Taking the Law on Two Legs

Excuses.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of excuses. We’ve also been ones to employ them.

It was Shakespeare who said in his passionate way that when we make excuses for our faults, the very act itself “doth make the fault the worse…” (King John, IV, ii).

He’s right, you know. It’s a very deep hole we begin to dig when we betray to others the calculations that comprise our darkly justifications for our truest selves and our behaviors. That’s what we do when we make excuses. We reveal the real tenacity for covering our tracks and holding to our Sin.

Since we’re Christians and God promises to forgive our faltering, why not just be honest and admit to it?

Because the Sin-nature is strong. We war against honesty and continue with our excuse-making because the Sin-nature knows a little something about confession that it doesn’t want to admit. The Sin-nature knows that honest confession is completely incompatible toward gaining what we want when we want it. Honesty doesn’t fit into the divine equation of trust in God as opposed to self. Honesty is an exercise in letting go of the badness and clinging to the good. Excuses are the ways we find for keeping at least one finger on the bad.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the season of Lent doesn’t tolerate excuses. Every Sunday in Lent sees excuse-making bowled over. It leaves no room for reasoning a way through or legitimizing our sinful doings. It looks us squarely in the eyes and says unflinchingly, “You can’t fool me. I know a schemer when I see one.”

Throughout the season, the introit and Psalms both have elements of this. The collects contain it, too. The readings more than tell us this. The hymns put all of it to music. And God willing, the preaching and teaching of the Pastor will steer straight into it with you, as well. He will unflinchingly remind you that your family’s absence from worship and study is hurting and not helping. He will warn that your loveless stewardship of the Lord’s gifts is destined only for cataclysm. He’ll try to dissuade you from the excuses you are making, urging you not to try to justify Sin, but to bind yourself to truth, because in the end, there is but one Arbiter of earth and sky—Jesus Christ—and He already knows your secret ambitions. His Word has already met with and judged every excuse mankind could ever think to devise.

But that’s not the whole message that Lent and its servants have to give. Lent also serves up the realization that honest confession is far better because it beholds the consoling and empowering smile of absolution.

The Gospel of God’s absolving love through the person and work of Jesus Christ restores, recreates, and empowers.

Pearl S. Buck said something about how every mistake has a midway point for remedying the situation, for turning things around and fixing them. The Gospel goes further and says that apart from outright rejection of Christ or passing the moment of death, there’s no point at all on the mortal timeline when a believer has gone beyond the sphere of God’s grace. This is the Good News that Christ is there with His Gospel at every twist and turn along the way, giving what the shameful heart needs to gird up and take the accusations of the Law on two legs.

Admitting to Sin’s ugly residence in our hearts is bravery not weakness.

I haven’t been a pastor too long, just over eleven years now. But even in that short period of time, I can truly say that when it comes to excuses for this or that Sin, the wellspring of surprising novelty has run pretty dry. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve heard them all, and for the most part, all are emblematic meanderings that circle stereotypical causes. For the one who claims to have fallen out of love with his wife, I wait patiently for the mistress to eventually come to light. For the one who can rarely make it to worship, I am saddened by his or her Sunday morning exploits broadcast on Facebook.

There are few excuses I hear that hold up or are even the least bit interesting anymore.

I don’t know if that should scare people away from talking to me, or if it should encourage them. I hope it’s the latter. I hope people will sit with me and know that I’m going to do my best as a servant of Christ to give honesty in order to retrieve honesty. Honesty in these situations leads to a realization of need. Need has its hands out in ready anticipation for what Christ promises to give, which is forgiveness, the assurance of His love, and the stamina for facing off with those things that drag us down into arenas where we think we need to make excuses.

My prayer for you is that this holy season will help you to see the One who gave His life as your ransom, that you won’t feel the need to make excuses for your Sin but rather you’d know and experience the freedom of access to His immeasurable grace. Take that grace. It’s yours. You don’t need to justify your Sins in order to convince Him that you are worthy. Confess them. Be honest. You’ve failed and you are in desperate need. Admit and then recognize that no matter where you are, no matter how far astray you’ve gone, the cross of Jesus Christ stands as the midway point for remedying your mistakes. Look there. He will receive you, and He will turn it all around.

Again, I Say Take Your Children to Church

Again, I say go to church. And take your children.

I say this observing men and women with their littlest ones, one end of the spectrum of life and the other crisply displayed. But it’s the invisible space—the space in between child and adult—that actually has my attention.

