Personal Remembrances

Novel Salvation: How God Used Fiction to Save My Life

Novel Salvation: How God Used Fiction to Save My Life

Ten years ago I plunged myself into books of fiction as a form of escapism. My life was in shambles. I had destroyed a marriage, lost my job, ruined my career. To avoid thinking about the sad reality my life had become, I slipped into the lives of fictional characters.

Dumpster Diving for Good Deeds

She’s standing in front of the dumpster. The grayish brown of life on the road staining her face and clothing. Her eyes scanning the parking lot like a sentry. I roll up behind the convenience store; she hears the swoosh of the air brakes and pivots in my direction. In her sunken eyes that forlorn stare. I knew she would come to me. And she did. I step down from the truck as she walks up, wringing dirty hands. “Sir,” she says, “could you help me?” Now I’m not there to help. I’m there for a cup of coffee. I’m there because it’s one of the few stores in the area with a parking lot spacious enough for my semi. I’m there to put my feet up on the dash for thirty minutes and just breathe.

“My husband and me, we just got to San Antonio last night. We slept under the bridge. Ain’t had nothin’ to eat.” Then pointing, she says, “He’s in the dumpster, digging around, looking for us something.”

Strange how my mind can become almost schizophrenic at times like this. Instantly, I hear this jumble of competing voices in my head, “She’s scamming you…You should help her….God, she stinks…What are they running from?...You’re a Christian…Make an excuse…She’s probably on drugs…Jesus is watching you….Why should I give a damn?…You just ate two slices of pizza...Buy her something…Maybe God will pay you back…“For I was hungry and you fed me not”…Thanksgiving is coming…All I wanted was coffee…”

I walk on as the voices continue their cacophonous debate. I mutter a cowardly noncommittal, “I’ll see what I can do," and disappear around the corner, into the store.

One of the sad truths I realized about myself long ago is that I do nothing from completely spic-and-span motives. I mean nothing. When I hear someone say that they’re “utterly sincere” or they’re doing something “from pure motives,” I smell a lie. In this world, where we still lug around a nature that's selfish to the core, a nature that has its finger in everything we do, there is no 100% purity. Even if I decided to help this hungry, homeless couple, I wouldn’t be doing it only for the right reasons. Yes, I'd be doing it because I wanted to help them, but also because the wife had guilted me into it; because I’d feel better about myself afterward; because maybe God would then be good to me; because I could write a blog and tell all of you about it; because of a million self-serving reasons. It wasn’t really the woman’s husband who was digging through the trash; it was me, dumpster diving for good deeds.

About five minutes later, I walk out of the store. They’re slouched around a rusting table, their backpacks and plastic bags heaped about them. At the man’s feet is an old Dr. Pepper box crammed with sausages and corn dogs he’s scrounged from the trash. They look up. I hand them a bag with a couple of submarine sandwiches inside. “I hope this helps,” I say. They thank me profusely. He shakes my hand; I can feel the grease and the grime. He tells me, “God bless you.'' I say the same and walk away.

Good deeds, they’re a messy thing, aren't they? Put the best of them under a microscope and you’ll still find traces of hypocritical dirt, bits of selfish trash stuck to them. Put them to your nose and take a deep whiff; there's the faint hint of a dumpster about them. Even when we try to do something for godly, loving reasons, the hands that do it are still the unwashed hands of a sinner. As Isaiah says, ''All our righteousness is as menstrual rags,'' (64:6). And if such be our righteousness, how bad must be our unrighteousness.

But here’s the good news: in the end, it doesn’t really matter. You see, our failed attempts at good deeds are fixed, cleansed, made truly good because of someone else's good deeds.

Jesus died not only for our sins; He died for our good works as well. His perfect sacrifice perfects those imperfect strivings of ours to do what is right. He’s the only one who’s ever done anything from completely unselfish, loving, others-oriented motives. So even as I pray that He will forgive my sins, I pray that He will forgive the pollutants in my good deeds. I need His blood to wash away the traces of hypocritical dirt, the bits of selfish trash stuck to my acts of charity. And He does. God does indeed love a cheerful giver, but He also loves the forgiven giver, all for the sake of Jesus.

So, yes, I'll pray for a cleaner heart. I'll work on my less-than-chivalrous motives. I'll try to be a better person. But I know that, no matter how good or bad I wind up being, every time I hand a sandwich to the hungry, it'll actually be the hand of Jesus that is stretched out to give. He's got me covered. And He does all things well, even for the likes of me.

The Radical Path to Self-Discovery: Finding Your True Self in Death

selfdiscoveryWe may not actually say we want to “find ourselves” or “discover who we are” or that “we’re on a journey of self-discovery,” but the fact is that most everyone is. Part of our mind is constantly engaged in the quest to answer questions such as these: Who am I? Where do I belong in the world? Do I even belong in this world, or am I a mistake, a freak, an accident? What sets me apart from others? How do I make my life what it needs to be to achieve happiness? The list goes on, for the mind never stop asking. We need to know, we must know, for our life demands purpose. No one wants merely to exist; we all yearn to live life to the fullest. For many years that quest to find myself, and to find happiness with myself and my place in this world, set my feet on a path that appeared right. I decided that a certain career would make me happy, so I pursued that career with gusto, with planning, and with eventual success. It was a career within the church, but a career nonetheless. And it defined me, all of me. What I did was who I was. I found my life in being called and ordained; a pastor and professor; a writer and speaker. If someone were to have asked me who I was, I would have described myself in vocational terms. And even though I would have employed language that avoided outright bragging, I would have been proud to tell them about myself. I found myself, my place in this world, my purpose, my happiness, in what I did.

