Dying to Meet You

Do you have time for a quick story? Since you’re here, I’ll go ahead and share it.

We took a phone call here at Our Savior this past Friday. I didn’t answer it. Nikki, our Parish Administrator, did. It was someone calling to chat with me. Even though I wasn’t necessarily steeped in anything crucial, Nikki took a message for me. She does this because she knows that while technically Friday is my day off—and I probably shouldn’t tell you this—but I’m always in the office on Fridays. I have a few regularly scheduled appointments in the morning, and then after that, I use the rest of the day to catch up on things I didn’t have time for during the week. She runs block for me to let me do my thing.

Anyway, a woman called to let me know she didn’t appreciate the comparison I’d made in a recent radio bit equating Christians who justify skipping worship on a regular basis to so-called believers who justify voting for a candidate who favors abortion.

To be fair, the woman wasn’t rude with her critique—which was a welcomed difference in comparison to so many other calls or email messages I’ve received from metro-Detroit listeners. Instead, Nikki described her as someone who, with a conversational tone, was troubled “by likening someone absent from church to a Christian who’d support abortion,” and her hope was that I’d reconsider broadcasting the particular segment in its current form.

I’ll admit the association is a brutal one. And I’m more than willing to reconsider my words. The problem is, I didn’t write the script on this particular radio bit. My daughter did. Evelyn’s the one who made the observation and ultimately formed the comparative conclusion. I was so inspired by her insight, I wrote down what was spoken between us and together we recorded the 60-second radio spot right then and there. Again, I put into the microphone what I said. Evelyn put into it what she said. The brief conversation fit perfectly between the 15-second intro and the 15-second outro of my one-minute-and-thirty-seconds of airtime.

The context was simple. While waiting in my office before school, Evelyn was scanning the images from one of our previous church pictorial directories. Turning the pages, she stumbled upon the picture of someone she didn’t recognize. Second only to her dad, Evelyn practically lives here at Our Savior. She knows everyone’s name. And if she doesn’t know a member’s name, she certainly knows all the faces. Looking at a pictorial directory of people officially labeled as “members,” one holding the kindly faces of countless people she considers as members of her Christian family, it was natural for her to ask about someone she didn’t recognize. I didn’t say much at first, but I was careful not to be deceptive. Had I dodged her question, she would’ve known. Remember, like me, she’s here every Sunday. If she doesn’t recognize you, it’s probably because you don’t attend. That being the case in this particular instance, when she asked for the identity of the person, I said very nonchalantly, “She’s a member of the congregation, but she just doesn’t come to church very often.”

“Well, I’ve never seen her before in my life,” she replied, sounding somewhat concerned—just as I’d expect from this little girl with such a huge heart for her church family. “Does she work on Sundays?”

“No,” I answered, again trying not to give her any more information than she required.

“So, she could be here on Sundays?”

“I suppose.”

Evelyn thought for a moment, and then she laid the situation out unembellished. “How can she consider herself a member of a church she doesn’t even want to attend?”

My answer: “That’s a really good question, honey.”

Her next uninhibited reply, being the ardent pro-life girl that she is: “That’s kind of like people who call themselves Christian but support abortion. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

First of all, can you tell Evelyn is in tune with what’s going on around her, both in her church and her world? Second, there you have it. Even a child understands the inconsistency. How can we claim to be a devoted follower of someone we want nothing to do with? Using the same logic, how can we claim faith in Christ who is the Word made flesh (John 1:14), and yet be in opposition to the Word of God when it comes to topics like abortion?

It just doesn’t make any sense, and my little girl knew it.

