Habits

While sorting through some computer files on Friday, I ended up in the folder that contains all the messages like this one that I’ve ever sent since I started writing them back in 2015. As it would go, today’s message will be the 400th one sent. That’s quite a few, I’d say. Being conservative with the total word count for each, I’m guessing I’ve written at least 480,000 words along the way. Well, what can I say? I’ve spoken clearly over the years regarding my writing illness. For me, it’s an itch, one that, if I don’t scratch it, would likely drive me mad.

Or perhaps it’s better described as a routine. Apart from all the other things I regularly plink out on this keyboard, I’ve tapped through this Sunday morning message so many times for so many years that it’s become a habit. It’s something I just wake up and start doing. I’ve been asked over the years if I worry about finding myself in the moment with nothing to share. I suppose, on occasion, I’ve experienced writer’s block. Still, the short answer to the question is no. When I can’t think of anything to say, I take a quick look around me—whether that means reading an article, reexamining the past week’s events, or just looking out the window. In the end, I always find something worth considering. Once an idea is revealed, I just start typing. Again, it’s second nature—an exercise in the force of habit.

Habits are strange things. Some take a deliberate effort to form. Others seem to happen on their own. Of course, both kinds have the potential to become good or bad. Understanding the gravity of habit, Mark Twain said that to reform one, a person must first realize they are “not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” In other words, if you want to change—if you’re going to overcome and do better—it’ll take steady and deliberate mindfulness.

I used the words “second nature” a few sentences ago. I think there is a reason habits are often referred to in this way. A second nature implies a first nature. A first nature is a primal one. It’s what we’d be if the second nature weren’t laboring to outpace it. Admittedly, I have plenty of first-nature impulses that I suppress with second-nature behaviors. Some of these habits aren’t so good, and I’m working to coax them down the stairs. Other habits I’ve formed serve to help not only me but others, too. One I’ve probably shared with you before is the habit of searching my immediate environment in situations of conflict for cruciform things. By cruciform, I mean cross-shaped. Most of the time, I find something. But sometimes I don’t. Either way, the habit itself is a trained recollection of the Gospel. It’s a reminder that the person on the warpath before me is someone for whom the Lord died. In heated moments, remembering that Christ met me as His enemy and, by His gracious sacrifice on the cross, did what was necessary to make me His friend, the way I handle conflicts changes. It doesn’t mean I’m always successful at diffusing them. Still, I rarely leave such situations regretting what I’ve done or said, mainly because I deliberately tried to steer both of us toward Christ. Without this second nature overpowering my first-nature inclination to win at all costs—an inclination my wife and children know very well from our time together playing games—things would unfold much differently, and it wouldn’t be pretty.

Nevertheless, for this effort to become second nature, it took discipline. I actually had to practice it. Now it just happens.

When it comes to habits, I suppose Christians have the upper hand compared to the world around them. This is true because we know so much more about the first nature—the Sin nature (Romans 3:23). We know that we are innately corrupt and that apart from faith, even the good we might think we do is soiled (Isaiah 64:6). That being said, we also know the Gospel has changed us. The Gospel reveals God’s merciful first nature located in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:8). It brings us the life-altering message of what He has done to save us from our first nature of enmity. This same message—endowed with the Holy Spirit’s power for faith and its fruits—establishes a second nature, a new nature (Colossians 3:9-10). This new nature is ever mindful of the first nature’s dangerous capability and, as a result, works intentionally to outpace it. In other words, it practices spiritual discipline.

Fully aware of Sin’s dreadful grip, Saint Paul wrote straightforwardly:

“For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:22-25b).

Paul can write this way because he knows the power of what Christ has done for him on the cross. Naturally, he attributes his ability to wrestle with the Sinful nature to that same power at work in Him. It’s the same for all Christians. We know that because Jesus has defeated death (1 Corinthians 15:26), the first nature of Sin and its poison-filled tendrils have no rightful claim or permanent grip on us. As a result, we see the Law of God in an entirely new light. Like Saint Paul, we delight in it as preeminently useful in the struggle against the first nature. We actually delight in its strictness, counting it all joy when God commands us to observe the routine boundaries of the Ten Commandments. They’re incredibly preserving, so we acknowledge them as useful in the spiritual battle.

We can learn still more from Saint Paul in 1 Cor. 9:24-27:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

Employing the verb ὑπωπιάζω (translated as “discipline”), Paul sets before the reader a visceral word that quite literally means to “strike beneath the eye.” It implies struggle. Paul tells the reader he’s doing something essential—sometimes severe—to keep something else “under control” (v.27). He’s taking his new nature in Christ very seriously. He’s actively employing it physically to enslave his first nature to something better.

By the way, maybe you noticed how Paul acknowledged in verse 27 spiritual discipline’s corporate effects. I did. I hope other pastors recognize it, too. Paul wrote plainly that his habits affect others, and if he doesn’t feed the good ones while fighting the bad ones, his work as an apostle could very quickly become of little use not only to himself but to the body of believers to whom God sent him.

Being summertime—a time when worship attendance tends to trend lower—I find Paul’s encouragement toward spiritual discipline to be reminiscent of the habits haunting texts like Hebrews 10:24-25, which reminds all Christians to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Three habits, in particular, appear in this sentence. Those in the habit of attending worship are urged to make a habit of reaching out to those who’ve fallen into the habit of skipping church—which is to say, be in the habit of helping others out of their spiritually bad habits.

I suppose to wrap this up, I’ll simply say I appreciate the piety of habit. Routines born from God’s Word that help to keep one’s heart, soul, and mind set on Christ are good things. It’s one reason I appreciate making New Year’s resolutions. Good habits need a beginning. While I’m at it, I’ll say it’s also why I prefer the historic liturgy to other, more contemporary forms of worship. There’s something to be said for engaging in worship styles that some might categorize as habitual. They involve people saying and doing the same things over and over again. In this case, the habits are centuries-long. And why? Well, they’ve stood the test of time for a reason. For one, the thing about a habit is that it can steer without much help. In one sense, the biblically substantive rites and ceremonies—the communal habits of God’s people—have helped to steer Christian communities through some dark theological days. Looking at all the flighty nonsense today that passes as Christian worship, I appreciate the habit of historic liturgy that much more. It makes it possible for God’s people to go to a church and hear a really screwed-up sermon but still walk away, never missing out on solid biblical teaching. The historic liturgy is designed to keep God’s people immersed in the promises of Christ, no matter the failings of the one leading it. When we mess with this, we mess with an excellent habit.

As one called to lead in such habits—someone who is more than capable of falling short—I’m glad for the second nature of the liturgy. Suppose the government one day decides to snatch away all of our worship volumes (as they’re doing in China), I’m guessing the very first time you gather with fellow Christians in worship to discover you don’t actually need a service book because the liturgy has become habitual, you’ll agree, too.

You’re Already Home

Having just returned to Michigan from Florida yesterday, I suppose I’ll begin this morning’s note with a simple observation. In short, one of the most enchanting qualities of “home” is that while it sometimes feels so incredibly good to be away from it, there’s very little that compares to returning. The ghostly warmth hovering throughout—the familiar smells and the favorite spaces; one’s bed or best-loved chair—all of it together is a resonant foretaste of the purest welcome to be found only in the chambers of heaven.

Indeed, as Cicero once said, “There is no place more delightful than one’s own fireside.”

