Archive for the month “August, 2013”

More Than Dressed to the Nines

[The king] said to him, `Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless.”  Matthew 22:12

Nobody wears a tank-top to a prom or a tweed jacket when water skiing.  What you’re doing and where you’re doing it clues you in on proper attire.  And when you don’t wear what the occasion calls for, you might end up red-faced, or far worse.

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The man in Jesus’ parable who was at the wedding without the proper attire—he was not only shamed but kicked out.  Foolishly, he thought he could wear what he wanted, instead of what was acceptable for guests to wear.  And he paid the price.

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This wrongly dressed man, who is he?  He is everyone who thinks they can slip into the heavenly banquet wearing their own merits.  For since our righteousness is as filthy rags (Isa 64:6), it will land us only with the man in the parable—weeping and gnashing our teeth.

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What we need is what Jesus himself has provided:  His robe of righteousness that covers our filthy garments.  The cloak of His holy flesh and blood is draped over us in Baptism; we wear the clothing of Christ.  More than dressed to the nines, we are dressed, quite literally, for heaven itself.

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From Hitler’s Wolves to Christ’s Lambs: How Lutheran Pastor Henry Gerecke Brought the Gospel to Hitler’s Highest Ranking Disciples Before Their Executions

They walked to the gallows together, pastor and penitent.  Each step up took them closer to the fall–the abbreviated, fatal fall to come.  As the criminal stood above the trapdoor that, moments later, would open to rope him into eternity, an officer asked him if he had any final words.  ”I place all my confidence in the Lamb who made atonement for my sins. May God have mercy on my soul,”  he said.  Then, turning toward the man who had been the shepherd of his soul during his incarceration, who had been his confessor, his preacher, and the one from whose hand he had received the body and blood of Jesus in the Supper, he said, ”I’ll see you again.”  Then noosed, hooded in black, and legs tied, he dropped out of this world into another.

As gripping as this account is, no doubt many similar scenarios have played out in the course of history, where condemned men have found repentance and faith when certain death looms nigh.  What makes this story remarkable is that this man, along with many others who were hanged that day, was among the most hated men in human history, guilty of atrocities so horrific only words forged in hell could adequately describe them.  These were Hitler’s men.  His closest confidants.  His very own pack of wolves.  Yet in the months leading up to their executions or imprisonments, many of them had been transformed from Hitler’s wolves into Christ’s lambs thanks to the ministry of a farm boy from Missouri, who grew up to be a pastor, and who reluctantly agreed to be the chaplain of the fifteen Protestant war criminals during the Nuremberg trials at the close of World War II.

Henry Gerecke was in his early 50’s when he went, cell by cell, to introduce himself to his infamous ‘congregation’ and to invite them to chapel services.  Some refused, others wavered, and still others promised to be there.  Of the fifteen chairs set up for the first service, thirteen of them were filled.  Scriptures were read, sermons preached, hymns sung, prayers prayed.  And, through it all, hearts were changed.  Soon some of the very lips that had once barked, ”Heil Hitler!” spoke a repentance-confessing, faith-affirming Amen as they knelt to eat and drink the body and blood of their forgiving Lord.  They expressed a desire for their children to be baptized.  One of them, though he began reading the Bible to find justification for his unbelief, ended up being led to faith by the very same divine words.  So reliant did these men become upon their pastor that, when a rumor surfaced that he might be relieved of his duty and allowed to return home, they wrote a letter to Mrs. Gerecke, begging her to ask him to stay.  On that letter were the signatures of all these former Nazis, men who had enjoyed power and rank, now humbly beseeching a housewife in America, who had not seen her husband for two and a half years, to let him stay.  In her brief reply, “They need you,” is packed a whole volume about sacrifice and love.

Pastor Gerecke’s story has already been told (see links below), but it deserves to be retold, again and again, to every generation, for two very important reasons.  The first has to do with the men to whom he ministered, the ones who repented and believed in Christ.  The scandal of Christianity is not that these men went to heaven; it is that God loved them so much that he was willing to die to get them there.  Had it been a human decision, many would have thrown these men, guilty of such atrocities, into the flames of hell.  But the truth is that people are not condemned because they murder, or steal, or lie, but because they reject Jesus as the one who has already endured hell for them on the cross, and earned a place for them in heaven.  There is no one who is so vile that he is beyond redemption, because the redemption of Christ envelops all people.

