Can These Bones Live?

DryBonesBones, bones, everywhere and not a drop of blood, not an inch of skin, not a gasp of breath. Just bones. Just the dried out remains of a life that once was lived but now is not. Tell me, son of man, can these bones live?

Look, there are the bones of feet that once marched across a stage to receive a diploma; that walked down an aisle to become bone of another’s bone, flesh of their flesh; that ran alongside a child’s bicycle when the training wheels were removed. Yet now the bones of those feet do not march, do not walk, do not run. They have been bleached under the sun of grief, immobilized by the pain of lost love, lost life, lost hope. Tell me, son of man, can these bones live?

Look, there are the bones of hands that once played with toy trucks or dressed Barbie dolls, but those hands grew. And as they grew, the fingers on those hands gripped bottle after bottle, pushed needle after needle into their skin, until those hands lost all control and did unspeakable things that marred and scarred them. In the valley of their addiction their bones bake under the heat of a relentless sun. Tell me, son of man, can these bones live?

Look, there are the skulls of women who have been abused by men, others who have used men, and still others who have simply given up on life and crouched down to die in this valley of despair. There are the swollen skulls of men whose pride has puffed them up and the flattened skulls of men who have beaten their heads against the wall in frustration with a dead-end life. In the middle of this valley of abuse and hopelessness and pride, these skulls sit. Tell me, son of man, can these bones live?

O Lord God, you know. You know whether these bones can live. You know whether there is hope for the hurting, forgiveness for the failures, resurrection for the dead. So, tell us, Son of God, can these bones live?

O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus he says to these bones. Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord. I will fill my lungs with the breath of life, and exhale that Spirit into your lungs. I will lay upon you the sinews of my salvation, and will cause the flesh of forgiveness to come upon you, and graft upon you the skin of my love.

Look, here are the feet of the Son of God who walked a lifetime in our shoes, who did for us what we could never do for ourselves. His feet walked the straight path of the Father from which we have gone astray. His feet did not trample others, did not run to shed innocent blood. And he walked this path for you. What he did, he did that his doing might be credited to you. Oh how beautiful are the feet of the Son of God, who walked in the law for you; the feet pierced by a spike for you; the feet that stomped upon the head of the ancient serpent that you might be victorious over your foe.

Look, here are the hands of the Son of God who reached out to touch the leper, the pariah, whom no man dared to touch. Here are the hands that would not pick up a stone to cast at the woman caught in adultery. Here are the hands that stretched out on the cross to receive the nails, and then stretched out those nail-scarred hands to beckon Thomas from his doubt. These hands heal your hands. These hands of the Son of God reach out to lift you up, to make you new, to love you back to the wholeness of the children of God.

Look, here is the head of the church, who died at the hill called the Place of the Skull. Here is the head who humbly bore a crown of thorns to crown you with life. Here is the head struck by the soldiers that you might be embraced by the Father’s peace. Here God bows his head and gives up his Spirit that the Spirit might uplift your weary heads, forgive you, and raise you to new life with Christ on Easter Day.

O dry bones, can you live?
You will live!
You do live!
You live now in Christ!

There is now no condemnation for you who are in Christ Jesus. The skeletons of your past, the skeletons in your closet, are all gone. Christ has taken them away. He has wrapped you with the muscle of his mercy, clothed you with the skin of his salvation, poured into your veins the liquid of his love, and breathed into you the Spirit of life.

You say: Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.
But God says: Behold, you are not dried up. You are washed in the waters of my saving blood. You hope is not lost for, look, I myself am your hope. You are not cut off for nothing can sever you from my love. Nothing.

In Jesus Christ your bones do more than live; they thrive in his grace. For he raises you from the death of your sin, makes you part of his resurrected body, and pours his Spirit into you. You are forgiven. You are alive.

You are in Christ, his Spirit is in you, and you are the Father’s child.

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christ alone coverWhat we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

Where’s Drunk, Naked Noah on the Sunday School Felt Board?

noahfeltboardPerhaps you can help me. I’ve visited every church website I can think of in search of a felt board for Sunday School that includes the story of Noah from start to finish. There’s plenty of them, but they all are missing a piece of the story. They have the little figures of Noah and his sons; cows and camels and goats and other animals; the water and the ark and, of course, the rainbow. And they’re all very cute. Children can reenact the story by putting the figures on the felt board.

What I’m missing, however, are the pieces from the last part of the Flood account. All I need to complete the story is the little felt tent, and the little felt figure of a drunk, naked Noah that the kids can place inside the tent.

Where is the drunk, naked Noah for the Sunday School felt board? He’s probably in the same place as the little felt figures of Lot’s two daughters getting their dad drunk and having sex with him while they were hiding out in the mountains after Sodom was destroyed (Gen 19:30-38). Or maybe it’s in the same place as the felt figure of the Levite who chopped his dead concubine into a dozen pieces after the men of the city had gang-raped her all night (Judges 19). Or it could be where the felt figure of Elisha is when he sicced the two momma bears on the forty two boys who mocked him as a baldhead (2 Kings 2:23-25). Come to think of it, there are lots of missing felt figures. Where could they be?

