Archive for the month “June, 2013”

Praying in Tears, Snot, and Screams

I still had all five senses, but three of them were handicapped. Everywhere I looked, the signs were written in a language I couldn’t read; my ears understood not a single one of the words washing over me from the crowds gathered about; and since I had mastered the equivalent of a two year old’s vocabulary, opening my mouth to speak would only reveal the depth of my ignorance. I had just stepped off the plane into the Moscow airport, and within minutes I felt a sensation I’d never experienced until that day: the sheer helplessness of being unable to communicate. For if I lacked the language to voice even my most basic of needs, should I found myself up to my neck in trouble, my mouth would be nothing more than a font of babble.

A few years later, that moment I had feared finally arrived. Only I wasn’t in Moscow, nor in an airport, nor even around a person with whom I could have spoken. I was in America, at my home, curled up in the fetal position inside my bedroom, my face soaked with tears and snot and all the nasty mess that comes from crying like the end of your world has arrived. I wasn’t up to my neck in trouble; my troubles had risen well above my head by then. I was drowning in them. The words that scurried about inside my head were like wild beasts, unwilling to be domesticated into nouns and verbs that I could collar with grammar. I was full of pain and empty of speech, babbling like a baby who knows he hurts but can’t explain where or why or what he needs to assuage the anguish. Here was the sheer helplessness of being unable to communicate with God in this moment of deepest desperation.

But that was where I was wrong. It’s where I’ve been wrong many times since. For the Lord is more than bilingual; he is the ultimate polyglot, for he speaks every language under the sun. He understands English and Spanish and Russian. He fully grasps the meaning of tears and snot and wailing. The eloquence of the mute, as his heart pours forth his needs in words deeper than words, is a prayer that God hears and understands and answers.

To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heavens: there is a time to pray beautifully crafted petitions replete with ornate language and proper grammar; and there is a time to let tears do all the talking. There is a time to pray the Our Father, and there is a time for the Spirit to cry out within you with groaning too deep for words. But let me tell you what there is not a time for: there is never a time for doubting that, in whatever language in which you pray, be it in words or sighs or weeping or that silent scream of a soul gripped by darkness, Jesus the crucified and risen God, hears and loves and responds.

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A Compartmentalized Life: Keeping God in His Place

We’ve all heard the stories. A man well-respected in his community, prosperous in his career, one upon whom the obituary-writers would heap praise, is the man around whom his wife walks on eggshells for fear he’ll lose it and beat the crap out of her again. An elderly gentleman who married and raised four children, is blessed with several grandchildren, pays his taxes, mows his lawn, and votes in every election, is also a former war criminal responsible for the slaughter of hundreds if not thousands of innocent civilians half a century earlier. Serial killers who drive school buses. Pastors who visit prostitutes. The list goes on and on. These are people who lead ordinary, if not outwardly exemplary lives, but harbor a secret that completely contradicts the persona they present to all but a few. How do they do it? I suspect at least part of the answer is that they have successfully compartmentalized their lives. Now he’s a renowned doctor, now he’s a compassionate friend, now he’s a tithe-paying deacon…and now he’s a wife-beating maniac. They are a disunited person, fractured by falsehood, who are only their true self when they act with utter disregard for everything but their own destructive ego.

What is most shocking about such people is not their duplicity or hypocrisy, but that we are shocked by their existence. As this or that story of sin surfaces, I can hear some exclaiming, “Why, I just can’t believe he did that!” and “Who’d have ever thought she was capable of that?” Call me callous, but I am so habituated to evil things done by evil people in an evil world that sin hardly ever shocks me, no matter who the perpetrator might be, or how grotesque his offense. More importantly, I know myself. I don’t need to watch a blood-soaked story on CNN or visit someone of death row to familiarize myself with the beast of depravity crouched within the human heart. I just need to look in the mirror, to stare deeply into the eyes that are a window to a soul that has journeyed down dark paths whose only illumination comes from the fires of hell. Those who are most shocked by the sins of others are usually those most ignorant of who they themselves are, and of the devolutions of which they too are capable when their lives are fractured by falsehood.

For the compartmentalizing of lives is not something only “really bad people” do. It’s a coping mechanism we all practice, to greater or lesser extents, for it rescues us from that most fearful of all lifestyles: the totally honest one. We have a closetful of masks to put on, depending upon who the person is with whom we are interacting. These masks match the “compartment” in which we find ourselves, the person we want to be at that particular moment in time. The greatest irony is that he who knows all, who permeates everything, whose eyes pierce through every lie, is the one we attempt to fool the most. For above all, God is the one whom we endeavor to keep out of most of the compartments of our lives. We open the door to him perhaps on Sunday morning, or when we offer up a prayer, or are chatting with our pastor, but when it comes to my work and sexual life and finances and most other aspects of my existence, God needs to know his place and not attempt to scale the walls into those compartments labeled “No Trespassing.” Those belong to me, to be the man I choose to be, to make within them the choices that make me happy.

