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.


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.


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.

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.

we rejoice in our sufferings.

There’s a dangerous line of reason that thinks good and evil are determined on the basis of how much I like something.  If I like it, it must be good.  If I don’t like something, it must be evil.

So ask a drug addict how good heroin is. Ask me how evil pain is. Start small. Exercise and vegetables are bad. Then get bigger. Ask about real pain. Sickness. Disaster. Those must be really evil. That line of reasoning is going to have trouble with a God who hurled a mighty tempest against a sleeping Jonah. That kind of thought wonders who sinned that a man would be born blind.  It’s going to hate a God who lets us hurt.

God is supposed to be good. So why is He doing all this stuff I don’t like? Don’t tell me”He’s not causing it, He’s just allowing it”. That’s a cop out. An all powerful God who could stop it and chooses not to is culpable.

I can work with the small stuff. I can say peas are good for me even though I don’t like them.  I guess I can see how running is healthy, even though it hurts.  The bigger stuff though…that’s what breaks people.

But what if God thought modest prosperity and temporary happiness weren’t enough for you?  What if He wanted to give you bigger blessings than you could imagine for yourself?  What if pain was the only thing to make us look up from our navel gazing and draw us towards the greater gift?

megaphone-hearing-GodConsider pain God’s megaphone to a deaf world.
It’s the Law from on High given natural shape. This Law already has 10 commandments worth of substance. Pain is that substance made concrete.  I can think about the 6th commandment, but I can really feel heartbreak.  A broken marriage hurts because of sin. Pain preaches a law that says sin really does break stuff.  If touching the stove hurts, don’t touch the stove. If sinning hurts, don’t.

Honestly, though, if pain has shown me anything, it’s that I need help. In the midst of pain, priorities are set straight real fast. Top of the list is “stop hurting”.  If we could just stop hurting, we would. Pain is an explicit dance with the Law that shows us our complete inability to save ourselves.  The Law says I can’t be good enough to save myself. It breaks my ego and drowns my old adam. Pain is the law part of the sermon you can’t tune out or rewrite to be about someone else.

So what do we say to pain that preaches law to a broken people? There’s only one answer.  Law without gospel leads to despair or Phariseeism.  Hurt without hope pushes us farther away

from God and leaves us broken, bitter, and angry.  Ya’ll need Jesus.

To be more specific, not a Jesus who gives you moral examples.  Not a Jesus who doesn’t stand for anything but nice feelings and lets you define good and evil as that which you like and hate. Ya’ll need a Jesus who is honest about pain, and then loves you enough to not stand back from it.  Ya’ll need a Jesus who follows you down into the depths of your pain and bears it for you, then gathers you in to grant peace, hope, and healing to a hurting people.  Ya’ll need the crucified Jesus.

pain-centerThe only Jesus worth having in the midst of pain is one who helps with it.  This is the kind of Jesus that doesn’t turn to mist when you grab at Him in need.  This is the kind of Jesus who sets up a hospital for the sick and dying to give life to sinners and names it His church, promising that hell itself will not prevail against it. This kind of hospital can withstand my pain.  This church doesn’t just peddle nice feelings that I can’t sustain when I really hurt.  It gives solid things to grab onto.  Here is where Jesus works.  To baptize. To commune. To absolve. To give hope and healing to a hurting people.  Here He gives the medicine of immortality. The Word and Sacrament. The gospel.

The gospel lets us see pain in a new light.  The gospel trumps our pain.  The gospel is a Jesus who loves, who cares for, and who even saves us.  The gospel means pain is not measured in terms of good and evil.  Pain is that which points me towards a God desperate to give me gifts better than I could ever imagine, let alone deserve.  That let’s us see pain in a new light.  We might even say with Paul….

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person- though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die- but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  (Romans 5:3-9)

God isn’t punishing us by hurting. Christ bore that punishment on the cross.  He’s pointing towards hope. Hope does not put us to shame, because we hope in something bigger than not hurting. We hope in a Jesus who suffered and died for us.

Our hope is to be close to that cross where Jesus died, even tied to it in baptism, that we would be united with Him in a death like His.  Crosses hurt. Sorry.  Being close to the cross hurts.  Yet, from Christ’s pain, good is worked for you. You who are united with Him in a death like His will certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.  You are united in the good that comes from the cross.

So, even from our pain, God can work good. He can bring beauty from the tortured artist.  He can bring forth new life from the pains of childbirth.  He can display the truest witness of Christianity there is in the invalid suffering in a hospital bed and being utterly dependent, showing the world that Christianity is to receive everything while contributing nothing.  Christ helps the helpless. Christ helps the suffering.

If that’s true, then we can even come to call suffering a blessing, like Jesus does. Our suffering doesn’t save us, but it points us towards His suffering, which does.
we rejoice in our sufferings.

Lent doesn’t force us to be sad, just honest.

