Archive for the month “October, 2013”

Burying the Hatchet: Why Forgiving Others Is So Hard Yet So Liberating

buryinghatchetIn hindsight, taking a job on the night shift probably wasn’t the best idea. Oh yeah, it had its perks. During those triple digit Texas summers, laboring under a waxing moon was a far sight better than beneath a taxing sun. The boss was snoozing away at home. And I got a thrill from maneuvering my semi through the darkness down the serpentine trails that meandered from one gas well to another. But, those perks notwithstanding, the bad outdid the good. My dark thoughts, during those long and lonesome midnight hours, were stained a deeper, more dangerous hue. The most traumatic moments of my life were still a raw memory. And not only was I unwilling to face up to the enormity of the wrongs I’d committed against others. I was also unready to forgive some people who had hurt me deeply. Truth be told, I wanted a pound of their flesh.

You ever been there? Holed up in that lightless lair where those with broken hearts, wounded pride, shattered dreams, bereaved hopes, and lives void of life crawl to hide from a world that holds no attraction for them anymore? Men may become monsters there, for it is a place of dehumanization. It’s an anti-Eden, where Adams are blown back into dust. But amidst all the losses incurred there, when everything seems to be slipping away, we tend to cling tenaciously to one thing: the resolve not to forgive those who have done us wrong.

The most significant, life-changing sentence you may ever speak is a mere three words: I forgive you. Yet not just to say that, but to mean it, and to live a life shaped by those words, may be the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Here’s why, and here’s why there’s nothing more frightening, and more liberating, than burying the hatchet for good.

There’s a whole passel of reasons we’re tightfisted with forgiveness. Maybe the offender isn’t a bit sorry for what he did—or he doesn’t meet our repentance requirements. Or, we’re afraid that if we forgive him, he might interpret that absolution as a free pass to repeat his abusive behavior. Or we withhold forgiveness punitively, a weapon of silence whereby we make people pay for what they’ve done. Or we might simply hate their guts, and we’ll be damned if that lowlife is gonna hear one nice word from us. This is just a sampling of the myriad of reasons we keep those three words, ”I forgive you,” locked deep within the vault of our hearts.

I believe, however, that lurking behind every reason we don’t forgive is one fundamental impulse: the desire, real or perceived, to control the offender. For instance, I dangle forgiveness in front of her, like a carrot before the horse, until finally she does my will. Or, I offer to overlook everything if, and only if, he apologizes. Or, the people who’ve hurt me need to see my pain, so they themselves feel remorse. But if I forgive them, I’ll send the message that I’m okay—and I’m not okay, and as long as I’m not, they shouldn’t be either. In every instance, forgiveness, which is a free gift, morphs into a self-serving tool of manipulation whereby I seek to control another person. Inside our clouded minds, we convince ourselves that we’re doing what’s ultimately best for us.

I get it. We are all about self-protection, especially when we’ve been rode hard and put up wet. We’ve been used, and, by God, we’re bound and determined that’s not going to happen again. So we initiate the wall-building campaign, erecting protective barriers around ourselves, each one saying loud and clear, “Never again.” Never again will I trust a man to be faithful to me. Never again will I bare my soul to another person. Never again will I set foot in a church. And to fortify these “never again” vows, we make a promise to ourselves that we’ll forgive others only when such forgiveness will benefit us. It becomes a weapon in our arsenal, a tool in our belt—call it what you may, forgiveness becomes self-serving. Far from being a gift we grant to another, it is a boon we bestow upon ourselves. Who cares if it soothes the conscience of the offender? What matters is if it makes me feel better, gets me what I want. I’ll manipulate forgiveness, for, ultimately, it is mine to give to whomever I desire, under whatever conditions I choose, to achieve whatever ends serve me best.

I swallowed that thinking whole, and here’s what happened. I didn’t realize what I was up to at first. Years ago, I bounced along those oilfield roads, fuming and fretting, night after night. And all the while I was engaged in the process of creating a god. From the junk yard of my past, I assembled the scrap metal of self-preservation, self-righteousness, and unalloyed selfishness, to weld together a hollow divinity. In its core, I stuffed myself: a god without divinity, offering forgiveness with conditions, to sinners without love.

Among the other mistakes we make when we stuff ourselves inside a self-made god, is the assumption that forgiveness is ours to give, or not give, as we see fit. But forgiveness, like life itself, does not have our name scrawled on it. It is not our property, much less our tool or weapon. It originates in the one true God, flows from him in Christ to me, and through me by the Spirit to others. So, when I forgive, it is not I who forgive but Christ who forgives through me. I am but pressing into the palm of a fellow transgressor the coin of freedom with which Christ has enriched me. I give only what I first received. I am not a god; I’m a fellow beggar, no better and no worse, but just as in need of absolution as every other sinner.

