Archive for the month “January, 2013”

Our Father, of Good Repute

When I meet someone whose good reputation precedes him, I want to believe the best of him. I want to believe that person is good at heart, the kind you would want to call a friend, maybe even the best of friends. But as I get to know him on my own, if I spy a gleam of malice in his eyes, detect a callous attitude in his dealings with others, observe a flippant attitude toward those who are hurting, my faith fades. It doesn’t matter how many scores of others gush about the fellow’s goodness, what ultimately matters is how he treats me, and how I observe him treating others.

Such has been my experience with God. I could sing, “Jesus loves me” and quote John 3:16 before I learned to tie my shoes. I cut my teeth on the stories of Noah and his ark, David and Goliath, Daniel and the lions’ den, Jesus and his cross. In church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, along with the obligatory Sunday School hour and annual VBS. Like Paul, like many of you, from infancy I have known the holy scriptures. But, despite all that, did I know God, really know God?

With maturity comes awareness, and with awareness comes questioning. Many of my questions, my most nagging questions, concern the God with whom I have been acquainted these last 40 years, but whose true nature continues to baffle and trouble me. Some of these are the broad questions, “Is God really that concerned about human suffering?” and some of them are more personal, “Does God really give a damn that my daughter is suffering from depression?” And to these two are joined a thousand others. Most of them, however, revolve around a single issue: If God really cares about people, why does he so often, and for such long periods of time, turn his back on them. Or worse, why does he become their enemy?

I know the biblical, theological, philosophical, and ethical “answers” to these questions. But they are only answers, not solutions. If my son has fallen out of a tree and broken his arm, I can stand a few feet away from my weeping child and inform him that I’m really concerned about his injury, feel his pain, and assure him that with time the bone will heal and all will be better. And what kind of parent would I be? Loving? Good? Compassionate? Or I could run over to him, take him in my arms, hold him tight as I rush him to ER to make sure everything possible is done to alleviate his pain. Which kind of parent is God?

There are words and there are actions. And words may be well and good in some situations, but when it comes to suffering, words without actions communicate the exact opposite of what they explicitly state. To say, “I love you” to someone who’s suffering, then to walk away without at least attempting to do anything to lessen their suffering is really to say, “I don’t give a damn.”

Very often that seems to be God’s style of pastoral care. It’s then that certain verses from the Psalms roll off my lips with the greatest of ease. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (13:1). “Why have you rejected me?” (43:2). “Will the Lord reject forever? And will he never be favorable again? Has his lovingkindness ceased forever? Has his promise come to an end forever? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Or has he in anger withdrawn his compassion?” (77:7-9).

I still believe that God is a God of love, but it’s a faith I have to fight to keep. And more often than not, I wonder if, when faith is a phantom we reach for but cannot grasp, does God at least honor the desire to believe? I can only hope he does.

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“Still in the Loins of His Father”: Who Were You Before You Were Conceived?

Tucked away in a not-so-well-known book of the Bible, in a not-so-well-understood chapter of that book, in a rather long, almost eccentric argument concerning Christ’s superiority to the Israelite priests, is a verse that I find difficult to read with a straight face. Was the author winking when he wrote it? Or was he stone-cold serious? It has baffled me for years. And for years I’ve been pondering the meaning of it, and its implications for our understanding of the body, the family, and genealogy. I’m still unraveling this mystery, so bear with me, but here are some tentative thoughts I have regarding it.

In Hebrews 7, the author compares and contrasts Jesus as the über-priest to the priests of the old covenant. At the core of his argument is an intimate connection he draws between Christ and the elusive figure of Melchizedek. For the sake of simplicity, let’s just say that he argues that in every way that Melchizedek surpassed the OT priests, so does Jesus. In Genesis 14, when Abraham returned from a successful battle, the king-priest Melchizedek went out to meet him. He served Abraham bread and wine; he blessed the patriarch; and, Abraham, in turn, placed in the hands of Melchizedek a tenth of all the spoils of war.

