It’s not (just) about the baby.

It’s Christmas so it must be time for a message about sweet baby Jesus.

Imagine standing there beside Mary and Joseph and gazing down at the Babe in the Straw. Babies are so precious and lovely and full of promise…

But they’re also messy, demanding and helpless.

In stark contrast with us sophisticated grown-ups, right? Right?

Or could we be honest enough to admit that as adults:

  • Our messes get messier—and harder to clean up (think friends or family).
  • Our demanding hearts become more self-indulgent (think finances or addictions).
  • Our striving after lasting significance is helpless (think personal legacy or mortality).

It’s obviously more comfortable to live in constant distraction and denial than to meditate about such things. But deep down inside we know we are as messy, demanding, and helpless as babies.

Such happy Christmas thoughts!

But it’s not until we really understand the bad news about ourselves that we can fully appreciate the good news about our King Jesus.

He came, in the sweetness of an infant—but with a mission. He didn’t stay in the manger. He came to lead us out of our mess. He grew into the greatest man who ever breathed (the encouragement of a teacher, the grit of a general, the wisdom of a grandfather). Every man you ever admired is only a dim fraction of all that Jesus embodied.

And he’s not a historical character. He is alive and well in glory. Yet He is near to you. He sees you, knows you, likes you, cares about you. He is able to lead you through every single disappointment and burden this world throws at you. He is worth following through this life and into the next.

So Happy Birthday Jesus. But remember that we don’t just celebrate an infant in a manger. We worship much more than that. Jesus Christ entered into the messiness, demands, and helplessness of our world and by His all-surpassing might won for us a future that is precious and lovely and full of promise.

“… [Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3).

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

In the flesh.

I love all things Christmas——especially the music. I have been humming “I love those J-I-N-G-L-E Bells” all day. But if I’m not careful, I can let my human preference for the fun and frolic of the holidays keep me from doing the hard work of meditating and reflecting on, “The Word became flesh.”

Christian celebration of Christmas is not about magical elves or flying reindeer or talking narwhals (IYKYK). For worshippers of Jesus, the Christmas celebration centers on something, if we’re honest, that’s even more challenging to believe. 

“…The real difficulty, the supreme mystery with which the gospel confronts us does not lie [with atonement or the resurrection or biblical miracles], but in the Christmas message of Incarnation” (J.I. Packer. Knowing God. Intervarsity Press 1993. Page 53).

Christians actually believe that the second person of the Trinity (already a divine enigma), the eternal Word of God, by whom all things were created and in whom are held together, took on human flesh, in the form of a baby, grew in Mary’s womb, and was born with all the limitations of a tiny infant boy.

The Word became flesh. The Word who created the heavens and the earth. The Word who knows the stars by name. The Word who told the oceans, “This far you may come and no farther, here is where your proud waves halt” (Job 38:11). The Word whose breath gave life to the first human flesh, clothed Himself with the same.

Creation needed saving and so Jesus our Savior came. To rescue us from these bodies of death. A salvation that would never be corrupted by sickness, pain, or decay was won for us through His Incarnation. He was born to die for us so that we could live through Him.

“…the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works…” (On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius).

I have heard all this before. I’d get it right on a test. I’m guessing you would too. But I never want to let doctrinal familiarity keep me from pausing to think about it deeply or to rob me of the worship this season requires.

“O come now, hail His arrival, the God of creation. Royalty robed in the flesh He created. Jesus the maker has made Himself known. All hail the infinite infant God” (“Arrival”. Hillsong Worship).

“Fragile fingers sent to heal us, tender brow prepared for thorns. Tiny heart whose blood would save us, unto us is born” (Chris Rice, “Welcome to Our World”).

Let us adore Him,

Perspective.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in a different time of history?  Maybe when you were small you pretended you lived in a medieval castle, explored the American frontier, or sailed on a pirate ship. Some of my favorite books are set in a far-off period of time. Part of their charm is imagining what it was like for people to live during a time when life was very different: sweetly simple or awfully dangerous.

There’s no question that certain eras of history carry a sense of fondness or nostalgia. My best friend thinks she would have loved to be Caroline Ingalls in The Little House on the Prairie.

