Please Excuse Me

I’ll be swift with my thoughts this morning. In truth, I have little energy today for much more than what I’m being moved to ponder out loud.

As a pastor, there’s something I’ve learned all too well over the years. I assure you it was already true long before the fresh stack of executive orders arrived at our doorsteps legitimizing certain human behaviors.

Few need a good reason for avoiding time with the Savior.

Unfortunately there’ve always been plenty of self-deceiving excuses available to Christians. Each of our narratives is full of them, and in our Sin, each of us is well-equipped for handily decriminalizing the reasons, no matter how foolish the road to doing so may actually be. For example, I once shared in one of my The Angels’ Portion volumes a story from years ago about crossing paths with an inactive member at a department store at 3:00 AM on Black Friday. The particular person was one who’d always insisted that after a busy week of work, it was just too challenging for him physically to get up and get ready for a 9:30 AM worship service on a Sunday morning. Standing there in line, both of us shivering in temperatures unsuited for anyone’s lengthy exposure, he spent several awkward minutes doing what he could to defend his disjointed premise.

He’s long gone from our church’s roster. But I can only imagine what my conversations with him would be like if he was still with us today, how his deeper inclination would have been granted permission to stroll about openly by our Governor’s orders, and on top of that, within a society being collectively slow-boiled into believing it’s honorable to frown upon in-person worship gatherings and the people who desire them.

Forget the whole “you’re not being a good Christian neighbor when you don’t wear a mask” thing. Christians are now telling other Christians they’re not showing Godly love for their neighbor by going to church at all!

Read that sentence again and know that the job of pastor got a lot more complicated in 2020, that’s for sure.

Putting it bluntly, no matter the real reason for staying away from worship that may be lurking beneath a person’s glossy surface, any excuse has suddenly become virtuous and neighbor-loving, and anyone insisting otherwise is labeled a guilt-shoveling villain. A question I’d set before you, however: How villainous can your pastor really be if he’s made clear over and over again that if you can’t get to the church to receive the Lord’s Word and Sacrament gifts—no matter your reason—all that’s needed is a phone call and he’ll bring it to you—masked, gloved, wrapped in bubble-wrap, in a HazMat suit, or whatever? Speaking personally, this has been a standing promise of mine since I was first ordained, and not only have I upped my ante by repeating it publicly since March of this year, but I’ve made good on it. Since March, I’ve been to some of your homes and served the Lord’s Supper through a kitchen or bedroom window. And yet, I’d still say 2020 isn’t exactly a unique situation when it comes to such an offer. If you’d have been afraid of the flu in 2019 but still desired Word and Sacrament, I’d have accommodated you. I only need to know. Phones are great for that. And for the record, the last I checked, the cell towers and communication satellites aren’t susceptible to the flu or COVID-19.

In the end, I guarantee all your pastor wants is for you to be fed with the life-sustaining gifts of God’s grace!

Again, as a man called to stand in the stead and by the command of Christ—a man bringing a Word of invitation from the King of kings—I find myself reminded on occasion of a telegram sent by Lord Charles Beresford, a British admiral who served in the Royal Navy at the turn of the twentieth century. The telegram was sent in reply to a dinner summons from Prince Albert of Wales, the man who would soon ascend the throne as King Edward the VII. The invitation to dine with the future king was delivered to Beresford assuming he would be glad for the honor and make plans to attend.

The admiral’s reply was simple.

“Very sorry can’t come. Lie to follow by post.”

In short, I actually appreciate Beresford’s response. At least he was willing to deal honestly with his king. He just didn’t want to attend, and that was easy enough to understand. I’m sure it bothered the king, but if you know the rest of the story, then you also know the king moved on to include others, eventually abandoning his relationship with Beresford. But again, the truer inclination of the admiral was that he didn’t want it, anyway. And the king—one of England’s most beloved—certainly wasn’t going to build the friendship by force.

So that was that.

It’s Good to Be Home

It’s good to be home. Still, vacations certainly are great. They’re the allotment of time and distance you set aside for setting things aside.

But let me just shoot straight with you. I get more than a little anxious before coming home. We haven’t been taking vacations as a family for that many years, so I can look back at each of them and say with conviction that I’ve never once thought while thrashing around in the pool with Jen and the kids, “You know, I’ve had enough of vacation. Let’s get back to reality.” For me, Voltaire’s comment amount rest being a brother to boredom falls flat on its face when I’m enjoying my early morning vacation ritual of sitting at my computer drinking coffee, unrestricted, free to type whatever I feel like, and as I do, every now and then, catching a glimpse of a favorite palm tree covered in scurrying anoles just outside the window.

For me, vacationing does not share the same parentage as boredom.

You may have a different locale with different rituals, but I’m sure it’s the same for you. Still, let me dig a little deeper into the anxiousness, because I’m guessing this might be familiar to you, too.

