Archive for the month “April, 2015”

Called and Ordained Sheriff of the Word

The man was crouched down in the aisle of an Office Depot when I turned the corner and our eyes met. It was December, so the coat he wore didn’t look out of place. I had one on too, but it was unbuttoned enough to reveal the clerical shirt I was wearing beneath. I had dropped by to pick up a few items for my study. He had dropped by to pick up an item or two as well…and slide them inside the pocket of his coat. In fact, he was doing exactly that when I rounded the corner.

I stopped and stood there. Didn’t move. Didn’t utter a syllable. Didn’t even blink. Never unlocking his eyes from mine, the would-be shoplifter eased the product out of his coat, put it back on the shelf, stood up, turned around and walked quickly away. He cast one last glance over his shoulder at the pastor who had caught him red-handed.

As I’ve told this story over the years, it’s always prompted knowing smiles and laughter. I’d even wager that the man eventually laughed as well. It’s not every day a thief gets caught by a man dressed as the Almighty’s representative.

sheriffI wonder, though, upon further reflection, if there’s an unhappy side to this story. Unhappy not because the man was stealing—though, of course, that is, lamentable. Unhappy not because the man ran off before he could be collared. No, unhappy because though that thief fled from a man dressed as a priest, you’d have thought I sported a badge and brandished a pistol. And I wonder if his reaction sums up many people’s view of the pastoral office, as if a shepherd of Christ’s flock is actually a called and ordained sheriff of the word.

First of all, let me say that I understand his reaction, because I’ve been on both sides of the fence. On the one hand, when I was in the ministry, a few folks reacted to me as if I wore a Moses mask and lugged around two tablets of stone. They wouldn’t answer my calls, wouldn’t open the door when I knocked, because to them I was the embodiment of their guilty conscience. To some extent, that’s unavoidable. A pastor must preach the law. And that law causes some people to dive for the nearest cover. On the other hand, I’ve also been that sinner who fled from pastors. For a long time, I was carrying around an enormous amount of guilt and shame. So I avoided contact with men who, in my eyes, embodied so much of my pain. I fled from them like a criminal would a cop.

But I wonder, is it unavoidable that sinners run away from Christ’s shepherd as if he’s an officer of the law? Is there anything they can do to try and prevent it? Think of those questions in terms of Christ’s own ministry.

What is most amazing to me is not that Jesus welcomed public transgressors into his company. What astounds me is that they came to him with the full expectation of not being turned away. He is the holy one of God, after all. He’s a sinless priest, above reproach, the most moral man on earth. Yet these unholy people seek Jesus out. Lepers cry out to him. Whores weep on his feet. Tax collectors climb trees to get a peek at him. Some men even rip apart a roof to lower their friend into his midst! Far from running away from Jesus, sinners of all stripes run to him.

Why? Because Jesus never preached the law? No. Because he was soft on sin? Hardly. Rather, it’s because he not only beckoned the weary and heavy laden to come to him; he took a seat at their dinner tables, became their friend, accepted them as his followers, praised their faith, and defended them. And, perhaps most significantly, Jesus shrugged his shoulders at the name-calling and tsk-tsking of the religious superstars who were offended that he would lower himself to hang in the gutter with such unworthies. He was the kind of pastor who didn’t damn the woman caught in adultery, much less make a public example out of her. He sent her away to a new, unadulterated life, forgiven and loved. He made an apostle out of a hated tax-collector. Restored another betraying apostle. Chose a murderous, blaspheming persecutor to be the evangelist to the nations. There was really only one group to whom Jesus was harsh and unyielding: those who deemed themselves better than other sinners, who walked around flexing their spiritual muscles, whose treasure was trashing others whose lives were not as outwardly righteous as their own.

It’s a risky action to emulate this kind of ministry, to associate yourself with sheep that some consider wolves and others label goats. You’ll be lied about. Your morals will be questioned. You’ll be ostracized by some, laughed at by others, or simply stop hearing from those adept at toeing the religious-political line.

But you might also find yourself listening to hurting people pour out their hearts to you about how good it is to finally find a Christian who’ll listen to them and talk with them without sounding condescending. You might discover the outcasts and unwanted and branded and scarlet-lettered flocking to you because they perceive that in you they will find the sympathy and love and forgiveness of Christ. Rather than running from you as a called and ordained sheriff, they’ll recognize in you the kind of shepherd who doesn’t care how much mud and dung has defiled their wool. You stand in the stead of the one who washes clean every sinner, loves them, names them his own, and makes them part of his flock.

