Which is harder to believe?

That was a question I asked in the study guide we are using for the Old Testament Survey class. It refers to whether we find it harder to believe the Law— “I am not guilty of that!” or to believe the Gospel— “What do you mean I am free? How can that be?”

We had read the story of Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37-50). Jacob the father loved Joseph more than his other 10 sons. Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him, even hating him, enough so that they sold him to the Ishmaelites who took him to Egypt. There Joseph experienced the the ups and downs of life, rising to prominent position in Potiphar’s house, then being falsely accused and thrown into prison. That is followed by his rise within the prison system  because of his work to help people. He interprets dreams for two fellow prisoners, with the promise that they would remember him when they were released, but they did not. Finally he rises to the second highest position in Egypt.

A famine causes his brothers to come to Egypt for food. While Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. And so Joseph begins speaking Law to them, trying to draw them out and admit their sin from many years earlier. Eventually through the trips back and forth to Jacob and torment of soul, they finally confess to their sins. It was a torturous affair for them. But ultimately they believed the Law, that they had indeed sinned.

But then after having been crushed by the Law, they find it hard to believe the Gospel (forgiveness). Joseph reminded them, “And now don’t be worried or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5 HCSB). After their father, Jacob, dies they still are fearful that Joseph will bring revenge on them. So Joseph repeats his statement.

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people. Therefore don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19-21 HCSB)

It appears that the Gospel is harder for them to believe.

So, how about each of us. Do we find it hard to believe that God really is condemning me for sin under the Law? Or do we find it even harder to believe that someone like me, crushed, worthless, unable to do anything, is given everything freely because of what Jesus has done?

Which is harder to believe?


Prayer at the deep end


What is your prayer life like? I mean at the worst of times? Is it leisurely talking with God or gasping for air?

Over the years I had read about other peoples’ prayer lives. I marveled because they are startling in their depth, power, life, scaling the heights of heaven itself or so it seemed. While I admired them for their prayer life and prayers, inwardly I cringed. My prayers and prayer life did not match up well with others.

Long retreats, quiet and serene sights, away from the tired routines, away from distractions, gentle nudging by the Holy Spirit…

Never happened for me! Not. one. time.

Gasping for air

During the past 34 years, my prayer life has been more like gasping for air as I am pulled under water, much like when I nearly drowned twice in my youth. So why did I think I could make it in the Navy Flight program (1973)??? But I applied and was accepted.

For me, prayer is closer to the imagery of survival, grasping, gasping, struggling. Like my attempt at passing all the swim/water/survival tests in Navy Flight School in Pensacola (which I did accomplish, BTW!). You know, when they had you jump off the tower in a flight suit and swim the full length of the pool underwater. Tread water without hands for 5 minutes, and then 30 additional minutes while in a flight suit. Swim a mile in a flight suit, which I didn’t complete the first time because I had severe leg cramps, but a few days later I passed with 2 minutes to spare!

The parachute drag where your harness is clipped to a drag line, and you release and swim to the edge of the pool—easy. Except my release was broken, and instead of being released, I was dragged the full length of the pool, then dragged back the other way—well, except the line is now wrapped around my neck and I can’t breathe! I am drowning again! They had to pull me from the pool. I should have known that the next day would not go well!

The Dilbert Dunker, a cage mockup of the cockpit of a plane situated on the (very) deep end of the pool. Getting strapped into the Dilbert Dunker, the person is plunged to the bottom of the pool, rotated upside down. Then the person has to reorient himself, unbuckle, and swim to the top. Most guys went through it easily. Except, when I unbuckled, and swam to the top, my harness got hooked on the dunker! And there I stayed, my mouth two inches below the water line. I was drowning —again!

Now what?? I knew what I needed—that air! I was panicked enough without this little additional problem. So I swam harder! And harder! But there were two divers in the pool coming directly to me to help. But they had to pull me back down further into the water. You have got to be kidding me!!?? I fought against them with all my strength. I knew where the air was. What were they doing??

Actually they were saving my life. It didn’t feel like it. My mind rebelled, my body rebelled. And yet, they eventually pulled me down so that that hook was released and they brought me to the surface. Saved! And gasping for air!!

Gasping in Prayer

Prayer is much like that for me. I pray, thinking I have things figured out. But then I get thrown into the deep end of the pool of life without warning, without any familiar guideposts, without a sense of the “quiet prayer life” that I kept hearing about and reading about. I don’t want to be here! This is too dangerous, too unsettling, too HARD! As I struggle to spit out one word, the Holy Spirit is there, pulling me in directions I can’t see, feel, understand, or utter on my own! What is happening? I feel like I am drowning!

