It was difficult to narrow the list down, but here are my 12 1/2 favorites of the year.
I wasn’t wearing fig leaves for underwear, but I’d just as well have been. That day I felt more like Adam than I ever had before, or since. The forbidden fruit, far from digesting, sat like a rock on the bottom of my gut. The man who stood before me was my boss. I was in his office to come clean, to tell him what I’d done. I’d lied to him before, lied to his face. And I was afraid. O dear God, was I afraid. I was afraid of him. I was afraid of myself. I was afraid of the truth. I tell you, I was afraid of damn near everything. Most of all, I was afraid of how he would react. I soon found out. I told him what I’d done. How I’d lied. How I’d broken the commandment. How I’d listened to the serpent, plucked the fruit, and loved the taste of it so much that I’d gorged myself. I had prepared himself for his anger. I knew it was coming. And I deserved every bit of it. If he had wagged his finger in my face, shoved me out the door, and told me to get the hell out of there and never come back, I wouldn’t have been surprised. In fact, I think I would have been a little relieved. At least then, I would have convinced myself that I’d paid for a tiny bit of my sin by suffering such rejection.
His reaction was totally wrong. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. When I’d finished confessing, he didn’t start yelling. Out of his mouth came words like forgiveness, grace, Christ, clean slate. He was saying all the wrong things. This isn’t how bosses are supposed to speak. They’re supposed to hammer out words like deserve, punishment, consequences, disappointment. He didn’t. He shocked me by being gracious to me. He spoke as a father would to his son. And this son, who heard those paternal words of grace and absolution, would, to this day, relive that moment time and again as one of the most defining moments of his life. That day, instead of getting what I deserved, I received nothing but love.
I may have walked into that office wearing fig leaves, but I walked out clothed in the skin of the Lamb of God.
The story of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to go, either. It’s all wrong. When God enters the garden that infamous day, he’s supposed to march in with an iron hand and a tongue pulled back, ready to lash. After all, he had given his children everything; they wanted for nothing. Yet these stupid, selfish people do what stupid, selfish people always do: they go and ruin it all. What they needed was punishment—swift, complete, merciless justice. They had it coming. That’s the way things were supposed to go.
But they don’t. In God’s first question to fallen humanity, he asks, “Where are you?” And in that question—merely one word in Hebrew—is packed a whole theology of who God is.
Where are you? God wasn’t seeking information; he knew where they were. He was fully aware of what they’d done. He was also fully aware of the fallout from this fall. Yet he asks, “Where are you?” Just as he will later ask murdering Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” or hating Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry?” or persecuting Saul, “Why do you persecute me?” In these questions is the answer. The answer is a confession, a repentance, an embrace of the forgiveness offered and bestowed by the God who seeks and saves the lost.
The story of Genesis 3 doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to, the way I expect it to, because God works contrary to my expectations. I expect wrath and he pours out mercy. I expect judgment and he speaks absolution. I expect the end and he gives me a new beginning.
The Lord does indeed go on to tell Adam and Eve that things will not be in this world as they were before. There will be pain in childbirth. There will be thorns and thistles and sweat on the brow. When I left my boss’s office that day, there were still pains in my life; I still bear the scars of the thorns and thistles. But I bear something better, too, as did our first parents. I bear a promise from the God who is love, that in love he has provided a Seed who crushed the head of the lying viper, a Seed who sucked up into his heel the death that I deserved, that he might pour into me the life that I don’t deserve.
That promise makes all the difference. It is the promise that God in Christ does not desire the death of a sinner, but that he turn from his evil way and live. It is the promise that God does not deal with us according to our sins, but is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
I hope one day that God asks me, “Chad, where are you?” I know what I’ll tell him, “Father, I am right here, in your Son, Jesus Christ. That’s where I am.”
You don’t send a mouse to check on a group of cats. But that’s exactly what Jacob did. He sent Joseph, saying, “See if it is well with your brothers and with the flock,” (Genesis 37:14). Oh, sure, not a problem. I mean, if you ignore the brothers’ hatred against Joseph because he was their father’s pet; if you’re oblivious to the fact that the brothers despised Joseph even more when he relayed two dreams of his whole family bowing down to him; if you are so clueless about human nature as not to realize that the green-eyed monster of jealousy mocks the meat it feeds on (as Shakespeare puts it), then by all means send the mouse Joseph to check on the ten fraternal cats who were hungry for a pound of their little brother’s flesh. What happened, horrible though it be, is hardly a surprise. Since Joseph was so high and mighty, the brothers decided to teach him humility by tossing him into a pit. Since he was their dad’s favorite, they faked his death and duped their dad into believing a beast had ripped him to shreds. Since he had dreams of superiority, they turned his life into a nightmare of exile and slavery. The cats did what cats do: they toyed with the mouse. These green-eyed monsters mocked the meat they fed on.
Jealousy: it’s one of those forces within us that can manifest itself as protector or destroyer. Jealousy can be good—a “divine jealousy,” Paul calls it (2 Corinthians 11:2). It compels us to shield our loved ones from outside forces that seek to lure them into destruction and ruin. So the Lord our God is a jealous God, for He will have all of us—all our love and fidelity—and not share us with a soul-destroying idol. So my wife is a jealous wife, for she will have all of me—all my love and fidelity—and not share me with a marriage-destroying adulteress. Yes, jealousy can be good, when, prompted by love, it zealously protects the beloved from evil.
But jealousy, far more commonly, is a kissing cousin to envy and covetousness. It is the hand that’s attached to the arm of narcissism, snatching at what the self-lover yearns to have as his own. It is the jealousy of brothers who want what Joseph has. It is the jealousy of husbands who demand a slave they can control rather than a wife they can love and trust. It is the jealousy of coworkers, who, rather than rejoicing when their fellow employee climbs the ladder of success, secretly despise him for faring better than they are. In the case of Joseph, jealousy conceived hatred, which was born as rage, which, when fully-grown, became murderous, deceitful, family-destroying violence. Jealousy, like all vices, never crashes a party alone; it brings along its gang of hellish friends.
It’ll eat you alive, won’t it? We begin to think we’re victims, as if the whole world is conspiring against us to deprive us of what we deserve. How come she married such a good guy and I’m stuck with this pig? How come mom and dad always take his side and dote on him, while all they do is criticize me? Why can’t I ever seem to get ahead, and my neighbors never seem to fall behind? I’m a victim of fate, a victim of the bad choices others make, victimized by my family, victimized by the universe. On and on it goes, as jealousy makes a meal of our soul.
Let me tell you a better way. This better way does not involve you doing something to become a better person. This better way has no five or ten or fifty steps you can follow to become a happy, satisfied child or spouse or coworker. Rather, it’s a way of putting jealousy in its place, of watching as it sinks down into a wet grave to die the death it deserves. For if there’s anything cats hate, it’s water, and that’s exactly what this green-eyed monster needs: to be grabbed by the neck and held under the water until its lungs fill with liquid and its body grows limp. What jealousy needs is a swim from which it will never return.
Baptism is not just a one-time cleansing to which we can never return. The font becomes our daily companion. And into that fountain of water Christ Jesus daily plunges everything in us that is contrary to Him. He takes us, filthy with jealousy, stained by envy, smeared with covetousness, and shoves us down into those waters and brings us up again clean with holiness, spotless with gratitude, flawless with love. In other words, daily Christ creates us anew, daily fashions a clean heart within us that rejoices with those who prosper, thanks God for what we have, enjoys a life in which we are not victims but victors through Him who overwhelmingly conquered for us on the cross.
The solution to jealousy is not “don’t be jealous.” The solution is a Savior—a Savior who zealously pursued us, even to the point of crucifixion, that He might claim us as His brothers and sister, fellow children of our heavenly Father. He indeed has that divine jealousy, that saving zeal to have us exclusively as His own. And so He does. In His eyes you will spot no green, but rather the warm glow of love. It is a love that saves us from ourselves, that saves us from every vice, that saves us for a life in which Christ lives through us as a new and greater Joseph, delivered up out of jealousy to be the Savior of the whole world.