The result of keeping God out of all but a fraction of my life is not that I somehow thereby achieve happiness. Rather, I perpetuate a life that is a lie, and one that leads only to lasting gloom. For until I, who am not only a creature but a child of God, tear down the walls that divide my life, and let the Lord into them all, to shape me into one who bears and beams his divine image to the world, I will not be fully a man. Joy is found when God is found in all of who I am, when my will is harmony with his own, and every lying mask is burned in the fires of repentance.

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When Fathers Are Failures

There are many children, young and old, who can’t stomach Father’s Day. They are the offspring of deadbeat dads, abusive fathers, men who have failed them in ways that possibly scarred them for life. To them the whole purpose of this day is senseless, if not revolting. There will be no phone calls home, no backyard BBQs, not sappy Hallmark card. “Lord, just let this day be over,” they pray, “and let me get on with my life without being reminded of that man.”

I lack the wisdom, and the experience, to counsel those who have been hurt so deeply. There is no pain like the pain of being mistreated by those who, above all others, you expect to love you unconditionally.

This, however, I do know. When men do not live up to their callings, when they live only for themselves, there nevertheless remains a man who will never do that to you. When men abuse the innocent, and do the unspeakable, there is still a man who never once will treat you that way. If even father and mother forsake you, brother and sister turn their backs on you, the whole world hate and curse and damn you to hell, there is a man who will stand shoulder to shoulder with you through it all, never leaving your side.

This man is not your father, but he is your brother, come down from heaven to suffer abuse for you, to know what it’s like to be hated and mistreated and abandoned by those nearest and dearest to him. And he has a father who wants to adopt you, to make you part of his family, that he might care for you as no earthly father ever could. This man, this Jesus of Nazareth, will get you through Father’s Day, and will bring you into the arms of a Father who is truly worthy of the name.

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Just a Little More and Then I’ll Be Happy

She’s sitting two tables away from me, a quarter pinched between thumb and index finger, scraping frantically at the ticket. Gray particles, like the ash from burned out dreams, litter the table. ”Did you win?” I asked as I walked by, a cup of coffee in my hand. She glances up, eyes bloodshot, two inches of dark roots showing beneath her bleached hair, and sighs a simple ”No”.

Odds are she’ll never win. But she’ll keep right on trying, odds be damned, dreaming of winning the jackpot that’ll make her happy. Then she can finally afford the life she craves. Quit her minimum wage job, buy a big house, fancy car, all the stuff that will fulfill her.

Only it won’t. She might even agree with me if I reminded her. But deep down she’d still believe that if only she had a little more, and then a little more, and maybe just a little more, then she would be happy. Like me, like most Americans, the equation of wealth with happiness is so firmly rooted in her psyche that only a divine surgeon could dig it out.

Paul once wrote that he had learned the secret being content in any circumstance in which he found himself, whether he had plenty or not. Along with my comrade at the truck stop, I have not learned that secret. You won’t find me scraping off lottery tickets (I’m too cheap to buy them), but you will certainly catch me daydreaming of writing that award-winning, bestselling novel that’ll be translated into a thousand different languages and be made into a blockbuster movie and fatten my bank account so much that I’ll laugh as I open the Visa bill each month. And I’m willing to bet that you, dear reader, have your own dreams.

I suspect that the only situation in which I would truly learn to be content is one in which I hope I never find myself: homeless, penniless, and hungry. How will I ever learn to be content when, if even deprived of the “right kind of clothes” or “my favorite foods” or “a house big enough”, I fight discontentment? I have no illusions about the truth: I am thoroughly spoiled by material possessions. Making mammon an idol is a real and present danger for me, day in and day out. I have no idea what it’s like not to know where my next meal is coming from, where I will sleep tonight, to go without medical care, to have not a dollar to my name. I have never, not once, truly been in want, not for things essential to life. So, really, how will I ever learn to be content with little, when, relatively speaking, my whole life I’ve had a lot?

At a bare minimum, therefore, I endeavor to thank God for what I have, for everything, from electricity to shoes, from Ibuprofen to an iPhone, from my car to my job. At least such gratitude reminds me whence these gifts come, from a gracious Father, who always gives me abundantly more than I even ask for. And I pray that, should the day come when all these gifts are gone, and I discover what it truly means to be in want, that God will teach me then a humility and faith that only comes when all I have is him.