Another reason Pastor Gerecke’s story needs to be remembered involves his vocation, and those who share it.  What pastor, knowing he was about to visit men such as these, would not have struggled to find any hope in their possible repentance?  But Gerecke visited each cell anyway, invited each man to hear the Word, and left it to the Spirit to do the work of making new creations of these hardened criminals.  Nor did he mince words, surrender his convictions, or water down the truth for them.  On the evening before he was to be hanged, one of the men, Goering, asked to be communed, just in case he was wrong and there was some truth to the Christian claims.  But Gerecke refused to give the Sacrament to one who so obstinately refused repentance, and treated the Supper as if it were an edible, just-in-case, insurance policy.  When Christ calls men into the office of the holy ministry, he calls them to be faithful—not successful, not popular, not practical, not winsome, not cool, but faithful.  They are to preach even when they doubt it will bear fruit.  They are to give the word of Christ to sinners, and let the Christ of that word do his work.  And he does.  He convicts, he calls, he saves, he baptizes, he feeds, and, finally, he welcomes one and all into his kingdom with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

In 1961, at the age of sixty-eight, Pastor Gerecke passed from this life into the next.  He entered that innumerable company of saints who had gone before him, some of whom had been among his flock during his years of ministry, one of whom, atop the gallows, had promised, “I’ll see you again.”  And he did.

Online Resources:

I strongly urge you to click on one or all of the links below to read Pastor Gerecke’s story.  The details and quotes I included above are from these resources.

Gerecke’s story, in his own words, was published in the Saturday Evening Post, 1, September, 1951, pp. 18-19, under the title, “I walked to the Gallows with the Nazi Chiefs.”  Click here to read his story:  http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=54c3a380-d341-4df2-92f0-e25631014730%40sessionmgr4&vid=2&hid=18

Don Stephens, in War and Grace:  Short biographies from the World Wars, (Evangelical Press, Faverdale North, Darlington, DL3 0PH, England) devotes a chapter to Gerecke and his ministry.  The chapter is available online at:  http://www.messianicgoodnews.org/henry-gerecke-chaplain-to-nazi-war-criminals/

In 1950, Gerecke was called to be Assistant Pastor at St. JohnLutheranChurch, Chester, IL.  That congregation’s website includes audio files of Pastor Gerecke speaking about his experience.  These can be listened to by following the link below, and clicking on the audio files on the right side of the website. http://www.stjohnchester.com/Gerecke/Gerecke.html

Other Resources:

F. T. Grossmith, The Cross and the Swastika, Henry E. Walter Ltd., Worthing, England,  1984, which tells Gerecke’s story.

N. M. Railton, “Henry Gerecke and the Saints  of Nuremberg,” Kirkliche Zeitgeschichte,  Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2000, pp.126-7.

Many of the primary sources about Gerecke, including his own My Assignment with the International Military Tribunal at Nürnberg, Germany, are found at Concordia Historical Institute, St. Louis, MO, the official archive of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

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The Divine Overachiever: What Happens When God Mans Up

I suppose, had he wanted to, God could have done enough to pass muster. To straighten up his messed up world, he might have worked hard at some deep cleaning, trashed most of the evil, and given humanity a tough scrub in the tub. Come to think of it, he did that once, in the Flood, and it wasn’t long afterward when the righteous star of that show was lying bare ass naked in a drunken stupor inside his tent. That cosmic bath didn’t cut it.

I suppose, also, that God could have done a smash up job of taking care of the bad stuff we call sins. He might have heaped up a whole mountain of misdeeds, beginning with Adam’s and peaking it with the transgressions of the last folks who’ll inhabit this dying world of ours, then transferred all that nastiness onto a sacrificial victim, opened his veins, and declared that blood the ”not guilty” verdict upon all mankind. And, in fact, he did that when Jesus was crucified. But that’s not all.

God is the ultimate overachiever. Not content with a mere global clean-up effort; not even stopping at providing a full and complete sacrifice for our wrongdoing; he went the extra mile, and then some. Here is the truth: we have gained more in Jesus than we lost in Adam. We lost human perfection in the first man’s fall. We gained perfect flesh-and-blood unity with God in his Son’s incarnation. We lost the fruit of the tree of life, but we gained a meal wherein we eat and drink of God and with God in the body and blood of our Savior. We were banished from Eden as Adam’s offspring but embraced by heaven as adopted offspring of the Father himself.

