Archive for the month “December, 2013”

Unlearning Evil: Why I Don’t Make New Year’s Resolutions

A new year, an old tradition: the making of resolutions. Some of us will say No to nicotine this year, others will sweat and swear in torture chambers cleverly renamed elliptical machines. We’ll kick old habits, kick start new ones, and hope by February we’re not kicking ourselves for making and breaking yet another resolution. Whatever your goal this year, it’s best to keep it real by remembering this painful fact: it’s just as hard, if not harder, to unlearn an evil as to learn a good.

Pig-Wallowing-in-Mud2That seems to be the way it goes with me anyway. The bad habits and self-destructive ways of life we foster are, generally speaking, things that we thoroughly enjoy. “Let’s face it,” my mom once told me, while delivering a lecture on making the right moral decisions in high school, “sinning is fun.” It certainly can be, or pleasurable, or even downright exhilarating, depending on what your pet sin might be. That’s one reason, when you retreat and it woos you back, you return like a sow to wallowing in the mud. Pigs like their mud, we love our self-destructive ways of life. To unlearn them takes more than a day, a month, or a year of merely resolving to do better.

It also takes more than you. For we host an inner student who, when it comes to learning anything bad, always scores an A+. Evils find this ally within us. As Paul once lamented, “The good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish,” (Romans 7:19). Boy do we. It would be hard enough to unlearn evil and learn good if we were fully on the side of achieving those goals. But when a huge chunk of us remains unconvinced of the need for change, indeed, is hell-bent on not changing, then we’ve got major challenges ahead.

“A long obedience in the same direction.” I’ve come to love that saying. And I’ve come to hate it. I love it because of its truth, because it doesn’t offer me a quick fix, an overnight transformation of the self. And I hate it because of its truth, because it doesn’t offer me a quick fix, an overnight transformation of the self. One thing I know: I don’t want to be the same person I am now when I turn 50 or 65 or find myself on my deathbed. But if anything is going to change, I can’t wait until I’m 49 or 64 or get an inkling that I might be nearing the end of my earthly pilgrimage.

I’m not an optimist, but a realist. I know that the ally of evil within me will never finally die until I myself leave this world. God may drown this inner foe a million times, and a million times he will bob to the surface, a menacing smile on his face. I know that there will be times when nothing in life will seem more beautiful, more enticing, than that wallow in the mud. But I also know that I am not alone in my struggles. I have a wife who loves me unconditionally. I have friends, and a church, who embrace me as a brother in the faith. And I have a brother in God himself, who became a man, experienced the alluring power of temptation, and never wallowed in that mud, precisely so that he might lift me up when I fall, wash the mud off me, and stand ready to kick the devil where it hurts when he bids me follow my old self-destructive ways.

All of this is why I won’t be making New Year’s resolutions. I’ll be making new life resolutions, because unlearning evil and learning good is a lifelong quest.

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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!

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Oh Bloody Town of Bethlehem: A Graveyard Lullaby for the Holy Innocents

O bloody town of Bethlehem,
How shrill we hear thee cry.
Your mothers shriek while fathers weep
The graveyard lullaby.
For butchers clad as soldiers
At Herod’s mad behest
Aborted weal with blades of steel
They thrust in tender chests.

O Bethlehem, thou House of Tears,
What balm can heal thy woe?
When darkness looms, can flowers bloom,
From seeds of grief you sow?
Dear Heaven, share thy secret:
These sons died not in vain.
Young martyrs bold, in death foretold,
A Death that Life would gain.

Ye martyred boys of Bethlehem,
From ‘neath the altar, pray
To Christ your Lord, whom Herod’s sword
Slew not that awful day.
Rachel, Rachel, weep no more,
Your sons shall dry your tears.
For flowers bloom where darkness loomed,
Since Christ our Light appears.

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If you enjoy my writings, please consider purchasing my newly published book, The Infant Priest:  Hymns and Poems.  This poetry gives voice to the InfantPriestfrontcovertriumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world.  Whether you weep, rejoice, struggle, or hope, through these hymns and poems you can speak to God with honesty and fidelity.  By buying a copy, you will also aid mission work, for 25% of the proceeds from book sales go to benefit Lutherans in Africa.  Click here to purchase your copy.  Thanks!