And then one day, the earth opened up beneath my feet, swallowed everything by which I had defined myself, and I was left without a career, without a job, without a calling, without accolades or happiness or purpose. But man cannot live life that way. He must have something, anything, by which to understand who he is. So I tried other methods. I turned to a woman, then another woman, then a string of women, and pieced together a motley self-image that found faux happiness in the sexual chase and catch. I turned to running, first 5ks, then 10ks, then half-marathons, then full marathons, and found purpose in training, in pushing myself to painful physical limits, in crossing the finish line. I even turned to anger and hatred, and defined myself as one in opposition to hope, a despiser of the divinity who had abandoned me. As I told my ex-wife one time, God had become for me the Great Deceiver. Throughout all this, in these various ways, I still found myself, my place in this world, my purpose, my (short-lived) happiness, in what I did.

I didn’t know it, in fact I consciously rejected it, but the truth is that throughout those years, both in times of success and failure, God was up to something. He was guiding me down a very long serpentine road, full of switchbacks, dead-ends, and long waterless treks, to the ultimate discovery of who I am. And although I’m still slow and stubborn, I’m closer now than I was before to finding myself, my place in this world, my purpose, my happiness. And one thing I can tell you for certain is that it doesn’t consist in anything I do. In fact, I have found myself in loss, discovered my life in my death, define who I am by placing someone’s else definition after my name.

Who am I? I’ll let Jesus Christ tell you that.

He says, “Chad, you have died and your life is hidden with me in God the Father. I took your life away on the day I held you under the water of the font until the only breath you could breathe was the Spirit. While you were under the water, I closed the chasm between the present and the past, in order to take you all the way to my cross, where I joined you to me—thorn to thorn, nail to nail, wood to wood, flesh to flesh, blood to blood, and finally death to death. You went to Jerusalem with me, suffered many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and were killed, and were raised up on the third day. The life that you now live, you live by faith in me. Indeed, I am your life. I am in your body, and you in mine. In me you live and move and have your salvation. Who are you, Chad? You are the one who lost his life in me, and so found my life in you. Who are you? You are with me, of me, in me, beside me, inextricably united to my identity as God’s Son. That’s who you are.”

So, there you have it. My journey of self-discovery ended not at the foot of the cross but on the cross itself. I found myself by losing myself in that crucified man. And in Him I found that happiness does not consist in what I do but in what Jesus did for me. My identity doesn’t consist in trophies and diplomas on the wall but a font full of water, a chalice full of blood, a plate full of body, a book full of divine speech. A life lived to the fullest is one in which all of who we are is emptied into Jesus, so that all of who Jesus is might be emptied into us.

“For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it.” Jesus, Matthew 16:25

ChristAloneCoverIf 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!

 

A Tattooed Angel

When he opened the driver’s side door and slid behind the wheel, the first thing I looked for was the knife. He had short-cropped hair, gray street clothes, a long scar on his right cheek bone. And tattoos. His body was awash in ink. The hands that toyed with the knobs on the dash had skulls on every finger. Russian script meandered around his neck. And in that language I did not know, he began questioning me. My three-week teaching stint in Novosibirsk, Siberia, was about halfway over. A group of young men studying for the ministry met with me for a few hours every day to learn the little I knew of biblical interpretation. God help them. I was barely older than they were, younger than a couple of them. A wife, a three-year-old daughter, and a soon-to-be-born son awaited me back in Oklahoma. If I made it back.

I had seen the oncoming van. The tires, screaming their black and burning song, foretold the crash. The van, and the half a dozen men in it, hammered my side of the car. By the time we pulled off the side of the road, they had spilled out and surrounded our vehicle. To a man, they looked like they’d just returned from job interviews with the mafia. And been hired. Taking a deep breath, the driver told me, “Stay in the car,” and the lamb stepped out into the pack of wolves. No need to consult my handy-dandy Russian-to-English dictionary to translate the cursing, anger, and threats that erupted as the group ringed round my friend.

Then the driver’s side door opened. And the tattooed stranger sat down. He looked at me, and smiled a crooked smile. And I looked for the knife that never appeared. I figured he was one of the guys from the van; he looked cut from the same cloth. But if there was a storm around us, he was the eye of it. There was no anger or accusation in his tone as he chatted on with me about God knows what. I knew how to say, “I don’t speak Russian,” in Russian, which he must have taken as a cue to speak even more. And so began one of the most memorable conversations I've ever had. He asked me countless questions in Russian, I told him all about myself and my family in English, neither of us having the foggiest idea what the other was saying. And all the while his skulled fingers twisted and turned the car’s controls.

I’m not sure how much time elapsed—five, ten, fifteen minutes. And then he was gone. The door opened, he got out, and my driver got back in. He’d had enough cash on him to pacify the men. “Who was that in the car?” he asked. “I don’t know. I assumed he’d been from the van.” “No, he wasn’t one of them.” “Then I don’t know where he came from.” And we drove on, safe and alive.

To this dImageay, when I read in Hebrews about entertaining angels unaware, my mind goes back to a car wreck in Siberia, in which no one was hurt, to the furious young men, who laid no hand on my friend, and to a stranger who showed such concern and curiosity about me. And I wonder if angels, sometimes, have tattoos.

 

 

 

 

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!

Songs are Musical Time Machines

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.

When Angels Gathered Above a Kitchen Sink

He had suffered through both world wars and the Great Depression; been amazed by everything from the first cars chugging down the road to a man stepping onto the moon; witnessed the rise and fall of world leaders, the terms of seventeen U.S. presidents; and several generations of his own family create families of their own. Ingram Robinson was 91 years old and had seen it all—well, almost seen it all. For what his eyes were about to behold, as the sun rose on his ninth decade in this world, was something entirely, and radically, new. Days you will never forget usually begin as days you will never remember. You roll out of bed, pour a cup of coffee, get yourself to work, and assume all along that the day will be a humdrum repeat of the days before. So it was for me on the first of December, 1998. Oklahomans were enjoying an unseasonably warm beginning to winter, with temperatures in the low 70’s. I spent the morning working on my upcoming Sunday sermon. Then it was off to Oklahoma City to make a hospital visit or two. One of my parishioners, Dennis, had invited me to visit his father, Ingram, who had been ill with heart problems. So I drove to his home, where Dennis met me and introduced me to his dad.

