Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In forgiveness received, I find forgiveness given.

There's just too many people I need to forgive.  Real hurts, real wounds . . . oftentimes given by people who had no genuine idea that as I stood there, offering my heart to care for them in the best way I knew how, they took the heart that was offered, tore it from me and tossed it away, leaving me to die the slow death of one who cannot divorce himself from compassion.

That hurt is there, growing.  A big, ugly pile of wounds and grievances.  Some carefully nurtured that I frequently visit, some wild and feral that snap and bite without provocation.  An ugly, filthy, stinking garbage heap of open and half-scabbed sores that fester and weep.

And it threatens to overcome me.

Until, at last, I grow tired of my own stink and fling myself begging at Jesus’ feet.  I am the leper desperate for healing.  The father begging for faith to believe.  The leader of the blind, blinded myself and hoping for alms to survive, but never daring hope that a washing, and a healing, might come. 

And in His purifying ash, Christ kills that which needs to be killed.  The sin that takes on a life of its own is drowned, washed away in a brutal, roaring, crushing wave that rips me from the cancerous womb of sin and floats me gently, a new and reborn creature, into the clean, quiet waters of grace.  Sin and disease and the ugliness of forgiveness withheld gone.  Gone.


And as I float, skin scrubbed pink and clean, I realize something is missing:

The sins against me—the ones I had held on to for so long—they are gone, too.  In their place is once again love and compassion.  Understanding and empathy for the hurting people who once, knowing not what they did, hurt me.

In forgiveness received, I find forgiveness given.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Repost: Taught a lesson by a philosopher

The beauty of a blog or a journal is that it functions rather like a time machine: Your past self can speak to your present self.

Tonight I headed a nudge from somewhere within to go back in time and read what my past self had to say.  I am humbled to find out that God still chooses weak vessels to bring His comforting Word of Truth.  I'm amazed to realize that things I mused upon some time ago still speak to me today.

But God is like that.  The ever-moving, unchangeable message goes forth, comes 'round, and goes out again.  Always it lives and breathes, yet ever it says the same thing.

Here's what I read tonight:Taught a lesson by a philosopher

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

God knows when you truly need rest

Doing some sermon preparation today, and my eyes happened upon some verses that I had underlined some time ago, but had not read since for quite some time.  Life's context--as well as the context of "suffering" from last week's sermon--made me appreciate the gift God gives in this verse:

Acts 9:31   Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.

See,  in the time before this verse the church had been living under intense persecution.  These verses remind me that God knows the details and the difficulties of our lives.  If your life is hard right now, God has a purpose and motive for leaving you in that difficulty.  But it will not last forever, for when you can truly no longer endure it (and God will know when that time comes), He will provide a time of rest and peace to strengthen and encourage you. 

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

I don't understand God . . . but that's okay.

Having vision brings a wonderful clarity to your life and direction.

Following the advice of the gurus, making a 10-year plan, setting goals, and working to achieve them--that gives you an insight that others don't have.  A sense of purpose.  Certainty.  You know without a doubt what you will become and the steps you need to take to get there.

This sense of planned destiny, of purposeful decision, gets you up in the morning.  It propels you through the day.  Days become steps.  Weeks become legs of a climb.  Months become another steppe achieved.  And the mountain is conquered.

I envy my friends who have such a clear purpose.  They seem to stride confidently from one room to the next, sure of their purpose and goal. Their sure-footed certainty speaks of the clarity of visionary leadership that is coveted by all who dare to lead a group into the future. 

Having vision brings a wonderful clarity to your life and direction.

But not to me.  Not today.  Not for a long while now.

My visionary clarity has been clouded by a spiritual cataract.  My sense of purposeful direction is blindfolded.  My halting, faulting, stumbling steps betray an uncertainty about what tomorrow may bring, much less next year, and God forbid that I should actually try to predict what may come next decade.

There are a number of reasons for that.  A number of circumstances that have brought my condition about.  Stumbling blocks have become monoliths.  Molehills have become mountains.  I can no longer see into the future, and I am reduced to doing only what the day requires.

And I have found that having uncertainty brings a wonderful clarity to your faith. 

Do I trust in God to provide me with strength for today?  My strength is gone, so I have no choice but to believe in that promise, and so I do.

Do I believe that He is able to provide for me and my family what the needs of today demand?  And that when tomorrow becomes today, He will be able to do it all over again?  Since I can no longer see tomorrow, I have to trust that He's already there.

Do I trust that He is a faithful guide, leading me ever forward on the narrow and treacherous path, and that He will bring me to the good destination He has chosen? 

Do I trust that Christ has come so that I may have life, and have life to the full?

Do I trust Christ?

Every sure and certain thing that I had planned has been revealed to be neither sure nor certain.  When once I had been certain that I could plan my way into the future, I am shocked and frightened to learn that my vision has become so clouded that I can only see what is right in front of me.

And there stands Christ.  My only remaining option.  He who alone is Lord.  He who alone knows the future.  He who alone knows the path.  He who alone provides.  He who alone is the light on the path, the Word in my ears, the quieter of storms, the giver of life, the peace that passes all understanding.  He is there, sure and certain in flesh and blood, in water and word.  Unwavering.  Unchanging.

