Life Between the Holidays

Holidays. I think about the word as I mouth the lyrics to “O Come Emmanuel,” a nine-hundred-year-old Christmas carol I’m listening to today because I’m already scripting a Christmas program for Soli Deo Gloria Ballet.

Holidays. High points. Holy days. Life swirls around them like a river around jutting pinnacles of rock. They direct the ebb and flow of our lives. They are collectives of memories and teachings; they are an intensity of significance that defines spirituality and semester alike.

mary joseph jesus photo
Photo by Waiting For The Word

Christmas gets most of the attention, at least if your background is secular or Protestant. Easter, it could be argued, has the greater significance. God could have been born into the world and then just left, and we’d not be any better off. It’s the drama of the Passion Week that has really changed things. So it’s good that we note these days. That we celebrate them. That we decorate our homes, change our diets, and attend special church services to remember the high points that promise to transform our lives.

But what about life between the holidays?

Can the everyday, the Monday afternoon or Wednesday morning or Friday dusk that does not mark the incarnation of God or the death of sin or the resurrection of the King of Kings—can that day be significant too?

I wonder about this as the familiar strains of the carol fill the warm spring air. Holidays are inspiring, like the high points in my own life—weddings and births and even, in a strange way, funerals. But what about life between the holidays, between the high points? What about everyday, run-of-the-mill, uninspiring workdays in which we just raise children or clack keyboards or dig fence posts or fight off the flu? Where’s the sacrament, the holiness, in that life?

“O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyranny,” I sing softly. “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” Emmanuel—God with us. He didn’t, I realize, show up just for the high points. Jesus wasn’t born in a flourish of angels only to lie low until he climbed Calvary. He came to live—everyday, run-of-the-mill, uninspiring life.

Oh, I know Jesus’s last three years were a blaze of glory. But they were also really, really hard. In the four gospels we have records of Jesus being tempted and tired; we see him grieving, wanting to be alone, feeling frustration, dealing with all the consequences of sin around him. And doing something else, it dawns on me slowly. In those three years, in life between the holidays, we see Jesus turning every day into a holy day for our sake.

For several years I’ve spent time alone in my room on Christmas morning. I’ll read a gospel account or two of Jesus’s birth and curl up under my fuzzy blanket praying. This year I realized I wasn’t just celebrating Jesus’s birth; I was celebrating my own. When I believed, I was justified by Jesus’s righteousness. Romans 3:21–25 declares:

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (ESV)

My life is saved by the blood of Christ, blood that was worthy to atone for me because it was the blood of a life flawlessly lived. In the history of my redemption, every day Jesus lived matters.

“From depths of hell thy people save,” the song continues. “And give them victory over the grave.” My victory over the grave is won because Jesus rose from the dead, and the Bible says I was raised with him. Likewise, my righteousness isn’t mine. I wear Jesus’s righteousness like a cloak, and it’s not just his innate goodness I’m wearing. It’s all the practical, real-world goodness he lived out in life between the holidays.

Jesus crafted his life as a gift for us. He was consciously making sure his atoning sacrifice would be worthy—would be more than worthy—to cover our sin. As a young boy, Jesus respected his human parents to cover my lack of respect for mine. He defeated Satan in the desert to cover all those times I give in to temptation. He walked in vibrant relationship with his Father and obeyed him in every point, even when it didn’t make sense. And he did it because I am disobedient, because I question God, because sometimes I let my relationship with him go slack. “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).

Jesus lived his perfect life, his abundant life, his giving, wonderful, righteous life, and then offered it up as a gift—carefully crafted, purposefully designed, beautifully choreographed, as a sacrifice to his Father and as a gift for us.

We call Christmas and Easter “holy days.” We observe Lent as a holy season. But Jesus lived 365 days a year for thirty-three years, and in doing so he made every day holy. He filled every season with significance. And he gave every day of his life to us.

Can I challenge you to think about that today? I am challenging myself, even as I write. I treat Christmas and Easter as special days, taking time in the morning to recognize what God has done. What about today? Can I spare ten minutes in the morning to read about Jesus’s life between the holidays and purposefully bless God for giving me such a precious gift? Will I worship God because he didn’t stay on the pinnacles but came down in the water with us to be baptized in the everyday flow? Can I recognize the sacrament in the ordinary day?

And if I do recognize it, if I see the fingerprints of God in the everyday, will I let that affect my life? Will I believe that what God says about me is true and walk in it? (I am reconciled to God, I am dead to sin, I am a child of God, I have become the righteousness of God—Romans 5:10, Romans 6:2, Romans 8:16, 2 Corinthians 5:21.)

Moreover, will I look honestly at the fabric of my everydays? Romans 12:1 tells us to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” I know that my sacrifice can never compare to Jesus’s sacrifice, but then, it doesn’t have quite the same purpose. His was a sacrifice of atonement. Mine is a sacrifice of worship and thanks. But will I honour Jesus by crafting my life, designing my priorities, choreographing my actions as a humble gift for the One who gave everything—truly everything—for me?

bread wine photo
Photo by alextorrenegra

As I’m typing this, Easter weekend is long over. The darkness of Good Friday has past, the long silence of Saturday is over, Sunday has been and gone in all its glory. And (strains of Christmas music notwithstanding) the holiday season that stretches through November and December, that slides into the New Year and tiptoes through Lent until it reaches the brilliance of Easter, has ended.