In my agony, I cannot even get my hands folded…

Somehow, my prayer life at that point may be similar to the apostle Paul. He wrote:

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27 NAS95)

Like those two divers, they had the better perspective. My feeble attempts at gasping for air gave way to those who could bring me to the air. So the Holy Spirit has the perfect perspective. When my heart is overwhelmed to the point of not even being able to form words to express the depths of my heart ache, my hurt, my inabilities, there the Spirit is.

The Spirit intercedes for me, when words fail me. My hurt is given perfect expression by the Holy Spirit. My short-sightedness in prayer gives way to the will of God, perfectly. Not because of me, but the Holy Spirit intercedes according to the will of God.

My gasping gives way to breathing and to life. At the end of my ability to breath or pray, I give up. And there the promise of God at work is made evident. It is hard, every time I am thrown into the deep end of the pool of life. But God is faithfully with me, no matter what happens. No matter how frightening, no matter how lonely, no matter how discouraging it might be.

And I gasp for one more breathe of air. And I pray!

Too Close, Too Hurtful, Too Important

I write this not as medical person, nor a pastor, nor as disinterested third party. I write as a father, a participant, a sufferer, and in a sense a target. It is not pleasant, and there are few bright spots in this story.

The Trigger

The movie Bringing Ashley Home has been shown a few times over the past year, the latest yesterday morning (09/22/2012). It is a Lifetime Movie based on Libba Phillips. The true story follows Libba’s journey of locating her missing sister Ashley, a process that began in 1999. Prior to her disappearance Ashley had been diagnosed as Bi-Polar. When Ashley went missing, there was little help for the family. As Libba described it:

When Ashley went missing, my family did what most families would do. We appealed to authorities to file a missing persons report. It seemed simple enough. Ashley was missing. For the next four years, this report went unfiled. We searched for Ashley on our own.

No one seemed to care about a missing homeless woman who appeared to be choosing to live on the streets. And to others, she was nothing more than a drug addict whose disappearance was not deemed worthy of an official investigation.

I began to realize that if Ashley was not listed as missing, the odds of her ever being found and helped, if she indeed was still alive and lost somewhere on the streets among the homeless, were slim at best. The odds of her body being identified if she was dead were even lower.

Everywhere she turned there was no help. As she investigated, she made contact with others who ran into similar problems locating missing persons. Eventually Libba founded Outpost for Hope to help other people find the “missing missing persons” and “kids off the grid”.

The Connection

The first time I saw the movie, it was almost too close to home to watch. But I did watch, with tears streaming every ten minutes. I recognized so much of what Libba and her family went through with Ashley. The sleepless weeks, the efforts to drive the streets, not sure who or what we would find. Occasionally getting phone calls from police departments in surrounding communities, telling us that our son was arrested. Calls came at 11:00 PM, 1:00 AM, 3 AM, you name it. And fearing the next call that may have been his death notice.

In 1985 our older son (at the time 15) was diagnosed as Bi-Polar. That “official” diagnosis gave us some understanding of what had been a disastrous five years prior to that. We had experienced life with him through those five years, prior to the diagnosis—and it was not easy. Not one holiday or birthday or anniversary was enjoyable. We knew that 2-3 days prior to the event our son would go into the slide that would destroy any kind of home life or happy event. Drugs became part of his scene at age 14, and remains a problem even today.

Even the diagnosis was little help, as the intensity of his episodes increased. I remember driving the streets of the several cities near where we lived, hoping to find a glimpse of him, whether on a street corner, under a pile of cardboard boxes. Within two years it was not safe for us. Sadly I had to have him arrested in our own apartment. I still cringe when I think that I had to have my own son arrested. How could I do that? How could I not do that?

For years we had lived with guilt. Did we do something to aggravate him? Was I saying the wrong things as a father? (I still look back and wonder…)

We lived with fear. What would he do next? Would our own lives be in danger? Did I act too soon? Did I do enough?

We lived with shame. My sense of failure as a father increased to the point where it was difficult to discuss family with friends or acquaintances or even extended family, because it was always focused on this prodigal son, and his latest disruptive episodes. And that was too painful.

When he was 16, after I had him arrested, we had him put into a psychiatric hospital, eventually transferring him to a long term psychiatric facility. As long as he was on his meds, he was reasonable. We saw him only once during that 14 months. Eventually (when he was 17) he could check himself out legally, so I drove cross country to pick him up. And he lived with us for a few months before we had to ask him to leave.

