Archive for the month “August, 2014”

God, You Lied to Me: A Pastor’s Struggle

priestcollarIt happens to almost every pastor at some point in his ministry. He may not even realize that his words and actions indicate that he is working with this assumption. And if he becomes aware of it, he is probably too afraid even to admit it to himself, much less to accuse God of it. Some may even get so angry as to directly accuse the Lord of it. But voiced or assumed, felt or confessed, the pastor begins to think that God has been lying to him.

Why would a pastor, of all people, think this? Because the man in the pulpit is the man within whom the devil erects his own pulpit. The Rev. Lucifer preaches sermons all day, and all night, to the pastor from this inner pulpit. They are homilies that praise the life of freedom enjoyed by those who aren’t encumbered with the crosses peculiar to his ministerial office. They are sermons about the stinginess of some of the people whom he serves, how spiteful some of his parishioners are to him, and how ungrateful they are for all that he is forced to do even when he is so overworked and underpaid. But these are the simple, everyday homilies.

The Rev. Lucifer saves his most eloquent, and most dangerous, sermons for those occasions when the pastor is at his lowest. These are the homilies from hell that depict God as the Grand Deceiver. God promises that the Word which goes forth from His mouth will not return to Him void. “Indeed, He does,” the devil proclaims, “but look at the attendance over the last few months and years. More and more pews are empty, offerings are way down, and everyone is whispering that maybe…possibly… probably it’s the pastor’s fault.” God promises that the Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, but, though the pastor has preached the Gospel till he’s blue in the face, it seems to make absolutely no impact on his people. In fact, sometimes it seems like the more Gospel he preaches, the worse people become, the more people attack him, the lonelier he feels. God promises all these great and wonderful things, but his ministry is anything but great and wonderful. It’s squeezing the life out of him. He feels isolated, a failure, and—worst of all—like the Lord whom he serves has lied to him. His God makes promises that He doesn’t keep.

These inner pastoral struggles are nothing new. Jeremiah the prophet struggled with the same temptation. At first all was well in his ministry. He says to God, “Your words were found and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts,” (15:16). So it is with most pastors when they begin in the ministry. But, over time, after doors are slammed in his face, brothers in the ministry betray him, his salary is cut, or the pews get emptier and emptier, he joins Jeremiah in lamenting, “I sat alone, because your hand was upon me, for you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you become to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?” (15:17-18). That last sentence says it all, for behind that question is an assumption based upon real doubt. “Will you become to me like a deceitful brook—one that promises water but pours a cupful of hot sand on my cracked lips? Because, dear God, I’m dying of thirst down here and the river of joy and hope you once were to me has run bone dry.”

At this point it looks like all those sermons that the devil has preached have finally reached their climactic Amen. For surely when the pastor voices this lamentation—questioning God’s honestly if not outright calling Him a liar—the Lord will smite him. So all the devils are on their feet, like fans during the last few seconds of a game, ready to whoop and cheer for one more victory.

But instead of raining down fire and brimstone upon this called and ordained and doubting man; instead of unleashing His fury at this servant who dares call His integrity into question, the God whom we call Father addresses His child as only a Father can. “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before Me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as My mouth,” (Jeremiah 15:19). In other words, our Father calls His son back to Himself. He has wandered away into the darkness of his doubting, got lost in his grief, confused by the pains he’s suffered. It happens. Shepherds sometimes become lost sheep as well. So the Shepherd of shepherds seeks them out. He bids them remove such worthless doubts from their mouths and once more find His words and eat them, so that those divine words became the joy and the delight of His heart (15:16).

But that’s not all. The Lord casts Satan out from that inner pulpit. He takes a hammer and crowbar and goes to work dismantling that pulpit within which the father of lies spewed forth his deceptive sermons. And in its place the Lord preaches His own sermon. He declares, “I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, declares the Lord. I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless,” (15:21). I can just hear the Lord pausing to say these words more slowly, more emphatically, than all the others, “I. Am. With. You. To. Save. You.” Seven words that contains a week’s worth, nay, a life’s worth, of promise. What are these words to Jeremiah, to pastors, indeed, to all people, but the promise embedded in two of our Lord’s names. “I am with you,” for He is Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.” And “to save you,” for He is Jesus, which in Hebrew is the name Joshua, which means, “the LORD saves.” I am with you to save you for I am Emmanuel Jesus, the saving, being-with-you God.

Emmanuel Jesus never lies. He is as true to His word as He is true to you. He has poured forth His truth in the crimson colors of love, baptizing you in the red sea of His cross, washing you in the Jordan of His compassion. He is no deceptive stream. He will bring forth water from the rock when the time is right. Indeed, He already has. The staff of justice struck that Rock and split it open, so that waters gushed forth from Golgotha—waters within which you were baptized, in which you quench you thirst, which desalinate the dead sea of doubts within you. God is not lying to you. He is the God who is with you to save you and deliver you. And He will. His promise is as certain as the scars that betoken His love for you.

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!

God, Don’t You Care That I’m Dying?

anguishThere are times when it seems our Father, who is in heaven, is a dead-beat dad. Truth be known, sometimes it seems He’s even worse. He’s not just a father who skips town to leave us to fend for ourselves. No, He’s right there in our living room, sprawled in an easy chair, asleep, while we’re screaming our heads off, begging for mercy, but all in vain as Dad snores on. Those are the times when it’s easy to pray with the psalmist, “Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord? Why do You hide Your face and forget our affliction and our oppression?” (Psalm 44:23f). “Will the Lord cast off forever? And will He never be favorable again? Has His lovingkindness ceased forever? Has His promise failed forevermore? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger shut up His tender mercies? I said in my grief, that the right hand of the most high has changed” (77:7-10). When one psalm praises God for finally coming to the people’s aid, the poet compares Him to a hung-over soldier who finally shook Himself awake to save His people (78:65).