Conversations, as is their wont, drift from topic to topic, as ours did that day. We meandered from the getting-to-know-you phase, to a discussion of his medical problems, and finally to concerns which transcend this life. We spoke of Jesus. We talked of who he is, his active and ongoing love for us, our life unending in him. And Ingram believed; indeed, he had believed for years. But to my surprise, and contrary to what even his own son assumed, Ingram had never been baptized.

ImageI suppose there are times when delaying baptism is acceptable, to provide an opportunity for fully instructing the believer in the Faith into which he is about to be baptized. But when a man is advanced in age, suffers heart problems, and confesses faith in the Messiah, you scout out the nearest water source and let the Spirit do what the Spirit does best. In our case, the kitchen sink was transformed into a font of new creation. Where two or three were gathered, there Jesus was in the midst of them. He co-opted my lips to speak his vivifying words. A prayer, a creed, a confession, and the words, “I baptize you, Ingram, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Above this holy sink a whole host of the celestial angels flocked to witness a sight rare even to them: a ninety-one year old newborn. New birth through water and the Spirit was his. Heaven and earth broke out in grand applause.

Within two or three months, Ingram said Goodbye to this world and an everlasting Hello to the Promised Land above. The angels who so soon before had rejoiced at his new birth, now rejoiced even more at a life in which 91 years is but a blink in eternal felicity. Some receive baptism’s saving gifts when life on earth has barely begun, and some receive them when that same life draws to a close. But young or old, or anywhere in between, baptism is never a work achieved, but always a gift received. Naked we come into this world, and naked we shall depart it. And anytime in between, the Father of all stands ready to clothe us all in the righteousness of his Son. One day, I was privileged to be the hands that wrapped those sacred garments around Ingram. And that’s a day I’ll never forget.

A Life Worth Living: A Tribute to My Father

A man becomes a man by imitation of his father. There are other influences in a boy’s life, but none greater, or of more lasting consequence, than his dad. A father makes many choices in his life—the woman he marries, the career he pursues, the skills he fosters.  But I remain convinced no decision matters more than what kind of man he will be to his children.  They are his legacy.  And if in the twilight years of a man’s life, he can look back and say, not that he has been a perfect father, but that he has been all the father he can be, then he will have lived a life worth living. Dad, for over four decades of your seventy-two years, you have been a father to me.  I have no other, nor have I ever desired another.  Like any man, I am full of weakness and strength, good and bad, but the strength residing in me, and the good I possess, I attribute to you.  You shared stories from your own life, and the lives of others, from which I learned what to avoid, and what to embrace.  The silent witness of your deeds has spoken volumes, and taught me more, than any university degree.  Though I could never detail all the gifts of character I have learned from you, these three stand out, above all others, as the legacy you have bestowed.

From you, Dad, I learned that a man is truly a man when, as Ecclesiastes says, whatever his hand finds to do, he does it with all his might (9:10).  At every job I’ve had, from a roofer to a pastor to a driver, people have remarked on how hard I work.  No one has ever called me lazy, nor will they, for I am your son.  I am not a workaholic, but when I labor, I labor from the heart—with diligence, energy, commitment to the best job I can do.  Work is, in a sense, a sacred task, given by God.  And in working hard we give glory to the One who, even before sin entered the world, gave Adam work to do in Eden.

From you, Dad, I learned that a man keeps going forward, even when he may want to give up.  I have gone through some painfully dark times in my life—and life being what it is, will probably go through more—but I have never stopped pressing forward to what lies ahead.  Perhaps we are both simply stubborn, and refuse to quit for that reason, but I believe it is something more, something deeper, and better.  It is hope.  You have never given up on me, never gave me a reason to doubt that I would make it through my darkness, no matter what.  And that hope has kindled more hope, and lasting hope, within me.

From you, Dad, I learned that our God is a good, loving Father.  From childhood I have known the Holy Scriptures, as Paul did (2 Timothy 3:15), for you took me to Sunday School, sat beside me in church, prayed at every meal, and witnessed in countless ways that God is good.  My faith may not be able to move mountains, but it moves me forward through valleys of the shadow of death, moves me to love others, and moves me again and again into the arms of the Savior whose love, and sacrifice, I first learned from you.

A true, loving father is a gift every child desperately needs.  I have had, and still have that, in you.  And I pray that I may be the same for Luke and Auriana.  That, like you, I too may live a life truly worth living.

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My father, Carson Bird, and yours truly, 1970, in Jal, NM.

 

Joy Knows No Expiration Date: A Nursing Home Wedding

A man and woman meet. She likes him, and he likes her. Their fingers intertwine. His lips meet hers. In time, he pops the question. She says "Yes," and before you know it, wedding bells are ringing. It happens every day. It happened to Ed and Mary.

But there was one thing rather unusual about their courtship: he was 82 and she 74, and this was the first, and the last, marriage for both.

Ed Bird, my great-great uncle, had been looking for the right woman his whole life. And what a life it had been. An experienced hobo, with wanderlust coursing through his veins, he'd hop a train and vanish for months at a time. God knows where he went.

Though he always had a few dollars in his pocket, he'd knock on the back door of restaurants at sunrise to beg a meal from the cook. A farming accident had crippled his right hand when he was a young man, but that was no deterrent to him finding odd jobs, roughnecking or whatnot, all over the state of Texas. He knew where the finest fishing holes were (especially those behind "No Trespassing" signs); knew where to lead his dogs for the best coon hunting; knew how to lead a foot-loose, fancy-free life.

