My daughter and I had to weave our way through an Easter carnival in the middle of the town square to get to Scoops. The festivities included a jumpy house, sand art, an outdoor viewing of Hop, and of course photos with the Easter Bunny. We made our way through toddlers and parents and into the ice cream parlor where we proceeded to order bowls of gooey peanut butter brownie and rich coffee toffee ice cream. As we sat down to a table to enjoy our cool, creamy treats the Easter Bunny entered the shop. I was primarily focused on my daughter, but couldn’t help being a little startled when the Easter Bunny took off her costume head, and there was the face of a normal looking mom with a white, furry, bunny body. Of course I knew she was in a suit, but all of a sudden she wasn’t at all what she seemed.
Later that night in our hotel room, we could hear the people in the room next to us. Clearly. Too clearly. They were reading someone’s text and complaining loudly about the person who sent it. My daughter and I wished they would pipe down, but I was also sad for the person who sent the text. Pretty sure they wouldn’t have wanted it to be read aloud (and who knew the audience would also include us?). I’m also certain they wouldn’t have wanted to be talked about like that. The receiver of the text went on to share how she’d responded, which was way different than what she was shouting through hotel room doors. She wasn’t being consistent. In the privacy of her hotel room, her mask came off, revealing a different side of her.
Unfortunately, we’re all like this sometimes. We tend to wear certain faces for certain people—to appear stronger, braver, smarter, more put together, like we can handle it, like we’re okay or cool (even if we’re not). We sometimes say one thing, but feel completely different about it. Sometimes we act differently when we’re alone, then when we’re out in public, or speak differently when we’re with one group compared to how we speak when we’re with another.
But Jesus? Jesus is exactly who He says He is. He is always the same. He wears no masks and speaks no lies. He is always honest, kind, King of Kings, Holy, powerful, wise, brave, our Rescuer, our Redeemer, the Creator, strong, true, and loving. Always.
As we’re midway through Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter), I’m reading about Jesus in those final days of His life on earth. When He rode into town on a donkey and people waved palm branches at Him, Jesus was all these things (Mark 11:7-10). On that day everyone recognized Him as king—powerful, wise, and holy. But Jesus knew He was riding into town to rescue everyone. He knew what was ahead, and He did it anyway, because He is consistently strong, true, brave, and loving.
When Jesus overturned the tables at the temple, yes, He was angry (Mark 11:15-17). But only because He loves God the Father and His people, and He saw that the people were making a mess of things. Just like a parent snatches matches out of the hands of a toddler, using a firm voice, Jesus removed the danger from His children. Because He loves them. Because in wisdom He knows better. Because He’s never afraid to stand up for what is right.
When the religious officials belittled and questioned Jesus (Matthew 26:62-64), Jesus initially bit His tongue. He is holy, the Creator of all and didn’t have to come up with a snide comment or answer questions He didn’t want to. As High King of Heaven, He has both the wisdom and the authority to remain silent if He chooses. And when Jesus decided to speak, He declared with full authority that He will be ‘seated in the place of power at God’s right hand.’
On the cross Jesus was still King of Kings, still loving us, still bravely there to rescue us, not because He had to, but because He wanted to (Luke 23:26-49). This is who our Lord is. Never changing. Always faithful. We never have to worry about Jesus taking off a mask, about being different than who He says He is. If Jesus tells us something this morning, or if He said it over 2000 years ago, we can know it is 100% true. Jesus won’t change His mind, or say something different when He’s hanging out with someone else. He’ll never turn on us or let us down.
Jesus? He is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. —Hebrews 13:8. He is honest, kind, King of Kings, Holy, powerful, wise, brave, our Rescuer, our Redeemer, the Creator, strong, true, and loving. Always. Let’s marinate ourselves in who our Savior is this Holy Week as we remember how He died on the cross to save us. Because He loves us and He wants us with Him always.
God loves us. But sometimes we forget. Sometimes we’re so caught up in the jumble of our lives that we won’t even allow Him to remind us. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Will you let God and the people He put in your life love you?
The other day one of my kids woke with a massive headache. They had an important presentation at school ahead of them. They felt awful and were unsure of how they could navigate the presentation through their pain, but they had to go. They needed to be there. I laid out a grab-and-go breakfast, knowing not eating amplifies headaches. I found Advil and Tylenol to tackle the headache from both sides. I placed the capsules in the hand of my sweet child. But they were hurting and stressed, which made it difficult to focus on the help in front of them. They felt frozen by pain and worry, unable to put the medicine or breakfast in their mouth. I only share this, because I saw so much of my own frequent shutdowns and refusal to accept God's help in their struggle.
