Archive for the category “Personal Remembrances”

God’s New Year’s Resolution: Removing the Big Fat “But” Between Us and God

ResolutionsJanuary 1 marks the day I first caught a glimpse of the most profound truth in the universe. I was 18 years old. I was fighting tooth and nail with God. And He showed me, finally, through one the weirdest acts ever performed on the human body, that He and He alone makes me His son. Here’s how it all went down.

The Dark Lining in Every Silver Cloud

I had grown up believing that there’s always a “but” between me and God. “Jesus died and rose for me, but I must make Him my personal Lord and Savior.” Or, “the Father wants all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, but they must do their part by meeting God halfway.” Or, “you may be a Christian, but you need to show your obedience to Christ as Lord by submitting to His baptism.” Between God’s gift and my reception of His gift there always stood a but. The nagging questions were: what if my actions weren’t good enough? Sincere enough? Where would that leave me? Because that but demanded something of me, a deeply flawed human being, it was the dark lining of doubt in every silver cloud of grace.

That doubt manifested itself most clearly in my decision, when I was sixteen, to be re-baptized. During a revival at my church, I became convinced that I had been too young the first time I was baptized to know what I was doing. Plus, if I were really a Christian, how could I have failed so miserably in my life of spiritual obedience? It was obvious to me that I needed a reboot, a rededication of my life to Christ. And I must really mean it this time. So, late one night, I made the decision, again, to follow Jesus sincerely, to receive His baptism obediently, to live a Christian life wholeheartedly.

And wouldn’t you know it, even though I did all that as well as I knew how, the doubts quickly resurfaced. My old sins still whispered sweet temptations in my ears. I couldn’t go an hour, much less a day, without letting God down in some way. Maybe I was one of those hopeless causes, a son of the night, who only masquerades on Sunday morning as an offspring of light.

The Whacked-Out Church on the Edge of Town

Some times things have to get worse before they can get better. So it was with me. While I was wrestling with my doubts, God sent a friend into my life who added confusion and frustration to the mix. Bob and I began working side by side at a local feed store. And while we were unloading trucks or sweeping the warehouse floor, we began talking about our respective beliefs. He belonged to a church on the edge of town that, in my opinion, boasted some pretty whacked-out teachings. And topping the list was the conviction that babies not only could but should be baptized, just like older children and adults. I don’t think I could have dreamed up a stranger, more wrongheaded practice if I’d tried. It epitomized the opposite of everything I held to be true. Everybody knows that infants are at the mercy of their parents, and can’t make a decision for Christ, so why in the world would they be baptized?

Curious, I decided to sit in on a class at Bob’s church so I could better understand, and then debunk, these teachings. Over the course of the next few weeks, his pastor talked about God, the ten commandments, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism. As he did, I became aware of a common theme that seemed to be the glue that held all their teachings together. It was this radical idea of God’s all-sufficient grace in Christ. It meant that I can’t do anything on my own to become or stay a Christian; that I can’t even take one tiny step toward God, much less meet Him halfway; and, that rather than baptism being my act of obedience toward God, it was God’s act of salvation for me. In other words, God in Christ did everything, that He and He alone was responsible for 100% of my salvation. And to make matters worse, there were scores of Bible verses that sure seemed to back up what the pastor was saying. If I were full of doubt before, now I was also brimming over with frustration and confusion.

How Circumcision Cut Away My Doubts

The class concluded, but I was far from finished. I continued to ask questions, to probe the Scriptures, and to try and make sense of these newfangled teachings. The baptism of infants, however, was the biggest burr under my saddle. How could babies become Christians? All they could do was nurse and cry and poop in their diapers, so how could they be involved, in any reasonable or willful way, in their salvation?

Everyone has their own Aha! moment, when the Spirit opens up their minds to understand the Scriptures. That moment was fairly unique for me, but God knew what He was doing, and what I needed to hear. One evening, as I was reading Genesis, I happened upon one of the strangest stories in Scripture. When Abraham was a year shy of his hundredth birthday, the Lord told him to circumcise himself. And not only himself, but his thirteen-year-old son, Ishmael, as well as every male that had been, or would be, born in his household were to be circumcised. In fact, when they were only eight days old, these baby boys’ foreskins were to be cut away. Why? This was the sign of the covenant between them and God (Gen 17:11). It was a covenant quite literally “in their flesh” (17:13).

