Archive for the month “September, 2013”

Let Me Tell You About Shame

People go into hiding for various reasons.  Usually they’re not so much looking for something as running from something.  A husband’s fist.  An outstanding warrant.  Tyrannical parents.  Maybe they’re searching for a fresh start.  Or maybe they’re just attempting to stay alive for another sunrise, knowing that if they stay put, death by another’s hand, or their own, will surely come.  Whatever the reason, whatever the hiding spot, they usually nurture at least a tiny spark of hope that freedom from their oppression will come.

For about seven years of my life, I tried to escape from my own oppressor, but he was always nipping at my heels, his breath hot on the back of my neck.  I ran, but he was faster.  Hid, but he uncovered.  Buried myself, but he exhumed me.  For the reality is this:  sometimes when we go into hiding, no matter how deep we burrow, no matter how thorough our anonymity, we cannot shake off our pursuer, for we take him with us.  In my own life, that most relentless, merciless pursuer has been shame.

Sin is prolific, spawning a multitude of offspring.  There’s guilt, a burden I’ve shouldered.  There’s regret, a morass into which I’ve sunk.  Each has its peculiar effect, each its specialized punishment.  But, for me, there’s been nothing uglier, more deep-seated, and more debilitating than shame.  Shame dehumanizes its victim; he feels and deems himself sub-human, unworthy even of the companionship of others.  In every facial feature of those who know the source of his shame, he reads the hieroglyphic of contempt.  Thus, he goes underground, seeking anonymity.  But even alone, there is no relief.  Reflected in the mirror is a filth more visible than his skin, a stain of soul that seeps outward, like a botched tattoo inked from within.  But perhaps he can find someone who’ll accept him, wounded and torn though he be?  No, for the teeth of self-loathing gnaw away at his assurance of the love of others for him, because, he reasons, how could anyone’s heart be turned kindly toward him?  He sees nothing lovely in himself, so he cannot possibly see how another could love him.  Maybe if he cannot find love in another person, he may still discover a loving God?  Hardly, for sees in the face of the heavens the same frigidity he sees in the face of others, the same contempt, the same loathing, only even more intense, because God is wholly and holy other.  The more shame envelopes his life, the more welcome death becomes, for he can fathom no other end to a life of shame than an end to life itself.

For me, shame had almost a physicality about it.  It wasn’t just something I felt in my conscience; it was more like an ensemble of stained, stinking ragtag raiment I donned daily.  Like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, I wore shame, for it was sewn into the very fabric of my existence.  Moreover, it wasn’t just something with which I struggled; it came to define my existence.  It was the refrain of my life’s song, droning on and on.

As I mentioned, for about seven years of my life, shame was my constant companion.  What about now?  Has it changed?  If so, how and why?

Has it changed?  Not long ago, I reconnected with a friend with whom I hadn’t spoken in several years.  He had been a member of the congregation where I served as pastor, and a very good friend to me and my family.  It was a great conversation, a talk I needed to have, and a friendship I wanted to rekindle.  But as we got around to talking about events from my past, those intimately connected with the origin of my shame, I could feel my old foe wrapping his hands around my throat as I spoke.  So has it changed?  Yes and no.  The best way I can describe what’s happened is to say that, if shame were my cancer, it is now in remission.  I wish with all my heart that I could tell you it’s gone for good, that I’m shame-free down to the core of my being.  I wish I could tell you that every thread on that stained, stinking ragtag raiment has been cast into the flames.  But I’ll be honest; it still hangs deep in my closet.  And some days, as on the day of that phone call, I find myself wearing it once again.

So how did this, if not perfect, at least improved situation come about?  To begin with, I came out of hiding.  You might think shame does its best work when a man is around others, when he experiences shame in their presence.  But I think it’s the opposite; that a man alone with his shame is completely at its mercy.  The more silent he is about it, the louder it roars within.  So I opened my lips and let it escape.  I told people what I’d done; I gave voice to my shame.  I forced myself to be in the presence of those who knew the origin of my shame.  And, yes, I did read on the faces of some that hieroglyphic of contempt, but in the faces of others I saw, to my amazement, compassion and non-judgment and—miracle of miracles—even love.