I’ve yet to meet parents who want their children to grow up and become penniless beggars. When our nest is empty, we want their joy to be full. We urge them to keep their nose in the books. Hone a skill. Earn a degree. Land a good job. And, when the time is right, and they find Mr. or Ms. Right, we want them to marry and eventually give us grandchildren we can spoil. We want our children to grow up and lead happy, fulfilled lives in whatever vocations the Lord gives them. No parents want their children to mature into something less than their full, human potential. I am the father of two teenagers, a son and daughter. Now, I’m sure that if I were to sit down with God and have a discussion about the future of my children, we wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on lots of things. I’m a selfish, short-sighted mortal, after all, and He’s, well, all-knowing and all-holy and all-that. But disagreements on details aside, we would concur on the One Big Thing: both God and I want my son and daughter to reach their full, human potential.
How will they reach this magical moment, this milestone on the journey of life? Perhaps by chasing their dreams, pursuing their passions with a heart wholly devoted to the attainment of whatever goals they set for themselves in life? As good as that might sound, no, that won’t get them there. Perhaps by devoting their lives to the service of others, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, putting every person’s interests ahead of their own? As wonderful as that would be, no, that won’t get them there either. Perhaps by becoming a voice for the oppressed, a defender of the life of the unborn, an advocate for victims of hate and prejudice and violence? As worthy as that would be, no, that won’t help them reach their full, human potential either.
To become everything God wants them to be, my children must first become the one thing they don’t want to be. They must become dead. But it’s a special kind of death; it’s not so much the omega of life as the alpha of life. To become that complete human being, my children—indeed, every person—must be united in death to the only complete human being who has ever lived. Full human potential is not a trophy achieved; it is a gift received. And it is received by bodily unity with Jesus Christ, with the one, unique man who is everything God wants a human to be. That unification takes places by a watery death that miraculously joins us to this complete man who gave His complete self for the complete salvation of a world gone completely wrong. Full human potential is reached when a person is embodied with the man who is also God by baptism into Him.
It is a fully true but also fully hidden reality—this unity with God in Jesus via baptism. It is fully true, for “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death. We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life,” (Romans 6:2-3). And “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold new things have come,” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But it is also a hidden reality, for “you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory,” (Colossians 3:3-4).
This is the now-and-not-yet reality of the Christian life, the is-and-will-be-ness of the faith. In Christ we have already reached our full, human potential. We have partaken of the divine nature by being grafted into the human nature of that one man who is also God (2 Peter 1:4). And yet we await, with all creation, the day of resurrection, when the resurrection of Jesus will have its way with us, when His coming back to life will restore life back to us. On the Last Day the full reality of what happened on our baptismal day will be unveiled.
My son and daughter reached their full, human potential when they were mere babies, a few days old, when they were united to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in a simple baptismal font at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, in Wellston, Oklahoma. Whatever they grow up to be, to pursue, to achieve, I know that the most important thing that could ever happen to them has already taken place. They became children of the heavenly Father, partakers of a gift that they, and I, will fully see revealed when Christ returns in glory.
You’ve seen it happen, probably experienced it yourself. A serious relationship ultimately darkens. But the disappearance of its light is not like the flick of a switch. It’s more akin to the dying of a campfire: dancing flames burn down to collapsing embers. It takes time. After all, you invested some of yourself in that person. You swapped secrets, made memories, relished intimacies. Even if the relationship ended badly, you can’t simply unremember the happy times. So try as you might to move on, to evict that person from your head and heart, they seem to be everywhere. You drive past that restaurant where you enjoyed a meal together; there’s that song on the radio you danced to. With a mind full of memories, and a present pregnant with the past, learning to un-love an ex-love is an ongoing, long-term struggle.
It is not much different when that serious relationship happened to be with a particular sin. Maybe the addiction or the sex or the stealing or the violence—whatever your lover was—ultimately made your life a living hell before you finally severed those bonds. But there is no delete button in your brain that easily eradicates all memories of that sin-to-sinner relationship. For between the hours of pain, there were moments of pleasure. The demons know to coat their lips with sugar, so that later, even when they begin to devour us, we still foolishly taste the sweetness of their kiss. Even more complicated is when, in the very midst of sin, a gift of God is given. For example, children are a gift of the Lord, but what if a man fathers a child with another man’s wife? That son or daughter, the embodiment of their adulterous liaison, is also the embodiment of a divine gift. These situations of sin and repentance and God’s activity therein can get real messy, real quick.
So here is our dilemma: even though we have given up the drugs, or ended the affair, or stopped the stealing—severed the bonds with whatever our ex-sin may be—we ask ourselves, “Have I repented enough? Have I repented sincerely enough? Since I still struggle to un-love the ‘good things’ that happened while I was engaged in that sin, have I repented at all or am I just deceiving myself?”
The struggle against sin, any sin, is lifelong. A woman may never shoplift again or a man embezzle from his company again, but the monster of greed that drove them to steal abides in the lair of their heart to their dying day. Repentance is not an occasional emotion, but an ongoing motion. It is the motion of God’s hand, reaching down to grab the old Adam by his neck and shove his head again and again and yet again under the waters of Baptism, that the new man in Christ might arise again and again and yet again. The entire life of believers is one of repentance.
Therefore, drawing lines that demarcate where repentance begins and where it ends is like drawing lines in water. It gets even worse if you start asking quantitative or qualitative questions such as, “Am I repentant enough?” or “Have I shown sufficient contrition?” or “Am I sorry because of what I did or only because I got caught?” Such questions are not only wrong-headed; to demand an answer to them from yourself or others is likely only to drive you to question your repentance, its sincerity, and ultimately whether God has forgiven you in Christ.
Here is the most important point I want to make: Absolution is never a layaway plan, forgiveness you finally get to take home once you’ve satisfied the payment plan with enough acts of repentance. That’s because forgiveness does not originate from repentance; it originates solely from Christ. The father did not forgive the prodigal son because he returned home, said he was sorry for his sins, and was unworthy to be called a son anymore. The father had forgiven his son even while that son was feeding swine in a faraway country. The father had forgiven his son before he saw him a long way off and began running toward him. The father had forgiven his son because he was his son, because he loved him as only a father can. So it is with us. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself,” (2 Corinthians 5:19). The world was absolved on Good Friday. And that forgiveness, given to you in the here and now, is not earned, or allowed, or sweetened, or strengthened, or made more real by your repentance.
Should you repent of the wrong you’ve done? Of course. Should you continue to repent as you struggle to un-love that ex-sin? Of course. You will never repent enough. You will never repent sincerely enough. But forgiveness is not based upon having enough repentance or having sufficiently sincere repentance. Absolution is based upon the atoning work of Jesus Christ. His atonement is enough. His sacrifice was perfectly sincere. His blood covers not only the sin of which you repent, but your imperfect repentance for that sin.
The entire life of believers is one of repentance, but more importantly, the entire life of believers is the life of Jesus Christ, whose love for us is always more than enough.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve wished I could travel back in time to fix all my screw-ups, then I’d have so much money that I could really screw up my life. Still, I have wished it. Indeed, I still wish I could go back and redo things. And I bet you do, too. Shift time into reverse, hit the gas, and burn rubber all the way back to “that day.” You know, that day. We all have one, or two, or a few hundred. I bet if an outsider were to spy on you during that momentous day, he might not see you doing anything outrageously evil. But his eyes lie; you see what that outsider doesn’t. You know that on that day you took the first hesitant step that led to the next confident leap that led finally to the all-out sprint toward the cliff of self-destruction. It was the first squabble with your spouse that never got resolved, gradually escalated, and finally grew into a bitterness that makes widowhood look like a dream come true. It was that juvenile moment when you caved to peer pressure and smoked that marijuana, that over time led to cocaine, which ultimately landed you in rehab fighting for your life. It’s your own personal “that day” you wish you could relive and fix. You’d rearrange your life the way it should have gone, the way you had it planned. You’d orchestrate a better existence for yourself in this world.