I read that chapter again. And then again and yet again. Slowly, as if that page of Scripture were the eastern horizon, a light began to dawn and illuminate my shadowed mind. The sons and grandsons and great-grandsons of Abraham were made children of the covenant when they were barely over a week old. When all they could do was nurse and cry and poop in their diapers, they received that covenant sign in their flesh. When they could not, by their own reason or strength or decision, be actively involved in their salvation, they became the children of Yahweh. God circumcised them by the hands of their parents. God made them His own. God gave, they received.

The Disappearance of the Dark Lining of Doubt

By one of the weirdest acts ever performed on the human body, God revealed to me what His all-sufficient grace in Christ really means and really does. He drew the line from the “A” of circumcision all the way to the “Z” of baptism for me. You see, God has remained consistent in His dealings with humanity. From ancient times, God let it be known that He is the one who does the work of making us His children. Circumcision underscored that beautiful truth. And baptism, in particular the baptism of babies, continues to underscore it. While we are lost, while we are at the mercy of our merciless sin, while we are dead and hopeless and unable to do anything about it, God the Father acts to change all that. He and He alone sends His Son to do everything necessary for our salvation. He and He alone pours His Son’s saving work into us and onto us in the waters of baptism. He and He alone makes us His children.

Since January 1 falls eight days after the birth of Jesus, it is the day of our Lord’s own circumcision. While the world is busy making New Year’s resolutions, the church is rejoicing in the Lord’s resolve to save us. And unlike so many human resolutions, the Lord’s resolve never has wavered and never will. Christ underwent circumcision for the same reason He underwent birth, a life of flawless obedience, a sacrificial death, and a death-killing resurrection—because His firm resolve was to do everything necessary for our salvation. And because He does it, there is no doubt as to its perfection.

Jesus tears down every “but” that people try to build between us and God. He died and rose for us, and—not but—He makes Himself our Lord and Savior. The Father wants all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, and He does the saving and truth-revealing. He makes Christians precisely in the waters of baptism, because in that washing He does the giving and we simply receive. There’s no nagging questions about whether our actions are good enough or sincere enough, because God does the acting, and His actions are always more than good enough, more than sincere enough. So where does that leave us? With a silver cloud of grace that has no hint of a dark lining of doubt.

Whether He’s dealing with the oldest of adults or the youngest of babies, Jesus Christ saves. He forgives. He baptizes. He makes them His own. On this first day of the year, when we celebrate Jesus’ circumcision, may that act, and the grace it holds, cut away all our doubts and bring us into this new year with hearts full of peace that God the Father has adopted us as His own children. And nothing will ever alter His heart of love toward us.

P.S. If you’d like to read more about the significance of the circumcision of Jesus, check out another article I’ve written on this same theme: “Bringing Skin to the Fore: Circumcision and Why God’s Manhood Matters.”

LAST DAY OF THE SALE: If you’d like to read more of my writings, please check out the two books that I now have on sale. Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons and The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems are on sale for one final day for an additional 25% off through CreateSpace. Click here if you’d like to purchase Christ Alone or here for The Infant Priest. When you check out, enter this code, YLECQSWE, for the discount. Thank you!

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Dumpster Diving for Good Deeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Tattooed Angel

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

Songs are Musical Time Machines

Songs are musical time-machines. You hear the melody, the words wash over you, and in the blink of an eye, you’re “there.” There, hearing the song playing over the radio as your teenage girlfriend sits beside you and takes your hand in her own. There, mom and dad in the rear-view mirror, car packed to the gills, a college dormitory awaiting you. There, crying your eyes out over the break-up you thought would never happen. The music plays on and on, and you go back and back. Songs, transcendent melodies that harbor the past, pull you toward the memories of yesteryear like they were yesterday. Such is the muscle of music, holding tight in your heart the grip of the past.

