Archive for the month “November, 2014”

Advent’s Alpha

Here is Advent’s Alpha, upon an ass astride,

Riding to our churches, where we with Him abide,

Crucified together and clothed in Easter skin.

Advent yearly takes us the place we’ve always been.

We hear the desert Voice who hails the holy Lamb,

And readies us to see the Babe in Bethlehem.

John’s finger points to Him, whom sages had foretold,

And we in word and meal, with eyes of faith behold.

He gives the blind their sight, He makes the lame to walk,

He preaches to the poor, by Him the mute can talk.

And we who come bereaved, diseased in heart and soul,

Are by His healing touch, restored and rendered whole.

Yahweh came to Israel, was born to bear our sin,

Comes in font and altar, and shall return again.

O Jesus, Advent King, whose reign’s replete with grace,

Each day of this new year, Your image on us trace.

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Dumpster Diving for Good Deeds

dumpsterdivingShe’s standing in front of the dumpster. The grayish brown of life on the road staining her face and clothing. Her eyes scanning the parking lot like a sentry. I roll up behind the convenience store; she hears the swoosh of the air brakes and pivots in my direction. In her sunken eyes that forlorn stare. I knew she would come to me. And she did. I step down from the truck as she walks up, wringing dirty hands. “Sir,” she says, “could you help me?”

Now I’m not there to help. I’m there for a cup of coffee. I’m there because it’s one of the few stores in the area with a parking lot spacious enough for my semi. I’m there to put my feet up on the dash for thirty minutes and just breathe.

“My husband and me, we just got to San Antonio last night. We slept under the bridge. Ain’t had nothin’ to eat.” Then pointing, she says, “He’s in the dumpster, digging around, looking for us something.”

Strange how my mind can become almost schizophrenic at times like this. Instantly, I hear this jumble of competing voices in my head, “She’s scamming you…You should help her….God, she stinks…What are they running from?…You’re a Christian…Make an excuse…She’s probably on drugs…Jesus is watching you….Why should I give a damn?…You just ate two slices of pizza…Buy her something…Maybe God will pay you back…“For I was hungry and you fed me not”…Thanksgiving is coming…All I wanted was coffee…”

I walk on as the voices continue their cacophonous debate. I mutter a cowardly noncommittal, “I’ll see what I can do,” and disappear around the corner, into the store.

One of the sad truths I realized about myself long ago is that I do nothing from completely spic-and-span motives. I mean nothing. When I hear someone say that they’re “utterly sincere” or they’re doing something “from pure motives,” I smell a lie. In this world, where we still lug around a nature that’s selfish to the core, a nature that has its finger in everything we do, there is no 100% purity. Even if I decided to help this hungry, homeless couple, I wouldn’t be doing it only for the right reasons. Yes, I’d be doing it because I wanted to help them, but also because the wife had guilted me into it; because I’d feel better about myself afterward; because maybe God would then be good to me; because I could write a blog and tell all of you about it; because of a million self-serving reasons. It wasn’t really the woman’s husband who was digging through the trash; it was me, dumpster diving for good deeds.

About five minutes later, I walk out of the store. They’re slouched around a rusting table, their backpacks and plastic bags heaped about them. At the man’s feet is an old Dr. Pepper box crammed with sausages and corn dogs he’s scrounged from the trash. They look up. I hand them a bag with a couple of submarine sandwiches inside. “I hope this helps,” I say. They thank me profusely. He shakes my hand; I can feel the grease and the grime. He tells me, “God bless you.” I say the same and walk away.

Good deeds, they’re a messy thing, aren’t they? Put the best of them under a microscope and you’ll still find traces of hypocritical dirt, bits of selfish trash stuck to them. Put them to your nose and take a deep whiff; there’s the faint hint of a dumpster about them. Even when we try to do something for godly, loving reasons, the hands that do it are still the unwashed hands of a sinner. As Isaiah says, ”All our righteousness is as menstrual rags,” (64:6). And if such be our righteousness, how bad must be our unrighteousness.

But here’s the good news: in the end, it doesn’t really matter. You see, our failed attempts at good deeds are fixed, cleansed, made truly good because of someone else’s good deeds.

Jesus died not only for our sins; He died for our good works as well. His perfect sacrifice perfects those imperfect strivings of ours to do what is right. He’s the only one who’s ever done anything from completely unselfish, loving, others-oriented motives. So even as I pray that He will forgive my sins, I pray that He will forgive the pollutants in my good deeds. I need His blood to wash away the traces of hypocritical dirt, the bits of selfish trash stuck to my acts of charity. And He does. God does indeed love a cheerful giver, but He also loves the forgiven giver, all for the sake of Jesus.

So, yes, I’ll pray for a cleaner heart. I’ll work on my less-than-chivalrous motives. I’ll try to be a better person. But I know that, no matter how good or bad I wind up being, every time I hand a sandwich to the hungry, it’ll actually be the hand of Jesus that is stretched out to give. He’s got me covered. And He does all things well, even for the likes of me.

If this reflection was a blessing to you, please take a moment to check out my 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.

