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What God Wants For Christmas
by Juli Slattery True confession: the Christmas season overwhelms me. It’s not the busyness, the music, or the parties, but the gift-giving that stresses me out. Gifts are not my love language, so I never know how to answer my husband when he asks what I’d like for Christmas. What makes the season most stressful is choosing gifts for others. I rarely feel like I picked out the perfect gift. If I knew something that would delight a friend or loved one, I’d buy it in a heartbeat, but I usually feel like I’m guessing in the dark.                                                                                                                         Have you ever felt that way with God? What can you possibly give the One who is the giver of all things? While He doesn’t need anything from us, there are ways that we can bless and delight the Lord—at Christmas and throughout the year. God has a very short wish list. At the very top of it is His consistent request that we love the people around us.  "Love each other as I have loved you" (John 15:12 NIV). "Let love and faithfulness never leave you" (Proverbs 3:3 NIV). "Be devoted to one another in love" (Romans 12:10 NIV). "Love your neighbor as you love yourself" (Mark 12:31 NIV). There is nothing our world lacks more than love. We sing about it and watch movies that encourage us to have a giving spirit at Christmas, but we seem to become less loving with each passing day. You might be nodding your head in agreement, but we can’t criticize the world’s lack of love without first looking at our own lives.  Am I a person known by my love? What would it look like for me to give God a gift of love for others?  As I’ve pondered these questions, I’ve realized that not all commands to love are the same. In fact, the Lord tells us to love three different groups of people in three different ways.  Be unified with fellow believers. The greatest challenge for a Christ-follower is how we love fellow Christians. On His last night on earth, Jesus gave a final charge to His disciples and then He prayed. He prayed not only for those in the room but also for those who would someday believe in Him. The theme of His prayer was unity, “... that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you (John 17:21 NIV).” Jesus’ disciples would be first and foremost known by how they loved each other.  The world’s spirit creates division, pride, unforgiveness, gossip, hypocrisy, and jealousy. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit can God’s children love each other well. As we grow in Christ, genuine Christians should become the most loving people on the planet. This matters deeply to God—more than our worship, tithing, and sacrifice. (See Mark 12:33.) Think about the Christians you know, both in your inner circle and within the broader church. How are we doing in love? From my vantage point, we are breaking God’s heart with our lack of love for one another. Churches snub each other. Authors and podcasters aim to slander leaders with whom they disagree. Friendships break apart because of arguments about masks, vaccines, and other political views. If the litmus test of our faith is love, we are failing miserably.  What can you do to give a gift of love?  Think of a Christian friend or family member with whom you have a deep disagreement. Perhaps your relationship has been broken by a misunderstanding or past unkind exchange. Now apply these verses from Colossians 3: Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (NIV) Write a note, meet for coffee, and see your brother or sister through this grid of love.  Selflessly love your neighbor. A few months ago, it dawned on me that the kind of love God calls me to have for my neighbor is different from the love I’m meant to show to my Christian brothers and sisters. God does not want me to be unified or in perfect agreement with people who don’t follow Him. The goal of interacting with the larger world around me is not to find common ground. As a Christ-follower, I should think, believe, and act differently.  Yet, God still calls me to love. This love isn’t a pursuit of unity, but an attitude of a servant. How can I bless the couple that lives down the street? How can I meet the needs of the poor and lonely in my city? How can I live as a good citizen, obeying the laws and working toward the common good?  You may deeply disagree with a friend or neighbor who doesn’t know the Lord. That’s OK. Your job is not to change their mind. Your call is to be a gracious and kind person that represents the hope and love of Christ Jesus.  What can you do to give a gift of love?  Find someone in need and bless them. It may be a physical need for food or clothing met through a local charity or it may be the need for companionship and comfort.  Courageously love your enemy. The crowd once asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” They never asked him, “Who is my enemy?” I think they instinctively knew the answer to that question! Do you have an enemy? Perhaps a name or face just came to your mind, someone who opposes you, slanders you, or has taken something precious from you. Or maybe your enemy is a group of people—those you perceive as tearing down the Church or society. Maybe your enemy is someone within your own household. You try to love and they respond with hate.  