There are many deep and dark torture chambers of the soul that I have not experienced. But I have been swallowed alive by the pit of divorce, twice. Its rotten odor, its razor edges, its oxygen-deprived atmosphere—I know it.
The church has a long and colorful history of shooting itself in the foot. I’m not talking about cringe-worthy mistakes. Installing shag carpet in the sanctuary in the 1960’s—now that was a mistake. Letting families purchase or rent their own private pews—that was plain dumb. We may shake our heads at these blunders, but we can let them pass. It’s not like they un-churched the church.
One of the best gifts we can give our children is to stop trying to be perfect parents.
Don’t set out to be a hero to your children.
Throw away your capes.
Someone was once asked to pen a six-word novel.
They wrote: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
Many, including me, could have written those sad, six words.
There are times when a man and a woman, even though they’re good people, even though they’re both married and committed to their respective spouses, even though these spouses love them, find themselves falling in love with another person whom they think is their soulmate.
Browse through the Hallmark section of Father’s Day cards and you’ll discover that every father is above average. The Bobs, Jasons, and Charlies of this world get up in the morning, grab a cup of coffee, and put on their capes before they leave the house. We are evidently overrun with heroic, god-like dads who compete in out-fathering everyone else.
Being a father or mother is a lot like being a priest. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, Christian, or one of the “religious nones.” Whatever faith—or the lack thereof—parents affirm, they spend about 18 years conducting a profoundly influential worship service in the lives of their children.
She’s cooking breakfast when he stumbles through the back door of their humble Arkansas home. Eyes bloodshot. Shirt unevenly buttoned, as if done in darkness, and in haste. She doesn’t turn around. No need to. More times than she cares to remember, my great-grandmother has seen my great-grandfather looking like something the cat drug in.
A few years ago, I made a decision that redirected the rest of my life. It was a career change, but deeper down, it was profoundly more. It was a life change.
It was March 10, 2008, when Cindy found the emails. She remembers because it was her birthday. She was turning 33. Her husband would be working late, again, but he’d promised to make it home in time to take her out to dinner at her favorite Thai restaurant.
I know a family in turmoil. The mom and dad are at odds over the children; the younger brother has lied to and stolen from his older brother. He’s so crazy with rage that he’s plotting to murder his kid brother. And this same older brother, mad at his dad, too, finds out what really gets under the old man’s skin and sets out to do that very thing to spite him. And the younger brother—the thief and liar—is so scared for his life that he runs away from home. I know this messed up family. And you probably do, too. Their names are Isaac and Rebecca, Esau and Jacob. Broken homes such as theirs, full of broken hearts, broken promises, anger, spite, guilt, and all kinds of nastiness, are nothing new.
Here is Jacob, the younger brother, the man on the run. Asleep with a rock for a pillow. Alone between a past full of deceit and a future fat with fear. And there, in the midnight of his sleep, he dreams a dream no mortal had ever dreamed before. A ladder stretching to the stars, the stairway of angels. Up to heaven and down to earth the angels go. From Jacob to God they ascend, from God to Jacob they descend. Here is a living bridge from creature to creator. And the Lord speaks, “I am the God of your grandfather, Abraham, the God of your dad, Isaac. And I am your God, too, Jacob.” He is a God with a past full of promises and a future full of their fulfillment. He doesn’t scold this sleeper for having had a deceitful past. He doesn’t give him a tongue-lashing for his theft. He promises him the very land on which Jacob lies; descendants as numerous as the grains of dust that are his bed; and most importantly, the God at the top of the ladder says, “I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Wow, that sounds sweet, doesn’t it? All these grand promises. But maybe you’re thinking: “Where’s God when I need a dream like that? Where’s God when my real life feels more like a nightmare—one that goes on and on and on? Jacob had it bad I suppose; but I tell you what, that runaway and I could compare scars. Let me tell you about my dysfunctional family. Let me tell you what it feels like to crave love from those closest to you and not get it. Let me tell you what’s it like to lie in bed at night and pray you don’t wake up in the morning just so all the pain will be over. Let me tell you not about my dreams but about my fear to dream, my fear to hope. Let me show you my scars.” Maybe that’s what you’re thinking.
If you are, let me tell you something. You may not believe it; you may even scoff at the claim, but here’s the truth: God hears your roar of pain on the other side of your silence. He counts every tear you let escape, or refuse to let go, from the ocean of anguish inside you. He is your God, too, as much as He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and that deceiving, stealing, runaway Jacob. And since He is your God, neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, neither things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate you from the love He has for you in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing and no one.