What he didn't know was where "she" was.
This Adam's missing Eve.
Until one day.

Ed and Mary were residents of Woodland Springs Nursing Home, in Waco, Texas. A retirement home may not be the typical place where Cupid's arrow flies, but love acknowledges no boundaries of place or age.

The front lobby of the nursing home was the garden of their courtship. Bird poured on the charm. His and Mary's every waking hour was spent side-by-side, talking about the separate lives they’d led. Every conversation drew those separate lives closer together.

Mary said that she’d never found someone who suited her like he did. The first time she saw Ed, if he’d have asked to kiss her, she would have thrown caution to the wind and let him. And soon enough the aged Romeo was stealing kisses every time they were alone in the lobby.

Before long, the two grew inseparable. Once, when Mary’s blood pressure skyrocketed, requiring a brief hospital stay, Ed was determined not to leave her by herself. He took a cab to the hospital every morning so he could be by her side.

In fact, the only time he left her alone was after she happily said, “Yes!” to his proposal of marriage. Ed exited the nursing home, walk two miles to downtown Waco, and he purchased a wedding ring for his beloved Mary.

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When the big day came, on November 3, 1979, five months after the couple had met, residents and guests crowded in for the ceremony. Mary Alff became Mary Bird. He had her, the woman of his dreams, finally as his own dear, loving wife, bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh.

Ed told a reporter, “There will be no separations and no divorces. I’m going to love her as long as I live, as long as the good Lord lets me live.” And the good Lord indeed gave this happy groom a few more years of life to enjoy with the woman for whom he had been looking his whole life.

When I was nine years old, Ed and Mary wed. I have always loved their story, even more so now, 38 years later.

I admit there have been times in my life when, surrendering to the darkness, I suspected that the best days of my life were behind me. That God had no plans of joy and challenge and contentment for me anymore. But the Lord of hope says otherwise.

The sweet and simple story of Ed and Mary says otherwise, too. God is well-known for delaying his children’s happiness, so that, once it comes, we might enjoy and appreciate it all the more.

Looking at the faded black-and-white picture of Ed and Mary, smiling at one another on their wedding day, reminds me that joy has no expiration date.

(Some details taken from Waco Tribune-Herald, in an article written by David Barron, date unknown)

Call Me Lazarus...One Year Later

I was sixteen years old when I met the rest of my life. Of course, I didn't know it when it happened. We never do. All I knew, on that February evening in 1987, was that a local girl had asked me if I wanted to go with her to the FHA Sweetheart Banquet. Her name was Stacy. I said yes, we stood at least six inches apart for the official picture that evening, and I took her home afterward. That was our evening. That was our first date. And that would be our only date until over a quarter of a century had passed. We went on about our lives. She eventually married and became the mother of a daughter and son. I eventually married and became the father of a daughter and son. We carved out our place in the world. And both of us, in our own ways, saw those worlds collapse. We both found out what it's like to fall into darkness and wonder if you'll ever see the light again. We both became profoundly different people over the course of that quarter of a century.

Twenty six years later, we went on our second date. We were no longer naive teenagers. We were no longer innocent. But we were both ready to begin life anew, to find love and acceptance and forgiveness in someone who would be flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone.

Our Wedding Day

One year ago today, God joined us as husband and wife. These past twelve months have been the best year of my life. I do not exaggerate. I could never have anticipated how much one person would mean to me, how God would use her to bring such profound healing and hope to my life.

Last year, at this time, right before our wedding, I published a short piece entitled, "Call Me Lazarus." Here it is again. It is even truer today.

 

Call Me Lazarus

I’ve hunkered down in a dark place, where light is not only absent, but banned. The darkness is loved, almost worshiped, for it is a sanctuary in which to hole up and lick one’s wounds without fear of having even more inflicted upon you. God is unwelcome there, as are his phantasms of hope and love and tenderness and fidelity and all other mirages that slake one’s thirst with a mouthful of sand. Going there are those who flirt with a pistol to the head, whose veins flow with whiskey, whose child lies under six feet of soil, who curse the day of their birth, who spend every waking and sleeping hour playing and replaying the nightmares of their past. I’ve been to that dark place, and some of you reading this have, too. Maybe, in fact, you’re there now.

Today I stand in the light. There is one reason, and one reason only: because the God I once hated, never stopped loving me; the God I screamed at until my voice collapsed in on itself, never interrupted me; the God I damn well knew had become my worst enemy, never stopped being my compassionate Father. I blamed him for my sins, the sins of others, for just about everything wrong in my life. I did trust God, but I trusted that if I asked for a fish, he’d give me a snake; or if I asked for medicine, he’d give me poison. I was angry at heaven, at earth, and everything in between, for my life and my love and my hopes had all gone wrong, terribly, irreversibly, wrong.

But it was I who was wrong, terribly, but not irreversibly, wrong. I’m not here to tell you that God had some grand plan for my life, and I finally discovered it, and now everything is sweetness and light. I do still struggle with my past, and I probably always will, to an extent. The present is almost always charged a certain tax by the past.

What I will tell you is that, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite what you think and feel and imagine, God is indeed in that dark place. You don’t know it, but he’s licking your wounds, too. And he’s keeping the deeper, blacker darkness at bay. And he hears, on the other side of your angry screams, the cries of a hurting child begging for help, but not knowing how to ask for it.

Today I stand in the light, and—miracles of miracles!—this week a woman will stand beside me in that same light, to take my hand in her own, look into my eyes that once beheld only darkness, and tell me, before the witness of heaven and earth, that she will be my wife. I would have believed the blind would receive sight, the lame walk, and the deaf hear, before I would have believed that I should be so blessed as to be as happy as I now am.

