be in the world but not of yourself.

Christians are in the world but not of the world. It’s a churchy catch-all to difficult questions that always boil down to the same thing. “Is this allowed?” It’s an answer that sounds religiousy and lets you avoid actually answering tough questions about things that make us uncomfortable. For example, morality, right and wrong, and God’s law. That’s a twofer. It’s even from the bible. Sort of…

“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:14–18)

It’s easy, just watch.  I want to go to a concert but I think the lyrics to the music are inappropriate. In the world, but not of the world.  So, instead of listening to people sing about how much they love drugs, go to a show in some church where they sing about how much they love Jesus. Even though it’s not actually in the world because the rest of the world didn’t show up. They knew it wouldn’t hold a bic lighter to the real thing. Still, you can have your cake and eat it too. Sort of…

Or maybe your church talks a lot about how horrible dressing immodestly is. Instead of a difficult conversation about Christian freedom, love for neighbor, and a dark history where this was used not to elevate and honor women but demean them, just say ‘in the world but not of the world’. Then, dress how the world dresses, but incorporate a bedazzled cross to cancel it out. Sort of like eating ice cream while walking on the treadmill. That sort of works, right? No?

It doesn’t work because ‘In the world but not of the world’ assumes God’s law changes between heaven and here, and it’s our job to bridge the gap by finding loopholes. It doesn’t and it’s not. Morality doesn’t cease to exist with bedazzled crosses. The world won’t love praise bands that sing about something they don’t believe in. It doesn’t work because in all of it we completely ignore Jesus. This side of glory we can’t fulfill God’s law. That’s why we look for loopholes. Jesus points to something in the world but not of the world to measure righteousness. Himself. Not loopholes. Love.

The point isn’t that Christians take a detour on earth before going to heaven. It’s that Jesus left heaven behind, took flesh and came to earth. God abides on earth, friend of sinners, and help of the helpless. He loved you by dying on the cross to keep you from the evil one and make you holy.

Sanctification means made holy. Holiness doesn’t come from bedazzled crosses on every tanktop, but one bloody one where God died for you. We are baptized into that cross. Baptism unites us in death and resurrection to Jesus. We are in the world as He is in the world. Called to love each other as He loved us. But we are not of the world as He is not either. We’re tied to a resurrection that conquers the sins we don’t’ have to excuse anymore. They’re forgiven, washed away in the blood of Jesus. We’re free from loopholes. We’re joined in love. We’re baptized.

be in the world but not of yourself.

we are beggars.

He died an outlaw in the same little town he was born in. They found a scrap of paper with scribbled writing in his pocket. “We are beggars. This is true.

Still, he changed the world. Not in a ‘you mean everything to me’ pop ballad way. In a ‘you’re allowed to believe differently than your government’ kind of way. A ‘you can read the bible in your own language’ kind of way. A ‘there is a church that preaches the gospel purely and administers the sacraments rightly’ kind of way.  Martin Luther. 500 years ago he nailed 95 thesis to the door of a cathedral and sparked the reformation.  Emperors gave him their ear. Magistrates followed his advice. There’s a middling denomination that loves to argue on the internet in his name. That last part isn’t so impressive, but Luther was.  He died thinking this. “We are beggars.”  

We have hundreds of writings from him. Thousands of pages.  This might not be his most exhaustive treatment on a topic, but it’s profound enough.  It isn’t just a statement on the our sinful, broken nature. It’s a call to look up. After all, beggars can’t be choosers.

It’s too easy to limit God to the being that’s stronger than you. It’s too common to say we Get what we deserve. It’s too simple to look around at the misery and death in the world and assume beggars can never hope for more than scraps.  But begging isn’t about you.

Luther meant more than ‘you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit’.  He meant it’s not about you at all. Begging is not about what you can earn or buy. It’s not even about what you deserve. It’s about the One you’re begging. Begging relies totally on the one you ask.  What kind of God do you have?

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
– 1 Timothy 1:15

God doesn’t reveal Himself in power, but in mercy.  We are beggars, but God is merciful. This is the Lutheranism.  We are beggars. We dare to look to mercy instead of works.  We dare to trust in something bigger than ourselves.  We see our pride ground to dust and find identity in Christ.  We dare to find hope in audacious places like water and word. Lutheranism isn’t about Luther. It isn’t a wholesale endorsement of everything he ever did or said.  It’s about Jesus.  It’s about mercy.

Christianity isn’t behaving until you earn something nice from Him.  It’s begging, and when you know who your God is, it’s comfort. Even to dying men.   God is merciful enough to do more than drop care packages from heaven to the people who deserve them.  He takes flesh and climbs down and bears sin for you upon a cross.  He pays for everything we beg Him for with holy blood.  He dies and rises for you, not because of who you are, but because of who He is.  We are beggars, but Jesus is merciful.  We beg based on a gift already given. We pray based on an identity He insists we have. He commands us to be baptized. He demands we be brought to Him and given life.   He doesn’t hide in heaven and wait for us to earn our place with Him.  He descends to place Himself right into the midst of everything going wrong in our lives, the things done to us and the things we did to ourselves and each other, and carries us out of this valley of death unto life.

