Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Celebration of Christ's Birth: Constant or Capricious?

Christmas.  For me, it used to be a series of memorable feelings.  Feelings of reminiscence—every time I gazed at the little red painted sleds hanging as ornaments on the Christmas tree with my name and those of my siblings, painted there by a hand unknown to me but returning for their annual debut on the freshly-cut evergreen.  Feelings of nostalgia—whenever I heard “White Christmas” playing in a local supermarket and wondered about the bygone days of its composition when, as youths, my great uncle and grandfather had fought the Nazis overseas.  Feelings of excitement--as my parents took shopping trips closer to the 25th and left us with babysitters for the evening, I anticipated the presents that would greet me under the tree on Christmas morning. 

When Christmas day dawned, I expected happiness, delight, and complete fulfillment.  A sibling uttered an unkind remark; but on Christmas, I didn’t retaliate.  It was a day to be cherished, remembered for many years to come.  If I believed in magic, I would say that the day, beginning the evening before, was shrouded in a cloak of enchantment, a spell not to be broken by any.

Holidays were always special times in our home, the unwritten rules of generosity, kindness, and love sensed deeply by each of us children.  Awakening on Christmas morning, I would feed the animals in the barn, reminded by my father to “give the cows some extra bedding and a few more slabs of hay, since it’s Christmas.”  Arriving back in my room, I’d often take my Bible to read the Christmas passage in Luke 2 or Matthew 1, which I had highlighted, every other verse in red and green.  Later, our family would gather and read the Christmas story, as a tradition, before opening gifts.  To me, Christmas was sacred.

If an argument or disagreement happened on another day, so be it.  But on Christmas?  Woe be to him who breaks the holiday spirit and enters into contentious territory on that day!  To one and all, he is deemed an unfeeling clod who understands not the joy Christmas.

However, when I married my husband, a steady, focused, spiritually-minded man, I was amazed that holidays did not seem to hold the special charm that they did for me; in fact, he was frequently employed at his place of work on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  His common view of these days, at first, bewildered me.  Then, it disappointed me.  Then it frustrated me.  Then, I wrapped myself around its reality and decided to accept it joyfully.

While I have never known my husband to wait for the holiday spirit to descend upon him, he carries with him a joyful contentment all year round, so that, in our place of residence, every day carries the “magic” of Christmas that I so long cherished on that day each year.  He has made our home a place of singing, determined to offer God praise often (Psalm 146:2), so one would think that every day was Thanksgiving Day.  He treats me specially so frequently that, to the unknowing observer, one would think each of the 365 days was a time of celebration and excitement. 

As an adult, I see the materialism that has entrapped Christmas in its common celebration in the public.  And, less and less do I wait for a feeling to descend upon me before I decorate for this season, prepare for its celebration, or shop for Christmas gifts.  For while Christmas is always a special time with family and a season to reflect on Christ’s birth, that magical spirit I always expected on holidays has been replaced by another reality.

That I can walk with God, live in His presence, and be accepted in the beloved every day is the incarnation’s actuality and the essence of the Christmas spirit, which had only been a transitory feeling in the past, stirred up by sentimental memory.  Growing up, I had frequently spent some time with God every morning.  But when I married my husband, he didn’t want me to miss a day that I didn’t read the Bible meaningfully and pray sincerely in quiet.  It was hard to slow myself down enough to be still before God, but as I did, I noticed an amazing relationship between my spirit and my time with God.  The more time I spent abiding in God’s presence, the more a daily joy accompanied me every day.  That “magical” spirit that I had hoped and dreamed for on special holidays could enfold me all the year through. 

Through my husband’s godly leadership, I have learned that the euphoric atmosphere of a joyous holiday lives on, not only once or twice a year, but every day, by abiding in the presence of the King who came to earth as a tiny infant that I might be “to the praise of the glory of His grace, wherein He hath made [me] accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1:6).

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The God of My Present Tense

He is.  You are.  He, she, it is.  So goes the conjugation for the present tense of the verb "to be" in English.

As believers, we're related to a God who time and again refers to Himself as the “I Am," whose name means the “self-existent one." And I think that I, in my incredible dullness, am comprehending in some measure what these titles mean for me.

 “For in Him we live, and move, and have our being.”