These are not the prayers of blasphemers but of sufferers, of children who cry, “Father, are you awake? Are You in Your celestial easy chair, catching some Z’s while I’m down here catching shrapnel, catching sickness, catching hell? Do you not care? Have you retired from your job as rescuer? Do you have Alzheimer’s, living in the past, as if the world is still a trouble-free paradise, forgetting who you are, where you are, who your children are, ignoring their prayers?”

Call me blasphemous if you want, but then you must say the same about David and Job and millions of other believers whose voices join this choir of the oppressed. But what do we do? We soft-pedal with God, as if we’re abused children who must soften our voices and lower our eyes, worried lest a fist should fall from the clouds to blacken our eyes. We’re hiding nothing from God. Do you think He’s happy to hear us sugarcoat our prayers when we really want to cast bitter cries into the heavens? Do you suppose He’d rather us put a cork on our pain, plaster smiles on our faces, and pretend as if nothing is really bothering us? Does the God of truth desire prayers that amount to lies?

I am not advocating that we cuss out God just because we’re in a foul mood. I’m not saying that we ought to do more screaming than praying. I am saying, however, that when we are depressed or happy, scared to death or bubbling over with life, that we ought not to pretend the opposite while down on our knees. David didn’t. Job didn’t. Jesus didn’t. From the cross, He didn’t cry, “My God, my God, why have you blessed me with such a great privilege as to hang here suffering for these dear children of Thine?” No, but rather, He cried out, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1).

Witness when the disciples were with Jesus in that storm-tossed boat. Peter is petrified; Thomas is terrified; the rest of them have their hearts stuck in their throats. The wind is wailing, the sea vomits wave after wave into the boat, darkness bares its blackened teeth, the lake whips these sailors about in a game of cat-and-mouse, the watery feline putting off her fatal bite until she’s bored with such sadistic fun. Thoughts of their soon-to-be widows flash through the men’s minds; their fatherless sons and daughters; how the cold water will feel as it rushes into their lungs and squeezes out every bubble of oxygen; their bloated corpses floating up onto the beach at sunrise. It is the midnight of the soul for these men, their lives unraveling before their very eyes.

And, where, pray tell is their Savior in this dark hour? “Where are you, O Prince of Peace, as our friends wage this watery war? Oh, there you are, in the stern, your head lying on a pillow, sleeping. Sleeping! How in God’s name could you be dozing while we’re about to drown, Jesus? Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?”

Ah, that did it. Those words “don’t you care” were like the beep-beep-beep of Jesus’ alarm clock. Or perhaps more like three violent shakes. His eyes open, He stands, looks through the darkness at the storm and answers His disciples’ three words with three of His own: “Peace, be still.” It was as if, with those words, He flipped the storm-switch from “on” to “off.” For just like that, the wind ceased and there was great calm. The wailing wind voiceless; the vomiting sea all better; the blackened teeth of the storm now only showing a dreamy grin. Great calm, indeed.

Well, not quite. For now that the storm has been muted, Jesus has a few words to say to us: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” They cut deep, words such as these, don’t they? For they unmask our real problem. And that real promise is not so much that we fear storms, fear sickness, fear failure, fear shame, but that we don’t really fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Our faith is not a mountain but a grain of sand, not pure gold but gilded plaster. And all it takes is a few nicks and scratches to reveal its shallowness. All it takes is financial woes, a marriage on the rocks, rebellious teens, you name the storm—all it takes is a storm like these to reveal where our trust really lies: in ourselves and in what we have managed to make or to accomplish for ourselves. Put us on a boat in the middle of a mad storm and we’ll soon show the gods in whom we really trust. Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?

Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief. That is our table prayer, our bedside prayer, our office prayer, our going-to-the-movies prayer, our 24/7 petition. Lord, I do believe, but I also don’t believe. I am a cocktail of contradictions: double-hearted, forked-tongued, pulled heavenward and hellward every step I take. I fear you but I also fear failure. I trust you but I also trust myself. I love you but I also love the limelight. Lord, I am a saint and a sinner, your bride and the devil’s whore. Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.

But the Lord doesn’t help. No, He does far more. He forgives. He takes everything from your screaming to your belly-aching, everything your throw His way while He’s sleeping—He takes all this and pours it into His cup, as it were. He takes all your doubting and unbelieving, all your genuflecting before the idols in whom you really trust, all your double-speaking and double-heartedness—He takes all this and pours it into His cup, too. And He even takes your less-than-fully-sincere repentance, your less-than-fully-honest confession, and all the anger He ought to pour out on you—He takes all this as well to add to the poison that brims ever closer to the rim of His cup.

He extends His arms east and west, stretching them out as if to embrace the world. He lets the soldiers do their hammering and nailing, lets the crowds do their jeering and taunting, lets the demons do their shrieking and mocking. And opening His lips, He says, “Give me the cup, Father.” The chalice presses against His mouth, the bottom slowly tilts upward, and the poison of all our doubts and unbelief and the grossest of the gross sins of which we are guilty, all that liquid toxin goes barreling down His throat until the last drop is drunk and the deed is done. Then He closes His eyes, says, “It is finished,” and truly goes to sleep, into the sleep of death itself.

No, the Lord doesn’t help. He does far more. He drains the cup brimming with all the poison which would send us from this messed up world to a world of suffering that would never end. He drinks dry the storm of our sins. He doesn’t help our unbelief; He destroys it by letting it destroy Him.

