When we got home from church, Mom would walk in the front door, pull on her apron, and go to work in the kitchen. A little while later, we’d all take our places at the table for the Sunday meal. It might be chicken fried steak. Or baked lasagna. Or hamburgers.
Jesus is always many things: always truthful, always faithful, always divine. But he is not always nice.
When we stand east of Eden with Adam and Eve because we couldn’t keep our hands off forbidden fruit, weeping over lost loves, lost chances, lost lives...
Songs are musical time-machines. You hear the melody, the words wash over you, and in the blink of an eye, you’re “there.” There, hearing the song playing over the radio as your teenage girlfriend sits beside you and takes your hand in her own. There, mom and dad in the rear-view mirror, car packed to the gills, a college dormitory awaiting you. There, crying your eyes out over the break-up you thought would never happen. The music plays on and on, and you go back and back. Songs, transcendent melodies that harbor the past, pull you toward the memories of yesteryear like they were yesterday. Such is the muscle of music, holding tight in your heart the grip of the past. For me, among the many memories that songs elicit, one that always comes back to me involves a dear elderly lady named Alvena Stein. She was a lifelong member of the congregation where I served as pastor in Wellston, Oklahoma. And she was one of those dear saints whom I could visit on my darkest, I-just-wanna-throw-in-the-towel days in the ministry, and leave an hour later with a smile on my face. Talking with her had a way of putting life in perspective, and restoring joy to my heart, every time. Her life, as with every life, had had its ups and downs. A bride at the ripe old age of sixteen, and a widow at the young age of forty-eight, Alvena knew joy and sorrow. With four daughters, and thirteen grandchildren, and plenty more great-grandchildren and other family members, she was enveloped by those whom she loved and who loved her. Such was the love of Alvena’s family that they adopted me and my family into their own while we lived among them.
The psalmist writes that our earthly lives last “seventy years, or eighty, if we have the strength.” As if proving the poet right, and showing the world that she did have that kind of strength, Alvena fought on to her eightieth year. But after a series of battles, and a gradually weakening body, it became clear that the time of her departure was drawing nigh. I visited her at home, and in the hospital, bringing her the nourishment of God’s word and Christ’s meal. And I also sang songs to her and with her, hymns that poetized the faith she held dear and the hope of victory disguised as death, hymns and songs that she had had on her lips and in her heart from infancy. When the inevitable day came, the 29th of July, 2000, with two of her daughters in the room with her, Alvena was ready. Ready because the Lord had readied her with his love, and now stood to meet her face-to-face in the heavenly fatherland.
I arrived at the hospital shortly after Alvena had passed beyond this world. She lay at peace in her bed, surrounded by her four daughters, their husbands, and others who had been blessed by her love. We prayed the Our Father together, and the 23rd Psalm. And in that room replete with both sadness and joy, gain and loss, but above all hope, I sang the stanza of a hymn that I had sung to Alvena many times in the months leading up to this day.
Lord, let at last Thine angels come, To Abram’s bosom bear me home, That I may die unfearing; And in its narrow chamber keep My body safe in peaceful sleep Until Thy reappearing. And then from death awaken me That these mine eyes with joy may see, O Son of God, Thy glorious face, My Savior and my Fount of grace, Lord Jesus Christ, My prayer attend, my prayer attend, And I will praise Thee without end.
Home. That’s where Alvena had gone—to her true home in the presence of Jesus Christ. Her pilgrimage here in this vale of tears was complete. And now she rested, awaiting the resurrection of her body. She was in the bosom of Abraham, of whom she was a daughter. She had fought the good fight, she had finished the race, she had kept the faith. And in so doing, she had been a true martyr—a witness—to me and so many others who journey still, who long for the bosom of our father Abraham.
Over the years, every time I sing that hymn stanza, I go back. I go back to that hospital room, back to the family that grieved their loss and rejoiced at Alvena’s gain, back to the woman who was such an encouragement to me, even though I was supposed to be an encouragement to her. The man who, over four hundred years before, wrote the hymn I sang that day, could never have imagined the power his words would wield for good in the lives of countless multitudes, of whom I am but one. His words take me back, but they also point me forward—forward to the day when, like Alvena, I will close to my eyes to this world, unfearing, for I know that I will open them to see my Savior and my Fount of grace, arms open wide, receiving me as his own.
Over the weekend, my son and I were paper archaeologists. We dug through some of my yellowed, dusty files to see what discoveries awaited us. We unearthed handwritten writing assignments from high school, short stories from college, and my very first published work: an article in the September, 1992, issue of the Lutheran Witness. Among our finds, however, the two that I treasure the most were early versions of what eventually became my first, and still my favorite hymn, “The Infant Priest Was Holy Born.”