For me, among the many memories that songs elicit, one that always comes back to me involves a dear elderly lady named Alvena Stein. She was a lifelong member of the congregation where I served as pastor in Wellston, Oklahoma. And she was one of those dear saints whom I could visit on my darkest, I-just-wanna-throw-in-the-towel days in the ministry, and leave an hour later with a smile on my face. Talking with her had a way of putting life in perspective, and restoring joy to my heart, every time. Her life, as with every life, had had its ups and downs. A bride at the ripe old age of sixteen, and a widow at the young age of forty-eight, Alvena knew joy and sorrow. With four daughters, and thirteen grandchildren, and plenty more great-grandchildren and other family members, she was enveloped by those whom she loved and who loved her. Such was the love of Alvena’s family that they adopted me and my family into their own while we lived among them.

The psalmist writes that our earthly lives last “seventy years, or eighty, if we have the strength.” As if proving the poet right, and showing the world that she did have that kind of strength, Alvena fought on to her eightieth year. But after a series of battles, and a gradually weakening body, it became clear that the time of her departure was drawing nigh. I visited her at home, and in the hospital, bringing her the nourishment of God’s word and Christ’s meal. And I also sang songs to her and with her, hymns that poetized the faith she held dear and the hope of victory disguised as death, hymns and songs that she had had on her lips and in her heart from infancy. When the inevitable day came, the 29th of July, 2000, with two of her daughters in the room with her, Alvena was ready. Ready because the Lord had readied her with his love, and now stood to meet her face-to-face in the heavenly fatherland.

I arrived at the hospital shortly after Alvena had passed beyond this world. She lay at peace in her bed, surrounded by her four daughters, their husbands, and others who had been blessed by her love. We prayed the Our Father together, and the 23rd Psalm. And in that room replete with both sadness and joy, gain and loss, but above all hope, I sang the stanza of a hymn that I had sung to Alvena many times in the months leading up to this day.

Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
To Abram’s bosom bear me home,
That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
My Savior and my Fount of grace,
Lord Jesus Christ,
My prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.

Home. That’s where Alvena had gone—to her true home in the presence of Jesus Christ. Her pilgrimage here in this vale of tears was complete. And now she rested, awaiting the resurrection of her body. She was in the bosom of Abraham, of whom she was a daughter. She had fought the good fight, she had finished the race, she had kept the faith. And in so doing, she had been a true martyr—a witness—to me and so many others who journey still, who long for the bosom of our father Abraham.

Over the years, every time I sing that hymn stanza, I go back. I go back to that hospital room, back to the family that grieved their loss and rejoiced at Alvena’s gain, back to the woman who was such an encouragement to me, even though I was supposed to be an encouragement to her. The man who, over four hundred years before, wrote the hymn I sang that day, could never have imagined the power his words would wield for good in the lives of countless multitudes, of whom I am but one. His words take me back, but they also point me forward—forward to the day when, like Alvena, I will close to my eyes to this world, unfearing, for I know that I will open them to see my Savior and my Fount of grace, arms open wide, receiving me as his own.

When Angels Gathered Above a Kitchen Sink

He had suffered through both world wars and the Great Depression; been amazed by everything from the first cars chugging down the road to a man stepping onto the moon; witnessed the rise and fall of world leaders, the terms of seventeen U.S. presidents; and several generations of his own family create families of their own. Ingram Robinson was 91 years old and had seen it all—well, almost seen it all. For what his eyes were about to behold, as the sun rose on his ninth decade in this world, was something entirely, and radically, new.

Days you will never forget usually begin as days you will never remember. You roll out of bed, pour a cup of coffee, get yourself to work, and assume all along that the day will be a humdrum repeat of the days before. So it was for me on the first of December, 1998. Oklahomans were enjoying an unseasonably warm beginning to winter, with temperatures in the low 70’s. I spent the morning working on my upcoming Sunday sermon. Then it was off to Oklahoma City to make a hospital visit or two. One of my parishioners, Dennis, had invited me to visit his father, Ingram, who had been ill with heart problems. So I drove to his home, where Dennis met me and introduced me to his dad.

