"...and they shall call his name Emmanuel..."

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“The story of the Bible is Emmanuel.”

One of our pastors said this in a sermon a few weeks back, and I’ve been rolling it over in my head ever since. As a result, I’ve seen the overarching story of the Bible in a whole new way. Though during Advent our focus is the child promised in Isaiah, the one who was born of a virgin and whose name was called Emmanuel, I have seen how each person of the Trinity fulfills the concept of God with us in a unique way.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” So begins the story. God meticulously crafted perfection in Eden, then created Adam and Eve to live there and care for it, and, more importantly, to enjoy unbroken fellowship with Him.  Genesis tells us God would walk with Adam and Eve in the garden in the cool of the evening. All was perfect and right and exactly the way God intended.

But then sin entered the world. Adam and Eve disobeyed God. As a result, that beautiful unbroken fellowship with God was lost, not just for themselves, but for all mankind.

However—and what a glorious ‘however’ this is—God didn’t give up on his people. Through blessing a couple of barren ninety-somethings with a miracle child, he created his chosen nation, Israel, not just to exist, but to illustrate the concept of God with us. He brought them out of slavery in Egypt, guided them through the desert, and led them to a land he had created for them. He was with them.

But this fellowship was not free and unbroken as it had been in Eden. There were strict rules and stipulations that the Israelites were required to follow. And God was not present as he had been in Eden; he dwelled in a specific place, the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest could enter this chamber, and then only once a year and bearing a blood sacrifice to cover the sin of the nation. This place, in the center of the Temple, was marked by a thick curtain, separating the Holy God from sinful man.

However, the blood of sacrificial animals was a mere foreshadowing of God’s ultimate plan. Paul phrases this beautifully in Romans 8:3. “For what the law was powerless to do…God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man, as an offering for sin.”

It is this iteration of Emmanuel, Jesus, that we focus on most at this time of year. As Jesus, God himself grew in Mary’s womb and suckled at her breast. God Himself was a toddler, a child, a teenager, an ordinary small-town carpenter. God himself came to dwell with us, to walk with us, to experience the struggles of the human experience…and to show us exactly what it looked like to fulfill the law perfectly. God himself, the Word-made-flesh, then gave His life on a Roman cross to cover, once and for all, every sinful thought, word, and deed, committed by every person on earth. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us so that in him we could become the righteousness of God.” (1 Corinthians 5:21).  

After Jesus defeated sin and death through his crucifixion and resurrection, he ascended into Heaven to assume his rightful place with the Father. But he never intended to leave us alone. In John 16:7, he told his disciples, “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go I will send him to you.” That Advocate—the Holy Spirit—is Emmanuel, God with us, now. Rather than being limited by geography, as Jesus was, the Holy Spirit can indwell every believer, all at once. The Spirit of God convicts us of sin, guides us along God’s path, and enables us to do his will. The Spirit changes our hearts, gives us the desire and the ability to please God, and is a deposit guaranteeing our glorious inheritance as adopted sons and daughters of God.

And one day, Emmanuel will come again. He will return to earth, wipe it clean of all sin, and set up the new heaven and the new earth. Revelation tells us we will reign with him in this new earth, and once more we will have the unbroken fellowship with the Lord that we were always intended to have. Our existence will be defined by the most complete and perfect iteration of Emmanuel.

So this Christmas, as we let our gaze linger on the baby in the manger, as we marvel at the miracle that is Emmanuel, I pray that we will grasp a larger perspective of God with us and be grateful not only for Jesus in human form, but for the God who didn’t give up on his people and for the Spirit that marks us as his children and shapes us to be more like Him. And may we look forward to the true coming of Emmanuel.

May the peace and joy of Emmanuel truly be yours this Christmas and always.

What Medical Bills and a Broken Radio Taught Me About Forgiveness

A couple weeks before Christmas, my husband was hanging lights on our house when the ladder collapsed, taking him with it. He suffered a nasty gash on the back of his ankle, which—to make a very, very long story very, very short—got infected, went septic, and landed him in the hospital for nine days. 

As you can imagine, nine days in the hospital and all the associated doctor visits, surgery, and medications did not come cheap. To make matters worse, the insurance claim was denied. That meant that the entire $129,000 plus it cost to treat him would fall on us.

Most people don’t have a spare hundred and twenty-nine grand lying around, and we are no exception. This was a debt there was no way we could pay, and the idea of being under it was staggering. Obviously, the hospital would take this into account and give us something of a discount, but even so, we were looking at a debt of many, many thousands of dollars, with years of monthly payments, payments we would struggle to afford.

However, this past Monday, I received a notice in the mail from the hospital. They appealed our claim, and the insurance company decided to pay it.

In full.

Patient responsibility $0.00.

