Archive for the category “Suffering”

When Valleys of Trouble Become Doorways of Hope

valleyshadowdeathMy first Sunday School teacher was a pale, squat, balding man who retold dusty old Bible stories with a nasally voice and a moralistic heart. The more he taught me to be good, the more I wanted to be bad. So I’d hide from him. Under tables, behind curtains, inside closets. Sometimes he’d find me, sometimes not. When he did, he was certain to sit me down and teach me about everything except the thing that really mattered. Only when a stoned thief became my Sunday School teacher, did I learn that inside those dusty old Bible stories was a hidden treasure named Jesus the Christ.

This other teacher, his name was Achan. He lived long ago, and was executed for thievery long ago, but neither time nor crime hindered him from teaching me about the God whose greatest talent is turning death into life, despair into hope. Take a moment and sit with me at the feet of Achan. Let us learn his story, and, in so doing, learn the story of Jesus.

Crime and Punishment in the Valley of Trouble

This is what happened. When God brought the walls of Jericho tumbling down, He laid down the law that no man was to stuff his pockets with the loot of the city. These spoils of war belonged to God and God alone. But, wouldn’t you know it, there was this beautiful robe just lying there, and this gold, and this silver, all of it free for the taking. And Achan, victorious in battle, was vanquished in temptation. He coveted, he caved. He stuffed the treasures under his robe, hid them under his tent, concealed the matter under his heart. Not a soul knew.

No one, that is, except God. And He wasn’t keeping hush-hush about it. When Israel was massacred during the next battle, the Lord informed Joshua that their defeat was punishment for a secret theft that had been perpetrated when Jericho was laid low. By casting lots, Joshua narrowed down the nation by tribe, by family, by household, until the last man standing was Achan. He confessed; he really had no other choice. The stolen property was brought forth and the sentence against Achan pronounced.

Beneath a hill of rocks that the Israelites piled high that day, at the doorway to the holy land, was the stoned, burned corpse of my teacher. It bears an infamous name: the Valley of Achor, which means the Valley of Trouble. And it remained there, for generations to come, as a mournful monument to sin, defeat, and death.

Achan and Jesus: The Valley of Trouble Becomes the Doorway of Hope

My law-loving Sunday School teacher licked his lips over the moralistic morsels he thought he spotted within this story. Here was a cautionary tale, he assumed, about the punishments awaiting those who resort to a life of crime. Well, okay. This story can indeed be used to teach the commandment, “You shall not steal.” But if all you’re looking for in the Scriptures is law, then law is surely all you’re going to find—law by the truckload. But in that quest for thou shalts and thou shalt nots, you’ll miss what really matters. You’ll trample the cross while racing for the tablets of stone. From the tale of Achan’s theft, you’ll rob yourself of Jesus.

Hosea, he got this story. He spied Jesus in Joshua 7. He prophesied the day when the Lord would lead His bride, Israel, back into the wilderness. He would speak to her heart, woo her, show her His love. She would respond by calling Him her husband. He would betroth her to Himself forever, marry her in righteousness and justice and love and compassion. She would again enter the holy land, but not as in days of old, when that entrance was marked by a mournful monument to sin, defeat, and death. There would be no tears or moans, as when Achan brought all Israel to her knees by his rebellious act. Rather, Israel “will sing there as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.” Hosea foretells this day of salvation, which is the day of the Messiah, when “the valley of Achor [will become] as a doorway of hope,” (2:15). Do you see what Hosea just did? He read Joshua 7 through cruciform eyes, and he bids us do the same.

Jesus changes everything. He turns your valleys of trouble into doorways of hope. He turns His death upon the cross into life for the world. He changes your unrighteousness into His righteousness; your sin into His forgiveness; your mournful monuments consisting of the stones of death into a joyous monument consisting of an empty tomb from which the stone has been rolled away. The valley of Achor becomes the doorway of Jesus, who is the way into the heavenly promised land.

Beginning with Moses and with All the Prophets…

All of that good news is in the story of Achan, for every story in the Old Testament is the story of Jesus. Remember what Christ did for those depressed, bewildered Emmaus disciples as He walked with them that first Easter afternoon? Beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He “explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures,” (Luke 24:27). He taught them that all of Scripture, everywhere, deals only with Him. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, along the way, he retold the story of a stoned thief named Achan, whose sad story blossoms into the best of stories when you realize that even Joshua 7 is part of the Gospel of the Old Testament.

