You Can Be Lifted

An interesting conversation between two women occurred beside me at my super-secret restaurant hideout this past week. I was alone with a gift card, my phone, a chicken salad sandwich, and a desire to get a moment of solitude with some required reading materials.

You should know I don’t try to overhear anyone’s conversation. On the contrary, to avoid distractions of every kind, I prefer to sit as far from everyone else in the room as possible. And yet, you know the sort of dialogue to which I’m referring. No matter where you sit, one person is speaking with uncomfortable volume and animation—almost as if she craves the admiration of everyone within a ten-table radius. And the other person at her table isn’t saying a word, only bobbing her head in agreement with everything shared.

As it would go, the story she told was dreadful. She spoke of their mutual friend’s shortcomings in the worst ways, pinning this and that personal injury upon her, making her seem like a ruthlessly unfeeling villain. After a few minutes of unrestrained mockery, it became clear that the two conversing women were related, and the target of their ill-witted ire was also a family member. However, I couldn’t quite figure out the person’s exact location on the family tree. Nevertheless, so goes William Thackeray’s observation that if “a man’s character is to be abused, say what you will, there’s nobody like a relation to do the business.”

Amazingly disheartening. And vicious. I couldn’t imagine living in such a family.

If you recall, I began by calling the conversation interesting. I meant that. Nearly all the grievances described by the blustering woman (and heard by everyone else in the restaurant) occurred while serving together at their church. Fascinatingly, this woman was utterly ignorant of the Christian witness she was portraying. And the fact that a man wearing a clerical collar was sitting a few tables away betrayed her confidence in her behavior. She knew I was there. Usually when someone is misbehaving, so to speak, and a clergyman happens by, they tend to alter their behavior, if only to keep from embarrassment. They go from cussing about their neighbor to suddenly explaining how often they read their Bible. That happens in my presence quite often. Not this time. In fact, I think she was counting on my approval.

Firstly, I’ve learned over the years that people who speak about others this way are usually far more capable of the actual atrocities in any failing relationship. I’ve also learned that in the economy of offenses given and received, they always ensure the scales are tipped in their favor. In other words, their sins are never as horrific as those committed against them. They’re bad, but not that bad. In fact, they’re pretty good—much higher up the ladder of decency and deservedness than so many other wretches.

There’s a portion in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress that goes:

“He that is down needs fear no fall, he that is low no pride. He that is humble ever shall have God to be his guide.”

Saint Paul’s words concerning the truest depths of our guilt are Bunyan’s inspiration. He wrote, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Of course, inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul’s instruction is undoubtedly born from his Savior’s words, such as the Lord’s concluding remark to a parable about a wedding feast: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11). Four short chapters later, Jesus would repeat this teaching word for word, once again demonstrating in unequivocally crisp detail what He meant by His preceding parable.

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

I think what’s most interesting about this particular parable is the tax collector’s words. In English translations, he’s portrayed as humble, but it seems little more than humility that knows its sinfulness in a basic way. The English renders quite plainly, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In the original Greek, it’s so much more than that. He doesn’t just call himself “a sinner” but refers to himself with the demonstrative definite article “τῷ,” which means he is calling himself what Paul called himself in 1 Timothy 1:15—the chief, the epitome, the sinner of all sinners. In other words, Jesus is portraying the tax collector as someone unconcerned with the sinfulness of everyone else in the room by comparison, preferring to take his place before God not as one of many but as the only one—and the worst one. No one is lower. No one is more horrible. No one is more deserving of God’s rightful wrath.

He is not a sinner. He is the sinner.

Jesus ends the parable so abruptly that it must have shocked His listeners. He didn’t describe a propitiating sacrifice, which would have been expected. He didn’t mention negotiations between the tax collector and God—that he would work harder to be a better person. Jesus simply describes the man as calling himself the worst sinner and then caps the parable by saying, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (v. 14). A contrite confession born from faith was enough at this moment. Knowing his truest identity as a contemptible sinner, he asked God to give him something other than what he deserved, something he knew was relevant to God’s innermost character: mercy. And that’s what God gave him. The tax collector left God’s presence forgiven.

Bunyan’s words ring true. You cannot fall if you’re already as low as you can be. But you can be lifted. And for all who know their sins, as Jesus describes, God promises to be the One to do the lifting. Look to the cross. You’ll see the One who submitted Himself to depths far lower than any of us could imagine. That’s the mystery inherent to Paul’s words, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

I’ll never get my mind around what it means that Christ actually became Sin in my place. But I don’t have to understand it for it to be true. I believe it. That belief, established by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, moves me to remember my place before Him. I was as low as is humanly and spiritually possible. He lifted me up. I was Sin through and through. He took my place in its dust. But then He went even lower, taking into Himself anything that Sin, Death, and hell could ever inflict. As He did this, He won my innocence before the Father. Humble repentance and faith receive this victory in its absolute fullness.

It’s much harder to pummel others for their crimes when we know this about ourselves.

I want you to know I did two things before I left the restaurant. First, I paid for the women’s meal. It wasn’t that much more than what I had left on the gift card. Second, I left a note for them. I wrote one thing on it: Luke 18:9-14. I don’t know if they read the text. I’m hoping my first gesture stirred them to at least consider it. If they do eventually read it, I don’t know if they’ll get the point. What I do know is that God’s Word is powerful. It has everything necessary for converting and convincing proud hearts. I also know that our reflection of the Gospel’s light before the world around us has muscle, too (Matthew 5:13-16). I hope they read the text, take a chance on what Christian humility truly is—what it means relative to Sin—and then beam that humble trust in Christ to others.