That is the kind of God, the kind of Savior, you have. He only seems asleep. Trust me. Or, rather, trust Him. He who made the sea and its waves knows full well when storms rage. And if it seems God is asleep, then get some shut-eye yourself, for it’s better to snore with the Savior than remain awake with the father of unbelief and lies. When the time is right, He will do what must be done. He knows best. No dead-beat dad is He. No dead dad either. But a living, loving father, savior, and friend. All for you.

ChristAloneCoverIf this meditation on our suffering and God’s response was comforting 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!

The Radical Path to Self-Discovery: Finding Your True Self in Death

selfdiscoveryWe may not actually say we want to “find ourselves” or “discover who we are” or that “we’re on a journey of self-discovery,” but the fact is that most everyone is. Part of our mind is constantly engaged in the quest to answer questions such as these: Who am I? Where do I belong in the world? Do I even belong in this world, or am I a mistake, a freak, an accident? What sets me apart from others? How do I make my life what it needs to be to achieve happiness? The list goes on, for the mind never stop asking. We need to know, we must know, for our life demands purpose. No one wants merely to exist; we all yearn to live life to the fullest.

For many years that quest to find myself, and to find happiness with myself and my place in this world, set my feet on a path that appeared right. I decided that a certain career would make me happy, so I pursued that career with gusto, with planning, and with eventual success. It was a career within the church, but a career nonetheless. And it defined me, all of me. What I did was who I was. I found my life in being called and ordained; a pastor and professor; a writer and speaker. If someone were to have asked me who I was, I would have described myself in vocational terms. And even though I would have employed language that avoided outright bragging, I would have been proud to tell them about myself. I found myself, my place in this world, my purpose, my happiness, in what I did.

And then one day, the earth opened up beneath my feet, swallowed everything by which I had defined myself, and I was left without a career, without a job, without a calling, without accolades or happiness or purpose. But man cannot live life that way. He must have something, anything, by which to understand who he is. So I tried other methods. I turned to a woman, then another woman, then a string of women, and pieced together a motley self-image that found faux happiness in the sexual chase and catch. I turned to running, first 5ks, then 10ks, then half-marathons, then full marathons, and found purpose in training, in pushing myself to painful physical limits, in crossing the finish line. I even turned to anger and hatred, and defined myself as one in opposition to hope, a despiser of the divinity who had abandoned me. As I told my ex-wife one time, God had become for me the Great Deceiver. Throughout all this, in these various ways, I still found myself, my place in this world, my purpose, my (short-lived) happiness, in what I did.

I didn’t know it, in fact I consciously rejected it, but the truth is that throughout those years, both in times of success and failure, God was up to something. He was guiding me down a very long serpentine road, full of switchbacks, dead-ends, and long waterless treks, to the ultimate discovery of who I am. And although I’m still slow and stubborn, I’m closer now than I was before to finding myself, my place in this world, my purpose, my happiness. And one thing I can tell you for certain is that it doesn’t consist in anything I do. In fact, I have found myself in loss, discovered my life in my death, define who I am by placing someone’s else definition after my name.

Who am I? I’ll let Jesus Christ tell you that.

He says, “Chad, you have died and your life is hidden with me in God the Father. I took your life away on the day I held you under the water of the font until the only breath you could breathe was the Spirit. While you were under the water, I closed the chasm between the present and the past, in order to take you all the way to my cross, where I joined you to me—thorn to thorn, nail to nail, wood to wood, flesh to flesh, blood to blood, and finally death to death. You went to Jerusalem with me, suffered many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and were killed, and were raised up on the third day. The life that you now live, you live by faith in me. Indeed, I am your life. I am in your body, and you in mine. In me you live and move and have your salvation. Who are you, Chad? You are the one who lost his life in me, and so found my life in you. Who are you? You are with me, of me, in me, beside me, inextricably united to my identity as God’s Son. That’s who you are.”

So, there you have it. My journey of self-discovery ended not at the foot of the cross but on the cross itself. I found myself by losing myself in that crucified man. And in Him I found that happiness does not consist in what I do but in what Jesus did for me. My identity doesn’t consist in trophies and diplomas on the wall but a font full of water, a chalice full of blood, a plate full of body, a book full of divine speech. A life lived to the fullest is one in which all of who we are is emptied into Jesus, so that all of who Jesus is might be emptied into us.

“For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it;
but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it.”
Jesus, Matthew 16:25

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

 

I Stab it With My Steely Knife but I Can’t Kill the Beast Within

steelyknivesHe hadn’t sinned one single time in a whopping 24 years. We were standing at the gas pumps, late one Saturday night, in my home town of Shamrock, when he informed me of this biographical detail. I was a teenager, fueling my pickup for a night on the town, when this stranger approached me and struck up a conversation. He was a preacher, in town to lead a revival at one of the gazillion churches that dotted our Bible Belt community. I suppose he was out doing his own kind of evangelizing that evening, and, for some reason, I had the look of a potential convert. I asked for clarification, and, he affirmed, straight-faced, vehemently confident, that it had been one score and four years that he had lived sin-free. To this day, looking back, I wish I’d have had a flash of inspiration, and hauled back and bloodied his nose right then and there, just to test his ability to withstand temptation.

