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 every 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.

shame is a funny thing.

povezanost_prehrane_alzheimero

There was an old woman who wanted a child more than anything.  She prayed. God promised. Nothing happened. Her name is Sarah.  She laughed, and I don’t understand her.

I get what it’s like to want something and not get it, but I still don’t understand Sarah.  I don’t know what it’s like to be called barren.  I don’t know what it’s like to want something that bad and not get it, and every single day feel like it’s because there’s something wrong with me that can’t be fixed.  I don’t know what it’s like to know that it doesn’t just disappoint me, but the one I love. I don’t know what it’s like to try to meet his eye and feel worthless and ashamed because I can’t look at my beloved without seeing the hole where our family should be but isn’t.

Sarah was past the age of childbearing.  Still, one day God showed up and said she would bear a son.  Sarah laughed.  I used to think that laugh was her unbelief.  She just thought the idea of a pregnant old lady was as ridiculous as trying to put 2 of every animal on a boat, so she laughed to mock God.  I figured she just didn’t believe as much as I do.

Then I heard Sarah’s laugh echo through someone else’s mouth. There was something in that laugh underneath the bitterness. It was shame, boiling over, and the only way to control it was to laugh. Sometimes you either laugh or you cry.

I don’t understand what it’s like to be barren, but I do know shame. I have my own. We all do, but it rarely translates into seeing someone else’s for what it is.  The problem with shame is that it’s never honest.  Shame won’t come out and say what’s wrong. It boils over.  It lashes out. Shame manifests itself in frustrating and repulsive ways.  That makes easy to to write people off at their lowest because they acted like a sinner in need instead of a superhero.  The irony is that underneath the outward sins we find so offensive lies an inward condition that we can relate to all too well. Sin. Shame.  Something wrong that just can’t be fixed.

As easy as it is to talk about all symptoms of shame, it’s hard to talk about the condition itself. So we usually just tell people to get rid of it.  “Don’t be ashamed.  It isn’t worth enough to carry around with you.  Just let it go.”  Except they can’t, and as often as we give that advice, we can’t either.  We all hang on to shame.  It’s worth too much to abandon. It’s worth God’s life.

Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame, the mockery, the beatings, and the nakedness. You don’t have to pretend that there is no such thing as shame. Look to the cross. See where Christ bore it for you.  He exposed the shame we try so hard to bury, that we can lay aside every weight and sin which cling to us so closely.  We lay it on Him. I see my shame time I look at a cross, and I know it’s not mine to cope with or carry in secret anymore.

Christ paid for it in blood so you can be known by God’s promises and not by your sins or your shame. You are someone Jesus died for. You are someone God died for.  The same holds true for your neighbor.  Sarah laughed.  So what?  If Sarah’s reaction wasn’t good enough for you, God’s promise still was.

Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
(Genesis 21:5–7)

All the laughter in the world couldn’t keep God from bringing Sarah’s child into the world. God named him Isaac, which means “he laughs”. This wasn’t God’s “I told you so” or Sarah’s “aww shucks”.  This was the God who turns shame into joy.  Same notes, different song.  This joyful laughter is a hymn to the God who would bring freedom from sin and shame through the child born of promise.  From Isaac would come the one who would bear our shame on the tree.  The cross is where your shame mixes with mine and all the world’s and God speaks peace. It is finished.  We can still see our shame on that cross, but it’s not ours to carry anymore.  Now we can be called Christian.

That same gift was given to all the world, even those we have contempt for.  When we look at our neighbor, we don’t know them by their sins, their shame, or their inability to cope.  We know them by the same cross that saved us.  When we’re willing to acknowledge that Jesus died for our neighbor, we finally see someone worth loving, even when they don’t act lovable.  The funny thing is, Sarah’s laugh is a beautiful thing once you lay her shame on Jesus.

shame is a funny thing.

God doesn’t avoid mistakes.

You know that feeling when something bad happens to someone you love, but you don’t know the right thing to say?   I’m willing to bet that, on the very worst day of someone’s life, the right thing to say has never been, “Yeah, but did you know butterflies taste with their feet?”

Just because it’s true doesn’t mean that it’s helpful. If you’ve ever been tempted to tell someone, “God doesn’t make mistakes”, just stop for a minute and consider the distinction.