Peeling Back the Layers

Maybe I should share it and maybe I shouldn’t, but Jennifer asked me recently if I’d ever thought about using a content subscription service like Patreon. I know why she asked. Because as it may also be for you, the need to make ends meet is never far from us. Thinking creatively, she knows that I put out thousands of words a week across various platforms, and I do all of it pretty much because I can, without personal benefit. I’ve said before, I often consider my writing proclivity to be more of an affliction. I’m stricken with the need to observe and then scribble into words what I’ve observed. Most folks with the same disease use it to make a living. I can’t even imagine writing for a living, other than to consider the basics of what I’m already doing as a pastor in service to the Gospel.

Either way, Jen’s questioning prompted at least two thoughts worth considering this morning.

The conversation continued with me saying, essentially, no, I haven’t thought of using Patreon. Although, my response was more, “I’ll look into it when things slow down a bit.” That’s my default reply. It’s not a lie. I’m always hoping for things to slow down. But she and I know they never do. She went on to ask if I sometimes feel like I’ll look back on my life with regret, concerned that I’ll have spent too much time running myself ragged. I didn’t tiptoe around that question. Yes, that thought has crossed my mind. I’ll bet it has crossed yours, too. I do my best to be honest when it does, admitting I’m sometimes to blame for my own busyness. Not always. But sometimes. And I say that with a caveat.

For one, the simple truth is that pastors are often treated like genies in bottles. (By the way, I wrote about this in my book Ten Ways to Kill a Pastor.) No matter the relevance of the need, people rub the pastoral lamp through an email, text, phone call, private message, or whatever (at any given moment at any particular hour of the day) with the expectation the pastor will immediately pop out with a willingness to do whatever is needed. Like other pastors, I struggle with this. But before you take offense at this, let me explain.

For me, the struggle comes because I have a tendency to look at everything as an opportunity for ministry, and as a result, I have a hard time saying no. A real-world instance of how this gets me into trouble could be, for example, those moments when a non-member who just so happens to know me—or is referred by someone—reaches out to ask me to come and pray with a dying friend or a sick relative. As it relates to my official duties, this is not necessarily my responsibility. As it relates to my calling as a Christian, it is. I know this, and so, I wrestle with what to do. More often than not, I find myself willing to commit to just one more thing (on top of an already overwhelming stack of things in a bustling congregation and school requiring a lot of attention) because I’m hoping there’s a chance the Gospel will be heard and take root. I do this fully aware that if I say yes, it’ll be an overtax on my family, my actual duties, and my health. If I say no, it’s likely I’ll be interpreted as cold, ultimately representing the congregation as uncaring, and possibly seeing an extended relationship come undone.

Believe it or not, these types of situations happen more than you might think. I get requests like this regularly. If you don’t believe me, just ask our office administrator, Georgine.

Still, even when I say no, admittedly, I’m more than capable of making bad choices with the limited free time I do have. I almost always fill it with something I hope will be productive. Perhaps it’s inherent to pastors to be as Longfellow described, which is “up and doing, with a heart for any fate; still achieving, still pursuing….” There’s always something that needs doing in any congregation. Personally, I’d argue that if the pastor isn’t relatively tempted by countless opportunities for service, it’s likely he’s not all that attuned to his role and its surroundings.

Carrying this back around to Jennifer’s question about Patreon, a second thought comes to mind.

I suppose when it comes to using something like Patreon, I also mentioned to Jennifer that I’m not so sure people would subscribe. I say this because the kind of writing I do is far different than what’s popular.

Just look at what’s in front of you right now. My content is rarely brief.

I know, I know. Countless people would say less is more. Mindful of this, I try to be as crisp as I can. It’s just that when I start thinking about something I want to say, I often get lost in the layers, feeling the need to share with the reader what I’ve discovered—or at least pondered—and then fill any potential holes. As a result, a paragraph turns into two, followed by a free-thinking examination of those first two paragraphs that becomes two more, and so on.

I can’t just give a little. I want to be thorough. Remember, everything is an opportunity for ministry. This includes everything I write.

Digging deeper, I’m not sure people would pay a couple of bucks a month to read that deeply. As a society, we no longer exist in an age designed for that kind of content. We’re living in a time of memes, mic-drop soundbites, and pithy Tik-Tok videos created and uploaded while driving. Unfortunately, people aren’t just being entertained by these things. They’re being trained by them, too. They’re learning that life’s important things can be received and understood in 15-second intervals.

In short, the exchange of humanity’s thoughts seems to have become little more than an ever-streaming attempt at witty succinctness that really has no handles, nothing to grab onto. People think what they’re hearing is a truth bomb. But it really isn’t. It’s a superficial statement filled with gigantic holes. Its hook is more emotional than substantial. I suppose folks working at genius levels can accomplish hole-less truth bombs that do both. Admittedly, Jordan Peterson seems capable of such things. Ben Shapiro, too. But that’s two people. Last I heard, there were almost five billion people using social media on any given day. The best any of the rest of us non-geniuses can do is to be as lucid as possible—to take a chance at presenting an intelligible case made from the best words in the best order and sent along with the best of intentions. That takes work on both sides of the digital screen. Most people don’t want to work in this way. They want to be spoon fed the sweeter things. In our internet age, anyone willing to work—whether it be a person wishing to write substantially for public consumption or someone eager to be taught and then employ what they’ve learned in the surrounding world—nowadays, these people risk vicious cancellation. And why? Because sinful human beings prefer what pads the throne upon which they’re already sitting. Soundbite communications are designed to be that padding—to be emotionally comfortable, and ultimately, subjectively moldable to almost anyone’s closely-held ideology.

I don’t recall who said it, but someone once observed that few people would bother speaking at all if they actually knew how much of what they were saying was being misunderstood. To overcome this—to actually understand other people and their ideas in a way that benefits society—we must be working from points of origin that are far more than witty posts from our favorite influencers. It takes deeper levels of interaction, concentration, and contemplation—far more than what Tik-Tok videos and Facebook stories can provide.

