Monday, December 30, 2013

Keeping Christmas

...and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well....

There have been days - entire seasons, even - when I've thought I knew how to keep Christmas well. I've devoted myself to study the Incarnation, lit the Advent candles every night, listened to "O Holy Night" more than "Santa, Baby" and not gotten caught up in the hustle & bustle that December brings. Then there have been days - entire seasons, even - when the opposite has been true. I've been Lucy instead of Linus, making Christmas a production and forgetting that behind all that's shiny and bright lies a babe nestled in stiff straw surrounded by dirty animals and the lowliest of men. I have utterly failed at keeping Christmas well.

At the beginning of this Christmas season, I found myself somewhere in between. Then I read this excerpt that my fellow ordinary theologian Lisa shared at her blog. It has stuck with me ever since.

"In all the days when I’m filled with despair because of my sin, and when I can’t find God if my life depended on it; when I give up in fear, doubt, guilt, and despair, I have his righteousness–a righteousness that was lived out for me, on my behalf, and upon which I can rest. Oh, thank you, glorious God. Having loved us, he loved us to the end."

We often fail, and that's exactly why Christmas is so wonderful! Because of Christmas itself, there is grace when we do not keep Christmas well. Amazing grace, indeed!

As we close out 2013 and begin a new year, may we be filled with wonder at such marvelous grace and be ever grateful for it.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Merry Christmas

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6

Merry Christmas from all of us at OOTO.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Confessions of a Christmas Curmudgeon

I have something of a reputation as a Christmas curmudgeon, one not entirely unwarranted, as Christmas seems to bring out the worst in me. I never intend for the holidays to culminate in me sobbing into the wrapping paper out of sheer exhaustion and frustration but, well, sometimes, many times, it happens.

I really love Christmas. Really. I do. Of course I love the baby Jesus and the miracle of the Incarnation. I also love giving gifts and spending time with family. I love sending and receiving Christmas cards. I love decorating our tree with treasured ornaments from my girlhood as well as ones made by the boys through the years. I love that I cook the same thing each Christmas Eve and I love that we eat it in the dining room with candlelight. I love when my husband reads the Christmas story from Luke 2 and I love the early morning excitement on Christmas Day.

But all is not always merry and bright, is it? Giving gifts isn’t just the giving of the gifts; it’s finding out exactly what the recipient wants and then purchasing that exact, perfect, completely un-surprising gift. Decorating the tree isn’t just decorating the tree; it’s seeing pictures of everyone else’s beautifully ornamented tree on Facebook and wondering if yours isn’t just little Charlie Brown-ish. And what about Christmas cards? You kind of like that picture of your family your sister snapped in your parents’ backyard, that is until you get the gorgeous card with the gorgeous family picture clearly made by a professional (and clearly touched up). Even cooking a meal becomes a competitive endeavor after just a quick perusal of Pinterest.

It’s not just me, is it? Surely you too feel the weight of the expectation of the perfect Christmas and your utter inability to go there. What will set us free from the endless cycle of frustration and failure that mars our Christmas celebration?

You know as well as I do: it’s the gospel. It’s the Christmas story itself. When the time had fully come, God sent His Son, why? To save His people from their sins. We could not, we cannot, save ourselves. To paraphrase Tim Keller, He had to come get us. Your Christmas failures, mine too, echo this truth: we need saving. You’re not enough and I’m not either and not only that but our pursuit of the perfect Christmas is really the worst form of idolatry. We think we’re making it all about Jesus when it’s really all about us. But, glory to God, Jesus saves the weak, the desperate, the not-enough, the failures, the idolaters, and the curmudgeons, yes and amen.

So stop trying to achieve Christmas perfection. You can’t anyway. Look instead to the baby in the manger and remember God’s sovereign rescue mission. He came to get you! Rest in this grace. Serve others out of this joy. Give good gifts because of this indescribable Gift of gifts. Worship Him and not the perfection of your Christmas. He alone is worthy!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why Christ Came - To Seek and Save the Lost

And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house… And Jesus said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.                   Luke 19:5, 9-10
A few weeks ago, our small group was discussing how Christ's first advent prepares us for His second. The pastor then posed a question: "Do we long for Christ's return?" One sister admitted that as much as she wants Jesus to come back, she wants Him to wait because some of her grandchildren aren't saved. I appreciated her honesty because this is something we can all relate to. We have family members and friends who have yet to put their faith in Christ. We've shared with them as best we can. We've prayed and wept, and our hearts ache for them.

During this season, we may be with loved ones who do not know the real Source of Christmas joy. But as long as there is time and breath, there is hope because this is one of the reasons Christ came - to seek and save the lost.

Many of God's people can remember what it was like to be without Christ, without hope, and without God in this world (Eph. 2:12). Some have lived this way in the world, while others were nurtured in the bosom of the church. Both types of people have the same sense that they are strangers to God and to grace.
Jesus came to seek these lost persons and save them. God in Christ is a seeker (Luke 15:3-6). Nineteenth-century British poet Francis Thompson affectionately refers to God as the "hound of heaven" in a poem by that name. The author recounts how he deliberately fled from God, but throughout his life he sensed he was being followed by feet that moved "with un-hurrying chase and unperturbed pace" to bring him to salvation. Without fail, God always gets His man.
When Christ came to Zacchaeus' tree, He called the little man by name. Given Zacchaeus' vocation as a tax collector, his name was probably often spoken in derision or disgust. But Jesus spoke his name with respect, enthusiasm, and purpose. No doubt to his own surprise, Zaccheus responded to Jesus hastily and joyfully (v. 6). The Lord knew Zacchaeus by name! And, by God's grace, Zacchaeus recognized the sound of his Shepherd's voice (John 10:16)!
Zacchaeus climbed a tree  out of curiosity to see Jesus. But God was drawing him up into the tree so that Christ might find him. Christ called him down from the tree to embrace him. That day Zaccheus came to know the life-changing experience of an anonymous poet:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found, was found of Thee.

Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation, Joel R. Beeke & William Boekestein, Reformation Heritage Books, 2013, pg. 62.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Eyes Wide Open

Taken from the archives of my former blog...

Christmas is tougher this year.

Not because there are fewer presents. There are still plenty.

Not because there are fewer decorations. The ones scattered among our home are the most meaningful.

Not because I didn't send Christmas cards. I stopped doing that years ago.

And not because the calendar is too full. Although, honestly, it's more full than I would like and I'm already committing that next year will be different.

Christmas is tougher because I've been reading about Katie's work in Uganda, watching Eric's video about our Depraved Indifference, thumbing through the Samaritan's Purse catalog, and thinking about all the Compassion children who need sponsors.  Feed the World comes on the radio, and I listen intently to the words -think of the children they're about - instead of trying to remember which popular singers took part in the Band Aid project.

I want to reach out to them.  Give until it hurts.  But my little drop in the bucket is just that. The truth is, no matter what I give, someone will still be hungry.  Someone will still be homeless. Someone will die from a curable disease or lack of clean water. Someone will still need Christ.

The need is overwhelming to me.  At times it crushes my chest so that I can barely breathe.  Tears well up and rain down my cheeks.  I don't understand.

Why them?

Why me?

Why do I get to sit on my sofa and look at these images through the veil of a laptop screen? 

Why do I get to put them out of sight and move on to the next thing? 

Why did you open my eyes to this hurt, Lord? 

And then I realize that, painful as it is, I do not want to go back. After the nativities are nestled safely in storage containers and the Christmas tree is boxed up for another year, I do not want to return to the world of comfortable oblivion. I want to keep walking toward my Savior, loving others as He instructs me to love them. To give from the ridiculous abundance I have been given.

The message of Christmas doesn't belong packed away with the decorations.  It must be lived out every day of the year.

Confession: I have failed at this miserably, but I press on toward the goal and praise God for His grace.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Baby Is a Harmless Thing

Adoration of the Shepherds,  Gerard van Honthorst
A baby is a harmless thing
And wins our hearts with one accord,
And Flower of Babies was their King,
Jesus Christ our Lord:
Lily of lilies He
Upon His Mother’s knee;
Rose of roses, soon to be
Crowned with thorns on leafless tree.
A lamb is innocent and mild
And merry on the soft green sod;
And Jesus Christ, the Undefiled,
Is the Lamb of God:
Only spotless He
Upon his Mother’s knee;
White and ruddy, soon to be
Sacrificed for you and me.
Nay, lamb is not so sweet a word,
Nor lily half so pure a name;
Another name our hearts hath stirred,
Kindling them to flame:
‘Jesus’ certainly
Is music and melody:
Heart with heart in harmony
Carol we and worship we.
—Christina Rossetti

Monday, December 9, 2013

Dorothy Sayers on the Incarnation

From the essay "The Greatest Drama Ever Staged":
Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as “a bad press.” We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—dull dogma as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama. [p. 1]

He [Jesus] was not a kind of demon pretending to be human; he was in every respect a genuine living man. He was not merely a man so good as to be “like God”—he was God.

Now, this is not just a pious commonplace; it is not a commonplace at all. For what it means is this, among other things: that for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he [God] had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile. [p. 2]

So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to the conditions he had laid down and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.

If this is dull, then what in Heaven’s name is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,” and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggested a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand.

He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But he had “a daily beauty in his life that made us ugly,” and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness. [pp. 4–5]

Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church, W Publishing Group, 2004.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Books as gifts

For Christmas one year my brother gave me a copy of John Piper's Don't Waste Your Life, a gift I greatly appreciated but I have to be honest, I couldn't help wonder if there was some sort of not-so-subtle message he was attempting to convey?

I kid.

Sort of.

I mean, I'm quite certain he did not think me wasting my life. Of course he didn't.

Anyway, I mention it because I love to give books as gifts. I actually don't give books as often as I'd like because, well, let's face it, some recipients are not the bibliophile I am and, if they are, I sometimes have a difficult time deciding what book to give. Maybe I'm not alone? Here's a few suggestions to jump start our book giving this year or perhaps to add to our own wish list.

For moms (and all women, really): Glimpses of Grace: Treasuring the Gospel in Your Home by Gloria Furman will encourage any woman no matter her stage of life or motherhood. Grace abounds even as we pursue the most ordinary of tasks.

For those wanting to get organized this new year: The Organized Heart: A Woman's Guide to Conquering Chaos by our own Staci Eastin. Actually, as I survey the chaos that surrounds me, I'm thinking I need to revisit this one myself. Does the gospel impact my lack of organization? You bet it does.

For the history buff: Hands down one of my favorite reads this year was Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. Utterly fascinating. Equally interesting: The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.

For the avid reader of literature: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior. Karen writes about a life of books with an English professor's passion. This memoir made me love the well-loved books of my childhood all the more.

Other book suggestions:

A devotional. I'm not very good at keeping up with a yearlong devotional but I really like those comprised of 30 or even 60 days' readings. Comforts from Romans: Celebrating the Gospel One Day at a Time and Comforts from the Cross: Celebrating the Gospel One Day at a Time, both by Elyse Fitzpatrick, are great.

Memoir. I highly recommend The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield. What an amazing testimony to the saving grace of a sovereign God! Rosaria's story will blow your mind. Holy Is the Day: Living in the Gift of the Present by Carolyn Weber is another spiritual memoir I liked very much. And, for an old title but one I also thoroughly enjoyed, All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot.

Fiction. It's tough to give a novel as a gift since preferences vary widely but in my opinion any fan of quality fiction would enjoy Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. So, so good. I cried at the end. Or, with the movie having recently released, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a good option (the writing! it's the writing!). 

The classics. Last year my son and his girlfriend gave me a copy of Pride and Prejudice, a book I've read hundreds of times and already own at least two copies. This particular edition from Anthropologie is hardback with deckle edges and an adorable book jacket. I love it. Similar editions of well loved classics are fantastic book gifts. 

A Bible. The Gospel Transformation Bible is on my wish list!

Can't decide? A gift certificate to Amazon or another bookstore is a thoughtful option!

What books do you like to give as gifts? Have you received a bookish gift that was particularly thoughtful? Let us know in the comments!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Why Christ Came - To Save Sinners

This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. 1 Timothy 1:15
For then must he have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. Hebrews 9:26

In Christ's first coming, He implemented a rescue plan conceived in the mind of God before the foundation of the world. He did not come to promote holiday cheer, boost end-of-year sales, or serve as the central figure in a nativity scene. He came to save sinners.

To save sinners, Christ had to put away what makes people sinners - namely, sin. At the dawn of man's history, sin, like an unwelcome virus, infected mankind early enough. But how could it be exterminated? God was already answering this question through the Old Testament sacrificial system. One of the main themes in the epistle to the Hebrews is the repetitious labors of the Old Testament priests. "And they truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue because of death" (Heb. 7:23) Morning and evening, priests placed burnt offerings for sin on an altar, the fire of which was never to go out (2 Chron. 13:11; Lev. 6:12).

Nonetheless, sins were not fully, extinguished through this system (Heb. 10:4). Old Testament sacrifices were merely a shadow, or copy of what was to come (Heb 9:23); thus, the priesthood of Aaron could have sacrificed burnt offerings for a million years without putting away a single sin. The writer of Hebrews says the seed of Adam needed a better priesthood to put away sins - a priesthood "after the order of Melchisedec" (Heb. 7:17; cf. Ps. 11-:4). Likewise, a better sacrifice offered in a better tabernacle was necessary. When a truly perfect sacrifice was offered in the tabernacle of heaven, sin would finally be put away…

Christ put away the sins of many first by carrying them to the cross, and then to the grave (Heb. 9:28). The sins of God's people were crucified and buried in Christ (Rom. 6:4-5). So fully has Christ purged the believer's sins that Hebrews 9:28 adds, "Unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation." How staggering is the thought that we can eagerly anticipate the return of the Savior who was wounded of our transgressions!

Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations of the Incarnation, Joel R. Beeke & William Boekestein, Reformation Heritage Books, 2013, pp. 5-6.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Purpose of the Incarnation

Once again it is time to turn our hearts toward the Incarnation, God become man. As we here at Out of the Ordinary examine our hearts to prepare Him room, we'll once again be blogging a little differently. While we step back from our usual fare, we pray that our offerings here will magnify His Name and help you celebrate the wonder of Christmas.

I do not know why it is, but we often lose a sense of purpose in telling the Christmas story. We focus so much on the birth of the baby and on the sentiment that goes with that story - and there is a certain amount of legitimate sentimentality that goes with it - that we miss the most important things. Actually, the story is treated quite simply in Scripture, and the emphasis is always on the fact that Jesus came to die. The Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, took a human body in order that He might die for our salvation...The Lord Jesus Christ came into this world with a purpose, and that purpose was to do God's will: to be our Savior. We miss the most important thing about Christmas if we fail to see that.
~James Montgomery Boice, The Christ of Christmas (19-20)