The thing is, not only is fixing our past impossible; who’s to say we wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes? In fact, who’s to say we wouldn’t make matters even worse? Perhaps the most deeply embedded self-delusion we practice is that we learn from our mistakes and thus don’t repeat them. Sure we do. Almost on a daily basis we duplicate our downfalls. Lying got us into deep water once, but not a day goes by when we speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Lust wrecked our marriage, but still we cast wanton glances at women, undressing them with our eyes. So, do we learn from our mistakes? You betcha we do; we learn how to mitigate their consequences, or relish the desire but avoid the deed. For sin dies hard. Sin is like a cockroach: hit it, swat it, slap it, squash it, stomp it, but somehow it manages to scurry for cover in the dark folds of our souls.
It’s taken me a long time to get to this point, but I realize now, more fully than ever, why I’ve wished I could go back. It’s because I want to chart the course of my life; because deep down I believe what that poem of self-determination says, that “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” No I’m not. All I’ve mastered is servitude to sin. And the only vessel of which I am captain sank in the harbor, before it ever set sail.
Now, every time I want to shift time into reverse to go back to “that day,” I run smack dab into a huge stone that’s been rolled away from a vacated tomb. And there I stop. I get out and peer into the gloom of that grave, but there’s nothing to see but some ancient, folded linens. Not a corpse, not a single, solitary bone. It’s empty, as empty as my desires to fix the past. I realize that the past has already been fixed. What I wanted to do, and what I would doubtlessly have screwed up, someone else has done perfectly. He has taken “that day” and bled away its very existence. All other days have collapsed into a Friday, onto a man, who hung upon a cross. There, he fixed the past by destroying its dominion over us. All the regrets, all the stupid decisions we’ve made that we wish we could go back and change—they cease to matter. All that matters is that man, that God, that Jesus.
Easter is a time for ceasing to care about times past. The void of that tomb renders null and void every past accusation against us. Christ has redone our lives. He has redone everything. If I could go back in time to fix all my screw-ups, I wouldn’t find a single one. They have vanished into the body of that crucified man, who on the third day rose again, and brought with him from the grave me, and you, and a world that is now filled with hope.
I grew up in a religious community in which making Jesus your personal Lord and Savior was a big deal. That phrase, or any of its verbal cousins, was thrown about almost as much as Lutherans talk of “law and Gospel” or “means of grace.” I suppose every Christian denomination has them—this ingroup speech. Though the church of my youth was Southern Baptist, they are far from alone in using this phrase. Making Jesus your personal Lord and Savior is the focus of much of the evangelism and preaching in Protestant Christianity.
The thing is, although I am a Christian, I have never made Jesus my personal Lord and Savior. I haven’t because I can’t.
Before I became a believer, I was in bad shape.
To begin with, I was dead in my transgressions and sins. I was like Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, who lay lifeless within a tomb. The only way he rose from the dead and walked out of that grave was by the word of Jesus. Dead people don’t decide to live again. God decides they will live again. As Jesus called Lazarus from death to life, so he called me from my grave of sin into a new life of forgiveness. He gave, I received.
I say I was dead before Jesus called me, but actually, I was worse off than that. Imagine a corpse who is at war with life, who is an enemy of the Life-giver. That was me. I was by nature a child of wrath (Eph 2:3), an enemy of God (Rom 5:10), conceived and born in sin (Psalm 51:5). I was as messed up as messed up could be. Not just dead, not just sinful, but an enemy of the only One who could save me.
But once again, God changed all that. He loved me not only into life, but into peace. He transformed me from a foe to a friend. His word traveled across enemy lines, found me, and carried me back as an ally. And once again, the only thing I did was receive. I didn’t decide to switch sides, to leave my rebellion and make peace with God. He did that for me in Jesus.
I am a Christian who has never made Jesus my personal Lord and Savior. I am a Christian because Christ made me His personal servant, friend, and brother.
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.
This is what happened.
At the end of 2006, I drove a U-Haul from Cincinnati to Oklahoma City. I had twin goals: finish my Ph.D. and land a teaching job at one of the Christian universities in that buckle of the Bible Belt.
It seemed doable. After all, I had the education, the experience, and a few publications. Surely a position would open up.
The only drawback? I’d be living over four hours away from my two young children. My daughter was eight, my son six.
But we’d make it work. Somehow. Someway.
I transformed half of my apartment into a study. Got a part-time job loading FedEx trucks. Worked my mind during the day, my body during the night.
All the while, I was putting my career plan into action. I researched the local universities, brought my CV up to date, made contacts with the heads of various departments.
And every couple of weeks, I would drive four hours to spend a few fleeting hours with my son and daughter. Then I'd turn the car around and drive back to the city, to the apartment, to my books.
And to my dreams.
But a strange thing was happening to my dreams.
The brilliance they once had was fading.
In fact, they were slowly being swallowed by darkness.
And the darkness, it was swallowing me, too.
Every time I saw my children waving goodbye, inside me a dark presence was waving a blade, slowing slicing away at my heart. As I stared at the pages of my books, I saw no letters, no words, only the faces of my children.
One day I walked about that place I had tried to make home.
I realized it was a prison cell of my own devising.
So I made the decision.
It took a few months. There was a short course to complete. Moving plans. A couple of interviews to arrange. But by the summer of 2007, with a Commercial Driver’s License in my wallet, I was driving a truck.
I had found a job where the only jobs were to be found in that area—in the oil and gas field. And, most importantly, my new home was about three miles from where my children lived. I was able to take them to school and pick them up on my days off. We played in the park down the street. We swam at the local indoor pool, all year long. We made up for lost time, grew closer.
But my dreams of being a professor were dead. And I confess that, in times of selfish weakness, I still muttered to myself,
There go my years of study.
There go my aspirations.
There goes my life...
But on those mornings when I hugged my children, told them I loved them, and watched them walk from my car into the school; on those summer days when they’d run ahead of me down to the park for an hour or two of play; all those times when they’d scurry through the house, bang out the back door, and jump on the trampoline, calling for me to hurry and join them, I’d smile and say to myself, There goes my life.
There goes my daughter, overjoyed to be with her Daddy.
There goes my son, looking up to a father as only a son can.
Indeed, there goes my life, in those two young gifts of God.
The hardest truth for me to learn is that big things are of little worth.
Big careers. Big achievements. Big dreams.
No thanks. I'll pass.
Give me an ordinary career, a simple life, time with my wife and children. Give me little dreams, little aspirations, an ambition only to try and love as best I can.
Life is too short to dreams big dreams. At the end, when we look back, let's gaze on our children, our spouse, our friends, our church, and our flesh-and-blood Lord, and say with humble joy: There goes my life.
When I walked through his back door, one glance at his deeply furrowed brow told me something was askew. I knew that aged face well. For years it had greeted me with a country howdy and near toothless smile when I stopped by to bring him and his wife Holy Communion. We’d sit in their kitchen, the air of which was heavy with a lifetime of fried meals. As we sipped coffee, we’d chat about his aching feet and her arthritic hip and their lost days of lighthearted youth. Then, eventually, we’d shove aside the week-old newspapers and piled-up ashtrays to transform the table into a makeshift altar, over which, in the King James tongue he insisted upon, I’d intone the liturgy of the Supper for these homebound saints. But today was different. For months he’d been adjusting not so well to being a widower, passing the days in his newfound, unwelcome loneliness. But as I joined him on an adjacent stool, and he began to shake his head at the open Bible in front of him, I sensed the issue was something new. He wasn’t sad because of his loneliness. He wasn’t in pain because of his feet. No, he was awful upset, he began to explain, by a story he’d happened upon in his Bible reading. He paged through Genesis until he came to chapter 19, in which the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were charcoaled by the Almighty. But that wasn’t the account that had him all riled up; he’d learned that tale in Sunday School decades before. It was the after-story that had him shocked, the biblical postscript of Sodom’s destruction. Jabbing an indicting finger at the page, he said, “Pastor, I can hardly believe what I read this week. It says here,” he said, poking the page, “that when Lot and his daughters got up into the mountains, both of them girls got their dad drunk and had sex with him. And got pregnant!” Then closing the Bible as if it were too revolting even to have it open to that chapter, he added, “I wish I’d never read that story.”
