Your Jesus still in the manger?

It’s Advent, a time of Christian preparation for the coming of Christ. We’re fixated on the crèche: baby Jesus in swaddling clothes, haloed and lying in a manger, surrounded by animals, shepherds.

Babies are cute, cuddly, harmless, helpless, adorable. But babies grow up.

Despite Hollywood and Christmas card depictions, the wise men most likely missed the manger; Bible scholars say they arrived about two years later, where Scripture teaches they came into a house to greet Jesus as a young child.

Full story: Jesus kept right on growing into the God-man who died on a Roman cross to save sinners; He became a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, a Suffering Servant. He got up from the grave with all power in heaven and in earth in His hands. This same Jesus will one day come again — not as a baby, but as a conquering King.

Are you living like Jesus is still in the manger?

I get it. A grown up Jesus can be scary, awakening the kind of uneasiness sometimes associated with developmentally disabled children as they mature. Full grown, they aren’t so non-threatening; their non-conformity draws attention that can make us uncomfortable.

A baby can be soothed, silenced, ignored. A mature Jesus is not so easily managed.

Don’t be afraid. I bring you good tidings of great joy: Jesus has left the manger.

It’s time we who say we believe allowed Him to grow up or, to put it another way, to be “formed in” us. Strong’s describes the Greek word used for “form” to mean: a life and mind formed in us that is in complete harmony with the mind and life of Christ. Gal 4:19 

This, beloved, is what Christmas is about.

Jesus at the manger points us beyond Christmas to Easter and on to Pentecost, to the God who supplies supernatural power to His people to deal with daily life in real time, where we’re confronted with spiritual wickedness in high places.

This is not Jesus lying in manager, not Jesus suffering on the Cross or wrapped in grave clothes in the Tomb. This is Jesus moving by His Spirit in the Book of Acts.

Risen from the dead and preparing to get back to heaven, Jesus told His core followers to wait at Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, His Spirit, who would guide them in truth, empower them to live as Christians and to do the work of ministry.

Folks, the manger was only Act One. History, some say His Story, has kept moving.

Baby Jesus was on a mission: born to die to save us and to rise from the dead, His Spirit enabling us to be His witnesses and become mature men and women of God who reflect His image in the Earth.

Still looking for the perfect gift? Could be we all simply need to fully unwrap the priceless gift we already have: “Christ in you, the hope of glory!”

~ Merry Christmas.

 

Forget Fault

 Once upon a time, a family bought a wonderfully clean car for a steal-of-a-deal and considered themselves fortunate to have gotten so lucky… until the car had a catastrophic coolant failure at a traffic light resulting in a repair bill that cost more than the car’s Blue Book value.

These Christian folk had a choice to make: to accept the situation with grace as a “Life Happens” moment while trusting God for the next step or to do what most of us do when something goes wrong: find someone to blame.

The reasoning goes something like this: If something is wrong, it has to be someone’s fault. What we actually mean is,  someone else’s fault.

This family had several blame options. They could have blamed the guy who sold them the car, the driver for failing to check the hood, the mechanic for not pointing out a potential defect, themselves for being gullible consumers or God for not preventing the whole thing.

Needing to assign blame before we can move on is a failure to grapple with an uncomfortable truth. Sometimes things really do “just happen,” at least from a human perspective. There is no “fault.”

In the case of that family car, the cause of the problem appeared to be metal fatigue. A metal part suddenly failed.

It’s the rare person who can simply accept something like that and move toward a solution without bitterness, ranker and causing a helluva stink. In corporate-speak, such stinks are known as “venting,” translated as having a fit just to make yourself feel as though you’ve done something. Nothing good ever comes of it, of course, which brings me to the next point.

From a Christian viewpoint even when we can find the smoking gun, what does it really matter? Being able to point to someone and say “whodunit” may make a nice wrap for an Agatha Christie Poirot mystery,” but it doesn’t fix problems, heal relationships or promote spiritual growth.

Maybe the question isn’t  who is to blame but “What can I learn from this?” God always wants us to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  (2 Peter 3:18)  And He uses all of life to accomplish this end.

Our persistence in placing blame is really pointless. (It hasn’t done anything constructive for me.) We’re all guilty of being human. We are faulty creatures who make mistakes, despite our best intentions. When things go wrong, as they sometimes do, my challenge is to take it personally, to see it as opportunity to press into God a little closer, to listen more intently for His voice, to become more God-focused and less self-reliant.

Ultimately, we Christians are called to put our trust in God, not in our circumstances whether they be good or bad. Life really does happen in unpredictable ways, and we can make ourselves crazy by demanding to know the why.

