Living the meaning of Christmas

I find that as one ages, the passage of a year is marked less in months and dates than by events which, like clockwork, serve to mark the seasons more accurately than calendars ever could.  The green returning to the grass, a first trip to the beach, leaves changing colors, the first snow, and of course, the inevitable New York Times article around Christmas that shows a profound misunderstanding of the holiday.

This year’s entry, entitled An Atheist’s Christmas Dream, finds its inspiration in the “Christmas Truce” of World War I, when for a day, peace broke out and the opposing soldiers played soccer, sang carols, and caught a fleeting glimpse of the future promised by Isaiah when men will finally beat their swords into plowshares.  After the conventional shallow asides about God and violence (and some even less relevant ones about Socialiasm), Bittman finally gets to his burning question about what is it about Christmas that led to this unexpected peace.  In his defense, Bittman doesn’t proffer his own answer, but instead cribs one from someone else, which is that it is found in the “golden rule” to love your neighbor as yourself and do unto others as you’d have done unto you.  He then goes on to insist, despite all historical evidence to the contrary, that if we “properly love one another as best we can,” that “just and wonderful world can be ours.”

What’s most remarkable about the piece is that Bittman can waste so many words spouting nonsense without ever even answering his own question.  After all, “the golden rule” comes from Jesus’ sermons, but appears nowhere in the Christmas narratives.  Indeed, the Christmas accounts as offered in the Gospel are wholly devoid of any indication whatsoever as to how we ought to treat each other in order to create a “just and wonderful world.”  Because the fundamental meaning of Christmas is emphatically NOT that we should love each other, be nice to each other, or otherwise try to create a beautiful world.  Ironically, while a sober reflection on Christmas will lead to those results, it is only arrived at by realizing that the deep meaning of Christmas is precisely the opposite.

When the angels preached the good news to the shepherds in the field that night, it did not include a sermon on how to treat each other.  Rather, it was that unto them was born that day a savior, who was Christ the Lord.  In other words, the “good news” was that the shepherds–and everyone else for that matter–were so utterly lost and broken that they could not fix themselves, so God Himself had to save them by coming into the world as little baby, living the life we ought to live, and ultimately being tortured to death to satisfy the wrath that we deserve.  The short, meaning of Christmas is found not in presents or Santa, but in Easter.   If we could simply will ourselves to love each other perfectly, there would have been no need for Christ to come at all.  But of course, we can’t, as anyone who soberly reflects on his own heart realizes.

Christmas is not a variation of the sermon on the mount; rather, it is a reminder that we cannot ever fully live the sermon, and so we desperately need a savior.  Were Christianity merely another set of commands–even to love–it would be no different from any of the other commands that the WWI soldiers received from their commanders.  Even worse, one would find an impossible set of rules and duties imposed on the heart that we have no hope of fulfilling.  No, Christianity leads to love and self-sacrifice not by demanding it, but rather by confronting us with the cold truth that we once were utterly lost, but then while we were still in rebellion against God, He loved us and showed mercy to us, so much so that He sent His only son to die in our place.  And He loved your neighbor–your enemy–that way, too.  God loves you, even though you don’t deserve it.  And that same God loves them, even though they don’t deserve it either.  At Christmas we don’t celebrate a rule, but the historical truth that on all those who once were dwelling in the shadow of death, a Light has finally dawned.  It is a truth that does not merely change your behavior, but rather changes your heart for your fellow broken, sinful neighbors around you.  In other words, we find love and peace at Christmas not because of the Golden Rule, but by being reminded that God first loved us.

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Happy New Year from CiG!

How does one start back up again after so long away?  I began this blog with enthusiasm, but there came a point when I simply did not have time to devote to it.  Not that I didn’t want to, but it seemed that work and life were conspiring to distract me sufficiently that this blog simply passed from my mind.  I figured I’d return to it later when I had time.  Days turned into weeks, which turned to months.  And then there came a point when it seemed like I had been away so long that, even when I desired to return, it felt somehow awkward.  Uncomfortable.  And even if I did, how do you start back up again?  Do you pick up where you left off, as if nothing had happened?  Do you try to account for, or apologize for, the time away?