Saint Paul wrote in Colossians 4:6 that Christians should be capable of giving an answer to anyone who asks. Saint Peter said something similar in 1 Peter 3:15. He noted the need for “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you….” Giving an answer and making a thorough defense means being equipped for conversation with content. It means study. Study takes work. It understands that being able to answer one question is possible with a little work. But it’ll take more to answer a second and third, or a fourth and fifth. Normal human conversations are rarely one or two sentences in length. They’re dialogues. They require content.

Mindful of people’s New Year’s resolutions, maybe a worthy exercise would be to start thinking through and then challenging (if necessary) your friends’ one-sentence social media posts before clicking “like.” After a little more thought, you might realize the foolishness in the meme I stumbled upon this morning which reads, “You don’t need a lot of friends to be happy, just a few real ones who appreciate you for who you are.”

Neat picture. Very moving. Two women toasting with a bottle of wine between them. However, these emotional hooks don’t change how stupid the meme is. It sounds nice, but it’s foolishly shallow. And it’s inviting moral disaster. I won’t tell you how. Take a minute to think about it. Just know there are a gazillion of these narcissistic messages feeding the egos of billions. I think folks will need to dig deeper to avoid becoming one of the billions.

Theological Etiquette

I don’t know about you, but my early morning startup process is a mixture of ingredients. Coffee in hand, it typically involves a brief interaction with the Bible as prompted by a devotional resource. After that, as long as nothing is pressing, I spend a few minutes reading, whether that be an article or a casual scroll through social media. Last Sunday’s routine enjoyed a visit with John 1:14 followed by commentary from Luther, a portion of which encouraged believers to “further and increase [God’s] kingdom, which is in so many suppressed and hindered by the devil and the world.” Luther continued by saying this happens when we “open to Christ our treasures and present them to Him, as the wise men did. And how? Behold, His Word is written (Matthew 25:4): ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’”

Not long after visiting with these things, I read a relatively intuitive quotation from Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament during the American Revolution and a critic of Britain’s treatment of the colonists. He said, “All men that are ruined, are ruined on the side of their natural propensities.” In other words, pay close attention to your natural inclinations in any particular situation. Doing so can spare you some of life’s biggest headaches, the kinds that will inevitably do you in.

This is incredibly insightful, so much so that it came to mind later that morning during the Adult Bible study. We’re currently studying Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Last week, we continued our walk through chapter 5, which began with revisiting:

“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (vv. 1-10).

Relative to this, Burke’s words seemed strangely appropriate. They understand that restraining the types of behavior Saint Paul forbids requires self-awareness, the kind born from genuine honesty.

I didn’t know it, but philosophically, Burke appears to have been a man after my own heart. He wrote a book entitled A Vindication of Natural Society. I managed to read about ten pages of it on Google Books before ordering a hard copy for myself. In the book, Burke chisels away satirically at deism’s popularity while also showing how proper manners help steer and uphold morality while fortifying the boundaries of natural law. He doesn’t necessarily use the following example, but it came to mind as I read those ten pages—and I shared the thought with the Bible study attendees.

Consider a man opening a door for a woman. When a man does this, he isn’t just being properly polite. He’s also acknowledging essential distinctions between men and women. There are things men can and should do that women cannot and should not. The same is true in the opposite direction. There are things women can and should do that men cannot and should not. And yet, while these things might be otherwise offensive to some, the distinction is acknowledged and upheld by an act of humility. Burke argues that the practice of manners—which are, for all intents and purposes, societal rites and ceremonies—restrain darker inclinations.

Now, think back to Burke’s original quotation insisting that one’s natural propensities, if unguarded, can be ruinous.

Everyone has improper tendencies. Let’s say a particular man has a propensity for lording over women, treating them as shameful lessers. By making a conscious effort to begin opening doors for women, this man takes a step toward restraining this unfortunate inclination. He’s submitting himself respectfully to the role of caretaker without unnaturally emasculating himself. The process acknowledges a man’s biblical role of headship, yet it does so in love. The practice of manners—the societal ceremony—helped maintain this framework. I’ll give you another, more personal, example.

I had a good circle of friends in my earliest high school years in Danville, Illinois. Believe it or not, even as testosterone-enriched athletes, we were never inclined to swear. The rest of our teammates were. Outnumbered in this regard, as a result, there came a time when swearing began infecting our circle. To stop it, the four of us pledged to punch one another anytime an inappropriate word crossed our lips. A few days and lots of bruises later, we brought what was becoming a natural propensity under control.

It’s too bad I cannot continue employing such tactics as a clergyman. But I digress.

In short, my friends and I knew ourselves. We were honest about what was becoming a dreadful propensity. We were Christians, and we sensed foul language’s incompatibility with our faith (and, as Burke might suggest, its erosive effect on a moral society). With that, we warred against the tendency with a ceremony capable of maintaining the boundaries (Ephesians 4:29-30, 5:1-13). We did this before the propensity ruined us. Interestingly, the ceremony was unpleasant when used. It hurt. But it was worth it. I should say, it’s likely even Saint Paul would have approved. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, the verb for “discipline” (ὑπωπιάζω) means to strike something physically. Paul appears willing to use extreme techniques to keep his own body under control. Getting punched, perhaps by Timothy, wasn’t off the table.

During last week’s Bible study, I wondered out loud if any of this was relevant to worship style. Of course, my wondering was rhetorical. How could it not be? That’s one of the benefits of traditional worship’s maintaining of historic rites and ceremonies. In a way, they’re theological manners.

Tradition understands man’s propensities. It knows we want things to be our way (anthropocentrism). To restrain this more-often-soiled-than-not tendency, rites and ceremonies—spiritual etiquette—carry the worshipper along in ways designed to exchange anthropocentrism with Christocentrism. In other words, their purpose is to force man out from the center of his own universe and put Christ firmly in the middle.

