Archive for the month “February, 2014”

Unzipped Lips

ImageYou’re listening to your all-time favorite song on the radio. Windows rolled down. Volume cranked up. The words fly from your lips.  You can feel the music reverberating in your bones. As I wrote about in “Musical Time Machine,” it’s a song you attach to that person, to this place. It roots you in your own past. I don’t care who sings it, it is your song.

Then, just when it’s about to hit your favorite part…

  • a buzzing noise screeches from the speakers, followed by a robotic voice, declaring, “This is a public service announcement…”
  • your phone rings and it’s a call you have to answer
  • the highway dips into a canyon and you lose the radio signal

And the song is over. You feel cheated, ripped off. The best part of the song is left unsung.

I feel that way just about every Sunday during the Offertory (Psalm 51). For we sing,

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Thy presence,
And take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation,
And uphold me with Thy free spirit. Amen.

Then the organ music fades away. The voices become mute. And the offering trays are passed about. But me? I’m flabbergasted for the millionth time, for I want to sing on. So, in a voice only I and God can hear, I do. I sing on.

I sing these two lines:

Then will I teach transgressors Thy ways,
And sinners shall be converted unto Thee.

They haven’t always been my favorite lines. But as often happens, the ugly and the beautiful things in life change our perspective. For when a man’s biography has parallels to the life of the songwriter, when his prayers for the restoration of salvation’s joy have been answered, and when the Holy Spirit has recreated and upheld him, he cannot be silent anymore. He must go on not only to sing the rest of the psalm, but to live it.

So I do. I teach my fellow transgressors the ways of the Lord, as well as the ways that lead away from the Lord. Even if that means delving into my own past, to reveal the depths to which a man can fall into the ways of the anti-Lord, I will do it. Why? That sinners might be converted unto Thee, that they might taste and see that the Lord is good, that they might discover that the Lord does indeed wash us thoroughly from our iniquity and cleanse us from our sin, for he purifies us with the hyssop dipped in the blood of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, though other voices may stop, though the music ends, even though I might even get a few dirty looks, I shall sing on.

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We See Too Much

jesusalonetransfigurationWhen I was in my early teens, a firework exploded in my face, burning my eyes and blackening them with powder. I’ve written about that accident in “The Night My Mom Wrestled with Jesus.” I thought I was blind. I feared that never again would I see my mom and dad, mountains and sunsets, fast cars and beautiful women. The millions of sights that cross before our eyes daily would vanish; I would see darkness alone.

Many years later, a different explosion rocked my world, one that I set off.  It transformed my life into a pile of rubble. Everything by which I had defined myself was obliterated. I could still see, but all I beheld was loss and heartache, anger and regret, fear and hopelessness. These were the sights that crossed before my eyes day and night.

I lamented that I could see, for all I saw was a collage of sadness. I saw a past riddled with stupid, unfixable mistakes. I saw a present replete with misery. I saw a future void of hope. I saw a million sights, and none of them were pleasing to the eye.

Gradually, year by year, I came to learn an invaluable lesson: sometimes we see too much.

When Peter, James, and John saw the wonders happening on the Mount of Transfiguration; when a bright cloud enveloped Jesus and the Father spoke; the disciples fell on their faces and trembled in fear. Our Lord then walked over to them, touched them, and said, “Arise, do not be afraid.” And lifting their eyes, they saw no one, except Jesus alone.

They saw no one, except Jesus alone. Sometimes we see too much. We can see so many good things that we are blind to the Giver. We can see so many bad things that we are blind to the Sustainer. Whether we are overcome by happiness on the mountaintop or overwhelmed by sorrow in the valley, our vision can be our greatest weakness.

To see Jesus alone is not to be blind to everything else, but to see it through him. To see that he is the forgiver of our past, the companion of our present, and the hope of our future. To see that our family, our vocations, our home and health and every other good gift is but one more token of his love.

To see no one, except Jesus alone, is to see everything aright. For in him and by him and through him are we, the blind, given eyes to see.

