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Author: Daniel

Betraying Jesus

An excerpt from the chapter “The Betrayer” from my book Losers Like Us

Was Judas Iscariot predetermined to betray Jesus? Was he placed on this earth solely for the purpose of selling Jesus out? After all, as the syllogism goes: Jesus is God; God is omniscient; therefore Jesus is omniscient. At some point, Jesus had to know that Judas would betray him, so it appears safe to assume that Judas lived only to betray the Messiah and, if so, that he also stood beyond redemption.

But that doesn’t ring true either. It seems to fly in the face of God’s character and of Jesus’s mission. Although I have no qualifications to judge such things, this smacks of injustice to me.

Another difficult question is, why did Judas do what he did? Was it his inescapable fate? Scripture says he did it because “Satan entered into him” (John 13:27). Similarly, Jesus at one point said directly to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt. 16:23). If both Judas and Peter experienced being taken over by Satan, then why did Peter go on to become a powerful follower of Christ, while Judas went on (as is traditionally assumed) to eternal damnation?

Why did Judas betray Jesus? Was it jealousy? Judas was not part of Jesus’s inner circle, made up of Peter, James, and John. Perhaps he thought he should be.

Did he just not connect with the others? Judas was from Kerioth in Judah; he was the only disciple who was not a Galilean. Perhaps he felt subtly excluded or persecuted. Perhaps three years of feeling like an outsider was enough to provoke him.

Did he betray Jesus because of his own guilt? Scripture says that Judas, as treasurer, was stealing from the ministry (John 12:4–6). Guilty people often act defensively and heap blame on innocent bystanders to deflect attention away from their own wrongdoing.

Or maybe, like the other disciples, he truly believed Jesus was the Messiah and just couldn’t understand why Jesus wasn’t setting up his earthly kingdom. Maybe he called in the authorities to force Jesus to “make his move,” either in the garden (perhaps with some supernatural display of power) or in open court.

Scripture says:

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. (Matt. 27:3–5)

The strong implication is that Judas was truly shocked by Jesus’s sentencing. I think Judas expected that Jesus would somehow rise up and vanquish his accusers, rather than receive a death sentence that, for reasons unknown, he chose not to fight.

This possibility is not so far-fetched. Simon the Zealot probably had similar hopes of revolution in following Jesus, and even Peter used swordplay to fight Jesus’s enemies (John 18:10). Maybe, like virtually all Jews at that time, Judas fully expected that the Messiah would lead a revolution and was just trying to help it along.

Judas’s true motivation for betraying Jesus is a mystery known only to Judas and to God. At any rate, when Jesus is condemned, Judas is “seized with remorse” and kills himself. And with remorse like that, surely there is hope for repentance.

Isn’t there?

For some, it’s a very tricky issue.

Maybe this is why we prefer the simplistic, one-dimensional interpretation of Judas: it’s just easier. Digging deeper opens a tangle of theological questions that can polarize the body of Christ. And while this chapter might seem to be doing just that, it is not my intention. Instead, my purpose is to reflect on the life of Judas Iscariot, chosen personally by Jesus to be his disciple.

It is strange to think of Judas as a disciple when he is seen solely as Jesus’s betrayer. The gospel writers seldom mention Judas outside of his betrayal and never mention anything positive that Judas might have done.

In a way, this makes sense: the gospel story centers on Jesus. The gospel writers couldn’t possibly include everything that happened in those three years, so they focused on what mattered concerning Jesus. And what mattered concerning him with Judas was that Judas betrayed him.

But what else do we know of their relationship during the rest of Jesus’s ministry on earth? Was it a purely professional relationship, with Jesus needing Judas strictly for his leadership abilities and accounting skills as treasurer for the disciples, or for some other assets not named in Scripture?

I don’t think so. I can’t imagine Jesus limiting his interaction with Judas to financial reports given during occasional business meetings.

Remember that Judas—and I can’t repeat this enough—received a personal call from Jesus to join the disciples. When Judas first answered that call, he was not a traitor. He traveled with Jesus and observed Jesus’s ministry. He watched Jesus heal cripples, cure lepers, subdue demons, and even overcome death. He saw Jesus calm a violent storm. He saw thousands flock to Jesus, and he helped distribute a miraculous meal to them from one small boy’s lunch. He walked with Jesus for three years, talked and laughed with him, prayed with him, and listened to him teach. Even after Judas conspired with the religious leaders to betray Jesus, he sat with the disciples at the Last Supper as Jesus washed their feet in a silent act of service. He was just as much a recipient of grace as Peter, James, and the rest.

And I believe he was just as much a friend to Jesus as they. I believe that Judas and Jesus loved each other. After all, the Gospels say that Judas betrayed Christ—not sabotaged or tricked him, but betrayed him. Betrayal is unexpected treachery from a trusted friend. That is what makes it so painful: it is committed by someone close to you, someone into whom you have poured your heart, your life, your love.

In the movie Braveheart, the story of Scottish hero William Wallace, Wallace finds his army being slaughtered by the English. Frantically, he signals his reinforcements to come help him, but instead they desert the battlefield before his eyes. In desperation, he breaks away, commandeers a horse, and gives chase to the king of England.

But a knight cuts him off.

Wallace, knife in hand, overpowers the knight and rips off his helmet.

It is Robert the Bruce, Wallace’s close associate and fellow freedom fighter. He has turned against Wallace to support the English.

At the moment Wallace realizes that he has been betrayed, the light drains from his eyes.

He rolls back on his haunches and lies down as if to die.

The king’s guards quickly surround and arrest Wallace, who offers no resistance. The fight, the passion is gone.

This is betrayal. This is what Jesus experienced. Unlike Wallace, he never gave up, because he knew how the story would end; but even knowing that could not lessen the pain of betrayal.

Did Jesus know in advance that Judas would betray him? He certainly knew at the Last Supper because in Scripture, when the disciples ask who will betray him, Jesus says it is the one to whom he gives the bread and then gives it to Judas (John 13:21–26).

Yet at the same time, several factors here indicate that Jesus is reaching out, encouraging Judas to turn from his treacherous plan and be restored.

First, tradition says that during the Last Supper, Jesus, acting as host, seated Judas at his right—a place reserved for the guest of honor. It may be only tradition, but tradition often is based on ancient knowledge that has since been lost to us.

Second, during the Last Supper, Jesus performs an extremely intimate act of love and service by washing the feet of his disciples (vv. 3–5). Scripture says that all of the disciples were together at this time, so Jesus must have washed Judas’s feet too.

Third, though Jesus announces openly to all the disciples that he will be betrayed, the subsequent dialogue between Peter, John, and Jesus appears to be more private:

After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”

His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.”

Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?”

Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.

So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. (vv. 21–30)

Scripture does not reveal whether the other disciples heard Jesus say that he would give the bread to his betrayer. However, I believe they did not. The reason I believe this is that John, reclining against Jesus, asked his question in an intimate way, and I believe Jesus answered it intimately as well. It is possible that only the disciples nearest Jesus, such as Peter and John, heard Jesus’s remark. I believe Jesus kept this conversation semiprivate, so as not to alienate Judas from the group. Remember, Peter betrayed Jesus not once, but three times—yet he was restored. If Judas were to turn back to Jesus later, as Peter did, then Judas would need the other disciples for healing, forgiveness, and accountability.

