Archive for the month “September, 2014”

The God of Second Chances–and Third Chances, and Fourth Chances, and More

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” So the saying goes. When someone tricks you, you’re supposed to learn your lesson the first time around. Those who fool you, trick you, fail you, are not to be trusted again. If they fool you twice, well, shame on you for giving them a second chance.

But there was a vineyard owner who evidently didn’t understand that old saying. Or, perhaps, he simply chose not to live by it. For not once, not twice, but three times his tenants fooled him. In fact, it was far worse than that. For not only did they cheat him out of his rent, they beat up the servants he sent to collect the money. The first time this happened, it should have been enough. He had ample evidence that these tenants were scoundrels and thieves, with a penchant for violence, so the standard course of action should have been to fight fire with fire. Bring in the authorities and let them deal with these criminals—deal with them violently, if push came to shove. But no, the owner sends a second servant, who, like the first guy, stumbles home empty-handed and fully bruised. And a third servant, whom they beat and battered and booted out of the vineyard. Three strikes, but they still weren’t out.

vineyardownerAny reasonable man, at this point, would never have dreamed of doing what the vineyard owner did next. He asks himself, “What shall I do?” But instead of answering, “I’ll kill them all!” or, “I’ll teach them a lesson they’ll never forget!”, he says instead, “I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.” Not only does he give them a fourth chance; he risks the very life of his son in doing so. There lay three of his servants, with blackened eyes and broken bones, scarred by cuts and abrasions, and he imagines things will go better for his son? Seriously? Does he not foresee the danger? But send that son he does. And, indeed, things do go badly, the ingratitude and greed and violence escalate from a PG to an R-rated horror. For when they see the son approaching, the tenants say to each other, “This is the heir. Let’s kill him, so the inheritance will be ours.”

Instead of respect, there is rage;
instead of payment, pulverizing;
the beloved son now a bloodied corpse.

Finally, the vineyard owner has had enough. After risking the life of three of his servants, and losing the life of his beloved son, he gives the tenants what they deserve—judgment. He destroys them and gives the vineyard to others.

What is most astounding about this story is not the perversity of the tenants but the patience of the owner; not their evil, but his good. This parable, at its core, is a story about the heart of God—the God of second chances, and third chances, and, yes, fourth chances and even more. He is portrayed as a man of business, to be sure, but he does not act according to the ways of the world, for he is not a Lord of commerce but a Father of compassion.

For we are these tenants, these ungrateful, violent men. There is no blessing of God which we cannot twist into self-serving instruments that hasten our own destruction. Instead of a million uplifting, truthful words we could and should speak with our mouths, we choose a few hateful, demeaning words to tear down others. Instead of using our hands to help someone in need, we use them to grasp at more and more for ourselves, though we already have more than we know what to do with. God comes to us, looking for good, and finds evil. Indeed, he finds tenants who become angry and violent when he asks for even the bare minimum of decency and selflessness. Do you see that in yourself? Do you see how like the tenants in the parable you are?

But more importantly, do you see, do you grasp, just how incredible it is that God has not given up on you? He does not say, “Fool me twice, shame on me,” strip you of his blessings, and kick you out of his kingdom. No, instead, he affirms, “You are my child, foolish though you are, and I will never be ashamed of you.” If the world has given you up for lost and washed their hands of you; if your friends have written you off and turned their backs on you; if even your family has disowned and discarded you; yes, if every single person in this world regards you as a hopeless, embarrassing failure at life, the Father of all mercies does not. He will search you out, find you, embrace you, kiss you, and shout to all the earth, “This is my beloved son! This is my beautiful daughter! This is my child, my heir, the apple of my eye! With you I am well-pleased!”

Jesus is that beloved son in the parable, cast out of the vineyard. But he who was cast out brings you backs in, alive with him. He is not ashamed to call you brother, sister, a fellow heir of his kingdom. That is why he came. Not to die for the righteous but for those whose lives are full of one failure after another, for his is a love that never fails. He came to die not for the clean but for the dirty, for his blood washes away even the filthiest of stains embedded in your soul. He came to search out not those who come running to him, but those who have fled from God, who hide in the darkness of their doubt and unbelief, to find you no matter where you are, to give you hope in place of despair, faith instead of doubt.

The way of God is the way of forgiveness. He keeps no record of how many chances he’s given you. For in the end, it’s not about how many times you’ve messed up, but how constant, how unwavering, is the Father’s love for you in Jesus Christ.

ChristAloneCoverThis mediation, based on Luke 20:9-19, is included in my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

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

How a Small Rural Congregation Became a Megachurch Overnight

church-wheatfieldThis is the story of how one small, country parish, nestled between wheat fields in the vast stretches of the Texas panhandle, astounded the experts on church growth by becoming a megachurch overnight, without even trying.