Of course as adults, there will always be plenty of unknown angles to Evelyn’s observation that we’ll discover. COVID-19 has made things a little crazier these days. However, rest assured that the person in the picture was MIA long before COVID-19. That being said, be careful not to square the angles for escape from her scrutiny’s sting with whatever illegitimate excuses at whatever moment work best for you. And be sure to take even greater care not to overcomplicate or find offense in what’s been laid bare. If you do, you’re sure to miss a simple truth revealed by way of a simple faith, the same kind of child-like faith described by the Lord in Matthew 18:3 and now being demonstrated by a little girl who sees time with her Savior, concern for the members of her church family, and doing everything humanly possible to protect the lives of unborn children as essential and non-negotiable to the Christian life.

Her evaluation was simple, but it was a good one. I suppose in essence, it reminds us that even as our God cannot be in contradiction with Himself, He does not grant us space for being in contradiction with Him, either. This is built into the Lord’s announcement, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30).

Now, to begin wrapping all of this up, right after Nikki told me about the call on Friday, I posted on Facebook the very first thing that came to mind:

“I’m beginning to think that for some Christians, worship and Bible study are so precious they feel they need to ration them. Go to church.”

Yes, it was a sarcastic play on words.

“Well, I don’t support abortion, so don’t put my skipping church into the same category.”

But they are in the same category. Don’t have other gods. Don’t misuse God’s name. Don’t skip church. Don’t kill. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. These are all a part of the same list of things we do to thumb our noses at God, and ultimately, they’re things that keep us separated from Him. And yet, our Lord reaches to us by His Gospel. He empowers us there by His Holy Spirit for acknowledging our dreadful disobedience. Only by the power of the Gospel can we know to repent of these Sins and be changed to desire faithfulness (Romans 1:16).

I don’t necessarily know what many of the other churches around us are doing, but opportunities for holy worship are plentiful here at Our Savior. We have two Divine Services on Sunday. We enjoy the Office of Matins on Monday, another Divine Service on Wednesday, and an abbreviated Responsive Prayer (liturgics) service on Thursday.

And God is continually blessing all of our time together during these occasions for worship.

Dear Christians, there’s no need to ration your time with Christ. There’s an abundance! Indeed, the Lord is here, and His merciful gifts are overflowing all week long. Surely you can make it to one of those services to receive from the bounty that belongs to those who are His own? Wear your mask if you want to. Or don’t. No one is judging anyone in this regard. And why would we? The goal is simply to gather with the Lord and receive His care just as He desires to give it.

Quite honestly, I say all of this with a rather sizable concern in mind. For me personally, it’s one thing to be unrecognizable to Evelyn. Truthfully, if you are yet to meet her, you are missing out. But it’s a thing of far greater terror—the greatest terror there is—to be unrecognizable to Christ; to be one to hear Him say at one’s last hour, “I never knew you. Away from me…” (Matthew 7:23).

Go to church. You belong there. And even if you don’t feel like you belong just yet, go anyway. Christ is dying to meet you. Well, “died” to be more precise. And I know a church full of people who are eager to make the introduction.

Saying No

The previous Sunday’s Bible study here at Our Savior got a little tense near the end. The uneasiness was clearly painted on the faces of most of the participants. And why? Because during the discussion, somehow we steered into the topic of excommunication, and as we did, I offered the observation that for the most part, the Church has become weak in this department. One participant agreed, putting forth as eligible examples both pro-choice Christians and people who vote for pro-choice candidates.

“You said it, not me,” I think I said, snarkily—which meant I completely agreed. From there, I suggested that perhaps it’s time for churches and their pastors to start muscling up in an effort to tell those in their midst who would support the killing of the unborn—and vote for candidates who do—that in truth, they’ve fallen from fellowship with the Lord and can no longer commune at His table.

In other words, perhaps it’s time to tell them “no.”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” someone called out, honestly. Indeed, pastors, God be with you on such a noble quest. Although, before you go, be sure your estate is in order. Or at a minimum, have another job lined up, because unless you have broad sweeping support from the rest of the congregation, you’ll likely need a moving van.

Well, whatever. The moment stirred good conversation. In addition to carrying us a little deeper into the text of 1 John 1:5-10, it also provided a brief opportunity to better understand the Johnson Amendment, which I took a quick moment to examine relatively.