But much more importantly, I quit trying to hide from God.  Like David,

When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night, your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.  I acknowledged my sin to you, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; and you forgave the guilt of my sin.  (Psalm 32:3-5)

God, however, did more than forgive my guilt; he swallowed my shame.  Rather than finding in the face of God the loathing expression of a holy deity, I found the face of a compassionate man who knew all about shame.  I discovered in the face of Jesus an unflinching acceptance of me, a friend who doesn’t love me for the man I was, or the man I should be, but for the shamed, stained, marred, disfigured, wounded, half-man I am.  He took me in his arms and held me, held me as I confessed and wept and poured out my grief and guilt and shame.  And in his arms, something changed.  An inexplicable transfer occurred.  My shame, it moved to him.  My tears streamed from his eyes.  He was wearing that stained, stinking ragtag raiment, and I his new, laundered, white garments that smelled like paradise itself.  I became human again; better yet, a child of heaven.  All because the man who held me became me, even as I became him.  He became the shamed, soiled, hated, forsaken sinner, that I might become the forgiven, washed, loved, embraced son of the Father.  Jesus brought to me, in the depths of my suffering, what he had accomplished in his life and crucifixion so long ago.

Yes, I still have my struggles with shame.  Perhaps I always will.  But I shall always have something, or rather, Someone, stronger.  I have Jesus the Christ.  And of his Gospel I am not ashamed, for it is the power of God for the salvation, and the removal of shame, for all who believe.

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Medals for Mediocrity: Living in a Culture Where Honest Behavior Is Deemed Heroic

This past Sunday evening, four college football players in Wayne, N.J., needing batteries and cable for their dorm room stereo system, went shopping.  So they walked into Buddy’s Small Lots, found what they were looking for, and, seeing no cashier around, finally gave up and left the money for the purchase (including tax) on the counter.

And thus began their fifteen minutes of fame.

The store was actually closed, but the front door had malfunctioned, giving them free access.  When the deed became known, a local T.V. network aired the clip from the security camera, and asked these shoppers to come forward.  They did, somewhat reluctantly, for fear they were in trouble.  Quite to the contrary, all four were applauded, interviewed on the Today show, and each given $50 gift cards to the store as a reward for their honesty.

If you take this story and winnow all the media chaff from it, what you have left is simply this:  four men acted honestly.  Presented with an easy opportunity to steal, they chose not to, but instead paid in full for the items they needed.  They did the right thing.  And for that common act of decency, they were treated as moral heroes.

While there is nothing wrong, and plenty good, with affirming honesty and encouraging decency, there is something deeply disturbing about a culture in which such actions make national news.  It is as if to say that we expect our citizens to act dishonestly, and, when they do not, we are shocked.  The store manager, when he saw on camera what the youths had done, said that his “jaw dropped.”  When upright behavior is jaw-dropping, when honesty is deemed heroic, we are in a most lamentable state of affairs.

So what are we to do?  I will start in my most direct sphere of influence:  I’ll talk to my children about this story.  I’ll tell them what I just told you.  And I’ll go on to tell them that, of course, I expect them to be honest.  I expect them not to act selfishly and steal.  But I will also affirm that they should never feel any entitlement to praise for simply doing the right thing.  The chief reward in doing what is right is simply that:  knowing that you’ve done what is right, that you have done your duty toward God and your fellow man.  Don’t expect a $50 gift certificate for choosing to avoid a life of criminality.

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The Angels Carry a Concealed Weapon: A Sermon on St. Michael and All Angels

Ask about just about anyone to draw a picture of an angel, and about 99.9% of those angels would be sporting those well-known wings. De-wing the angels, and I daresay their popularity in our culture would soon, well, fly out the window. We want angels as long as they’re adorned with wings. And so it is with other things. We want leaders as long as they have warm smiles; we want doctors with jovial personalities; we want pastors with shiny shoes, handsome faces, and—above all—niceness. Like starving men who would rather gorge themselves on paper showing pretty pictures of candy than dine on an ugly steak, so are we, for we suffer from an addiction to The Trivial.