A New Transfiguration Hymn: “From the Mount of Our Lord’s Glory”

TransfigAbout a year ago, Pastor Hans Fiene preached a sermon on the Transfiguration in which he developed the theme of the interconnectedness of the four mountains that are, implicitly or explicitly, part of that narrative: Sinai, Carmel, Calvary, and the Mount of Transfiguration. Hans wrote:

Here on the mountain of the transfiguration, Moses brings with him Mount Sinai, the mountain of the law. Here, Elijah brings with him Mount Carmel, the mountain of spiritual warfare. And here Jesus brings with him the mountain he is preparing to visit, the mountain called Calvary, where he will die for the sins of the world. And on this mountain of the transfiguration, we see that all these other mountains are interconnected, joined together and forming the story of what it means to be a Christian saved by the blood of Jesus.

Here is a hymn I wrote that’s based upon the ideas and images in that homily. Other tunes fit this text, but I chose the one noted below. If you wish, feel free to use this on Sunday as you celebrate the festival.

“From the Mount of Our Lord’s Glory”
Hymn for the Transfiguration of our Lord
Tune: Unser Herrscher (LSB #901 “Open Now Thy Gates of Beauty”)

From the mount of our Lord’s glory,
Other mountaintops appear.
Peaks in concert sing this story:
Our salvation has drawn near.
Shine, O Lord, from every height
Rays of wisdom, peace, and light!

Moses from Mount Sinai preaches
Words in stone that shatter hearts.
Down into the depths he reaches,
Bidding us from sin depart.
Rise, repent, O Christian, see
Light and life on Calvary!

As Elijah battles evil,
Truth and lies on Carmel fight,
Christians strive against the devil;
Warfare is our daily plight.
Grant us peace midst war and loss,
From the mount of our Lord’s cross.

Jesus from Mount Calv’ry preaches
Blood-soaked words that heal our hearts.
Warfare ends, the battle ceases,
Peace and hope our Lord imparts.
Christ, transfixed on Calv’ry’s tree,
Grant that we transfigured be!

Here we see salvation’s story,
Here the law has been fulfilled,
Here is Christ in thorn-crowned glory,
Here our hearts His peace has stilled.
Here, our Lord, upon that height,
Shines on us as Light of Light!

To check out two other Transfiguration hymns that I’ve written click here

Smut and Smug: Secret Religious Delight in Society’s Moral Degradation

ImageCrouched inside my conservative heart is a little monster that cheerleads on the liberal agenda. The more pornography spills its sexual sewage into our culture, the more he whoops. The more Miley Cyrus twerks; the more benedictions Obama pronounces upon Planned Parenthood; the more LGBTs couple up, wed, and adopt children, the louder my monster claps. He could flip through channels all day long, watching example after example of the cultural corpse decaying before his eyes, and greet his disgust with gusto.

Perhaps I am the lone conservative who cloisters this inner, liberal-loving monster. But I daresay that every right-leaning thinker suffers this trollish beast. I sensed his awakening the other day, and could almost feel his lips smirking, as I studied an article that detailed, quite convincingly, the various ways that sexual “freedom” has undermined the stability of marriage and family. And the thing is, I wholeheartedly agreed with the author’s arguments. It is my firm conviction that he’s logically, biblically, and ethically spot-on. In fact, I’ve echoed his sentiments in my own teaching, writing, and everyday conversations. I loathe the fact that America is slouching toward Sodom. Yet, alas, the monster closeted in my soul laps it up.

Why? For what reason would a conservative Christian find secret religious delight in society’s moral degradation?

Some might say I’m just a hypocrite, one more right-winger who publicly lambasts the very thing he privately loves. And, no doubt, I suffer from that vice to an extent.  Lord knows there are few, nay, no men whose words and actions exhibit perfect, perpetual integrity.

I suspect, however, that something else is afoot. I think the chief reason that a faction within me welcomes the disintegration of the American ethos is this: it makes me feel so much better about myself. The smut makes me quite smug. The dirtier things become round about me, the cleaner I sense myself to be. The more porn there is, the more chaste I think I am by comparison. The more homosexuals come out, the more I deem heterosexuals the ethically superior group. The monster within, you see, uses all this when he fulfills this vocation: he is a priest before an altar upon which sits an icon of myself. And to me, his lord, he offers up the sacrifice of self-affirming praise.

I am caught, therefore, in a dilemma. For on the one hand, God calls me to speak the truth in love, to speak out against evil in all its manifestations. But on the other hand, the more evil manifests itself, the more ecstatic my inner monster becomes. What’s a man to do?