The Johnson Amendment, for as scary as most think it is, really doesn’t prohibit churches all that much. We can pretty much do what we want. Although, as it meets with the topic above, there is one particular sticking point that bothers me, and not because it’s necessarily bad, but because it would likely be misinterpreted, and as a result, misapplied.

In short, the Johnson Amendment expressly forbids a congregation from punishing one of its own for his or her individual political positions and/or voting practices. This means that if a pastor or congregation ever moved to excommunicate someone because that person was immovable in his or her support of the murder of the unborn—even after the Church has made clear the doctrines of Christ while at the same time making every effort to reconcile with the person as prescribed in Matthew 18—still, it’s possible the individual coming under the ban might consider the congregation’s action “punitive” and seek solace beneath the umbrella of the Johnson Amendment. But as I said, this would be a misapplication, and for multiple reasons, the first of which is that excommunication isn’t punitive. Its goal is restoration. It’s meant to preserve someone from continuing to willfully offend God while at the same time laboring to lead the person toward repentance and full restoration of fellowship. But odds are the courts wouldn’t be able to distinguish these things, and personally, I’m hard-pressed to find too many human beings in this post-modern century who would either. More and more people are reactively put off by someone telling them no. I say this with all seriousness because I’ve been in the situation more times than I’d prefer. Not necessarily in a formal court—although I’ve come close—but certainly in the court of public opinion here in our own midst. As a pastor, nearly every single time I’ve had to tell someone “no more,” my effort was received negatively, as something unjustly punitive, and in the end, the longtime relationship crumbled.

In our world, telling someone no is getting much harder to do. Our society has become so radically individualized that saying no is more so portrayed as cruel, as coming from an intolerance intent on smothering someone’s personal preferences. In one sense, we all know the sting of hearing someone say no. We heard it when we were young and we’ve heard it as adults, too. I heard my parents tell me that I couldn’t have a cookie just as my wife has told me more than once as an adult that I can’t just up and move to Florida. But when it cuts to the core of someone’s deeply held beliefs, especially the ones that play a part in his or her identity, we often find ourselves in much more dangerous waters. These particular waves on the undulating sea of personal relationships aren’t just making a ruckus on the surface. They’re also moving way down in the deep. Saying no in these situations can be a hard thing to do because we know they can end catastrophically.

In short, there’s always the chance that our efforts toward faithfulness will come with a price we may not want to pay.

This tension didn’t exist in the beginning. In our sinless origin, Adam and Eve knew God perfectly, as God would have us know Him. In this, whether God said yes or no, newborn humanity never questioned whether or not the answer He gave was emerging from His immeasurable love. And He actually did say no right there in the beginning. Could we eat from this and that tree in the garden? Yes. How about the tree in the middle of the garden? No. Why not? Because if you do, you’ll die.

“Okay,” we said, and off we went with a “Dum-de-dum-de-dum” to enjoy the rest of God’s wonderful creation.

But then the devil came along and convinced our first parents that God’s “no” was deceptive and cruel, that He was holding us back from a much fuller potential.

And then Mankind fell.

Fully aware of the effects of the fall into Sin, Jesus not only knew it would be tough for us to be told no, but He also knew it would be hard for His followers to tell others no, especially when it means dealing in the life-or-death, heaven-or-hell scenarios. He knows the significance of Sin’s grip. He knows that the unbelieving world will often choke on truth’s no like an addict coughing up the anti-drug, and so He speaks so plainly:

“Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:32-38).

These words are both terrifying and comforting all at the same time, and the longer I serve as a pastor, the more I learn that divine truths can sometimes be that way.

But an even deeper digging into the Lord’s words will reveal that He didn’t say any of this until He first preached:

“When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (vv.19-20).