The lion’s share of our lives is wasted in making big things little, and little things big. Every hour of every day demons lurk to snatch us up in their bloody claws, while we fret over wrinkles and graying hair and varicose veins. Within us there is an old Adam that hates God with a passion and who will fight tooth and nail to drag us down to hell with him, but we get all worked up over the neighbor who painted his shutters purple and has two feet high weeds in his yard. Not a single day goes by when we don’t sin enough to deserve ten-thousand lifetimes in that place of unquenchable fire, but we freak out if the A/C quits working in the middle of July. We are pros at making big things little, and little things big. We yearn and long for so many things that do us little or no good, while all the while forgetting about the One who does us nothing but good, who hungers and yearns and longs for us—the Lord of Angels, the God of Redemption, the One who is anything but trivial.

We pray every morning and evening, “Let your holy angel be with us, that the wicked foe have no power over us.” And well we should, for if God’s angel is not with us, the wicked foe has all power over us. Then we are lambs in the midst of wolves. But the holy angels of God, who help and defend us on earth, muzzle the demons’ murderous jaws. But they don’t wield swords and spears. The weapon of the angels is not tucked into a scabbard or holster. It’s in their mouths. Their tongue is our shield, for the weapon of angels is the word of their Lord. Revelation 12 says Michael and his angels fought against the Dragon and his angels. And how did they overcome him? By the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. Words, angelic words, words steeped in divine blood—these words shield you from the fiery lies breathed out of the Dragon’s mouth, for these are not trivial words, but the word as weighty as the Lord whose words they are. It is not wing-ed angels that you need, but word-ed angels who do his word, heeding the voice of his word (Psalm 103).

And it is the same with those whom Scripture often calls angels, messengers from God—the pastors of the church. He whom God has called and placed in your midst is to you as Michael is to the whole church. He is God’s messenger to you, your angelic man, who stands guard over you with the shield of the Father’s word.

So what do you need from him? Do you need a man who will preach to make you happy or who will preach you into hell and back to heaven again? Do you need a man who will say, Thus says my Conscience or Thus says my Experience or Thus says my Church Body, or one who proclaims Thus says the Lord? Do you need a man who will feed you whatever is easy to swallow or who will feed you with the food of God, even when you have to choke it down?

What you need is an angelic man who is outfitted only with the word, the same word of the angels, the word steeped in divine blood, shed for you. That is all he has, for that is all he needs, for the word does it all. This is the word that converts you into little children so that you enter the kingdom of heaven. This is the word breathed into water so that heaven becomes your second womb and you are born from above. This word is the Spirit’s sword by which he cuts off the hand or foot which causes you to sin, that cuts to the heart of the matter, and leads to confession and absolution. This is the word joined with our flesh and blood in Mary the Virgin that we might eat that same flesh and blood in the church our Mother. This is the word that makes each of you greatest in the kingdom of heaven, for it plants you in the King of the Kingdom and makes you a partaker of his never-ending life.

Because what you need is not trivial, what God gives you is anything but trivial. He gives you himself for he gives you his very own word—incarnate, crucified, resurrected, ascended, all for you. Because the worst of hell is what you have deserved, God has given you the best of heaven which you have not deserved, that his doing of your salvation might be complete and perfect. There is no more to be done—the Serpent’s head has been crushed, the Passover Lamb has been sacrificed, the Red Sea has been parted, the New Joshua has led you into the Promised Land, the temple of his body has been destroyed and rebuilt. Now salvation and strength and the kingdom of our God and the power of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been cast down, and they overcame them by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony.

This is the weighty word you need and the weighty word God provides, speaking into you the word made flesh, that your flesh might forever be one with the word. This is the word your angelic man will preach into your ears that with Michael, the angels, archangels, and all the saints in heaven, you might forever rejoice at the Feast of the Lamb in his kingdom, which has no end.

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Holding My Grandson in the NICU: The Gift and Dignity of Life

Moments after my grandson entered this world in the small hours of morning last Tuesday, his family’s world crumbled into a chaos of panic. Whisked away as soon as he left the womb, Colt was swarmed by a medical team who strove to keep his tiny heart beating and to begin clearing his lungs of the fluid and meconium that he had aspirated during delivery. Mediflighted to the nearest NICU, Covenant Women and Children’s Hospital in Lubbock, Texas, he spent the next six days receiving exemplary care.

