My daughter, Madeline, mentioned being tasked by one of her teachers with reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Having two editions in my office, I shared one with her so that she wouldn’t need to wrestle with acquiring it from the school library.
I adore Charles Dickens—his skill with characters, his dexterity with language, and his prowess for telling a good story. Few writers compare. Maybe I’ve shared with you before that I have a first edition set of his complete works in my office. My favorite of his volumes is The Cricket on the Hearth. If you haven’t read it, I’d encourage you to do so, especially if you’re a fan of his infamous A Christmas Carol.
In my humble opinion, pitched against the ever-growing list of worthless garbage our present-day public schools are calling literature, Dickens’ works are golden. I was glad when Madeline told me the assignment, and I knew if she could just get through the first few pages of the story, she’d be in for a real treat. Among all Dickens’ works, it’s one we might call a thriller. It’s very much a three-part story held together by perilous action, and it all ends at the guillotine.
I remember watching a film version of it when I was a kid, except I didn’t necessarily know what I’d seen until I read the book in high school several years later. As a bored eight or nine-year-old who was, as you’d expect, thoroughly unappreciative of the value of Sunday afternoon black-and-white matinees, I recall tuning in and sticking with the film only because, as a fan of scary movies, Christopher Lee was in it. As it would go, he played the cold-hearted Marquis St. Evremonde. To this very hour, I can imagine the possibility of a fanged Christopher Lee emerging from his horse-drawn carriage to bite someone’s neck. Of course, He didn’t. But I do remember a stake-through-the-heart moment his character experienced while sleeping. Either way, the film, like the book, had an aura of unpredictability.
I like unpredictable storytelling. Just ask Jennifer. The movies I find myself enjoying most are ones that keep me guessing. When it comes to all others, I’m as annoying as annoying can be. I think this is true because, as Hollywood continues to sew its recycled and under-considered plots into the sleeves of fast-food characters, there’s a good chance before a movie’s end that I’ll have already shouted out what’s going to happen. I’m not always right, but I certainly am more than the people sitting beside me would prefer. Annoying? Yes. So be sure to commend Jennifer for enduring my predictability.
Speaking of predictability, there’s an oft quoted opening line from the third chapter of the first part of the book. It reads:
“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”
In a volume filled with twists, Dickens refers to something in humans that’s universally predictable. Strangely, he points to every person’s hidden, namely, unpredictable side. In other words, the only thing you can predict with humans is that they’re unpredictable. Or to dive a little deeper, for as well as you might know someone, there will always be the side you don’t know and couldn’t have expected—the secret self that would surprise you if it were suddenly revealed.
As this meets with the season of Lent—a time when we’re exceptionally attuned to our need for a Savior—my Christian mind wanders to what this means for me. As it roams, I discover how I’m more than capable of concealing my sinful tendencies. And yet, the writer to the Hebrews untangles all misconceptions of this in relation to God when he offers that “no creature is hidden from [God’s] sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (4:13).
And therein is a path to something incredibly wonderful that we may not have predicted.
Yes, God knows the real you. He knows everything you’ve done. He knows all your horribleness. He knows all your dreadfulness. He knows your soiled intentions. He knows the worst of your thoughts, words, and deeds. And yet, even with all these horrendous things on display before His divine omniscience—things that He knows and sees and has every right to account as hell-worthy—still, He tells us by His Word that He looked on us in love and sent His Son to save us (John 3:16-17). He makes clear that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The predictability of God’s right to judge us accordingly is unpredictably turned on its head by His divine passion for our rescue. He does not give us what we deserve. Instead, He heaps our unfortunate dues upon Jesus, and by His wounds, we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).
I already told you just how much I love an unpredictable story. Well, it doesn’t get any better than the Gospel. And by this, I not only mean the death of God’s innocent Son for the dreadfully guilty, but also the unpredictable nature of the resurrection. That itself was a world-altering event. No one expected an empty tomb. No one expected to see Jesus alive. Not even the disciples. And yet, there He was, is, and remains. Sure, I like Dickens. But his stories are fiction. The Gospel is real, which makes the Bible that carries and communicates it, with every twist and turn of both the Old Testament and New Testament, the greatest volume in human history.
I happened upon a familiar portion from Saint Paul this morning. At first, it seemed strangely out of step with the season of Lent. That is, until I gave it a more thorough examination. Paul wrote:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
A deliberate thrust to Lent is its cognizance of Sin. It draws us to the admittance that we are dreadfully inadequate in every way for extricating ourselves from Sin’s lethal grip. However, it’s very important to remember that Lent doesn’t labor to adjust us in this way without a clear sight of the Gospel—the Good News that we have been rescued from all that would bar us from heaven. If we lose sight of this, the season can very easily become six weeks of debilitating gloom.
But again, Lent isn’t meant for melancholy. It deals in the solemnity of perspective. In one sense, it’s working to help us identify and understand what’s bad so that we can rejoice rightly in what’s good. This makes Saint Paul’s words in Philippians 4:8 that much more resonant. Knowing the reality of our condition—fully aware of our undeserving nature—we have a better view of the external evidence of God’s gracious care.
Here’s what I mean in a very basic way.
We don’t give much thought to the fact that the same sun that was shining on Adam and Eve is shining on us. It continues to this day with its warmth. By grace alone, God makes this happen. The earth continues to spin from one season to the next. By grace alone, God sees to this unending sequence (Genesis 8:22). The birds continue their sing-song melodies. By grace alone, God continues providing their twittering voices (Matthew 6:26). The soil continues to present each day with bouquets of splendor. By grace alone, God adorns each flower’s petals with magnificence (Matthew 6:30).