The gravel parking lot around St. John’s began to fill early that morning. The shadow from the steeple cast the image of the cross on the western side of the church as families from miles around climbed out of Fords and Chevrolets and the occasional Buick to make their way into the sanctuary. The pastor stood by the front door, greeting folks who came in, asking about Aunt Susan’s broken hip, and the Reynold’s new horse, and how the football game how turned out in Sunray the other night. The man of God who served this parish wasn’t much to look at, and his accent was a bit too northernish for most people’s tastes, but they loved the man anyway. He had baptized their children, buried their grandparents, and preached a fairly decent sermon most Sundays.

By the time church was ready to begin, it still hadn’t happened—that shocking influx of worshipers I spoke of. In fact, things looked just about as ordinary as ordinary could be. The Kirkpatricks, with their five children, took up most of the next-to-last pew, just like every Lord’s day. The spinster organist, Ms. Schultz, was playing softly and hitting, well, most every note. Hymnals were opened to the page where the divine service would soon begin. At 10:30 sharp, Pastor Baker walked up front and spoke the same words he did at the start of every Sunday morning service, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And the congregation responded with a hearty, “Amen!”

Then, without any warning, it happened. The floodgates were opened. Worshipers began streaming in. Before the congregation had finished saying, “Amen,” this rural Texas minichurch was transformed into the mega of megachurches.

Through the stained glass windows and the steeply pitched roof, seraphim swooped down from celestial realms. Each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And around the sanctuary you could hear them chant one to another, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” The foundations of St. John’s shook at the sound of their voices and the whole church was filled with the smoke of incense.

But they were not alone. Cherubim winged their way down from the heavenly Jerusalem. Not the cute, chubby Precious Moments’ angels, but massive, manly warriors who stationed themselves like sentinels around the sanctuary, belting out the words to every hymn sung, adding their Amen to every divine word read and preached that day.

But the angels were not alone. With that angelic crowd came saints beyond number, men and women who had fought the good fight, finished the race, and gone on to glory. But here they were, back at St. John’s during this Sunday morning service to lend their voices to the earthly choir of farmers and ranchers and coaches and teachers who were still on their way to the heavenly Jerusalem. Every pew was packed. Standing room only in the aisles. Some sat on the rafters and looked down with serene gazes upon the altar, where, wonder of wonders, there was a throne. And on that throne was a Lamb, slain yet alive, sacrificed but resurrected. Every face of every worshiper, angelic and human, earthly and heavenly, was fixated upon His face, for there they beheld the face of God Himself.

With angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, the people of St. John’s lauded and glorified the name of that Lamb, their Lord Jesus Christ, that day. Every song shook the building as the celestial and terrestrial choirs blended their voices. The Lord’s Supper was a reunion meal, where the folks on earth and the saints in heaven received from their Host the food above all foods and the drink that quenches the deepest thirst.

It was a day to remember. And it was a day to repeat. For the following Sunday it would happen again. And then again. And then yet again, when this tiny Texas church would bulge at the seams with worshipers from realms seen and unseen, all joining together in the adoration of the Lamb whose kingdom is without end.

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!

I Believe in One Holy Christian and Apostolic Facebook

Facebook-churchOne of the challenges for most Christians is making sure that no one finds out just how much they struggle with sin.

There are unwritten rules about this. It’s ok, for example, when people say in unison on Sunday morning, “I have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed,” but the gathering would inhale a collective gasp if Bob announced, immediately afterward, “Yeah, I got drunk last week, yelled at my kids, and almost punched my wife when she suggested I lay off the bottle for a while.” Um, no, Bob, we try and keep things more or less generic here. No need to get so real. And there are unwritten rules about not disclosing how Sandy’s singing voice reminds you of fingernails on the chalkboard, Jerome’s children act like spoiled brats in church, and you have a years-long grudge against three members of the church council. You put on your game face for church. You act the part. You smile and say “Good Morning” and “Peace to you” to everyone. When you enter God’s house, you leave your real struggles, real temptations, and real hurts at home.

This is bad enough, when being a real sinner in a real church breaks unwritten rules. But in recent years we have doubled the challenge. Now, we have social media, which enables us to glamorize our Christianity even more. As we chill on our couch after a day at the office, watching “Dancing with the Stars” and sipping an aged bourbon, we can pull out our MacBook Air and change our profile picture to an Arabic letter that shows our deep, spiritual fellowship with believers on the other side of the world who are being raped, crucified, and beheaded. In our status brag-box we can type pithy quotes from famous theologians we’ve honestly never taken the time to study. If we’re not too busy watching “NFL’s Wildest Cheerleader Wardrobe Malfunctions” or an online porn video, we can post a link to an article that castigates the moral sewer that America has become. And, most importantly, we can unfriend or block any fellow Christians who challenge us, take us to task, have shady pasts, or just plain annoy us. Yes, in the one holy Christian and apostolic Facebook church, we can manufacture a spiritual profile of ourselves that is sin-free and righteousness-rich. When we log on to social media, we can leave our real struggles, real temptations, and real hurts off-line, lest someone discover that our virtual reality is not the reality of our life at all.