And here’s the thing about God: He actually keeps His promises. For richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse. When you’ve made more stupid mistakes than even you can remember. When you’ve hurt virtually everyone who’s tried to love you. When you can barely stand to look at your face in the mirror because all you see is shame and failure staring back at you, mocking you. When it feels like you’ve wallowed in the mud of hell itself, you have a God who loves you. You have a God who cares. You have a God who will stand up publicly beside any man or any woman, embrace them, forgive them, and say to the world, “This is my child. I love him. I love her. And I defy you to say otherwise.” You have a God like that. You have a God who cannot and will not stop loving you and keeping you and dying to make you right.
These are grand promises, and they are as real as your pain and doubt and fear. But they are better, and stronger, because they are God’s grand promises, and He stands behind them. You want a dream like Jacob’s? You want a ladder and the pretty angels and God up top all strong and talking to you? You want too little. You need more than that. You need more than a dream. You need something concrete. And you got it.
You need a God who pushes the angels aside and climbs down the ladder. You need a God who doesn’t just make promises, but also keeps them, and who Himself becomes promise and fulfillment. You need a God who not only comes down that ladder from heaven, but also brings heaven with Him, who pulls heaven downward and lifts earth heavenward, and fuses the two together in His very own body. The God of heaven, the Man of earth, in one person, Jesus the Son of Mary, the Son of the Father.
You see greater things than Jacob saw. You see the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. You see people with broken lives, from broken families, with broken and bleeding hearts, welcomed into the kingdom where they find peace that they dared not even dream existed this side of the grave. You see people whom society has rejected, whom friends have shunned, called friends of God, heirs of the kingdom, sons and daughters of the king. Do you see yourself there? There you are. That is who you are because of Christ Jesus.
Show your scars to Him and He will show you His. His scars endured to heal your own. He will take your scarred heart in his scarred hands and love you, and love you, and love you still more, until all that matters is not the scar upon your heart, but the scar embedded in His hand. All that will matter is not how hellish life can sometimes be, but rather how heaven itself is grasped in this God who came to earth to be Himself that ladder by which we ascend to the Father. He will wipe away your tears, cleanse you of your shame, embrace you as a member of His family, and tell you, “I am with you. I am Emmanuel. I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and your God, now and unto ages of ages, and even forevermore.”
What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!
There are times when you feel like a spectator who views in slow motion the demolition of your life. Mini-explosions rock the foundations of everything that gave you meaning and purpose. Maybe it happens when you stare at the surreal spectacle of a coffin descending into raw earth, or the X-rays of a brain tumor, or the officer standing at your front door serving you papers for divorce.
Scattered throughout all denominations are moms and dads whose greatest disappointment in life is that their children have seemingly abandoned the faith. And they’re all wondering the same things: Why? Where did we go wrong as parents? And what can we do to bring our children back to church?
It’s one of my favorite family pictures. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on a couch are my granddad, my dad, me, and my son. A four-generation snapshot: Lee Roy to Carson to Chad to Luke. You can spy the DNA doing its thing; you can trace the lineage trickling down from face to face. Each father cradled each son on the day he bawled his way into this world. He gazed into that tiny face and saw mirrored there his own. “Here is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh,” we all thought. Here, in this baby, is half of me, half of my wife. The Bible says Adam fathered “a son in his own likeness, after his image” (Gen 5:3), and ever afterward, we dads have been following suit. But not one father. He peered into a baby’s face on the night of his nativity, but he saw there no hint of his own eyes or the shape of his nose or the contours of his jaw. That boy would learn to crawl, then to walk, but His gait was nothing like the gait of Joseph. No old woman ever said, “That Jesus is the spitting image of His daddy.” For Mary’s husband couldn’t spy his DNA doing its thing. Half of him was not in Jesus. He is indeed called the boy’s father (Luke 2:33), but Joseph and Mary and Jesus Himself knew that a paternity test would yield negative results. When Jesus met people, and they asked where He was from and who His dad was, little did they realize what loaded questions those were.
It wasn’t the seed of Joseph that was planted in Mary’s womb, but when that baby was born; when Herod sent soldiers to murder Him; when the family had to flee the country; when they made the long journey home; when they needed a roof over their heads and sandals on their feet and food on their table, Joseph was the man to get it done. When baby Jesus filled His diaper with poop, Joseph wiped the divine butt and put a clean diaper on Him. When Jesus took His first wobbly steps, Joseph laughed with Mary as those divine legs learned how to walk. He taught Him to say aleph, bet, gimel as Jesus learned His Hebrew ABCs. This carpenter showed the Lord of all how to hew down and fashion into lumber the very trees He had planted at the dawn of creation. Joseph was not the father of Jesus, but then again, he was the father of Jesus. Jesus was the true offspring of the heavenly Father, very God of very God, begotten not made, but even the Son of God needed a daddy.