His world betrayed Him, and yet God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). When we know the depths of our undeserving nature in comparison to God’s generous care, almost everything around us becomes a gift—an unmerited bestowal teaching us of God’s love.
Since I mentioned flowers, Ralph Waldo Emerson said these dainty blossoms are the earth’s laughter. Maybe he was onto something, because he also warned the preoccupied bystander to “never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.”
Paul said the same thing in Philippians 4:8, only far better. How so? By disassembling creation’s beauty to reveal its graspable materials.
Truth. Honor. Justice. Purity. Loveliness. Commendability. Excellence. Praiseworthiness. These are beauty’s divine ingredients, the scribblings of God traced on the recipe pages of goodness in this life.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul knows that by sifting our thoughts and behaviors through these filters, we’ll be equipped for discerning the bad. We’ll know hateful people using vicious words aren’t lovely, no matter how attractive they may be physically. We’ll know living together before marriage isn’t pure, no matter how sensible the world might make it seem. We’ll know that so-called critical theories that demand diversity and equity according to the premise that certain races are innately unforgivable, or ideologies that threaten people’s lives with cancellation unless they accept dysphoric behaviors, are not praiseworthy or just, and we shouldn’t commend them.
On the other hand, and extending from the same awareness, Paul knows we’ll discover ourselves attuned to and desirous of what God considers good. We’ll know the honorable nature of holding fast to truth. We’ll know just how commendable God’s design for “family” truly is. We’ll observe others through the lens of God’s Word, thereby being enabled to navigate the confusion of this age in love. And I suppose I’m suggesting an active byproduct of all of this is a Christian’s ability to behold and be uplifted by God’s grace demonstrated in so many wonderful ways throughout the natural world.
For good reason, Paul insists that we think in this way. And Lent’s fasting certainly helps us to pay closer attention. In fact, the whole season is the perfect time for practicing such behavior so that it becomes habitual.
Lent begins tomorrow. We enter into it by way of Ash Wednesday’s gritty gate. The branches from last year’s Palm Sunday procession are reduced to cinders, cooled, and set aside to be daubed upon the foreheads of Christians. The smear is a cruciform one. It’s in the shape of a cross. It is this way as it marks an honest self-inventory that hopes in the Savior, Jesus. It signals a genuine repentance toward something deep, something that cannot be uprooted by human hands, but by God in Christ alone.
Mind you, Ash Wednesday leaves no room for the kind of repentance described by the poets inclined to mock it, men like Ybarra who so flippantly look at it as something we do on Sunday out of sorrow for something we did on Saturday, and yet, intend to do again on Monday.
Although, I should say, if this is your practice, then the shoe fits and you must wear it. I’d also suggest that perhaps you are more needful of the direction Ash Wednesday and Lent provide than you realize.
Still, such shallow religiosity does not beat in the heart of genuine Christian repentance just as it could never be the cadence for Ash Wednesday and Lent. In humility and faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are found sorrowful for our Sin against God and neighbor. We know we are as guilty as guilty can be. And yet, by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, we are forgiven, made new, and sent forth into the world as His own. As we go, we take the message of the cross with us.
When it comes to participation in the Imposition of Ashes, regardless of what those who poke fun at the practice might think, its partakers will carry the Gospel out into the world in a uniquely visible way. The cross will be seen on their faces, and by it, there will be opportunities for onlookers to know that Jesus still matters to some. Perhaps a passerby will, in kindness, let you know you have dirt on your face, and when you tell them it isn’t dirt, but an ashen cross, they’ll ask what it means. It’ll then be for its bearer to say with confidence to the inquisitive stranger, “I’m a sinner. I need a Savior. But, I know Jesus shed His precious blood on the cross for me, and by His sacrifice, I’ve been set free from Death and its end in the dust.”
Maybe you’ll be blessed with such an opportunity. Either way, I hope to see you tomorrow at one of the Ash Wednesday services here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan, whether it be at the brief service in the morning at 8:10am, or tomorrow night at the 7:00pm Divine Service.
Lent comes in for a landing this week. It touches down with Ash Wednesday.
For many of us who take the passion of our Lord seriously, it’ll be a day begun and/or ended with an ashen cross smeared on our foreheads. Unfortunately, I’ve already seen people mocking this incredibly solemn practice. One employed a photoshopped meme of the Dos Equis spokesman from a few years ago with a black cross on his head and saying, “I don’t always fast, but when I do, I make sure everyone knows it.” The person who shared the image was implying that anyone participating in the imposition of ashes is a hypocrite. How do I know? Because he cited the text of Matthew 6:16-18 above the meme.
Too bad he’s wrong in almost every way, not only because he’s mocking the same kind of ceremony demonstrating community-wide repentance recorded in Joel 1:13-14, but because even in the Prophet Joel’s day, the actions were not for the viewer. They were for the bearer. If their intent was to reveal to the viewer the bearer’s self-righteousness (which was Jesus’ point in Matthew 6:16-18), then my critical friend would be right. But that’s not their purpose. They were starkly tangible signs meant for stirring the bearer toward and into repentance, to a recognition of the need for rescue from Sin and the admittance of complete reliance on God for accomplishing such rescue. And by the way, I should add that the Christian continuation of this Godly practice—one that employs the image of a cross—does have some benefit for an unbelieving onlooker. The cross will always be an unspoken, and yet powerful, proclamation to the world around us that Jesus is Lord.