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christ alone cover

What 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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Don’t Tell Hurting People that God’s in Control

crosstornadoWe say it to the family who’s standing in a sea of twisted metal and broken dreams that a tornado spit out. We say it to the man who lost his job, can’t find work, and is on the verge of losing his home. We say it to the cancer patient, the pregnant teen, and our sons and daughters as they leave for war.

We mean well. We intend it as good news. We say, “God is in control,” to help them see that God is bigger than their struggles. That he has a grand and wonderful plan for their lives. That he, as the sovereign Lord, has this universe—and them—in the palm of his hand.

And we need to stop saying it.

There are things that are true of God that are not truly the good news people need to hear. There are hidden things about God and there are revealed things about God. The hidden things are of no concern to us; the revealed are our sole concern. And in those revealed things of God he discloses to us everything we need to know about who he is and what he does for us.

We want to know how God rules this world, how he is present in all things, how he exerts his control over the course of world events. We want to know why some get cancer and some don’t, why terrible things happen to the best of people, why volcanoes erupt and hurricanes strike and fires consume. We want to know whose side God is on when there are wars, why he waits so long to answer our prayers, how he’s going to sort out the ups and downs of our day-to-day lives.

Yet these questions are none of our concern. They are wrong questions that seek imperfect answers that give unstable hope. These deal with the hidden things of God. And even if the Lord gave us an answer, it would sound like Einstein lecturing on the theory of relativity to a bawling infant. The hidden things of God are hidden for a reason. They are none of our concern, none of our hope, none of our life.

Here’s what God wants us to know about him: that everything there is to know about him is Jesus. He is the sole means to the Father, the only revealer of the Spirit. He is the exact representation of God. In him all the fullness of the deity dwells in bodily form. In other words, the only God we know is Christ. And, equally important, the only Christ we know is the crucified one. Thus Paul says, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” (1 Cor 2:2).

God does have a wonderful plan for your life, but it’s not what you think. His merciful plan is to crucify you with Christ, bury you with Christ, and raise you to new life in Christ. All this he does in baptism. Baptism unites you with the only God we know. And in that God—the crucified and resurrected Christ—God reveals who he is.

He is the God who will never leave you in your sickness, never forsake you in your brokenness, for you have been washed into his body, blooded into his veins, grafted into the limbs of his flesh.

He is the God who goes with grieving spouses to the graveside, and will one day go with you as you are carried to the place of your burial, for he is the God who is the resurrection and the life, the one in whom we live, even though we die.

Jesus is the crucified and resurrected God who gave his cheek to those who struck him, his hands to those who pierced him, his ear to those who mocked him, his body and blood to those who crucified him. And in so doing, he secured absolution for us for the most evil acts imaginable. He reconciled us to the Father by building a bridge from him to us that’s constructed out of the wood and nails of his cross. He gave us something better than answers to our questions; he gave us life for our death, heaven for our hell, forgiveness for our sin.

These are the revealed things of God—his revealed gifts to us. These gifts are not only all that matters, they are also all that satisfies. Here is hope for the hurting. Here is adoption for the rejected. Here is the God you can see and taste and touch and smell—the God whose name is Jesus Christ.

To those of you who are hurting, know that there is a God who loves you, who has always loved you and always will. Jesus Christ will not answer all your questions, but he will give you all of himself. And in the end, that’s all any of us need.

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

Will God Forgive Me for Having an Abortion?

womandespairI had an abortion. I was young and naïve. And now it tears me apart on the inside. If I could do it all over again, I would have my child. Now all I have is the heartache that I suffer for what I did. Now I worry that God will punish me and won’t give me other children. Can God forgive me for failing him, myself, and my baby? Will God stay mad at me for taking a life? Please, help. I don’t know if God will forgive me.

M.N.

Dear M.N.,

We do things in life that turn on a voice in our head that never seems to stop talking. Sometimes that voice is like a scream, sometimes like a whisper, but it’s rarely if ever silent. You’ve heard it. The words you write are painful proof. It’s a voice that has no mercy. When it speaks, it always has the tone of accusation. It won’t let your mistakes die. It shoves them in your face. Again and again and yet again. This voice says, “God won’t forgive you. He will punish you. He’s angry with you. He will always be angry with you.”

Sometimes well-meaning people try to help you silence that voice by telling you what to do. They say that if you do this or that, the voice will go away.