A little bit of vulnerability amongst Christians would go a long way toward giving a witness to the world about what the church is really here for. Jesus didn’t found a gym where we can go and flex our biblical biceps in front of mirrors so everyone see how hard we’ve worked at being holy. He didn’t create a virtual spiritual reality where we can gather together with like-minded virtual reality users and talk about things of virtually little importance. Christ founded a church, which is a little bit hospital, little bit mental ward, little bit weekly reunion of sinners who’ve made a mess of their lives. It’s a place where self-proclaimed righteous people who have it all together will be bored because there’s nothing for them there. Church is for real sinners who really sin with other real sinners, for here they find the Friend of Sinners, Jesus the Christ.

“Unfriend” is not in His vocabulary. He befriends even the worst, calling all to repentance, eating with those eaten up by guilt, feeding them the food of forgiveness in a meal that He Himself prepared from the materials of His own body. He beckons you in this church to bring to Him your real struggles, real temptations, real hurts. And He will give you real peace, real love, real healing. With Jesus, you can be vulnerable, for He is the last one to turn away any sinner.

In the one holy Christian and apostolic church, let’s do the same.

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!

A Victim’s Shame

down 2Shame is a devil with many faces. And none of them are smiling.

There is the shame of defeat, when you lie on your back with the devil’s jaws gripped tight around your throat. It is the shame of caving in to your lust, to your pettiness, to your hatred, to the anger boiling inside you. It’s the kind of shame of which the psalmist speaks when he prays, “Do not let me be ashamed; do not let my enemies exult over me.” It is the shame you all know, when the enemy of hell cackles in the face of your dirtied soul, smeared with the filth he convinced you it would be good and pleasurable to wallow in. This is the shame we invite into our lives when we follow our heart, or our eyes, or our genitals, but not the good and gracious will of our heavenly Father.

And there is yet another shame, the shame of feeling polluted not by your own sins, but by the sins of others. The shame of the innocent misused, abused, dirtied not by their own will and own desires, but by those of another. It is the shame of the rape victim, the beaten spouse, the molested child. Like the smell of second-hand cigarette smoke clings to the non-smoker, so this stench of shame clings to the innocent, ever reminding them of how others have breathed upon them the smoke of their iniquities. It is as real, if not more real, than the shame we feel when we’ve done something wrong. In fact, most often, we feel guilty because of it, as if we invited this horror into our lives.

If guilt may be likened to a heavy heart, then shame may be compared to an unclean heart, soiled and smelling of death, crying out for the water of purification, something, anything, to wash away the stain. Wouldn’t it be great if there were something that could de-shame us? Wouldn’t it be incredible if we had something that could cleanse us of shame as effectively as soap and water cleanse our bodies of dirt? Wouldn’t it be of infinitely more worth than all the gold and precious jewels of the world? Yes, of course, it would.

And yet on our own, we do not have it. We have nothing to de-shame us, nothing in which to bathe our shame-blackened hearts. Bury that shame fifteen feet deep in the soil of your mind, but eventually it will resurface. Try to burn your shame to ashes and the fire will only make it glow hotter and brighter. You do not have it, this “something” that can de-shame you.

But someone does. Someone who, though pure and shameless in and of Himself, allowed the sewer of your shame to be poured over His head. The someone who put all your lust, pettiness, anger, and hatred in a cup, placed it to His lips, and swallowed hard and long, until not a drop remained. The someone who lay down and let the devil’s jaws sink into His bared throat. The someone who is so full of love for you that He let others misuse, abuse, and pollute Him, covering His face with the redness of His own blood and the vileness of their own spit.

There is someone who can take away your shame, for He already has made your shame His own that He might give you, in its place, purity and wholeness. This someone, this Lord Jesus Christ, yearns to cleanse you of the shame of your own sins and the shame you feel from the sins of others. And because it is His fervent desire to do for you what you cannot do for yourself, He gives the gifts of purity, cleanness, and beauty. He gives you a body and soul bathed in the liquid of His own love, the liquid that washes away every tiny hint of defilement.

