Archive for the month “June, 2014”

Anniversary of a Dead Marriage: The Painful Lessons of Divorce

wedding-ringsAlthough I wrote this article almost a year and a half ago, someone reads it almost every day. Readers stumble upon it when they Google phrases such as “divorce anniversary.” That’s just one small token of the multitudes of people who struggle to recover from a broken marriage and the lifelong scars that violent separation can bring. I am reposting it on my blog today so that perhaps it will reach some who haven’t seen it. This is my own unedited, raw reflection upon what divorce did to me, as well as what I learned from it. I’m sure some will take issue with my disagreement with St. Paul, but that’s okay. Perhaps I misunderstand the apostle and need to be corrected. If you are reading this as one who suffers the ongoing pains of divorce, know that I am praying for you, that Christ may work healing in you, as He has in me.

Today, December 29, would have been the twenty-second anniversary of my first marriage. Five years have passed since our divorce—years raw with emotion, scarred by mistakes, scabbed over with hints of hope. Every year, when this day rolls around, I turn over the stones of remembrance that litter my mind, to see what lurks beneath. I see things there I don’t want to see, learn things about myself that I never wanted to know, but do anyway. I also see there lessons learned, painful but positive lessons. This piece is more for me than anyone else, though you are welcome to tag along and spy on my thoughts.

1. The Undivorced Don’t Get It. I’ve never stood by the freshly dug grave of my beloved wife. Never has the blood of a fellow soldier been showered on me during a firefight. I’ve never been bankrupt or homeless or had cancer. I don’t know about a lot of things, because I haven’t experienced those hells. The happily married, undivorced man or woman knows nothing of the agony of divorce, and should never pretend otherwise. This includes pastors, and all those who may seek to counsel the divorced. They should never assume they “get” what the divorced person is going through. Every loss, every grief is unique, and to make it generic by universalizing it cheapens the hurt the divorced feel.

2. I disagree with St. Paul. When he writes to the Corinthians, Paul says, “One who is unmarried is concerned with the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife,” (1 Cor 7:32-33). Not for me. Most men who are unmarried are concerned with finding a woman whom they can marry. And until they do that, most of their thoughts, energies, time, and, yes, money, are directed toward that end. I was much more concerned about the things of the Lord when I was married than when I became single. It is not good for the man to be alone, and so long as he is, it won’t be good for him personally, or his service to the Lord. With notable exceptions, men are created for women. And it is in the vocation of husband that they serve the Lord best, for they are completed by her.

3. Lonely, Hurting Men Make Bad Decisions. I made the mistake many men do immediately after their divorce: the first woman I dated, I “fell in love with” and soon we were making wedding plans. I later broke off the engagement as the reality that this was a rebound relationship slowly sank in, although, of course, it was at an additional emotional cost to both of us, as well as our mutual children. Every relationship is a risk, but the risk skyrockets when the man is still nursing wounds from a failed marriage. He wants nothing more than a restored wholeness, to recreate a past that either did exist, or exists only in his nostalgic imagination. And in this state of yearning for healing, he tends to idealize a woman, seeing in her the wife he wants her to be instead of the woman whom she really is.

4. Divorce Unveils the Monster Within Divorce brings out the worst in people. It certainly did in me. I was little aware of the fathomless depths of anger, spite, depression, regret, pettiness, and selfishness within me until my marriage ended. Then it all came oozing, or exploding, to the surface, in various ways and at various times. I remember late one night, while working in the oil field, having a conversation with another driver who was going through a divorce. His wife had left him for another man. He described how his every waking moment was consumed with fantasies of revenge, murderous payback, horrid thoughts he’d never entertained before. Divorce can do that, unearthing new evils within. It’s a dark journey of self-knowledge. And although, thank God, most of the time these monsters within us remain caged, never acting out the evils of which they are capable, the sheer fact that they are there at all is enough to make me scared of the man I have the potential to become.

5. Healing Will Begin, But It Takes Its Sweet Time I’m fortunate because I survived divorce. I didn’t put a gun to my head and pull the trigger, though on my darkest of days I held the pistol in my hand. I didn’t become addicted to something that would dull the pain, though I did my fair share of self-medicating with alcohol. I came through, wounded and scarred to be sure, but at least alive. Not every one is so lucky. God placed into my life a few select friends without whose love I would not have made it. Not surprisingly, these friends are divorced as well. They get it. I am at a point of healing now, five years later, that I thought I’d never reach, even if I had five lifetimes. I still have a long way to go, but at least I’ve made progress. Baby steps are steps nonetheless. I have two children, a son and daughter. They live with their mother and step-father. I see them four to six days a month—days that mean the world to me. As heart-breaking as my time apart from them is, I have grown to thank God that, in the aftermath of our divorce, our children are still provided with a stable, secure, Christian home in which to grow up. Indeed, they are blessed with a good mother and a caring stepfather.

The very fact that I can write that last sentence, and mean every word, is proof positive that, five years after my divorce, the Lord has made a little progress in putting this shattered man back together again.

If you’d like to read more of my writings, 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!