It seems like quiet a metaphor for our spiritual lives as well.  Life has a way of drawing us away from God, too.  We don’t (necessarily) cease to believe, but rather become distracted by other concerns so that our faith gets gradually pushed to the back of our mind.  We might even continue to attend church. But our times of prayer and the Word grow less frequent.  Our small group attendance become sporadic.  Then when we remember the love we once had for prayer and praise and Scripture, it feels somehow to late to resume them.  Churches welcome newcomers, but what would they say to the forgotten face that unexpectedly shows up at the door after so long away?  How do we face our Savior after so much neglect?

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”

I have been a long way off.  In fact, it seems that I quite regularly journey to far off countries and squander what God has given me.  Yet time and again I’m reminded that what is so amazing about grace is that God does not wait for us to find our own way home.  Rather, He runs after us with compassion and love.  And since God the Creator promises us that that He responds that way, it seems rather silly for us the creatures to linger at the outskirts wondering if we’ll be welcomed back.

Over the years, I’ve often thought that New Year’s is a foolish holiday.  January 1 is not inherently any different from December 31 or January 2.  There’s no natural reason to choose one day versus another to mark another orbit of the Earth around the sun.  Yet, when it comes to matters of faith, I suppose that is precisely the point.  In the constant battle with worldliness there will rarely be a “natural” time to resume our spiritual lives.  Or if there is, it will only be because, like the prodigal son, the world has stripped us of everything and we simply have nowhere else to go.  But it’s foolish to wait until we’ve hit that point to turn around.  We may as well start today.  Happy New Year.

When Gospel Meets Boy Band (Music Review: Jericho Road)

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You come for the theology, but you stay for the boy bands.  No, dear reader, CIG is not only about heavy devotionals; it’s also your guide to all things pop, cultural, pop cultural, and well, all other things in the universe.  Including music.

Joking aside, I do actually think that Christian music can play an important role in the believer’s life.  It can express joy and praise, it can encourage us when we’re discouraged, calm us when we’re anxious, and help us focus on God in a hectic world.  And besides, one day in Heaven we’re all gonna be hanging out singing songs with God anyway, so we may as well get used to it.

I was thus especially delighted to discover Jericho Road.  Why?  Because it combines two of my great passions in life: God and power ballads.  I’m pretty sure that half the psalms were originally power ballads.  Listening to Jericho Road, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s just another 90’s boyband.  Except for the fact that we’re no longer in the 90s, much to my chagrin:

As a general rule, I’m one of those cranky killjoys who laments that contemporary Christian music has lost the profound theology of olden hymns in favor of repetitious feel-good lines.  Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God.”  But really, there’s not a lot of depth to, “How great is our God, Sing with me how great is our God, and all will see how great, how great is our God.”  True, yes.  Awesome praise song?  Yes.  Deeply reflective?  Not so much.

But “You Lift Me Up” actually has lyrics that are worthy of reflecting on.  It’s such a beautiful description of the Christian life: Even when we try to make it on our own, when we forget God and wander away, God is continuously faithful.  And after, when we’ve gone our own way and we stumble and fall, God’s tender, loving arms are still there to lift us up again.  Solely because He loves us.  Because He is faithful and true.  Even when, like the Prodigal Son, we rebelliously go our own way, God steadfastly stands by us.  Awesome.  And, the song reeks of 98 degrees and/or Backstreet Boys.  Double Awesome!

And for those who are even more of a cranky killjoy than I am, they also do classic hymns.  Albeit, ala 90s boy band:

NYT op-ed: What the Church needs is a Pharisee?

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In today’s New York Times op-ed, Ross Douthat offers some advice on what the church “needs.” In a nutshell, Douthat’s advice boils down to the Catholic Church has lost its moral legitimacy, and needs a Pope who can actually live out its ideals.  Or, in his own words:

And the church as a whole needs to offer and embody proof — in Rome, the local parish and everywhere in between — that the alternative Catholicism preaches can actually be lived.

There’s one problem with this.  It can’t be.  In his justifiable anger over the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church, Douthout has drawn the entirely wrong lesson.  Indeed, Douthat’s proposed solution–finding a man who believed he could actually meet God’s standard–is precisely what escalated the scandal in the first place.

Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of god.”  Part of what allowed the scandal to escalate to the proportions it did was because clergy and superiors forgot this fundamental truth.  Rather than repenting and allowing justice to run its course, they were more concerned with appearing to be righteous.  So wrongdoings were concealed.  Jesus had blistering metaphors for people who sought to demonstrate their own godliness, referring to them as whitewashed tombs.  Beautiful on the outside, but full of death and decay within.