That’s one of the reasons why, when I see Joseph, I see God hallowing fatherhood. The Son that He is sending into this world will need more than a mother; He needs a father. As great a blessing as Mary was to our Savior, loving and caring for Him as mothers do, Joseph was equally a blessing to Him. Call him the foster father to Jesus; the adoptive father; the stand-in father; whatever you wish: the Bible simply called Joseph “His father,” (Luke 2:33). For so he was in every way except biologically.
Joseph is God’s way of reminding us that fatherhood is not a hobby but a vocation—a calling that is both sacred and life-encompassing. God hallows fatherhood, makes it holy, something that is set apart and special to Him. For in it He both conceals and reveals His own fatherhood to us. As Joseph protected his family, led them, worked for them, cared for them, taught them, he was but a mask for the Father in heaven who used Joseph as His hands and feet and mouth to care for the Savior and His mother. So my father was to me, and so I strive to be for my own family. If even the Son of God needed a daddy, I know that my son does, my daughter does. Do I fail? Yes, all the time. Do I fail miserably at times? Yes, I most certainly do. Every father does. Since Joseph was a flawed human being, he screwed up sometimes when he was a father to Jesus. But God forgives, covers our weaknesses with the cloak of His grace, and continues to use us as His masks to care for those whom He has placed in our care.
Joseph is also God’s way of reminding us fathers that our children are, from conception onward, divine gifts to us. Whether we are their biological fathers, adoptive fathers, foster or step-fathers, “children are a gift from the LORD,” (Psalm 127:3). As such, they always remain, first and foremost, God’s children. Every child has two fathers, one on earth and one in heaven. And, no matter what DNA is woven into their cells, it is the heavenly Father that defines who they are. They are not ours to do with as we please, but as God pleases. So we bring them to their Father’s house where He baptizes them into the divine family. We bring them, perhaps kicking and screaming at times, to their Father’s house, where He talks to them in His word, tells them about Himself, tell them about themselves, and draws them ever closer to Him. We teach them at home, in the car, wherever we might be, about the Father who loves them so much that He sent His own Son to be born into a human family, to live and to die and to rise again, that they might receive the gifts of life and salvation. We are all Joseph—all masks of the heavenly Father by which He cares for the children He has given to us.
I suppose that Joseph could have divorced Mary when he discovered she was a pregnant with a child that was not his own. He could have refused to believe the angel who told him in a dream that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18-25). He could have hightailed it to save his own skin when he learned that Herod’s men were on their way to Bethlehem, swords in hand. He could have abandoned the family in Egypt. He didn't have to be the dad he was, but he indeed was. He had a sacred calling. He was the husband of Mary, the father of Jesus, the mask of God.
This Christmas, as you see that man in the nativity scene, kneeling by the virgin, say a prayer of thanks for him. And say a prayer of thanks for all fathers, for we struggle, we fail, and we try again to live out our vocations. Some of us do better than others, some worse, but we all live by grace of Jesus, who lived and died for Joseph, for Mary, for all of us. If all children are a gift from the Lord, then the Christ Child is The Gift. In Him we are all the children of a Father who is truly faithful and has made us His own in that tiny babe of Bethlehem.
If you’d like to read more of my writings, please check out the two books that I now have on sale. From now to the end of 2014, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons and The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems, are on sale for an additional 25% off through CreateSpace. Click here if you’d like to purchase Christ Alone or here for The Infant Priest. When you check out, enter this code, YLECQSWE, for the discount. Thank you!
On my mother's Sunday table was a feast fit for a southern king: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, hot buttered rolls, pecan pie, and plenty of other country delicacies. Back then, eating at a Chinese restaurant was about as cross-cultural an experience as I could imagine. Over the years, I've expanded the horizons of my palate to sample everything from Iranian to Indian to Russian cuisine. And most of it, while no match to my momma's cooking, has pleased my palate. However, I do live by a strict rule: when I'm about to try a new cultural restaurant, I never go alone. I take along a food-wise friend. I lean on him for advice about what to order, what combination of foods is best, what drinks complement the entree, and even how to eat (with my fingers? a fork? a piece of bread?). The meal, in addition to a culinary experience, also becomes a learning experience. The meal at which I have learned the most, however, was not at a restaurant but a church. There’s no need for a menu because everyone receives and consumes the same items. The conversation around the table is minimal. I eat, then drink, while on my knees. Outwardly, the meal is spartan, hardly sufficient to ease a man’s hunger or slake his thirst, but inwardly the meal is regal, feeding a man’s hunger with the only food that satisfies, slaking his thirst with a drink that puts to shame the finest of wines. At this meal of meals, the supper of Jesus, He serves me Himself. And in so doing, He also teaches me something profoundly important. As He feeds me His body, as He pours in me His blood, I learn how to be a father, a husband, a son, a citizen, a worker. Everything I need to know about vocation I learn at the Lord’s Supper.
