Do We Have What It Takes?

The world appears to be burning, doesn’t it? I read a statement this morning in which NATO officials called Biden’s abrupt and chaotic withdrawal of the United States presence in Afghanistan the biggest, most tragic debacle by a U.S. president since the organization’s founding in 1949. German Chancellor Merkel’s administration released a statement clarifying that the U.S., and the U.S. alone, owns the horrors of the situation. A nearly unanimous British Parliament made clear that the United States has lost significant credibility in the international community. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

The situation in Afghanistan is bad.

Despite the news media’s reluctance to share the information, it looks as though the first real reports of Afghani Christians being brutalized and killed by the Taliban after the withdrawal are making their way to us here in America. I read that Glenn Beck’s organization raised more than $22 million in two days to help fund evacuation efforts. I read that David Barton and the WallBuilders organization is raising significant funding, too. Praise God for their efforts.

Curiously, the reports I’ve read, mostly by way of texts and emails from pastors and missionaries to partner churches in the United States, have not necessarily portrayed the concerns of Afghani Christians as fearful cries to foreign agencies to do whatever they can to rescue them from the gory dreadfulness. Rather, their petitions have been of a far different character, and noticeably two-fold in nature.

First, their hope is that their partner churches around the world would join them in praying that all Afghani Christians would remain faithful to Christ as they face imminent torture and death; and second, that God would use the Gospel witness of their martyrdom as a means for softening the hearts of their bloodthirsty persecutors, so that they, too, would turn to and believe in Christ for salvation.

Read that again.

The Christians in Afghanistan are facing the all-consuming storm clouds of a merciless evil. Not only do the forthcoming gales promise unthinkable forms of mortal suffering, but they also pledge by their waves a vicious temptation to renounce Christ in exchange for safety, which in the end, can only result in a believer’s eternal doom. I find it astounding, then, that these Christians are not asking for deliverance from these terrors. They’re asking for us to pray that God would continue to give them the will to steer into and endure them until the end. Even more strangely, while we might expect to hear them ask us to pray for a way of escape for themselves, instead, they’re asking us to pray that by the Gospel witness of their own deaths, their persecutors would discover Christ as the way of escape from unbelief leading to eternal Death.

Go ahead and read that again, too.

Having re-read my own words, I wonder if these are foolish prayer requests being made of the churches in America by the Afghani Christians. I mean, does American Christianity really even have what it takes to comprehend the substance of their pleas? The Afghani Christians are enduring apocalyptic-like onslaughts of misery. And yet, knowing full well that Taliban squads are going door to door sniffing for the slightest hints of Christianity—looking for bibles, devotional apps on phones, Christian symbols, and the like—still, and perhaps most astoundingly, the Afghani Christians refuse to abandon the most visible (and now most dangerous) sign of Christianity: gathering together for worship.

They refuse to forsake Christ’s mandate for gathering in fellowship to receive the preaching of the Gospel for forgiveness and the administration of the Sacraments for the same.

Is it really possible for any of their requests to make sense to American Christians who were so quick to close churches for fear of a virus that had a casualty rate of less than 1% at its peak? Considering only Michigan, the last I heard, around 15% of Michigan churches are still completely closed even as the state currently tracks at 21,344 deaths among 1.03 million cases. Doing the math, that’s around a 2% casualty rate. Will the Afghani Christians’ requests be intelligible for those who, even post-vaccine rollout, still refuse to attend worship for fear of this minuscule threat to personal safety? Will the phrase “faithful to the end” resonate among churches that have forsaken God’s Word and succumbed to cultural pressures just to avoid the woke attack squads? Will anything the Afghani Christians have asked for be translatable to a generation of families who’ve become so accustomed to prioritizing sports and leisure over faithfulness in worship with Christ?

Sadly, I don’t think so.

I suppose some church communities will get it. I’m guessing that for the most part, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has a grip on it, although I haven’t seen much written in this regard, just yet. I’m confident that most here at Our Savior in Hartland are equipped to translate the Afghani’s requests. I know various individuals beyond our borders who are more than capable of interpreting them rightly. My friend, Jack Philips, will know what they mean. Barronelle Stutzman will get it. My Canadian friend, Pastor Artur Pawlowski, will understand. Reverend Dr. Juhana Pohjola, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, will get it, too.

Nevertheless, beyond the ever-increasing ranks of persecuted folks like these, I’m concerned that the mainstream Christian churches in America just don’t have the spiritual wherewithal for understanding anything the Afghani Christians are asking. And while I certainly agree we should be praying for them, I’m hoping in secret that they’re praying for us. I get the feeling we need their prayers far more than they need ours.