God has achieved your forgiveness, to be sure. But over and above that, he has
Exalted you above the angels
Crowned you as kings and queens
Robed you as holy priests
Bestowed on you his name
Suffused his divine body into yours
Grafted your human body into his.
In short, he has shattered the glass ceiling above humanity, lifting us to heights undreamed of. The dirge of Genesis 3 was transformed into a Hallelujah chorus about a God who, driven by love, mans up for us, that as he is, we may be.

Cut the Baby in Half: How to Teach Your Child to Honor, or Dishonor, Your Ex-Spouse

It wasn’t until my divorce that I discovered how many healthy words suddenly grow that tumorous prefix of ‘ex’. There are not only ex-wives and ex-husbands, but ex-uncles and ex-aunts, ex-churches and ex-homes, ex-bank accounts and ex-family pictures, ex-dogs and ex-friends. Almost every aspect of life is put on the chopping block, and what once was whole, is sliced and diced into his and hers. And all too often, in the flurry of all this butchering, the perfect icon of the one-flesh union of husband and wife—their child—is divided as well.

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Solomon’s fame for wisdom was established, when, in order to discover who the true mother of a boy was, he ordered the child cut in two with a sword. The false mother, stirred by selfishness, hissed, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him!” But the true mother, terrified by love, implored the king to “give [the other woman] the living child, and by no means kill him.” The responses of these two parents, one evoked by love, and one by selfishness, is illustrative of what happens in the hearts of moms and dads who find themselves in the throes of divorce. I don’t mean that one parent embodies the true, loving mother in Solomon’s court and the other embodies the false, selfish mother. Rather, both these mothers take up residence in the hearts of divorced parents, moms and dads alike. An ongoing struggle ensues between good and evil, loving versus selfish parenting. And when evil triumphs, the child is torn in two.

Even as the church rightly laments the carnage that divorce has inflicted upon society, especially upon children, and works to strengthen marriages and families that remain intact, we are still called upon to minister to the divorced, including mothers and fathers who must now ”co-parent” with an ex-spouse. That is a tremendous challenge, often leading to disagreements that can easily escalate into bitter fights. As a parent who’s undergone divorce, I’ve experienced this firsthand. It seems to me that, as the church and her pastors bring the Word of God to bear upon divorced parents, they ought to include in their counsel a healthy dose of teaching about the Fourth Commandment, and how, even ex-spouses are enjoined by God to honor one another as mother and father, especially in the presence of their children.

For ”honor your father and your mother” is not only a command directed toward children; it is a divine call for everyone to honor the vocation of parents and other authorities. Because children tend to imitate their parents, the less moms and dads honor the office, the less their kids will. What often happens in divorce situations is that one or both parents point out their ex-spouse’s flaws, drag out the “dirty laundry” of the past, belittle their former spouse, and, in short, do everything conceivable to teach their child how to dishonor his father or mother. Sadly, this is sometimes done quite deliberately, in an effort to turn the child against his other parent. The mother or father who engages in such selfish actions is doing nothing less than grabbing Solomon’s sword and cutting his child in two—the child who, by his very nature, wants nothing more than to love and be loved by both his parents, whether they are married or not.

There are few experiences in life that bring out as much human ugliness as does divorce. All hateful, vindictive, petty, lying, and otherwise selfish actions and words have a good chance of rising to the surface. If you are going through a divorce, you need a trusted friend to talk to who has a lot of time and patience, at least some compassion, and enough wisdom and honesty to tell you when you’re acting stupid and irrational (because, at times, you will). But when you’re talking with your children, especially about your ex-spouse, inspect each word before you let it exit your mouth, checking to see if it is medicine or poison, if it supports honor or dishonor.

And while you’re at it, pray to the Father above to give you some of the same wisdom he granted Solomon, to discern within your own heart whether you are acting as a true, loving parent or a false, selfish one. If any sword is drawn, let it be used to sever in two every word that would harm your child, your beloved son or daughter, who never asked to be put in a position of suffering through the break-up of his parents.

“The Adulterer’s Bible” and the Three Misuses of the Law

The word ”not” is such a tiny word, that its accidental omission in a printing of the Bible in 1631 is understandable. After all, the Word of God is perfect, but proofreaders are not. And this slip up might have remained yet one more historical fact worthy of a yawn, were it not made in Exodus 20, and were in not specifically in the Ten Commandments, where the seventeenth century reader came across the rather jarring injunction, ”Thou shalt commit adultery.” Whoops. And so, that flawed reprinting of the King James edition rightly earned the infamous title of ”The Adulterer’s Bible.”