Vocation: More Than What We Do For a Living
Let me explain what I mean by first clarifying what I mean by vocation. We usually understand vocation in a very narrow sense; it’s your job, your “calling.” Vocation, however, is not so much what you do for a living but what Christ does through you for the living. It’s a 24/7 calling, not a 9 to 5 occupation. A child’s vocation is to be a son or daughter to parents; a spouse’s vocation is to be a husband to his wife, a wife to her husband. And, of course, if you have a job, that too is a vocation, whether you’re a priest or policeman, carpenter or accountant. In each of these vocations, you have people to love, to serve, to take care of. Yet—and this is of the utmost importance—it is not so much you who serve your neighbor as Christ who serves your neighbor through you. You have been crucified with Jesus on the cross of baptism, so that it is no longer you who live but Christ who lives in you (Gal 2:20). It is no longer you who are a wife but Jesus who is a wife through you; no longer you who are a teacher, but Jesus who is a teacher through you. Your vocation, as with your identity, is bound up in Him.
Permitting Ourselves to be Eaten and Drunk
Whatever vocation God has given to you, you learn what that calling is all about at the Lord’s Supper. Just as He gives Himself to you in this meal, so He goes on to give Himself through you to your neighbor in your vocation. He pours the blood of His love into your body and then pours Himself through you into others as you faithfully serve in your vocations. Luther puts it this way:
Now this is the fruit [of the Lord’s Supper], that even as we have eaten and drunk the body and blood of Christ the Lord, we in turn permit ourselves to be eaten and drunk, and say the same words to our neighbor, Take, eat and drink…meaning to offer yourself with all your life, even as Christ did with all that he had. (Sermons of Martin Luther; trans. and ed. J. N. Lenker; Grand Rapids: Baker; Volume 2:208)
We eat the Lord by the faith of the Word which the soul consumes and enjoys. In this way my neighbor also eats me: I give him my goods, body, and life and all I have, and let him consume and use it in his want. Likewise I also need my neighbor; I too am poor and afflicted, and suffer him to help and serve me in turn. Thus we are woven one into the other, helping one another even as Christ helped us. (2:213)
Therefore, when I kneel beside my wife at the altar rail, there Christ also shows me how to be a husband to her. Just as Jesus loved the church and gave Himself up for her, uniting His body with her own in this meal, so I should love my wife as my own body, nourish and cherish our united body, even as Christ does for the church (Eph 5:25, 28-29). When I kneel beside my son and daughter, there Christ shows me how to be a father to them. Just as Jesus feeds and cares for me in this Supper, clothes me with His righteousness, so I in turn care for my children by giving myself wholly to them in my vocation as their dad.
In the Lord’s Supper, the Lord holds nothing back. He gives us His life. He gives us His forgiveness. He gives us Himself. When we return to the pew, then later go out to our cars and drive home, then awake Monday morning to go about our various callings, we still carry Jesus with us. Unlike every other meal, wherein we digest the food and turn it into ourselves, in the Lord’s Supper the food turns us into itself. Jesus transforms our bodies into His. We become as He is. So whatever we do, we do in and through and with Jesus. Or, as I prefer to say it, Jesus does it in and through and with us. We become His lips to speak, His hands to work, His feet to walk. Just as He gave us Himself in the Supper on Sunday, so He gives Himself to others through us in our vocations every day of the week.
The next time you change your baby’s diaper, or make a sales call, or nail a shingle to the roof, remember this: just as Jesus has hidden Himself under those simple forms of bread and wine, so He hides Himself under the simple acts of your vocation. And just as He gave Himself to you in such simple profundity, so He continues to give Himself to others through you in the simple, but profound, acts of your vocation. When all is said and done, everything you need to know about vocation was learned at the Lord’s Supper.
If this reflection was a blessing to you, please take a moment to check out my book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon.