I’ve never gone 24 days without sinning. Or 24 hours. Or 24 minutes, for that matter. And neither had that man, his claims notwithstanding. I don’t know whether he was a lunatic, or worse, a hypocrite, but he was certainly one more self-deluded spiritual type who looked at the law of God as a cow stares at a new gate– seeing but not understanding. The Lord of the law makes things difficult for us, for He not only requires outward obedience but inward obedience. Indeed, He demands inward delight in His “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Not only must I refrain from murdering someone, even my worst enemy, but I must love him, put his interests ahead of my own, nurse him back to health if necessary, and rejoice in the life that is his. Not only must I not commit adultery, I must refrain from lusting after the body of any woman, not matter how tiny her bikini, no matter how my hormones rage, and simultaneously defend and uphold sexual purity and marital fidelity amongst all. With my mouth and my hands, in my heart and my mind, at work and home and school and church, and even in those thoughts that I alone entertain, there must be complete and uninterrupted love toward God and love towards my neighbor, a selfless devotion toward the good and an utter rejection of all that is bad.

That all being said, come to think of it, I’ve never gone 24 seconds without sinning.

But each person has his particular demon, or demons, that assault him most. Perhaps it’s pride, or lust, or selfishness for you. Maybe it takes the form of drugs or alcohol abuse, or a string of promiscuous liaisons.  Maybe it’s your mouth, for gossip and slander are your bread and butter. Unless, like the preacher from my youth, you’re self-delusional, you know what lurks beneath. You know the beast within. And though you stab it with your steely knives, it keeps rising from the grave to attack you again.

Here’s the sobering truth: it’s a lifelong war. There will be no truce between the good desires and bad desires within you. Evil will wave no white flag. Don’t imagine you can arrest your demons, shackle them, put them behind bars, then spend the rest of your life in peaceful bliss. God calls you to combat, to warfare of the spirit, to holy violence against the demons within. I so often forget that. For the slothful soul within me is enamored with an easy, lazy Christianity, that says I’ll just go ahead and cave to temptation, then Jesus will absolve me. But such an attitude, that supposes the Gospel is a permission slip to sin, is nothing more than a self-taught lie. God calls you to constant vigilance, for He knows that this life is a war zone. Unsheathe your knife, and kill the beast within over and over and over, for peace is completely attained only on the other side of the grave.

As you fight, cling also to this all-encompassing truth of Christianity: that Jesus of Nazareth has paid, in His own blood, for each and every failure on your part to live up to God’s law. He forgives you, and He will continue to forgive you, no matter what, no matter how many times you fail, no matter how flagrant your trespass. He is not a “three strikes and you’re out” kind of God. When the beast within overcomes you, He will wash you in the blood of the Lamb. When your righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, indeed, when it doesn’t exceed that of the porn star and meth cook, He will strip away the filthy rags of your own righteousness and clothe you in His own white, regal raiment. When sloth and lust and greed and addiction have their way with you; when, try as you might, you eventually give in to the allurements of the world and your own flesh; He stands there with a face full of love, saying, “Come to me, all you who stink and are stained and hate what you’ve done, and I will forgive you, wash you, feed you, let you sleep in my own bed, and I’ll sit beside you as you dream of the reality that is no dream, namely, that you are my own dear child.”

I stand forgiven. I stand armed. And these two truths stand in harmony, united by the Christ who dwells within me, both as Savior and Warrior.

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

Four Reasons Why the Virgin Mary Deserves More Attention in Protestant Churches

virginmaryIn the tiny Texas town where I grew up, a Bible-belted and beer-banned community, the virgin Mary had her annual fifteen minutes of fame when December rolled around. You had your shepherds, your angels, and your young maiden kneeling beside the swaddled babe. But after the presents were unwrapped and the nativity brouhaha had quieted down, Mary drifted back into the shadows once more. Why the Catholics made such a big deal about her never made sense to my Baptist mind. Yes, of course, she had a sweet, heart-warming part to play in the Jesus story, but, to me anyway, she was merely a minor character.

My appreciation for Mary’s place in the Gospel story has changed significantly over the years. When I became a Lutheran, I was introduced to the early church fathers, who opened my eyes to see how Mary’s place in the story of salvation was far from a footnote. I delved more deeply into the Scriptures to discover amazing parallels between Eve and Mary. I pondered the Incarnation, the fact that God became man inside Mary’s womb, and grasped more fully that Mary was indeed the mother of God. All of this has led me to understand a bit more about why the Catholics make such a big deal about her. And although I believe my Catholic friends say more of Mary than can be biblically justified, I also believe that many of my Protestant friends say less of Mary than the Bible demands.

Here are four truths about the virgin Mary that I wish would find a prominent place in more Protestant pulpits, songs, and classrooms. Each of them, by telling us more about Mary, actually tell us more about Jesus, and our saving relationship with Him.

1. Mary is the mother of God. The baby who was miraculously conceived in this virgin’s womb is the Son of our heavenly Father. As such, Jesus shares His Father’s nature, even as my human son shares my human nature. Jesus is fully divine; He is not only Lord and Savior but God. Now if Jesus is God, and Mary is the mother of Jesus, then Mary is the mother of God. It’s that profoundly simple. No other woman had been, was, or ever will be God’s mother except this Israelite virgin. If we say less of Mary, then we say less of Jesus, for if we are not willing to confess that she is the mother of God, then we cannot confess Jesus is God. And if Jesus is not God, then His saving work is insufficient to save us, and we are lost. It is therefore the best of news that Mary is God’s mother, because that means we are the Father’s children in Jesus Christ.