Just like that, our debt was erased. Canceled.

Let me tell you, that felt pretty awesome.

To make another long story extremely short, two weeks ago, my two boys disabled the radio in our car. Disabled as in “when turned on, it played no music, but instead emitted foul-smelling smoke.” To be fair, I expected my offspring to damage our car at some point, but I did not expect that point to be now, when they are eight and six.

The radio, unfortunately, could not be resurrected, and we had to buy a new one, to the tune about $129. This has irritated me to no end, as I don’t like spending money when stuff breaks on its own. When it is actively destroyed by one more more Wenlets, that goes beyond “dislike.”

Last night, I was haranguing the boys AGAIN about the radio, and my oldest (Yakko, for purposes of this blog; you’re welcome, Animaniacs fans) said, “Mom? Could you please not bring up the radio so often?”

It was at that point that God pricked my heart with a reminder: the parable of the wicked servant. Y’know, the guy who was forgiven a huge debt, one of millions and millions of dollars, one he had no hope of ever being able to repay? The guy who immediately ran into someone who owed him a few bucks and choked him, demanding to be repaid then and there?

That was me. I had just been forgiven a $129,000 debt, and I was angry about a $129 radio.

I had become the wicked servant.

It was not a good look for me.

In the parable of the wicked servant, the servant is brought back before the king and held accountable for how he treated the man who owed him money. The angry king rescinded the offer of forgiveness and ordered the man thrown into prison until his debts were paid. Jesus’ sobering warning is this: God will treat us this way if we do not forgive those who have wronged us.

Does this mean that those of us who are saved can lose our salvation if we—even unknowingly—hold a grudge against another person?

I don’t think so. Remember, salvation and cleansing from sin are free gifts. Jesus said, on the cross, "It is finished." He died once and for all. We forgive not to earn forgiveness, but as a demonstration that we understand how much God has forgiven us. 

John Piper puts it this way: "If the forgiveness that we received at the cost of the blood of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is so ineffective in our hearts that we are bent on holding unforgiving grudges and bitterness against someone, we are not a good tree. We are not saved. We don’t cherish this forgiveness. We don’t trust in this forgiveness. We don’t embrace and treasure this forgiveness. We are hypocrites. We are just mouthing. We haven’t ever felt the piercing, joyful wonder that God paid the life of his Son." (http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/if-i-fail-to-forgive-others-will-god-not-forgive-me)

Piper goes on in the same interview to reassure those of us who struggle with the issue of forgiveness. "Struggling to forgive is not what destroys us. As long as we are in the flesh, we will do our good deeds imperfectly, including forgiving and loving others. Jesus died to cover those imperfections. What destroys us is the settled position that we are not going to forgive and we have no intention to forgive....If we think we can be indwelt by the Spirit of Christ and not make war on that attitude, we are deluded." 

I realize that a hospital bill is not a perfect analogy. Our insurance company didn’t pay our bill out of the goodness of their hearts; they paid it because we have a contract with them and are faithful to pay our monthly premium. But cancellation of a debt is cancellation of a debt, and a lesson from God is a lesson from God.  If I’d been forgiven over a hundred grand, couldn’t I find it in my heart to not hold a hundred bucks over my sons’ heads?

I’m grateful for Yakko’s honesty with me, and the way God used him to gently remind me. So I told Yakko and his brother, Wakko, that yes, they were right, I had held a grudge against them, and they were officially forgiven for breaking the radio.

Will they be allowed to play in my car anytime soon? Not likely. 

Will they still suffer some consequences for the destruction of property in an effort to teach them to respect things that belong to someone else? Absolutely.

But will I hold that hundred-dollar radio over their heads anymore? Will I bring it up every time they displease me?

No. I won't.

I have been forgiven much more.

HospitalBill

 

Your turn: What debts, financial or otherwise, have been canceled for you recently? What debts have you canceled—or need to cancel—for others?

Use Your Words

Any of us who have survived the toddler phase with our little darlings have undoubtedly told those darlings, more times than we care to count, to “use your words.” Sometimes I still have to say this to mine, despite the fact that all three of them have long since graduated from toddlerhood. If I’m feeling especially obnoxious, I sing the Daniel Tiger song. Any of you with kids the same ages as mine can sing along with me. “Use your wo-o-o-ords, use your words!” (You will now have that song stuck in your head the rest of the day. You’re welcome).

 

For those of us who are called to be Christian writers, this is the essence of that calling: to use our words. Use them to glorify God and give hope to those mired in a messy world. Use them to point the way to the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ Himself. Use them to uplift. Inspire. Encourage. Leave everyone who reads your writing slightly better for having read it.

But what if you’re not yet published? What if your words are stuck in the slush pile, or tied up in committee, or still on your hard drive, not yet released even to your critique partners? What then?

