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Today the people of God at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan, will celebrate the 67th anniversary of the congregation’s founding. We’ll enjoy receiving Rev. Dr. Peter Scaer as the preacher of the Gospel in holy worship, and then we’ll be blessed by his faithfulness with God’s Word in the adult Bible study hour. If you know anything about Dr. Scaer, then you’ll know he’s a modest man, someone who gives himself over in humble service to the Gospel. But he’s also someone willing to go on point with God’s Word against an ever-encroaching world. I’m glad he was willing to join us. We will be blessed by his efforts.

Looking back at what I just typed, I used the word “modesty.” I did so probably because of the text I just read this morning from Romans 12:2.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

“…be transformed…”

“…discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

These words assume a turning away from “self.” They assume submission to a process designed to align a person to God’s preferences. The scriptures are clear that this submission is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in a believer (John 1:9-13; Romans 1:16; John 15:16; Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Corinthians 12:13). In other words, we don’t choose to submit to God’s will. By the Gospel, He transforms us. This transformation creates within us a humble acceptance of His will and way as better. Genuine modesty is an outcropping of this humility.

Even apart from faith, I’m guessing that modesty is a recognizable virtue and that most normal people aren’t opposed to demonstrating it. This is true in the sense of modesty’s social definition, which is most often visible when someone is praised. In such a moment, the person deflects by underestimating what he or she has done. Of course, plenty of people are modest in the way Lord Chesterfield humorously described to his son: “Modesty is the only sure bait when you angle for praise.” I experienced this type of soft braggadocio with someone already this past week.

From another perspective, I’d say that most normal people also practice modesty in the sense that they do everything they can to avoid the appearance of indecency. But again, dwelling among those normal people are also the ones who use humility to hide their truest character, epitomizing the saying, “You have no idea what a poor opinion I have of myself—and how I, by no means, deserve it.”

I guess what I’m saying is that in both instances, modesty can be genuine, and it can be counterfeit.

Jennifer has been reading a lot about gaslighting, which is an abusive tactic that’s on the rise in our world. I’m guessing it’s always been around (because Sin, while it is very creative, tends to rely on the same essential formulas for getting humans to hurt one another), but it didn’t really get its colloquial tag until 1995 when it was coined by a columnist—and the columnist took it from the 1944 film entitled “Gaslight.” I’m betting that gaslighting is gathering a footing for normalcy today because of society’s ever-increasing run toward full blown narcissism.

Again, Jennifer has been investigating the behavior because she wants our kids to be equipped for identifying and countering it in relationships. Gaslighters are incredibly toxic people. Uneasy contention follows them everywhere they go. This is often true because they are incredibly controlling people who bear a self-perception of never being wrong. This, then, results in the meticulous reframing of reality to the point of making their victims question their own versions of reality.

“Maybe I’m not remembering the sequence of events correctly,” a person will eventually say after regular interactions with a gaslighter.

“Maybe what this person did to hurt me really isn’t that big of a deal,” another will wonder. “Maybe I’m being overly sensitive.”

“Maybe I didn’t do things the right way,” still another will self-inquire. “Maybe I actually screwed everything up royally.”

In all these instances, gaslighting weaponizes the modesty of the one wielding it, keeping itself hidden behind an artificial humility that does what it can to reshape narratives to achieve its goal with little resistance. A gaslighter is skillful at making conflict appear to be the fault of the victim, while at the same time convincing the victim that the efforts of the gaslighter are noble and in the victim’s best interest. Meanwhile, the victim discovers his or her own humility being turned backward in indictment, often resulting in some pretty ridiculous behaviors—like accepting the abuser’s false narratives as real, and then apologizing to the abuser for the hurt the victim believes he or she has caused.

I’m glad Jennifer is taking the time to gear up with this stuff and is passing it along to our kids. It’s becoming more likely they’ll experience this behavior, and if so, they’ll need to know how to deal with it—whether that means direct confrontation, or by keeping certain relationships at arm’s length.

But enough about gaslighting, because that’s not necessarily what I had on the brain this morning.

Stepping from Chesterfield’s above comment about modesty, I’m wondering if the best way to test the genuineness of a person’s humility is not necessarily by way of praise, but by accusation. In other words, when a person does something that appears good, modesty—real or fake—reacts by turning the spotlight away to others for equal credit. If the same reaction occurs when the person is accused of sinful behavior, then I wonder if the person’s modesty is as sturdy as he or she would have us believe.