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Sending a Letter to Myself Back in Time: What I Wish I’d Known about God as a Teen

In a small town, inside a smaller church, an even smaller boy stood chest deep in big tank of cold water. His parents and older sister looked on, as did the congregation of believers. Lights shone. The water gently lapped at the white robe he wore. With one hand on the boy’s back, and another covering his nose and mouth, the pastor leaned the child’s body backward, burying him beneath the water, saying, ”I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” Down he went and up he came. No more than a second or two passed but an eternity was effected. That boy, standing there drenched from head to toe, was a newborn child of God. That boy was me. And should I live 120 years, that day shall always remain the most important day of my life.

But there was a time when I acted as if the blessings of that baptismal day had somehow simply evaporated. For a few years later, stumbling through that weird phase of life we call puberty, I went through a crisis of faith–as it turns out, only the first of many. Feelings of certainty about my salvation were wavering. Was I really a Christian? Was I truly sincere in my commitment to Christ? If I died tonight, would I go to heaven? Those nagging questions came to the fore during a revival at my church, and I was convinced that it was time for a fresh start. So, I recommitted myself to Christ, and the following Sunday stepped into the water for baptism #2.

If I could write a letter now, and send it to myself back then, in those dark days of doubt, here’s what I would say:

Dear Chad,

As you look inside yourself, trying to figure out how real your faith is, all you see is the turmoil of uncertainty. Your spiritual life yoyos daily, up in devotion to Jesus, down in doubt about salvation. You’ve prayed, asking that God would speak to you in some way to calm your fears. But the only still, small voice you hear is the one that points out how many times you’ve screwed up. You believed in Jesus, and were baptized, at such a young age; did you know what you were doing? were you sincere? if you were, why would such doubts plague you? You’re thinking that it’s time to start over, to become a true disciple, to commit with 100% of your will to Christ.

As odd as it might sound, the worst thing you can do is to look inside yourself, to try and discern the devotion of your heart. It’s self-defeating. Peering into the abyss of doubt will only deepen your doubt. That’s like eating a cup of salt to quench your thirst.

Certainty of where you stand with God is found only where God stands for you, in your stead, doing on your behalf everything necessary to make you his own. It’s outside you, not inside. Jesus’ fidelity is stronger than your infidelity; his trust triumphs over your doubt; and his utter goodness perfects even your worst, most shameful failures.

Why strain to detect a still, small voice within you when you hear a clear, confident declaration from God’s own word that affirms he loves you enough to send Jesus to bleed and die in your place? Why worry about how young you were when God brought you to faith, for Jesus bids little children come to him and holds them up as exemplars of faith? John the Baptist believed in the womb (!), leaping with joy inside Elizabeth his mother as Mary, pregnant with Jesus, came into his presence.

On the day of your baptism, it wasn’t you committing yourself to Jesus but Jesus committing himself to you. He baptized you, and did it right, the first time, for all time. You can’t be “rebaptized” any more than you can somehow have Jesus redo his birth, death, and resurrection. As with your baptism, he did it right the first time, for all time, for you. You can’t repeat or improve on divine doing.

There’s nothing wrong, or unusual, with struggling through hard questions in your walk with Christ. But don’t confuse emotion with faith, or the lack thereof. What determines reality is not how you feel but what God says. And he says, loud and clear, ”I love you with a love higher than heaven, deeper than hell, larger than the world, and so incredibly personal that I am your very own Father and you my son, now and forever.”

Sincerely,
Me

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Unamazing Grace

Unamazing grace
Applauds the faithful few
Whose hands are stained with Bible ink
And butts have polished pews.
Underwhelming love–
Love to the lovely shown–
Welcomes souls that are squeaky clean
To their eternal home.

“I Sure Hope SHE’S listening to this sermon!”

She baked cookies when I came to visit her, but I always feared they were laced with cyanide. We had that kind of pastor-to-parishioner relationship. If back-stabbing were an Olympic sport, she’d have brought home the gold. All smiles when talking to you, all bared teeth when talking about you. I was the object of her slander on a regular basis. Along with death and taxes, this too was a certainty of my life.

So one week, when the biblical text upon which I was preaching mentioned gossip and slander, her face immediately popped into my mind. As I stepped into the pulpit the following Sunday, I lambasted the loveless tongue that delights in the destruction of people’s lives. Yep, I let ’em have it. And though I purposefully never even glanced in the direction of the pew where she sat, my every word was aimed at her gossip-loving heart.