Here are my two goals. I shall endeavor, first of all, to see in every manifestation of evil, a crime scene that has my fingerprints all over it. For if there is a problem in society, it is my problem. Every man is my brother, every woman my sister, every problem in society is therefore my family’s problem. If I wish to be part of the solution, I must first acknowledge that I am part of the problem. Rather than isolating myself atop a mountain from which I can decry the iniquities in the valley below me, I will confess that daily I drag my feet through the muck of that valley floor. Along with the abortionists and crack whores and pedophiles and gossiping Grandmas, I am dirtied by sin, plagued by vices, and desperately in need of the Christ who will once and for all shower away my filth and envelop me with his own sacred skin.

And I shall also endeavor, as one who knows the author of all good, to continue to speak out against evil. But I shall speak as a sinner to sinners, as a sick man to comrades in calamity, as a dying man to others who teeter on the brink of the grave. Before I speak against evil, however, I will ask myself: are these the words you would choose if your son or daughter were the object of this address? If not, I will zip shut my lips until I learn to speak the truth in love, for ‘tis better to be mute than to screech orthodoxy in the tones of a finger-wagging Pharisee. As a brother of mine recently commented, “Loveless truth is just as harmful as truthless love,” (Bill Cwirla).

Yes, I confess that my inner monster finds secret delight in society’s moral degradation, but I also profess that I abhor that demonic, immoral delight within me. That is not the man God created me to be, nor the man I desire to be. I wish, and therefore I pray, to be a man who bears the icon of his Creator—the one who, in his fathomless love for mankind, leapt from heaven, enveloped himself in our skin, and befriended the sinners, especially those whom the religious folk of the day shunned as the morally degenerate. And in the mercy of that friend of unfaithfuls, Jesus the Christ, I shall lay hold of peace, as do all those who rest not in their own worth or morality, but in the bleeding wounds of him who died that in him we might live in, but not of, this world.

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If you enjoy my writings, please consider purchasing my recently published book, The Infant Priest:  Hymns and Poems.  This poetry gives voice to the triumphs 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!

Look Who I Found in the Grave

grave2For those of you who don’t like longwinded hymns—you know, the ones with fifteen stanzas—you probably won’t care for Psalm 78 either. It’s a whopping seventy-two verses. And a whole lot of it is rather depressing, since it hangs out Israel’s dirty laundry for all the world to see. Their kissing up to idols. Their bitching and bellyaching. Their snoozing while God preached. Were a hymnal committee to get ahold of it, and abbreviate it to a manageable length, they might just shrink it down to a single stanza, which would go something like this:

God filled the cup for Israel of old,

Love and mercy and treasures untold,

But Israel, like a stubborn ass,

Always saw an empty glass.

But were it up to me to save one stanza from this psalm, to extract it, gild it with gold, and hold it up for all the world to see, I would choose this verse:

When [God] killed them,

Then they sought Him,

And returned

And searched diligently for God. (78:34)

Now slow down, dear reader.  Chew on each of these words:  “When God killed them, then they sought Him.” It’s one of those verses that makes me want to laugh and cry all at once.

Laugh, because of the sheer lunacy of it, because that’s what it takes for people—for me—to finally “get it.” God must kill me. He’s got to slay me, put me six feet under, and shovel dirt atop my corpse. Then, it’s like, “Hey, I finally understand! You’re God and I’m not. You’re my Father and I’m your child. You know best, not me. I now see all you’ve done for me.”

It also makes me want to cry, because now I’m dead and it’s too late. I’m slain, buried, done for.

But I’m not. I’m not because I look beside me in the grave, and there lies a man. He too has been killed. I see his wounds. I can almost smell the iron in his blood. But he opens his eyes, and in them I read a volume of hope and redemption. In those eyes, I see the one who sought me, but from whom I fled. Now he has me, in the grave, beside him, right where he needed me all along. When he killed me, then I sought him. And found him in the grave.

In the grave, however, we do not remain, Jesus and I. As he rises, I rise with him. My repentant heart is healed. My dead body vivified. I live in him who lives in me. For that is how God works: he kills and makes alive. He brings us down. He slays us. He rips from us everything that is contrary to him, that when we have nothing left, we might find everything in him.