With all of this in mind, I suppose I’ll conclude as the Afghani Christians began, which is by offering a two-fold request.

Firstly, I’d urge all Christians to take heed of Christ’s clarion call not to choose the comforts of safety and security in this life over faithfulness to Him. Then I’d urge you to continue past the Lord’s gracious warning to His sweeter encouragement to trust Him—to take heart in His victory over Sin, Death, and the grave, knowing by this Gospel the peace that only He can provide.

“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’” (Mark 8:34-38).

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Secondly, there is the saying that goes something like, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” Pray for the Christians in Afghanistan. Do this remembering that the Church on earth—or the Church Militant as it’s commonly referred to throughout history—was not built to remain safely in harbor, but rather to set sail, no matter the temperament of the seas. She does this knowing Christ as the steady Captain at her helm. She goes into the winds and waves knowing that He’s steering the vessel toward the final shore of eternal life. As He does, it’s all hands on deck. We come up and out of the vessel’s innards to gather. We swab the decks and repair the masts. We hoist sails and mend tackle. We batten hatches and secure riggings. In other words, we come together to pray for one another and our world, to labor faithfully, to endure, to love as Christ first loved us, all the while being strengthened by the bountiful provisions of forgiveness—Word and Sacrament—being doled out in worship from our trustworthy Captain’s very own galley.

Know that I’m praying for the Afghani Christians and their persecutors. I hope you are, too. But know I’m also praying for the Church here on American soil just as fervently. Again, I hope you are, too.

It’s Jesus’ Story to Tell

I was thinking about a social media exchange regarding the theological abilities of our nation’s new President that I participated in this past Saturday after our congregation’s annual “Getting Organized” meeting. But before I share its importance with you, I should probably start with a different conversation that occurred earlier in the week. I hope you’ll bear with me. I think it fits.

I had an interesting conversation with a group of students in my 7th and 8th grade religion class last Wednesday. Knowing that far too many folks these days appear to interpret the Bible according to some pretty messed up criteria, my goal this semester has been to walk the students through the process of completing an exegetical study.

Essentially, I’ve divided the class into two groups. One group is wrestling with Mark 10:46-52 (the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar), and the other is handling Luke 10:25-37 (the Parable of the Good Samaritan). Both groups are tasked with studying from at least four different English translations of their assigned text (I’m helping with the Greek if they discover the need to dig deeper). They are to be concerned with discerning keywords, studying context (genre, writer, major and immediate sections, and the like), exploring parallel texts (which includes non-canonical resources), and so much more, all with the hope of exposing the primary purpose and meaning of the portion of God’s Word they are to be handling.

Pedagogically speaking, I’m not a big fan of small groups in an academic setting. I’m not convinced it’s the best way to learn. Still, I went against my own rule and gathered the students into groups according to their respective texts in order for them to discuss with one another the particular keywords they’d each discovered and were considering for his or her exposition. I hovered closely among the two groups.

For the most part, and interestingly, the students gravitated toward many of the same words. On occasion, however, one or two students would suggest the importance of a word that none of the others had considered. I was glad for that. I could go into greater detail as to why, but rest assured from their discussion, it was proof to me that they were really digging in and taking the assignment seriously.

At one point along the way, I suggested to both groups that they try to imagine themselves as onlookers to the situation, paying close attention with the mind’s eye to the visual flow of events. When they took time to do this, other aspects became visible.

With respect to keywords, an example of an obvious one from the Luke 10 text was the NIV’s term “expert in the Law” in comparison to the ESV’s rather simple descriptor “lawyer.” That’s an easy one. Does the difference matter? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, the students are going to figure that out. But when they placed themselves as observers of the conversation unfolding between Jesus and the expert in the Law, a few of the students noticed almost immediately a very strange shift. On the surface, Jesus seemingly commended the lawyer in verse 28 for giving the right answer to his question. “You have answered correctly,” Jesus said. “Do this and you will live.”

That’s great, right? Who wouldn’t want to be commended by the Lord? But in the very next verse, the lawyer appears to cop an attitude, feeling the need to justify himself, as if he’d somehow been insulted.

So, what happened?

One student in the bunch took the lead in the hunt for an answer. Eventually, he circled back around to the Lord’s reply to the lawyer, guessing that it was either the way the Lord said what He did (which we can’t necessarily determine His tone), or something wasn’t quite getting through in the English translation. Ultimately, he focused on the Lord’s words, “Do this and you will live,” because that seemed to be the critical moment of engagement in the Lord’s commendation. After a little more discussion, “Do this” became the student’s sole focus.