I’ve never had anyone pull me aside privately and vent their frustrations about Easter. Nobody’s ever said, “Pastor, it’s just the resurrection. Why do you have to talk about hope and life so much? And why do the hymns have to be so uplifting and joyful?” Lent, on the other hand…

It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s sad. Weeknight services in the middle of February only get so cheerful.

So a year hasn’t gone by where at least one person has asked me privately, “Pastor, why do we have to be so depressing during lent? The hymns are so sad.” If we’re going to be honest, even strictly liturgically minded pastors seem to lean on the emotional side during lent. We dim the lights. We make sure we’re extra descriptive about the blood and the suffering of the passion. We even start out the season by putting ashes on your forehead and telling you you’re going to die. And yes, all the hymns are gloomy. It’s even worse when we’re all giving up things that we love and depriving ourselves of caffeine, chocolate, and beer.

I understand the accusation. Lent is a somber season. But here’s the thing, nobody has ever been saved by being depressed. Nobody’s ever cried their way to heaven, and giving up coffee for 40 days won’t carry you to the resurrection. Lent isn’t about being sad, just honest.

Lent is a call to be honest about what we try to ignore, or what we’ve just adjusted to and call normal. Lent is a confrontation with everything we’d rather avoid. Lent dares to wrestle with a God who would allow us to live in such a dark, broken world. Lent makes us look at that last great enemy we’d rather not make eye contact with. Death. Lent speaks bluntly about everything we try to excuse, and everything we’ve grown numb to. Sin. This season makes the church more than just a chance to escape for an hour a week. It drags in everything you’re running from and talks about it.

All of the piety of the season, the music, the liturgy, the fasting, they acknowledge the reality of the collapse of hope in this world, the destruction hiding in all of our secrets we’re so rightly ashamed of, and the brokenness of humanity that just seems to be spiraling downward.

Good-FridayAll that stuff sounds depressing, but Lent isn’t about you. Lent is about Jesus, for you. The season isn’t a chance to wallow in self-pity. It’s about a God whose love for you is so overpowering and reckless that He would follow you down into the pit. He would take human flesh for you on Christmas to stand between you and everything you’re afraid to acknowledge. This Jesus collects every single hurt and every last sin, every sleepless night and every reason things are broken. He carries them for us. Until He is completely swallowed up by them, and our last great enemy death would level Him. Lent is about a God who would dare to die for sinners. Lent is about the cross.

Something happened on that cross. All of those sins that we’re so ashamed of were hung on Jesus. All of the pains that leave us laying in the fetal position were born by Him. All of the wrath of a God who hates seeing what we’ve done to this place is directed against Jesus. And death levels Him, so that this war that has surrounded us since we were brought into this mess of a world could finally be called finished. Your sins are forgiven. Your pains are not your own. Your death is defeated. Your Jesus died for you upon a cross.

The truth is, if all we’ve done in lent is make you sad, we’ve failed. Lent is about the cross. It’s a horrible, beautiful sight. It looks like hope. It looks like salvation. It looks live love. Lent is about pointing a broken people toward the truth of the cross. Not just a cross waved in front of your face until you feel empathy towards a guy up there, but the cross held before our eyes that points us to something stronger than every enemy we face. This cross is love that takes action and shape. This cross actually saves us.

Lent doesn’t force us to be sad, just honest.

this truth is not just fact, it’s beauty.

One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple (Psalm 27:4).

traditional-latin-mass-propers-jesus-eternal-high-priestOur churches, even in the Old Testament, have never been bare. It’s because God is beautiful, and He’s really present in
His temple. That beauty has and will always give shape to the churches that believe God is actually present in a meaningful way.  Our churches have always been covered with art.

Our church is beautiful.  We hang stained glass windows, banners, crucifixes, candles, chimes, and paraments, all expressing a living faith.  It is a confession of what we believe that shouts at anyone who walks in the door. The art in our church speaks to the ineffable beauty that takes shape where doctrine becomes hope, given by God and embraced by those who seek the Lord where He has promised to be found. The church is a lighthouse, shedding light upon a dark world, chasing away despair and death.  There’s beauty where the faithful, desperate for grace, grasp something real.  When we believe in the promises delivered here, finding art in a church becomes like finding out water is wet.

This beauty speaks to what God does here.  It’s what David expects when He seeks after the beauty of the Lord in His temple.  He will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will lift me high upon a rock(Psalm 27.5).  There is help here. It is for us sinners.  Art speaks to that truth in a way so powerful it can even cover the ugly man called to deliver those gifts. Pastors wear art too. We wear vestments.  It’s not because we want to dress like royalty, elevate ourselves above everyone else, and demand they worship us.  It’s because we know what we look like.  We’re hideous.  We’re sinners.  We’re so unfit to handle these magnificent gifts that we would run screaming from the room unless we were sent by God with a promise that He would work through our sinful hands.  So we hide behind our vestments.  We wear white albs and surplices to show the power given in God’s word to cleanse.  We wear stoles to show we’re yoked into service of this church.