Fourth, in the midst of Judas’s betrayal in the garden, right after the fatal kiss that told the Romans whom to arrest, Jesus says to Judas, “Do what you came for, friend” (Matt. 26:50). Jesus calls Judas “friend.” I am certain this was not a sarcastic dig to exacerbate Judas’s guilt, but rather a tiny glimpse into Jesus’s immense love and grace for Judas, even in mid-betrayal.

Thus, in these examples—inviting Judas to the place of honor at the table, washing Judas’s feet, keeping the revelation of Judas’s betrayal semiprivate, and addressing Judas as “friend”—Jesus is showing grace to the one who has already sold him out.

I wonder what kind of eye contact might have occurred between Jesus and Judas that night, as Jesus washed Judas’s feet, handed him the Passover bread, and received his treacherous kiss. Did Jesus extend a look of grace, communicating that the Son of Man had come to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10)? Did Judas look away in shame?

I hope so. He handed over my Savior to be tortured and killed, so I hope he suffered crushing regret. And according to Scripture, he did. That’s why he went out to an empty field and committed suicide.

Sometimes I feel a macabre pleasure in imagining Judas’s worthless carcass rotting in a lonely place. But then I think, how many times have I, like Judas, greeted Jesus with a symbolic kiss of betrayal? How many times have I betrayed my Savior?

Well, that’s just silly: of course I’ve never betrayed Jesus.

Then again, I’ve never been in a position where I was tempted to do so. I think once in grade school I got cold feet and denied being a Christian. Except for that, I have lived pretty openly about my relationship with Jesus. Acknowledging Christ in public has never been a matter that could possibly end my life, as it was for the disciples that night.

And yet …

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds his listeners that the law of Moses says don’t murder. Now most people, throughout history, have had little trouble obeying that law. I can honestly proclaim (rather proudly, too) that I have never killed anyone. Ever.

But then Jesus closes the trap: If anyone is angry with another in his heart, he is guilty of murder. And if anyone thinks lustful thoughts, he is guilty of adultery (Matt. 5:22, 28).

This teaching blurs the line between murder and not-murder, or adultery and not-adultery.

Or betrayal and not-betrayal.

So, if you do x in your heart, you have betrayed Christ. But what is x?

It might be different things to different people. Though I am totally open about my Christian faith, I realize that there are times when I still betray Jesus.

If I keep others from seeing Jesus in me by not being Jesus to them, isn’t that a form of betrayal? Yes. I betray Jesus when I refuse to show him to others, when I avoid loving the “least of these” (Matt. 25:44–45), when I fail to pick up my cross and follow him (Luke 14:27). Therefore I am just as treacherous as Judas Iscariot.

I think we all are.

Judas did not commit the unpardonable sin, and he was not the only betrayer. Peter openly denied Christ three times, and the remaining disciples—all but John—abandoned Christ during his trial and hid while the brutal sentence was carried out. They all deserted him when he needed them most.

This too is betrayal.

So why single Judas out as the villain? Is it because his actions, unlike theirs, led to Jesus’s death? Or is it because Judas killed himself before the resurrection—before Jesus could physically say, “I forgive you” and restore him to fellowship?

Does Judas’s suicide disqualify him from redemption?

Does this mean there are limits to God’s grace?

Asking such questions, instead of merely accepting the one-dimensional view of Judas, may stir up controversies, disrupt doctrines, and tear dogma to shreds.

It’s easier to accept the “passion play” Judas and make Judas the unequivocal bad guy. Problem solved.

But the standard passion play scenarios, in replacing Jesus’s true archenemy (Satan) with a human substitute, inadvertently create an impassible chasm between the sin of betrayal, which we all commit to some degree, and the saving grace of Jesus. And if Scripture truly shows Judas as an irredeemable villain, lost beyond hope, then I am beyond hope as well. I desperately need to know that God’s grace is greater than all my sin—even if I, like Judas, die at the wrong time, before God has a chance to extend it properly.

I guess I am tipping my hand here by giving Judas the benefit of the doubt. I would like to think that I will see him in heaven, restored by Jesus and reconciled to the other disciples.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, and I can already hear the theological debaters spooling up to launch their standard arguments.

However, such debate misses my point.

The ugliness and severity of Judas’s act only forces us to ask: Do we truly believe that God’s grace is deeper even than this? Do we truly believe that forgiveness is available to all sinners who earnestly desire it? Do we truly believe the gospel?

The other disciples, betrayers all, apparently regretted their sins, found forgiveness, and were restored.

Judging from his suicide, Judas apparently regretted his sin as well. Was he forgiven and restored also?

We don’t know that he was.

But we don’t know that he wasn’t, either.

I can’t reflect on Judas without also reflecting on the power of grace. Grace and Judas are inseparably intertwined in my mind.

Strange as it sounds, only after writing about Judas did I realize just how much I needed him.

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Campus revival and the critics who follow

During my years in seminary, I wrote a research paper on revivals in America.

Now, I don’t mention that to pretend that I am somehow a world expert on revivals. Simply put, the subject intrigued me. I bring up that paper because of an observation that came out of it while doing the research: it appears that most—if not all—major revivals in America came out of the Christ-following youth.

Then

Many attributed the First Great Awakening to Jonathan Edwards, but Edwards attributed the start of the Awakening to the youth himself by observing the happenings at Yale University in 1741:

“This awakening was at the beginning of that extraordinary religious commotion through the land, which is fresh in everyone’s memory.  It was for a time very great and general at New-Haven; and the college had no small share in it…The students in general became serious, many of them remarkably so, and much engaged in the concerns of their eternal salvation.”[1]

Later, following the American Revolution, college campuses fell into great moral decline. Lyman Beecher described what he saw:

“College was in a most ungodly state. The college church was almost extinct. Most of the students were skeptical, and rowdies were plenty. Wine and liquors were kept in many rooms; intemperance, profanity, gambling and licentiousness were common.”[2]

Doesn’t that sound a little familiar today?

Four students at Hampton-Sydney College in Virginia came together to pray. An outrage ensued and the student body went nuts. However, the college’s president, John Blair Smith, invited those students and anyone else to pray with him.

More than half the student body showed up in the President’s parlor to pray with him. Timothy Beougher states that this revival in Virginia “marked the beginning of the Second Great Awakening.”[3]

Then there was the Haystack Prayer meeting at Williams College in Massachusetts in 1806. Five college kids met in a field to discuss and pray for the spiritual needs in Asia. A thunderstorm moved over, and they took shelter behind a haystack. Out of this impromptu prayer meeting came what most believed to be the start of American missions.[4]

In 1970, a revival broke out at Asbury College that lasted eight days. It had such an impact across the nation that even Billy Graham made it the basis for a thirty minute radio program.[5]

Now

This brings me to what is currently happening today in Wilmore, Kentucky. A similar revival appears to be breaking out during a chapel service at Asbury University which, as of this writing, has been going on for roughly two weeks—several days longer than the 1970 event.

Following the chapel service on February 8, a handful of students remained behind. During that time, one student confessed some of his sins to the others after which, one witness stated, the atmosphere changed.[6]

The event has been going on non-stop, 24 hours a day, filled with confession, prayer, worship, and the word of God. What has been going on at Asbury has attracted national attention and thousands of Christ-followers have swarmed the area to witness and participate in the events.

