Archive for the month “December, 2012”

He Who Said “Let There Be Light” Becomes His Own Word: An Epiphany Meditation

wisemenArise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!

Darkness shrouds the earth; midnight’s shade beclouds the peoples of this world. But not the church. Get up, Israel, shine as if you’ve swallowed a liquid sun and your every pore is a window of fire. Your Light has been born, winking out over a virgin horizon to illumine a cosmos of sunless, starless, moonless night.

A star appears in the East, twinkling over its Creator, a single constellation bows over that Light of Light from whom darkness flees. He who said, Let there be light, becomes His own word.
He is the Sun before whom all suns flicker as candles;
the Fire before whom all flames are as ash;
the Heat before whom all summers shiver in shame.

Nations travel to this light, the whole Gentile world compressed into the Magi. They bring gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Thine own of Thine own they offer unto Thee, this baby God bouncing on His mother’s knee. They regift the Giver of all to whom no gift truly can be given, for from him and to him and through him are all things, both in heaven and on earth.

To you, Bethlehem, in land of Judah, they travel, for from you comes a Ruler who will shepherd God’s people, Israel. The lost sheep of the house of Judah, the lost sheep of Greece and Rome and Persia and America, they hear your voice, that infant cooing
that will one day be the adult beseeching
that will one final day be the crucified man
panting,
moaning,
exhaling,
dying for you.
That voice the sheep hear, for they know the voice of their shepherd, even when He is the lamb silent before those who slaughter him. He is born in Bethlehem, of the house and lineage of David, for he is David’s Son and Lord, the root and stem of Jesse, the slayer of hell’s Goliath, and the ruler of Israel.

Come and worship him, for there is no other to worship. All other gods are devils, all other ways are pits, all other truths are lies. He is the gold of the Father, who, for your sake became poor, that you he might enrich. He is the frankincense and myrrh of heaven, the incense of whose sacrificed body will waft upward as a pleasing aroma to the Lord, an incense in which the stench of every sin becomes as perfume.

He is the Epiphany of everything God is, everything God has, every gift God desires to lavish upon you. The Alpha of love, the Omega of grace, and every combination of the letters of the alphabet that spells out the Father’s will to save you.

Arise, O Church, and shine, for your Light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!

(The church will celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord on January 6.  This meditation draws primarily from Isaiah 60 and Matthew 2, two of the readings for that day.)

If you’d like to read more of my writings, please check out my two books: Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons and The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems. Click here if you’d like to purchase Christ Alone or here for The Infant Priest. They are both also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing. Thank you!

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2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 7,800 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 13 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Preaching in the Nude

I know of only one preacher whose vestments were simply his birthday suit. No alb or cassock, suit or tie, underwear or socks or shoes covered him. Only skin. For three years he meandered barefooted and barebutted, a human homily revealing a naked truth about encroaching judgment. What Isaiah was, the peoples around him would become, should they trust in the muscle of man instead of the arm of the Lord (Isaiah 20). Without clothes and without shoes, destitute of every possession, they would be led away as POWs by the tyrant of Assyria. A naked prophet delivering that message for over a thousand days may seem beyond extreme, but God has been known to go to great lengths to lay bare the foolhardiness of those who robe themselves in garments that reveal, not conceal, their failures.

A few weeks ago, the pastor of my congregation did something in his sermon I’ve never heard a pastor do: he confessed a failure. He had once been ashamed of his brother, he admitted, and had acted in a way toward him that was not in keeping with love. His brother was unaware of it at the time. And it was only years later that my pastor confessed it to him, and sought his brother’s forgiveness, which was readily granted. What struck me as he told the story was not the audacity of the sin but the honesty and humanity of the preacher. For just a moment, in the telling of that tale, it was as if he were preaching in the nude. His vestments were on, but they were also off. He was Isaiah, proclaiming a message of how frail the flesh is, including, perhaps especially, the flesh of the called and ordained sinner.