So we beg a God who will not be far off.  He answers in the same blood that purchased us release. We eat and drink the Eucharist and know where our God is and more, who He is. Mercy.

we are beggars.

God lives in His own anthill.

I was outside playing with my kids.  The sun was shining. Their laughter sounded like adventure and joy.  It smelled like summer.  My 2 year old ran up to me and said what I’m now convinced was “Zeke step on bug make paint”.  OK? Interpreting toddler is more art than science.   I simultaneously want her to talk that way forever because “awwww” and wish she’d grow out of because “what does that even mean?” Her older brother explained it.  He squealed as he stomped on a big red bug and drug his shoe backwards.  The bug literally popped. I heard it. It left behind a mixed streak of red, black, and concupiscence on the sidewalk.

Concupiscence: noun
1) the inclination to sin.
2) an inherited disease and original vice that leaves streaks of “paint” on the sidewalk.

It was jarring. This is the sweet boy I tuck in at night. His heart is bigger than his eyes, wide with wonder. Pop. This sweet boy destroyed something alive to make paint out of bug guts because playing baseball got boring. It wasn’t that I started sleeping with one eye open just in case he decided to “paint” with daddy. It was cruel, but it was just a bug. I got over it and we got back to playing. It was just a bug to me too.  What bothers me isn’t the paint. I, a poor miserable sinner, made the same discovery with lightning bugs 30 years ago. The paint glowed in the dark.  Bugs live longer when bored kids don’t notice them. The thing that bugs me (sorry, had to)  is the notion that we must look about that size to God. What are we to The divine? Pop.

Sometimes a God who causes the kinds of things we go through doesn’t seem so different from a kid holding a magnifying glass over an anthill because it’s slightly more entertaining than daytime TV.  What really seals it is how creative He is. It just seems cruel.  We don’t just get a rolled up newspaper for crossing into His line of sight, we get small cell cancer. We get to bury our own children. We get to languish for months and years, praying all the while for help, and wondering why God is doing this to us.  We suffer.

What are we to the divine? Or more honestly, what is the divine to us?  His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways. So when I try to figure out why His anthill is on fire, I fill in what I don’t understand with the things I think I do.  Myself. What would I do to bugs?  Pop.  It doesn’t work though.  Even though I sleep like a baby after painting with lighting bugs when I’m bored, I’d never make myself a bug to be squashed. That’s exactly what He did.

 It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him?” You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. Hebrews 2:6-10

What are we to the divine? Something so precious He would make Himself like us. God became man to bear all the evil we do to each other and to Him. All the cruelty that exists not in Him but in us. I am the cruelty that can disregard anything I believe to be different or smaller or insignificant. We are the cruelty that can sleep soundly after committing atrocities because we’re convinced they aren’t big enough to matter.  Ours is the desire to be bigger, but God became smaller to save us. God became man to bear our suffer for us. He made Himself to live in His own anthill, to suffer all the fires and pains and deaths on a cross.  This is how He brings us through suffering to glory.  He swallowed our death.  God isn’t a kid with an anthill because He has compassion enough to save us by bearing the heat Himself.  The anthill is on fire. Christians don’t deny that. Our sin breaks stuff. So God, in mercy, comes down to live in His own burning anthill to rescue and save.

Look to the cross of Christ and there you’ll start to see it. This is where Jesus is crowned with glory and honor.  He won everything promised.  Hope. Life. Salvation.  This is a cruel world, but God won’t be far from it. He’ll be the one holding it up by bearing the weight of sin on His own shoulders. He’ll be the one who makes us perfect through His suffering. He’ll be the one baptizing sinners and raising them up on the last day free from cruelty, sin, and death.

God lives in His own anthill.

my insecurities runneth over.

Everyone has insecurities.  I think?  Hopefully it’s not just me. I don’t know.  They’re hard to talk about.  Maybe it’s because the first reaction to this grand revelation is usually an inner dialogue that recites some form of “maybe, but not like mine.” It probably says something about the power of insecurity that as much as I hate it, I insist I have more than you.  What really makes them so wicked is that thinking about them makes them worse, but oddly enough, ignoring them only seems to feed them too. They breed in the void, the unanswered, and the unaddressed.

Maybe it would be easier if they always looked the same. Insecurity is the root that sprouts false bravado and cowering fear, absolute conformity and ridiculous eccentricity.  The only thing in common is the source.  Insecurities are born at the intersection of this world’s need to measure everything and the suspicion, or even objective knowledge, that we just don’t measure up.  

Am I good enough? attractive enough? Smart enough? Am I funny enough that people will like me anyway?  The word enough lurks near every insecurity. Lutherans call that a law word. The law is the standard. It’s how things are supposed to be.  Standards measure.  Standards uncover weakness and failure. It’s their job. Do we measure up enough?

The law is good. I acknowledge it with every wish to measure up.  God says “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I wish I was too. Things would go better. I daydream about it, but this side of glory it seems like the only way to feel good ourselves is to convince ourselves that the standards aren’t real.  Either find excuses that lower the bar or people who have screwed up worse than us until we don’t feel so bad anymore.