You may also be interested in my two other books. The Infant Priest is a collection of hymns and poems. These give voice to the triumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world. It is available at this website or on Amazon.com.  I also just published Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing. This booklet is a clear and concise explanation of the place of hymns in worship. To buy your print copy, click on the link here for CreateSpace or Amazon. It is also available as a Kindle edition here. If you wish to purchase bulk copies at a reduced rate for your congregation, Bible Class group, Board of Elders or Deacons, please send me an email at birdchadlouis@yahoo.com for more information. Thank you very much for your interest!

Everything I Needed to Know About Vocation I Learned at the Lord’s Supper

On my mother’s Sunday table was a feast fit for a southern king: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, hot buttered rolls, pecan pie, and plenty of other country delicacies. Back then, eating at a Chinese restaurant was about as cross-cultural an experience as I could imagine. Over the years, I’ve expanded the horizons of my palate to sample everything from Iranian to Indian to Russian cuisine. And most of it, while no match to my momma’s cooking, has pleased my palate. However, I do live by a strict rule: when I’m about to try a new cultural restaurant, I never go alone. I take along a food-wise friend. I lean on him for advice about what to order, what combination of foods is best, what drinks complement the entree, and even how to eat (with my fingers? a fork? a piece of bread?). The meal, in addition to a culinary experience, also becomes a learning experience.

The meal at which I have learned the most, however, was not at a restaurant but a church. There’s no need for a menu because everyone receives and consumes the same items. The conversation around the table is minimal. I eat, then drink, while on my knees. Outwardly, the meal is spartan, hardly sufficient to ease a man’s hunger or slake his thirst, but inwardly the meal is regal, feeding a man’s hunger with the only food that satisfies, slaking his thirst with a drink that puts to shame the finest of wines. At this meal of meals, the supper of Jesus, He serves me Himself. And in so doing, He also teaches me something profoundly important. As He feeds me His body, as He pours in me His blood, I learn how to be a father, a husband, a son, a citizen, a worker. Everything I need to know about vocation I learn at the Lord’s Supper.

Vocation: More Than What We Do For a Living

Let me explain what I mean by first clarifying what I mean by vocation. We usually understand vocation in a very narrow sense; it’s your job, your “calling.” Vocation, however, is not so much what you do for a living but what Christ does through you for the living. It’s a 24/7 calling, not a 9 to 5 occupation. A child’s vocation is to be a son or daughter to parents; a spouse’s vocation is to be a husband to his wife, a wife to her husband. And, of course, if you have a job, that too is a vocation, whether you’re a priest or policeman, carpenter or accountant. In each of these vocations, you have people to love, to serve, to take care of. Yet—and this is of the utmost importance—it is not so much you who serve your neighbor as Christ who serves your neighbor through you. You have been crucified with Jesus on the cross of baptism, so that it is no longer you who live but Christ who lives in you (Gal 2:20). It is no longer you who are a wife but Jesus who is a wife through you; no longer you who are a teacher, but Jesus who is a teacher through you. Your vocation, as with your identity, is bound up in Him.

Permitting Ourselves to be Eaten and Drunk

Whatever vocation God has given to you, you learn what that calling is all about at the Lord’s Supper. Just as He gives Himself to you in this meal, so He goes on to give Himself through you to your neighbor in your vocation. He pours the blood of His love into your body and then pours Himself through you into others as you faithfully serve in your vocations. Luther puts it this way:

Now this is the fruit [of the Lord’s Supper], that even as we have eaten and drunk the body and blood of Christ the Lord, we in turn permit ourselves to be eaten and drunk, and say the same words to our neighbor, Take, eat and drink…meaning to offer yourself with all your life, even as Christ did with all that he had. (Sermons of Martin Luther; trans. and ed. J. N. Lenker; Grand Rapids: Baker; Volume 2:208)

We eat the Lord by the faith of the Word which the soul consumes and enjoys. In this way my neighbor also eats me: I give him my goods, body, and life and all I have, and let him consume and use it in his want. Likewise I also need my neighbor; I too am poor and afflicted, and suffer him to help and serve me in turn. Thus we are woven one into the other, helping one another even as Christ helped us. (2:213)

familyaltarrailTherefore, when I kneel beside my wife at the altar rail, there Christ also shows me how to be a husband to her. Just as Jesus loved the church and gave Himself up for her, uniting His body with her own in this meal, so I should love my wife as my own body, nourish and cherish our united body, even as Christ does for the church (Eph 5:25, 28-29). When I kneel beside my son and daughter, there Christ shows me how to be a father to them. Just as Jesus feeds and cares for me in this Supper, clothes me with His righteousness, so I in turn care for my children by giving myself wholly to them in my vocation as their dad.

In the Lord’s Supper, the Lord holds nothing back. He gives us His life. He gives us His forgiveness. He gives us Himself. When we return to the pew, then later go out to our cars and drive home, then awake Monday morning to go about our various callings, we still carry Jesus with us. Unlike every other meal, wherein we digest the food and turn it into ourselves, in the Lord’s Supper the food turns us into itself. Jesus transforms our bodies into His. We become as He is. So whatever we do, we do in and through and with Jesus. Or, as I prefer to say it, Jesus does it in and through and with us. We become His lips to speak, His hands to work, His feet to walk. Just as He gave us Himself in the Supper on Sunday, so He gives Himself to others through us in our vocations every day of the week.