And some eras are downright terrifying. I’m pretty glad I didn’t have to live during the horrors of the Mongol Invasion, the French Revolution, The Civil War, or The Third Reich.

But it turns out, I do have to live during the COVID-19 pandemic. And it is truly a unique time of history. It’s got its challenges, to be sure. But I feel compelled to remind myself to put this in a broader historical perspective:

  • On August 22, 1914, mothers in France lost 27,000 of their brave young sons in the Battle of the Frontiers. In one day.
  • In The Battle of the Somme, which lasted just 5 months, and upon which J.R.R. Tolkien based his description of the desolate Land of Mordor, over 300,000 died.
  • During World War 2, just a couple decades later, The Soviet Union lost over 12% of its entire population. Nearly 24 million people—over half of that number civilians!

I’m not saying COVID-19 isn’t deathly serious.  I’m not saying the effect it is having on us isn’t extremely profound. It is the greatest challenge of our generation.

But I am saying, let’s not be driven to despair. We are children of the Living God, made in the image of our Creator. Through Christ who gives us strength, we can be confident, resilient, and capable of surviving incredibly challenging times—even worse than the ones we are facing in 2020.

If our grandchildren ever wonder what it was like to live during those crazy COVID-19 years, let’s leave a legacy that shows them how: Be brave. Be hopeful. Be grateful. By the grace of God.

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians  4:8-9, 16-18).

Looking up,

God is sovereign.

Our God is sovereign. 

Merriam Webster defines sovereign as: “Possessed of supreme power. Unlimited in extent. Enjoying autonomy.” 

When it comes to the events and consequences of 2020, God is sovereign. He is fully aware, totally in control, and completely at work.  

And, when it comes to the events and consequences of the personal hardship you are feeling today, God is fully aware, totally in control, and completely at work. 

It’s been a rough week for folks. Job loss, COVID-19, home repair, family strife, addiction, infidelity, injury, accidents, social disgrace, and embarrassment. These things are horrible, shocking, and they make us wonder where God is in the midst of our chaos. 

He isn’t surprised. He hasn’t disregarded the impact this would have on your life. He is for you. In fact, He means for this difficulty to be doing something excellent for your life and for the lives of those you love. We can’t see yet exactly what it’s working in our souls, but we can trust God that He is still possessed of supreme power, even when we feel helpless. 

Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all.”(1 Chronicles 29:11-12). 

Reminding myself (daily) that our God is sovereign is the only way I can:  

Keep calm and carry on.

Be different.

Lord have mercy this world feels like it’s going insane. All the things that used to make normal life normal have been disrupted.  Regular, previously mundane human connections have dramatically changed or ceased altogether. No longer can we take for granted the privilege of visiting the sick, gathering for holidays, having coffee with a friend, giving loved ones a hug.

Additionally, the systems that used to make life feel secure have been disrupted. Our world has lost confidence in the press, the police and the political process. Our leaders can’t seem to reach consensus—not even on scientific facts and truth. The consequences of this societal upheaval and division aren’t just national—they are personal. Individuals in our communities are increasingly lonely, angry, anxious, cynical, and hopeless.

Take heart. There’s a different way for followers of Jesus.

As the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” (Romans 12:2).

And he said also to the Ephesians, “Let me say this, then, speaking for the Lord: Live no longer as the unsaved do, for they are blinded and confused.” (Ephesians 4:17 The Living Bible).

There is meant to be a stark contrast between the world and the church. For those of us who comprise the Body of Christ, the way we think, feel and behave must be different. We must be different.

We do not find our security in the systems or defenses of this world. Though some trust in chariots and some in horses, we trust in the name of the LORD our God (Psalm 20:7). When we see our country rapidly sinking into the quicksand of sin and chaos, we are assured that we can trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD God is an everlasting rock (Isaiah 26:4). In the political affairs of the world, we don’t fret. We trust God’s word that teaches that God Himself removes kings and establishes kings, and He puts the authorities in their places of power (Daniel 2:21, Romans 13:1). We are not afraid to hear bad news, instead our hearts are firm because we trust in the LORD (Psalm 112:7). And personally, we don’t allow ourselves to view God as absent, impotent, or disinterested—we know we can trust Him to help us, strengthen us and uphold us with His own loving hands (Isaiah 41:10).