This liquid is His shame-destroying, life-bestowing blood. It is the blood that flowed from His wounds on the cross, the blood that flows onto your tongue from the chalice, the blood that the Spirit sprinkles on your heart, body, soul, and conscience to render them holy and pure in the eyes of God. This is the blood that gives baptism its power, so that from that divine bath you might emerge free of shame and full of God. “None of those who wait for Thee will be ashamed,” says the psalmist, for those who wait for Christ find Him, arms open wide. Christ beckons to all dirty and dirtied sinners, “Come and let me wash you and you shall be clean.”

This is the Gospel of which we are not ashamed, for it is the power of God that makes us shame-free in the One who became our shame for us.

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!

Jesus and the Parable of the Horse’s Mouth

horsemouthI was sitting in a saddle long before I was sitting at my Kindergarten desk. My dad, who has forgotten more about horses than most people will ever know, started us out young. He taught me how to ride, then later how to saddle, and eventually how to rope. The horses we were astraddle dwarfed me; they were easily twenty times my size. But whether they were plodding along or at a full gallop, I could control them with amazing ease because I held in my hand the most important piece of tack on a horse: the bridle. And on that bridle was a smooth piece of metal called a bit that slipped inside the horse’s mouth. That bit was the equivalent of the gear shift, steering wheel, and brake on this equine vehicle. With a twitch of my hand, left or right, I could turn the horse. With the slightest pull, I could bring him to a dead stop or make him walk backward. As long as that bit was in his mouth, and that bridle in my hand, I controlled the whole animal.

Now let’s suppose something happened. The bridle broke. Or the reins slipped out of your hand. Or the bit fell out of the horse’s mouth. Well, cowboy, now things can get real interesting, real quick. The horse you were just riding is now basically riding you. Should he decide to take off, full steam ahead, there’s not a darn thing you can do about it. All of sudden, he’s the one in control, he’s calling the shots, and he might just decide that person on his back needs to go barreling headfirst into the dirt. Without a bit and bridle, you’re entirely at the mercy of a beast.

James tells us that “we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us.” With it “we guide their whole bodies as well,” (3:3). He’s making the point that “we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body,” (3:2). Yes, indeed, I suppose he is. And I would sure like to meet this “perfect man” who never stumbles in what he says. As for me, most of the time, it feels like I’m entirely at the mercy of a beast who lives within me, who chews up and spits out every bit I slip in his mouth.

When I revisit in my mind the very long list of stupid, mean, selfish things I’ve done, every one of them began with me saying something I shouldn’t have. The cutting word I spoke to my wife, which resulted in a cutting word back from her, which soon escalated into a verbal knife fight that left both us with deep emotional scars. The flirtatious compliment to that attractive woman, which resulted in a flirtatious compliment back from her, which by and by escalated into fornication of the heart or body. The little white lie, which soon had to be covered by a gray lie, which soon had to be smeared over with a black lie, lest my guilt be found out. The jab which pained and strained a friendship. The accusatory scream at God for some punishment I fully deserved.

That’s my list. You’ve got your own. That very long list of stupid, mean, selfish things that all started when we were at the mercy of an unbridled beast who rode us to the brink of disaster, then sent us barreling headlong into a pit of woe.

It’s all good reason for us to use our tongues to say something else, something better: “Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner. Lord, have mercy on me, the very imperfect man, who stumbles in what he says, who hates the bit in my mouth, who needs the kind of mercy that only you can give.”

And it’s all good reason for us to remember something that happened long ago, when our merciful God hung upon the cross, with men surrounding him, using their tongues to mock Him. He didn’t deride them, or us. He didn’t tell them to shut up. He didn’t tell them they were all going to hell for killing him. Instead, He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That battered man, a crown of thorn crowding His head, nails driven through His feet and hands, his back a torn and tattered mess, still had a tongue in His mouth that worked. And with it He prayed for us. He forgave us. He spoke the only words that can redeem the likes of you and me, “Father, forgive them.”

And He does. His holy words covering our unholy words. His wounds healing our wounds. His mouth a treasure of grace that pours forth speech into our ears and hearts that make us perfect people—people perfected, made whole, by the Savior who not only spoke creation into being, but bespeaks us new creatures.

The tongue of God speaks unbridled grace to 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!

The Green-Eyed Monster: Putting Jealousy in its Place

catmouseYou don’t send a mouse to check on a group of cats. But that’s exactly what Jacob did. He sent Joseph, saying, “See if it is well with your brothers and with the flock,” (Genesis 37:14). Oh, sure, not a problem. I mean, if you ignore the brothers’ hatred against Joseph because he was their father’s pet; if you’re oblivious to the fact that the brothers despised Joseph even more when he relayed two dreams of his whole family bowing down to him; if you are so clueless about human nature as not to realize that the green-eyed monster of jealousy mocks the meat it feeds on (as Shakespeare puts it), then by all means send the mouse Joseph to check on the ten fraternal cats who were hungry for a pound of their little brother’s flesh.