I unfortunately do this all the time.
“Need any help?” my husband asks as I hustle around the kitchen trying to get dinner on the table before someone needs to sprint out the door for practice or rehearsal.
“No!” I snarl. Which is not the kindest way to respond to someone offering assistance. But I’m in a mode, and a mood. And I fear if I slow down to even explain to Brett what needs to be done, I won’t complete my task in time. So instead of trusting and accepting the love God offers via my husband, I continue in a snit. I miss out on a chance to realize the beauty in the fact that God is tender enough to notice me making dinner and to offer me free kitchen staff.
I’ll get edits on something I’ve written, and stubbornly think, nah, it makes perfect sense how I wrote it. Which is clearly not true, or the person editing wouldn’t have questioned what I was trying to say. God gives me wisdom via a colleague to improve the work I do for Him. Why do I ever resist accepting these insightful suggestions?
Someone-who-hurt-me’s name comes up in conversation, and all I want to do is make a snide remark. But I hear God whisper, Let it go. Speaking negative things makes you hang onto bitterness, which only ends up hurting you. It also sets a bad example for those around you. My Good, Good Father is trying to protect me from inflicting pain on myself. Yet, I want to say the snarky thing, so I say it anyway. And then get a pit in my stomach.
Can you relate?
I knew within fifteen minutes of ingesting the acetaminophen and ibuprofen my child’s pain would be minimized. I also knew the longer they worried, the less time they’d have to get ready for school. This would make them more stressed. And the whole thing would continue to spiral. Easier to see when it’s happening to someone else. But I couldn’t shove medicine down their throat. And I couldn’t force feed them breakfast or dress them. I love my child and had tools to help—medicine, food, and a plan. They couldn’t accept any of it. They ended up darting out the door hungry and in a frazzled mess.
Ugh. How many times do we do this with the help God offers? Shake our heads, wallow in our pain, and refuse to accept the gift of love He’s basically placed in our palms. We don’t mean to. My kiddo didn’t mean to. They wanted to feel better, but they were overwhelmed. By all of it. I want to feel better, too—less stressed, better at my trade, and less bitter. But when we get overwhelmed, we tend to shut down. And in shutting our hands, we make it nearly impossible to receive God’s gifts.
Jesus came down to earth to love us. He died on the cross to love us. He sent the Holy Spirit to live inside us to—you guessed it—love us. That’s a lot of love. So why are we resisting it?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. —Romans 8:37-39 NIV
Tomorrow is a day dedicated to expressing love. I hope your day is full of those yummy-red-chewy-cherry hearts, rich Dove chocolates, laughter with the people dear to you, and warm, comforting hugs. But no matter if it is or is not, I know that you are loved by your Creator, by the Creator of all the things, by the King of kings. There’s not a single way you can mess up that will make Jesus love you less. There’s not a single thing you need to do to make Jesus love you more. He loves you fully and completely. Right now. As is.
He offers grace and joy and forgiveness and hope. Will you receive it? Open your hands. Open your heart. And let His unending glorious love flood in.
Our Ohio snow is spectacularly beautiful. All gleaming white and sparkling crystals. We’ve explored the woods, gone sledding, tromped around in boots, and built cozy fires. Sunday morning, we woke to more snow, and if we were going to get to church, we were going to have to shovel. My sweet husband, who has done 90% of the shoveling, started bundling up. This time I grabbed my Oros, hat, and gloves, to join him. He didn’t ask me to. I just wanted to. Together we inhaled the crisp (9 degree) air, and shoveled the driveway. It took less than a half an hour as a team. And even though we didn’t talk much, there was something in the morning stillness, solidarity in the scrape of each other’s shovels, which was sweet and peaceful. We were in this together, and shoveling together is as much a part of our marriage as the romantic Italian dinner we went to on Friday night.
In a recent conversation with a friend the question came up: What’s the difference between saying, “I’m a Christian,” and having a “relationship” with God.
The question reminded me of my marriage, of deciding to go out and shovel. Stay with me here, they are related. It’s like asking, what’s the difference between saying, “I’m married” and “being in a relationship” with my husband? Aren’t they the same thing? Doesn’t saying “we’re Christians” mean we’re with God, part of His family. Of course. And not completely.