I was thinking on the plane yesterday afternoon about how difficult it can be to make one’s way back into the busyness of life. After two weeks in which the hardest thing I had to do was adore the palm trees while swimming from one end of the pool to the other, just about anything else can seem daunting. Even unpacking the suitcase last night felt like a chore, especially compared to the exertion that today will require. Today, I’ll drift from yesterday’s lazy river into the swifter current of this and that and then this and that. I’ll finish tapping out this message, and then I’ll write the prayers for the Divine Service. From there, I’ll make my way toward plenty of other preparatory things before the 9:30 AM start time. At that point, I’ll preside over the liturgy, baptizing a little one at the beginning and seeing that you get the Lord’s Supper at the end. After the Bible study hour that follows, I have a couple of meetings, and then it’s off to officiate a wedding followed by another baptism.

Today will be nothing like yesterday’s palm trees. I expect I won’t find my way home until mid-evening. I’m grateful to Rev. Christian Preus for joining us this morning as a guest preacher and for taking time during the Bible study hour to talk about the up-and-coming Luther Classical College. Not only will this help, but if you’re at all concerned about sending your child off to any of today’s modern colleges or universities, his time with us will be worthwhile.

Having said all these things with an unmistakable tenor, you must know that none of them changes the point I made in the beginning. No matter what’s going on, L. Frank Baum was correct to make his character Dorothy repeat, “There’s no place like home.” Surrounded by her family and friends at the end (who echoed through the characters she discovered in Oz), Dorothy realized, as so many often do, that it’s not necessary to travel the world to find what we need. Home is where you’ll often find it. In that sense, home is more than things. It’s people. It’s routines. It’s a sense of belonging. It often requires from you just as much as it gives, and that’s okay. It’s a two-way investment that creates unique relationships resulting in lives actually lived rather than only being observed from afar. You’re not just passing through. Instead, you belong—with and for the others who are there, too. God so graciously works these things into our lives, settling the solitary in a home (Psalm 68:6) and blessing them with a wonderful synergy of both needing and being needed.

These thoughts on home bring something else to mind.

Last week I learned a new word from Rev. Dr. Scott Murray. He used the term “theologism.” If I recall correctly, he defined it as a religious statement that many people regularly say, having accepted as totally self-evident. But when the saying is rigorously tested, it’s proven to be far less than all-encompassing. In particular, he identified as an example the saying, “God hates sin but loves the sinner.” I think he’s right. Psalm 5:5 is an easy example of God’s dislike for sinners. The first chapter of the Prophet Malachi combined with Saint Paul’s handling of the same material in Romans 9:10-13 is another example. Personally, I think many Christians gravitate toward the saying because they feel God needs a little help in the Public Relations department. In other words, rather than simply accepting that God hates Sin and everything it produces—which includes sinners—we attempt to soften the blow of such things. When we do, we confuse the theology and allow wiggle room for missing the seriousness of the predicament and our need for actual rescue. When that happens, we begin redefining Sin in ways that enable us to remain comfortable with it in certain forms. I think it’s better to say that hate is an alien thing for God. His natural inclination is one of love, which is why the Gospel is far more prominent in the Bible than God’s hatred. If anything, we are to know that what’s innate to God’s very being has overpowered what He knows we’re due and what He has every right to exact. In other words, His love moved Him to do what was necessary for rescuing even the things He hates. In our case, by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ, He makes us into friends.

Perhaps another theologism is the saying, “We’re only just passing through this life. Heaven is our home.”

For the most part, the saying is true, especially when you consider Saint Paul’s words in Philippians 3:20. He refers to Christians as citizens of heaven awaiting the Lord’s return. Hebrews 13:14 speaks similarly, describing God’s people as awaiting the arrival of “the city that is to come.” The Apostle Peter calls us “sojourners and exiles” in 1 Peter 2:11.

I suppose I start to steer away from this saying as all-encompassing or all-interpreting when I realize how it licenses far too many for disengagement in this world’s affairs, as though they don’t belong. This bothers me, especially when I read the Lord’s words in John 17:14-16, which is a moment where He prays to the Father on our behalf, saying, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”

Two things come to mind in this.

Firstly, and indeed, we are foreigners in this world. The world hates us, but mostly because we do not rely on it as the source of our lives. We look to something else, that is, someone else—namely, Jesus. John 15:19 confirms this. Here in John 17, the genitive preposition “ἐκ” (which is often translated into English as “of”) implies the same thing. The word means “out of, out from, by means of, or as a result of”—which is to say the source of our lives and existence does not come from this world. It comes from God.

Secondly, the Lord digs deeper into this when He prays that we not be extracted from the world but protected while living in it. In other words, we belong here, and until the Lord returns on the Last Day bringing the new heaven and earth, this world, as a location, is just as much our home as is heaven—even as exiles, even as sojourners, even as prisoners. What’s more, God’s Word (which is also Jesus Himself [John 1:1-3, 14]) is referenced as the source of this protection right at the beginning of the Lord’s plea in verse 14 above. From this perspective, we understand our home as far more than the house in which we live or the community in which we dwell, whether in the past, present, or future. Instead, the definition of home becomes akin to Solomon’s inspired words in Proverbs 24:3-4: “By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.”

Your truest and final dwelling is coming. But your home—both in this life as a foretaste and the next as fulfilled—is in the Word. I’m guessing this isn’t far from what the Lord meant when He said in John 14:23, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

I suppose I should probably end this morning’s note right here, primarily because I need to get started on some other things. In the end, know that even as eternal life is yours in Christ, you’re not just passing through this mortal life. By faith in Him, eternal life is happening to you right now, too. Holding fast to Him and His Word, no matter where you are, you’re already home. He’s with you, and wherever He promises to dwell, there, too, is the Christian’s own fireside.

A “Praise God” Moment

Apart from posting daily at AngelsPortion.com, I’ve read a little of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations each morning before writing whatever comes to mind. I do this not only because I’m on vacation or because I thoroughly enjoy Dickens’ storytelling but because of his care with words and my goal beyond the reading. His unrestrained festival and mastery of language is the mind’s perfect ignitor at 5:30 in the morning. After twenty minutes with Dickens, it’s hard to avoid thinking and writing creatively, which is what each morning on retreat beckons me to do.

I know I’m an easy target for people who say I’d be better off sleeping in. But here’s the thing—you should try it. Seriously. Firstly, be sure to spend some time in God’s Word. Life is in the Word. Then, after you’ve received what truly feeds the soul, take a chance on a chapter or two from a classic writer, someone like Dickens. Take a chance on Oliver Twist or The Cricket on the Hearth. You’ll see. Whether you actually enjoy the story in your hands or not, excellent word crafting will affect you. Make a habit of letting it do so, and you may very well begin seeing the world around you in a fresher, more genuine way. It may even prompt you to respond audibly. Good writing will encourage this. Superb writing will spark it.

I crossed paths this morning with a superb line.

The first sentence of chapter 54 in Great Expectations spoke eloquently of spring in England, describing it as a place where “the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.” This verbal arrangement’s crispness caused me to say aloud, “Michigan and England are more than historical cousins. They’re neighbors.”

Why did I respond this way? Because what Dickens described was so incredibly familiar that I had to respond. I knew exactly what he was talking about. Like the people thousands of miles away in England, I know the Michigan days when springtime promises summer, but its breezes remind me of winter—when its sun hints at sunscreen, but its shade demands a jacket. Dickens’ snare of careful language caught me with truth in a way that caused a celebratory response.