2. Mary is the first person to be one flesh with God. John says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The Word, the Son of God, was embodied inside Mary. Everything human about Him derived from His mother. She was literally one flesh with God. Divinity not only dwelt in her, like God did in the temple’s Holy of Holies, but in the deepest part of her being she was united to God. As such, she was the first person to share this most intimate union with the Savior. But—and this is vitally important—she not the last. For we who partake of His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper are united with Him in the most intimate of unions as well. We are bodied and blooded with Him, one flesh with God, even as He became one flesh with us. In Mary, therefore, we see what the Father desires for all of us, and provides for all of us in the Supper of His Son.

3. Mary is the model hearer of the Word. When the archangel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her she will be the mother of the Messiah, that God Himself will become incarnate in her womb, she responds, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” (Luke 1:38). She does not put forth a string of rational arguments against such a preposterous claim. She acknowledges her place as a servant of the Lord. She takes God’s messenger at his word for it is the divine word he utters. She knows that God cannot lie, so anything He promises is true and trustworthy, even if it seems irrational or downright crazy to the human mind. As such, Mary is a model hearer of the word of God, who shows us as Christians how we are to receive the divine message. God speaks, we hear, we believe, we confess with Mary, “I am a servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

4. Mary is like a new and better Eve. When our first mother ate of the forbidden fruit, her sin was not one of consumption but of rejection. When the fallen angel twisted God’s words, she believed his lie and so disbelieved divine truth. Her rejection of the word, as well as her husband’s rejection, ushered sin and death into our world. Yet to Eve God gave the promise that her seed would crush the head of the serpent, even as the serpent would strike that seed’s heel (Genesis 3:15). Mary is like a new and better Eve in two ways. First, when the angel spoke God’s words to her, she believed. Her reception of that word was the reception of the Word Himself, who became flesh inside her, thereby initiating His ministry of ushering forgiveness and life into our world. Second, Mary was the “Eve” who bore that promised seed, who crushed the power of our ancient foe, even as the venom of death struck that seed in His crucifixion death. Indeed, if any woman should have the name Eve, it should be Mary, for the Hebrew word for Eve means “mother of life.” And such Mary is, for she gives birth to the Savior who is the way, the truth, and the life for us.

These four reasons for Mary’s importance in the Scriptures could be multiplied. And I encourage you to add your own thoughts (or objections) in the comment section below. If you haven’t given much thought to the Virgin, or thought that was only a Catholic thing to do, or fear that such attention to Mary will distract from Jesus, then I encourage you to reconsider.

To talk about Mary is to talk about Jesus. To give our attention to Mary is to give even greater attention to Jesus. What Mary shows us, again and again, is that the child she bore is the Son of God, who became one with us, dies for us, and rises on our behalf, that in Him we have life in abundance with the Father. The good news about Mary is the Good News of Christ.

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What 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!

And the Three Shall Become One Flesh? Men’s Sexual Fantasies and Christ’s Saving Reality

mandaydreamingWhen the mind is at play, especially when there are no teachers, no rules, no fences in the mental playground, when the brain is free to do whatever tickles its fancy, we wander into that realm called fantasy. I don’t have to tell you to try it sometime; most of us do it every day, without even realizing it’s happening. Maybe on the drive to work. Maybe during a boring lecture. Maybe when our head hits the pillow. When there’s nothing we must think about, we are prone to think about what we like, what we fear, or what we desire.

I don’t have a woman’s mind, so I can’t speak for you ladies. But I have plenty of personal knowledge of what happens inside a brain that drives a body fueled with testosterone. For us—for me anyway, and I think for most men—our fantasy playground almost always has a bed as its central feature. What happens in that fantasy bed, and with whom it happens, varies from man to man. There are plenty of lists on the web for the top ten sexual fantasies of men, and I’m sure that Cosmo has devoted at least a gazillion recycled articles to this subject, so there’s no need to give you a string of examples. What is revealing is to take your own go-to fantasy and de-fantasize it. Ask yourself what that fantasy reveals about you, your view of sex, and, by extension, your belief about love. Your fantasy may be fantasy, but fantasies unearth real desires; and real desires direct the heart; and the heart, when it steers our life in certain directions, can easily drive us straight off the cliff of destruction.

Let me give you just one example, a very common example of a male sexual fantasy: the threesome. Contrary to appearances, contrary to what men may think they’re daydreaming about, this mini-orgy is not really about getting a double female portion to satiate the sexual appetite. What a man wants is not so much two women, but a twofold increase in his own perceived level of personal machismo. His penis is nothing but a tool with which he boosts his own ego. He feels sexier, stronger, more desirable.

Now what’s most revealing is that the threesome is not really about sex at all, at least, not sex as understood biblically, according to the will of the One who created sex. This is a man-becoming-god fantasy. It’s about the self, the male self, in a scenario in which he is the deity of his self-created brand of sex. What the true God made isn’t good enough for him. He wants not the two, but the three to become one flesh. He doesn’t want fidelity; he doesn’t want a lifelong, wedded union with one wife who is bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh, and mother of their children. So he creates in his fantasy a new Eden in which he is the Lord of two Eves, who are crafted not from his rib but from his ego, made to serve his selfish desires.

Here is a fantasy that, when stripped of its seemingly overt sexuality, is but one more example of man’s ongoing attempt to break the first commandment in new, creative ways. “You shall have no other gods,” God says, and we, spurred on by the prohibition, roll up our sleeves and get to work fashioning gods like there’s no tomorrow. The mind is an idol-making machine, so the mind that fantasizes about sex is prone to make gods that are gilded with sensuality. Amongst the many dangers here, two come to mind. The most obvious is that God threatens to punish all who break His commandments. And His punishment is no fantasy; it is man’s worst nightmare.