Tripping Helen Keller

trippingThe tap-tap-tapping of the cane against the concrete outside our Cincinnati home had become a familiar sound. Working their way up and down the sidewalk, morning till evening, were students at Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which was just down the street from our townhouse. My children, eight and six at the time, were naturally curious. They’d never encountered a blind person before, much less dozens of them on a weekly basis.

One day, when traffic had bottlenecked around the apartment complex, we helped a blind gentlemen maneuver around the maze of cars. Afterward, my children wondered aloud what it would be like not to be able to see, so I took that chance to talk with them about the man’s disability. We discussed what my daughter had learned in school about Helen Keller, the challenges faced by the visually impaired, and how we should always be ready to lend them a guiding hand. But, you know, throughout that conversation, and the whole time we lived in Cincinnati, it never once crossed my mind that I should teach my children one simple, but very important, rule: Do not put a stumbling block in front of a blind person.

Well, duh. I never taught them that rule for the same reason I never taught them not to push a wheel chaired person in front of a moving bus, or not to put a razor blade in a baby’s hand. Why would I? Some rules of behavior are so obvious that to voice them suggests that the one being instructed is so morally degenerate, or so intellectually challenged, that you have to spell out darn near everything. I mean, really, what kind of monster would purposefully trip a blind person?

Yet, page over to the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus, which happens to be the OT reading for this coming Sunday, and note this prohibition, “You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” Or later in Deuteronomy 27, “Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road.” Well, now, what have we here? Why, given all the things we wish God had told us, but didn’t, does he “waste our time” by stating the patently obvious? Was there, in Moses’ day, an outbreak of violence against the disabled? Were lowlifes sneaking around cussing out deaf people and putting rocks on paths frequented by the blind? I seriously doubt it. No, what we have here, in this prohibition, is a profound statement about who we are. In this single command, not to trip a blind person, is compressed volumes about the human condition.

To put it briefly: obvious wrongs are expressly forbidden because humanity excels at calling evil good and good evil. Granted, I do not foresee a day when tripping the blind will be deemed decent behavior. But, then again, I suspect that few Americans, fifty years ago, ever envisaged a day when it would be considered decent and acceptable to clinically murder fifty million unborn babies either. Be not deceived. Any boundaries to humanity’s capacity for evil are drawn with pencils, easily erased and widely expandable. Good is defaced as “bigoted, narrow-minded, oppressive.” Evil is prettified as “loving, freeing, merciful.” This one command, don’t trip the blind, thunders this universal truth: humans perpetually fail at being humane.

So God gives us this law, and a slew of others. And, when you think about it, this command is no different than the prohibition against murder, adultery, or theft. Do we really need to be explicitly warned not to take another person’s life or spouse or property? For, are not those laws written on the heart of man? Indeed, they are. But the heart and conscience of a man are unreliable, fickle things. Our conscience is an untrustworthy ally in the fight against evil, echoing God’s law one moment and parroting cultural assumptions about right and wrong the next. We need more than what is traced on the heart; we need words chiseled in stone. We need more than the whisperings of the conscience; we need words boomed from the pulpit.

We need these words to hold forth the truth before our eyes. And the truth that we will see is not only the good we should do, and the bad we shouldn’t do, but that we’ve fallen flat on our faces with both. We may not have stuck out our foot to trip a blind man, but we have failed to protect the vulnerable, to fight for them with all our heart. We may not have cursed the deaf, but we have gossiped and spread lies about our neighbor when he was out of earshot. We may not have rolled in the hay with another man’s wife, but we have rolled over and over in our mind how lustfully fun it would be. The truth is that we humans have failed at being humane, have trashed God’s image within us. We, along with the whole world, stand before the divine judge with no other option than to say to him, “I plead….”

“…guilty,” someone says beside us. He stands shoulder-to-shoulder with us, this other man, finishing our sentence. He holds up his hands, jagged scars on each, and shows them to the judge, “Guilty,” he repeats. He pulls off his shoes to reveal the same scars on them, and affirms, once more, “I am guilty.” He lifts his shirt and points to a healed gash on his ribcage. And with the same confidence, he admits, yet a third time, “Yes, Father, I am guilty. Let my brother go. He does not belong here. I, not he, am the guilty party. I, not he, have been punished justly. Here is the record of justice, inscribed upon the scroll of my skin.” And so it is. The guiltless become guilty so that the guilty becomes guiltless.