Understandably, rites and ceremonies are multifaceted, and like getting punched by three friends all at once, they can sometimes be uncomfortable. I get that. They’re strict means of exercise. But the most rigorous kinds of training often produce the best results. In this case, the singular goal of each word and motion is a heart fixed securely on Christ by faith and a new propensity—a Spirit-driven inclination—to imitate Him in the world around us (Ephesians 5:1).

Little by Little

I hope all is well with you so far this year. That might seem a strange thing to say, especially since we’re only a week into 2023. Still, we both know a lot can happen in a week. In truth, a lot can happen in mere seconds. Anything can change in an instant. An honest person—someone who knows by faith the inner workings of this fallen world—will not only admit to this but will embrace it as inevitable.

I’m guessing that for those looking in on faith from the outside, a Christian who rolls with change’s inevitability might appear to be living a disinterested life. Amid good or bad change, a Christian can speak alongside Job, saying, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Such a person might appear to be drifting through life as though it were a mighty river sweeping him away feebly in its current.

On the other hand, perhaps the Christian can roll with life’s punches because he understands the intricacies of life and its changes in a way that onlookers cannot.

Admittedly, I’m somewhat of a mixed bag regarding change. Some people thrive on change. I don’t. I prefer most things to remain the same. There’s certainty in the steady things. Although, like most people, now and then, I get the urge to move things around in my personal spaces. I’ll be sitting at my desk, and then suddenly, I’ll rise and move an entire section of books from one shelf to another. I’ll be sitting at the bar in my basement, and then somewhat abruptly, I’ll rearrange the movie memorabilia sitting on cabinets and hanging on the walls. Those landscape alterations might not seem like a big deal to most. However, the urge that stirs them is genuine, and it acknowledges something deeply relevant to life. The seemingly innate need to change things is a reminder that something is seriously wrong with this world, and whatever it is, it needs to be made right.

But there’s something else proven by the exercise. The urge to rearrange things returns. It might be a week later. It might be two years later. Either way, it returns. This proves that no matter what I do to get things in the right places, the deeper disorder remains.

By faith, Christians can get along in such a world, no matter the changes. Good or bad, we’re the kind of people who endure.

I’m sure I’ve shared before that I appreciate Washington Irving. I read his infamous The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at least once a year. I do this not only because he spends his best energy delving into classical tales from early America but because, unlike modern writers, Irving handles the frightful things with a poetic style. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that he seems to take hold of scary things and presents them nonchalantly, almost as though they ought to be expected even while they are surprising. For a Christian, that kind of storytelling makes sense. As someone fitted by the Holy Spirit to endure, Irving makes sense to us when he writes, “There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse…it is often a comfort to shift one’s position and be bruised in a new place.”

Perhaps that’s part of what the Lord meant when He instructed His followers to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). He doesn’t intend for His Christians to be punching bags. He means for us to know we should never expect to be hit only once. More will come. And so, don’t be foolish. Situate yourself for endurance.

Thinking about these things, I should mention that Christians are by no means complacent about change. Christian endurance is far different than giving up and floating helplessly downstream. The knowledge of the deeper disorder keeps us vigilant. Because of this, we’re far more attuned to change than the rest of the world around us. It seems for most people in the world, change is of little consequence so long as it doesn’t bring personal inconvenience. In one sense, that’s how things got so bad in Nazi Germany. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum attempted to memorialize that reality with a wall plaque of Rev. Martin Niemöller’s words, which were:

“First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Little by little, changes were made that targeted particular groups of people. Eventually, those changes crossed over into Niemöller’s sphere. But when they did, it was too late. Collectively, the little modifications had become unstoppable juggernauts. Truth be told, for as many people who lived relatively untouched lives during the 1930s and 40s, Christians were the first to see the dangers and sound the alarm, ultimately doing all they could to trip the Nazi jackboots. Many died trying. Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one. But he wasn’t the only one. There were plenty of others.

I suppose with the New Year comes both the awareness of and inclination for change. Mostly, I’m guessing a person’s New Year resolutions exist within the Niemöller-type frame. They’re personal, and it’s likely they’ll only allow inconvenience if a personal benefit is involved. People try to eat better, to exercise more, to be healthier. The intent in these things is good. And I’m certainly one to root for their success. I suppose what’s coming to mind this morning is not only the need to encourage continued endurance amid discomforting changes in our world but to encourage awareness of change beyond the safety of self. In other words, just because it doesn’t affect you doesn’t mean it isn’t worth your attention. It might be hurting someone else. That should matter to you. If it doesn’t, the time may come when you’ll have no choice but to be concerned.

For example, back in 2021, Scott Smith could have cared less about the demands of LGBTQ, Inc. in schools. But then his 15-year-old daughter was raped by a transgender student in the women’s bathroom at her high school. He responded angrily against the Loudoun County School Board (as any loving father should have), was arrested, and branded a domestic terrorist by the National School Boards Association, Merrick Garland, and President Biden. Interestingly, it took such a startling tragedy to stoke nationwide parental concerns for these and other issues. Now countless seats on School Boards across America have been seized by parents intent on jettisoning these radical—but already very entrenched—ideologies from our schools. They’re discovering and unbinding the dangerous grip of Critical Race Theory. They’re uncovering and dismantling the attempts by progressive ideologue teachers to read pornographic literature to 1st graders. They’re finding all these things and more, and they’re waging war against the disorder.

As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Little by little, changes were made. And now we’re cleaning up some pretty big messes. As Christians, we know the sources of these messes: Sin, Death, and Satan.

These are the powers at work in the deeper disorder.