You would never have caught me doing that. For about ten years, I stood in various pulpits. And not once, in all those sermons, did I preach in the nude. Not once did I reveal one of the millions of my personal struggles or failings. Do not misunderstand me, or exaggerate my meaning. For I’m not talking about a breaking-down-weeping-buckets-of-tears-Jimmy-Swaggart confession. I’m talking about common, human failings that deaden and define us all. I revealed no skin. Why is that?

Part of the reason had to do with my personality. I didn’t like to admit my shortcomings, not even to myself, much less to others. It was as if pretending established reality, as if the lie created truth. If I never admitted a weakness, it didn’t exist. Of course, if someone were to ask me if I were a sinner, I would agree wholeheartedly, ratcheting it up by adding, “A poor, miserable sinner at that!” But ask me to specify and you’d get nowhere. For there is no greater veil for the hypocrite than the vague admission that he’s a wrongdoer.

Another part of the reason, however, lay in the culture of the church of which I am a part. When I was a boy, my Granddaddy told me what had happened to one of his beloved greyhounds. The dog had tried to jump over the fence, but one of his back legs got caught on the wire. He hung there, head down, yelping in pain. The other dogs in the pen surrounded him, bared their teeth, and tore him to bloody shreds. That’s how my Granddaddy found him. Sadly and horrifically, what often happens in the church when a man admits his failures and cries out for help, he ends up like my Granddaddy’s dog. This begins already in the seminary, and it continues into the congregation and districts of the church. We expect our pastors to be sinners, but they damn sure better not sin. I believe this fosters a culture of puritanical violence within the church, creates hypocrisy amongst the clergy, and hammers into despair those who truly want and need to cry out for help.

It is true, and I believe it wholeheartedly, that when a pastor preaches, he is to proclaim nothing but the Word of God. “He who hears you, hears me,” Jesus says. But I assume that if David can pen an inspired hymn of confession and repentance after his adultery and murder—a psalm that is, every syllable of it, God’s word—then a pastor need not shrink from admitting his own weaknesses, even from the pulpit. If such preaching in the nude leads his listeners, other clergy, bishops, or anyone else to conclude that this man is indeed a true sinner, all the better.

As for me, I’ll take a preacher like nude Isaiah any day over one who’s clad from head to toe in that which mocks the reality of the human condition.

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Captives led away by Assyrians

Anniversary of a Dead Marriage: The Painful Lessons of Divorce

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Today, December 29, would have been the twenty-second anniversary of my first marriage. Five years have passed since our divorce—years raw with emotion, scarred by mistakes, scabbed over with hints of hope. Every year, when this day rolls around, I turn over the stones of remembrance that litter my mind, to see what lurks beneath. I see things there I don’t want to see, learn things about myself that I never wanted to know, but do anyway. I also see there lessons learned, painful but positive lessons. This piece is more for me than anyone else, though you are welcome to tag along and spy on my thoughts.

1. The Undivorced Don’t Get It.
I’ve never stood by the freshly dug grave of my beloved wife. Never has the blood of a fellow soldier been showered on me during a firefight. I’ve never been bankrupt or homeless or had cancer. I don’t know about a lot of things, because I haven’t experienced those hells. The happily married, undivorced man or woman knows nothing of the agony of divorce, and should never pretend otherwise. This includes pastors, and all those who may seek to counsel the divorced. They should never assume they “get” what the divorced person is going through. Every loss, every grief is unique, and to make it generic by universalizing it cheapens the hurt the divorced feel.

2. I disagree with St. Paul.
When he writes to the Corinthians, Paul says, “One who is unmarried is concerned with the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife,” (1 Cor 7:32-33). Not for me. Most men who are unmarried are concerned with finding a woman whom they can marry. And until they do that, most of their thoughts, energies, time, and, yes, money, are directed toward that end. I was much more concerned about the things of the Lord when I was married than when I became single. It is not good for the man to be alone, and so long as he is, it won’t be good for him personally, or his service to the Lord. With notable exceptions, men are created for women. And it is in the vocation of husband that they serve the Lord best, for they are completed by her.