The cool thing about God is that this calling doesn’t require a published novel, an impressive platform, or a public ministry. Any time we write anything that anyone else sees, we can use our words to live out our mission. Here are just a few examples:

1. Do you have a Facebook page? A Twitter account? A blog? Whether these are slick, polished, professional pages or personal ones where you mainly talk about your kids’ shenanigans (not that I would know anything about this, ahem ahem), if you’re on social media, you have a spot where your words can be seen by however many friends or followers you have. Use this to your advantage! Rather than getting mired in the latest mommy war or political controversy, use your words on social media to encourage whoever reads them. Come alongside your friends and reassure them that they’re not alone.

My early years of motherhood were, to put it mildly, difficult. My oldest (Yakko, for purposes of this blog) was colicky as a baby, and he’d just barely grown out of this when I learned I was unexpectedly pregnant again with his little brother, Wakko. In addition, Wakko was born with cleft palate, which meant that feeding him, in any form, was a messy and time-consuming proposition for the first year of his life. That part of my life was without a doubt the most difficult time I’ve had so far. But having gone through that, I am blessed to be able to encourage young moms I know on social media who are where I was. By using my words, I am able to reassure them that this, too, shall pass, and that life is about to get a whole lot better.

2. ‘Tis the season for end-of-year teacher gifts, at least in these parts. Many of the other moms will painstakingly produce clever, hand-crafted gifts that would do Pinterest proud. Other moms will let their money do the talking. Please know that I am in no way criticizing these moms! I envied them, to be quite honest…until I realized that I, too, have something to offer. Because God has given me the gift of writing, I can put into words exactly how much I appreciate these teachers, and how grateful I am for their influence in my children’s lives.
 

3. Do you text? I’m old enough to remember when texting was clunky, awkward, and time-consuming; when you had to press the phone keys a specific number of times to get the letter you wanted. Using the phone to actually talk was so much easier. But now, with keypads and all the other technological advances, it is an admittedly rare thing for me to use my phone as an actual phone. As an introvert, I am more than okay with this. Texting and emailing gives me time to think about my responses and craft them into something clever. (It also helps me avoid putting my foot in my mouth when I speak without thinking, which is something I am sadly prone to do).

These are just a few of the ways we can live out our calling and use our words, without ever hitting the bestseller list or even having a buy link for our book yet.  In Isaiah 55:11, God promises that not a single word that goes out from His mouth will return to Him empty, “…but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” While the verse refers to God’s own words, I believe that He won’t waste a single word we offer for His glory and the good of His people, either. Whether it’s an email, text, Tweet, Facebook post, greeting card, or simply a word of encouragement to a stranger on the street, we can use the gift God has given us, even if that manuscript never sees the shelves of a store.

How can you use your words today?

The Apostle Paul, Cool Runnings, and the Cutie Mark Crusaders

I have a four-year-old daughter, and like many other four-year-old daughters, she is obsessed with “My Little Pony.” While I rarely sit and watch an episode with her (her TV time is my Responsibility Champion time), the episodes I have seen in full are quickly making me a fan. The writing is great, the characters are superb, and there’s a ton of truth woven into these twenty-three minute episodes.

In the mythical land of Equestria, each pony has what’s called a cutie mark: a special symbol on their rear flank that signifies their special talent. The thing that makes that pony unique. The gift they’ve been given, and which they will use to better the community. To put an evangelical spin on it, it’s their “calling.” To put a Blues Brothers spin on it, it’s their “mission from God.”

Ponies receive their cutie marks somewhere during adolescence, though the timing is different for each pony. Young ponies who have received their marks sometimes tease the ones who haven’t by calling them “blank flanks.” Receiving a cutie mark is a rite of passage in Ponyville. What’s more, it’s a symbol of a pony’s identity.

Throughout the series, three young ponies—Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, and Scootaloo—have sought after their special talents so they, too, can receive their cutie marks. So dedicated are they to their quest that they’ve banded together as the Cutie Mark Crusaders. For years, these three ponies have been watching. Wondering. Waiting for that magical moment when their flanks are no longer blank.

Finally, in an episode from last season, the little ponies take a break from searching for their special talents, and in the process, help several other ponies find theirs. They’re so fulfilled, so rewarded by taking their focus off themselves and putting it elsewhere that they gleefully announce that they don’t care if they ever get their cutie marks. They’re having so much fun hanging out and helping others that they no longer need the validation.

And then, because this is a kids’ cartoon, all three ponies finally, finally get their cutie marks. Only in total surrender, in letting go of the thing that has so consumed them, only then do they finally receive it. Their special talent is, in fact, helping others find their calling.