God wasn’t kidding about the whole “be perfect” thing. Falling short of the standard hurts. It leaves people wanting, suffering, and dying. It’s why I still can’t forget stupid things I did in 6th grade. Lutherans call that sin. Paul says “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” I don’t measure up to perfect.  That just leaves me, my insecurities, and all the damage that stems from all of it. Sin breaks stuff.

So go grab a bible. Try to figure out how to be better. Try to write yourself into the scriptures. I tried that, but my insecurities went right along.  The Lord might be a shepherd, but I still want. He must not be mine.  Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I’m afraid of heights, let alone evil.  Thy rod and staff don’t comfort me.  My insecurities runneth over.

If you insist on reading yourself into the bible until you find a way to conquer your insecurities, it’s not going to work.  The bible is not about you. The bible is about Jesus for you.  You can’t will insecurity out of existence. It can only be conquered by love and trust. Insecurities must be defeated by an imposed identity that differs from what I see in the mirror. So God tells you who you really are.  A proclaimed truth meets quiet insecurities.  John sees it for what it is.

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
~ 1 John 2:28–3:3

Your righteousness isn’t measured. It’s given. Right along with a new identity that washes away sin and shame and insecurity. You are children of God now. He made it so.  You can know it.  You are baptized. Jesus loves you so much that He would trade His life for everything your insecurities call worthless. The cross shows your value.  The cost has been paid. Not in gold or silver, but in holy and precious blood.  The savior died for you. That’s how precious you are. Confidence won’t come from looking inward and trying to measure up, but from looking to His cross and seeing what He has made us to be. Forgiven. Holy. Righteous. Loved.

God’s word is more than just a measuring stick. It is the gospel. It is the story of a God who loved you enough to declare you more than ‘better than someone else’. You’re His beloved child.  God’s church will not be a house of false compliments. We will not excuse the standards or help you find new people to look down on. We are church.  You’re welcome here, and so are your insecurities. There’s forgiveness for everything that they whisper about. The only word I never want to hear is ‘enough’. Forget the word enough. We have all. ALL your sins are paid for by Christ’s death.  They’re gone.  Be perfect. And so you are.  Not on your own. Not by your works, but by His grace.  He meets each insecurity with a cup that runneth over. He fills it with the very blood that washes you clean.   This is enough to give hope that endures. This is enough to approach the throne of grace in confidence. This is enough to know that whatever I think about myself, God thinks I’m worth calling His baptized child.

my insecurities runneth over.

When we forget, God still remembers.

I visit a lot of nursing homes. There are a few staples in each room. A well-worn chair. A
photo album. An old bible. A few trinkets with more sentimental value than anyone on Antique Roadshow could ever know. They remind folks of home. Of family. Of God. Until they can’t. Alzheimer’s is an evil thing.

Technically, it forms insoluble plaques between neurons in the brain causing memory loss. I Googled that, but WebMD doesn’t talk about how Alzheimer’s causes a layer of dust to cover bibles that used to be open every day.  I’ve known armchair theologians who chewed the meat of the scripture lose years of insight and brought back to the milk little children move away from.

I didn’t see the part where family portraits become stock photos that came with the frame. Or where precious tokens become junk because nobody remembers what made them so special anymore. I’ve watched this disease assault Christians and their families. I’ve watched people cope with the loss of a loved one even while they sit unknowing in a chair 2 feet away because of a living death called Alzheimer’s.  They’re not dead, but the part of them that shared stories and jokes is gone.  So even while we tend to the body, even while we do our best to offer gestures of love that go unrecognized, we are ground down bit by bit. Forgetting is heartbreaking.

I wonder if the prophet Isaiah didn’t know someone who suffered this. WebMD wouldn’t have helped, but then again, it doesn’t now. Not for this. So the prophet wrote,

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. (Isaiah 49:15-16)”

Sometimes we forget, but God remembers. When the identity seems to be slipping away from someone you love so much, look to the Jesus who has carved our memory into the palms us His hands with nails from a cross.  See the identity that cannot be taken.  We are the ones Jesus bled and died for. We are the ones washed clean in that blood. We are the baptized, united with Christ in His death and so certainly united with Him in His resurrection.

Here’s the ugly truth, this world is so busted up by something called sin that it changes us.  Living in pain, disease, sin and addiction, warps our personalities in time.  But we will not be known by the worst the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh can do to us. We will be known by the nail marks in our Christ’s hands.  We will be known by His love for us that was willing to bear all the same pains unto death to conquer them for us.  We will be known by His resurrection.  We will be known by the risen Jesus who has set us free from all of it.  Even risen, He still has nail marks in His hands. They are to remember you and yours. They recall the sacrifice that brings us with Him unto glory.  They are the sign that even while we despair in this world, our Lord has not forgotten us. He remembers.

So we do the things that come from this sacrifice.  We cling to the things that remind us who we really are. We are children of God. We pray the Lord’s Prayer. We sing hymns and pray psalms.  We cross ourselves until our pastor has to do it for us in a Benediction that yields peace.  There’s a reason Christians do these things every day.  The milk of the scripture is something children move on from to ask weighty questions, but when we need to fall back on it it’s still there.  We are the baptized, engraved on the palms of His hands. Christ is risen. We will rise, free from all of the evils in this world.  Restored in mind and body alike.  Even now, while they grab at us, know we are held in Christ’s nail marked hands.

