Archive for the month “February, 2015”

We Need Less Goliath, and More Bathsheba

I wrote this article for Liberate.org, the website associated with the ministry of Tullian Tchividjian. If it piques your interest, please click on the link below to read the rest of the article. And check out Liberate’s website while you’re there. Loads of grace-centered resources on those pages.

five-stones-a-sling2When I was a kid, I roamed the alleys and nearby fields with a pocket full of pebbles and a slingshot in hand. My grandfather had carved me the slingshot from the fork of a mesquite tree, native to our New Mexico soil. I’d even burned my name into the wood using the sun and a magnifying glass. As you might expect, my favorite Sunday School story was David and Goliath. In my make-believe world, I was that boy from Bethlehem, and sparrows the Philistine giants. It felt good to be the hero who takes down the foe. I was but a boy. I was new to the world. I loved Bible stories about saints who conquered.

When I became a man, I roamed the highways and byways of this world with a pocketful of dreams and a degree in my hand. There were ladders to climb, and I climbed them. I carved out a place for myself in this world. I had a bright, secure future. My favorite Bible story remained David and Goliath, for I saw myself in him, conquering this, and overcoming that. I was the boy from Bethlehem, only now a man, and giants were my prey. It felt good to be on top, making my place in the world. I still loved Bible stories about saints who conquered.

You know where this story is going, don’t you? You can feel it in your gut. Who knows, maybe I’m in the middle of telling your story. Let’s make it our story, why don’t we. And let’s tell it like it is.

When I became a man, I became a man like David. Like the David who, instead of going out to war, stayed home and fell prey to lust, to fear, to lies, to murder, to cover-up, and finally to repentance and forgiveness. When I became a man, I became a man like Noah, who planted a vineyard, got wasted, and fell asleep naked as a jaybird. When I became a man, I became a man like Abraham, who lied about his wife and put her life and chastity in danger just to save his own neck. When I became a man, I became a man like Judah the prostitute-user, Aaron the idol-maker, Gideon the doubter, and the list goes on and on. “Show me a hero,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “and I’ll write you a tragedy.” Show me a prideful man, I would add, and I’ll write about his downfall.

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

The Dark Sacraments in My Jail Cell

My dad had warned me that this might happen, but I don’t suppose I fully believed him at the time. But sure enough, he was spot on. Here I was, in broad daylight, on a winding web of dirt roads I’d driven over a thousand times, and I was as lost as lost can be.

For the past two years, when the sun had set, I’d head to work. Driving a truck on the night shift in the Texas oil field means (1) you’re thrown out into no-man’s land; (2) given hand-drawn maps with landmarks like windmills, pump jacks, and trees; and (3) expected to find a handful of gas wells. After a few godawful weeks, you begin to get a feel for the dark. You familiarize yourself with the black terrain, the serpentine ruts, the landmarks on which your headlights shine. The darkness becomes your home.

Which is why, on that sunny day in the summer of 2009, I sat in the cab of my truck utterly befuddled. I had switched from the night to the day shift. I did the same work, drove the same areas. But just like my dad had warned me, none of these roads looked the same in the daytime. I didn’t realize how accustomed I’d grown to the darkness until the day I was lost in the light.

Nor did I realize, at that time, that my life had taken on the form of a parable, that I had become (what Scripture calls) a child of darkness. You may think you know what I mean, but reflect with me for a moment. I don’t mean simply that I “loved the darkness rather than the light because my deeds were evil,” as Jesus says (John 3:19). While that is true, there was deeper magic at work. I loved the darkness because I feared all the good things in the light.

It’s easier to hunker down in darkness when you want to bite at old wounds. You may hate them, but those wounds are also precious to you. They take on almost sacramental value. “Take, bite, this old wound,” you tell yourself, “given for you for the retaining of pain.” To live and relive that loss, that shame, helps define you. You are the betrayed one, the hurt one, the lost one. If you go into the light, and Jesus licks that wound for you, it will truly begin to heal. But healing will mean you lose that evil by which you understood your existence. Who you are will no longer be defined by circumstances you think you control. You will, in fact, lose your self-created identity in the Christ who swallows you into himself, so that you become as he is. In the darkness, it’s easier to be the old you; in the light, you become a new you, a member of the body of Christ. As good as that is, to a son of darkness, nothing is more frightening.

jailcellIn the darkness, it was easier to make-believe that I exercised a sort of divine control over my life. In the light is freedom, but I preferred the narrowly defined, clearly articulated, walls of my lightless jail cell. Here I could conduct my rituals of wound-biting, skirt-chasing, revenge-plotting, alcohol-forgetting, porn-watching, hope-hating, and a host of other mental and physical forms of slavery. But those were better than living in the light, because in the light I would be free—free to hope again, love again, live again in the grace and forgiveness of the God who won’t let me be god.