Fidelity to Christ and love of the outcast neighbor go hand in hand. The mark of an orthodox pastor—indeed, of an orthodox Christian—is not, for example, making sure everyone knows you would never attend a homosexual wedding, much less bake a cake for it. Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t; I don’t care. But I would like to know if you would bake them a cake when you asked them over to your home for dinner, introduced them as your friends to your Christian friends, invited them to your church, and showed them in every imaginable way that they, like you, are dead in sin but loved and redeemed by Jesus Christ. It seems rather impossible to bring the Gospel to those we will have nothing to do with. Might this scandalous love result in being shunned by some within the conservative Christian community? Yes, but there is perhaps no clearer sign that you are being a Christ-like shepherd than when you are rejected by some because you embrace those the religious establishment keeps at arm’s length.

This week, in at least two seminaries, men who have been studying for the ministry will receive their calls into that sacred vocation. I pray for them and the congregations they will serve. And part of my prayer is that they will not see or portray themselves as called and ordained sheriffs of the word, but as called and ordained servants of the friend of sinners.

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!

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Graffiti and Grace

graffitiWe all need a little color in our black-and-white lives. No sane man can exist long encased by whitewashed walls. So we choose hues and tones that communicate “I’m alive” and “I’m happy” and “I have good stuff.” Or at least “I’m surviving.”

They would visit every topless club in Ft. Wayne—my buddies on the summer roofing crew. They painted their lives with the color of flesh. Some of my customers pass every weekend surrounded by empty bottles; amber is their color of choice. For others, it’s the colors of green and gold and silver tucked away in bank accounts.

We’re all on this quest to find just the right color to enhance our lives. Christians, Jews, Muslims. Atheists, agnostics, gnostics. Roofers, pastors, CEOs. Something that defines us, makes us happy, gives us hope, gives us a reason to roll out of bed in the morning. Maybe it’s the colors of sex or alcohol for you. Maybe it’s the varying shades of money or power. Maybe it’s fifty shades of religiosity that binds your conscience to a life of spiritual obedience. You dip the brush of your soul in something. And with it you paint the walls of your life. Because no man can endure a colorless existence.

One of the amazing things I’ve come to know about God is that he is the Lord of many colors. When I’ve dipped my brush in the midnight black of lust or greed and smeared those sable sins all over the walls of my life, he’s come along with a bucket of paint and covered over that black with a white so bright it blinds the eyes. When I’ve spray painted the graffiti of hate and revenge round about me, he’s covered over that malice with words in crimson that speak of absolution and reconciliation. Even when I’ve painted a hand with the middle finger uplifted to heaven, God painted over it an icon of a crucified man uplifted to heaven.

He is the Lord of many colors. And with these colors, like a master artist, he covers our failed attempts to find a reason for living apart from him. Though our sins are as scarlet, he paints them as white as snow. On the dark walls of our despair, he adds the bright colors of hope and healing. Since there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, he paints over us the colors of the rainbow, for God is not angry but pleased with us in his Son.

When I visited Russia years ago, I bought a little icon from one of the Orthodox churches there. In magnificent color and stunning detail, it depicts a dozen scenes from the life of Jesus. All the way from his birth to his resurrection. The iconographer captured the totality of the Son of God’s ministry for us in a few square inches. Our lives are embedded in that icon as well. The hues of his holy birth coloring clean our own. The blues of his baptism washing us into his healing wounds. The crimson tint of his blood emblazoning us as God’s chosen. The exploding colors of the resurrection dyeing us with the marks of victors over death. The Lord of many colors colors us as his children in Christ Jesus.

We all need color in our black-and-white lives. Only in Christ are there colors that do more than satisfy. They paint our lives with grace and healing and hope. We discover in him, in the hues of his love, the people our Creator has formed us to be.

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 Gospel According to Noah

This reflection was published yesterday on the website Christ Hold Fast

When Lamech named his newborn son Noah—which means “rest”—he said, “This one shall give us comfort from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the Lord has cursed” (Genesis 5:29). Making what Luther calls a “pious mistake,” Lamech thinks his wife is nursing the promised seed, the new Adam who will undo the doing of Adam #1. Although Lamech missed the messianic bulls-eye, he was certainly on target in another way, for his son would indeed point forward to the life and ministry of the Christ.

Noah grew up in a world “corrupt in the sight of God” and “filled with violence” (6:11). He, however, “found grace in the eyes of the LORD . . . was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God” (6:8-9). Many children’s Bible Story books put it this way: “People everywhere were bad, but Noah was good.” But Noah was “good” not because he wasn’t “bad,” but because he believed in the good One whom his father had mistaken him for—the promised seed. Noah “found grace in the eyes of the LORD” because faith planted him in the apple of the LORD’s eye, the Son of the Father.

Noah was six hundred years old when he, his wife, his three sons and their wives—eight people in all—entered the ark. No doubt the neighbors thought Noah, along with his family, had lost their grip on sanity. But it would soon be those neighbors who were clinging like barnacles to the outside of the ark.

