love

Her Final Christmas Gift

Never mind the label… this is the best picture I could find of the type. 

We broke out the Christmas decorations tonight – it’s possibly the last night we could just breathe and enjoy the process. As always, there was some nostalgia involved.

Here’s the Charlie Brown tree topper my Bride made for our first Christmas together. Our tree was so sad it had to be anchored to the wall to keep from falling over. Yes, an artificial tree. It’s all we could afford – a tree so beat-up our Lutheran church was throwing it away, and we got to salvage it. As a sort of joke, my Bride made Charlie Brown ornaments by printing out pictures and laminating them.

Here’s an ornament given to me my intern year; it proclaims “Peace,” the name of the church, as well as what the angels proclaimed that first Christmas.

And here…

Oh.

I pick up the lace snowflakes. They’re beautiful. And I’m pretty sure they were her last. (more…)

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Those Three Small Words

Date

You don’t say, “I love you,” on a first date unless you really want to freak out the other person. I remember when dating wrestling on when to say, “I love you.” Too early, you freak the other person out. Too late, and they think the relationship is going nowhere. It’s an artful balance complicated by, you know, those crazy little emotion things.

I am done with the dating (barring God choosing to take my Bride home and me eventually dating again, but I’ll leave those thoughts for another day). I get to wake up daily with a woman I love, to whom I say, “I love you” often. I pray I live that commitment every day, not just in words, but also in actions. But it’s not weird for me to tell her that I love her, and it’s certainly not weird for her to return that thought. It’s good. It’s comfortable. It’s real.

How soon is too soon to tell my congregation that I love them? (more…)

Loving What I Loath

Baseball is the worst.

When I think of the worst thing in the world, I don’t think about the epidemic of drug abuse that surrounds both my old and my new community. I don’t consider starving families in Africa, nor do I even let a thought flit over political corruption. Oh, no. The worst thing is baseball.

When I ponder the length of eternity, I imagine sitting at a baseball game. When I consider what the loss of every blessing could be, I imagine sitting in a stadium while smelling concessions but having no money. When I concentrate on what it is to experience hell, well, baseball is nowhere near, but it’s in the right direction.

OK, yeah, I’m being a little dramatic. But I think I’m making my feelings clear: I just don’t get along with baseball. When I was in grade school, I was forced to be in numerous softball tournaments. And… I think they just created this permanent revulsion in me. I can’t stand playing, and to be forced to do something you already don’t like… well, it created character, I suppose. A character that can’t stand the sport.

And this week I sat through three baseball games.

The horrors! The misery! The absolute loss of all hope!

Actually… it was kinda fun. (more…)

Your Heart Lies

image-of-a-hangmans-noose-on-shutterstock-800x430

Today someone I love tried to kill herself.

She’s safe now. She’s been chaptered and is getting the help she needs. I sat with her at the hospital for hours, reminding her of what she had forgotten: No matter what her heart says, she is not alone, and she is so very, very loved.

You.

I don’t know who you are. But I know that the storm comes, and it rips away any warmth you’ve gathered to yourself. I know how it tears away any pictures you have of yourself as lovable or worthy of love. The winds claw at your skin and your eyes and it leaves you raw.

I know that storm, too. I know it so very, very well.

And I know what your heart calls out in the storm. I screams that you are alone. That you are abandoned. That you are worthless. That you should feel only shame, because that is all that is in you. I know how the razor beckons.

Dear one: Your heart lies.

Do not believe it. Fight. Oh, fight.

But you are so weak!

I know. Of course you are. You are like me. The storm is so much bigger than we are, and we cannot ignore our own hearts.

But I know someone greater than your heart. He’s greater than mine, too.

This is what you need to hear when the storm destroys you. This is what you need to hear when your heart lies.

It is true that you have done things that should bring shame. It is true that you are not as good as you like to show yourself to be. It is true that you aren’t as lovable as you like pretending.

But it is true that you are loved far, far more than you could ever imagine.

Here is Jesus, who knows you in your darkness. He knows you in your shame. He knows what you want to do to yourself.

And he loves you.

Oh, beloved, you are not alone. He stands beside you on the cliff. He wraps his arms around you. He holds you close. And then he is suddenly before you, taking the full brunt of that evil wind. He cries out for you. He loves you so much he suffers for you. He knows what it is to weep. He knows what it is to spend sleepless nights, knowing that tomorrow the sun would not rise for him. He knows!