When Focus on the Family Becomes Idolatry

“He who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” Matthew 10:37

ImageShe is never mentioned in Genesis 22. God is, Abraham is, Isaac is, but Sarah is missing from the story. Did she know that God had decided to test her husband? Was she aware that this testing was the sacrifice of their one and only son? When she kissed Isaac goodbye for this odd journey to the land of Moriah, did she have any notion that God had commanded her husband to lay their son atop an altar, sink a knife into his heart, and burn his body to ashes? We don’t know what Sarah knew.

We do know that, after the story is over, after Abraham passes the test, after Isaac is spared when the blade is in midair, that Sarah dies. Jewish tradition sees no coincidence in the fact that her passing in Genesis 23 follows immediately after her son’s near-sacrifice in Genesis 22. When it says, “Sarah died…and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her,” (23:2), it means that Abraham went from Mount Moriah to mourn for her. These traditions suggest that, when this mother heard of what was to take place on that mountain, assuming as she did that Isaac would in fact be sacrificed, she cried out and breathed her last. Her son was her life, therefore, his death was her death.

“Children are a gift of the Lord,” the Psalmist sings. Oh, indeed, they are. A parent’s heart is inextricably bound to the heart of his child. We can understand why, according to Jewish tradition, this mother died upon hearing of the assumed death of her boy. Likewise, we can hear the depth of agony seeping through the cracks in David’s broken heart as he cries out, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33). I think I speak for most mothers and fathers when I say that my greatest fear is the death of one of my children.

This parent-to-child love makes it all the harder to hear Jesus’ words in the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday: “He who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” Matthew 10:37. It is certainly fitting that Jesus immediately adds, “He who does not take up his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” These words do indeed feel like a heavy cross to bear.

But what does it mean to love someone or something more than we love Jesus? It means that they who were formed as a gift we transform into a god. You see, idols are not mere blocks of wood or stone before whom pagans kneel; idols are beloved things, beloved people, whom we fear or love or trust more than God. We are all, at heart, idolaters, for we are prone to turn presents from heaven into the presence of divinity on earth. We break no commandment more than the first, “You shall have no other gods.” In fact, every law we break is also a breaking of the first, for if our hearts truly and wholly belonged to the Lord, we would keep the whole law. Because we do not fear, love, and trust in Him above all things, all things become opportunities for sin, including the gifts of sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives. Focus on the family can easily devolve into a mis-focus of gifts as gods.

We do not love these gifts less by loving Jesus more. Quite the contrary. The deeper our love for God, the deeper also shall be our love for our children. Love is the embodiment of a life lived in and for another. Love toward children or parents or spouses goes idolatrously wrong not when we love them too much, but when we love them too little. For how can love be true love when it stands against the God who is love itself? How can I say I love my child when I make him into an idol? How can I say I love my wife when I love her more than I love God? No, I am not loving too much when I’m committing idolatry; I’m loving too little, for it is the selfish, self-loving side of me that compels me toward the transformation of gifts into gods.

That is why my life constantly returns, indeed revolves around, the man from Nazareth who hangs between heaven and earth, painting the world white by bleeding wounds. There, in that dying God, I find not only the very incarnation of love, but forgiveness for all my self-love. In that God all my gods die. In Him I die. And as I lose my life, and His love finds me, I gain life in His giving love. I have no other gods besides Jesus Christ, because He is God of gods, Lord of lords, who deepens my love for Himself by pouring His love into me. And that love of Christ flows from me to others: to my children, to my wife, even to my enemies.

I will never be worthy of Christ, but Christ has counted me worthy by loving me even unto death, even death on a cross. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing,” (Revelation 5:12). Worthy is this Isaac, who carried His own wood to the mountaintop, where He was not spared but given up for us all, that all in Him might become the chosen sons of the Father. Worthy is He, and worthy are we in Him, to receive life and forgiveness and salvation and honor and heaven and blessing, now and forever, and unto ages of ages.

If you’d like to read more of my writings, 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!

Spank the Boy or Shoot the Cow? What Texas Ranch Life Taught Me About Leviticus and Good Friday

ImageNowadays a nine pound, low-riding Dachshund is the only animal who looks to me as his Adam. But it wasn’t always so. At various points in my upbringing, my family and I raised chickens, a lamb, cattle, and horses, along with usual assortment of cats and dogs. As much fun as I had with these animals, I learned at a very early age that owning them also meant a steady, unending list of chores. Water to be hauled, manure to be shoveled, hooves to be shod. I also learned at a very early age that when my father told me to do those chores, it was not a suggestion. It was a command, a command with a rather stinging punishment attached to it should I choose to neglect those duties.

I would have thought my father had lost his mind if, to punish me for refusing to water the cows, for instance, he had whipped the livestock instead. Or if I’d balked at shoveling manure out of the horse pens, he’d gone around spanking the butts of the horses. If there was a wrong done, I was the one doing it. So it only made sense that I was the one who got punished. Animals are not whipping boys.

Perhaps because of my upbringing, every time I read through Leviticus, I always thought the livestock in that book got a raw deal. Think about it. On a daily basis, doves have their heads wrung off, and lambs have their throats slit, because some sinner screwed up. These birds and beasts, of course, did nothing wrong; they’re led to the slaughter as innocent victims. Wouldn’t it have made more sense if God had devised a system of atonement in which sinners suffered for their own commandment-breaking? Shouldn’t they earn forgiveness by paying with their own pain for the wrong they’ve done? You’d confess your wrongdoing to the priest, turn around, put your hands on the altar, and take the whipping you deserve for whatever your iniquity is. But, no, a guilty Israelite doesn’t even get his finger pricked to put a drop of his own blood on the altar. He shows up at the temple with an animal which has to bare the throat, spill the blood, be a stand-in sacrifice for the sinner.