Now if all willful misrepresentations of divine commands were as easy to spot as this accidental one, we might not be so easily deluded by other versions of the law which are fundamentally flawed. But Satan, and the law-twisters he inspires, are usually much more subtle in their approach. There are, at minimum, a triad of ways they seek to undermine divine speech. Let’s call these the three misuses of the law.

First, there are the law-shrinkers. This is the tendency of the liberal, the progressive, whose god constantly reevaluates what he requires of people, based upon the cultural, sexual, and political ebb and flow of life in this world. Absolute commands, which demand a wholistic devotion of heart and hand, mind and mouth, generation unto generation, are amended, so that ”thou shalt not” becomes ”thou shalt not…unless”. The unhappy result is that those who should have been struck by God’s law, and brought to repentance, faith, and amendment of life, are left secure in their sin, duped into believing darkness is light.

Second, there are the law-expanders. This is the tendency of the conservative, the religious traditionalist, who endeavors to assist his god by strengthening his commands. They try to out-law the law, to do more than is required, and in a sad irony, ending up breaking the commandments they never kept in the first place. This is the error of the 1st and 21st century Pharisees. For them, ”thou shalt not,” becomes, ”thou shalt not, and not, and not, and still not.” If the law-slackers produce impenitent immoralists, the law-expanders breed prideful hypocrites.

The third misuse of the law is the offspring of both shrinkers and expanders, and, in the end, the worst of all. It is the false, misleading dream that a person’s relationship with God can begin, continue, or come to fulfillment based upon his obedience to requirements. Relationships just don’t work that way. Sons don’t become sons by toeing the line, but by being born. So it is with the children of God. But both shrinkers and expanders begin to imagine that they are actually in perfect conformity with divine mandates, and in that delusional state, never realize how much they need a Father and his forgiving, recreative grace.

It is not the ”thou shalts” and ”thou shalt nots” that determine our relationship with God, but the Father’s declaration, ”Thou art mine.” Thou art mine because my Son, born under the law, has fully kept the law for you who fully broke it. Thou art mine, for you have been born anew, baptized by water and the Spirit, and in that liquid womb you have become my son, my daughter, heir of all that is mine. There is no need to shrink or expand the Father’s ”thou art mine”, for in those three words is declared the perfect love of the Trinity for you.

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“Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate”: The Fourth Commandment and the Creed

Though my feet stay on a fairly straight path when I run, my mind races about as a four-year-old in a room strewn with toys. This morning, in the middle of its helter-skelter meanderings, it landed in the middle of the Apostolic Creed, specifically on the words, ”born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate.” And there, quite unexpectedly, it leapt to the fourth commandment, ”Honor your father and your mother.” For in the midst of this creed, in the persons of Mary and Pilate, we see the vocation of parent lived honorably and dishonorably, a faithful model worthy of emulation and a faithless example warning of failure.

When the angel told Mary she had become a mother, she replied simply, ”Let it be to me according to your word.” Therein is a grateful acknowledgment that the Creator had formed life in her womb. Her child was more than a mass of cells; he was even more than a human being; he was a divine gift. And so is every child, no matter whether the mother is wed or unwed, healthy or an addict, a pastor’s wife or a pimp’s whore. The foundational confession of every father and mother who seek not only to be honored as a parent but to parent honorably is that their child comes from God, as Mary herself believed.

Even as the life of our Lord began inside an honorable mother, so it ended under a dishonorable father. For Jesus ”suffered under Pontius Pilate”, who was a father of the state, one whose greatest concern was his own skin. He shirked his paternal responsibility to uphold justice, pursue truth, and protect the innocent. As a father cares for his sons and daughters, sacrificing his own interests for the better good of those under his charge, so Pilate was to care for the citizenry. Instead, he washed his hands of this duty, letting mob rule mock justice, and skulked away, a father betraying his family.

In the life of Jesus, from his birth to an honorable mother, to his suffering under a dishonorable father, our heavenly Father was at work to reconcile us to himself. Both faithful Mary and faithless Pilate are part of his plan, for he uses the weak and the strong, the just and the unjust, to lead his Son through all stages of human life, and into death itself, that he might fully save us. For Jesus became all that we are, that we might become all that he is. He was ”born of the Virgin Mary,” to make us children of our mother, the church, and ”suffered under Pontius Pilate,” to make us sons and daughters of his own Father.

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