The Real Deal

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Gentle Reader,

There’s nothing like Easter.

After the horrible betrayal. After the mocking trials. After the bruises, the wounds, the spitting, the torture. After the crown of thorns. After the agony of the Cross. After it was finished. After the dreadful silence of the tomb.

Easter.

PAR-TAY!

I say that with all seriousness. If there is ever a day when Christians should celebrate with abandon, Easter is it. Jesus is alive! The Evil One is defeated! Death couldn’t claim Him! The grave couldn’t hold Him! He is wrapped not in moldy, decaying funeral rags, but in a glorified, perfect body. And yet a body that still bears the marks. Our names carved upon His hands.

God became flesh and made His dwelling among us.

I love seeing the little girls in their frilly dresses and the boys in their bright shirts. I love seeing extended family come together for church and a good meal. I love seeing the budding trees and new flowers. The sense of hope and promise hangs thick in the air.

A new season.

A new life.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t understand how people live without Jesus. Looking at the state of the world, from wars to human trafficking to poverty to hunger, makes me cling to Him all the more. I am desperate for what only God can provide. On my own, I say and do stupid, stupid things. Selfish things. Mean things.

I am a sinner.

I need grace.

I need a miracle.

Jesus’ resurrection is that miracle. He takes all that ugliness, all that sin, and washes it in His blood. He sends His Spirit to live in me and make me into the person I was meant to be. No amount of self-help or positive thinking can do what He does. He pokes and prods at all the deep, secret, dark places. He brings things to the surface, things I want to keep buried, and teaches me how to look at them in His light. He teaches me how to walk the right path. He teaches me how to worship Him as the True and Forever Lord.

He teaches me how to be real.

And God? He’s the complete real deal. He is totally honest, totally Himself. He doesn’t have a messed-up side. He doesn’t try to manipulate or guilt-trip anyone. He just lays out the facts. He says, “This is Who I Am and this is how it is.” Then He lets us decide. Empty or whole. Heaven or Hell. New or old. Together or alone.

When Jesus left the tomb that glorious morning, the way was made clear for each of us. The great enemies of sin and death were slain by the only One Who could do it. We don’t have to live in the pit. We can cry out, “Jesus, save me!” And He will. He’ll reach in and pull us out. And we see the Great King with eyes that blaze with the fire of holiness. We are bathed in the beauty of His love and the fantastic mystery of mercy. Draped in the robes of His righteousness, we realize how small and shriveled we are, and how glowing and healthy we can become in Him. Because of Him.

We approach the Throne of the Holy One, welcomed as His beloved children.

Because of Jesus.

Because of Easter.

Grace and peace along the way.

Not the Fundamentals

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Gentle Reader,

The history of Christianity is marked by debate.

Each of the Gospel authors records extensive back-and-forth between Jesus and just about everyone He encountered. After the Resurrection, some Jewish and Roman leaders conspired to spread the story that His body had been taken by the disciples.  Acts 15 records the Jerusalem leadership’s decision regarding the conflict between Jewish and Gentile believers over circumcision and (by extension) the keeping of the Moasic laws. Subsequent centuries saw councils and volumes upon volumes written upon crucial topics: What was the nature of Christ – monophyte, apollinarian, nestorian? The answer came in the formation of the doctrine of the hypostatic union. Did the Spirit proceed only from the Father or from the Father and the Son? The answer to this created the filioque controversy, a factor that continues to contribute to the separation of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. How was the Christian life to be lived? An anonymous author or compiler tackled this in the Didache. What books should be included in the canon? (The subsequent question, “how was the canon formed?” is one of the major differences between Catholics and Protestants).

Justin Martyr passionately defended the faith. Irenaeus eloquently dismantled Gnostic heresies.  Origen, regarded as a Church Father but not a Saint, was anathematized (condemned as a heretic) for (among other things) his views on subordinationism, accepted within the Christian community until the final formation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Tertullian blasted Marcion across five books, but later became suspect due to his Montanist views, streams of which flow into today’s Pentecostal and Charismatic oceans.