It wasn’t until many years after my youth, that the Spirit opened my eyes to see that the livestock in Leviticus were not only sacrifices, but cooing, mooing, bleating prophets of one who was to come. Every dove that lost his head at the altar foreshadowed the one on whose head the Spirit would land in the form of a dove. Every bull that bled and died as a holy sacrifice was a proclamation of the one who, while being sacrificed on the cross, would pray from Psalm 22, “Many bulls have surrounded me, strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me.” Every lamb roasted atop the flames of the altar was a foretaste of the one who was led as a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7); the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29); the lamb standing, as if slain, on the heavenly throne (Revelation 5:6); the lamb in whose blood our robes are washed to make them white in that cleaning, crimson flood (7:14).

The animals in the liturgy of the Israelites did not get a raw deal; they were ordained, as it were, to the holy office of naming the Adam-to-come, even as the first Adam had named them. His is the name that is above every name—the name of Servant. He serves by substitution His whole life long: serves by a holy conception and birth that cleanses our own; serves by a holy life of commandment-keeping that covers our law-breaking; serves finally at a greater and more perfect tabernacle, where He presents Himself as a stand-in for sinners, as the final and perfect offering for us.

All of Leviticus is but a preface to Good Friday. God did not set up a system of atonement in which sinners suffered for their own wrongdoing, paid with their own blood for transgressions committed. The lamb of God, Jesus Christ, slain from the foundation of the world in the heart of God, and slain as the foundation for forgiveness on Good Friday, He suffers for sinners, pays for their transgressions. He does so willingly, for His will is for our salvation, His will is nothing but love.

In His bleeding, dying, rising love, we see the love of the Father writ large in two simple words: for you. In those two words we behold the depth and the breadth of divine love which gives all, and does all, for us.

If you’d like to read more of my writings, 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!

When Angels Gathered Above a Kitchen Sink

He had suffered through both world wars and the Great Depression; been amazed by everything from the first cars chugging down the road to a man stepping onto the moon; witnessed the rise and fall of world leaders, the terms of seventeen U.S. presidents; and several generations of his own family create families of their own. Ingram Robinson was 91 years old and had seen it all—well, almost seen it all. For what his eyes were about to behold, as the sun rose on his ninth decade in this world, was something entirely, and radically, new.

Days you will never forget usually begin as days you will never remember. You roll out of bed, pour a cup of coffee, get yourself to work, and assume all along that the day will be a humdrum repeat of the days before. So it was for me on the first of December, 1998. Oklahomans were enjoying an unseasonably warm beginning to winter, with temperatures in the low 70’s. I spent the morning working on my upcoming Sunday sermon. Then it was off to Oklahoma City to make a hospital visit or two. One of my parishioners, Dennis, had invited me to visit his father, Ingram, who had been ill with heart problems. So I drove to his home, where Dennis met me and introduced me to his dad.

Conversations, as is their wont, drift from topic to topic, as ours did that day. We meandered from the getting-to-know-you phase, to a discussion of his medical problems, and finally to concerns which transcend this life. We spoke of Jesus. We talked of who he is, his active and ongoing love for us, our life unending in him. And Ingram believed; indeed, he had believed for years. But to my surprise, and contrary to what even his own son assumed, Ingram had never been baptized.

ImageI suppose there are times when delaying baptism is acceptable, to provide an opportunity for fully instructing the believer in the Faith into which he is about to be baptized. But when a man is advanced in age, suffers heart problems, and confesses faith in the Messiah, you scout out the nearest water source and let the Spirit do what the Spirit does best. In our case, the kitchen sink was transformed into a font of new creation. Where two or three were gathered, there Jesus was in the midst of them. He co-opted my lips to speak his vivifying words. A prayer, a creed, a confession, and the words, “I baptize you, Ingram, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Above this holy sink a whole host of the celestial angels flocked to witness a sight rare even to them: a ninety-one year old newborn. New birth through water and the Spirit was his. Heaven and earth broke out in grand applause.

Within two or three months, Ingram said Goodbye to this world and an everlasting Hello to the Promised Land above. The angels who so soon before had rejoiced at his new birth, now rejoiced even more at a life in which 91 years is but a blink in eternal felicity. Some receive baptism’s saving gifts when life on earth has barely begun, and some receive them when that same life draws to a close. But young or old, or anywhere in between, baptism is never a work achieved, but always a gift received. Naked we come into this world, and naked we shall depart it. And anytime in between, the Father of all stands ready to clothe us all in the righteousness of his Son. One day, I was privileged to be the hands that wrapped those sacred garments around Ingram. And that’s a day I’ll never forget.

The Parable of Lazarus and the Poor Man

ImageThere was a certain rich man who was decked out in the finest clothing, from head to toe clad in nothing but the best. This rich man feasted sumptuously every day, licking his lips at the sight of the delectable fare that filled his table. His closest friends gathered round about him, delighting in his company, and he in theirs. Yes, this rich man led the best of lives and had the best things in this world. Truly, he was a blessed man.