There’s so much truth in this episode it’s almost painful. No matter what we want, no matter how wonderful a thing it is, wanting it, straining for it, striving for it, can choke the life out of us if we’re not careful. If we’re focused on finding a spouse, we get jealous every time a friend announces her engagement. If our heart’s desire is to have a baby, it’s painful every time someone else gets pregnant.

If what we want, more than anything, is to be a published author, then it becomes very difficult to celebrate when someone else’s novel debuts.

When our focus narrows and crowds out everything but that One Thing we want so badly, it costs us our joy. We become anxious. Insecure. Fretful. Frightened. Sometimes even downright nasty. (I’m thinking of Gollum from Lord of the Rings, here, with his preeccccciiiooouuusssss. Guys, don’t be Gollum).

These things we want may not be bad. In fact, most of the time they’re not. Marriage, a family, a career, an opportunity to leverage the gifts God has given us for His kingdom…all of those are good things. It isn’t wrong to want them. But when we get tunnel vision, when we put blinders on and see only the object of our desire, we commit idolatry. That thing we want, no matter how worthy, has pushed God off the throne of our hearts.

In the movie Cool Runnings, the coach of the Jamaican bobsled team says this: “A gold medal is a wonderful thing…but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.” If we’re not content with what God has given us right now, if we’re not content, satisfied, enough, without the thing we so desperately want, then we will never be enough with it.

So how can we be enough? How can we let go and live in peace, even without the thing our heart so desperately wants?

God gives us the answer through the words of the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:13. This is a famous verse, and one of my favorites, but I think we’re guilty of misinterpreting it. The pop-Christianity translation is, “I can reach my goals, follow my dreams, and overcome all odds, through Christ who strengthens me.”

While it is indeed true that God equips His children to do whatever He has called them to do, no matter how stacked the odds may be, that’s not really what Paul is talking about here. He’s talking about contentment. Here’s the verse in context:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13)

Here it is, paraphrased for writers:

 “I know what is is to be unpublished, and I know what it is to be a bestseller. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether swimming in five-star reviews or receiving yet another rejection, whether rolling in a great book contract or still querying agents. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

These dreams you have, these things you want, these deep desires of your heart…chances are very good that God put them there. But you must give them back to Him. Put them in His hands. Don’t allow them to become weeds, choking out the beautiful flowers in your garden. Don’t let them steal your joy and contentment. Rest in the fact that God is enough.

Cutie mark or no, He will always be enough.

 

 

 

Living in the World of Saturday

This is something I posted to my personal Facebook page last year, and it resonated with a lot of people. I'm re-posting it here; I pray it blesses your Easter Saturday.

***

For me, something that has always been lost in the shuffle of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Easter Sunday is this day.

Saturday.

The day after Jesus died. The day before He rose. The one full day His body lay in that rock-hewn tomb.

The hours between sundown on Friday and sunup on Sunday must have seemed bleak and endless for those who loved Jesus. It was a Sabbath, that Saturday, so there was no work to distract them, not that they would've been able to concentrate on it if there had been. They must have still been in shock. Stunned by the tragic turn of events. Fearful the Jewish leaders would come for them next. Abandoned. Betrayed. Disillusioned. Perhaps even angry at Jesus for filling their heads with dreams. Sure, He had predicted His death, and He also said He would rise again, but did any of them, in their finite humanness, actually think that would happen? They had seen Him demonstrate His power over death with Lazarus, yes...but I don't think anyone who saw Jesus laid in that tomb ever expected that He really would come out of it.

Jesus, their Messiah, their Rabbi, their Friend, had just been murdered on a Roman cross, and their world no longer made sense.

I can sometimes identify with those Saturday disciples. As the world we inhabit becomes more and more broken, as cruel dictators deploy chemical weapons and divisions in our own country deepen, as natural disasters crush and cripple thousands, as loved ones die and disease is rampant and we all muddle through the unimaginably hard things this fallen world throws at us, it is easy to doubt. To wonder if all those crazy promises God made to us are really true. To wonder if maybe I've just believed in a story that's got a nice ending, but is, ultimately, a work of fiction.

But it is true. It is. All of it.

Because that tomb was empty on Sunday morning. Because those disciples saw Jesus in His resurrected glory. They saw His smile and touched His wounds and received His spirit. They went on to face martyrdom without fear, because they were fully convinced that Jesus was exactly who He said He was. Everything He had said to them, all the promises He had made, all of it was true. Their faith was not in vain.

And because that tomb was empty, because Jesus is risen just as He said, we can be confident that all His promises to us are true as well. That He will never leave us or forsake us. That He makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him. That whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life. That someday we will be with Him forever, in a world with no more sadness, no more fear, no more pain, no more struggle. Where God makes everything right again and all is as it always should have been.

It's Saturday, friends. It's Saturday.

But Sunday is coming.