I suppose that’s one thing of importance to consider this morning, especially in preparation for hearing from the historic lectionary’s suggested Gospel readings of either Luke 15:1-10 or Luke 15:11-32. Since I won’t be at Our Savior in Hartland this morning, I can’t say for sure which Gospel reading Bishop Hardy has selected. Either way, Jesus’ careful words in either text are more than capable of ensnaring the listener with a two-part truth.

The first part is that, in our Sin, we are lost. The second is that God’s love moves Him to seek and find us. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done any more than it matters our origins or appearance. We mean a lot to Him. We are His sheep. We are His precious silver coins. We are His children. When we wander away, He’s willing to endanger Himself to find us. When we are lost, He’s willing to get on His hands and knees in the filth to retrieve us. When we reject and insult Him, He continues giving us the inheritance of His Gospel, and then He stands ready at the edge of His kingdom’s property to embrace us when that same Gospel produces a penitent faith that longs for home.

I’m guessing that some of the Lord’s listeners whispered audibly to themselves the familiarity of what Jesus was describing. In some circumstances, the Scriptures tell us that people heard the Lord’s preaching and couldn’t help but call out God’s praises. And why was this true? Because again, His Word caught them in truth. It reminisced the messianic promises given so long ago—words that described God Himself as the One who would not only do the ultimate finding of that which was lost, but He would accomplish it by enduring humanly unendurable consequences. How could they not be glad about this forthcoming victory taking shape before their eyes?!

I’ll add that beyond the simpler perspective of basic language, not only were Jesus’ words so incredibly well-crafted, but they were (and remain) life-giving words—words through which the Holy Spirit works to find and then recast the human heart into something far better than it was before.

I suppose these things lead me to something else.

I’ve been told by some people that Christians ought not to act too celebratory following the overturning of Roe V. Wade. I even received a reprimand by text from the Michigan Senate Majority Leader for disagreeing publicly with his expression of this sentiment. I’ll say that while I understand the premise of his concern, he’s wrong. This isn’t an “in your face” moment for the Church. It’s a “Praise God!” moment. And yet, it doesn’t change the fact that what has happened is a vindicating triumph destined to bother the enemies of God no matter what. There’s just no way around the world receiving this as an “in your face” moment. That’s how it works for the world when God’s people win and death loses to life.

Knowing this, imagine if Moses had warned the Israelites not to express their songs of praise too openly on the other side of the Red Sea after being delivered from certain death (Exodus 15:1-21). Imagine if he’d urged such things because he was concerned about offending his former family—that is, the house of Pharaoh—and preserving future political relations with them. Imagine if the disciples, having gone into Jerusalem after the Lord’s victorious resurrection and ascension, had subdued their joy out of concern for offending their fellow countrymen or the Sanhedrin’s failed attempt at suppressing the Gospel (Luke 24:51-53).

Go anywhere you want in the Bible and imagine this of God’s people amid His victories.

Again, here’s the thing. When God’s people celebrate His victories, it is a powerfully confident proclamation of the Gospel itself. Neither the Israelites nor the ragtag band of disciples deserved rescue. It’s the same with the unborn. The Sin-nature makes all human beings into God’s enemies. But God rescues us, anyway. He wants to save. And when He does, spiking the football, dancing, giving high-fives to one’s teammates—rejoicing—is in perfect order because it’s a fruit of faith. It knows it’s been snatched from the edge of eternal death by truth. For the record, Jesus describes the very corridors of heaven resonating with similar angelic gladness when even one sinner is snatched by truth in this way (Luke 15:7).

But wouldn’t our gleeful response in victory make the devil and his ilk angry at and less inclined to work with us?

You bet.

Such rejoicing is an affirmation and perpetuation of the Gospel itself, which the devil and his compatriots hate. And why? Because the Gospel will always be the means through which the Holy Spirit works to change the hearts of God’s enemies into His friends (Romans 1:16). If you subdue this Gospel joy in such moments, you risk hiding the opportunity for a good word of truth to snatch others away and into the Lord’s kingdom (Matthew 5:16).

I don’t know about you, but I intend to celebrate and do it openly. After fifty years, it’s certainly time for it. Yes, I’ll continue supporting the areas of opportunity most pro-choicers are saying will become horribly burdensome—such as adoption, foster care, and the like. By the way, I don’t know how anyone could look into the eyes of an unadopted or foster child and say he or she is the reason we need to protect abortion. That’s just sick. But that’s the logic of those who lost this round, and we’re delighted they did. When they lose, death loses. Praise God for that!

Vacation

A lot has happened in the past few days, hasn’t it? For one, Roe V. Wade was overturned. Praise God for this. Now, America actually has a good reason for expressing pride during the month of June—Godly pride, that is. Personally, I’d say the timing couldn’t have been better.

First of all, and liturgically speaking, the day the ruling was handed down—June 24—is traditionally celebrated by the Church as the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. I know lots of folks are jumping up and down about the ruling happening on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is a distinctly Roman Catholic devotional celebration more or less born from private revelations the Jesuits claimed Saint Gertrude experienced in the 1600s. The point of the celebration has become Christ’s love for humanity. I suppose that’s a fine theme, too. Except to say that the Sacred Heart celebration was never really a fixed feast date. It moved around throughout history based on various papal decrees. I can’t say for sure, but I think it still does. If that’s the case, then remembering June 24 becomes more difficult.

But the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist is cemented to June 24. Even better, its origin isn’t speculative. It remembers events and characters actually recorded in God’s inspired Word, having been fixed on the calendar by Christians since the fifth century. This is no insignificant thing when we consider the SCOTUS ruling in relation to the date. Yes, it celebrates John’s birth, but it also digs deeper. It’s seasoned with the memory of John who, as an unborn child in Elizabeth’s womb, leaped for joy when Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, the mother of our Lord, stepped into her presence. And why did the unborn forerunner of Christ begin stirring with joy at that moment? The scriptures tell us it was because Mary was pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1:41-45). Even superficially, the Bible considers John and Jesus to be far more than clumps of cells as the vile pro-choice ideologues would claim.

Second of all, and a little closer to home, the 6 to 3 ruling by the highest court in the land was well timed in the sense that it arrived on the heels of 14 pastoral and lay delegates who, at our recent English District convention, voted anonymously against a resolution affirming life and the important resources made available for preserving it pre and post-birth. I know that’s not very many votes, especially since there were a few hundred in attendance over the three days. Still, I struggled to stomach the fact that 14 people representing a handful of LCMS congregations in my own district had just proved themselves to be at odds not only with the church body in which they hold membership but with God’s Word. If that weren’t enough, a handful of pastors and delegates voted against a resolution affirming human sexuality as God designed it—namely, that men cannot be women and women cannot be men. A small number opposed this biblical truth, and yet, it was still quite bothersome. Another resolution decrying Critical Race Theory and its ideological promulgators, such as the openly Marxist organization “Black Lives Matter,” had a much larger contingent of dissenters. There were 44 among us who voted against that particular resolution.

For the record, I intend to do a little investigating. If I can know the voting record of my elected representatives in congress, I should be able to know the votes (and the reasons) of those who voted on doctrinal issues. I mean, if any electoral process requires the integrity of letting one’s yes be yes and no be no (Matthew 5:37), it’s in forums that discern and determine the future of the Church’s doctrine and practice.