And this rich man’s name was Lazarus.

O Christian, seeing, you do not see, if you look only with your eyes. Your ears must do the seeing, if you are to view things not merely as they appear, but as they really are. Your eyes do not see Lazarus as a rich man but a poor beggar; not as one who feasted sumptuously every day, but as one who yearned for crumbs; not as a man befriended, but as one surrounded by dogs who licked his sores; not as one with the best, but as one with the worst; not as one blessed, but as one cursed, forgotten, lost, and miserable. So your eyes see Lazarus, and, seeing, you do not see. Sunk into your face are two liars. Like two blind men who take you by the hand and lead you soul and body into the infernal pit, so are the eyes of your flesh.

Who is Lazarus? Who is he, really? He is who God says he is; yes, he is whoever and whatever God says. He is the certain rich man, who is filled with the riches of the Father’s grace. He is decked out in the righteousness of Christ, clad from head to toe, soul and flesh, with the body of the crucified. He lives on the bread that comes down from above, the heavenly cuisine of the Word that comes from the mouth of God. The ox knows its owner, the donkey its master’s manger, and the dogs know that Lazarus is a child of God, and they pay him homage the best way they know how.

But you, O sinner, you do not know, you do not understand, for you do not pay heed to Moses and the prophets. Dogs see clearly the truth to which you are blind. They lick the sores of Lazarus while you hold you nose and scurry on by; they befriend him, you belittle him; they pay him homage, you pay him not a red cent. O the depth of the blindness of sinful man! Joseph is sold into bondage, and we snicker about how he must have gotten a big head from those dreams of his, and therefore received the nightmare he deserved. Job loses family and friends, house and home, and we wag our fingers at him with Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, saying, “Out with it! What’s your dirty little secret that made God so mad at you?” Seeing, we do not see, for we think we can put two and two together and figure out why one is poor and another rich, why one is healthy and another dying, why one is divorced and another happily married.

Repent. Wash your blinded eyes in the water of Moses and the prophets, that seeing, you may truly see. Do not be like the rich man in hell, whose five living brothers were just like he was. These six men are like the six days of the old, fallen creation: blind to God’s ways, deaf to God’s words. Sit beside Lazarus. Be his disciple. Learn of him who learned from God that blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the pure in heart, yea, blessed are those who hear the Word of Moses and the prophets and keep it.

Who is Joseph, who is Job, who is Lazarus—who are they but icons of Jesus, mortal images of the immortal Savior who resides in their flesh and bones? There was a certain rich man who came down from heaven to be born in a barn, to have nowhere to lay his head, to be surrounded by dogs (Ps. 22:16). There was a certain rich man who emptied himself, taking the form of Lazarus, and being made in the likeness of your sinful flesh, that He might redeem your sinful flesh. He came to heed Moses and the prophets—hearing to atone for your deafness, seeing to atone for your blindness, being all that you can never be. He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. Like a Lazarus, like a Job, like a Joseph from whom men hide their faces, He was despised, and we esteemed Him to be nothing. Yet surely our griefs He Himself bore, our sins were the sores in His flesh, our iniquities the aching pain in His stomach, our deaths the dryness of His throat. All this He willingly endured, more willing to suffer hell on earth than for you to suffer hell after earth.

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. On that cross He thirsted, that you might drink of the river of life in Jerusalem above. He was stripped that you might be clothed with the garments of salvation. He was crowned with thorns that you might escape the curse of Adam. He was tortured in the flames of His Father’s wrath that you might be embraced in the warmth of the Father’s love. He was the Lazarus who traded places with all you rich men, that you might not come to the place of torment.

O the depth of the goodness and grace of the God who is love, who has befriended you, who has saved you, who has opened your eyes to see what really is! You, He knows by name; to you He gives the riches of His kingdom; to you He gives the right to be called the children of God; you, too, shall recline with Lazarus, and with all the saints, in the bosom of our father Abraham.

jpeg ad6x9This sermon is included in my 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!

The Suicide of a Friend

“My soul has had enough troubles,” (Psalm 88:3).

ImageI imagine that verse sums up, in all its weary sadness, what my dear friend felt over the last year. She had had enough troubles. Her personal and physical losses compounded weekly. Every time it seemed something good might be about to happen in her life, some new darkness would arise to smear with midnight despair each faint glimmer of hope. Two weeks ago, she closed her eyes to a sleep from which she would not awaken.

She was a friend to me and my wife. We had studied the Scriptures together, worshiped together, talked about her struggles and sought to help her as best as we knew how.

Her struggles are now over. I weep over how her life ended. I weep over the fact that she took away a gift that was not hers to take. But I also find comfort in the Christ who doesn’t take away His gift of life and forgiveness from us. A bent reed He will not break. A smoldering wick He will not snuff out. In the darkness that overwhelmed my dear friend, Jesus was present, for “even the darkness is not dark to Thee, and the night is as bright as the day,” (Psalm 139:12). His blood atones for all sins, even those we commit in our last hours.