I spent more than a few hours this past weekend in the NICU, cradling this gift of life, all seven pounds of him. Small as he is, Colt was a virtual giant compared to many of his comrades in the hospital.  Some of them had arrived weeks, if not months, before their due date. The youngest baby that this NICU had ever cared for, who survived and eventually went home healthy and strong, was born a mere 24 weeks old and weighed a little over one pound.

The nurses who care for the children in the NICU feed them, diaper them, administer medications, hold them, and provide everything they need, around the clock. It comes as no surprise that these nurses are advocates of life. That is their vocation, their passion. You’ll find few, if any, supporters of abortion amongst them. They suffer no delusions about the fact that, veiled behind a pregnant woman’s expanding abdomen, is a human being as fully alive as the mother who carries him. Every baby there is indeed a baby, whether he is born at 24 weeks or 40 weeks. Birth, as momentous as it is, is but another signpost on the journey of life, not its origin.

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Yesterday, before my wife and I left for our home, and Colt left with his mom and dad for his own, I had a few more moments to hold him close. As I did, he opened his eyes, reached out his tiny hand, grabbed my finger, and held on tight. He’s strong. He’s a fighter. He was born into a world where, tragically, not all appreciate the gift of life. But I pray that he grows up into a changed world that will acknowledge and protect the life of all, from the moment of conception until the moment they leave this life for another, one that knows no end. Until that day, I will continue to advocate for the life of the born, and the unborn, who like my grandson, are all the precious work of a God who has never retired from the work of creation.

The Unjust Steward and the Just Savior: A Sermon on Luke 16

It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment. Every birthday pushes you one day closer to deathday. The candles are finally blown out by your final breath. It is the point of no return. But it is not really a point, death, that is—day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, we are perpetually dying. Even the common cold is a reminder that one day our mortal flesh shall lie cold within the earth. As for the days of our life, they contain 70 years, or if due to strength, 80 years, yet their pride is but labor and sorrow, for soon it is gone and we fly away.

We fly away to the judgment seat of God. There we shall appear before the One who knows all, before whom nothing is hidden. Do you really think you can conceal something, anything, from Him? He who created the eye—has He not seen your every greedy gaze, your every lustful look, what you’ve done when no man’s eye looked on? He who formed the ear—has He not listened to every lie and heard every hateful word you’ve spoken? He who shaped the hands—do you think He is ignorant of thieving hands, lazy hands, hands bloody from violence and back-stabbing, hands grabbing for more and more? Yes, He knows all—not only the sins you remember and are ashamed of, but also those you have forgotten and even those you never knew you committed.

On what will you rely in that day? Those on trial in human courts – who truly are innocent – rely on the evidence to prove their lack of guilt. Those who truly are guilty, but claim innocence, they rely on ambiguities in the evidence, the skill of their attorneys, loopholes in the law, and whatever else they can use to get a “not guilty” verdict. But both these approaches are hopeless before the almighty bar of justice. You are not innocent, but guilty, and there is a mountain of indisputable evidence to prove that; nor are there any loopholes in the law; nor is there a “dream team” of lawyers to get you off the hook. Who shall you be like in that day? You shall be like the unjust steward in the parable our Lord Jesus told.

He was caught red-handed, this steward, caught wasting his master’s goods. Very shortly he would be out of a job. Too weak to dig, too ashamed to beg, he acted shrewdly to plan for his future. Calling in his master’s debtors, he reduced their bills—from 100 to 50 measures of oil, from 100 to 80 measures of wheat. So pleased would these renters have been that, when the steward was fired, they’d receive him into their homes. But what about the rich man, this steward’s boss? Once he discovered that his employee had messed with the books, couldn’t he change them back? In addition, could he not have the steward arrested, tried, and jailed for his misdeeds? He could have, of course, but that is precisely the point: he did not. Quite the opposite, he commended the steward because he had dealt shrewdly.

The unjust steward had banked on the mercy of his master. For not only the steward, but the master as well would have appeared good and gracious in the eyes of the renters for lowering the amount they owed. When found guilty before his master, with nowhere else to turn, the steward turned back to the master himself. This man’s compassion and generosity were his only hope for the future. His judge became his savior.