How could that be a bad thing? Well, I’m guessing only a self-righteous person might be offended by a ceremony that puts the cross before the broader community. A cross preaches the need for a savior. A self-righteous person doesn’t need a savior.
But apart from the annual misinformed heckling of Ash Wednesday’s rich tradition, its rites and ceremonies continue to teach what I’d surmise is a two-pronged—and maybe even three-pronged—reminder. Firstly, we’ll remember as the pastor speaks the words of Genesis 3:19 that from dust we were taken, and because of this world’s fall into Sin—because Sin’s wage is Death—every citizen of this globe shall return to the dust. The carbon soot is a tangibly filthy reminder of this. Secondly, we’ll be reminded by the smear’s cruciform shape that the Rescuer has come. By His death and resurrection, He destroyed the last enemy, Death, and now through faith in His sacrifice, it is for us to be raised to live eternally with Him in glory (Hebrews 2:14; 1 Corinthians 15:26; John 11:25). I suppose thirdly, it’s no insignificant ceremony that most will, before laying down to sleep, clean the grit from their faces with water. Martin Luther taught by his Flood Prayer that for believers, all waters can now serve as reminders of the lavish washing away of Sin in Baptism. Ash Wednesday provides a particular potency to this observation, both as it meets with Sin’s filth and our entering into the sleep of Death having first been cleansed.
Beyond these things, I’m sure the conflict in Ukraine is on everyone’s minds. It’s on my mind, too. Like so many of you, I’m praying for peace daily. And while I’m not necessarily a geopolitical Einstein, I am an observer of history and behavior. I know that actions reveal deeper things. As I already shared on social media this past week, I know that America’s military has been readying for war through sensitivity trainings that assume masculinity is toxic and focus on the virtually non-existent specters of white supremacy, microaggression, gender sensitivity, and the like (or in other words, the social justice ideologues have essentially commandeered the military’s leadership in the same way they’ve commandeered our colleges and universities). In the meantime, Russia has continued gearing its powerful military for commanding and conquering everything in its path through force. (By the way, to see the ideological differences between America and Russia, take a look at this video comparing the two nations’ recruitment commercials.) I know that Biden sent no small number of troops to the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and the like), along with attack helicopters and fighter jets. I know that NATO has activated its Response Force and is readying them in the Baltic region. I know Putin’s singular demand was that NATO not bring Ukraine into its fold, thereby putting an unfriendly force on one of his most crucial borders. I also know Putin has said publicly within the last few months that he believes the Baltic States are Russian territories by right. I know that he has a history of telegraphing his moves to test the mettle of anyone who might try to stop him, which is probably why he said what he said about the Baltics. He did that with Georgia. He did it with Crimea. I know that for as little cognitive ability as Biden appears to have, it’s likely he’s at least been warned by someone that the Baltic States are Article 5 countries in NATO, and if Putin feels threatened enough by one of them and attacks, NATO partners—which includes the United States—are obligated to join in a multinational war against Russia.
I know all of this. And I know it’s very bad stuff. For us here in America, I know it already means inflated expenses. I know people’s investment portfolios took a hit last week. I know gas prices rose above $100 a barrel almost overnight. I know increased costs for goods and services will continue to follow along in tow.
I also know that as I face these terrifying things, I am well equipped for dealing with the fears they stir. I am a Christian. I’ve changed. I’m someone who’s been lifted from the jagged landscape of hopelessness and set down in the verdant pasture of hope-filled faith. This also means I’ve become someone capable of working as hard as I can to change the things within my control, while at the same time submitting to God’s divine care in the things I cannot.
I can’t change the behaviors affecting Ukraine. I can’t change someone’s inclination to mock confessional Christendom. But I can labor to change myself.
Beyond Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent speaks to this, especially the season’s tradition of fasting, which is a biblical behavior geared for spiritual training. For many it involves going without something, or it can mean being resolved to spending a prayerfully selected portion of time working to improve faithfulness. Fasting isn’t required for salvation, of course, but it is hard to argue against Saint Paul commending it as good, saying that just as physical exercise benefits the body, so also do spiritual exercises aimed toward Godliness benefit a Christian both for this present life and the life to come (1 Timothy 4:8).
Thinking about this, and considering what I mentioned above, I’m willing to say that behavior is one of the best indicators of a human’s innards, both physiologically and mentally. If a person is hunched over in pain, something on the inside isn’t right. I just spent a good part of yesterday in Urgent Care, the third time in four weeks, and it’s looking as though I may have kidney stones. It’s the same with the mind and soul. People’s actions demonstrate the fundamental workings of what they believe, what they think of others, how they discern, what’s important to them. Observe a person’s actions and you’ll get a pretty good idea of his or her innermost intentions and substance.
This isn’t a hard saying. Jesus taught it in Matthew 7:17-18 when He said, “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” Of course, the Lord speaks this way throughout His Word. So do the Apostles. Take a little time with the Epistle of Saint James. Visit with both of Saint Peter’s epistles. Or Paul’s Epistles to the churches at Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus. You’ll see. Humans betray what’s on the inside by what they do.
I spent some time this past Tuesday in my religion class examining this premise with the 7th and 8th graders. We took time with the Book of Isaiah, 1 Corinthians, and Luke’s Gospel. By the time we were done, not only had we concluded that faith given by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel saves us, but also that it changes us—that it has a noticeable influence in our lives. For one, it chases after opportunities to repent and make amends for the sake of faithfulness to its Lord.