The second danger is that the more man entertains sexual fantasies that denigrate the divine gift that sex actually is, the more prone he will be to make those daydreams into reality. Oh, he will kid himself into thinking, “Hey, all I’m doing is in my head. It’s fantasy. No harm in that.” But fantasies sprinkle salt into an already thirsty mouth. It’s only a matter of time before he decides he must take that drink, when what a man is doing in his head becomes what he’s doing in his bed. And if his fantasy, like so many of them, is nothing more than an idolatrous usurpation of sex to serve his own selfish cravings, then he will destroy his own soul and, if married, bring untold harm upon the woman whom he has sworn to love and cherish till death parts them.

There’s a verse from a hymn that I return to again and again in my own internal struggles with this:

If some lust in current fashion
Rises like a fiery flood,
Draw me to your cross and Passion,
Quench the fire, Lord, by your blood.
Lest I to the tempter yield,
Let me front him with the shield,
Thorn-crowned, blood-marked tree displaying,
Sign the devils find dismaying.
(“Grant, Lord Jesus, that My Healing” Lutheran Worship, 95).

While that “thorn-crowned, blood-marked tree” is indeed a shield against temptation, it is much more. It is the place where fantasy meets reality, where man comes eye-to-eye with true, real love. The kind of love that gives all, nothing held back. The kind of love that doesn’t even know what self-serving might mean for all it does is serve the other. This is God-love, pure love, the only real love in our whole wide world for it is pure, unadulterated, unfiltered. On that thorn-crowned, blood-marked tree God loved us out of our fantasies and into His reality; loved us out of sin and into salvation; loved us out of our rebellion and into His redemption.

In Jesus, baptized into Him, we become one flesh with God Himself. And in that union is true contentment, for there is no want. When we have God, we have all, for we have Him who is our everything. We have forgiveness for our sexually twisted minds, forgiveness for our sexually twisted acts, forgiveness full and free. And in its place, in that gap left by sin, there is the fullness of Christ, who inhabits our bodies even as we inhabit His, bone of each other’s bone, flesh of each other’s flesh. It is gift, all gift, from Him who rescues us from ourselves and remakes us in His image and likeness.

Better than any fantasy, better than any daydream, is the reality that I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.

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

Do I Really Matter? Does My Existence Mean Anything?

womaninoceanMy head, a bump on a vast sheet of water, was so tiny that a blind deity running his finger over the surface would have missed that mark of human braille. I was in the Gulf of Mexico, far from shore, feeling to the very core of my being how seemingly insignificant I am. I swam out here to see how far I could swim, to test my limits. That’s so like a man, isn’t it, always wanting to prove himself, show how tough he is? Yet now that I’m floating in this expanse that belittles me, I see clearly, as if my whole body were an eye, that all I’ve proven is that I do have limits, that I am mortal, that I’m not nearly as tough as I like to think I am. In fact, as the waves sing their songs about my ears, I hear their splash as a dirge, a sad song of death for this human who, at any moment, could be swallowed by the sea and the world would go on without skipping a beat.

Most of us do not spend our lives daydreaming of accomplishing an immortal feat, some deed that will chisel our names into the stone of human history, so that we’ll be a household name for generations to come. Most of us would be happy just to be remembered while we’re still alive. It’d be nice if our children would call once in a while to acknowledge our existence. It’d be nice to be missed by someone when we’re not around. It would make us feel useful, needed, important, when most of the time we feel as insignificant as a tiny bump on the surface of the ocean we call humanity. If we died of a heart attack today, or were a thirty second story on the evening news about a head-on collision on I-35, then tomorrow the sun would still rise, people would still go to work, the world would go on without us as if nothing had changed, because we had never been vital to its existence anyway.

As I floated in the Gulf of Mexico, I looked around me at the waters that went on and on; I looked up at the vast expanse of the sky; I felt the waves lapping at my skin, mocking my mortality; and I whispered a word of defiance in the face of it all. I was surrounded by seeming lies, so I spoke the word of truth.

I said to the waters that, vast though they are, they are but a drop in my Father’s hand. He rules over the oceans, He commands the streams, He is the God of the waters. And in this world, He beckons these waters to serve me, His child. He makes the rivers clap their hands when I am baptized into Christ in the Jordan of the font. He makes the oceans sing Hallelujah as I am buried beneath them, submerged into the flesh of my Creator, and rise above the surface again a new man, recreated in the image and likeness of God.

I said to the heavens that, vast though they are, they are servants of the Lord of the skies, who sits enthroned upon them. In this world, my Father makes the sun to shine upon me by day, the moon and stars by night. They exist to light my path, to warm my skin, to direct my ways. The sun refused to shine, was eclipsed by sorrow, when the Son of God stretched out His arms to welcome the darkness of sin into His crucified body. The heavens tell of the glory of God, and the glory of God is a living man; their expanse declares the work of His hands, and the crown jewel of His work was a man and woman who served as the king and queen of all created things, from whose royal lineage I, a man, have been born.

As I floated in the Gulf of Mexico, I spoke these truths, but it was not the waters or the heavens that needed to hear them. It was me. I am the one who so often believes the lie that I am unimportant. I am the one who forgets who I really am.

Who am I? Who are you? We are only creatures under heaven with whom God united Himself. He was not born a dog or a tree but a man. Let that sink in. Of the millions upon millions of creatures, only one can look up to the throne of God and say, “He who sits there is my Brother, my own flesh and blood, who is as I am.” Who are we? Sibling of the Son of God, who became fully us that we might become fully Him.