As well as the critics.

Shortly after Asbury started attracting national attention, critics began questioning Asbury’s legitimacy. Criticism ranges from it being too emotionally-based, to quibbling over definitions of revival, to been-there-done-that-got-the-T-shirt and nothing has changed. Of course, we can’t forget the cries of this revival being based on bad theology or even heresy.

Because, after all, what would a potential movement of God be if it were not attacked and brought down by the people of God? That has been going on since the time of Jesus’ ministry.

What is going on at Asbury? Clearly something. Through confession, prayer, and worship, the name of Jesus is being lifted up (John 12:32).

However, before attacking or questioning the events, perhaps everyone should take a breath and wait before claiming to speak for God.

Is there a campus revival—or at least something of God—going on? Yes.

Is Jesus being lifted up, drawing all to himself? Absolutely.

Are lives being changed? Very likely.

Will some of those lives drift off once the intensity or emotion wears off? Probably.

Is Asbury the beginning of a third Great Awakening? Too early to tell.

Because it is too early to tell, the rest of America should be praying for Asbury, not analyzing it.

Screenshot

Asbury 2023 is happening within Gen Z, a generation criticized for its googling knowledge, not thinking for themselves. Gen Z is depicted as detached, screen-addicted, and non-committal. They don’t believe in absolute truth, and they are walking away from the church faster than any generation before it. They drift from place to idea, locking on with whatever best tickles their ears.

But Gen Z is also deeply depressed and hopeless. The level of mental illness is epidemic. Teenage suicide in 2023 has risen at an alarming trajectory.

Criticism is not going to help them.

Only Jesus can.

At Asbury, a group of Gen Z came together completely on their own and experienced God in ways few will understand. Members of a lost generation found something to latch onto—Jesus.

Could God be reaching out to this generation? I think so. It’s happened before.

And this is a generation that desperately needs to meet him.

The body of Christ needs to step back and ask ourselves why we pray for God to send revival only to hyper-analyze it when it comes.

Let’s wait and see what happens at Asbury.

And pray that the flames of that university spreads to all of Kentucky, to the United States, and to the ends of the earth.

[1] Jonathan Edwards, “Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England,” The Works Of Jonathan Edwards (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), Volume 1, 423..

[2] Timothy Beougher & Lyle Dorsett, ed., Accounts of a Campus Revival:  Wheaton College 1995, (Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1995)

[3] Beougher & Miller, p. 34.

[4] “The Haystack Prayer Meeting, https://www.globalministries.org/resource/what_is_haystack/. Accessed 2/19/2023.

[5] “Asbury Revival Blazes Cross-Country Trail”, Christianity Today, March 13, 1970.

[6] DeSoto, Randy. “Carlson: Asbury Revival ‘Amazing,’ People Turning to Spiritual Life to Counter Evil in the World”Independent Journal Review. Western Journal. Retrieved February 19, 2023.

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When death still stings

In the TV series 1883’s final episode, a young Elsa Dutton, having been mortally wounded by an Indian’s arrow, watched a jack rabbit munching on some grass with not a care in the world, and asked: “What is death? What is this thing we all share? Rabbits. Birds. Horses. Trees. Everyone I love. And everyone who loves me. Even stars die. And we know absolutely nothing of it.”

For some reason, those words haunted me.

For much of my life, I have been relatively sheltered from death. Going to funerals sums up the vast majority of my experience.

In the last two years, I have had to look at death directly in the face. Not my own, but in others.

In the fall of 2020, during the COVID craze, I lost my dad. I was recovering from a double-whammy case of COVID and pneumonia which hospitalized me for a week and which included one night in intensive care.

Two months later, my sister passed, having suffered from Sepsis. She was 56—the same age as I am now.

In both occasions, I stood by their bedside the moment they slipped away. I saw the moment their eyes faded into that million mile stare and they expelled their last breath here on earth. I watched their struggling bodies simply cease all movement.

For me, this was traumatizing.

I experienced again recently, only this time with my thirteen-year-old dachshund. I was up most of the night watching her seize many times. I could see her organs shutting down. We got her to the vet the moment they opened. Again, I saw seizing body abruptly cease movement and the life go out of her eyes. Yet again, I witnessed her last breath.

And a plethora of past emotions utterly overwhelmed me.

I have been struggling with the idea of death the last couple of years. There’s 40-year-oldnothing fair about it. We don’t get to choose to enter into this thing called life, yet we all have to endure loved ones ripped from us through death, over and again, until we have to ultimately face it ourselves.

It seems such a senseless part of creation. It feels like a violent tearing away.

But it was never meant to be a part of creation in the first place.

In my head, I can recite the theology. Death is now a reality in the universe because of the first human’s desire to be like God and choose for themselves—ourselves—to be like God. We wanted to be the ones who decided to come up with our own definitions of good and evil.

And, contrary to the serpent’s promise to Eve that she wouldn’t die, death is a part of the universe.

Everything dies: a loved one, a close friend, even a beloved pet.

And even though Paul taunts death in his letter to the church in Corinth—“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)—death still stings.

There’s no getting around that.

As the aforementioned fictional character Elsa concluded: everything dies. We will face feel death’s tearing away sooner or later.

That seems pretty hopeless.

If everything and everyone dies, and death is one percent fatal, then what’s the point?

Why exist?

Why strive?

Why love?

Because for the Christ-follower, there is hope.

When Jesus left the tomb on the third day, he conquered death. When Paul asks where is death’s sting, he is looking to the not-yet. Death was no longer the final word.

However, we still live in the now.

Despite the different interpretations in the body of Christ, all would agree that the biblical worldview springs from scripture which tells God’s story in three acts.

Act One is Creation. Act Two is the Fall. And the third act is Redemption.

Act One provides the answer to the worldview questions: who are we? And what is our purpose? Humanity was created imago dei, in the image of God. We’re not God, but we are reflections of him. Our purpose is seen in Genesis 2, when the man and woman cared for the Garden of Eden and were in deep relationship with God. You will find Act Two in Genesis 1-2.

Act Two is the Fall, answering the worldview question: what’s wrong? It explains why the universe is so broken and chaotic. It also explains how and why death came into the world. Death entered into the second act, which means death was never a part of the original creation. This is why death stings so violently. Act Two covers Genesis 3-11.

Then come Act Three—Redemption. This is all about God restoring the Universe prior to Genesis 3. Through promises and covenants, God works within sinful humanity to redeem creation.

Here’s the amazing thing about Act Three: it starts with God telling him to go from his comfort zone and go to a foreign land. With this command comes the promise of being the father of a new nation (Genesis 12:1-4). Ultimately it is through Abraham’s seed that the Savior and Redeemer will come.

That act of redemption, starting with Abraham, climaxes in the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. Amazingly, Act Three continues on from the resurrection, through Acts and all the way through Revelation, which has yet to happen.

One fascinating thing to take out of this is the Third Act covers all but the first eleven chapters of the Bible. In other words, the Bible is primarily about God’s redemptive work.

However, another point to come out of this is the book of Revelation hasn’t happened yet. In other words, we’re still living in Act Three. We are living in the now, not the not-yet.