I loved the darkness because I feared all the good things in the light. Like that day I sat in my truck cab, lost as I looked over a landscape illumined by the sun, the man who has grown accustomed to the darkness is frightened of freedom. Freedom means I am not shackled anymore to what hurt me, or how I hurt others, but live in unchained liberty in a landscape of grace. You cannot truly get lost in the light, yet this is a frightening thing to one who likes being lost. You cannot be unloved in the light, yet this is scary to one who believes himself unlovable, loved with qualifications, loved so long as he conforms. You are forgiven in the light, yet there is a certain twisted consolation in thinking I am unforgiven, because that sin to which I’m bound is a drug to which I’m addicted.

I will tell you the truth: living in the darkness is easier than living in the light, but it is an ease that slowly chokes every ounce of life away. I know, I know too well, for that darkness was my foul jail cell for years. I scratched my creeds onto the floor. I bit my wounds. I celebrated my profane mysteries within those blackened walls. And I feared the light and freedom and love and forgiveness of life in the light, of a life inextricably bound up in the life of Jesus Christ.

But he would not let the jail cell be my final resting place, nor will he let it be yours. He leaps into the darkness with his wild and reckless love. He enters our cells that reek of decomposing lives, and he pulls us up from the floors on which we crouch in fear. He pries open our fingers to take away the idols to which we cling. He pours over our heads a bucket of warm, soapy water, mixed with his crucifixion blood, and he washes away every smudge of sin and stink and death. And finally, he picks us up and carried us out into the light. At first, it hurts. It’s blinding. It’s too free. But he won’t let us go. He holds us there. To our trembling hearts, he whispers, “Listen, I love you. I have never stopped loving you. All is well now. You are forgiven. Your past no longer defines you. I define you, for you are mine. All I have is yours. My peace, my hope, my Father, my everything is yours. You are free.”

Yes, you are free. In Christ, our crucified Brother, we are liberated to be the children of our heavenly Father. To run and laugh on the playground of his grace. To see on his face nothing but a beaming smile of favor. To be blessedly lost in a love that knows no limitations. All this is yours, for you are of Christ, and Christ is of God, and God is all for you.

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

The Bible Story That Goes All Wrong

adamevefigleavesI wasn’t wearing fig leaves for underwear, but I’d just as well have been. That day I felt more like Adam than I ever had before, or since. The forbidden fruit, far from digesting, sat like a rock on the bottom of my gut. The man who stood before me was my boss. I was in his office to come clean, to tell him what I’d done. I’d lied to him before, lied to his face. And I was afraid. O dear God, was I afraid. I was afraid of him. I was afraid of myself. I was afraid of the truth. I tell you, I was afraid of damn near everything. Most of all, I was afraid of how he would react.

I soon found out. I told him what I’d done. How I’d lied. How I’d broken the commandment. How I’d listened to the serpent, plucked the fruit, and loved the taste of it so much that I’d gorged myself. I had prepared himself for his anger. I knew it was coming. And I deserved every bit of it. If he had wagged his finger in my face, shoved me out the door, and told me to get the hell out of there and never come back, I wouldn’t have been surprised. In fact, I think I would have been a little relieved. At least then, I would have convinced myself that I’d paid for a tiny bit of my sin by suffering such rejection.

His reaction was totally wrong. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. When I’d finished confessing, he didn’t start yelling. Out of his mouth came words like forgiveness, grace, Christ, clean slate. He was saying all the wrong things. This isn’t how bosses are supposed to speak. They’re supposed to hammer out words like deserve, punishment, consequences, disappointment. He didn’t. He shocked me by being gracious to me. He spoke as a father would to his son. And this son, who heard those paternal words of grace and absolution, would, to this day, relive that moment time and again as one of the most defining moments of his life. That day, instead of getting what I deserved, I received nothing but love.

I may have walked into that office wearing fig leaves, but I walked out clothed in the skin of the Lamb of God.

The story of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to go, either. It’s all wrong. When God enters the garden that infamous day, he’s supposed to march in with an iron hand and a tongue pulled back, ready to lash. After all, he had given his children everything; they wanted for nothing. Yet these stupid, selfish people do what stupid, selfish people always do: they go and ruin it all. What they needed was punishment—swift, complete, merciless justice. They had it coming. That’s the way things were supposed to go.

But they don’t. In God’s first question to fallen humanity, he asks, “Where are you?” And in that question—merely one word in Hebrew—is packed a whole theology of who God is.

Where are you? God wasn’t seeking information; he knew where they were. He was fully aware of what they’d done. He was also fully aware of the fallout from this fall. Yet he asks, “Where are you?” Just as he will later ask murdering Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” or hating Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry?” or persecuting Saul, “Why do you persecute me?” In these questions is the answer. The answer is a confession, a repentance, an embrace of the forgiveness offered and bestowed by the God who seeks and saves the lost.