Although, if I’m being honest, which of us can accept the revelation of our sins gracefully? Not too many. And why? Well, for one, I mentioned before that our society is running headlong into narcissism. Narcissists are incapable of seeing themselves as flawed. And if, for some reason, they discover an unsavory quality within themselves, it’s typically cast as someone else’s fault for being there.

“I cuss so much because my parents did.”

“I belittle my wife because she does things to irritate me.”

Well, whatever. Just know that whether a person realizes it or not, ultimately, these excuses are aimed at God. When you blame your own sins on someone else—or worse, you claim your sins and the behavior born from them are justifiable—you are calling God a liar. God’s Word considers this to be one of the grossest affronts perpetuated by the sinful flesh because it gaslights God, telling Him that what He knows to be true isn’t (1 John 1:8-10).

Once again, today, Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland is celebrating her 67th anniversary. It’s good for us as a family of believers to remember that the deepest purpose of this congregation over the course of the past 67 years has been to wrestle against straying from truth. It has been almost seven decades of fighting the urge to lie to anyone—ourselves included—about the precariousness of the predicament we face as sinners. It has been to readily accept that while we may try to hide our self-centeredness from others, we cannot conceal it from the One who will measure us according to His divine standards at the hour of our last breath. It has been to understand that the harm we cause to others, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is always a sign of something deep within us that, apart from faith, we really have no power to uproot and remove. But it has also been an expanse of years dedicated to preaching, teaching, and administering the solution to this Sin problem. It has been nothing short of 804 months of Christ crucified and raised for transgressors in order that those same offenders would be transformed and equipped for desiring God’s reality, God’s holy will (Romans 12:2). It has been 24,472 days of being remade into the likeness of the One who gave Himself over into death that we would have life to the fullest (John 10:10).

Life to the fullest.

This doesn’t mean a life of health, wealth, and ease. Sure, these things may come, but so will struggle. Life to the fullest means the ability to hold fast to Christ in joy and sorrow, Godly pleasure and pain, all the while being carried along through our years wrapped up in the truth that we are sinners in need of a Savior, and that Savior, Jesus Christ, has come. A full life is one that believes these things for eternal life. A full life has no end.

Modesty in this life born from and acted out according to the reality of Law and Gospel, Sin and Grace, will always be divinely genuine.

Introversion as a Superpower

Thinking back on the events of the past week, I’m thankful that I was able to attend the Exegetical Symposium at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It’s the first time in about five years or so that I’ve been able to get away to attend what is really two symposia—an exegetical symposium followed by a systematic symposium—offered over the course of four days. Although, having now returned, I remembered three reasons why I don’t make more of an effort to attend.

The first is that I never really feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. I mean that in a good way. There’s so much offered across the expanse of the two-part event. But as it would go, I can usually only afford to get away for a day or two. This time around, my inability to stay for the whole thing stung a little more than in the past because one of my favorite professors, Rev. Dr. David Scaer, invited me (and Bishop Hardy) to sit beside him at the event’s concluding banquet. Unfortunately, I was already back in Hartland, Michigan, when I received the invitation. Still, what I did get to experience while I was there was incredibly enriching. I thoroughly appreciated the papers given by the professors who beamed everything I remember appreciating about them while a student.

The second reason is as I just hinted. When I’m on campus, I miss the tutelage of insightful professors, and the collegiality of fellow seminarians, many of whom would become brothers in the trenches of a warfare that unfolded in ways few of us expected. When I see these friends again, it is a homecoming of sorts.

I’ll explain the third reason this way.

I learned something rather important about myself within the past ten days, some of those days spent traveling to and from events in Vermont, and the others, as I already mentioned, spent at the Symposium. Well, maybe a little more accurately, I didn’t necessarily discover something new about myself, but rather, I found myself finally willing to admit something I already suspected may be true.

I’m anti-social.

Okay, maybe I’m not anti-social in the clinical sense. Instead, perhaps the devout craving for solitude that almost always washes over me in a crowd is, at a minimum, suggesting I’m far more introverted than I ever truly realized.