One way in which we are dramatically different from the world is trust. Our trust is placed somewhere higher, stronger and better. We trust someone whose trustworthiness is absolutely not diminished by an election, a pandemic, an illness or an accident.

Our lives are safe because we trust a king who is powerful, good, faithful, aware, involved, and capable. Our hearts are safe because we trust a friend who cares for us whatever our circumstances or feelings. Whatever happens in this crazy world, our sovereign God can be completely trusted.

It’s such a pleasure to trust Jesus with you all in such certain times.

Get along.

Well folks, I bought my first Christmas present this week. Can you believe there’s only 70 days until Christmas!

When my kids were little, they always asked me, “Mommy, what do you want for Christmas?” And my answer was always the same. “I want you kids to get along.” 

Hey, we honestly had a pretty loving, unified and peaceful home. But kids will be kids and newsflash–kids will be sinners too. And any time they intentionally hurt or irritated or angered one another, it also hurt me. So I’d tell them, every single December, the best way they could honor me, and truly make it “the most wonderful time of the year” was by loving each other well. 

There was once a holiday season where Jesus had a similar request. He was celebrating His last Passover with his disciples. In fact, it was Jesus’ last supper. His final meal on earth.  

You know what it’s like when you’ve worked so hard creating a wonderful environment for that special moment–inevitably that’s when all heck breaks loose. The family photos. The birthday party. In the car on the way to Christmas Eve services.  

And as if on cue, right in the middle of His very special occasion, Jesus’ disciples started bickering. “A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest” Luke 22:24. 

I am! 
Am not. 
Am too! 
Am not. 
Am too! 
Mom!!!!! 

Or in this case, 

Jesus!!! 

And can you guess what Jesus says? “You guys need to get along!” 

In John chapters 14-17, Jesus gives a heartfelt and beautiful plea to his followers to love each other. Serve each other. Be at peace with one another. Live with joy together. 

He prays for us–that we would be one just as Jesus and the Father are one. That’s some serious unity. 

Our world is becoming more polarized by the minute. But my brothers and sisters this should not be true of us! Unity in Christ is not optional. It’s imperative. It’s the proof that we are actually His disciples. We gotta get along. And not a false peace, but real, true, family unity–the way we want our kids to love each other. 

So the next time there’s some big sibling rivalry or conflict in your family, let it help serve as a reminder and encouragement that brothers and sisters in Christ also should not fight. Consider: Is there anyone I need to forgive from my heart today? May we all sincerely pray for hearts which shine the sweet light of unity into this darkened world. 

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). 

March 13, 2020

I’ve heard of Christmas in July–but I haven’t heard of Christmas in March! But the way our curriculum falls in the calendar this year, has us learning about the birth of Jesus this week in NCBC Kids.

I pray this is a good thing. It’s good to consider the gift of God’s Son at a time we aren’t shopping for Christmas presents. Good to consider the light of the world coming to a world of darkness at a time we aren’t stringing lights on our houses. Good to imagine the eternal Word made flesh and coming humble and low as a baby at a time we are not distracted by the tinsel and the trappings.

So let’s take some time this week and marvel in this miracle. Gaze at the tenderness of God. Be astonished at the Almighty Creator of everything becoming part of His creation. Pull out the Christmas hymns and listen afresh. The song Arrival by Hillsong Worship is one of my favorites in imagining all the ways Jesus condescended to come here and live with us. I hope it’s a special time of reflection in your home.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14).

Born to die

I wanted to blog weekly during the month of December so I could get the content of our Nailing Christmas class into the hands of interested parents.  But I just couldn’t.  There were dark days and hard truths to face first.

My nephew Samuel was born straight into the arms of Jesus on November 26, 2018.  It wasn’t unexpected. He was diagnosed early in the pregnancy with an extremely rare, fatal birth defect.  But still the loss of him hurts deeply and raises so many unanswerable questions. Why must a baby be destined to die?