It’s this middle space where the ingredients are added. From boy to man, from girl to woman, all of the space in between is even now undecided—the character, the imagination, the belief systems, the ways that life will be lived, the caliber of man sought for a husband and the measure of a woman desired for a wife—all of these will be collected along the way and will simmer in this middle space.

Parents, the middle space is a powerful and determining time. Be mindful of this, and spend that time well. Go to church. Take your children. Season the middle spaces of their lives with the salt of Christ and His holy Word.

It is the most important ingredient in the recipe.

 

It’s Very Different There than Here

I don’t mean to disregard the fearlessness and dedication required of any of the clergy who came before me, and yet I have this nagging sense that when my forefathers in the ministry ventured out into America wearing a clerical collar—perhaps to run an errand, or dare I say, speak by invitation in a public forum—my guess is never did they experience concern that someone might spew curses or spit upon them simply for being who they are as a servant of Christ.

Brothers, let’s agree that the challenges differ from age to age. But may we also agree that the Christian Church’s history in America is as a distant and alien land, and they do things very differently there than they do here?

Take Your Children to Church

Go to church. And take your children.

Yes, yes, I know that in general children are not very good at listening or sitting still, and this can make worship very challenging. Still, I say go to church—and take your kids—because, for the record, there is something that children do magnificently.

They imitate adults.

He Loved Them to the End

Well, I did it again. I got a little teary during the midweek Lenten preaching last week.

Trust me, I do my level best each and every time I get into the pulpit to keep my emotion in check, or at least in appropriate support of whatever is being preached. But sometimes it truly hits home that even though I’m the one speaking, I’m still on the receiving end of what the Holy Spirit is doing through the preaching. Of course I know this before I go into the pulpit. But again, sometimes what I’m saying is piercing enough to my own soul that it gets me right where I’m standing. That happened during the sermon.

Over the course of our midweek Lenten services, we’re pondering the seven last words of Jesus on the cross. The text appointed for this past Wednesday, which I read at the beginning of the sermon, was the first of the seven, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Jesus forgiving His enemies while they torture and kill Him is an extraordinarily moving image, but in all honesty, I was feeling the hand of emotion on my shoulder before the sermon even started. It came while I was reading to you the first section of the Lord’s Passion drawn from the four Gospels. The particular gathering of texts in that first portion paints the portrait of the events of Maundy Thursday, and as we were carried along by it, at its midpoint we hear the words, “Jesus knew that His hour was come to depart from the world and go to the Father. Having loved His own who are in the world, He loved them to the end.”

He loved them to the end.

This, too, is a heartrending phrase. How can it not be? Jesus knows He’s about to die, and as He does, we are to know that He will love us in and through to the very end. He will display and accomplish the truest expanse of love in the midst of the darkest night ever known to the cosmos. The depth of this statement is unfathomable, and already being aware of what I planned to preach, it added another dimension of cutting emotion as I read it.

Now the preaching.

Before getting to Jesus’ first words on the cross, I spent a good deal of time describing the contours of Good Friday. I had to. Before any of us can attempt to grasp the weight of the Lord’s words, before we can come to the realization that our seats in the pews before the Lord’s altar aren’t cheap, we have to at least try to understand the measure of the event itself, asking ourselves, “What’s really going on here?”

Crucifixions were dreadful, but also fairly common during the time period, which is probably why the Gospel writers don’t really share the details too fully. But still, they were as terrible as terrible can be, and so, what does it mean then, that God—Jesus Christ—gave Himself over to enduring an unjust trial marked by incredible brutality, a pre-sentence flogging that would malfigure any human who experienced it, a crown of thorns knocked into place on His head with a staff, tortuous mocking and slapping and spitting, and then, finally, being nailed to cross beams with railroad spike-sized nails?

And then came the moment when the awareness that Jesus loved us to the end met with what the Holy Spirit gave us through the preaching.

Contextually, when you think about who it was that Jesus was pleading for by those first words, when you realize that He’s begging the Father to forgive everyone perpetrating the unholy massacre, there is the moment of pristine Gospel that beams through and reminds that none of us are beyond the borders of the Lord’s first words from the cross.

No matter who you are or what you have done, the forgiveness for which He pleads is the same forgiveness He is winning for all—even for the worst of the worst—even for you and me. No one’s sins are left unpaid by this sacrifice.