A few weeks before her death, my friend wrote to thank me for this blog, for my writings. She said,

“Every day I look forward to your new musings. So, just a quick note to let you know that your talent and ability to touch others should never be squashed or limited.”

I read those words now through a flood of tears, for I wish my ability to touch her had been deeper.

Perhaps there is someone else reading this now who, as the psalm says, has had enough troubles. To them I offer what is written below, something I posted several months ago. I pray for you, even though I don’t know your name, for I know the Lord knows your name, your sufferings, your fears. There is hope and healing for you in Jesus Christ, the God who immersed Himself so deeply in our sufferings that He, too, wept over the death of a dear friend. And, He weeps with you, will sustain you, and will raise you from the pits of your despair to newfound life in Him.

“A Picture is Worth a Thousand Lies”

There were pictures of her bathed in the sun of South Padre, sand between her toes, arm-in-arm with beautiful friends. Pictures of her holding up a margarita, toasting the unseen photographer. Pictures of her beside her new Honda, graduating with honors, random shots of her at forgotten Christmases and family vacations. In every one she was all smiles, seeming to radiate happiness.

But on the day when a picture would finally have spoken the truth, no one dreamed of lifting a camera. On that day the mourners were shocked to discover that behind the veneer of her bright smile lurked a fathomless darkness, whose depths she made manifest only when she despaired of life in this world.

Her name is Cindy. And her name is Audrey. And Liz. And Susan. And countless others, for hers is a story told with heartbreaking frequency. Her snapshots are images of an actor on the world’s stage, playing the part expected of her by the audience, conforming to social norms, smiling her way through pain, unto despair, into the grave. Her pictures are not worth a thousand words; they tell a thousand lies.

I was little different from her during the time in my life when suicide began to sing to me its siren song. I painted on the obligatory smile, locking up the grief when others were around, lest someone discover that I too was a frail human being beset with weakness. By then I had years of practice in the fool’s art of keeping up appearances.

St. John wrote that he who says he has no sin deceives himself. But that lie is only one of many self deceptions we perfect. We say we have no struggle with depression, while inside is a yawning, cavernous darkness. A husband says his marriage is just fine, while his wife, at her wits end, has scheduled a meeting with a divorce lawyer. A pastor pours a little more liquor into his glass week after week, self-medicating himself to sleep, all the while telling himself he’s just exercising his Christian freedom. And I’m willing to wager that you, dear reader, have told your own set of lies to the man in the mirror.

If I could possess just one snapshot of Jesus, one picture taken during his earthly life, it wouldn’t be Mary’s swaddled baby boy, or the walking-on-water Christ, or even the Lord affixed to the tree. It would be on the day he was told his friend Lazarus was dead, when St. John summarizes his reaction in two simple words, ”Jesus wept.” Two words, the significance of which heaven and earth are too small to contain. Here is God, crying over the death of a beloved friend. No Stoic divinity with a heart of flint, shrugging at the harsh realities of life. No actor faking composure for the evangelist’s camera. This picture truly would be worth a thousand words, for it would proclaim a thousand truths.

We need to know that God cried. We need to know that he knows what pain and loneliness and heartache feel like. We have a God who has been tempted, betrayed, hated, forgotten, rejected, stabbed in the back and spit in the face. He’s been through hell on earth, quite literally. He doesn’t just know intellectually what people suffer; he knows existentially. And he has scars to prove it.

But there’s more, and it’s even better. He not only sympathizes, he revitalizes–he literally “makes alive again.” When Lazarus lay entombed, there was a time to tear up, and a time to tear down the powers of life’s foe. So Jesus stood before the grave and commanded, ”Lazarus, come forth!’” Shrouded in the raiment of a corpse, but with a heart pumping life through his veins again, out stepped God’s friend. One of my teachers liked to remark that the reason Jesus mentioned Lazarus by name was that if he had issued a blanket announcement in the graveyard, every tomb would have coughed up its dead, alive again!

But, in fact, Jesus resurrects by name. He calls Lazarus and Cindy and Audrey and Liz and Susan. And he calls you by name—calls you out of the graves of grief and guilt. He bids you weep and wail, kick and scream, whatever it takes to purge the poison from your heart with unbridled honesty. And he will listen, without ever once interrupting, until you’re done, even if you have to tell him times without number. Into you, as into the first human being, he will breathe his own breath, a breath that bears the very life of God into you. And where God is, there is hope and healing, a recreative power that makes all things new for you who are not only his friend, but his beloved child.

Go, Old Man, and Sin No More

“When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court,” (John 8:9).

I suppose what finally got to me was him stooping down to write in the dirt. What he’d said about those having no sin casting the first stone, well, that stung, but his writing in the dirt seared. Like his finger was a hot iron, and my soul the soil.

Walking on Our Origin

Walking on Our Origin

I looked down at the dust under my feet. Adamah in my mother tongue. Thus Adam, the dirt-man. And me, no different, just worse. A dirtbag of bones and blood. And soon, probably very soon, a wrinkled body decomposing into the stuff of its origin. Just getting out of bed in the morning hurts. And, honestly, I don’t think I could even raise my arm high enough to throw this rock if I tried.

The dirt that man is writing in shall soon roll me up like a scroll. My life will be unwritten, erased by the hand of mortality. And fool that I am, I stand here threatening to snuff out the life of a woman caught in the act which I have acted out in my heart with a thousand women.  Oh, one of the blessed curses of living long years like I have is filling up those years with even more sins.