As it would go, one student dug more deeply than the others, suggesting that if a person claims Christ but has no desire, no inclination, no inner longing to wrestle against the flesh, then it’s entirely possible the person isn’t a believer. I agreed to this possibility. Why would I say this? Because again, faith produces the fruits of righteousness, just as Jesus said it would. It doesn’t remain settled in ungodly action or inaction. It has the inherent will to change, to align with Christ, to produce good fruit. This means that when, by the Spirit, we become aware of our failings, faith engages. It steers the human will into the fleshly fracas intent on waging war—and not just to fight, but to win (John 3:6; 1 Peter 2:11; Ephesians 2:10; Galatians 5:16-17).
What does all of this mean?
It means that if you are a Christian, and yet you are a serial gossip, by the power of the Holy Spirit you have what’s necessary for fighting this tendency. If you have no interest in changing, then you need to ask yourself why.
If you are a Christian, but you are short-tempered and cruel with your words in ways that regularly cause strife and division, by the power of the Holy Spirit for faith, you can be one who wrestles against these urges. If you persist in this behavior with little effort or interest in amending, then serious self-reflection is necessary.
If you are a Christian, but still your mind and body wander to mates beyond the borders of marriage, by faith, know you have what’s necessary for taking action against such ungodliness. Faith rises up to barricade against this behavior. If you have no interest in stopping—or you make excuses for continuing in it—there’s a problem.
If you are a Christian, and yet you continue to stay away from worship for fear of illness while at the same time visiting crowded grocery stores, enjoying social gatherings with friends and family, and other such things, take a moment to consider the contradiction in terms and what it might mean to Jesus.
My point: Fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12)!
Use the muscle of God at your disposal and actually compete against Sin, Death, and the devil. Take action. Do something to defeat these things, knowing that God is not only on your side, but He is with you in the fray. The pale, bludgeoned, and bloody proof is staring at you from the cross. Jesus has done all that’s required for winning you, not only from Death and Satan, but from yourself—from the Sin-nature—which does all it can to consume and digest you, which uses every weapon in its arsenal to hold you in bondage to who you were before faith.
Wrapping this up, this student was assuming that, at a bare minimum, faith would reveal itself through some sort of effort by the Christian to fight against fleshly desires. She had concluded that to rest contently in Sin is an action implying a completely different set of human innards than what Christ promises.
I happen to agree with her. And she doesn’t know it yet, but I gave her an A for the day. It’s likely I tell her as much when I see her at the Ash Wednesday service.
About two years ago, after sharing appreciation for my friend Jeff Wiggins’ reading choices, Jennifer found and purchased for me a first edition of H. Jack Lane’s volume The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. Essentially, it’s a varied collection of Lincoln’s personal letters to friends and colleagues, speeches, war dispatches, and the like. It is by no means Lincoln’s entire repertoire. But at 124 documents in all, it offers wonderful insight into who Lincoln was when hidden.
Being an admirer of Lincoln, as I’m sure so many are, I visit with this volume from time to time. It’s his way with words I appreciate most. He’s skillful. And the skill is inspiring. I haven’t read the book straight through, but instead, I jump around from scribbling to scribbling. Having done so this past Monday, I happened upon a letter Lincoln wrote to Thurlow Weed, a prominent newspaper publisher in New York. On Tuesday morning, I carried the book through the hallways of the school to my theology class where I shared this particular letter with the 7th and 8th grade students. We spent the whole hour considering it.
Essentially, Lincoln wrote the short epistle to thank Weed for complimenting his second inaugural address, which, if you ever have a chance to read the speech, you’ll see is more than influenced by the Word of God. The speech is in Lane’s book, and on its title page, he notes that Dr. Louis Warren, the Chancellor of the University of Oxford during Lincoln’s time, observed that “267 of the 702 words were direct quotations from the Bible and words of application made to them.”
Interesting, but not surprising. Lincoln was a devout Christian man, despite how progressive historians have tried to recast him otherwise—as they continually try to do with so many of our nation’s forefathers. He was a friend of and attentive listener to the preaching of his pastor, Reverend Phineas Gurley, the man who would be by his side into and through nearly every challenge he’d face as president, even the moment Lincoln breathed his last breath.
I share this so you know that no matter how Lincoln’s legacy is currently being retooled, he was no part-time believer, and he was committed to governing as he could answer to God. I’m glad for this, and you should be, too.
What caught my attention in the letter to Weed (and what I took time to examine with the students) was Lincoln’s opening sentence followed by his own explanation of the address. He began the letter very plainly with, “Everyone likes a compliment,” and then a little further in, he wrote contrastingly:
“I believe [the inaugural address] is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.”
In one sense, very little analysis was necessary here. Lincoln stated a simple truth that’s easily observable in the world. While everyone likes to be told they’ve done something right, few appreciate being told their wrong, namely, that they’re on the wrong side of righteousness. This is innate to the Sin-nature. Lincoln knew that. And yet, even beneath the safe assumption that his listening audience was composed primarily of God-fearing Christian citizens, he felt the need to communicate it. Why? Because when it comes to believers, we, too, have a difficult time being told we’re wrong, even though we ought to be the ones most concerned for and able to hear that we’ve stepped out of alignment with the One in whom we’ve staked our faith.
Lincoln took a chance and brought this very accusation.