And that was it. In the Greek, the verb reveals the Lord’s insinuation that the lawyer, a man who thought he was keeping the Law of God perfectly, hadn’t been performing in the way he believed himself to be. “Do this” meant that if perhaps he actually got started right then and there, he might discover eternal life. Of course, that was a short, but loaded, reply to the lawyer’s self-righteous answer. To gain eternal life by way of keeping the Law is impossible. No one will pave their way to heaven with deeds. Jesus knows this. That’s why He came. But the lawyer was under the impression that he, an expert in the Law, was doing a pretty good job at actually accomplishing it. Jesus pointed out in front of the massive crowd that the show-off’s expertise in this regard was clearly lacking.

In short, here was a man whose trust for eternal life was located in himself, and the Rabbi he was challenging in that moment believed he was failing desperately at it. Like everyone else in the crowd, the lawyer needed a Savior.

This offended him. It embarrassed him, too. That meant he needed to do something to justify himself in order to regain his previous standing before the onlookers.

Knowing this particular detail in the exchange completely changes the trajectory for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. My guess is that most interpret the parable apart from this introductory text, and when they do, it becomes little more than a Sunday School story about how Jesus wants us to be good to others. But if we’re going to handle it honestly, that’s not why Jesus told the parable. The purpose of the parable is to point out how we fail, and by doing this, He’s putting before us the opportunity to admit we actually need a Savior. The astonishing part to this is that when we actually know the Lord’s real reason for teaching the parable, and then we dig into the parable itself, we may actually see the Gospel woven into its fabric. In other words, Jesus laid some gut-wrenching Law on us, but He didn’t leave us without hope. For the expert in the Law, Jesus foreshadowed the work of the Messiah—Jesus’ approaching work to accomplish our rescue—which is to say that He told the story of us and Himself.

He described someone who’d been pummeled and left for dead, and unless the wretch received help, his permanent end would be inevitable. That’s us. Sin has more than seen to this. Fascinatingly, the well-known animosity between the Jews and Samaritans is a hint to the vastness of the chasm that separates Man from God. And yet, the fact that the dying man’s chief enemy, a Samaritan, is the one who helped him is a glimpse of our Lord’s crossing over that divide in order to save us. As the story unfolded further, the scene became even clearer. The One who would be our enemy, rather than leaving us in our predicament, came down into the valley of our sorrow to be with us, to reach to us in love. He bandaged up our wounds, took us to a place where He arranged for our care, and then He promised to return to settle all accounts.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s an image of the Lord’s incarnation all the way through to His return at the Last Day, with the in-between time being His wonderful work to rescue, forgive, and sustain us as His people.

I expect that the students assigned to this text, with a little more recalibrating of their exegetical lenses, are going to discover these gems in the text for themselves. But as I mentioned at the beginning of this note, I suppose the reason I was moved to share this particular moment from my 7th and 8th grade religion class with you is because of a conversation I had on Saturday with a Christian who felt the need to defend Joe Biden’s supposed “devout” Catholicism. One tritely employed phrase that was used during the conversation (and I say “tritely” because far too many Christians believe this): “Well, you interpret the Bible one way, and Biden interprets it another way. Maybe he doesn’t accept parts that you do. That doesn’t necessarily make him wrong.”

Puke.

God didn’t give us His Word so we could do whatever the heck we want with it, picking and choosing this or that portion, ultimately making it say whatever we feel like making it say. It is divinely inspired, inerrant, and immutable—and with that, there are intentions behind every single Word. If you don’t believe this, not only will you never be able to secure a faithful interpretation, but in the end, you’ll see it as having very little value to begin with. When this happens, you’ll have become no different than the self-righteous lawyer in Luke 10 who felt he had no need for Jesus, because after all, Jesus is the very Word made flesh (John 1:14). If you reject the Lord’s Word, by default you reject Him. That leads to big trouble. Eternal trouble.

I doubt our new President will ever allow a faithful pastor thirty or forty minutes of his time to exegize alongside him some of the Biblical texts he believes give license for murdering babies in (and out of) the womb, for allowing men who think they’re women to compete in women’s sports, or so many other ungodly ideologies. In fact, I know he won’t do this. He’s already verbally condemned the catholic bishops who’ve said he should be excommunicated for his radical handling of God’s Word in these particular arenas.