I took a moment to look up the typical behavioral patterns of introverts, and for the most part, it seems I fit the bill. I prefer quiet in order to concentrate, which means I’m more than comfortable being alone. I’m not a fan of group work, but much prefer to do things myself. I’m often exhausted after being in a crowd, which explains why I’m in desperate need of a nap after Sunday morning’s usual activities. I dig into and use my imagination more so than my intellect both to solve problems and to relieve stress. Finally, I prefer to write rather than speak. But, having claimed all these individualities, I would not say I lack confidence in a crowd. I can’t remember a time when I was afraid to assume the pulpit. I can’t recall ever being afraid to take the lead in a public conversation when asked to do so. I’m also pretty sure I use more than just my imagination to unpack any given topic at hand. Still, the truth is, in these situations, I’m most comfortable settling in and sitting quietly while someone else dominates the conversation.

I say these things more so in relation to the Symposium, which, again, was a series of events infused with the kind of brilliance God doles out to a select few among us, with one of the Lord’s divine goals being that those wellsprings of information would shine the bright beams of their wisdom upon the rest of us. And yet, in between the Symposium’s scheduled speakers and the papers they presented, I also experienced coffee and conversation on occasion with various fellows whose only apparent goal was to, no matter the audience, prove their intellectual prowess to all within earshot.

Now, I don’t want to complain too much about this, mainly because if there was ever a time and place for vibrantly deep and tangential theological thought leading to discussion, it’s at such a Symposium. Still, you know the kind of person I’m talking about.

It’s easy to tell when someone is intelligent. It’s even easier to tell when someone wants you to think they are intelligent. This is one aspect of such contexts that must be endured rather than enjoyed, namely, the high probability of being cornered by someone you may or may not know intent on proving his cleverness. In my opinion, pocket flasks were made for such moments.

For the record, no, I don’t carry a flask. Although, I do own two.

I’ll add it’s also highly probable that what’s being peacocked in those moments seems, more often than not, to be of very little value to the Church. When that’s true, I may look like I’m listening, but in reality, I’m praying that God would smile on me by rewinding the clock to give back to me the hour I just wasted. And considering the vigor with which some of these conversations unfold, I almost feel guilty for not caring. An example of this involved listening to someone insist that Luther, influenced by Saint Jerome, considered belief in Semper Virgo (the perpetual virginity of Mary) as fundamental to salvation. Firstly, let me take a quick sip. Secondly, just know that mentally I begin to wander off into the weeds when the foundation of any theological argument appears to lessen the import of the Bible’s perspective, choosing to rest solely on non-biblical sources, instead. Thirdly, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth—the fact that the Son of God was born of the “clauso utero” (closed womb) of a virgin—is fundamental to the Christian Faith. It matters in more ways than we’ll ever be able to comprehend in this life. But Semper Virgo is not fundamental. And while Luther may have believed Mary was forever a virgin, he never imposed it on salvation’s equation. A Christian can believe Mary was forever a virgin if he or she wants to. Or not. It doesn’t matter. And our own Lutheran dogmaticians have long affirmed this, saying things like, “If the Christology of a theologian is orthodox in all other respects, he is not to be regarded as a heretic for holding that Mary bore other children in the natural manner after she had given birth to the Son of God” (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Volume II, p. 308). This is a reasonable analysis, especially since biblical texts such as John 2:12, Matthew 1:25, Matthew 12:46, and Matthew 13:55-56 appear to suggest by their contexts something other than Semper Virgo. But again, because the Greek words used in these texts (ἀδελφοὶ, most often used of male siblings; and ἀδελφαὶ, typically used for female siblings) have been used in other contexts to describe fellow believers, neighbors, and countrymen, the exegesis is open and inconclusive, giving folks the freedom to take whichever position they prefer. Personally, I think the texts and their contexts aren’t that complicated. But that’s just me.

Taking another quick sip, although this time from the practical opinion of a husband, I’m guessing the only person Semper Virgo would have really mattered to was Mary’s spouse, Joseph. If Semper Virgo is truly a thing, then we should be spending more time heralding the durability of the poor guy, and we should probably at least consider that there’s more to the reason he’s one of the select few the Bible grants the descriptor of “righteous” (Matthew 1:19). I’m guessing it was not only because he had a merciful heart, but because he endured never having the opportunity to enjoy the God-given delight granted to marriage for making babies. Even more, maybe Semper Virgo actually is true, and another of its proofs is Joseph’s disappearance early on in the Gospel narratives. His absence is a hint to his death at an early age. I can imagine a man married to a woman with a strict “hands off” policy dying well before his time.