That is why death still stings, contrary to Paul’s claim. Paul’s statement is true. Death has been defeated. Victory has been won through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

But we are still in the battle. From Abraham to the present, everyone had to experience the sting of death. And we will continue to do so.

But only for a time.

And in this, the follower of Jesus has hope.

Death will continue to tear at creation. In the now. But we have the not-yet  to look forward to.

I wish there was a better immediate answer to the pain of death.

However, even though it is present, the final outcome is not. Unlike the naturalist worldview, we can take comfort in the fact that death does not get the final say. There is a better reality beyond our present one. There will be a new creation. We will, as followers of Jesus, one day take care of that new creation with God himself.

In the now, we just have each day given to us to celebrate with our loved ones. Then, when death comes, we can only run into the arms of our Savior and find comfort in the one who himself experienced the very same thing.

In the TV series 1883’s final episode, a young Elsa Dutton, having been mortally wounded by an Indian’s arrow, watched a jack rabbit munching on some grass with not a care in the world, and asked: “What is death? What is this thing we all share? Rabbits. Birds. Horses. Trees. Everyone I love. And everyone who loves me. Even stars die. And we know absolutely nothing of it.”

For some reason, those words haunted me.

For much of my life, I have been relatively sheltered from death. Going to funerals sums up the vast majority of my experience.

In the last two years, I have had to look at death directly in the face. Not my own, but in others.

In the fall of 2020, during the COVID craze, I lost my dad. I was recovering from a double-whammy case of COVID and pneumonia which hospitalized me for a week, and which included one night in intensive care.

Two months later, my sister passed, having suffered from Sepsis. She was 56—the same age as I am now.

In both occasions, I stood by their bedside the moment they slipped away. I saw the moment their eyes faded into that million-mile stare and they expelled their last breath here on earth. I watched their struggling bodies simply cease all movement.

For me, this was traumatizing.

I experienced again recently, only this time with my thirteen-year-old dachshund. I was up most of the night watching her seize many times. I could see her organs shutting down. We got her to the vet the moment they opened. Again, I saw seizing body abruptly cease movement and the life go out of her eyes. Yet again, I witnessed her last breath.

And a plethora of past emotions utterly overwhelmed me.

I have been struggling with the idea of death the last couple of years. There’s 40-year-oldnothing fair about it. We don’t get to choose to enter into this thing called life, yet we all have to endure loved ones ripped from us through death, over and again, until we have to ultimately face it ourselves.

It seems such a senseless part of creation. It feels like a violent tearing away.

But it was never meant to be a part of creation in the first place.

In my head, I can recite the theology. Death is now a reality in the universe because of the first human’s desire to be like God and choose for themselves—ourselves—to be like God. We wanted to be the ones who decided to come up with our own definitions of good and evil.

And, contrary to the serpent’s promise to Eve that she wouldn’t die, death is a part of the universe.

Everything dies: a loved one, a close friend, even a beloved pet.

And even though Paul taunts death in his letter to the church in Corinth—“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)—death still stings.

There’s no getting around that.

As the aforementioned fictional character Elsa concluded: everything dies. We will face feel death’s tearing away sooner or later.

That seems pretty hopeless.

If everything and everyone dies, and death is one percent fatal, then what’s the point?

Why exist?

Why strive?

Why love?

Because for the Christ-follower, there is hope.

When Jesus left the tomb on the third day, he conquered death. When Paul asks where is death’s sting, he is looking to the not-yet. Death was no longer the final word.

However, we still live in the now.

Despite the different interpretations in the body of Christ, all would agree that the biblical worldview springs from scripture which tells God’s story in three acts.

Act One is Creation. Act Two is the Fall. And the third act is Redemption.

Act One provides the answer to the worldview questions: who are we? And what is our purpose? Humanity was created imago dei, in the image of God. We’re not God, but we are reflections of him. Our purpose is seen in Genesis 2, when the man and woman cared for the Garden of Eden and were in deep relationship with God. You will find Act Two in Genesis 1-2.

Act Two is the Fall, answering the worldview question: what’s wrong? It explains why the universe is so broken and chaotic. It also explains how and why death came into the world. Death entered into the second act, which means death was never a part of the original creation. This is why death stings so violently. Act Two covers Genesis 3-11.

Then come Act Three—Redemption. This is all about God restoring the Universe prior to Genesis 3. Through promises and covenants, God works within sinful humanity to redeem creation.

Here’s the amazing thing about Act Three: it starts with God telling him to go from his comfort zone and go to a foreign land. With this command comes the promise of being the father of a new nation (Genesis 12:1-4). Ultimately it is through Abraham’s seed that the Savior and Redeemer will come.

That act of redemption, starting with Abraham, climaxes in the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. Amazingly, Act Three continues on from the resurrection, through Acts and all the way through Revelation, which has yet to happen.

One fascinating thing to take out of this is the Third Act covers all but the first eleven chapters of the Bible. In other words, the Bible is primarily about God’s redemptive work.

However, another point to come out of this is the book of Revelation hasn’t happened yet. In other words, we’re still living in Act Three. We are living in the now, not the not-yet.

That is why death still stings, contrary to Paul’s claim. Paul’s statement is true. Death has been defeated. Victory has been won through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

But we are still in the battle. From Abraham to the present, everyone had to experience the sting of death. And we will continue to do so.

But only for a time.

And in this, the follower of Jesus has hope.

Death will continue to tear at creation. In the now. But we have the not-yet to look forward to.

I wish there was a better immediate answer to the pain of death.

However, even though it is present, the final outcome is not. Unlike the naturalist worldview, we can take comfort in the fact that death does not get the final say. There is a better reality beyond our present one. There will be a new creation. We will, as followers of Jesus, one day take care of that new creation with God himself.

In the now, we just have each day given to us to celebrate with our loved ones. Then, when death comes, we can only run into the arms of our Savior and find comfort in the one who himself experienced the very same thing.

When we experience death, we can run for comfort into the arms of our Savior, who himself experienced the very same thing.

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Shock and awe at the Grammys: one Christian’s response

By now many of us heard about artist Sam Smith’s musical number at the Grammy awards: a choreographed “dance” of a satanic ritual.

Smith performed his song “Unholy” dressed as the devil and bathed in intense red light while dancers ritualistically undulated around him.

On national TV.

The Christian response was swift and blunt: What the world watched was evil.

Political commentator Matt Walsh stated, “It’s not surprising to see a satanic ritual at the Grammy’s. Satanism is the worship of the self. Much of modern pop music is satanic in this sense. Leftism is satanism. The only change is that now they’re being more explicit about it.”

Conservative Charlie Kirk tweeted with more than a little sarcasm: “Definitely not a spiritual war.”

Republican Senator Ted Cruz stated, “This…is…evil.”

The Christian response was expressed in no uncertain terms. And having viewed the video myself, I completely agree. Although I can’t ignore the irony that Satanists also weren’t too thrilled with it either.[1] The portrayal of Satan and hell was more of a caricature, but the imagery was present. (Although can someone please tell me how total separation of God includes dancing women in cages?)

I am going to go out on a limb and say the Smith’s ultimate goal for this number wasn’t to promote Satanism and proselytize young minds into worshiping the Dark One.