As time goes by, I am learning to leave the mysteries of life in the hands of a faithful, all-wise God, believing that through life’s struggles He is “working in me both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:13)

Lies We Believe

  On the eve of Resurrection Sunday, the climactic triumph of Holy week, I am not feeling particularly holy. It has been a rough week, and I feel my need of a Savior. That’s probably a good thing.

 

People who are in good health need no physician, but the sick do. And we are sincerely grateful when we are made whole. Easter is that kind of celebration. The dead rising, the spiritually sick recovering their health!

It’s fair to say that the person who tells me I am well, when I am sick unto death, does not love me. To pat me on the head and tell me everything will be all right, when I need emergency surgery, is to do me no favors.

We all should be glad for people who love us enough to tell us the truth, even when it cuts like a knife. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” (Proverbs 27:6a)   Our tendency is to prefer lies that encourage us to follow our own path. Below are three lies we believe to our own destruction.

  • It’s enough to go to church: Some of us will be at church tomorrow for the first time since Christmas. It’s good to go to church and to hear sound Bible teaching. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17)

But what real difference does church attendance make in our daily lives outside the pew: the choices we make, the company we keep?

There’s a danger in hearing God’s word again and again and refusing to obey it. The danger is that we develop callous hearts that cannot hear the truth; our consciences become “seared with a hot iron.” (I Tim 4:2). Think of scar tissue, so thick that it’s impermeable.

God holds us accountable for what we know. Hebrews talks about those who have experienced the good things of God “and who then turn away from God. It is impossible to bring such people back to repentance; by rejecting the Son of God, they themselves are nailing him to the cross once again and holding him up to public shame.” (Heb 6:6)

  • Jesus is always with us: This sounds sweet and biblical, but it’s not quite true. God is omnipresent, technically everywhere at once. But God “with us” implies more than His simply being in the neighborhood; God with me involves His personal care-taking, protection, provision, intervention.

In that sense, the question isn’t whether God is with me but whether I am with Him. The distinction is an important one. Christ is called “Emmanuel, God with us.” (Matt 1:23) Who is “us”? God’s own people.

God is particular about who He “hangs” with. He is not everyone’s homey.

When Joseph was in prison through no fault of his own, Scripture repeatedly says “the Lord was with him.” (Genesis 39) God was not with everyone in that Egyptian jail. God was with Mary and Joseph at Jesus’ birth. He clearly was not with Herod or the populace at large. God was not with Judas, Pilate, the High Priest or anyone who condemned Jesus to death on the cross.

Then, and now, God is with those who are with Him.

Study the Old Testament battles Moses and Joshua encountered. God did not go with them to battle when there was unrepentant sin in the camp. Even when they greatly outnumbered their enemies, they were forced to turn and run because God did not fight for them. God is not “with us” when we are in sin. He calls us to repent, to come out of sin, to enjoy His fellowship and blessing.

  • I can always get back to the place of blessing: Maybe not. When Esau sold his birth right for a meal, he didn’t think much of it. The sacredness of the blessing meant nothing to him… then. When he later sought to regain what he had so thoughtlessly tossed aside to satisfy a fleshly appetite, he couldn’t get back to that blessed place.

Esau didn’t foresee the ramifications of his careless choice. Yet Scripture records it as character-defining, describing Esau as a “fornicator or profane person.”

“For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.” Heb 12:17

Take no comfort in lies. The devil is the father of lies (John 8:44) and uses them to destroy us. Christians serve a God of Truth. Our embrace of truth is a barometer of our spiritual health.

Make the Turn

Ever been driving and suddenly realized you didn’t know where you were?

You thought you were going in the right direction. The music was cranked; you were having fun. Now nothing looks familiar. No landmarks, no streets you know.

It happens…. People get lost.

I’ve had some truly lost moments of my own creation.

  • We were driving to Florida. I put the address into the GPS on what I thought was Florida State Road A1A and we set off to St. Augustine Beach. That road is nearly 330 miles long. I should have entered St. Johns County Road A1A, a roughly 3-mile spur route of SR A1A. My mistake added more than an hour to an already long trip.
  • I drove to dinner in Fayetteville, again blithely relying on the GPS to direct me. It took me to the middle of an apartment building parking lot and announced “You have arrived!” The street address was right, sort of. Someone had built the apartment building in the middle of the street, cutting off access from one end to the other.
  • On a soccer trip to Virginia we were trying to get back to our hotel after dinner one night. It seemed like the right way until the lights of the city began to recede, becoming a fading flicker in our rear-view mirror. Clearly, we were driving away from the city, into the darkness.

And these are just “lost” moments that happened while driving.

Thank God that we can never go so far in the wrong direction that we can’t make a correction. All we need to do is turn. My Garmin says: “Make a U-turn, when possible.”

The Bible is equally blunt when it comes to making spiritual turn-a-rounds.

God tells Ezekiel: “Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord GOD, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel? 

Turning begins with admitting we are lost.