In a prattling world of nonsensical chatter—even as it meets with theological things—I sometimes wish more people could discover and embrace the superpowers of their inner introvert, because for as counter-intuitive to its clinical definition as it might seem, introversion is one particular personality type naturally equipped for listening, observing, and then learning.

I think that may be where this morning’s meandering is finally carrying me.

When it comes to basic conversation, taking turns at listening is not only helpful, it’s also polite. A person who monopolizes the conversation is rude. The rude behavior blossoms into offensiveness when the monopoly is one of bloviating grandeur that becomes the imparting of wisdom no one really cares to receive. It’s what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he said, “The louder he spoke of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.” On the other hand, both contributing and listening—namely, listening, and the subsequent learning that occurs naturally from it—are key aspects of the Christian faith. The Bible is not silent in this regard (Proverbs 19:20; Romans 10:17; Ecclesiastes 5:1-3; and the like). Even the Lord Himself regularly emphasized listening and learning as crucial to the salvific exchange (Matthew 11:15). This is true not only because the message of the Gospel to be heard and learned is God’s chosen power source for salvation (Romans 1:16), but because the critical aspects of listening and learning flank what I already mentioned: observing. Together, the listening and learning of faith become the fabled sixth sense that calibrates the other five senses for rightly engaging with the world around us.

When we listen and learn through the lens of the Gospel for faith, we see things as they really are.

Having said all this, I suppose I’ll end by sharing a portion of something from Luther’s Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535) that my friend, Terry E. Hoese, posted on Facebook last week. At its core, I think it speaks to what I’ve shared here. By the way, I was blessed to see Terry at the Symposium, and was able to spend time in a wonderful conversation with him!

“Never should we think that we are so holy, so well instructed, and confident that we have learned it all. Because the more confident we are, just as much, we can err and fall, placing ourselves and others at great danger and risk” (p. 92).

Finally, I don’t know if any of this was helpful to you or not. Whether it was or wasn’t, I hope I didn’t sound too negative. I appreciated my time at the Symposium. As I said, I was enriched, and this is because there’s always so much to be mined from everything it offers—even by way of the sometimes maddening side-conversations. But as I said, no matter if a conversation is enjoyable or annoying, every interaction will be for a Christian a time of learning. They’re all opportunities for clarity. Through the lens of the Gospel for faith, all human dealings are opportunities for observing and then navigating this world in faithfulness to Christ. Even better, they’re times for communicating that same Gospel, that is, if you can get a word in edgewise.

Lighten Up and Laugh a Little

I just returned a few hours ago from three days in Vermont. I spoke briefly at a dinner on Thursday night, and then gave two speeches, the first on Friday in Montpelier (which is the capital city), and the second on Saturday at a conference in Burlington. Sitting here this morning, the only thing I can think to say is that I know for a fact God has a sense of humor. This is true, not only because he often displays it in His Word, but because we all still exist. No, I’m not cranky. I say this after a short layover last night at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. What a place! If God lacked the ability to laugh at our ridiculousness, I’m guessing He’d have pressed heaven’s gigantic red destructo-button a long time ago. The fact that He hasn’t is confirmation that His humor is directly related to His patience, which, in turn, could only be born from His unfathomable love for His creation.

But again, the proof of His humorous side, especially the times when He has poked fun at us, are already visible in His Word. It’s likely I’ve shared some of my favorites with you before. For starters, when God describes by Solomon’s hand a beautiful woman engaging in indiscretion as a pig with a gold ring through her nose, that’s kind of a funny image to me (Proverbs 11:22). Or when eleven chapters later, God calls out slackers and their lame excuses (22:13), it’s as if Solomon knew what it was like to have kids who play video games all day long. I also enjoy the story of Elijah facing off with the prophets of Baal, especially that moment when God moves him to taunt them, calling out, “Cry aloud, for (Baal) is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). Relieving himself? If the reader only knew what Elijah meant by that, he or she would likely blush.

I could go on and on, but that’s plenty. Okay, maybe one more from that grittier vein.

Have you read Galatians 5:7-12? God, speaking through the Apostle Paul, is upset with the Galatians for being led by the Judaizers back into thinking that the Law can somehow save them. In this section of the letter, Paul pokes fun at the belief that circumcision is one of the proofs of an Olympic-sized Christianity, and so he recommends those who are saying as much should just go all the way to the big leagues and “emasculate themselves” (v. 12). In other words, why settle for the minor league badge of honor with God, having cut off only a little, when you can step up your game of faith and take the whole thing off?