In the actual speech, he inquired of the people of a divided nation who “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” should any on either side expect this same God to be in conflict with Himself? Lincoln answered his own question, first by saying with resoluteness, “The prayers of both could not be answered.” And then he capped his position rhetorically by asking, “Shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”
No. God is immutable (Numbers 23:19; Malachi 3:6; Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Isaiah 46:9-11; Ezekiel 24:14; James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8). He does not change, nor does He operate in ways that contradict His nature. As a result, He cannot be for and against something at the same time.
Lincoln was making the theological point that anyone seeking something contrary to God’s will should not expect His blessing, but instead, His resistance and correction. Being the mindful theologian he was, I get the sense Lincoln was familiar with Romans 1:18-32, which includes the frightful warning from Saint Paul that God does not tolerate people opposed to His will indefinitely, but rather, eventually He abandons them to their own will leading to destruction and eternal condemnation. Lincoln didn’t lift anything from this portion of Paul, but he did quote Jesus’ words from Matthew 18:7. Doing so, he took a chance at suggesting that the dreadful Civil War was a just due given to those through whom the offense of slavery came and was sustained in America. And he didn’t just mean the South. He meant the North, too. He aimed his comment at the whole nation—a nation of people not only comprised of slavery’s supporters, but of those who were complicit because they did nothing for far too long. In the end, all were responsible. Even Lincoln himself.
Another gem to be mined from Lincoln’s thoughts is an elementary “something” many of us do all we can to avoid admitting: God does choose sides.
Now, I don’t mean God has a favorite football team (Romans 2:11). Although, I suppose an argument could be made that He certainly appears to prefer any team but the Detroit Lions. I’m also not implying the horrible doctrine of Double Predestination, which claims God chooses some for salvation and others for condemnation. When it comes to rescuing mankind from Sin, Death, and Satan, God is on all our sides (John 3:16-17; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; Ezekiel 18:23; Matthew 23:37). What I am saying is pretty uncomplicated.
God is against evil.
This is not a complicated premise. God is not on the side of Christians who support abortion. He is not on the side of politicians who restrict the Gospel. Could ever be found rejoicing when a serial killer murders a family on their way to worship? Of course not. We more than learn this from the Scriptures. It’s all over the place in the Old Testament. With each depiction, in turn, His people are expected to join Him in opposition to evil (Psalm 1:6; Joshua 24:14-15; Deuteronomy 30:15-20). We see Jesus doing the same thing in the New Testament. For example, He takes sides in the situation of divorce in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. He takes the side of the woman about to be stoned by the Pharisees in John 8:1-11. In Matthew 12:30, He says straightforwardly that whoever is not with Him is against Him. In Luke 11:28, Jesus proclaims as blessed those who side with the Word of God, that is, those who hear and hold to it as their most precious possession for salvation. Saint Paul is no stranger to the discussion, either. He’s the one who wrote by divine inspiration to God’s people, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Later on in 1 Corinthians 11:18, he makes a rather startling remark about God choosing sides in a congregation divided over the practice of the Lord’s Supper, writing that while some among them have God’s approval, others do not. He wrote:
“For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”
The word used in the text for “genuine” is δόκιμοι. This word can also be rendered “approved” or “judged as worthy.” So, who’s the one approving or judging as worthy? God. By this, He’s choosing a side. He’s saying who’s right and who’s wrong. One side is holding to His mandate. The other is not. Subsequently, one side is blessed by the benefits of what’s promised in the Lord’s Supper. The other receives the judgment mentioned in verse 29. This may be an elementary way of thinking this through. Nevertheless, it is what it is.
Coming back around to where I started, I think part of what makes Lincoln’s point sting so much is that it revealed an evil comfortably hidden beneath the guise of righteousness. I think another sting is felt when we realize there will always be folks who aren’t genuinely interested in something being good or bad, just so long as whatever happens in relation to it doesn’t disrupt their interests.
“Sure, abortion is terrible, and I’d never choose it for myself. But I don’t think it’s right to restrict someone else’s right to choose one.”
If this is your position, understand that God is not on your side.
Lincoln was willing to speak these uncomfortable truths to a nation, even though, as he admitted to Weed, he knew his words would not be popular.
Lincoln ended his letter with the following:
“To deny [the difference in purpose between God and evil], however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told, and, as whatever humiliation there is in it falls directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it.”
Again, he’s right. When you hold fast to wrongness and resist acknowledging you’ve stepped beyond the boundaries of faithfulness, you not only deny the just governance of God (because what you’re suggesting is that you’re right and He’s wrong), but you also teeter at the edge of denying His existence completely. Both are an affront to the First Commandment, and they’re nothing short of putting oneself in the place of God.
No one likes to be told they’re out of step with God’s will. And yet, for as piercing as such news might be, the penitent believer in Christ has been changed by the Gospel for receiving such a warning as an extension of God’s loving kindness. It’s a good thing that God tells us when we’re dangerously close to unfaithfulness, or that we’ve strayed from faithfulness altogether. Thankfully, Lincoln had clarity in this regard. Imagine if we had more people in the public square with the same clarity as Lincoln—people willing to call Sin what it is, and to speak courageously of Christ as the only side that rescues. Imagine if we still enjoyed the comforts of a populace with ears to hear such a message.
The church and school staff here at Our Savior in Hartland meet every Wednesday for study of the Lutheran Confessions. Currently, I’m leading them through Article IV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. Article IV deals with the doctrine of justification—the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls. During this past Wednesday’s study, we wandered into the area of consequences. As we did, a quotation from T.H. Huxley came to mind, which I shared. He said something about how logical consequences are a fool’s scarecrow, but for a wise man, they are a beacon.