The story of Genesis 3 doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to, the way I expect it to, because God works contrary to my expectations. I expect wrath and he pours out mercy. I expect judgment and he speaks absolution. I expect the end and he gives me a new beginning.

The Lord does indeed go on to tell Adam and Eve that things will not be in this world as they were before. There will be pain in childbirth. There will be thorns and thistles and sweat on the brow. When I left my boss’s office that day, there were still pains in my life; I still bear the scars of the thorns and thistles. But I bear something better, too, as did our first parents. I bear a promise from the God who is love, that in love he has provided a Seed who crushed the head of the lying viper, a Seed who sucked up into his heel the death that I deserved, that he might pour into me the life that I don’t deserve.

That promise makes all the difference. It is the promise that God in Christ does not desire the death of a sinner, but that he turn from his evil way and live. It is the promise that God does not deal with us according to our sins, but is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

I hope one day that God asks me, “Chad, where are you?” I know what I’ll tell him, “Father, I am right here, in your Son, Jesus Christ. That’s where I am.”

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

An Address to the Graduating Devils of Discordia Seminary

Graduation-HatThis is in an excerpt from a speech delivered to the graduating class of Discordia Seminary. After some preliminary remarks, the speaker, a renowned devil named Lietongue, went on to say the following.

Brothers, the rich and diverse education you have received has more than adequately prepared you for the ministry of temptation to which you have been called. Besides your core classes on Twisting Scripture and Introducing Heresy, you have also studied Immorality Rationalization, the Inculcation of Church Division, and much more. All of these will, of course, aid you in your service to our Father below.

Some of you, however, may be floundering in this vast sea of knowledge. You’re wondering, “How will I ever keep it all straight?” To assist you, therefore, allow me to take this opportunity to summarize for you the three main objectives of your office. I assure you that if you keep this triad of goals ever before your eyes, you will successfully shepherd your flock into the arms of our Master.

  1. With regard to evil, your objective is not merely to tempt humans to do bad things. Yes, of course, there is profit in theft and adultery and such, but only if you follow through to the next step. A murderer, for instance, is no good to you if he later regrets his action and return to the Enemy. What have you then accomplished? In fact, that murderer may well be even harder for us to reach if he confessed to the Foe and tasted the poison of his forgiveness. Your first goal, therefore, is not simply to lure people into evil, but once they have committed some wrong, to convince them that they are so bad, so corrupted, so shamed, that the Enemy wants nothing to do with them anymore. Enlarge upon their guilt. Emphasize divine justice. Erase the word “Father” from their hearts and in its place write, “Judge.”
  1. With regard to good, your objective is not merely to prevent humans from doing what is right. In fact, it can be to your advantage when they are engaged in so-called righteous deeds. There will be occasions when you applaud their efforts to be faithful spouses, loving parents, hard workers, and the like. Coopt these good works. Use them to your advantage. Tell the humans that the more they do for their God, the more their God will love them. In so doing, ever so subtly, you will begin to convince them that there is a direct correlation between his acceptance of them and their performance of good. Pride will naturally grow from this assumption, as will their understanding of their status before him. Before long, every good deed will, in their mind, move them closer to their Lord. At the same time, they will begin to disdain those whom they see as morally inferior to themselves. As you know, we were able to do much in this respect with the Pharisees. Make it your goal to breed more Pharisees for the church. People will do good things; make sure those good things become the source of their hope for divine approval.
  1. Finally, and most importantly, there is that sinister proclamation of our Enemy that you must silence at all costs. You know what I’m talking about. Every class at Discordia Seminary is crafted so as to aid you in muting, corrupting, and twisting this message. Our Foe claims that because of the death and resurrection of he-who-will-not-be-named, he has already made everything right between him and humanity. In his words, he has “reconciled the world to himself.” He claims to love them unconditionally, forgive them freely, welcome them wholeheartedly, all because of this so-called son. Thankfully, this proclamation is not only foolish to us; it is diametrically opposed to human experience as well. It is unreasonable to them that an innocent man should die in the stead of guilty men, that they should be loved even while they hated the lover. Your daily task is to undermine what our Enemy calls “grace.” Redefine it as “spiritual power.” Reinterpret it as “earned acceptance.” Make it contingent upon human cooperation. Warn that its promulgation will produce lawlessness. I don’t care how you attack it, just that you attack it. If there is one overarching purpose of your calling, one primary reason for the existence of your office, it is the eradication of the message that our Enemy is defined by grace.

Brothers, I applaud the work you have done to reach this milestone. The world is waiting for you. Go forth and labor zealously. Our Father will be watching.

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

The Altar with a Diesel Engine

Everybody knows that you’re not supposed to run into a burning building, but they did anyway. Courageous souls, these country folk. A bolt of lightning fell from heaven and lit up the steeple of their sanctuary. But even as the flames danced above their heads, in they ran. Farmers lifted pews. Women scooped up hymnals. Children grabbed what they could. Finally, a group of men hefted the altar and, amidst a fiery rain of embers and through clouds of smoke, they rushed it outside. As the bonfire raged into the night, and board upon board dissolved into ash, the band of believers stood in that red Oklahoma dirt around an altar that no longer had a church.