Maybe it’s a leap but that makes me think of Christmas. The notion that an infant would be born to die is terrifying and incomprehensible–but that is exactly what Jesus came to do.  Isn’t it offensive and insensitive in the face of real grief to celebrate with joy the birth of another doomed innocent? This was God’s idea? How could that be the plan?  How could that possibly be for the best?

And are we even allowed to ask these questions?

God knew it was for the best because he understood our desperation. He knew we were utterly hopeless without Him. Destined to so much misery. Destined to die. All of us. 

Apart from God, we trudge on in this world, foolishly denying our sin and ignoring the unavoidable grave… Until someone we love meets their inevitable end.  Then we startle a bit and rage at God and the world for a while and then go back to our comfortable, willful blindness and charge headlong again toward the destiny of all mankind.

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.

Ecclesiastes 7:2

I was surprised this week when I was reminded that even in the middle of our beloved Christmas scriptures we have a paragraph heading: “Slaughter of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16-18).” DEATH IS EVERYWHERE. It doesn’t discriminate: Rich or poor, young or old, it’s coming. It is our universally cruel, unquenchable, unstoppable enemy.

But there’s good news!  And it has to do with Baby Jesus, born to die–not only just like all of us–but for all of us.  The Enemy that has been swallowing up our loved ones for millennia needed to be defeated.  And only the perfect Creator of Life himself would be powerful enough to accomplish that. God–our loving Father–chose a terrible destiny for His Son in order to rescue us from ours.  Jesus overcame the grave. He conquered death for us. He is the way to life after death! He told us he was going to do it. He did it. And then he raised from the grave to prove it!  

That is something worth celebrating even in our darkest days. So Merry Christmas!

I apologize if this seems like too morbid a post for the holidays.  But I know many people find it difficult to have a holly jolly Christmas because they are deeply sad or grieving.  I hope it helped to discuss death, grief, and hope in the context of Christmas and the victory that Jesus won for us because he was willing to be born to die.  

(1) Did you know that just 100 years ago, ten percent of babies in the United States died before age one (100 per 1000 live births). In 2016 that rate had fallen to under 6 per 1000!  Thank God that this tragedy is befalling fewer and fewer families all the time.  (Source: cdc.gov).

See Him There.

new-years-day-2910931_960_720New Year, New You!

By the time of this writing, most of us have either forgotten or given up on the sincere resolutions we made for the new year.  My only resolution was to spend New Year’s Day brainstorming and planning and working up the courage to actually, eventually resolve something.  But nothing went as planned on New Year’s Day.

Our two eldest kids left at 5AM to fly to Atlanta for the 2018 Passion Conference.  They called us early in the morning to let us know they’d landed safely.  That was the end of things going smoothly for them (and me) on January 1.

Long story short, the only funds available to them was their dad’s debit card.  However, Marissa used an incorrect PIN one too many times and locked that card.  We called CapitalOne customer service to unlock the account only to discover their CREDIT services department was open on the holiday but not their DEBIT department.  The card would be useless until the next day.  What’s in YOUR wallet?

The kids were meeting friends whose flight was significantly delayed.  Not being old enough to secure a room on their own,  they planned ahead and reserved the accommodations through a 21-year-old friend.  Her flight ultimately didn’t arrive until much later in the evening, after the conference began.  They had nowhere to go. They had no way to pay for food, transportation, or lodging.

Did I mention they were 860 miles away from home?

I spent the entire day trying to help.   I was eventually able to successfully wire some money to a check-into-cash type place in what the kids would call a “sketchy” part of town.  The knowledge that Jake was walking alone in the dark from sketchy neighborhood to his hotel with a couple hundred bucks in his pocket was disconcerting, to say the least.  Do you see how even the solution was causing me anxiety?

I didn’t enjoy my holiday.  But do you know what?  The kids did. This was an adventure. They were far away from home and finding their way.   To quote Marianne Williamson,

“Children are happy because they don’t have a file in their minds called “All the Things That Could Go Wrong.”