I have the heart of a mule, so it took me a while to realize this, to face up to my own sins, to seek forgiveness, and to discover a God who had already forgiven them. He had buried the hatchet inside the flesh of his own Son, who, even as he hung there spit-covered, blood-splattered, mocked, hated, abandoned, pierced, gasping, and ultimately dying, prayed the most remarkable prayer ever spoken: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Having received such a free and full forgiveness from the God to whom I owed a debt I could never repay, who was I to turn around and demand anything from those who “owed me”? They didn’t owe me an apology; they didn’t owe me repentance, tears, promises of improvement, vows never to repeat what they’d done. Nothing is what they owed me. So I crawled out of the hollow divinity I’d fashioned, threw it in the trash to rust, and said those frightening yet liberating words: I forgive you.

Very often, the very thing that we think will preserve us, destroys us. Ironically, in an effort to control others, sin took full control of me. There is a better way, a road that leads to freedom and joy. That way is Christ, whose forgiveness washes over us and into others, so that, together, we discover what a joy it is to bury the hatchet in an unmarked grave.

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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A Life Worth Living: A Tribute to My Dad

A man becomes a man by imitation of his father.  There are other influences in a boy’s life, but none greater, or of more lasting consequence, than his dad.  A father makes many choices in his life—the woman he marries, the career he pursues, the skills he fosters.  But I remain convinced no decision matters more than what kind of man he will be to his children.  They are his legacy.  And if in the twilight years of a man’s life, he can look back and say, not that he has been a perfect father, but that he has been all the father he can be, then he will have lived a life worth living.

Dad, today you celebrate your 72nd birthday.  For over four decades of those seventy-two years, you have been a father to me.  I have no other, nor have I ever desired another.  Like any man, I am full of weakness and strength, good and bad, but the strength residing in me, and the good I possess, I attribute to you.  You shared stories from your own life, and the lives of others, from which I learned what to avoid, and what to embrace.  The silent witness of your deeds has spoken volumes, and taught me more, than any university degree.  Though I could never detail all the gifts of character I have learned from you, these three stand out, above all others, as the legacy you have bestowed.

From you, Dad, I learned that a man is truly a man when, as Ecclesiastes says, whatever his hand finds to do, he does it with all his might (9:10).  At every job I’ve had, from a roofer to a pastor to a driver, people have remarked on how hard I work.  No one has ever called me lazy, nor will they, for I am your son.  I am not a workaholic, but when I labor, I labor from the heart—with diligence, energy, commitment to the best job I can do.  Work is, in a sense, a sacred task, given by God.  And in working hard we give glory to the One who, even before sin entered the world, gave Adam work to do in Eden.

From you, Dad, I learned that a man keeps going forward, even when he may want to give up.  I have gone through some painfully dark times in my life—and life being what it is, will probably go through more—but I have never stopped pressing forward to what lies ahead.  Perhaps we are both simply stubborn, and refuse to quit for that reason, but I believe it is something more, something deeper, and better.  It is hope.  You have never given up on me, never gave me a reason to doubt that I would make it through my darkness, no matter what.  And that hope has kindled more hope, and lasting hope, within me.

From you, Dad, I learned that our God is a good, loving Father.  From childhood I have known the Holy Scriptures, as Paul did (2 Timothy 3:15), for you took me to Sunday School, sat beside me in church, prayed at every meal, and witnessed in countless ways that God is good.  My faith may not be able to move mountains, but it moves me forward through valleys of the shadow of death, moves me to love others, and moves me again and again into the arms of the Savior whose love, and sacrifice, I first learned from you.

A true, loving father is a gift every child desperately needs.  I have had, and still have that, in you.  And I pray that I may be the same for Luke and Auriana.  That, like you, I too may live a life truly worth living.

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My father, Carson Bird, and yours truly, 1970, in Jal, NM.

Dying to Pray

Dr. Ryan White, in the movie ”Gravity”, hyperventilating as she stares death in the face, gasps, ”No one will pray for me…I’ve never prayed…Nobody has taught me how.”

Once in a blue moon, Hollywood gets theology right. In that single, sad soliloquy, perfectly played by Sandra Bullock, they nailed it. No one is born with the ability to pray. Like English, Russian, Swahili, the language of prayer must be taught.

Of every language under the sun, prayer is the hardest to learn. Not because you have to employ the right grammar of glory and the correct punctuation of praise. Not because the vocabulary is so expansive. Not because without peppering your speech with the proper sacred buzz words, the Almighty will snub you.

The reason is much simpler than that: to learn to pray, you must first die.

The language of prayer is taught in the school of death. When you’ve taken all the words whereby you planned to appease God, woo him, bargain with him, stroke his ego, or trick him, and put all those words under the knife, then you’re about ready. When you’ve taken all your will and wants and desires and dreams that would form the thesaurus of your prayers, and hacked them to pieces, then you’re getting closer. When you yourself—your body, soul, mind, all of you—have been plunged into the fathomless waters, and there nailed to a man who is himself affixed to a cross, and there expire with him, and be carried with him into the darkness of a tomb, then you’re getting real close.

For to learn to pray, you must first die with Jesus, that you might rise to newness of life in him.

Joined to Jesus, whether you utter a bare-bones prayer or enunciate an eloquent petition, the Father hears. He hears because once you have died and risen with Christ, your every prayer is the prayer of Jesus. Your death with him, and his life in you, commingle the two of you so that every prayer is a duet sung to the heavens.