By the time a young pastor named Chad Bird, fresh from the seminary, arrived to serve these believers, that fiery night was part of the local lore. The new church they had built in town had long housed the pews and hymnals and altar from their former sanctuary. The acrid smell of smoke had dissipated. The altar bore fresh paint. I stood before that selfsame altar, Sunday after Sunday, to offer prayers, to serve the Supper, to declare Christ’s word, to fulfill my vocation. But, for some reason, in the back of my mind, this altar always seemed to whisper to me that it had once stood under a roof of stars, in the dirt. It had been an altar without a church.

Time like an ever flowing stream has washed me downriver since those years I stood before that altar in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Wellston, Oklahoma. But it’s as fresh in my mind as if I ministered before it yesterday. And, these many years later, I think now I realize why it whispered its story to me. Why I couldn’t forget that it had once stood in the dirt. Why it had stars for a roof. I think perhaps the Lord who governs my life with an unseen hand, was ever so gently reminding me even then that not every altar sits within a sanctuary.

dieselengineEvery morning I arise, get dressed, and go to work as a priest who serves at an altar without a church. And whether you realize or not, you do, too. You might say that I lead a double life. I am what people see, and I am what they do not see. They see a man dressed in black shorts and a red shirt who pulls up at their place of business in an International truck pulling a 53’ trailer full of freight. They see me climb down from the tractor, use my pallet jack to move their merchandise onto the dock, visit with them while I’m working, get their signature, and wish them a good day as I climb back into the truck to move on down the road.

That is what they see. What they don’t see is a priest dressed in the white robes of the righteousness of Christ who pulls up at their place of business in an altar with a diesel engine. They don’t see me climb down from that altar and engage in a liturgy of labor in which I am but Christ’s hands and feet and mouth. They don’t see my work as an unsung hymn, my pallet jack as a sacred tool, my unloading as a sacrifice upon the altar of love. They don’t see that not every altar sits within a sanctuary.

And it is the same with you and your own double life—the life people see, the life unseen to all but God. What does your altar look like? A desk with a computer on it? A cash register with customers lining up to make their purchase? A dental chair with an open-mouthed patient staring up at you? A changing table with wet wipes and diapers on it? Where you labor in your vocation, where you serve as a baptized priest of Christ, where you are the hands and feet and mouth of our Lord to serve your neighbor in love—there is your altar, there is the place where the liturgy of daily life and the sacrifice of love is enacted.

The gifts of forgiveness and life and salvation which the Lord Jesus gives you from the altars in your churches, those gifts bear fruit outside the walls of the sanctuary. Christ goes homeward with you. You have died with him, risen with him, bear him within your own body, even as he bears you within his. You are a priest in him who is our great high priest. Sacred work you do, because it is Christ who does it in and through you. He serves the world via your hands and feet. Your altar may be a truck, a tractor, a classroom, a baby bed, a hospital bed. From that altar of your vocation Jesus serves the world whom he loves.

I thank God that I once stood before that altar at St. Paul’s. And I thank God for the story behind it, that it once stood in dirt, beneath the stars, as a reminder to me that not every priest serves in a sanctuary, and not every altar sits within a church.

How Delilah’s Razor Carved a Cross

samsonHere is the introduction to my article published today at Christ Hold Fast. If you’re interested in reading the entire article, click on the link at the bottom of the page.

Poor Samson, he always seems to make the list of bad role models in the Bible. He’s put out there as the ripped hippie who whacked Philistines, chased skirts, got his head shaved, and eventually got himself killed. For generations, Sunday School kids (including me) have been warned, “Samson was immoral. He didn’t take God’s rules seriously enough. If he had obeyed God, he could have done so much more good. Boys and girls, don’t be like Samson. Vow that you will follow God’s laws so he can use you to do great things for him.”

Ok, I’ll be blunt: such moral-centered Sunday School lessons are theological rubbish. But that’s not their only problem; they also assume the story is all about Samson. It’s not. It’s about the loving work of God in Samson’s life. He’s neither a bad role model nor a good one. He’s a child of our Father whom Christ shaped by a cross of suffering and grace. And, most importantly, Samson is little different from you.

Our Kinship with Samson
Most people picture Samson as an OT version of the bulked up meathead from the Planet Fitness commercials, but you may be surprised to hear that his size is never mentioned. Minus the long hair, he might have looked like the average Joe Israelite. Yes, of course, he’s very strong but that strength is from the Spirit, not his biceps. He’s an ordinary man with extraordinary strength–that’s all. In fact, he might have looked just like your brother or your son. Or you.

