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Christmas Coming Early

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Christmas is coming early this year!  Well I don’t mean that it’s actually being moved or anything like that, but I’m going to do a Christmas letter in November.  I don’t usually do ‘holiday’ letters.  To me they are just too common, too predictable, and I usually shy away from being that routine.  However, this time I’m making an exception.  Why, you say?  Well, I just heard a program on FOTF this week and someone hinted on the program that it’s been attributed that Oprah rejected the Gospel message of her childhood because she could not respect, could not understand the characteristic that God is a jealous God.  She understood the word jealous to be a term that is considered by all to be a negative characteristic.  I can’t blame her for that, we sure teach ourselves that message.  Kind of one of those, ‘I’m jealous and you had better not even look the other way or I’ll blow my top kind of God’.  Anyway, that caught my attention, and now somehow I’ve got to turn that into a Christmas letter in November for you.  Here goes.  But before we start I need you to slow down, relax, turn off television or the world, take a deep breath and then consider…..

Scripture is always a good way to do a Christmas letter: ‘a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel’, Isaiah 7:14.  Christ’s birth the center of our story.  Hey, I’m already into Christmas.  The literal Hebrew text there is stating ‘with us God’!  That’s not to be interpreted as a greeting but a very firm, meaningful declaration. The Hebrew word for with is IM and the word for God is EL.  Im-manu-el!  Now what if that scripture’s true!  And what if Romans 8:35-39, ‘who can separate us?  Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness or peril or sword…I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, not things present or things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the Love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ were true?  Have you ever really thought long about the fact that the Holy Spirit of God has come to comfort us, is present with us wherever we are, no matter what we are doing?  ‘With us God’, (Immanuel) has a much ‘weightier’ meaning than we have given it credit for.  God being with us was the Gospel plan all along, and it is something that carried the greatest importance for Him and for us.  In the Old Testament, God was on the prophets, priests and kings.  No one else experienced Him; they could only be told of Him by the three anointed positions of the Old System.  That has changed and it has been changed because it was the will of God to change it.  IM within this context is a heavy word.  It’s not like someone is just in the same room with you, not someone only occupying the adjoining space with you.  It’s not someone simply watching from across the room.  In this word is a deep mingling of God and us.  Jesus said that it was better that he went away and the Holy Spirit comes for us.  Why?  Simply, he could be in Jerusalem but not in Southern Illinois at the same time.  That changed, it was better that Jesus, who was in contact with many, leave and ascend to the Father so that the Holy Spirit would come and could be in contact with all.   All could be touched, not just those in Jerusalem!  It was God’s desire to be with us anywhere and everywhere!  Unlike the Old System, where God was ‘on them’, in the economy of Grace and the Spirit of God, He is ‘in them’.

Many years ago I had, for a very short time, too short a time actually, a double barreled shotgun.  It was made of Damascus steel.  That is very special steel.  The way that original Damascus steel was forged has been lost, having been perfected in medieval times.  Damascus steel was said to be the hardest steel created.  It was used for ancient swords.  It could hold an edge that was said to ‘cut through a rifle barrel’.  It was tough. Somehow, Damascus steel, being ancient, took the impurities found in the forging and changed them molecularly and created a sword resistant to shattering.  This process of forging mingled the minerals until you could not tell where one starts and the other ends. Damascus steel is one in that sense, yet you can clearly see in the steel itself the obvious mingling of the forger with its waves of steel.  It was a nice antique and I still kind of kick myself for getting rid of it.

That mingling of Damascus steel is a lot like what the word with (‘im’) means.  All such Bible words translated into the English (such as dwell and abide) are related to ‘im’.  They are emotional, passionate words given with great feeling and hope.  Remember Joseph, having been falsely accused and having been sold into slavery by his brothers, sitting in prison and telling his story at every turn, he remembered that ‘God was with Joseph’, mingled with his life, part of every moment.  David also knew the joy of that.  Read the 3rd, 23rd and 32nd Psalm for clues of how much David knew that God was with him.  David wrote the 23rd Psalm while being chased by his own son whose purpose was to kill David– read that Psalm with that in mind!  Obviously, it would take too long to express all the examples and all the passion of what ‘with us God’ means for us in this letter.

Now, what if He was with us at Walmart, the Civic Center, at work, at home, not just at church, but everywhere?  Would that change your confidence?  Would it make a difference knowing God was present with us all the time, in the good times and the hard times?  Present in our celebrations and our mourning.  Not just observing them but a part of actually going through them with us.  Would that make a difference?  Well, I believe He does just that.