Prayer is Jesus talking, in you, through you, for you, in the language of the Spirit, that the Father is well-pleased to hear, and answer.

In Christ, we are dying to pray.

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Following the Trail of Blood: Words for the Church as Reformation Looms Nigh

It is not hard to track down the Church; just follow the trail of blood.  It begins in the wet soil beneath the body of Abel, murdered not by a stranger but a brother, slain by one who hated the believer because he hated the believer’s God.  And onward it winds, this haunting crimson road. The blood flows from the veins of the very old to the very young, from the infant boys in Egypt and Bethlehem to the gray-haired men and women whose tongues would not be tied by a tyrant’s decree. For in this world the Church never has peace – peace as the world understands it.  Yes, wherever she goes, the Church leaves – or, rather, is forced to leave – the tell-tale sign of her passage through that place.  Just follow the trail of blood, and there you will behold the lineage of the Church. 

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See to it that no one leads you astray from such a path, painful though it be.  For many come to tell your itching ears what they crave to hear:   “It doesn’t have to go on like this.  We can have peace.  No more blood need be shed.   Wink at the golden calves and mind your own business rather than throw down the law and insist on only one saving truth.  Much favor will be won if we learn how to compromise, to play our political cards right, to sweeten our speech with opinions rather than confessions, to crawl about like a theological chameleon in today’s multi-colored religious landscape.”  For then the world will smile and sheathe its sword, the demons will retract their claws, and the haunting crimson road will come to an end…but then, so will the Church.

Deep guile is the weapon of the one who masquerades as an angel of light, but is truly the prince of darkness.  It is he who opened Eve’s eyes to “a better way”, unencumbered by a Word from God that deprived her of what could only make her life better and more fulfilled—so she thought.  It is he who persuaded Solomon that it was more prudent to build temples for the gods of his many wives than risk losing family tranquility and political capital by insistence on the only true way of divine worship.  It is he who shows you that it’s fine to applaud our spiritual forefathers for their  bold stance in their own historical context but to chuckle and poke fun at any serious attempt to follow that teaching and practice in our own.

O such is the crumbling fortress of the god of this world, but how it entices our flesh!  For it looks like a house of candy to the Hansels and Gretels who wander through this world.  And we all have tasted its seeming sweetness.  For it is always easier to rest inside the devil’s crumbling fortress than to trudge on alone in a dark and friendless world.  It is always easier to hold hands with unbelievers inside those walls than risk public defamation by declaring the Gospel from without.  It is always easier to file away the 95 Theses until a more politically expedient time; to bite your tongue so long as no one else speaks up; when standing before governors and kings to say, “Here I stand…and there and there and there and wherever else you wish, whatever keeps my neck out of the noose.”

Yes, such is the fortress built by the devil’s deep guile. And woe to the believer, woe to the church that passes through its gates for so deceptive and seductive are its inner charms that few are those who escape.  For it is not really a fortress; it is a dungeon—dark and dank and reeking of death.

See to it that no one leads you astray from the narrow way, the straight way, the only saving path, for it alone leads to the Jerusalem above.  For broad and easy though the road may seem that frees you from suffering for the truth, it is a road that leads only to greater and unending suffering.  For though the narrow path be bloody, and though the way be steep, and though the trail of truth seem impossible to follow at times, only in it does our Father feed you and clothe you and fill you and flood you with true and lasting peace.

For we travel not alone—far from it.  For at our head is the Son of David, the severed head of hell’s Goliath dangling from his hand, blazing the trail that leads to the heavenly Jerusalem.  Yes, for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected.  For though weak and frail and frightened you be, it matters not, for it is not you who fight but God who fights for you.  He parts the waters so you may pass through, while engulfing your foes behind you.  He topples the walls of Jericho; He turns the swords of your enemies against each other; He fights and He wins and He places the crown on victory upon your heads while you merely stand by and see the salvation of your God. 

O little flock, fear not the Foe, for at your head is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for you.  For all your compromises, He made the good confession before Pilate.  For all your shirking of the cross, He bore His own for you.  For your silence in an effort to save face, He turned His face not away from the spit and the fists and the blood and the gore.  And willingly He did it, all for you, that you might be His own, bought at a price. 

Just follow His trail of blood, the blood of the Crucified One, and there you will behold the life of the Church, your life.  For the Church’s life is in nothing else.  Not in glory nor in fame; not in numbers or power; but in His holy, saving blood, in the blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.  “For Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies, but the blood of Jesus, for our pardon cries.”  The wounds of His hands and feet and side open like lips to proclaim, “Come to Me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden by the heat of this desert world—drink deeply from My cloven side!  Come to Me, sit at My feet, all ye who have gone astray, and I will show you My heel, with which I have crushed the head of the Serpent of old!  Come to Me, all ye Adams and all ye Eves, who have with guilty hands have tried to cover your shame—come and taste the fruit of My Body that your eyes may be truly be opened and you may see that I have clothed you with My own flesh.”