We all fit into this little prayer of Jesus that’s slurring from His exhausted lips on our behalf.

Indeed, He loved all of us to the end.

That hit me hard. And it took an extra bit of control to hold back what could have easily become a weeping mess. The combination of these words highlighted the grand nature of faith in Jesus’ sacrifice as the wonderful blessing that it is. The price for our Sin has been paid. It wasn’t cheap. It was incredibly costly. But Jesus paid it. Faith in Him receives the merits of what He has accomplished.

I know all of this. But every now and then, I feel it, too. And sometimes when I’m preaching, I hope so badly that the people listening in the pews are hearing it as I’m hearing it, that they’re seeing what I’m seeing, that they’re being moved to experience the same comfort that I’m experiencing. It’s a strange mixture of penitent joy that brings me to the edge of my abilities to control my own enthusiasm.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that such a thing happened this past Wednesday.

Anyway, I pray you’ll read what I’ve written here and you’ll understand why I got a little choked up. Also, if you aren’t already, I hope you’ll consider attending midweek services during Lent. There’s so much more to come with the last six phrases of our Lord in the midst of loving us to the end.

Texting is Not My Thing

For those who have my cell phone number, they’ve probably noticed that I’m not one for texting. I do my best to do it, but in the end, it’s not a way of communication that I appreciate.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not annoyed by it. I just don’t appreciate it like so many others do.

One reason that I don’t like it is because it takes me far too long to craft a text message. I’m a rigid perfectionist when it comes to writing stuff. In fact, my own family finds good reason to tease me over the whole texting thing. They poke fun at me because when I do it, I use complete sentences, being sure to take the time to punctuate everything fully and correctly. That takes a lot of work when you’re only using your thumbs and switching between character screens.

Another reason I’m not much of a texter is that it’s inconveniently convenient, giving people the false security of instant responses to questions that could probably wait for another time. I suppose I should add to this that sometimes I don’t even understand what people are so hurriedly communicating to me. I know it sounds ridiculous, but for as savvy as I may appear in social media circles, I literally just learned ten days ago what “smh” and “lmk” meant. Before that, I could’ve cared less to know what they meant. I would see these in a text or an online post and just move along as an admitted outsider in the SMS language community. I never cared to learn these lazy phrases. As a result, I suppose that many appropriate replies went unsent over the years because I didn’t realize someone was telling me to let him or her know. I’m pretty sure that when people typed that to me, I responded with something like, “Are you okay?” because as far as I knew, it meant “Landed on My Keys!” and of course we should all, especially the pastor, show concern for someone who suffers such an accident, right?

Well, whatever. I guess you could say that I’m a guy who believes that words matter, that the language structures they rest in matter, that the time spent in contemplative care of the words matters. There’s already enough communicative confusion in this world, and texting seems counterintuitive to that. It has me asking myself, “Would a little more time and precision in our efforts to communicate really be all that bad?”

Think on the use of the comma. A misplaced comma has huge ramifications. Take for example the following cover of “Tails” magazine.

Without the proper placement of commas, it sure seems like Rachel Ray discovers her innermost creativity while preparing to sauté both her family and her pets for consumption. The next thought would then be: “This is one incredibly creative woman, and so how many families and pets has she 86’d and eaten over the years?”

Again, care in these things matters. Texting exchanges care for efficiency, and I’m not so sure that’s the best trade off. I’d much rather have a phone conversation than a text or instant messenger conversation. I find that a phone conversation—or even better, a face to face conversation—has a much better chance of ending well, especially in the contentious situations in which we sometimes find ourselves in the virtual world.

What’s funny is that folks will send me a text message saying that they didn’t want to call because they know how busy I am, not realizing that sending me a text with the expectation of a reply is a lot harder on my regular pace than a phone call because it takes me so long to type something.

And by the way, I’m never too busy for a phone call from anyone. Never. Except maybe a phone call from a politician, or someone trying to sell me the latest video series from Joel Osteen. I suppose I can let those particular reach-outs land in voicemail.

I suppose I’m sharing all of this because it sparked some pastoral thoughts, and it’s something that any clergyman most likely notices during Lent. This is the time that preachers are crafting some of the heaviest sermons they’ll preach all year.