That exchange, the giving of a tithe by Abraham, and the receiving of that tithe by Melchizedek, is easily skimmed over, but not by the author of Hebrews. Every detail is under the interpretive microscope. For, as he builds his case for Melchizedek’s (and Jesus’) superior priesthood, he includes this: “And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him,” (Hebrews 7:9-10).

Did you catch that? Levi was “still in the loins” of Abraham, his great-grandfather, when he handed over the tithe to Melchizedek. Therefore, what Abraham did, Levi did, though Levi himself still had to travel from Abraham’s loins to Isaac’s loins to Jacob’s loins, into and out of the womb of Leah, before he would utter his natal cry. True, the author adds “so to speak” to rein in this radical claim, but the claim is still made. Thus, so to speak, little Levi was ensconced within his great-grandfather’s male parts that day, the tithe-receiving priest become the tithe-giving priest, handing over a tenth to Melchizedek, the altogether superior man of God.

Let’s think about this.

I am Chad Bird, the son of Carson, who is the son of Lee Roy, who is the son of Roy—my “Abraham”. This I wonder: was I in the loins of Roy when he grew up near Axtell, TX? when he farmed his cotton fields? when he worshiped at the local Methodist church? when he moved into the house his son, Lee Roy, built him in his old age? Was I, so to speak, there, in my “Abraham”, as he went through life?

If there’s any part of the Bible that’s like quicksand to a would-be reader of Genesis through Revelation, it’s the genealogies. So-and-so begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so, all of which begets ZZZs in all but the most zealous of readers. Yawning a read though they be, these lists of descendants cry out a truth that is both frightening and beautiful: no man is an island unto himself, but a piece of earth bound inextricably to the continent of his family. Levi was in the loins of his great-grandfather Abraham, and I was in the loins of my great-grandfather Roy, because a man is who he is not only by virtue of the choices he makes in life, but by the family whence he comes, and the choices that family makes. At the moment of my conception, I already had a history. I am conceived with a biography. We think of the moment when the sperm fertilizes the egg as the opening chapter in human life, but perhaps it is only the next chapter in a story that already has volumes written.

Think of it this way: traditional Christians have no problems speaking of the “Fall of Adam” as their own fall into sin. They’ll nod as Paul preaches, “in Adam all die,” (1 Corinthians 15:21) and sing with gusto,
            All mankind fell in Adam’s fall,
            One common sin infects us all
            From sire to son the bane descends
            And over all the curse impends.
But if I am so bound up in the history of the first man, all the way back at the dawn of creation, how can I not also be bound up in the more recent history of my family?

Though the implications one can draw from this way of thinking are manifold, one that especially strikes me is that my identity—the who and what that makes me, me—is about far more than Chad Bird. I inherited not just DNA, but an identity, formed by my father, whose identity was formed by his father, and so forth. And I will pass that identity on, along with whatever modifications I make to it, to my children. For I already bear in my loins my own great-grandson. Who I am matters, for who I am influences my posterity.

In this week when we hear much about the sanctity of life, it is good to recall that life does not begin at conception. It begins before. And it continues long after death.

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Every Love Triangle Is Isosceles

When a man loves two women, or a woman two men, we get geometrical, labeling it a triangle. I am no fan of math in general, or geometry in particular, so perhaps I’m biased when I say that has to be one of the most boring metaphors imaginable for this relationship that is usually marked by pyrotechnic emotional explosiveness. You need read no further than the stories in Genesis—of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar; or of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah—to see that such triangulation breeds a swarm of rather nasty attitudes and actions. It was the famous short story author, O. Henry, who pointed out in his Schools and Schools that love triangles “are always isosceles—never equilateral.” A man does not, indeed, cannot, love two women equally, nor can a woman two men. One side of that triangle is always shorter than the others, one is always getting less while the other gets more.

What is true of human relationships is also true—indeed, even truer—of man’s relationship with God. When the monogamous becomes polygamous, when I worship the Lord but have a fling or two on the side with my idol of choice, the resulting triangle is never equally proportioned. One divinity always gets less of me, and he who gets less is always the God who demands all. Uncomely Leah becomes the patron saint of the Lord unloved.