3. Lonely, Hurting Men Make Bad Decisions.
I made the mistake many men do immediately after their divorce: the first woman I dated, I “fell in love with” and soon we were making wedding plans. I later broke off the engagement as the reality that this was a rebound relationship slowly sank in, although, of course, it was at an additional emotional cost to both of us, as well as our mutual children. Every relationship is a risk, but the risk skyrockets when the man is still nursing wounds from a failed marriage. He wants nothing more than a restored wholeness, to recreate a past that either did exist, or exists only in his nostalgic imagination. And in this state of yearning for healing, he tends to idealize a woman, seeing in her the wife he wants her to be instead of the woman whom she really is.

4. Divorce Unveils the Monster Within
Divorce brings out the worst in people. It certainly did in me. I was little aware of the fathomless depths of anger, spite, depression, regret, pettiness, and selfishness within me until my marriage ended. Then it all came oozing, or exploding, to the surface, in various ways and at various times. I remember late one night, while working in the oil field, having a conversation with another driver who was going through a divorce. His wife had left him for another man. He described how his every waking moment was consumed with fantasies of revenge, murderous payback, horrid thoughts he’d never entertained before. Divorce can do that, unearthing new evils within. It’s a dark journey of self-knowledge. And although, thank God, most of the time these monsters within us remain caged, never acting out the evils of which they are capable, the sheer fact that they are there at all is enough to make me scared of the man I have the potential to become.

5. Healing Will Begin, But It Takes Its Sweet Time
I’m fortunate because I survived divorce. I didn’t put a gun to my head and pull the trigger, though on my darkest of days I held the pistol in my hand. I didn’t become addicted to something that would dull the pain, though I did my fair share of self-medicating with alcohol. I came through, wounded and scarred to be sure, but at least alive. Not every one is so lucky. God placed into my life a few select friends without whose love I would not have made it. Not surprisingly, these friends are divorced as well. They get it. I am at a point of healing now, five years later, that I thought I’d never reach, even if I had five lifetimes. I still have a long way to go, but at least I’ve made progress. Baby steps are steps nonetheless.

I have two children, a son and daughter. They live with their mother and step-father. I see them four to six days a month—days that mean the world to me. As heart-breaking as my time apart from them is, I have grown to thank God that, in the aftermath of our divorce, our children are still provided with a stable, secure, Christian home in which to grow up. Indeed, they are blessed with a good mother and a caring stepfather.

The very fact that I can write that last sentence, and mean every word, is proof positive that, five years after my divorce, the Lord has made a little progress in putting this shattered man back together again.

Graveyard Lullaby: “Oh Bloody Town of Bethlehem”

O bloody town of Bethlehem,
How shrill we hear thee cry.
Your mothers shriek while fathers weep
The graveyard lullaby.
For butchers clad as soldiers
At Herod’s mad behest
Aborted weal with blades of steel
They thrust in tender chests.

O Bethlehem, thou House of Tears,
What balm can heal thy woe?
When darkness looms, can flowers bloom,
From seeds of grief you sow?
Dear Heaven, share thy secret:
These sons died not in vain.
Young martyrs bold, in death foretold,
A Death that Life would gain.

Ye martyred boys of Bethlehem,
From ‘neath the altar, pray
To Christ your Lord, whom Herod’s sword
Slew not that awful day.
Rachel, Rachel, weep no more,
Your sons shall dry your tears.
For flowers bloom where darkness loomed,
Since Christ our Light appears.