I don't understand Him, but I see Him.  Clearly.

And I have found that having uncertainty brings a wonderful clarity to your faith. 

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Taught a lesson by a philosopher

"The difference between the tragic hero and Abraham is obvious enough. The tragic hero stats within the ethical. He lets an expression of the ethical have its telos in a higher expression of the ethical; he reduces the ethical relation between father and son, or daughter and father, to a sentiment that has its dialectic in its relation to the idea of the ethical life."--Soren Kierkegaarad, Fear and Trembling

I just plucked this book off my shelf, opened to this page, and read this paragraph.

And to be honest, it shredded me. Just shredded me.

And I don't know precisely why.

But I believe it's because of this:

The "tragic hero" looks at life sentimentally. He says to himself, "Well, it's a rough lot, but I'll endure it." His actions convey that yes, he knows he's suffering, but he's going to endure it patiently. He looks at himself in the mirror and says, "What a fine, heroic figure I am! How many men could endure the hardships I have endured? And yet here I am, carrying on boldly in the face of adversity."

He sheds crocodile tears, but even those are for show. For himself and for others.

Abraham, though, is the man of faith. And he wastes no time making himself the tragic figure. He simply hears God, and he obeys God. He believes that what God says is good. "This is no hardship," he says, "this is God's good will! I won't pretend to understand it, but neither will I allow myself to be pitied. I have God, and He is always good. I have no need for pity."

And here's the rub:

I've spent a lot of time and effort throughout my life in playing the tragic hero.

How much better to simply be a man of quiet, humble faith. That simply walks where God leads. That believes and does not doubt that God has a redemptive plan for all hardships, all difficulties, all trials.
In other words, the man who has learned to stop looking in the mirror and congratulating himself on what a fine fellow he has proved to be under pressure, and instead simply looks to God for all that He declares to be "good."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

On being and becoming truly missional: a personal journey

Today I was pointed to an excellent and thought-provoking blog post by a former classmate of mine hit the web.  The Reverend Doctor Lucas Woodford posted, “Getting the Message Out or Getting the Message Right?” on his blog at  I encourage you to go and read it, as it forms the impetus for this, the first blog post I have felt compelled to write in many, many months.

I’m writing today as a man on a rough and difficult journey.  It’s a journey in which I’ve seen my dreams shattered and the future of my vocation threatened.  On this journey, I’ve been driven to reevaluate basic, fundamental, underlying assumptions of mission and ministry, and I’ve been repeatedly shocked to discover how much I’ve had to learn.  I’ve gone from a man who had specific notions about what I wanted to achieve and where I wanted to be in ten years’ time to a man who wakes up every day not knowing what the challenges of the day will bring and not being entirely certain if I have the wherewithal to face them. 

In short, in encountering the real, stubborn face of pastoral ministry, my grandiose dreams and plans of “mission” have been burnt from me.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when I believed myself to be fully missional.  I spouted statements to fellow pastors that were both bold and brash.  I believed that to be missional, one simply had to follow the standard playbook: Attract people to church with a worship band with a cutting-edge sound, relax the unwritten rules of worship to allow people to feel more comfortable, dress down, preach relevant sermons on topics that people wanted to hear, generate a buzz in the community through advertising and events. 

But beyond that, I believed that the traditional church was dying.  Populated only by selfish, self-centered, out-of-touch pew-warmers that Amish-ly insisted upon living in a different era, those in the traditional church were not interested in proclaiming Christ to their neighbor.  In pastoral gatherings, I advocated simply shutting down dying churches and giving their resources to churches that were genuinely reaching out.

I wasn’t the only one.  Surrounded by a circle of like-minded, missional friends, we talked of turning the world upside-down.  No goal was unattainable, and in fact the size of the vision we had for the church was the marker of the degree of our faith in Christ.  Small pastors with small faith had small dreams.  Big faith was demonstrated by big visions.  Though we did not suppose life and ministry would be without challenges, we did believe that through the strength of our leadership and the courage of our vision, we would prevail and people would flock to our churches.  Many would be saved.  Mission would be accomplished.

And then something happened.  I failed at planting a church.  And on the heels of that failure I found myself relegated to a small, traditional church in rural America.  A church that in many ways had her glory years behind her.

Though some will tell you otherwise, I took my time.  I watched.  I observed.  I remembered my lessons from seminary in which I was advised to learn the church and community before introducing changes.  I bumped my nose on numerous unwritten rules.  I barked my shins against unspoken expectations.  And in the process, I formed, evaluated, and re-formed many, many ideas as to what “mission” looked like in the life of the church.

In observation and good old-fashioned trial and error, God began to teach me the dangers of substituting activity for mission.  I watched other churches busily grow and thrive under the influence of capable leaders, but when I searched for indications of people growing in Christ, I saw very little.  These churches taught me that you can draw a crowd by being an exciting place to be in, but having crowds in and of itself did little to accomplish true church growth—the growth of a church community in their understanding of Christ’s redemption.