Of course, this same thing happened in many of the other district conventions bearing similar resolutions. Thankfully, the English District passed all of the resolutions I mentioned with overwhelming support. This is proof that we still have an overwhelming number of faithful pastors and lay leaders throughout the 22 states we call home. I thank Bishop Jamison Hardy for leading the way in this regard.

Anyway, enough with this stuff. I’m writing from a bright little spot about an hour and thirty minutes south of Tampa, Florida. The sun has just arisen. There’s a palm tree just outside the nearest window. I can see the anoles are already skittering up and down the tree’s trunk as though it were a miniature highway. I don’t know what they’re doing, but whatever it is, it seems far more important than what I’m doing at the moment.

I don’t have to do anything right now. Not even this tapping at the keyboard is required. I’m on vacation.

I won’t tell you where the Thoma family is presently holed up only because I value your friendship and I’d miss you if you were gone. You know the saying: I could tell you but then I’d have to… well… you know. It’s likely those of you closest to me also know that of all the routine things the Thoma family might do in a year, the two weeks of vacation we attempt each summer are the most sacrosanct. There is no other moment amid the earth’s regular orbiting of the sun when we get to be together, just us, for such a significant stretch of time. Not even the days post-Christmas and Easter offer the kind of rest we get in these moments. In that sense, this time is untouchably holy.

It hasn’t always been this way.

It wasn’t until 2016 that we took our first real family vacation. I’ve been serving in the church since 1994, and yet, before 2016, I’d never gone away for any significant amount of personal time. The only time I can remember being out of the saddle for more than a week with family doing something that wasn’t necessarily church-related occurred in the summer of 1995 when my brother Michael died. Other than that, I had only ever scooted away for two or three days in the middle of the week a handful of times. Not much changed after Jennifer and I got married in 1997. We took two or three midweek days to visit family, but we were always sure to return home no later than Saturday night so that I could climb back onto Sunday morning’s horse.

But then, Jennifer took a chance. Without really even including me in the plans, she scheduled a ten-day vacation in Florida. She paid the airfare, reserved a house with a pool, and rented a van that seated six people. The phone conversation was incredibly brief. If I remember correctly, it happened sometime in January, and it went something like this:

“Chris, whatever you have scheduled from June 25 to July 7,” she said, plainly, “get someone else to do it.”

“Um,” I likely mumbled.

“We’re going to Florida for two weeks.”

“We are?”

“Yes,” she replied, just as simply as she began. “All six of us.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll tell you more tonight when you get home. Love you.”

That was about it. Needless to say, I first checked to make sure I wasn’t presiding at any weddings, and then I noted in my calendar accordingly.

Admittedly, it was challenging at first to step away from my duties. It felt alien to be so far out of reach. The life of a pastor is a 24/7 thing, and it’s not kept cleanly compartmentalized in public and personal boxes—at least, not like so many other jobs. It’s just the plain truth that the public’s gravity is almost always stronger than the personal. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I’m always within reach of anyone who needs me. This is good. But it can also be incredibly draining, not only for me but for my family. Ask them. Plenty of family moments have been abruptly altered by a phone call and my sudden departure. That’s not a complaint. It’s what I signed up for. Still, and I suppose humanly speaking, rest is needed, and if the 24/7 access to anyone and everyone isn’t kept in check, the pastor and his family can be irrevocably harmed. In a way, I’ve been forcibly taught that a vacation is one of the necessary barriers that help to preserve my family’s wellbeing.

Sometimes we need to be forcibly taught what’s good for us.

The English novelist Lisa St. Aubin de Terán said something about how taking a vacation is like flirting with actual life. I don’t know the context of her words. I only know that she wrote them. I’m guessing she meant that for many, vacationing is a brief interlude with a way of life they cannot have. In a sense, that’s true. I’d love to wake up each morning and do what I’m doing right now with a palm tree outside my window. And after a brief bit of early morning writing, I’d awaken my lovely family with the crisp aromas and crackling sounds of breakfast, all before inviting them to join me for a leisurely dip in the pool, the rest of the day being an open horizon leading toward whatever we’d prefer.

This is the life I’m flirting with right now. That being said, one day, I intend to make it a reality. Strangely, I had to be forcibly introduced to it. And now that I know it, I never want to surrender its pursuit. In fact, I’ve learned I need it. Without the rest these two weeks in a year provide, the potential weariness of the year’s remaining days would almost certainly overtake me.

I suppose this word-rambling is leading me to something else.

Take a vacation from the day-to-day and go to church. Don’t be fooled into thinking you have no time for it. You do. And you need it. Join your holy Savior in worship. To do so is to enjoy a divine romance with life—eternal life. Although, this is a flirtation that extends far beyond what I’ve already described. To be with your loving Savior each week in worship is by no means to experience something you’ll never have. Instead, it is a rest-filled foretaste and proclamation of the divine promises of God’s forgiveness that are already yours by faith, something you will fully retire into when you breathe your last breath. Unfortunately, this is something that far too many Christians appear to resist, especially during the summer months. And so, for a person’s wellbeing, Christ and His pastors must sometimes forcibly say, “Go to church. And take your kids.” They do this because they know the routine rest that worship provides is necessary. It’s fundamental to Christian health, both as individuals and as a community.

We’ll be going to church this morning. Just like a vacation itself, worship is a relationship with life—the One who is the way, the truth, and the life—we never want to surrender. We need what Christ gives. We need the rest God imputes by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel preached and administered. And so, we go. No matter where we are, we go. This year we’ll be attending Redeemer Lutheran Church in Englewood, Florida, which is a confessional congregation helmed by one of the Lord’s faithful servants, Reverend James T. Kress. Although I suppose now that I told you this, you can figure out the general vicinity of our retreat. Still, I suppose if you want to use this information to crash our time of respite, you’ll need to move quickly. Worship begins at 9:15 A.M. Also, I should say you wouldn’t be crashing anything. It would be a pleasure to sit beside you and your family in the pews, partaking together of God’s gracious gifts of Word and Sacrament with the rest of His people at Redeemer.

I’m okay with that. But I’ll draw the line there. Don’t plan on following us to our rental home after the Benediction. I love you in the Lord and all that, but rest assured I’ll be driving like a criminal on the show “Cops” to lose you along the way.

Eerily Applicable: The Screwtape Letters

Moving into the summer months, there is a transition that occurs here at Our Savior in Hartland. We move from a typical Sunday School arrangement into what we call “Family Sunday School.” The typical Sunday School structure is as you’d suspect. The adults gather for study with the pastor, while the children are shepherded according to their appropriate grade levels to classes taught by an adult volunteer joined by one or more assistants. When summer comes around, we gather adults and children together for study, with each lesson being taught by the pastors, seminarians, and others. Last summer we studied the liturgy. In summers before that we studied our Lord’s passion, the biblical themes of our congregation’s stained-glass windows, and plenty of other worthwhile topics. This year we’ll be trying something a little different. We’ll be visiting with ten of the thirty-one letters in C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters.

If you’re unfamiliar with the book, just know it’s a stranger bit of Christian fiction, the kind that only the brilliant author of the Chronicles of Narnia series could summon. Although, I hesitate to call this unique work by Lewis fiction. In a way, its point is genuine. It observes the Christian faith through the eyes of a demon named Screwtape. An uncle to Wormwood and an undersecretary in hell, Screwtape is writing to his nephew, offering his best advice for accomplishing the condemnation of Wormwood’s “patient,” a young man in England during World War II.