That, right there, is funny.

Truth be told, to even come close to discovering these biblical gems, you need a sense of humor. You most certainly need to be able to laugh at yourself. In my humble opinion, the ability to laugh at one’s failings—not proudly, but with a genuine admittance to one’s own stupidity—this is one of the ways of dominating the guilt that Sin, Death, and the devil try to impute. I mean, those times in my life when the devil tries to remind me of my Sin, it’s easy enough to say, “Well, what do you expect? I’m an idiot. Thankfully, the Lord loves and forgives idiots like me.” Unfortunately, the world we live in appears to have long since lost the ability to laugh at itself, and instead, epitomizes what Will Rogers meant by the words, “Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else.”

If there’s one thing we do a lot of in the Thoma house, it’s laugh. Sometimes we do it at each other’s expense. Trust me, it’s not cruelly intended, and I always receive my fair share, for which I’m glad. There are far too many miseries stalking the countryside beyond our walls, all of them promising ample opportunities for sadness. Thankfully, it seems that whenever we meet up with these meandering brutes, the Thoma family continues to prove an uncanny ability for discovering what’s funny about them.

A smile is something of a human wonder. And yet, there are few things better than a smile giving way to genuine laughter. God willing, this truth is not lost on you. Hopefully you’ve known a time or two with family, friends, or even complete strangers when you’ve found yourself laughing so hard that you nearly cried. During our recent time together in holiday quarantine, I can promise you that I and my family laughed a lot. In fact, I learned anew just how funny each of them can truly be.

To come at all of this from a different direction, I mentioned to the folks in the adult Bible study last Sunday that I’ve begun the application process necessary for pursuing a doctorate. I’m not fully vested in the idea just yet, mainly because I already have way too many irons in the fire—and not to mention, I have one child in college and two more nearing the same thresholds of expense. But we’ll see. Jennifer is supportive, and I know many of you are, too. That’s helpful. But either way, I haven’t even been accepted, yet, so there’s that. Still, those who know me well can affirm that I’m a fan of creative language, and so if I do go forward with the effort, I’ll likely settle on a course that has something to do with creative writing in service to the Church. I’m telling you this because, while scanning the horizon of relative possibilities, I found myself chuckling while reading an article written by a youthful PhD candidate suggesting that Philip Stanhope, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield (best known as Lord Chesterfield in the literary world) was both a sexist and a pietist, being someone who prided himself on never laughing, even counseling his son in various letters to never be caught smiling, and to treat women with the same care you’d offer simple-minded children.

Again, I laughed when I read what this up-and-coming scholar had written. And why? Because he completely misread Chesterfield. For his era, Chesterfield tended to be somewhat of a “Bob Newhart” with his style. When you get a chance, just take a look at the portrait of him painted by Allan Ramsay. You can see the sly facetiousness sketched right into the contours of the man’s face. While his humor may have been dry, his wit was incredibly deep, and I’ve read enough of his scribblings to know he appreciated working in opposites. In other words, if he wanted his son to laugh more, he’d forbid him from laughing altogether, assuring him hyperbolically “that since I have had the full use of my reason, nobody has ever heard me laugh.” If he wanted his boy to be respectful of women, he’d describe with an encouraging tone outlandish things the young man could do that would certainly put them off—like treating them in every way as one would treat children.

I use the same style while teaching and with public speeches, whether my audience is comprised of youth or adults. I became more aware of this style’s value through my favorite seminary professor (who also preached at my ordination), Rev. Dr. David P. Scaer. He’s the one who stoked the coals of this comfortable style that helps make the details of just about any topic of conversation more memorable. And why does it work? Because it changes the rules of communication in drastic ways, ones that force the listener to do more than just take in information. A person must think abstractly, analyzing the ridiculous in comparison to the obvious, taking what’s genuinely bad and setting it alongside what’s genuinely good.

What kind of dolt completely misreads this skillfulness in Chesterfield? My guess is either the kind of person who has no sense of humor, or the kind who wants to do what so many others are doing these days—which is to rewrite history in order to cancel goodness. Unfortunately, I think it’s the latter rather than the former. It seems one can make a name for his or herself in today’s academic world by coming up with radically overanalyzed premises intent on canceling what society has long understood as good, and Lord Chesterfield hasn’t been spared.