The outside of the ark. There the world was transformed into a cosmopolitan font. There the waters drowned a world of old Adams and old Eves who had not found grace in the eyes of the LORD for they feasted their eyes on nothing but the stuff of earthly life. Outside the ark, creation shifted into reverse as man and beast drowned; sun, moon, and stars became invisible; trees and dry land vanished. Back, back to Genesis 1:8 and day two of creation, when the waters above were separated from the waters below, but water, water everywhere, was all there was to see.

But, of course, that wasn’t all there was to see in Genesis 7. There was the ark. There were eight people. There were the animals. And finally, after about a year, there was a freshly picked olive leaf in the beak of Noah’s dove. Though Noah was not the new Adam, there was more than a faint echo of God’s words to our first parents when He told Noah, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (9:2). Noah may not have lived up to his father’s expectations, but this man of rest, who built an ark for the salvation of his household (Hebrews 11:7), certainly foreshadowed a Son who would live up to His Father’s expectations, the true man of rest, the new and better Noah, who built an ark for the salvation of His household, a household of which you are a member.

It was the new and better Noah, wet with Jordan’s water, upon whom the Spirit’s dove landed, marking Him the true man of rest. He is the one who finally fulfills Lamech’s messianic hopes, for He comes to fulfill all righteousness for Lamech, for Noah, for you. But His way is not a mere re-run of the old, for if Noah condemned the world (Hebrews 11:7), then Christ was condemned for the world. In the Jordan, Christ stepped into the place of—what children’s books call—“bad” people, people like us. The water that trickled off His back in the Jordan foreshadowed a greater baptism with which He was to be baptized, the baptism in which the world’s sins were poured out upon Him, in which He was flooded with divine wrath. The bad person you are, Christ became. Your pettiness, your selfishness, your the-world-be-damned-as-long-as-I’m-okay attitude—all your badness engulfed the good Son of God. The apple of the Father’s eye was so filled with your rottenness that the Father turned away from Him as if it were you.

And so it was that the new and better Noah became, on the cross, the old and unbelieving world, precisely in order that you might be pulled from the waters of death and planted within the ark of His resurrected body. For as the one just man, Noah, exited the ark after the flood, so the one just man, Christ, exited the ark of His tomb after the baptismal flood of crucifixion. And just as eight people lived through the ancient flood, so on the eighth day, Christ lived again, the new Adam who had come to undo the doing of the old Adam, and to re-genesis the world in the new creation of His Church.

The body of this new Adam is now the ark of the Church. He is the ship of salvation whose door, pried open by a soldier’s spear, still stands open. His side is open so that you can enter therein and find life. You are baptized into the ark of Christ no better than a beast; but whereas the beasts that entered Noah’s ark remained beasts, you are made a son of God upon entrance. No longer an unclean beast, you are a clean, holy, forgiven child of your heavenly Father, safe and secure in the holy ark of Christendom, the body of the new and better Noah.

Outside the ark there is only death, but within the ark of Christ’s body the Church, there is life, salvation, and hope for you. Like Noah, you have found grace in the eyes of the LORD for you have been found within that One who gives you true rest.

A version of this reflection is included in Chad’s book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, available from Amazon.

Married to the Cross in Divorce

sufferingdivorceThere are times when you feel like a spectator who views in slow motion the demolition of your life. Mini-explosions rock the foundations of everything that gave you meaning and purpose. Maybe it happens when you stare at the surreal spectacle of a coffin descending into raw earth, or the X-rays of a brain tumor, or the officer standing at your front door serving you papers for divorce. At those moments, it’s not like something inside you dies; it’s more like all of what’s inside you dies. What remains is a thin shell veiling a rapidly diminishing life.

There are no funeral rites for the corpse of a marriage, no official way to lay it to rest. So most of us make up our own. I did. Mine was a liturgy of whiskey and promiscuity, alternately screaming and crying toward heaven, and seeking salvation in every new girlfriend. One step forward, two steps back…or three, or four. All the while I was sinking a little deeper into the quicksand of sorrow.

I wish I were blowing things out of proportion. But I’m not; I’ve really only scratched the surface. For some of us, following divorce there are a string of debaucheries, flirtations with suicide, and grisly plans for revenge. Others self-medicate, hole up and lick their wounds, shun the opposite sex. Everyone reacts differently, but most of us react in ways we later shudder to recall. And like so many of life’s heartaches, unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to imagine the magnitude of the pain and the foolish things you’ll do in your quest for relief.