Brawling at Christmas: The Day of St. Stephen

A fight broke out Christmas afternoon at a Houston apartment complex when some kids stole a child’s bike that his father had given him as a Christmas present.  The fight soon escalated into a brawl in which dozens of people were involved, children were injured, and a police officer took a blow to the face.  Merry Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, at a mall in Louisville, KY, two women, for reasons unknown, got into a knock-down-drag-out fight a few feet away from Santa’s lap.  Merry Christmas.

And at tables around the nation, relatives who see each other rarely took advantage of this festive gathering to lob grenades of insult and provocation at other family members with whom they’ve been at odds for years.  Aunt Helen called her niece a slut, and her niece returned the insult.  Cousins Charlie and Jim, both well into their second six-pack, took their decades long disagreement outside until one of them wound up in the ER and the other in the county lockup.  And in other families, harsh words were met with seething silence, insults with tears that dampened the pillow that night, and cold shoulders with frigid stares that concealed hot anger beneath.  Merry Christmas.

On this, December 26, the day after the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus, the church celebrates a rather odd holiday:  St. Stephen Day.  Stephen was the first Christian to be martyred for the faith.  When he preached that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, his enemies drove him out of the city and stoned him to death.  As he fell on his knees, bloodied and battered, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” (Acts 7:60).

It is good that we celebrate St. Stephen day on the heels of Christmas, on a holiday that all too easily turns into an argument or a brawl or a murder.  St. Stephen day calls us all to repentance; encourages us to speak a word of forgiveness to those who have sinned against us; and to find life and healing in the One who, born in a manger, spoke from the cross these words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

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“I Would Have Surrendered My Bethlehem Hotel Room to Mary and Joseph” and Other Self-Serving Fantasies

I like to make-believe that I was a player in the Christmas story.  Not a character in a live nativity scene at the church down the street.  No, I mean really there, where it all goes down.  And in my fantasy, here’s what happens.

The moment word gets out that the “No Vacancy” sign forced a pregnant teen to suffer labor pangs surrounded by cow slobber and sheep dung, I find the young couple and hand over my room keys to them.  I’m up all night, pacing and praying, a cup of coffee in one hand, Hebrew scriptures in the other, reviewing prophecies and wondering if tonight is the night when all the messianic stars will align.

Finally, when the infant cries echo down the hallway and the shepherds show up with their tale of serenading seraphim, my eyes light up.  I know.  I believe.  I crowd into my erstwhile hotel room, kneel shoulder-to-shoulder with the shepherds, and gaze with wondering eye at the baby boy, swaddled in the warm sheets I gladly gave up for him. A smile of gratitude shines from Mary’s tired face, Joseph gives me a firm handshake, and I whisper a prayer of thanks that I was privileged to be here on this night of nights, to play a tiny role in the Nativity story.  Sweet, eh?

Of course, I can easily continue in the same vein.  Years later, when the baby becomes a rabbi, where am I? Where else but at his feet, drinking in his every word. When Peter denies him, I confess. When he hangs on the cross, I weep beneath it. When Thomas doubts, I believe.

It’s easy to daydream myself into the sacred story, to participate in this sacred drama alongside all the big biblical names.  In that fantasy I win the academy awards for the most faithful disciple and the supremely intrepid confessor.

But when I let my mind go there, in truth all I’m doing is this:  bellying up to the bar of sentimentality to drink my fill of falsehoods that leave me intoxicated with feelings of saintly superiority.

If God gave me a time machine so I could go back to various events in Bible times, I suspect I’d out-eat Adam, out-drink Noah, out-anger Moses, out-adultery David, out-deny Peter, out-doubt Thomas, and out-sleep every resident in Bethlehem’s Motel 6.  I’d at least give them a run for their money.  For if there’s anything I excel at, it’s sinning.