Where am I going with this?

We make a mistake when we assume that the Christian faith was handed down in toto one afternoon. The centuries of wrestling, of struggle, are certainly evidence of human frailty in attempting to combine antagonistic philosophies into one; there is no holding on to false belief (not forever, at any rate) when God has won a person over. It is also evidence, to be sure, of the Enemy’s activity in taking truth and manipulating it into a lie. However, in these debates and worries, we also see evidence of the working out of salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). The person devoted to God longs to please Him, and therefore desires to know what is right.

This longing and desire often leads to legalism.

Confession: I like legalism. I like lists of rules. I like knowing exactly what the standards are. As an anxious perfectionist, I like to be able to point to something and say, “There. I did it.” For some, the appeal lies in pride and the hope of controlling others. For people like me, the appeal lies in fear. If I’m keeping the rules, then I’m okay. People like me are terrified that God’s grace will run out. We are afraid that He will wake up one day and no longer love us – because we broke the rules one too many times.

I’m not an advocate for the other extreme – the cheap grace of libertinism – but a rule-bound life is stressful in the extreme. It is that stress we are going to examine through the Not the Fundamentals series. The title is drawn from a four-volume set of 90 essays entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth, published between 1910 and 1915. (Volume 1 is available in PDF format here). What the authors of The Fundamentals set out to do was re-articulate key positions in orthodox Christianity in a shifting culture that had given rise to historical criticism and the social gospel. Unfortunately, that re-articulation led directly to a rigidity of focus on the externals among many Christians. It is to this we turn our attention.

Before we part ways, allow me to make one thing clear: This series is not directed at any individuals or churches. If and when I link to any sites or blogs, I do so only to illustrate a point from the source itself. We will not walk in a spirit of condemnation here. Remember, I group myself with those who are drawn to rigidity and legalism. I understand. What I want is to live the abundant life Christ offers, free of fear and based in love. This is the end we strive for.

Grace and peace along the way.

 

Just a Shepherd

Gentle Reader,

The following is a short story written for the children’s group I help teach on Wednesday evenings. I hope it blesses you.

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Sometimes I feel little. Unimportant. I think that nobody notices me, that I can’t be part of anything special. I get focused on the bad things I’ve done, the bad things people say about me. I get worried that they are right.

But then I remember…

Luke 1:26-37

God sent the angel Gabriel to a city called Nazareth, to a girl engaged to a man named Joseph. The girl’s name was Mary. The angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”

When Mary heard what Gabriel said, she was afraid. She didn’t understand. “Do not be afraid, Mary,” Gabriel went on to say, “for you have found favor with God. You will get pregnant and have a Son, and you will call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His ancestor, King David. And He will reign over Israel forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen, since I’m not married?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will wash over you; therefore, the Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. … For with God nothing will be impossible.”

Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph was sad when he found out that Mary was pregnant. The baby definitely wasn’t his! But Joseph was also a kind man, so he decided to end their engagement quietly. He wouldn’t expose her to public shame.

As Joseph was sleeping that night, after he had made his decision, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph … do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the baby in her is from the Holy Spirit! She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him. He kept his engagement to Mary.

Luke 2:1-7

A few months later, the king, Caesar Augustus, issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. He wanted to know how many people were living in his empire. Everyone had to sign in, and they had to go to their hometown to do it.

So Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of his ancestor, King David. He went there to register with Mary, who was engaged to be married to him and was expecting a child. When they got there, the time came for the baby to be born! There was no room for Joseph and Mary in any home or hotel. They had to settle for a small space in a dirty, stinky barn with lots of noisy animals. Mary gave birth to Jesus there. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in the manger.

That’s where I come in.