The next time you change your baby’s diaper, or make a sales call, or nail a shingle to the roof, remember this: just as Jesus has hidden Himself under those simple forms of bread and wine, so He hides Himself under the simple acts of your vocation. And just as He gave Himself to you in such simple profundity, so He continues to give Himself to others through you in the simple, but profound, acts of your vocation. When all is said and done, everything you need to know about vocation was learned at the Lord’s Supper.

ChristAloneCoverIf this reflection was a blessing to you, please take a moment to check out my 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.

You may also be interested in my two other books. The Infant Priest is a collection of hymns and poems. These give voice to the triumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world. It is available at this website or on Amazon.com.  I also just published Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing. This booklet is a clear and concise explanation of the place of hymns in worship. To buy your print copy, click on the link here for CreateSpace or Amazon. It is also available as a Kindle edition here. If you wish to purchase bulk copies at a reduced rate for your congregation, Bible Class group, Board of Elders or Deacons, please send me an email at birdchadlouis@yahoo.com for more information. Thank you very much for your interest!

Hell’s Doors Are Locked on the Inside

doorslockedThere are some strange bedfellows in Christianity. These odds truths lie side by side, but leave us scratching our heads as we try to figure out how they belong together. For instance, how can Jesus be God and be man? Doesn’t He have to be either/or? No, for it is true that He is God and it’s equally true that He’s man. Along these same lines, how can the elements in the Lord’s Supper be bread and wine and be the body and blood of Jesus? Doesn’t it have to be one or the other? No, it is true that we eat bread and drink wine and equally true that we eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus. We try our best to understand and to explain these united truths, but in the end much remains mystery. And that’s fine by me because I know that my tiny mind cannot perfectly know everything that God knows fully.

The Greater Mystery of Heaven and Hell

But, for me anyway, there is an even more mind-blowing mystery. It is beautiful and terrible, comforting and shocking, all at the same time. This coupling of truths has to do with the two possible everlasting destinations of every human being. It is simply this: everyone who’s in heaven is there because God chose them to be, and everyone who’s in hell is there because they chose to be. Let’s take a look at these one by one.

Everyone who’s in heaven is there because God chose them to be there. We may choose the town in which we live, the resort where we vacation, the school our children attend. But heaven is very different. It is not a place we choose to be; it is a place God prepares for us, readies us for, chooses us for, and actively brings us to. Jesus told His disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” (John 15:16). Paul takes this divine choice as far back as possible when he says the Father “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world,” (Eph 1:4). Since we are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph 2:3), “enemies of God” (Rom 5:10), and cannot by ourselves even say “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3), God does 100% of the work of making us children of grace, friends of Christ, and those who confess Jesus as their Lord. It doesn’t matter how wonderful heaven is, sinners don’t want to be there. The only way they’ll want to be with God is for God to make the unwilling willing, His foes into His friends, His enemies into His own dear children. And that’s what the Father does for us in Jesus Christ. He chooses us in Christ, transforms us in Christ, and brings us to Himself in Christ. Everyone who’s in heaven is there because God chose them to be there in Jesus Christ.

Hell is by Choice

But everyone who’s in hell is there because they chose to be there. This seems rather ludicrous at first, for why would anyone choose to be in such a horrid place? But think of it this way: way too often in our lives, do we not find ourselves in the midst of pain and regret and loneliness and heartache because of the choices we made? No one forced us to do it; we elected to do what brought us nothing but pain. Thus if even in this life, we actively choose those horrid, emotional hells that we end up in, why are we surprised when it’s that way even after this life? As the Eagles sang, “we are all just prisoners here, of our own device.” Or as C. S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce,

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done” and those to whom God says, in the end, “THY will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek, find. To those who knock, it is opened.

Hell was not even in the original blueprints for creation; it was an add-on. It was built for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). It had, as it were, to be retrofitted for humanity because there were those who chose it over heaven. Though the Father did everything necessary to save them in Jesus Christ; though He sent His Son into the world not to condemn the world but to redeem it; though He desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth; indeed, even though God actively and willfully seeks out the lost, nevertheless there are some who steadfastly refuse to have anything to do with Him. And if they want nothing to do with God, then why should they want anything to do with God’s home? We do not even visit the homes of our enemies, much less pack up and move in with them. So it is with the enemies of God. They would rather “pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,” (2 Thess 1:9). When God sends them to hell, it is indeed punishment, but He’s only giving them what they asked for. In the memorable words of C. S. Lewis, “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”

A Beautiful and Comforting Truth

I said earlier that this coupling of truth is beautiful and terrible, comforting and shocking, all at the same time. But the beauty and comfort override the terror and shock, for if there is anything in all creation worthy of rejoicing over it is the fact that God the Father desires our presence in heaven with Him. And not only does He desire it, in Jesus He has prepared a place for us, done every single thing necessary to get us there. He loves us, He saves us, He calls us, He makes us His children. What more needs to be done? Nothing, nothing at all.

I don’t care who you are, or what you’ve done. God the Father, in Jesus Christ, wants you to be with Him, is calling you by name. Everything is ready. The celestial feast is prepared. Salvation is won. Christ stands there, smiling at you, loving you, forgiving you.