As the service concluded, and the worshippers filed out, pausing to exchange greetings with me, she stopped in front of me, grasped my hand, and said, ”Pastor, that was an excellent sermon.” And then leaning closer, eyes darting left then right, she whispered, ”Lord knows there are some people in this church who really needed to hear that!”

Of all the responses to my sermons over the years—positive and negative—that one has remained not only the most memorable, but the most instructive. She against whom I preached, in her unexpected response actually “preached” to me three truths I have never forgotten.

First, in a sermon that is meant to be for the edification of the entire congregation, to single out a parishioner to “preach against” is an abuse of the pulpit and, fundamentally, an act of cowardice. If a pastor has an issue with a parishioner, or for that matter, if any Christian has an issue with a brother or sister in Christ, he should speak face-to-face with that person, and attempt to resolve the problem privately. The pulpit is no place for personal vendettas, especially since there they masquerade as “pious exhortation.” Man up, and deal with the problem directly, or keep your mouth shut.

Second, though a preacher be as golden-tongued as Chrysostom, as erudite as Augustine, or as in-your-face as Luther, unless the Lord opens the mind of the hearer to heed his message, his words will only ricochet off a hardened heart. That doesn’t mean the pastor throws in the towel. Preach on he must, for that is his vocation, and he knows not if and when the Lord will open a chink in that armored for the arrow to get through.

And third, every sermon should be heard (and, for that matter, preached) as heaven’s proclamation, both of warning and comfort, to you. If other people’s sins come to mind when you’re hearing the law, immediately ask yourself how you have failed to fulfill the same commandment. Spend more time lamenting over your own failings, and less fomenting over how others have failed you. And hear the good news of God’s love in Christ not merely for “the world” but for you—for you in the midst of your guilt or grief or pain or loneliness or suicidal anguish. Wherever you are in the midst of this life that is so often dark with woe, know that where Jesus is preached, he is preached for you.

My parishioner was exactly right the day she whispered, ”Lord knows there are some people in this church who really needed to hear that!” Indeed, there were. First of all, I did. Secondly, she did, along with all the other worshipers who gathered there in the Lord’s house, to hear the Word of God spoken to them all.

David, Bathsheba, and Jesus: Who Was the Greatest Sinner?

He had it all, and then some. Power, fame, riches, talent, and even God’s stamp of approval. This man even had a harem teeming with beautiful women, all at his beck and call. Why, if he’d wanted more, the Lord would have gladly handed that over, too. King David, he had it all; here was a man living the dream.

The thing about dreams, though, is that they constantly totter on the verge of nightmares. For a person is never more at risk of rebellion against God than when he is up to his neck in divine treasures. A strange, cancerous, thought can begin to fester within him: he starts to view every divine gift as a personal accomplishment. And his faithful gratitude is suffocated by unfaithful pride. And pride—pride in himself, pride in his supposed accomplishments—that pride goeth before a fall. One minute such a man stands atop the mountain, gazing arrogantly at the vast realm of his success, and the next he trips and plummets headlong into a life of regret and devastation.

O David, you are the man! Your eyes, which should look out upon the soldiers under your command, capitulate to lust, as you ogle the bathing body of Bathsheba. Your mouth, which should be issuing orders to your military, order messengers to bring one of your own soldier’s wives into your home. Your hands, which should grasp a sword on the battlefield to conquer the foe, clutch at the woman in your bedroom in a battle of sexual conquest. Your ears, which should be attuned to the word of your Lord, hear only the purring of pleasure as you allure, adulterate, and impregnate the wife of Uriah, your faithful servant. O David, yes, you are the man!

What kind of fool does what David did? What kind of fool ignores the riches spilling out of his pockets to steal the only penny a poor man has? What kind of fool thinks that since he’s God’s chosen servant, he’s above the law and can do whatsoever he wants? What kind of fool turns a blind eye to consequences that come on the heels of adultery and murder, tries in vain to cover up his tracks, and ends up squandering the gifts of God that once were his to enjoy?

What kind of fool does that? Well, you do. You are the man! You are the woman! For though your life is packed with the gifts of God, you’re always hankering for that “something else” that you “just can’t live without.” The Lord has given you a spouse, but your eyes undress another woman as you daydream of an adulterous hook-up. If tomorrow you woke up and were left with only that for which you had thanked God today, what would you have left? For the treasures we enjoy we treat as entitlements—I’m entitled to a spacious home, a lucrative career, exemplary health, secure retirement. These are all divine gifts, undeserved, unearned, graciously bestowed by a God who loves you. Yet, like David, you are the man who views divine gifts as personal accomplishments. There is only one difference between David and most of us: he got caught, and suffered the consequences—for the rest of his life.