Maybe you’re thinking that I’m going to tell you that divorce made me a “better Christian.” But I don’t even know what that means. Better than what? Better than I had been? Better than other people? Better how? I wish I could tell you that through divorce I became a stronger person, but thank God I didn’t. If anything, my perceived “strength” is what paved the way for the destructive decisions that caused my divorce in the first place. If the death of my marriage revealed anything, it was my profound weaknesses.

What I do know is that divorce was for me, as it is for most of us, a process of unmasking—a slow peeling away of various lies. Unlike a Halloween mask, I had worn these masks for years, so long in fact that they had grafted to my skin.
The mask of “thank God I’m not as bad as those people are.”
The mask of “I have a happy marriage.”
The mask of “I never have any doubts about God.”
The mask of “I’ve fallen short, but not way short, of the glory of God.”
And my favorite mask: “I have everything under control.”

As the truthful realities of divorce scratch away at the face we exhibit to the world, one by one the layers diminish. What I discovered beneath was what I’d always claimed I had but never really believed: the face of a liar and cheat, a face pockmarked with pharisaism, a face as dirty as the filthiest sinner. What others discover beneath their chosen masks are faces flushed with anger, eroded by the weather of worry, or gargoyle-like monsters of hate. Whatever we find, they are faces only a God can love.

I don’t pretend to speak for everyone. But divorce was for me a blessed destruction, a splendid disaster. God hates divorce (Mal 2:16), to be sure, but through it he revealed other things he doesn’t think highly of either: like a haughty spirit, hypocrisy, lust, self-reliance, and on and on it goes. It took time, long dark years, for this blessed destruction to have its way with me, but God is more of a marathoner than a sprinter. I was in a hurry to be healed but he was not.

Who I ended up being was not a better Christian (whatever that means), not a better person, not a stronger person, but simply this: a man who grasps more fully that, in and of myself, I am nothing. I have zilch to offer God. I have nothing of my own to claim, except my faults. I have no strength, no righteousness, no moral pedigree to wow heaven. I am Jonah, sinking beneath the waves. I am Lazarus, dead and decomposing in a grave. I am a corpse in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. I have and am nothing. And come to find out, once we realize that, be it through divorce or any other suffering in life, we are in the perfect position to gain everything.

In divorce God married me to the cross. I didn’t want it; indeed, I hated it. But upon my shoulders God laid it. The ring of nails. The veil of darkness. The kiss of death. When we are stripped of all the good we think we are and have, we come face to face with the evil within. We fight and wrestle and gasp and die and become nothing.

Then our Lord, who created everything out of nothing, says, “Now I have you exactly where I want you.” The only material that God really works with is nothing. He brings to nothing the things that are (1 Cor 1:28) that through this nothing he might show us that our everything is that one who is the source of our life, Christ Jesus, whom God makes our “wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption,” (1:30). He opens our eyes to see that we are not dead on a cross alone. We are part of a thorn-crowned Savior who became our everything. We die in him and life returns. We have no hope in ourselves but in him we receive hope of cosmic proportions. Our face, which only a God can love, the Father of love bends down and kisses. He bathes away our filth. He lifts up our downcast eyes. He gives us his own name. We are married to the cross, and there meet the bridegroom of our souls.

Like so many of the hardships in life, it is only in hindsight that we realize the hidden hand of God at work in our deepest woes. He is not making us stronger but is making us dead, that we might truly live in the strength that he provides. He is not making us better people but unveiling how bad we are that we may find in Christ the riches of our Father’s goodness.

Some people talk about life after divorce, but I prefer to talk about death after divorce: the death of self, the death of masks, the death of a sham existence in which we pretend we’ve got this life thing figured out. Unless we die, there is no resurrection. When we die to those things worthy of death, we find him who is the resurrection and the life. And we find in him all those things—and more!—that we searched for apart from him. Things like joy. Things like peace. Things like hope and healing and love and meaning and purpose. All these are in Christ, and they are ours.

If you are facing a divorce, going through one, or recovering from one, let me tell you the most important thing: Christ will not and cannot sever you from himself. The sun will lose its light, the water its wetness, the night its dark before that happens. He counts the hairs on your head, every tear you shed is so precious to him that he collects them in a bottle (Matt 10:30; Ps 56:8). Like Zion, your image is engraved on the palms of his hands (Isa 49:16), your name tattooed on his heart. You will not always feel his love, but his love clasps you in its strong arms. You will probably feel abandoned by God, but he will never leave you, never forsake you. As you bear this cross, you bear it not alone, but in him who is the crucified and risen Savior. He is for you. He is faithful. He has married you to himself with a love larger than heaven.

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!