You may also be interested in my two other books. The Infant Priest is a collection of hymns and poems. These give voice to the triumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world. It is available at this website or on Amazon.com. I also just published Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing. This booklet is a clear and concise explanation of the place of hymns in worship. To buy your print copy, click on the link here for CreateSpace or Amazon. It is also available as a Kindle edition here. If you wish to purchase bulk copies at a reduced rate for your congregation, Bible Class group, Board of Elders or Deacons, please send me an email at email@example.com for more information. Thank you very much for your interest!
No one knew that she was a woman, let alone expecting a child, except her husband. They were Chinese indentured servants, clearing terrain and shoveling tunnels through the California mountains for the coming railroads. She had disguised herself so that she could be with him whom she loved. There, side by side, they worked, she growing weaker as her time drew near. The labor pangs came early, when she was surrounded by men—gangs of men who had not even seen a woman, much less been with a woman, in months. Her husband, his leg recently broken in an accident, shattered the bone again running to her, trying to get to her before the men did. By the time he drug himself up the slope of shale to where she lay, his wife was able only to mutter a few last words. From the tattered body of his dying wife, he clawed out their living child with his fingernails. That child, Lee, told this story of his mother and father, and his own nightmarish entrance into this world of evil and lust and redemption, to Adam, in John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden. Even when he was a little boy, his father had not hidden the truth from him. As he told Lee the story, he would say, “There’s more beauty in the truth even if it is dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar,” (Chapter 28).
I read that passage years ago, and for some reason it remained lodged deep in my memory. Never did I dream then that I would think of it when it came time to talk to my own child, to my daughter, about a chapter from our common past that is punctuated with pain. Unlike Lee, it has nothing to do with my child’s entrance into this world, but rather with the entrance of rebellion into my own life—a rebellion that left her world, my world, and the world of my whole family shattered. It was a personal war, of me against God, but such fights are never merely personal. They always result in collateral damage, as the carnage of destroyed innocence and shredded families tearfully attests.
My daughter’s honest, pointed question of “Why?” not only desired an answer; it deserved and demanded the “dreadful beauty” of an honest response. There is always the temptation to “twist life”, especially when the truth unveils the monster of egocentricity whose filthy lair is in the human heart. The temptation is doubled because it is so easy to tell ourselves that we withhold the truth to protect the innocent, all the while knowing it is only ourselves we strive to protect. To plumb the unfathomable depths of human selfishness is perhaps the most frightening exploration possible for man. It is, and will ever remain, the “last frontier”, into which we rarely, and barely, set foot, for none of us truly wants to discover what is there.
There is, of course, room for debate about what is appropriate to tell children, and at what age. I recognize the need for wisdom and prudence, even when it comes to honesty. Certainly not everyone would have chosen the way of Lee’s father. Nor, perhaps, would they have chosen the way of my daughter’s father. I can tell you, however, that I am intimately acquainted with the world of half-truths, and full-blown lies, and it is not a world I will live in again.
The storytellers at the city gate, who teach nothing, cure nothing, nor let the heart soar, may make life look sweet, but they sugar-coat poison. The truth will always emerge, and when it is does, the liar is not only made to look the fool; he is often despised for fooling others. The way of truth is always the way of the wise. It is the way of our Father above, and so it is the way of fathers here, even when the truth is dreadful.
I would rather rear a child in the desert of truth, then raise a fool in the paradise of a lie.
If you have a minute, check out my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo TolstoyThere is a uniqueness to unhappiness, as Tolstoy rightly observed, a sad fingerprint left by each family that is like no other. And it’s rarely as simplistic as outsiders usually assume. “Oh, it’s that alcoholic father who’s ruined that family.” Or, “Yeah, it’s that cheatin’ wife of his.” Or, “it’s them dope-smoking kids.” Maybe the husband turns to alcohol as an escape because his wife nags him, belittles him, and makes him feel worthless. Maybe the wife sleeps with other men because they give her the illusion of attraction, while her husband says she’s fat, never touches her, and makes her feel as undesirable as a wrinkled whore. And this merely scratches the surface. Dig down deep into any unhappy family, and you’re likely to unearth layer upon layer of manipulation, abuse, neglect, grudges, and horrors which have no name.
Joseph came from a family like that. His dad, Jacob, was married to two women, having sex with two more, and fathering children by them all. I don’t need to tell you that, in a household where four women are sleeping with one man, jealousy was thick. Each wife was trying to out-pregnant the other, and even enlisted their maid-servants as sexual pinch hitters to try and make even more babies. To add to the mess, Joseph’s brother, Reuben, slept with one of those maid-servants as well, father and son sowing their seed in the same womb, brother sleeping with his other brothers’ mom. Still more, after one of the daughters was raped in a nearby town, the sons rose to avenge their sister with bloodshed, all the while incensed at their father who didn’t want to ruffle any feathers over the incident. And, finally, the jealousy of the wives filtered down to the sons, especially when Jacob made it abundantly clear that Joseph, the firstborn of his favorite wife, Rachel, was his favorite son and the one who would inherit his blessing. If every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, then Joseph’s family had plenty of ways of breeding more unhappiness.