Jesus said that even a pagan can love those who are kind toward them. The true test of belonging to the Father is how we treat those who are cruel to us.  Loving your enemy does not mean seeking unity or reconciliation with them. In fact, you should wisely set boundaries with someone who is trying to harm you. Love means trusting God to be the one who judges the heart and repays evil. Instead of responding with anger and revenge, determine to pray for and bless people who don’t deserve it. Imagine how different our world would be if every Christian followed this advice! What can you do to give a gift of love?  Think of a person or people you view as an enemy. Resolve to pray for them every day for the next two weeks. Ask the Lord to show you how to forgive and trust Him with judgment. Find one way to bless them—a text, a gift, a word of kindness.  God, indeed, has a wish list this Christmas season. He longs for His people to reflect His love to a broken, hateful, divided, and hurting world. Over the next few weeks, you are likely to see manger scenes and figures of wise men bringing gifts to Jesus. Let these images prompt you to bring to your Savior a gift of love.    If you'd like to learn more about loving others well, here are two blogs and a Java with Juli episode for you: How to Have Tough Conversations (Juli's blog) How We Love Each Other. (Juli's blog) Java with Juli, #375:Juli & Jackie on How to Pursue Unity While Standing on Truth   Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash
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3 Reasons I Can Run To God With My Sexual Brokenness
My guest on the blog this week is Julia Mitchell. Julia is an intern with Authentic Intimacy. She loves Jesus, living and teaching English in Southeast Asia, and rescuing stray cats.   This question is where it all begins for me: Can I really trust God with everything, including my sexuality? (Presione aquí para leer en español)  I still picture myself in my room that night, tossing and turning, overwhelmed by the anguish in my soul. Gripping the covers tightly, I spoke into the darkness, divulging my deep, dark secret to God. Tears rolled down my cheeks as the words escaped, timidly yet bravely. The agony of my soul bubbled over and spilled out.  But there it was, brought into the light, given voice, no longer hidden. Wrestling over my sexuality had sent me packing from my childhood faith.  And now it was the thing that left me once again so desperate for God.  In that moment, I ached to know I was still loved and embraced. I remember later recounting this experience to a father-figure in my life. He smiled and said gently, “Do you think God was surprised?” I smiled too, knowing the answer was of course not. Psalm 139 says “You are intimately acquainted with all my ways” (AMP). God knows the deepest secrets of my heart and does not turn away.  Something happened that night as I took off the mask, admitting what God already knew. It was the beginning of a deep internal transformation. A few years ago, I would have been terrified to say such things to God, but now it brings me great comfort and has led to a deeper and more intimate relationship with Him as I’ve begun to grasp the power of these three life-changing truths from Scripture: The Father embraces me. Jesus empathizes with me. The Spirit empowers me. The Father Embraces Me Whenever I think of God embracing me as a Father, my mind goes to Luke 15. “When he was still a long way off,” the text says. This means the Father was vigilant, watching and waiting, longing for His son’s return. The son who had squandered everything. The son who’d basically wished his Father dead. The son who had rejected His Father’s love and home, and went in search of worldly pleasures to fill his hungry soul. This is the son the Father is craning His neck for, hoping to catch a glimpse of coming down that road. Have you ever felt like the son in this story? Does the memory of your past choices fill you with a burning shame? Maybe, like me, you ran away because you felt you were too unworthy to live in the Father’s house anymore. Or maybe, like the son, we believe true pleasure and satisfaction is not found in the Father. And yet, the moment we turn back, miserable and in pain, the heart of God is moved to compassion. He runs to us, and wraps us in an emotional embrace. I think this story can be so familiar that we skip over the intensity of emotion that Jesus ascribes to the Father as He tells this story. Let’s look at how the moment of reunion is depicted in Luke 15:20: But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him (ESV). His father...ran and embraced him and kissed him [fervently] (AMPC). His Father...ran and fell on his neck and kissed him (NKJV). Do you sense the intensity and depth of the Father’s love for His son? I don’t know about you, but this is not the image that comes to my mind when I’ve sinned. Whispers