Want to know how you’d act if you were a participant in the biblical story?  Here’s a very simple way to find out:  ask yourself how you act now.  Then you’ll know.  For Christ is in your neighbor. “Whatever you did not do to one of the least of these,” Jesus says, “you did not do it to me.”

We are living the biblical story.  There is no need to go back in time or make believe.  And that’s why I, for one, am grateful that in the sacred stories, there are plenty of tales about sinners whom Jesus counts as friends.

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If you enjoy my writings, please consider purchasing my newly published book, The Infant Priest:  Hymns and Poems.  This poetry gives voice to the InfantPriestfrontcovertriumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world.  Whether you weep, rejoice, struggle, or hope, through these hymns and poems you can speak to God with honesty and fidelity.  By buying a copy, you will also aid mission work, for 25% of the proceeds from book sales go to benefit Lutherans in Africa.  Click here to purchase your copy.  Thanks!

Washing Down Antidepressants with Eggnog

Kent and I slept through the same sermons every Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Shamrock, Texas.  Our butts bruised their way down many a ski slope together.  We hunted turkeys by day and raccoons by night.  And we bragged about how many girls we’d kissed (though I’m pretty sure we both grossly inflated the numbers).  Kent was a little guy but a force to reckoned with on the football field or basketball court.  He was smart, likable, an overall good kid and great friend.

I was unloading a truck at the feed store in town when my mom pulled up one day in late December to tell me that, on his birthday, Kent had put a gun to his head and pulled shut the door to life.  Were I to outlive Methuselah, it would still seem like yesterday.  It’s one of those moments welded into my memory.  Shock and fear and anger and guilt and emotions I didn’t even know were in me—they all came cascading out.  A few days later, I, but a teenager, helped bear his teenage casket out of the church, into a world that blinked at us with a potpourri of festive lights that seemed a blasphemy of joy in the vortex of our grief.

Almost a decade later, the parsonage phone rang way too early one Saturday morning.  I knew the instant Dale began to speak that whatever he said next would be wounded words.  A police officer had knocked on the door of the family’s country home earlier that morning.  Dale and Roxie’s twenty year old son had fallen asleep at the wheel, hit a guardrail, and been thrown from his pickup.  Snow and ice blanketed the town on the day we laid Dewayne’s body to rest.  It was December 26.  And the day before, as I and my fellow mourners at St. Paul Lutheran church pretended to celebrate our Lord’s Nativity, every happy hymn, every joyful carol, was dragged from our lips like a dirge, and the sanctuary liquefied into one vast sea of tears.

I think, for most people, Christmas is the best of times and the worst of times.  When I was a boy, I was unacquainted with the cruel nonchalance with which evil disregards the festival calendar.  I knew nothing of tear-laden birthday parties and pill-popping Christmases.  I sat on Santa’s lap and told him what I wanted under the tree.  My family was all together on that happy morning.  We all had colorful wrapping paper strewn about our feet when it was all over, new toys to play with, a feast to consume.  Christmas was the best of times.  And for those sweet boyhood memories, I am everlastingly grateful.

But I know now the darker side of Christmas, the gloom beneath the glitter, a side many of you reading this know all too well.  Every December I think of the family of Kent, and the family of Dewayne, and the what-might-have-been memories that must rise to the surface every time the tree goes up and carols flood the airwaves.  And though the grief is of a different kind, I think of all the families of broken marriages, of which mine is a part.  The Hallmark scene of eager children waking their mom and dad early on Christmas morning to open the gifts isn’t possible when dad is living hours away, and mom’s newest boyfriend doesn’t appreciate some kid jumping in bed with them, especially when he’s nursing a hangover.

Perhaps part of the mistake we’ve made is in forgetting that the first Christmas, the actual birthday of Jesus, started out as the worst of times.  Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because of taxes, because the money-hungry, tyrannical Roman overlords had forced them to undertake this journey when no pregnant woman should be on the road.  No warm, sanitized room awaited them after their trip, but a cold, dark barn.  When this young mother went into labor, where was she supposed to lay down to give birth?  On rough hay littered with cow crap?  Where’d they get light?  Warm water?  Cloths to clean up the blood?  It’s a wonder both mother and child didn’t die that night.  The original crèche must have looked like a rural crime scene.  This is not the way any baby, least of all Jesus, should have been born.