Some of you reading this come from an unhappy family, or you’re living in that unhappy family right now. Maybe you’re wondering if there’s any possible way God could glue back together the shards of your shattered family unity. Maybe you suspect things are so bad that God has washed His hands of your marriage and children. Or maybe you’ve simply given up hope; you feel defeated; you’re tired of pushing that boulder uphill, only to watch it roll down again. The pains and disappointments in life are teaching you the hard truth that God has a warm place in His heart for happy families, while unhappy ones are left shivering through winter after winter of divine absence.
If so, consider this: Joseph’s family—that polygamous, incestuous, jealous, murderous, motley crew of screw-ups—was in fact the holy family that God chose and dearly loved. This family was the foundation of the church of the Old Testament. Those twelve brothers, reared by one deceitful father and four bickering mothers, who were constantly fighting amongst themselves, were the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. This microcosm of humanity, in which just about every evil and sin was exemplified, was nevertheless beloved of God and chosen by Him to carry forward the promise of redemption. This was the family whose DNA would eventually find its way into a baby boy born to a virgin in the little town of Bethlehem. The Savior of the world would come from Joseph’s family; indeed, his foster father would bear that patriarch’s name. From this unhappy family would arise the one whose coming would prompt the church to sing, “Joy to the world!”
So is God interested only in happy families? No, if anything, He seems to be the patron God of lost causes. For him, there is no family, no family member, who is beyond hope. He is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost lamb. He is the father who dashes from his house and runs like a madman to throw his loving arms around the prodigal son. He is the Christ who suffers with you through every family fight, holds you when you cry yourself to sleep in a lonely bed, sits beside you in divorce court, visits your child with you when she’s in rehab. He has bound Himself to you and your family. That doesn’t mean He approves of the evil that takes place; what it means is that He is not a God who runs away when things get ugly. He might even get ugly Himself sometimes, show tough love to those who need it, but behind that divine scowl of reproof is a heart of love that beats with a ferocious compassion. He will not give up on you or your family. Inked into God’s skin is the name of every person in your family. He bears your family in His own body.
Every unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, but no family is beyond redemption, beyond the recovery of joy, beyond the love of the heavenly Father. Because every unhappy family is the family for whom Jesus Christ died. For Joseph’s family, for your family, the Son of God came from His Father, was born of a mother, was raised by a foster father, that He might redeem every member of your family, and make them members of an everlasting family known as the church. With Jesus Christ, no family is a lost cause.
If this reflection was helpful to you, and you’d like to read more–many more–like it, then take a look at my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!
When the mind is at play, especially when there are no teachers, no rules, no fences in the mental playground, when the brain is free to do whatever tickles its fancy, we wander into that realm called fantasy. I don’t have to tell you to try it sometime; most of us do it every day, without even realizing it’s happening. Maybe on the drive to work. Maybe during a boring lecture. Maybe when our head hits the pillow. When there’s nothing we must think about, we are prone to think about what we like, what we fear, or what we desire.
I don’t have a woman’s mind, so I can’t speak for you ladies. But I have plenty of personal knowledge of what happens inside a brain that drives a body fueled with testosterone. For us—for me anyway, and I think for most men—our fantasy playground almost always has a bed as its central feature. What happens in that fantasy bed, and with whom it happens, varies from man to man. There are plenty of lists on the web for the top ten sexual fantasies of men, and I’m sure that Cosmo has devoted at least a gazillion recycled articles to this subject, so there’s no need to give you a string of examples. What is revealing is to take your own go-to fantasy and de-fantasize it. Ask yourself what that fantasy reveals about you, your view of sex, and, by extension, your belief about love. Your fantasy may be fantasy, but fantasies unearth real desires; and real desires direct the heart; and the heart, when it steers our life in certain directions, can easily drive us straight off the cliff of destruction.
Let me give you just one example, a very common example of a male sexual fantasy: the threesome. Contrary to appearances, contrary to what men may think they’re daydreaming about, this mini-orgy is not really about getting a double female portion to satiate the sexual appetite. What a man wants is not so much two women, but a twofold increase in his own perceived level of personal machismo. His penis is nothing but a tool with which he boosts his own ego. He feels sexier, stronger, more desirable.