Hell is for the devil and his angels; heaven, in Jesus Christ, is for you.

ChristAloneCoverIf this reflection was a blessing to you, please take a moment to check out my 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.

You may also be interested in my two other books. The Infant Priest is a collection of hymns and poems. These give voice to the triumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world. It is available at this website or on Amazon.com.  I also just published Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing. This booklet is a clear and concise explanation of the place of hymns in worship. To buy your print copy, click on the link here for CreateSpace or Amazon. It is also available as a Kindle edition here. If you wish to purchase bulk copies at a reduced rate for your congregation, Bible Class group, Board of Elders or Deacons, please send me an email at birdchadlouis@yahoo.com for more information. Thank you very much for your interest!

Taking the Road More Traveled By: The Benefit of Tradition in the Church

I grew up over-singing ”Just As I Am” and watching folks get drenched from head to toe in their baptisms. There was something of a rhythm and rhyme to our Southern Baptist services; it certainly wasn’t a charismatic free-for-all. The hymns, sermon, offering, and altar call all fell into place. But it had little akin to what I was to discover in my late teens when I began my pilgrimage into a liturgical church. There, I encountered psalm chanting, creedal confessions, vested clergy, an altar with real wine (!) atop it, worshipers making the sign of the cross, the rare but occasional smoke of incense, and plenty of other practices that sent my non-traditional sensitivities into shock.

Some might suppose that, awed by the reverence imbuing the service, wooed by its sacred antiquity, it was love at first sight. But, no, to be honest, I didn’t like it, not one little bit.

Twenty five years later, having written a Eucharistic hymn that is sung in the liturgy, presided as celebrant and deacon at various altars in the Lutheran Church, and contributed regularly to a journal devoted to the traditional divine service, I guess you could safely say that my first impressions of traditional worship were not my lasting ones. Like an arranged marriage, it took me years to get to know this heretofore unknown liturgical bride, to delve into her past, learn her eccentricities, and eventually fall in love with her. Now, a quarter century after our initial meeting, I can’t imagine life without her.

What Good is Tradition?

Devotees of various faiths, Christian and otherwise, have their distinctive traditions and their reasons for perpetuating them. Some like the way these practices are transhistorical, providing an unbroken ritual link with prior generations of the faithful. Others appreciate how traditions tend to concretize doctrine, embodying religious teachings in religious rites, so that the eyes and ears and other senses participate fully in what a faith teaches, rescuing it from becoming a bloodless religion of the mind. Still others embrace tradition as the communal expression of the faith, the participation of all in a shared rite, thereby bonding them, and avoiding the tyranny of individualism or clerical whim. And there are some who simply enjoy the artistry of religious rites, how they lift the common to new heights of aesthetic beauty. My own gradual appreciation of Christian rites involved all of these. Ultimately, however, I fell in love with traditions—and specifically, traditional worship—for a single, overarching reason: its components, to varying degrees, are all in the service of the Gospel.

Tradition in the Service of the Gospel

What you’ll encounter in a traditional worship service is a framework of readings, creeds, confessions, hymns, and prayers that pulsate with the language of Scripture, with Christ Jesus at the heart of it all. By the repetition of these, with new elements circulating every week, truths seep into the hearts and minds of worshipers, steeping them in vivifying words. Every element of worship flows toward, into, and from the altar, where Jesus sits as Lamb, Priest, King, and Man, all rolled into one, giving his blood and body into his people and thereby literally embodying them with God. Cognizant of the fact that Jesus came to save not only the soul, but also the body, the body participates fully in this worship. Knees bow before the regal Lord; hands trace the sign of the saving cross upon themselves; mouths dine at his feast; eyes soak in the portrayal of his Passion in crucifix, icons, stained-glass windows; and noses spell the aromatic incense wafting prayers up toward God’s throne. Moreover, just as the world operates according to a calendar, so the church follows a calendar of her own, with seasons and festivals that punctuate the year, each in one way or another preaching the mystery of Christ crucified and resurrected for us.  Though some of the elements of this worship are mandated by Christ–the preaching of his Word, baptism, his Supper–others are not, but are part of the heritage of prior generations, who bequeathed to us rites and ceremonies which glorify God, beautify worship, and work in concert with the Gospel.  All is claimed for Jesus—time, art, movement, architecture, music—so that in everything he may be glorified, and his people receive him and his gifts for their salvation.

Interest in the Traditional Liturgy Among Baptists

Though my own participation in liturgical worship happened after I left the church of my upbringing, I was surprised and delighted to read that in the Baptist church there has recently been a groundswell of interest, especially among young believers, in such worship. In a CNN blog post, Rachel Held Evans, writes, “Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions– Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. –precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being ‘cool,’ and we find that refreshingly authentic.” Whether this is merely a passing fad or a change of more substance and longevity remains to be seen. Needless to say, I hope it is the latter. If so, I pray that their spiritual odyssey may leave them not deeper into tradition but that tradition may leave them deeper into Christ.  For if tradition is not in the service of the Gospel, it is fool’s gold, worthless and void.  But if it is in Christ’s service, it is gold worthy of becoming a receptacle for heaven’s blessings.