But therein is the love of God revealed, a love that gives us gifts beyond anything we could imagine or comprehend. Why, O why, am I surprised, for if God did not spare his own Son, but lovingly gave him up for us all, how will he not, along with him, graciously give us all things?

 

The Backstory of “The Infant Priest”: From a Student’s Meditation, to a Scrap of Paper, to a Communion Hymn

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.

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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

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No One Has Ever Fallen in Love

I was sixteen years old, standing on a porch bathed in moonlight, the taste of her lip gloss fresh on my own, when I told the girl. My first time to voice the words. I was spinning in that tornadic swirl of physical and emotional changes we have so clinically dubbed puberty. I felt some “thing” for her, a thing that was tingly and distracting and deliciously intoxicating. Like Adam, I had to name this animal roaming and roaring within my chest. So I rifled through my vocabulary for a label to pin on the feeling. And I chose the only one that seemed to fit, the sole word that kept bubbling to the surface of my lips. For I just knew that, for the first time in my life, I had fallen in love.

I was sixteen years old, I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. When I became a man, I put away such childish things.

Okay, not really. It turned out falling in love was something I had a knack for doing, so I did a lot of it, for a long time, with far too many women. She would enter my life like a cool breeze on a July day, or wrap herself around me like a warm blanket on a January night, and the next thing I knew I had lost my footing, was stumbling, and then falling, falling, falling into that thing called love.

I was no longer sixteen years old, but I was still a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. I was a long time in becoming a man, far too long in putting away such childish things.

What we call falling in love has nothing to do with love. It is not even love’s opening act, the red carpet on which love walks into our lives. Perhaps you can help me rename it? I daresay you have experienced it yourself. It is an emotional high, a fire of passion, the drug of desire, a fearfully delightful plummet into the warm abyss of possibility. It goes by many names, this falling, but it is not love. For love is not a thing into which one falls; it is an action to which one arises.

Love is patient, long-tempered when your spouse pushes your buttons, your children get on your nerves. Love is kindness toward the unkind coworker who doesn’t seem to give a damn about you. Love knows when to shut up about your pay raise or your publications or your promotion, lest pride begins blabbering. Love keeps no running tally of how many times your husband has failed you, how many times your wife has angered you. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love always asks not what others can do for me, but what I can do for someone else.

Love is not some emotional pit into which one falls; it is a sacrificial mountain which one climbs. As you climb, yes, you’ll enjoy the breathtaking beauty, but that’ll be balanced by bleeding fingers, scraped knees, aching muscles, and the inescapable knowledge that the summit will never be reached in this life. For love is a steady, lifelong climb upward.

I am almost forty-four years old. I am a man, I speak as a man, I understand as a man, I think as a man. But it took me a long time to get here. It took me half a lifetime to realize that true love is always of God, whose truest act of love was his self-sacrifice for those who loved him not. You will find no Hallmark cards with a picture of a dead Jesus on the cover, besmeared with blood, soaked in spit, with a halo of thorns. But that is love. It is the action to which God arose to save us, the cruciform mountain He was willing to climb to make us His own.

I will never have a love so pure, so all-giving as that of God. But I do have God, who works in me His own love, that I might imperfectly love others, even as He has perfectly loved me in Jesus Christ.

The Phone Number that Could Tell My Life's Story: A Mother's Day Reflection

old-telephoneFor the last three decades, my parents have had the same phone number. I was eleven years old when we moved into our country home, a few miles outside Shamrock, TX, and were given that number. This month there’ll be forty-four candles on my birthday cake. For thirty-three years, anytime I needed to call home, I knew what ten digits to dial. A few days ago my dad informed me that they were disconnecting their land line. Everyone has cell phones, now, right, so who needs it? Perhaps a phone number seems an odd thing to get sentimental about, but I can’t help myself. You see, if that number, and the phone connected to it, could speak, they would tell my life’s story.

That was the number I called to tell my mom that, while driving to school, I hit a patch of ice in my Ford Ranger. I lost control when it started spinning downhill. The next thing I remember was crawling out of the passenger side window, as the pickup lay on its side in the snow-covered bar ditch. I ran to our neighbor’s home and dialed those ten digits. And, of course, I spent the first five minutes of the conversation assuring mom that I was all in one piece.

That was the number I called, many years later, through tears of joy, to congratulate my mom and dad on being grandparents to a healthy baby girl, and two years later, to a strong baby boy. And on two other occasions, I dialed those ten digits, through a different rain of tears, to tell them that something had gone terribly wrong, that my wife had started bleeding, that our babies’ lives had ended almost as soon as they began.

That was the number I called, after yet more years had passed, to let my parents know that my marriage of sixteen years was dying, that I had delivered the death blow, and that I was dying, if not already dead, on the inside. And those were the ten digits I dialed countless time in the years following, to hear my mom say that she and dad never ceased praying for me, that they loved me, that Jesus would get me through these dark times.

That was the number I called, after still more years, to tell them that Christ had brought Stacy into my life. She had called that number, too, when we both were teenagers, to ask me if I’d go with her to the Sweetheart Banquet that year. I said yes, and two shy young people went on a date in February of 1987, little knowing that it would be twenty-nine years until our second date—a date that would set in motion a love that is now shared as husband and wife.

That was the number I called to check in, to cry, to laugh, to ask for advice, to listen, to pray. It was that number that connected me, anytime and in any place, to two people who have always been there for me, whom I love, honor, and strive (and miserably fail) to emulate. My mom and dad are truly gifts from God to me. Without them, without their unconditional love and support, I would have been an orphan to hope in this world, a child without light, wandering lost in the blackness of grief. They have protected me, taught me, journeyed through life with me, as only parents can.