I think Smith’s objective was two-fold: shock and awe. The shock materializes in the collective gasp in Body of Christ, while the awe rises from the uber-trendier folks in the media who will describe the production with adjectives such as edgy, daring, and provocative. If that was his objective, he succeeded.

Honestly since first hearing of Smith’s performance, my cynical filter went down. I couldn’t help but wonder if we’re being played.

I have seen this game played before. Frequently.

I have a couple of reasons for thinking this way.

First, the entertainment industry has been hemorrhaging audiences and therefore dollars. Over the last several years, entertainment award shows—including the Grammys—have consistently receive lower and lower ratings to the point of irrelevance. Box office sales are down. Creativity seems to have been exhausted. Celebrity interviews are generally received more and more with a collective “meh.”

To an industry packed full of manical egomaniacs, this is Defcon 5, the apocalypse, the worst case scenario. It’s like taking meth from an addict.

Like addicts, they need a fix. The entertainment industry’s fix is attention.

And the most popular method to do that is to one-up the last shocking event, whatever that might be. For example, over the decades, the singer Madonna has become an expert at reinventing herself every few years, each time becoming more and more provocative than the last time. Each year, TV networks produce more and more sensational violence and sex, and when that doesn’t do it enough, they make a character come out as gay, or they rebrand a favorite character as the opposite sex.

Offensive? Sure.

But, the industry shrugs, we’re talking about it.

Negative attention is still attention.

That’s the feeling that kept creeping up in me the week following the Grammy performance. What’ll it be next time? Human sacrifice? Showing Jesus as a transvestite? What can the industry do next to keep people talking about them?

The second reason for my somewhat cynical response has to do with a relatively new element in the industry called something like interactive art. Basically, this claims the audience’s reaction is, in and of itself, a part of the art.

In 1989, an artist named Andres Serrano, using taxpayer’s dollars, photographed a crucifix soaking in a glass filled with urine, calling the exhibit “Piss Christ.” Naturally, the outrage among Christianity was deeply felt and widely expressed.

However, to the artist, that offensiveness was to be expected, thus making the Christian’s response to this photo an integral part of the exhibit.

Needless to say, the entertainment industry’s default is to try to get a rise out the body of Christ. Their game plan seems to be: 1) be as offensive as possible; 2) use Christian outrage to add to their straw man that Christians are judgmental, uncultured prudes.

I sense when Christians respond, we’re playing into their hands.

This begs the question: how should a Christ-follower respond to blatant acts of evil and offense?

Part of me thinks to just ignore it. Don’t play into their hands. This is the way the world is, and we shouldn’t be surprised. Satan has been defeated—nothing can undo that. However, that doesn’t mean Satan is not present. His purpose in his final days is to create chaos, and truthfully, I don’t think he’s all that intimidated by our social media posts.

On the other hand, quiet prayer within the Christian community will stop Satan in his tracks.

That, of course, seems like the quintessential Sunday School answer, but nonetheless it is true. You believe in the power of prayer, or you don’t.

What do we pray for? Sam Smith for one. Kim Petras for another. The producers and participants of that musical number. The viewers that watched it. Jesus died for all of them. All of them are redeemable.

In addition, we should pray that Jesus shows us Christ-followers how to respond and/or what we should say.

This will be followed with more occurrences in which the world will push our buttons.

We shouldn’t be shocked by the world’s actions.

Perhaps it would be more productive to respond not with outrage but with sympathy.

Sympathy for those who know not what they do.

[1] Dani Di Placido, “Sam Smith Grammy Performance Criticized by Conservatives and Satanists,” Forbes. February 10, 2023. https://www.forbes.com/sites/danidiplacido/2023/02/10/sam-smiths-grammys-performance-criticized-by-conservatives-and-satanists/?sh=42241e7730b1

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Following Jesus in a wild world of relativism

I often look at the world around me with bewilderment and wonder whether I the one missing something.

Am I just not getting it?

Surely, I can’t be the only one connecting the dots between the current reality and insanity.

I don’t claim I am the only sane person in the world. I just have trouble understanding it.

And that has occasionally boiled over into frustration.

Recently a major paradigm shift has increased exponentially with each passing year. Symptoms include inconsistency, slippery definitions, construction of truth narratives filled with blatant yet unrecognized contradictions, and lack of self-awareness. This shift is happening institutionally, culturally, and even individually.

It’s everywhere.

Before the 118th Congress met, news broke that Republican Congressman-elect George Santos of New York had lied about pretty much everything on his resume: his ancestry, education, employment, charity work, etc.

His response: “This will not deter me from having good legislative success. I will be effective. I will be good.”[1]

How will he be good—when he is an outright liar? In a courtroom, when a person gets caught in a lie, everything he or she says before and after loses all credibility. Why hasn’t this guy bowed out?

Several years ago, around the 2016 election, I talked with a Trump supporter who knowingly passed on articles and posts that were either suspect, or totally made up. When I questioned this, he shrugged. It didn’t matter what was true. It only mattered that Trump got elected.

The other side (one famous past example was then-senator Harry Reid) also has been caught doing exactly the same thing.

In 2022, the United States’ economy entered into a recession based on the definition of the word used by Democrats and Republicans, journalists and economists, as well as the most in the business communities for nearly 50 years.[2]

Yet suddenly the administration — widely blamed for causing it — changed the definition. Thus, apparently, the financial struggle of many Americans is all in our heads.

Last year, the president himself claimed gas was five dollars a gallon when he took office, apparently to take credit for bringing it “down” to $3.39 at that time.

But in truth, gas documentably averaged $2.39 per gallon the day he took office, and its skyrocket to over $5 per gallon was clearly after he had been at the helm for a full eighteen months. [3]

What is incredibly disturbing is “fact-checkers,” self-proclaimed gatekeepers of facts, are nothing more than partisan stooges. In several cases, Snopes, a long-time legitimate source for rebuffing urban legends and conspiracy theories, fact-checked many articles from the Babylon Bee, a satirical site that actually makes no effort to hide it..

A “fact-check” page fact-checking a satire site whose motto is “Fake News You Can Trust”?

And we’re suddenly confronted with, out of nowhere, dozens of new genders, each with new made-up pronouns.

To question this makes you the bad guy.

My favorite example of a world gone mad was when journalists, who for years defended the “moderation” of conservatives on Twitter, screamed “fascism” when Elon Musk bought Twitter and in turn started moderating them.

It made me wonder how they somehow could not see the irony.

Every new day seems to outdo the previous ones.

However, I honestly don’t think the world has simply gone insane or that the inmates are running the asylum.

It has more to do with the dominant worldview that has settled into the majority of the country: relativism.

This reality is what you get when every individual believes he or she has the authority to construct their own reality, their own truth.

Relative, the root word of relativism, is, relatively speaking, a harmless word. It means in relation to or in proportion to some else. If I tell a group to think of a “red vehicle,” all will imagine something different. Some might describe a red Ferrari. Others might think of a red ’69 Camaro. Others a red truck.

Further, each person might see a different shade of red: fire engine red, dark red, etc.

The definition each person comes up with when thinking of a “red vehicle” imagines it in relation to their own interests, culture, and preferences.

There is nothing wrong with that. Unless you apply it to everything and take it to its extreme: total relativism.