Interestingly, each of the presentations during yesterday’s “Mental Health and Children” seminar here at Our Savior proved an awareness of consequences. Each presenter handled the term a little differently, but in the end, all affirmed consequence’s necessity.
In a psychological sense, I’m guessing that like all three of yesterday’s presenters, perhaps one of Huxley’s points is that foolish people meander about life less interested with consequence, and not necessarily because they’re completely oblivious, but because they’re mentally and spiritually unhealthy. These people are often disassociated from the effects of their words and actions. We see them treating people as it suits them. We see them expect respect without having done anything to earn it. I think they do these types of things because of an early-learned assumption that as long as they believe their intentions are noble, no matter how they treat someone, everything will be okay in the end. Things always work out. For them, that’s the only consequence.
This is scarecrow foolishness.
According to Huxley, wise people weigh consequences. Yesterday’s seminar presenters spoke in a similar stride, associating such awareness with normal mental health. Following Huxley’s lead, wise people observe consequences like pyres burning brightly on the horizon. They tend to maintain better control of the “self.” They keep their emotions in balance. They craft their words with care. I’m guessing they’re also likely to be people who are self-aware of their own unspoken tells—things like body language, tone, and catch-phrases. They care about even these things in conversation.
I made the point in the staff study on Wednesday that I believe a person who is mindful of consequence will naturally know his or her threshold for action. In other words, knowing the consequences of an action will uncover what a person is willing or unwilling to do in any given situation. I said this in relation to what we were reading at the time, and I didn’t want the staff to miss what the text was inferring, which was, through faith in Christ, no matter what happens in this life, the consequence of all consequences has been met by Jesus on the cross. By faith in this sacrifice, whether we live or die, we are His. This doesn’t mean we are now free from all consequences, but rather we have been made into people capable of walking into and withstanding challenges that others might normally avoid. Faith now serves as the point of origin for Christian discernment, translating all logical consequences in ways that help us break through to faithfulness when fear seems to be preventing us from doing what needs to be done.
A personal example from this past week comes to mind.
Having spent most of last Sunday evening in the Emergency Room, I ended up at our preferred pharmacy near our home on Tuesday afternoon (because Tuesday was the soonest I could get there) to pick up a subsequent prescription. On the way in, I noticed a car in the parking lot with two rather large bumper stickers, both prominently displayed and easily seen from a distance. One was the Antifa emblem, and the other read, “Capitalism is the virus.”
In case you didn’t know, Antifa is a far-left militant group. Their goal: to disrupt and destroy the American system and to replace it with their own. Do you remember those “Autonomous Zones” in Seattle and Washington D.C. back in 2020? Antifa were the thugs behind that stuff. They’re the ones you see on national news dressed in black, wearing ski masks and helmets and body armor, and leveling all sorts of violence and ruin using urban guerilla-warfare tactics. They’re hell bent on seeing socialism replace capitalism, and they believe the only way to do this is through intimidation and violent confrontation similar to their Marxist forefathers of the early 20th century. You can almost always count on them to serve as the muscle at “Black Lives Matter” rallies. Holding anarchy signs, they attack passersby, break windows, and burn buildings and cars. They’re famous for using improvised explosives, chemical irritants, and pretty much anything they can turn into a weapon—like metal pipes, axe handles, baseball bats, hammers, bricks, and the like. Not to mention, whether or not they’ve surrounded, sucker-punched, and kicked you to a bloody pulp, you know they’ve been in your neighborhood because they leave everything covered with trash and graffiti.
But sometimes you don’t know they’re in your neighborhood.
Another of their tactics aimed toward disruption is infiltration. Some experts believe this is how Antifa has known where and when to arrive in mass numbers when some relatively obscure conservative groups have organized an event. This happened to a Christian church’s outdoor service last year in Seattle.
In short, Antifa is responsible for hundreds of thousands of acts of violence, some resulting in death, as well as billions of dollars in damages across 140+ of America’s cities and towns. In May of 2020, President Trump announced he was labeling Antifa a domestic terrorist group. Of course, Joe Biden has since walked that back. Go figure.
Anyway, I went into the pharmacy. I looked around. I didn’t notice any black-clad militant Marxists. In fact, the only two patrons in the store were in line at the pharmacy. Both were elderly gentlemen who, as it turns out, knew each other. By their clothing, both appeared to be veterans. And both spent their time in line talking back and forth about what was happening at their respective churches.
I waited in line, got my prescription, stopped at home for a few minutes, and then went back to the church for a School Board meeting.
Later that night, I found myself back in the pharmacy parking lot. The car was still there. Once again, I went inside and scanned the store with the hope of identifying the person. But the place was empty. I grabbed a bottle of pop from one of the coolers in the furthest corner, and after a brief discussion with the manager at the checkout counter (one in which I shared much of what I just shared with you, while also drawing the manager’s attention through the store’s windows to the car in the parking lot), I discovered the vehicle’s owner works in the pharmacy. My concluding words in the conversation were fairly crisp.
“So, let me get this straight,” I said. “An Antifa sympathizer—someone driving around advertising a belief, not only in the disassembling of America through violence, but also in the benefit of subversive anonymity—has been hired by this company to fill prescriptions for the people of this town, at least two of whom are, as I discovered earlier this afternoon, elderly veterans, men who epitomize everything your employee hates?”