When we forget, God still remembers.

God demands too much.

Hey remember that time God told Abraham to abort his son? Said to make him carry the wood for his own pyre up the mountain. Lay him on it. Kill him with a knife. Set him on fire. If you want to talk about a loving God, probably don’t start here. Really, this is the one story I hear over and over again whenever anyone wants to prove just how monstrous God is and how messed up His people are.

Most of the time We try to explain it away. We hate it too. It’s universally appalling. We try to ignore the fact that Abraham was really going to do it. He had the knife in his hand. Even if Isaac lived, he lived knowing his dad was cool with killing him if the voice from the sky said so.   This point we’re desperate for a positive spin. We encourage each other to have the kind of faith Abraham had.  The problem is, it sounds pretty hollow when we clearly spend the whole time praying we would never have to be in a position to have that much faith ourselves.

If you want me to be honest, my short answer is just no. No. I would not do this thing. I can’t. It’s not virtue signaling. I just don’t have it in me. If the sky opened up and God’s voice boomed down, I would say no. The cost is just too high. Even though I hate the idea of God demanding child sacrifice, even though I wouldn’t do it and don’t even want to, God still demanded it.

There’s no getting around it.  I believe God is loving, but that doesn’t make the demand here any less harsh.  I’m usually fine with God punishing people, as long as I agree with Him that it’s wrong. As long as it looks fair. As long as it’s someone else.  It’s a lot harder when it’s us. It’s worse when God demands something we can’t give.

I won’t make excuses for this. I won’t explain it away. God demanded Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. That’s what the law does. It demands. It accuses. It’s perfect, and I’m not. His perfection is a lot purer than mine and He won’t change the rules just for me. If God is loving, He’s also just.

You don’t have to like it, but you can’t escape it either.  When you try to reason away God’s law, dumb it down, or paint over it so it’s more palatable it never works out.  The world hates God’s law.  When you pretend it doesn’t exist in the hopes they’ll sign on, the world just scoffs and does its own thing anyway.  We end up feeling slimy for trying to be disingenuous. It only gets worse from there.

The simplest explanation is usually the right one. If you’re the creator, I suppose you get to make the rules. Your roof, your rules. His world, His law. His law just happens to say “Don’t pimp your wife out to the king of Egypt because you’re afraid of him. Twice.” And “Don’t have an illegitimate child by the maid to force God’s hand because you don’t like how long He’s taking to work.”  Simple stuff really.  If you told the story from Sarah’s perspective this is a pretty abusive marriage. Sin breaks stuff. There are consequences that we can’t always fix. The wages of sin is death.  The law will always look barbaric underneath every excuse and attempt to sugarcoat it because at the end of the day the cost of failure is just too high.  A just God and a loving God don’t seem to mesh.

There’s really only one way to make it work.  It’s written on the name of the mountain. The Lord will provide. God demands more than we can give, but His word provides everything it demands.  When God’s word demanded too much of Abraham, He provided that too. Even a sacrifice.

Abraham looked up. And behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns.  Abraham was right. God will provide the lamb that wears the crown of thorns.

God’s Word demands that the sins which hurt our neighbor, destroy ourselves, and war against God be paid for with the highest of cost. So God’s word provides it. God sent His own son to bleed for you, to die on a cross for you, and to conquer death for you. God, in all of His justice, is also loving.  So He made the two meet on the cross.  Look to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He paid for every last sin we bury deep down, every last sin we can’t fix, and every last one we’re not even sure we want to. He died for you. It is finished. You are forgiven.

On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided. God sent His son to the mount of Calvary for Abraham, for Isaac, and for you to spare you from death by bearing it Himself and destroying it from the inside out.  He loves you too much to see you try to cover what you can’t.  He pays it for you.  It’s not fair, but it is just.  It’s not fair, but it is love.

Instead of trying so hard to deal with the knife in Abraham’s hand, look to the fact that the lord provides.  It’s what Abraham was hoping for too. He provided Isaac against every odd. He was born to an old lady after years and years of heartbreak.  He spared Abraham from every terrible thing he’d done. Over and over again, Abraham saw that the Lord provides.  He says it himself.  God will provide the lamb. He tells the young men who went with him to that mountain that somehow, two people will come back down.  “We will return to you.”  I can’t do that. Abraham can’t either. God can though.  And more, He has.

Look to Calvary. On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided. Forgiveness for every evil that writes checks we can’t cash. Hope for a victory over everything we can’t survive on our own, and life that death cannot destroy.

God demands too much.

What are we here for?

That’s the question on everyone’s mind. We’re a little church in a little town in a world that’s moved on.  The kids move out. The morals keep changing. We don’t fit. Even in town we’re the grumpy church.  What are we here for? And really, how much longer will it last?