Dear Christians, one and all rejoice, because for you there is a strong city which has lasting foundations, whose builder and architect is God.  Salvation unto you has come—salvation from sin, from falsehood, from false hopes, from false and crumbling fortresses.  A mighty fortress is our God, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging, though devils all the world should fill all eager to devour us—we will not fear.  The kingdom our remaineth.  The forgiveness of sins is ours.  We are washed in the blood of the Lamb.  Fed with manna from on high.  Compassed about by legions of angels.  Christ before us and behind us.  Christ on our right and Christ on our left.  Christ above us and Christ below us.  We all believe in one true God who will ever remain true to us.  So be still and know that He is God, and you are His children, nothing will separate you from Him who shares your flesh and blood. He will grant you endurance to the end.

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(This sermon was originally published in my book, Christ Crucified:  Lutheran Sermons).  I am currently working on a revision of the book, with additional material, to be published in the near future.)

 

Waking up with Leah: Learning to Love a Disappointing Church

In the tiny Texas town where I grew up, sleeping in on Sunday morning was as inconceivable as rooting for someone besides the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday afternoon. Going to church made the list with apple pie and Chevrolet. My dad was a deacon; my mom a Sunday School teacher; and I was the typical daydreaming boy fidgeting in the pew. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I found myself in a job where sleeping in on Sunday was highly frowned upon since the pulpit would’ve been quite empty without me. There I was: seminary trained, armed to the teeth with confessions and creeds, zealous to convert a world—or, at least, our Oklahoma town—to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

Looking back at myself as that twenty-something pastor, I have to admit that I was almost as steeped in naïveté then as I was as a twelve year old boy. Sure, I knew plenty about the church, but it was heavily freighted with the good stuff. The good stuff of the ladies’ guild cooking casseroles for grieving families, youth groups pounding hammers in Mexico to build homes for the poor, a rancher showing up on the pastor’s doorstep with half a beef from his own herd to stock the freezer. But as good and giving and beautiful as the church can be, there’s a dark side, too, that at times can be dog ugly. The day I stumbled upon a secret meeting of the church leadership and one of the elders stood up and slammed the door in my face—that comes to mind. Over the years, there were the not-so-veiled threats of violence, pastors who broke the seal of confession, bishops issuing warnings about me, and occasional rumors about me so outrageous they could have been ripped from the cover of the National Enquirer. I learned plenty through those years, the most obvious lesson being that the church can be a place that’s just as mean and nasty and royally screwed up as the world.

Like the patriarch, Jacob, who after his wedding night, awoke to the wrong wife in his bed, I too one day opened my eyes to find that the Rachel with whom I had fallen in love, for whom I’d labored long years, was not the one beside me as the sun rose. I rolled over and came face-to-face with the uncomely, undesirable, older sister. And then I had a decision to make: leave the church, or learn to love Leah.

Have you been there? Maybe you too grew up with a congregation as your second home, perhaps even served in the ministry, but later encountered within its walls abuse or neglect or a whole host of other ills. While going through a divorce, or struggling with a sexually charged issue, you found not clasping hands of support but wagging fingers of accusation. As the shards of your broken life fell about you, when simply having a Christian show you they cared, when that alone would have meant the world to you, all you saw was the church’s back, turned away, walking the other direction. Or maybe you just slowly slipped away, skipping a Sunday here, a whole month there, and eventually never darkened the doors again, but not a single believer took the time to call or visit to reveal they missed you. You have your story, and I have mine, but all such accounts shoulder a common burden: the fellowship that is supposed to be a hospital for sinners can seem more like a religious country club, a xenophobic clique, or a horde of hypocrites. Call it what you may, it’s not been a church to you and for you. So what do you do? Do you leave or learn to love Leah, walk away from the church or stay?

I could’ve washed my hands of the whole affair and walked away. In fact, I gave serious thought to just that, and for several years, rarely planted my butt in a pew for, when I did, I could taste the bile rising up my throat. But over time, and through a whole lot of healing, re-wounding, and re-healing, I finally came to the point where I see and love Leah for what she is: a beautifully ugly church in whose arms I encounter the God who loves beautifully ugly sinners like me.

A beautifully ugly sinner like me—that’s where healing has to start, with an honest acknowledgement that there may be a slew of unattractive things about the church, but I’m no supermodel of holiness myself. Part of the way we humans deal with our grief or anger or guilt is to deflect any culpability from ourselves by blaming others for almost everything that goes wrong. And though there are important exceptions—such as the victims of sexual predators—most of us who’ve had a rocky relationship with the church must fess up to our own failings. There’s a good chance Leah finds me just as ugly as I find her. I see hypocrites in the church, but I see in my own soul times galore when I wore a mask of piety in public and a face of shame in private. I deplore how the church’s tongue can destroy a person’s reputation, but my own tongue loves the desserts of lies and rumors and gossip more than it loves the bread of honesty. In our society, where it seems everyone claims to be a victim, it needs to be said that we are all perpetrators ourselves. We struggle with the same faults with which we fault the church.