In the end, I guess I’m just going to continue to work with what I have—which means doing what I can to teach the students in the 7th and 8th grade at Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran School in Hartland, Michigan, the powerful contents of God’s Word. And as I do this, I’m going to do what I can to help carry them into a love for Biblical study, one that continues into adulthood. God willing, it’ll be a love that sees the value in taking time to wrestle with what God’s Word actually teaches, rather than relegating it to a thin scan and the shallow realm of “What does this mean to me?” as so many Christians are in the unfortunate habit of doing.

Virtual Overlords and a Few Lessons Learned

So, what is there to talk about these days? Yeah, I know, right?

I don’t know about you, but the events of the past week have been concerning. And without sounding completely tone deaf, I should at least acknowledge that while I know what’s going on, I just don’t feel like visiting with it in the detail some may expect.

To be honest, with all of the conservatives on the news and social media platforms being rounded up and digitally executed, I think my time on certain networks is coming to an end. I’m not as active on Twitter as most, but I do have a few thousand followers, and so on Saturday night, just to see if I’d been affected by the mass cleansings, I discovered that about half of them were gone. I checked again later before the 12:30pm Divine Service on Sunday and saw that the number had risen to about two-thirds having gone MIA. Whether they’re leaving the platform or being punted, I think that’s a foretaste of what’s coming for guys like me who do what they can to bring the concerns of the Gospel to bear in the public square and culture.

Either way, no worries in this regard. I’m already in the process of closing my Twitter account as soon as I can get all of my data downloaded. Although I noticed that the Twitter overlords intend to craft the contours of that decision for me, too. Their archive downloading instructions read: “You can request a ZIP file with an archive of the data we think is most important to you.”

“…the data we think is most important to you.”

I can’t have all of my content. I can have what they decide I can have.

For the record, I’ve been trying to leave Facebook for a few years. Just ask my wife, Jennifer. She’ll tell you the only reason I’ve stayed as long as I have is because it’s been incredibly useful for introducing Our Savior Lutheran Church and School to the surrounding community—who we are, what we do, and why. Beyond that, everything else I write could just as easily be housed at one of my blogs: AngelsPortion.com or CruciformStuff.com.

But give it some time. Those might end up on the virtual book pyre in the next few weeks, too. I mean, I do scribe and share things on both sites that say horribly divisive things—like abortion is a no-no, and marriage is God’s property.

It should scare Americans that it’s only the conservative, pro-life, and Christian thinkers who are being booted, even as groups like “PornHub” (which, by the way, was successfully convicted of dealing in child pornography), most chapters of Antifa, and countless other liberal echo chambers are being allowed to stay and spread their doctrines. Interestingly, I read through Joe Biden’s presidential campaign donor report, and can you guess who some of the biggest donors were to his campaign? Yep. Big tech. He received lots of help from the likes of Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Bill Gates (Microsoft).

Perhaps even more terrifying is that Amazon.com gave notice to Parler, which is a conservative competitor to Twitter, saying that unless Parler begins employing the same kind of draconian content policing policies that Twitter employs—which is code for cancelling conservatives and Christians—it’ll be dropped from their servers. I think the threat actually became reality last night. And both Apple and Google have already dropped the Parler mobile application from their stores so that no one else can join. They just don’t want conservatives to be able to communicate with mass momentum. I’ve read that MeWe, which is the conservative competitor to Facebook, is on the chopping block, too.

“That’ll never happen,” so many among us have said. “Just stay in your lane and leave it to God to handle.” Well, it’s happening. And oh, by the way, God handles these kinds of things through His people. There are countless portions of God’s Word urging us to be engaged in our communities and world. If the reader of these texts is being honest, then he’ll realize they’re nothing short of mandates for Christians to be who they are in the unavoidable areas of life. Stripping away rights, mass censoring of the conservative Christian voice, unjust fines and jail sentences, the murdering of the unborn, politics in general, and so much more—these topics are all born from the unavoidable areas.

Get in the game.

Now, I’ve already talked about this more than I wanted to when I sat down at the computer screen. But as I said, I didn’t want to sound tone deaf to the fact that we’re making our way into some serious times calling for solemn reflection and serious courage. Still, I’d rather steer in a different direction… that is, if you still have time this morning, because I have far more intriguing things that I’d still like to share.

Perhaps like me, at the beginning of every year you find yourself thinking on what you learned over the course of the preceding 365 days. If you don’t, I recommend making it a deliberate practice. I recommend grabbing a pen, a sheet of paper, and spending some time writing a list of the significant occurrences in your life from last year and what you garnered from them.