We all want our church to endure. The problem is, it’s so easy to lose sight of why.  When we forget what we’re here for, the only thing left to talk about is what we’re here against.  We’re the church that won’t commune your Methodist son-in-law.  We’re the church that won’t marry your lesbian cousin and her partner.  We’re the church that even has a problem with that stirring and totally-not-for-profit movie “God Exists And You’re A Dumb Meany 2: Electric Boogaloo”.  St. Paul Lutheran Church, if you hate what we hate please join us.

I understand the temptation to loosen the standards.  Ease off the law just a little bit. Stop being so picky. You can empty the church of everything offensive, but that just leaves an empty room. Not being offensive isn’t the same thing as having something to offer.  It still doesn’t answer the question.  What are we here for?

Paul understands the frustration. A law that he himself falls short of. A people unsatisfied. A church on the brink of extinction even in its infancy.  Corinth was a city that struggled with all of the same issues we know today. A declining morality. A people divided. A suffering congregation.  What were they here for? He answers.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. – 1 Corinthians 1:22–25

We preach Christ crucified.  We’re here to give Jesus to sinners.  That’s why we maintain the law. That’s why we don’t bend on it one iota or dot. We give Jesus to sinners who suffer under the burden of the law because the law isn’t the thing that’s killing us, it’s just the name for it. It diagnoses the disease God calls sin.  We have the answer. The cure. The life. Christ crucified for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.  We’re here to give that to you.

We’re the grumpy church who maintains the law, even when we fall short of it and look like hypocrites, because that’s the whole point. Jesus died for us to forgive us every sin. Jesus died for all. We’re here to give that gift to every last sinner in need.

What are we here for? When that awful little thought crosses into your mind, answer it.  We give Jesus to sinners. That doesn’t always seem like much, but it’s the answer to ever single murmured question and secret fear and stupid insecurity we carry around with us whether we’re willing to admit it or not. We can speak openly about every evil and every pain because we know that our God gave His life to give us the answer, the hope,  the victory.  We’re here because Jesus is actually here to help you.  He stands in Word and Sacrament between you and every bit of guilt and shame, every sleepless night, every unanswered question, and death and hell themselves.  He’s here to help.  We’re here because we need Him.

As far as how much longer, we’ll let God worry about that, because right now all I see is a need for salvation met by the hope of a God who died to make us live.  We have open doors and plenty of room for more to stumble and crawl in with no other choice, be carried by a neighbor in love, or even just invited. We’re the “Jesus for sinners” church. We’re here for sinners.  We’re here for you.

What are we here for?

Your way was through the sea, yet your footprints were unseen.

My wife had a miscarriage. Today we went to the doctor expecting to hear my child’s heartbeat.  Our other kids sat on the floor looking up at the doctor like it was story time at the library.  The concentrated frown made for the loudest silence I’ve ever heard.  An ultrasound confirmed it.  My kid died.

A few weeks earlier at the first ultrasound we let my 4 year old son give the baby a name until birth.  We figured it would help him relate to a sibling he couldn’t see.  He named our child Bubbles. The first coherent thought that emerged through the haze was to question whether or not we made a huge mistake.  It wasn’t that we’d have to explain death to little children.  It was that I let a 4 year old name my kid Bubbles.  Whenever you catch yourself telling someone “God totally has a plan”, think of Bubbles and realize how ridiculous you sound. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic.

I understand something I didn’t before. I’ve been told more than once that my faith is just an attempt to rewrite reality into something easier to digest.  That lesser minds made up the idea of a loving God because the world just seems too cruel.  It’s easier to imagine something better than to deal with a reality this harsh.  I understand because I don’t want my child to be real. It would be easier. I cut my nails. Goodbye dead cells. This is different. Not just because it feels different to me, but because this child had a heartbeat. I saw it. There’s a picture documenting it on my fridge.  I don’t want to have an abortion debate. I don’t want to argue over a clump of cells.  I don’t want to use my loss as an excuse to self-righteously call someone a sinner or a baby killer.  Right now, I just want to not hurt over the loss of my child, whose heart doesn’t beat anymore.  I want to hold my child.  I want a narrative without tears, because there is too much pain and not enough words to describe what it’s like to hear absolutely nothing at all.

Faster than I could imagine possible, women all around us took off masks worn to hide the same experience.  They shared stories and comfort and compassion and love.  They are wounded warriors with strength I still don’t understand.  Then again, there’s a lot I don’t understand.  I don’t understand what it’s like to secretly question myself and comb over my every action to see if I did something wrong to cause this. I don’t understand the shame or the exposure of having to explain what’s wrong.  I don’t understand wearing a mask every day because I even though I bore a child within me and knew a heartbeat, I’m afraid to call myself a parent.

I don’t understand a lot, but I do understand that this sucks. I also understand, because the doctor told me, 30% of women miscarry, though I won’t know them or see them behind the masks they wear.  It doesn’t make me feel better to know that 30% of women know how much this sucks, even if the other 70% don’t see it.  That can’t take away the heartbeat I saw.

Out of sight, out of mind. If you can’t see it, tell yourself a better story. I understand the temptation. But whether you see it or not, it’s there. Faith is not the easier narrative.  It’s trust that there’s more to this world than what I can see. It’s not rooted in my heart or my conviction.  It’s founded in the fact that even if I can’t see a thing, others can and have.  Ignoring everything you can’t see would be easier. Whether or not you can see behind the masks 30% of women wear, they’re real people with real pains.  Even if I’ll never hear it again, I can’t forget the heartbeat I saw flash on an ultrasound screen.