You know what this means, right? It means that Christ is true to His promise that we will never be left to fend for ourselves in the tough situations. The Holy Spirit will be working in and through us. In fact, as the Holy Spirit moves us to seek faithfulness to the Savior, even our words will be captured by His power and used to His glory and the good of those who hear them. We don’t necessarily know how each situation will turn out, and we may even walk away from the conversation feeling as though we put our own foot in our mouths, but we can know by faith the source of the truest courage for faithfulness to Christ and love for the neighbor. We can say the hard things and know that even if we feel alone, we aren’t. The One who spoke the powerful words noted above is the same One who capped Saint Mathew’s Gospel with the words: “And behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the age” (28:20).

I know that a good number of you are swimming in such situations, whether it be with family, friends, or co-workers. And I suppose if you aren’t experiencing such situations, well, then you’re weird, because the rest of us are. With that, trust me. The day is coming when you won’t be weird for long. Of course, I’ll keep you in my prayers, trusting that God will preserve and protect you in those moments requiring the courage of a love that says no. I know He’ll guide your words. He will shine His love through you to others, even when it doesn’t feel like it. Most importantly, I’m certain He will keep His promise that whoever loses his life for His sake, will find it—which is to say the ultimate discovery of eternal life is ours to claim through faith.

A Review of the Movie “Unplanned”

The prefix “un” is a powerful device of the English language. Add it to any concept, and it is reversed.

Things once believed with conviction are found unbelievable. Sturdy ideological fabric is unraveled. Something sure is found unreliable.

This is the “un” of the film “Unplanned,” and I dare say that no matter the starting point for the viewer—whether pro-life or pro-choice—at the end of the film, neither will be found unaffected.

To start, over the last few years, I’ve given presentations to various Right to Life groups, and as part of the presentation, I’ve sometimes added that I believe that abortion won’t begin to subside until people are made to look at it—to actually look at it—like the citizens of Germany following World War II. No sooner than they were marched through the camps and shown the piles of bodies did they finally begin to learn the gravity of the evil in their midst and eventually own their Sin.

“Unplanned” isn’t quite the same thing, although it is a marching through the death camp of sorts. It certainly is far more than just a peek behind the curtain. And this is good, because for many in America, the topic of Abortion is more like a lizard’s tail than the actual lizard. They’ve grabbed at it for so long thinking they’ve captured it, but in reality, it has slipped away leaving behind only a fragment of itself. The casual pro-lifer thinks abortion is bad, but isn’t all that concerned with working to make it completely illegal. The casual pro-choicer just wants it to be “safe and rare.” I suppose in a sense, the film reminds people on both sides of the issue that none can be too sure of the ideology they have in hand until coming face to face with the actual lizard strutting its full color, until stepping through the gateway of the death camp. When this happens, when the moviegoer sees abortion sunning itself in full array, plans to hold onto what we think is true of abortion suddenly become un-planned. They are swiftly and mercilessly undone, unraveled, and marked as unbelievable.

It’s hard for anyone—anyone truly human, that is—to witness the tiniest among us struggling to avoid an invading monster, a beast that reaches up and into the womb to so violently tear her limb from limb and ultimately pull her through a much smaller suction tube toward a waste receptacle collecting the bubbling, gory chunks of visceral red. Seeing this, the complacent pro-lifer will better understand the value of exchanging attendance at a soccer game for the opportunity to actively participate on the front lines to overthrow the clinics performing these Auschwitz-like events. Beholding this, the obstinate pro-choicer might just be found choking on the lie betrayed by the grim ultrasound imagery of a sentient life fiercely engaging in self-preservation. God willing they might just see that abortion isn’t the virtue-signaling solution to inconvenience it has been made out to be, that it isn’t a medical procedure performed on a clump of cells, that it isn’t a fundamental right of a woman.

It’s homicide—cold, calculated slaughter.

“Unplanned” takes our preconceived notions—our ideological plans—and un-plans them.