While on vacation, we usually drive cars that are better than our own. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not like we troop through the rental lot in search of the Porsche section—although, I’ve pestered Jen about it once or twice. We usually get a minivan. And if we’ve paid more than $250 to borrow it for the whole trip, we consider ourselves as having been ripped off. I’m not kidding. Jen is the one who plans all this stuff, and she is magnificent this way. This year she managed to get us situated for the whole two weeks in a really nice Dodge Caravan for only $238. But more to my point, it had 115,000 miles less than the car I drive now, and as far as I could tell, not one of its dashboard warning lights was beaming steadily.

While on vacation, even though we only go out to eat about four or five times over the course of the entire two weeks, that’s still far more than we do as a family in an entire year—maybe even two years. And rest assured, our time in the various restaurants while vacationing is never wearisome. The staff is kind and equipped to serve, smiling and ready to bring us whatever we ask. We are kings and queens for the moment.

While on vacation, we do whatever we feel like doing. Of course, with the fear of COVID-19 looming everywhere this year, it was more of a challenge when it came to getting out and finding things to do. And yet, we never grew tired of the swimming pool. We were never met with exhaustion playing board games. We were never fatigued by huddling together on the couch, a bowl of popcorn in hand and watching “Shark Week” episodes featuring our favorite underwater cameraman personality, Andy Casagrande.

My point here is that while vacations are a temporary respite from reality, we can become anxious when we find ourselves actually heading back into reality. We want the vacation to be our permanent reality. We don’t want to come back to the car that has trouble starting. We don’t want to come back to the places where we are rarely, if ever, the one being served. We don’t want to come back to the relationships peppered with conflict. We don’t want to resubmit ourselves to stress-filled schedules filled with ungrateful patrons eager to tell you how undelighted they are with you. We don’t want the seemingly impossible workloads or the pressurized deadlines.

In the final analysis, across the expanse of a year’s fifty-two weeks, we want a reversal. We want fifty weeks of ease, and only two weeks of trouble.

But consider that word “reversal” for a moment.

I did a little bit of devotional reading each day while I was away. Every now and then, Luther spoke of God as staging a great reversal in Christ. We most often hear it referred to as “the great exchange.” If you ever get a chance to read from some of Luther’s writing on this subject, do so. His excitement is palpable. In fact, I sometimes think his words are at their poetic best whenever he’s dealing with this topic in particular. And why would they be this way? Because of all people who needed a reversal, it was Martin Luther, a man who monopolized the time of his father confessor because he couldn’t find the end to his own faults in a single day. He was a man terrified that he could never do enough to find God’s favor and win eternal life. But here in the great reversal, terrified sinners discover a God who, even in our ghastliness, loves us beyond measure. We discover a God who has no desire whatsoever to give sinners what they truly deserve. Instead, we behold Jesus on the cross and we see God working hard to lose so that we might win. We see Him taking the lowliest position of a foot-washing servant, laboring to make sinful peasants into righteous princes. We behold Him striving to endow the simplest of human words and means with an extraordinary power for delivering immeasurable forgiveness from the storehouses of heaven itself. For a guy like Luther—and for all of us for that matter—the Gospel turns what was once an awful truth of our inescapability from God’s divine reach into the most comforting of truths.

There’s an interesting aspect to all of this that relates to the anxiety of wishing a two-week vacation and the fifty weeks of reality that follow could switch places. By the Gospel, in a sense, God helps us to see that in Christ, this has actually happened. He gives us the eyes of faith for seeing that in the scheme of things, life in this world is really more like the “two weeks” of trouble in comparison to the inevitable “fifty weeks” of eternal rest we’ll experience with Christ.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m in the midst of a stressful situation while at the same time knowing that very soon I’ll be leaving it all behind, the worry I experience in those harder moments feels a little more like borrowed trouble. With that, I can endure it because I don’t really own it. It’s the same with life in this world. I don’t own it. Christ does. He took all its troubles into Himself on the cross. He carried them with Him into the grave. He rose again to justify my freedom from their permanence, which means I can make my way through all of this world’s nonsense knowing it’s already passing away, and in less than a blink in eternity’s eye, I’ll soon be resting with Him.

I want to add one last thing.

When I returned home and found myself among so many of you, I again experienced the joy of one of God’s most generous provisions to humans for enduring the relative “two weeks” we spend on this earth. I came home to friends.

Cicero referred to a friend as a “second self.” Aristotle referred to friendship itself as “a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” For as insightful as these two philosophers were, they certainly spoke most handily in this regard. Coming home to friends, dwelling with you in the midst of this world’s struggles as a community of people immersed in the mercies of God and prepared to labor together, well, that helps to steer the anxiety away, too.

For that I am grateful to our gracious God who put you into my life, and I can repeat what I said at the beginning of this note: It’s good to be home.

By the way, I also began yesterday’s sermon with that sentence, and then doing something that probably seemed a little out of character to all of you, I asked Alexis Shirk (who was sitting in the first row near her parents) to snap a quick picture of the congregation for me. I had her do this because only moments before I stepped into the pulpit to preach, having just surveyed a Godly sea of 240 familiar faces, I remembered once again what a privilege it is to be the one preaching God’s Law and Gospel to people I love. It was an instance confirming for me the Christian proverb that “a faithful friend is the medicine of life; and those who fear the Lord shall find him.”