But here is the real truth, the deeper truth about so-called “love triangles”: they do not exist—either in human or divine relationships. Love is a whole, a thing indivisible. It is not a pizza that I can cut up and divvy out piece by piece to whomever I choose. That is why Jesus says, “No man can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and mammon.” For to love is to give all of oneself to another for the benefit of that person. A “love triangle” is nothing more than selfishness masquerading as love, an attempt to multiply love that results only in its subtraction and negation.

In the end, adultery and idolatry are one and the same thing: the destruction of love.

And that is why the marriage and fidelity of Christ to his bride, the Church, is the perfect picture of love. For here is love incarnate, giving all of himself, giving love, to her who reciprocates that love.

And that also means—miracle of miracles—that you, as an individual, have the entirety of God’s love, for you have him in his fullness, in Christ, in you, the hope of glory.

Sermons That’ll Get You Killed: A Reflection on Luke 4:22-30

Nobody smiles during a prophet’s first sermon. Either your heart is broken or you want to break his neck, but you don’t break out in a full-toothed grin. For the prophetic word is too rough on the ear, the pill he puts in your mouth too bitter to swallow with anything but a grimace.

Isaiah’s pulpit opens with the message that Israel is far worse than an ox and an ass, indeed just like a city home to homosexual rapists. Hosea acts out his first sermon, slipping a wedding ring onto the finger of a prostitute, then fathering children by her – one big gross family emblematic of unladylike Israel who would have felt quite at home working any corner where drive-by idols might need her syncretistic services. Not exactly a way to curry favor with the crowd, this kind of preaching, but then again the prophets were called by God, not elected by popular vote, ablaze with nothing but zeal for the truth of heaven.

So it came to pass that the Prophet of prophets left not a single face smiling when he wrapped up His sermon in Nazareth. He had a way with words, this Preacher, a way that well-nigh sent Him plummeting headlong down a nearby cliff. What got Him in trouble was quite simply telling the truth – always a dangerous activity, for men prefer that you lie to them, especially if the truth exposes them for what they are. All Jesus did was point out the obvious: no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. The Midianite Jethro and his daughters welcome Moses with open arms, while his own people arm themselves with stones. Nineveh repents in sackcloth and ashes when Jonah preaches in their pagan streets while back home priests kept right on liturgizing in front of their golden calves. A Gentile widow dines with Elijah while famished Israelite widows covet each tiny morsel of bread. Naaman the Syrian gets baby-soft skin in exchange for his leprosy while Elisha’s own flesh and blood rot away in theirs. Why, every Israelite kindergartner could have told you these stories. Jesus was just a boy pointing out the naked truth about the emperor’s new clothing.

But unlike the citizens in the children’s tale, the synagogue crowd in Nazareth was not happy that someone voiced the obvious. And neither are you. For the truth about ourselves is painful. It hurts to hear that you would much prefer a thousand pats on the back to one loving word of correction or rebuke. You expect others to be patient with your shortcomings–slight though they are–but you have little or no patience with the smallest weaknesses of others. You can’t finish a single psalm, no, not one Our Father, without having your mind wander God knows where. Would-be preachers really do expect that they will be welcomed in their first pulpit, so much nicer and so much a better preacher are they than our Lord. And, worse yet, if they are not welcomed, rather than praying for the repentance of those who reject them, often they revel like a big-headed martyr about being just like Jesus. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for men so filthy rich with sin to squeeze into the kingdom of heaven.

Therefore, abandon the Nazareth mob. Move to the Nineveh of sackcloth and ashes. Pitch your tent among the faithful Midianites. Step in the Jordan Font alongside Naaman and watch your leprosy wash off and float downstream. Kneel at the rail beside the widow at Zarephath and let Elijah’s Lord feed you, with the flour of His flesh and the oil of His blood.