“If you confess your sins, it will go away.” But it doesn’t, does it?
“If you get your life back on track, the voice will be silent.” But it isn’t, is it?
“If you commit your life to God, he will make the voice go away.” But it still accuses.

There are things too big for us to change, voices too loud and too persistent for us to silence. Guilt is one of them. Heartache over what we’ve done. When you’re torn apart on the inside, you can’t do surgery on yourself to repair the damage. You need someone else to do that. You need someone else to make the voice go away.

Let me tell you about another voice. It is a bigger and better voice, a merciful and loving voice of a Father who thinks the world of you. In a voice rich with compassion, he said to his Son, “Jesus, will you go and take care of my daughter’s sin?” And in a voice equally rich with compassion, Jesus said to his Father, “Gladly I will go. I will, in fact, take that sin away from her and not give it back. I will make it not hers, not even hers and mine, but mine only. I will become the one who had the abortion. I will transfer the guilt and regret and heartache she feels onto myself. I will make the voice that accuses her, direct is accusation against me. Once and for all, dear Father, I will become the ocean into which every river of wrong empties itself. No sinner will be left in the world except me. I will be everyone. The guilt, the punishment, the anger, the judgment will all be mine and mine alone. Yes, Father, I will take care of your daughter’s abortion. And once I have, we will not speak of it again. We will not remember it again. It will cease to exist.”

It is not a question of whether God can forgive you, or even if he will forgive you. He already has. When you see a cross, you see the smile of your Father. He’s not mad at you. He’s overjoyed that you’re his daughter. He’s happy that you are part of his family. He talks of you to the angels. “Look at my daughter,” he says. “She is beautiful. She is pure. She is the apple of my eye. She is just the way I want her to be.” All of heaven resounds with angelic voices that sing songs of how dear you are to the Father’s heart, how precious your life is to him, that you are his princess.

Your Father will not punish you for something that he doesn’t even remember. Even if he did remember it, he would remember only that Jesus had the abortion, that Jesus paid the price for that abortion, that Jesus has taken care of everything. You are loved by God more than you will ever realize. His love is the voice that drowns out all other voices. It says, “You are my daughter. I loved you even before I created the world. I chose you in Jesus to be in my family. When I look at you, I do not see even a speck of wrong in you. I see you through the prism of my Son, your Savior. In him you are forgiven and perfect and clean and without shame. In Jesus you are everything I want you to be.”

Your mistakes do not define you. The love of the Father in Jesus Christ defines you. His voice alone speaks truth. It is the truth that nothing can separate you from his love. Now and always you are more precious to him than life itself.

You are free. You are beloved. You are forgiven.

Your brother in Christ,

Chad

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

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!

My Secret Struggle with Atheism: Seeking Answers to the Wrong Questions

Dictionary Series - Religion: atheismOver the years I’ve heard churchgoers say something like, “I don’t know how those atheists make it through tough times without God in their lives.” And I’m always tempted to respond, “Oh yeah? Well, it’s been in the toughest times of my life that I’ve wished God didn’t exist.”

If the fool says in his heart, “There is no God,” (Ps 14:1), then the sufferer says in his heart, “My God, my God, who have You forsaken me? Why have You forgotten me? Why have You rejected me?” (Ps 22:1; 42:9; 43:2). Why did You let my baby die? Why did You let my husband get cancer? Why did You take away my ability to walk? Why did You bring her into my life, make me drunk with joy for the first time in years, knowing full well in less than a year she’d come home one night, say she doesn’t love me anymore, and toss me aside like a piece of garbage? My God, my God, what good is Your existence if You do nothing to alleviate my pain, if You sit on Your hands while my life is falling apart? I wish there were no God, because at least then I could simply say, “Shit happens” then try to move on. But now I’m stuck trying to reconcile the existence of a God who supposedly loves me with the fact that I’m lonely and hurting and near the brink of despair and feel like God couldn’t care less.

That’s what I mean when I say that I’ve struggled with atheism. And still do. The suffering me becomes the questioning me who becomes the doubting me who becoming the unbelieving me. My prayer become the twisted version of the well-known biblical prayer for, contrary to reason and sanity itself, I pray, “Lord, I believe; help Thou me not to believe.”