of “you’re not worthy now,” “you will never be clean,” and “you are not beloved after what you’ve done” fill my mind causing me to completely miss the lavishly loving heart of God who says with great joy upon my return: “This beloved of mine was lost and has been found!” Jesus Empathizes With Me During my prodigal years, a few things kept drawing me back to Christianity. The most compelling was this: Jesus, fully God, voluntarily embracing this human life. Choosing to deny my fleshly desires is tiring at best, and on the really dark days, it threatens to crush my soul. In these moments, I keep coming back to the humanity, the humanness of my Savior. On a particularly hard day a few weeks ago, as I wept again with God, feeling ashamed and unworthy to be His child, the words of Hebrews 4 came into my heart. Phrases from verse 15 started jumping out at me: He sympathizes with us in our frailty. He understands humanity. He was tempted in every way, yet without sin. I find such deep comfort knowing that Jesus, though fully God, stepped down into the miry existence of humanity, walked the dusty roads and knows firsthand the pain of heartache and loss. Then, because Jesus took on flesh and blood as we did, living sinlessly in spite of temptations and struggles, He paved the way to the throne of grace. Because of this, what is my blood-bought right as a child of God? The answer is found in the next verse: Let us then fearlessly and confidently and boldly draw near to the throne of grace (the throne of God's unmerited favor to us sinners), that we may receive mercy [for our failures] and find grace to help in good time for every need [appropriate help and well-timed help, coming just when we need it] Hebrews 4:16 (AMPC). How do you picture yourself approaching the throne of grace?  If I’m honest, I usually envision myself shuffling in, clothes tattered, eyes cast downward in shame, hoping the door won’t be slammed in my face. But just as the Father raced to His son, our Savior Jesus walked the halls to the throne on our behalf and threw the double doors wide open, giving access to the place where mercy’s kiss awaits. He does not turn away. Instead, He puts his arm around my shoulder and says, “I know, I know.” The Spirit Empowers Me Living in our culture often feels like a continual, upstream swim and, let’s be honest, sometimes we just get tired of resisting the flesh (or am I the only one?!). This is one reason why I’m so very grateful for the raw honesty of God’s word. Paul often feels like a superhuman Christian to me, and then I remember this “superhero” of the faith penned these words in Romans 7:  “What I want to do, I do not do; and what I hate, that I do. What a wretched man I am!” This verse reveals the reality of our internal struggle with the flesh, so why do we still feel surprised when it happens?  Paul didn’t stop there though.  On the heels of this confession, comes Romans 8, an oft-quoted, well-loved chapter packed full of home-run truths. Remember that cowering child, afraid to approach the throne? I realized that is the same posture I often take when fighting the lies of the enemy or the urgings of my flesh. I just sit there and take it, acting as if I have no choice. But Paul reminds us in Romans 8 that as the beloved children of God we are full of the Holy Spirit. My new identity proclaims that I am no longer obligated to give audience to the voices of sin and the flesh. I have no obligation to do what my sinful nature tells me to do.  The Holy Spirit gives me the power to say, “No”. Okay, this might sound a bit out there, but when is the last time you said, “No” to your flesh? Out loud. Like, really loud. Satan is a bully set on destroying us. I was an early childhood teacher for six years, and we taught our students three things when someone starts bullying-type behavior.  Say “NO!” with a hand up and say it loud Walk away Find a teacher I wonder what would happen if we start responding to Satan’s barrage of lies this way, as empowered children of God. We are privileged and protected, and we have the authority in Jesus’ name to declare with power, “I am not obligated to say yes to you anymore. This lie or temptation is not my identity any longer.” We can then walk away, straight to our Advocate, our Counselor, and tell Him all about it.  The more I get to know and trust the heart of God, the more I’m learning to practice this, moment by moment, day by day. I still falter and forget my true identity.  But each time, without fail, the embrace of my Father awaits, and the empathy of Jesus comforts my heart, reminding me that I am an empowered child of God. And so are you.  Our God says, “Come, I am safe for all your secrets and struggles.” So I come, and lay my weary head on His neck and rest secure, knowing that I really can trust my God with everything, including my sexuality.   Want to learn more about how God cares about your sexuality? 3 Things to Remember About Sexual Sin & Grace (Joy's blog) What Do I Do With My Sexual Desires? (Juli's blog) What's the Purpose of Your Sexuality, Really? (Juli's blog) I'm Single and Have No Sexual Desire (Juli's blog)   Photo by Yuvraj Singh on Unsplash