Relativism is a philosophy in which knowledge, truth, and morality are constructed in relation to culture or a particular context (geographical, historical, etc.). Truth is constructed according to these things.

And since truth and knowledge are constructed, the relativists believe neither can be absolute. Facts are not necessarily facts, and truth is simply created in a group, tribe, or mind.

Therefore, if I wanted to be a different gender or species, that is my truth, and no one can tell me otherwise.

Further, relativism is not about seeking that which is true; it is about constructing the narrative. It holds that all truth is created, so I can create any narrative I desire.

Thus, I am not accountable to an absolute truth which transcends all cultures and historical contexts.

This is now the dominant worldview in the United States.

And it is why nothing makes sense.

It is not enough for the Christ-follower to shake their heads in disgust (which admittedly I tend to do) or lament days gone by.

We must keep in mind that God is not surprised by America’s current condition. When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God knew this would be the result.

And so did the crafty serpent.

To Eve, the serpent said: “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). In other words: you will be like God. You get to personally define (construct) what is good and evil.

When humans get to decide good and evil, right and wrong, and even truth itself, you have the mess of relativism.

Yet this is the world the Christ-follower is called to reach.

Christians often try to combat relativism with reason and rational arguments. But this, frankly, seldom works. People who build their own reality couldn’t care less if they are contradicting themselves.

Relativism is full of contradictions. For example, if a woman says there is no such thing as absolute truth, she often has zero awareness that her statement is an absolute statement in and of itself.

Further, I could tell another that my personal truth says it is justified for me to steal. I am pretty sure he would protest if I went for his wallet.

But he would not connect the dots.

Satan’s temptation to be your own god and creating your own definition of good and evil is just too exciting to worry about any contradictions.

But we absolutely have to remember that Jesus died for relativists too. When on the cross he prayed, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he was praying it for them as well as me.

So how does a follower of Jesus live and function in this world that we’re also commanded to reach?

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).

Our job is to be Jesus to the world around us. We are to go to the scripture itself not to learn how to make the perfect rational argument against relativism (or other worldviews) but to teach ourselves how Jesus specifically interacted with the lost.

What does it mean to “love our neighbors as ourselves” (Matthew 22:39)?

How do I live the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10) in responding to the relativist society?

What is my answer to the question “who is my neighbor” (Luke 10:25-37)?

How do I speak the truth of Jesus Christ to a lost world with love lest I come across as an obnoxiously clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1-2)?

How can I help others by being salt that is tasty, not bitter, or a light that is guiding not blinding? (Matthew 5:13)?

These are tough questions that every Christ-follower must meditate on and pray about. This is how we navigate our respective roles in the Great Commission.

Make no mistake, we live in a relativist, post-Christian culture. That will not change. Christianity is now marginalized. For speaking truth, we’re considered crazy.. Gene Veith in his book Post-Christian wrote: “Those who would impose their morality on those who do not share it, those who demand conformity, and those who punish the dissenters are now the militant secularists. Christians are not used to being considered ‘the wicked.’ But we should probably get used to it.”

We must be sure of our priorities in the Kingdom worldview.

Fighting and beating the relativist culture isn’t our end game.

Making disciples in a relativist society is.

[1] https://www.foxnews.com/politics/new-york-rep-elect-george-santos-confesses-lies-about-his-resume

[2] https://www.forbes.com/advisor/investing/what-is-a-recession/

[3] https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/biden-falsely-says-the-price-of-gas-was-more-than-dollar5-when-he-took-office/ar-AA13sEx4

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The not-so-secret secret to a happy new year

And just like that, Christmas is over.

Living rooms now contain cold corners where Christmas trees once stood. Decorations have disappeared in homes and stores. Christmas music—the mere thrill of playing it in November—now feels a little stale. The pace has geared down to a trudge. Christmas goodies found on every aisle in every store are now crammed into a single space with giant 50%-off signs. The snow and chill of December often described as white and brilliant are now considered gray and bone-chilling.

The week after Christmas serves as a reality check that real life continues to roll on.

We attempt to extend the hope of the holidays one final time on December 31—New Year’s Eve. People will gather all over the world to count down the final ten seconds of 2022 before shouting, amidst a flurry of confetti: “Happy New Year!”

Then, the social construct goes, millions will drink their body weight in liquor and start kissing strangers.

And then, just like that, the celebration of New Year’s Eve is over (though millions will celebrate the start of 2023 with a killer hangover).

So why do millions scream out “Happy New Year” precisely at midnight?

Perhaps it’s just the thing people say.

Still, how many of us are actually conscious of the collective wish the moment we wake up the next morning?

Most don’t, and even won’t, think about it until the next December 31.

So why is celebrating the new year so important?

To some, welcoming in a new year is simply a sigh of relief; 2022 was a difficult year for them. While there may have been good times and blessings, overwhelming stress and loss seemed to predominate. They’re just thankful they made it through the sorrows and uncertainties. They see the new year as a blank slate, a fresh start.

Others see the new year as a challenge, a time to reassess their goals, improve their circumstances, or plan new adventures. The new year is a springboard to exciting new things. They proclaim that 2023 is their year.

Unfortunately, both of these approaches are doomed to failure. For the first group, stress and grief are not going to grind to a halt with the turning of the calendar year. Come January 2, the struggles will still be there. They will likely continue in one manner or another.

For the second group, they will find they are in control of nothing. Don’t get me wrong; goals are great and helpful. However, when we couch them as “resolutions” made traditionally on a single day, they’re forgotten by the end of the month, masked by the typical doldrums of life. Further, life is incredibly skilled at throwing curve balls when you least expect it. Whatever was the center of focus on New Year’s Eve goes out the window with the first setback. Members of this second group might even find themselves in the first group by the end of the year.

Ironically, those from the first group might even find themselves next December with an unexpected promotion or adventure.

The truth is, we just don’t know what 2023 holds for each of us.

So, does this make the “Happy New Year” an empty wish?

Not at all.

To have a happy 2023 has nothing to do with a clean slate or goals no matter how clearly defined. A happy new year is not about surviving loss or stress. Nor is it about accomplished resolutions.

Either one of those perspectives can be achieved yet neither automatically warrants a happy new year.

To live with happiness in the new year is to live with the prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his death, “Not my will but your will be done” (Luke 22:42).

For me, this is one of the hardest prayers in the Bible.

For the group that celebrates the new year as a new start, it could mean the suffering will continue. Life will always carry suffering and grief. Who wants that?

What it does mean, however, is suffering knowing that Jesus will be in it with them.

For the second group, the idea of giving up control and letting God’s will be done is a little unsettling.

Whatever the case, a happy new year means living in the peace and strength of Jesus come what may.

2023 is staring us in the face. No one on earth knows exactly how it will end.

For true happiness in the new year, we must cling to the robe of the one who transcends time.

Jesus is the only certainty we have. And resting in the peace of Christ is ultimately that which will bring the happiness we all seek.

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Regaining your bearings when your kingdom crumbles

I tend to get into Christmas.

I mean really get into Christmas.

I am Clark Griswold. If I could cover my house in thousands of lights, I would risk my well-being to string them up. If I could find a tree too big for my living room, I would cut it down and figure out a way. I am proud of that identity. I own it. I have no inhibitions.