My hindsight is not 20/20, for when I look back on the most trying times of my life, the vision is still a bit fuzzy. But, that being said, I can at least see more clearly now than I did then. I can see that I was a major league player in the blame game, that instead of taking responsibility for my own actions, I laid my guilt on an innocent God. I can see that, during my second divorce, it wasn’t an uncaring Lord who threw me away but an uncaring woman. And I can see that I was demanding answers from heaven that, even if I had them, would never satisfy. Beneath my raw and bleeding verbal attacks on God, there pulsed a desire not for answers but for love, for comfort, for even a sip of hope in my desert of despair. It wasn’t so much that I wished God didn’t exist; I wished that the God who does exist would be the kind of God I thought I wanted Him to be.

There are questions we pose to God, especially when we’re angry or hurt or despairing, that God will never answer. There is a side to Him that is, and will always remain, hidden from us, unknown and unknowable to us. And, as hard as this is to accept, it is actually better this way. For us to try and understand the hidden part of God would be like a blind man setting out to map every inch of the world.

But there is another side to God that He has made known to us; there are questions that He has answered and will continue to answer. When we cry, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Christ answers, “My child, My child, I will never leave you, I will never forsake you,” (Deut 31:6). “You may not feel me there but I am as close to you as the breath you breathe, nearer to you than the blood in your veins. I feel your body shake as you sob; I taste your tears. Lo, I am with you always, even to the brink of despair. Even when you plummet into the pit of unbelief, I am with you. When you are faithless, I will be faithful to you, for I cannot deny myself. When your hold on hope can’t last; when you’re haunted by your past; when you’re shunned as an outcast, I will hold you fast.”

The side of God that He has made known to us is Jesus. He is the one and only revelation of the Father, the one and only revelation that we need. He doesn’t answer all our questions but He joins us in all our sufferings. And He joins us to His own sufferings. He grafts us into the tree of His flesh, that the sap of His grace may flow into us and make us what He is. He recreates us to be bone of His bone so that when His bones rise from the grave after being crucified, we too might rise in His bones to newness of life.

Most importantly, He never gives up on us. We may kick and scream and cuss and fight but, when it’s all over, He hasn’t moved an inch away from us. He is not a fair weather God. He is not a God who leaves the wounded behind. He is the Good Samaritan Savior, who dismounts, bathes and tends to our wounds, and carries us to the inn.

In the toughest times of my life I have wished that God didn’t exist. I’ve wished that I could simply become an atheist, as if that would make things better. But even in those weakest times of faith, I had a Savior whose faith in His Father atoned for my lack of faith. When I would gladly have sunk into the ocean of hopelessness, He grabbed me in His arms and swam me back to shore.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” But God says in His heart, “There is no fool that I don’t still love—yes, Chad, and yes, dear reader, even you.”

If you’d like to read more of my writings, please check out my two books: Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons and The Infant Priest: Hymns and PoemsClick here if you’d like to purchase Christ Alone or here for The Infant Priest. They are both also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing. Thank you!

Heaven’s Gaze in a Child’s Eyes: An Eight-Month-Old Teaches Us How God Loves the Outcast

homeless ignoredThere are few stories more inspiring than a tale of rags to riches. Think of men like Andrew Carnegie, who as a child went to sleep just to forget his hunger, but grew up to be the richest man in the world. Or think of women like J. K. Rowling, who spent seven years scraping by before the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone skyrocketed her into fame and fortune. But it’s more than their money and renown that make us admire these people; it’s their spirit. They started low and worked their way up. We look up to them because they themselves looked up. They set their eyes on lofty goals, worked hard to attain them, and thus proved that it is indeed possible to go from rags to riches, anonymity to fame, nothing to something. The lesson is simple: keep looking up, keep moving up until you reach the top. That’s the only way you’re going to make something of yourself.

Just as there are few tales that inspire us more than a rags-to-riches story, so there are few facts more revealing about who we are than our love of these kinds of stories. We are upward, not downward, looking people. We look up to the famous; who cares about the unknowns? We look up to the beautiful; who wants to stare at someone ugly? We look up to the intelligent; who has time for the ignorant? We look up to the wealthy; but from the homeless, the panhandlers, the nasty-smelling street sleepers, we hide our eyes. As Luther once wrote, “This we experience every day. Everyone strives after that which is above him, after honor, power, wealth, knowledge, a life of ease, and whatever is lofty and great,” (AE 21:300).

Everybody wants to look up.
Nobody wants to look down.
Nobody, that is, except God.