What is it we pray in that psalm by Moses? “You turn man back into dust, and say, ‘Return, O children of men.’” Man spoken into being from dust spoken back into being dust. If today were several years hence, the dirt the man is writing in might well be the man I once was.

The only impression I’ll leave in the dust today will be the one left by the rock I dropped before I turned to go home to sin no more. God knows I’ve sinned enough already.

The only sinner who needed to be killed was me. The dirt-man, with sin written all over me, slain by words I couldn’t even read scribbled in soil. And in the mercy that that strange man from Nazareth showed, to the woman as well as to me, I rose again.

Rebel with a Cause: A Psalm About Adultery, Murder, and Original Sin

The little psychologist within us is often hard at work to pinpoint the origin of our life’s problems. During marital strife, we sift through everything from sexual proclivities to spending habits to discover the source of our discontent. When raising a rebellious child, we replay every episode in his upbringing to determine where things may have gone awry. We want to know when Pandora’s box was cracked open, introducing mayhem into our lives.

I’ve not only probed into my own past in this quest for a cause; I’ve pondered the past of one with whom I feel a deep and abiding kinship—the biblical David. When I was just a boy, the slingshot-wielding, Goliath-slaying boy David was my hero. In my twenties, when I became a poet and hymn-writer, I kept up a discipline of praying the whole book of Psalms monthly, then progressed to weekly, in order to learn by heart every Psalm that David had written. Later still, when I succumbed to the temptations of the flesh and inflicted emotional carnage upon my wife and family, I immersed myself into the narrative of David’s downfall, when he not only committed adultery with Bathsheba but arranged the murder of her husband, Uriah. As I have asked myself a million times over, “Where did things go wrong?” so I have asked David the same. How is it that the shepherd boy, who once slew the Philistine giant with a single rock, matured into a man who couldn’t win a battle against his own penis? What was the cause of his rebellion against God? Pride? Apathy? Lust? Greed? Perhaps, I thought, if I can discover the starting point of David’s road to ruin, I could better understand my own sordid history.

If there is an answer to this question, there is no more likely place it will be found than in Psalm 51, David’s famous post-adultery confession. In line after line, the penitent poet laments his wrongdoing: “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me….Against You, You only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight.” He describes himself, and his heart, as unclean; he needs God to wash him, to blot out his sins. The Lord has broken his bones and he fears the loss of the Holy Spirit. But does David give us an answer to our question of why he sinned so grievously? Was it his becoming king that engendered arrogance and an I-can-have-anything-or-anyone-I-want attitude? Was it the fact that he neglected his vocation of leader of the army and stayed behind in Jerusalem? Was it his lust-filled heart that enticed him to bed Bathsheba? Perhaps all of these had a part to play in the tragedy of David, but in Psalm 51, when he notes the cause of his downfall, he highlights none of these. In fact, he takes us back to much earlier in his life, before his kingship, before his service to Saul, even before he killed Goliath. This penitent goes to the deepest, earliest source of his sins of adultery, lying, killing, and cover-up.

ImageIt’s in verse 5 of the psalm, where the king prays, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” Not when he was an adult king, not when he was a boy shepherd, but when he was a baby conceived, things went wrong with David. And with me. And with all of us. We do not begin our existence as humans with a clean slate. We are conceived and born as fully flawed people, heirs of the corruption that was once voiced so starkly by Moses when he wrote of man: “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” (Genesis 6:5). Only. Evil. Continually. That sad triad of words would serve well as the title of the biography of humanity.

What is instructive to me, however, is that of all the places in the Scriptures where the Holy Spirit could have voiced this truth about man’s conception in sin, he chose to do so in this psalm of King David. What is it about David’s life, and this psalm, that make this so fitting a place to utter this dire pronouncement of humanity’s corruption?

Perhaps it is because what David did gives perfect expression to the imperfection that has poisoned our very nature. He lacked for nothing, yet wanted more. As Nathan the prophet would chide him:

Thus says the Lord God of Israel, “It is I who anointed you king over Israel and it is I who delivered you from the hand of Saul. I also gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your care, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these! Why have you despised the word of the Lord by doing evil in His sight?” (2 Samuel 12:7-9).

Notice the God-verbs: I anointed, I delivered, I gave, I would have added. It’s like the Garden of Eden, all over again. On this Adam-like David, God piled gift upon gift upon gift. Yet still that forbidden, female fruit David plucked. Curved in on himself, David craved what the Lord had not given to satisfy his own lust and greed and selfishness.

I have done that, too. And you, dear reader, have as well. Why? Because the sin in which our mothers conceived us, conceives in us all manner of evil.

What is rather startling, however, is that hidden within this verse about our iniquitous birth, our sinful conception, is the story of another David whose birth, indeed, whose conception, changes everything. If not a single cell of sanctity is ours and ours alone, if not a vestige of original purity is tucked away in the folds of our being, then the only way in which we have hope must be found in someone outside ourselves. If our conception is sinful, we need one whose conception was pure for us. If our birth is in iniquity, we need one whose birth was holy for us. If our lives constantly manifest selfishness and greed and lust, then we need one whose life was replete with righteousness, who resisted every temptation, who kept every divine law flawlessly for us.