But holiness has not. It’s life between the holidays that matters most in the history of my redemption and in its future too—in what was lived for me, and in what I live in response. Jesus’s everyday atoned for me. My everyday is a chance to worship him.

Getting Real (Gospel of Matthew Series Part 12)

But when [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:7-10, NIV)

Ever since I started blogging again back in the summer, and especially since starting this whole series on Matthew, I’ve been writing a lot of about the concept of God coming to us in the person of Jesus with an invitation. About the kingdom as opportunity, as transformative power on the inside of our society and our world and our souls. Even (maybe especially) John the Baptist’s cry of “Repent!” is an invitation.

Really, I see the whole Bible as invitation. Invitation to engage, to relate, to wrestle, to change. To step into the presence of Holy God and not die because astonishingly, he has given us his life. The Bible itself is not our ultimate reality or our end game; everything, EVERYTHING in it is about inviting us into an experience of the Truth who is God.

But it’s not all positive spin. The Bible is full of sober warnings as well.

Why wouldn’t it be? We live in a world that is cursed. We ourselves are cursed. I consider this self-evident. We don’t need the Bible to tell us we have problems and we’re all dying, even though something inside all of us wants to last.

Nobody can warn like John the Baptist:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Wrath is a less-than-popular topic these days. Personally I’m glad God is angry. I couldn’t respect one who wasn’t. Could you? People starve to death in our world because other people are greedy and dishonest. People molest and abuse and murder; people prostitute and manipulate and use one another. Political power and money and personal autonomy are idolized by millions and leave millions more broken behind them.

poverty photo

Yes, God is angry. So am I. So will you be, if you spend even a few raw minutes thinking about the situations of which he is constantly, fully aware.

As respected and visibly pious religious and political leaders, the Pharisees and Sadduccees — one a religious power group and the other more of an aristocratic elite — didn’t expect to get singled out as a brood of vipers when they showed up to oversee the rabble-rousing dunker from the desert.

I wrote a few weeks ago that when a king comes, there are two groups of people: one happy, one not so much. The groups are divided by “those who supported the new king” and “those who didn’t.”

New kings in the ancient world usually made pretty quick work of the enemy in the land. At best you’d lose your position of power and probably your home and possessions. At worst you’d lose your head.

The coming of the kingdom of heaven is good news for whole nations of people, but there is also wrath to come.

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12, NIV)

John’s word pictures of trees and wheat remind me that we are not here just to take up space. Humanity was always meant to be alive and to give life. We were meant to be recipients and conduits of blessing and to manifest the life of the Vine in the world. A fruit tree that never bears fruit is not what it’s supposed to be. When wheat is threshed, wind blows away the lifeless chaff and leaves the heavier grain of wheat — a seed full of life, one small thing with a harvest locked inside — behind.

In Moses’s day God said, “I set before you life and death. Choose life.”

The same call stands.

But if we find that our autonomy, our status, our self-righteousness is too threatened by the new king, we will reject him.

If we are too committed to the emptiness of hypocrisy and the tyranny of this present age to give it up and exchange it for authenticity and eternal life, we will find ourselves blowing away with the chaff.

John told the Pharisees and Sadducces not to take refuge in their ancestry. We, too, find a lot of things to take refuge in. A lot of ways to assure ourselves we’ll be fine, even if we stay committed to the old regime. A lot of ways to excuse lifelessness and unfaithfulness.

They won’t cut it.

dead tree photo

We, who got suckered in by the fruit on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, will stand on the landscape of earth as a dead, rotted out, finally barren tree.

But it’s not too late to choose life.

It’s not too late to repent.

The Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing

Many of you may know that I’ve written eighteen novels plus a small host of nonfiction books, articles, and blog posts; and on top of that I have edited hundreds of manuscripts and worked with hundreds of writing students. So when it comes to books, not many things are new to me.

Enter coauthoring! With four other author-editors!

Last year I was invited to be part of a blog series called “The 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing” for the award-winning Live Write Thrive blog. I and four other editors posted every month about the recurrent problems that can cause “novel failure”—issues that can sink a book, and regularly do.

The book is part of The Writer’s Toolbox series, a great series of nonfiction books written by my fellow writer-editor C.S. Lakin.

(You may remember seeing reviews of some of C.S. Lakin’s novels around here; I reviewed her entire Gates of Heaven series as they were released.)

Of course, a coauthor’s work is never done. I wrote my twelve posts, and then I signed up to help promote the book—which has entailed a lot of guest posting on other blogs, among other things—and of course I edited the book, because what else is a writer-editor to do?

In the process of editing, I have to tell you: I learned a ton. This book is going to make me a better writer and a better editor, so you can all thank my fellow authors.