Even Heterosexuals Are Welcome at My Church

jesuswelcomesallHer story had all the makings of a modern medical nightmare. Not for one, not for two, but for twelve long years this woman had suffered from a hemorrhage. You don’t have to be a female to imagine how this condition would have defined her everyday existence, especially in a first century Jewish culture where such bleeding would have rendered her perpetually unclean. She had tried doctors. And what did they do? We’re told she “suffered much” from many of them (Mark 5:26). I don’t even want to know what that means. Use your imagination. And just like today, it’s not as if doctors collect a fee only if they cure you. No, you get charged an arm and a leg even if you stay sick, even if you die. So with her, she “had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse.”

Finally, having exhausted every other option, she crafted this outrageous plan that bordered on sacrilege. Imagine if a prostitute, her body teeming with STDs, snuck into your church one Sunday morning through a back door, crawled in her miniskirt unseen behind the altar, reached up, dipped her finger in the chalice, and touched that sacred wine to her lips. And imagine if, at that very moment, she was discovered and stood, in all her unclean glory, before the pastor and congregation. That scenario, as shocking as it would be to us, is not as audacious as our friend’s plan was. This woman, who wouldn’t have even been allowed in the courts of God’s temple because she was ritually unclean, snuck up behind Jesus in a mass of people, and touched the hem of his garment. An unclean woman touched the holy, holy, holy God. If she’d made a wild dash into the temple’s inner sanctum, she wouldn’t have been closer to Yahweh than when she got her hands on Jesus.

What is even more astonishing is what happened next. I’m not talking about the fact that her hemorrhaging stopped. I’m not talking about the fact that Jesus felt power going out of him. No, the most astonishing part of this story is the Son of God’s response. He says, “Who touched me?” And when she comes forward, fearing and trembling, and tells him the whole truth, he says, “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace, and be healed of your disease,” (5:34). He utters not one word of rebuke. He doesn’t go all fire-and-brimstone on her for daring to put her unholy hands on him. In other words, Jesus does what he always seems to be doing: he welcomes the outcast, embraces the pariah, and gladly and willingly pours into her his holy and healing love. What to others might seem sacrilege, to Jesus is just one more opportunity to exhibit his scandalous, transformative, sanctifying grace.

We can add this woman to the long list of others rejected by many but whom Jesus welcomed with open arms. The hated, traitorous tax collectors. The “sinful” women who sold sex to put food on the table. The woman nabbed in the act of adultery. Those with horrific skin diseases. The Gentiles. Indeed, Jesus says that he did “not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance,” (Luke 6:32). He invites the “weary and heavy laden” to come to him for rest (Matthew 11:28). He doesn’t travel around Israel looking for the right kind of people to believe. If anything, he seems to be calling to himself the wrong kind of people. Gathered around him are people with enough skeletons in their closet to stock a cemetery. They flock to him because they see in him what they never dared dream before: a God who has no qualms about sitting down in the gutter with you, a Savior who’s happy to have a prostitute weep on his feet and dry them with her hair, a Friend who’ll share a meal with the most infamous folks in the community.

The church that Jesus founded is where he’s still doling out this scandalous grace to everyone. There is no list on the front door that spells out the requirements for entrance. All are welcome: addicts, ex-cons, prostitutes and pimps; lawyers and politicians; the homeless and mentally ill; runaways and castaways; the LGBT community and the haters of gays. Amazingly, in his church Jesus even welcomes sinful heterosexuals, happily married couples, and—believe it or not—even religious leaders.

Jesus preaches the same message to all of them: repent and believe the Gospel. Leave behind a life that is a lie, the life in which you pretend you can be your own god, establish your own truths, earn your own way to heaven. You’re lost. You’re unclean. There is no hope for you inside of you. But there is abundance of hope in someone else. There is cleansing and forgiveness and peace and wholeness in the one who bleeds and dies for you. He will turn no one away. How could he? He died for them, one and all. His grace heals all wounds. His love welcomes all sinners.

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!

Reading Braille in the Wounds of God

We don’t just call him Thomas; we call him Doubting Thomas. Why he, of all the apostles, had an insult attached to his name, I don’t know. Peter denied Christ three times, but no one calls him Denying Peter. Even Judas, who committed treason against Jesus, is not given the epithet Betraying Judas. But poor Thomas cannot rest in peace as just Thomas. No, he is Doubting Thomas, forever branded.

thomaswoundsI do not deny that Thomas doubted. That much is certain. He did, and with great gusto at that. He wasn’t there with his fellow disciples when Jesus appeared to them that first Easter evening. When they told him, “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas replies, “Unless I see in His hand the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hands into His side, I will not believe.” He demands visible, tangible proof before he’ll budge a fraction of an inch. He is pig-headed, recalcitrant, a mule of a man. A dyed-in-the-wool skeptic.