And so it is with you. The stewardship given you by the heavenly Master—your body and soul, money and property, vocation and family—all of these you have abused and misused. To deny this is to deceive only yourself. There is only one hope for you when you stand before the almighty Judge; there is only one place to turn—to the Judge Himself. “The Father judges no man, but has committed all judgment to the Son.” But this Son to whom the Father has committed all judgment is also the Son who has been delivered up for your sins. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son,” not to judge the world but that the world might be saved through Him. Your hope is not that you are better than others; your hope is not that God has been blind to your wrong-doing; your hope is not that your good deeds outweigh your misdeeds; your hope is in the very One who sits in judgment upon you. For that One who sits on the throne of judgment is the very One who was willingly nailed to the crucifix as the one judged for you.

He who created the eye and has seen all you’ve done—His are the eyes that closed in death and opened in resurrection life, that they might look upon you as the apple of His eye. He who formed the ear and has heard all you’ve said—His are the ears that are open to your cry, that will not hear the accusations of the devil, that are deaf to anything said evil of you. He who made your hands—His are the hands held in place by the spikes, the hands which scooped up water to bathe away your iniquity, the hands that place within your mouth His own blood and flesh, the hands upon which your name is inscribed. He knows all, this Judge, but more importantly, He knows that you are His.

O Sin, you cannot condemn us, because for us the sinless One has already been condemned. He who knew no sin was made sin for us that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. O devil, you cannot accuse us, because you have already been judged yourself and you have nothing in the Son. If you have nothing in Him then you have nothing in us, for Christ abides in us and we in Him. O Law, you cannot curse us, for Jesus has become a curse for us. Cursed is everyone hung on a tree, says the Law, and on that tree He has blotted out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us.

“Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the One who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us?” If our Judge is our intercessor; if our Brother, Priest, Savior, and Friend is the One before we shall stand, we have nothing to fear. It is appointed for me to die once, and after this comes judgment. And after judgment, come the words, “Welcome, blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for your from the foundation of the world. Welcome, unjust steward justified by Me.”

God Doesn’t Love Everyone the Same

I am the father of a son and daughter, and a step-father to a son and daughter. Each one of these children is, as the Psalmist says, “a gift from the Lord.” I love all of them, but I don’t love them all the same. I don’t mean that I love my son more than my daughter, or my step-daughter more than my step-son. I’m not speaking of a quantitative difference, as if love, like cups of sugar, can be weighed and measured. Rather, I love them all uniquely, for each one is precisely that—unique, an individual, to whom I give myself in love in a way befitting who they are, and the special relationship we share. What one needs is not always what another needs. Just as there is a time for a compassionate love, so there is a time for tough love, as well as every manifestation of love in between. Imperfect as my human, paternal love is, I try to love fully, as well as uniquely, the children whom God has given to me.

We do not call God ”Father” because he is like we are; we call men ”fathers” because they are like God is. We are imitators, he the real thing. It is in imitation of our Father that we love our children, each uniquely, for that is how God loves us. The love of the Father is not a impersonal disposition of goodness toward humanity, like patriotic men love their country. The breadth of divine love (”for God so loved the world”) must be paired with the particularity of his love (”the disciple whom Jesus loved”). The father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, loved both his sons, the one who stayed and the one who strayed, but he loved each one differently. The older brother thought erroneously that he and his younger brother were competing for their father’s affections, and that, though he deserved more of it, his dad was playing favorites and giving away all his love to his brother. But the father reminded him that each child, while fully beloved, is loved differently. And even in that mild rebuke, the father was loving his oldest son toward a greater clarity of what love is and does.

There were several years in my life when I was convinced that God no longer loved me, because he was not doing for me what I thought a Father should do. Of course, what is that but an attitude common to selfish, immature children, who always think they know best, and parents are clueless and uncaring? But the Father held me close through that time too, though I refused to see it. He ever so gently and patiently loved me all the way to repentance. He knew me far better than I knew myself, and thus opened his heart to me in the best possible way. It was no generic announcement of divine generosity that called me out of the shadows, but the voice of a Father who called me by name, and loved me as Chad, not David or John or Tom.