The Road More Traveled By

The poet Robert Frost famously spoke of taking “the road less traveled by” when he came to where “two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” Perhaps in some aspects of life, that is sage advice. But when I came to where two roads diverged in the church, I took the road more traveled by, smoothed by the feet of the faithful for centuries, tried and tested by time, a path free of the pitfalls of modernity and the quicksands of fads, which leads always to the God crucified and risen for us. And that has made all the difference.

why lutherans sing adsmallIf you are interested in learning more about the traditional hymnody of the church, check out my newly published booklet, Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing. Here is a clear and concise explanation of the place of hymns in worship. Sadly, not everything that is advertised these days as “Christian music” is very Christian at all. This booklet discusses five criteria for choosing quality, theologically sound hymns and songs, and thus provides the reader with clarity in filtering out what is worthy of being sung by the church. To purchase your print copy, click on the link here for CreateSpace or Amazon. It is also available as a Kindle edition here. If you wish to purchase bulk copies at a reduced rate for your congregation, Bible Class group, Board of Elders or Deacons, please send me an email at birdchadlouis@yahoo.com for more information. Thank you very much for your interest!

My Newest Book: Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing

why lutherans sing adsmallSinging is part of the lifeblood of the church. It always has been. In the Old Testament, believers joined voices to sing the Psalms before the Lord everywhere from the shores of the Red Sea to His temple in Jerusalem. So also in the early church, Paul encourages the Christians to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another (Eph 5:19, Col 3:16). These hymns are, first and foremost, the Word of God put to music, and secondly, a confession of thanksgiving and praise back to the Giver of all good gifts.

Singing has certainly been a major part of the life of the Lutheran church. The Reformer himself, Martin Luther, wrote a number of hymns, as did countless others after him. These sacred songs embody the confession of the Gospel as the free grace of God in Christ. They teach the faithful, encourage the weak, give hope to the grieving.

Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing was published years ago, but has been updated to reflect the Lutheran Service Book and now includes a Foreword by the well-known hymn writer, Steve Starke. In this forty page booklet, I introduce and discuss five criteria that I believe are an essential part of what makes a hymn worthy of being on the lips of the Christian church. These criteria are:

  1. A Lutheran hymn aims not to create the right atmosphere or mood for worship, but serves as a vehicle for the Spirit-filled Word of God.
  1. A Lutheran hymn is not entertainment but proclamation.
  1. A Lutheran hymn is shaped by the theology of the cross.
  1. A Lutheran hymn is not bound merely to paraphrase the biblical text; rather, it interprets the Scriptures in reference to Christ.
  1. A Lutheran hymn is bound to no culture save the culture of the church catholic.

In the Foreword, Stephen Starke comments:

Chad Bird’s Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing offers clear criteria in defending Lutheran hymns as well as showing the reader why such hymns remain important now and for the future. He writes in a clear, understandable manner. I believe the booklet’s content will be a blessing to all those who seek to understand the great importance of why Lutherans sing what they sing when they gather for worship.

To read part of the opening chapter, check out this blog post. To purchase your print copy, click on the link here for CreateSpace or Amazon. It is also available as a Kindle edition here. If you wish to purchase bulk copies at a reduced rate for your congregation, Bible Class group, Board of Elders or Deacons, please send me an email at birdchadlouis@yahoo.com for more information. Thank you very much for your interest!

Dirty Little Secrets

dirtylittlesecretsTucked away in the deep recesses of your being is that dirty, little secret that you’ve been carrying around for years. At times you forget it’s there. Then a certain person’s name will come up, or the DJ will play that old song, or you’ll hear something on the television that triggers the memory. Then all of a sudden you’ll feel your secret reach out with two long-nailed fingers and pinch your soul, just to remind you it’s still there. On other days, your secret seems to have bonded with the beat of your heart, so that like Poe’s villain in the Tell-Tale Heart, the raging pulse of your secret seems manifest to everyone around you. Moreover, it can form a film around your eyes, so that everything is filtered and interpreted through it. When something bad happens, you assume it’s due to your secret. You tell others it’s bad karma, or bad luck, but you suspect it’s not. It’s the ghost of your secret, coming back to haunt you, to demand restitution, to carve out of your life that pound of flesh that is its due.

The Secret About Secrets

Here’s something for you to ponder. In fact, I suspect you already know this, but let me put it down here in black and white to confirm it: the secret about secrets is that they don’t exist. There is no such thing in all the world as a secret. You see, a secret is no longer a secret when two people know it. And even if you have been so careful as to hide it from the public, from your closest friends, even from your spouse, there is one who knows. He searches the hearts and minds of humanity. He brings out of the darkness what we have hidden; He places our secret sins in the light of His presence (Ps 90:8). God knows your secret, and because you know that He knows, you ought to just go ahead and admit the fact that you have no secrets.

What you do have is something that humanity has always struggled with: an insomniac conscience. A conscience that is still wide-eyed in the wee hours of the morning. Your pillow becomes like a cloud-based storage service, so that when your head hits it, all the data of past misdeeds downloads into the computer of your mind, and you spend hour upon hour surfing through the sins of your past. Or perhaps it is only The Sin of your past. That one so-called secret that bedevils you.