MiskatesMaybe God doesn’t make mistakes, but I do. Worse, I sin. A lot. Sin really does break stuff.  God might not mess up, but that doesn’t change the fact that my mouth got me in trouble again.  It doesn’t fix broken marriages.  Sin still destroys.  Adam’s did too. Paul writes, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5:12)”  It all mixes together into such a mess that sometimes I can’t even see where Adam’s sin ends and mine begins.  It’s just…broken.  God doesn’t make mistakes. So what?

Saying “God doesn’t make mistakes” implies that everything is exactly how it’s supposed to be.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking this is the same world God called good. We broke it. It hurts now.  Saying “God doesn’t make mistakes” is like saying the only thing wrong here is your attitude. Look around. A mother shouldn’t have to bury her child.  Every Children’s Hospital stands as a bitter monument to the fact that things are absolutely not the way they’re supposed to be.

Jesus doesn’t think so either. Open your bible, read John 11, and see Him weep over the tomb of His friend Lazarus.  If God never makes mistakes, and this world is enough to make Jesus weep, then you’re allowed to be upset with things too.  That’s faith.

Faith doesn’t limit itself to things which are seen.  Faith isn’t content to try to mold God into this mess and call it good.  Faith dares to hope for what God actually promised in His word, and then gets upset when it’s not apparent. Faith complains.  Faith laments.

Read the Psalms.  A great deal of them hymns sung over the fact that that things don’t look like God said they would.

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)

Those words would be awfully depressing if Jesus didn’t speak them too. The world is so painful, it’s inhabitants so sinful, that David wonders whether or not God abandoned us.   Yet God put Himself right in the middle of a Psalm of Lament for David, for you, and for the very worst day of your life.  He came down from heaven, took on human flesh and human sin, and bore all of that sin and pain and weakness all the way to the cross, where He echoed David’s lament even as He answered His prayer.

1pieta0Things aren’t the way that they’re supposed to be, so God had to fix them. God doesn’t make mistakes, but more importantly, He doesn’t avoid them either. He puts Himself right in the mess. He bears sin.  He forgives Adam’s sin that brought death, and your sin too. “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous (Romans 5:19).” A mother shouldn’t have to bury her son, but Mary laid to rest her Son, our Lord. She had to. It is finished.  God has answered every prayer of lament, every cry frustrated with the pain of this world, and every shameful utterance with a cross that still stands on our very worst day.  Jesus died for you, that you would live.

This cross is proof that God has not forsaken us.  It is the gift that sustains us in this age unto the age to come.  It is the sacrifice that has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.  This is most certainly true.  This is most certainly yours.

This cross changes how we talk to each other on those worst days. The cross gives us something true, but more importantly, something helpful to say.  Things are not OK. Christ is still crucified. It is still finished. He is still risen.   Find your peace in Him and in what He has already done for you.  Know that gift is yours even now, as surely as you wear it in baptism.  Christ will never forsake you. He cannot.  God doesn’t avoid mistakes.

God doesn’t avoid mistakes.

Jesus left you His burial cloth.

The snares of death encompassed her; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on her; she suffered distress and anguish. Then she called on the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!”  And He did.  She died like countless saints before her, yet each one was known to Him by name.  He re-enacted His passion play in her honor.  He gave us all a role.  She would play the star.  She would be like Jesus.

cloths-jesusShe bowed her head. She breathed her last.  We mourned and lamented.  Through bitter tears, we saw that her body was prepared for burial.  Then, days later, we gathered together to see the body one last time this side of glory.  But it wasn’t there.  There was only a white cloth.  We played Peter, who rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened. We gathered to see a body, but all we saw on the day of her funeral was what God left behind. White cloth.

11-702FPW-web-lgWe called this white cloth a “pall”, but really, it was His robe of resurrection, washed white in His precious blood.  Jesus left it behind for her to wear a long time ago.  She first put it on in her baptism, where she was united to Him by bonds even her death couldn’t break.  It was in those waters that she first tasted death and was sealed to life.  There, she was crucified with Him.  There, she was raised.  She wore those white robes every day after, and she will forevermore.  Those white robes cover up death forever.