That brings me back to Oprah.  Apparently, she could not reconcile the thought of a jealous God, seeing that as a negative, angry, getting even kind of God.  That’s not what the ancient word means at all.  Jealous is not defined in the typical English fashion found in our traditions. The true meaning of that original word is to identify a ‘passionate, longing of love,’ Godly Love, for the object of that Love.  Our Jealous God is a God consistent with the Gospel Good News, who because of His passion to be ‘with us’ eagerly seeks us out.  That with us is not just a shopping trip to the store and hope we find a bargain on the trip.  It’s a fire (fire like that forged steel sits in) that burns out of the coals of His Love for us, not a jealous God who is seeking His own way or His own purposes, but aggressively Loves us.  He is jealous for us because He cares for us so much.  In the original language, the world God so loved that he gave His only Son, that God is jealous, so much that His Love drove Him to Grace and Mercy for us.  Made a way for us.  Prepared a place for us.  Sought us out.  Became Sin for us.  That’s something we need to permit to happen in us.  This Gospel is Good News but it’s entirely up to us whether we accept and believe God Loved us that much that He did that much for us.

Now you have to be doing one of two things to come up with Oprah’s kind of objection about God.  You either are too lazy to search out the truth and the real answer, or you are silly enough to use it as an excuse to justify what you wanted all along, hoping to find some reason not to believe.  I have never, after searching and seeking out the heart of God, been disappointed in that chase.  He is always much more grand, much more loving than I had imagined.  His name will be called Immanuel…with us God!  Can you let that happen?  Can you let that be true? Can you not doubt that?  This Gospel is not about how God was with us in the past, not about Him being with us in the future.  While both of those are true, we must come to believe that God is with us now.  His presence invites us to leave those things that are behind and not speculate about the future, but be in His presence now. It’s not a supernatural moment we need, it’s the reality of He is in every moment, super or not.  The question is not whether He is present, the question is are you!

‘Glory to God in the highest, Peace, Good Will toward men.’  (Luke 2:14)  Christmas in November.

Shout My Lungs Out

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I don’t know about you (although I’m suspicious) but I’ve been struggling lately, wrestling with my heart and my head.  It’s not the kind of struggling that I expected to be doing right now.  I’m not struggling between believing and unbelief.  Thank God that’s been settled for some time now and I don’t revisit that devilish thought.  It’s not about doubting anything related to my Faith.  I’m not being pulled away from the Gospel by some great sin or giving up on anything.  I’m not losing sleep worrying about finances, health, relationships, kids, family, or friends.  No, some days I’m struggling to keep from ‘shouting my lungs out’ about the great love of God that has neutralized all those worries and fears mentioned previously.

We were traveling west on Route 13 a few evenings ago, part of the great migration of people that land at the nearest Dairy Queen, and I was looking at the sunset, just thinking how terrific it was to have the ‘eyes to see the hand-work of God’ so obviously displayed in front of me.  My first thought was let’s just get out of the car in the middle of the road and praise our lungs out.  My second thought was this is so much like the sunsets I’ve seen in Colorado at 10,000 feet (my high water mark of assessing God’s creation and my favorite place on earth to appreciate His beauty).  Well, we didn’t stop the car and I didn’t make a fool of myself by diving into the floorboard of the car and worshipping.  But that evening reminded me of how thankful I am to have found a place to keep my heart.  In spite of everything that’s going on politically, culturally and especially financially, I’m just not discouraged by all the disturbing bad news.  And, I really don’t have a great miracle to share from the past couple days and no immediate testimony to tell anyone about; it’s just the accumulation of years of the Faithfulness of God in my life and the consistent, obvious ‘mingling’ of God’s Life in mine.  In fact, in my mind I get to thinking it’s kind of crazy to have found such Peace, used to be afraid that it was just simple apathy rather than the Comfort of God.  My brain tries to remind my heart…’stop it, don’t be so foolish,’ but so far my heart wins every time.  The struggle I’m talking about is the awareness of simple praise and at that same time, the awareness that my brain is trying to balance that with the reasonable and logical at the very same time.  But, it makes for a great car ride anyway.

That confidence is so different than having confidence in things or stuff.  Have you ever stopped to think about how ‘ridiculous’ the Faith that we have been given to believe in is compared to all the worldly ‘wisdom’ we find?  I don’t remember where I read it, but years ago I ran across someone’s comparison of our Faith and the other religions of the world.  We really have such a ‘weird’ belief system with this Faith.  Now I say weird with all the respect I can muster up because it’s that uniqueness that makes it so believable for me.  I don’t think we could create this kind of Creator.  The God we all call Father calls Himself a Friend to us.  He’s humble rather than untouchable.  No other God stoops, no other weaves His Life into the lives of the creature in a personal way.  We have a God that wants to be united with us and even suffered to make that possible.  The gods of human imagination are indifferent to the human race.  They tower above humanity and toy with it, but they never invest in people’s lives, having an interest in people only to serve their own needs.  Our Father is not self-centered, not a taker but a giver.  Ours had staggering plans for us, before the foundation of the world He made plans for us.  He was determined to enter into the problem and bless us with a Life and fullness of Joy, eager to know us intimately, not only stooping down and touching us but actually stooping low and lifting us up to His Life.