Prayerfully Mindful

I mentioned to Jennifer that these Monday morning eNews introductions are a little harder to write because of the quarantine. Normally I can sit down, and within a few minutes, I discover a thought that leads me into something worth sharing—something that is, hopefully, of use to you. But not so much these days. I think this is true because I’m apart from my best writing prompts—you!

Most of what inspires me emerges from daily, face-to-face interactions with people, and right now, I’m at a severe disadvantage in this—at least for the time being.

I suppose I could mine social media. Although, that’s not my preferred place to interact with you, nor is it the safest place these days to look for material in general…unless, of course, I want to spend time providing verbal contour for what the Bible already describes well enough as the Sin-nature. Social media is a real ugly place right now. It seems the worst parts of ourselves are parading through its alleyways. Fear of COVID-19 is playing a big part, but so is the lack of space being allowed to the fearful by the bombastic among us.

Indeed, there are varying degrees of concern. I’ll confess I used to be more concerned than I am now. I’ve been included in a few local and federal conversations suggesting that while the virus is indeed a mean kid on the block—the kind you don’t want to run into if you don’t have to—nevertheless the incoming data is more than proving the kid to be less the monster and more the mouse casting an unnecessarily frightening shadow. In the end, most folks are more likely to die from flesh-eating bacteria they encountered while working in the yard than to contract and die from COVID-19. Of course I’m still bathing in hand sanitizer, both for your sake and for the sake of my family. (By the way, I keep poking at Jennifer, saying that in a few years, don’t be surprised if there’s a spike in never-before-seen hand cancers.)

I’m doing my best to land in the middle, while at the same time, I’m unwilling to accept statements sourced from wholly insufficient evidence claiming absolute certainty. That’s about as close to the definition of ignorance as any could get, and folks who do this are fanning preventable wildfires of panic. No one should be making decisions (or declarations) in this way. It’s a bad idea, and history proves bad results when people do. And yet this seems to be the general tenor for many in the mainstream media. Of course this practice has touched down with a thud in social media. To make things worse, radical individualism remains in high gear.

Everyone is right and no one is wrong. What a mess.

I participated in one particular phone call with a friend in D.C. suggesting that if the shelter-in-place orders in some of the stricter states (Michigan being one of them) go much further than April 30, it’s likely civil disobedience will begin to erupt. People are already beginning to protest in mass numbers in many state capitals. If civil unrest does become open disobedience, the Church will need to be ready to weigh in. I shared this information with my Bishop among a gathering of other English District (LCMS) pastors during a recent Zoom meeting, and in so doing, I expressed my concern that the brothers ought to be ready, if necessary, to help their people navigate the turbulence. For starters, silently, I’m hoping all pastors are brushing up on their understanding of the “Two Kingdoms” doctrine.

As a quick side note, I’m also finding it rather interesting how certain pastors I know, ones who’ve been incredibly vocal in their opposition to the Church having anything to do with politics, well, it seems they’re asking me what I know, what I’ve heard, what my plans are. They’ve a newfound interest in all-things-government now that so much of what they do has been seized by the civil authorities. The government has claimed emergency authority for stepping into the Church’s sphere, and now the so-called separation of Church and State has become blurry, while at the same time making the purposes for my own efforts in the public square all the more clear. An avenue has presented itself for the state to justify control of the Church, and now churches are being fined, pastors are being ticketed, and in some states some pretty ridiculous mandates have been issued, even ones forbidding online services.

Interesting, huh? But how far should we let this go? When do we actually need to say out loud, “I will obey God and not men”?

Anyway, getting back to the premise of social media as an ugly place…

Just to give you an example, I’ve come pretty close a few times in the last week to deleting my Facebook account altogether. I actually typed up a list of the pros and cons while walking on the treadmill. Both categories had an equal number of items. So much for that. Also, while I try not to unfriend people, no matter how cruel they can be, I’ll admit to having come close a few times this past week to begging some folks to unfriend me. But I didn’t… as usual.

Believe it or not, I sort of have to be in Facebook. I’m certainly not here for casual scrolling before bed. It’s a significant means of communication for me. Not only has it been beneficial for communicating our congregation’s theological identity, but there are groups in which I’m involved that only use Facebook forums for meetings. I can’t participate if I’m not in it.