The Lord only looks down. That’s the single direction His eyes point. And what is unique about Him is that the farther away from Him someone is—the deeper they have sunk into oppression or grief or despair or rebellion—the more clearly He sees them. He is a far-sighted Father.

As God is prone to do, He sometimes shows us who He is through people whom we would never think of as teachers, much less imitators of God. One such teacher is the eight-month-old son of one of my friends, Michael Dennis. Michael shared this story on his Facebook wall the other day.

Today, my son was my teacher. I visited a church this morning, because my wife was hired to play violin for a Christmas service. I was holding Peter somewhat towards the back of the church, amidst a crowd. A lady walked in, apparently homeless, her face disfigured with sores. I found myself hoping she wouldn’t ask me for money or come too close. She sat down alone. The next thing I knew, Peter was staring at her, then smiling and reaching his arms out to her, as if to hug her. His attention didn’t leave her until she looked up and smiled. It suddenly hit me that his response to this woman was a picture of Advent, of Christ coming as a baby with arms open wide to the poor, the sick, the broken, and the lonely, and to change the cold hearts of the self-righteous Pharisees like me.

Peter has not yet learned what his father and all of us grownups know: that if you look down, if you stretch out your hands toward those who are disfigured and poor and hurting and lonely and have nothing to offer you, you’re doing it all wrong. Look to the pretty woman a few pews over who’s wearing the diamond ring and the fur coat. Stretch out your tiny arms toward the CEO in the Armani suit. Reach for people who are above you, who can repay you, give you upward mobility in life, share with you in their success. Peter has not yet learned that if you’re going to do well for yourself in this life, there are certain kinds of people you have to cross to the other side of the street to avoid. Peter has not yet learned these things, and I pray that he never will.

When I grow young, I want to be just like Peter, whose outstretched arms and grace-filled gaze speak more eloquently of God than any learned theologian ever could. He is an imitator of our Lord Jesus, who is the image of our Father above, who has eyes only for those who are below. As Michael realized, his son’s response to this woman was a picture of Christ coming as a baby with arms open wide to the poor, the sick, the broken, and the lonely. As the mother of Jesus sang, “God has looked on the humble estate of His servant,” (Luke 1:48). Or as one of the psalms says, “He looks far down on the heavens and the earth…He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap,” (113:6-7).

Our Lord has His ways of moving us farther below through trials and tribulations so He can see us better. “In fact,” Luther reminds us, “sometimes He even lets us fall into sin, in order that He may look into the depths even more, bring help to many, perform manifold works, show Himself a true Creator, and thereby make Himself known and worthy of love and praise,” (AE 21:301). When we pray, “Out of the depths have I cried unto You, O Lord,” we are right where He wants us to be (Ps 130:1).

Why? Because in those depths we hear a voice above us, beneath us, to our left and to our right, that says, “Lo, I am with you always and everywhere, but especially here. I was born in the darkness of the night that you might know that I am with you in the blackest days, in the midnight of your suffering. I was pursued by a murderous king that you might know that I am with you when your enemies hound you. I was hated and despised and rejected that you might know that I am with you when all turn their backs on you. I touched the leper so that you might know that no matter how polluted you think you are, I will embrace and hold and kiss you. I died that you might know that, even in your last hour, as you take your final breath, I am with you, will take you from this life to a better life, and will raise you up on the last day.”

God looks down, only looks down, always looks down. This is not only good news; it is the best news imaginable. Jesus left His riches to wear our rags, in order to clothe us with the riches of His grace, His forgiveness, His life, yes, even Himself. Like young Peter, the Babe of Bethlehem stretches out His arms, all the way to the cross, to embrace us with His love.

If you’d like to read more of my writings, please check out the two books that I now have on sale. From now to the end of 2014, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons and The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems, are on sale 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!

A Tree Decorated with Tears: The Dark Side of Christmas is Why Christmas Exists

treeIn my family room is a tree that whispers to me a secret story about Christmas. My family and I set it up this weekend, arrayed it with colorful lights, festooned it with shiny ornaments. But no matter how bright and beautiful we decorated it, the tree whispered to me its darker, secret story. This morning, very early, I walked into the family room and stood before that story-telling tree. I could see its conical shape, but there was not a hint of color. Or light. Or sparkle. And the tree told me, once more, its story.