Conversations, as is their wont, drift from topic to topic, as ours did that day. We meandered from the getting-to-know-you phase, to a discussion of his medical problems, and finally to concerns which transcend this life. We spoke of Jesus. We talked of who he is, his active and ongoing love for us, our life unending in him. And Ingram believed; indeed, he had believed for years. But to my surprise, and contrary to what even his own son assumed, Ingram had never been baptized.

ImageI suppose there are times when delaying baptism is acceptable, to provide an opportunity for fully instructing the believer in the Faith into which he is about to be baptized. But when a man is advanced in age, suffers heart problems, and confesses faith in the Messiah, you scout out the nearest water source and let the Spirit do what the Spirit does best. In our case, the kitchen sink was transformed into a font of new creation. Where two or three were gathered, there Jesus was in the midst of them. He co-opted my lips to speak his vivifying words. A prayer, a creed, a confession, and the words, “I baptize you, Ingram, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Above this holy sink a whole host of the celestial angels flocked to witness a sight rare even to them: a ninety-one year old newborn. New birth through water and the Spirit was his. Heaven and earth broke out in grand applause.

Within two or three months, Ingram said Goodbye to this world and an everlasting Hello to the Promised Land above. The angels who so soon before had rejoiced at his new birth, now rejoiced even more at a life in which 91 years is but a blink in eternal felicity. Some receive baptism’s saving gifts when life on earth has barely begun, and some receive them when that same life draws to a close. But young or old, or anywhere in between, baptism is never a work achieved, but always a gift received. Naked we come into this world, and naked we shall depart it. And anytime in between, the Father of all stands ready to clothe us all in the righteousness of his Son. One day, I was privileged to be the hands that wrapped those sacred garments around Ingram. And that’s a day I’ll never forget.

A Life Worth Living: A Tribute to My Father

A man becomes a man by imitation of his father. There are other influences in a boy’s life, but none greater, or of more lasting consequence, than his dad. A father makes many choices in his life—the woman he marries, the career he pursues, the skills he fosters.  But I remain convinced no decision matters more than what kind of man he will be to his children.  They are his legacy.  And if in the twilight years of a man’s life, he can look back and say, not that he has been a perfect father, but that he has been all the father he can be, then he will have lived a life worth living.

Dad, for over four decades of your seventy-two years, you have been a father to me.  I have no other, nor have I ever desired another.  Like any man, I am full of weakness and strength, good and bad, but the strength residing in me, and the good I possess, I attribute to you.  You shared stories from your own life, and the lives of others, from which I learned what to avoid, and what to embrace.  The silent witness of your deeds has spoken volumes, and taught me more, than any university degree.  Though I could never detail all the gifts of character I have learned from you, these three stand out, above all others, as the legacy you have bestowed.

From you, Dad, I learned that a man is truly a man when, as Ecclesiastes says, whatever his hand finds to do, he does it with all his might (9:10).  At every job I’ve had, from a roofer to a pastor to a driver, people have remarked on how hard I work.  No one has ever called me lazy, nor will they, for I am your son.  I am not a workaholic, but when I labor, I labor from the heart—with diligence, energy, commitment to the best job I can do.  Work is, in a sense, a sacred task, given by God.  And in working hard we give glory to the One who, even before sin entered the world, gave Adam work to do in Eden.

From you, Dad, I learned that a man keeps going forward, even when he may want to give up.  I have gone through some painfully dark times in my life—and life being what it is, will probably go through more—but I have never stopped pressing forward to what lies ahead.  Perhaps we are both simply stubborn, and refuse to quit for that reason, but I believe it is something more, something deeper, and better.  It is hope.  You have never given up on me, never gave me a reason to doubt that I would make it through my darkness, no matter what.  And that hope has kindled more hope, and lasting hope, within me.