In the meantime, the essential skills I’ve learned over the years for using social media are proving valuable. I continue to do my level best to stay in the mix while at the same time letting the hurtful commentary sail by without incident. I have to ignore quite a bit of personal accosting (much of which comes through private messaging) if I want to participate in the open waters of discussion I think are of consequence—or if I want to make or encourage points I believe are important. Truthfully, however, I confess to having discovered a long while ago that ignoring the venomous words from folks on social media isn’t as hard as one might think. Over time, I’ve learned that the people with whom I share genuine relationships are less likely to attack and more likely to either converse or simply ignore me. The folks who steam and then go for my jugular, well, I’ve realized it’s really me who’s injecting the poison into my veins when I let their words actually matter to me. When I remember that violent language—insults, name-calling, all-caps swearing, persistent trolling—is typically nothing more than the veiling of shallow opinion, when I remember their words and actions are really more at enmity with reality, then their efforts lose their sting and I can move on to other things unshaken. Usually I just say something like “okay” and then move along.

Publilius Syrus was right when he said that cruelty is strengthened by tears. And so the saying must go: “Sticks and stones may break my bones…” Well, you know the rest.

There’s lots of venom being spit in these arenas right now, and because I’m cognizant that social media is one of the only avenues for human interaction for many of you right now, I pray specifically for your mental agility in avoiding its darker underbelly. I can’t avoid it, but I hope you can.

If not, might I suggest one practical—nay, Godly—way to persevere in it?

I once heard someone define the advancement of a civilization as the communal ability to increase in things it can do without having to think about doing them.

Don’t let this definition be the description of your relationships with others. Think before you type. Think once more before you post. Check your information. Check the spirit behind your words. Why are you writing? Why are you responding? And then think one last time as you move your mouse and lead the cursor to the symbol for posting.

Be prayerfully mindful of what you’re about to say.

By the way, this isn’t novel advice for Christians. We know what humans are capable of. We know our God knows the sinful inclinations of the heart, too, and so He warns us. We trust Him for the better weapons that lead to peace on the other side of war.

“Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends” (Proverbs 17:9).

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).

“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26).

“Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit” (1 Peter 3:10).

“The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Proverbs 15:28).

“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (Proverbs 17:27).

Of course, none of this is to say that truth must be silent in the face of error. Indeed, errors need fixing. Just be careful when you aim to do so. And be ready to realize you may be just as wrong as the person you’re trying to correct.

No one but Christ has all the answers. Indeed, we’re truly living in a time for testing our own humility.

I suppose I could wrap this up by sharing that pastors, whether in real life or in the virtual world, live and die by the maxim that we’re always only one word away from ticking someone off. These days it seems no matter where we are and what we are saying, someone is offended. God willing, most pastors are carefully deliberating as they scribe. Having said this, whether or not you’re in the same kind of unavoidable spotlight as pastors, here in the midst of what is nothing less than the close quarters of a social media concentration camp, all of us together can be mindful of the long-term damage a careless word leaves behind in a community of friends.

Again, my point here, please be prayerfully mindful.

For those who’ve found themselves already offended (or far too easily offended by pretty much everything), I simply say to pray and then move along. Pray for a heart of peace and keep going. If you’re already cruising along deflecting the hypersensitivity, or you’re covering over the careless offenses with a humble spirit, odds are the irritations will ricochet right off you and probably won’t even rise to the level of Matthew 18 and its instructions for reconciliation. Of course, if they do, I’m here to help. But in the end, my guess is that by God’s grace, you’ll make it through this slow-moving narrative where, seemingly, everyone’s opinion is the annoying theme resonating on every page. Just move on, trusting that with each turn of the page, you’ll be closer to the end of this worldwide episode, and with that, the moments of annoyance along the way will comprise a volume worthy of being filed in the “Of Little Use to Anyone” section of your mental library.

Okay, I guess that’s enough typing for this morning. Sheesh, I sure do miss seeing you folks in person.

The Christian Birthright of Prayer

We’ve entered into Holy Week. This is the week of weeks in the Church Year. When it comes to our life together as a congregation, it’s surreal to be apart like this. It’s not an easy thing.

I want you to know that during this time I’m praying for you—every single day.

Each and every day I’m on my knees before the altar of God here at Our Savior, not just praying for the world in a general sense, but for all believers in Christ—and most especially for the people of God here at Our Savior in Hartland.

While I don’t get through the whole roster of names in the congregation in a single day, I can pretty much guarantee that each member’s name is spoken out loud and into the divine ears of God at least every other day or so.

When I pray, I’m praying for your health. I’m praying for your livelihood. I’m praying for your family. I’m praying for your renewed strength and a spiritual stamina in the face of adversity to trust in the One who gave His life that you would have eternal life—an everlasting home beyond the pale edges of this passing world.

No matter the circumstances in this life, I do this confidently—as I’m sure other pastors do, too—because there are a few things I know of God.

It certainly isn’t that God needs informing. A bird does not fall from the sky without His knowledge (Matthew 10:29). He knows the number of hairs on the head of every human being (Luke 12:7). Our thoughts are not too quiet for Him to hear, and the slightest of gestures never escapes His view (Psalm 139:1-3). Well beyond us even these things, the sun and moon and stars all continue on their courses according to His gracious and upholding care (Hebrews 1:3). He knows your joys and sorrows. And the scale of the occurrence does not matter. From the bloodiest of wars to the most insignificant slights against any one of us, God foreknew their hours (Isaiah 42:9). Nothing is lost on Him, and so He doesn’t need for me to tell Him what’s going on.