Dislike that tale all you want, there it is, inking the biblical skin like a tattoo gone bad. It turned the stomach of my elderly friend. Incest will do that. I don't like it for that reason too, and a whole host of others, but undergirding them all is a deeper, darker reason. And it’s a reason that hits closer to home. You see, the story of Lot and his daughters is not just about drunkenness or sexual perversion. It is, at its core, a cautionary tale for all of us. It reveals how hard it is to escape from our own past. It shows the extent to which an environment of iniquity can seep into the souls of believers, transforming them from the inside out, so that even when they “flee to the mountains,” like Lot and his girls, they take Sodom with them.
I should know. I used to live in Sodom. In fact, I’ve lived in more than one city by that name. The first was a deeply religious city, steepled churches gracing every corner. I walked its neighborhoods, Bible in hand, cross dangling round my neck. All the streets were straight, and all the people were, too. Everyone was required to confess that they were sinners, but woe betide them if they actually sinned. For although truth and judgement were in full supply, mercy was a scarce commodity in this Sodom's marketplace. And I was at home there, an upstanding citizen with a heart pumping Pharisee blood.
The second Sodom was a city of rebellion, neon signs winking lasciviously through the twenty-four hour night. I staggered through its slums, intoxicated by lust, living from pleasure to titillating pleasure. Streets wound in serpentine courses through a city whose infrastructure catered to citizens who loved being lost. There was unbounded freedom to be whoever, whatever, whenever you liked. The only law ever enforced was a strict code summed up in three words: follow your heart.
Perhaps you’ve lived in one of these Sodoms as well? Perhaps another? If you’re a refugee like I am, then perhaps you too can attest to how hard it is to leave Sodom once and for all. For it’s one thing to “flee to the mountains,” to try and leave behind the Sodoms of self-righteousness, the Sodoms of sex or drugs or alcohol abuse, but it’s quite another thing not to take bits of Sodom with you into exile. It seems to me that’s what Lot and his girls did. Their hometown may have burnt to ashes, but the fires of immorality kindled there still burned hot in the hearts of this family. I have flames that burn in my own chest. And chances are, if you’re a refugee, you do too.
We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes, but the greatest lesson to learn is that the opportunity to repeat those mistakes is never more than a heartbeat away. You may have fled from Sodom years or decades ago, but it’s only a bottle, a snort, a hook-up, a moment of hypocrisy away. To pretend otherwise is to deceive yourself, and to invite disaster into your life. That’s one reason why, though it is painful to do, recollection of past sins, and the hellish fallout from those, is a seeming necessity for refugees from Sodom. David wrote Psalm 51, his hymn of repentance, after committing murder and adultery. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that song was never far from his lips. He was forgiven, yes, but he needed to remind himself of exactly what he was forgiven, of what the grace of God had freed him from, that he might not repatriate himself to the Sodom from which he had fled. To recall our past sins is not to deny that they are forgiven, but to ready ourselves for a continual fight against their recurrence.
In this fight we are far from alone. We did not leave Sodom on our own initiative, our own will-power. Christ climbed over the city walls to rescue us, and then climbed back over, carrying us upon his shoulders. He bore us up into the mountains, and now, and always, never leaves our side. He knows the past fires that still burn in our chest, so he never tires of dousing those flames with the waters of baptism, daily drenching us with that divine dew. Sodom’s foolish ways he roots out to replace with the wisdom that comes from above, speaking his word over and over into us, to create new hearts and new minds within us, fashioned after his own, heart and minds devoted to higher things.
Most amazing of all, should we ever, God forbid, go astray with Lot and his daughters, letting a Sodom heart woo us back into its clutches, the Lord does not rain fire and brimstone down. He rains down himself. He floods us with the waters of baptism, calls us to repentance, douses the iniquitous flames again and again. For he is not a God who gives up on his children. Quite the opposite. He never wearies, never wavers, of beckoning us away from our past Sodoms, into the present of his grace, and onward to the heavenly Jerusalem, where stories like Sodom are part of past that will never be retold.
(I'd like to thank Pastor Christopher Seifferlein, who provided the idea that I fleshed out in this post.)
When I was a child, there was occasionally a frightening and disgusting dish placed on the table before me. No, it wasn’t meat loaf. Nor was it Brussels sprouts. It was fish. Fish presented a moral dilemma for me. Like many boys, I loved to grab my rod and reel, dig up a few worms, and walk down to the local lake. I’d hook no trophy mounts, but I could usually fill a stringer in a couple of hours. The issue then became what to do with them. If I took home my catch, we’d have to clean them. Then we’d have to cook them. Then—Lord have mercy—we’d have to eat them.
My parents, with very good intentions, had warned me of the danger of fish bones. Over and over, they’d caution me that I needed to chew eat bite thoroughly before I swallowed, because, if I swallowed a fish bone, I’d choke on it and die. Ok, maybe those weren’t their exact words, but that was the dire impression I received. So every bite I chewed and chewed and still chewed more, until the inside of my mouth felt like I’d taken a drink from a dirty aquarium. Then, fearing that this might be my last moment on earth, I’d swallow the masticated mess, praying that no bones had escaped by tongue’s detection. The only pleasure in this meal was knowing that I’d lived through it.
In later years, I was to discover another food that I was also urged to chew and chew and still chew more. But unlike fish, there was actual pleasure in the prolonged chewing of this food. For the longer it remained in my mouth, the better it tasted, the more pronounced became its flavor, the more nourishment I received from each bite. This food is the bread on which Jesus survived during his forty days of temptation in the wilderness. It is the food that comes directly into our mouths from the very mouth of God.
There is certainly good to be gained from reading extensive portions of Scripture. Perusing a whole narrative, or even a short book, like Ruth, is beneficial. But sometimes we bite off more than we can chew. Of even greater benefit (at least, in my opinion), is the taking of a single bite of Scripture—perhaps a verse or two, or even a phrase within a verse—and savoring it. Chew on it. Chew on it some more. Repeat each word slowly, pausing over each one, exploring its depths, its nuances, its flavor and feel and taste. Then move on to the next and do the same. Then mix all these words together and discover new delights. Only after prolonged meditative chewing should you swallow and move on to the next verse.
Indeed, that’s what I’m endeavoring to do this year. I will take a verse a day and make that my meditative meal. I will not so much read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest (as a common prayer phrases it), as read, chew, chew some more, and still chew more, and then inwardly digest what I’ve learned.
Perhaps you too, dear reader, wish to join me at the table.
When I rummage around in the cobwebbed attic of childhood memories, he’s there. Birthday parties. Rodeos. Fishing trips. I see him, always lurking in the background. Don’t ask me why this surprises me, for we did grow up together. But it still shocks and angers me to this day, how he would never give me a moment’s peace. At first, I barely knew who he was. But little by little, year after year, we got into each other’s heads, and beneath each other’s skin. Until, finally, I knew him as a brother knows a brother, and a man his mortal enemy. Even when I was a child, and he one, too—for we’re about the same age—he always seemed evil beyond his years. A precocious rebel against the mythical innocence of youth. If only the good die young, he could look forward to a life fat with years. I recall one day in elementary school. There was a boy on the playground who was handicapped. This kid—I think his name was Tom—walked funny and couldn’t talk right. While the teachers’ backs were turned, he and a gang of boys pinned Tom down behind an old tinhorn and, while the kid cried and screamed, they poured handfuls of little rocks down Tom’s pants, inside his underwear, giggling the whole while, as if this was the best sport imaginable. That kind of raw cruelty was his bread and butter. Nothing like another’s tears to make him laugh. I think that was the day I began to hate him.