In addition to personal accountability, we’ve got to kill and bury any utopian daydreams we have about the church hitting the gym to tighten her glutes and getting a boob job so we have a hotter, sexier Leah. There has never been, nor will there ever be, a time when the church was flawless. Barely had Jesus ascended before the church descended into trouble. Squabbles arose, heresies spread, pastors played favorites, sexual immorality mushroomed, and hearts grew cold. In the last book of the Bible, there are letters from God to seven different churches. Although he commends those congregations for many good things, he also complains of them leaving their first love, holding to false teachers and teachings, spiritual death, and lukewarmness. And this while the church was still basking in the afterglow of the earthly ministry of Jesus! As long as there are people in the church, there will be problems, for if humanity is anything, it is problematic.

Therein is the reason I found my way (or rather, like a lost sheep, was carried) back to the church: because it’s a place pregnant with problems. Because of those imperfections, I fit in perfectly. If you’ve got it all together, have no struggles, live a full and happy life, free of sin, then the church is not for you. But if you struggle with selfishness, greed, lust, addiction, problem children, a cheating spouse, fear, loneliness, or anything else that plagues our race, then the church is the ideal place for you. For Leah struggles with all that crap, too. Don’t let the pretty stained glass and padded pews and vested clergy fool you; all around the church are wounded sinners wheeled about on gurneys, doctors sewing up stab victims, nurses checking IVs, and double amputees carried by the blind who are led by the mute while the deaf sing prayers for healing. The church is messy place for messed up people who are in dire need of a God who cares.

In uncomely, undesirable, older Leah, that’s just what you’ll find: a God who cares. You’ll find a God who was born of an unwed teen whose neighbors likely whispered was a slut. You’ll find a God who hung out with outcasts, welcomed whores as followers, touched untouchables, called bullshit on the holier-than-thous of his day, and walked eyes wide open into the clutches of those who would torture him to death so as to save a world that really didn’t think it needed saving. In the church you’ll encounter the God who takes all his beautiful and exchanges it for your ugly.

And so, after a few years of growing up, maturing in a some areas, and realizing a bit more clearly what life is all about, I can now honestly say, “Leah, just as you are—not who I want you to be, not who others say you should be—but just as you are: I love you.”

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A Father’s Prayer for His Teenage Son

For my son, Luke, on his 13th birthday

As you become a teenager, a young man, I pray that you may always have…

The COURAGE to fight when weak men retreat.
A brave battle lost is never defeat.

HUMILITY to credit each success
To God who bestows each gift we possess.

The DISCRETION to choose friends that are true,
Who, in good times and bad, will stick by you.

A FREEDOM from love of money or fame,
To treasure far more a spotless, good name.

FORGIVENESS for wrongs inflicted on you.
Hatred and vengeance at all costs eschew.

CHASTITY of heart that will not neglect,
To show all women honor and respect.

FAITHFULNESS to her who will be your wife,
To love her more than you do your own life.

A MIND that explores the ancient and true,
Yet savors the best of all that is new.

PATIENCE to practice, to sharpen each skill,
Knowing achievement takes time to fulfill.

COMPASSION for those the world casts aside;
To the poor and weak, your heart open wide.

A firm FAITH in Christ when tested and tried,
To find life in him who for your life died.

HOPE stronger than doubt, that fights to survive,
Then waits for the light, when dark days arrive.

A LOVE beyond words; one alive in deeds;
A gift of yourself, to all those in need.

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The Three Friends Who Sought to Kill Death: A Cautionary Tale for Preachers

They were having a grand ole time, the three friends, swigging beer and throwing dice in the local tavern. A wet blanket was cast over their festivities, however, when news arrived that one of their comrades had been taken by death. So incensed were they–and so inebriated–that they left the bar raging, swearing that they would kill this scoundrel named Death who had stuck down their friend.

As they went, they encountered an old man, whom they interrogated as to the whereabouts of Death. He pointed down the road, saying that they would find their enemy there. Heading that direction, what should they discover, but a treasure trove of gold coins at the base of an oak tree. Thrilled at their good fortune, they determined to guard the treasure until they could carry it off under cover of darkness. Drawing straws, they sent one friend back to town to buy bread and wine while the other two remained.

While the one was gone, however, the two conspired to kill him when he returned, so they’d only have to split the wealth 50/50. Thus they did, falling upon him with knives when he got back. To celebrate their newfound wealth, the two friends began chugging down the wine, unaware that while their erstwhile friend was gone, he did some scheming of his own. He had laced the wine with poison so as to have the coins all to himself. Before long, the poisoned drink did its work, and they too succumbed. So, in the end, the three did find Death. And in their demise, they exemplified the truth that greed is the root of all kinds of evil.

What is most remarkable about this tale is not how clever it is, but that the original storyteller was just as greedy as the three fictional young men were. He was the Pardoner, one of the pilgrims who entertained his fellow travelers in the Canterbury Tales by telling stories such as this. In his job of collecting money for the church, the Pardoner, by his own admission, resorted to emotional manipulation, blatant lies, and fake relics, all to fatten the money bags. He was unscrupulous and greedy. But in spite of that, or perhaps because of that, he could wax quite eloquent about vice. You see, he had more than a passing acquaintance with his subject. Sometimes the worst sinners are the best preachers.