For today is the day of salvation, a salvation acquired outside the city of the Jews, outside the gate, the place of the sin-offering. Here He who was lashed with the lying words of the His own people and the cruel whips of the Gentiles suffers for both groups, all the sons of Adam, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, reconciling us both to God in one body through the cross.

Though rejected by His own, He ever stands ready to welcome you. Indeed, He already has. He has transformed you from Isaiah’s ox and ass into a dear lamb whom He carries upon His shoulders, rejoicing to bear you to your heavenly home. No longer are you part of the lustful and polluted Gomer for she has been redeemed, washed with water and the word, without spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. And you are of her, and she is of Him, and He is of the Father.

Therefore rejoice, or, if you prefer, smile, yes, smile with the joy of the redeemed, for the dawn which the prophets longed for has finally broken. The Spirit of the Lord is upon the Messiah. His good news is that you are His beloved. Your chains are loosed. Your sight restored. The year of the Lord’s favor is upon you.

And today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your ears.

(A version of this sermon was preached at Kramer Chapel, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN, on 01/30/03)

“Slow Dancing in a Burning Room”

It was not fabled “love at first sight” that drew me to her. We were strangers, one to another, and on the day we were introduced, the skin of her palm warming my own, the handshake a split-second longer than civility required, no interior spark fell upon the tinder of my unsuspecting heart. Yes, there was now an awareness of one other’s existence, an exchange of names and casual pleasantries, but not a hint more.

The attraction did grow, over time, indeed, over long years, but so imperceptible was that growth that neither of us—I, at least—were aware of its mounting influence in our lives, and certainly not cognizant of the poison poised for release at the opportune time.

A variety of circumstances, both public and private, brought us into closer and closer contact. In professional get-togethers, she was there, a presence I found harder and harder to ignore. In gatherings with family and friends she was included as well, making eye-contact across the room, a flirtatious smile beginning to play upon her lips, an ‘accidental’ brush of our shoulders as we passed. I began to think of her at the most unlikely, and the most inappropriate, of times. It was all fun and games and inconsequential titillations -that was the lie I promulgated within, an innocent infatuation that harmed not a soul, and soon would dissipate. Such were the falsehoods fermenting within me, producing, over time, a wine so rich and strong that merely to sip it was impossible, and to gulp it until I drained the dregs, was blissful, funereal intoxication.

When night’s shadow veiled deeds otherwise left undone, when we were alone, and the radio played our favorite song, we crossed the room, touched, embraced, and began to sway, body to body, heart to heart, to the mesmerizing music. The universe narrowed to that single room—there were no other people, no others worlds, no other existences outside that chamber. We moved in sync to the song, every sense heightened, fears and reservations and pasts and futures and friends and family and gods and devils excluded from our revelry.

We didn’t see the flames or feel the heat or smell the smoke. All that was, was the dance. And when the fire spread from wall to wall, and engulfed even the ceiling, we knew it not. And when the floor beneath us glowed, and flames licked at our feet, we felt no pain. And even when our clothing ignited, and our bodies were ablaze, even then we thought only of the pleasure of melting into each other, the two becoming the one, ashes to ashes, lust to dust, our members but embers to be blown away in the winds that never cease their raging.

A parable of the kingdom of hell. Perceive, O my soul, how evil exerts its most destructive force when its progress is undetected, or ignored, or downplayed, by those dying a slow, smiling death.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the sinner says to the churches.

(The title of this piece is borrowed from a song by John Mayer.)

How the Church Failed Amy: The Danger of an Uncrucified Jesus

Amy was having some problems in her life. Quite naturally, she turned to her friends for help and advice. One friend told her she should get to know Jesus, and that He would help her with her problems. So Amy set out on a quest to get to know Jesus.

And Amy liked what she found. She attended a church service where Jesus gave people power to do miraculous things and where the name Jesus put a smile on everyone’s face. She listened to Christian radio where she heard about a Jesus who helped people when they were down and who was worthy of praise because of His love and power and holiness. She read a couple of books about how Jesus could help her get her finances straightened out, her family life fixed up, and her body put back in shape.

