After enjoying a richly fruitful event yesterday—our annual “The Body of Christ and the Public Square” conference—I’m again reminded of life’s strangeness. I acknowledge that Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan, is by no means a powerhouse of financial magnitude, nor are we large by comparison to many other churches. In truth, we are a relatively unassuming bunch of Christians who gather for Word and Sacrament ministry. By God’s grace, in that gathering, we have discovered ourselves equipped for accomplishing some pretty incredible things—namely, the courageous carrying of Christ’s Gospel into the world in ways one might not expect from a troupe like us.
We do this as Confessional Lutherans—people who are disinterested in using candied entertainment to lure people through our doors. Instead, we hold to the historic Rites and Ceremonies the Church has enjoyed for two millennia. That’s been our identity for our six-and-a-half decades here in Hartland. Within the last ten years, as the world has intensified its efforts to invade and destroy all things Godly, we’ve seen our shiftless identity draw others alongside us in defense. Some of these folks are ones you only see on TV—such as Candace Owens, Charlie Kirk, Ben Shapiro, Dinesh D’Souza, Dennis Prager, and of course, Matt Walsh, who so graciously joined us for yesterday’s conference.
How did this happen? Well, that’s a question I’m asked quite frequently.
The honest answer is, “I don’t really know.” Or perhaps better stated, “Only God knows.” Although, I suppose I could say that I’ve found myself in the right places at the right times talking with the right people. I’ll add relatively frankly that those same people found the depth and relevance of our identity refreshing. That said, even as the one running point on these conversations, I never expected any of the opportunities we enjoy today. I was doing what pastors are supposed to be doing, plain and simple. The congregation I serve was, too.
Admittedly, I’ve grown in my awareness that the times, as they say, “are a-changing.” Things are much harder for the Church these days. In fact, the way I’ll often describe this is as it relates to clergy: the days when people tipped their hats kindly to a passing clergyman on the street, listened to him with gladness giving the invocation at a public school event, or smiled as he engaged in community affairs—these are all ancient and alien experiences compared to today. Nowadays, the chance of a clergyman being attacked or spit upon by a passerby is a ready possibility. I speak from experience. Still, God leads His undershepherds accordingly. The same goes for the people who know the Good Shepherd’s voice. His mission and its subsequent peripherals haven’t changed. With that, and speaking only for myself, I’ve spoken to particular topics in specific contexts as the Spirit required. This produced results. Sometimes good. Sometimes not so good. Either way, friendships emerged. Those friendships expanded to others, eventually moving into certain spheres where an in-the-trench congregation and her pastor would subsequently find themselves engaging with some of this world’s darkest forces. And yet, God saw fit to send help from others. Some of these reinforcements speak from exceptional platforms and bear extraordinary resources.
Indeed, God has blessed us in this. And so, we go forward.
There is a saying that victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan. The point is that when things are going well, plenty are willing to say they had a hand in it being so. But when the threat of trouble comes, associations grow thin, and people take cover in the shadows. The thing about God’s people here at Our Savior is that, for the most part, we’ve never been a congregation with the urge to cut and run when things got tough. As it is in most congregations, individuals have departed from our fellowship for one reason or another. Some because they simply didn’t like me and wanted me gone. In fact, they worked really hard to get rid of me. That’s fine. Not to be too bold, but they’re elsewhere, and I’m still here. Apparently, God had other plans.
Others left because of our congregation’s hard stance against abortion, LGBTQ impositions, CRT, and the like. Unfortunately, and in my opinion, those folks couldn’t exchange their love of this world for alignment with God’s Word. Interestingly, some left our fellowship for various reasons, but when they discovered the theological conditions in other places, they regretted the decision and returned. They realized the essentiality of Confessional Lutheranism’s inherent resistance to the ever-altering whims of culture. And why are confessionally liturgical churches so sturdy? At some point, I’ll probably write a book about it. Until I do, let’s just say it’s because their identity isn’t bound to the here and now. They share ownership of a singular identity with countless generations of Christians before them. As a result, they’re less inclined to roll over and give it away when the enemy comes calling for something new. They will fight as their fore-parents fought, knowing they’re not in the fray for the temporal successes bound to this world’s timeline but for the timeless successes that only God can provide—the kind He has supplied to the confessing Church during her most challenging days throughout all of human history.
There’s something else to keep in this regard.
Strangely, success often appears among such people as defeat—as struggle, suffering, hardship, and adversity. If you doubt it can be this way, consider the crucifixion of Jesus—the absolute epitome of the world’s depiction of failure. And yet, by the Lord’s gruesome self-giving, the cure to Sin’s poison was accomplished and delivered, and the old evil foe, the devil, was forever defanged. The incarnation of Jesus—God’s lowering of Himself to our station—and His eventual death on the cross, these two things demonstrate the truest glory of God. Jesus and His Heavenly Father believed and acknowledged this together in John 12:23-32. In the same way, Christians who crave faithfulness to this glory rather than the glory of prestige already have a proper bearing. They can trust even as victory and defeat seem blurry, assured that God is in the fracas with them and He is using even the hardest moments for His faithful people as it serves His righteous purposes.
There’s another saying relative to this that’s worth considering. I’ve heard it said (and I’ve likely shared it before) that the real tragedy in loss is the pain experienced from almost winning. I don’t know who said it, but I certainly appreciate its insight. It’s an honest observation of how it can hurt to arrive at the finish line but not cross it. But again, for Christians, it’s not necessarily about the finish line. It’s about the race. When it comes to humanity in general, the finish line gets crossed in death. Although, in one sense, Christians have already crossed the finish line as they’ve died to themselves and were reborn in Jesus. Baptized into Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work for faith in the One who already crossed the threshold by His death and resurrection, ultimately winning the victory, a Christian is accounted with His finish-line triumph. Knowing this, the race becomes a joyful venturing alongside the One who promises never to leave or forsake us as we run.
Of course, just as the world would interpret the Lord’s death as defeat, so also will it see the struggles we face as Christians—and even our mortal death—in the same light. But again, Christians know better.
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Saint Paul wrote those words. His words consolidate both living and dying into one unending life.
As Paul’s words meet with the here and now, we know that the hills and valleys, the straightaways and the turns, the uneven roads and the smooth terrain all provide opportunities for God’s victorious Gospel to drive us toward the next moment. What that moment will be—how it will feel, what will be at stake, the measure of effort it will exact—we don’t know. But what we do know is that if God is for us, who can be against us (Romans 8:31). He’s on our side. The victory is His. We get to go forth in faithfulness to Him regardless of the current climate of our culture. There’s courage to be had by this knowledge.
I mean, when not even death can scare you, what would any of us have to fear if someone vomited threats on us for saying that an unborn child is a person worthy of life; or that men can’t be women and women can’t be men; or that the answer to racism is not more racism as Critical Race Theory would insist? Of course, these are rhetorical questions easily answered.
Death has been conquered. In Jesus, we have life. This is at the heart of what we do here at Our Savior in Hartland. God is blessing our efforts as they’re born from this trust in the middle of both ease and struggle. I’m glad for both because I know they serve as tools of a God who has given unbreakable promises of His loving care.