Again, be encouraged to pay closer attention in the New Year. Perhaps a personal resolution for change might be to become more aware of what’s changing around you—whether the change is good or bad, who it affects, and what you can do to help. Doing this, I’m certain you’ll find ways to flex the already empowered muscle of faith in a world that desperately needs what you have to offer, not only for the sake of living peaceful and godly lives (1 Timothy 2:2) but for leading others to the only One who capable of bringing an all-surpassing order to the deeper disorder. Jesus accomplished this on the cross. He proved it by His resurrection. Now we live in this Gospel, owning the spoils of His victory, and employing them in the world around us.

We are not drifting through life. We are engaging in it with an altogether different kind—a divinely impenetrable kind—of endurance and discernment amid change.

The Epiphany of Our Lord, 2023

I’m writing this note to remind and invite you to the Epiphany Divine Service tonight at Our Savior in Hartland at 7:00 pm. Epiphany sees Christmas depart, and a new season begins. In a way, and considering the meaning of the word epiphany, it’s almost paradoxical.

Epiphany comes from the Greek word meaning “to make known.” When someone experiences an epiphany, something is revealed, and the person becomes aware of something previously unknown. In a sense, Christmas is itself a preeminent epiphany event. God gives His son to the world. By His birth, so much is made known. The angels break through fantastically from heaven to declare it. Shepherds so wonderfully announce it to everyone they meet. There’s Jesus, the Son of God, in the flesh. Emmanuel, God with us. But then January 6 arrives, and with it, the season of Epiphany begins. It begins with the account of the Magi being led by a star to the humble residence of the Christ-child. Traditionally, and suddenly, January 6 sees that all of the seasonal pomp of Christmas is put away—hidden out of sight, put back into the boxes under the stairs, in the closet, in the basement. If epiphany means to make known, then this seems counterintuitive to the season’s message.

But it isn’t. Throughout the season of Epiphany, Christ is being revealed in incredible ways that Christmas could not fully deliver. For one, the hiding of Christmas’ divine pomp hints at Christ’s veiled divinity. As the Christmas Gospel declared, He is God in the flesh dwelling among us. And yet, unlike all other human beings walking around, their souls similarly veiled, Jesus is both the creator and deliverer of souls. Epiphany sets the stage in unmistakable terms that Jesus is who He says He is. His identity is revealed throughout as He does things no one else can do. This man is no ordinary man.

I can’t remember who said it, but someone noted that the Lord’s miracles toll an epiphany bell. They point to Calvary. They ring for the human senses a divine awareness of what’s actually occurring when this man suffers and dies on the cross. Human senses cannot fathom such an event as being anything so wonderfully divine, yet it is. The One who accomplishes the work of mankind’s salvation has proven by His miracles the merit of His words and deeds. He can say to a dead girl, “Arise,” and she does (Mark 5:21-43). He can speak to a vicious sky, “Be quiet,” and it submits (Mark 4:35-41). Beholding these things, He can say to you, “I will go to Jerusalem. I will suffer for your sins. I will die in your place. I will rise from death and give to you the merits of my effort” (Matthew 20:18-19). When He says this, you can believe Him. Epiphany is the clarion call of His trustworthiness.

As a side, Epiphany has the potential for tolling other bells.

For one, Epiphany encourages Christians to pay attention to the revelations of faith itself. For example, and perhaps on a personal level, I suppose the strangest epiphany born from faith is the realization (and the otherworldly sensation) of love for a Savior so secure that I’d be willing to die for Him rather than forsake Him. He saved me from eternal Death. The world may do its worst. Like the Magi, I’m willing to risk life and limb to be with Him. What do I have to fear?

When that realization lands on you—when that genuine aspect of faith becomes known—life takes on an altogether different hue.

Consider joining us for worship tonight at 7:00 pm. Be strengthened in this alongside your brothers and sisters in Jesus. I’m preaching tonight, and I hope to look out and discover you in the pews.

New Year’s Day 2023

I don’t intend to take much time with this morning’s scribbling. I’m functioning on very little sleep, and I think I’d rather sit, drink coffee, and rework the sermon I’ve already prepared. I mean, why not. With the New Year comes new thoughts, new intentions, new perspectives—all aimed at doing what one can to get things right, to shore up the previous year’s holes.

Lots of folks humbug the usual New Year sentiment of self-betterment. They mock resolution makers, chuckling at the exercise equipment boxes leaning against trash cans at the curb. Their chuckling becomes full-throated laughter when they see the equipment that arrived in those boxes at the same curb a few months later. Still, I won’t slight anyone willing to try. I’m glad for people who want to do better, who walk in hopeful stride alongside the starry-eyed poets who wrote, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” In other words, they know that it’s never too late to start a new course, be healthier, have a brighter spirit, and see each moment as an opportunity for fresh beginnings.

Christians own the corner market on these things. How could we not? Every time we fail, our Lord lifts us by His Gospel, reminding us that He succeeded in all things in our place. He drenches us in this forgiveness. All year long, he continues to wipe our slates clean, continually announcing He remembers our wickedness no longer (Hebrews 8:12). I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard a struggling Christian end a moment of sorrowful reflection with the phrase, “And yet, every day is a new day in the Lord.” To say this is nothing short of reciting the divine comforts leveled in Lamentations 3:22-23 and 2 Corinthians 4:16. Indeed, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Indeed, “we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”

Praise God for this! As I preached in last night’s New Year’s Eve sermon, we’ll need this divine love every day of the oncoming year.

Aware of this love, there’s something else to keep in mind.