And for all that Thomas is, I thank God. Yes, for his pig-headedness, for his doubt, for his denial, for his dyed-in-the-wool skepticism – for all that, I thank God. Why? Because, as St. Gregory put it, “More does the doubt of Thomas help us to believe, than the faith of the disciples who believed.” I thank God that Thomas doubted, for when he later “touched the wounds in the flesh of his master, he healed in us the wounds of our unbelief.”

What was Thomas’s hang-up? He wanted something “real,” something you can sink you teeth into—or, rather, in his case, something you can sink you finger into, like that hole left by a crucifixion nail. He had seen the blood drip from Jesus’ dying body; he had seen the steel penetrate that body; he had seen the wood smeared crimson; he had seen the stone rolled in front of the tomb. He had seen it all. And for Thomas, seeing is believing.

There’s only one problem: believing is not seeing. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Indeed, faith is believing the exact opposite of what you see, for that is how God reveals Himself to us. God always wears a disguise. Jesus looks like a man, lives like a man, dies like a mere man. Yet faith says, “Jesus is God.” You do your daily work, you sweat, you put up with rude customers, you deal with unruly students, you do the ho-hum work of the daily grind. Yet faith says, “My labor is holy, divine work, for I am God’s tool that He uses to take care of others.” Yet you get sick, you lose weight, you hurt, you cry, you wonder how long you can last. Yet your faith says, “I am a blessed child of God, well-pleasing to Him, and I will live forever in Christ.” Believing is not seeing. To believe is to confess that God is where God seems not to be, to confess that God is good when God seems to be bad, to confess that what is really real is the God hiding behind the exact opposite of what you see. That is faith.

And that is why faith is a gift. Because you can’t do it. Like Thomas, we deem these things to be real: a freshly dug grave at the cemetery; a bank account fizzled to near nothing; a child who just won’t listen; a spouse who doesn’t care; peers who mock; friends who betray; a conscience that won’t shut up; a job that doesn’t satisfy; a sickness that grows stronger and more vicious day by day. Those are the things we consider real, as real evidence that God is holding out on us, is mad at us, doesn’t love us as much for us as He does for others.

Repent. Repent of expecting God to conform to your warped standards. Repent of craving after constant “proof” that God is on your side. Confess your own blindness, you self-interest, your self-infatuation, you woe-is-me attitude. Repent and beseech God for the gift of true sight—the gift of faith—which sees that which is unseen, which sees the love of God in Jesus Christ poured out on the cross and raised from the tomb for you.

And that is why I thank God for Thomas, for Thomas was as we are. Yet Christ doesn’t appear and slap him for his doubt; He holds out His scarred hand for Thomas to see. “Reach here your finger,” He says, “and see my hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into my side; and be not unbelieving, but believing.” And Thomas, like a blind man reading braille, reads the scarred message of love inscribed on the Savior’s skin. He believes. He sees with the eyes of faith who Jesus really is, “My Lord and my God.”

That is the way of our Lord, the way of grace. He doesn’t abandon Thomas to drown in a sea of doubt; He stretches out His nail-scarred hands and pulls him in. And so He does for you.

He takes your doubts and your fears and your shame and your bitterness and He makes them His own. And He takes His faith and His hope and His life and His joy and His glory and He makes them your own. He doesn’t remove your outward troubles; He gives you something better: inward peace. He may leave in place your dysfunctional family, your disease, your addiction, your pain, but He will not leave in place a heart empty of peace. For that’s what He’s all about: giving to you the peace that passes understanding, the kind of peace that knows that no matter how unfaithful you have been, God will never be unfaithful to you. The kind of peace that knows that no matter how great your sin, Christ’s love is always greater. The kind of peace that knows that no matter how bad this world may get at times, any suffering here is not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us. That’s the kind of peace Christ gives: peace of heart when surrounded by ten thousand enemies.

Along with Thomas, we know these things to be really real: the mercy of the Father, who never denies His baptized children; the love of Christ given and shed for you in body and blood; and the grace of the Holy Spirit, who gives you the peace that passes all understanding.

**This reflection is included in my book, Christ Alone, which you can read more about below.
**I am indebted to the hymn by Thomas Troeger, “These Things Did Thomas Count as Real” for much of the imagery in this meditation. 

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!

This Is the Night of Light

eastervigilThis is the night when the earth is without form, and void; and darkness is over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moves upon the face of the waters. Then God says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. The seal of the darkness is broken and the morning of the first creation breaks forth out of night. Oh, how wonderful and beyond all telling is Thy mercy toward us, O God, that Thou didst create us to have someone upon whom to bestow Thy blessing; that Thou didst create light that in Thy light we may see light; that Thou most wonderfully created human nature and yet more wonderfully redeemed it.