After she felt as if she had come to know Jesus pretty well, Amy started reading books about how, as a Christian , she was to live out her life and strengthen her grip on the faith. Amy was becoming so close to Jesus that she began to tell other people about how Jesus had helped her.

About a year later Amy was tragically killed in a automobile accident. The pastor comforted everyone at the funeral by describing how much Amy loved Jesus and how much Jesus loved Amy.

And in heaven when Amy appeared before the One she had grown to love, He said to her, “I never knew you. Depart from me.”

And Amy went to hell.

Every day people like Amy die and go to hell because they believe in the wrong Jesus. They believe in the Christ who mends their broken hearts, broken relationships, and broken lives. (And, it must be said, Christ certainly does all these things!) But they fail to see why and in what way Christ mends their broken lives. They fail to believe in the Christ whose heart was broken on the cross, whose relationship with His Father was broken on the cross, and whose life was broken by the bitter pain and agony of bearing our sins on the cross.

The central message of the Church is not Christ the Helper, Christ the Family Strengthener, Christ the Success Giver, Christ the Money Manager, or Christ the True, Blue Friend. The central message of the Church is summed up by St. Paul in two words: Christ Crucified.

That is our message. And if that is not our central message, our primary message, the message we hear and teach and preach over and over again, we are preaching a false Christ, a false Gospel, and a false God.

Christ Crucified: Is that the Christ in whom you believe?

The devil likes nothing better than to direct our focus off the crucified Christ to a perverted Christ, to a Christ divorced from the cross, to a Christ who makes more sense to us as 20th century American Christians. But Paul writes, “For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” (1 Cor. 1:18). We don’t preach the cross as if to say, “See, now doesn’t that make sense?”

We simply preach the cross.

We proclaim the truth of a bloody, dead, God on a bloody, dead piece of wood shaped like a T. That is our message.

If the cross makes sense to you, you have not yet begun to truly understand it. The cross of the Crucified God transcends all sense. It is the message about a holy and righteous God who let us poor miserable sinners nail him to a piece of wood so that He might bleed and die for our salvation. It is the message about a 1st century Jew from a village in Israel who was crucified by some Roman soldiers for some unknown crime. It is the message about a Man who was also God, about a Sacrifice who was also a Priest, about a Lamb who was also a Shepherd, about a Defeat which was also a Victory.

And that is our message.

That is not the message Amy heard. That is not the message many churchgoers hear today. But it is the message you will always hear from this pulpit because we preach “Christ crucified.”

And what a message to preach! What a message to hear! The very message that the unbelieving world regards as stupidity and foolishness we know to be life and salvation and joy!
Paul writes,
God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise,
and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things
which are strong, and the base things of the world, and the despised,
God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things
that are. . . .

That is always the way of God—to use things that the world considers foolish and weak and despised to accomplish the most miraculous.

God the Father sends His eternal Son down to be born of a young Jewish girl in a dirty stable in the village of Bethlehem. God the Son takes on flesh and blood so that He might sweat, cry, bleed, eat, drink, and suffer with the rest of humanity: Miraculous

God the Father sets up the murder of His own Son. On a common Roman cross God hangs and dies that He might pay the penalty for our sins. God the Father raises His Son back to life, not with pomp and circumstance, but when no one is watching: Miraculous

God adds His powerful Word to common water from the faucet in our sacristy to bring people into the kingdom of God. He adds His powerful Word to common bread and wine to give us the eternal, life-giving Body and Blood of His Son: Miraculous

Jesus never ceases to be the Crucified Christ and the Resurrected Christ. He never ceases to be the One who continually draws us to His cross and passion and empty tomb. He never ceases to be the One who gives us life and forgiveness and grace in His precious Gospel and sacraments.

We who have been misled into following false Christs come to the true Christ and receive true and complete forgiveness. We who have broken hearts, broken relationships, and broken lives come to the Christ who was broken by the cross and receive from Him peace, life, and healing. We who have modernized Christ by divorcing the cross from Him confess our sin and hear Him say, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

There is no true, lasting, heavenly joy outside of a crucified Christ, for there is no Christ outside of the crucifixion. There sin is destroyed. There death is vanquished. There the gift of life is ours.