I want to talk to you about that, but let me do so by reminding you of a story—a story about a band of brothers who struggled with insomniac consciences of their own.

The Band of Unbrotherly Brothers

These brothers, the sons of Jacob, hadn’t seen their younger brother, Joseph, in over two decades. He was barely old enough to shave when they, fueled by jealousy and hatred, had sold him to slave-traders then covered up their crime by faking his death. For all they knew, Joseph was nothing but dust in the Egyptian wind by now, driven into an early grave by the rigors of servitude.

But dead or alive, Joseph was certainly a daily, living reality in the consciences of his brothers. Twenty two years after they’d tossed him into a pit, his cries for mercy were still echoing in the depths of their souls. Twenty two years after they’d sat around that pit and ate a meal together, they could still taste the bitter memory of their heartless deed. Their shared secret stalked them night and day.

So pervasive was its influence upon them that when trouble befell them, they traced its ultimate source to the betrayal of their brother. When, unbeknownst to them, they finally kneeled before long-lost Joseph in Egypt and he accused them of being spies and demanded they bring their youngest brother down to Egypt as proof of their honesty, they lamented to one another, “‘Truly we are guilty concerning our brother [Joseph], because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us,’” (Gen 42:21). In their minds, that dirty little secret from over two decades earlier was coming back to haunt them.

The Hand that Holds the Healing Medicine

I know how those brothers felt. I feel much more kinship with Joseph’s brothers than I do with Joseph, because I too have betrayed, hurt, lied, covered up, and then been haunted by my sin for years afterward. And if you’re one with an insomniac conscience, I bet you feel that same kinship. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve whispered in my grief, “Truly I am guilty concerning _______; therefore this distress has come upon me.” My dirty little secret, which was never truly a secret at all, only dirty, only unclean, became the touchstone whereby I interpreted everything from the failure of my marriage to contracting the common cold. Everything bad that happened to me was because of that bad thing I had done.

I wish I could tell you that I am all better now, that my life is completely transformed, and that dirty little secret never plagues me anymore. But that would be stretching the truth. What I can tell you is this: on a daily basis, ever so slowly, I am being healed. And I can also tell you this: on a daily basis, hour by hour, the great Physician of soul and body stretches out His healing hand to you as well, in which He holds the medicine that will indeed rock your world.

When that divine hand unfolds you’ll find a truth tattooed there that seems so shocking, so liberating that at first you’ll swear it cannot be true. It is a mere five words, but in these words are compressed five universes of hope, five galaxies of comfort, packed with promises the human mind cannot fathom. The words are simply these: Your Sins Do Not Exist.

What? How can that be? Your sins do not exist because He who called heaven and earth into existence, has called your sins out of existence. He who made everything from nothing unmakes your sins into nothing. He who formed man from the dirt of the earth takes the dirt of your sin and uncreates it, unforms it, undoes it. They are no more. Your Sins Do Not Exist.

Only God can do that because only God took possession of your sins and declared them His own. He took them away from you and He won’t give them back. He ate them. He chewed them up. He swallowed them, digested them, and in the acid of His suffering they were transformed into something that is not. On the cross He undid everything evil that you have done. Are you a murderer? No you’re not because Jesus became the murderer. Are you an adulterer? No you’re not because Jesus became the adulterer. Are you a liar, a cheat, a betrayer of family, a child molester, an abortion doctor, a combatant in ISIS? No you’re not because Jesus became all these and more when He was crucified. What happened on the cross of Jesus completely changed reality. God became the sinner, God became the sin, and we in that God, Jesus Christ, become the saint, the forgiven, the children of our heavenly Father.

The God who did all this calls you to repentance, to leave behind the world of unreality, a world of wallowing in that which only does you harm. Perhaps you have done this and still your sins bother you. Perhaps you have confessed a hundred times and still they plague you. These are the phantom pains, akin to those experienced by amputees, who feel that which does not exist in reality. That is why I said, in my own life, daily, ever so slowly, I am being healed. The phantom pains of guilt still resurface, so I continue to return again and again to that tattooed hand which reads, “Your Sins Do Not Exist.” They have been cut away. They are no more. There are no secrets, dirty or otherwise. God has brought that darkness into the light of His presence, and when He did, the darkness disappeared. When God’s light shines on us all that He sees in us is Jesus. In Him and in Him alone are we made whole.

The sons of Jacob, the brothers of Joseph, were eventually restored. Joseph told them, “Do not be afraid,” (Gen 50:21). He had forgiven them. Their sins no longer existed. So Jesus, the greater Joseph, says to us, “Do not be afraid. I have done everything for you. It is complete. You have no secrets. You have no sins. You have only me. And in me you have God. And in God you have everything and more. Your sins may not exist, but you do—you who are the most precious thing in the heavens and the earth to me.”

This is the good news, the ultimate good news for all of us.

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

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

Is Your Sunday School Training Good Little Pharisees?

SundaySchoolEvery night my son and daughter would snuggle beside me on the couch and listen as I read a story to them from a children’s Bible. On one page was colorful artwork depicting the Israelites walking between the high wet walls of the Red Sea, or Daniel in a den of sleeping lions, and on the facing page was a digest version of the account. Story by story we’d work our way through the tales of Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Isaiah, all the way to the parables and miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus. Then we’d start over again.