As we got older, he either grew worse, or just found more creative and expansive opportunities to act out his identity. He stole things he didn’t even want, certainly didn’t need, for the sheer thrill of breaking the law and getting away with it. There were tests in school for which he was adequately prepared, but he cheated anyway, just because he could. He indulged in acts of violence that, even when the best construction is put on them, remain selfish acts of volition for which no excuse is admissible. If I had hated him even while a child, in his late teens I grew to loathe him as the very antithesis of the man I wanted to be.
Knowing this brief sketch of his early biography, you can imagine what he was like when he reached adulthood, when his was a life free from the conservative confines of family. There was the rich variety of dishes of debauchery in the sexual cafeteria. So he heaped his plate to gorge the insatiable libido. There were backs to stab, masks to wear, lies to promulgate. There were the weak to bully, the powerful to glad-hand, the hypocrites to emulate, the fallen to trample, the lucky to curse, the simple to mock. He made it his business to transmogrify every virtue into vice, and to gild every vice with virtue, so that men might praise him aloud while the devils clapped silent hands.
I’ve spent the greater part of my life trying to kill this man. But every morning when I get up and look in the mirror, there he is, alive and well.
Who am I? I am two men who hate each other, who spend every day at war. I am the man described above, and I am the man whom God calls his son. Peace between these two is impossible; if a mock peace is declared, that only means evil has won the day. The son of God has only one choice: to execute the other man. It is justifiable homicide, indeed, death mandated by heaven. What the man of evil hates most, what he fears most, is exposure. The truth is anathema to him, for his survival depends on stealth. To reveal him, in all his self-serving, death-loving, vice-venerating ways, is to deal a fatal blow. At heart he is a liar, and liars are killed by truth, as darkness is slain by light.
For what the truth, and what the light, reveal is that the son of God always wins. I win for God wins. I have seen, repeatedly, God do a most violent thing. I have seen God take him, that vile man, by the back of the neck, and shove his head beneath the waters in which I was once baptized, and hold him there while he kicks and writhes, until bubbles of oxygen surface, the body grows limp, and waters flood those rank lungs. And I have seen, repeatedly, God do a most loving thing. I have seen him take me in his arms, kiss me, forgive me, tell he that I am more dear to him than life.
I have spent the greater part of my life wondering how it is that God can love like that.
I like to make-believe that I was a player in the Christmas story. Not a character in a live nativity scene at the church down the street. No, I mean really there, where it all goes down. And in my fantasy, here’s what happens. The moment word gets out that the "No Vacancy" sign forced a pregnant teen to suffer labor pangs surrounded by cow slobber and sheep dung, I find the young couple and hand over my room keys to them. I’m up all night, pacing and praying, a cup of coffee in one hand, Hebrew scriptures in the other, reviewing prophecies and wondering if tonight is the night when all the messianic stars will align.
Finally, when the infant cries echo down the hallway and the shepherds show up with their tale of serenading seraphim, my eyes light up. I know. I believe. I crowd into my erstwhile hotel room, kneel shoulder-to-shoulder with the shepherds, and gaze with wondering eye at the baby boy, swaddled in the warm sheets I gladly gave up for him. A smile of gratitude shines from Mary’s tired face, Joseph gives me a firm handshake, and I whisper a prayer of thanks that I was privileged to be here on this night of nights, to play a tiny role in the Nativity story. Sweet, eh?
Of course, I can easily continue in the same vein. Years later, when the baby becomes a rabbi, where am I? Where else but at his feet, drinking in his every word. When Peter denies him, I confess. When he hangs on the cross, I weep beneath it. When Thomas doubts, I believe.
It’s easy to daydream myself into the sacred story, to participate in this sacred drama alongside all the big biblical names. In that fantasy I win the academy awards for the most faithful disciple and the supremely intrepid confessor.
But when I let my mind go there, in truth all I’m doing is this: bellying up to the bar of sentimentality to drink my fill of falsehoods that leave me intoxicated with feelings of saintly superiority.
If God gave me a time machine so I could go back to various events in Bible times, I suspect I’d out-eat Adam, out-drink Noah, out-anger Moses, out-adultery David, out-deny Peter, out-doubt Thomas, and out-sleep every resident in Bethlehem’s Motel 6. I’d at least give them a run for their money. For if there’s anything I excel at, it’s sinning.
Want to know how you’d act if you were a participant in the biblical story? Here's a very simple way to find out: ask yourself how you act now. Then you’ll know. For Christ is in your neighbor. "Whatever you did not do to one of the least of these," Jesus says, "you did not do it to me."
We are living the biblical story. There is no need to go back in time or make believe. And that’s why I, for one, am grateful that in the sacred stories, there are plenty of tales about sinners whom Jesus counts as friends.
This day in history a man was born whom no one remembers. In fact, within a few years of his death, not a soul could recall his name. Never were flowers laid on his grave. Never were tears shed for his absence. He wrote no lasting literature, built no famous monument, and no son carried on his legacy. He was a man easily missed, quickly forgotten.
But today, and every day, he wears a crown and every angel in heaven knows him by name. He is a king. He is a priest. He is a son of God. For this no-man was always precious to the Father. He numbered his tears. He understood his loneliness. He made this man his child.
For no man is a no-man to the God who always remembers.
It was a call that would haunt him to his dying day. He listened, speechless; hung up the phone, speechless; and walked away, words still failing him. He didn't know where he was going. He just went. And when he finally stopped, he stood on the edge of a familiar pier, watching the western sun slowly immerse itself into a watery horizon. Why, why, why? Was this part of God's plan? How could it be? Aswirl in unanswerable questions, he sat there, at that place where, so many times before, he'd sat with the one with whom he would never sit again in this life. He put a beer to his lips and drank, regretting loss and remembering life, on this lonely pier. So goes the story in a song, ''Drink a Beer,'' recently released by country superstar, Luke Bryan. It's a far cry from his typical girl-chasing, bar hopping, tailgate-partying kind of hit. But this one is more personal, almost autobiographical, sung by an artist who hides a mountain of past grief behind his country boy smile. For when he was nineteen, days before his move to Nashville to pursue his musical dreams, Luke suffered the loss of his only brother, whose life was cut short in a car accident. And years later, right after he finally made it big, and performed in the Grand Ole Opry, his only sister died suddenly at her home. Luke Bryan may sing plenty of party songs, but his life has been anything but a party.
Someday we'll all be the singer in Luke's song. Maybe you already have. The details vary, of course, but we too struggle to repair the heart broken by the tragic death of someone we love. We're dazed, angry, speechless. Unanswerable questions scream for answers. We wish like mad we could reach over and touch our spouse or parent or sibling or close friend just one more time. But all that remains are memories.
We have our own “pier,” where we sit and remember our way back to better days, before the thief called death stole our beloved away. Maybe that pier is a café table, or a park bench, or a bed that has grown far too spacious now. It's more than a place of remembrance though, for that “pier” somehow seems to bear within itself fragments of the one we've lost, almost like a faint aroma that only we have the capacity to smell. For that reason, at that place we feel closer to the person. There remembrance is more vivid.
As psychologically or emotionally helpful as such “piers” may be, the stubborn fact remains that the deceased is absent. She is not in the bed where you used to make love. He is not on the pier where you drank beer together. There is no intersection of worlds, where the afterlife and the present-life overlap. You may raise your beer to toast an absent friend with whom a lifetime of memories were made, but you’re not really drinking with the dead. You may even speak aloud to the person you’ve lost, but her voice does not respond or blend with your own. Your chosen pier may be a spot of surreal remembrance, but it is not a place of real presence. Believe it or not, however, such a place does exist.
