I don’t mean to alarm you, but it’s nearing the end of September and it’s 44 degrees outside right now. And this past Saturday before an early morning meeting with the Elders, I noticed the leaves on one of the trees near the church’s bell tower beginning a course toward yellow. Even before the sun had pierced the horizon, in the dim light, there was the illusion of the tree’s plume being tinged by a bright beam. Of course it wasn’t the sun causing the leaves to glow. It was the onset of autumn.
The world is turning toward winter.
My wife, Jennifer, bought a special type of lamp for me. I haven’t used it yet, but it’s one that’s supposed to help with the seasonal doldrums that come along in the wake of winter’s relentless (and seemingly endless) plodding. She knows I love the summertime. She knows I love the longer days, and that as they grow shorter, I do everything I can to get as much from them as possible. I’ll be outside. I’ll take the top and doors off of the Wrangler, even if only to get an hour or two of enjoyment between passing rainclouds. I do everything I can to pull from each day. Admittedly, I’m easily irritated by kids who’d rather be inside playing a video game instead of doing the same. I see them on the couch with controllers in their hands and I’m reminded of something Peter Shaffer, the English playwright, said of his wife’s disinterest in the surrounding splendor while on vacation in Tuscany:
“All my wife has taken from the Mediterranean—from that whole vast intuitive culture—are four bottles of Chianti to make into lamps.”
But as I was saying, I struggle to find joy in winter. I struggle to discover happiness in what seems to be the monopoly of its darkness, and so I do all I can to relish in what summer gives before it’s gone. I suppose one particular bit of happiness I find in winter is, in itself, paradoxical. I do a lot more writing during the colder, darker months of the year. I do it to help survive winter—to be distracted from its confinement, to sort of take a little time each day to jot myself into imaginary spheres where I’m in control of the pace of the earth’s position and rotation. In those moments, I give far more ticks of the clock to the daylight. If I didn’t have this as mental medicine, I can only imagine the depressions I might endure.
Perhaps you have similar practices that help to get you through your personal melancholies.
Admittedly, every year at this time, I’m reminded of how the changing seasons run parallel with a number of things in life. For one, I’m reminded to embrace the happy times—to appreciate family, friends, and the moments we have together in the “right now.” I recall these things knowing that everything could be very different tomorrow. Come to think of it, tomorrow itself is never a certain thing. This has begun to make more sense as my children get older. With each and every step toward adulthood, I’m reminded of just how momentary the current days truly are. At the moment, all four of my children still live at home, but it won’t be long before each will pass from the summertime of his or her life with mom and dad into the winter of “farewell.” Of course, they’ll move beyond that winter toward the spring and summer of new careers and family, and God willing, the parents will be brought along with them into these seasons of happiness.
All the same, too many parents know exactly the mixed emotions of this icy in-between that I’m describing, and so as the twilight of the events draws near, parents do their best to take as much joy from the moments as each will give. They’ll do what they can to hold onto the happiness.
I suppose before I go any further with my Monday morning tip-tapping of the keyboard’s keys—of putting onto your screen whatever I feel like putting there in the moment—I suppose I should get to some sort of point. Or how about a question? I think there’s one hidden in what I’ve shared so far.
How about this: What makes for real happiness?
Misery seems easy enough to find. Funny thing is, I sometimes think a good portion of society’s misery comes from its endless chasing after happiness. I also sometimes wonder if while we waste a lot of time trying to capture contentment, do we really even know what it looks like, and would we know it if we actually caught it? I’m guessing that for the most part, no. Elderly parents reminisce regarding the happier days when their kids were little and at home. But in many of those moments, they were longing for easier days with older, less dependent children—ones who didn’t whine or get in trouble at school—ones who would finally know enough to run to the toilet to throw up rather than just doing it right there in their bed. At the same time, children are unhappy under the watchful yoke of their parents. They want to be free. But as adults with the flu, they long for the days when mom would coddle them with a makeshift bed on the couch and a never-ending supply of chicken noodle soup and cartoons.