For starters, I don’t know too many genuine Christians who are comfortable with their sins. Christians want to do better. They want to be faithful. This means they want to exchange faithfulness to “self” with a better alignment to Christ’s will. Of course, they will struggle to accomplish this, having trouble jettisoning certain behaviors that haunt them, finding themselves in a perpetual wrestling match with these ever-stalking ghouls. Still, they’ll be honest about it, craving Word and Sacrament gifts of Gospel love that strengthen them for the bout. They know that only by the gifts God gives can they rise from the previous day’s struggles and say, “Every day is a new day in the Lord.” This is the voice of faith. This is proof of the Holy Spirit alive within them. This is evidence that they know what Saint Paul meant when he said, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17). Aware of this dynamic, Christians make conscious commitments to fight.

I say, get fighting. Take advantage of the New Year tradition of resoluteness and go to war against these things. Start the New Year reenergized for doing so. Commit to waking each day, remembering that in Christ, “every day is the best day in the year” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

God bless and keep you for this. Trust Him. He certainly is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).

By the way, if you find yourself struggling with this assurance, find a crucifix and take a long hard stare. In fact, I recommend putting one where you’ll see it first thing every morning. The reality symbolized by that gruesome scene is the “power at work within us.” Christ’s death has freed you from Sin, Death, and Satan’s power. Every day of each oncoming year that can be pitched against the events of Calvary will be a new day bolstered by the Lord’s marvelous love.

Again, God bless and keep you for this. It’s my prayer for you this New Year’s Day.

New Year’s Eve 2022

I wanted to take a quick moment to invite you to the New Year’s Eve Divine Service occurring here at Our Savior in Hartland at 4:30 pm. Although a strange time of day for a worship service, its selection is purposeful, allowing a brief intermission in your day before venturing out to whatever New Year’s Eve plans you may have. Although, whatever those plans might be, don’t forget about the New Year’s Day Divine Service tomorrow (Sunday) at 9:30 am.

Gathering in the Lord’s house on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day is good. Actually, the Church doesn’t necessarily refer to the gatherings using the titles of New Year’s Eve or Day. January 1 has long been celebrated as the “Feast of the Circumcision of Christ” because, according to the Law, a newborn male was required to be circumcised on the eighth day. For Jesus, according to our current Gregorian calendar, that would be January 1. Naturally, the night before was referred to as the “Eve of the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ.” A little further into history, the titles changed a bit. On many church calendars, the dates are referred to as the “Circumcision and Name of Jesus.” This is due to what’s written about the event in Luke 2:21, which reads: “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

No matter what you call the event, again, it’s good to be in the Lord’s house on New Year’s Eve. Tonight, we understand ourselves as pitched against a brand new year. Christians are inclined to go into it having first visited with Christ.

But why?

Because anything could happen. All things considered, we already know we couldn’t have made it through the previous year without Him, and we know far too well that we won’t survive the coming year apart from Him. He must be our point of origin and destination in all things all year long, all at the same time.

The Lord’s circumcision is a hint to this. His name is, too.

Christ, the perfect Son of God, could never be found accused by God’s Holy Law. And yet, as we are beneath it, He shows His willing submission to it—to bear its heavy burden perfectly—when He sheds His first few drops of blood through circumcision. Moreover, the announcement of His name—a name that literally means “the Lord saves”—testifies to who He is and what His trajectory will be relative to the Law. Indeed, He will keep it perfectly. Moreover, He will die as the perfect sacrifice measured against it. He’ll do this for us, not for Himself. He will be our substitute. And when He accomplishes it, He will give the merits of the victory to us.

Evelyn and I listen to music every day to and from school. One of the bands we’ve been singing along with lately has a particular lyric that reminds me a little bit of what New Year’s Eve holds in its back pocket. It’s a short lyric, but it’s memorable: “We walk the plank on a sinking ship.”

This is true.

The world is sinking. If you feel differently, then you’re not paying attention. Moreover, the crew—the Devil, the world, and the sinful flesh—has a sword in the back of humanity, pressing it to the edge of the ship’s plank.

In a sense, when we celebrate the “Circumcision and Name of Jesus,” Christians realize two things. Firstly, we’re reminded that Christ shed His blood so that the plank’s end would not be the final word for any of us. Regardless of how the crew might accuse us, we are innocent. Christ saw to that. We can go into every new year, walking any of life’s planks along the way, with this promise in our pocket.

Secondly, we’re reminded of just what it means to do these things relative to the Lord’s name. For anyone attuned to the biblical promises associated with God’s name, it’s likely baptism will be one of the first things that comes to mind. It certainly did for Saint Peter. In Acts 2:38, Peter announces the essentiality of being baptized into the name of Jesus, which is to be baptized according to the mandate Jesus prescribed in Matthew 28:19—that is “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Among the many glorious benefits, part of the point here is that God puts His name on you in the waters of Holy Baptism, and God has long promised that He will dwell where He puts His name.

Walking the plank on a sinking ship isn’t so bad when I know these things. For one, the plunge at the end of the plank becomes an opportunity to remember no matter the waters I’m entering, I’ve already been through the best waters there are. I’m bearing God’s name now. He loves me. He gave me everything that belongs to Christ. He said as much. He said that all who’ve been baptized into Christ have been baptized into His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4). And if this is true, then, what comes at the end of any plank is of no concern. God said this, too. Death holds no mastery over me because it holds no mastery over Christ, the one who has clothed me with His righteousness (Galatians 3:27).

Remembering and celebrating these things is an excellent way to begin a new year. I encourage you to begin yours this way. Join other Christians who gather to receive this Gospel. The oncoming year promises a regular need for it. Christ promises to be there to give it.

I suppose I should conclude that if this message finds its way to a Christian whose church does not offer New Year’s Eve or Day services, then may I humbly urge you to go and find one that does? If anything, my guess is you’ll sense a level of spiritual awareness communicated by those services, a sense that proves their relevance for this troubled world. That alone makes it well worth your while.

Christmas Day, 2022

Merry Christmas!