From you, Dad, I learned that our God is a good, loving Father.  From childhood I have known the Holy Scriptures, as Paul did (2 Timothy 3:15), for you took me to Sunday School, sat beside me in church, prayed at every meal, and witnessed in countless ways that God is good.  My faith may not be able to move mountains, but it moves me forward through valleys of the shadow of death, moves me to love others, and moves me again and again into the arms of the Savior whose love, and sacrifice, I first learned from you.

A true, loving father is a gift every child desperately needs.  I have had, and still have that, in you.  And I pray that I may be the same for Luke and Auriana.  That, like you, I too may live a life truly worth living.

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My father, Carson Bird, and yours truly, 1970, in Jal, NM.

 

Joy Knows No Expiration Date: A Nursing Home Wedding

A man and woman meet. She likes him, and he likes her. Their fingers intertwine. His lips meet hers. In time, he pops the question. She says “Yes,” and before you know it, wedding bells are ringing. It happens every day. It happened to Ed and Mary. But there was one thing rather unusual about their courtship: he was 82 and she 74, and this was the first, and the last, marriage for both.

Ed Bird, my great-great uncle, had been looking for the right woman his whole life. And what a life it had been. An experienced hobo, with wanderlust coursing through his veins, he’d hop a train and vanish for months at a time. God knows where all he went, if even the Almighty could keep track of him. Though he always had a few dollars in his pocket, he’d knock on the back door of restaurants at sunrise to beg a meal from the cook. No sense in spending money when people were generally willing to share. A farming accident had crippled his right hand when he was a young man, but that was no deterrent to him finding odd jobs, roughnecking or whatnot, all over the state of Texas. He knew where the finest fishing holes were (especially those behind “No Trespassing” signs); knew where to lead his dogs for the best coon hunting; knew how to lead a foot-loose, fancy-free life. What he didn’t know was where “she” was–this Adam’s missing Eve. Until one day.

Ed and Mary were residents of Woodland Springs Nursing Home, in Waco, Texas. A retirement home may not be the typical place where Cupid’s arrow flies, but love acknowledges no boundaries of place or age. The front lobby of the nursing home was the garden of their courtship. Bird poured on the charm. His and Mary’s every waking hour was spent side-by-side, talking about the separate lives they’d led. Every conversation and every day drew those separate lives closer together. Mary, who said that she’d never found someone who suited her like he did, admitted that the first time she saw Ed, if he’d have asked to kiss her, she would have thrown caution to the wind and let him. And soon enough the aged Romeo was, stealing kisses every time they were alone in the lobby.

Before long, the two grew inseparable. Once, when Mary’s blood pressure skyrocketed, requiring a brief hospital stay, Ed was determined not to leave her by herself. He took a cab to the hospital every morning so he could be by her side. In fact, the only time he left her alone was after she happily said, “Yes!” to his proposal of marriage. Ed exited the nursing home front door to walk two miles to downtown Waco, where he purchased a wedding ring for his beloved Mary.

ImageWhen the big day came, on November 3, 1979, five months after the couple had met, residents and guests crowded in for the ceremony. Mary Alff, the woman of whom Ed once said, “I don’t think about anybody but her,” became Mary Bird. He had her, the woman of his dreams, finally as his own dear, loving wife, bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh. Ed told a reporter, “There will be no separations and no divorces. I’m going to love her as long as I live, as long as the good Lord lets me live.” And the good Lord indeed gave this happy groom a few more years of life to enjoy with the woman for whom he had been looking his whole life.

When I was nine years old, Ed and Mary wed. I have always loved their story, even more so now, thirty-four years later. For I must admit that there have been times in my life when, surrendering to the darkness, I suspected that the best days of my life were behind me, that God had no plans of joy and challenge and contentment for me anymore. But the Lord of hope says otherwise. The sweet and simple story of Ed and Mary says otherwise, too. God is well-known for delaying his children’s happiness, so that, once it comes, we might enjoy and appreciate it all the more.

Looking at the faded black-and-white picture of Ed and Mary, smiling at one another on their wedding day, reminds me that joy has no expiration date.