From 1987 to the present he has been in prison at least four times, mixed up with drugs almost continuously, nearly died twice in accidents. We went 10 years not hearing from him, not knowing whether he was alive or dead. In the last 14 years we have spoken face-to-face with him one time, 4 1/2 years ago. And no contact since June 2011. We don’t know where he is, but we suspect he is back in prison if not dead. We pray for him, for his life, and for salvation.

Wounded Healer

This section heading comes from the book The Wounded Healer by Henri J.M. Nouwen (1979). Ministry to, for, and especially with, people means that we join people in their suffering and hurting lives. Only then can we speak to the heart and the hurt.

For me, the wounds of the past 30+ years are deep, so deep that I seldom discuss much of this even with close friends. Many did not know what to say or do, and the distance between us increased. Some friends walked with us through many years of our turmoil. We thank God for those who were close to us, even when I could not respond. It was a long, lonely walk, but these faithful people were God’s instruments with the right mix of hope, peace, and comfort when we needed it most. Often they listened and cried with us.

As one who has been wounded deeply (and I have not shared any of the bad stuff), I have found the past three decades to be difficult, painful, sobering, and many times discouraging. When I saw the movie, Bringing Ashley Home the first time last year, and again yesterday morning, I was flooded with so many memories of what we had endured, and the tears flowed again. I could so identify with Libba and her struggles with Ashley. And I can identify with all the others who have experienced similar problems. My heart goes out to any family member who walked this road or who is just beginning this road. I am so glad that Libba founded Outpost for Hope; there has been and still is a great need. If you are in this situation, contact Outpost for Hope, now!

If you see someone that might be going through such a crisis, and you ask how they are, don’t be surprised if they give a tight smile and say “Fine.” To say anything more might open a floodgate of emotions they might not contain. I know, I have lived that existence. But don’t give up on them, either. They need to talk to, cry with, hold on to, or silently sit with someone. Maybe God has placed you right there for such a time.

The Ultimate Outpost

The ultimate outpost for hope is Jesus Christ. He is not a crutch, a scapegoat, or even a helpless “friend.” He came into this world for this very reason: to endure and share in our temptations (Hebrews 4:15), suffering (Hebrews 2:18), and ultimately to die because of our sins (1 Peter 3:18), so that we might have life with God forever.

Yes, we have temporary afflictions (2 Corinthians 4:17), and they can be life threatening (2 Corinthians 11). But we know that because of what Jesus has done, nothing can separate us from the love of God, not life, not death, not cancer, not Bi-Polar disorders, nothing! And that is true comfort. As Paul wrote:

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so through Christ our comfort also overflows. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is experienced in your endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will share in the comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7 HCSB)

If you have been wounded, may you find healing in Jesus Christ. No wound is too deep, no scar too hardened, that Jesus cannot touch and heal. And while it seems impossible now, you might be God’s next wounded healer.

Come, this outpost is always open for someone like you, and for your family member who is missing.

Translations—Preliminary Evaluation

We have covered quite a bit over the past three months regarding four translations. I spent nine weeks discussing each translation in Sunday morning Bible class. So, I thought it appropriate to provide a preliminary evaluation of each translation. We have been using NIV 1984 as the pew Bible, but especially for inserts and bulletin orders of service. We will no longer be able to use NIV 1984 after December 31, 2012 for those purposes.

NIV 2011

Cover for a NIV Bible
NIV Bible

At first glance, NIV 2011 seemed the logical choice. According to the publishers, there was only 6% change from the 1984 text. The changes were a mixed bag though. Some were necessary and improved the translation; for example Psalm 1:1-2 and the use of “flesh” for translating σαρχ rather than sinful nature (i.e. Romans 8:3-8). Other changes were a step backward, translating αγιοι as seven different ways rather than the traditional “saints.”


English: ESV Study Bible Hardcover Cover

In one way I would like to use the ESV. It fits with the decision made in the LCMS and its publishing house, CPH. In many passages there is a familiar ring to it, especially for those with a strong church background. But at the same time, the ESV is not as good as an oral translation. I have experimented with it, and found a stumbling block in most readings.


Holman Christian Standard Bible New Testament

HCSB offers many advantages: easier to read than ESV and not much different than NIV; it renders some passages better than ESV or NIV (Matthew 18). The negative on the translation is the inconsistent use of Yahweh in the Old Testament. Either make the switch totally, or use the English standard LORD. One draw back is that the only study Bible available may not be as useful in our (Lutheran) context.