“Oh, goodness,” the manager said. “I’m probably going to have to talk to her.”
“I think that’s a really good idea,” I added, tucking my purchase into my coat pocket. “You might even want to talk to someone a little higher up before you do, because this is pretty serious. I doubt any company would want to generate unnecessary buzz due to association with a domestic terror group.” I said this insinuating I was willing to make that happen.
Notice I didn’t share with you the name of the store or town. Although, I’m sure some of you already know both. Nevertheless, I’m going to sit on that information for a few days to see what happens.
In the meantime, what does any of this have to do with knowing one’s threshold for action in relation to consequences? Well, quite a bit, actually.
There will be consequences for what I’ve done. Heck, I anticipate there will be consequences from some of you for just sharing this. Some will label me derogatorily as a “Karen.” Some will chalk me up as part of the cancel culture. Others will say my actions suppress free speech. Knowing Antifa’s history, others will say I put myself in harm’s way by seeking the person out. Perhaps worse, by confronting the ideology, and maybe even getting the person fired, others will accuse me of putting the store and its town in the crosshairs of this dreadful organization. All of these are but a few of the consequences. Believe me, the list is much longer than this. Yes, I was paying attention in the School Board meeting earlier that night, but I was also pondering the list’s possibilities.
Face it, folks. This nation is spiraling in so many ways. But this is largely true because too many have been unwilling to act for fear of the above list of consequences. The viscera for saying what needs to be said or doing what needs to be done in some of the hardest moments has, in many instances, been lost on the citizens of a somnolent nation braced by the fear of being cancelled. We’ve become those who meander around thinking that no matter what happens, everything will be okay. America will be fine. It’ll get sorted out.
No, it won’t. And we are experiencing the consequences of this scarecrow foolishness.
In the end, I did what I did because I know Christians are the ones best equipped for speaking. Why? In part, because we know the role consequences play in the equation of faith.
I know this has been a long read so far, but give me one last minute to explain.
Whoopi Goldberg (a celebrity on the daytime TV show “The View” that regularly ridicules Christians and conservatives) was recently put on leave for some truly ignorant comments about the Holocaust. In response, there were plenty of Christians calling for her suspension, but not necessarily calling for it permanently. While they despised what she said, they didn’t want to see her cancelled. They said she needed to be forgiven and then let loose back into the wilds of TV land.
Personally, I’m one of the Christians who wants her gone permanently. I’m also one of those guys who believes that any leader in the Church caught having an affair or other such ungodly behaviors, should be removed from his or her position of leadership permanently and with no exceptions. Why? Well, I have at least three reasons for starters.
The first is not because I’m unwilling to forgive anyone their sinful stupidity. We all fall short in big and small ways. The Bible is clear in this regard (Romans 3:10). But I say this because the person is in a place of influential strength, and their impact has a blast radius that God’s Word warns against (Titus 3:10-11; 1 Timothy 1:19-20). Besides, history itself proves how dangerous such situations involving public figures can be for communities. Their Sin has a way of trickling into and affecting countless others. With regard to Whoopi, the second reason is that she remains defiantly unrepentant in her Sin. The third reason is because, even if she does eventually repent, I believe in consequences in the same way our Lord describes them in Matthew 5:23-26:
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
Part of the Lord’s point is the urgency of penitent reconciliation. Get on it right away. He wants peace accomplished swiftly and thoroughly. If it isn’t, the logical consequences will eventually ensue. Relationships will come undone, even though forgiveness has been given. What once was good will become obscured, even though things have been set right. That’s just the way it works in a fallen world. Or perhaps from another angle, you may be a serial killer on the way to trial who has a genuine “come to Jesus” moment of repentance born from the Gospel that results in saving faith. Praise God. You are forgiven. No matter the outcome, eternal life is yours. But the consequences remain for the serious boundaries of natural and moral law you crossed. While you may be assured of heaven through faith in Christ and the forgiveness He bestows, here on earth you’re assured of prison, and maybe even execution. And rightfully so. These are the just consequences. But again, even as you face these consequences, by the Gospel you have the certainty that the consequence of all consequences has been defanged and defeated by the same Savior who has shown you eternal mercy. By this, whether you live or die, you know you’ll be okay.
I’m praying for a change of heart in the Antifa pharmacist. I’m praying for the wisdom of the manager at that store. I’m praying for a change of heart in Whoopi Goldberg. But as I lift these petitions before God, I do so also asking that He’d help me to be ready and willing to cross the thresholds of my fear in order to endure the consequences of any action I might be called to take in opposition to these devilries. I pray for these things because I know what they mean for my enemies just as much as what I know they mean for me.
One of the main thrusts of today’s celebration—the Transfiguration of Our Lord (which, because we follow the Historic Lectionary, comes to us at Our Savior in Hartland a little earlier than the churches that use the Three-Year Lectionary)—is the importance of listening to the Word above all other things (Matthew 17:5). In fact, the Heavenly Father turns the disciples’ combined attention away from the Lord’s glorious display to the simplicity of listening to Jesus. And why? Not only because Jesus is the Word made flesh, but because it’s by the Gospel that He chooses to engage with and save His world (Romans 1:16). Spectacular light shows and wowing performances might inspire awe, but they’re impact is easily dulled by sinful human forgetfulness—as all three of these disciples will continue to prove time and time again not long after the Transfiguration. James and John will run away in fear when the Lord is captured. Peter will deny three times that even knows Him.