No matter if you’re married or single you’ve seen two people (at least in a movie) stand in front of a minister, rabbi, or some authorized person and say, “I do.” They exchange rings and sign a paper. Voila! They are officially married. The couple gets all the privileges that come with “being married”—a roommate, a date for the big events, and someone to sit next to at family gatherings. Legally, there are additional things a marriage offers that other relationships don’t. You can change your status not just on Facebook, but also on job and loan applications. If you marry someone who has better health insurance, hooray, now you get the benefits of their insurance. If you marry someone with a nicer home, you’ll probably choose to move into the better space, and bingo, you’ve upgraded your standard of living. In most states, if your spouse dies, you legally inherit their assets. All of these things come simply with the marriage status. It doesn’t require any investment in the relationship whatsoever.
It’s the same by saying, “I’m a Christian.” If you truly believe Jesus Christ died on a cross to take away your sins, and that because of His action, you will go to heaven, then you will. It’s like saying, “I do.” Ta da. You’re a Christian. You don’t have to go to church. You don’t have to read the Bible. You don’t have to belong to a small group or a Bible study. You’re in. It’s official. You get to go to heaven and live forever and ever in a place so incredible our human minds aren’t even capable of describing or predicting what it will be like—talk about a lifestyle upgrade. You get this major perk, just like the married folks get the ring, the house, and the insurance. If you’ve ever watched a sporting event you’ve seen John 3:16 on a sign, or shirt, or painted on someone’s face. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Eternal life. Sounds like a pretty good gig. And it is. But is that all we really want? Because Jesus offers so much more.
Let’s say you’re married and you and your spouse decide to cohabitate—be married solely for the status advantages. You decide to live your own lives, be responsible only for yourselves, go wherever you want whenever you want, even date other people, but cling to the “benefits” of marriage. Legally you can do that. You can never speak to each other, not share your hopes and dreams, not spend time with one another, not trust one another, and still get the health insurance. You can show up all decked out and nod and smile for the office parties and pictures, but skip all of the Italian dinners dipping your fork into your spouse’s risotto and clinking glasses toasting something silly that happened that week. If you skip the dinner, you’ll miss that moment in the relaxed atmosphere of the restaurant when the idea you’ve been chewing on all day, but hadn’t yet been able to articulate, spills out, and together you navigate how to handle it.
You can also shovel by yourself.
You’ll miss out on all the richness of marriage. You’ll miss out on having your best friend also be your love interest. You’ll miss out on late night laugh attacks and someone to hold you when your heart hurts, and the one person in the room who truly understands you with a single glance. You’ll miss out on a completely unexpected and unprompted romantic kiss on a Monday morning before you head out to work, a walk on a Thursday evening around the neighborhood while the sun is setting, someone who will listen to the crazy rant going on in your head, someone to grab your hand when you hear the news, and someone to morph shoveling the driveway from a chore into a peaceful way to start your day. Sure, you’ll get the house, their new iPhone, and the life insurance when they die. But you’ll miss all the joys and depth of love in the every day moments.
It’s the same with Jesus. You can choose to say, “Wow, Jesus, what you did is cool. Thanks for dying for me. That was super nice. See you in heaven.” And then decide to cohabitate with Him, but not talking to Jesus about all the things on your heart—the dream you’re considering chasing, the decision someone you love is about to make, the safety of friends in a city where there’s a wildfire, how exhausted you are from your current work situation, the excitement of your upcoming audition. But then you miss out on the richness of the relationship, of knowing how much Jesus loves you. If we don’t talk to Him, don’t read His Word, when we’re at the end of our ropes how can He tell us, “I’m with you, always even to the end of the world.” If we don’t ask Him for advice, how can He guide us along the right paths? If we don’t hang out with Him, we’ll never experience the peace He’ll give us in the middle of a family argument, the love He’ll flood over us in the hospital room, the exuberant joy He’ll magnify when we get the acceptance letter or contract, the warmth of His hand on our shoulder as our nephews or kiddos take their first steps or walk down the aisle. There are no requirements. We will be saved. We’ll get the inheritance when we die. But we’ll miss the hope, joy, and love He offers every single day.