Youthfulness or maturity, obscurity or fame, poverty or wealth, sickness or health—none of these things, or anything in between has ever truly succeeded at being the ultimate conduit for happiness.
The Bible speaks of happiness in some pretty strange ways. One of those ways is hope.
In Proverbs 10:28, King Solomon wrote that the “hope of the righteous will be gladness.” In Romans 15:13, Saint Paul actually connects both joy and peace with the hope of faith when He says, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
At first glance, texts like these might seem counterintuitive. We often see joyful happiness as the emotional object that comes with having something material in hand. We believe that only by holding the first place trophy will we experience joy. For many in our world, only by having more money in hand will they be happy. Few consider the process of hoping for joy to be the joy itself.
Another strange way the Bible talks about happiness is in connection to suffering. The Apostle James wrote:
“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:2-3).
Here we are told that we can actually experience happiness when the world is coming down on us. Of course, James was only repeating what Jesus said in John 15, just a few sentences before He began prepping the disciples for persecution:
“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
But notice how Jesus phrased His statement. His joy would be our joy, and He inferred this joy would be ours right now. This should give us a hint as to what real joy—real happiness—truly is. It’s the comforting knowledge given by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel for faith. It’s the divine awareness implanted deep down in our core that knows the freedom from Sin, Death, and the power of the devil won for us by Christ. The world can’t give to us anything remotely close to this. Only God can. And He promises that such happiness can be experienced in both good times and bad. Why? Because it is as Nehemiah proclaimed: “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10). Such joy has steely innards. Its foundation is one of divine confidence, and its framework is built according to the schematic that knows no matter what happens, it stands before the Father justified on account of Christ. By this, Christian joy forever bears in mind the impermanence of this world as it anticipates the world to come in His eternal presence.
“You will show me the path of life,” King David wrote in Psalm 16:11, “and in Your presence is fullness of joy.”
Add to this Saint Paul’s words from Romans 5:1-2:
“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
The peace we’ll experience in its fullest sense in the future of heaven is the same peace of which we have a foretaste right now. Beautiful. Our God reminds us by His holy Word that through faith in His Son, right here in this life, we know that any chance for being at war for our eternal future has passed.
We needn’t fear.
In this we can be hopeful. In this we can be happy.
The previous Sunday’s Bible study here at Our Savior got a little tense near the end. The uneasiness was clearly painted on the faces of most of the participants. And why? Because during the discussion, somehow we steered into the topic of excommunication, and as we did, I offered the observation that for the most part, the Church has become weak in this department. One participant agreed, putting forth as eligible examples both pro-choice Christians and people who vote for pro-choice candidates.
“You said it, not me,” I think I said, snarkily—which meant I completely agreed. From there, I suggested that perhaps it’s time for churches and their pastors to start muscling up in an effort to tell those in their midst who would support the killing of the unborn—and vote for candidates who do—that in truth, they’ve fallen from fellowship with the Lord and can no longer commune at His table.
In other words, perhaps it’s time to tell them “no.”
“Yeah, good luck with that,” someone called out, honestly. Indeed, pastors, God be with you on such a noble quest. Although, before you go, be sure your estate is in order. Or at a minimum, have another job lined up, because unless you have broad sweeping support from the rest of the congregation, you’ll likely need a moving van.
Well, whatever. The moment stirred good conversation. In addition to carrying us a little deeper into the text of 1 John 1:5-10, it also provided a brief opportunity to better understand the Johnson Amendment, which I took a quick moment to examine relatively.
The Johnson Amendment, for as scary as most think it is, really doesn’t prohibit churches all that much. We can pretty much do what we want. Although, as it meets with the topic above, there is one particular sticking point that bothers me, and not because it’s necessarily bad, but because it would likely be misinterpreted, and as a result, misapplied.