“Listen to Him,” is the Father’s Word. That will always be more important.
One of the things I love most about God’s Word is that the more you study it, the more it reaches into you and equips you for seeing things in ways that you didn’t before. An easy example of this comes from what I read this morning in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. Essentially, Saint Paul sets the stage for us to keep our senses attuned to how God operates, writing plainly that He often does so in opposites. He chooses the weak things instead of the strong. He chooses to work His powerful victory among us through what appears to be the brutal defeat of His Son on a cross.
Of course, I knew these things already. Still, taking Paul’s lead, I began contemplating the familiar opposites I experience in life, specifically success and failure.
Like you, I experience victories and I suffer defeats. The old saying “You win some and you lose some” is not lost on any of us, and neither are the feelings of joy and sadness that come with winning and losing. But digging a little deeper into these opposites, what’s really at their centers? What’s really driving victory’s joy? What is it about defeat that induces genuine sorrow? Because God is big on opposites, I wonder if He has in mind for us to understand that the midpoint for winning or losing is in some way relative to what’s at stake for its opposite. In other words, it’s not necessarily the victory that delivers the joy, but also the knowledge of what was almost lost. The same goes for losing. It’s not so much the defeat that stings as it is the knowledge of what remains out of reach, of the inaccessible value of what was almost won.
I preach and teach fairly regularly how these deeper perspectives matter to the Christian Church. If you don’t know the value of what God says is good, how can you truly care to steer clear of the bad? If you don’t know the deeper significance of what’s at stake for eternal life, how can being connected to the One who can rescue you ever really rise to a place of genuine prominence in this life?
While many of us might not want to admit it, part of the problem is that we’ve retooled our spirituality to match the world’s spirituality, believing that there will always be another opportunity for everything, that there will always be a next season. We do this with our favorite sports teams. We do this with our jobs. We do this with so many things in life. Unfortunately, we also do this with marriage, making it disposable, and figuring we can always try again with someone else. We do the exact same thing with churches, friendships, and even our children. Far too many in our world are now doing this with Natural Law and human sexuality, thinking they can change the unchangeables and live as somebody new. And while we may get away with abusing these things in this life, we ought not let ourselves be fooled into thinking that there will be a next season for winning eternal life. When you breathe your last, or if the Lord returns again in glory, all seasons will have passed. All opportunities for running a different play, taking another shot, or trying a new pitch will have ceased. The buzzer will have sounded, and the divine Referee will have declared the winners and the losers for an unending future.
This is it, folks. Everything is on the line. Everything for the world to come matters right now in the world of today.
Come to think of it, I suppose another reason any of this might come to mind is because I learned this morning of a friend’s recent passing. It appears he was killed suddenly in an auto accident. Having met him at a side job in my college years, and getting reacquainted online through comments he’d sometimes make on my posts, he was the kind of guy who was betting on making it to old age, to a stage of life when he’d be able to see his own death on approach. And assuming he’d know when he was in that inevitable season, it was then he’d start to “get right with God.”
But time ran out. He was killed instantly.
Admittedly, our gracious Lord does sometimes move within the framework of a person’s final moments. He gives a little insight into this possibility in Matthew 20:1-16, which, by the way, is the Gospel reading appointed for next Sunday, Septuagesima. But if you take a moment with the parable Jesus tells (which is another example of opposites), you’ll notice that our Lord insists on doing things His way, not ours. In that respect, I’m reminded of a short video clip of Rev. Dr. David Scaer (https://wp.me/aaCKV0-1Be) in which he talks about how we like to hold up various examples of deathbed conversions, usually only doing so to justify believing that our delinquent loved ones made it into heaven. But Scaer admits we all know: it rarely happens this way in reality. Not everyone goes to heaven. People do actually end up in hell.
There’s value in admitting this.
Changing gears only slightly (or, perhaps, getting back around to where I started, which was the topic of listening to the Word), Bishop Hardy and I had a conversation this past week about the challenges of being pastors, namely, dealing with the kinds of people who appear to thrive on accosting us. I remember us needing very little back-and-forth when it came to one particular aspect of the calling, which is that every day brings new opportunities for being someone’s villain. The message we believe and bring, both Law and Gospel, all but guarantees this. In short, the point of the conversation, and an opposite of sorts: Why do we stay in a job that so often feels like defeat when we certainly could be doing something else that enjoys greater success? We agreed that whether we’re received as heroes or villains, neither of these opposing titles outweigh the value of the message we bring and its inherent power to change us—and to equip us—for the long haul. It makes us into men who are content to do what the Father commanded—which is to listen to the Word. In the end, we continue in the combat because the Word is everything to us. I’m guessing other pastors keep at it, enduring the same things for the exact same reason. The Word has made them into men who, like them or hate them, simply believe what Jesus says, and are quite well with taking any flak His words are guaranteed to stir.
I should add one more observation. It’s also likely pastors stay in the game because they want this endurance for more than just themselves. They want it for you, too. I know I do. Interestingly, and again keeping Paul’s theme of “opposites,” that encouraging thought also bears a word of warning to the wolves among God’s people. Or better yet, a clarification. Against pastors and people devoted to God’s Word, your troublemaking better have stamina for the long game, and not to mention lots of help, because those who embrace, believe, and stand on the Word—again, like them or hate them—are not only emboldened by God through His Word, but they are empowered. That means they aren’t quitters. They won’t roll over so easily in the face of devilry.
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.”
“…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.
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.
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.
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.