What a strange God we have: to give us laws that we break; to show us how we break them; and yet, when it comes time for us to receive the penalty of our sins, to show us that there is no penalty. Or rather, that someone else has already been penalized in our place. Indeed, what a strange God we have: to demand all from us, and to give all to us, that, in him, we might become all that he wants us to be.

For all the commandments of God are kept, when what is not kept, is forgiven (St. Augustine).

If you enjoy my writings, please consider purchasing my recently published book, The Infant Priest:  Hymns and Poems.  This poetry gives voice to the triumphs 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!

Giving Away A Divorce on Valentine’s Day

Here is an article I wrote for The Federalist about marriage, divorce, and the true meaning of love:

I’m usually a muter or channel-changer when the radio stops cranking out music and starts the litany of advertisements. But sometimes I half-listen, half-daydream, as commercials for the juiciest burger or the toughest lawyer spill forth from the speakers. The last couple of weeks, floral shops and candy stores have joined the fray, hawking their romantic wares as the fourteenth of February has drawn nigh. Turn on the radio station and, within a few minutes, you’ll hear it. Buy a beautiful dozen roses at this store. Purchase a delectable assortment of chocolates at that store. Win a Valentine’s Day divorce from this radio station. Wait. What?

Read more by visiting the site here

black-red-rose-flowers-34869888-758-635

The Wrinkling Clock: The Irony of Calendar Girls

calendar girlsChances are, no matter which work truck I’m assigned for the day, there will be a handful of beautiful women in the cab with me. It may be a frosty January morning, but there will be Cindy, clad in nothing but her hot pink two-piece, sunning on a beach, her youthful body contorted in a way that can’t be comfortable. Veronica in March, Becky in June, Crystal in November. Of course, they all have snow-white teeth, sun-kissed skin, ample bosoms. And, of course, they all have their lips ever so slightly parted, in that come-and-get-me-big-boy kind of way. When you’re a calendar girl, the calendar doesn’t matter. Every day is summer, every locale a beach, every closet full of nothing but two miniature articles of clothing, just enough to cover the bare essentials.

As January passes to February, and February to March, the girls too pass away, their paper icons torn off, crumpled up, and tossed into the nearest trash. Another month, another girl. Time marches on, but youthful beauty remains.

Yes, youth and beauty remain, but only if we keep replacing the beautiful youths. On some of them, varicose veins will snake through their once sun-kissed skin. Hungry babies will put those ample breasts to work someday, doing what God ordained breasts to do. Too many cups of coffee, too many packs of cigarettes, will make keeping those teeth white a daunting challenge. Or maybe November’s Crystal will simply give up and opt for dentures. I doubt they’ll be donning bikinis and sunning on a beach to the click-click of the photographer in ten, twenty, thirty years. The calendar will have its way with these calendar girls. It will have its way with us all.

There is irony everywhere in this world, including the cabs of Freightliners and Fords, where these images of youth are joined to that medium which marks the passage of time, and the passing away of youth.  What is it that Isaiah says?

“All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.”

The flower of youth, as lovely as it is, cannot withstand the hot winds of time. Even those men and women who appear decades younger than they actually are, will, someday, inevitably, look old. Even Dick Clark eventually looked like an old codger.

There is a beauty, however, that remains, that the calendar cannot touch. It is a loveliness deeper than skin.  It is the stunning beauty of a woman who has been bathed, robed, and kissed by the Lord above, whose embrace imparts a beauty not of this world. “The word of our God stands forever,” Isaiah says. And that word stands to raise up fallen women, to wash away the filth of sin, to dress them in robes of righteousness, to adorn them with the diamonds of grace and pearls of holiness. In other words, that word puts Jesus on them, in them, through them. And in him, who is alpha and omega, before time and beyond time, they are safe from the calendar. They are beautiful beyond words, for they are beautiful in Christ. And in him, dear ladies, is a loveliness that will never fade.

christ alone coverWhat we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who InfantPriestfrontcoverwelcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!