Twelve Fatal Flaws

Just what are the twelve fatal flaws of fiction writing? Here are the twelve as we identified them:

  • Fatal Flaw #1: Overwriting [Gah! Too many words!]
  • Fatal Flaw #2: Nothin’ Happenin’ [How long can characters actually sit and think before anything happens?]
  • Fatal Flaw #3: Weak Construction [Word choices and sentences structures that make things boring, vague, uninspiring . . .]
  • Fatal Flaw #4: Too Much Backstory [Hello, Info Dump.]
  • Fatal Flaw # 5: POV Violations [Whose head are we in, anyway?]
  • Fatal Flaw # 6: Telling instead of Showing [The important advice that gets taken wrong most often and what it actually means, with a fabulous chapter on showing emotion.]
  • Fatal Flaw #7: Lack of Pacing and Tension [When stuff just draaaaags . . .]
  • Fatal Flaw #8: Flawed Dialog Construction [‘Nuff said.]
  • Fatal Flaw #9: Underwriting [Where are all the words?]
  • Fatal Flaw #10: Description Deficiencies and Excesses [The difference between living worlds and words on paper.]
  • Fatal Flaw #11: Pesky Adverbs and “Weasel Words” [Indubitably.]
  • Fatal Flaw #12: Flawed Writing Mechanics [Grammar matters!]

The book’s really unique contribution is our more than sixty Before and After example passages, to help you identify and fix all of the above, written in a variety of styles and genres. Plus checklists.

Personally, I think this would be a fun read even for nonwriters. For writers, it’s a treasure trove.

The book will be on sale December 1, but you can preorder your copy now.

Fatal Flaws FINAL ebook cover Review

Every now and again a resource comes along that is so good it begs to be shared. This is one of them. (It also begs to be SUPPORTED; if you need somewhere to send money, this is a good kingdom investment.) offers lectures, seminars, and entire courses on biblical topics, including theology, Greek, church history, ministry skills, textual criticism, book studies, worldview … explore the site a bit to see how extensive this is. We are talking seminary-level training from world-class professors from a variety of institutions and denominational backgrounds, and it’s provided for free.

(One reason I say this is worth supporting is that they’re helping train church workers all over the world, including in far-off places where it’s not easy to get to a Bible school.)

Personally, I’ve taken some of the Greek and history of the New Testament. You can access content as mp3s, video, and PDF resources.

Go check it out for yourself!

Preparing the Way (Gospel of Matthew Series Part 11)

“For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Matthew 3:3, KJV)

“And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, Occupy till I come.” (Luke 19:13, KJV)

“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, ‘Be reconciled to God.'” (2 Corinthians 5:20, HCSB)

Jesus clearly declared that he was coming back; as Christians, we’re always living in a kind of limbo. We are the original Occupy movement, but with rather a different focus :).

There seem to be as many responses to Jesus’s declaration that he would return as there are shades of Christian. A popular one is to act like he didn’t say it or at least doesn’t mean it. Just as popular is a kind of news-watching, Revelation-cherry-picking doom-and-gloomism I really dislike, both on exegetical and personal levels. Others are actively trying to act as modern John the Baptists, getting our generation ready for what may be right around the corner; while still others occupy in more mundane (but no less real) ways. We treat the concept of Christ’s return with varying levels of guilt, panic, indifference, confusion, fear, happiness, escapism, and real joy.

Of course what we SHOULD be doing is pleading, like Paul did, “Be reconciled to God.” There is still time, and that’s the point, isn’t it? Peter says the Lord is waiting not because he’s giving a really bad judgment time to cook up but because he loves everyone and wants them to repent. Time and his kindness will, apparently, allow for a lot more of that before he returns.

I love the imagery in Isaiah and Matthew (which I wrote about last Tuesday) of preparing the way for the LORD. In a sense that’s what we are all give the opportunity to do. Prepare the way. Clear the road. Level and smooth out the rough and broken places. Lay our own lives down on the road like palm branches and like coats, preparing for the final and glorious triumphal entry.

I wonder what that could look like on various levels. What does it look like to prepare the way for Christ in my own lifestyle, my own spirit, my own day-by-day existence? What does it look like to prepare the way for him in the church? (Don’t look now, but I suspect our road is full of potholes, boulders, and broken asphalt. Time to level things out again!) What about preparing the way for Jesus in society? Is that possible? What does that even look like?

path photo

(I don’t know, but if every action and word we speak to prepare the way in our society doesn’t send back the echo “Be reconciled to God!”, then I think we’re not quite getting it right. I don’t mean doing street-corner evangelism every day. I mean living our lives in a way that invites and attracts people to be reconciled to the Father.)

I know things are bad in our society and culture right now. I know things are incredibly rocky all around the world. But I hope that rather than look at the mess, read some scintillating prophecy book, and declare that God’s clearly getting ready to torch the whole road, we will consider rolling up our sleeves, whistling while we work, and preparing the way.

Joyfully, with anticipation. With singing.

What are your thoughts on the second coming and how we might live in light of it?

P.S. Nathan Partain is a musician I discovered through Jeffrey Overstreet, one of my favorite authors. I absolutely love this song and think of it every time I read 2 Corinthians 5. Click “live” to hear it: