have grieved You, the God who is Love, and help us to extend to others the forgiveness You have already shown to us. Redeem our relationships in all aspects, Lord, and mold us into a people for Your pleasure and purposes, amen.

Intentions

Love…  is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
(1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

Satan seems to be on a rampage, at least in my family.

My adolescent children go to battle daily against one another – these alien beings who once were the closest of friends. Just this morning, there were names and accusations flung without the slightest regard for sanity or the feelings of others.

Words flung like darts, drawing blood, stirring up wrath, and making me question the enormous cost of private school when I could at least be physically present to mediate arguments if they were still home schooled.

Either way, this afternoon I must attend to one of the more unpleasant parental duties. Lord, be my guide…

On a wider scale, there is ongoing conflict in my extended family. Once again, people who love one another now wound and are wounded with brutal words and fiery  perspectives.

And all around me, it seems I hear murmurs of anger seething in the undercurrent of society. Social media is engaged for antisocial purposes. Marriages crumble and children are ruined by the shrapnel. Wives mock their husbands. Husbands disparage their wives. Christians do not wait for the adversary’s fiery arrows but inflame one another with an unceasing barrage of “friendly fire” kindled in our hearts.

It is heartbreaking; truly, truly heartbreaking.

Yet through it all, my God speaks to me, reminding me that while I can grieve for the sins of my children or others, I can only repent of my own.

Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
(1 Corinthians 10:12)

In the midst of the wreckage, I must not fall  into the perilous rut of my own sinful tendencies, responding to anger with more anger.

Now more than ever, love is needed to quench the not only the fires of fury, but also the smoldering coals which lie beneath ready to burst into full flame at the slightest spark.

This morning as I spoke with my Lord about these things, He reminded me of Paul’s letter. I was struck by the very depths of our depravity.

We so rarely act in love.

I so rarely act in love.

I can be irritable. I have been resentful. In the midst of conflict, my tendency is to assume the worst possible motives of the other party.

And my friends, that assumption is nearly always a monstrous lie.

Why is it that we tend to paint our own actions and attitudes in glowing colors, justifying our every wrong by some fault of another, and yet we presume the most diabolical and vicious motives of those around us?

We take everything personally but do not mean anything personal when we are the speaker or doer. We expect mercy  for ourselves but are quick to lash out before questioning if our grievance is real or merely perceived.

We carefully store up every offense against us, keeping not only a record of wrong but preserving each complaint as diligently as we would a marvelous treasure, bringing it out from time to time as some twisted talisman of justification.

Church! Today is not the day to stand against our brothers and sisters! Today is the day to stand against evil; to rejoice with the truth; to refrain from bitterness or resentment; to bear all offenses; to believe the best in others; to hope for reconciliation in the Spirit of God; to endure all things – including the exquisite prick of conviction reminding us to purge our own hearts of the ghost of grievances past.

In love, let us assume the best of one another when we speak. Let us embrace forgiveness, remembering the Gracious Redeemer who has forgiven the massive accumulation of wrongs we have each committed against Him.

Where we are wronged, let us search for ways we have wronged others – and repent. Where there are past hurts, let us pray for the power to release them, asking God to heal the poisonous blight of bitterness in our hearts.

And above all else, let us love each other well, striving daily to fill our hearts with the love of the Most High God so our mouths will speak His goodness and praise.  Whether husband, wife, child, parent, sibling, or any other relationship, let those of us who are in Christ earnestly seek humble hearts, reserving our most critical judgement for ourselves and choosing to believe in the best intentions of others.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
(Philippians 2:3)

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!
(Psalms 133:1)

120503_1423Lord, forgive us and guide us. How we need Your redeeming power in our relationships today! Help us to walk in the only perfect Love the world has ever known and reconcile us with our brothers. May Your grace shine in us and unify us in Christ, amen. 

 

 

 

 

**Before I go, I do want to jot a note that I will soon be offering my first ever book review and giveaway! Today, however, the need to cry out for Love to intervene in some ugly situations eclipsed my heart… Stay tuned!