I have long suspected that with most pastors, the autobiography of their soul is written between the lines in their sermons. The thorns in their flesh are those which pierce through in their preaching of the law. Granted, this is difficult to avoid since most people, pastors included, tend to interpret and expound the biblical text partially through the prism of their own existence. There is a risk in this, however. For the more we preach or teach or protest against something with which we ourselves struggle, perhaps secretly, the stronger is the tendency to view that preaching as an act of atonement itself.

One of the occupational hazards of the ministry is that the more one does for heaven, the closer it can get him to hell. He begins to assume that the performance of the sacred duties of his office is so pleasing to God that those works themselves become the basis of his relationship with God. Rather than Christ, the Christian ministry becomes his salvation. Within this broad delusion is the more particular delusion that by preaching against his own sin, that preaching makes up for his sin. So he may be greedy, but if he preaches strongly enough against greed, all is well. In the same way, the Christian addicted to pornography may publicly lament this visual exploitation of women; the gossiping priest use the pulpit to lambaste the destructive power of the tongue; and so forth. Such is the seductive power of self-justification, that we begin to imagine that our verbal crusades against our own secret weaknesses become an alternative Gospel.

Since this is a cautionary tale, I’ll end on that cautionary note, adding but one more word, this one too from Chaucer, who puts these words in the mouth of the poor country parson:

This fine example to his flock he gave,
That first he wrought and afterwards he taught;
Out of the gospel then that text he caught,
And this metaphor he added thereunto –
That, if gold would rust, what shall iron do?
For if the priest be foul, in whom we trust,
No wonder that a layman thinks of lust?
And shame it is, if priest take thought for keep,
A shitty shepherd, looking after clean sheep.
A truly good example a priest should give,
Is his own chastity, how his flock should live.

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Nothing Gold Can Stay: The Sermons of Creation

As the monochromatic greens of summer slowly morph into autumn’s vivid hues, creation clears its throat to deliver its annual sermon on the inevitable decline of life. It’s a homily we feel in our bones as temperatures shrivel to single digits. We see it as the gap twixt dawn and dusk abbreviates, as night’s conquest of the territory of day advances. As a double insult to the aged, this seasonal prelude to winter, this harbinger of the death of all things, bites deeper as we stumble toward the grave.

The earth puts on a fine charade, mimicking vitality, perpetuating the myth of golden vibrancy. But she gives herself away, for nothing gold can stay. In the words of Robert Frost:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

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Ancient is the cosmic demise.  The roots of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil snaked fathomless into the soil of the earth, piercing the very core of our world. The sap of death sank through those roots to the heart of the universe. Eden sank to grief, and slowly the cosmos has been dying ever since, subjected to futility, groaning and suffering as with the pangs of childbirth. Every earthquake is the tremble of her brittle bones, every flood the cascade of her tears. She waits, long still she waits, for redemption and freedom.  And while she does, nothing gold can stay.

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But this dying world is still the world of our living God, who graces us with tokens of a final renewal. As leaf subsides to leaf, and frost to snow, and snow to ice, there comes a day when the gold of nature sprouts anew. The mercury ascends as the sun pulls us closer to its warm embrace. The beasts of the field begin their baby-making again. Out of soil, hardened by cold, imprisoned by snow, burst defiant vegetation. That early leaf, a flower, may last yet an hour, but in that hour is another sermon, one that proclaims spring after winter, life after death, Easter after Good Friday.

Nothing gold can stay. What can stay, however, is something far more precious than gold, and of a far different hue. Crimson can stay, for such are the stains on the body of a man who has vacated the grave of December for the resurrection of April. He has redeemed us, not with gold and silver, but with his holy, precious blood. There he stands, the Lord of creation, saying, “Lo, I make all things new.” He stays. He does not sink. He does not subside. And those who live in him, they stay, they live, they abide, for he and he alone is the resurrection and the life for all.

ChristAloneCoverIf you enjoyed this reflection, please take a moment to check out 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!

InfantPriestfrontcoverThe poems and hymns in my book, The Infant Priest, give voice to the triumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world. Here there is praise of the crucified and risen Christ, dark lamentation of a penitent wrestling with despair, meditations upon the life of our Lord, thanksgiving for family, and much more. If you’d like to purchase a copy, you may do so at this website or on Amazon.com.  Thank you!

Barefoot Before God: Holy Space for a Holy God

We tend to be very protective about “our space.”  We’d be up-in-arms if a neighbor, when building his garage, erected a couple of feet of his structure on our side of the property line.  “Close-talkers” who violate our personal space by speaking directly in our face—they get on our nerves.  Even as children, we quickly take a stand when a sibling tries to “take over” the space of our bedroom.  Our space, our turf, having elbowroom—these matters matter to us. 