It’s not hard to do. I usually try to think of at least five, even though I know I could rake into a pile far more from the annals of my brain. I list these five events, giving each a title, and then beneath each one I write a short sentence—a summary statement of what I learned in that particular instance.

Sometimes it hurts to see what I’ve written. Sometimes it’s a joy. Either way, the result is that I can put a finger on and work to remember something I know now that I didn’t know before, and it continues to be a way to reach higher when it comes to being a better pastor, teacher, husband, father, friend, thinker, and all around human being.

One of the five things in this year’s list isn’t necessarily something I learned, but rather more of a recap. I was reminded that I am more than capable of lying to myself. I’ll give you an example.

There’s someone I know who, no matter what I say or do, just doesn’t seem to like me very much. Whether passively or with deliberate hostility, this person has proven a readiness to take anything I’ve said or done as a reason to lunge at almost any moment. Of course, it’s easy to see why this would bother me. No one wants to be treated this way. I certainly can’t think of too many people who enjoy being disliked. It’s painful. For me, it hurts even more because one of my New Year resolutions in 2020 was to make a genuine effort at bridging the gap of disdain between the two of us. And I did. But it seems each attempt only seemed to ricochet. In the end, however, the self-deception occurred, not in the sense that I was wrong in thinking I could better the relationship, but rather in thinking that it matters if the person genuinely likes me or not. The deception went deeper as I began believing that the person must actually be deranged for not liking me, because, I mean, how could anyone not like me? I’m so easy to get along with, and really quite wonderful in almost every single way.

Sure.

We all think this way sometimes, and with that, the poison of the lie begins seeping into our veins and arming us for retaliation—for giving us a false justification that gives us permission to despise them right back, and even worse, to act on that disposition.

Something else on the list of things I learned: Faithfulness means honesty, and honesty means responsibility, which is precisely why so many go out of their way to redefine faithfulness.

What I mean is that so many people appear to be able to keep their consciences clean while doing just about anything, just so long as they believe what they’re doing is okay with God. But the only way to do something like that is to set honesty aside in order to redefine faithfulness. For example, skipping church becomes acceptable as long as the core of our definition for faithfulness means that our actions are in some way divinely approved, or perhaps that true worship can happen in any form and anywhere. Or maybe we deliberately choose candidates in an election who support the murdering of babies in the womb because, in our thinking, the social welfare programs offered by those same candidates intend to lift far more from poverty, ultimately bettering far more lives than the ones they’d allow to be snuffed out. In other words, in the economy of good deeds, certainly God would be okay with that calculation because it helps more than it harms. Or how about shaming a person in a store for not wearing a mask. If one believes wearing a mask to be an unarguably virtuous cause, a moment spent showing some tough love to a maskless perpetrator in a grocery store can be internally translated as a brave display of righteousness that has as its goal the saving of lives.

I’m taking better care to be aware of these darkly maneuverings, especially among Christians. And as the days of 2021 unfold, I intend to continue probing such foolishness and being ready to respond.

I’ll share one more of my five-item list. Like the first one I shared, it isn’t anything new, but rather a re-learning of sorts.

Other than God, everything has a beginning and end, and if you can just give the stormy situation you’re in a little bit of time, some prayerful consideration, and if required, some careful conversation, eventually the situation will dissipate like a raincloud that has wept all its tears.

Even some of the worst situations I’ve ever experienced as a pastor have all quieted down at one point or another. “This, too, shall pass” is a well-worn phrase for a reason. Although, the phrase will never outmatch the value of Saint Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4: 17-18, where he reminds us that the troubles of this life are momentary, and in comparison to the eternal glory that is ours in Christ, they just can’t hold a candle.

To conclude, maybe give this exercise a try. Look back at 2020 and see what’s there. You may be surprised by what you discover. The Lord only knows what some of your lists might look like after the year’s remarkably unremarkable collection of insanity. Heck, even the last ten days of 2021 have been enough to generate those “Here, hold my beer” memes we all expected, and as a result, it’s likely you already have some items for next year’s list.

Still, whatever you discover (some of which I’m hoping will be Christian honesty, responsibility, and courage for faithfulness), as the knowledge of these discoveries flow from your heart and mind to the pen at the surface of the paper, as God’s child, be sure to keep in mind what He intends to teach you each and every new day: We needn’t be afraid of those who can harm us in this life but have no jurisdiction in the next (Matthew 10:28). God will never leave us nor forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6). He is with us to the very end of all things (Matthew 28:20). His steadfast love never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is His faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23).