However, this Christmas feels a little more subdued. I still “don me now my gay apparel” (Oh, how I wish the original meaning of that word hadn’t been hijacked): Christmas tee-shirts, and neckties, and an over-the-top Santa hat. I watch Christmas movies like A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, and Die Hard (and, yes, it is a Christmas movie). I play carols incessantly without hesitation or shame (and those who constantly complain about Christmas music, I don’t care).

This year feels a bit different, more laid back. I still feel excited for the holiday. However, I felt I entered into this Christmas season more emotionally exhausted than anything else. I felt mentally spent, spiritually stressed out and tired.

The last few months were tough. Nearly everything in and around my house seemed to be falling apart. Our finances became frightfully stretched.

Years ago, the events of these previous months might have sent me into a meltdown.

My kingdom felt like it was crumbling.

However, thankfully, perhaps from experiencing the grace of God in my previous crises, as stressful as these months were, this time I never felt God had abandoned me.

I did not see my litany of mishaps as an absence of God or even as a divine punishment.

I can’t say I looked up at heaven from my pit bathed in a heavenly glow. The struggle with my flesh was present. However, I was able remember and believe that this was not my kingdom to begin with.

Further, at several points—even as late as last week–God wonderfully reminded my wife and I that he still sees us.

And that gave us peace.

This is how I entered into this Christmas season: with an odd mixture of exhaustion and peace.

The angels’ message to the shepherds also seemed meant for me: “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” (Luke 2:10-12).

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news. The king has come.

When angels appear, they always start all their proclamations with “Do not be afraid.” It is these mighty beings who come to Mary and the lowly shepherds to announce the coming of the Prince of Peace. I find the angel’s assurance to not be afraid more than a little ironic. Angels are not adorable, chubby little infants, with rosy, red cheeks and dressed in diapers and wings. Try to imagine the angel guarding the east gate of the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword flashing back and forth as an adorable little two-year-old. It doesn’t jive. No, angels are powerful, intimidating and warrior-like entities whose presence evokes fear in those they encounter.

Yet their message is anything but threatening.

The angels are there to proclaim the arrival of the King of kings.

I have nothing to fear because in the middle of my own fragile, crumbling kingdom, Emmanuel has come to set up one that will never end. That is good news. It is reassuring to us in the midst of struggle.

This good news gave me the freedom not to wildly celebrate his arrival, but to rest in it. It’s like the angels said, specifically to me. “Do not be afraid. I bring good news. God sees you and has stepped into your crumbling kingdom and in doing so, brings peace. Now rest.”

Decompress.

Regain my bearings.

Rest.

Rest in the knowledge God’s got this. Rest in the fact that no matter how big our problems, he has no equal. Rest in the assurance that, whether some miraculous miracle drops fire from heaven for Elijah or I wind up on the ash heap like Job, God is here, with us.

Here.

Present.

Sometimes we celebrate the arrival of Christmas with wild passion and joy. I have seasons like that.

But sometimes we just need to celebrate its arrival with the peace to rest.

Let Emmanuel—God With Us—wrap you in his arms and whisper in your ear: Do not be afraid. I am here.

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The promise of peace

In 2014, I wrote about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells” in the context of an active shooter situation at a mall near my home in Portland, Oregon. The day after the shooting, I drove down to the mall, watching the police activity, the media frenzy, and the stunned onlookers standing in small groups still trying to grasp what had just happened.

As I drove around the mall, the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” came over the radio.

That song has stuck with me ever since.

The thought of church bells piercing the grit, darkness, and violence of the times and proclaiming the arrival of a promised Messiah is burned into my mind.

Especially at the conclusion of each of the every subsequent year since.

Since 2014, there have been multiple mass shootings or murders via other means which now only hardens our hearts because we are so quick to take advantage of it politically. We have also  experienced two presidential elections, which have done little more than erode our trust and respect of the office. We have experienced a pandemic which locked us into mind-numbing solitude, turned each other into enemies, and decimated our trust in public health and education.

This last year, America entered into recession. Inflation is at a decades-high level, and at one point, gas prices hit an all-time high. The powers-that-be responded not by acknowledging or  owning the recession, but by changing the definition of the word.

Life has been hard since the 2020 pandemic. And every year, when December arrives, I find myself wanting  to allow the darkness of the prior year to engulf me.

The last several months have been fairly difficult and overwhelming for me personally. There was no life-changing catastrophe. Instead, it has felt more like death by a thousand paper cuts.

The inflation-that-supposedly-isn’t has depleted our savings account and left us carrying a credit card balance for the first time in our 25-year marriage. Our house had a power surge during a summer thunderstorm, resulting in a fried underground cable and requiring an overhead replacement.  Our refrigerator, washing machine, and laptop computer all went out. Both of us needed long-delayed replacements for our eyeglasses, and we were informed our dangerously bald tires, which we’d hoped to use through the winter, could easily blow out before Thanksgiving.

Then, we were told that one of our trees, the one closest to the house and garage, had developed serious cracks in the trunk and has officially become what the expert called a “liability.” Finally, our two senior dachshunds both developed incontinence (one from old age, the other due to Cushing’s disease). We spend much of our waking time chasing them around the house, cleaning up dribbles and mopping the floor.

All this unfolded in just six weeks.

As December arrived, it became very tempting to just ignore Advent altogether. My life felt like total chaos, and I was too exhausted to think about the meaning of the season. Hiding out in my room and binging TV shows became my refuge. I just wanted to focus on my own woes.

But Emmanuel won’t let that happen.

When light steps into the darkness, the darkness goes away. Darkness cannot win in a battle with light.

Likewise, light does not remove the person from the darkness, but removes the darkness from the person.

Therein lies the peace promised by Emmanuel, the God With Us.

We are not rescued from the darkness. We still have to work our way out of the mess. But Advent reminds us that God himself stepped into the chaos loosed by the serpent.

In Genesis 3, the serpent sets out to undo the order and beauty of creation, described just two chapters earlier. At first, his plan appears to work when Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

However, when God confronts the three players in the Garden, he slips in one promise of hope. To the serpent, he says that the woman’s offspring “will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

The Christmas story still speaks the angels’ message of “peace on earth.”

We have the peace of knowing that God’s got this, that he sees the mess we’ve made of his creation and has made it right.

He sees that my death-by-a-thousand paper-cuts will ultimately glorify him.

My duty is to release my stresses to him—daily, continually. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.

During this second week of Advent, acknowledge the darkness around you. Think of the chaos in your life. Reflect on the arrival of the Prince of Peace—the infant who entered our world, our stories, calming the storms in our hearts and souls by commanding, “Peace, be still.”

You will make it simply because he is with you.

And that is the promise of peace in the Advent season.

 

 

 

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Darkness surrounded by Christmas

It’s no secret that Christmas falls during the month of December.

What isn’t as clear is the reason why.

“That’s easy,” one might reply. “It’s when Jesus was born.”

Actually, it wasn’t.

Most biblical historians place Jesus’s birth around either October(ish) or April(ish). They argue that shepherds would not have been out in the fields with their sheep in the dead of winter. It would have been far too cold, especially at night. (Fun fact: Christ likely wasn’t born in the year 0 AD either. Because of some miscalculations in the Gregorian calendar, he was probably born sometime between 3 to 5 BC.)