A Student’s Meditation
In February of 1997, this Texas boy was freezing his way through a final winter at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN. Ordination was mere months away. As was customary, when Lent approached that year, the students prepared a devotional booklet for the campus which contained a meditation per day for the season leading up to Holy Week. I was asked to write one on Hebrews 4:14-16, to be read on Thursday, February 20. Among the finds that Luke and I discovered this weekend was that meditation. Here it is.
Humbly arrayed in the priestly garments of human flesh, the Infant Priest, divinely ordained prior to all, emerged pure from the temple of His holy mother’s womb. Worshiped by heavenly hosts seen and unseen, His veiled glory diminished not the laudatory rivers flowing from angelic lips. A new Abel was born of the new Eve, destined to be a sacrificial victim whose blood would speak a better—more salvific—word than the blood of Abel.
By Jordan’s waters anointed, armored with the Spirit’s authority, He who led the armies of Israel marched with purposed stride to the devilish battleground of the Tempter. His divinity camouflaged in humanity, this Davidic youth hunted fearlessly the hellish Goliath, armed solely with the sling of incessant obedience to His Father. With three smooth Scriptural stones chosen from the brook of Torah, he defeated the uncircumcised Foe and struck fear into the hearts of every fiendish spirit allied with the fallen one. The victory battle foreshadowed victory war.
Unparalleled in piety, no stranger to demonic assault, this Priest—blessed be He—traversed the holy land, leaving in His path purified worshipers, the holiness of His flesh sanctifying the uncleanness of their own. From His mouth wafted wise words as fragrant as incense, His tongue the coal upon which the Father’s frankincense fell.
He approached the place of sacrifice undaunted by the absence of a lamb…for the Lamb was He. Upon the crucifixion altar, at which wailing angels dared not gaze, He lay bound by the cords of human infidelity. The fire quenched, the plague stayed, the veil rent, alive again He arose triumphantly to lead pious children into the paternal throne room where they bask in the regal radiance of grace. Midnight spirits upon whom the baptismal sun has risen, we with faces aglow recline roundabout the Incarnate Ark and feast on the sacramental showbread of His flesh. Flesh and blood dripping down the clouds of His body fills to overflowing the priestly chalice of redemption, bedewing cracked lips as we drink deeply in the gold-laden Holy of Holies.
Poetic Scribbles on a Scrap of Paper
Almost every author has had someone who’s helped him believe that he actually is a writer, that he has a gift, and that that gift needs to be shared with readers. During seminary, my encourager was Donald Deffner, one of my beloved professors. Already during my first year, when I shyly handed him a couple of short stories I’d written, he began to buoy my confidence.
When he read my meditation on Hebrews 4, he recommended I attempt to transform this prose into poetry, to craft a hymn from this meditation. That was a literary path I’d never traveled before, but, as it turned out, one that I still remain on today. While Luke and I were rummaging around, I found this, the scrap of paper upon which the first draft was written.
A Communion Hymn
Word by word, a hymn emerged from those inky scratches. I showed it to Richard Resch, the Kantor on campus, who shared it with the committee that was in the final stages of preparing Hymnal Supplement ’98 (HS98), a collection of additional hymns not included in our (then) current service book. In all honesty, I was amazed that the committee even considered it. So you can imagine my shock when I received the news from Resch that it was accepted, that it would be included in the supplement.
“The Infant Priest” eventually made its way into the section of Lord’s Supper hymns in the Lutheran Service Book. Even though I still find myself calling it my hymn, it has truly ceased to be. It is part of the church’s hymnody now. And so it should be. To me, that is one of the characteristics of a hymn writer that sets him apart from a poet. A poet’s works, even though they may be enjoyed and even treasured by the general public, remain that poet’s works. A hymn writer composes for the church, that his words, echoing the Lord’s own words, might become her words.
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Colossians 3:16
Adam and Eve in Paradise were wed;
Two people, yet one body and one head.
It was not good that man should be alone;
God joined them flesh to flesh and bone to bone.
Eve was the body, Adam was the head;
United, they shared food and drink and bed.
To Eve, his body, Adam gave his life;
Eve, to her head, was a submissive wife.
In Mary’s womb, Christ and His Church were wed;
United as one Body and one Head.
It was not good that Christ should be alone,
God joined them flesh to flesh and bone to bone.
The Church, the Body, Jesus is the Head;
His life to her flows in the blood He shed.
In nuptial joy, the holy two embrace,
In chalice, font, and absolution’s grace.
On this glad day when man and wife are wed,
God joins the two, one body and one head.
As Eve and Adam, Jesus and His Bride,
May you in peace and joy and love abide.