In the end, the rest of us—the normal people who aren’t offended by every little rhetorical barb causing the slightest discomfort—will continue to laugh at funny things, all the while enjoying the ability to laugh at ourselves. We’ll do this because we know we are sinners who are already well-deserving of any jab we might get, all the while recognizing the value that even God sees in humor. It’s an exceptional way of bringing insight to dimly lit situations, ones that need a little bit of jostling in order to make sense of them.

I need to get along to other things, so to close this all out, I’ll end with a joke from the movie “Big Fish,” which is a favorite (and an incredibly underrated) film by Tim Burton that Jennifer and I revisited last week. Interestingly, the main character, Edward Bloom, played at various ages by Albert Finney and Ewan MacGregor, in many ways epitomizes what I’ve already described. For instance, in one scene, Bloom describes with great seriousness for his daughter-in-law a recurring and terrifying dream he used to have as a child. He told the story of a crow that came to him and said his aunt was going to die. When he awoke, he was so rattled, he went to his parents and told them about the dream, but they brushed off his concern. The next day, his Aunt Stacy was discovered dead.

“That’s terrible,” the daughter-in-law said.

“Terrible for her,” Bloom replied, “but think about me, a young boy with that kind of power.” He continued, “It wasn’t three weeks later that the crow came back to me in a dream and said, ‘Your daddy’s gonna die.’ I didn’t know what to do. I finally told my father, but he said, ‘Oh, not to worry,’ but I could see he was rattled. The next morning, he wasn’t himself, kept looking around, waiting for something to drop on his head, because the crow didn’t say how it was gonna happen, just those words: ‘Your daddy’s gonna die.’ Well, he left home early and was gone for a long time. When he finally came back, he looked terrible, like he was waiting for the axe to fall all day. He said to my mother, ‘I’ve just had the worst day of my life.’ ‘You think you’ve had a bad day,’ she said. ‘This morning the milkman dropped dead on the porch!’”

Bloom never broke his stare of seriousness, making the moment even more impactful.

Now, this short theatrical exchange I just shared could offend you as being in poor taste, or it could make you laugh, because in a memorable way, it allowed genuine human beings the opportunity to own the foolishness of thinking we can forever hide our transgressions, especially from the divine; or that any seemingly serene context is free of Sin’s fingerprints. These are important lessons to be learned. But as I said, whatever your preference may be, I’ll leave it to you to laugh as you become wiser, or to frown from offense. Just know that if you are offended, give me at least until Monday to let me know. I’m far too tired right now to respond.

Perspective and Perception

I mentioned last week that due to illness, I spent a portion of my time between Christmas and the New Year revisiting the films of my youth. One of the films I ended up watching with the whole family was “The Karate Kid.” This specific movie selection was inspired by time with the Netflix series “Cobra Kai,” which is a show that meets up with the principal characters from the three “The Karate Kid” films. Jennifer and I figured if our children were going to truly understand the turbulent dynamics between Danny LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence, they’d better go back to the beginning. And so we did.

At one particular point in the film, I turned to Jennifer and asked somewhat rhetorically, “We’re not watching the same movie we watched as kids, are we?” I asked this during the scene in which Danny arrives at Mr. Miyagi’s house covered in pasta sauce, having just collided with a waiter in the kitchen at his girlfriend Ali’s country club. When he walks in, Mr. Miyagi is drunk and singing, making saké toasts to an old black and white image of a woman. Within a few minutes, we learn that the woman is his wife, and that after Miyagi had gone off to fight in World War II on behalf of the United States, she was moved to a Japanese internment camp where she and her unborn son died during delivery. We hear Mr. Miyagi tearfully mumble a sliver of these details, but we don’t finally understand the gravity of the scene until Danny reads a letter he discovers in a shoebox among some prestigious war medals, which, if you look closely, are the Medal of Honor, Bronze Star, Silver Star, and Purple Heart.

As a kid, the most I remember taking from the scene was that for as simple as Mr. Miyagi appeared, he had a rich past, one in which he must have done some incredibly heroic things in order to earn the medals in the shoebox. What those deeds may have been is left to imagination. For a kid, the revelation interprets Miyagi as an “action hero” of sorts, suggesting that the Cobra Kai villains didn’t really know who they were up against. But watching this scene as an adult, namely as a husband and father, I experienced an altogether different moment. Instead of sensing the electrifying potential for overcoming impossible odds and the villains that pose them, I experienced the pain of human frailty, of a man who still mourns the loss of his wife and child, two people he was helpless to save.