For all the “Amys” of the world, for all the hurting, the crying, the needy, the lost, the poor, the downtrodden—for us—there is only one message, one hope, one Christ, one Gospel: Christ Crucified.

I preached this sermon on vicarage, in 1995, at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lakewood, CO.

ChristAloneCoverIf this reflection was helpful to you, and you’d like to read more–many more–like it, then take a look at my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

The God Who Changes Wine into Water

There is a God who changes water into wine, and there is a God who changes wine into water. These two Gods are one God, and both of them are difficult to trust, though for radically different reasons.

There is a God who changes water into wine. He attends our weddings, bringing with him gift-wrapped boxes spilling over with love and commitment and fidelity, transforming the two into one, loneliness into unity. He is present at our baptisms and confirmations as the master of ceremonies, making friends from enemies, sons from orphans, diners from the famished. At our graduations and our birthdays and all our celebrations of goals achieved and dreams realized, he stands ready to transfigure the day into one brimming with smiles and laughter and unforgettable memories.

And there is a God who changes wine into water. He lurks in the corner of the court room, dressed in black, as the divorce decree is issued and that which man must not put asunder is indeed put asunder, and an “ex”, trailed by a hyphen, comes to dominate the language of those who once promised, “I will,” and, “I do.” He is there when the son we shipped off to fight in a faraway land returns home missing a leg or an arm or a desire to live or life itself. When the wind howls and our tears stream and the cemetery dirt sticks to the shoes we polished the night before we got into a bed in which we never slept as the hours drug by, he is there. He is present, converting joy to grief, hope to despair, life to death.

It may seem easy to believe in the God who changes water into wine, but it is not. For when man is at his happiest, he thinks the least of the true source of his joy. He falls in love with the gift, whether that gift be a wife, a career, a child, a salary. His glass is full of wine, and the pleasure he derives from it is so great, that he becomes intoxicated on the blessings he enjoys, and does not lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord from whom all good gifts come. The man with wine forgets about the water, and the God who transformed it.

It may also seem easy to believe in the God who changes wine into water, but it is not. For when the gifts of God are taken from a man, he very often becomes angry at heaven for repossessing his joy. The wife he lost, the career he shattered, the child who died, the home or reputation or money or friends that are no more—with their disappearance appears bitterness and despair and a darkness you can touch. He gives God the silent treatment, but there is a scream on the other side of that silence. Rather than turning to the only one who can give rest to his restless soul, he slouches toward promiscuity or alcohol or a loaded pistol. The man with water despises the God who stole his wine.

There is a God who changes water into wine, and a God who changes wine into water. And there is a God who has experienced both of these transformations personally. He knows the joy of a loving mother who stood by him even to the point of death as well as a Father who forsook him in his hour of deepest need. He knows what it’s like for the crowd to roll out the red carpet for his arrival, and a few days later to howl for his blood. He knows what it means to have food aplenty, and to fast forty days and forty nights. He knows what it is to be at peace and attacked; to love and to lose; to live and to die.

He is our God, this man, Jesus. And when water becomes wine, or wine becomes water, he remains the same—the very incarnation of love and fidelity. And he is always working toward the same goal: to transform us into him, to be and bear his image, so that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. Then all we will see is not the wine or the water that touches our lips, but the hand of the loving God who holds the chalice.

Casting Stones at Lance Armstrong: The True Danger of “Public Sinners”

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Christian, the other Lance Armstrong. The Christian prayed, ”Lord, I thank Thee that I am not like other men–murderers, thieves, adulterers, or even like that doping liar, Lance Armstrong. I pray once a week; go to church most Sundays; listen if the sermon is entertaining; and give a generous 1% of my income to the church. Yes, sometimes I screw up a little and sin, but, let’s be real: I’m nothing like that hypocritical, lying, doping public winner of the Tour de Iniquity over there. Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.” But Lance, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, for he thought, “If that Christian’s god is as big an asshole as he is, why the hell bother?” I tell you, neither man went down to his house justified.