Until recently, I had no idea my Christianity was supposed to be so real.   A living relationship with the "I Am" that breathes life into every project, delivers strength for every waking moment, and permeates every aspect of life’s moments with vitality.

I was the Christian who would have soul-thrilling devotions in the morning, reading passages in depth, unearthing golden nuggets from the Bible, and then live as if those precious minutes had never existed. 

For years, I had this incredible disconnect between the God of my quiet time and the God of my daily moments.  As a teen, I’d blow up when things didn’t go my way.  As a college student, I’d become frazzled when my schedule was interrupted.  As a Christian school teacher, I loathed intrusions into my perfectly plotted lesson plans.  As a wife, I inwardly rebelled at my husband’s requests when I was in the middle of another project.  And as a church member, I fretted about others’ problems or well-acclaimed positions.

But none of this is Christ’s way.  Every shred of worry is to be discarded as the waste it is and cast in the heap of rubbish at His feet.  Every bit of vainglory is to be left at the dunghill where it belongs.  Every tiny fragment of self-pity is to be destroyed.  Internal strife and every other work of the flesh must be traded for the beautiful, freeing life in Christ.

But since God is the God of the present tense, my journey is continually ongoing.  It never ceases.  I have never arrived. I have moment-by-moment tradeoffs that must be made, thinking that must be changed, and decisions that must be immediately embraced.

Someone today got a thing for which I had been hoping.  I felt a twinge of jealousy.  I heard, “Let nothing be done through…vainglory,” and I yielded.  The tradeoff was beautiful, because the strength of Christ filled me with joy.  Yesterday I found myself overly sensitive to my husband’s remarks.  I began to protest but inwardly heard, “Let all bitterness. . . be put away from you.”  I immediately confessed my sin and began rejoicing. 

The world is a beautiful place when Christ fills you with His joy.  But the cost is yieldedness, surrender, obedience.  This is not a high price when you get Him, the God of the present tense, instead.

Christianity is not pithy remarks.  It’s not a chock-full devotional book brimming with truth.  It’s a vitally transformative relationship that changes you, so that you live, not on a self-constructed spiritual elevation, but in constant fellowship with the God of the Present Tense.  People around you just know you’re a happy person.  They know you as flexible with whatever curve balls life throws your way.  That’s because the Prince of Peace reigns on the inside.  He really is your “I Am,” the God of your present tense.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Living in the Wonder of God's Love

1John 4:16, "And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him."

A dwelling is a place you live.  Your home.  Your comfort zone.  What you know best.  You could tell its nooks and crannies, find articles hidden in the recesses of a closet, or even catalog the furniture in a given room.  

Wonder is that feeling of "surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable."  Think the multi-hued wings of a butterfly.  Or the rich display of autumn leaves.  Or the soft, velvety head of a newborn.

Once my husband took me to an art exhibition where the paintings of a Dutch artist from the seventeenth century were displayed.  I gazed into the care-worn face of an elderly man, observed the gnarled hands of a peasant, enjoyed the warm glow of a delighted girl who basked in the sunlight of joy, and read the story of the serious life of a cloaked churchman.  These narratives all came to me, across the centuries, for they had been captured on canvas.  Far more living than dead, their tales had been told by the master artist who had encapsulated the essence of their existence with his paintbrush.  They were more realistic than photographs, whose two-dimensional clarity frequently lacks the lifeblood of their subjects.  I left the exhibit, awed that a master could enhance his subjects with such reality and wondering at the skill of featuring the human form with such pathos.

Our daily lives are not unlike this excursion.  Since God's master stroke of love has enriched the canvas of my life, I can be awed by my God, who lavishes such charity on me!  Though filthy, miserable, and wretched, a sinner bound for eternal damnation, I was loved by a merciful God!  Though condemned and headed to eternal misery, at salvation I experienced love from this unfailing God!  Thinking thus, my day can end in gratitude, amazed that I should be recipient of such a matchless gift (I John 4:10).  

Knowing every sin I would ever commit, Love watched as His Son hung in agony upon a cursed cross.  Grieving, Love turned His back on the impeccable Lord Jesus, prompting the words, “My God, My God, Why hast Thou forsaken me?”  Never before had the Trinity undergone such agony, to have the second member of the Godhead bear the weight of every person’s sin upon Himself, to experience the separation caused by that sin.  There God’s picture of holiness became sin for me, that I might become the righteousness of God in Him! 