And yet it was.  Far from home, in the dark, in the cold, in the mess, in the blood, in the crappy conditions of our screwed up world, God was born.

That’s a Christmas story I like, for it’s one I can identify with.  More than that, it’s a story that gives meaning and hope to our own dark, cold, bloody, crappy stories of Christmases that seem anything but merry.  For it was on this night that God began to teach us that we don’t need to have a Hallmark Christmas to find peace and contentment and joy in him.

For Christmas is not about presents.  It’s not even about family and friends.  It’s about God taking on our flesh and blood, being born as one of us, to share our grief, to bear our sorrows, and to unite us to himself, that we might find him in our grief and sorrows.  There’s a reason he’s called a “man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief.”  The first sound leaving our newborn Lord’s lips would have been a cry.  How fitting is that?  God knows what it means to weep, to hurt, to suffer loneliness, anger, loss, and, yes, even the pangs of death.  You do not have a Savior unable to sympathize with your weaknesses, but one who has experienced them all, so that no matter what your own hurt, he redeems it, and carries you through it.

All I want for Christmas is a God like that.

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If you enjoy my writings, please consider purchasing my newly published book, The Infant Priest:  Hymns and Poems.  This poetry gives voice to the InfantPriestfrontcovertriumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world.  Whether you weep, rejoice, struggle, or hope, through these hymns and poems you can speak to God with honesty and fidelity.  By buying a copy, you will also aid mission work, for 25% of the proceeds from book sales go to benefit Lutherans in Africa.  Click here to purchase your copy.  Thanks!

The Myth of Forgiving Yourself: When the Human Tail Wags the Divine Dog

For more years than I care to remember, a stalker has cast her shadow over my life.  She trails me to work, spies on me at home, skulks nearby when I go out on the town.  Never is she far away, and never does she slack in her pursuit.

She’s a different breed of stalker, however, so reporting her to the police will do no good.  To everyone else she exists only in the story I tell; to them she is a mere phantom of words.  But to me she is as real and as seemingly omnipresent as a flesh-and-blood person who’s hot on my heels 24/7.  I see her—my stalker, my ghost, my guilt—and as our eyes meet, her lips part in a joyless smile.  She mouths words at me that she’s memorized from chapters in my past I wish had never been written.

I’ve told very few people all there is to know about those life chapters.  More often than not, when I’ve opened up and told them my story, they’ve responded by telling me their own.  We swap personal accounts that almost always begin with something like, “It seemed a good idea at the time…” or “I didn’t mean for it to go that far….”  And these stories, likewise, almost always conclude the same way, “…then my world collapsed around me,” or “I lost everything that mattered to me.”  From start to finish, there’s the common thread of us making huge, stupid, selfish mistakes, then living with the consequences.  And it turns out these same people have stalkers of their own.  Like mine, theirs too stand at a distance to embody accusations of a past that’s constantly recycling its way into the present.

When I’ve bared my soul to these select few, many of them, all well-meaning, have echoed each other in giving me this counsel:  “God has forgiven you, Chad.  Now you need to forgive yourself.”  The more I heard it, the more this advice seemed spot-on.  I would find myself nodding in agreement.  We all make mistakes.  After all, to err is human.  I need to accept the fact that there’s nothing I can do to fix my past.  These feelings of negativity, failure, shame, guilt—they’ve pried open the door of my heart, hung pictures on the wall, made themselves at home.  I need to evict them, to reclaim my heart as my own.  What does it matter if others have forgiven me, if even God himself has forgiven me, if I’m still withholding forgiveness from myself?  Until self-forgiveness breaks through, the stalker will prowl about my world, spewing forth her words of accusation.  Only when I forgive myself will this haunting ghost of guilt finally vanish for good.