Imagel

Someone Was Shooting At Me: A Cautionary Tale

357magnum

The was nary a second between the crack of the rifle and the bullet slapping the water in front of us. So surreal was it that we gaped at the water as if an invisible fish had just leaped from the pond. Then another shot boomed, and the water splashed again, this time closer. Shock waves rolled through our bodies like the waves rippling through the pond. We were in the middle of nowhere, on a quiet summer day, two cousins casting lines into a fishing hole we’d been to many times before. Only this time, someone was trying to kill us…

One week every summer, we were Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Jim Bob and I didn’t have the Mississippi, but we had the Red River, along with creeks and ponds galore. Our .22 rifles were permanently attached to our hands, and every rabbit, squirrel, prairie dog, and noisome bird was fair game. We tried our luck at fishing, and usually bad luck it was, but we did reel in the occasional bass or catfish. Even before I had my driver’s license, my parents let me steer the Chevy down the dirt roads that crisscrossed Wheeler County. Up and down them we went, eyes peeled for wildlife, dreaming of the next big adventure. One year, while he was visiting in the autumn, we set up our tent near the river, and awoke the next morning with an icicle hanging over our heads. Somebody hadn’t checked the weather forecast. But an hour later, while we were thawing out around the campfire, a flock of turkeys ambled by not fifteen yards away. Without leaving the log he was sitting on, Jim Bob slowly turned, aimed, his bullet flew true, and these two would-be Daniel Boones were one turkey richer.

But the day the bullets flew at us was a different story. Mr. Hefley’s pond was cradled in the middle of a half section of grassland, with a stream feeding into it. Trees were clumped here and there about its banks. A small platform hung out over the water. And there we sat, poles in our hands, watching the bobbers dance. Watching, until the gunshots sounded and our hearts roared into overdrive.

I had been a hunter for as long as I could remember, graduating from a sling shot to a B.B. gun and eventually to a rifle and shotgun. I was adept and deadly with them all. But I had always been the predator, never the prey. When the bullets slammed into the water in front of us, my initial reaction was that of most prey: I ran like hell. I yelled at Jim Bob to grab his rifle, as I grabbed mine, and sprinted for the nearest trees. One more shot rang out, then silence.

Behind the trees, the prey became predator once again. Finger on the trigger, I scanned the hills around the pond, the trees on the other side, anywhere where a man might hide. The echoes of the gunshots had reverberated so much that the bullets could have come from any direction. I still remember the phrase, “Shoot to kill,” bouncing around inside my brain. We might have been two scared teenage boys, unversed in anything remotely military, but at that moment whoever was shooting at us was the enemy. And we’d do what it took to defend ourselves.

When laughter arose from a clump of trees on the south side of the pond, I looked over at my cousin, both of us wide-eyed and incredulous. Then came a voice, calling out our names, still laughing. I knew that voice, and I knew that laugh. I’d heard it many a time in my own home, around our table. He was what you might call a ‘friend of the family’, a young man a few years older than myself, perhaps 20 at the time. Over his shoulder was slung the rifle. A smile played on his lips, followed by another goodhearted chuckle, as he walked up and looked at our astonished faces with obvious delight. Somehow he’d found out where we were, and though how funny it would be to sneak down to the pond. Nothing wrong with a little scare now and then. He just meant to have a little fun at our expense.

I guess he had his fun. Neither that day, nor any day afterward, did I find it funny. I had hunted with this man. He knew guns, knew what they could do, knew they aren’t toys. Yet that day he turned one into a toy, a plaything to frighten two young cousins.

He should have been whipped, and his guns taken away, in my opinion.

Both of my children have grown up around guns, and gone hunting with me, as well as other family members. I’ve told them this story—not as a comedy, but a potential tragedy. Two horrible things could have happened that day: a bullet could have ricocheted off the water and struck me or my cousin; or I could have caught a glimpse of the ‘someone’ shooting at us from the trees and put a bullet in his skull before he had a chance to reveal who he was. Thank God neither of those things happened. But they could have. And that’s the point I make with my children. This story is for them, and for any of you who pass on the heritage of keeping and bearing arms—keeping and bearing them responsibly.