Once a week I have supper at a place where I drink with the dead. There is no beer, but there’s plenty of wine. My grandfathers and grandmother are there, a high school classmate at whose funeral I was a pallbearer, a dear friend who lost his battle with cancer in 2006. They join me, and I them, around a table. We sing together. We pray together. We may be in different worlds, but here their world and my world overlap, pulled together by the Lord who rules over the past, the present, and the future. The dead really are present, because they really are not dead. In fact, they are more alive now than they ever were before they died.
Once a week I walk up to an altar that is far better than any pier. The God of heaven and earth, of the living and the dead, is enthroned thereon. He transforms it into a table, prepares a feast, and serves as host of the supper that we call the “Lord’s.” And he brings guests with him. Accompanying Jesus are my grandparents and friends and all those who, through death, transitioned from life with Christ here to a better life with Christ there. Where he is, there are they. Our prayers mix and mingle, as they pray for me, and I pray with them, for all those in need of the Lord’s grace and favor. Jesus feeds me there, and satisfies my thirst, putting into my dying body his living body, pouring into my mortal veins his immortal blood.
In this world, death will inevitably come calling for those we love. Bereft of their presence with us, we’ll visit our “piers” and relive, in memory, all those times we shared. We will await a grand reunion in heaven, where, with our Lord, we will be united once more in a life of happiness that will never be cut short. But between now and then, around an altar, around the Lord, around the supper that bears his name, we and our loved ones already reunite, for we are everlastingly united as members of the body of Jesus, who has conquered death and made us alive in him.
Sit on your piers, and remember the dead, if you wish. But more importantly, kneel at the altar, and commune with the dead, who are very much alive in our living and life-giving Lord.
It seems a bit strange that many of us will stuff our mouths this week with a bird whose life preaches against us. For consider the turkeys, which neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Turkeys don’t worry, don’t horde, don’t complain. The eyes of all turkeys wait upon You, O Lord, for You give them their food in due season; You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing. Yet here we are – our eyes waiting upon the next paycheck, waiting upon the next promotion, waiting upon Wall Street to rise and fall, waiting upon everything but You, O Lord. So before you swallow that bite of turkey, remember that you eat a creature that surpasses you in piety. Eat, yes, but season your turkey with the ashes of repentance as it preaches just how little your faith is, just how little you trust God, just how little you believe the Father is good to you. And if that isn’t enough to call you to repentance, think of how not only does an animal with the pea-sized brain show you how utterly sinful you are, even brainless flowers are closer to how God intends them to be than you are. For “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” Roses are red, violets are blue, colored by God, preaching to you. Preaching – that you might confess that, at heart, you really don’t believe God wants nothing but the best for you; that daily you doubt His goodness; and that when, push comes to shove, you fear, love, and trust in just about everything more than God. Heed those preaching flowers; heed, confess, and believe.
Believe, O sinner, that the mercies of almighty God, our heavenly Father, are new unto us every morning; believe that though we have in no wise deserved His goodness, He abundantly provides for all our wants of body and soul. For He does, and He has, and He will.
God doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving. He has no one to thank for the earth is the Lord’s and all it contains. He receives nothing as gift. Rather, He is gift. He is Giver. God gives, we receive, and that is the sum of all reality.
Without being asked, certainly without being pressured, He floods every individual, every city, every nation of this world with gifts beyond telling. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all this is within me, bless His holy Name,” for all that is within me is a gift. My body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses. Food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, family, and on and on it goes, ever millionth of a second a million gifts received.
Do you doubt it? Do you think that He who has given you His own Son will now withhold anything from you that you need, that is good for you? He who delivered up His own Son to pay for your unbelief, will He do bad things to you now that He has made you a believer? He who found you when you sought Him not, who saved you when you wanted Him not, who embraced you when you fled from His arms, will He now roll you up in a ball and cast you away as unwanted garbage? No, a thousand times no, for He rejoices over you as a groom over His bride, He loves you as a father loves His child, He tenderly cares for you as a mother does her nursing infant.
If God so cares for turkeys, and if your Father so beautifully clothes flowers, He will most certainly clothe you with the garments of salvation and cover you with the robe of righteousness. Indeed, He has. He has wrapped around your body and soul the coat of His Son. The robe of His faithful life and bloody death has been made your own. If Joseph had his coat of many colors, then you have the coat of only two colors – white for the purity of Jesus and red for His blood. And no jealous brothers will steal it from you. No Potiphar’s wife will rip it from you. He who hung naked on the cross for you will let no man or woman, no devil or false prophet, no temptation or trial, not even death with all its fury – none of them will remove from you the red and white coat of Jesus’ blood and righteousness, the robe that gives you access to the wedding feast of the King of kings.
It is truly meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places gives thanks to the Father, but today we do so quite intentionally and nationally. We give thanks to the Father that He cares enough for us to use even a turkey and flowers to call us to repentance, to teach us faith, and to say once again, “Lo, I am with you always, and I love you always, and always and forever you are my beloved, my own, mine, all mine.” Yes, thanks be to God!
Take my hand and let’s go for a brief stroll through the rose gardens of that sweetest and most touching of personal histories: the biblical family. Take a look at Lot’s family. They called home the town with the name that afterward became inextricably linked to anal sex. Before they hightailed it out of Sodom, a mob amassed to sexually assault two newcomers whom Lot was housing for the night. But this gracious host, in paternal love, offered up his two daughters for gang rape instead. A true candidate for father of the year, this dad. Later, as they hid in a cave, nostalgic mom having become a salt pillar, the girls got father wasted, had sex with him, and nine months later Lot cradled two incestuous (grand)sons in his arms.
But that’s only the beginning. There is Abraham, husband of gorgeous Sarah, who cons all Egypt into thinking she’s his sister, lest they slit his throat and bed her. And sweet Sarah, so at her wits’ end with infertility, arranges a hook-up between Abe and her servant, then winds up despising both the mother and child, and ditching them to die in the desert for all she cares. Old Abe again, obviously no candidate for Viagra, fathers yet more kids with a second wife and the concubining co-wives he kept on the side.
There is Mr. Honesty himself, Jacob, who marries two jealous sisters, both of whom spend the rest of their lives attempting to out-pregnant each another. So zealous are they that they send in pinch hitters, their servant girls, to score some home-run babies for the team. Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben, rolled in the hay with one of these baby-makers, thus having sex with his half-brothers’ mom. And speaking of these brothers, so deep was their disgust and envy of the younger brother, Joseph, that they came nigh to murdering him outright. Instead, in brotherly compassion, they only tossed him into a well and sold him into slavery to the first travelers who happened by.
And then there is David’s family. Oy vey! This peeping Tom, ogling the beloved wife of one of his soldiers, summons her to the royal bedroom so he can have his way with her. She winds up pregnant, so David, all sweetness and light, gives the husband a vacation from the war to make it all appear legit. But the husband, semper fi to his brothers still deployed, keeps it zipped; he won’t enjoy the pleasures of which his comrades are deprived. So David, flexing his regal muscles, arranges a murderous “accident” on the battlefield. Then being the gracious and compassionate king he is, makes the grieving widow one of his crowd of wives. Despite David’s subsequent repentance, his family is royally screwed ever after. The baby conceived in adultery dies. A brother rapes his half-sister, and is slain in revenge by her brother, Absalom. Later Absalom stages a coup against his father, has triumphant coitus with all his dad’s concubines, and is subsequently defeated and executed.
Shall I take the time to mention the prophet whom the Lord told to marry a whore? The Levite who gave over his concubine to such a violent gang rape that she died on his doorstep, and whom he afterwards dismembered? How Judah’s daughter-in-law tricked him into thinking she was a prostitute, they had their tryst, and she became pregnant? It’s all there in the Holy Bible.
I’m sure—indeed, I know—that these darker, nastier stories don’t tell the whole biblical truth. No doubt there were countless families who could have posed for a Norman Rockwell painting: loving, monogamous spouses; obedient children; siblings who got along. Thank God there were such families. And thank God that there still are.