I’m a shepherd. I live out in the hills with my sheep. People don’t like me very much. They think that I’m dirty and smelly and that I steal. But I don’t! I eat the meat and drink the milk that comes from my sheep, and I use the wool they give me for my clothes. I get sad whenever a sheep has to die, but I thank God for how He takes care of me.

I love my sheep. I have names for each one of them, and they will only follow me. I’ve been their shepherd since they were babies. Lambs. They know my voice and they won’t listen to anyone else. They are my best friends.

That one night, the night that Jesus was born, I was young. I was hanging out with my sheep on the hillside near the town of Bethlehem. I had to go there to sign in on the census for the king. There were some other shepherds who had to sign in, too. I recognized some of their faces, but we didn’t really talk. We were all used to being with the animals.

It was quiet. The flocks had settled down for sleep and only the occasional “baaaa!” could be heard. I leaned against my crook, feeling tired myself. Suddenly…

Luke 2:9-20

An angel of the Lord appeared! The glory of the Lord was bright and it was all around me and the other shepherds! We were terrified! But the angel said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

And then too many angels to count appeared behind the first angel! They praised God, saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Just as suddenly as they had appeared, they were gone. We were all quiet for a second, but then we all started talking excitedly. We were all saying the same thing: “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about!” We didn’t even think about the sheep, but they followed us anyway.

So we hurried off and hunted through the town. In that tiny, stinky, noisy barn, we found Mary and Joseph. They looked so tired and…I can’t put my finger on it. Surprised, maybe. And the baby! The baby who was lying in the manger. I was the first one to get to Him. I knelt down and my heart stopped. He looked just like a normal baby, but I knew. I knew. I was looking at the Savior.

I didn’t realize that I had started crying. I was just a shepherd. Insignificant. Unimportant. People didn’t like me. They thought I was bad. But God sent an angel to tell me – me! – about this Baby. This Savior. The other shepherds crowded around the rough manger and, one by one, I looked at their faces. I could tell that they felt the same way.

I don’t know how long we all sat there, but the sun was up when I finally noticed the stiffness in my knees. The Baby began to fuss and his mother, Mary, gently pushed us aside and went into a corner to feed Him. I heard voices complaining about all the sheep crowding the narrow street. In a rush, I darted out of the barn and told the first person I saw about what had happened, about what I’d seen. We all did.

We spread the word concerning what had been told us about this Child, and all who heard it were amazed at what we said to them. Slowly, we returned to the hills, glorifying and praising God for all the things we had heard and seen.

I am old now. Many years have gone by. But I haven’t forgotten. Jesus grew up in Nazareth; He helped Joseph in the carpenter’s shop. Then one day He left and went all throughout Judea. He told people about God, and His kingdom and about how we needed to be saved from our sins. When I heard about His preaching, I tried to find Him, but we never seemed to be in the same place. And I had to take care of my sheep.

After three years, Jesus was arrested. My heart hurt. I thought about the little Baby I had seen. I thought about how the angel said that He would save us. I didn’t understand. It got even worse when I found out that they had put Him to death on a cross. I lost my hope. I was even mean to my sheep.

But then! Then! Jesus rose from the dead! I was just bringing my flock into the hills around Jerusalem when it happened. Somehow everyone knew about it. My heart did a flip-flop and my brain did a twist.

But then! I saw Him. I SAW JESUS. The little Baby was now a Man, a Man with holes in His hands and in His side. But it was the same face. It was the same eyes, the eyes that had looked into mine when I peered into the manger. I knew it was Him. I knew it was my Lord.

Sometimes I feel little. Unimportant. I think that nobody notices me, that I can’t be part of anything special. I get focused on the bad things I’ve done, the bad things people say about me. I get worried that they are right.

But then I remember. I remember the angels and Mary and Joseph and the animals and the Baby. I remember the stars and the empty tomb and the holes in His hands and feet. And I know that He loves me. I know that He died and rose again. I know that He did it for me.

And I know that He did it for you, too.

Romans 10:9

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.

Merry Christmas!