Of course, I reach to God in prayer because I need Him. But perhaps more importantly, I do this because He invites me into His presence to speak as a privilege of faith (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18).

We’ve entered into Holy Week, which means we’ve made our way into a time when the Church remembers that at the death of Jesus, the temple’s curtain was torn from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51), signifying the Lord’s work on the cross as all-sufficient for granting every believer full access to the Heavenly Father. Believers have been given the promise that we can go to our God through Jesus, and He promises to hear and answer us as we pray according to His will (John 14:6-14, 1 John 5:14).

There’s great comfort in this birthright of faith, and it serves us in both the good times and the bad.

Ambrose Bierce wrote somewhat snidely of Christians that prayer is really just nothing more than an attempt by unworthy petitioners to get the laws of the universe annulled. Setting aside his condescension for a moment, in a sense, Bierce is right. We don’t deserve anything from God. And yes, we are asking Him to rewrite the universal laws. In humility, we ask to be forgiven of our seemingly unforgiveable crimes. We do this knowing full well that the order of this universe is one of justice, that the guilty pay for their own crimes, and the innocent go free. But we are approaching God already knowing He has heaped the punishment we are due upon His own Son. The innocent One was sentenced to death. The guilty were set free.

If that isn’t counter to the way of normalcy in this world’s order, then I don’t know what is. And yet, Christians reach to God, asking Him to continue in this mercy, praying through the merits and mediation of Christ.

But there’s something more to my reasons for praying.

I also pray because by the power of the Gospel for faith, the Holy Spirit is alive in me (Romans 1:16-17, Romans 8:10-11), and He is at work recreating me to be one who loves God and desires faithfulness to Him (Galatians 5:22-25). In other words, a very real facet of my life as a Christian involves actually telling and showing God I love Him. Prayer is a very real fruit of faith in this regard.

A very basic way to think of it…

I’m a father, and while I know my children love me, there’s an element of proof to their love when they say it. It serves both our hearts well, and it feels good to hear. God is the same way. He knows that by faith we love Him, and yet He also loves to hear us say it—and so we pray.

By the way, another very practical way the Bible describes our prayers to God is not just according to the sense of hearing, but by the sense of smell. As we have those favorite aromas—flowers, a sizzling steak, a spouse’s cologne or perfume (for me it’s a good Scotch, sunscreen, a swimming pool, and Florida palm trees)—so also are our prayers compared to a fragrant incense wafting to the heavens and into the divine nostrils of God (Psalm 141:2, Revelation 8:3). Prayers arising to Him by faith, calling out to Him according to His gracious will in Christ Jesus, these are ever-so-sweet to Him, and He loves to receive and then respond to them. By contrast, prayers in contradiction to His will—words tossed out toward the sky in unbelief, the use of His name in vain, greed, arrogant self-righteousness, and the like—these are sour and off-putting to God, and He waves them away from His face in disgust (James 4:3, Isaiah 1:15-18, Luke 18:9-14, Proverbs 3:34, 1 Peter 5:5).

I suppose the last thing I’ll say is that even as prayer is to be a part of the Christian life, I’m guessing prayer isn’t so easy for everyone. Some folks want to pray, but just don’t know what to say.

First of all, know that this concern is, in a sense, a prayer in itself. You’re showing God you want to speak to Him, and because He is worthy of your best, you want to do it in a way and with words that will show Him this love. Wrestling with this concern, remember, He knows you love Him. Let that comfort you. No matter how the thoughts or words come out, He won’t turn away from you. He’ll listen.

Secondly, if you struggle to focus, don’t be afraid to use pre-written prayers. There’s nothing wrong with the practice. This is how the Church has prayed since the beginning, and I do it all the time. Just because I may be using someone else’s words, doesn’t mean what I’m praying is of lesser value to God. Pre-written prayers can be an incredible help in times when inner clarity seems out of reach. In fact, because I know folks are struggling right now to find the right words in the midst of this worldwide pandemic, I posted a Vigil of Prayer on Our Savior’s website. If you are struggling to pray, take a look at the video and pray along.

(https://www.oursaviorhartland.org/prayer-vigil/)

Also, think practically. When one is feeling like a novice, the way to better skills is to study the efforts of others and to practice. Think about it. How did you first learn to speak? Most likely by mimicking the words of your parents. Praying while using the words of our Christian fore-parents is a good practice. Don’t let anyone tell you that unless your words are spontaneous or whatever you’re not really praying. That’s ridiculous. If someone does tell you this, then brush it off. They’ve made prayer into a legalistic venture, and you should avoid their advice altogether.

Thirdly, the easiest and best place to start is with the prayer the Lord taught us. There’s no better prayer than the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). Start with that. It doesn’t get any better.

To close, and as I’ve said already, be mindful that we have prayer for such times as these. This COVID-19 situation is, if anything, an exercise in knowing to whom we should run in times of trouble. Turning to the only One who can rescue us from all our burdens and give us the gift of real rest is always the better bet (Matthew 11:28).