This tree belonged to a friend of mine named Barbara. Every December, the tree would watch as she slowly put it together, decorated it, and stepped back to survey her work. But no matter how many lights she wove through its greenery, all the tree could see on Barbara’s face was an expanding darkness. No matter how many beautiful ornaments she hung on its branches, still from her eyes fell those tear-shaped ornaments that leak from a broken soul. Barbara was trying her best to celebrate the Nativity, but that’s hard to do when you’re going through a divorce, struggling to find work, confused, sick, and alone.

Barbara’s tree is now in our family room; she gave it to us. When she moved into a smaller place this past year, she gave away lots of stuff. She gave away furniture. She gave away decorations. She even gave away appliances. Looking back, I now think that she gave so much away because she suspected that she wouldn’t be giving anyone anything this Christmas except bitter-sweet memories of a life too soon lost. She was give out, giving up.

As I stood in our darkened family room before Barbara’s tree, I listened to the story of the other side of Christmas. The story of women like Barbara, whom darkness slowly envelopes until light seems a mythical wonder from a lost world. The story of children like my boyhood friend, Kent, who many years ago went into a dark closet right before Christmas with a gun in his hand. The story of people who would love to switch the date of this holiday from December 25 to February 29 so they’d only have to endure it every fourth year.

As I remember these stories of the other side of Christmas—where it’s not a wonderful life, where there’s no joy to the world, where silent nights are interrupted by screams and sobs and cursing and gunshots—I remember that this other side of Christmas is precisely why there is a Christmas in the first place.

Into what kind of world was God born late that night in Bethlehem? A world where…
Bruised children whimpered behind bedroom doors
Broken men groaned over fresh graveyard dirt
Babies wailed as they clawed at milkless breasts
Wounded soldiers howled into the blackness
Women of the night brazenly hawked their wares
Fists smashed into broken faces in drunken brawls
Wizened men wheezed final unintelligible words
And the blackened teeth of the homeless chattered.

Into what kind of world was God born? A world where Barbaras and Kents can see nothing in the future but a glaring midnight stare. A world full of hurting people who hurt each other, hurt themselves, and sometimes will do terrible things to themselves just to make the hurt stop.

For them, for you, God was born. For bruised children and broken men. For wounded soldiers and battered wives. For you—no matter your hurt, no matter how screwed up your life is, no matter what kinds of stupid decisions you’ve made, no matter how filthy and vile and useless you think you are—for precisely you God was born. He gladly left a bright and shiny heaven to plunge headfirst into the mud and muck of our world full of darkness and unbelief and tragedy. He didn’t stand in the light and beckon you out of the darkness. He invaded the night. He came in search of you.

You say, “But I’m a lost cause.”
Jesus says, “I specialize in lost causes, for I came to seek and to save the lost.”
You say, “But I just can’t go on.”
Jesus says, “You don’t have to. I will carry you onward. I’ve got you. You don’t need to take another step.”
You say, “But I’m hopeless.”
Jesus says, “I have all the hope you need. I am your hope. I hold your past, your present, and your future in my nail-scarred hands.”
You say, “But look at what I’ve done. I’m dirty. Nobody wants me.”
And Jesus says, “I want you. Look at what I’ve done for you. I have taken your dirt and smeared it all over me. You are clean, I am filthy. See me dirty on the cross. See you clean beneath it. I want you—desperately, lovingly, crazily, I want you.”

Into this mad world, oozing with pain, racked with guilt, pockmarked with graves, God gladly and willingly was born to make you his own flesh and blood. The deeper you have fallen, the farther he will dig to find you. The darker your despair, the more light he will bring to seek you out. The farther away from God you are, the better he sees you. No life has sunk so unfathomably deep that he cannot dig down to grasp you by the hand and climb out of the pit with you in his arms. That’s the kind of God who was born on Christmas. That’s the kind of God that Jesus is.

That tree in my family room tells its story. But I know a better one. It’s the story of a God who can turn our hurting stories around. The story of a God who never gives up on us. The story of a God who gives you himself at Christmas that, in him, you might have everything and more.

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If you’d like to read more of my writings, please check out the two books that I now have on sale. From now to the end of 2014, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons and The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems–are on sale 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!