That is why the Son of God did not appear on earth as a full-grown man to do His work of saving us. He came into this world via the womb, as we all do. He passed through every stage of life that we pass through, but He did so perfectly, that in His perfection, we might receive our own perfection in the eyes of the Father. For Christ was not conceived for himself, but for us. He was not born for himself, but for us. He did not keep God’s commandments for himself, but for us. He did not die and rise again for himself, but, yes, for us. He fully meant what He said when He told His disciples, “I did not come to be served, but to serve.” The service of Jesus for us began in utero, for in utero our service to self began.

Psalm 51 is ultimately much more than the prayer of David’s repentance, as well as ours. It is the proclamation of the Gospel of a new and better David, whose conception conceives within us new hope of a new life of forgiveness and reconciliation to the Father. This David, this Jesus, blots out our transgressions, washes us thoroughly from iniquities, and cleanses us from our sins. For from conception to cross, from full womb to empty tomb, He is the sole source and cause of our salvation.

++++++

If you enjoy my writings, and would like to read more of them, check out my two recently published books, one of hymns and poetry, and one of meditations and sermons. The Infant Priest is a collection of about 20 hymns and 90 poems. Christ Alone contains brief meditations and sermons that are steeped in the language of creation, the Passover, the worship life of Israel, and the Gospels. Click on either of the titles, or visit Amazon.com, to read more and find out how you can purchase a copy. Thank you for your interest!

Ten Ways You Can Help Your Pastor Be an Even Better Preacher

Image

View from the pulpit

If you sit in the pew on Sunday morning, part of you also stands in the pulpit. Whether you realize it or not, you have a hand in shaping every sermon that your pastor preaches. That’s because the word of God that your shepherd is expounding is not a one-size-fits-all message; he specifically tailored this sermon to fit the life situations of the saints whom he serves. He has you in his mind, and on his heart, when he preaches.

A Blessing and a Challenge

This is a blessing, but it’s also a tremendous challenge. It’s a blessing because who wants a sermon that’s like a Hallmark card, written vaguely enough to apply to just about any situation? Paul wrote very different letters to the churches at Rome and Corinth and Ephesus for a reason: each congregation had unique struggles which required different applications of the divine word to their situation. It’s no different today.

But this blessed, precise preaching is a weekly challenge. Your pastor, above all, wants his proclamation to remain true to the word of God. But he also wants it to remain fresh, creative, understandable, and applicable to his flock. When it comes to facing and overcoming this challenge, you can either assist your pastor or make it even more difficult for him. The part of you that stands in the pulpit with him can either be a help or a hindrance.

Here are ten suggestions on how you can be helpful, how you can make your pastor an even better preacher.

1. Spend time with your pastor outside of church. This can be as simple as enjoying a meal or a cup of coffee together during the week. Pastors cannot really get to know you if they know only the Sunday-morning you. Welcome his visits to your home. Include him and his family in your family’s life. The better he knows you outside of church, the better he will preach to you inside of church.

2. Be open with him about your personal struggles. If you’re sick and want your doctor to help you, you can’t sit there on the table, fully-dressed, smiling, and telling him you feel like a million bucks. He needs to know where you hurt and how you hurt if he’s going to help you. The more he knows about your sickness, the better he’ll be at prescribing the right medicine. So it is with your pastor. The more you tell him about your struggles, your sins, your addictions, your regrets—all the ills from which you suffer—the better physician of your soul he will be. This may take place in a more structured format such as private confession and absolution, or it may be in a less liturgical setting. Wherever it happens, this deeper knowledge of his flock will in turn deepen the pastor’s preaching, for the better he knows what’s going on inside his hearers, the better he will be inside the pulpit as he applies the healing balm of the Gospel.

3. Give your pastor honest feedback about his sermons. Very often the only substantive feedback a pastor gets about his sermons is from his wife. As helpful as that may be, he needs to hear from you, too. And a word to you pastors: pray for humility and thick skin so that you will receive this honest feedback—be it positive or negative—with gratitude. Hear me well: I’m not advocating that parishioners critique sermons like a movie critic rates the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Rather, you should freely communicate with your pastor if anything about his sermons troubles you, seems unclear, or just plain doesn’t square with your understanding of the word of God. To remain silent about preaching that could be improved, clarified, or corrected, only gives voice to apathy. At the same time, express to him how thankful you are for his bold adherence to pure doctrine, and for placing before you, week after week, the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected for you. Like any Christian, pastors too need vocal encouragement to remain steadfast and faithful in their vocation.

4. Ask your pastor questions about the sermon. This dovetails with the point made above concerning feedback. Some biblical texts are harder to understand than others. And if you think these biblical knots are hard to untie, try preparing a sermon on them! It can be a formidable task. So if you listen to a sermon on one of these passages, or any text for that matter, where certain issues still remain difficult for you to understand, then don’t be afraid to ask your pastor about them. Chances are he has many insights into that passage of Scripture that he chose not to include in the sermon. Your post-homily conversation will give him a chance to explain the biblical story more fully, and you to understand it more clearly. And your questions will reveal to him ways in which he can provide even greater clarity to his hearers about this passage of Scripture in his ongoing proclamation of it.