No-Man

This day in history a man was born whom no one remembers. In fact, within a few years of his death, not a soul could recall his name. Never were flowers laid on his grave. Never were tears shed for his absence. He wrote no lasting literature, built no famous monument, and no son carried on his legacy. He was a man easily missed, quickly forgotten. But today, and every day, he wears a crown and every angel in heaven knows him by name. He is a king. He is a priest. He is a son of God. For this no-man was always precious to the Father. He numbered his tears. He understood his loneliness. He made this man his child. For no man is a no-man to the God who always remembers.

A Dying Man Mistook Me for Jesus

Things were not looking up for Harvey, even when he thought they were. He came back from Mexico feeling like a new man. It was a non-traditional treatment for the cancer that had taken him across the Rio Grande. Some crazy mixture of God only knows what had been injected into his system. I’m no doctor. I offered no criticism. Just listened patiently as he went on and on, the most alive I’d seen him for months. He was still dying, but if he felt like doing a happy dance on Death for a while, I’d be the last man to stop the music.

Harvey was the kind of fellow who looked funny when he wasn’t wearing boots and a cowboy hat. Almost seemed naked without them. He and his two sons were farriers, men who spent all day doing the back-breaking work of cleaning all the crap out of horses’ hooves, trimming them, and putting shoes on them, all the while fighting with cranky horses, biting flies, dirt, sun, shit, wind, and other items of vocational delight. But either Harvey loved it, tolerated it, or – as most of us do eventually – gotten used to ebb and flow of the job. You do what you do, and sooner or later, you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else.

But, by and by, Harvey got to the point where he couldn’t do anything else but be sick. Anyone who’s had cancer, or loved someone through cancer, knows that eventually the sickness becomes a full-time job. He ran though the typical gauntlets of radiation and chemo. The row of pill boxes stood on the cabinet, each one a concoction of hope. He listened to the doctors’ prognosis, learned to spout medical terminology he’d never in a million years dreamed he’d know, got worse, got better, got worse, got better.

And, in time, only got worse, never better. He preferred our visits to be in his home, so that’s where we always met. The living room was dark, shades drawn, a makeshift bed arranged beside the couch, where he lay, half the man he used to be. I can still see him there; it’s one of those yesterday memories that’s over ten years old. I was in my black shirt, clerical collar noosed around my neck. He was in a old t-shirt and Wranglers. Talking softly, interrupted by ghastly coughs. I never was good with the sick. Never felt I was anyway. Never seemed I could quite say what I thought I should be saying. So I prayed the liturgy with him. Read him a psalm. Said a few words about it that I hoped would comfort him. Opened my communion case, got out two wafers – one for me, one for him – poured a little wine, and repeated what Jesus had said when he was about to die for Harvey. We ate and drank our little meal of the Lord. I pronounced a benediction and prayer over him and prepared to make my leave. As I took his hand in mine, he whispered to me, “Thank you, Lord, for coming to see me.” There was silence for a few seconds as I held his handshake, almost afraid to let go. Then he chuckled and said, “I meant, thank you, Pastor, for coming to see me.” “You bet, Harvey,” I said. “I’ll see you again soon.”

But I didn’t. Harvey died. I remember the funeral, and all the cowboys there, from all across the great state of Oklahoma. I remember the grave, and his widow, Yvonne, standing motionless by the mound of dirt, and the vast, empty western sky behind her. But what I remember most is that man mistook me for Jesus. I was just doing my job. Maybe, for once, I did it right.

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St. Stephen the Martyr

Hear, O Israel, Yahweh,
The LORD our God, has won.
Witness, Stephen, witness,
Of what the Christ has done.
As stiff-necked mobs menace,
As stones of vengeance fly,
The Son of Man in glory
Awaits you in the sky.

Heavenly Father, grant us grace that in our sufferings for the sake of Christ we may follow the example of Saint Stephen, that we may look to him who suffered and was crucified on our behalf and pray for those who do us wrong; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. (Lutheran Worship, 116).