What the Catholic Church desperately needs is not a perfect Pope, because there is none.  Whatever else may be said of him, Pope Francis–like all men–is still a sinner and still in need of a savior.  Any effort to appear otherwise will only lead to further hypocrisy.

What the Catholic hierarchy needs is to return to the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector.  For so long, it has been modeling itself after the Pharisee, proclaiming, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.”  Along the way, it has forgotten that it was not the Pharisee who went home justified, but rather the tax collector, who simply beat his chest and cried, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I fully agree that Church leadership (both Catholic and Protestant) should hold itself to a higher standard, not tolerate pedophiles in its midst, and generally strive to live out Christ’s commandments.  What will utterly destroy the church, though, is if its leaders begin to think that they actually meet that standard.  Once they do, they have forgotten the whole point of the Gospel, which is that in the end, they are saved not because of their own merit, but because of Christ’s.

What the Catholic Church–and every other church–needs is leaders who desire to be holy, who strive to live a righteous life, but who ultimately recognize that they cannot.  That they need a savior.  What the Church needs is a leader who can stand before the world and, like the tax collector in the temple, cry “Mercy!”  First, that is the only way to end the hypocrisy.  But also, that would truly be an inspiration to all the would-be believers who look at their lives honestly and realize that they don’t meet God’s standard.  To those who feel left out in the darkness because they know in their hearts they are sinners and feel they can never be loved or accepted by God.

What those people need, what all people need, is not a hierarchy that pretends to righteousness.  They need a leader who is humble enough to point them to a savior.

The Lion and the Lamb (and racism too)

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What does it mean to conquer? What does it cost to save?

Quick recap: John is having a trippy vision of God’s throneroom, God holds out a scroll with seven seals on it, and John starts bawling like a baby because nobody is worthy to open the scroll.  And then:

One of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’  And . . . I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.

Then the Hallelujah Chorus breaks out, with elders and angels singing:

Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.

***SPOILER ALERT*** DON’T BREAK THE SEALS ON THE SCROLL!  BAD THINGS HAPPEN WHEN YOU BREAK THE SEALS!  But that’s a topic for Chapter 6. . . .

What’s fascinating to me about Revelation 5 is the juxtaposition of the way Jesus is introduced (the “lion” who “conquered”) with the way he actually appears (“the lamb” who had been slain).  A lamb is a very different animal from a lion, and being slain seems to be precisely the opposite of conquering.  And yet, Jesus is all of those.  There is a deep, profound, message there.

As we will soon see in Chapter 6, judgment and wrath are coming.  And the reason that Jesus is worthy to pour out judgment on the earth is because He has overcome.  But the way he overcame was not as a conquering warrior, not with the sword, not with money, not with power . . .

. . . but by dying.  Like a lamb who was slain.  All of the wrath that is coming in the future passages of Revelation has already been poured out on Christ Himself.  That was the price of ransoming His people.  The price of ransoming me.

This passage breaks me, as it should break every Christian who has ever looked down on another.  Who has ever looked at his life and felt that he was superior to another.  Better than another.  More holy or righteous or moral or Godly than another.  This passage should break every Christian who has ever used violence, or the threat of violence, or any other form of coercion, to impose our beliefs on others.  This passage should break every Christian who has ever used God’s name to pursue selfish ambition.

The reason that we Christians will avoid the wrath of God is emphatically not because we live more upright lives than non-believers.  It is not because we have earned a greater degree of righteousness.  It is certainly not because we are perfect.  The reason that we are saved is because we were ransomed.  We were bought at a price.  The wrath we justly deserve has already been poured out on God Himself, the mighty lion of Judah, who submitted to it like a slaughtered lamb.  And once we realize that that was the price, the cost, it took to save us, how could we ever look down upon another?  How could we ever view another with anything but compassion and mercy and love?

And still there is more.  Martin Luther King Jr. once referred to Sunday morning as the most segregated hour in America.  He was empirically correct, but this passage is a resounding indictment of that reality.  Because it makes it explicitly clear that Christ’s precious blood was spilled for people of every race, every people, every nation.  One of the greatest scandals and tragedies of the Church, dating back to its inception, has been that professing Christians continue to harbor racial distinctions (both malicious and benign) in their hearts.  If we take seriously that Christ died for people of every tribe and people, how dare Christians look down upon their brothers or sisters because of race or language.  Revelation, in multiple places, so clearly celebrates the great diversity of peoples that will one day glorify God together in unity.  It is a beautiful image.  It should inspire us.  When we gather together to worship God, all the superficial trappings of race, ethnicity, and language fall away, and we are unified in love, both for God and for each other.  That is how we were meant to be.  That is what we one day will be.