That’s what makes me pause and keep hold of this Faith so securely.  It’s so upside down compared to religions.  No human’s mind has ever invented such a God.  No man has chosen to serve such a God in the history of religions, except, that is, the Christian peoples.  As C. S. Lewis said, Jesus is either a lunatic or he’s exactly who he said he is, he must be one or the other.  The Christian God is interested in a deep and truthful relationship with us, not just relationship alone, but much more of a union with us.  So much so that what is His becomes ours, and what we bring He joins with us and shares this life with us in the present.  God is a God of relationship, having Father, Son and Spirit in One.  All blended into singleness that advantages the Others, each with visions of companionship with each other, loving One another, caring for One another.  That God has turned His (Their) attention to the creature.

In Faith, we believe there was a time when there was no universe, no solar system, no earth, no humanity, and no biology at all.  The Christian God, before the whole thing began, was compelled to create all things in the purpose of His heart and in doing so, did it not to toy with the creation but mingled with it.  It was a determined heart to create it just this way.  The world we live in, with its trouble and strife (and Joy and Peace through Christ), was not plan B.  This was The Plan.  I might not understand why it’s the way that it is, but it is exactly what God purposed to do.  Something about this Creation and us as His creatures is profound, and no matter how it goes here, I truly believe that God had an eternal reason for us going through this thing called life on this dust ball in the universe.  I know this for sure, when Adam and Eve fell, our God, the Christian God, instead of judging them and damning them, plunged into the storm and ruin rather than walk away disgusted.  Rather than leaving us to the results of that action, to the chaos, misery, brokenness and bondage, our God immediately met us in it, rescued us from it.  And, He continues to have that purpose today.  And when I see sunsets and know the companionship of my wife and the friendship of friends and the joy of parenting and the moments of Praise and the revelation of God’s Love I know He is in the middle of my Life and sometimes I just want to scream that out!

Ours is a pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45).  In that testimony, the merchant did not make the decision he made on the back of religious tradition, it was not about religious duty.  He was acting on an encounter that had won his heart.  It’s the same encounter that most of us have had as well.  Jane and I have two grandsons.  They, like us, will have to have their own encounter of inspiration.  They will not be able to live on the Joy of their ancestors any more than Jane and I could live on the Faith of our parents and grandparents.  Each generation must seek Him.  Only knowing Him will set them free from the worry and the fret of the daily headlines, only meeting Him will make them want to stop their rocket cars in the middle of their highway and shout.  We are at a crisis point I think in the Church.  Our notions about God and our unique encounters with God will be replaced with their encounters.  Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene after His resurrection were: ‘Whom do you seek?’  That confronts each new generation and really what Jesus’ question boils down to is this: Is it Life that you want or something ‘less’.  If it’s Life that you want, then My Life is all satisfying, fulfilling and without measure.  The price we will pay is simply seeking Him; once found, He can, if we permit, change our experience from struggling to believe, into struggling to keep from shouting our lungs out!

Think about it – September 2011

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C.S. Lewis concerning his conversion:

“I always wanted above all things, not to be interfered with. I had wanted to call my soul my own. I had been far more anxious to avoid suffering than to achieve delight. I had always aimed at limited liabilities….You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, when ever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929, I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not even see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility, which will accept a convert even on such terms. The prodigal son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore the Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful and darting eyes in every direction for a chance to escape? The words ‘compelle intrare,’ compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and his compulsion is our liberation.”

*******

“I may, I suppose, regard myself as a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets-that’s fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Internal Revenue-that’s success. Furnished with money and a little fame, even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions-that’s pleasure. It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time-that’s fulfillment. Yet, I say to you, and beg you to believe, multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing; less than nothing, a positive impediment, measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.”…author Malcolm Muggeridge

*******

…They (the disciples) knew Jesus in the chronological sequence of His birth, life, death and resurrection. Paul encountered Him in the logical sequence of His resurrection, death, life and birth. Through the keyhole of the Resurrection, (Paul) argued backwards in time… C.S. Lewis, addressing this same theme in the allegorical form that appeals to all ages, effectively captures this powerful truth in his book The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe…as the bewildered children hasten back to the scene, they are greeting by Aslan, triumphant over his death…the children yearn for an explanation:
“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge only goes back to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”…Ravi Zacharias in his book A Shattered Visage.

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