What I didn’t tell my children was a little secret: I was not really reading these stories to them word for word. Quite a bit of the time I was only pretending to read, since I was editing the stories on the fly.

You see, while many of these summaries accurately reflected the biblical story, others accurately reflected the unbiblical opinions of the people who put the book together. To give but one example, when the story of Cain and Abel was retold, the summary described the brothers in this way: “The first children of Adam and Eve were Cain and Abel…Cain was cruel and Abel was kind.” After telling of their respective sacrifices, the book continues, “When God saw that Cain’s heart was full of evil, He was not pleased with his gifts. But God was pleased with Abel’s gifts because his heart was full of goodness, and he offered his gifts to God with a better spirit.”

This retelling is not merely a simplifying of the account to a child’s level; it stinks of moralism. There is never any mention in the Scriptures of Abel being “kind” or having a “heart full of goodness” or a “better spirit” than his brother. The only biblical reason ever explicitly stated for God’s acceptance of his offering was that it was offered “by faith,” (Hebrews 11:4). The impression any child would receive upon reading this digest version is that if you’re a kind boy or girl, and have a good heart, then God will be pleased with you, too. If you’re good like Abel, God will accept you; if you’re like bad like Cain, God will reject you. In short, summaries like this one would provide excellent training material for Pharisees.

If such training material were isolated to children’s Bible story books, then at least we parents could edit the material as we read. But what happens when you send your child to Sunday School and they’re taught essentially the same moralistic version of the Cain and Abel story? Or that God chose Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and all the other big names of the OT because they were good men, while God rejected others because they were bad men? What happens, in short, when our children are taught to read the Scriptures as evidence that God is a heavenly Santa Claus, finding out who’s been naughty or nice, then rewarding or punishing them accordingly? What happens is that Sunday School becomes a breeding ground for the same twisted view of God made infamous by the Pharisees.

The Pharisees were the religious superstars of Jesus’ day. When our Lord called them hypocrites, He didn’t mean that they were mere pretenders. On the contrary, they were meticulous in their own brand of religious observance. They went out of their way to observe God’s laws; indeed, they were spiritual over-achievers, outwardly doing even more than the laws demanded. They were hypocrites (literally “play-actors”) because they were like actors on the stage, performing both for God and for their fellow men, doing all their deeds “to be seen by others,” (Matthew 23:5). They wanted heaven and earth to see what a fine job they were doing of being moral, upright, religiously observant Jews. They thanked God that they were not like other, less righteous men (Luke 18:9-14). And, most importantly, they believed that God’s acceptance of them, indeed, God’s jubilation over them, was based upon their observance of His laws. The Pharisees thought they were good, and because they were good, God was good to them. What they failed to realize was that the very law that they thought justified them actually condemned them. They were like “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness,” (Matthew 23:28).

When our children are taught that God’s law is something that can be kept; when the commandments are presented to them as the means whereby they can get on God’s good side; when the impression is given that Jesus came to earth to help us be better people; then our kids are being spoon-fed the theological poison of the Pharisees.

It is imperative, therefore, that when we are teaching biblical stories—at home, in Sunday School, in children’s sermons, from the pulpit—that we train our own minds to have the mind of Christ, that through our words the Spirit might form that same mind in our children. Jesus showed His disciples how all of Scripture, everywhere, deals only with Him. Beginning with Moses and continuing to all the Prophets, He interpreted all the Scriptures in relation to Himself (Luke 24:27). The entire Bible, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, is about Jesus, His saving work, His Gospel.

In order that we might teach the Scriptures in this way, here are three questions that help orient our minds in that direction, questions that we ought to ask of every biblical story.

  1. Where does this story fit within the framework of God’s larger story of salvation that culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Every narrative in the Old Testament is part of the story of Jesus. God is guiding history towards the defining moment when, in the fullness of time, He sends His Son. No story, therefore, stands alone. It is part of a larger narrative. Rather than isolating each story, help children see where it fits in the bigger picture of salvation. The story of Cain and Abel is part of the story of “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel,” (Hebrews 12:24).
  1. How does this story exemplify our need for salvation? In other words, how does it reveal what the commandments themselves reveal, namely, that we have not and cannot keep God’s law? Rather than focusing upon how good or bad a biblical character is, focus instead of how we see ourselves in each character. How am I, too, like Cain, plagued by jealousy or anger? Cain was a murderer, but I am guilty of the same offense, for “everyone who hates his brother is a murderer,” (1 John 3:15). The Bible is not an instruction manual, a moral guide, full of stories that help our children grow up to be good citizens. It is the Spirit’s word whereby He reveals our sin, calls us to repentance, and gives us Jesus. Let us ask every story, therefore, how it shows us all that we need Christ and His saving work.
  1. How in this story is Christ speaking of Himself to His church? In other words, where is the Gospel in this account? It doesn’t matter if the story is about Cain or Abel, Ruth or Sarah, David or Methuselah, it is really about the crucified and resurrected Christ. The Good News is just as much in the Old Testament as in the New Testament. Teach the biblical stories in such a way that children learn that in Christ they have a righteousness that is not based on the law but on Him. Teach them not that they are good, but that Christ has been good for them, and in Him, they are declared good and holy before God in heaven. Each story, even those that seem to be full of nothing but darkness and dread, proclaim Christ and His salvation in their own way. Read this article for one example of how Christ is hidden within a difficult OT story. And read this article for further ideas on how to teach that Christ is speaking of Himself in OT narratives.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me,” (Matthew 19:14). Let the little children who gather around the Sunday School table come to Jesus through every story they study. Let them come to Jesus when reading about Cain and Abel, Moses and Joshua, David and Goliath. Rather than training good little Pharisees, let us rear our children as forgiven sinners, justified saints, sons and daughters of our heavenly Father, who come to Jesus and find in Him rest and comfort and love.

