Friday, December 20, 2019

The Christmas Story is the Story of a God in Pursuit

When I was a child, Christmas felt magical to me. People were kinder, happier, and friendlier as they took time to greet one another and to stop and engage in conversations and wish each other, "Merry Christmas!" It also seemed magical because we had extended family visit and traditional holiday meals around elegantly decorated tables. I loved gazing at the Christmas tree lights as I sipped cocoa in front of a fireplace and loved listening to the garbled sounds of adults talking as I drifted off to sleep, thankful more of the people I loved were all under our roof.

When I began attending church, Christmas took on a more important meaning to me and the feeling of it being magical was replaced by a feeling of deep awe that continues to grow. I used to think the Christmas story began in the gospels. But, I have since come to understand the story didn't began with an angel visiting Mary or with angels singing to shepherds in the fields or the Shekinah Glory in the east--it began in the garden God had planted for the people into which He had breathed life. It began with something so sinister we don't like to  include it in the story, but we must because without the bad we can't grasp the loving goodness of God and the significance of His pursuit of us and the Promise He made to us.

The story began with temptation which started with a slithering serpent and the sound of his smooth voice whispering lies and half truths to God's people. It began with Eve forgetting she were created to be God's image bearer. It began as she became dissatisfied for the very first time, believing the serpent's lies over God's truth. It began as she saw God's command not to eat as a deprivation rather than a protection. Her dissatisfaction grew as her desire for the God-forbidden fruit inflamed by the feeling of deprivation and grew into a belief that she deserved more. It began with a bite and then a sharing of her sin with her man--her ever so silent man standing by her side as she engaged in a conversation with a serpent. It began with the overwhelming shame that grew in their hearts as the reality of what they'd done sank in and in their futile attempts to cover it with clothes of leaves proved inadequate. It began with their hiding from the Creator when they heard His approach and for the first time had to call for them.

But there was no place big enough to hide the shame they felt from the God who knows all and yet, still relentlessly pursues those He loves. He met them where they were and He clothed them in animal skins that He, Himself, sacrificed--a sacrifice that was a physical picture of His loving Promise. The one He made in the aftermath of the ugly choices man had made. The promise was that the Promised One would one day take God's wrath for sin committed, would overcome the death they were dying, and would destroy the enemy seeking to destroy them.

Since that day in the Garden we, who were meant to behold God, fellowship with Him, and reflect His glory have been sinning and forsaking our Creator just as Adam and Eve did. As a result, we, too, are shrouded in debilitating shame and hiding from the Creator and each other. We may not hide behind leaves and bushes, but we hide behind masks that portray false selves better than we are. We hide behind shameful behavior like name calling, addictions,  cursing,  deception, abandonment, and abuse. We hide behind vows of not needing the love, approval, and acceptance of God or other people. But the masks, the  shameful behavior, and the vows we make--they can't dissolve the shame that flourishes in hiding.

The solution of shame resides in persistently pursuing God who transforms shame with the blood of the Promised One. The Promised One being Jesus, His Son. The Promised One born shamefully to an unwed mother, lived in the shameful region of Nazareth, and shamefully walked with women, shamefully blessed children, shamefully touched lepers, shamefully cast out demons, shamefully forgave adulterers, shamefully supped with sinners, prostitutes, Samaritans, and tax collectors, shamefully confronted religious leaders who were shaming others. The Son fulfilled the Promise when He was shamefully sold for the price of a slave, was shamefully arrested, was shamefully insulted by the crowd calling for His death, shamefully flogged, shamefully face-slapped and beard plucked, shamefully stripped and crowned with earth-cursed thorns, shamefully nailed to a cross to die a criminal's death, shamefully faced His Father's wrath, and shamefully placed in a borrowed tomb.

We often fail to see, He chose to lay down His life, not just as a payment for sin, but because He despised the shame that's tendrils have been suffocating the life out of us. I wish we could understand He has never despised us; He has despised the shame with which we've been plagued since the fall. And as Diane Langberg so eloquently pointed out in her book, Suffering and the Heart of God, He did not let the shame people and His circumstance heaped upon Him define Him, diminish Him, or destroy His work and His purpose--He looked it fully in the face as His Father turned away so that He could transform our shame into glory.

As we remember the Babe born to a young virgin, laid in a manger, worshiped by shepherds, and visited by the Magi, may we never lose sight  that the Promised One humbled Himself, taking on the form of man, being obedient to death, was the very One who defeated sin and death so we could behold Him and have our shame transformed into glory as it says in 2 Corinthians 3:18, "We all, with unveiled faces, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory."

The Christmas Story without the backdrop of the Garden looses its ability to show the true story God has penned--a story that is both messy and beautiful-- messy because it includes our sin and shame and our failure to love and obey God and beautiful because it includes the loving God radically pursing fallen creatures, and a promise that was fulfilled in the Promised. The Christmas Story without the Garden fails to remind us of the glory of which our sin stripped us. The Christmas Story without the Garden fails to remind us that by faith in Christ we have been provided a way to enter His presence, which is the very place we need to be to have shame transformed into glory. Oh, that we would never forget that the Christmas Story is a Story of a God in pursuit! 