It’s senseless. I don’t know the reason. I don’t know the plan. I just hate it. But so does God. Whether you see it or not, He did something about it. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  He became a fetus. He was born and named Jesus.  He put on human weakness and human flesh to bear human sin on a cross only God could carry for us.  True God and true man, He bled, He died, He saved, and He rose.  He did this with you and your children in mind, even the unnamed ones and the ones unfortunate enough to be named Bubbles. His arm has redeemed us from a broken sinful world, pulled us back from senseless death, and reached out to comfort a mourning people.  Not everyone saw it, but it still happened.  Hundreds witnessed it.  A few of them wrote a book.  It’s as real as a heartbeat you’ll never see and the truth behind the masks you’ll never know.  The death and resurrection of Jesus means something. Even for this. Especially for this.

To every wounded mother and father hiding behind a mask painted to look like nothing ever happened, find comfort, not in statistics, but in a Word of God that became flesh for you and your children.  God still sends His Word into this world for you.  It’s potent. It doesn’t just remind us of a nicer time, but affects a future one.  It does what God wants it to. It saves.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.  ~Isaiah 55:10–12

That kid heard the Word that does more than we see.  It was preached and prayed, read and sung.  It will do what God wants it to do, and God wants to save.  My child rests with God, whether I see it or not.

Leave behind the guilt and the fine toothed comb we run over our lives until they’re raw with grief.  Hang the shame upon the cross. Know Christ rose to put an end to the stigma. He wants life and peace. Know that even though the plan seems senseless, ridiculous, and awful, God works in senseless, ridiculous and awful places for senseless, ridiculous, and awful sinners.  He uses a cross to carve a path through the storm.  Sometimes His footprints are unseen, but they still walk a path that ends somewhere good for you.  I don’t believe this because this world is too harsh for me to deal with reality, but because God, in His compassion for this awful moment bore it bloody on a cross for me and for my wife and for Bubbles.

I won’t sing bedtime songs for Bubbles, but we’ll sing hymns together. We’ll commune together with angels and archangels in a Holy Meal that binds heaven and earth.  I’m glad there’s no sin in heaven, because I feel like the name Bubbles would invite bullying. I’m still not sorry about the name.  Love shaped it, spoke it.  Love redeemed it, and saved it. I can’t see a heartbeat.  It still beat. It will beat again on the last great day.  Christ is risen. An Alleluia whispered through tears is an Alleluia nonetheless.  Selah. Rest.

heartbeat

Psalm 77 – “TO THE CHOIRMASTER: ACCORDING TO JEDUTHUN. A PSALM OF ASAPH.

I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah

You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. I consider the days of old, the years long ago. I said, “Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart.” Then my spirit made a diligent search: “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah

Then I said, “I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.” I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds. Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples. You with your arm redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph. Selah

When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; indeed, the deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lighted up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”

Your way was through the sea, yet your footprints were unseen.

nobody likes hotel art.

Everyone sees the same thing. This world is pretty ugly sometimes. The people in it do terrible things.  We feel ugly too.  Underneath the Instagram pictures we pose for, we can still hear our inner voice writing poetry about our lives in harsh, accusing whispers.  Sometimes it all gets to be too much.  All of us try to hide that ugliness in our own way. Some build suburbias with manicured lawns, forced smiles, and awkward waves at neighbors they don’t really know. Some bury themselves in any substance that promises to erase the view for a few hours.  Some embrace the darkness and try to convince themselves they like it. Some just hide.

All of us are just trying to paint over the ugly.   It doesn’t work though. It’s dishonest and it’s bland. It manages to be inoffensive, but at the expense of being fake and shallow.  It’s like the art in hotel rooms.  It’s so intentionally boring that you can’t remember what it looks like, just that it was…there.

stock-artMaybe there really is a generic field with a tree and a placid sunset
somewhere, but that picture hanging in the holiday inn doesn’t tell its stories. It doesn’t show the kids who hid there holding hands and promising to be strong when their parents fought just a little too loud. It doesn’t show teenagers staring up at the stars before they forgot how to believe the world was really theirs to shape for the better.  It doesn’t show the man who proposed there, years before the monster named cancer squeezed every bit of life from the woman who wore that ring.  Each story holds good and bad, happiness and pain.   Hotel art tells no stories at all. It tries to hide every ounce of offense behind something boring, but comfortably numb. It’s deeply dishonest.

This isn’t a “look on the bright side” trope.  When it hurts that much, it’s easy to lose sight of all the good in the desperation to get away from the evil. Those problems are there whether you acknowledge them or not.  Hotel art erases the good right along with the bad.  We love it. We’re so eager to see nothing bad that we’re willing to shut our eyes to seeing true beauty too.   The thing is, beauty can be found in the pit.