And he is with you. He has not left your side.

Your heart says you are alone. It lies. Jesus is beside you.

Your heart says you are abandoned. It lies. Jesus has not forsaken you.

Your hearts says you are not loved. It lies. Jesus loves you so much he dies for you.

If you have come to that dark place where you might make the choices for life to end…. do not believe your heart. Do not do it. Your heart lies.

Your Jesus knew you. He left heaven for you, to become your brother. He lived for you, knowing pain and temptation. And he died for you.

But, beloved, he lives for you again. Death was not the end of his story. He lives, and he will never die again. He lives for you, standing before the Throne of his Father, speaking on your behalf. He’s going before his Father – for you! And because he lives – you also will live. Your story does not end in storm. Your story ends with the One who has loved you so much.

Your heart lies.

Hear the Truth: You are loved, even in your sin, even in your shame.

You are loved.

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…)

The Grave is Overwhelmed

love-300x171

And as the music swells, their voices grow. They shout out, “Jesus has overcome, and the grave is overwhelmed!” I can pick out a few voices. Mostly treble, with a smattering of bass.

That one’s the teen who has come to deeply love Jesus. Tonight as I was dropping off teens after worship, I stopped to invite a mom to worship next week. This particular teen waited patiently in the van. When I told her I was inviting the other teen’s mom, her response was, “Yeah. It’s so sad she doesn’t know Jesus.” And she meant it; no sarcasm there.

This one is the young mom who is struggling with consequences of past sin. I can hear her voice tremble as she sings, “I will rise when he calls my name!”

There is the voice of a young man who hated me last week. I called him on a sin, and he didn’t want to hear it. Tonight he brought a friend to church.

Here’s a woman’s voice, deep with age and smoking. She sings with her son, returned to Jesus after many decades away. Her voice shakes with the lyric, “I hear the cry of every longing voice: Worthy is the Lamb!”

I am surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses. I have gathered with Jesus’s people. He has brought them together to hear him, to grow together, to praise and pray together, to confess sin and rejoice in forgiveness. And I get to lead them? I get to take them into God’s Word? I get to announce what he says to them? I get to deliver forgiveness to hearts that yearn for it?

I love these people who have gathered together this Sunday evening to worship. It breaks my heart as I think of each of their stories. I know them, and they know me. I call to them. They answer.

How can such things be?

Who am I?

This morning I stepped out of the sacristy as the church bells rang. I announced the theme of worship. “Today, we’re going to talk about something really, really controversial. Love.” There’s some snickering in the congregation. And then I look at them all. Every single one. And I say what may be the hardest thing to actually say out loud: “I love you.”

And I let it sink in.

I love you. I know you all. And it is honor to serve you.”

And then some people begin to panic.

I continue, “No, I don’t have a call. I don’t plan on leaving. Don’t worry. But I want you to know. Today we’ll be talking about loving one another, because Jesus loves us.” I announce the first hymn, and as I turn, one woman bursts from the congregation, “We love you too, pastor!”

I nearly melt.

Bible study. We’re checking out shepherds, sheep, and the Good Shepherd. And one of the questions: how is a good shepherd (a good pastor) like the Good Shepherd (Jesus)? And the congregation goes through several.

And I point out one they missed: A good shepherd loves his sheep.

And I say, “If I don’t love you… I’m failing.”

Oh, God. What have I done?

I have failed.

I have sinned.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’ve struggled in loving this congregation. Yes, they have failed in so many ways. Yes, I have hit my head against a brick wall as I attempt to give them God’s Word, over and over and over again.

So what?

Jesus doesn’t tell us to “Love those who make your life easy.”

He says, “Love each other like I love you.”

In the sermon this morning, I told the congregation that love nearly always leads to pain in this broken world. And loving this congregation leads to such pain. It hurts to love them.

But that does not give me an excuse.

Jesus loved me. Look what happened to him because of that love. Look at the pain he endured for a sinner like me. For someone with such a hard heart he’d rather not love the blessing of a congregation God has given him.

But this morning, as I looked over this flock God has given me to shepherd… I meant it.

I love them.

And there is no way I can take credit for that love. I have not gritted my teeth and said, “I will love you anyway!” This is not some decision I made. My heart is not superhuman.

But my Savior’s heart… it is amazing. And he loves me?

And he loves them.