Go to Him in faith. Pray for your needs. Pray for the needs of others. He loves you. He loves them. And He’s listening. He has already promised that no matter what is happening, He will work all things for your good (Romans 8:28).

Memory

My wife, Jennifer, shared with me her hope that this time together as a family will be one that instills good memories in the children rather than being a recollection of a fearful time. I’m hoping for the same, as I’m sure you are, too.

Of course, after our conversation, I got to thinking about the role memories actually play in shaping us. It’s hard to argue against the influence this pandemic is having on the communal memory of the whole nation, but in this particular moment, my concern is for you and your family.

After it’s over, what will be remembered? What will be forgotten? What will the new normal be in your lives?

Well, before going any further, we have to be honest about memory’s linking to our truest condition.

Informed by God’s Word, we already know Sin’s blast radius is vast. Every living thing in the created order exists within reach of its initial detonation. “Because you have done this,” God said to the first man, “cursed is the ground because of you” (Genesis 3:17). Perhaps worse, when we actually venture into the wasteland to examine Sin’s wreckage, we discover that it didn’t just interlace with the world in ways that would give rise to COVID-19 alone, but it actually broke the whole globe. Sin is an occupying power now, one that’s intricately woven into the fabric of mankind in every way (Matthew 15:19, John 3:19, Jeremiah 17:9). With this, we shouldn’t be surprised that the human mind and its vault of memories are diseased, too.

Aware of this, I’d say Sin labors to infect the human memory in at least two notable ways.

I don’t know about you, but I experience the first of Sin’s twining grips on my memory when scenes from my past unexpectedly come to mind—words and deeds I’ve regretfully said or done. I could be doing just about anything—mowing the grass or eating a cheeseburger—and then suddenly, it’s as if I’ve been whisked into a darkened corridor, and all along its uneasy length, I’m forced to pass sinister portraits of what haunts me most. There they are, everything I wish to forget, in all of their ugly details.

Sin won’t let me forget my transgressions. It wants me to remember.

The second of Sin’s handlings is related to its effect on the flesh. Again, the Lord announced after the fall: “From dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). And Saint Paul affirms: “Outwardly we are wasting away…” (2 Corinthians 4:16). Indeed, our bodies are coming undone with age, and as they do, so also comes the deterioration of the mind. For the honest among us, there is the haunting knowledge of a lifetime of memories we’ll struggle to remember. Sin works here, too. In our “wasting away,” it steals the scenes we hold dear—the children, when they were little, what their voices sounded like or which were their favorite toys; the mannerisms of a parent or grandparent we’ve lost to Death, their smiles and the familiar scent of their embrace; the rooms of our childhood home; the summertime freedoms with family and neighborhood friends.

Sin wants us to forget these things. It wants to strip us of the outward evidence of God’s fatherly divine goodness throughout our lives.

So what do we do?

First of all, when it comes to Sin’s ugly accusation, the best weapon against this is the Gospel of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for you. Hold onto this. In other words, do what you can to stay in the Word of God. The Word of God clads the Christian in ways nothing else can. Soak it up. Be devoted to it. Talk about it. Live and breathe it as God’s people. I say this firstly because God tells us that His Word is far more powerful than the sinful flesh (Hebrews 4:12, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Jeremiah 23:29, Isaiah 55:11). Secondly, not only do I believe this, but I can confirm it as true by way of countless examples.

Here’s a great one.

Back in December of 2018, a friend of mine (someone most here at Our Savior probably know) experienced a cataclysmic aortic rupture. He wasn’t expected to survive. He’d been without blood to both hemispheres of his brain for hours before medical personnel were able to get to him and do anything to help.

Plainly speaking, no one survives such an episode. In fact, thinking back, I remember being in his room in the ICU when the surgeon who’d worked on him said she’d never operated on anyone in as bad a condition as his.

Throughout the ordeal, I was with him pretty much every day—praying, reading the Word, giving Him, as Paul would say, “the unsearchable riches of Christ…” (Ephesians 3:8). Each time I was there, the doctors gave little hope that he would ever wake up, let alone be able to function cognitively if he did.

After surgery he’d been given no sedation. The hope was that within 72 hours we’d know. Either he’d wake up, or he wouldn’t.

Now I won’t go into all of the details, but as I said, I was with him at least once a day. During those times, I often noticed him giving my hand a little squeeze during prayer. Although, the nurses politely described it as nothing more than an involuntary response to this or that going on in his body. But one day while reading from Mark 4:35-41—Jesus calming the storm—after I was done, he turned his head to me. It’d been five days of careful watching, and this was a first.

I went back to be with him the very next day. When I walked into the room, the man who was barely alive the day before, was sitting up and watching baseball. The nurse was absolutely beaming. He’d quite literally awakened an hour before I’d arrived, and the breathing tube had been taken out only moments before I walked through the door.