Art. Music. Literature. The really good stuff has something in common. It’s not just beautiful.  It’s honest.  It’s shaped by acknowledging the truths of this world.  This place is broken up pretty good. There are ugly people struggling, failing, and dying in the middle of it.  The church calls it sin.  Even apart from the vocabulary, great art can capture the condition, and then find beauty in little flashes of love that overpower it.

We catch glimmers of it in held hands and mutual dreams for more.  We see shadows of it in promises of “I do.”  It’s the word that captures all I feel in an instant when I hold my family close.  CS Lewis said each one of these little miracles is retelling in small letters the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.  There really is just one love story told over and over again. Sometimes we just don’t see it.

Personally, I blame hotel art. The gospel can’t be sanitized. It can’t be apart from people, and it can’t be apart from their stories. It’s for real people with real sins.  It’s bloody. It’s offensive.  It’s honest about every evil and answers it with a singular good strong enough to forgive, heal, and save. The gospel is everything hotel art isn’t.

artworks-000111050010-zbvt3x-t500x500Love can’t exist in a vacuum.  It needs an object. Love takes shape and then takes action.  God is love, so He has to take shape. He has to become flesh. He has to come near to the ones He loves and actually help.  Love requires nothing less.  This love is named Jesus.  He took upon Himself everything we struggle against, real sins that caused real pain, and destroyed it by bearing the punishment for every evil for us sinners.  It killed Him, but that was the point.  Even the sins we hide away hurt. Even the sins that aren’t our fault kill.  God loves you too much to let you deal with that yourself.  He bore it for you on the cross.  It is finished.  You are forgiven. The wages of sin is death, but death is destroyed.  Christ rose from the dead, free from every evil. The free gift of God is life everlasting for us sinners.

Hotel art can’t tell that story. Not really.  It’s too bloody, but that blood redeems.  When you try to scrub the hurt from this story, you don’t just end up with a Jesus who won’t bleed for you. You end up with a different kind of heaven.  Heaven is not a generic cloud where nothing bad happens. Heaven is not just a lack of hurt,  sin, and death.  That’s hotel art.  It doesn’t sound bad.  The problem is, it’s too far away to matter.

It’s not enough to say “One day you’ll go to heaven.” One day isn’t now, and now is when I need help. I need God to be near me when I’m surrounded by evil.  This is the one place I can’t be on my own.  If God really sees us in this mess, promising that we won’t really get to be with Him until we don’t really need Him anymore doesn’t sound like love.  Love doesn’t dangle heaven like a carrot before desperate people, suffering under the pains of sin, death, and the devil. It can’t.  Love has to help now.  Love has to actually deliver the promises it makes when we need them.  Otherwise, the very best we can hope for is death where all the bad things stop.

If Jesus really died that you should live, wishing for death just to escape the things He’s doing to you here doesn’t seem to fit.  That isn’t the gospel.  God isn’t a someday God.  He dives down into the pit to dwell with you and pull you back up out of it.

“I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.”
~Psalm 40:1–3

David doesn’t write about a someday God who will help in the future.  He writes about a God who works right now.  You have the same God.  Week after week, we kneel in a pit of sin, despair, and pain. Each and every week God dives down into the pit for us.  He pours into us His very body and blood which actually deal with this. It’s called the sacrament of the altar. It is Jesus very body and blood given for us Christians to eat and drink for forgiveness, life, and salvation. It’s the meal that joins me on earth to heaven, because each week, heaven comes down just for me and just for you.

God connects me to heaven right here, because here is where I need it.  The kingdom of God isn’t hotel art. It’s honest about all the of evil, because it can finally call that evil forgiven. Heaven is a Christ who, even here, even for you, dives down into the pit each and every time you need Him to give you the very blood that redeems, helps, saves. Over and over again. It’s graphic. It’s ugly. It’s beautiful too, because it can finally answer everything hotel art would rather hide.   Christ doesn’t need to give you another way to hide your pain. He conquers it for you.  He shows you just how beautiful heaven is.

Heaven isn’t just the absence of evil. It’s the presence of a Good so powerful that it overwhelms the rest.  It’s a God who climbs down into the pit and dwells here, because that’s where you are, and He loves you too much to leave you here on your own.  He pulls you up and sets you on a rock. Not someday. Now. Here. The kingdom of God is where God is working.

So don’t ruin it for me by hanging hotel art in my church. Don’t paint over the real problems of sin and death and evil. You don’t have to. Churches exist as fortresses, built on the rock that is Christ. We stand against the fires and sing victory hymns. We see the ugly, but we see something else too. A Christ who loves us enough to cover himself in it. We look at an ugly cross that shields us from the fires of hell. There’s love down here, and it’s real enough to paint without sanitizing it first.  Beauty isn’t found in hiding ugly. It’s found in love that washes ugly sinners in water that drowns the old and raises the new each day. It’s found in what God would dare to call us. Holy. Paint that. Nobody actually likes hotel art anyway.

nobody likes hotel art.

sometimes the devil loves it when you pray.