It will be Mother’s Day this weekend. I will call home. And, yes, it will be different not dialing those same ten numbers I’ve dialed the last thirty-three years. But the voice on the other end of the line will be the same. It will be voice of the one who has embodied for me, in this life, what love is, and what love does.

The Blind, Demented Woman Who Introduced Me to Myself

I had to introduce myself to her every time I visited. A thin curtain, strung from wall to wall, halved her already tiny room. The air was thick with that unmistakable nursing home odor. She’d point her two sightless eyes in my direction and ask, “Who?” I’d tell her again. Then as she sat on the edge of her tiny bed, and I on a nearby fold-up chair, we would visit as if for the first time. And as we talked, this blind, mere wisp of a woman would unwittingly remind me of who I was. Who was I? A very different man from who I am now. I was a naïve, inexperienced pastor in his mid-twenties; now, a couple of decades and a lot of scars later, I am no longer a pastor, no longer naïve, and certainly experienced in a few things of which I wish I’d remained ignorant. Time and life and sin—yes, let us not forget that dirty word—they have their way with a man. Nevertheless, as I peer back over the years between the me-then and the me-now, I see one striking similarity. I am always a man who forgets who he really is, because I’m always focused on becoming the man I want others to think I am.

When I sat in that nursing home, with this sweet elderly woman, I was her pastor, there to give Jesus to her in word and meal. Yet what I really wanted people to think of me was that I was a professor-in-training, a man of deep learning, who knew the Old Testament like the back of his hand. I was a man who wrestled with doubt and unbelief, but I wanted everyone to think I was a man of unwavering faith. I was a mere servant, and not a good one at that, but I wanted everyone to think of me as that guy with those three Master’s degrees, who has mastered this, and mastered that, and deserved to go far and do well.

Today, older yet evidently still as foolish, I fight the same battles. I drive a truck for a living, delivering and picking up freight, but I want others to think of me as a former professor who’s published a couple of books. I am now very happily married, but also twice-divorced, but I want others to think that I’ve never screwed up, that I’ve always been the ideal husband. Some days I wonder if there even is a God, much less one who loves me, yet I want other to think I’m a Christian who’s got it all together. Yes, I am always a man who forgets who he really is, because I’m always focused on becoming the man I want others to think I am.

A woman who suffered from dementia, who saw nothing through her eyes but blackness, she would remind me of who I am. An amazing thing would happen as we talked. When we got past the superficial introductions—since she always forgot who I was—I would speak to her of our lost condition, of our sin, of the dreadful place we find ourselves in apart from God, condemned by His law because of our transgressions. Then I would tell her of Jesus, who sought us in love, who bled out His life’s blood to wash away our transgressions, who exited the tomb alive and well that we might follow Him in our resurrection.

Every single time, after she had listened, speechless, to all I said, she would respond with shock and surprise, as if this were the first time in her life that she had heard the Gospel. She would literally rejoice, almost laugh with glee, that God loved her so much that He would do all things for her. If blind eyes could light up, hers would illumine the room. Then I would open my little Communion case, pour a little wine, select a couple of wafers, say the words of Jesus, and feed her the body crucified, the blood poured out, the gift given in God’s own Son.

Every time I visited this precious child of God, I remembered who I was really was. And thinking back on now, I remember the same. She would introduce me to myself. I am a man with a life full of regret, full of failure, whom Jesus loves without regret, without fail. No matter what job I have, I am defined not by what I do but by what God has done for me in His Son. No matter how stupid or how smart I am, no matter who much I know or how little, the only knowledge that really matters is that Jesus was ready and willing to die for me. That is my identity: I am Jesus’ friend, for He is the friend of sinners.

A woman who could barely remember who she was, much less who I am; a woman who couldn’t see a thing, much less read my soul through my eyes; this woman would teach me who I was. She would see the real me, and introduce me to myself.

+++If you enjoy my writings, please take a moment to check out the book I just published: Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. Here you will find page after page of reflections upon the Christian life, its struggles and pains, its joys and hopes. Most importantly, you will find Jesus at the center of this book, even as He is at the center of the Christian’s life. Click on this link to view the book. Thank you for your interest!

Living the Victorious Christian Life at McDonald’s

ImageYesterday I stopped at McDonald’s on my lunch break to grab a cup of coffee and write about the victorious Christian life. I had just cashed several checks from folks who’d ordered my book of sermons and meditations. As if divining that my wallet was full of cash, twice the number of local homeless people stuck out their filthy hands to me as I walked from my truck to the McDonald’s. But, by God, I was eager to write, so I just quickened my step and played deaf.

No sooner did I get my cup of coffee, find a table, and begin to type my ideas into my iPhone than out of the corner of my eye I spotted a pair of long tan legs, crowned with hot pink shorts, saunter into the establishment. I was three sentences into my article when my train of thought totally derailed in a crash of testosteronic proportions.

While my eyeballs were still locked on the legs, I reached for my cup of coffee but, not looking where my hand was going, I hit the side of the cup, tipped it over, and spilled half the hot java all over the table, and even on my lap. Now this was a public place, of course, so I was forced to settle for an under-my-breath, profanity-riddled implosion of anger at my lack of grace.

I grabbed some napkins and began sopping up the mess. Some of the coffee had splashed on my iPhone, so I worked on it first. As I dried it, I pushed the button to open the lock screen and saw there the date, April 25. I didn’t need to see that, not at this moment. I don’t care for this month. You see, every time the fourth month rolls around, I get to hear, for thirty days, all day long, in various contexts, the name of my ex-wife, April. Already frustrated from the coffee mishap, seeing her name did nothing to improve my mood. Indeed, I found my mind retreating to another, much bigger mess, marked by black days of heartache and fury.