Pastors are handlers of language, and not just any language, but God’s language—God’s Word. The Word kills and makes alive. Pastors deal in the Word. We do this while we’re teaching. We do this while preaching. We do this to lead a gathering of Christians. We do this in order to hold the line against the enemies of the church assembling at her gates. Ultimately, we do all of this with care because the Word of God is the means by which God reveals His efforts for our salvation through Christ, and it is the sole source for faith, life, and practice. Knowing all of this, pastors are not to approach the Word of God as casual and careless visitors. They are to have great fear and love for God’s Word. They are to take time with it as they seek to serve Him in faithfulness and humility. God’s Word is more than just simple text messaging. It is the precise means of God’s divine revelation to man. If we mess it up—that is, if we mix up the lines of its communication—we jeopardize eternity for real human beings.

Without going further, I think you get the idea how slacking off in the handling and communication of God’s Word isn’t something we ever want to discover in our midst. But add to this that as individual Christians, we don’t want to be those who think it’s possible to interact with God’s Word in the barest of passings rather than taking the time to be immersed in it. We want to hear it, love it, study it, be in it, and share it, too. Of course, we shouldn’t ever expect to have such a relationship with it if we only want an association that’s efficient. I could understand such an expectation if God gave us His Word via three-letter text messaging terms. But He didn’t. He gave us a voluminously rich Bible full of wonderfully deep and eternal-life-giving sentences crafted and delivered from His own heart of love.

It’s Lent. Might I suggest for your Lenten fast (if you’re indeed fasting) that instead of giving up coffee, sweets, or whatever, that you try giving up skipping Bible study at your church with your pastor? You might be surprised at how enjoyable you’ll find it to be, not to mention, fulfilling.

No pressure to the folks who are members of my congregation.

Lmk.

The Law and Gospel of Fasting

I’m wondering how many of you are planning to fast during Lent. Of course it isn’t a required Lenten practice. I’m going to fast, although I haven’t quite figured out what form it will take just yet. For the record, as I’m sure you already know from my previous messages, I believe the practice of fasting is good. It’s an outward honing of the senses that attempts to keep one foot in the Law of God and the other in His Gospel.

Considering the Law angle to fasting, if I had to select one word in this moment to describe it, I’d choose “imprisonment.” Fasting is a form of imprisonment. It takes us into a place where certain inclinations are purposely inhibited and it denies access to what would normally be enjoyed in Christian freedom.

Richard Wright wrote in his book The Outsider, “Men simply copied the realities of their hearts when they built prisons.” He’s right. According to the sin-nature, the human heart is a prison of thoughts, words, and deeds—things we wish we could wipe clean from our slates by our own efforts, but in the end, we just can’t. We see them through the bars and we know our guilt. We know that the wage for Sin, which is imprisonment to Death, is a just and appropriate punishment for our crimes.

I suppose that in a way, fasting takes us inside the prison, but it doesn’t do so with us as convicts being led in shackles and destined for a cell. We’re guests of the warden, and we’re reminded of what we narrowly escaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus. We’re reminded of the immense value behind the redeeming act of the innocent Son of God who exchanged His freedom for ours, who became Sin for us so that we would be free (2 Corinthians 5:21).

From this Law perspective, the Gospel is by no means robbed of its luster and given a penny price tag, but rather it’s seen as it should be seen. It’s an act that we didn’t deserve, and this side of the prison bars, it’s nothing less than priceless.

But this is the very point where we meet with the bright beaming Gospel that shines in the midst of the act of fasting. While we didn’t deserve the rescue, moved by an indescribable love, God gave it to us anyway. Ultimately, Christians fast as a way to keep their spiritual wits attuned to the immensity of the sacrifice Christ made by His suffering and death for the salvation of the world. That’s definitely Gospel. That’s the good news of Christ’s work to save us.

Whether or not you decide to fast is completely up to you. If you’re undecided on it, I say go ahead and give it a shot. Just remember that as you do, you’re not doing anything to win God’s favor. You’re doing it because you already have His favor by virtue of faith in Jesus Christ. With that, you’re fasting because you don’t want to become spiritually lazy. You’re fasting because you’re intent on never losing sight of the enormity of the events leading to and being accomplished on the Lord’s cross. You’re intent on recalling as Saint Paul recalls:

“But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

Whatever you decide to do, I pray it will be of benefit to you. Know that I’ll be traveling alongside you in the practice for the next six weeks, and I’ll be trusting that God will both prepare and enlighten our hearts for meeting the holiest of days—the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter) and then Easter Sunday—with the integrity of those who know with joy the price of salvation and are glad to live in and proclaim that same joy to others.