They also matter to God, for similar yet different reasons.  Though he is everywhere, throughout history the Lord has chosen this or that space in which to disclose himself, even to locate himself on a (relatively) permanent basis.  The place where God appears or dwells ceases to be common ground; it becomes holy.  Dust, rocks, vegetation, wood, metals, everything roundabout soaks in his sacredness.  There, on holy ground, the liturgy is celebrated, but with an acute awareness that we are on God’s turf, not our own.  We have stepped across the threshold into that space where heaven has sunk its roots into this world’s soil.

 “Moses, Moses!” the voice called out.  The eighty-year-old man must have felt his heart skip a beat or two at this unexpected salutation.  Unexpected, for the address came not from the lips of a man, woman, or child, but from the mouth of a bush.  And not just any bush, but one that had already raised his eyebrows and wooed him closer by its sheer weirdness.  For there, where Moses had led his father-in-law’s flock, on the mount called Horeb, was a bush full of flames but void of ashes.  To himself, Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned,” (Exodus 3:3).  And as he did, he heard his own name twice invoked by these tongues of fire.

 The voice, of course, was that of an angel.  Or was it?  Was this fiery being one of God’s celestial hosts, or someone with an even higher rank?  Yes, we read that “the angel of the Lord [‘Yahweh’ in Hebrew] appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush,” (3:2).  But then we read that “when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush,” (3:4).  The being in the bush goes on to say, “I am the God of your father…” (3:6), at which disclosure “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God,” (3:6).  So was it an angel, a creature of heaven?  No.  In Hebrew, “angel” simply means “messenger”.  This messenger from God was God.  Indeed, Christian tradition, from ancient times, has identified this messenger as the Son of the Father.

 Jesus says to Moses:  “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground,” (3:5).  But what exactly does “holy ground” mean?  What does “holy” mean?  It does not mean what the average man-on-the-street thinks it means.  Far too many wrongly equate holiness with morality, so that a “holy woman” is a morally upright lady—even a “holier than thou”, as we say.  Holiness is not something achieved but received.  To be holy means to be especially claimed by God as his very own, brought into contact with himself.  Thus, the holy church is God’s special people, chosen by him.  Holy Baptism is God’s special washing, ordained by him.  A believer is holy because Christ has made him part of his own holy body.  Moses stood on “holy ground” because he stood in the presence of Christ, on soil made sacred by the manifestation of the holy, holy, holy God.

One does not act on holy ground the way one acts on common ground.  God had Moses remove his sandals—shoes being considered highly unclean (just think of all the filth you step on every day).  Later, Moses’ successor Joshua, would be given the same instruction in a similar circumstance (Joshua 5:13-15).  The Bible, while giving very precise details about what priests were to wear during the liturgy, never mentions footwear.  Jewish tradition tells us the likely reason: priests who served in the tabernacle and temple did so barefoot, year round, for like Moses and Joshua, they stood on holy ground.

 In the OT, the acme of sacred space was the Holy of Holies, God’s throne-room in the sanctuary (Leviticus 16:2).  Rippling outward from there were spheres of holiness:  the outer room of the temple (the “holy place”), the holy courts, the holy city, the holy land.  Today, where Christ is present to speak to his people, to deliver his gifts, that space is sacred.  So in the Kyrie we pray for “this holy house and for all who offer here their worship and praise.”  In the “holy house” of his church, where the liturgy is celebrated, there we stand on holy ground.  Our Holy of Holies is around the altar, where Jesus is present in his body and blood, much more intimately than he was present in the burning bush.  As Moses removed his sandals, so we too acknowledge by how we act and what we do, that we stand on sacred soil.  We have our entertainment in the movie theater; we have our fun and games in a gym; but in the holy house of Christ, we have our liturgy.  Or, rather, in the liturgy, Christ has us, filling us with himself, that we might “share his holiness,” (Hebrews 12:10).

 The “holy house” of Christ is not a living room, stadium, or coffee house.  It is a place of reverence.  All too often, though, we treat it as common ground, betraying by our speech, actions, and dress that the sanctuary is a space no different than any other.

 Christ does not play hide-and-seek with us.  He reveals and is found.  He is found where he doles out his gifts, in the holy waters of baptism, from the holy pulpit, around the holy altar.  In those zones of sanctity, where his liturgy is prayed, our heavenly Lord is literally down-to-earth.  With Moses, Joshua, and the priest of old, we take off our shoes, for we stand on holy ground.  And Christ, ever the Servant, washes our feet, our hearts, our minds, our souls, with the cleansing liquid of his grace.

A Hymn for the Dedication of a Sanctuary 

O God who deigns to dwell below,
Where trees of life and knowledge grow,
Within the unburned bush aflame,
In temple walls that house Your Name;
O Word made Flesh, among us dwell;
Make this Your house, Emmanuel,
And clothe us in Your saving grace—
A holy priesthood, chosen race!

Our prayers, as incense, now ascend,
As Father, Spirit, Son descend.
Angelic choirs round heaven’s throne
Unite their voices with our own.
For where the font and altar’s found,
There heaven’s wed to earthly ground.
Our God unveils His holy place
To welcome us before His face.