They are all in the same place: they are boxed away in a secret place lest children, and adults, get the impression that the Good Book is stuffed with stories of bad people doing bad things. And this is truly a shame. For the less we tell these stories of sin, the more it seems we are ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of bad people.

Yes, Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; he walked with God (Gen 6:9). And through God, Noah did some great, holy things. Most notably, he was a “herald of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5) and “by faith…he constructed an ark for the salvation of his household,” (Heb 11:7). But after the waters of the flood had dried up, Noah planted a vineyard, drank of the wine, became drunk, and lay naked in his tent (Gen 9:20-21). So was Noah an ark-builder or a wine-bibber? Was he a righteous man or a drunk man? Was he a saint or a sinner?

Yes, he was. He was all of the above. And so is every believer.

But you wouldn’t know that from Sunday School felt boards. Nor from the sections of Scripture that many churches choose to read during worship. Nor from the content of many adult Bible studies. And you certainly wouldn’t know it from listening to the majority of songs and hymns based on biblical stories.

And in so far as that is true, we have deprived the children of God of much comfort. The comfort is not in knowing that bad people do bad things, but that our Father is not a deity that trashes people when they do. Rather, he is patient with them, seeks them out, calls them to repentance, and embraces them with his forgiving love in Jesus.

Speaking of Noah’s drunkenness, Martin Luther notes this story is recorded because God wanted those who “know their weakness and for this reason are disheartened, to take comfort in the offense that comes from the account of the lapses among the holiest and more perfect patriarchs.” In the stories of men like drunk Noah we “find sure proof of our own weakness and therefore bow down in humble confession, not only to ask for forgiveness but also to hope for it.” To hope for forgiveness, and to be certain that in Christ all is forgiven, all is well.

If we’re going to focus on any stories in the Scriptures, let us highlight those in which the weakness of people and the forgiveness of God in Christ are made manifest. Given the choice, I’d rather my children learn in Sunday School that drunk, naked Noah was forgiven than that the animals came into the ark two by two. I’d rather them, from the earliest age, learn that the Scriptures are not a long story of good people doing good things for a good God, but that the Scriptures are the story of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us.

If we are not ashamed of the Gospel, then let us not be ashamed of teaching that God forgives the shameful acts of all those who are in Christ, including me and you and our friend—drunk, naked Noah.

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christ alone coverWhat we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

How Do I Know I’m a Christian?

question markThere are questions about ourselves that are easily answered, and there are other questions that present more of a challenge.

If someone asks me, “Are you a husband?” I can show them my ring, present my wedding certificate, point to the woman standing next to me who shares my life and my last name. Yes, I am 100% sure that I’m married.

If someone asks me, “Are you an employee?” I can show them where I work, present my pay stubs, point to the truck with which I make deliveries. Yes, I am 100% sure that I’m an employee.

Other questions are not so easily answered. If I’m asked, “Are you a good husband?” what immediately comes to mind are the times I’ve failed my wife, acted selfishly, and been anything but a good husband. I have no real external, tangible, objective way to answer that question. I must rely on feelings and speculations. Similarly, if someone asks, “What kind of employee are you?” my mind goes to the labor I’ve put in, but also to the times I’ve slacked off yet expected a full paycheck for a half-hearted performance. What if I think I’m doing an okay job but my boss thinks different and fires me?

There are questions about ourselves that are easily answered, and there are other questions about ourselves where we have to explore our hearts to test their sincerity, take account of the good and bad things we’ve done, focus inwardly to find the answer.

What about the question, “Are you a Christian?” Does this one belong to that second category, where we must explore our hearts, test our actions, focus inside ourselves to get to the right answer?

That’s certainly what some people think. So they urge folks to ask themselves if they really believe, if they really love their neighbor, if they really live a moral life. But no matter how well intentioned such an urging might be, rather than helping, it is pouring the poison of doubt into the souls of those for whom Christ died.

Look inside yourself to answer, “Are you a Christian?” and you will find a heart that is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9); a heart from which flow evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander (Matt 15:19); a conscience that testifies that nothing good dwells in you, that the evil you do not want to do, you nevertheless keep right on doing (Rom 7:18-19).

Look at your deeds to answer, “Are you a Christian?” and you will find that all your righteousness is as filthy rags (Isa 64:6); and if such be your righteousness, how dirty and defiled must be your unrighteousness. Look at your deeds and you will find that even when you have the desire to do what is right, you don’t have the ability to carry it out (Rom 7:18). Even if you did all that you were commanded, you must still say, “I am an unworthy servant; I have only done what was my duty,” (cf. Luke 17:10). If such be the response of a person whose has kept all God’s commands, then we who have broken those commands are worthy of nothing but punishment, now and forever.