Lucifer loves Lance, though not for the reason you might expect. Armstrong has become a “public sinner.” And as such, he is a prime tool in Hell’s ongoing quest to render us even greater hypocrites than we already are.

Most Christians, indeed most religious people, are not much different from the non-religious in how they understand how “good” they themselves are. Quite simply, the standard by which this is determined is how they compare with other people. I am a “good person” if my behavior is in step with those whom I deem “good people” amongst my family, friends, peers, or even individuals of fame. If the opposite is true, then I must be stepping outside the bounds of acceptable behavior. And when that happens, when I think of myself as having done something “wrong” or “bad,” what then do I do? Where then do I turn?

I turn to Lance. Or I turn to Lance’s countless predecessors in the Hall of Infamy—whether that dubious honor be earned in sports, politics, or the church. As I compare myself with those whose wrongdoings have been magnified by media coverage, these larger-than-life sinners salve my conscience. After all, the reasoning goes, I may have screwed up, but I didn’t screw up anywhere near as much, or as often, or as publicly as they did. Sure I lied, but not to reporters and fans and race officials for years on end. Sure I cheated, but not to win an international sporting competition time and again. Sure I sinned with my body, but it’s not like I injected performance enhancing drugs into my veins. I may have messed up, but I’m no Lance Armstrong.

So long as the standard by which we measure ourselves is other people, there are no boundaries to the imaginative methods we will employ to feel better about ourselves. There’s always a “worse” sinner around, who’s out-lied, out-cheated, out-hypocritized us—or, at least, whom we think has. Ironically, when we justify ourselves like this, we are those who become the worst of all, for not only do we ignore and downplay our own weaknesses and failures; we do so while standing and stomping on the necks of other sinners.

The standard by which we ought to determine whether we are living as God would have us live is not another person. It is God. We are his children, called to imitate him, so that we might bear his image in this world, and incarnate that image in how we live. To be as he is, is to live a life of love for all, especially for our enemies. To die to selfishness and to live for the other; to discover our greatest delight in showing compassion; to think and speak and act as those who emulate the God who was willing to give everything, including his Son, that we might live.

Try measuring yourself to that standard. Not to Lance. Not anyone else “better” or “worse” than you are.

The man who has lived up that standard—the only man who has—is Jesus of Nazareth. He teaches much about the need to forgive others, even forgiving them seventy times seven, if they’re that adept and resolute at sinning. But very often the most unforgiving people in the world are the religious types who are blind to their own failings, but have 20/20 vision when it comes to finding faults in others. And there’s nary a pew, or a pulpit, in Christendom that doesn’t have one or more of these Pharisees in it.

As for me, I don’t care one iota what Lance did or didn’t do. I have more important concerns. For I’m certain that Lance can out-ride and out-run and out-swim me, but you set up a race in which the best sinner wins, and I’ll leave his ass in the dust.

Yesterday’s Divine Service, Complete with an Ambulance and EMTs

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Toward the end of the Divine Service yesterday morning, the EMTs walked through our narthex and hustled into the sanctuary, toward the pew where Jim lay flat on his back.

It had already been quite an eventful Sunday morning. We celebrated our Lord’s baptism in the Jordan River; I was privileged to read the Scriptures of the day; we watched as little Rachel Vonne, crying as she was washed with water and the Word, become a child of her heavenly Father; kneeled at our Lord’s altar to feast upon the body and blood of the God sacrificed for us. And now the paramedics arrived.

I sat, my son on my left, my daughter on my right. And I saw the church.