I’ve read the book several times over the years, usually a few letters at a time, and only as the urge to turn a few pages surprised me. I’ll be starting this summer study, which begins today. I’ll introduce the book’s characters before handling the Preface and Letter 1. From there, I’ll turn over the remaining sessions to others throughout the summer. I’ll wrap it all up in August. Along the way, we’ll do our best to make the material graspable to all, even the youngest among us. The book does dig relatively deep. This means it will take a little extra effort to bring the kids along. That being said, I’m not one to impose upon children a list of inabilities foreign to them. In fact, I have a feeling they’ll understand far more than any of us may expect. Besides, Christ Himself reminds us that when we grow up, we need to be more like them than adults, especially when it comes to the things of faith (Matthew 18:1-6).

In preparation for this morning’s effort, there is a line in Letter 1 which reads, “The trouble with argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy’s own ground.” By the “Enemy,” Screwtape means God. Screwtape continues advising Wormwood that it’s best to keep his patient away from the exchange of opposing viewpoints, primarily because it involves genuine contemplation, and genuine contemplation is the potential pathway to discovering objective truth. An honest handling of objective truth can only lead to the divine. Equally, Screwtape discourages courteous discussion. In other words, keep it as a heated exchange of little more than emotional declarative statements fed by the distractions of what he refers to as “real life,” namely, what interests the patient personally. “And don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real,’” the undersecretary demon makes clear. This is to say, let him define reality in whatever ways he wants to. This is the essence of the old proverb, “Devil take the hindmost.” It describes someone serving his or her own self-interests at the expense of what’s right or wrong, true or untrue.

These things being the content of just the first letter (and the doorway to all the others), already the reader can see how timelessly insightful C.S. Lewis is for revealing hell’s tactics. He wrote this book eighty years ago, and yet, when we compare it to what’s happening in our world today, it seems a much more recent editorial.

Not much has changed. And why? Well for one, I suppose Satan appreciates consistency, knowing not to fix what isn’t broken. In a way, his appreciation of consistency reveals his devilish hypocrisy, too. What I mean is that it’s a nod to the only things that truly are consistent: God and His natural law. By nature, creation is bothered by shifting inconsistency, but instead takes comfort in reliability. Just ask a preschooler, someone who is the epitome of natural law at work in humanity. Try swapping story time with craft time on the schedule. You’ll learn very quickly the innate urge to abide by the natural order of things. In fact, you’ll learn it takes some pretty smooth talking to steer away from it.

Again, part of Lewis’ point is that honest observation and genuine discussion have the potential for revealing these consistent boundaries—at least that they actually exist. When one realizes objective truth exists (as Lewis makes abundantly clear in his book Mere Christianity), the likely endpoint is, at a minimum, an acceptance not only of God’s existence, but an embracing of Him as the wellspring of these truths.

Of course, Christians equipped with the Word of God already know the deepest of all these things, which is the two-fold thread woven into and through the entirety of objective truth’s fabric. It’s God’s gracious warning of our dreadful condition—our unalterable predicament in Sin (Romans 3:23). And yet, He pierces the hopeless situation with the bright-beaming light of His love, revealing to us that He has sent and accomplished the solution to this humanly unsolvable problem. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, who by His incarnation became one of us and atoned for the Sin of the whole world (1 John 2:2).

Interestingly, Screwtape references his disdain for Christ’s incarnation right away in the first letter. Referring to the patient’s humanity, he reminds Wormwood, “Remember, he is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (Oh that abominable advantage of the Enemy’s!) you don’t realize how enslaved they are….” Amazingly, Screwtape speaks to humanity’s bondage in Sin while at the same time expressing frustration that Jesus, out of great love, stepped into it, submitting Himself to the same bondage.

As the book goes on, these types of theological premises expand. As they do, we get an inside look at just how frustrating they are to the old evil foe, Satan. At the same time, we become more attuned to the vile tactics he uses for obscuring our view of God’s loving effort to save us. As you get deeper into the book, I guarantee you’ll sense their familiarity.

And so, if you haven’t already, I encourage you to read The Screwtape Letters. It’ll be well worth your while. Although don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself being distracted from reading it. Again, even though it’s technically fiction, I doubt the devil is too appreciative of it. It’s far too accurate a depiction for his liking.

It’s Complicated

Have you ever had one of those moments when you suddenly realized you’d matured in your understanding of something? Usually, the process of mental maturity is a gradual one, moving along so slowly that you don’t necessarily realize the things you are realizing. Every now and then I’ll observe what feels like sudden realizations with my kids. They’ll use a word they’ve never used before, or they’ll ask a question in a way that proves a much deeper awareness of a certain subject. In those instances, it’s as if I saw them leap from one of life’s steppingstones to the next. I enjoy such moments. They’re milestone flashes for any parent.

I rarely notice these moments in myself. I usually just move along knowing what I know. Of course, I’m always learning as I go, and as my knowledge base grows (or is cultivated), God willing, I’m faithfully employing every fiber of its muscle as possible. Still, there are those moments when I realize I’ve changed, that I’m not processing things as before. I’ll give you an example.

Today, Our Savior in Hartland celebrates the Festival of the Holy Trinity. Each year, Holy Trinity Sunday is an opportunity to meet with the wonderful, and yet ungraspability, of our Triune God. Hopefully other churches are blessed to do the same. I suppose they need to care about such things, first. We certainly do. Following along with the historic lectionary, we’re always so incredibly blessed to wade into certain occasions that eventually pull us into the deeper waters of divine truth. We’re not guided by the “sermon series” whims of clergyfolk who, perhaps being huge fans of Star Wars, want to spend the whole summer donning various costumes from the nine films all the while complicatedly imposing the Gospel upon each.

For as interesting as that sounds… (yawn). But hey, you do you, I guess.

Anyway, having revisited the texts appointed for today, most especially John 3:1-17, I realized I’ve become someone geared toward and appreciative of simplicity. In other words, I used to be someone prone to spinning my wheels in the mud of over-analysis. Nowadays, I’m comfortable seeing things through very simple lenses, and the simplicity is providing a clarity of sight about complex things that I don’t recall having before. Of course, I’m not saying that life doesn’t require contemplation. It does. What I’m saying is that with the Gospel for faith as the essential interpreter for pretty much everything, I experience what the Lord described in Matthew 18:1-6, which is a childlike sense.

Interestingly, John 3:1-17 is a reminder that while our God may be thoroughly unsearchable in His being, He really isn’t that hard to figure out. In short, sin is real and identifiable. It is condemnable. Everyone on the planet is infected by it. But God’s desire toward sinful man is one of love. It really is that simple. He loves us and wants for our salvation. It’s only when we complicate His desire for our rescue communicated straightforwardly by His Word that we complicate His desire’s reach into the world, sometimes negating it altogether. Nicodemus proves this repeatedly as he attempts to interpret Jesus’ words according to his reason. Doing so complicates his grasp at holy things and produces some pretty ridiculous conclusions, even one statement about climbing back up into his mother’s womb to be reborn, which seems almost a snide poke at Jesus’ simple preaching.

Thinking about all of this, I can’t help but recall what the month of June has become—LGBTQ+ pride month—along with all the denominations of Christians around the world who’ve somehow reasoned their way into believing God’s okay with the lifestyle.