The Day My Great-Grandmother Handed My Great-Grandfather Over to the Devil

Fire-Wallpaper-HDShe’s laboring over the stove to cook the children’s breakfast when he stumbles through the back door of their humble Arkansas home. Eyes bloodshot. Breath reeking. Shirt unevenly buttoned, as if done in darkness, and in haste. She doesn’t turn around to appraise his disheveled condition. No need to. More than once, more than twice, more times than she cares to remember, my great-grandmother has seen my great-grandfather looking, and smelling, like something the cat drug in.

He was a nocturnal animal, Albert was. Under the canopy of darkness he could live and move and have his fun. Transition from various bottles to various beds like an old pro. Never mind that he had fathered multiple offspring; never mind that he had a loving, godly wife weeping for him at home; never mind that the wild oats he sowed were the seeds of a dawning destruction. He did what he did, and if that disqualified him from winning husband or father of the year, there was always another beer, or another blonde, to make up for it.

“Well,” he said to Nancy, “go ahead.”

“Go ahead what?” she calmly replied, her back still turned.

“Go ahead and start your yelling and scolding and Bible-thumpin like you do every morning. ‘Where ya been? Who ya been with? What ya been drinking?’ Go on. I’m a waiting. Let’s get it over with.”

But Nancy only spooned some eggs and bacon onto a plate, poured a glass of milk, and smoothed her apron. She turned and walked slowly toward the table, her husband a few feet away, eyeing her suspiciously.

“Ain’t you gonna say nothing?” he asked as she eased by him.

She stopped and turned around to face the man to whom she was wed. She did love him. She’d been faithful to him. She had worn out her knees in prayer for his soul. She had yelled and pleaded and begged him to change, year after year, to no avail. Locking eyes with her husband that morning, Nancy calmly and clearly said, “I won’t be yelling at you to change anymore. I’ve tried. Lord knows I’ve tried.”

“Albert, I’ve handed your soul over to the devil.”

Chances are you’ve tried, at some point in your life, to be a reformer. Who was it? A spouse, child, friend, colleague, fellow church member? Something about them troubled you, maybe just irked you, so you made it your mission to get them cleaned up, to de-alcoholize them, or de-drug, or de-affair, or de-something. They were so engrossed in their pet evil that it had become a lifestyle. But you were going to change that by changing them. You’d point out the error of their ways, prophesy the looming doom that would befall them, and shepherd them toward the straight and narrow.

Maybe it worked. Praise God if it did. But maybe it didn’t, at least not when and how you wanted it to. So perhaps you supposed that if you increased the volume, he’d hear you. So you went from begging to yelling, from praying to threatening. You issued ultimatums. You pulled out the big guns. You enlisted the help of friends. But, alas, short-lived improvements notwithstanding, nothing really changed.

That is where my great-grandmother found herself. An intensely religious woman, pious and god-fearing, she knew that her husband was on a path that would end only in everlasting misery. She’d done and said all she could. She had tried to be a reformer, to make Albert change, but, stubborn as a mule, and seemingly intent on self-destruction, he had dug in his heels. So, in her own unique way, she said what she needed to say. We may agree or disagree with her; I certainly wouldn’t hold it up as the example for what women should say in troubled marriages. But, in her own way, Nancy was simply acknowledging what was true. Her husband had already handed himself over to the devil. He had plunged headlong into the darkness. She wasn’t so much giving up on her husband as giving up on herself, that is, giving up trying to be the person who changes another person. It was going to take more than her to reform the man she loved.

My great-grandfather died, many years later, a Christian man. After that fateful morning at the breakfast table, when his wife told him she had handed his soul over to the devil, something seemed to stir within him. Over time, he abandoned the booze, he quit the women, he helped tuck his children in at night, then crawled into bed with his beloved wife. No doubt he still struggled against his demons—don’t we all?—but, by the grace of God, he was rescued from the devil’s clutches and passed from this life into the kingdom of the blessed.

By the grace of God. By the gracious action of God in Jesus Christ. My great-grandfather did not change himself, nor did his wife. Jesus did. But he didn’t do it simply by issuing threats, frightening this sinner into a moral life. No, Jesus, this friend of sinners plunged himself into living death of Albert’s sad existence. On his own timetable, and in his own way, Jesus brought Albert into communion with his own crucifixion death, and raised him to newness of life in his own Easter resurrection. That is the way people are reformed. Not by making them better, but by making them dead. Dead in Christ, dead on his cross, dead in his baptism. For only when they are dead are they candidates for life. And life they have in the one who raises the dead, who himself was raised from the dead, Jesus the Christ. He entered the hellish prison in which Albert was trapped, overcame the demonic jailers, and pried open the bars to bring his child into the freedom of forgiveness and the light of life.