I’m willing to wager that, at some point in your life, you’ve received—or given—that same advice:  forgive yourself.   So you screwed up your marriage and now you find yourself divorced and lonely; it’s time to forgive yourself for your mistakes and move on.  So you really messed up as a parent and blame every mistake your child now makes on the mistakes you made as a mom or dad; let go of that guilt, get out of the past, and forgive yourself.  So you’ve ruined a career, taken a life, brought shame on your family; it’s time to break the chains of blame, lift your head up, and say, “I forgive myself.”  You deserve such freedom.  Everyone does.  That’s the only way you’ll rid yourself of the stalker once and for all.

For a time I believed such advice.  No more.  I know now that to “forgive yourself” is not only impossible; it is foolish, dangerous, and futile.  It is the vain attempt of a soul plagued by guilt to seek relief in the very last place he should be looking:  in himself.  Telling a friend, “forgive yourself,” is the equivalent of telling a dying person, “heal yourself.”  Absolution, like medicine, comes from outside of you, from the hand of a healer.

My problem was not that I knew that God had forgiven me, but that I hadn’t forgiven myself.  No, my problem was that I had never truly believed that God had forgiven me.  That was the issue.  I had deluded myself into supposing that God supplied 80% of the forgiveness, and now it was my responsibility to come up with the other 20%.  The Lord did his part, “I forgive you, Chad,” and now I needed to do my part, “I forgive myself.”  Such thinking is far worse than self-delusional; it is self-destructive.  In the end, I made myself into the human tail wagging the divine dog.

When God forgives, he forgives completely and perfectly.  There is no deficiency, no 20%, no 10%, no .000000001% of absolution that I need to manufacture to wrap up the deal.  All the dark deeds in which I engaged that brought ruin and disaster upon my marriage and family and career; all the lies and deceit; all the shame and heartache and regret that befell me afterwards—all of that God forgave in one fell swoop, because he transferred all of that evil upon a perfectly righteous man who willingly gave his life in my stead.  Even if my wife and children and friends and colleagues and students had refused to forgive me (which, thanks be to God, is not the case), I would still rest peacefully in the only absolution that ultimately matters: the one Jesus himself gives from his ugly cross of beautiful love.

My stalker sometimes still appears, but when she does, I thrust toward her a thorn-crowned, blood-marked tree, and she fades into the darkness whence she came.  She can do me no more harm, for her only weapon—my sins—has been ripped from her grasp by a nail-scarred hand.  The ghostly lips that accused me have been sown shut by the one who, like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, was led as a mute Lamb to the salvific slaughter.  The chapters from my dark past have been expunged from the biographical record and replaced by a single page from the Book of Life, in which my name—and yours, dear reader—are written in blood.

 

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If you enjoy my writings, please consider purchasing my newly published book, The Infant Priest:  Hymns and Poems.  This poetry gives voice to the InfantPriestfrontcovertriumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world.  Whether you weep, rejoice, struggle, or hope, through these hymns and poems you can speak to God with honesty and fidelity.  By buying a copy, you will also aid mission work, for 25% of the proceeds from book sales go to benefit Lutherans in Africa.  Click here to purchase your copy.  Thanks!

The Tragic Death of the Funeral

(From an article I recently wrote for The Federalist)

Like most people, I don’t particularly relish encounters with death. But, welcome or not, I’ve had my fair share. I’ve clasped a woman’s hand as her breathing slowed, became sporadic, and finally ceased.  Through the cramped hallways of an ancient farmhouse, down which no stretcher could be maneuvered, I helped heft the sheet-wrapped body of a family’s matriarch to carry her to the waiting hearse. When a small Oklahoma church mourned a member who’d fallen asleep at the wheel, late at night, early in life, I was there, thinking of the joyless “Joy the World” the band of believers had choked out the day before that December 26th funeral. In each of these situations, the death of the young or the old, there was within me a desire to lighten the load of grief borne by the survivors, to shine a ray of life into the gloom of death.