With only a few minutes left in my half-hour lunch break, I strong-armed myself back into the article on the victorious Christian life. Then, wouldn’t you know it, my phone rang. I saw the number. “Dear God, not him,” I mumbled. It was my least favorite customer, the type who always finds a dark lining in silver cloud. He alone has the knack of making me wish I had a different job, a better job, one in which I could be bossing people around instead pretending to be patient with the likes of this scrooge. So I ignored the call. I had work to do.

Then I saw that I had three minutes left on my lunch break. Three whopping minutes. So I threw my coffee-soaked wad of napkins into the trash, shoved my caffeinated phone back into my pocket, and marched past she-of-the-tan-legs into the hot San Antonio sunshine. I walked over the asphalt, climbed into my Freightliner, and sat there ruminating.

I’d meant to use my lunch break to write a critique of the so-called “victorious Christian life,” the warped view of dynamic Christian living in which the believer daily overcomes one sin after the other, until his bio consists of one long string of spiritual conquests.

As I sat in my truck, I realized, for the millionth time, that my own bio consists of one long, string of spiritual defeats. The hungry I ignore. The women after whom I lust. The anger I indulge. The past I cannot seem to get past. The people I despise. I sin more in thirty minutes than those of the “victorious Christian life” supposedly sin in thirty years.

But I also realized, for the millionth time, that that’s okay. They can have their life of faux spiritual victories. For as much as I sometimes hate myself for the stupid things I do, the destructive words I speak, the immoral thoughts I entertain, there is one who does not hate me. In fact, he loves me through it all. He has already conquered the sins against which I daily struggle. He has already washed away the filth of anger and lust and ingratitude in which I find myself wallowing. Jesus—he is my victor, no matter how many defeats I suffer. On that bloody cross, in his own seeming defeat, he made me a victor by welcoming me into his kingdom of grace and mercy.

And that, dear reader, is the only victorious Christian life I will ever live.

+++If you enjoy my writings, please take a moment to check out the book I just published: Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. Here you will find page after page of reflections upon the Christian life, its struggles and pains, its joys and hopes. Most importantly, you will find Jesus at the center of this book, even as He is at the center of the Christian’s life. Click on this link to view the book. Thank you for your interest!

The Small Huge Gift: A Remembrance of Ken Korby

ImageIf they’d made a movie about this pastor, only John Wayne would have sufficed to fill his shoes. He was a cigarette-smoking, authoritative-preaching, no BSing shepherd of souls. I could easily imagine him walking boldly into the mission field with a Bible in one hand and an ax in the other—the former to preach with, the latter to chop down any trees that the local pagans had divinized. I had a single, two-week class with him in the spring of 1997, when he was a guest lecturer at Concordia Theological Seminary. And though I had studied four prior years at that institution, the one course I had with him shaped my pastoral care more than any other. Ken Korby was this pastor’s name, and when I grew up, I wanted to be just like him. Of all the monumental things I could tell you about Korby, the one I’m about to recollect might seem rather inconsequential. Were you to ask him, he’d never remember it. But me, I’ll never forget his small act of generosity.

Like all students, I was strapped for cash. But sitting on the shelves of the seminary bookstore was a volume that made my mouth water. My heart was set on it. It was a Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament bound together in one thick volume—the entire Holy Scriptures in their original languages. Korby had overheard me lamenting to my classmate how desperately I wanted a copy, but the price, being prohibitive, put it beyond my reach.

Later that day, outside Kramer Chapel, I was walking along the brick sidewalk when I saw Korby walking toward me. As always, he was dressed in his black suit and clerical, a crucifix hanging from his neck. And, of course, he was puffing on his trademark Marlboro. Korby stopped in front of me. Pulling out his wallet, he opened it. There was nothing but a ten dollar bill inside. He said, “I heard you wanted a book, but you can’t afford it. Here,” he said, pulling out the bill and putting it in my hand, “maybe that’ll help you a little.” And then he walked on, leaving me there in silent gratitude.

It did help. I scraped together the rest of the money and soon the Biblia Sacra was off the shelf and in my hand. And I treasured it. Every time I labored over a text that I would be preaching on when I served St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wellston, Oklahoma, I used that Bible. A few years later, it was with me every time I taught Genesis or Isaiah or Hebrew at Concordia Theological Seminary, in the same classroom where I had sat at Korby’s feet. And still today, it is within arm’s reach, on my desk, as I get ready to teach Bible classes at Crown of Life in San Antonio. From student to pastor to professor to teacher, that book has served me well. And every time I open it, I see Pastor Korby’s face.

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I remember all he taught me. I remember him encouraging us to sing Luther’s hymn, “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” every day, as a prayer for the church. I recall him admonishing us that even though the church seems crazy, she is still our mother, and we are called to love and honor her as such. And I remember what he, no doubt, soon forgot: that he emptied his wallet to help a struggling student buy a book.

I’ve had people tell me, years after the fact, that they appreciate such-and-such that I did for them. Sometimes I recall the instance, but most of the time, I have no remembrance of doing for them what they said I did. But they do. They’ll never forget. It’s a simple reminder for me, that in our daily vocations, whatever those might be, we encounter opportunities to do something for people—seemingly little, inconsequential acts of love—that are anything but little to them.

That’s one more thing the sainted Ken Korby taught me. May he, who served our church well, and who served me in that small but huge gift, rest in peace round the throne of God and of the Lamb, whose kingdom has no end.

Waking up with Leah: Learning to Love a Disappointing Church

In the tiny Texas town where I grew up, sleeping in on Sunday morning was as inconceivable as rooting for someone besides the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday afternoon. Going to church made the list with apple pie and Chevrolet. My dad was a deacon; my mom a Sunday School teacher; and I was the typical daydreaming boy fidgeting in the pew.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I found myself in a job where sleeping in on Sunday was highly frowned upon since the pulpit would've been quite empty without me. There I was: seminary trained, armed to the teeth with confessions and creeds, zealous to convert a world—or, at least, our Oklahoma town—to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Looking back at myself as that twenty-something pastor, I have to admit that I was almost as steeped in naïveté then as I was as a twelve year old boy. Sure, I knew plenty about the church, but it was heavily freighted with the good stuff. The good stuff of the ladies’ guild cooking casseroles for grieving families, youth groups pounding hammers in Mexico to build homes for the poor, a rancher showing up on the pastor’s doorstep with half a beef from his own herd to stock the freezer.