Secularists–and particularly militant atheists–enjoy rubbing that little detail into the face of unsuspecting Christians before adding, with gleeful snark, that the whole Christmas holiday is based on a pagan holiday filled with drunken debauchery, which is true.

To a point.

But the deconstruction of the Christmas narrative into a bunch of uncomfortable half-truths in no way minimizes the power of the Incarnation.

The decision by the early church to set the celebration of Jesus’s birth on December 25 was intentional.

Celebrating his birth on this date is not an attempt to deceive the masses about the actual date it happened, any more than is celebating his resurrection on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. It’s merely a date for global body of Christ to celebrate as one.

And–gasp!—Resurrection Sunday was also around the time of pagan holidays.

So why did the early church set the celebration of Jesus’s birth on December 25th? The answer is quite enlightening (pun very much intended).

With the shortest days of the year, December is shrouded in darkness more than any other month (at least in the northern hemisphere–the early church’s known world at the time). December can seem downright depressing. Further, the month also contains a solitary annual event: the winter solstice.

The winter solstice is the day the earth’s northern hemisphere is tilted furthest away from the sun, marking the official first day of winter. It is also the day considered the shortest of the year, with the northern-tier states of the US getting only about eight to nine hours of daylight, decreasing as one goes further north. People in northern Canada and Alaska receive only a few hours of light a day, and must hunker in for the cold, depressing darkness of winter.

However, though that solstice marks the shortest, darkest day of the year, it also marks the point after which the days begin to grow longer.

In other words, light is entering into the world.

Following the winter solstice by only a few days, December 25 marks both the coming of more daylight to dispel our physical darkness, and the coming of the Light of the World who dispels our spiritual darkness.

It feels like the two years following the whole COVID mess have been spiritually dark. It’s like our nation–in fact, the whole world–has been stumbling along, trying to regain our sense of equilibrium. We’re assessing the damage of lockdowns, individually and relationally. We suffered through another election which grows uglier by the year. We now accept lies as truth for no other reason than it’s “our guy” telling them.

Students are woefully behind on their level of studies from where they should be. Many of us who have been able to get by are now living paycheck to paycheck, draining our savings and running credit card balances in order to stay afloat while being told by the highest authorities that everything is peachy. Just this month, there have been mass shootings in both a gay club and a Walmart as well as a brutal quadruple homicide of four college kids while they slept.

We no longer believe anything from our media, government, and academic institutions. And every day, that level of mistrust grows progressively worse. Institutions we normally trust to fix things are themselves broken.

Nothing makes sense. When institutions we should trust are telling us things totally out of line with the reality around us, uncertainty prevails. And with no truth to stabilize, darkness saturates.

There is no solution.

Save one.

The dark reality Jesus entered into the first time is the same reality now.

We don’t need Christmas in spring or summer, when all is warm and bright. But we do need it in the darkest time of the year. Why do you think the most dominant decoration is the light?

As we enter into the Christmas 2022 season, don’t wait to start the season until you feel “festive.” That is the way the world does it, trying to drum up emotions and then falling even deeper into depression and darkness.

That is also putting the cart before the horse.

Acknowledge the Christmas season from within the darkness around you. Let the brilliance of Christmas trees and lights remind you that the true Light of the world has come and will come again.

Yes, it’s dark. But Christmas is the reminder that Emmanuel has come.

And the days will start growing longer.

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When Another Receives the Blessing, I Need the Grace

On a recent frigid afternoon, I had completed my weekly grocery run and headed for the parking lot exit. It was a cold, snowy Saturday in November, and I felt chilly on the outside and pretty frosty on the inside too.

I was irritable because I was downright exhausted.

The preceding week had been one of those “perfect storms.” It was just a long week. Every night was a late night. There was no time to turn off my introverted brain before it was time to wake up from a restless night to start the whole thing over again.

By my Saturday morning grocery run, I was what doctors might call “brain dead.” It was solely by the grace of God that the mass between my ears could generate enough willpower to put one foot in front of the other.

And I had yet another commitment later that evening.

My filters were down, and it wouldn’t take much to set me off.

As I navigated my car toward the exit, I fell in behind a white SUV. When it came to the intersection, its windows came down so the passenger could hand some cash to a homeless person standing there with a sign. The sign promised divine blessing.

The homeless person trudged through the snow to collect the money from the vehicle, which sported a fish symbol and a sticker of two nails, intersecting to form a cross.

I was impatient to get home, but as a fellow Christ-follower, I felt I could cut the SUV’s occupants some slack because they were giving to “the least of these.”

We started moving again, but eventually came to a stop at a traffic light. Once again the SUV’s window went down and the passenger held out money for another individual holding another sign, again promising divine blessing.

And the light was green!

A green light is the perfect way to avoid both guilt and eye contact by looking left — you know, “to check for traffic.” Easy-peasy.

Whatever was left of my filters crumbled. The absolute audacity of these people to hold me up for a homeless person. Didn’t those do-gooders in the SUV realize that I had someplace to be?! Even though it was just to be home resting my exhausted brain?!

After making the right turn—carefully “checking for traffic” on my left—I fell in behind the SUV with a hearty scowl and a heart of venom, only then to spot the wide smile on the SUV passenger’s face.

The wind came out of my self-righteous sail.

She gave to “the least of these” in the name of Jesus—twice! She saw a need and responded the way Jesus would have. As a result, she experienced great blessing.

I, on the other hand, did not.

I was turned inward, withdrawn, and focused only on my own stresses. I thought only of my own needs and comforts.

I had a chance to do something for two individuals in need, and I did not. Instead, I complained inside about those who did. I felt horrible. I heard the condemnation of a thousand voices, taunting me in my failure—Satan’s default response when a Christ-follower blows it.

This did not help my day get any better.

Yet, through the cacophony of condemnation, one voice broke through. It was a soft, single voice—a whisper no less—uttering, “I love you.”

I love you.

I — who did nothing to help the least of these, and who clearly sinned by putting my own needs above others’ — had been reminded in that moment that I am loved.

Those in the SUV got a wonderful blessing, but I was the one who needed a reminder of grace.

At that specific moment, God knew I needed grace more than I needed blessing.

John 21 tells the story of the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples by the Sea of Galilee. Once Peter recognizes Jesus, he impulsively jumps from his boat and swims to shore.

Three times, Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me?” Three times Peter answers, with growing frustration, “You know I love you.”

Then Jesus commands, “Go feed my sheep.”

Some days before this dialogue, on the night before Jesus was crucified, Peter had commited one of the most horrible acts of betrayal: three times, he had denied he even knew Jesus.

Peter basically commits the same atrocity as Judas, times three. Though the outcomes were different, Peter had to have felt the same sting of guilt as Judas.

Yet on that beach, Jesus faces Peter, suffering from the worst kind of guilt, and pours grace upon him, restoring him completely.

Jesus finds Peter and forgives him because at that moment, Peter needs grace more than he needs blessing.

Alone in my car that frigid Saturday afternoon, I experienced grace from a loving Savior who saw me in my self-centeredness and forgave me anyway.

Divine blessings are great, don’t get me wrong — but sometimes, being human, we just need a touch of grace.

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