5. Be a faithful student in the Bible Class your pastor teaches. I cannot overemphasize this point. To put it quite simply: the deeper knowledge you have of the Bible, the deeper understanding you will have of biblical preaching. And the deeper understanding you have of both the Bible and biblical preaching will enable your pastor to be a better preacher for you. Imagine how frustrating it would be for a high school teacher who wants to introduce his students to the beauties and intricacies of Shakespeare, to discover that many in the class only want to read the CliffsNotes. Unfortunately, a parallel situation often exists in congregations. The pastor wishes to lead his hearers more deeply into the Scriptures, but many of them only want to skim the surface. Immerse yourself in the word of God with your pastor, ask him questions, listen to the discussions, ponder how all the biblical stories fit together in Christ. What you learn from your pastor in Bible class, as well as what he learns from his interaction with you and other students of the word, will have a direct and positive impact on his preaching.

6. Encourage your pastor to study God’s word with other pastors.  The best pulpits are crowded pulpits. Surrounding your pastor are patriarchs and prophets, apostles and evangelists, college and seminary professors, fellow saints and sinners—everyone whom Christ has used to shape your shepherd’s preaching. Especially helpful to your pastor are his fellow proclaimers. Like him, they wrestle weekly with the word, know the angst of the office, and strive to preach faithfully in their own parishes. These men lean on and learn from each other. If your pastor regularly studies the Scriptures with other pastors, encourage him to continue to do so. Indeed, encourage your fellow members to respect that time he has with his brothers in the ministry. What they learn from him, and what he learns from them, will enrich the preaching that you and your fellow Christians hear.

7. Protect the time your pastor needs for sermon preparation.  One of the earliest recorded problems faced by the church was that the apostles were so overburdened that they were in danger of neglecting the real duties of their office (Acts 6:1ff). It wasn’t right, they said, for them to “neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.” The duties of the office of the ministry are weighty enough without your pastor also being asked to make sure the church lawn gets mowed, the budget prepared, pews dusted, and a thousand other responsibilities that someone else can take care of. Protect the time he needs to be fully engaged in the real duties of his office, which includes study of the Scriptures on which he will preaching. The more time he has to prepare a homily, the better his proclamation to you will be.

8. Gift your pastor with helpful, trustworthy preaching resources. There is a wealth of material available for pastors who are looking for fresh and faithful ways to preach. There are journals and books, seminars and conferences, as well as online resources. The only problem is that there’s a price tag attached to most of these. And the ministry not being the most lucrative calling there is, sometimes that cost is prohibitive. Every pastor has a birthday, an ordination anniversary day, and he too sets up a Christmas tree. Why not ask him if there’s a preaching resource he’d like as a gift? Not only will he profit from that gift, so will you as you see it bear fruit in the pulpit.

9. Be “all there” when you’re in the pew. Imagine what your reaction would be if you placed a costly gift into the lap of your child, only to have him reach for his phone to text a friend, or yawn then fall asleep, or turn to a friend to begin a whispered conversation, all the while ignoring the gift you had worked so hard to give him. Every sermon your pastor preaches is his gift to you; indeed, it is the Lord’s gift to you, His saving word wrapped in your pastor’s words. He places that gift in your lap every Sunday. Receive it with attentiveness, thankfulness, faithfulness. Make eye contact with your pastor as he preaches. What you communicate nonverbally says volumes about what you think of his preaching. And, believe me, he notices every yawn, every whispered conversation, every head down not-so-secretly texting or Facebooking or tweeting or whatever else you might be doing that amounts to a despising of the divine word you are ignoring. You took the time to be in church; when you’re there, be all there.

10. Pray for your pastor. It’s common for pastors to spend a few moments in prayer before they enter the pulpit. Perhaps they pray something like Psalm 19:14, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight.” Echo that prayer with your own. Ask the Lord to bless your pastor’s words, to give you repentance and faith to hear them aright. And continue to pray even as he preaches. Translate his words of law into prayers of repentance. Respond to his words of grace with prayers of thanksgiving. Preaching is not a monologue; it is a conversation, partly spoken aloud, partly prayed silently, between you, your pastor, and Jesus Christ. Before, during, after your pastor preaches, endeavor to pray for him and yourself and all who are present, that the words from your pastor’s mouth and the meditations of every heart present, may be acceptable in the sight of the Lord of the church.

There are, no doubt, other ways besides these ten suggestions by which you can help your pastor become an even better preacher. And, if you are so inclined, I encourage you to write about those ideas in the comment section of my blog. I offer these, however, as some ways in which you can help the man whom God has called to serve you in the stead and by the command of Jesus Christ.

++++++

If you enjoy my writings, and would like to read more of them, check out my two recently published books, one of hymns and poetry, and one of meditations and sermons. The Infant Priest is a collection of about 20 hymns and 90 poems. Christ Alone contains brief meditations and sermons that are steeped in the language of creation, the Passover, the worship life of Israel, and the Gospels. Click on either of the titles, or visit Amazon.com, to read more and find out how you can purchase a copy. Thank you for your interest!

A Life Worth Living: A Tribute to My Father

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, for over four decades of your 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.

Image

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

 

Post Navigation