Paul says to pray without ceasing.  Luther writes that prayer chases away the devil, who cannot abide where God’s name is called upon.  Sounds great. Who would have a problem with prayer? Pretty much everyone who’s ever actually tried it.  The problem is the very needs that drive you to pray put you face to face with the giant chasm between all the things God promised and what the world actually looks like.

prayerWho could have a problem with prayer? Bitter ex-Christians who think it’s a joke. But also heartbroken Christians who tried it and failed. “God, let me be better. Let me be healed. Let me quit this stupid awful vice. What’s wrong with me?” Christians burdened by the weight of having to pretend to be happy in the worst moments of their lives, desperate to find some positive spin.  “God, I just want to thank you for this beautiful sunshine while I bury my love.  You did really great today. I’m so happy with this horrible suffering and loss. Let this fake smile that nobody believes shine as a light to others about how great thou art.  Amen.”  Sometimes the devil loves it when you pray.

Even the worst prayers to God drive the devil away.  As long as we’re willing to do his job for him, he’s fine with that.  If we pray ourselves into despair, he’s more than willing to step outside for a smoke while we do it.

That’s because you’re doing it wrong.   Jesus says there’s actually a wrong way to pray. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. (Matt 6:7)” That doesn’t mean keep it short. It means, above all else, be honest. If you actually believe God is all knowing, are you really fooling Him by pretending to be happy when you’re furious with Him for letting you down? He’s God. He already knows. The only one you’re lying to is yourself. Stop. Those are empty words.  Just tell Him what you need.

The reason we hate doing that is because those prayers sound angry, ungrateful, and full of doubt. They make us look like sinners. Deep down we’re afraid that God won’t listen to prayers like that. At least, not unless we sweeten the pot. The devil loves it when we try to bribe God.  “God, I promise, I’ll do anything.  I’ll quit this sin. I’ll give you money, time, whatever you want from me. Just listen. Not for the sake of Your love, Your Son, or Your promises to me, but because of what I can do.” The problem with the bribe isn’t just that we usually can’t actually hold up our end of the deal. The reason the devil loves it when we bribe God is that it drives us farther and farther from Christ, who already paid for our access to God in blood. We don’t need the bribe if the price was already paid. Prayer apart from a Christ who was crucified and raised from the dead is always going to be like dealing with a shady used car salesman. It becomes the worst kind of transaction where you come away feeling dirty and pretty sure you just got the short end of the deal.

And if you can’t really trust God to give you what He’s promised, then you can’ trust the ways He’s promised to work either.  The devil’s favorite prayers are only willing to accept a God who works apart from His normal means. “God, I want to be loved, but not by the people you’ve given me. I want stuff, but it has to feel special so it can’t come from something as boring as a paycheck from a job you’ve given me. I want to feel better about myself, but I don’t want that from your Word and Sacraments you’ve given me.”  Those prayers are doomed to fail because God never promised to work that way.  If your prayers are going to lie, bribe, or demand an answer outside of how God works, know the devil says amen with you.

Jesus says to pray differently. “Our Father who art in heaven…” It doesn’t matter how many words are in your prayer. It doesn’t matter if it’s from heart. It doesn’t matter what you bring to the table.  It matters who your God is. God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.

Al

Make sure God is your Father. If He is, that’s enough.  That happened in baptism.  Are you baptized? It’s going to be OK. You’re God’s family. You’re His child now. God takes care of His kids.  That’s the hope. In Baptism, you are united with Christ in His death and in His resurrection. Pray from your baptism. See that God actually wants to give you more than just nice stuff until you die. Pray as the Father’s child, united with the crucified and risen Son.  “Our Father, who art in Heaven…”

Then we can finally be honest about what we see here. We can speak to what we need here. We don’t have to lie about what we feel here. We can sound brash and angry.  Your God prayed that way for you. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  That wasn’t made with a polite, forced smile. Those words weren’t empty. They were full of fear and pain and anger.  That was the real sinner’s prayer.  Jesus prayed it for you even as He bore your sin.  This cross is where sinners are made righteous. It sanctifies their prayers, too. The cross is where every awful sounding prayer is cleansed by the blood paid for you, and tied to that perfect prayer where God would save you from sin, death, and the power of the devil. Jesus prayed for you on the cross, then he cried “it is finished.” and died for you. Three days later He rose again.

Godly prayer looks like death, but it gives way to life. Pray from here, and know that God drags us from heartbreak, anger, despair, and even death to resurrection. Not someday. Every single day. That’s what your baptism is. Daily we die with Christ. Daily, He raises us up. Daily we are tied to His cross. Daily, His resurrection. Every day, heap every bit of anger, fear, doubt, and sin upon Him. Every day He dies for it, rises from the dead, brings you with Him, and promises that it’s going to be ok. Pray from here.

And then find comfort. Pray without ceasing isn’t an obligation to put on a happy face. It’s a promise. Whenever you need Him, God is here. He has already worked.  He has given you salvation. You are tied to it in your baptism. He will bring you with His Son through death and into life.  The rest? The right now? The stuff of this world? Be honest. But know that You are God’s child, who the Father has promised to care for. Look to the means by which He does it. He saved you by means of a cross. He delivered you by means of your baptism. Even now, He’ll care for you by the means He works here. Then, see that this world isn’t everything. It doesn’t need to be.  God has something bigger in mind for you. It’s going to be OK. You have a Father who art in heaven.

sometimes the devil loves it when you pray.