What happened, horrible though it be, is hardly a surprise. Since Joseph was so high and mighty, the brothers decided to teach him humility by tossing him into a pit. Since he was their dad’s favorite, they faked his death and duped their dad into believing a beast had ripped him to shreds. Since he had dreams of superiority, they turned his life into a nightmare of exile and slavery. The cats did what cats do: they toyed with the mouse. These green-eyed monsters mocked the meat they fed on.

Jealousy: it’s one of those forces within us that can manifest itself as protector or destroyer. Jealousy can be good—a “divine jealousy,” Paul calls it (2 Corinthians 11:2). It compels us to shield our loved ones from outside forces that seek to lure them into destruction and ruin. So the Lord our God is a jealous God, for He will have all of us—all our love and fidelity—and not share us with a soul-destroying idol. So my wife is a jealous wife, for she will have all of me—all my love and fidelity—and not share me with a marriage-destroying adulteress. Yes, jealousy can be good, when, prompted by love, it zealously protects the beloved from evil.

But jealousy, far more commonly, is a kissing cousin to envy and covetousness. It is the hand that’s attached to the arm of narcissism, snatching at what the self-lover yearns to have as his own. It is the jealousy of brothers who want what Joseph has. It is the jealousy of husbands who demand a slave they can control rather than a wife they can love and trust. It is the jealousy of coworkers, who, rather than rejoicing when their fellow employee climbs the ladder of success, secretly despise him for faring better than they are. In the case of Joseph, jealousy conceived hatred, which was born as rage, which, when fully-grown, became murderous, deceitful, family-destroying violence. Jealousy, like all vices, never crashes a party alone; it brings along its gang of hellish friends.

It’ll eat you alive, won’t it? We begin to think we’re victims, as if the whole world is conspiring against us to deprive us of what we deserve. How come she married such a good guy and I’m stuck with this pig? How come mom and dad always take his side and dote on him, while all they do is criticize me? Why can’t I ever seem to get ahead, and my neighbors never seem to fall behind? I’m a victim of fate, a victim of the bad choices others make, victimized by my family, victimized by the universe. On and on it goes, as jealousy makes a meal of our soul.

Let me tell you a better way. This better way does not involve you doing something to become a better person. This better way has no five or ten or fifty steps you can follow to become a happy, satisfied child or spouse or coworker. Rather, it’s a way of putting jealousy in its place, of watching as it sinks down into a wet grave to die the death it deserves. For if there’s anything cats hate, it’s water, and that’s exactly what this green-eyed monster needs: to be grabbed by the neck and held under the water until its lungs fill with liquid and its body grows limp. What jealousy needs is a swim from which it will never return.

Baptism is not just a one-time cleansing to which we can never return. The font becomes our daily companion. And into that fountain of water Christ Jesus daily plunges everything in us that is contrary to Him. He takes us, filthy with jealousy, stained by envy, smeared with covetousness, and shoves us down into those waters and brings us up again clean with holiness, spotless with gratitude, flawless with love. In other words, daily Christ creates us anew, daily fashions a clean heart within us that rejoices with those who prosper, thanks God for what we have, enjoys a life in which we are not victims but victors through Him who overwhelmingly conquered for us on the cross.

The solution to jealousy is not “don’t be jealous.” The solution is a Savior—a Savior who zealously pursued us, even to the point of crucifixion, that He might claim us as His brothers and sister, fellow children of our heavenly Father. He indeed has that divine jealousy, that saving zeal to have us exclusively as His own. And so He does. In His eyes you will spot no green, but rather the warm glow of love. It is a love that saves us from ourselves, that saves us from every vice, that saves us for a life in which Christ lives through us as a new and greater Joseph, delivered up out of jealousy to be the Savior of the whole world.

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!

Honest Parenting: Tell Children the “Dreadful Beauty” of Painful Truths

truthNo one knew that she was a woman, let alone expecting a child, except her husband. They were Chinese indentured servants, clearing terrain and shoveling tunnels through the California mountains for the coming railroads. She had disguised herself so that she could be with him whom she loved. There, side by side, they worked, she growing weaker as her time drew near. The labor pangs came early, when she was surrounded by men—gangs of men who had not even seen a woman, much less been with a woman, in months. Her husband, his leg recently broken in an accident, shattered the bone again running to her, trying to get to her before the men did. By the time he drug himself up the slope of shale to where she lay, his wife was able only to mutter a few last words. From the tattered body of his dying wife, he clawed out their living child with his fingernails.

That child, Lee, told this story of his mother and father, and his own nightmarish entrance into this world of evil and lust and redemption, to Adam, in John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden. Even when he was a little boy, his father had not hidden the truth from him. As he told Lee the story, he would say, “There’s more beauty in the truth even if it is dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar,” (Chapter 28).