But thank God also for these tales of horror, where men and women do the unspeakable to those whom they are called to love. In these stories, lust and hatred and selfishness and revenge and spite and apathy and every other vile emotion of man pits husband against wife, child against parent, brother against brother. There is no whitewashing of evil within the biblical family. The sheer fact that it is recorded, that of all the events in these people’s lives, these were chosen to be chiseled into the stone of the church’s remembrance, tells us something.
It tell us—it tells me, anyway—that even though I’m dragging around the skeletons of two failed marriages; that even though I have screwed up in ways of biblical proportions; that even though I have acted out of lust and hatred and selfishness and revenge and spite and apathy and every other vile emotion of man, I know a God who takes pity on such men. Amazingly, he has been known to forgive them, to use them in his kingdom, why, even to publish their writings. How like God to have Israel and the church sing so many songs by one whom most remember as an infamous adulterer and murderer, but whom God remembers as a son and heir of heaven.
Are you from, part of, or the cause of a screwed up family? Take heart. God paints his own family portraits. And he’s quite willing to include you in the picture.
Jacob’s having a family reunion tomorrow—a reunion with the brother who, for all Jacob knows, would still love to have his head on a platter, beside a bowl of steaming lentil soup, of course. A river is flowing between Jacob and his family. And the setting sun has left his world in shadow. Then and there, while he’s all alone, in the dark, and afraid the next day might be his last, God shows up, eager for a fight.
“A man wrested with Jacob until daybreak.” A man. We privileged readers need only skim down a few verses to discover the ‘man’ was actually ‘God.’ Jacob had to fight all night to figure that one out. All he knew at the time was that a stranger attacked him under cover of darkness. So he fought, he fought tooth and nail. And by dawn, Jacob was still going strong. The only way the adversary ended the bout was by playing the divinity card. Sometimes it seems God doesn’t fight fair.
Here is the remarkable thing: not that God appeared as a man, not that he picked a fight with Jacob, but that God lost. The ant bested the elephant. Jacob whipped the Almighty. Even after the Lord dislocated Jacob’s hip, he held on with a bulldog grip. He outhit, outwrestled, outdid God.
And here is the even more remarkable thing: not that Jacob won the fight, but that God delighted to lose. No man likes to lose, to have his opponent claim victory over him. It matters not if the battle is over a woman, a job, a ballgame, or is just a barroom fist fight. The runner-up does not pat himself on the back for a job half-ass done. He may be a good sport about it, smile for the camera, congratulate the better man, but secretly he hates the loss and covets another chance at victory. So it is with man. So it is not with God. When it comes to fighting with his people, God is the biggest, and the happiest, loser.
For when God loses, we win; and when we win, God wins. The God who is last is the God who is first. He crowns Jacob with the laurel of a new name, Israel, a name that means, more or less, “I beat God.” I strove with God, I went fist to fist with the Maker of heaven and earth, and I emerged victorious.
For Christians, their odd God wins by losing. He lost to Israel more than once. Later he would lose much more than a wrestling match with his children; he would lose his life. He would fight with them much more than one night; he would struggle with them year after year, but finally they would prevail. They would not let him go, but would pin him down, hands, feet, everything. But when dawn broke after his loss, he would step forth to proclaim his people’s victory. And he would crown them with a new name, a new nature, a new life. And they would see, in the crucified and resurrected Jesus, God face to face.
In hindsight, taking a job on the night shift probably wasn't the best idea. Oh yeah, it had its perks. During those triple digit Texas summers, laboring under a waxing moon was a far sight better than beneath a taxing sun. The boss was snoozing away at home. And I got a thrill from maneuvering my semi through the darkness down the serpentine trails that meandered from one gas well to another. But, those perks notwithstanding, the bad outdid the good. My dark thoughts, during those long and lonesome midnight hours, were stained a deeper, more dangerous hue. The most traumatic moments of my life were still a raw memory. And not only was I unwilling to face up to the enormity of the wrongs I'd committed against others. I was also unready to forgive some people who had hurt me deeply. Truth be told, I wanted a pound of their flesh.
You ever been there? Holed up in that lightless lair where those with broken hearts, wounded pride, shattered dreams, bereaved hopes, and lives void of life crawl to hide from a world that holds no attraction for them anymore? Men may become monsters there, for it is a place of dehumanization. It’s an anti-Eden, where Adams are blown back into dust. But amidst all the losses incurred there, when everything seems to be slipping away, we tend to cling tenaciously to one thing: the resolve not to forgive those who have done us wrong.
The most significant, life-changing sentence you may ever speak is a mere three words: I forgive you. Yet not just to say that, but to mean it, and to live a life shaped by those words, may be the hardest thing you'll ever do. Here's why, and here's why there's nothing more frightening, and more liberating, than burying the hatchet for good.
There's a whole passel of reasons we're tightfisted with forgiveness. Maybe the offender isn't a bit sorry for what he did—or he doesn’t meet our repentance requirements. Or, we're afraid that if we forgive him, he might interpret that absolution as a free pass to repeat his abusive behavior. Or we withhold forgiveness punitively, a weapon of silence whereby we make people pay for what they've done. Or we might simply hate their guts, and we'll be damned if that lowlife is gonna hear one nice word from us. This is just a sampling of the myriad of reasons we keep those three words, ''I forgive you,'' locked deep within the vault of our hearts.
I believe, however, that lurking behind every reason we don't forgive is one fundamental impulse: the desire, real or perceived, to control the offender. For instance, I dangle forgiveness in front of her, like a carrot before the horse, until finally she does my will. Or, I offer to overlook everything if, and only if, he apologizes. Or, the people who’ve hurt me need to see my pain, so they themselves feel remorse. But if I forgive them, I’ll send the message that I’m okay—and I’m not okay, and as long as I’m not, they shouldn’t be either. In every instance, forgiveness, which is a free gift, morphs into a self-serving tool of manipulation whereby I seek to control another person. Inside our clouded minds, we convince ourselves that we’re doing what’s ultimately best for us.
I get it. We are all about self-protection, especially when we've been rode hard and put up wet. We’ve been used, and, by God, we’re bound and determined that’s not going to happen again. So we initiate the wall-building campaign, erecting protective barriers around ourselves, each one saying loud and clear, “Never again.” Never again will I trust a man to be faithful to me. Never again will I bare my soul to another person. Never again will I set foot in a church. And to fortify these “never again” vows, we make a promise to ourselves that we’ll forgive others only when such forgiveness will benefit us. It becomes a weapon in our arsenal, a tool in our belt—call it what you may, forgiveness becomes self-serving. Far from being a gift we grant to another, it is a boon we bestow upon ourselves. Who cares if it soothes the conscience of the offender? What matters is if it makes me feel better, gets me what I want. I’ll manipulate forgiveness, for, ultimately, it is mine to give to whomever I desire, under whatever conditions I choose, to achieve whatever ends serve me best.
I swallowed that thinking whole, and here’s what happened. I didn't realize what I was up to at first. Years ago, I bounced along those oilfield roads, fuming and fretting, night after night. And all the while I was engaged in the process of creating a god. From the junk yard of my past, I assembled the scrap metal of self-preservation, self-righteousness, and unalloyed selfishness, to weld together a hollow divinity. In its core, I stuffed myself: a god without divinity, offering forgiveness with conditions, to sinners without love.
Among the other mistakes we make when we stuff ourselves inside a self-made god, is the assumption that forgiveness is ours to give, or not give, as we see fit. But forgiveness, like life itself, does not have our name scrawled on it. It is not our property, much less our tool or weapon. It originates in the one true God, flows from him in Christ to me, and through me by the Spirit to others. So, when I forgive, it is not I who forgive but Christ who forgives through me. I am but pressing into the palm of a fellow transgressor the coin of freedom with which Christ has enriched me. I give only what I first received. I am not a god; I’m a fellow beggar, no better and no worse, but just as in need of absolution as every other sinner.