Whoever you are, your Father loves you differently than he loves other people. You are more than a singular entity in the mass we call humanity. You are a person in the truest kind of personal relationship, for you are in a relationship with your Father, who formed you in the womb, has plumbed the depths of your being, and is intimately acquainted with every minutiae of who you are. Just as you are, he loves you. Fully and yet uniquely, he loves you as his child.

There will be times when you will doubt it. There will be days when you misunderstand his love. But one thing is certain: you will never escape it, for love is who God is, and therefore loving is what God does. A one-of-a-kind God who loves the one-of-a-kind you.

If you’d like to read more reflections like this one, check out my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. If you’re looking for feel-good, saccharine devotional material, you’d better keep looking because you’re not going to find it here. If you’re looking for moralistic guides to the victorious Christian life, you’ll be thoroughly disappointed by all the Gospel in this book. But if you’re looking for reflections drenched in the Scriptures, focused through and through on the saving work of Jesus Christ, and guided by a law-and-Gospel approach to proclamation, then I daresay you’ll be pleased with this book. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

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Content with Crumbs

Only the unworthy are welcome to the feast,
Who’d be content with crumbs around their Master’s feet.
Their righteousness is rags, their lips and souls unclean.
How dare they take a seat with him who is pristine?
They tremble as the King stoops down to where they hide,
And bids them sit by him, and at his meal abide.
For man stares up above, but God looks down below,
And sits with the lowly, forgiveness to bestow.

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Change and Decay in All Around I See

agineYou will not be the same after you finish reading this post. I don’t mean that the words and thoughts will profoundly move you; I simply mean that you will change. In the time it takes your eyes to scan these 387 words, you will be older, and therefore your body will be further along in its gradual, inevitable demise. Perhaps a hair or two will fall off; skin cells will die and be replaced by others; your eyesight dim; wrinkles deepen and lengthen; the enamel on your teeth thin. Although these changes will be so profoundly minute that the loss defies measurement, it nevertheless remains true. You are changing as your eyes move over these sentences. You are aging. You are on your way to death. And nothing, absolutely nothing, can alter that fact.

But even if you read this post a million times over, there is someone beside who will not change. He is to your left and right. Above you and below you. Before you and behind you. Inside and outside you. He thoroughly envelops you with his presence. He too has a body like yours, but his body is different, and it is finished with change. It changed from a fetus to a crying newborn; from a newborn to a toddling toddler; from a toddler to a pimpled teen; from a teen to a robust man; and from a man to a flogged, thorned, impaled, deblooded cruciform victim bereft of life. And, then, after a triad of days, he underwent the final change: from an interred victim to a resurrected victor. No hairs fall off. No skin cells die. His eyes penetrate heaven and earth. Even the scars from nail and spear are dazzling, trophies of love. He will not change, either in body or heart. He has said it once, and his announcement remains unalterable: “You are mine. I have bled for you. I will never leave you or forsake you. Though you are on your way to death, you are not, for in my death you already died. In my resurrection you already rose. And nothing, absolutely nothing, can alter that fact.”

“Change and decay in all around I see,
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.”

He has, he does, and he always will, changeless in unfathomable mercy.

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!

Our Twin Towers Stand Strong

No haters of freedom,
Despisers of life,
Whose religion is laced
With bloodshed and strife,
Could castrate our courage,
Or trample our soul,
For justice we hallow,
And bravery extol.
Though make they a trophy,
Of our martyred dead,
The tears of our sorrow,
We melt into lead.
For the eagle flies fierce,
Her talons seek prey,
Her shadow betokens,
The foe’s judgment day.
Though terror be rampant,
Though evil be rife,
Our twin towers stand strong:
Liberty and Life.

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”Your Church Is Too Sexy”: the Sedlec Ossuary, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, and the Theology of Church Architecture

Every day over 40,000 people populate a relatively small church located a few miles from the capitol of the Czech Republic. At least, parts and pieces of them do. It’s a megachurch of a whole different breed. Suspended aloft is a chandelier fashioned from fingers, toes, skulls, you name it—no bone in the human body is left out. There are chalices, monstrances, candelabras, and pillars, forged not from gold or silver or bronze but the bones of departed saints. Inside this Sedlec Ossuary or Bone Church, as it is more popularly called, an artist has literalized the verse, “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,” (Hebrews 12:1). These tens of thousands of “witnesses” were gathered from the nearby church cemetery, where, over the course of centuries, the bones of believers were collected when the citizens ran out of burying room. In the 19th century, an artist tackled the task of arranging them to form this most unique ecclesial architecture. Though labeled by many as macabre or grotesque, this creation nonetheless confesses a truth to which today’s church is often mute: that within the walls of God’s house, we are never alone.