Now what’s most revealing is that the threesome is not really about sex at all, at least, not sex as understood biblically, according to the will of the One who created sex. This is a man-becoming-god fantasy. It’s about the self, the male self, in a scenario in which he is the deity of his self-created brand of sex. What the true God made isn’t good enough for him. He wants not the two, but the three to become one flesh. He doesn’t want fidelity; he doesn’t want a lifelong, wedded union with one wife who is bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh, and mother of their children. So he creates in his fantasy a new Eden in which he is the Lord of two Eves, who are crafted not from his rib but from his ego, made to serve his selfish desires.
Here is a fantasy that, when stripped of its seemingly overt sexuality, is but one more example of man’s ongoing attempt to break the first commandment in new, creative ways. “You shall have no other gods,” God says, and we, spurred on by the prohibition, roll up our sleeves and get to work fashioning gods like there’s no tomorrow. The mind is an idol-making machine, so the mind that fantasizes about sex is prone to make gods that are gilded with sensuality. Amongst the many dangers here, two come to mind. The most obvious is that God threatens to punish all who break His commandments. And His punishment is no fantasy; it is man’s worst nightmare.
The second danger is that the more man entertains sexual fantasies that denigrate the divine gift that sex actually is, the more prone he will be to make those daydreams into reality. Oh, he will kid himself into thinking, “Hey, all I’m doing is in my head. It’s fantasy. No harm in that.” But fantasies sprinkle salt into an already thirsty mouth. It’s only a matter of time before he decides he must take that drink, when what a man is doing in his head becomes what he’s doing in his bed. And if his fantasy, like so many of them, is nothing more than an idolatrous usurpation of sex to serve his own selfish cravings, then he will destroy his own soul and, if married, bring untold harm upon the woman whom he has sworn to love and cherish till death parts them.
There’s a verse from a hymn that I return to again and again in my own internal struggles with this:
If some lust in current fashion
Rises like a fiery flood,
Draw me to your cross and Passion,
Quench the fire, Lord, by your blood.
Lest I to the tempter yield,
Let me front him with the shield,
Thorn-crowned, blood-marked tree displaying,
Sign the devils find dismaying.
(“Grant, Lord Jesus, that My Healing” Lutheran Worship, 95).
While that “thorn-crowned, blood-marked tree” is indeed a shield against temptation, it is much more. It is the place where fantasy meets reality, where man comes eye-to-eye with true, real love. The kind of love that gives all, nothing held back. The kind of love that doesn’t even know what self-serving might mean for all it does is serve the other. This is God-love, pure love, the only real love in our whole wide world for it is pure, unadulterated, unfiltered. On that thorn-crowned, blood-marked tree God loved us out of our fantasies and into His reality; loved us out of sin and into salvation; loved us out of our rebellion and into His redemption.
In Jesus, baptized into Him, we become one flesh with God Himself. And in that union is true contentment, for there is no want. When we have God, we have all, for we have Him who is our everything. We have forgiveness for our sexually twisted minds, forgiveness for our sexually twisted acts, forgiveness full and free. And in its place, in that gap left by sin, there is the fullness of Christ, who inhabits our bodies even as we inhabit His, bone of each other’s bone, flesh of each other’s flesh. It is gift, all gift, from Him who rescues us from ourselves and remakes us in His image and likeness.
Better than any fantasy, better than any daydream, is the reality that I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.
If you’d like to read more reflections like this one, check out my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. If you’re looking for feel-good, saccharine devotional material, you’d better keep looking because you’re not going to find it here. If you’re looking for moralistic guides to the victorious Christian life, you’ll be thoroughly disappointed by all the Gospel in this book. But if you’re looking for reflections drenched in the Scriptures, focused through and through on the saving work of Jesus Christ, and guided by a law-and-Gospel approach to proclamation, then I daresay you’ll be pleased with this book. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!
I wrote this article for The Federalist, to share the approach I've taken with my children when it comes to talking with them about sex. Here is the introduction, with a link below to the full article. There are moments in each child’s life that remain vivid in the memories of their parents, even years later. I remember my daughter leaning against the couch, literally wringing her hands as she mustered the courage to take her first steps. Her first day of kindergarten, though more than a decade ago, is almost as memorable as yesterday. These are, of course, sweet recollections. But mingled with these pleasant remembrances are others that remind us just how challenging parenting can be.