Because of that desire, when I first heard about families opting to have a so-called “Celebration of Life” service for their departed loved ones, instead of a funeral, my interest was piqued. Perhaps here was a viable alternative. The name alone effuses a positive, uplifting appeal that “funeral” or “memorial service” can’t begin to match. Celebrations are good, right? And, life, well, who can possibly have any qualms about that? Perhaps this approach to confronting death, at least the ceremonial part of saying goodbye, would help alleviate some of the pain associated with, and expressed in, a more traditional rite. Maybe it was time to have a funeral for the funeral…

Read the entire article here

No-Man Remembered

This day in history a man was born whom no one remembers. In fact, within a few years of his death, not a soul could recall his name. Never were flowers laid on his grave. Never were tears shed for his absence. He wrote no lasting literature, built no famous monument, and no son carried on his legacy. He was a man easily missed, quickly forgotten.

But today, and every day, he wears a crown and every angel in heaven knows him by name. He is a king. He is a priest. He is a son of God. For this no-man was always precious to the Father. He numbered his tears. He understood his loneliness. He made this man his child.

For no man is a no-man to the God who always remembers.

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Drinking with the Dead: Country Music and the Communion of Saints

It was a call that would haunt him to his dying day.  He listened, speechless; hung up the phone, speechless; and walked away, words still failing him.  He didn’t know where he was going.  He just went.  And when he finally stopped, he stood on the edge of a familiar pier, watching the western sun slowly immerse itself into a watery horizon. Why, why, why?  Was this part of God’s plan?  How could it be?  Aswirl in unanswerable questions, he sat there, at that place where, so many times before, he’d sat with the one with whom he would never sit again in this life.  He put a beer to his lips and drank, regretting loss and remembering life, on this lonely pier.

So goes the story in Imagea song, ”Drink a Beer,” recently released by country superstar, Luke Bryan.  It’s a far cry from his typical girl-chasing, bar hopping, tailgate-partying kind of hit.  But this one is more personal, almost autobiographical, sung by an artist who hides a mountain of past grief behind his country boy smile.  For when he was nineteen, days before his move to Nashville to pursue his musical dreams, Luke suffered the loss of his only brother, whose life was cut short in a car accident.  And years later, right after he finally made it big, and performed in the Grand Ole Opry, his only sister died suddenly at her home.  Luke Bryan may sing plenty of party songs, but his life has been anything but a party.

Someday we’ll all be the singer in Luke’s song.  Maybe you already have.  The details vary, of course, but we too struggle to repair the heart broken by the tragic death of someone we love.  We’re dazed, angry, speechless.  Unanswerable questions scream for answers.  We wish like mad we could reach over and touch our spouse or parent or sibling or close friend just one more time.  But all that remains are memories.

We have our own “pier,” where we sit and remember our way back to better days, before the thief called death stole our beloved away.  Maybe that pier is a café table, or a park bench, or a bed that has grown far too spacious now.  It’s more than a place of remembrance though, for that “pier” somehow seems to bear within itself fragments of the one we’ve lost, almost like a faint aroma that only we have the capacity to smell.  For that reason, at that place we feel closer to the person.  There remembrance is more vivid.

As psychologically or emotionally helpful as such “piers” may be, the stubborn fact remains that the deceased is absent.  She is not in the bed where you used to make love.  He is not on the pier where you drank beer together.  There is no intersection of worlds, where the afterlife and the present-life overlap.  You may raise your beer to toast an absent friend with whom a lifetime of memories were made, but you’re not really drinking with the dead.  You may even speak aloud to the person you’ve lost, but her voice does not respond or blend with your own.  Your chosen pier may be a spot of surreal remembrance, but it is not a place of real presence.  Believe it or not, however, such a place does exist.

Once a week I have supper at a place where I drink with the dead.  There is no beer, but there’s plenty of wine.  My grandfathers and grandmother are there, a high school classmate at whose funeral I was a pallbearer, a dear friend who lost his battle with cancer in 2006.  They join me, and I them, around a table.  We sing together.  We pray together.  We may be in different worlds, but here their world and my world overlap, pulled together by the Lord who rules over the past, the present, and the future.  The dead really are present, because they really are not dead.  In fact, they are more alive now than they ever were before they died.