In short, the Johnson Amendment expressly forbids a congregation from punishing one of its own for his or her individual political positions and/or voting practices. This means that if a pastor or congregation ever moved to excommunicate someone because that person was immovable in his or her support of the murder of the unborn—even after the Church has made clear the doctrines of Christ while at the same time making every effort to reconcile with the person as prescribed in Matthew 18—still, it’s possible the individual coming under the ban might consider the congregation’s action “punitive” and seek solace beneath the umbrella of the Johnson Amendment. But as I said, this would be a misapplication, and for multiple reasons, the first of which is that excommunication isn’t punitive. Its goal is restoration. It’s meant to preserve someone from continuing to willfully offend God while at the same time laboring to lead the person toward repentance and full restoration of fellowship. But odds are the courts wouldn’t be able to distinguish these things, and personally, I’m hard-pressed to find too many human beings in this post-modern century who would either. More and more people are reactively put off by someone telling them no. I say this with all seriousness because I’ve been in the situation more times than I’d prefer. Not necessarily in a formal court—although I’ve come close—but certainly in the court of public opinion here in our own midst. As a pastor, nearly every single time I’ve had to tell someone “no more,” my effort was received negatively, as something unjustly punitive, and in the end, the longtime relationship crumbled.
In our world, telling someone no is getting much harder to do. Our society has become so radically individualized that saying no is more so portrayed as cruel, as coming from an intolerance intent on smothering someone’s personal preferences. In one sense, we all know the sting of hearing someone say no. We heard it when we were young and we’ve heard it as adults, too. I heard my parents tell me that I couldn’t have a cookie just as my wife has told me more than once as an adult that I can’t just up and move to Florida. But when it cuts to the core of someone’s deeply held beliefs, especially the ones that play a part in his or her identity, we often find ourselves in much more dangerous waters. These particular waves on the undulating sea of personal relationships aren’t just making a ruckus on the surface. They’re also moving way down in the deep. Saying no in these situations can be a hard thing to do because we know they can end catastrophically.
In short, there’s always the chance that our efforts toward faithfulness will come with a price we may not want to pay.
This tension didn’t exist in the beginning. In our sinless origin, Adam and Eve knew God perfectly, as God would have us know Him. In this, whether God said yes or no, newborn humanity never questioned whether or not the answer He gave was emerging from His immeasurable love. And He actually did say no right there in the beginning. Could we eat from this and that tree in the garden? Yes. How about the tree in the middle of the garden? No. Why not? Because if you do, you’ll die.
“Okay,” we said, and off we went with a “Dum-de-dum-de-dum” to enjoy the rest of God’s wonderful creation.
But then the devil came along and convinced our first parents that God’s “no” was deceptive and cruel, that He was holding us back from a much fuller potential.
And then Mankind fell.
Fully aware of the effects of the fall into Sin, Jesus not only knew it would be tough for us to be told no, but He also knew it would be hard for His followers to tell others no, especially when it means dealing in the life-or-death, heaven-or-hell scenarios. He knows the significance of Sin’s grip. He knows that the unbelieving world will often choke on truth’s no like an addict coughing up the anti-drug, and so He speaks so plainly:
“Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:32-38).
These words are both terrifying and comforting all at the same time, and the longer I serve as a pastor, the more I learn that divine truths can sometimes be that way.
But an even deeper digging into the Lord’s words will reveal that He didn’t say any of this until He first preached:
“When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (vv.19-20).
You know what this means, right? It means that Christ is true to His promise that we will never be left to fend for ourselves in the tough situations. The Holy Spirit will be working in and through us. In fact, as the Holy Spirit moves us to seek faithfulness to the Savior, even our words will be captured by His power and used to His glory and the good of those who hear them. We don’t necessarily know how each situation will turn out, and we may even walk away from the conversation feeling as though we put our own foot in our mouths, but we can know by faith the source of the truest courage for faithfulness to Christ and love for the neighbor. We can say the hard things and know that even if we feel alone, we aren’t. The One who spoke the powerful words noted above is the same One who capped Saint Mathew’s Gospel with the words: “And behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the age” (28:20).
I know that a good number of you are swimming in such situations, whether it be with family, friends, or co-workers. And I suppose if you aren’t experiencing such situations, well, then you’re weird, because the rest of us are. With that, trust me. The day is coming when you won’t be weird for long. Of course, I’ll keep you in my prayers, trusting that God will preserve and protect you in those moments requiring the courage of a love that says no. I know He’ll guide your words. He will shine His love through you to others, even when it doesn’t feel like it. Most importantly, I’m certain He will keep His promise that whoever loses his life for His sake, will find it—which is to say the ultimate discovery of eternal life is ours to claim through faith.
