This Masquerade

If a member posted this on my wall, I wouldn’t know what to do. 

I keep expecting someone to reveal that it’s all a big joke.

It hit me again while I was distributing Communion today – I thought everyone was just playing a game with me. “Sure, Pastor sure takes this seriously, but we know better. We’re just humoring him.” It’s almost like I expected to be in some version of The Truman Show (which, incidentally, I’ve still never seen). I expected this entire congregation to be an elaborate hoax, that people are just playing along.

How else could you explain a group of people listening to me pointing to the grace of God for so long? I know it’s not me, unless it’s a joke. Why would anyone pay attention to me? Half the time I wonder if the sounds coming out of my mouth are actually words or just half-formed mumbles that my brain thinks are communication.

It doesn’t matter that my church council, again and again, have revealed themselves to be mature Christian men. It doesn’t matter how often they will speak about Jesus as if he’s actually real – as if it’s not about the congregation, but about sharing Jesus with others! It doesn’t matter how often I am encouraged by those around me, speaking of my sermons to me, showing how God used the sermons to bless them. My thick head just won’t accept it: (more…)


Review: The Wisdom of Tenderness


The Wisdom of Tenderness by Brennan Manning

A few weeks ago I wrote a review for Keeping the Faith and I panned it. I did need to find a book for a congregation member that’s been struggling with past abuses, though, so I reached out to some of my brother ministers for recommendations. One of the recommendations was this short book.

As I started reading it, I thought that it was emotional pap encouraging you to see yourself as good. I was ready to throw it in the garbage.

I’m glad I kept reading.

It starts out having the feel of sentimental drivel. But within a few pages of that, you see that while it may be using some of the same language, it is driven by a cross-centered Christianity that longs to connect the reader to Jesus and to show the ramifications of Christ’s love in the reader’s life.

The book speaks of the necessity of tenderness – but it begins with the tenderness Christ has for us. “There can never be another healer in the mess and madness of our postmodern world, because no one else has been there. Only Jesus Christ, ‘a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering,’ has carried our pain into the peace of grace. He has made peace through the blood of his cross” (52). The comfort I didn’t find in Keeping the Faith is front and center here. Manning continually points to the love Christ showed for us on the cross. He does not shy away from pointing to our sin and the need of Christ’s sacrifice. And then he shows the results of that love, that tenderness, in our own lives.

In fact, he pushes us to see ourselves in the harsh mirror of the Law. He reminds us that so often, we cover up our sins. He shows us that we don’t like dealing with ourselves as we really are, and even to God we present fake uses, asking forgiveness for sins that generally don’t really bother us. “When I present this false self in prayer, God doesn’t bless what doesn’t exist” (74).

He speaks well of the necessity of the Law to reveal how shallow we can be:

The omnipresent temptation of the superficial soul is to pretend that we’re sinners and to pretend we’re forgiven – it’s all pretense because the sins we acknowledge are not those that decimate us, and the forgiveness we claim is a sham because of our flagrant dishonesty with God and each other. … However, when the scourge of sin rips our life apart and the rawness of our spirit longs for the sweet salve of relief, we may stagnate between choosing to endure the shame or choosing to trust mercy and to internalize Julian’s words, ‘Our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair because they fall often and grievously; for our falling does not hinder him in loving us.’ The grace for the latter choice is not denied to anyone ‘who cries out to him day and night, even when he delays to help them’ (Luke 18:7). (146-7)

He goes on to show the results of our sin isn’t “just” a matter of our relationship with God; it is terribly practical in how sin destroys us.

Sin is the starting point of all social estrangement. Every sin, even every sin of thought, leaves its mark on the psychic structure of the human soul. Every unrepented sin has a sinisterly obscuring effect on true openness. … Sin is antisocial; it locks us up in the prison of our own egoism. And that imprisonment bears grave consequences; insofar as we’re closed and incommunicative with others, our own personality is impoverished; when we can’t reach out to others in a meaningful gesture of love, our own humanity is diminished. Callousness seduces tenderness, and insensitivity becomes a lifestyle. (118)

Thankfully Manning doesn’t just diagnose the problem and then offer a quack solution. He shows us instead how Christ has been tender with us, even with his eyes wide open to our sin. He shows how while we were still sinners, Christ Jesus died for us. And Jesus’s tenderness for us produces tenderness in us. That grace allows us to confess. It allows us to be broken. And it then allows us to be broken for others as well.

Throughout the book, Manning provides many great examples of sharing tenderness with one another. Manning, an alcoholic, relates how grace allowed him to escape the bottle, and how then he was enabled to show that grace with others. Manning is also incredibly wide-read, it seems, quoting so many sources and giving a number of relatively deep Biblical allusions, such as calling John “the eagle of Patmos.”