But as good and giving and beautiful as the church can be, there’s a dark side, too, that at times can be dog ugly. The day I stumbled upon a secret meeting of the church leadership and one of the elders stood up and slammed the door in my face—that comes to mind. Over the years, there were the not-so-veiled threats of violence, pastors who broke the seal of confession, bishops issuing warnings about me, and occasional rumors about me so outrageous they could have been ripped from the cover of the National Enquirer. I learned plenty through those years, the most obvious lesson being that the church can be a place that’s just as mean and nasty and royally screwed up as the world.

Like the patriarch, Jacob, who after his wedding night, awoke to the wrong wife in his bed, I too one day opened my eyes to find that the Rachel with whom I had fallen in love, for whom I'd labored long years, was not the one beside me as the sun rose. I rolled over and came face-to-face with the uncomely, undesirable, older sister. And then I had a decision to make: leave the church, or learn to love Leah.

Have you been there? Maybe you too grew up with a congregation as your second home, perhaps even served in the ministry, but later encountered within its walls abuse or neglect or a whole host of other ills. While going through a divorce, or struggling with a sexually charged issue, you found not clasping hands of support but wagging fingers of accusation. As the shards of your broken life fell about you, when simply having a Christian show you they cared, when that alone would have meant the world to you, all you saw was the church's back, turned away, walking the other direction. Or maybe you just slowly slipped away, skipping a Sunday here, a whole month there, and eventually never darkened the doors again, but not a single believer took the time to call or visit to reveal they missed you. You have your story, and I have mine, but all such accounts shoulder a common burden: the fellowship that is supposed to be a hospital for sinners can seem more like a religious country club, a xenophobic clique, or a horde of hypocrites. Call it what you may, it’s not been a church to you and for you. So what do you do? Do you leave or learn to love Leah, walk away from the church or stay?

I could’ve washed my hands of the whole affair and walked away. In fact, I gave serious thought to just that, and for several years, rarely planted my butt in a pew for, when I did, I could taste the bile rising up my throat. But over time, and through a whole lot of healing, re-wounding, and re-healing, I finally came to the point where I see and love Leah for what she is: a beautifully ugly church in whose arms I encounter the God who loves beautifully ugly sinners like me.

A beautifully ugly sinner like me—that’s where healing has to start, with an honest acknowledgement that there may be a slew of unattractive things about the church, but I’m no supermodel of holiness myself. Part of the way we humans deal with our grief or anger or guilt is to deflect any culpability from ourselves by blaming others for almost everything that goes wrong. And though there are important exceptions—such as the victims of sexual predators—most of us who’ve had a rocky relationship with the church must fess up to our own failings. @@There’s a good chance Leah finds me just as ugly as I find her.@@ I see hypocrites in the church, but I see in my own soul times galore when I wore a mask of piety in public and a face of shame in private. I deplore how the church’s tongue can destroy a person’s reputation, but my own tongue loves the desserts of lies and rumors and gossip more than it loves the bread of honesty. In our society, where it seems everyone claims to be a victim, it needs to be said that we are all perpetrators ourselves. We struggle with the same faults with which we fault the church.

In addition to personal accountability, we’ve got to kill and bury any utopian daydreams we have about the church hitting the gym to tighten her glutes and getting a boob job so we have a hotter, sexier Leah. There has never been, nor will there ever be, a time when the church was flawless. Barely had Jesus ascended before the church descended into trouble. Squabbles arose, heresies spread, pastors played favorites, sexual immorality mushroomed, and hearts grew cold. In the last book of the Bible, there are letters from God to seven different churches. Although he commends those congregations for many good things, he also complains of them leaving their first love, holding to false teachers and teachings, spiritual death, and lukewarmness. And this while the church was still basking in the afterglow of the earthly ministry of Jesus! As long as there are people in the church, there will be problems, for if humanity is anything, it is problematic.

Therein is the reason I found my way (or rather, like a lost sheep, was carried) back to the church: because it’s a place pregnant with problems. Because of those imperfections, I fit in perfectly. If you’ve got it all together, have no struggles, live a full and happy life, free of sin, then the church is not for you. But if you struggle with selfishness, greed, lust, addiction, problem children, a cheating spouse, fear, loneliness, or anything else that plagues our race, then the church is the ideal place for you. For Leah struggles with all that crap, too. Don’t let the pretty stained glass and padded pews and vested clergy fool you; all around the church are wounded sinners wheeled about on gurneys, doctors sewing up stab victims, nurses checking IVs, and double amputees carried by the blind who are led by the mute while the deaf sing prayers for healing. @@The church is messy place for messed up people who are in dire need of a God who cares.@@

In uncomely, undesirable, older Leah, that’s just what you’ll find: a God who cares. You’ll find a God who was born of an unwed teen whose neighbors likely whispered was a slut. You’ll find a God who hung out with outcasts, welcomed whores as followers, touched untouchables, called bullshit on the holier-than-thous of his day, and walked eyes wide open into the clutches of those who would torture him to death so as to save a world that really didn’t think it needed saving. In the church you’ll encounter the God who takes all his beautiful and exchanges it for your ugly.

And so, after a few years of growing up, maturing in a some areas, and realizing a bit more clearly what life is all about, I can now honestly say, “Leah, just as you are—not who I want you to be, not who others say you should be—but just as you are: I love you.”