I read that passage years ago, and for some reason it remained lodged deep in my memory. Never did I dream then that I would think of it when it came time to talk to my own child, to my daughter, about a chapter from our common past that is punctuated with pain. Unlike Lee, it has nothing to do with my child’s entrance into this world, but rather with the entrance of rebellion into my own life—a rebellion that left her world, my world, and the world of my whole family shattered. It was a personal war, of me against God, but such fights are never merely personal. They always result in collateral damage, as the carnage of destroyed innocence and shredded families tearfully attests.

My daughter’s honest, pointed question of “Why?” not only desired an answer; it deserved and demanded the “dreadful beauty” of an honest response. There is always the temptation to “twist life”, especially when the truth unveils the monster of egocentricity whose filthy lair is in the human heart. The temptation is doubled because it is so easy to tell ourselves that we withhold the truth to protect the innocent, all the while knowing it is only ourselves we strive to protect. To plumb the unfathomable depths of human selfishness is perhaps the most frightening exploration possible for man. It is, and will ever remain, the “last frontier”, into which we rarely, and barely, set foot, for none of us truly wants to discover what is there.

There is, of course, room for debate about what is appropriate to tell children, and at what age. I recognize the need for wisdom and prudence, even when it comes to honesty. Certainly not everyone would have chosen the way of Lee’s father. Nor, perhaps, would they have chosen the way of my daughter’s father. I can tell you, however, that I am intimately acquainted with the world of half-truths, and full-blown lies, and it is not a world I will live in again.

The storytellers at the city gate, who teach nothing, cure nothing, nor let the heart soar, may make life look sweet, but they sugar-coat poison. The truth will always emerge, and when it is does, the liar is not only made to look the fool; he is often despised for fooling others. The way of truth is always the way of the wise. It is the way of our Father above, and so it is the way of fathers here, even when the truth is dreadful.

I would rather rear a child in the desert of truth, then raise a fool in the paradise of a lie.

ChristAloneCoverIf you have a minute, check out my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

The Runaway Bunny and the Runaway Serpent: How Far Will God Go to Get Us Back?

runawaybunnyMy daughter was on my left, my son on my right, as I began to read. “Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.”

How was I to know that I was reading my future to my children that day?

The story continued. “So he said to his mother, ‘I am running away.’ ‘If you run away,’ said his mother, ‘I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.’”

I didn’t even bother to tell my Father that I was running away. I just did. Packed up my things, wrote no note, left the door hanging wide open. Never looked back. How was I to know that my Father said, “I will run after you”?

My daughter and son listen as I read on. “‘If you run after me,” said the little bunny, ‘I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.’ ‘If you become a fish in a trout stream,’ said his mother, ‘I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.’”

If God ran after me, He wouldn’t like what he found. He’d have to go slumming, poking around in the gutter, digging through the dunghill to find his runaway boy. And God wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t go that far. I didn’t mean that much to him.

I turned page after page. The little bunny became a rock high on a mountain, so the mother became a mountain climber. The bunny became a crocus in a hidden garden, so the mother became a gardener. The bunny became a bird, so the mother became a tree that her little bird could come home to.

I was beginning to think I’d never outrun God. To my surprise, and disappointment, I couldn’t seem to get away from him. I became an adulterer, a drunkard, a blasphemer, and a violent man, but every place I went, soon I’d look over my shoulder and see Him bearing down on me, in hot pursuit.

Finally the little boy says that he will become a boy and run into a house. And the mother responds, “If you become a little boy and run into a house, I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.” To which he responds, “Shucks, I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.”

But it was too late for me. I had already left. This was no cute conversation between me and my Father in heaven. Some what-if scenario. I had turned from being a little boy into being a serpent. Crawling on my belly in the dust. Slithering from sin to sin. Poison on my lips. A bite that could wound and kill. I was coiled in anger, looking through two slit eyes that saw the world from the perspective of prey and predator.

And I knew that pursue me though He might, God would never stoop so low as to become a serpent. No, not even to find and bring home his lost little boy. God wouldn’t go that far.

And then one day I heard these words, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life,” (John 3:14-15). And my mind drifted back to the story of Moses, how God told that old man to make a bronze serpent and fasten it to a pole, so that all the Israelites who were bitten by the fiery serpents might look to that bronze serpent and be healed.

And I wept, a serpent of a man shedding tears in the dust that I had made my home. I looked up at the cross and saw what God had become to bring me home. He had become what I was. He who knew no sin became sin that in Him I might become the righteousness of God. Jesus became an adulterer, a drunkard, a blasphemer, and a violent man—He became all of me on the cross, all of what was wrong with me, all of what was wrong with our fallen race. He became a serpent, and was lifted up, that He might draw all men to Himself.