Now just a bit of critical commentary, which should in no way dissuade you from seeing the film. See it. Take others with you. It is worth your dollars and time.

First, I’ll admit the acting isn’t the best—except for Ashley Bratcher, who plays Abby Johnson, the woman who lived the story you’re seeing on the screen. No matter how awkward some of the scripted scenes were, she invested herself fully in the drama required to carry each one. She is perhaps challenged for best performance by one of the smallest, briefest roles in the film. Anisa Nyell Johnson, whose character is only mentioned in the credits as “Rhonda’s Mom,” is on screen for maybe less than two or three minutes, but in that short period of time, she gives a stirring performance. In fact, I must confess that the only time I came close to tears during the film is when Johnson’s character pleaded with tearful screams through the fence to her daughter Rhonda not to go through with the abortion. Her voice, her tears, her description of the joy that comes from children—namely to think on the joy that has already been given to the whole family by way of the beautiful five-year-old daughter holding Rhonda’s hand in that moment as she walked into the clinic. That scene communicated better than so many of the others the very real helplessness some may be feeling at the fence.

Brooks Ryan, who plays Abby’s husband Doug, is terrible. Kaiser Johnson, who plays the lawyer, Jeff, is even worse. I’m glad his part was small. But again, between these two, I’d say the dreadful acting had more to do with scenes that were poorly scripted—which is pretty typical of Pure Flix films. It’s one reason why I don’t watch their movies. They’re almost always too awkward in their handling of sacred things, and the theology is often just as bad.

With that, I’ll just come right out and say that at times, the spirituality presented by the film was bothersome, and this is true in a couple of ways.

First of all, I’m one who thinks that the creed-less pop-spirituality offered by the arena-type churches with rock bands, screens, and no crosses on the walls (which was the brief portrayal of Christian worship in the film) is dangerous to the pro-life cause. This type of worship is shallow, and its perpetuators are seen as flaky rather than committed. All of it together is fertilizer for the roots of why the world around us doesn’t take Christianity very seriously. We’re not seen as the ageless and unbroken church that we are—one equipped with an unearthly courage that has withstood the fires of persecution and death, one that speaks its own language with powerful reverence and timeless rite and ceremony, one that exists as a culture completely distinct from all others. Rather, such thin Christianity is seen as trying to emulate the world’s ways in order to fit in. With this, why would we expect anyone outside of the church to stand up and take notice when we’re on the move or have something to say about a world-altering subject such as abortion, especially since we’ve already shown that we’re more interested in following the world’s lead?

But that is, of course, a discussion for another time.

Second, if you’re going to communicate the message of redemption, then just do it. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Don’t tiptoe around it, otherwise, you run the risk of appearing half-invested in what you are trying to communicate. Just be honest. That’s what the viewer is expecting, anyway. I know the filmmakers said they didn’t want to make a “preachy” film. Still, from beginning to end, the Christian perspective is more than made known through the portrayal of prayer, the repeated discussions of God, the worship scene, the Bible quotations, the theme of humility toward enemies, the mantra of hope, and the like. All of this sets the stage for what could have been a gripping and climactic moment of Gospel when Abby finally arrives at the realization of the truest depth of what she’s done.

[Spoiler alert.]

Doug wakes up in the middle of the night to find her gone. He discovers her crumpled on the floor in the living room near the couch. She’s weeping bitterly. Her Christian husband comes to comfort her. She defines the contours of her sadness with unveiled clarity: As the director of the clinic, she’s the one responsible for the killing of over 22,000 human beings. How can she find her way through this? How could someone like her—someone nearly Hitler-esque—ever be reconciled to God?

“All you have to do is ask for forgiveness,” Doug replies, robotically.

“But how can God even begin to forgive someone like me?” are the essentials of her paralyzing and dreadfully overwhelming sadness.

“Well, because He’s God,” Doug replies, like a shallow dolt, essentially revealing God as the carefree Grampa in his rocking chair on the front porch in the sky. He doesn’t care what you’ve done. He just smiles and waves it off.