The Bible is by no means unclear regarding God’s displeasure for the LGBTQ+ sexual ideology. It also doesn’t deny God His rightful due as the supreme determiner of right and wrong. In other words, when we stand before the throne on the Last Day, it will be according to His standards, not ours. What He considers godly and ungodly will be counted as such. Nevertheless, there is an aspect of the sinful nature that tries to wiggle free from God’s definitions so as not to be counted guilty for sinful behaviors we’d prefer to overlook or maintain. When we do this, the baseline of God’s Law appears cloudy—is made complicated. We no longer believe we’re doing anything wrong because, well, life in this world isn’t that easy to compartmentalize, right? The Bible might present itself in clear terms, and yet, there are plenty of reasonable explanations for people being the way they are and doing what they do. Surely, God understands this and is likely to be flexible with His boundaries. I mean, perhaps people were born a certain way—with certain inclinations—and if God created them, surely He won’t be justified in condemning what He created. 

When we complicate our thinking this way, not only do we lose sight of God’s right and wrong, but the Gospel He put in place to meet it becomes clouded, too. In other words, if the LGBTQ+ lifestyle is not as God describes it in His Word, that is, it does not have God’s Law leaning against it, then two things in particular must be true. Firstly, God’s Word cannot be trusted—or at a minimum, we appear to have the freedom to take from it what we want and to forget about the rest. Secondly, it seems logical that the Jesus described by the scriptures as the Word made flesh—the One who came to save us from real, genuine, inescapable Sin—isn’t to be trusted, either, or again at a minimum, He isn’t as necessary in certain circumstances as we suspected. Saint Paul said that God’s Law has no hold on righteousness (Galatians 5:16-26). So, if I’ve convinced myself that what I’m doing isn’t sinful, but rather is acceptable to God, I won’t for a second believe I need a Savior’s rescue from it.

That’s not good. To do this is to deceive oneself and confuse truth (Romans 1:25, 1 John 1:8). What’s more, it’s an overly complicated and eternally terminal way to interact with God.

I say keep it simple—or as I discovered myself whispering alongside Saint Jerome this morning, “O, holy simplicity.” Honor God’s Word as reliable and true, and then stick with His definitions. Trust His desires, not yours. If you’re at all like me, when you keep things simple, being sure to view things through the lens of the scriptures, desiring to align with God’s desires, you’ll often discover the cultural fog beginning to dissipate, and with it, the fear of facing off with just about everything that might crawl out from beneath its cover.

Unguarded

Even though summer doesn’t technically arrive until mid-June, for many, it has already begun. School is out. Graduations are underway. Schedules become shapeshifters ready to consume each newly liberated hour the season promises. I don’t know what this means for you, but for the pastor of a church with a school it means arranging my day in a way that gets me to the office much earlier in the morning than usual with the hope that I can find my way home by mid-afternoon. Doing this allows time I don’t normally have with the family before needing to venture out for anything church-related in the evenings.

As it is every summer, I intend to use a portion of the morning’s quiet time for reading. Hardly moved by the criticism of my fellow pastors, I rarely spend much time in the summer with anything distinctly theological, but instead, whatever is enjoyable in the moment. Although, technically everything is theological—or better yet, Christological. I’ll give you an example.

I’ve already started my summer wanderings by picking away at a collection of letters from Charles Lamb, an essayist and poet of remarkable style from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I stumbled upon the compilation in Google Books while looking for something else.

One thing is for sure, you can learn a lot by reading from a historical character’s personal correspondence. Not only do you discover the superficial things relative to culture—such as favorite foods, pastimes, manners, colloquialisms, and the like—but you learn quite a bit about the person’s hidden qualities. For instance, a rather famous Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a letter to Lamb, one in which he described summer setting in “with its usual severity.” Coleridge’s point was to complain about England’s unfortunate (but not unusual) coolness in May and June. Apparently, he didn’t like it. Interestingly, Lamb didn’t acknowledge Coleridge’s complaint in his reply, but instead carried on about how the painter who’d recently completed a portrait of Lamb had captured him in “one of those disengaged moments… when the native character is so much more honestly displayed….”

From what I know of Coleridge, which is that he was a delightfully expressive man, one who could hardly be characterized as a complainer, Lamb’s words to his friend seemed almost out of place. Or better yet, if they were intended as a subtle response to a very wise Coleridge, then they were pointed. In other words, they appeared to suggest that just like everyone else, the real Coleridge could be betrayed by an unguarded moment. For as beloved as Coleridge was by the public for his eloquent appreciation of all things, his secret dislike for English summers slipped through to Lamb.

Whether or not this was Lamb’s point isn’t exactly clear. Still, I have the nagging sense it was. Either way, like everything else in life, it can be viewed through theological lenses. In this circumstance, it first serves as a reminder that no one is perfect. It’s also a lesson to the would-be narcissists among us. For as complete as one might appear to be, the unguarded moments eventually come around, and when they do, our incompleteness breaches the surface. And this is a good thing. It brings about the opportunity for honest confession—the opportunity to recognize one’s need for rescue from Sin’s deathly grip.

Lamb wrote something else of interest in his reply to Coleridge. Having included a small facsimile of the portrait with the letter, he scribbled, “Whatever its pretensions, I know it will be dear to you, towards whom I should wish my thoughts to flow in sort of an undress rather than in the more studied graces of diction.”

Did you pick up on Lamb’s inference? He offered two things that, if thinking theologically, are likely to resonate with Christians. The first is that no matter our failings, we can be counted as dear to one another. This is true because God’s grace is holding us together as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). With this as the connective tissue for our friendships, the second thing Lamb said becomes incredibly clear. He notes his hope for genuine honesty between he and Coleridge—that the things troubling, worrying, or haunting either of them can be made bare, rather than remaining guarded by a “studied” carefulness with words. This means as brothers and sisters in Christ, we don’t need to hide our real selves, as though needing to project an image of having it all together. We don’t even have to exist in a way that stays within the easy boundaries of cordiality. Instead, we can be real friends—folks ready to walk together through both the complete and incomplete parts of life.

In short, Lamb implies what the rest of us already know by King Solomon’s words, “For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). This is the epitome of Proverbs 27:17, which reads: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another,” and certainly it’s at least a molecule in the Lord’s formula fueling the encouragement to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

My prayer for you today, and always, is that you will remain part of a Christian church family that truly enjoys such collegiality. We can do no better than to be surrounded by genuine Christian friends as much as possible, knowing full well that a “friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).

Genuine Friends

I know I’ve broached the subject of friendship before, but I’ve been wondering lately what constitutes a genuine friend. So many in history, most especially the philosophers, have attempted to define the term “friend.” Cicero called a friend a “second self.” Aristotle said so famously that a friend is a “single soul dwelling in two bodies.” I think his is one of the better depictions. This is about as close as it gets to what I was feeling when I asked Jennifer to marry me. I knew that without her, I was only half of what God made me to be.

Of course, the poets serve us just as well. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s reminder that “the only way to have a friend is to be one” has adorned the walls of elementary school classrooms for who knows how long. Jaques Delille insisted that while fate chooses our family, we choose our friends. There is great truth in that statement, along with the reminder that both fate (tongue-in-cheek) and free will have a sense of humor. Anaïs Nin wrote with incredible profoundness that a “friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” This is profound in the sense that so much of who and what we are, both good and bad, would never have been stirred into existence without the prompting of others. Perhaps that’s why Marie de Sévigné warned, “True friendship is never serene.”

If we’re willing to be honest, we can agree with her. Indeed, friendships can be a source for some of the most joyful times we’ll know this side of the grave. They also hold the potential for some of the most agonizing moments we’ll ever experience, some resulting in painful and penetrating wounds that injure in ways few other things can.