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2 Reasons You’re Hesitant to Talk to Your Kids About Sex (But Shouldn’t Be)
My guest on the blog is Amy Davison, co-author of  Mama Bear Apologetics Guide to Sexuality.* (Check out our online book study!) She's going to clear up two obstacles that keep parents from teaching their kids a biblical worldview of sexuality.   Discipleship is not a word you hear that often outside of the occasional sermon series on the Apostles. In fact, I’m willing to bet an overpriced latte that you’ve never heard your church use it to refer to how we should shepherd our children’s understanding of biblical sexuality. But parents, there is no better way! There’s just a slight problem: the word discipleship is nowhere to be found in the Bible. No really, flip to the index and check, I’ll wait... See what I mean? Parents often shy away from discipleship because of their aversion to the heavy-handed ways they may have learned about God and sex. It is critical to understand how sexually discipling your kids is different. To do that, we have to address two big elephants in the room when it comes to teaching a biblical sexual ethic. Repeat after me: I am not indoctrinating my kids. If you want to stir up the hornet’s nest of social media, tweet about how you’re raising your kids to understand the Christian worldview. It won’t take long before the progressive police shriek, “Indoctrination!” and accuse you of being a Christian Castro in yoga pants. They’re totally wrong of course. (Obviously Castro could never pull off lululemon; and I doubt he ever hid in a closet to eat the last brownie while toddlers clawed like zombies at the door.) They’re panicking because at one point, instead of being taught how to discern good ideas from bad, some parents opted for indoctrination instead.  Indoctrination is when people are manipulated into accepting an idea without being allowed to think critically about whether or not it’s actually true. You just accept it as such.  Think of this like an assembly line of Talking Tina dolls. Each doll rolls across the assembly line and has a voice box with a set recording of a few different phrases sewn into her body. Press her hand and, like magic, Tina says exactly what she was programmed to say, no thinking required.  For some parents, this is the epitome of religious upbringing. Raising kids to ask questions about Christianity was akin to putting them on the short bus to hell, and nobody wants to ride that bus! In the dozens of books Hillary and I have read on Christians who renounced their faith or the traditional understanding of Scripture, nearly all were raised in an indoctrination-style household. There was no discipling; just an implicit understanding that if you lived in this house, you believe what we say, no questions asked.  That isn’t the kind of household anyone wants to grow up in, and it certainly isn’t biblical. Scripture admonishes us to test everything because we are at war with false philosophies (1 Thessalonians 5:21, Colossians 2:8). This is why we are given spiritual armor to use in battle daily—not to be hung above the fireplace as a decoration (Ephesians 6:10-18). Kids are supposed to reason about what Scripture tells them because knowing God intimately with our minds (Hebrew yada) is an act of love and worship (Isaiah 1:18, 1 Peter 3:15, Matthew 22:37). If our home isn’t a safe place for autonomy, discussion, doubts, research and growth, then the Twitter haters have a right to be mad: we’re indoctrinating our kids. We have to take extra care as parents to nurture the faith of our children as an evangelist and not as a stand-in for the Holy Spirit. Trust me, we can’t fill that role.  A Bad Case of “the Fundies” The second challenge often raised against discipleship is one we’re probably all familiar with: fundamentalism. Fundamentalism grew as a sort of justice league of evangelicals to combat liberal challenges against the supernatural and the “…historicity and truth of Christian doctrine.” Dozens of church leaders from across denominational lines united around upholding and contending for the fundamentals of the faith like the virgin birth, Christ’s divinity and resurrection, creation, and the inerrancy of the original manuscripts.  Things were going well when, around the mid 1920s, some within the fundamentalist camp wanted to kick things up a notch…or ten. If you’ve ever seen the movie "The Waterboy," starring Adam Sandler, you’ll no doubt remember how his mother thought everything was of the devil. This hilarious bit of comedy was a modern poke at the fundamentalist’s view that things like dancing, playing cards, fooz-ball (football), and spicy food was going to damn your soul to hell. To protect the Church meant that the movement had to get militant, and boy did they ever! They combined a strict literal understanding of Scripture with their own standard for how people should act (aka legalism) and would gleefully boil anyone in the proverbial pot of self-righteousness if they happened to deviate from it. Fundies' kids didn’t have it any easier than their indoctrinated playmates. If you grew up under this influence, sex was what separated the good boys and girls from the bad. It was a trap waiting to snare sweet and innocent Christians. If you were a girl, you might have even been told your body was that trap. So you better put on another sweater or your future spouse will be passed off to someone more worthy. The problem with fundamentalism is that it uses the premarital bed (or the back of your boyfriend's Nissan) as the gateway to the cross. Sure kids may have made it down the aisle with their purity rings still shining, but the anxiety that followed them made faithfulness feel worse than if they had actually sinned. As a result, many went on their honeymoons and left the church behind them for good.  