Thus, to answer, “Are you are Christian?” by looking inside ourselves, or by looking to our deeds or love of the neighbor, is to drink the poison of doubt. In fact, the more Christians look at themselves to see whether they are Christians, the more they will become convinced that they are not Christians.

The answer is found not within us but within Christ. Our assurance is in his objective, external work of salvation on our behalf. Not in our hearts but in the heart and life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we receive assurance that we are the children of God.

In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19)—the world of which you are a part. In Christ you are reconciled to God, at peace with the Lord, adopted as a child of the heavenly Father. God loved the world in this way: by sending his only begotten Son to die as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And if the world’s sin is taken away, then your sins are taken away. God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us in order that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). His worthiness covers our unworthiness.

Your name is written in the wounds of Jesus. He has dipped his pen in the crimson ink of his veins and written your name, indelibly, in the Lamb’s Book of Life. He has engraved your name on the palms of his hands. He has tattooed his name onto your soul and heart and mind and body—you are completely and everlastingly his and his alone. In baptism you did not commit yourself to Christ; he committed himself to you. More than that, in those waters he crucified you with himself, laid your body with his in the tomb, and he carried you forth into the light of life again. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved. That believing, that faith, is not a conviction you created but a gift you received. By the Holy Spirit you confess, “Jesus is Lord.”

Do we still struggle to believe? Of course we do, for we are far from perfect in this life. As a father once prayed to Jesus, so we also pray, “Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief,” (Mark 9:24). And he does. He enlivens and strengthens our faith by continuing to forgive us, to love us, to heal us, to give us himself. It is not our faithfulness that saves us, but the faithfulness of Jesus. For even if we are faithless he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim 2:13).

How do you know you’re a Christian? Not because your heart is good and pure but because the heart of Christ pulses with a love for you that will never end. Not because your deeds are righteous but because he has been righteous on your behalf and clothes you with that righteousness. Not because you have lived for him but because he has lived and died and risen again for you. Not because you asked him to be your Savior but because while you were yet a sinner, Christ died for you, chose you, called you, and washed you clean in his own divine blood.

If someone asks you, “How do you know you’re a Christian?” the answer is as simple as it is beautiful: you know you’re a Christian
because Christ has made you his own
because Christ will hold you fast
because nothing can separate you from the love of God
because Christ knows you, forgives you, washes you, and will never let you go.

That’s how you know you’re a Christian.

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christ alone coverWhat we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

Don’t Tell Hurting People that God’s in Control

crosstornadoWe say it to the family who’s standing in a sea of twisted metal and broken dreams that a tornado spit out. We say it to the man who lost his job, can’t find work, and is on the verge of losing his home. We say it to the cancer patient, the pregnant teen, and our sons and daughters as they leave for war.

We mean well. We intend it as good news. We say, “God is in control,” to help them see that God is bigger than their struggles. That he has a grand and wonderful plan for their lives. That he, as the sovereign Lord, has this universe—and them—in the palm of his hand.

And we need to stop saying it.

There are things that are true of God that are not truly the good news people need to hear. There are hidden things about God and there are revealed things about God. The hidden things are of no concern to us; the revealed are our sole concern. And in those revealed things of God he discloses to us everything we need to know about who he is and what he does for us.

We want to know how God rules this world, how he is present in all things, how he exerts his control over the course of world events. We want to know why some get cancer and some don’t, why terrible things happen to the best of people, why volcanoes erupt and hurricanes strike and fires consume. We want to know whose side God is on when there are wars, why he waits so long to answer our prayers, how he’s going to sort out the ups and downs of our day-to-day lives.

Yet these questions are none of our concern. They are wrong questions that seek imperfect answers that give unstable hope. These deal with the hidden things of God. And even if the Lord gave us an answer, it would sound like Einstein lecturing on the theory of relativity to a bawling infant. The hidden things of God are hidden for a reason. They are none of our concern, none of our hope, none of our life.

Here’s what God wants us to know about him: that everything there is to know about him is Jesus. He is the sole means to the Father, the only revealer of the Spirit. He is the exact representation of God. In him all the fullness of the deity dwells in bodily form. In other words, the only God we know is Christ. And, equally important, the only Christ we know is the crucified one. Thus Paul says, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” (1 Cor 2:2).

God does have a wonderful plan for your life, but it’s not what you think. His merciful plan is to crucify you with Christ, bury you with Christ, and raise you to new life in Christ. All this he does in baptism. Baptism unites you with the only God we know. And in that God—the crucified and resurrected Christ—God reveals who he is.

He is the God who will never leave you in your sickness, never forsake you in your brokenness, for you have been washed into his body, blooded into his veins, grafted into the limbs of his flesh.

He is the God who goes with grieving spouses to the graveside, and will one day go with you as you are carried to the place of your burial, for he is the God who is the resurrection and the life, the one in whom we live, even though we die.

Jesus is the crucified and resurrected God who gave his cheek to those who struck him, his hands to those who pierced him, his ear to those who mocked him, his body and blood to those who crucified him. And in so doing, he secured absolution for us for the most evil acts imaginable. He reconciled us to the Father by building a bridge from him to us that’s constructed out of the wood and nails of his cross. He gave us something better than answers to our questions; he gave us life for our death, heaven for our hell, forgiveness for our sin.