What cheer that greeting brings, wouldn’t you say?!

Discounting the exceptions—that is, the humbugging Scrooges of this world who’d be rid of Christmas if they could—“Merry Christmas” is one of the few salutations with the muscle to stoke the cooling embers of a tired heart. Indeed, a weary soul is made young again, even if only for a moment, when a smiling passerby says, “Merry Christmas.”

Truly, it’s a greeting like no other.

I heard the greeting countless times last night at the Christmas Eve service. As I did, I was reminded of days long since spent, past seasons from childhood to adulthood. In a way, it could be said that unlike other greetings, this one stands at the door of here-and-now inviting memories to come inside. “Remembrance, like a candle,” Charles Dickens said, “burns brightest at Christmastime.” He might be right. “Merry Christmas” is spoken today, and a favorite toy from decades ago is remembered. It remembers a special moment with family. It remembers bygone friends. It remembers so many things.

Rarely would I add anything to Dickens’ wisdom, except to say it’s not just our pasts being invited to join us. I think our hopeful futures enter, too. Hope comes in to sit beside memory’s flickering flame.

I slept here at the church last night, mainly because I’m getting a little older and more easily tired. I don’t usually get home until well after 1:00 AM on Christmas Eve. Knowing I’d need to turn right around and come back in barely a handful of hours, combined with the treacherous roads, this year I decided to stay. I’ve done such things before. Besides, those who know me best can assume I was accompanied by a warming beverage before bed, one furnished by the Scots. I also happened upon a poetic scribbling from Alexander Smith, another product of Scotland. “Christmas,” he wrote, “is the day that holds all time together.” Like Dickens, I think he might be onto something. The very event of Christmas, if anything, begins the divine intersection of past, present, and future.

The Lord’s birth is the first effort of God’s plan to save us. As it begins, a much fuller Gospel message can be seen on the horizon. The angels sing it. The shepherds share it. The wise men are drawn to it. The Devil, through Herod, is fearful of it. And why? Because in its completeness, it will be a message that meets with the past, present, and future. It will herald what Christ has done, is doing, and will continue to do for humanity relative to Sin. This is the timelessness of “Merry Christmas.” This is the greeting’s forward thrust.

To grasp it, it’s as simple as digging a little deeper into the greeting. The salutation’s innards are not far from “Be joyful! Christ is present bringing salvation!” A Christian stands in the middle of the intersection by these words. To say “Merry Christmas” is to see all of time being held together. It is to give and receive the best answer to the hardest questions plaguing anyone’s past, present, and future.

If a troubled soul were to ask, “How can the Lord love me for what I’ve done?” The answer must be, “Fear not! He does! Merry Christmas!” If the concern continues by asking, “Will my disfigured past ever obstruct the Lord’s view, making Him unable to love a person like me?” The answer must be, “No. He knows what you’ve done. Still, He inserted Himself into the tarry horribleness of your dreadful past to claim you. Merry Christmas!”

Unconvinced, a person might continue, “As hard as I try, I continue to fall short. Will my everyday imperfections disgust Him enough to push me away? Will He ever walk away when I fall? Will He ever distance Himself from my continued shame?” Again, the Christmas answer must be, “No, He will not do these things. Certainly, you are not perfect. But He is. Trust Him. By His great exchange on Calvary’s cross, He takes your sadness into Himself and gives to you His righteousness. Merry Christmas!”

“But what about the future? As with anyone else, won’t He one day grow tired of this exercise? As with so many others, won’t He one day turn me away?” Christmas closes the book on the discussion, offering kindly, “No, He won’t. He sees your penitent faith, even if you don’t. He intends to heap mercy upon you until He returns in glory on the Last Day. Be joyful! He came at His nativity to save you. He’s coming back to take you home! Merry Christmas!”

Dear Christians, please know that all is well by faith in Jesus, the divine Child we celebrate today—Christmas Day! The intersection of your past, present, and future rested in that manger in Bethlehem so long ago. He came. He was who He claimed to be, and He accomplished what He said He would. Your salvation is secure. You are His, and He is yours. This wonderful friendship is His gift to you (John 15:15). Moreover, it’s a divine exchange meant for presenting you as Jesus’ most precious possession before the heavenly Father (Titus 2:14). By His work, you are justified (Titus 3:4-7). Covered in the pristinely white wrappings of Holy Baptism and topped with the bloodstained bow of His salvific work on the cross, what else might the Son say amid this grand and heavenly gift-exchange but “Merry Christmas!” (Romans 8:34, 1 John 2:1, and Hebrews 7:25)? It certainly seems appropriate.

Again, the greeting is like no other.

With that, Merry Christmas to you and yours! I hope to see you later this morning for worship at 9:30 AM. If you can make it, please know that the heat is on, the lights are beaming, and the Lord’s gifts of Word and Sacrament are ready and waiting to be received.

Christmas Eve, 2022

The night of all nights is upon us. Christmas Eve has come.

Like other nights in December, its chill is biting and unfriendly, and its darkness is strict and deep. From your home to your evening destinations (one of which, God willing, will be worship) and then back again, the time spent between each will provide plentiful reminders of Sin’s perpetual cruelty.

The barren trees will cast Death’s shadow. The frosted windowpanes will dully reflect humanity’s spiritual blindness. The shelterless, snow-swept fields will howl our most profound loneliness and echo our utter impotence.

Another creature—humanity’s need for rescue—will wander between December 24th’s wintry shades, just as it does on all other nights.

Still, no matter how indistinguishable its climes may be compared to all other evenings in midwinter, Christmas Eve stands apart for the believer. Tonight remembers that God reached into this world. Tonight acknowledges Death’s curse but introduces the One who has come to face off with and destroy it. Tonight concedes humanity’s lostness while gazing upon the One who arrived to seek and find it. Tonight admits to humanity’s powerlessness while singing of and to the only One with the strength to rescue all.