Worth the Fight Joe Lewis once said that everyone has a plan until they get hit, and the church is no different. They tried to have a plan, but between hyper-fundamentalism, the fall-out of purity culture, and the at times graceless response to LGBTQ issues, the church has taken more than its share of hits. As Dr. Juli Slattery points out, the problem isn't that the spiritual battle defending biblical sexuality isn’t worth having, it’s that the church doesn’t know how to fight.(1) And the fall-out isn’t pretty. Pew Research Journal conducted a survey on views regarding sexuality and found that 57% of Christians believed premarital sex in a committed relationship was fine, while 50% said that hookups (sleeping with someone you aren’t committed to) was no biggie!(2) According to one study, upwards of 80% of unmarried evangelicals between 18-29 have had sex(3) while 54% of Christians think homosexuality should be accepted rather than discouraged by the church. We parents aren’t doing much better. Many of us grew up in a “don’t ask-don’t tell”(4) household when it came to discussing sex, and we’ve happily carried on the tradition with our kids. For some of us, the silence is rooted in fear. We’re afraid that if we talk about sex then our kids will want sex. What teen wouldn’t want to after hearing about how good it can feel? And boobs are involved too?! Nope. It’s best to keep that little subject out of sight and out of mind. Perhaps you are only now shaking off the weight of toxic sexual messages that were piled upon your teenage shoulders. The last thing you want is for your children to feel the same guilt and shame you did. For others, we just don’t know what to say. Heck, we don’t even understand how the biblical sexual worldview is a critical aspect in our own walk with Jesus, let alone how to explain it to our kids.(5) Instead, we rely on middle school health class, your kid’s friends, and snap-tok apps to do the leg-work for us.        Church, can we come together for a moment and acknowledge a hard truth? This isn’t working. Not because there’s something wrong with God’s design; it's how we’re teaching it (or not teaching it) that’s the problem. When we speak God’s word without grace we don’t only sound like a clanging gong, we club a few people with it in the process. When we don’t address sin, we lose our saltiness and the Gospel loses its power. We need both grace and truth to effectively reach the wounded. We have to talk about sexuality because too many are being led astray by false teachers.(6)     Mamas and Papas, we have to do our part too. Our kids want us to talk to them about sex. No really, they do. When the Power to Decide campaign surveyed thousands of students, do you know who teens aged 12-15 overwhelmingly said had the most influence on their sexual decisions? Parents. Do you know who also won the influence race with teens aged 16-19? Parents.(7) Don’t let their perpetual AirPods use or eye rolls fool you; our kids are listening. Let’s get some learning. Let’s start talking.   Want to learn more? Grab your copy of Mama Bear Apologetics Guide to Sexuality* or join the online book study starting this January! You can also learn more from Amy Davison and her co-author Hillary Morgan Ferrer at www.mamabearapologetics.com. *This is an affiliate link. AI may earn referral fees from qualifying purchases. 1) Slattery, Juli Rethinking Sexuality (New York: Multnomah, 2018) Pg. 31 2) https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/08/31/half-of-u-s-christians-say-casual-sex-between-consenting-adults-is-sometimes-or-always-acceptable/ 3) https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/10/01/study-finds-majority-of-young-evangelicals-have-premarital-sex/?sh=2af7de01739d 4) This is more commonly known within the branches of the military as a policy regarding homosexuality among troops, but it applies here too. 5) Dr. Slattery makes this point as well in Rethinking Sexuality pg. 24. 6) This was never more obvious than reading Nadia-Bolz Weber’s book Shameless. 7) 54% of teens ages 12-15 said their parents held the most sway. This shrunk to 32% during the 16-19 years with their friends gaining ground at 28%. It wasn’t until college that kids started choosing their friends over us for advice. Still, we’re ahead! Best take advantage of that lead folks! https://powertodecide.org/what-we-do/information/resource-library/parent-power-october-2016-survey-says