These are the revealed things of God—his revealed gifts to us. These gifts are not only all that matters, they are also all that satisfies. Here is hope for the hurting. Here is adoption for the rejected. Here is the God you can see and taste and touch and smell—the God whose name is Jesus Christ.

To those of you who are hurting, know that there is a God who loves you, who has always loved you and always will. Jesus Christ will not answer all your questions, but he will give you all of himself. And in the end, that’s all any of us need.

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christ alone coverWhat we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

The Night We Defeated God

About once a month, I write an article for the website 1517 Legacy. Here is the beginning of my latest post for them: “The Night We Defeated God.” It is the story of Jacob wrestling with God. But it is about a greater story of a greater fight in which God is defeated that He might win us. 

I want a ringside seat at this fight. So close I can feel the spray of their sweat. It’s not every day you get to see man go toe-to-toe with God. Fight it out. Roll in the dirt. Batter and bruise and body-slam each other. But today’s that day. Finally, we get to see what God is really made of. Finally, he leaves his throne for our gutter. This is the chance we’ve all been waiting for.

Oh, yes, I’ve got a dog in this fight. His name’s Jacob. He’s not my first choice. I don’t care for Jacob. Never have. He’s got too much of me in him. He’s a liar and a cheat. He’s a coward and a user. All the men in the world who could have been the patriarch of the Old Testament church and this loser winds up on top. Married to two gals with a couple more co-wives on the side he employs as baby-makers. His family so fractured it’s the stuff of reality TV. On the outs with his twin brother for years. Here’s a man who seems to embody all my own sins. Not exactly hero material. But beggars can’t be choosers.

That God ever agreed to this fight seems the height of foolishness to me. Why come down from heaven? Why meet Jacob under cover of darkness, on the banks of this river, and wrestle with him through the small hours of the night? It’s not like He had to. He takes it upon Himself. He shows up, dressed in our skin, and picks a fight with the patriarch. You’ve got to wonder: does He have something up His sleeve?

I love the raw fury of the fight. I’ve poured everything I am into that man Jacob. All my own lying and cheating and cowardice. All my own anger and frustration and fears. All the fractures of my family. All my loneliness and hatred of life and feelings of worthlessness. All the stuff about me that I hate. It’s all in Jacob now. I am him and he is me…

Read the full article by clicking here.

Will God Forgive Me for Having an Abortion?

womandespairI had an abortion. I was young and naïve. And now it tears me apart on the inside. If I could do it all over again, I would have my child. Now all I have is the heartache that I suffer for what I did. Now I worry that God will punish me and won’t give me other children. Can God forgive me for failing him, myself, and my baby? Will God stay mad at me for taking a life? Please, help. I don’t know if God will forgive me.

M.N.

Dear M.N.,

We do things in life that turn on a voice in our head that never seems to stop talking. Sometimes that voice is like a scream, sometimes like a whisper, but it’s rarely if ever silent. You’ve heard it. The words you write are painful proof. It’s a voice that has no mercy. When it speaks, it always has the tone of accusation. It won’t let your mistakes die. It shoves them in your face. Again and again and yet again. This voice says, “God won’t forgive you. He will punish you. He’s angry with you. He will always be angry with you.”

Sometimes well-meaning people try to help you silence that voice by telling you what to do. They say that if you do this or that, the voice will go away.

“If you confess your sins, it will go away.” But it doesn’t, does it?
“If you get your life back on track, the voice will be silent.” But it isn’t, is it?
“If you commit your life to God, he will make the voice go away.” But it still accuses.

There are things too big for us to change, voices too loud and too persistent for us to silence. Guilt is one of them. Heartache over what we’ve done. When you’re torn apart on the inside, you can’t do surgery on yourself to repair the damage. You need someone else to do that. You need someone else to make the voice go away.

Let me tell you about another voice. It is a bigger and better voice, a merciful and loving voice of a Father who thinks the world of you. In a voice rich with compassion, he said to his Son, “Jesus, will you go and take care of my daughter’s sin?” And in a voice equally rich with compassion, Jesus said to his Father, “Gladly I will go. I will, in fact, take that sin away from her and not give it back. I will make it not hers, not even hers and mine, but mine only. I will become the one who had the abortion. I will transfer the guilt and regret and heartache she feels onto myself. I will make the voice that accuses her, direct is accusation against me. Once and for all, dear Father, I will become the ocean into which every river of wrong empties itself. No sinner will be left in the world except me. I will be everyone. The guilt, the punishment, the anger, the judgment will all be mine and mine alone. Yes, Father, I will take care of your daughter’s abortion. And once I have, we will not speak of it again. We will not remember it again. It will cease to exist.”