I can’t even begin to tell you the joy at seeing my groggy, but living, friend! And the grin he gave when he saw me, it was breathtaking. For the first time in days, I could talk with him and hear him reply.

I did most of the talking, of course, not only because he was exhausted, but because his throat was very sore from the breathing tube. Still, we heard the Word of God again, prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and this time, he prayed every single word along with me. I was able to give him a get-well card his fellow choir members had made for him, and he was able to hold it with his own hands and read it.

I asked him some questions, to sort of gauge where he was cognitively. Looking back, I’m glad I did, because if there was ever a time when Sin’s grip on human memory would’ve proven itself, it would’ve been then.

I asked if he remembered anything.

He said he remembered Jesus on a boat with the disciples calming a storm. When I asked what he remembered about it, he whispered raspily the sense of a familiar voice, and when the voice stopped speaking, he wanted to hear more.

Do you get it, friends?

If God’s Word is merely language—something that can be shelved like a favorite novel during this time of worldwide trouble—then it certainly made no earthly sense for me to be speaking it into this man’s ears. And yet, there was my friend telling me he not only heard God’s Word, but he wanted more.

Not even the natural deterioration of a Sin-destroyed body of flesh could get in the way of the power of God’s Word. It sort of reminds me of the Lord speaking into the ears of the lifeless son of the Widow of Nain and raising him from the dead (Luke 7:11-17).

Again, I share this story as an urging to stay in the Word during this time away from your church. God’s Word will continue to write into your heart and mind the certainty of a divine memory that knows all that Jesus has done to save you. It will continue to certify for you just who you are by faith in His sacrifice.

Beyond this, and I suppose as a side note to this time of quarantine, I’d encourage you to do things together with your family. Pack up the video games and put aside the mobile phones. Spend time together. If it’s just you and your spouse, do the same. If it’s just you and the dog, do the same. And while you’re doing this, take some pictures. Or perhaps you could keep a journal. I guarantee that in a few years you’ll come back to these crystalized memories of the pandemic of 2020 and you’ll remember the feeling of joy more so than the sense of dread. You’ll have something in hand to remind you just how much the Lord has blessed you.

I give one last example in this regard.

One of the great things about my The Angels’ Portion volumes is that they serve as annals for the Thoma family. They’re a retelling of so much of what has happened in our lives. In fact, it’s not uncommon for one of the kids to fetch a volume from the shelf during dinner and ask me to read a few of their favorite tales from among our countless everyday adventures. Within seconds, long-forgotten events in which we all participated come back to life, and with them arrive the sights, sounds, and smells—the enjoyment of distant times and former selves joining with us in the “right now.”

For the Thoma’s, these books are Godly ramparts against Sin’s effort to cause us to forget.

Finally, I’ll conclude this longer note by reminding you of God’s memory.

When He forgives you, He forgets your sins. We may remember them, but He doesn’t. “I will remember their wickedness no longer,” He says resolutely (Hebrews 8:12). This means if you were to stand before Him and say, “Hey, God, do you remember that one terrible thing I did yesterday?” His answer would be, “I forgave you, and so I really have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Even better, while He forgets your sins, He can never forget His loving promises (Psalm 136:23, Psalm 105:8, Psalm 103:17, and Hebrews 13:5). The death of His Son for the sins of the whole world is the fulfillment of His greatest promise. His merciful memory is locked to this. All who believe in His Son, Jesus Christ, are ever-remembered by the Creator of the world as being His beloved and forgiven children.

Let all of this be of comfort to you during this time. It certainly is comforting to me and my family.

Fishing ≠ Worship

It would appear that our world is indefinitely fixed with the global stamp which reads “Pandemic,” and so I don’t know what the future holds. For the most part, I’d say our efforts to maintain as a church engaged in public worship together here at Our Savior in Hartland is succeeding. It hasn’t been without snags, but it’s certainly been well worth the labor. (To see what we’re doing, click here.)

All I can say now is that we’ll keep doing what we’re doing as safely as we can for as long as we can. We’ll keep this stride knowing that if we need to make changes, we will.

I should say that through all of this, the people who comprise the congregation of Our Savior have proven one thing in particular. Instead of fleeing from public Word and Sacrament ministry, we’ve shown an instinctive desire for preserving it, and an even more visceral dismay at the possibility it could be snatched away. There’s a hunger for it, and we just don’t want to exchange it for other, less communal avenues—at least until we’ve met the absolute end of the road in our abilities to make it happen. With this spirit, we’ve been far more inclined to triple our efforts rather than reduce them.

This is by no means an indictment of anyone in our midst who hasn’t wanted to participate, nor is it a finger of critique aimed at other congregations. These are serious times, and I believe so many are gauging their situations and communities with honesty. Like us, they’re balancing. They’re doing what they need to do to be faithful. I’m glad for that. That being said, however, I’ll admit to being surprised by the road sign in front of a nearby Methodist church that reads something like, “We’re closed for March and April. Enjoy the break. Take this time to go fishing.”

Enjoy the break? Go fishing?