My comment to Jennifer was an acknowledgment of perspective. As a kid, I perceived the scene one way, but as an adult, I perceived it another.

Something else came to mind at that moment.

Have you ever seen a photograph that you thought captured something truly breathtaking? I have. I used to be quite fond of Ansel Adams’ portraits, specifically the landscapes he photographed at Yosemite National Park in the late 50s. Even in black and white, his images seemed capable of encapsulating the beauty of God’s creation. But then I visited Yosemite National Park while in college and I realized how limiting Ansel Adams’ portraits were. Not only were they absent their vivacious colors, but they were inadequate in scope. A look to the left, a scan to the right, a glance upward from one of Yosemite’s mountains and I could see there was so much more beyond the edges of what Adams was allowing us to see through his lens. That, too, was a moment for the acknowledgement of perspective.

Someone once said that perception is everything. Unfortunately, that’s likely true. I say “unfortunately” because perception is born from perspective. This means if one’s perspective is skewed, then the perception it generates will be skewed, too. Consider the familiar examples. If a person’s perspective is normally pessimistic, they’ll likely perceive the glass as half empty. The opposite is true if they view things optimistically. Or, how about a Michigander’s January perception of a bright blue sky? From a place of seemingly forever-grays, it’s likely just one blue sky packs more of a punch for joy than a Floridian might experience in a whole year.

Perspective and perception are inseparable, and yet perspective seems to be more important. Without the right perspective, what you’re attempting to perceive won’t truly make sense.

I guess I’m thinking about this today for two reasons.

The first comes from conversations I’ve experienced in the past few weeks with Christians who are clearly divided from Christ. For the most part, it seems they’re comfortable taking sides with ungodliness while at the same time being offended by what the Author of the scriptures would actually call good. A person could only be found so foolish if his perspective, and thereby his perception, of Christ is miscalibrated. That, dear friends, is an avoidable tragedy (Matthew 7:21-23).

The second reason for this morning’s thoughts on perception and perspective arise from the changing of the Church Year’s season. It’s interesting how each of the seasons is in place to provide perspective of Christ and His work to save us. Move from one season to another, and the field of faith’s vision is honed or expanded. For example, we just left the Christmas season, one in which we beheld what God was willing to do to rescue Mankind from Sin. He loved us so much that He sent His Son—God incarnate. We leave this season for another—Epiphany. For the most part, Epiphany highlights the beginning of the incarnate Son of God’s ministry and the miracles He performed. From Epiphany’s vantage, we can see that Jesus is not like any man of God before Him. He can heal the sick. He can calm storms with a word. He can raise the dead. He can do things that only God can do. From this perspective, Epiphany perceives that when He finally makes His way to the cross to defeat Sin, Death, and hell, He will succeed. This perception will be good to have when the perspectives change again in Lent and Holy Week—when, like the disciples, the only thing we see is our Lord’s apparent submission in weakness to dreadful events leading to His death.

As we continue to make our way into the New Year, I pray that your primary perspective in all things will always be one of faith—that you’ll grow more and more to see things through the lens of the cross and empty tomb. Observing in this way, you’re sure to see things as God sees them, discovering that when it comes to mortal perspectives, “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12). Even better, I pray you’ll discover along the way that God’s thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways His ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). Counter to the inclination of our perspectives, Word and Sacrament ministry is paramount. And why? Because He would not discard the sinner. He would be found loving the unlovable. Keeping with this line of divine sight, I pray you’ll proceed into the New Year “preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, setting your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).

Don’t Change the Channel

2022 has arrived.

I watched a “2021 Year in Review” segment yesterday on Fox News. It was only a few minutes long. Unfortunately, each of the notable events mentioned were tragic in nature. The list included things like the collapsed apartment building in Florida that killed 98 residents, Derek Chauvin’s trial, the hurricane in Louisiana, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the deadly tornados that ripped through several states, and so many other heartbreaking occurrences from the previous year. Altogether—the events mentioned, the images shown, the concerned tone—sure made it seem like the ones both in front of and behind the cameras were doing everything in their power to avoid mentioning anything good about 2021. It’s as if they’re rooting for this overly-fearful world to remain firmly in terror’s grip, allowing nothing through the airwaves that might suggest a footing for joy in 2022.