This is the night when the earth is without form, and void; and darkness is over the face of the deep. And the Ark of Noah moves upon the face of the waters. And while all in whose nostrils was the breath of life died, we float safely in the Ark of Salvation, with the one whom his father named “Rest” as the captain of our vessel. Oh, how wonderful and beyond all telling is Thy mercy toward us, O God, that as Thy wrath burned for the evil of men and Thou didst bring this deluge upon a wicked and perverse generation, Thou didst save eight souls; that likewise through this saving flood of Baptism all that has been in us from Adam and which we ourselves have added thereto, has been drowned in us and engulfed, and that sundered from the number of the unbelieving, we have been preserved dry and secure in the holy ark of Christendom.

This is the night when the earth is without form, and void; and darkness is over the face of Egypt. And the Angel of death moves upon the face of the firstborn. And while we, with loins girded, feet shod, and mouths full of the Passover Lamb stand quietly in our blood-painted homes, the Egyptians with loins burning, eyes weeping, and mouths full of shrieking stand wailing in their homes now painted with the blood of their firstborn sons. Oh, how wonderful and beyond all telling is Thy mercy toward us, O God, that as the Angel of Death executed the firstborn of the Egyptians, He passed over our houses baptized in the blood of the Lamb; that Thou didst provide the Firstborn Son of heaven to be slaughtered in our place and we to be painted the color of divine innocence with hyssop dipped in the bloody font.

This is the night when the earth is formless and void; and darkness is over the face of Thy people. For Thou hast led us into the jaws of death, trapped between the waters of the Red Sea and the chariots of Egypt. But oh, how wonderful and beyond all telling is Thy mercy toward us, O God, that Thou didst set Thy Son as a pillar of fire between the camp of the enemy and the camp of Thy Church; that Thou didst send Thy Spirit to move upon the face of the waters, to split them open, to tear the liquid veil in two, that we might walk through dry shod, from death to life, from slavery to freedom, while Pharaoh with all his host are drowned in the collapsing flood.

This is the night when the earth is formless and void; and the darkness of blood is over the face of Thy Son. And the Spirit of God moves out of His body as He gives up the Ghost. This is the day when it is night; when the Son of God is drowned in the Flood that rains down from the storm cloud of divine justice; when the Passover Lamb is skewered to the cross and roasted over damning flames; when the body of Israel’s Redeemer is sunk by the weight of your sins to the bottom of the Red Sea; and when the first creation comes to its omega on the evening of the 7th day, as the God-made-Man rests in the tomb from all His work which He has done – all for you.

These are the nights when you are spared, O sinner, so repent and believe. How holy are these nights when the Lord God of Israel acts to save you, calling light out of darkness, arks out of water, free men out of bondage, dry feet out of sea floors; calling His Son out of heaven, into the womb, onto the cross, down into the bloody dust – all to save you, His people Israel, to save you from yourselves, to save you from the hellish Pharaoh, to save you for His own Name’s sake.

But this is the night from when all those nights receive their light. For this is the night when Christ, the Life arose from the dead. The seal of the grave is broken and the morning of the new creation breaks forth out of night. This is the night when the Lord leads Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, David and Bathsheba, you and you and all of you out of the blackness of the tomb and into the brilliance of the 8th day sun. This is the night when we receive more from Jesus than we lost in Adam; when we are clothed in the skin of the Lamb of God; when death’s dread angel sheathes his sword to beckon us with open arms back into the Garden of heaven.

This is the night when night is buried under the soil of resurrection. God says, “Let there be light” and there is, and there is, and there always shall be, sunshine without end. Oh, how wonderful and beyond all telling is Thy mercy toward us, O God, that as Thou didst say, “Let light shine out of darkness,” even so Thou hast shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of Thy glory in the face of the resurrected Christ.

How wonderful and beyond all telling is this most holy night!

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!

Passion Poems: Christ’s Yom Kippur and Uninjured Tongue

As we continue to consider our Lord’s Passion and await his resurrection, here are two poems that reflect upon his saving work accomplished for us. Both are included in my book, The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems, available through Amazon.

christcrucified

Christ’s Yom Kippur

Within that lightless vestibule
that Roman claws would raze,
See Aaron’s brood with crimson gifts
through wafting incense gaze,
To paint a throne where God unseen
beholds the fruit of veins,
And with the soap of severed life
removes his people’s stains.
‘Til comes the Priest clad but in skin,
no lamb or goat his gift,
Upon the cruel and gory throne
his offering to uplift,
To pave the way, with flesh and blood,
for all those bathed in grace,
To stand as priests within the veil,
before the Father’s face.