When Your Own Family Betrays You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ChristAloneCoverIf this reflection was helpful to you, and you’d like to read more–many more–like it, then take a look at my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

False Guilt: Where Do I Turn When I Feel Guilty for Doing Nothing Wrong?

falseguiltHe never saw the pickup coming. The few years of life he’d experienced hadn’t taught him enough about being safe, about looking both ways before running across the street, about what a moving ton of steel can do to a little boy’s body. The driver was leaving a construction sight in the back of the neighborhood. He wasn’t speeding. He wasn’t texting. And he wasn’t omniscient; he didn’t know the boy was going to come out of nowhere. The driver was innocent. He did nothing wrong. Yet now, about a year later, I’d wager that the guilt he feels over that child’s death is the first thing he feels every morning, the last thing he feels every night.

And he is not alone. I suspect that child’s parents beat themselves up for not protecting their child, even though there was no way they could have prevented the accident. His older siblings feel guilty for not being there to watch over him. On and on the false guilt spreads. Only if I had been a better parent, only if I had been there, only if I had offered to play with him that day, only if I had driven a little slower, only if I had worked late that day. Everyone involved feels guilty over something in which they did nothing wrong.

It is a strange fact of human nature that false guilt very often plagues us more than true guilt. Children think they’re to blame for their parents’ divorce. Husbands think they’re to blame for their wife’s suicide. Parents think they’re to blame for the bad choices their children make. There’s plenty of true sins for which we feel true guilt, but it’s the false guilt over non-sins that frequently keep us awake at night, playing the “only if I had done ______” game of self-torture.

Now I could try to convince you that your feelings of guilt are misplaced, that because you did nothing wrong, you are not to blame. Things happen over which you have no control. There’s no way you could have seen that child coming. There’s no way you could have prevented your parents’ marital strife. People make their own decisions. We can’t control them. We can only control our reaction to them. I could tell you these things. But, honestly, I tell myself these same things on a regular basis, and they wind up providing little comfort. The truth is that I am flawed beyond the reach of psychological reasoning.

We are a tiny part of a deeply flawed world. And the tiny part of the world that we are is just as deeply flawed. There are cracks in my soul, flaws in the core of my being, that are deeper and broader than the Grand Canyon. They are full of true and false guilt, addictions and angers, regrets and shame, horrors over what I’ve done and what’s been done to me. I have old, old wounds on my heart that still ooze pus. And they’re not all self-inflicted. Others have hurt me, even those I loved dearly. And I even feel guilt over them hurting me, as if somehow I’m to blame for their loveless treatment of me. I am a man of flaws that are deeper and broader and full of more pain that any reasoning or counseling can fully cure.

We are right to say that Jesus paid the price for our sins, that He takes our guilt away. But the truth is that I need more than a Savior from my own sin. I also need a Savior from other people’s sins against me. I need a God who can heal me of true guilt and false guilt. I need a Christ who not only removes the shame I feel for what I’ve done, but who washes away the shame that others have smeared upon me. I need a Jesus who doesn’t just fix the parts of me that are broken, but who totally remakes me into a new creature.

And that’s the Savior I have. “Look, I am making all things new,” He says (Rev 21:5). Did you hear that? All. Things. New. Not most things. Not just the things you feel true guilt over. Not just the shame over what you’ve done wrong. I am making all things new. He makes all of me new, all of you new. The cracks in our souls, those deep and broad flaws in the core of our being, He fills with Himself. The Grand Canyon within us, full of guilts and fears and shames and regrets and horrors unspeakable, He fills with His forgiveness and healing and love and compassion. And when fissures begin to show again, He fills them once more.

“It is finished,” Jesus said right before He died. And He meant it. He finished the work of making us new by being made all that is wrong with the world and with us. There is a true Savior for false guilt. There is a true Savior for all flaws, all pains, all that’s wrong with us and the world in which we live. He is one who makes all things new.

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What 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 Illusion of Control

The highway was a spectacular sheet of ice. I was the seventeen-year-old behind the wheel. And I had pretty much everything in life figured out. I was that good.

Here’s what you do. First, you put weight in the back of the truck. So early that morning I loaded several bales of alfalfa hay in the bed of my Ford. Bingo. That’d do the trick. Next, when you’re driving on ice, you take your sweet time. So I did, crawling along the shiny sheet of asphalt like grandma on a Sunday drive. Next, if you must hit the brakes, you just tap them. Don’t lock them down or you’ll find yourself on winter’s version of a slip-and-slide.

See, I knew what to do: weigh the truck down, drive slow, tap brakes. Simple. It may have been a nasty day in the Texas panhandle, but I was in control of the situation.