I saw the church, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, gathered around the throne of God and of the Lamb. The Lamb, standing, as if slain, has seven eyes and seven horns, and all prostrated themselves before him, harps resounding and golden bowls of intercessory incense burning. Flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder reverberated from the throne. And the seven Spirits of God burned as lamps of fire. And the people of Crown of Life, along with innumerable hosts of saints who have gone before us, sang, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth! Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!” Clad in robes of righteousness, they came to the Lamb, who fed them himself, the life of his veins, the body of his love. The heavenly hosts broke out in chorus when the saving waves washed over Rachel, bathing her in the mercies of the Father, and Jesus held the little child in his arms and blessed her with his own name.

And I saw the church, the Lord’s body, praying in one accord for their fellow believer, who struggled with the weakness of his body. Gathered around him were a doctor from our congregation, along with several nurses and first responders, all of whom employed the gifts with which their Creator had endowed them to assist their brother in need while we waited for the ambulance to arrive. The church was a hospital of body and soul. Little boys and girls, old men and women, and all in between, with lungs full of the breath of God, and lips red with the vintage of Heaven, mocked death as we hymned, “I Am Baptized Into Christ”:
Death, you cannot end my gladness: I am baptized into Christ!
When I die, I leave all sadness to inherit paradise!
Though I lie in dust and ashes faith’s assurance brightly flashes:
Baptism has the strength divine to make life immortal mine.
The liturgy of worship blended with the liturgy of vocation, faith fed by Christ acted in love through Christ for one in need.

Yesterday I saw the church, being the church. Heaven and earth embraced as Christ and his Bride became one, while the pain and struggles of this world were not ignored, but confronted with wisdom and mercy and love for one in need. Prayers arose while healing hands were active. There was no either/or, but both/and, as faith and love did what they are.

In the end, all was well, as we prayed it would be. After a brief hospital visit, Jim returned home to rest. The congregation departed, carrying Christ with them into the world. And I drove home with my son and daughter, incredibly thankful to have seen the church in the full beauty of who she is.

 

Walking Away From A Murder

His girlfriend had recently got back together with him. He’d have been better off without her. But tell that to an eighteen year old who’s in love. She was all he had, and all he wanted. So when he lost her, he thought he lost everything. And when he got her back, he thought he regained everything. Loneliness creates vacuums in the souls of men that they often fill with women who make them even lonelier. But Tom, drunk on misplaced hopes, only felt the intoxication of happiness. Finally, after years of “family life” where there was little family and no life, here was a woman, and a life, and happiness. For Tom, the sun of laughter was just beginning to rise.

So when he saw the man stabbing the young woman in the parking lot where he worked, thrusting the blade into her body over and over and over, he kept walking. He kept walking to his pickup, got in, locked the doors, cranked the stereo up full blast, cradled his face in his hands, and rocked back and forth, trying not to hear the screams. But the screams were now inside him, and how can you turn off that kind of sound? How can you un-see what he had seen? How can you undo the undoing of a life?

It was Houston, and the factory where Tom worked employed thousands of immigrant workers. When he checked the newspaper the next day, and the next, and still the next, there was no story. There would never be a story, except this one that Tom told me after the sun had set, late one night, while the screams in his head weren’t quite as loud as usual.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve relived Tom’s nightmare in my own mind. I’ve put myself in situation after situation where someone’s life was on the line, and imagined myself coming to their rescue. Running into the burning house. Throwing my body between the bullet and the intended victim. It’s easy to be a hero when I’m the one making up the stories.

But I’m not 18 and in love. And I don’t see the first rays of a sun that was rising in my darkened life. And I’m not being asked to risk my life to save a stranger. I am a raging storm of fears and self-doubts and self-damnations. My daydreams of being a hero seek to silence the screams that reverberate in my own mind—screams from all those from whom I’ve walked away in their hour of deepest need.

My friend, wherever you are, I hope by now you have found peace. I hope the young woman who was murdered found peace with her God. And the man who killed her—well, I try to hope that he has found it, too.

For all souls in whom a cacophony of screams resound night and day, there is the silence of the grave toward which they can hasten. But better yet, there is the silence of a Lamb who was led to the slaughter, and uttered not a word, that in him our screams might die, and rise again, as laughter spilling from a heart at peace with all.

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