He certainly was like us in one respect: he knew what he wanted when he saw it. He saw a Philistine girl who looked good to him, so he told his parents he wanted her for a bride. Later, when his enemies deceived him, burned his wife and father-in-law to death, and had his own countrymen running scared, he saw red and let loose a bloodbath against his foes. He saw a prostitute he wanted, so he paid for her services. And finally he saw a woman he actually loved, Delilah, who wound up rewarding his love by accepting a cash reward from the Philistines to sell his secret. Samson knew what he wanted when he saw it, and most of the time, living by sight, he walked like a blind man straight into an ambush…

Read the rest of the article at Christ Hold Fast. Thanks!

Everything I Know About Worship I Learned from a Whore

I’ve had a handful of rather unusual teachers in my life. A shrimp of a man who’d been excommunicated from the Amish community for owning a stereo—he taught me how to shingle a roof. A wheelchair-bound country music singer and songwriter who penned one of George Strait’s hits—he taught me the fine art of woodwork. An ex-con with a string of DWI’s—he taught me the ins and outs of the work I did in the oilfield. You never know at whose feet you might learn something. I certainly never dreamed that I’d learn all about what Christian worship is from a prostitute.

The Prostitute Who Crashed the Party

She must have snuck in the house of Simon since she obviously wouldn’t have been welcomed otherwise. I can’t imagine how shocked this respectable Pharisee must have been to see that that kind of woman had crashed his party.

It was bad enough that she was there, but, dear God, what she did was even worse. A banquet was going on for the religious bigwigs in town. Their special guest that day was a newcomer named Jesus who’d been making waves amongst the Jews by doing and saying some rather unkosher things. He couldn’t be ignored so it was best to have him over and feel him out, to see what kind of man he really was.

prostituteweepingatjesusfeetThis woman, what does she do to Jesus? He’s reclining at table, as the Jews were wont to do at their banquets, lying on his side with his feet outstretched behind him. And this whore, she appears out of nowhere, and starts crying over the feet of Jesus, drenching them with her tears. But she doesn’t stop there. She uses her hair as a towel to wipe clean his dirty feet, kisses them, and tops it all off by pouring perfume over them.

Now think about this. Those eyes, which had viewed countless men naked in her bed, drip tears that wet the feet of the Son of God. That hair, which had been splayed behind her as she lay there offering her sexual services, wipes down the feet at which angels offer adoration. Those hands, which had undressed strangers, touched their privates, held a few coins in exchange for their orgasms, those unclean, immoral, shameful hands cradled the feet of the most holy Messiah. And those lips, which had…well, done what whores do with their mouths, those lips touched the skin of the pure and spotless Lord of heaven and earth. Scandalous is too mild a term for what went down here. This was an outrage.

And these scandalous, outrageous acts of a whore are a beautiful, sacred picture of what worship is. This woman is our rabbi. Christ reveals through her what kind of worship he desires.

The Highest Way of Worshiping Jesus is to Receive

She comes to Jesus with nothing he needs, but needing everything from him. If she brings anything, it is faith—faith which itself is a gift of God. She is defiled and unclean, with her heart’s closet full of skeletons, yet still she comes. She is a pariah in polite society, shunned by the religious do-gooders, yet still she comes. She has no good works to place upon the altar of God, yet still she comes. Nothing, she comes to him who is everything. And in so doing, this most unlikely teacher makes us her students. She who wept upon, dried, and anointed those feet of Jesus—at her feet we now sit to learn what true worship is.

Consider what Jesus says. When Simon the Pharisee got his holier-than-thou panties in a wad over what this woman was doing, Jesus insulted him by pointing out how much a better host this prostitute was than he was. He was a guest in this Pharisees’ home, yet Simon had not washed his feet, had not kissed him, had not anointed his head. Yet this woman did what she did. But the real question is why. Why did she do what she did? Because she believed that he forgave her; and because of that faith, she loved Jesus. “Her sins,” Jesus says, “which are many, have been forgiven, because she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Then to this prostitute, Jesus says, “Your sins have been forgiven…Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

The highest way of worshiping Jesus is to receive from him what this woman received: the forgiveness of sins. Of all the acts of worship in which she could engage, none was greater than coming to Jesus with faith, knowing and believing that he loved her, accepted her, forgave her, and sent her on her way in peace. Her weeping, drying, anointing—all of those were beautiful, meaningful acts of worship, but they were not the greatest. The highest act of worship is not even an act we do; it is a gift we receive.