It is not a question of whether God can forgive you, or even if he will forgive you. He already has. When you see a cross, you see the smile of your Father. He’s not mad at you. He’s overjoyed that you’re his daughter. He’s happy that you are part of his family. He talks of you to the angels. “Look at my daughter,” he says. “She is beautiful. She is pure. She is the apple of my eye. She is just the way I want her to be.” All of heaven resounds with angelic voices that sing songs of how dear you are to the Father’s heart, how precious your life is to him, that you are his princess.

Your Father will not punish you for something that he doesn’t even remember. Even if he did remember it, he would remember only that Jesus had the abortion, that Jesus paid the price for that abortion, that Jesus has taken care of everything. You are loved by God more than you will ever realize. His love is the voice that drowns out all other voices. It says, “You are my daughter. I loved you even before I created the world. I chose you in Jesus to be in my family. When I look at you, I do not see even a speck of wrong in you. I see you through the prism of my Son, your Savior. In him you are forgiven and perfect and clean and without shame. In Jesus you are everything I want you to be.”

Your mistakes do not define you. The love of the Father in Jesus Christ defines you. His voice alone speaks truth. It is the truth that nothing can separate you from his love. Now and always you are more precious to him than life itself.

You are free. You are beloved. You are forgiven.

Your brother in Christ,

Chad

christ alone coverWhat we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

Called and Ordained Sheriff of the Word

The man was crouched down in the aisle of an Office Depot when I turned the corner and our eyes met. It was December, so the coat he wore didn’t look out of place. I had one on too, but it was unbuttoned enough to reveal the clerical shirt I was wearing beneath. I had dropped by to pick up a few items for my study. He had dropped by to pick up an item or two as well…and slide them inside the pocket of his coat. In fact, he was doing exactly that when I rounded the corner.

I stopped and stood there. Didn’t move. Didn’t utter a syllable. Didn’t even blink. Never unlocking his eyes from mine, the would-be shoplifter eased the product out of his coat, put it back on the shelf, stood up, turned around and walked quickly away. He cast one last glance over his shoulder at the pastor who had caught him red-handed.

As I’ve told this story over the years, it’s always prompted knowing smiles and laughter. I’d even wager that the man eventually laughed as well. It’s not every day a thief gets caught by a man dressed as the Almighty’s representative.

sheriffI wonder, though, upon further reflection, if there’s an unhappy side to this story. Unhappy not because the man was stealing—though, of course, that is, lamentable. Unhappy not because the man ran off before he could be collared. No, unhappy because though that thief fled from a man dressed as a priest, you’d have thought I sported a badge and brandished a pistol. And I wonder if his reaction sums up many people’s view of the pastoral office, as if a shepherd of Christ’s flock is actually a called and ordained sheriff of the word.

First of all, let me say that I understand his reaction, because I’ve been on both sides of the fence. On the one hand, when I was in the ministry, a few folks reacted to me as if I wore a Moses mask and lugged around two tablets of stone. They wouldn’t answer my calls, wouldn’t open the door when I knocked, because to them I was the embodiment of their guilty conscience. To some extent, that’s unavoidable. A pastor must preach the law. And that law causes some people to dive for the nearest cover. On the other hand, I’ve also been that sinner who fled from pastors. For a long time, I was carrying around an enormous amount of guilt and shame. So I avoided contact with men who, in my eyes, embodied so much of my pain. I fled from them like a criminal would a cop.

But I wonder, is it unavoidable that sinners run away from Christ’s shepherd as if he’s an officer of the law? Is there anything they can do to try and prevent it? Think of those questions in terms of Christ’s own ministry.

What is most amazing to me is not that Jesus welcomed public transgressors into his company. What astounds me is that they came to him with the full expectation of not being turned away. He is the holy one of God, after all. He’s a sinless priest, above reproach, the most moral man on earth. Yet these unholy people seek Jesus out. Lepers cry out to him. Whores weep on his feet. Tax collectors climb trees to get a peek at him. Some men even rip apart a roof to lower their friend into his midst! Far from running away from Jesus, sinners of all stripes run to him.

Why? Because Jesus never preached the law? No. Because he was soft on sin? Hardly. Rather, it’s because he not only beckoned the weary and heavy laden to come to him; he took a seat at their dinner tables, became their friend, accepted them as his followers, praised their faith, and defended them. And, perhaps most significantly, Jesus shrugged his shoulders at the name-calling and tsk-tsking of the religious superstars who were offended that he would lower himself to hang in the gutter with such unworthies. He was the kind of pastor who didn’t damn the woman caught in adultery, much less make a public example out of her. He sent her away to a new, unadulterated life, forgiven and loved. He made an apostle out of a hated tax-collector. Restored another betraying apostle. Chose a murderous, blaspheming persecutor to be the evangelist to the nations. There was really only one group to whom Jesus was harsh and unyielding: those who deemed themselves better than other sinners, who walked around flexing their spiritual muscles, whose treasure was trashing others whose lives were not as outwardly righteous as their own.