I pray with all my heart that we would be that way now.

Embracing the Darkness?

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The headline from The Atlantic Wire immediately caught my attention:

Pope Francis Can’t Escape Argentina’s Dark Past – Dashiell Bennett – The Atlantic Wire.

It’s a provocative title because it assumes that an evil past would be liability for the new Pope Francis.  Yet it seems to me that the entire point–and indeed, history–of Christianity would suggest entirely the opposite.

First, let me say that I do not know what role, if any, the new Pope played in Argentina’s “Dirty War.”  I do not know if the accusations are true or false.  Obviously, if they are false, he has every right to deny them.

But let us assume, for the moment, that they are true.  That then-Cardinal Bergoglio was complicit in state-sponsored terrorism during the 1970s and early 1980s.  Why should that be a liability for him?  Quite the contrary, it seems like it would place him in good company alongside St. Paul, who zealously persecuted the church and was complicit even in murder before the Damascus Road.  It would put him in good company alongside King David, a murderer and adulterer; Jacob, a swindler; and so on and so on.  Every character in the Bible, save Jesus, has darkness–often terrible darkness–in their lives.  That’s why they need a savior.

The whole point of the gospel is that we are all sinners.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  And the beauty of the gospel is that no matter what you have done in your past, no matter how heinous your deeds may have been, nobody is beyond redemption.  What Christ did on the cross is enough to cover every sin you have ever committed, and every one you ever will.  Through the power of God, a thief on a cross can be redeemed in the final moments of his life.  A murderous pharisee can write half the books of the new testament.

I do not know what Cardinal Bergoglio was doing in the ’70s and ’80s.  But by all accounts, he is now a man of great humility, compassion, and love for the poor.  If it is true that he was complicit in terrible crimes three decades ago, he should by all means repent of them.  But at the same time, it seems to me that would make the story of his transformation to the man he is now a mighty testament to the saving power of God to redeem broken and misguided lives.  Nobody is beyond God’s power to save.

That is, after all, the gospel.

Casting Crowns

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I love the musical group Casting Crowns, but alas, this post is not about them. (But if i were to do a post about them, it would simply be to encourage you to listen to “Who Am I”). Rather this post is about the passage that I have always assumed inspired their name (although I do not know whether that is actually the case or not):

Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. . . . And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him . . . . They cast their crowns before the throne, saying “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”  -Revelation 4

I’ll be honest, my Lenten Bloggings have not entirely kept up with my devotionals, so I actually came to this passage in my readings a number of days ago.  And yet, I have not been able to get it out of my head.  It is on the one hand remarkably simple, and yet at the same time, demands an incredible amount of introspection.

Namely, what are we striving after, and why?

What are the “crowns” that we will eventually cast away before God?  First a simple observation, the crowns in this passage are not bad.  So often, we Christians talk about casting down our “idols” before God, by which we mean all the things in life that take the rightful place of God in our heart (ie.  money, sex, power, drugs, and so on and so on).  Things that, even if not bad in themselves, can become corrupted if they distract us from God.Yes, those are idols, and they need to be cast away.

But this passage is not referring to idols.  You know that because the elders are wearing the golden crowns in the presence of God.  In heaven.  In the throneroom.  Where no evil or impurity or darkness–or idol–could ever exist.   And indeed, elsewhere the NT makes it plain that Christians SHOULD strive to earn a “crown” (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:25 “They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever”; 2 Tim. 4:8 “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.”).

So whatever these crowns are, they’re not bad.  They’re not idols.  They’re rewards from God.  They’re things that we are exhorted to strive after.  Yet ultimately, those nearest to God will still cast them away.

This raises, for me at least, three questions that demand more introspection than a single blog post can provide: 1) what crowns am I pursuing?  2) why are they being cast away? and 3) if they will be cast away anyway, why should I bother striving after them?