I have the heart of a mule, so it took me a while to realize this, to face up to my own sins, to seek forgiveness, and to discover a God who had already forgiven them. He had buried the hatchet inside the flesh of his own Son, who, even as he hung there spit-covered, blood-splattered, mocked, hated, abandoned, pierced, gasping, and ultimately dying, prayed the most remarkable prayer ever spoken: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Having received such a free and full forgiveness from the God to whom I owed a debt I could never repay, who was I to turn around and demand anything from those who “owed me”? They didn’t owe me an apology; they didn’t owe me repentance, tears, promises of improvement, vows never to repeat what they’d done. Nothing is what they owed me. So I crawled out of the hollow divinity I’d fashioned, threw it in the trash to rust, and said those frightening yet liberating words: I forgive you.
Very often, the very thing that we think will preserve us, destroys us. Ironically, in an effort to control others, sin took full control of me. There is a better way, a road that leads to freedom and joy. That way is Christ, whose forgiveness washes over us and into others, so that, together, we discover what a joy it is to bury the hatchet in an unmarked grave.
Dr. Ryan White, in the movie ''Gravity'', hyperventilating as she stares death in the face, gasps, ''No one will pray for me...I've never prayed...Nobody has taught me how.''
Once in a blue moon, Hollywood gets theology right. In that single, sad soliloquy, perfectly played by Sandra Bullock, they nailed it. No one is born with the ability to pray. Like English, Russian, Swahili, the language of prayer must be taught.
Of every language under the sun, prayer is the hardest to learn. Not because you have to employ the right grammar of glory and the correct punctuation of praise. Not because the vocabulary is so expansive. Not because without peppering your speech with the proper sacred buzz words, the Almighty will snub you.
The reason is much simpler than that: to learn to pray, you must first die.
The language of prayer is taught in the school of death. When you’ve taken all the words whereby you planned to appease God, woo him, bargain with him, stroke his ego, or trick him, and put all those words under the knife, then you’re about ready. When you’ve taken all your will and wants and desires and dreams that would form the thesaurus of your prayers, and hacked them to pieces, then you’re getting closer. When you yourself—your body, soul, mind, all of you—have been plunged into the fathomless waters, and there nailed to a man who is himself affixed to a cross, and there expire with him, and be carried with him into the darkness of a tomb, then you’re getting real close.
For to learn to pray, you must first die with Jesus, that you might rise to newness of life in him.
Joined to Jesus, whether you utter a bare-bones prayer or enunciate an eloquent petition, the Father hears. He hears because once you have died and risen with Christ, your every prayer is the prayer of Jesus. Your death with him, and his life in you, commingle the two of you so that every prayer is a duet sung to the heavens.
Prayer is Jesus talking, in you, through you, for you, in the language of the Spirit, that the Father is well-pleased to hear, and answer.
In Christ, we are dying to pray.
It is not hard to track down the Church; just follow the trail of blood. It begins in the wet soil beneath the body of Abel, murdered not by a stranger but a brother, slain by one who hated the believer because he hated the believer’s God. And onward it winds, this haunting crimson road. The blood flows from the veins of the very old to the very young, from the infant boys in Egypt and Bethlehem to the gray-haired men and women whose tongues would not be tied by a tyrant’s decree. For in this world the Church never has peace – peace as the world understands it. Yes, wherever she goes, the Church leaves – or, rather, is forced to leave – the tell-tale sign of her passage through that place. Just follow the trail of blood, and there you will behold the lineage of the Church.
See to it that no one leads you astray from such a path, painful though it be. For many come to tell your itching ears what they crave to hear: “It doesn’t have to go on like this. We can have peace. No more blood need be shed. Wink at the golden calves and mind your own business rather than throw down the law and insist on only one saving truth. Much favor will be won if we learn how to compromise, to play our political cards right, to sweeten our speech with opinions rather than confessions, to crawl about like a theological chameleon in today’s multi-colored religious landscape.” For then the world will smile and sheathe its sword, the demons will retract their claws, and the haunting crimson road will come to an end…but then, so will the Church.
Deep guile is the weapon of the one who masquerades as an angel of light, but is truly the prince of darkness. It is he who opened Eve’s eyes to “a better way”, unencumbered by a Word from God that deprived her of what could only make her life better and more fulfilled—so she thought. It is he who persuaded Solomon that it was more prudent to build temples for the gods of his many wives than risk losing family tranquility and political capital by insistence on the only true way of divine worship. It is he who shows you that it’s fine to applaud our spiritual forefathers for their bold stance in their own historical context but to chuckle and poke fun at any serious attempt to follow that teaching and practice in our own.
O such is the crumbling fortress of the god of this world, but how it entices our flesh! For it looks like a house of candy to the Hansels and Gretels who wander through this world. And we all have tasted its seeming sweetness. For it is always easier to rest inside the devil’s crumbling fortress than to trudge on alone in a dark and friendless world. It is always easier to hold hands with unbelievers inside those walls than risk public defamation by declaring the Gospel from without. It is always easier to file away the 95 Theses until a more politically expedient time; to bite your tongue so long as no one else speaks up; when standing before governors and kings to say, “Here I stand…and there and there and there and wherever else you wish, whatever keeps my neck out of the noose.”
Yes, such is the fortress built by the devil’s deep guile. And woe to the believer, woe to the church that passes through its gates for so deceptive and seductive are its inner charms that few are those who escape. For it is not really a fortress; it is a dungeon—dark and dank and reeking of death.
See to it that no one leads you astray from the narrow way, the straight way, the only saving path, for it alone leads to the Jerusalem above. For broad and easy though the road may seem that frees you from suffering for the truth, it is a road that leads only to greater and unending suffering. For though the narrow path be bloody, and though the way be steep, and though the trail of truth seem impossible to follow at times, only in it does our Father feed you and clothe you and fill you and flood you with true and lasting peace.
For we travel not alone—far from it. For at our head is the Son of David, the severed head of hell’s Goliath dangling from his hand, blazing the trail that leads to the heavenly Jerusalem. Yes, for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected. For though weak and frail and frightened you be, it matters not, for it is not you who fight but God who fights for you. He parts the waters so you may pass through, while engulfing your foes behind you. He topples the walls of Jericho; He turns the swords of your enemies against each other; He fights and He wins and He places the crown on victory upon your heads while you merely stand by and see the salvation of your God.
O little flock, fear not the Foe, for at your head is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for you. For all your compromises, He made the good confession before Pilate. For all your shirking of the cross, He bore His own for you. For your silence in an effort to save face, He turned His face not away from the spit and the fists and the blood and the gore. And willingly He did it, all for you, that you might be His own, bought at a price.
Just follow His trail of blood, the blood of the Crucified One, and there you will behold the life of the Church, your life. For the Church’s life is in nothing else. Not in glory nor in fame; not in numbers or power; but in His holy, saving blood, in the blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. “For Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies, but the blood of Jesus, for our pardon cries.” The wounds of His hands and feet and side open like lips to proclaim, “Come to Me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden by the heat of this desert world—drink deeply from My cloven side! Come to Me, sit at My feet, all ye who have gone astray, and I will show you My heel, with which I have crushed the head of the Serpent of old! Come to Me, all ye Adams and all ye Eves, who have with guilty hands have tried to cover your shame—come and taste the fruit of My Body that your eyes may be truly be opened and you may see that I have clothed you with My own flesh.”
Dear Christians, one and all rejoice, because for you there is a strong city which has lasting foundations, whose builder and architect is God. Salvation unto you has come—salvation from sin, from falsehood, from false hopes, from false and crumbling fortresses. A mighty fortress is our God, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging, though devils all the world should fill all eager to devour us—we will not fear. The kingdom our remaineth. The forgiveness of sins is ours. We are washed in the blood of the Lamb. Fed with manna from on high. Compassed about by legions of angels. Christ before us and behind us. Christ on our right and Christ on our left. Christ above us and Christ below us. We all believe in one true God who will ever remain true to us. So be still and know that He is God, and you are His children, nothing will separate you from Him who shares your flesh and blood. He will grant you endurance to the end.