No. He does care. Sin is formidable. Death, too. And His care for us against these things cost Him a lot. For one, Sin has a price—a massively dreadful price. From the sinister actions leading to the deathly gas chambers in Germany to the thoughtless, but unkind, comment we made to our spouse at dinner, Sin has a wage and it is eternal Death—separation from God for all time. The wage for Sin will be paid out one way or another by someone. The heavenly Father sent Christ. Christ was that someone.

Here was the chance, even if only for a second, to point to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for every Sin, even the Sin of murdering 22,000 people. Here was the chance to communicate to everyone in the theater the expanse of God’s love in Christ, the chance to meet each and every person watching the film, all of whom are most certainly wrestling with some form of guilt from this or that Sin—many staying far from Christian churches because they believe their Sins are far too great to be forgiven, maybe in this instance, squirming through the film because they’ve had an abortion. Here was the most potent of opportunities to proclaim God’s truest love for all displayed through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ.

But they blew it because they didn’t want to be too preachy.

Still, even with this dropping of the ball, the film is a monumental achievement. It manages to tell a distressing story and it does so with a brutal and convincing scrupulousness that meets the single most bloodthirsty issue of our day.

I should add to its credit that within the first five minutes of the film, you’ll learn the distinction between those who shout “Baby killer!” through the fence at a young and confused girl and those who are seeking to be faithful to Christ and serve in the trenches in love. Equally, and while I almost don’t want to admit it, the movie works to humanize the people working in the clinic. They are people with families who really do think that they’re helping women. In that sense, “Unplanned” is a movie made for people so that they understand other people.

But most importantly, the movie works to convince the majority that they never really had the lizard, only its tail.

I highly recommend the film, and again, I encourage you to see it. You’ll be changed. It’ll be a hard metamorphosis to experience, but it’ll be worth it. You’ll be given an insider’s look into what’s happening in abortion clinics across the country. What you’ll see, you won’t be able to unsee. It’ll be seared into your mind. For many, I hope the images are all that was needed to turn thoughts into actions and actions into results—the ultimate result being a collective awakening and a final ridding of the abomination that is abortion from this country.

A Stage of Fools

Is it really true? Is it as the news is reporting?

Did an American legislative body—the United States Senate—fail to pass a bill that would require doctors to provide medical care to a full term, newborn child who survived an abortion?

Have I awakened in the past, having opened my eyes to a time ruled by the likes of the priests of Molech? Is this merely a dream, a nightmare, a fast-fleeting terribleness of the mind that will certainly dissipate with the very next sunrise? Perhaps I am nothing more than an imagined character in a dystopian novel, one that hears the jackboots stomping, one that smells the gutters incensed by death’s perfumes, one with pages drenched in bloody barbarisms that only the most twisted among us could envision?

No, this is America. I’m awake. I’m aware. I’m beholding an indescribable scene.

One particular party, the Democrat party, has given itself in full subscription to the proposition that even as an unwanted infant—a baby—has beaten the odds and survived a dreadful gauntlet, the darkly doctor of this sinister trade must be allowed to finish what he started.

The Democrats took the victory in the Senate chamber. They’ve assured us that there’s no beating the abortionist. The child was unwanted in the womb. She was unwanted in the birth canal. She remains unwanted in the scattered mess of afterbirth littering the surgical tray.

The Democrats have determined that the doctor must be allowed to finish the task. “This is healthcare,” they say. “It is a woman’s right to choose,” they holler portentously.

The child gasps. The child struggles. The child cries. A swift and unfettering stroke of nays outnumbering yeas and the child dies.

I dare say the infant’s tears are born not only from the pain, but from the sorrow due this nation—for all of us who sit idly by doing nothing. Complaining, yes. Acting, no. And so Shakespeare takes the lead in describing the motive behind each tiny teardrop with the words, “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”