And I will rise. And so will they. And we will live together, walking on golden streets. And we will praise the Lamb forever.

This love I have for them… it is not me. That love is a gift Jesus gives.

And it hurts. It really does.

But it is a gift from Jesus, so it is good. And for this I praise him. Even through pain. Even through tears. I will love, because he has loved me, and because he has loved them.

Not Their Shepherd

shepherd-sheep-10

I didn’t have to deal with the flock I shepherd this morning, and it was marvelous.

Another church in town, a sister congregation, is down from two pastors to one for the moment. In an effort to help them on the in-between and to get a little pressure off me time-wise, my church council offered (with my blessing) for that pastor and me to switch pulpits once a month. Today was day one of that.

My congregation has one traditional worship service every Sunday morning, and then our discussion-based worship in the evening. This other congregation as a service Saturday night and three on Sunday morning. That means my weight more than doubled, as I didn’t give up my own evening worship service at my congregation.

This morning, I left for the other congregation before anyone arrived for worship at mine. And… and it felt good.

I didn’t have to deal with anyone. (more…)

Fathers, tell your sons you love them.

His wife’s voice shook. “He’s in the ICU.” By the time she arrived at the last syllable, her voice thickened into a sob.

We left the party right then. Grabbed the children, coats, rushed out. I dropped everyone off at home and sped to the hospital. A few buzzes through security and I arrived at his room.

This giant of a man lay like a shadow on the bright white sheets. Wrists strong enough to break my hands atrophied to sticks. Blood crusted under his nose. He smiled to see me. “Pastor, you should have stayed with your family.”

“You’re worth my time,” I tell him. And he is. No doubt.

“You’ve tracked down this lost sheep. Go find the others.”

“I can do both,” I say, a stab in my conscience. I have not been terribly faithful in calling out to those who do not yet know their Savior.

And this giant who lays dying, this man known for strength who has become so weak, his heart overflows to me. “The children, pastor. The children. I think of all the children who hurt. And my wife! Who will take care of her? This woman who brought me to God. Who loved me, even though I sinned so much. Will she be ok?” His wheezes make each sentence come out one or two words at a time. And his heart… oh, his heart. Even in his great pain, he is so much more concerned for others.

This is a man worthy of respect. (more…)

So Much Depends

It started when she told me she was planning to live in sin. I chose a lighter touch. “Before you make a choice, ask, ‘What does God have to say about relationships?’” It wasn’t the time to dig deep and pronounce all the fullness of God’s Law. She also knew what God said, even if she had to be reminded. This wasn’t a choice made out of ignorance.

But by that evening… I was done. It began: that slip into… into what? It’s hard to describe. That darkness that says, “It’s all going to hell.” That silent malevolence that creeps into the heart and insists that the end has already come; I should just recognize it and give up.

That gloom settled on me the next morning. I wasn’t in tears; why should I bother? I set to work on my sermon with a mechanical blah.

I considered: a long week ahead of me. Every day, I needed to be with people. There was very little time of aloneness. I know me; I need solitude. I don’t recharge by being with people. I cover up that fact well. In fact, I do enjoy being around people… but it’s draining. I recharge alone.

And this week presented no recharge time. Last week presented no recharge time. That’s what was wrong: I lacked solitude.

That knowledge slackened the darkness that brooded over me. It certainly didn’t hold it at bay, but knowing the black for what it is certainly lessens its menace.

With a heavy heart I set out for my afternoon visits. I steeled myself, knowing that I would be pouring out of an empty well. Yes, I would share God’s Word as appropriate. Yes, I would listen and love, but I knew that as the week went on the strain would become so great. (more…)

Am I like Jesus?

Hiding… refusing to make eye contact…

Am I like Jesus?

Last week I went to a basketball game in which some of the teens were playing. I had a great time, sitting in the bleachers with the parents and cheering and groaning. And a chunk of the way into the game, something whacks me from above.

I turn and discover a mostly-empty Gatorade bottle. Above, in the balcony, one of the younger teen girls laughing. She thinks it’s funny, but it’s also greatly disrespectful. I motion her. “Come down here,” I say. Blank face. I turn and watch the game, waiting for her to come.

My only goal is for her to come down and apologize. Then, I plan on forgiving her. Done and done.

Doesn’t happen.

Another girl comes up to me. “She’s leaving,” she says, her voice quivering. “She’s scared.” (more…)