It’s a risky action to emulate this kind of ministry, to associate yourself with sheep that some consider wolves and others label goats. You’ll be lied about. Your morals will be questioned. You’ll be ostracized by some, laughed at by others, or simply stop hearing from those adept at toeing the religious-political line.

But you might also find yourself listening to hurting people pour out their hearts to you about how good it is to finally find a Christian who’ll listen to them and talk with them without sounding condescending. You might discover the outcasts and unwanted and branded and scarlet-lettered flocking to you because they perceive that in you they will find the sympathy and love and forgiveness of Christ. Rather than running from you as a called and ordained sheriff, they’ll recognize in you the kind of shepherd who doesn’t care how much mud and dung has defiled their wool. You stand in the stead of the one who washes clean every sinner, loves them, names them his own, and makes them part of his flock.

Fidelity to Christ and love of the outcast neighbor go hand in hand. The mark of an orthodox pastor—indeed, of an orthodox Christian—is not, for example, making sure everyone knows you would never attend a homosexual wedding, much less bake a cake for it. Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t; I don’t care. But I would like to know if you would bake them a cake when you asked them over to your home for dinner, introduced them as your friends to your Christian friends, invited them to your church, and showed them in every imaginable way that they, like you, are dead in sin but loved and redeemed by Jesus Christ. It seems rather impossible to bring the Gospel to those we will have nothing to do with. Might this scandalous love result in being shunned by some within the conservative Christian community? Yes, but there is perhaps no clearer sign that you are being a Christ-like shepherd than when you are rejected by some because you embrace those the religious establishment keeps at arm’s length.

This week, in at least two seminaries, men who have been studying for the ministry will receive their calls into that sacred vocation. I pray for them and the congregations they will serve. And part of my prayer is that they will not see or portray themselves as called and ordained sheriffs of the word, but as called and ordained servants of the friend of sinners.

christ alone coverWhat we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

Graffiti and Grace

graffitiWe all need a little color in our black-and-white lives. No sane man can exist long encased by whitewashed walls. So we choose hues and tones that communicate “I’m alive” and “I’m happy” and “I have good stuff.” Or at least “I’m surviving.”

They would visit every topless club in Ft. Wayne—my buddies on the summer roofing crew. They painted their lives with the color of flesh. Some of my customers pass every weekend surrounded by empty bottles; amber is their color of choice. For others, it’s the colors of green and gold and silver tucked away in bank accounts.

We’re all on this quest to find just the right color to enhance our lives. Christians, Jews, Muslims. Atheists, agnostics, gnostics. Roofers, pastors, CEOs. Something that defines us, makes us happy, gives us hope, gives us a reason to roll out of bed in the morning. Maybe it’s the colors of sex or alcohol for you. Maybe it’s the varying shades of money or power. Maybe it’s fifty shades of religiosity that binds your conscience to a life of spiritual obedience. You dip the brush of your soul in something. And with it you paint the walls of your life. Because no man can endure a colorless existence.

One of the amazing things I’ve come to know about God is that he is the Lord of many colors. When I’ve dipped my brush in the midnight black of lust or greed and smeared those sable sins all over the walls of my life, he’s come along with a bucket of paint and covered over that black with a white so bright it blinds the eyes. When I’ve spray painted the graffiti of hate and revenge round about me, he’s covered over that malice with words in crimson that speak of absolution and reconciliation. Even when I’ve painted a hand with the middle finger uplifted to heaven, God painted over it an icon of a crucified man uplifted to heaven.

He is the Lord of many colors. And with these colors, like a master artist, he covers our failed attempts to find a reason for living apart from him. Though our sins are as scarlet, he paints them as white as snow. On the dark walls of our despair, he adds the bright colors of hope and healing. Since there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, he paints over us the colors of the rainbow, for God is not angry but pleased with us in his Son.

When I visited Russia years ago, I bought a little icon from one of the Orthodox churches there. In magnificent color and stunning detail, it depicts a dozen scenes from the life of Jesus. All the way from his birth to his resurrection. The iconographer captured the totality of the Son of God’s ministry for us in a few square inches. Our lives are embedded in that icon as well. The hues of his holy birth coloring clean our own. The blues of his baptism washing us into his healing wounds. The crimson tint of his blood emblazoning us as God’s chosen. The exploding colors of the resurrection dyeing us with the marks of victors over death. The Lord of many colors colors us as his children in Christ Jesus.

We all need color in our black-and-white lives. Only in Christ are there colors that do more than satisfy. They paint our lives with grace and healing and hope. We discover in him, in the hues of his love, the people our Creator has formed us to be.

christ alone coverWhat we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

The Gospel According to Noah

This reflection was published yesterday on the website Christ Hold Fast

When Lamech named his newborn son Noah—which means “rest”—he said, “This one shall give us comfort from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the Lord has cursed” (Genesis 5:29). Making what Luther calls a “pious mistake,” Lamech thinks his wife is nursing the promised seed, the new Adam who will undo the doing of Adam #1. Although Lamech missed the messianic bulls-eye, he was certainly on target in another way, for his son would indeed point forward to the life and ministry of the Christ.