Hmm.

Putting the best construction on this, I’m hoping their sign committee (if they have such a thing) is just trying to be funny. Or perhaps they’re using insider terms, words that only the congregation members will understand. Maybe the sign is a wink to a recent sermon which preached that even as they’re no longer gathering together formally, they’ll be receiving God’s Word in other ways, and as they do, their communal focus will be to become better fishers of men among their neighbors. Still, the wording of the sign sure makes it look like taking a break from worship is a good thing, that somehow leisurely activities are viable alternatives to remembering the Sabbath Day and keeping it holy.

Thinking on the Third Commandment, Luther explains in the Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Pandemic or not, the Church has never been underwhelmed by people who bear the name “Christian” and yet betray a lack of love for holding the preaching and teaching of God’s Word in worship as important. The last thing I want to see is a church broadcasting such a disposition as good practice. It isn’t good. It’s ungodly. It’s deadly to the soul. It embraces a course of spiritual starvation that robs the Christian heart of hope.

On second thought, I want to take back what I said above about not knowing what the future holds. I know plenty of what the future holds.

I’m not talking about the financial markets or executive orders. I’m not talking about whether or not the store shelves will finally be stocked like they used to be. I’m not even talking about which of us, if any, will contract the coronavirus.

I’m talking about Death.

We’re all going to die. Virus or not, Death has ten thousand other doors for us to pass through, and at some point in our lives, each of us will go through one.

Being a reader of poetry, I appreciate how so many versifiers throughout history have observed and shared this fact. Dorothy Parker’s words come to mind:

It costs me never a stab nor squirm
To tread by chance upon a worm.
“Aha, my little dear,” I say,
“Your clan will pay me back one day.”

And of course, there’s Emily Dickinson’s infamous rhyme:

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.

Poems like these, no matter who wrote them, are observances of the point that we’re all going to die. They remind us that never in the history of the world has there ever been a man, woman, or child from any race, color, or creed who could stand his or her ground when mortal Death came calling, saying to the dreadful specter, “I refuse to go.”

All have gone. All will go. And God affirms this. The wage for Sin is death (Romans 6:23a).

And yet, there’s something else I know about the future. It’s an awareness fed by a divine wellspring of hope born from the Holy Spirit through the Word of the Gospel. I know that Death doesn’t have the last word for believers in Christ.

“…but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b).

Through faith in Jesus Christ, eternal life is the final decree echoing well beyond Death’s ten-thousand doors and into an everlasting future.

It was François Rabelais (a 15th century French monk who was, unfortunately, overly influenced by humanism) who said with uncertainty at his Death something like, “I am going to the great perhaps.”

These words were spoken by a man who traded the truth of Mankind’s absolute depravity, as well as the certainty of an all-surpassing salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, for the deficient belief that, perhaps, mankind had a chance by his own merits, or perhaps through philosophy and science, we might gain better certainty of our eternal future.

Oh, the uncertainty of the great “perhaps”! Oh, the terror of doubt at the hour of Death!

But there’s no need for such uncertainty. Christians have certainty. The Gospel Word of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for our salvation is the beacon of eternal hope, and Christians lean into the headwinds of the future with it well in hand. Its luminescence is fed by the Word of God and His holy Sacraments—the verbal and visible means of grace Christ has established and then mandated for His Church to gather and distribute. The Lord warns that without the oil of these means continually being poured into the lamps of our hearts, the daily readiness of our hope in Him will be extinguished. No question. If the flame of faith isn’t being fed by this fuel, it cannot burn with the torch-like strength necessary for withstanding the squalls of this attacking world (Matthew 25:1-13).

No wonder our God commands for us to go to church (Hebrews 10:19-31). No wonder we hear our Lord say over and over again to so many just how important it is to hear the Word of God and keep it (Luke 11:28). And by the way, by keeping His Word, He doesn’t mean in the shallow sense of simply knowing and obeying it, as is often preached by so many. The word in the Greek is phylassontes (φυλάσσοντες). It means to fulfill one’s orders as a guard—to protect and defend a most precious possession, and to make sure no one can steal it away, being ready to raise a sword and shield against anyone or anything trying to steal it away. The harder truth in this is that sometimes the “anyone” is us and the “anything” is fishing.

Pondering all of this as I tap away at the keyboard this morning, I suppose there’s one more thing I know about the future.

What we do now will shape our practices later. Without absolute connections to Word and Sacrament ministry, people will drift away. It’s the nature of Man, and there’s plenty of data external to the Word of God to prove this. In the midst of a time when the sources for Word and Sacrament seem to be far more limited—a time that could feel a little like a spiritual drought—don’t let go of God’s Word. Get it from faithful sources where and when you can. If you can go to church, do it. If you’re concerned about being in public spaces during this time, stay home. Either way, commit to regular devotions, to watching your church’s services that are shared online, to hearing the Word of God and keeping it.

Let fishing be what you do after your most valuable possession has been secured and the oil in your lamp has been replenished.