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

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

Here’s What Happened on the Day of My Funeral

No event in my life has proven to be of more lasting significance than my funeral.

I remember it well. The church, the pastor, my family, but especially the grave.
Some say that I should live like I’m dying, as if that’s the secret to a happy life.
But that won’t do for me.
I will not, I cannot, live like I’m dying because I’ve already died. I’ve had my funeral.

I was young, but no so young that I can’t recall the particulars. I was robed in white, like the martyrs. There were steps going down, down into the grave. It was wet, the water in the tomb cold as it slowly enveloped my body. The pastor put a hand over my mouth, another between my shoulder blades, and backward I fell into the dark waters, buried beneath Noah’s flood, the Red Sea, Jordan’s stream, all the way down into a borrowed tomb outside Jerusalem where a crucified man lay waiting for me. I opened my eyes under the water and beheld him. He was reaching for me. He took my hand.

He spoke, “Chad, do you know where you are?”
I said, “Sir, you know.”
And he smiled as no man has ever smiled.
Then he said to me, “Arise.”

The surface of the grave exploded. Water rippling like an earthquake around me. Angels winged their way around the sanctuary, belting out Alleluias. Smoke was filling the church from the incense of the saints. God above was splitting the veil twixt heaven and earth to say, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

baptismI opened my eyes to a funeral gone bad. Or rather, gone good. For I had died, been buried, and now stood alive for the first time in my life on the Easter side of Good Friday, wearing the skin of God’s Son, feeling the beat of his blood pumping in my heart, the breath of his Spirit in my lungs.
I was a living man.
I was past death.
I was now in Christ.

Since my watery funeral, when I died to sin and rose in Christ, I do not live like I’m dying. I live as one who has already died and whose life is hidden with Christ in God.

What is baptism? It is this.

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

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

Dream Small: The Joy of an Unaccomplished Life

dream-smallWe were probably watching cartoons, or sitting in a Kindergarten class, the first time we were urged to live a life defined by accomplishments. It begins early, this cultural indoctrination. We are told to live life in such a way that each chapter in our biography is something to boast about: “Chad’s Football Team Wins State,” “Chad Graduates with Honors,” “Chad Lands a Job with a Fortune 500 Company,” “Chad Promoted to Management,” and so forth. Whatever path you follow, you are told to dream big, to be all that you can be, to earn trophies that serve as icons of what’s made your life a life worth living.

None of these accomplishments come easy, or without sacrifices. When I was working toward my Ph.D., I spent four days a week apart from my family. And when I was home, I was present in body but absent in mind, always thinking about the next paper I had to write, the next book I had to read. If you’re moving up the corporate ladder, saying no to upper management is not an option, even if that means you miss your daughter’s dance recital or your son’s playoff game to attend yet another meeting or close yet another deal. To fulfill that dream of hearing your song on the radio, or playing for a professional team, or becoming a tenured professor, plan on losing lots of sleep, lots of family time, lots of little moments along the way that all add up to a substantial part of your life.

In the end, you’ll have your degree, your career, your celebrity status, or your six figure income. Your big dreams will come true. You will be an accomplished person, so it’ll all be worth it. Or will it?

The answer to that question depends on what you want to define your life. There was a time when I would have said, “Yes, by all means, the sacrifices are all worth it.” But that was a time when I was blind to how much I was missing. If I could rewind my life, and go back twenty years, I would dream small and relish the joys of an unaccomplished life.

“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life,” St. Paul urges (1 Thess 4:11) in what is arguably one of the most un-American verses in all the New Testament. Those words have become almost a mantra for me. I must say them over and over to silence the lifelong indoctrination I have received from a culture that worships those who do big things and urges us all to do the same. “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” These words are, I believe, a call for a radical reorientation of our lives away from dreaming big to dreaming small.

To lead a quiet life doesn’t mean that you lower your expectations as much as you lower your gaze. Instead of looking up to the next accomplishment, the next rung on the ladder, you look down at the daily life you live, the children God has given you, the spouse by your side, your aging parents, your dear friends, the poor and needy—all those “little things” you miss when you’re always looking up to the “next big thing” in your life.

I am forty four years old this year. The first half of my adult life was spent dreaming big, acquiring trophies that now gather dust and serve as nothing more than icons of lost loves and lost years. I can’t get those years back. I can’t undo the damage my ambition caused. But I can make it my ambition to lead a quiet life from now on.

I will seek joy, and find it, in those little moments that add up to a lifetime. I hope and pray you do the same.

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

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

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