Like the realistic touches of a master artist, God's love is that transformational stroke that enriches the subjects of my life, deepening their meaning and reminding me of reality.  May I never cease to live in gratitude of this gift.  May I ever wonder at the love of God, which He so clearly demonstrated to me at salvation.

The Wonder of it All by George Beverly Shea
There's the wonder of sunset at evening,
The wonder as sunrise I see;
But the wonder of wonders that thrills my soul
Is the wonder that God loves me.
O, the wonder of it all! The wonder of it all!
Just to think that God loves me.
O, the wonder of it all! The wonder of it all!
Just to think that God loves me.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Every year at our church’s youth camp out, young people and adult workers alike enjoy a scenic bike ride on the Elroy-Sparta Trail, once a railroad path but now a quiet trek through the countryside of western Wisconsin.  A favorite spot along our fourteen-mile route is a long tunnel that drips water but perfectly amplifies the human voice, so that the usual trip through this 1/8 mile of darkness is accompanied by groups singing at the tops of their lungs in 4-6 part harmony.  Flashlights are a must and no one is allowed to ride his bike through the darkness.  The idiom, “light at the end of the tunnel” is made tangible for everyone who walks his bike through the many feet of darkness. 

Emerging from the dark interior of the tunnel reminds me of what it is like to finally understand the reality of certain sins in our lives.  Even as believers, we are sometimes unaware of a particular sin that accompanies us along the path of life.  Just last year the Holy Spirit confronted me about such a sin, and I saw it starkly for what it was—rebellion against a loving God.  I had grown to tolerate it, but His awareness nudged me persistently to the reality that, in pleasing myself, I had broken the greatest commandment and failed to love Him completely.

The reality of this sin stared me down daily.  Like walking through that dark tunnel, I felt plagued by its thoughts.  It was as if my own sinfulness was amplified, as are voices in the tunnel.  Although I had already confessed it, the fact that I had allowed it to live in such close harmony within my thoughts and daily life awakened within me a keen perception of its many tentacles, and I shrunk from their sting, aware of what Charles Wesley called the “wandering of my will”:

“I want a principle within of watchful, godly fear,
A sensibility of sin, a pain to feel it near;
Help me the first approach to feel of pride or wrong desire,
To catch the wandering of my will, to quench the kindl’ing fire”
(from the hymn “I Want a Principle Within”).

Like the light that becomes ever more apparent near the tunnel’s exit point, that godly fear began to emerge as I experienced first-hand the truth of 2 Corinthians 7:11—biblical sorrow works repentance:

“For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter.”

My turning from this sin proceeded down a pathway of surrender, and a carefulness overtook me, the likes of which I had not before experienced.  And yet I still felt conflict, for the dark and depressing view of myself towered over me, hiding from me the triumph in Christ.  I knew I should look to Jesus (Hebrews 12:1), my Example, and it was comforting to do so; but it seemed my introspection still dug deep.  And then I came across this quote: 

For every look at yourself you take, take ten looks at the Lord Jesus” (Memoir and Remains, ed. Andrew Bonar, 293).

And this one by Thomas Chalmers, which I took the liberty to put in second person:
“For every thought [you cast] downwardly upon [your]self, [you] should cast ten upwardly and outwardly upon Jesus, and upon the glorious truths of the gospel” (Letters of Thomas Chalmers).

There’s no Bible verse that says ten times is a magic formula in experiencing victory, but these men of God left me with a glorious thought:  a perpetual look at the Savior (the Light) can transform my darkness (the sin I saw in myself). I can victoriously place my focus upon the triumphs of His cross!

I set a goal to do just that.  To help me, I made the following simple alphabetic reminders of some of the attributes of my Lord.

            He is my…
Assurance of Heaven
Best Friend
Companion on the road of life
Deliverer from every temptation
Ever-present Help in trouble
Faithful friend
Helper, so that I need fear what man will do to me

He is…
            Omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient
            Quick to hear
            Ready to forgive
            Savior of the world
X-cellent in all the earth
Yesterday, today, and forever—the same
Z:  the beginning and the End

In meditating upon His attributes, the bright light of illumination—to obey, to follow God’s will, to be filled with His Spirit—brilliantly over-floods the darkness of introspection and replaces it with an inner glow brought forth by the Light of the World.