And then there came this hill. The hill with a menacing 45 degree curve at the bottom. The hill I had no choice but to slow down for. So ever so lightly I tapped my brakes. And, in a heartbeat, my drive to school became a carnival ride. Down the hill I went, the Ford suddenly an automotive ballerina, spinning round and round. I blacked out or freaked out or both. The next thing I remember was blinking at my driver’s side window, for I all saw were frozen blades of grass, and out of the passenger’s window only a grayish morning sky. There I lay, my truck on its side, in the ditch, after I’d done everything right. I was seventeen years old. And I was learning a very important lesson about the illusion of control.

I escaped unscathed that day, though my Ford was pretty beat up. But that was one of many lessons I’ve learned about control and its illusory appeal. In some of my other lessons, things didn’t end nearly so well. They didn’t kill me, but I stumbled away with injuries to the heart and soul from which I will never completely recover. And given what I know about myself, perhaps that’s best. Like Jacob, maybe I need to limp. Like Paul, maybe I need a thorn in the flesh. Some of us need scars, inward as well as outward, as a constant reminder that we are not in control.

spinningIt’s one thing for your life to spin out of control when you’re flagrantly breaking every law God ever made, but what about when you’re really trying to do God’s will? The day I wrecked my truck, I followed all the right steps. Then came the icy hill and my illusion of control was shattered. And so it goes in life. You do everything you can think of to be a good wife, to make your husband happy, but he still prefers bars and blondes over evenings with you. You take your children to church and Sunday School; teach them good manners and a hard work ethic and chastity; warn them over and over about the dangers of drugs and alcohol; and still they end up sleeping with God knows who, snorting God knows what, and basically wrecking their lives. You hit the gym, eat right, take your vitamins, avoid cigarettes, still look pretty darn good in a swimsuit, then find out in your mid-40’s that you’ve got stage four cancer. You discover—as a spouse, a parent, a child of this world—that you were in control of nothing. It was all an illusion.

Some well-meaning friend will likely tell you, Don’t worry. God’s in control. Like that’s supposed to help. So, you’ll think, God is the one who orchestrated my husband’s infidelities? God is the one in control of my child who’s strung out on cocaine? God is the one who caused my cancer? The Lord is the sadist behind all this pain and disappointment and heartache and loss and grief? He’s in control? Well, now, isn’t that a relief, to know that heaven itself has made my life a living hell.

Know this: it’s not a matter of who’s in control in this life—you, God, some nameless power in the universe, or none of the above. Focus on control and you’ll end up with nothing but confusion and frustration and disappointment. It’s not about who’s in control in this life but whose you are in this life. It’s about the Christ who claims you as His own, who has promised to be with you every step of the way in a life that often spins seemingly out of control.

Jesus knows a thing or two about a life that’s full of more downs than ups, about a life punctuated by physical and emotional disasters, about friends who’d rather sleep than help Him in His greatest time of need, about the forked tongues of foes who parade around spreading slander, about family members who think He’s gone off the deep end, about pains of body and soul that just keep getting worse. He’s walked that walk. If anyone has been in your shoes, Jesus has.

But He’s not just able to sympathize with you, to tell you He knows how you feel. That’s fine and dandy, but you need more. And He gives you more. He says, “Listen, you can’t do this alone. I’m going to merge the two of us into one, so that whatever you suffer, I suffer; whoever trashtalks you, trashtalks me; whenever it feels like you’re freefalling into the yawning pits of a hellish depression from which you’ll never recover, I’ll be there to hold you and help you through it until you emerge from that pit into the light of hope once more. I’m not a halfass God. I’m in this with you, for you, in you totally. I sunk you into me in those baptismal waters. I found you in the font and you found me. I made you mine and me yours. Hell can rage all it wants, but it can’t pry you from my grasp. I’ve got your back and your front, your heart and your soul, all the way down to the inner core of your being. I am yours and you are mine. Nothing and no one can separate us.”

You see, everything good that belongs to Jesus belongs to you, and everything bad about you belongs to Jesus. Not just your sins and shortcomings, but your sufferings, your losses, your rebellious children, your cheating husband, your backstabbing brethren, your cancer, your everything. Forget control; you’ve got Christ. And He’s not about control but about saving you, loving you, holding you when your life spins out of control.

And that’s no illusion. That’s the real thing, the real promise, from the real Christ.

ChristAloneCoverIf this reflection was helpful to you, and you’d like to read more–many more–like it, then take a look at my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!

 

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