Easter_ResizeToday, we finally get to see her wear them.  The funeral pall lies over her coffin, and we can’t see death anymore.  Instead, we see those robes that Jesus left behind for her when He rose from death.  They’re draped over her now, and they give us a glimpse of heaven, where she now sings with angels and archangels and all the saints gone before her.  The pall gives us a glimmer of what she now sees.  The place where she will hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike her, nor any scorching heat.  For the Lamb in the midst of the throne is her shepherd, and even as He clothed her so long ago in those white robes, He now guides her to springs of living water and wipes every tear from her eye.  She waits to follow Him to a resurrection of her own on the last day, where she too will be given a new and perfect body.

I got to play the divine messenger.  “She is not here. She is risen.  See the place where they laid her. See the pall, the life that covers death.  You will see her again.”  This was her passion play.  She was united with Him in a death like His. She will certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.  Her Easter morning, where we gathered at her funeral looking for her body and found only white cloth, bears the hope of the glories of the life to come, won by Him who died and rose for her, who clothed her in white robes in baptism, and who now shelters her in His presence.

We don’t see death.  All we see are the burial cloths Jesus left for us.  We look at that pall and we see baptism, salvation, and life.  Easter means something to us as Christians.  Jesus rose from the dead.  He conquered death.  We are baptized.  On the last day, we will rise too. Until then, for the saddest of days, so you’ll never forget, He left you His burial cloth.

Jesus left you His burial cloth.

God has a wonderful plan for your life, and you’re probably going to hate it.

lions
I spent my late teens in the Garden of Gethsemane. I’ll probably revisit it in another twenty years for a midlife crisis. The Garden of Gethsemane is where I brought every idea of what my life should be like, then stared dumbfounded as they were dashed to pieces in front of me. The Garden of Gethsemane is where I came to the painful realization that my life was not turning out according to plan.

I think that’s what it’s there for. It forces us to be honest about our weakness.

Peter wandered into Gethsemane with hopes of steadfastness, promises to never abandon, let alone deny his Lord. He came with a sword, ready to cut ears off for Jesus. Before the rooster crowed, that all fell apart.

Judas came with schemes to profit. By the end of the weekend, he died broke and alone.

Mark showed up just not wanting to do anything stupid to embarrass himself. He accidently ran away naked.

All of the disciples entered Gethsemane with zeal and daydreams of God’s wonderful plan for their lives. They were ready to seize every great thing they were sure He had planned. Then they all fell asleep. Twice.

The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. The Garden of Gethsemane is where we find that out. We all show up with the idea that God has a wonderful plan for our lives. Some of us even know the bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” The problem is, God and I have different ideas of what that plan should be. Welcome to Gethsemane.

If you’ve been to the garden before, you can probably think back when you were young and idealistic, when you had hopes of changing the world, not just surviving it. Maybe you have souvenirs from your last visit that look like the crumpled up drawings of what you wanted to be when you grew up. Maybe you still have the scars you got there called your first marriage.

The Garden of Gethsemane is the place where God shows us what He means when He tells us He has plans for us. That’s exactly what He did for the disciples. Each one of them came in with the certainty that theirs was the right path. They were sure they figured out the divine plan for them to succeed. Each of them failed.

Agony_in_the_GardenBut none of them came to the garden alone. Jesus was there all along, praying through sweat and tears of blood. “Thy will be done.” God’s will is done in Gethsemane. It always is.

The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.

God’s will is done among the disciples. He wakes everyone up. He allows Himself to be betrayed by Judas’ kiss, stays Peter’s sword, and declares Himself the one sinners seek. It floors us that God’s plan is the cross.

God’s will is done among us also. The Garden of Gethsemane isn’t where God walks me from where I am to where I want to be. It’s where my quest for power like Peter, love of money like Judas, sheer stupidity in the face of reality like Mark, and laziness like all the sleeping disciples are dragged called exactly what they really are. Sin.

Yet, Jesus abides in the Garden of Gethsemane for sinners. For me, for you. For when everything falls apart, and for us who broke it. Christ willingly walked down the only path left to Him. He died for the sake of the people. He bore the cross. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.

God has a wonderful plan for your life, but you’re probably going to hate it. It’s the way of the cross. It’s stricken, smitten, and afflicted. Yet He bears it for us upon the tree. God’s plan is to redeem His people. To forgive our selfish sins that condemn us. To bear God’s wrath Himself in order to save us. He will drag us out of our sins, through Gethsemane to the cross, and all the way to the resurrection on Easter morning.

God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come; and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die. This is His good and gracious will.