The Prostitute in the Pew

Every Sunday, when I enter the Lord’s house, an unseen prostitute sits in the pew with me. She doesn’t say a word, but she teaches me throughout the service. No one sees her, but her every act is a lesson to me. I come to my Lord with a heart full of skeletons; I come to him as one shunned by many, especially the spiritual elite; I come to him with no righteousness of my own but gobs upon gobs of unrighteousness; I come to him with nothing, and he gives me everything. He weeps over me with tears of love and bathes away the dirt of my immorality. He wipes clean my feet, my hands, my face, my heart and soul. He anoints me with the oil of the Spirit. He bids me recline at his own table and dine on heaven’s food, drink to the dregs the bloody wine of the Father’s love. Oh, I respond. I pray, I sing, I praise, I confess. But my response, a loving and grateful response, is nothing compared to what Jesus does for me. He forgives. He gives. He floods me with gifts beyond telling, all of which flow from his cross and tomb, onto and into my open mouth, my outstretched hands, my thirsty soul.

The Daughter of God

I’ve had a handful of rather unusual teachers in my life. But none quite like her. None like the woman who taught me that the highest act of worship is not to serve God, but to be served by God; not to give to him but receive from him. Oh, how strange and wonderful our faith is, that everything I know about worship I learned from a prostitute who is the forgiven daughter of our Lord of love.

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

Who Are You? Why Are You Here?

This is my article that was published yesterday at Liberate.org. If you’re not familiar with the website, check it out. It’s an invaluable resource for the church. 

Mark Twain would have been proud of me. He once quipped that the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you figure out why. Not only had I figured out why I came into this world; my answer defined me. It furnished me with an identity. It told me what was most important in life. It oriented my relationship with everyone from my God to my boss to my wife. I had figured out why I was born into this world. But, in a sad irony, that answer that identity that purpose, eventually led to a day during which I wished that I’d never been born to begin with (more on that in a moment).

Why are you here? Why did God knit you together in your mother’s womb? What is the goal or purpose of your existence? To those questions, I would have responded that I was born on May 30, 1970 to be a doer, an achiever, and a go-getter. There was work to be done, and God put me here on earth to do it. That was my chief end, the reason God made me. God created Chad Bird in order that he might have another person to labor. Because of that, my work defined me. If I wasn’t actively doing something, I felt useless. And the things I did, in particular, serving on the faculty of a seminary, gave shape to my self-understanding. If you’d have asked, “Who are you?” I wouldn’t have said, “I’m a child of our Father in Heaven,” but “I’m a servant of the sovereign Lord.” To work was why I was here; work gave me purpose; work gave me identity.

Maybe you’ve been there. You worked your fingers to the bone to build a successful business from the ground up. You poured your life into a ministry that now serves hundreds or even thousands of people. You got married, started a family, and now juggle carpools and meetings and backyard BBQs. All of these are good things. But what if they are taken away? What if that business goes belly up? Your ministry falls apart? You find yourself widowed, or in divorce court? What happens to your identity when the work, the service by which you defined yourself, is in ruins?

One option is to pick yourself up from the ground, begin again, and find a new career or a new relationship or a new ministry by which you can redefine yourself. In so doing, you’ll return to work, to service, as the goal of your existence. Or while you’re lying in the dirt, you can pick up a handful of that dust, let it fall between your fingers, and see therein the stuff from which Adam was made. And you can ponder, in a new and fresh way, why God not only created him, but you as well.

That, in essence, is what happened to me. Through my fault, my own fault, my own most grievous fault, the perfect little world I had created crumbled around me. The career, the job, the marriage, the reputation—what I’d worked my whole adult life to attain—everything was gone. That is, all of my answers to the whys of life were gone. I was a man lost, lying in dust, wondering, “Who am I now? Why was I even born? What good can I do amidst these ruins?” But let me tell you, I ended up learning more about myself, and my God, in the dirt than I ever did at academic institutions. It turns out that suffering and loss and the demolition of self-created identities are a special kind of sanctuary of theological learning.

While lying for years in the dirt from which my first father was made, I discovered the reason that I was created, too. Adam was created, and I was created, and you were created, all for the same reason: because our Father willed us, spoke us, into existence. “Let us make man in our image,” God said (Gen. 1:26). “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him: male and female he created them,” (Gen. 1:27). Of course, there was work to be done, as there still is today: being fruitful and multiplying, exercising dominion, and whatsoever labors God gives us to do in this life. But that work is not the reason we exist. We are not here because God needed servants. We are not here because God needed glorifying. We are not here because God needed anything. We are here because the God who is love, who is our Father, who created all things in and by his Son, willed us to be hisbeloved children.

That realization is more than a game-changer; it’s a life-changer. At least it was for me. Before, I had thought that work was why I was here; it gave me purpose; it established my identity. But I was dead wrong. Sometimes the best way to discover our true identity is to experience the loss of our false identity. To have it “stolen” by a heavenly hand that takes away precisely in order that he might give something better in exchange. The identity God has given me is not that of a worker but a son. Because God is, I am. He who is love loved me into existence. If there’s one word by which my purpose in life is defined, the goal, the end, it is this word: Beloved. I am the beloved of God, the recipient of his grace in Jesus Christ, the son upon which he lavishes gift upon gift upon gift. He created me; he created all of us, in order that he might have children upon whom he could bestow his blessings.