Uninjured Tongue

That head, which angels with ceaseless praise adorn,
Is pierced with crowded thorns.
That face, which our God with grace and beauty lit,
Is marred by sinners’ spit.
Those eyes, outshining the sun’s most piercing light,
Are dull as sable night.
Those ears, accustomed to praise from heaven’s host,
Must hear his haters boast.
That mouth, whose wisdom the wisest could enthrall,
Tastes vinegar and gall.
Those feet, whose footstool is this terrestrial sphere,
To bloody wood adhere.
Those hands, which stretched out the heavens like a tent,
By spikes in twain are rent.
That tongue, uninjured, shall cry from that cursed tree,
A prayer of love for me.

Based on “An Exercise of Repentance from our Lord’s Passion”
in the Sacred Meditations of Johann Gerhard.

Whose Bones Are Buried Beneath the Cross?

I wrote this article for Liberate as a Good Friday meditation. You can view the article by clicking on this link or read it in its entirety below. A blessed Good Friday to all of you.

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Let’s take a walk together. And as we do, I’ll tell you a mystery.

We’re heading to a cemetery; I hope you don’t mind. It’s of a different variety, this cemetery, for it consists of a single grave. But a vast grave it is. It had to be. See it there? Stretching from here all the way over there. God only knows how many people are entombed therein.

Look over to your right, at the edge of the grave, and you’ll see a headstone. Let’s walk closer. The surface is weathered from millennia of exposure to the elements. But look closely. There’s still a name barely legible, chiseled into the granite. Can you read it? What does it say? Yes, that’s right. There’s only one name there: Adam.

How can there be only one name over such a mass grave? I promised you a mystery; I will disclose part of it now. This is not only Adam’s grave. It is yours also. And mine. Here are the remains of humanity. When our father died, we perished in him and with him. The corpse of our sad race was blanketed here beneath the sands of sin and the dirt of death.

How did we get here? Turn around and walk with me backwards into a world freshly made. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, all through the week, God’s been preparing our world, down to the finest detail. And now it’s day six, a Friday, and a very good Friday it is. For today creation will reach its zenith as the children for whom the Father crafted the whole cosmos will be formed. See them standing there, bearing God’s image, alive and free and beautiful on the Friday of their creation.

I promised you a mystery; I will disclose more of it now. This king and queen, our father and mother, and we in them, stood beneath the branches of the tree of knowledge. Our hands reached up to pluck the fruit forbidden to man. We filled our mouths and Eden spat us out. We devoured fruit and digested death. The Friday of our creation was followed by the day of our decimation, and we made the grave our home. “In Adam all die,” the apostle says (1 Cor 15:22). Thus this grave, in earthen tones, paints the picture of Friday’s good work undone.

But our journey is far from over. Walk back with me to that mass grave, that headstone, and look now what has been erected over the top of that morbid mound. See it there? Look at that tree whose trunk is sunk into the soil of our tomb. Look at those two naked branches painted red with the blood of the Lamb. Look at him who is nailed as a criminal but reigns as a king. And look at your calendar and tell me what day it is. It is the sixth day, is it not? It is a Friday, the Friday we call good.

I promised you a mystery; I will disclose all of it now. That man you see on the tree—he is the re-Genesis of the world. He has come to remake us alive and free and beautiful on the Friday of his crucifixion. In this new beginning it is finished, all is finished. The mass grave beneath the cross unburies its dead. The blood of God, dripping on this earth, is the key that unlocks the chains that bind us. Adam, made on Friday, is remade on Friday, and we in him. “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men,” (Rom 5:18). Good Friday’s good work is done by him who came to undo the work of sin and death.

This place is named Golgotha, “the place of the skull.” From ancient times the church understood this not as a hill shaped like a skull but, according to legend, it was the place of Adam’s skull. That is, Golgotha is the grave of the first Adam over which the tree of the second Adam’s cross was erected. Upon the skull of Adam, and all of us in him and with him, the Spirit has placed blood and flesh and skin once more, breathed into us his breath, and placed upon our newly formed brows the crown of victory and life.

This massive Golgotha grave in which Adam and Eve, you and me, and all humanity were once buried has in fact been emptied. Dig, dig as deep as you like, and you will find no bones. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself,” (2 Cor 5:19). The tree of the cross, erected over the old Adam’s grave on Good Friday, was the new tree of life, upon which reigned the new Adam, to give us new fruit that makes us a new creation. The corpse of our sad race, once blanketed here beneath the sands of sin and the dirt of death, has been raised when Christ was raised. “Even when we were dead in our trespasses,” our Father “made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:5-6).

On this day all is good again, for on the sixth day, a Friday, the God who made the first Adam, recreated us all in the second Adam. Is it a good Friday? No, it is a very, very, good Friday. Welcome to the new world, a new beginning—in him who makes all things new (Rev 21:5).

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!

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