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But before we reflect a little more on churches and what their architecture tells us, let’s visit another church, this one half a world away from Sedlec, and worlds away from its rather raw architecture: Lakewood Church, in Houston, Texas, where Joel Osteen serves as pastor. From its tiny beginnings in a converted feed store half a century ago, Lakewood Church has mushroomed over the decades to out-mega all other megachurches in America. To accommodate such growth, in 2005, the congregation transformed the sports arena where the Houston Rockets formerly played into a 16,000 seat worship facility. While most of the arena seating remained intact, one end of the stadium was thoroughly renovated to become what traditionally would be known as the chancel. Two 30 feet waterfalls flank this platform, the volume and flow of which can be manipulated electronically. Three massive screens behind the stage project images of the preacher or other worship leaders for easy viewing throughout the vast arena. Two hundred LED lights, with their array of color options, allow for multiple mood settings. The original wood floors were covered with 50,000 square feet of carpet. In this immense church, however, what is most obvious is what is lacking, such as crosses and crucifixes, altars and icons, baptismal fonts and stained glass, along with just about everything a traditional Christian church might have. And, needless to say, in Lakewood Church, there hangs no chandelier of saints’ bones.

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There was nothing haphazard in the planning and construction of either of these churches. From the color of the carpet in Lakewood to the choice of particular bones in Sedlec, the architects of each did not work willy-nilly. They had a “vision” for what a church should be, even on a sensual level—how it should look, feel, sound like, smell like, what kind of taste it should leave in your mouth, so to speak. And in accordance with their views of what a church is, or what a church ought to be, they planned and executed each of these sanctuaries. In other words, theology designed architecture, and architecture signaled theology. For sometimes, when you walk into a church, what you see is indeed what you get.

Though I can’t say as I’d want to sip the blood of Christ from a chalice wrought from human bones, neither would I want to sip Starbucks coffee from my comfy stadium seat gazing at a thirty-feet screen with Olsteen’s made-for-television smile beaming from it. Somewhere between the uber-corporeal of Sedlec and the swank-and-sexy of Lakewood, there’s a church that captures and communicates the reality of what church is: a gathering of wounded, hurting sinners around the throne of God and the Lamb, surrounded by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, to be and become united with the crucified and resurrected Christ. That’s where I want to be.

The church on earth and the church in heaven are not two churches, but one, ever united, but never more so than in the divine liturgy, when terrestrial weds celestial, where earthly soil becomes heavenly ground. And why should not this theological reality become visible in the art and architecture of the church? Label the Sedlec Ossuary macabre, if you wish, but at least in that church there’s no missing the fact that the saints surround you in worship. What a blessing to the eyes it would be if sanctuaries had pictures and icons of the saints who have gone before us, and still join with us, in the liturgy. Also, since Christ is not only the core, central message, but the sole message of the church, why should not we give voice to the architecture so that it might preach the same? Crucifixes preach in a universal language the only knowable God; altars, the table from which we feast upon the body and blood of the Victim sacrificed for us; fonts, the bath in which the filthy garments of sinners are made white in the blood of the Lamb; incense, the smoke of supplications wafting upward to the throne as fragrant offerings of praise and petition received as Christ’s very own prayers. All of these, in their own way, are in the service of the Gospel, the truth of a God who became a man with all his senses, that man, with all his senses, might receive his life and worship him.

The art and architecture of a church are theology embodied. To as full an extent as possible, they should be didactic, teaching the faith; beautiful, imitative of the God who makes all things well; catholic, in the sense that they express the totality of the church on earth and in heaven; and permeating all of this, Christ-centered, focusing upon the enfleshed God who is the be-all and end-all of the Church. For when people step into the space in which the Lord is present, the goal is not for them to say, “This is none other than a stadium!” or “This is none other than a practical place for worship and, afterward, basketball!” but, with Jacob, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” (Genesis 28:17).

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