Then he whom Nancy had handed over to the devil, the Christ handed back to her.

ChristAloneCoverIf this reflection was helpful to you, and you’d like to read more–many more–like it, then take a look at my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

Rearing or Raising: Two Approaches to Parenting

Sometimes it’s the throwaway comments people make that stick the deepest in your mind.  They don’t remember saying it, but you’ll never forget it.

So it was for me one summer day, in the late 1990’s, as I rode shotgun in a pickup with Ernest Stein.  Ernest was an elderly farmer in rural Oklahoma whose acreage butted up to land owned by two of his surviving three sons; the third had died in an automobile accident years before.  We hauled hay to his cattle.  He checked on the progress of some crops.  And in an overgrown tree belt, he pointed out the spot where he’d nailed a trophy whitetail early one fall morning.  We were bouncing along some ruts beside a barbed wire fence, talking about our families, when I asked Ernest what it was like to raise three sons.  He glanced over, shot me one of his unique half-smiles, and said, “Raising sons?  I didn’t raise any sons. The way I was taught was that you raised pigs but reared children.”

At the time my daughter was transitioning from the crawl to the walk, and my son was still but a twinkle in his father’s eye. Both are now teenagers. As I’ve tried—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—to be a good father to them over the years, Ernest’s words have echoed in my mind. They resound in the form of a self-examining question. I ask myself, “Are you rearing or raising Auriana and Luke?” Linguistically, of course, one could make a convincing case that the two verbs are essentially synonymous when applied to the upbringing of children. But for me, “rear” and “raise” are more than verbs.  They have come to serve as designations for two different approaches to parenting, both of which are based upon assumptions about what constitutes a human being, and, therefore, how that human being is to be reared (or raised) from infancy to adulthood.

If I believe that my child is the creation of God, endowed with a body, mind, and soul; if I believe that he, as a human being, is the crown of the Lord’s creation, distinct from and above all other created things; that his life is to be lived in faith towards God and love towards his neighbor; that, though he die an earthly death, he will nevertheless exist from now unto all eternity; and that he is so beloved of God that God himself lived, died, and rose again to save him—if I believe all that, and truths in concert with it, then I will rear my child accordingly. I will not merely provide for his bodily or mental needs, but the needs of his soul as well. I will teach him that, as the crown of the Lord’s creation, he is to image God on earth not by usurpation or exploitation of power, but in acts of loving service that imitate the way of our serving and loving Lord. To put it simply: I will rear my child as God’s child, for that is what he is.

If I believe that my child is merely the bodily product of sexual relations; that divinity played no role in his conception or growth; if I believe that my child, though loved by me, is really no more special than any other creature on earth, but merely one more cog in the vast machine of creation; that he will live here for a time, die, and then cease to exist; that this life is all there is, that God does not (or may not, or probably doesn’t) exist, and that therefore he is neither accountable to nor beloved by that divine figure—if I believe all that, then I will raise my child accordingly. I will provide for his bodily and mental needs, but not his spiritual needs. I will raise him as one rational animal raises another rational animal on a planet full of other rational animals. To put it simply, I will raise my child as my child, not God’s, for there is no God in this belief system.

What determines the kind of parent you will be? Is it your own upbringing, the culture in which you live, the influence of peers? No doubt these all play a role. But I say the single most determining factor in what kind of parent you will be is this: What do you believe? Specifically, what do you believe a human being is?

My elderly farmer friend in Oklahoma reared three sons, two of whom I was privileged to know, one of whom I will meet in heaven someday. He did well, Ernest did, with his wife, Lenora, in rearing those sons not so much as their own but as sons of the heavenly Father. May God grant all of us grace, who believe as Ernest did, that we might follow in his footsteps, that we might parent in a way that accords with who we are as human beings, and the kind of adult human beings we want our children to grow up to be.

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If you enjoy my writings, please consider purchasing my recently published book, The Infant Priest:  Hymns and Poems.  This poetry gives voice to the triumphs 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!

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