We are the ones, the only ones, whom God loved so much that He was willing to go to whatever extremes it took to ensure that we were never separated from Him. If that meant being rejected by the very ones He came to save, so be it. If that meant enduring hunger and thirst and loneliness and hatred, so be it. If that meant suffering the whip and the hammer and the spit and the blood, so be it. If that meant death itself, He was ready. Bring on the cross. Bring on the grave. Bring it all on, for God would not lose us. He would have us as His own, come hell or high water, for nothing in all creation means more to God than you.

We are more than useful to God; we are more than important, more than significant. We are everything to Him. He saw me floating in the Gulf of Mexico, smiled, and said, “There is my son, for whom I was willing to die. I love that boy more than He will ever realize.” He sees you in your happiness and sorrow, your loneliness and despair, your ever waking and sleeping moment of life, and He says, “There is my son, there is my daughter. Your name is tattooed onto my palms, ever before me. I know every detail of your life. I count the hairs on your head. I bottle your tears. I was thinking of you on a Friday, long ago, when the nails were driven through my skin and bones into the wood of that cruel cross. And I said to myself, ‘I love you this much. Indeed, I love you even more.’”

It is this divine love that defies all lies that tell us that our existence is futile, that life is meaningless. The man on the cross, who is the Lord of all, who shares our nature, who gives us His everything, He tells us who we are. We are the beloved children of God.

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

 

It Ain’t the Whiskey That’s Killing Me

I could sing darn near every word of every Hank Williams’ song years before I ever heard of a certain foreigner named Bach.  Like it was yesterday, I can still see my mom walking through our front door with my first, very own 45 in her hand:  “The Coward of the County” by Kenny Rogers.  Yes, my mom’s love of Elvis Presley, and our Sunday morning Baptist hymn-singing added a splash of diversity to my musical diet, but the staples remained Hank, Johnny, Patsy, and George.  To borrow a line from Barbara Mandrell, “I was country, when country wasn’t cool.”

Over the years, I’ve sampled just about every musical genre.  When I was a prof in Fort Wayne, I sat straight-backed through Bach Cantatas at the seminary chapel and slouched in a smoky, hole-in-the-wall bar soaking in the Blues.  In college I had a brief love-affair with CCM, rocked through a Petra concert, and piously shunned all that “pagan, secular stuff.”  These days, push any of my radio preset buttons and you might hear Beethoven, Brad Paisley, or Pitbull.  But my first love is, and will no doubt remain, those earthy songs about mommas and trains, cheatin’ hearts and neon lights.

It may be too lowbred or crude for some people’s tastes, but that in-your-face honesty of country music is irresistible to me.  Especially in songs about shattered lives and broken promises, you’ll find no sugar-coating of suffering, but stark lyrics oozing with pain and regret.  The young man who, to relive memories of better times, drives the truck of his brother who never returned from the war (“I Drive Your Truck”).  The dad who parks a few houses down from the house, the wife, the kids, and the dog that used to be his, before another man came along and stole them all away (“Who’s that Man”).  And more recently, a song by Gary Allan that tells of a man in the middle of a church, where the “walking wounded tell their stories.” As he began to tell his own, “a man started talking how the devil and the bottle was ruining [his] life.”  But he stands up and cuts that man off with this litany of denial:

It ain’t the whiskey.
It ain’t the cigarettes.
It ain’t the stuff I smoke.
It’s all these things I can’t forget.
It ain’t the hard times.
It ain’t the all nights.
It ain’t that easy.
It ain’t the whiskey that’s killin’ me.

This chorus digs below the surface to reveal that beneath our chosen self-medications, be they alcohol or drugs or overeating or smoking or bed-hopping, you’ll unearth the real killer.  And “it ain’t the whiskey.”

It’s all these things I can’t forget.  What’s that thing you can’t forget?  For me, especially this time of year, it’s a Thanksgiving a few years back.  The beautiful autumn colors of Cincinnati had already been defaced by winter’s browning paintbrush.  The handful of folks who knew me in that city were busy with their own lives and families, watching fumbles and touchdowns with bellies stuffed with turkey.  My young son and daughter were a thousand miles away, living with my soon-to-be-ex wife.  The demons were having a heyday, turning the inside of my head into a kitchen where they cooked up a stew choked full of regret and shame and lust and vengeance and hatred—a dish of despair served on my one-plate Thanksgiving table.  And let me tell you, I ate it.  In fact, I shoveled it in.  Then I washed it down with a glass of whiskey, then another, then plenty more, till the bottle was as empty as the tragic farce my life had become.  But it ain’t the whiskey that was killing me.  It was all those things I couldn’t forget.

What do you turn to, when your sole mission is to dull the pain and silence the screams within?  Yes, there’s the beer or the whiskey or the vodka or whatever poison your palate prefers.  There’s the marijuana or the meth or the cocaine that can temporarily transform your pain-racked life into something bearable or temporarily ecstatic.  Or, you can skulk around the meat markets to find willing partner after willing partner to get naked with and pound away at each other’s bodies, until the passing, orgasmic pleasure gives way to lasting, depressing pain.  There’s a list a mile long of these pseudo-sacraments for the sinner, but they all offer the same thing:  a god without divinity, giving medicine without healing, to sufferers without hope.  It ain’t the whiskey that’s the problem.  Nor is it the whiskey that’s the solution.

The down-and-out, heartbroken man in that Gary Allan song, goes on to sing:

So what do you got for this empty spot inside of me?
The deep dark hole where love used to be.
Before she ripped it out and ran into the arms of someone else.
Y’all sit in this room and you talk like you got some kind of remedy.
Well I hear what you’re telling me,
But I’ve got all the proof I need.