So, yes, there is a difference between saying we believe in God and being in a relationship with Him. And the beautiful, crazy thing is He lets us choose, which way we want to go. There’s no pressure. Jesus loves hanging out with us, but He wants that to be our choice. Just like we really hope our spouse or close friends want to spend time with us. We can start today, right now, simply by telling Jesus, “Good morning.” Sharing with Him what we’re hoping to get done today, what we’re worried about might happen, what’s on our minds, how we feel. It’s that easy. It’s like picking up a shovel and taking one scoop of snow.
How was your Christmas?
Did you see the people you wanted to see?
Did you get that thing you most wanted under the tree?
Partake in your usual traditions—view the light show? Watch The Nutcracker? Attend the concert? Give the silliest present in the gift exchange?
Or are you feeling unsatisfied?
Maybe you’re full of sugar cookies topped with creamy frosting and sweet sprinkles, and memories and hugs, but now it’s over. Now what?
Or maybe it was amazing, but you’re tired. And you have a house to clean, a fridge to restock, a shopping bag full of returns and exchanges to make, plus thank you notes to write.
Or maybe Christmas at your house is hard, because of that one family member, yikes, or bitterness or jealousy or past regrets or painful memories or the unexpected tragedy and you really want to move on.
I am a Christmas fanatic. I love all of it—the songs (I’ve been listening since November 1), the baking, the decorating, the crisp scent of pine, the sharp taste of peppermint, the warm glow of candles, the Christmas movies that make me laugh (Home Alone) and cry (It’s a Wonderful Life). Yes, I adore Christmas—every millisecond of it, but I ate too much. And stayed up later than my body likes to. And I love my family so fully I might burst, but this introvert girl needs a little alone time. And sure, there are moments over the holidays that are a struggle—when family members bicker, when someone’s feelings are hurt, when a gift goes awry, or the memory of someone no longer with you leaves an ache in your heart. But Christmas isn’t something we’re supposed to rate with a five star system like the last book we read (Faith and Doubt by John Ortberg ****) or movie we watched (Incredibles 2 also ****). Christmas is something that happened one time, one night over 2000 years ago that changed the world, changed everything, changed me, and if you know Jesus changed you, too, forever.
We celebrate this phenomenal event every year despite our budgets or states of mind. It’s such a huge deal we get together with all of our favorite people and decorate evergreens—because they symbolize the everlasting life Jesus gives us, exchange gifts—because He is the greatest gift we’ll ever receive, and drink eggnog—because I have no idea why. Important things should be celebrated, remembered, reflected upon. But this important event wasn’t a one and done—like your last birthday, anniversary, or semester. Jesus was born as a baby (okay, that part only happened once), but He did it to shower His love on us for always.
Jesus loved the world. That’s what He did. That’s who He is—love. And this all-powerful King, Lord of Lords who personifies love, loves you.
When you’re questioning yourself—asking did your brother even like his present, was the turkey a little dry, what did Uncle Lester even mean by his comment, could I have changed that, or fixed that, or saved them? Remember that Jesus loves you, then as the carol, “Old Holy Night,” describes your soul will remember its worth. It’s not about the outcomes. Jesus’ love—that’s what Christmas is all about.
Peter, who hung out with Jesus nonstop during the three years Jesus preached, healed, and taught on earth says it this way:
But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people. —1 Peter 2:9-10
Chosen. Us? For high callings? To be holy people? Dang. It’s hard to feel anything but grateful and honored in the midst of these positions we’ve been appointed to.
You’re named and kept for good by the Shepherd of your souls. —1 Peter 2:35
When we feel helpless, or like no one notices us or appreciates us or understands us, we can remember that Jesus named us. He named us His prized possessions. He’s keeping us for good things. Jesus is our shepherd, the one who feeds, cares for, provides, and protects our very souls.
So, I don’t know how Christmas impacted you for the good or bad. Maybe you still have two more rounds of unruly relatives to “celebrate” with. But no matter how many stars you’d give this Christmas, it’s important to realize all of the festivities were created solely as a way to remember THE first Christmas and all the love Jesus brought for us then, for always. When we sink into the truth that He loves us, that He names us and chooses us, then our souls truly know their worth.
We no longer evaluate ourselves on how the appetizers turned out or how the presents were wrapped. We no longer let those painful memories or snide comments hijack what Christmas means. We no longer feel the need to prove ourselves. Because Jesus chose to come down to earth. Chose to live among us. Chose to die for me and for you, because He chose to love us.