We meant that much to Him. He would go that far. He would go into the gutter to find us and bring us home, transformed back into His children.

Now, every night, my heavenly Father tucks me into bed, kisses me on the forehead, and says, “You’re home again. My son, my child, you’re home again.”

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!

The Polygamous, Incestuous, Murderous Collection of Screw-ups God Called the Holy Family

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy

dysfunctionalfamilyThere is a uniqueness to unhappiness, as Tolstoy rightly observed, a sad fingerprint left by each family that is like no other. And it’s rarely as simplistic as outsiders usually assume. “Oh, it’s that alcoholic father who’s ruined that family.” Or, “Yeah, it’s that cheatin’ wife of his.” Or, “it’s them dope-smoking kids.” Maybe the husband turns to alcohol as an escape because his wife nags him, belittles him, and makes him feel worthless. Maybe the wife sleeps with other men because they give her the illusion of attraction, while her husband says she’s fat, never touches her, and makes her feel as undesirable as a wrinkled whore. And this merely scratches the surface. Dig down deep into any unhappy family, and you’re likely to unearth layer upon layer of manipulation, abuse, neglect, grudges, and horrors which have no name.

Joseph came from a family like that. His dad, Jacob, was married to two women, having sex with two more, and fathering children by them all. I don’t need to tell you that, in a household where four women are sleeping with one man, jealousy was thick. Each wife was trying to out-pregnant the other, and even enlisted their maid-servants as sexual pinch hitters to try and make even more babies. To add to the mess, Joseph’s brother, Reuben, slept with one of those maid-servants as well, father and son sowing their seed in the same womb, brother sleeping with his other brothers’ mom. Still more, after one of the daughters was raped in a nearby town, the sons rose to avenge their sister with bloodshed, all the while incensed at their father who didn’t want to ruffle any feathers over the incident. And, finally, the jealousy of the wives filtered down to the sons, especially when Jacob made it abundantly clear that Joseph, the firstborn of his favorite wife, Rachel, was his favorite son and the one who would inherit his blessing. If every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, then Joseph’s family had plenty of ways of breeding more unhappiness.

Some of you reading this come from an unhappy family, or you’re living in that unhappy family right now. Maybe you’re wondering if there’s any possible way God could glue back together the shards of your shattered family unity. Maybe you suspect things are so bad that God has washed His hands of your marriage and children. Or maybe you’ve simply given up hope; you feel defeated; you’re tired of pushing that boulder uphill, only to watch it roll down again. The pains and disappointments in life are teaching you the hard truth that God has a warm place in His heart for happy families, while unhappy ones are left shivering through winter after winter of divine absence.

If so, consider this: Joseph’s family—that polygamous, incestuous, jealous, murderous, motley crew of screw-ups—was in fact the holy family that God chose and dearly loved. This family was the foundation of the church of the Old Testament. Those twelve brothers, reared by one deceitful father and four bickering mothers, who were constantly fighting amongst themselves, were the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. This microcosm of humanity, in which just about every evil and sin was exemplified, was nevertheless beloved of God and chosen by Him to carry forward the promise of redemption. This was the family whose DNA would eventually find its way into a baby boy born to a virgin in the little town of Bethlehem. The Savior of the world would come from Joseph’s family; indeed, his foster father would bear that patriarch’s name. From this unhappy family would arise the one whose coming would prompt the church to sing, “Joy to the world!”

So is God interested only in happy families? No, if anything, He seems to be the patron God of lost causes. For him, there is no family, no family member, who is beyond hope. He is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost lamb. He is the father who dashes from his house and runs like a madman to throw his loving arms around the prodigal son. He is the Christ who suffers with you through every family fight, holds you when you cry yourself to sleep in a lonely bed, sits beside you in divorce court, visits your child with you when she’s in rehab. He has bound Himself to you and your family. That doesn’t mean He approves of the evil that takes place; what it means is that He is not a God who runs away when things get ugly. He might even get ugly Himself sometimes, show tough love to those who need it, but behind that divine scowl of reproof is a heart of love that beats with a ferocious compassion. He will not give up on you or your family. Inked into God’s skin is the name of every person in your family. He bears your family in His own body.

Every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, but no family is beyond redemption, beyond the recovery of joy, beyond the love of the heavenly Father. Because every unhappy family is the family for whom Jesus Christ died. For Joseph’s family, for your family, the Son of God came from His Father, was born of a mother, was raised by a foster father, that He might redeem every member of your family, and make them members of an everlasting family known as the church. With Jesus Christ, no family is a lost cause.

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!