The sacrifice of praise we sing,
The offering of our lives we bring,
To Christ, our Priest, whom we confess,
Within this house of Sabbath rest.
May Eden’s joy be ours once more,
This sanctuary, heaven’s door,
That weak and wounded souls find here
The God who dries their every tear.

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Bloodshed at the Altar: The Genesis of Worship Wars

A common quip is that someone went to a fight and a hockey game broke out. All too often, things do get quite heated out on the ice. Tempers flare and fists fly as athletes become assailants. Though a highly organized sport, governed by rules and played by professionals, hockey seems but one small step removed from the battlefield.

Based on their own experience, many Christians might wryly remark that they went to a fight and a liturgy broke out! It is true, that battles aplenty have erupted over questions of worship. Though sometimes the issues are petty, oftentimes they are not, for they get at the core of what the liturgy is and does. They force us to ask and answer what and who worship is all about. It ought not be surprising, then, that so-called “worship wars” are far from a modern phenomenon. Their genesis is actually in Genesis itself, exemplified in the “Cain liturgy” and “Abel liturgy”, as we might term them. Compressed into this brief narrative about two radically different liturgies is every story about the liturgy.

Cain and Abel were born east of Eden, whither their parents were exiled after heeding Satan’s seductive lies. Judging by the names this mother and father gave their sons, they thought the world of their firstborn while they thought nothing (literally) of his younger brother. Abel, you see, means “nothingness” or “vanity”, whereas Cain means “acquisition”. As Eve exclaims, “I have gotten [or ‘acquired’] a man with the help of the Lord,” (4:1).

Upping Cain’s standing in his parents’ eyes is the fact that, more than likely, his mother thought he was the Messiah. A straightforward rendering of Eve’s words is, “I have gotten a man, namely, the Lord.” Thus, Eve surmised that she had just birthed the Seed promised by God, indeed, YHWH himself (3:15)! Eve was dead wrong, of course, but if that was her opinion, then the way she and her husband treated (or even spoiled) Cain might go a long way towards explaining why he acted toward Abel (and God) the way he did. Children long-accustomed to being pampered can throw quite a fit—even a violent one—when they feel rejected.

Cain experienced this rejection in the context of the liturgy. Moses writes that “in the course of time” both brothers brought an offering to the Lord. We don’t know when this “course of time” was. Perhaps already at the dawn of history this first family was following a kind of liturgical calendar, regulated by the seasons of the year. Cain, being a farmer (like his father), brought “an offering of the fruit of the ground” and Abel, being a shepherd, brought “of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions,” (4:2-4). What did the Lord think of their respective offerings? We are told, quite simply, that “the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard,” (4:4). Cain was incensed and crestfallen at this rejection. And thus began, around the blood, shed at the altar, the bloodshed in the field. Because of what happened in the liturgy, Cain became the killer, not the keeper, of his brother.

The question that concerns us is this: Why did the Lord approve of Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s? Some have argued that it was because Cain did not sacrifice animals but vegetables. But later, in the liturgy given to Israel, the Lord not only accepted offerings of the fruit of the ground but commanded them to be placed before him (e.g., Deut 26:2). Why would God reject from Cain what he later accepted from and mandated of his people? So as far as the material itself, neither Cain’s nor Abel’s offering was superior.

The book of Hebrews pinpoints the reason: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts,” (11:4). Those two words, “by faith”, deserve to be written with golden ink. It was not that Abel’s sacrifice was better than Cain’s; it was not even that Abel was better than Cain. It was the Messiah, in whom Abel trusted, that made the difference. By faith in the coming Savior, Abel was reckoned to be righteous. God showed his approval of Abel by approving of his sacrifice. The “Abel liturgy” was not about Abel or about what he gave God, but what God gave him through his faith in the Messiah.

Cain, on the other hand, neither lived nor worshiped by faith. St. John writes of him, “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous,” (1 John 3:12). He was “of the evil one” and “his own deeds were evil.” So who he was and what he did were polluted by evil. The “Cain liturgy” was about Cain, about what he did, about “wowing” God and others by his actions.

The Lord rejected, and still rejects, the “Cain liturgy” and those who practice it. It is sham-worship, doubly damned, for not only does it fail to praise God from whom all blessings flow, but it succeeds only in self-exaltation of the worshiper. It is centered around the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I.

The chief “act” of worship is really no act at all; it is a gift of God. It is faith. Faith receives the blessings that the Father desires to give for the sake of his Son. And, having received them, faith “offers up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name,” (Hebrews 13:15).

There is more than a little Cain inside all of us. We practice his “liturgy” whenever we seek heaven’s applause for our sacrifices of prayer and praise. To trust that our actions are pleasing to God because “we are better than others” or “we give more to the church” or similar boasts is, like Cain, to “worship” under the influence of the evil one.

The “Abel liturgy” is the liturgy of Christ, his saving action for us, received by faith. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” (Matthew 20:28). That was and remains his liturgy for us. As long ago, God promised Israel, “I will come to you and bless you” in the liturgy, so today he still comes to serve us, bless us, and ransom us in Jesus, whose blood “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel,” (Hebrews 12:24).

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