Once a week I walk up to an altar that is far better than any pier.  The God of heaven and earth, of the living and the dead, is enthroned thereon.  He transforms it into a table, prepares a feast, and serves as host of the supper that we call the “Lord’s.”  And he brings guests with him.  Accompanying Jesus are my grandparents and friends and all those who, through death, transitioned from life with Christ here to a better life with Christ there.  Where he is, there are they.  Our prayers mix and mingle, as they pray for me, and I pray with them, for all those in need of the Lord’s grace and favor.  Jesus feeds me there, and satisfies my thirst, putting into my dying body his living body, pouring into my mortal veins his immortal blood.

In this world, death will inevitably come calling for those we love.  Bereft of their presence with us, we’ll visit our “piers” and relive, in memory, all those times we shared.  We will await a grand reunion in heaven, where, with our Lord, we will be united once more in a life of happiness that will never be cut short.  But between now and then, around an altar, around the Lord, around the supper that bears his name, we and our loved ones already reunite, for we are everlastingly united as members of the body of Jesus, who has conquered death and made us alive in him.

Sit on your piers, and remember the dead, if you wish.  But more importantly, kneel at the altar, and commune with the dead, who are very much alive in our living and life-giving Lord.

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!

The Uncivilized Baptist: Why John Beckons Us to the Wilderness

John_the_Baptist_by_dashinvaineJohn the Baptist is uncivilized. With locust legs stuck between his teeth he’ll never rank on Ms. Manners top ten list. With hair untouched by scissors he’ll never be hired by a Fortune 500 company. And with a wardrobe consisting only of camel’s hair he’ll never make the cover of GQ. Yes, indeed, John is uncivilized.

He makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t he? He’s the kind of person you think you have to make apologies for: “Oh, yes, John, he is a bit eccentric, a little off-the-wall, not your run-of-the-mill biblical figure. You just have to look past a few things, that’s all. I’m sure deep down he’s a very normal person.” But—to twist an old country song—mamas don’t want their babies to grow up and be John the Baptists; let ‘em be doctors and lawyers and such.

Why does John make you uncomfortable?  You know.  It’s not just the clothing; it’s not only the hair; it’s not even really the diet.  John the Baptist is uncivilized–that’s the problem.  He doesn’t live in an air-conditioned, three-bedroom house with a white-picket fence and a two-car garage.  He didn’t marry his high school sweetheart and raise two lovely children.  He doesn’t buy his clothes at Dillard’s and his groceries at United.  John didn’t even hold down a job.  Turning his back on both city and village, John lives in the wilderness, the Judean wild country his unwalled bedroom.  Although entitled to the priesthood, John’s temple is the desert, his altar the Jordan River, his vestments animal hides.  Although he is the culmination of the OT prophets and–as Jesus said–the greatest man ever born of a woman (Luke 7:28), John spits in the face of flattery, deeming himself unworthy even to touch the shoestrings of the Messiah with his sinful fingers.  John is everything that civilized sinners don’t want to be.

“Who are you, John?”  That’s what the civilized priests and Levites want to know.
“I am not the Christ,” John emphatically answers.
“What then, are you Elijah?”
“I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
“No.”
“Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us?  What do you say about yourself?”
Humble John has nothing to say about himself, so, thankfully, Isaiah the prophet has already spoken for him: “I am ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord.”’”

John is the forerunner, the one who trots ahead of the Messiah to announce His coming.  He is the advent man, the preacher who prepares you for Christ.  John is what the psychiatrist would call a monomaniac–someone with an excessive interest or irrational preoccupation with one subject.  A monomaniac about Christ–yes, that fits John to a tee.

“Who are you, John?”  “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord.”  Why in the wilderness, John?  What’s so important about the desert?  Why not build a church in the civilized section of the country or at least erect a pulpit on the street corner?  Good grief, John, why not just get half an hour of religious T.V. broadcasting so we could sit in our living room recliners and ponder your message?  Why must we travel out to the wilderness?