Habakkuk 2:2-8
Habakkuk 2:2-8 

This translation is by far the best oral reading translation. I have a long history with it. I served congregations from 1987-1995 that were test congregations for the predecessor and eventually GW. I still struggle with the avoidance of “righteous” (and associated roots). It is a critical concept, and “God’s approval” while okay in some contexts, really misses some critical associations.


This has turned into a harder decision than I first thought. My initial thought a year ago was, just use NIV 2011 since it isn’t that much different. Well, it didn’t take long to find that such an assessment wouldn’t stand up. I have never cared for ESV as a translation, and this evaluation period has confirmed my concerns. Now I go back and forth with HCSB and GW. There have been a few times that I wanted to just use NAS 95 and move forward!

So, for the next few weeks we will use HCSB as the translation for the Sunday readings. Then after 5-6 weeks we will use GW for the same amount of time.

What does this mean… to be Lutheran?

(Originally posted here 06/15/2012)

Over the past three decades I am often asked what it means to be Lutheran. What do Lutherans believe? What is most important? How does that work out in practice? This is just a brief introduction to those questions.

Despite “popular” views, Lutherans do not follow Martin Luther. Rather, we confess the same Christian faith he did; hence we do not support everything he wrote. Martin Luther appeared at a critical time in church history and had a significant influence on the entire Christian Church, but we do not “follow him,” rather Jesus Christ and him crucified. The name “Lutheran” was originally a derogatory term used by Luther’s enemies. Later, it became a term to distinguish itself from Reformed (Zwingli, Calvin, and later Arminius) as well as from the radical reformation.

Historic Continuity: “The Church has always taught…”

The Lutheran Church sees itself in continuity with the historic Christian Church throughout the ages, not something invented in the 16th century. That is, in most of our official writings (called the Lutheran Confessions), we often use the phrase “As the Church has always taught” to show that what Luther and others publicly were teaching was consistent with the historic church. We frequently use the term “catholic” (meaning “universal”) to denote the true Church throughout the ages, not in reference to the specific church body known as the Roman Catholic Church headed by the pope. This phrase is critical in understanding Lutherans, because while sometimes we look like Roman Catholics, we see the papal church deviating in the Middle Ages and onward from that historic faith.

At the time of the Reformation, Luther and others continued what was done that was consistent with the Bible and the Church through the ages, but ridded itself of false teachings (especially in worship). In that sense Lutherans were “conservative” keeping that which was solid and discarding other elements. They could and did keep paintings, statures, icons, as aids to help people learn the stories of the Bible. On the other hand, Zwingli, Calvin and other Reformed leaders wanted to distance their churches from anything that looked Roman Catholic. For them, in regard to worship, they made significant alterations to the order of service and even destroyed what appeared in churches. The Reformed tended to get rid of paintings, statues, and icons.

Lutherans use the phrase “believe, teach, and confess” to denote those statement which reflect accurately what the Bible teachings. In line with that, Lutherans accept the three Ecumenical Creeds as accurate statements of the Christian faith from the Bible (Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed). You can find them here.

Chief article of the Christian Faith:

Also they (Lutheran pastors and churches) teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4. (Article IV of the Augsburg Confession of 1530)

Everything else that we “believe, teach, and confess” is derived from this starting point of justification. That is, we do not start with a peripheral issue and work back to this central article. Rather, we start here and work out the implications from justification.

We believe that worship also reflects this central teaching, namely justification:

saved by grace (alone) through faith (alone) in Christ (alone).

Since we are dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1), only God can make us alive (give us faith):

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), (Ephesians 2:4-5 )

The Tools God Uses (Means of grace)

We believe that God works through “means” or tools to accomplish his saving work. Thus, in the Great Commission in Matthew 28, we see that we make disciples by baptizing and by teaching the Word. So Baptism and the Word are the tools God uses to bring someone to faith, and God uses the Lord’s Supper and the Word to continue to grow someone in the faith (2 Peter 3:18; John 15:5, etc.). These tools bring salvation, forgiveness of sins, and a clear conscience. So, in

Acts 2:38-39 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”

1 Peter 3:21 Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you — not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience — through the resurrection of Jesus Christ

Matthew 26:26-28 While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.

1 Corinthians 10:16 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing (koinonia) in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing (koinonia) in the body of Christ?