When Your Own Family Betrays You

josephpitWhen your life has come to a disastrous halt, part of you feels mocked by a world that keeps on moving. You’re sitting alone at home, grieving the loss of someone you love, while down the street a family parties it up on their daughter’s wedding day. While you’re getting ready for yet another dead-end job interview, your neighbors get in their cars and drive to work every morning. And as irrational at it seems, you can’t help but think, “Don’t they know, don’t they care, what I’m going through?” In such times of darkness, even the sunrise seems a slap in the face. Give me a night, or an eclipse, or at least a cloudy day. How can the planet keep on spinning when my life has slammed into a brick wall?

That’s bad enough. What’s worse is when people kick us where it hurts, grind our face in the dirt, and go on with their lives as if they’ve done nothing wrong, while we’re left writhing in our own blood. The happier and more successful they become, the more the knife twists that they’ve planted in our backs. It happens all the time in divorces. It happens at school. It happens in the workplace and, yes, in the church. And deeper are the wounds when they’re inflicted by those we trusted, even loved, and whom we thought loved us.

Joseph could tell you all about this. His father had sent him to check on his brothers and the flocks they were shepherding. But inside the hearts of these brother-shepherds the wolf of jealousy howled and growled. “Joseph, our father’s pet. Joseph, and his coat of many colors. Joseph, and his despicable dreams of all of us one day bowing down to him. Let’s give this dreamer a taste of reality.” So there lay Joseph, naked, bruised, crying for mercy, at the bottom of the pit into which his own family had tossed him like a piece of garbage.

And what did the brothers do? They sat down to eat a meal. While the echoes of their brother’s cries from within the earth sounded forth? Yes. While their own flesh and blood lay bleeding in the bottom of a pit? Yes. For Joseph, it was like a twisted version of Psalm 23, in which Thou didst prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, but it was my enemies who ate, indeed, who devoured my life, while I tasted only tears. This teenager, beloved of his father, chosen by God, on that day learned in the school of suffering just how callous people can be, including members of our own family.

What Joseph did not know, what he could not have known at the time, was that this was merely the beginning of the strange work of God in his life. From this time forward, and for many years to come, all evidence would point to the fact that the Lord had abandoned Joseph. Being thrown in the pit was but one of the many smoking guns that the prosecutor could bring forth as evidence in the court of Joseph’s heart that God was no longer active in his life, no longer loved him, no longer was with him, no longer cared one iota for him.

We’ve all had our Joseph-like days, or months, or even years. Some of you reading this are going through it right now. While you’re in a deep, dark pit the world above you goes on its merry way, enjoys its meals, has its parties, maybe even mocks your sufferings or says that you’re getting what you deserve. Not only do you feel the absence of God; it may seem to you that heaven has become your enemy.

As odd as this may sound, the one that you think has become your enemy is the only one in creation who knows perfectly how you feel. Because the very God you think has forsaken you is the person who once felt forsaken by God. When Jesus, the Son of the Father, was in the deepest, darkest throes of His own suffering, He gave voice to the ultimate cry of the human heart, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest,” (Psalm 22:1-2). Like Joseph lay in the pit while his brothers ate their meal; like you’re in your own pit while the world goes on as if nothing happened; so Jesus hung on His cross while the soldiers gambled beneath Him, His closest friends fled in fear, His enemies mocked Him, and His heavenly Father forsook Him. The Son of God dove headfirst into the pit of human suffering, lay bloody and bruised with us as we hit bottom, and joins His voice of lament to ours as we bewail our grief and loss.

But you do not only have a God who can sympathize with you, who is bound up with you in the midst of your sufferings; you have the same God as Joseph, the God who will lift you out of the pit, out of the prison, out of the gutter. He is the one who wiped the graveyard dust from His feet on a Sunday morning, who made that evidence of mortality the smoking gun of death’s demise. You have a resurrection God, who will not rest until you rest in life and hope once more. He raised Joseph from the pit, from the Egyptian jail, to newness of life. He raised Jacob from the sorrow of Sheol to joy in life once more when he was told Joseph was alive in Egypt. He is an Good Friday God, to be sure, a God whose strange work involves putting to death that in us which is contrary to Him. But He is also an Easter God, whose loving work is sustaining us, healing us, raising us up.

The life of Joseph is understood only within the life of Jesus. And your life is no different. Joseph and you and me, we’re all part of a larger story, the story of the God who became one of us, became intimately acquainted with our griefs and sorrows and losses, redeemed us to be His own by the most cruel death imaginable, then raised up on the third day to a life that will not, and cannot, end. Our lives—full of ups and downs, gains and losses, births and funerals—are hidden within the life of Christ, who suffers with us, rises with us, and goes to hell and back to make sure we make it to heaven with Him.

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!

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