Everyone in a car may know they’re lost, but the driver must agree and make a decision to turn the wheel. As we sit in the driver’s seats of our lives, however, we resist making U-turns even when we know we’ve lost our way. And we all have at one time or another.

All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)

Yet, pride keeps us going in the wrong direction. If anyone tries to correct us, we:

  1. Get defensive. How dare anyone question my judgment, my sense of direction, my preferences?
  2. Question motives. Why are they trying to control me? How do they know the way? Even if they are more familiar with the road ahead, things could have changed.
  3. Listen politely. And just go harder in the wrong direction convinced that if we just keep going, it’ll be all right.

It won’t be. Pride leads somewhere, but nowhere you really want to go. 

Honest to God now: are you on a road in life that just doesn’t look or feel like where you ought to be? Accept the advice of someone who has been there: Stop wasting time and making excuses. Swallow your pride. Make the turn. You can still get home before dark.

Let’s Eat!

Bread and water are life-sustaining… but only if eaten.

My favorite local bakery is La Farm in Cary, where the smell of French breads and pastries can literally make the mouth water – never mind the soups and sandwiches and fresh-brewed Counter Culture Coffee. This is the kind of place where you have to arrive early if you expect to see, let alone sample, the full day’s selections.

It opens at 7:00 every morning of the week. By 9:30 on Saturday mornings, the stacks of scones, croissants, tarts etc. have severely dwindled and there is nary an empty chair in the house.

(Yes, I know it’s Lent, when people are abstaining from delicacies, but trust me. I am going somewhere with this!)

As much as I enjoy simply being in this place and taking in the aroma, being there is nothing if I don’t have something to eat. The beautiful breads and carefully-crafted pastries are a feast to the eye, but La Farm bakers intend their work to be eaten and enjoyed.

I am happy to oblige. For bread or water to do me any good, I have to take it in. It’s not enough to surround myself with it. Nourishment comes from eating and drinking.

In the book of John, crowds were following Jesus around because he had miraculously fed them. He confronted them about being more concerned about filling their stomachs than about being spiritually nourished. They didn’t get it. They reminded him of the manna from heaven their forefathers ate in the desert.

Jesus replied: “I am the Bread of Life.” Then he explained:

Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.  For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed. He who feeds on Me will live because of Me…. He who eats this bread will live forever. (see John 6:53-58 for full text)

They were talking natural bread, a one-time meal that would need repeating to address their continual hunger. Jesus took it to a spiritual, eternal level.

To experience true life that never ends, He said they needed to do something more than just passively stand in the crowd and look, listen and wait for a bread basket to come their way.

Jesus says life is experienced by the one who: Eats, Drinks, Feeds. These are verbs, action words. Seems to me, He essentially is telling a bunch of spiritually starving people:

Look, you are following the only truly life-sustaining Bread there is, but you haven’t been eating. If you want life that does not end, you have to act. You have to take me in. I have to become a part of you. I have to nourish you from within.

The problem with church-people, I think, is that many of us are habitually coming to God’s House of Bread and leaving hungry because we aren’t eating.

We enjoy the aroma from the oven and the sound of living water as the Bible is taught and worship songs are sung. But we aren’t really ingesting Jesus’ words and allowing Him – the Living Word – to transform us from the inside out.

Some of us are just following Jesus for the loaves and the fishes – for the  quick fix to a material and sometimes momentary need — when He wants to fill us up with Himself so that we are never hungry again.

I wouldn’t dream of leaving the local bakery hungry. (I always eat plenty at La Farm and usually take a little something home for later!) Think about that next time you’re in church… and be sure to eat.

 

Got Commitment?

I’m a fan of the old Journey song “Faithfully” with front-man Steve Perry and with good reason. I’ve been married for a generation and appreciate what it means to stay in a relationship and work through the kinks. 

Even so, being married doesn’t exempt anyone from being tempted to take a second, romantic look at someone other than the spouse. In that fleeting moment of temporary insanity that other person may seem more this, that or something than what’s waiting at home.

If it ends with a look, no harm done. “Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin,” goes the hymn. Marriage, after all, is commitment, not blindness. But how committed to marriage are we 21st century dwellers, really?

I recently stumbled upon a NY Times “Modern Love” column headlined: “You May Call It Cheating, but We Don’t” in which the married columnist recounts kissing a family friend over drinks in her husband’s absence. 

The friend broke off the kiss, anxious that he’d be unable to look the husband in the eye later, and chided himself for going around kissing women who are “unavailable.” The columnist, on the other hand, considered herself available, insisting her husband of 12 years wouldn’t have objected. Their marriage is monogamous, she wrote, but with “a small asterisk on [her] part.”