When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said, ”Repent”, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance (Luther). That’s what he wants from David, and from us: a life in which we rein in our envy, lament our lust, and live in the love of Jesus. He who rejoices to lavish gift after gift upon you, rejoices with his angels when you repent. For that means you’re coming home to him, and wiping away the dust of despair and death that cling to your wandering feet. He is there to welcome you, anytime and every time, with arms scarred by nails of compassion.

I tell you a mystery: there is a man who was a much greater sinner than David, a much greater sinner than those human monsters whose names live in infamy, a greater sinner even than you. This man became the worst adulterer, the worst murderer, the worst liar and cheat and gossip and thief who’s ever lived. O Jesus, you are the man! You are the man who, though without sin of your own, became sin for us, that in you we might become God’s righteous children. You redeemed us from the curse of God’s law by becoming a curse for us. Upon the cross hung the chief of sinners, indeed all sinners compressed into one sinner, all humanity inside the skin of the one man. Jesus became sin itself, the curse itself, the one and only object of divine wrath. Heaven emptied itself of righteous wrath the day he died. Hell’s hottest flames were extinguished with his holy blood. When the sinless Son of God became The Sinner, The Accursed One, a global proclamation was issued by the Father, declaring the rest of humanity Not Guilty. For no debt of yours remained unpaid. No sin of yours remained unpunished. Jesus became all the bad you are, that you might become all the good he is. When he said, It is finished, something new began: a new you. For if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old things have passed away, and new things have come.

You are the man! you are the woman! you are the one to whom God says, “I love you!” And in those three words the Triune God declares but one thing: nothing matters more to him than you.

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A Prayer for Thicker Skin

When wise men criticize me,
Make me as a child,
Eager to learn from his elders.
When fools rebuke me,
Make me as the aged,
Who laugh at children’s folly.
When, innocent, I’m accused of guilt,
Make me as my Savior,
Who added no guilt to innocence
By violence against his accusers.
When, guilty, I’m accused of my crime,
Make me as the crucified thief,
Who added repentance at the end,
And so, in death, reached Paradise.

Confessions of An Occasional Christian

”Do you go to church?” he asked me, as I dropped off freight at his business. He’s a regular customer, but we’d never ventured beyond chatting about weather and work. A bit surprised by the abruptness of the question, I replied Yes, and he offered a few more queries, like what I believe about Jesus, and how we are saved, and whatnot. I gave him the digest version of book-length answers, and we exchanged a few pious platitudes afterward. As I started to leave for my next stop, he told me he suspected I might be a Christian because I had a ”certain demeanor.” A certain demeanor. I haven’t the foggiest idea what that means, or even what demeanor has to do with Christianity. But it got me to thinking. And the conclusion I came to is that if most outsiders were to review my life, read my thoughts, and record every word and action of my day, they would conclude, at best, that I’m an occasional Christian.

Yes, most Sundays you’ll find me warming a pew. I sing the hymns (if I like them). I pay half-ass attention the sermon. I suppose I’d do okay on Bible trivia, and have been rumored to know a thing or two about Hebrew. Once upon a time, I even had Rev. as a prelude to my name. But all that doesn’t mean much. In fact, it can be highly misleading.

For there are whole days that go by when I think, speak, and act as if this life were all there were, and as if the heavens were vacant of divinity. My prayers, when they do come to life, take on the nature of 9-1-1 calls, offered up frantically in cases of personal emergency, not as anything remotely resembling an ongoing conversation with my heavenly Father. As ridiculous as it sounds, I confess to you that I read a hundred more Facebook statuses every day than verses from God’s word. If the creed of Christianity were based upon my life, it would confess a Lord who is pleased with the crumbs that fall from his servant’s table.

Somewhere the Psalmist prays, ”Give me an undivided heart, that I may fear Your name.” That seems to be just about as perfect a prayer as you can find. For it is a divided heart that divorces me from complete fidelity to God, and replaces fear with fickleness. So from my sick, divided heart wheezes a prayer for a strong, united one. And I beg for a clean start—for the millionth time. And for more faith, even though it scares me to death to think of what trials God has in mind by which to increase my faith. I pray to be more than an occasional Christian, to live a life that is more a model than a mockery of the Lord in whose image I was made. And as I pray, I cling to the only true, ever-faithful, always-believing person I know, whose constant Christianity earned him a cross, on which he guaranteed that all my imperfections won’t change his heart, united in love for me.

 

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