“I am the Light of the World:
he that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness,
but shall have the light of life”
(John 8:12).

Monday, June 9, 2014

Love that is Free: A Tribute to my Husband

Somewhere over the years in my Christian life, I got this notion that I had to earn God’s love.  Maybe you did, too.  You thought that the more time you spent with Him in your devotions, the more service ministries you participated in, the more you gave of yourself to God—the more favorably He would look upon you. 

I didn’t expect to get to Heaven by my good works, knowing they were all filthy rags in His sight.  But I did expect God to somehow be more pleased, love me more, and view me with more graces if I chose to live for Him.

Little by little, this image of God has cracked.  Through various means, this idolatrous god I had erected in my mind has, I hope, been replaced with the God found in the pages of Scripture.

The most significant tool in chipping away this false ideology has been my encounter with love that is free—my husband’s love for me.

“You mean you’re not upset with me?” I asked him after doing something I’m sure he didn’t like.

“I’m always happy with you,” he said.

How could it be?  I couldn’t get over that kind of acceptance.  The sort of love that looks past offenses to a deeper truth and takes its cues from the love God has for us.

When he said, “I forgive you,” he meant it, I learned.  He didn’t bring it up, didn’t harass me about it five weeks from the words being uttered.  It was gone.  His was the sort of forgiveness stemming from the deep forgiveness God mercifully pours upon us—not because of who we are but because of what His Son did.

“You mean you still love me?” I would ask him after being married the first year and then the second and the third.  I had somehow wondered if a growth in love were possible or if love would wear off, like it seemed it did from my limited observation.  I thought love would get dimmer, grow less intense, be less obvious as the years passed.

But I found that the kind of love I had when I married him—the love that believed he was God’s will for me and that cared for him on a certain level—has deepened, intensified, and grown richer every day.

He is always happy to see me when he gets home from work, and he never fails to welcome me home if I get back later than he does.  I found that if I wanted the sort of negative opinion I was looking for about an outfit, I couldn’t get it from him, because he always had a compliment for me. 

Last night he reminded me, “God’s love for us is free.  That’s how my love is for you.  It’s not based on anything you do.”

Because I love my husband, I want to please him.

Because I love my God, I want to please Him.

But it’s not in pleasing Him that love is earned.  That love is free.  What a liberating thought—not a licentious liberation—but one that cries out, “Freely ye have received, freely give!” 

As my husband has demonstrated God’s love to me in our seven years of marriage, so I have learned about the God of love and my relationship with Him.  In turn, that vast ocean of love—limitless, boundless, free—has deepened my relationship with others, so that, by God’s amazing grace, I can love others and keep learning how to do so with the sort of free love given to me by God.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, 
and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God; 
he that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love”—I John 4:7-8.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Graven on His Palms

The day--a dull, rainy one--had dampened the mood of my surroundings and seemed to affect everyone’s spirits.  I passed one individual, and a negative thought glided down the corridors of my mind.  Easily.  Undisturbed.  And frustrating. To add to my dilemma, each time I attempted to roll my burden on the Lord, it seemed to boomerang right back at me.

The radio was playing as I entered my car and heard the radio singers proclaim, “My name is written on His hands!”  Then it smote me.  The thought that the name of that precious Christian, of whom I had entertained negative thoughts earlier that day, was graven on His palms!  I saw that name etched upon His nail-scarred hands.  How my heart condemned me, as I considered how my Lord views each of His own so tenderly, and I begged God for that same heart of love--to see all believers as precious, their names being etched upon the flesh of the One who paid their ultimate sacrifice.  Indeed, they are, as I am, graven on His palms!

Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands…(Isa. 49:16).

Reading through Isaiah some years ago, I happened upon this gem in my own Bible reading.  The following poem resulted from my musings upon that text:

Graven on the palms of His Almighty hands
I am e’er remembered; forsaken not I stand.
Hast my God forgotten?  Doth He hide his face?
No, I live before Him; He showers me with grace.

‘Tis He, my Love, protects me, encompassing with care,
Eternal purposes ordained before a world was there.
And on those wounded hands, through those nail-ravaged palms
He sees me through His precious blood and cheers me all day long.

And now I stand before Him, redeemed and full of grace
Cast down but not forsaken, I cherish this, His place.
And though the world forget me, my God looks from above;
For He has graven me upon His nail-scarred hands in love!