Monday, December 2, 2019

When the Lights are Dim

A few years ago my husband replaced our light bulbs with energy-saving lightbulbs. When we bought them, we didn't realize they take awhile to "warm up" and give off all of the light they are designed to give. The first time I turned the bathroom lights on and glanced in the mirror I thought to myself, "Hey, not so bad!" However, as the light bulbs warmed up and gave more light, the image staring back at me changed. She had bags under her eyes, wrinkles around her mouth, crows feet around her eyes, and "sun spots" gracing on her cheeks. For a brief moment I felt a twinge of disappointment and wished there was a way to dim the lights and turn back the clock to see the younger version of myself again. Then I realized the face looking back had been imprinted by the story I've lived and I wouldn't change it for the world, not even the bad parts like my failures and sin that has been so graciously covered by the Lamb's blood. I would not change the traumas experienced that added lines through the anxiety they produced, because they have been so beautifully healed, the scars reminding me of God's healing touch. I wouldn't even want to remove the lines put there by the messy relationships God has provided to encourage growth in my life. The wrinkles, the scars, the bags under eyes, and the sun spots that come with aging, they all tell a part of the redemption story I'm living.

As I reflect on how the Scriptures call Jesus the light of the world and on my life I realize there have been different seasons. In some of those seasons I've felt deeply connected to Jesus. One such season was the time spent in Mississippi in a little Baptists church. The pastor taught at church 3 times a week and in the community twice a week. He always taught the Scriptures verse-by-verse and gave the gospel each time. He frequently encouraged us to search the Scriptures like the Bereans did. Every Sunday school teacher also taught that way and as a result the church was full of believers who loved the Word and talked about it in everyday conversations. The light experienced in that environment produced a body who loved each other, who quickly confessed sin, and who had a desire to live in a way that honored God. I felt close to Him and lived in close communion to Him, experiencing loving conviction and encouragement daily from both the Word and those around me.

We have lived in several communities and have attended at least seven churches since then. Over the years churches have started having less church services and the expository teaching isn't always as in depth as what we experienced in Mississippi. The culture is also busier and accountability is often forced by joining small groups rather than flowing from relationships that have developed naturally over time spent in Sunday school classes, fellowship dinners, and invitations to join others for Sunday dinner, all of which provided time for questions about the sermon, stimulating conversation about how to apply it, and to catch up on each other's lives. I knew the Light was Jesus and that He shines through the Scriptures, but those conversations and discussions helped the light sink in. In that environment I felt safe to confess sin and ask other to pray for me to overcome it.

After we moved from that place, I learned not every church is the same. Soon after we moved, I asked a new pastor a question about the sermon and he got defensive instead of excitedly opening up the Word and showing me the verses he used to reach his interpretation. From then on I have been hesitant to ask questions and have resorted to trying to find answers by looking in commentaries and listening to additional sermons on line. In one church I shared some ongoing painful things my family was experiencing in Sunday School and a man I didn't know said in a harsh tone, "Have you ever heard of forgiveness?" I was shocked and didn't respond. The truth is I forgave everyday the pain my kids experienced by kids who bullied them in our neighborhood. I needed wisdom as a mom on how to navigate the situation and God to begin to heal my kids' hearts. I needed to not feel so alone in this new community we were in where southern accents and homeschooling were grounds for rejections.

I also remember asking for some accountability for an eating disorder with which I was struggling. One lady agreed to meet with me and in our first meeting she confronted me for wearing make up and asked me if I was trying to draw attention to myself like a "floozy." If you know me, you know I am a minimal makeup kind of gal and very modest and don't like to be the center of attention. I felt so shamed I never met with her again. I asked a few other ladies I met in Bible studies at different times to be accountability partners. One shoved the a Bible across the table and told me if I only knew more of the Bible I wouldn't have that issue, one told me all I needed was Jesus, and the third used that information to try to convince the leadership I didn't belong at the church. As a result, I became a lot less real in church and quit seeking accountability relationships. And the light grew a bit dimmer for me during that time and in the dimmer light flaws I was developing went unnoticed and unaddressed because I, like everyone else, have blind spots and don't always see myself accurately.

I eventually sought accountability and healing in the offices of Christian counselors who were Spirit-led believers who, like Jesus, were filled with both truth and grace. I could be real in their offices and know I wouldn't be shamed. I would be given new insights that could help me move forward. At times I was gently confronted when words and actions didn't match and I once again began to grow more and once again was experiencing God and His work continually in my life.  

I believe the little church in the south was on to something. It was a church centered on the Word. It was also a relational church, reflecting a relational God. There we experienced loving relationships and conversations that began to change the distortions I had about God and Christianity. There I experienced more growth because I not only spent a lot of time in the Word, I had conversations about what I was learning and discussed how to apply it to my life. I was surrounded by people who didn't shame me for experiencing postpartum depression, who didn't shame me for experiencing PTSD and fear after a break in, and who didn't "kick me" when I was down about sin or broken relationships. I was surrounded by people who also noticed and acknowledged growth in me and asked questions about how I had worked through some of the issues I had experienced.

It wasn't a perfect church. There were times we misunderstood each other, assumed somebody meant something they didn't mean by a question asked or a statement made. There were times we had to confront sin in the body and it was doubly hard because we truly loved each other so much. And for the most part we had a committment to God and to each other to get through the messy hard parts of relationships. There I was gently confronted by mentors who didn't wound, because they loved well and didn't use the Word of God in a shaming way. Because people discussed the Word in such positive ways people had more sensitive consciences and were more continuously confessing sin and turning from it, literally working out salvation as the Bible tells us to. I think that no matter how good preaching and teaching is, when there are no relational conversations about the Word and the teaching there we are prone to not let it take root in our hearts, resulting in lives that don't reflect the process of sanctification to which we are called.

I have come to realize I am at a place in my own life that I passionately long for the time that I will no longer live where the light can be so easily dimmed, but will be at Home where the sun and moon will no longer need to shine because the Lamb will be the light there of. And His Light will always shine Bright.


Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!