(Some details taken from Waco Tribune-Herald, in an article written by David Barron, date unknown)

Call Me Lazarus…One Year Later

I was sixteen years old when I met the rest of my life. Of course, I didn’t know it when it happened. We never do. All I knew, on that February evening in 1987, was that a local girl had asked me if I wanted to go with her to the FHA Sweetheart Banquet. Her name was Stacy. I said yes, we stood at least six inches apart for the official picture that evening, and I took her home afterward. That was our evening. That was our first date. And that would be our only date until over a quarter of a century had passed.

We went on about our lives. She eventually married and became the mother of a daughter and son. I eventually married and became the father of a daughter and son. We carved out our place in the world. And both of us, in our own ways, saw those worlds collapse. We both found out what it’s like to fall into darkness and wonder if you’ll ever see the light again. We both became profoundly different people over the course of that quarter of a century.

Twenty six years later, we went on our second date. We were no longer naive teenagers. We were no longer innocent. But we were both ready to begin life anew, to find love and acceptance and forgiveness in someone who would be flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone.

Our Wedding Day

Stacy Bird, May 23, 2013

One year ago today, God joined us as husband and wife. These past twelve months have been the best year of my life. I do not exaggerate. I could never have anticipated how much one person would mean to me, how God would use her to bring such profound healing and hope to my life.

Last year, at this time, right before our wedding, I published a short piece entitled, “Call Me Lazarus.” Here it is again. It is even truer today.

 

Call Me Lazarus

I’ve hunkered down in a dark place, where light is not only absent, but banned. The darkness is loved, almost worshiped, for it is a sanctuary in which to hole up and lick one’s wounds without fear of having even more inflicted upon you. God is unwelcome there, as are his phantasms of hope and love and tenderness and fidelity and all other mirages that slake one’s thirst with a mouthful of sand. Going there are those who flirt with a pistol to the head, whose veins flow with whiskey, whose child lies under six feet of soil, who curse the day of their birth, who spend every waking and sleeping hour playing and replaying the nightmares of their past. I’ve been to that dark place, and some of you reading this have, too. Maybe, in fact, you’re there now.

Today I stand in the light. There is one reason, and one reason only: because the God I once hated, never stopped loving me; the God I screamed at until my voice collapsed in on itself, never interrupted me; the God I damn well knew had become my worst enemy, never stopped being my compassionate Father. I blamed him for my sins, the sins of others, for just about everything wrong in my life. I did trust God, but I trusted that if I asked for a fish, he’d give me a snake; or if I asked for medicine, he’d give me poison. I was angry at heaven, at earth, and everything in between, for my life and my love and my hopes had all gone wrong, terribly, irreversibly, wrong.

But it was I who was wrong, terribly, but not irreversibly, wrong. I’m not here to tell you that God had some grand plan for my life, and I finally discovered it, and now everything is sweetness and light. I do still struggle with my past, and I probably always will, to an extent. The present is almost always charged a certain tax by the past.

What I will tell you is that, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite what you think and feel and imagine, God is indeed in that dark place. You don’t know it, but he’s licking your wounds, too. And he’s keeping the deeper, blacker darkness at bay. And he hears, on the other side of your angry screams, the cries of a hurting child begging for help, but not knowing how to ask for it.

Today I stand in the light, and—miracles of miracles!—this week a woman will stand beside me in that same light, to take my hand in her own, look into my eyes that once beheld only darkness, and tell me, before the witness of heaven and earth, that she will be my wife. I would have believed the blind would receive sight, the lame walk, and the deaf hear, before I would have believed that I should be so blessed as to be as happy as I now am.

But therein is the love of God revealed, a love that gives us gifts beyond anything we could imagine or comprehend. Why, O why, am I surprised, for if God did not spare his own Son, but lovingly gave him up for us all, how will he not, along with him, graciously give us all things?

 

The Backstory of “The Infant Priest”: From a Student’s Meditation, to a Scrap of Paper, to a Communion Hymn

Over the weekend, my son and I were paper archaeologists. We dug through some of my yellowed, dusty files to see what discoveries awaited us. We unearthed handwritten writing assignments from high school, short stories from college, and my very first published work: an article in the September, 1992, issue of the Lutheran Witness. Among our finds, however, the two that I treasure the most were early versions of what eventually became my first, and still my favorite hymn, “The Infant Priest Was Holy Born.”