I pray you’re having (or had) a restful weekend. The unofficial end of summer, Labor Day, has been set before us once again. Believe it or not, Labor Day has been around since 1894. It was established as a day to celebrate the efforts of this nation’s workers—the ones who keep the cylinders in the American engine firing.
Of course, the tendency on Labor Day is to shine the brightest spotlights on the most obvious laborers among us—the skilled trades, medical doctors, engineers, teachers, law enforcement, and so many more. Such vocations deserve our admiration, and naturally, a civil society with any hope of long-term survival needs them. Mindful of these, however, we also need the small, medium, and large organizations and businesses that employ these workers. And among both the employers and employees, we know we are bettered by the innovators, those people who are willing to take a chance that might lead to discovery, even if only very small.
It was Jonathan Swift who said, “He was a bold man who first ate an oyster.”
Still, for as much as these jobs are all needed for an ordered and functioning society, there’s one particular vocation that might be far from our minds the first Monday in September. I’m talking about the vocation of “parent.”
Sure, mothers have “Mother’s Day” and fathers have “Father’s Day,” but I think the labor involved with parenting deserves a nod today, too. Why? Because say what you want about the importance of any job in our world today, it doesn’t change the fact that since the beginning, the task of parenting has always been the center-most cog in every societal machine. Without fathers and mothers, nothing else turns as it should. And there are countless proofs for this.
For one, as I sort of hinted to already, a human family shepherded by a father and mother serves as a society’s conduit for transmitting cultural identity, tradition, and so much more. When the traditional family breaks down, becoming irrelevant, stabilizing structures in a society become irrelevant and break down, too. Unfortunately, I think we’re seeing more and more of this in our nation and world.
I suppose another thought that comes to mind is that apart from God-given talents, much of the magic behind what eventually becomes a child’s marketable skill was likely planted by the child’s parents. The words they spoke, the time spent together, the modeling of relationships, the patience displayed in the midst of struggle, the correction given, the forgiveness bestowed—all of these things that occur in the middle spaces between birth and adulthood are highly influential in a child’s life, more so than most are probably willing to admit.
Unpacking this thought a bit more, I’d add to the list that without parents, it’s nearly impossible for children to learn how to love others. And I don’t mean sexual love, or the affection found between friends, but real love—the kind of love God has for us, the kind of love Saint Paul described when he wrote, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Kids learn sacrificial love from parents. It’s there they see a tangible demonstration each and every day of what it means to love someone else more than they sometimes appear to love you.
Unfortunately, parents aren’t always successful in this. Sometimes they demonstrate the wrong kind of love.
For example, a father who continually belittles his wife, maybe calling her fat (if even only in jest), is teaching his observing daughter something of love. But it’s the wrong kind, and statistics show that if it’s a normalized expression of affection in the home, she’ll be far more likely to engage in harmful relationships that could result in marriage to a cruel husband. In the same situation, an observing son is taught something of love, too. But again, it’s the wrong kind. It’s the kind that would make him into that cruel husband.
Parenting is indeed a tough job. But as you can see, it’s also a very important job. And so, today—Labor Day—I tip my hat to all the parents who continue to labor through the mess of this world, even when it seems futile. I give an extra bit of thanks to God for the parents who, after an exhaustive week at the office or factory or classroom or wherever, rather than sleep in on Sunday morning, they continue to give their all in a job that never ends. They get the kids up, feed them, put them in their Sunday best, and take them to church. They guide them to the Lord’s house where together as a family, they’ll receive the gifts that maintain the most important relationship in the greatest household ever: their identity as baptized children and members of the Heavenly Father’s family.
Serving diligently in this role, with Christian hearts aimed at trusting in Christ for all that is required to actually accomplish it, parents engage in the single most important laboring in the entire cosmos.
There’s no other job in society that even comes close.