It seems to me that of the three questions, though, the second is the most important.  It is the one that brings us back to the point of the gospel.  All of our earthly efforts, all of our faith, what is the ultimate point of it all?  In the end, the Christian life and faith is not just about getting to heaven. It’s not just about living an eternal life of comfort and pleasure.  It’s not ultimately about the crowns.  Rather, the final good that that the gospel offers is . . . God himself.  That’s why even the promised crowns can be cast away: because the elders don’t need them anymore; they are already in the presence of God himself.  It’s not about the trophies that we earn along the way–it’s not even about the trophies that God will eventually give us–it’s about having a loving, personal relationship with God himself.  That’s the ultimate goal of the Christian life, and compared to that, all the blessings and benefits that God lavishes upon us are as nothing.  If we made it to heaven, but God were not there, we would miss the whole point.

And the flip side of it is, while God will eventually lavish a crown of righteousness on His children, and while the Bible makes it plain that we will have treasure in heaven, this passage also reminds me that those glories are not of our own making.  All that we achieve for God, all that we accomplish, all the glory that we will one day enjoy is ultimately a result not of our own greatness, but because of what God did through and for us.  We are unworthy of the crowns that we will one day wear, because in the end, it is God Himself who earned them on our behalf.  As the elders proclaim, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power.”  In otherwords, our eventual crowns are gifts of grace.  Unmerited, undeserved blessings and glory lavished upon us for no reason other than because God loves us.  Not because we earned or deserved it, but because He gives it to us freely.  And when we  understand that, we should find in our hearts that what we want more than just the crowns themselves, we want the One who made them.  After a life of striving and effort and sacrifice for promised rewards, the reason we can cast the gifts aside with song and thanksgiving is because now we have the Giver Himself.

On Popes and Pergamum

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One thing that never ceases to amaze me about the Bible is how seemingly obscure, random passages can nonetheless speak so powerfully to present circumstances.  As readers of this blog know, for Lent I’ve been working my way through Revelation.  My most recent devotional brought me through Jesus’s exhortation to the church in Pergamum, which includes this rather odd rebuke:

But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam . . . .  So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.  Therefore, repent.  If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.  -Rev. 2:14-16.

Don’t worry, this post is not a meditation on the intricacies of the Nicolaitan teachings.  In fact, I don’t even know what they taught, except for that it probably had something to do with sex or sexual immorality.  But who cares.  What stood out to me about this passage is that within one church, Jesus identifies two schools of thought that have gone astray, and He is very, very concerned about it.  in other words, theology matters.

Why is that so timely?  Because, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last month, you probably know that the Catholic Cardinals are in the process of selecting a new Pope.  Now, not being Catholic myself, the selection affects me at most only indirectly, so my own perspective on the whole affair can best be described as “detached observer.”  But what I find absolutely fascinating about it is that one simply cannot read a prominent publication (whether print or online) without finding some advice on what “reforms” the next Pope will need to embody or implement in order for the Church to come into some perceived modernity.  The usual suspects are then trotted out: sexuality, homosexuality, the role of women in the church, birth control, and so on.  And yet, altogether lacking from every opinion piece I’ve ever read is any discussion about the theological underpinnings of the current Catholic positions.

It lately seems that such suggested “reforms,” however well-intended, are actually little more than efforts to conform the Church to secular standards of morality and/or equality, under the assumption that doing so will decrease resistance to its teachings and thereby increase its relevance/membership.  Again, I am not Catholic so I do not particularly care what it teaches.  But, as a Christian more generally, I am deeply concerned about the trend towards sweeping difficult or unpopular messages under the rug for the sake of being uncontroversial.  As Christians, we are not called to preach what is popular, or what will be accepted, or what is easily understood.  We are called to preach the truth.  One can easily think of countless messages that would play well to modern audiences: make money, be successful, have lots of sex, live your best life now, and so on and so on and so on.  But at the end of the day, the critical question should not be–MUST not be–“Will this message be well received?”  Rather, it should be, “Is this message the gospel?”  Is this message true?  The message from Revelation 2:14-16 (quoted above) is that from the beginning, Churches have been filled with preachers of popular, but misguided, messages.  But Jesus is deeply concerned about the truth of what is preached in His name.  Preaching a lowest-common-denominator of morality may be popular in the secular realm, but it also represents a fundamental abandonment of the Church’s role to be the salt of the Earth.