The asterisk is modern marriage as a convenience that begins with a few hastily spoken words (the vows), moves to a big party (the wedding reception) and climaxes – no pun intended – with conjugal rights that too often were enjoyed long before anyone said “I do.”

When marriage* becomes inconvenient, annoying or just plain boring, the aggrieved party is open to other options.

Contrast this with biblical marriage as the once-for-all,  “one-flesh” experience God described to Adam and his bride Eve. It’s a relationship that depicts Christ’s faithfulness and unbroken union with His bride, the church, for whom He will return one day and “so shall we ever be with the Lord.” 

Do we really believe in this kind of marriage anymore?

About six years ago George Barna reported on the waning conventional morality, a consensus about right and wrong, good and evil. People in their 20s and 30s eschew such moral absolutes, living instead by a personal situational ethic: “what’s right for you.”

No surprise then that the Times column went on to praise the modern indulgence in cuckoldry. Historically, to be a cuckold was to be the disgraced husband of an adulteress, which sometimes led to deadly duels demanded by husbands who considered the marriage bed inviolate and an intruder worthy of death.

Sadly, what once was scorned, according to the Times article, is now celebrated as a sporting way to keep marriage interesting. The 1970s-era practice of couples “swinging” is making a comeback. 

Christians are called to break ranks with the culture and to affirm marriage as exclusive. God calls us to faithfulness even if we’re bored in bed, repulsed by what used to attract or longing for affection the other party is physically incapable of giving. Christian marriage, real marriage, is finding a way to make the sex in that relationship work.

Finding a way may mean:

  • Getting wise counsel
  • Getting a physical exam
  • Getting in the Bible and on our knees
  • Getting over ourselves and embracing self-denial

Nobody can keep that kind of commitment to another human being — and not be filled with bitterness, anger and resentment — without first committing themselves to God. The author of marriage is the only One who can help us keep our commitment to it. 

Instinctively, we know that marriage isn’t to be violated on a whim no matter what the culture or our own libido tells us. We also know that commitment comes down to a decision.

After that kiss, the columnist’s male friend responded: “We shouldn’t do this. I should leave.”

And he left.

God The Father, not The Bodyguard

 Whenever there’s a natural disaster or a man-made catastrophe such as the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., or the shooting of Sikh worshipers in Wisconsin, invariably someone asks: “How could a loving God allow this to happen when He could have protected those people?”

Fair question, but I think it’s the wrong one. Most of us live our everyday lives independently of God. Aside from mouthing an occasional “God Bless America,” we want God to mind His business while we mind our own.

My question: Why do we expect a God we ignore to come running to our defense when all hell breaks loose?

The God of the Bible does not obligate Himself to act as a universal bodyguard. God loves the world (John 3:16) and is rich in mercy to all His creation. He rains on the just and the unjust, extending common grace to us all.

Yet, God specifically reserves His protection and deliverance for a subset of humanity:

  •  “The righteous cry and the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.” Psalm 34:7
  • “The Lord watches over all who love Him….” Psalm 145:20(a).
  • “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and rescues them.” Psalm 37:8

God knows if we love Him based on whether we do what He wants.

Jesus told the story of two brothers whose father asked each of them to go work in his vineyard. The first initially refused to go, but he finally did. The other said he would go, but did not. Jesus asked: who actually did the will of the father? The one who did what the father asked.

Think of God’s care as a kind of umbrella. When we rebel, we step into the rain. God’s love is unchanged; we just don’t experience its benefits. “Your sins…. have cut you off from God.” (Isaiah 59:2) If this sound unfair, I hear you. But it’s simple family dynamics.

I take responsibility for nurturing and protecting my children. They are a part of me; we have a blood tie. It’s not that I have no concern for my neighbors’ children. If they have a need or are in danger, I can help. But I am not obligated to do so. We don’t have that kind of relationship. Even my own children can refuse my help; and I cannot make them accept it.

Similarly, the Bible says, “I will be a Father to you, And you shall by My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor 6:18)

A Father is responsible for His own children; obedient children submit both to their Father’s loving care and His correction. Yet, we expect God to intervene at crisis points in the lives of people who may want nothing to do with Him.  This is a wrong-headed expectation for two reasons.

First, our safety isn’t God’s only concern. He wants to make us holy, which sometimes means allowing us to suffer. Life happens to us all. God has not promised all rainbows and roses. He simply has said He will never abandon us.

Secondly, while God’s explicit protection is a family privilege,  the Good News is we can be adopted into His family. Whether we start out near to God or very far away, through Christ “we have access by one Spirit to the Father.”(Eph 2:18)

My challenge, perhaps yours too?, is to let God be my Father when there is no crisis – when I like it and when I don’t. No one can invoke God’s favor as some kind of force-field against the vicissitudes of life, but we can choose to trust Him day by day. He obligates Himself to us only when we commit ourselves to Him.