During their downtime, they played cards. Once Jake got the money I wired, the hotel clerk INEXPLICABLY allowed him to check in and–pay with cash.  They later walked to Philips Arena, sang their heart out with Crowder and Passion Band.  Levi Lusko encouraged them to worry less about the things of this world and instead focus on the world to come.  🙄

Then they crashed at their hotel after an exciting and inspiring night with thousands of other college kids.

But when I laid my head on my pillow that night I thought of how I had wanted to start the year off “right.”  New Year, new me.  Instead, I just felt like same old, same old.  Same old life of stress and worry. Same old reluctant acquiescence that I’m not in control of anything. Same old responding with fear instead of faith.  That sense that It Will Never Change.  and I Will Never Change.  I’m tempted to despair.  Oh, mercy.

In mercy, God brought words to my mind. Old words. Lyrics.

“When Satan tempts me to despair…”  Then what?

Oh, had I been tempted to despair!  Tempted so well I dove right in.  Headfirst (because it starts with my thoughts) and swimming in it, submerging my heart! In years past, I’ve been known to stay in that pit and wallow.  I don’t want to wallow in 2018.

“When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within; upward I look and see Him there who made an end of all my sin.”           (Charitie Lees Smith)

What should I do when tempted to despair under the weight of an entire day worrying about my kids’ “helplessness”?  Look upward. See Him there.  See Him where? There on the throne.  Sovereign as He’s always been.  See Him where? Walking on the water, defying fear and gravity.  See Him with the mourners, the broken, the sinners, the anxious.  Bringing the dead back to life.  Saying, “Fear not.”  See Him working all things out for good.

See Him in a hotel worker’s willingness to give the kids a room.  See Him in their joyful hearts, whiling away the hours playing cards in a hotel lobby.  See Him in their safe flight.  See Him in the hearts of my kids whose highlight of the entire year is attending a conference of Jesus-loving and Bible-believing young adults.

If I don’t see Him and I look simply at the initial circumstances of New Year’s Day, 2018 got off to a pretty abysmal start. I spent the day fretting instead of trusting.  Not my finest hour. But I can’t let Satan tempt me to despair.  Tomorrow is another day…His mercies are new every morning.  See Him there.  Where?  See Him in the sunrise.  As always.

Happy New Year.

2018-01-01 at 07-09-40-2

Sunrise, January 1, 2018.

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Lending to the Lord

As we anticipate the adventure of bringing two orphan boys from Eastern Europe to our home for the holidays, I am learning many things.  Maybe the biggest is gratitude.

I could go on and on about how freshly-aware and grateful I am for the big things: My savior, my family, my freedom in America. And I could go on and on about how grateful I’m becoming for the little things that many in O. and V.’s situation don’t have: dozens of sappy Hallmark channel movies, more amazing books than I can ever find time to read, and a fireplace beside which to enjoy it all.

But today I’m considering the generosity of God who shares all these things with us.  It all belongs to him.  God announces:

“Everything under heaven belongs to me.”  Job 41:11.

and Paul asks this rhetorical question:

“Who has ever given to God that God should repay him? For from him, and through him, and to him are all things.”  Romans 11:35-36.

But I’m grateful not only for the generosity of God, but of so many wonderful people who have partnered financially with us on this journey.  Donations have poured in to our fundraising website, by check to our home, and in the very useful and equally generous boxes and bags of clothing we’ve received.

I nearly wept when my son’s good friend gave a gift of $50.  That’s a lot of money for a high school senior!!!  The lady who came to our home to officially interview us and assess that our home is a safe place for a host child to stay brought a practically new winter coat for us to give to one of the boys.

I could go on and on. Everyone’s gift is equally valuable to us because every gift came from a heart willing to give to the poor.  Not that we are poor.  But the boys we are hosting are literally penniless.

And this is where the mystery of God comes in.  Remember how he owns it all.  How no one can ever give to God and expect repayment.  I think God makes one exception.

“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for what he has done.” Proverbs 19:17

God has a special place in his heart for the poor, downtrodden, forgotten, and friendless in our world. And he has a special place in his heart for those who offer kindness to help even one of this world’s “losers.”

I want to thank every single person who has given with generous hearts to help O. and V.  come to our home.  We are in your debt.  And miraculously, so is God.

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”  Matthew 25:37-40.