Ultimately disputes over abortion, celibacy, and so on are only symptoms of a larger, more pressing issue: How do we know what the truth is?  How do we know God’s mind and heart?  Are we to be a weathervane, blowing after popular fashion?  Guided by tradition?  Guided by the Bible?  And if so, how is the Bible to be understood?  Or is there a role for all of all all of the above?  In the long run, the Church’s theological, as opposed to merely secular, legitimacy and relevancy will be determined not by where it stands on any particular issue, but rather by how it determines the teachings it preaches.

I am not Catholic.  I have no stake in whom the Cardinals pick as their next Pope.  But as a member of Christ’s body more generally, I hope that in their new leader, the Catholic cardinals do not seek the person who can best propagate secular notions of modernity.  Rather, I pray that they find a leader who will seek to discern God’s truth, whatever that may be.  And let the chips fall where they may.

Remember When . . . ?

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What do you do when the love is gone?  You remember the days when you dreamed big dreams, but somehow they never came to pass. You remember a time when you ran the race for God, but now find that it only left you exhausted. You remember when you once felt an all-consuming passion for God, an indescribable joy in salvation, but now the fire that once seemed to overflow from your soul seems to have finally burned itself out. You remember your youth when it seemed that anything was possible for the glory of God, but now you look back on your life and feel like you gave it your best, but somehow it just wasn’t enough.

Apparently, that means its time to repent:

[Y]ou have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from were you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.

Talk about kicking a guy when he’s down. Actually, what makes Jesus’ report card to the church in Ephesus so discouraging is that it’s not actually all bad. Ephesus isn’t a bad church: it just sets a new standard for mediocrity. Works: check; endurance: check; theology: check. Love: not so much. They talk the talk, they walk the walk, but their heart isn’t really in the right place, so they get a firm rebuke.

But if Ephesus, which had least persevered in doing works, gets a slap-down for lacking love, what are we to do when it feels like even persevering is beyond us? I know, I know, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Great quote, but let’s be real, none of us actually feels that way all the time. We all go through seasons when it just feels like this is too much for us. We grow tired. We grow weary. And even the love we once felt seems to grow cold. What are we to do then?

If you know, please post in the comments, because I sure don’t.

But I do find it interesting that we are still called to “repent.” It seems rather backwards, since I find that most people prefer the highs of the faith to the lows. Most people would rather be on fire for God than not, would rather overflow with love than be indifferent. We wish we still felt the passion and hopes that we once did, and regret that we’ve lost it. So to then be called to “repent” for being in the doldrums seems like blaming the victim.

And yet, I can’t help but feel like perhaps there’s something to it. It does seem that a pattern emerges, in which a sincere love for God leads to a desire to do great things for God. A desire to do great things for God creates a desire to work hard for God. But with time, and without focus, the “for God” clause gradually fades to a platitude rather than a motivation. We continue to strive, but somewhere along the way the love that drove it at first hollowed out. We try to do the same great things we once did, but somewhere it became a duty, or a job, or because people expected it of us, or because we expected it of ourselves. The works became the end, rather than the means to an end. We lost the love.

And after all, love was the whole point all along. Love for God, love for neighbor, and God’s love for us. And without love, all out works are just a bunch of noise (mad shoutout to 1 Corinthians 13).

But fortunately, Jesus doesn’t just rebuke us and denand repentance. He gives us some helpful advice: Remember. Remember when you were first saved. Actually, it seems that “Remember” is a fairly common command in the Bible, this in particular reminds me of 1 Corinthian 1:26 (“[T]hink of what you were when you were called. . . .”).

I’ve been remembering a lot lately. Because the thing is, speaking only from my own experience, so often when we lose the passion, it’s because our focus has become centered on us. Even if I claim it’s all for God, in my heart I’m far more concerned about how I’m measuring up, either to the world, to my colleagues, to my friends, or to myself.

The point of remembering is not just to remember the love you once had and beat yourself up over losing it. Rather, it’s to remember why you once felt that way. You remember how faithful God has been to you. You remember where you were when He saved you, what He did in your life.  You reflect on how He loved you, healed you, and all the mighty works He has done in your life.  And most of all, you remember how He has loved you, to the point of sending His only son to die on your behalf.  When you find yourself lamenting that your passion has dimmed, remember why you fell in love with God in the first place.
You may still feel exhausted. And you may stay in the valley for awhile. But at least your eyes are back on their proper object: God Himself. And that’s always the first step in turning around.