One of those challenges confronted me in the form of an innocent question. When my daughter was about eight years old, out of the blue she asked me, “Daddy, what is sex?” My first thought was, “Hey, wait a minute—I’m supposed to bring up that subject when I’m ready to discuss it, not her!” Rather than dodging the question, however, I did answer it, in a way I thought befit her age. But it was difficult to do, not because the topic embarrassed me, or made me feel uncomfortable, but because I knew how important this discussion was. I wanted to choose my words with the same careful skill with which an artist selects colors for his painting; this was no time for an answer akin to verbal graffiti.
We had that conversation almost a decade ago. My daughter and my son are going through those tumultuous teenager years now. As they’ve grown older, when other opportunities have presented themselves, I’ve spoken with them more about sex. In fact, I’ve discussed the contents of this article with them. It doesn’t get much easier, but it gets even more necessary, especially as they have begun to interact more and more relationally with the opposite sex. My voice may have to compete with the cacophony of media and peer voices talking to them about it, but I know that, amidst all the mixed messages, they’re hearing at least one voice that speaks the truth.
Read the full article here
How many wives are now ex-wives; how many children can’t stomach Father’s Day; how many congregations have been torn to shreds; how many lives have been hurt or destroyed—all because we men think we have something to prove? I’ll be the first to admit that this drive to prove myself ultimately proved my undoing. Like many men, I felt this need to prove to my family, my friends, my students, my church, my God, and—most of all—to myself, that where others would fail, I would succeed; where they would settle for average, I would excel; where others would melt into obscurity, I would be known. And because, deep down, I knew the sinister nature of this drive, I employed an age old tactic to deal with it: I renamed it. I called it “driven” or “a competitive spirit” or “the will to succeed.” But it wasn’t. My lips may have called it a beauty, but my heart knew it was a beast.
We like to define ourselves, and to have others see us and talk about us, based upon our accomplishments. What I have done defines who I am, gives me self-worth, makes me feel like I’ve proven myself a man among men. But there’s always that nagging sense of doubt. There’s always those other men who have more trophies, bigger salaries, sexier wives, who make us feel like we’ve not done enough. Of course, we’re not going to admit this, because men don’t like to admit weakness, especially any sense of inferiority we feel in relation to other men. So, instead, we embark on these quests to prove ourselves.
Maybe we pour ourselves into work, so that our wives find themselves alone every evening on the couch and later in bed, while we’re out proving that we deserve that promotion, that we do a better job at work than anyone else. Maybe we’re getting a little older, and we wonder if we still have what it takes to bed another woman, so we strike up a flirtatious conversation, then friendship, then hook-up, with this young, sexy thing who makes us feel alive again and proves that we have as much sexual prowess as any other man. Maybe we’re clergy, and we see how other churches are growing while ours seems stagnant or even dying, so to prove ourselves we begin to water down our theology and sexy up our services to fill more pews and fatten the offering plate, so as to prove to others that we’re just as good as any other man of God.
Where does all this proving ourselves get us? Very often it gets us out of our house and into an apartment, where we see our children every other weekend, take up a second or third job to help cover the child support check, and crawl into bed every night hoping that we don’t wake up in the morning to face the reality of the life we now have since we’ve gone and proved ourselves. And maybe, once we hit that bottom, we’ll realize that all we’ve proven is that somewhere along the way, we bought into the lie that life is defined by what we do, what we accomplish, instead of who God has made us to be and what he has accomplished for us.
One of the best things that ever happened to me was failure. It was like a trip to the ophthalmologist, by which my vision was improved so that I was able to see how I’d gotten to that point. Failure did not make me worse or make me better. It simply gave me clarity, so that I beheld the evil, selfish, destructive dispositions slithering around inside me, tempting me with forbidden fruit, inflating my ego, urging me always to prove myself.
I also found in that pit called failure another man, one named Jesus, who, to my utter astonishment, told me that I had nothing to prove. He told me that He loved me just as I was. I didn’t need to become the best so as to have His best. I didn’t need to succeed to secure His favor or win His approval. I didn’t need to do anything; He picked me up, threw me over His shoulder, and climbed out that dark pit into the light of life, with me in tow.
What are we trying to prove? Who are we trying to prove it to? And what and who are we willing to hurt or neglect or destroy along the way to achieve this goal? I tell you the truth, it’s not worth it. There is a better way. This better way does not mean emasculation; in fact, it makes us real men. It is the way of finding our identity in the man of the cross. To lose our lives in Him is to find a true and meaningful and fulfilling life, for it is the life that God intended for us from the beginning. It is who He created us to be. To live in Christ is to live in fidelity to our wives. To live in Christ is to love our children. To live in Christ is for Him to live His life through us, so that we become His hands and feet and lips by which others are served.
You have nothing to prove. But you have everything to gain by losing your life and finding real life in the Man from Nazareth.