Of course, we labor. We marry and raise children. We have jobs and careers and hobbies and do volunteer work. We glorify God and praise his name. We serve our neighbor. We do lots of things. But these things do not define who we are. Take them all away—family, career, job, friends, health, everything—and leave us naked and homeless and jobless and friendless. Who are we then? What defines us? We are who we were all along: we are the children of our heavenly Father in Christ Jesus.

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you figure out why. Well, not quite. The two most important days are the day you are “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), and the day you figure out that you were redeemed for the same reason you were created: to receive the good gifts of a good God who has done all good for you in the crucified and resurrected Son of God.

Who are you? Why are you here? You are the beloved of our Father in Christ. That’s why. And that makes all the difference in the world.

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

Sometimes God Wants Us to Shut Up

mouthsI know that we’re not supposed to tinker around with Bible verses, but there’s one in particular I wish I could edit. Instead of Solomon saying, “There’s a time to be silent and a time to speak,” my altered version would read “there are more times to be silent than there are to speak,” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). The Lord did indeed give us vocal cords, but, for better or worse, we do not come equipped with a mute button. Of course, many times this is a good thing. The tongue is a blessed instrument of encouragement and instruction and admonition. But there are other times, many other times, when the most loving, eloquent, humble speech is silence. At those times there’s no need to comment, preach, advise, but there is a dire need to shrink the mouth and expand the ears. Especially when God is at work, oftentimes the best activity is non-activity, the best speech is non-speech. Sometimes God just wants us to shut up.

I think of Peter, for instance, atop the mount of transfiguration. He and James and John are witness not only to a once-in-a-lifetime event, but a once-in-human-history event. Jesus’s clothes became radiant, as white as light, as no launderer on earth can whiten them. His face shown like he’d opened his mouth and swallowed the sun. And out of nowhere who should appear but Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus about his upcoming exodus in Jerusalem. If there was ever a time to be silent, this was it. Peter, James, and John: soak this all in, absorb every detail, memorize every word. Become nothing but eyes to see and ears to hear.

But in the middle of this breathtaking scene, what does Peter do? He starts jabbering, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,” (Mark 9:5). Mark says, “Peter didn’t know what to answer” because they were terrified. In his version of the account, Luke gently adds that Peter “didn’t realize what he was saying,” (9:33). No kidding. Really, Peter, you want to build tents? You want to do something besides sit there and drink in every word? You want to turn your back on this phenomenal epiphany of Jesus’ glory to hunt down sticks and branches? You want to interrupt the conversation with Jesus and Moses and Elijah to tell them what you’d like to do for them? I have a better idea: hurry up and do nothing. That’s the most important thing you can do right now. It is indeed good for you to be here. So just be there, simply shut up and be there.

I’m really preaching to myself more than to Peter or anyone else. And, if the shoe fits, you can take these words and apply them to yourself. I would have probably out-Petered Peter, walked up and interrupted the conversation to interrogate Moses about why he wrote parts of Genesis the way he did, or to ask Elijah what it was like to hitch a ride on a fiery chariot, and to seek permission from Jesus to write a blog post or hymn about this really awesome experience we’re having on the mountain.

We feel this need to speak. We sense this urgency to act. We are talkers and doers. It gives us a sense of involvement, of importance, probably even of control. To just sit there, watch, listen, receive—these easiest things are the hardest things. Yet in that sitting and watching and listening and receiving, we are in the perfect position for God to do His acting and seeking and speaking and giving.

Back on the mount of transfiguration, a cloud formed and enveloped them all. And from that cloud came the Father’s voice, “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him!” He said it to Peter. And to James and John and all of us. Listen to Jesus.

Jesus didn’t need a tent atop that mountain. He didn’t need for Peter and his buddies to build him anything, to say anything, to do anything. Then and there, all they needed to do was nothing. Jesus was doing all the doing, speaking all the speaking.

There is, of course, a time and a place for responding to the words of God. We say our Amens and Hallelujahs. We sing our songs and preach our sermons. We recite our prayers and creeds. But the most important times when we are in the presence of God is when we are all ears, all eyes, all mouth. And when we, like baby birds with mouths open wide, receive from our giving Lord the food and drink of grace. When we have our ears stuffed with the forgiving, peace-bestowing grace of Jesus. When we stare open-eyed at the perfect picture of love in the extended arms of Christ as he hangs from the cross of mercy.

In those times, when we sit there and shut up, God does his work. He goes his giving. He speaks his words. And we, sponge-like, absorb the liquid of his love. These are beautiful moments, for they reveal what kind of God we have: the one whose glory is revealed in giving, whose power is shown in mercy, whose greatness is demonstrated in great charity toward us.

God is never more God than when he gives. We are never more human than when we receive.