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“Mary Never Knew What Was Coming Next”: A Devotion for the First Sunday after Christmas

Mary never knew what was coming next. Normality became a tease. Just about the time it seemed her life might mellow into ho-hum everydayness for a first century Jewish girl, something, or someone, new would pop around the corner. One minute she’s an engaged, virgin teenager, and the next a heavenly being pays her a visit to inform her she’s about to begin her first trimester with God in her womb. Nine months later, on the night of her baby boy’s nativity, shepherds come a-calling, mouths agape with wild stories of angels singing to them in the countryside, telling them that in Bethlehem they’d lay eyes on the Savior of the world. And now, when Mary and Joseph journey to Jerusalem with baby Jesus, to fulfill the sacrifices required by the law of Moses, two more people come along to rock their world.

First, there’s Simeon. He’s the kind of man for whom waiting is a way of life. Not a mere twiddling-the-thumbs variety of waiting, yawning away the hours, but hope-full waiting, the kind of waiting that knows that, sooner or later, God will make good on his promise. The promise was this: before he saw death, he would see the Lord’s Christ. The babe for whom Adam hoped; for whom Noah longed; of whom David sang and Isaiah preached; the Redeemer for whom every son and daughter of Abraham had been yearning—that One Simeon would cradle in his arms. And he did. He held not just a theoretical promise but a living person, God’s love and mercy and compassion in the flesh. To this baby, and to the baby’s Father, Simeon sang a lullaby and hymn rolled into one, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel, ” (Luke 2:29-32 ESV).

As Simeon sang, up walked Anna, an elderly woman who had made God’s house her own, fasting and praying, day and night, within the temple walls. With Simeon she joined in a sort of prophetic duet, showering thanks on the Lord who not only makes, but keeps, promises. And like a giddy Grandma, who can’t stop talking about her newborn grandson, Anna spread the news far and wide of this child who was born to redeem Israel, and the world.

But amidst all this singing and smiling, all these new wonders for Mary, there was a reality check as well. Her life would be full of surprises that would cheer, as well as pierce, her maternal heart. For after Simeon sang his song of praise, he turned to Mary and announced, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed,” (Luke 2:34-35 ESV).

For when all the “Silent Nights” and “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehems” are sung, when we’ve all become dewy-eyed over the diapered deity swaddled in the manger, there remains the reality that God did not send his Son into the world to make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. He came to redeem a broken world, and to do that would require hurt and pain and blood and all sorts of raw suffering. His was a messy mission. And Mary, his mother, would be part of the mess, for a sword would pierce her own heart. She who once placed her two hands on her extended belly, wondering what kind of boy she would have, stood drenched in tears as she looked up at that boy, now a man, whose two hands were extended upon the cross-beams, drenched in blood, to save her and the messy world he so loves. Each nail that pierced his hands, each thorn that bit into his brow, the spear that punctured his side—they all were part of the sword of sorrow that was thrust deep into her own heart.

Mary never knew what was coming next. And neither do we. Each day has the potential to usher in breathtaking joy or heart-wrenching sorrow or anything in between. But whatever happens, in one way or another, we’re usually going through one mess or on our way to another. Life just works that way. Day and night, happiness and sadness, birthdays and funerals. There’s all ingredients in the soup we call “life.”

But Christ is also part of the mix. And he’s the most important part, for he is The Constant. His love is the sun that never sets, the smile that never fades. His mercy is the flower that never wilts, the hand that always grips. His compassion is an ocean that knows no beaches, for on and on and still onward it stretches.

To “see salvation” in Christ—as Simeon did—is to see more than being “saved” from hell or sin. For Christ saves us from a life empty of God, and makes our life one in which God fills us and lives through us. Mary carried Jesus in her womb, and everywhere he went, so did she. And so we carry Christ in us, everywhere we go. And to us as well as through us he speaks, he acts, he loves. And he redeems the mess our life often becomes. When swords pierce our hearts, he is there to heal us with own life-giving wounds. For each of us is as precious to him—no, even more precious—than life itself.

(I wrote this devotion for The Lutheran Intercity Network Coalition [LINC] in San Antonio.  Find out more about their work–along with other devotions–at http://www.lincsa.org).Image

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