Noah grew up in a world “corrupt in the sight of God” and “filled with violence” (6:11). He, however, “found grace in the eyes of the LORD . . . was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God” (6:8-9). Many children’s Bible Story books put it this way: “People everywhere were bad, but Noah was good.” But Noah was “good” not because he wasn’t “bad,” but because he believed in the good One whom his father had mistaken him for—the promised seed. Noah “found grace in the eyes of the LORD” because faith planted him in the apple of the LORD’s eye, the Son of the Father.

Noah was six hundred years old when he, his wife, his three sons and their wives—eight people in all—entered the ark. No doubt the neighbors thought Noah, along with his family, had lost their grip on sanity. But it would soon be those neighbors who were clinging like barnacles to the outside of the ark.

The outside of the ark. There the world was transformed into a cosmopolitan font. There the waters drowned a world of old Adams and old Eves who had not found grace in the eyes of the LORD for they feasted their eyes on nothing but the stuff of earthly life. Outside the ark, creation shifted into reverse as man and beast drowned; sun, moon, and stars became invisible; trees and dry land vanished. Back, back to Genesis 1:8 and day two of creation, when the waters above were separated from the waters below, but water, water everywhere, was all there was to see.

But, of course, that wasn’t all there was to see in Genesis 7. There was the ark. There were eight people. There were the animals. And finally, after about a year, there was a freshly picked olive leaf in the beak of Noah’s dove. Though Noah was not the new Adam, there was more than a faint echo of God’s words to our first parents when He told Noah, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (9:2). Noah may not have lived up to his father’s expectations, but this man of rest, who built an ark for the salvation of his household (Hebrews 11:7), certainly foreshadowed a Son who would live up to His Father’s expectations, the true man of rest, the new and better Noah, who built an ark for the salvation of His household, a household of which you are a member.

It was the new and better Noah, wet with Jordan’s water, upon whom the Spirit’s dove landed, marking Him the true man of rest. He is the one who finally fulfills Lamech’s messianic hopes, for He comes to fulfill all righteousness for Lamech, for Noah, for you. But His way is not a mere re-run of the old, for if Noah condemned the world (Hebrews 11:7), then Christ was condemned for the world. In the Jordan, Christ stepped into the place of—what children’s books call—“bad” people, people like us. The water that trickled off His back in the Jordan foreshadowed a greater baptism with which He was to be baptized, the baptism in which the world’s sins were poured out upon Him, in which He was flooded with divine wrath. The bad person you are, Christ became. Your pettiness, your selfishness, your the-world-be-damned-as-long-as-I’m-okay attitude—all your badness engulfed the good Son of God. The apple of the Father’s eye was so filled with your rottenness that the Father turned away from Him as if it were you.

And so it was that the new and better Noah became, on the cross, the old and unbelieving world, precisely in order that you might be pulled from the waters of death and planted within the ark of His resurrected body. For as the one just man, Noah, exited the ark after the flood, so the one just man, Christ, exited the ark of His tomb after the baptismal flood of crucifixion. And just as eight people lived through the ancient flood, so on the eighth day, Christ lived again, the new Adam who had come to undo the doing of the old Adam, and to re-genesis the world in the new creation of His Church.

The body of this new Adam is now the ark of the Church. He is the ship of salvation whose door, pried open by a soldier’s spear, still stands open. His side is open so that you can enter therein and find life. You are baptized into the ark of Christ no better than a beast; but whereas the beasts that entered Noah’s ark remained beasts, you are made a son of God upon entrance. No longer an unclean beast, you are a clean, holy, forgiven child of your heavenly Father, safe and secure in the holy ark of Christendom, the body of the new and better Noah.

Outside the ark there is only death, but within the ark of Christ’s body the Church, there is life, salvation, and hope for you. Like Noah, you have found grace in the eyes of the LORD for you have been found within that One who gives you true rest.

A version of this reflection is included in Chad’s book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, available from Amazon.

Married to the Cross in Divorce

sufferingdivorceThere are times when you feel like a spectator who views in slow motion the demolition of your life. Mini-explosions rock the foundations of everything that gave you meaning and purpose. Maybe it happens when you stare at the surreal spectacle of a coffin descending into raw earth, or the X-rays of a brain tumor, or the officer standing at your front door serving you papers for divorce. At those moments, it’s not like something inside you dies; it’s more like all of what’s inside you dies. What remains is a thin shell veiling a rapidly diminishing life.

There are no funeral rites for the corpse of a marriage, no official way to lay it to rest. So most of us make up our own. I did. Mine was a liturgy of whiskey and promiscuity, alternately screaming and crying toward heaven, and seeking salvation in every new girlfriend. One step forward, two steps back…or three, or four. All the while I was sinking a little deeper into the quicksand of sorrow.