Whoever did want him,
who believed he was who he claimed
and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
their child-of-God selves. John 1:11 MSG
All we have to do is chose Him. And then Jesus will show us who we truly are, allow us to glimpse our value, our worth, fashion us into our true selves, our child-of-God selves. So, as you reflect on Christmas, reflect on that truth. That God wants to be with you, loves you. Not just on Christmas, but every day. And that is something that truly deserves to be celebrated!
Our family watched Jumanji the other night—the latest one with the Rock. The premise for the film is four high school students from different cliques all end up with detention together—think The Breakfast Club with a much nicer principal than Mr. Vernon.
During their Saturday morning punishment the four teens learn to appreciate one another for their true selves and discover greater understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses after being sucked into a video game. Each of the four students becomes a character in the game equipped with special super powers such as “dance fighting” and weaknesses—ranging from snake venom to mosquitos.
After watching I asked my kids, “What’s your super power?” Some of them listed their talents—soccer, acting, music, etc. Some named things that sounded plain fun, like invisibility. When we chatted about our weaknesses we came up with snakes, mice, splinters, and not enough sleep.
We all have weaknesses—things that stop us in our tracks that might not bother anyone else. This could be an issue with our physical or mental health, an event in our personal history that left a permanent scar, a person who brings out the worst in us, an addiction or fear. Or maybe like one of the Jumanji characters admitted, “I explode when I eat cake.” We don’t like to talk about our real weaknesses, but we know what they are.
And our super powers? As Christians we have the mightiest powers of all up our sleeves. Like prayer. We get to talk one on one with the Lord God Almighty. Who gets to do that? Us, that’s who! I mean we don’t need an invitation, or permission, or a special V.I.P. pass. We don’t need to know the right people, have the right credentials, or go through a security scan. We just get to talk to Him about anything and everything.
Not only do we get to talk to God, but we get to tap into His strength. What? Think of a strong force that literally wipes things out—hurricanes, earthquakes, avalanches—God makes those things. And we get to tap into that power. He’s on our side. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us. –Ephesians 3:20
And how about this one? You probably won’t see it in any Xbox games, because it’s intangible, but this super power makes all the difference in the most trying situations—hope. Hope for a future. Hope for redemption. Hope because after Jesus was buried in a tomb, on the third day He sprang back to life claiming victory over the grave forever more. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. —Romans 15:13
As Christians we have a slew of super powers, but the most powerful of all is love. The apostle Paul explains this in a letter to the early church in Corinth, These three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love. Love never fails. --1 Corinthians 13:13-14:1. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, take it from Dumbledore near the end of The Sorcerer’s Stone. He explains to Harry how the powerful, evil Voldemort couldn’t even touch young Harry, “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.” If that’s the protection a fictitious boy wizard has from someone who died for him, think how much more protection we have from a Savior who died for us. A Savior who still lives! Love. We are loved by the God who created everything. He designed us. He wants to be with us. He didn’t want to be separated from us, so He paid the ultimate price for us. And as a result we will live forever under His protection. It is in our very skin.
There are days that are rough. When we get a phone call from that person—the one who has a knack for making us feel small and incapable. Or waking up with a migraine, feeling like we’ll throw up, and a handful of Advil and hours later instead of getting better, it has gotten so much worse it’s almost paralyzing. The times we argue with someone we love, leaving both people depleted. The NO we receive when all we wanted to hear was YES. The days the thing we’ve been hoping to fix still appears broken. Jesus knows there will be seasons of pain and struggling in our lives. He warns, “In the world there will be tribulation.” But with the line up of super powers Jesus leaves us—prayer, God’s power, hope, and love, I feel like I can face anything. You can, too. Take it face on. Because the rest of Jesus’ sentence was, “But be of good cheer. For I have overcome the world.” —John 16:33.
Today you may or may not feel like a superhero. You may feel like the cute high school girl in Jumanji suddenly smashed into Jack Black’s body being gobbled up by hippos. Like you don’t fit. Like you’re not supposed to be here. Like you just want to escape this situation. But even when we’re out of breath, confused, angry, or frightened these powers are ours—immediately accessible, right this very moment. Talk to Jesus. Tap into His strength. Rest in the hope He offers. And collapse into His love. No matter how tough a challenge this level is, no matter how nasty the bad guys, no matter how much energy you do or don’t have left, He has overcome the world.
Laura L. Smith