I mentioned at the beginning I’ve been wondering lately what makes for a true friend. Perhaps more precisely, I’ve been wondering which hurts more, a friend standing against me or a friend who deceives me.

I suppose before even arriving at such a question, it pays for Christians to be mindful of the caliber of the ones we’d call friends—that is, what they believe, the language they use, how they live, and so many other determiners. And, yes, this is being judgmental. Even Saint Paul warned pragmatically that “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Paul had good reason to write these words, especially since one of God’s wisest—King Solomon—already insisted a thousand years prior with the same practicality, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20), and “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Proverbs 22:24-25). In other words, no matter how secure in your identity you might believe yourself to be, the ones we surround ourselves with will influence us. They will change us. Since this is true, let the ones we call friends be inclined toward righteousness, not unrighteousness.

And so, back to my question. It’s one worth answering, not necessarily in a theoretical sense, but because no matter how hard we try to do what Paul and Solomon suggest, we’ll always find ourselves in broken relationships. We’re human, and all humans are broken, which means practical self-analysis is always a good thing. In this regard, I’m still wondering which is worse, an opposing friend or a deceptive friend?

I’m of the mind that a lying friend is likely to generate the most pain. Being lied to or about harms in ways other sins cannot. On the other hand, a friend taking a position against me might be doing so for my good. Again, Solomon, having a good grasp on the nature of Godly friendship, reminded that wounds caused by a true friend are faithful and worthy of our acceptance (Proverbs 27:6). Having never read any of the books, that reminds me of something I saw in the only “Harry Potter” movie I’ve ever watched. An element of this truth found its way into a scene in which the character of Dumbledor, while awarding house points at the end of the film to a young boy, said something like, “It takes courage to stand against one’s enemies. It takes more to stand against one’s friends.”

Not as profound as Solomon, J.K. Rowling’s point is still a good one. Faith at work through genuine self-analysis will discern the dimensions of the offending friend. What he’s saying, is it leading you to Christ? If so, give thanks to the Lord for his courage. He cares enough to put himself in harm’s way, namely, the possibility of your rageful retribution. Now, repent and amend. On the other hand, is what he’s saying coming from ill-intent designed to lead you away from Christ and into harm? Are his words being crafted to give credence to his own Sin? If so, mark and avoid him. He’s not a friend—at least not in this particular episode.

By contrast, a deceptive friend—one who betrays or dupes those closest—is a completely different story. A deceptive friend has parentage, namely, the devil (John 8:44). Such a friend grows gross tendrils, all reaching out in countless directions with moldable excuses, all designed to preserve the self. I feel sorry for this kind of person. Self-analysis seems beyond his or her reach. I suppose I have equal sorrow for the people ensnared by such folks, especially since there’s little examination needed for deciding if the behavior is good or bad. It’s bad. If you can’t see it, then your deceptive friend has changed you, just as Paul and Solomon warned.

And so, what to do?

Well, for starters, align with truth, putting your trust in the One whom Solomon fore-described as sticking closer to you than a brother: Jesus (Proverbs 18:24). No one knows us like our siblings. No one knows us like the divine sibling, Jesus. Let Him be your lens for observation. Holding fast to Him, remembering His description of the truest compatriot (epitomized in Himself) as the one who lays down His life for his friends (John 15:13), you’ll have all you need for discerning a true friend from a false one. Finally, heartened by your friendship with the greatest Friend, Jesus, enjoy the newfound freedom for facing off with the sinful world around you. Enjoy the Spirit-endowed voice of faithfulness to call out and gather other allies into your collegium, shouting as Iachimo did in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, “Boldness be my friend! Arm me, audacity!”

A friend with the bold audacity for faithfulness to Christ, no matter what, is the best kind to have and be. Although, if you find yourself averse to such people, it might be time for self-analysis, that is, if you haven’t been changed by others in a way that has made you incapable of such things (1 John 1:8-9).

Bridging the Gap

You should know there are plenty of reasons behind me taking the time to write and send out something like this every Sunday morning for the past eight years.

Admittedly, one of the chief reasons is my near-mental-illness type urge to write. I’ve shared with you before that sometimes I feel as though my head will split open and spray words all over the wall if I don’t open the valve of my fingers and release the words into and through my keyboard. Still, I have better reasons than this.

Another of my reasons is to break down certain barriers between me and the people I serve. It’s far too easy for the relationship between the pastor and the parishioners to become sterile, almost hygienically distant, especially if the parishioner is relatively uninvolved. Folks know I’m married. They know I have children. They know my style of preaching and teaching. They know lots of different things about me. However, it’s one thing to know about someone and something altogether different to be a part of that someone’s life. I write these things to welcome you in. When I become more open to you, revealing my real humanness—what marriage is like for me, what parenting is like for me, what happens to me during the week, the things I’m thinking about, the substance of things that make me smile, frown, laugh, or cry—the distance between us is bridged, even if only a little.

As I said, it’s one thing to know about someone. It’s something altogether different when you are introduced to that person and a friendship is allowed to bloom. Perhaps better, this can happen in spades when I unpack my own walk with the Lord in relation to all that is “me.” It steps past the casual conversation to the substance of a person and his or her role. In other words, you get a better sense of my integrity—that is, whether I, a man called to stand in the stead and by the command of Christ to administer Word and Sacrament, really believe what I’m preaching and teaching. By our time together here, my hope is you’ll get a better sense that I do.

Now, I sense two ways forward in this conversation. The first is the nagging urge to encourage you to give this same exercise a try in your own home. I’m not saying you need to write as much as I might, but what I am saying is to put something into words—a few sentences sharing a thought, concern, or something worth relaying in relation to your faith in Christ. Do it as regularly as possible for those closest to you. See what happens. My guess is that the results will be good.

The second is for me to continue doing the same with you right now. This morning I crossed paths with and was intrigued by the following quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.”

Perhaps you already know Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany who participated in the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler. The plot was eventually discovered, and Bonhoeffer was hung by the Nazis. Still, does the knowledge of these things serve to interpret Bonhoeffer’s words? Maybe a little. But we need more. And we get it, not only from his writings but from those who were closest to him. Eberhard Bethge, a friend to Bonhoeffer, helps us greatly:

“Bonhoeffer introduced us in 1935 to the problem of what we today call political resistance. The levels of confession and of resistance could no longer be kept neatly apart. The escalating persecution of the Jews generated an increasingly intolerable situation, especially for Bonhoeffer himself. We now realized that mere confession, no matter how courageous, inescapably meant complicity with the murderers, even though there would always be new acts of refusing to be co-opted and even though we would preach ‘Christ alone’ Sunday after Sunday. During the whole time the Nazi state never considered it necessary to prohibit such preaching. Why should it? Thus, we were approaching the borderline between confession and resistance; and if we did not cross this border, our confession was going to be no better than cooperation with the criminals. And so, it became clear where the problem lay for the Confessing Church: we were resisting by way of confession, but we were not confessing by way of resistance.”

Bethge points to something worth our consideration, in particular, the Nazi’s disinterest in tangling with churches that devoutly preached Christ and yet were hardly inclined to live as Christ’s people in the world around them. The Nazis saw no need for concern, knowing all too well that words without deeds remained a toothless beast, one leaving them to continue with their agenda unhindered.