I wish I were blowing things out of proportion. But I’m not; I’ve really only scratched the surface. For some of us, following divorce there are a string of debaucheries, flirtations with suicide, and grisly plans for revenge. Others self-medicate, hole up and lick their wounds, shun the opposite sex. Everyone reacts differently, but most of us react in ways we later shudder to recall. And like so many of life’s heartaches, unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to imagine the magnitude of the pain and the foolish things you’ll do in your quest for relief.

Maybe you’re thinking that I’m going to tell you that divorce made me a “better Christian.” But I don’t even know what that means. Better than what? Better than I had been? Better than other people? Better how? I wish I could tell you that through divorce I became a stronger person, but thank God I didn’t. If anything, my perceived “strength” is what paved the way for the destructive decisions that caused my divorce in the first place. If the death of my marriage revealed anything, it was my profound weaknesses.

What I do know is that divorce was for me, as it is for most of us, a process of unmasking—a slow peeling away of various lies. Unlike a Halloween mask, I had worn these masks for years, so long in fact that they had grafted to my skin.
The mask of “thank God I’m not as bad as those people are.”
The mask of “I have a happy marriage.”
The mask of “I never have any doubts about God.”
The mask of “I’ve fallen short, but not way short, of the glory of God.”
And my favorite mask: “I have everything under control.”

As the truthful realities of divorce scratch away at the face we exhibit to the world, one by one the layers diminish. What I discovered beneath was what I’d always claimed I had but never really believed: the face of a liar and cheat, a face pockmarked with pharisaism, a face as dirty as the filthiest sinner. What others discover beneath their chosen masks are faces flushed with anger, eroded by the weather of worry, or gargoyle-like monsters of hate. Whatever we find, they are faces only a God can love.

I don’t pretend to speak for everyone. But divorce was for me a blessed destruction, a splendid disaster. God hates divorce (Mal 2:16), to be sure, but through it he revealed other things he doesn’t think highly of either: like a haughty spirit, hypocrisy, lust, self-reliance, and on and on it goes. It took time, long dark years, for this blessed destruction to have its way with me, but God is more of a marathoner than a sprinter. I was in a hurry to be healed but he was not.

Who I ended up being was not a better Christian (whatever that means), not a better person, not a stronger person, but simply this: a man who grasps more fully that, in and of myself, I am nothing. I have zilch to offer God. I have nothing of my own to claim, except my faults. I have no strength, no righteousness, no moral pedigree to wow heaven. I am Jonah, sinking beneath the waves. I am Lazarus, dead and decomposing in a grave. I am a corpse in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. I have and am nothing. And come to find out, once we realize that, be it through divorce or any other suffering in life, we are in the perfect position to gain everything.

In divorce God married me to the cross. I didn’t want it; indeed, I hated it. But upon my shoulders God laid it. The ring of nails. The veil of darkness. The kiss of death. When we are stripped of all the good we think we are and have, we come face to face with the evil within. We fight and wrestle and gasp and die and become nothing.

Then our Lord, who created everything out of nothing, says, “Now I have you exactly where I want you.” The only material that God really works with is nothing. He brings to nothing the things that are (1 Cor 1:28) that through this nothing he might show us that our everything is that one who is the source of our life, Christ Jesus, whom God makes our “wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption,” (1:30). He opens our eyes to see that we are not dead on a cross alone. We are part of a thorn-crowned Savior who became our everything. We die in him and life returns. We have no hope in ourselves but in him we receive hope of cosmic proportions. Our face, which only a God can love, the Father of love bends down and kisses. He bathes away our filth. He lifts up our downcast eyes. He gives us his own name. We are married to the cross, and there meet the bridegroom of our souls.

Like so many of the hardships in life, it is only in hindsight that we realize the hidden hand of God at work in our deepest woes. He is not making us stronger but is making us dead, that we might truly live in the strength that he provides. He is not making us better people but unveiling how bad we are that we may find in Christ the riches of our Father’s goodness.

Some people talk about life after divorce, but I prefer to talk about death after divorce: the death of self, the death of masks, the death of a sham existence in which we pretend we’ve got this life thing figured out. Unless we die, there is no resurrection. When we die to those things worthy of death, we find him who is the resurrection and the life. And we find in him all those things—and more!—that we searched for apart from him. Things like joy. Things like peace. Things like hope and healing and love and meaning and purpose. All these are in Christ, and they are ours.

If you are facing a divorce, going through one, or recovering from one, let me tell you the most important thing: Christ will not and cannot sever you from himself. The sun will lose its light, the water its wetness, the night its dark before that happens. He counts the hairs on your head, every tear you shed is so precious to him that he collects them in a bottle (Matt 10:30; Ps 56:8). Like Zion, your image is engraved on the palms of his hands (Isa 49:16), your name tattooed on his heart. You will not always feel his love, but his love clasps you in its strong arms. You will probably feel abandoned by God, but he will never leave you, never forsake you. As you bear this cross, you bear it not alone, but in him who is the crucified and risen Savior. He is for you. He is faithful. He has married you to himself with a love larger than heaven.

christ alone coverWhat we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

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