The gent presenting the list, Bill Hemmer, closed out the segment by suggesting the new year is likely to be dominated by more COVID strains.

Interestingly, the very next segment was an equally grimy chain of news stories built from links of gloom, starting with a recap of Joe Biden’s recent “winter of death” comments, his vaccine mandates and the court cases emerging from them, and then, if the viewer was paying attention, a strange juxtaposition of understaffed hospitals and thousands of healthcare workers being fired for refusing to get the vaccine. Right after a handful of commercials about this and that drug for this and that condition warning of this or that possible side effect, the next segment highlighted outgoing New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s admittance that he never thought lockdowns would actually be helpful, even though all along he swore by them as crucial for preserving the lives of New Yorkers. I wonder how the tidal-sized number of people in New York who went out of business because of the lockdowns feel about his comments.

As you can see, a few minutes of TV news served to be little more than an exhausting parade of misery.

In one sense, I think all of this may have been shocking to my system, mainly because I rarely watch TV. I get most of my information by reading. However, since I’ve been ill at home (which, by the way, happens to me every year after Christmas, so Covid or not, this was nothing new), I’ve spent more time than usual with our television, primarily binge-watching 80s flicks with anyone in the house willing to watch them with me. I must confess that “Gremlins,” “Predator,” and other such gems proved to be far better choices than 24-hour news. I should add to this confession that my relatively short interlude with cable news has also served to remind me how the fictional awfulness in movies can’t hold a candle to reality. Not even Hollywood movie scripts conjuring otherworldly xenomorphs with bloodthirsty appetites can outpace the world’s creativity for genuine dreadfulness.

Perhaps a New Year’s resolution for some among us could be to spend less time watching TV and more time doing something enriching—like visiting with classic literature, or writing a poem for a loved one, or perhaps most enriching of all, upping one’s visits with the Word of God, namely attendance at church and Bible study. If you find you’re a lot sadder and more anxious these days, you should consider the recent studies suggesting that regular churchgoers were the only ones to experience improved mental health during the last twenty months.

Go figure. When you spend time with the One who has overcome Death—and He adorns you with the Gospel spoils of His victory—you certainly shouldn’t expect to leave a less enriched or hopeless person.

Still, and as I was intent to preach on Christmas Eve, going to church is not for the faint of heart. It takes guts to attend. Although, this is true not for the reasons terror-mongering TV anchors might suggest. For example, even though the Church is still in the seemingly serene season of Christmas, when pitched against Christmas’ tranquil festivities, a narrative describing troops tramping through the streets of a little town in Judea killing all the boys who are two years old and younger certainly seems to interrupt the mood. But that’s exactly what the historic lectionary’s tradition for the Second Sunday after Christmas will give to countless Christians across the world this morning—an account from Matthew 2:16-18 that won’t let anyone in the pews forget just how awful this world is and what it is willing to do to retain its power.

But don’t let this hard news convince you to change the channel of your attention too soon. Stay tuned this morning, because it won’t end on a low note.

Yes, it will be an honest report. We’ll be shown the world in which we live. But Jesus will be a part of the news story. Bill Hemmer won’t be the one bringing the message. It’ll be the one ordained for preaching: the pastor. He’ll be the one doing what God has called him to do, which is to proclaim Jesus as the Word made flesh—the divine antidote God has mindfully inserted into this world’s terrifying narrative. Jesus will be heralded as the ultimate point of origin for joy and the only pathway forward through and into a hope-filled future.

In a world of terror—a world in which the Gospel writer Matthew reminds us that not even children are safe—Jesus has come. He succeeded in His effort to defeat Sin, Death, and the devil. He’s the only one who could do it. By His death and resurrection, no matter what hopelessness the world might try to force feed into us in every imaginable and unimaginable way, we’ll always have the certainty of God’s final deliverance from all things dreadful promised to those whose faith is found in Jesus Christ (John 16:33).

No matter what the new year has in store, Christians can smile even as they’re muscling through the mess. And sometimes, just sometimes, some of us are blessed enough to do it while enjoying the 80s films that made us smile as kids. But as I suggested before, perhaps an even better idea would be a trip through the pages of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, or Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth, or perhaps a casual visit with Robert Frost—all after church, of course.

God bless and keep you in 2022. I would promise it to be a time of joyful hope, but I don’t need to. God already has. Look to the cross and see the incredibly vivid reminder for yourself.