But John the Baptist is unrelenting: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”  John beckons you away from that place called civilization where civilized sinners are all too easily duped by the demons into believing the lie.  Leave that place where you are easily tricked into believing that your job is your life, your family is your life, your possessions are your life.  Leave that place where trivial pursuit is not just a game but a way of life.  Leave that place where death masquerades as life, where the person who is “living it up” has made pleasure into a god, where the person who is said to have lived a “full life” may never have been baptized, where “real life” has nothing to do with Christ but just getting by in a dog-eat-dog world.  Leave that place where people think they have civilized sin, but where, in fact, sin has transformed them into savages at heart.

There is part of us that is uncomfortable with . . . no, there is part of us that hates John the Baptist.  The ugly Old Adam in us hates to be stripped naked and made to stand ashamed in the front of the mirror of the law.  So he loathes John.  For John lays bare how comfortable we’ve become with our love of mammon, how adept we are at blaming others for our shortcoming, how easy we are on ourselves. This preacher’s sandpaper words are much too abrasive for our civilized hearts.  His preaching grates on our modern sensitivities.  But John will preach no Walt Disney version of the law.  He is “calling you to repentance, that you might escape from the wrath to be revealed when Christ comes again in glory,” (Proper Preface for Advent).

So John beckons you out of civilization into the wilderness of repentance.  To live a life of repentance is to sit at John’s feet in the desert sand.  And what do you see in this wilderness of repentance?  Barrenness stares blankly at you; the hollow eyes of death peer into your soul.  When you go to St. John in the desert, into the painful stillness where you are utterly alone with the law of God, there your eyes behold with clarity the desert of your own heart, filled only with the wild monsters of your sins.  Sit in the dust of this wilderness; pick up a handful of dirt, watch it trickle between your fingers.  Behold your origin and your end.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  There, in the wilderness of repentance, where the pride of life is absent and the humility of death pervasive, there confess what you see: “I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most.  My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered.  I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed.  There are those whom I have hurt, and those whom I failed to help.  My thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin,” (Liturgy for Private Confession/Absolution, Lutheran Worship, p. 310).

John calls you out into the wilderness, into the barren desert, where the only life is where there is water.  St. John the Baptist, we call him.  He’s the water-man.  John beckons you out of the civilization of sin, into the wilderness of repentance, to lead you ultimately to the river of life.  And once he’s got you to the water, he’s done his job.  For there, standing in the oasis of the Font, is your Savior, Jesus Christ.  John points and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away your sin.  Behold, the Lamb of God, who gives you the life of absolution in the water of Baptism.”

Ever since the day John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, our Lord has been found in the water.  He locates Himself there for you.  Flowing through the desert of repentance is this liquid of life.  There, your conscience which burns with the heat of sins committed, finds the soothing coolness of sins forgiven.  There, your heart, which is dried and cracked under the blazing sun of the law, finds shade and refreshment in the shadow of the cross.  There, your mouth, which is parched from the confession of sins, is filled with the sweet drink of the compassion of God.  Our Lord is found in the river of absolution.  Come to Him.  Drink of Him.  Bathe, swim, soak in this fountain of immortality.

Your Lord has been baptized in blood, sprinkled on the Font of the cross by His own sliced veins.  A soldier braced himself and thrust his cruel spear upward into the side of our blood-bathed God.  That spear opened the fountain of His flesh and out flowed a river of blood and water, one fork filling the chalice, the other the Font.  So when you desire forgiveness, you go to the blood, for without blood there is no forgiveness.  The life of God is in the blood of His Son and that life-giving blood is in the Chalice, the Font, the Absolution.  Go there for forgiveness.  Go there for life.  Go there for God.

The only true and lasting life is in the wilderness of repentance for there alone flows the Jordan River.  Only in the water to which Christ has tied Himself is there life.  Here the penitents truly “live it up,” really have the “full life,” and live the “real life” in Christ.  Here the trivial is not pursued but the eternal is found.  Here the shame of sin is removed by the name of the Forgiving One.  Here uncivilized John places us into Christ’s keeping, where He makes us citizens of the heavenly fatherland.

This sermon is included in Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. From now to the end of 2014, that book, along with The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems, is on sale for an additional 25% off through CreateSpace. Click here if you’d like to purchase Christ Alone or here for The Infant Priest. When you check out, enter this code, YLECQSWE, for the discount. Thank you! 

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