I spoke at the beginning about bridging a particular gap between people. Bonhoeffer made it a point to highlight the strange dissonance that sometimes exists in the lives of Christians, revealing how the gap between what we believe and how we live so often needs to be bridged. This was clearly the case in Germany, and so he was right to do this. Plenty of pastors talked about Christ but did not introduce the people to what it means to be His follower. Of course, Bonhoeffer was more aggressive in his language, implying that one only has the right to sing along with the Church in faith when the fruits of that faith are being worked in the world beyond the Church’s doors. Again, it sounds harsh, but what he’s saying is that faith and works are never divided. In truth, he’s saying exactly what Saint James says in James 2:14-26. And if you take a moment with the text, you’ll notice James’ tenor of encouragement to grow in this behavior. When it comes to talking about this stuff—that is, the keeping of God’s Law as a fruit of faith—I like how Philip Melancthon describes it in Article IV of The Apology of the Augsburg Confession. Among many so many great portions there, he wrote rather crisply in lines 136 and 140-141:

“Therefore, we also hold that the keeping of the law should begin in us and increase more and more. But we mean to include both elements, namely, the inward spiritual impulses and the outward good works…. We teach, furthermore, not only how the law can be kept, but also that God is pleased when we keep it—not because we live up to it, but because we are in Christ…. So it is clear that we require good works. In fact, we add that it is impossible to separate faith from love for God, be it ever so small.”

Did you notice what Melancthon said at the beginning about “both elements”? What he meant by this was the bridging of the spiritual with the physical. Bonhoeffer called this being “fully human.” As a Christian, it translates into the understanding that both are in submission to Christ, and one cannot be in motion while leaving the other behind. They do—and must—go together.

You know as well as I do that the challenges before us are ever-increasing. In the middle of it all, not only is a right confession of Christ a necessity but so also is a willingness to be God’s people in a way that results in action. Rewording Bonhoeffer’s words, and as they meet with this generation, we might hear, “Only he who cries out for the unborn may sing Gregorian chants.”

My prayer for you today is that you’ll at least consider these things. I’m hoping you’ll know I’m your servant in all of it. I suppose lastly, I’m counting on you to know that together we can be God’s confessing people who act, having trust in one another, not only as members of a church but as members of Christ’s family.

Crucification?

I mentioned a few weeks back that I’ve been watching old episodes of “Knight Rider.” I must say again that it’s great fun, not only for the horrible special effects and equally terrible dialogue but also for the 80s reminiscence it stirs. I say this mindful of a recent episode in which KITT, the show’s futuristic talking car, insisted on Christ as the only sensible reason for celebrating Christmas. Even better, a little further into the episode, Michael Knight, the main character, casually assumed out loud to another character that anyone unfamiliar with the contents of the Bible must be part of a very strange minority.

I found those perspectives refreshing. Although, when I returned to real life, I suddenly found them disheartening, having realized we’ve drifted far from such comfortable vantages. Today’s ethos makes 80s TV show language feel more like the vernacular of an alien planet than an echo of earthly history. If you think I’m exaggerating, then consider the Gallup poll from the 1980s that determined a little less than 75% of Americans were biblically literate. In 2021, the number came in at around 11%. That’s not an annoying but nevertheless inconsequential sign that we’ve lost our national footing in this regard. It’s an indication we’ve gone over the cliff and are in free-fall.

A passing conversation I had about two weeks ago with our Kantor, Keith Vieregge, comes to mind. We were talking about how so many words in the English language are mauled with regularity. When someone says “supposebly” in our presence, there’s a good chance we’re cringing internally. But it gets worse. Keith mentioned how words are being completely reconfigured, having recently heard the word “conversate” used in place of “converse”—as in, “The teacher needed to conversate with the parents regarding their child’s behavior.” I agreed and then volleyed with the made-up word “crucification,” which I’d recently seen used in place of “crucifixion” in an online forum.

So, where am I going with this? Well, I suppose one point of intersection is that not only are we thoroughly lacking in biblical literacy, but with our current culture’s reworking of words, we may discover breakdowns in the fundamental transmission of the Bible’s contents. Anyone who cares about language will tell you that when words become confused, the only way forward is chaos. I mean, consider the current confusion regarding gender. The terms “man” and “woman” mean different things to different people. In relation, the word “sex” no longer refers solely to biological gender and reproduction processes. It has become ideological, and as a result, no longer holds a firm footing for easy communication. I proposed not all that long ago that the practice of confusing terms spilled over from academia’s already-poisoned river into the streams and creeks of America when Bill Clinton, in response to a question in front of a grand jury while under investigation for perjury, said rather ridiculously, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Clinton went on to mumble almost unintelligibly, “If the—if he—if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”

What a rambling word-salad of ridiculousness. If we don’t know how to properly handle the two-letter verb “is,” we’re in big trouble.

This reminds me of something else.

There is a memorable line in act 2, scene 3 of Macbeth that reads, “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.” If you know the story, then you’ll remember these words being spoken after Macbeth murders Duncan, the King of Scotland. The point is to communicate the impending chaos on the horizon for a rulerless kingdom. When no one is in charge—when there’s no certainty for direction—things come undone very quickly. Maybe this line applies to 21st-century communication, too. When the crispness of language is murdered, regardless of the unkillable nature of objective truth, the ability to actually transmit objectively true things becomes untenable, burdened by the absence of universally accepted fundamentals.

Take for example the important topic of marriage. Marriage, and the families it produces, are the fundamental building blocks of every society throughout history. In a simple way, without the hardened commitment established by marriage, societies would dissolve into little more than chaotically self-indulgent gatherings overflowing with orphans. But how can you talk about marriage in any meaningful way if the variables of its equation are undefinable?

“Marriage is to be between a man and a woman,” someone might say.

“I agree with you,” is the possible reply of a transgender woman married to a man.

But they don’t agree on marriage. A transgender woman is a man married to another man, and by such a combination, cannot begin to meet the basic parameters of natural law God has cemented into marriage, one of which is the procreation of children. The frustrating breakdown here leads to giant tech companies, with all seriousness, creating emojis of pregnant men. It leads to schools teaching children gender dysphoria is something to celebrate along with phrases like “birthing person.”

In short, words matter. What’s more, holding the line on their structures and meanings matters, too.

Truth be told, I’m only sharing with you what came to mind after reading Proverbs 21:23 during my devotion this morning. The text reads, “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.” I suppose the text is somewhat relative to the direction of my thoughts. The word used in the text for “keep” (שֹׁמֵ֣ר) means more than just to control something. It means to guard it for the sake of preserving it. A commentary I visited with this morning compared the guarding to someone who cares about the language they use, inferring someone who says “no more than is right and fitting.” This is both contextual and residual. In other words, aware of the precise meanings of words, a righteous person also knows the long-term damage that comes when those words are misused. Misuse leads to confusion. Confusion can result in a tangling that brings incredible harm.

Come to think of it, Jesus spoke to these things in a way when He said in Matthew 5:37 to let one’s yes be yes and one’s no be no. In context, the Lord is referring to taking oaths. But His broader teaching is not only to understand what is meant by the terms but to be so certain about them that you can speak with simplicity in a way that has binding strength. You can say “yes” and be fully invested in your answer, or you can say “no” and never feel the tug to question your resoluteness.

I don’t know about you, but on my part, I’m not only doing everything I can to be careful with language but to protect the terms that make communication through language of any value, especially as it meets with God’s Word. I don’t want confusion anywhere near the Gospel. Confusion, as John Milton chimed so poetically, brings nothing less than “ruin upon ruin, rout upon rout.”