On Christmas Eve, immersed in the bright beaming light of its Gospel—a Good News proclaiming the birth of God’s son, Jesus Christ—no matter how lonely we are, we realize we’re never alone. No matter how far we’ve gone, we learn we’re never out of reach. No matter how uncertain about life in this world we may feel, we discover access to the sphere-breaking confidence of heaven itself (Hebrews 10:22).

How is this possible?

Remember the words of the well-beloved Christmas hymn: “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be born for me, for you….”

Christ has come. The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us (John 1:14). This Word went out, not returning to His throne empty-handed. Instead, He has accomplished the task for which He was sent (Isaiah 55:11). He died. It is finished (John 19:30). He rose. You are justified (Romans 4:25). All is well (Luke 17:19).

No matter your status, again, the hymn sings, “Come peasant, king, to own Him.” Put your faith in Him. Only He is worthy (Philippians 2:9-10).

This is the message of Christmas Eve. As Christians—as people born from its glistening goodness—tonight will forever be a night like no other. And so, here at Our Savior in Hartland, we’ll plunge ourselves into it, both at 4:30 pm and 10:30 pm.

Like us, God grant that you might rest easily in it, too. Indeed, it is Good News.

Colliding With Christmas

The Thoma family watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” not long ago. Jennifer bought the DVD. Although, she had trouble finding it. Considering the religious climate in America, I’m not surprised. The Christmas Gospel from Luke 2:8-14 is the cartoon’s essential point.

Asked by Lucy to direct the school’s Christmas play, Charlie Brown goes from scene to scene, becoming increasingly frustrated with the task. Along the way, he sets out to get a Christmas tree for the set. Anyone familiar with Charlie Brown will know how that goes. He gets a rather pathetic tree, one that bends all the way to the ground when a single bulb is hooked to its branches. As the children walk off stage laughing, he snaps, calling out with a shout, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!” Linus steps up to answer, his signature blanket in hand. “Sure, Charlie Brown,” he says, “I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”

Linus asks for the stage lights to be set and then begins, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not. For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”

As gently as Linus begins, he turns back to Charlie Brown. With the simplest of childlike innocence, he says so plainly, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Even though I’ve seen the cartoon countless times, I got a little choked up at that moment. Jen noticed it, but I explained it away. This Christmas special has been aired since 1965. It was a childhood staple for many of us. But now, while you can purchase any imaginable ungodliness, this short video is scarcely available. And why? Because of its message. Its words are, at best, considered quaintly obsolete and uninteresting and, at worst, downright hateful and offensive.

Neither is true. And yet, here we are.

Thinking about these things, the cartoon gave me something else to ponder. It was Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree that came to mind. In short, after Linus’ recitation, the rest of the children gather around Charlie Brown’s miserable tree to decorate it. When they’re done, it’s no longer pitiful but beautiful—the point: the heart of Christmas collided with the children. In turn, the children collided with their surroundings, making them beautiful.

Closer to home, as I do every year, I put up the family Christmas tree. I’ve been assembling the same six-foot tree since Jennifer and I married in 1997. The tree was a wedding gift from Jennifer’s brother. While putting up the tree, its branches looked noticeably thinner this year. With each attempt to fluff and fan them to life, I discovered more and more imitation pine needles sprinkling to the floor. I remember thinking a few years back about how the tree was becoming far too fragile with time. Still, I have not retired it. My reason is simple.

While piecing the little tree together each Christmas, I think, “This will be the last year.” But then the tree collides with the joyful reason for putting it up, and everything about it changes.

When strands of multicolored lights are woven into it, when decades of family ornaments begin filling its branches, when the familiar angel our four children take turns placing at its peak each year is found in its place, almost unexpectedly, the gravity of the tree’s nostalgia becomes cosmic. Suddenly, what was once so pathetically inferior to everything else around it has grown fifty feet tall, making all things within reach lesser by comparison.

Christmas is fantastical that way. Just ask a child. You’ll see.

When it comes to humanity’s collision with Christmas—namely, the Good News at its heart—God desires similar aftereffects (1 Timothy 2:4). He tells us through Saint Paul that the Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). No wonder the devil has worked feverishly to remove “A Charlie Brown Christmas” from the airwaves and internet shelves. By the incarnation and subsequent work of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, what in Sin was destined for the trash heap might bump into its pricelessness to God. There might be an accidental interlude with the Good News—the message heralding the lengths Christ was willing to go to accomplish humanity’s deliverance. The devil doesn’t want anyone to hear this message. He knows its potential. He knows that a world steeped in hopelessness remains thinly frail against his crushing accusations. But a brush with Christmas might foster a sturdy certainty for eternal life and the muscle to resist him. Satan knows that the Holy Spirit works through the Gospel. As He does, what was woefully small in shame can be raised and made gleefully grand by the all-surpassing mercy of God’s immense love for the loveless.

The devil should be concerned about these things. A collision with Christmas—the happy tidings of the Son of God’s arrival—spells his end while announcing a sinner’s fresh beginning in Jesus. Knowing this, take a chance at steering your family and friends into Christmas’ oncoming joy. Invite them to worship on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Bring them to where the power of God unto salvation can and will redress their weary lives with the kind of hope that only Christ can give.

The Christmas Eve services here at Our Savior in Hartland are at 4:30 pm and 10:30 pm. (There will even be a baptism in the 4:30 pm service, which I’m particularly excited about.) The Christmas Day service is at 9:30 am. Near or far, you should make the trek. Come and collide with Christmas. Of course, Satan doesn’t want you to receive such an invitation. In fact, he is likely, right now, trying to convince you to involve yourself with other, more important things. Let that be a clue to the invitation’s worth.