Fear Not, Forevermore

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Last night I was reflecting on the description of Jesus in Revelation 1.  But if the image of Christ in glory is awe-inspiring, the bookends of the passage are altogether mindblowing.  Actually, though, it’s also a little comical.  I love John’s response when Jesus shows up.  This is John, the beloved disciple, one of Jesus’ 12 closest friends, present at the crucifixion, heard the dude preach every day, saw him after his resurrection, wrote FIVE BOOKS OF THE BIBLE (granted, none of them are particularly easy to understand, but hey, nobody’s perfect).  If there’s anyone who should be down with Jesus, it’s John.

And what happens when Jesus shows up? John falls down and plays dead.  Plop.  Sputter.  #fail.  Dude, come on, you’re better than this.  This should be slightly terrifying.  Christ is so glorious, so awesome, so powerful, that even the beloved disciple couldn’t stand before Him.  So what possible hope do we have?

And that’s when it hits you.  The very next words out of Jesus’ mouth are, “Fear not.”  How many of us need to hear that?  Just in our daily lives.  “Fear not.”  We look at our lives, we look at the world, we look at our finances, health, jobs, circumstances, relationships, we look at everything and so, so, so often deep down in our hearts we are afraid.  Afraid that we won’t be smart enough, or strong enough.  Afraid that we won’t be accepted.  Afraid that won’t achieve our dreams.  Or, even once we do, afraid that we’ll lose it all again.  We can tell ourselves “Fear not,” we can even tell each other, “Fear not.”  But even when our friends tell us, “Fear not,” it might encourage us for awhile, but it doesn’t last.  Why?  Because quite frankly, our friends and advisers aren’t any more omnipotent than we are.

No, what strikes me to the core is not what we need to hear, but who we need to hear it from. What we urgently need is to hear God almighty, with feet of bronze and eyes of fire and a double edged sword and a face that shines like the sun, that is who we need to hear standing over us, saying, “Fear not.”  Because He is the only one who can say it with credibility.

Why?  You know the reason must be important because Jesus takes a break from chatting in parables and actually speaks relatively plainly for once.  And he tells:

I am the first and the last, and the living one.  I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.

You see, it’s all about Jesus.  He’s the first and the last.  The alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.  In other words, He is everything.  There is nothing in my life–or in yours, dear reader–that is beyond his power or understanding.  And what’s more, He’s the living one.  Our God is not an inanimate  object, and He’s not a myth, and he’s not some vast impersonal force who set the universe in motion and then abandoned it to its own devices.  No, He’s living.  He’s active.  And since He already died and rose again, since He already conquered death itself, He will continue to live and to reign forevermore.

So many things in our lives are impermanent.  Everything around you–neighbors, friends, loved ones, pets, everything–will one day grow old and die.  Every object will eventually decay into nothingness.

Except for God.  You see, where this passage really hits me is that it shows me I’m fearing all the wrong things.  Yes, I need to be told, “Fear not.”  But I have a bigger problem than my job.  I have a bigger problem than my relationships.  I have a bigger problem than my finances.

You see, the real, deep problem I have . . . is me.

No matter what happens to my circumstances in life, it does not change the fact that there will come a day when I will die.  Whether my life is long or short, rich or poor, healthy or sick, in the end I will still die.  And when I do, I’m going to have to stand before this awesome, holy, almighty God and give an account for it.  And when I honestly search my own heart, when I sincerely step back and look at what I’ve done with my life, that thought terrifies me.

“Fear not.”  It’s not just about this life.  It is, but it’s also about so much more than that.  You see, because if we’re honest with ourselves when we look at our lives, we know that we have all fallen short.  We don’t meet the standard.  But the Gospel–which Jesus spells out right here for us–is that He, the perfect living one, has already died the death that we deserved on our behalf.  And he triumphed.  John said the same thing just a few verses earlier, when he introduced Jesus as “Him who loves us, and freed us from our sins by His blood.”

I love that line.  “Him who loves us.”  This almighty God loves us.  God loves us.  God loves us.  God loves you.  So much so that he died the death we deserved to die, and conquered the great, last enemy whom we could never overcome: Death itself.  That’s why we can fear not.  Not just because Christ can promise future victory, but because he has already won it.

Because he is the one who loves us.

The one who loves you.

Forevermore.