Again, through observation and trial and error, God also taught me the dangers of substituting new methods for mission.  Very early on, I recognized that while I could—if I so chose—by claims of pastoral authority and by sheer will force new methods upon the church.  I could—again, if I so chose—force the church to have a very different public face: making worship look radically different than it had been, changing the old, staid church name to something new and far more catchy.  I could re-brand the church using images and techniques and technology.  But I wanted the people to love Jesus.  Stripping away their history and identity would only serve to distance them from the church and from genuine mission. 

Through observation, insight, and yes, error, I came to realize that I had been guilty of the sin of idolatry.  I had idolized methods.  I had idolized vision.  I had idolized mission.  And true to form, idols always lie.  They always promise what they cannot deliver.  The always draw you further away from—and not closer to—the One you truly need to be close to. 

It was as a pastor that I finally learned the true, undying value of grace: that though God never denied that I was a mighty sinner, nevertheless in Christ He had bound Himself to me, and pledged to remain united to me for all eternity.  I learned to put to death my hopes of redeeming myself through the works-righteousness of activity.  I learned to confess my sin of putting faith in the greatness of my faith.  I learned to hear His voice and believe Him when He said, “I now forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  I learned to covet not a bigger, better, fancier church, but the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, given and shed for the forgiveness of my sin.  I learned to lay aside my idols and instead run to the places where He had promised His Spirit would always be working: His Word and His Sacraments. 

In other words, I learned to live with Jesus.  To trust in His love for me, rather than trying to prove my love by living for Him.

And still, through the depths of pain that only dying to self genuinely produce, I realized that all along I had really only wanted one thing:  I wanted people to be redeemed by and know and love the same Jesus that had redeemed, known, and loved me.  And I realized that while Jesus had indeed used many different activities, many different methods, and many different technologies to draw me ever closer to Himself, that there had always been one, single, underlying common denominator in it all: the voice of the One, True God calling out to me, saying, “Come unto me, you who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.” 

I still consider myself missional, but not because I want to use a particular method or approach, but because I want to tell people about Jesus Christ.  When I see complacency inside the church, I desire the complacent to grow in Christ.  When I see the lost in my community struggle through their lives without Jesus, I want them to know His peace.  When I see people die without Jesus, I am heartbroken over the future they are denied, but could have had.  I want to spend my life with Jesus telling people about Jesus.

As to what method is used to proclaim Him, I’m unconcerned.  It doesn’t matter much to me if a rock band is playing or if a pipe organ is thundering.  Not as long as people are clearly and deliberately pointed away from their idols and clearly and deliberately shown Christ. As long as they are drawn away from focusing on the glitz and glamour of what we do and shown the stark, humbling reality of what He has done, I will be satisfied.

But I am no longer guilty of the sin of idolizing mission, because I have learned to take my focus off my work of mission and instead look to God’s work of mission to me in Christ.  I have learned that being “missional” is simply this: to point people to search for Christ in the things that He used to find me.  In other words, to proclaim Christ in His Word and to offer Christ in His Sacraments.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The beauty of brokennes and grace

Blessed is the one who has no one to trust in but God alone.

I recall meeting a pastor from Nigeria once, long ago.  As he spoke at my (then) home church one Sunday, he said some words that became deeply imprinted upon my heart . . . words that shaped my thinking.  He spoke of the poverty of the Christians in his home country lived in.  Even with their little resources, they were nevertheless a joyful people.  A people that loved to proclaim the goodness of the God who had redeemed them.  They were a people who had nothing but Jesus Christ.

It moved me so much that I tracked him down as the service was ending.  Tapping him on the shoulder, I waited for him to turn to me, and then I spoke words to him.  I said,

"People all over the world think that Americans are rich.  We have money.  We have nice homes.  We have our own cars.  We have large church buildings.  But you come to us and say that you and your people have nothing but Jesus."

"We are not rich . . . you are rich."

And this gracious man smiled the broadest smile, spread his arms open wide, and embraced me in a true African hug.  He laughed a large, joy-filled laugh, and his laughter was infectious.

That day, he and I spoke the same language.  Not English . . . we both knew that quite well.  But we spoke the language of the ones who realize the gift of being broken, poor, and being able to find comfort in nothing but Jesus Christ alone. 

Since that day, I have had many people come into my office at church.  Broken and disheartened, they have all said the same thing, "I feel like I have nowhere to turn but to Jesus Christ."

And inevitably, I have broken into a broad smile, spread my arms open wide, and embraced them.  With joy in my heart, I tell them how deeply they just blessed me by saying that.  And I tell them what a great gift they have been given:  The gift of finding true riches in life's poorest circumstances.

Hebrews 12:2, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."

The world has no shame that God cannot turn to glory.  The world has no sadness that God cannot turn to joy.  Because it is in those very moments that we find our idols have no power to save, our strength has no ability to lift us up, and all our wealth has no value.

It is in those moments that we see Christ most clearly, and we find that He dearly loves us with a love that cannot be broken.