What have you got for this empty spot inside of me?  I’ve got lots of fine-sounding words that I could pour inside that deep, dark hole where love used to be.  I’ve got all those pseudo-sacraments whereby you can attempt to swallow or smoke or snort or screw your way out of that pit.  But words and self-medications ain’t gonna cut it.  If there’s an emptiness within you, left there by a love-gone-wrong, a life-gone-dead, a career-gone-south, there’s only one thing that can fill it, fill it to the max, and fill it with peace.  And that thing is not a thing.  Nor it is a belief or philosophy or religion or meditation technique.  It is a person.

What have you got for this empty spot inside of me?  I got nothing, but let me tell you who does.  God does.  And not some divinity who’ll cheerlead you from the sidelines as you get your life back on the straight and narrow.  This God is a man, a healer, who makes house calls, or bar calls, or whorehouse calls, or wherever you might be.  He comes to you, as you are, wherever you are.  The highest honor ever bestowed upon him was when his fiercest enemies branded him a “friend of sinners.”  That he is, for nobody’s so lost that he can’t find them.  Nobody’s so vile or perverted or hateful that he won’t wrap his arms around them.  Nobody’s so depressed or lonely or heartbroken that he can’t love them back to life.  You got a deep, dark hole in your life?  He’s vast enough to fill life’s biggest chasm, radiant enough to enlighten the darkest pit, patient enough to smother the hottest fires of anger.  Jesus is the only true sacrament, the wine of whose love produces a sober intoxication of lasting peace no bottle under heaven can give.

Drinking-Whiskey

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

A Tattooed Angel

When he opened the driver’s side door and slid behind the wheel, the first thing I looked for was the knife. He had short-cropped hair, gray street clothes, a long scar on his right cheek bone. And tattoos. His body was awash in ink. The hands that toyed with the knobs on the dash had skulls on every finger. Russian script meandered around his neck. And in that language I did not know, he began questioning me.

My three-week teaching stint in Novosibirsk, Siberia, was about halfway over. A group of young men studying for the ministry met with me for a few hours every day to learn the little I knew of biblical interpretation. God help them. I was barely older than they were, younger than a couple of them. A wife, a three-year-old daughter, and a soon-to-be-born son awaited me back in Oklahoma. If I made it back.

I had seen the oncoming van. The tires, screaming their black and burning song, foretold the crash. The van, and the half a dozen men in it, hammered my side of the car. By the time we pulled off the side of the road, they had spilled out and surrounded our vehicle. To a man, they looked like they’d just returned from job interviews with the mafia. And been hired. Taking a deep breath, the driver told me, “Stay in the car,” and the lamb stepped out into the pack of wolves. No need to consult my handy-dandy Russian-to-English dictionary to translate the cursing, anger, and threats that erupted as the group ringed round my friend.

Then the driver’s side door opened. And the tattooed stranger sat down. He looked at me, and smiled a crooked smile. And I looked for the knife that never appeared. I figured he was one of the guys from the van; he looked cut from the same cloth. But if there was a storm around us, he was the eye of it. There was no anger or accusation in his tone as he chatted on with me about God knows what. I knew how to say, “I don’t speak Russian,” in Russian, which he must have taken as a cue to speak even more. And so began one of the most memorable conversations I’ve ever had. He asked me countless questions in Russian, I told him all about myself and my family in English, neither of us having the foggiest idea what the other was saying. And all the while his skulled fingers twisted and turned the car’s controls.

I’m not sure how much time elapsed—five, ten, fifteen minutes. And then he was gone. The door opened, he got out, and my driver got back in. He’d had enough cash on him to pacify the men.
“Who was that in the car?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I assumed he’d been from the van.”
“No, he wasn’t one of them.”
“Then I don’t know where he came from.”
And we drove on, safe and alive.

To this dImageay, when I read in Hebrews about entertaining angels unaware, my mind goes back to a car wreck in Siberia, in which no one was hurt, to the furious young men, who laid no hand on my friend, and to a stranger who showed such concern and curiosity about me. And I wonder if angels, sometimes, have tattoos.

 

 

 

 

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

Stop Calling Sex Safe

I wrote this article for The Federalist, to share the approach I’ve taken with my children when it comes to talking with them about sex. Here is the introduction, with a link below to the full article.

There are moments in each child’s life that remain vivid in the memories of their parents, even years later. I remember my daughter leaning against the couch, literally wringing her hands as she mustered the courage to take her first steps. Her first day of kindergarten, though more than a decade ago, is almost as memorable as yesterday. These are, of course, sweet recollections. But mingled with these pleasant remembrances are others that remind us just how challenging parenting can be.

One of those challenges confronted me in the form of an innocent question. When my daughter was about eight years old, out of the blue she asked me, “Daddy, what is sex?” My first thought was, “Hey, wait a minute—I’m supposed to bring up that subject when I’m ready to discuss it, not her!” Rather than dodging the question, however, I did answer it, in a way I thought befit her age. But it was difficult to do, not because the topic embarrassed me, or made me feel uncomfortable, but because I knew how important this discussion was. I wanted to choose my words with the same careful skill with which an artist selects colors for his painting; this was no time for an answer akin to verbal graffiti.

We had that conversation almost a decade ago. My daughter and my son are going through those tumultuous teenager years now. As they’ve grown older, when other opportunities have presented themselves, I’ve spoken with them more about sex. In fact, I’ve discussed the contents of this article with them. It doesn’t get much easier, but it gets even more necessary, especially as they have begun to interact more and more relationally with the opposite sex. My voice may have to compete with the cacophony of media and peer voices talking to them about it, but I know that, amidst all the mixed messages, they’re hearing at least one voice that speaks the truth.

Read the full article here

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