From the time of Moses, we wore chasubles too.  The ephod, the colored outer garment the high priest wore showed exactly who was at work in the Lord’s temple.  It wasn’t ugly man, it was beautiful God.  This tradition carried on through the Roman Empire Jesus was crucified under, through the Reformation, worn by Luther, and even today.  Our church has been gifted a set of chasubles that speak to a powerful truth.  Something quite literally divine is happening during the Divine Service.  These chasubles, art worn during communion services, express the beauty of the Lord’s promise to work, even by overpowering ugly and sinful men and distributing grace in the Body and Blood of Jesus.  We haven’t had a set in this congregation before.  We welcome them though, not just for the sake of tradition of the church as a whole, but for the sake of the truth our tradition has held on to for thousands of years, and for the sake of the reality that our religion is not just a set of facts, but a beautiful truth that brings light to darkness and saves sinners. Thanks be to God.

this truth is not just fact, it’s beauty.

love is a messy house.

MjAxMy0xZTJkODM5ZjViYzFmZDQyMy kids are 3 and 1.

There’s a fireman hat in my bathroom sink. I don’t know why. There’s dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. That one’s my fault. There’s toys….everywhere. I trip on them at night. I can never find the one that will stop the crying. It’s somewhere. I just don’t know where. I don’t know where the remote is either. On the other hand, I do know that when crayons find their way into the dryer, they melt into my clothes. I don’t care about dust. Dust isn’t on my radar. I don’t even break stride for anything less than bodily fluids on the “You should probably clean that” scale. No pictures. Just trust me. I’ve seen some stuff. My house is a mess most days.

I remember when I used to have a clean house. That was before kids. Now, there is only the mess. For all Good Housekeeping tips, there’s really only one thing that would keep my house clean all the time. I’d have to get rid of the little people who make the mess. I can’t do that. I love them. So I’ll play trains while laying on a floor that should have been vacuumed last week and get up to turn on the TV if that means I get to be with my children.

It sounds campy, like an overreaction against old tv sitcoms where living rooms weren’t obstacle courses, but this is my life right now. I realize that it pales in comparison to school shootings, child abuse, rape, war, abortion, terrorism, and a hundred other things. I’m pretty sure there aren’t Pinterest boards dedicated to glorifying the chaos of our society, just our living rooms. Nobody says “aww shucks, we’ve all been there” to victims, just parents of toddlers.

When it comes to all the serious stuff, we’re a lot less willing to be cutesy about it. The same question always gets lobbed, both by frustrated Christians and smug agnotstics. If there is a God, why does the world look like this? Why not just call down fire upon every murderer and rapist and addict? Why not smite everyone who makes this world worse? Then we could finally have a clean house again.

As quick as we are to separate ourselves from everyone we’d rather see struck by lighting,

There is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:22-26).

That means we’re all sinners. If God got rid of everyone who made the world a worse place, everyone who ever hurt someone He loves, there wouldn’t be anyone left. It’s really no different than my house. If I just got rid of my kids when they made a mess, things would be neat and ordered again. I’d just be an awful dad.

What if there was a God who actually loved us? What if He even loved sinners who make the world a mess?  What if He even loved us enough to call us sinners His children, washed clean in baptism? Even me, and even you.  What if that God would rather comfort us, even in suffering, than condemn us for hurting others?

That would mean that when God saw that the world was a mess, full of evil people, He would take on the same human flesh and the same weakness. He would not stand idly in the heavens, but would enter into this mess to save us. He would have to be named Immanuel, God with us, and Jesus, who would save His people from their sins.

That is the kind of God who would even be willing to pass over our sins with forbearance, putting them on Himself instead, smiting Himself instead of us. That’s the kind of Heavenly Father who sent His only-begotten Son into the world, not to condemn the world for making a mess, but to save the world by dying upon a messy cross and rising from the dead with holes still in His hands.

It would be easy to have a clean and ordered world if there were no sinners here. It would be easy to have a clean and ordered house if there were no kids in it. The thing is, a loving Father can’t do that. He can’t get rid of you. He loves you too much. He would rather make His home in the middle of a mess than destroy His beloved. It’s messy. It hurts. Sometimes I hate it. But God loves us enough to make His home here with us sinners, to die for us sinners, and to save us.

That means He won’t abandon us to this mess. He won’t condemn us for adding to it. He works in the middle of it to help, to serve, and to save. He kneels in the rubble of it all to hold you close, His dear child who’s hurting under the weight of it.

I know this is a scary place. When you look around, you can call a mess what it is. It’s evil. It’s sinful. It’s wrong. But please know that won’t keep God away. He still makes Himself present for sinners. He is here in His Body and Blood, given for us sinners to forgive our sins, to cleanse us from every evil, and to sustain us in this world, and even to tie us to the world to come. That means we don’t have to wait for heaven for Him to wipe every tear from our eye. That means that when you take communion, God helps you here.

Love is a messy house. Love is a messy world. Love is a God who would rather suffer the mess Himself if it meant being close to you. He will help you and save you and bear you through, even unto life everlasting. Even when everything’s a mess, be at peace.

love is a messy house.