A Dog-Eat-God World: The Graphic Gospel

There wasn’t much left when my grandfather walked down to feed his greyhounds that cool, fall morning. In fact, the dogs weren’t even that hungry; it turns out they’d already gatheredDog baring its teeth for a midnight feast. One of their brothers, who’d shared the same womb, suckled milk from the same teats, grown from puppy to full grown dog with them—he’d tried to jump over the wire fence during the night. But he didn’t quite make it. One of his back legs got caught on the wire. And there he hung, suspended upside down, helpless, no doubt whimpering and barking miserably. His brothers awoke from their sleep. They walked over to where he hung. They smelled him. Perhaps even licked him. Began to growl. To nip. Then to bite. And soon the pack began the frenzy, the ripping, the feast on their own flesh and blood.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world. So we say. And we like to pretend we’re just using an exaggerated figure of speech. But the parable bleeds over into the literal. We cringe to hear stories like my grandfather’s. We’re sickened by scenes like that one from “Django Unchained,” when the master sets loose his hounds upon the runaway slave. But, chances are, we’ve been both the devourers and the devoured. One of our comrades at school, at church, perhaps even from our own family, violates some taboo. We hear about it. We talk about it. We begin to make jokes about it. We growl, We nip. We choose our biting words. And the frenzied feast begins. I’ve seen it happen in the church, when a pastor is ripped to shreds by his brothers in the ministry. I’ve seen it happen in families, when the black sheep returns home to find himself surrounded by wolves in sibling’s clothing. I have both been devoured, and I have devoured. I have bite marks on my soul, and the flesh of my brother is still caught between my fangs. And you? You too?

We didn’t gradually devolve into this. Did you ever stop to contemplate the fact that one of the first recorded sins in the Bible is the murder of a brother by his brother? There was no slow, steady slippage into the pit of hate. We plummeted, fell head first. When the Lord spied the bloodthirsty gaze in the eyes of Cain, He warned him that “sin is crouching at the door,” (Gen 4:7). I like this translation better: “at the door, sin makes its lair.” Oh, Cain, your father Adam named the beasts; do not let them name you. Do not become that dog. Do not…do not…but he did. Cain growled. He nipped at Abel. He bit. And soon the voice of his brother’s blood was crying out from the ground.

And still it cries. It echoes through the cornfields of Iowa where a father has refused to speak to his homosexual son for the last two decades because he hates the queer life that son leads. Its cries echo through phone lines and online discussion groups and private emails where the reputations of men and women are sliced and diced by the razor-sharp tongues of the tsk-tsking pious who can’t believe so-and-so did such-and-such. The blood of Abel and Susan and Dan and Cindy and countless others for whom Christ died—their blood cries out for pity and mercy and vengeance and, yes, even forgiveness, while Cains continue to redden their dog-like tongues at the feast that knows no end.

Oh dear God, when will it end? It will only end in repentance. I repent. I have devoured. I have eaten my own brother. Will you not repent with me? Will you not look in the mirror with me and see the bloody froth that still stains our mouths? Rather than defending our brother, we have devoured him. Rather than helping him off that fence where he hangs, we have set up a kitchen table beneath him.

Where shall we go? To whom shall we turn to help us? Come with me to where the dogs gathered around a different kind of man. He is poured out like water and all his bones are out of joint. His heart is like wax; it is melted within him. His strength is dried up like a potsherd and his tongue sticks to his jaws. And dogs, dogs, have encompassed him. Their teeth pierce his hands and feet. They stare, they gloat over him. And the one who hangs there cries, “Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog!” (Ps 22:20). But he is not there to be rescued. His life is handed over to the power of the dogs. They rip his soul to shreds. Drain his blood. Watch him die. Howl over his corpse.

But this is a different kind of death. Indeed, no other death has died like this death died. For in this death life was born. In this shed blood, blood was transfused into us. In this body broken, our bodies were restored. In this scene of hatred, the love of God was showered down upon us. The lamb was devoured by wolves to change those wolves into lambs. Christ was given over into death, that in his death we might come to life in him. He became Abel that his blood might cry out from the ground, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He became that homosexual son, that black sheep, that prodigal brother. And he became that hard-hearted father, and those tsk-tsking pious frauds, and those back-stabbing haters. He became both the devoured and the devouring, sinner and sinned-against. He became all of us, humanity squeezed into one man, that he might become all the bad we are and give us all the good he is.

In this dog-eat-dog world, we witness a dog-eat-God kind of salvation. The dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table, says the Canaanite woman to Jesus (Matt 15:27). Little did she know that she underestimated. For in Christ, the dogs eat the master that falls from the table. He gives himself into death. He is devoured by sinners, by sin, that we might become as he is. Oh the depth of the riches and the wisdom of God, that he is willing to become our food, that in eating him we might dine on the very forgiveness and salvation he wants us to have.

The grace of God is a strange and beautiful thing. A God who hangs over a cosmopolitan pen of sinful dogs to be killed, that in that killing he might give us life.

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

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