God has a wonderful plan for your life, and you’re probably going to hate it.

organized religion isn’t all we make it out to be.

organized religionIf there’s a term that’s never used in a positive way, it’s ‘organized religion’. Religion is fine, as long as you’re willing to treat it like your underwear and not talk about it in polite company or show it to anyone on the bus.  Organized religion, though…That’s bad. Corrupt. At least, that’s what I’m told.

I hear the refrain over and over.  Organized religion is just bad people trying to hold power over a group by invoking the name of the divine.  Just look at all the examples.  The mega-church pastors with their own private jets. The ‘reverends’ that use that title to launch their political careers and talk shows on cable news. The hate groups. The crusades.  Show me an organized religion, and I’ll show you someone who used and abused it for power.

This is where Christians think we’re supposed to say, “No! That’s not true! Our religion is pure. Maybe it’s been abused, but that’s the rare exception.”  Except, our history is just this: sinners inside the church all scrambling for power.  As our gospel story reaches a climax, that’s all we see.  The Pharisees, religious men, seeking to control Jesus. Judas working a back alley deal to betray his Lord for cash.  The disciples arguing over who the greatest is like a running joke gone on way past being funny anymore.  The crowds following Jesus looking for an earthly king. Christians have been after power all along.

It’s spilled forward through time, and not just to a select group of other, different people who are clearly wrong and not Christian at all because of it. It’s us too.  We have the same quest for power, the same argument that we’re the greatest, the same way of selectively quoting scripture until we have someone else to look down on.  We find the same satisfaction in betraying our neighbor’s reputation. We confess their sins for them seeking a dark, twisted absolution in the idea that them looking worse makes us look a little better. We spend our days imagining what we’d do if we could punish everyone we know deserves it.  Sit through an ugly voters meeting. Stand at the edge of the crowd gathered for the after-meeting in the parking lot afterward. Tell me organized religion isn’t always used for power all you want, but the truth is that sinners like power. The church is full of sinners. Sinners abusing religion for power isn’t the fringe, it’s sadly been the mainstream as long as more than one person has believed the same thing.

Do you really think God didn’t know this? Do you think Jesus didn’t hear the disciples arguing about power every single day?  Do you think He didn’t know about Judas’ betrayal to the Pharisees who wanted them dead? Do you think any bit of it was a curve ball to Him who watched Adam and Eve try to make themselves gods through a piece of fruit, their children murder each other over a church rite, and every other power struggle in our bloody history? He saw it all.

This same Jesus would stand before Peter and say, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus started this organized religion. Even knowing what He did, He wanted it that way. He wasn’t gathering an activist group, starting a pyramid scheme, or an earthly kingdom. He was gathering His beloved to deliver to them the greatest gifts He had to offer. His forgiveness, His life, His salvation. He was saving them from hell.  It wasn’t because they deserved it. It was because they needed it.

In doing so, He shows us what real power looks like. This is a power made perfect in weakness. It’s a God who dies for us sinners upon a cross, then gathers us together to pour out that forgiveness upon us.  Christianity isn’t about us being pure enough to deserve to be called a religion. It’s about Christ being pure for us. For Judas, for the Pharisees, for Peter and John and the rest of the disciples, and for you.

True religion is power, but power used in service. It’s what makes it so wretched and painful. It starts as a Christ who had power and used to to bear a cross for sinners who only use it for themselves.  It wasn’t just to give us the example of how we ought to love one another.  He died to name us forgiven and loved by God. He died to overwhelm our quest for power, drive that sin into the ground at the foot of the cross, and then rise again from the dead.  That’s love. That’s a love that goes beyond just thinking nice thoughts in your own head and calling it religion. That’s a love that reaches down from heaven and gathers a sinful people in need, and then even works good among them.

I will never call the abuses of power in church good, or even OK. They’re sinful. They’re also forgiven.  That forgiveness isn’t just a nice thought in our heads. It’s a real power. Despite countless sins of Christians, the church has always been an outpost for mercy. It has always been organized around that love that cannot be broken.

Organized religion isn’t all we make it out to be. It isn’t a group of holy people doing good in the world. It’s a broken people God gathers and makes holy.  It won’t always be pretty. That won’t stop God though. He loves you too much to do anything but call, gather, enlighten, sanctify, and keep you.  He will daily and richly forgive all your sins, and on the last day raise you up to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.

organized religion isn’t all we make it out to be.