(In the Lord’s Supper, we believe that we receive the true body and blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Thus, the most important part of the Lord’s Supper is that vertical relationship with Jesus Christ. The secondary aspect is the horizontal relationship with people)

Lutheran Worship

Worship for Lutherans is centered around the Word (specifically the Gospel, telling us what God has done and is doing and will do for us for our salvation) and the Lord’s Supper, a foretaste of our heavenly meal with Christ. Everything in the worship service leads to an emphasis of  each of these two peaks. If something detracts from the Word or the Lord’s Supper, then we would avoid that. So, even in the use of hymns/songs, they have to pass that test. Lutherans do not sing songs just because the melody is “nice, pleasant,” etc.; rather we sing them because the words point to the work of Christ for us and our praise of Him. The music enhances our appreciation of the words, not contradict the words. Thus, we can sing ancient hymns and contemporary songs, if they meet that criteria.

Even at the beginning of the service, the words of the invocation are critical. Many years ago it was possible, even without advertising signs, within the first five words to determine whether this was a Lutheran congregation or a general Protestant/Evangelical congregation.

General Protestant/Evangelical: “We make our beginning in the name…”

Lutheran: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”

Notice that the focus of Protestant/Evangelical invocation is for the person/people to be the initiators, not God. For Lutherans, God initiates the service, because it is the God who baptized us who is calling us together to worship him (receive from him and give back to him). Worship then involves a back and forth movement and participation between God and His people. We can tell who is the active one by which way the pastor faces. If he faces the congregation, then God is speaking/acting; if the pastor faces the altar, then he joins the congregation in responding to God with prayer, praise, etc.

The Paradoxes of Lutheran Theology

Lutherans also live with the tensions in the Scriptures and our understandings. That is, we go as far as Scripture, but never beyond Scripture. Sometimes that leaves us in tension, with something unresolved. But God does not always explain everything to us. Thus, while Zwingli and Calvin try to resolve the tension, we let Scripture stand.

Lutherans don’t have a “Lutheran philosophy” per se. Rather we live with the tensions presented in Scriptures in terms of paradoxes. That is, what we sometimes see is not matched by the reality as seen from God’s perspective. Here are a few paradoxes:

Law and Gospel Distinctions

Kingdom of the Left (Government/Society) vs. Kingdom of the Right (Church)

Theology of Glory vs. Theology of the Cross

Hidden God vs. Revealed God

Now vs. Not Yet

In each case God speaks and acts in ways that seem paradoxical. In Law and Gospel Distinctions, we find Jesus commanding the rich ruler to “keep all the commandments, especially the first” in order to inherit the kingdom (Mark 10:17-22). Yet in Acts 16:25–33, Paul in response an identical question responds with “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” So in one place it is Law that is needed and spoken, in the other it is the Gospel that is needed and spoken.

In the Kingdom of the Left, relationships and order are based on the Law (do this, or suffer the consequences). The Law and the power to carry out punishment under the Law belong to the Government (Romans 13:1-7). In the Kingdom of the Right, relationships are established and maintained by the Gospel (what God does for us in and through Jesus Christ). We live in both the Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right. But what applies to the one side does not equate to applying the same to the other.

You hear and read much about “electing Christians” into Government positions, as if that is the “only Christian” thing to do. Yet, carrying out responsibilities in the Kingdom of the Left is not determined by “Christian laws.” Rather by being a leader of people, following the laws of the land, carrying out justice. Even an atheist can do that. And we most certainly cannot impose the Kingdom of the Right onto the Kingdom of the Left. That would change the Gospel into another Law, trying to coerce people into “being Christian”—without faith in Christ, but rather “following Christian laws.”

The theology of Glory vs. the theology of the Cross can be confusing. All Christians believe in the glory of heaven, that is not the issue here. Rather, the problem comes when someone tries to impose that future glory into the present realm. You will hear statements such as, “It is God’s intention that you be rich.” (Note: from my perspective, that seems fitting in light of my first name!) Such a claim shows the theology of glory has imposed itself into this current life. The reality under the cross is that we should expect persecution, suffering, and even death. Living in this world as Christians means life under the cross of Christ.

[Jesus said:] “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.” Matthew 5:10-11

[Jesus said:] “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

Notice that these realities have present consequences. And Paul wrote much about the present world in which we live and the suffering and persecution of this life.

For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me. Philippians 1:29-30

Perhaps a challenge is for us to re-read the New Testament and take note of how much is focused on the theology of the cross. I suspect that we will discover in the process how much of the theology of glory is more American independence and individualism and not Biblically sound. In my interactions with Christians from other countries, I have found that this theology of glory stuff does not relate to their experiences and life, but the theology of the cross speaks to the heart. That they know and live with every day.