But always, always he returns to the Gospel. He writes in a way I have endeavored at times to write here. He tells of how he fears falling into sin again, and he writes that Jesus says, “You belong to me, and no one will ever snatch you from my hand. I have changed your name. No longer shall you be called ashamed, guilt-ridden, lonely, and much-afraid. Your new name is ‘child of mine, broken and beloved, playful one and joy of my heart’” (145).

Manning shows immense tenderness in his tone as he writes his book. He writes to allow people to be broken, so that they know that even in that brokenness, their God loves them. He writes to sinners who long to feel again, showing that their God rejoices over them. He points us to Jesus again and again.

If you hunger for a moment of depth and a time of silence, I highly recommend this book. It’s one that I think I’ll be using with my congregation member, and one that you yourself may benefit from.

The Broken People I Love

Judge holding gavel in courtroom. Image shot 2010. Exact date unknown.

Thirty months.

Two and a half years.

He’s sentenced. He’s going away. And the children who call him dad don’t even have the ability to say goodbye. No final hugs. Nothing. The woman I was supposed to marry him to stews beside me in the courtroom.

And then the judge decides to get preachy. Look, I’m a preacher. I know what it is to deliver the Law. I do it quite often. Pretty much every sermon, in fact. But this man… He decides to directly insult the accused’s fiance. For no reason I can determine. In matters in no way pertaining to the case.

And we can say… nothing.

And then the judge says that there is no way the accused could have misunderstood his previous sentencing. “No one could be that stupid.”

Because clearly our court system is a cinch to navigate. Because clearly no one could misunderstand what a judge’s order is. Because clearly a man who never graduated high school can read court documents oh, so well. Because clearly this man is lying about what he does and does not understand.

And we can say… nothing. (more…)

I am just as broken.

We sinful, stubborn, silly humans are a weird lot. We will know something and not really know it. For instance, I know I am broken. I confess it regularly. Every morning, I confess to Jesus. And it’s not a mechanical “yup I’m sinful.” I consider and think, and then rejoice as I read about his forgiveness. This is a real thing that I know.

And I know that as a sinful human being, I have this part of me, this sinful human nature, that says, “at least I’m not as bad as that person,” because you know what? As much as we like lying and thinking we’re not that way – well, we are.

I know these things.

But sometimes… sometimes we get clobbered with a brick.

This week, one woman in my congregation, through what appears to be callous disregard, hurt another woman in my congregation and caused her some pain and distress. For the sake of clarity, I shall give them fake names: Bertha hurt Hilda. When I encountered the problem, Hilda was in church taking care of something. She was mad at herself for being mad at Bertha for hurting her. “I should be a Christian. I should just let it go.”

I reminded Hilda that anger is not a bad thing necessarily. She had been sinned against. The proper thing was not to grin and bear it, nor to strike out. Rather, she should deal with it directly. Pull the woman aside and talk to her, one-on-one. Show the sin, and hope to announce forgiveness. Hilda and I prayed together for wisdom and strength, and forgiveness for Hilda’s anger as well.

And when I walked away… I chewed on it for a long time. Bertha had caused problems before. She is such a broken person, and this is just the latest instance. And I kept chewing. I didn’t pay attention to my children; I was busy thinking about how to deal with Bertha. My Bride tried talking to me. I didn’t hear her; I was busy constructing a rebuke for Bertha. Why is Bertha so broken? (more…)

Holy Week Hell

If the devil can steal Jesus from a church, he wins. One of the easiest ways he can do that is to drive the Pastor away from Jesus, particularly during those times when the most people are naturally thinking about church – like, say, Christmas and Easter. There’s a reason that Christmas and Easter are just insane with people inside a church saying, “Oh, we have to do this! We have to do that!” whether or not God’s Word says we must do anything. If the pastor is so busy he loses Jesus, Satan wins. If the pastor is too drug down by the woes of this world, he has such a hard time pointing to Jesus.

They warned us at Seminary that anything that can possibly go wrong during Holy Week – the week that started today, Palm Sunday, and runs through Easter a week from today – anything that can go wrong this week, will. Expect it.

For an average pastor, Holy Week is already insane. An average Lutheran pastor will have to prepare worship for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and sundry services Easter morning. Considering it takes me ten to fifteen hours of time – easily – to write and memorize a sermon, three sermons in a week is a lot of work.

But then you throw in additional weights: I get to preach a Christian victory service – you may know it as a funeral – for a man I’ve served since arriving here. It is an honor to serve him in this way. It is also additional work in an already busy week.

I get to lead a chapel devotion at a local Christian school. Again, an honor – but an additional weight in a busy week.

There’s numerous things in the church I need to take care of, or at least oversee. Yes, ok, we’re set for Easter breakfast. Yep, we’ve got someone lined up for projector in the many services. Choir looks to be all ready!

All that is important work, and while the funeral will certainly be emotional, it will be a good emotional.

But now the actual weights start coming in. Things that aren’t just “busy but things we can do,” but things that burden the heart and make it hard for me to get up. (more…)