A Student’s Meditation

In February of 1997, this Texas boy was freezing his way through a final winter at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN. Ordination was mere months away. As was customary, when Lent approached that year, the students prepared a devotional booklet for the campus which contained a meditation per day for the season leading up to Holy Week. I was asked to write one on Hebrews 4:14-16, to be read on Thursday, February 20. Among the finds that Luke and I discovered this weekend was that meditation. Here it is.

Humbly arrayed in the priestly garments of human flesh, the Infant Priest, divinely ordained prior to all, emerged pure from the temple of His holy mother’s womb. Worshiped by heavenly hosts seen and unseen, His veiled glory diminished not the laudatory rivers flowing from angelic lips. A new Abel was born of the new Eve, destined to be a sacrificial victim whose blood would speak a better—more salvific—word than the blood of Abel.

By Jordan’s waters anointed, armored with the Spirit’s authority, He who led the armies of Israel marched with purposed stride to the devilish battleground of the Tempter. His divinity camouflaged in humanity, this Davidic youth hunted fearlessly the hellish Goliath, armed solely with the sling of incessant obedience to His Father. With three smooth Scriptural stones chosen from the brook of Torah, he defeated the uncircumcised Foe and struck fear into the hearts of every fiendish spirit allied with the fallen one. The victory battle foreshadowed victory war.

Unparalleled in piety, no stranger to demonic assault, this Priest—blessed be He—traversed the holy land, leaving in His path purified worshipers, the holiness of His flesh sanctifying the uncleanness of their own. From His mouth wafted wise words as fragrant as incense, His tongue the coal upon which the Father’s frankincense fell.

 He approached the place of sacrifice undaunted by the absence of a lamb…for the Lamb was He. Upon the crucifixion altar, at which wailing angels dared not gaze, He lay bound by the cords of human infidelity. The fire quenched, the plague stayed, the veil rent, alive again He arose triumphantly to lead pious children into the paternal throne room where they bask in the regal radiance of grace. Midnight spirits upon whom the baptismal sun has risen, we with faces aglow recline roundabout the Incarnate Ark and feast on the sacramental showbread of His flesh. Flesh and blood dripping down the clouds of His body fills to overflowing the priestly chalice of redemption, bedewing cracked lips as we drink deeply in the gold-laden Holy of Holies.

Poetic Scribbles on a Scrap of Paper

Almost every author has had someone who’s helped him believe that he actually is a writer, that he has a gift, and that that gift needs to be shared with readers. During seminary, my encourager was Donald Deffner, one of my beloved professors. Already during my first year, when I shyly handed him a couple of short stories I’d written, he began to buoy my confidence.

When he read my meditation on Hebrews 4, he recommended I attempt to transform this prose into poetry, to craft a hymn from this meditation. That was a literary path I’d never traveled before, but, as it turned out, one that I still remain on today. While Luke and I were rummaging around, I found this, the scrap of paper upon which the first draft was written.

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A Communion Hymn

Word by word, a hymn emerged from those inky scratches. I showed it to Richard Resch, the Kantor on campus, who shared it with the committee that was in the final stages of preparing Hymnal Supplement ’98 (HS98), a collection of additional hymns not included in our (then) current service book. In all honesty, I was amazed that the committee even considered it. So you can imagine my shock when I received the news from Resch that it was accepted, that it would be included in the supplement.

“The Infant Priest” eventually made its way into the section of Lord’s Supper hymns in the Lutheran Service Book. Even though I still find myself calling it my hymn, it has truly ceased to be. It is part of the church’s hymnody now. And so it should be. To me, that is one of the characteristics of a hymn writer that sets him apart from a poet. A poet’s works, even though they may be enjoyed and even treasured by the general public, remain that poet’s works. A hymn writer composes for the church, that his words, echoing the Lord’s own words, might become her words.

Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Colossians 3:16

 

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