Death Has No Dominion

Well, in no small number of communities across the country, the new school year begins tomorrow. For many, it will be one more moment requiring a special measure of courage.

I say this because more so than ever before, it sure seems like the planet upon which we are treading is wobbling on its axis. Nothing seems steady. Everything feels shaky and uncertain. For some—myself included—going out into the world to do very basic things often translates into weighing the risk of actually living life versus guarding every flank in terror, of finding a semblance of normal when everyone and everything around you is spiraling into abnormality.

It’s a weird way to exist. It’s scary. And it’s hard.

Speaking of the first day of school, I can only imagine the emotional storms churning in the hearts of the young mothers and fathers sending a child off to preschool. Their picturesque dreams of bright-smiling teachers giving hugs amid busy hallways filled with colorfully miniscule backpacks owned by future classmates—all of this has been replaced by the grim sterility of masked teachers with muffled voices, dystopian-like classrooms with desks claustrophobically encased in Plexiglass, friendships awkwardly unexplored due to social distancing, and so many other psychologically damaging things being employed for the sake of “safety.”

We’re not doing any of these things at Our Savior, but I’ll bet for those who must endure it in other schools, it’ll be very scary. To regularly overcome the disquiet of it all, families will need a unique form of determination and a lot of extra love during the after-school hours at home.

Speaking of scary… My wife and children know that the list of things that actually scare me is pretty short. I’m not being vain. I’ve just discovered over the years that I’m not bothered by the things that might normally scare someone else. All of my kids have tried to catch me with jump-scares, but they rarely find success. My sons say my fear gland doesn’t work properly. Maybe they’re right. Some other things… I’m not fearful of public speaking, never have been. I don’t enjoy conflict, but I’m not unwilling to engage in it. I’m not necessarily afraid of people disliking me. I guess I learned to put that fear to rest years ago. I’m not scared by horror movies. I mean, among the various life-sized mannequins in my basement, one of them is the spitting image of Michael Myers.

And since I’m tipping my hat to Halloween, haunted house attractions have always been pretty disappointing for me. I’m just not scared of eerie situations or places. I’ve seen those memes online asking if, for a million dollars, I’d be willing to spend a night alone in a place like a cemetery, an abandoned insane asylum, or a spooky house, and I think, “I’d do it for the cost of a mortgage payment. Heck, I’d do it for lunch money.” My son, Josh, asked me once during family dinner if I’d ever performed an exorcism. I told him I had. Believe me or doubt me, I’ve ministered to more than one family over the years whose home was being visited by something otherworldly. Like many pastors, I have my share of stories regarding the tangible efforts of the darkly principalities at work among this world’s people and spaces.

“Were you afraid?”

“Not really,” I said. “The devil and his pals are punks. They’re tough, but they’re nothing I need to be worried about. I have Christ, and I know they’re plenty afraid of Him.”

Of course I’m sure to remind my kids that the devil is no one to toy with. He isn’t a fairytale villain. On the contrary, I’d say he’s the only real explanation for the most horrible things that have ever happened in our world—the current societal destruction emerging from Covid-19 being one of his masterful achievements. If you ever get a chance, listen to the song “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones. I’m not a huge Stones fan, but I do like that song. It offers an honest musical snapshot of the devil’s gripping influence on this world, showing how when partnered with mankind’s Sin-nature, he can do some pretty horrible and world-altering things.

But as I was saying before, the list of things that actually unnerve me is fairly short. Although, don’t let the length of the list fool you, because each item on it can more than keep me awake at night.

For example, one of my biggest fears is losing my wife and children to tragedy. I actually have regularly-occurring dreams about one or more of my kids falling into the polar bear exhibit at a zoo—or something of that sort—and being unable to rescue them in time. The expressions of fear on their faces still stings long after I’ve awakened. I know I said before that I’m not necessarily afraid of conflict, however, as a supervising administrator, I’m hesitant to express disappointment with fellow staff. I’ll do it if I really have to, but it’s also really hard. This is true because the space between “pastor” and “supervisor” is unlike any other terrain to be navigated, and in the past—at least for me—no matter how lovingly careful I’ve attempted to be, those moments have morphed into some of the most devilishly divisive encounters I’ve ever known. In our postmodern world, it seems like the default action in these occurrences has been to be offended, draw lines and form factions, and ultimately take one’s marbles and go elsewhere.

Those experiences left some pretty deep scars.

Oh, and I don’t like sharks. I have my reasons.

So, where am I going with all of this?

Well, I started off talking about the general need for courage when it comes to navigating this life. Free-thinking on this, I suppose I was aimed in this direction because as we stand at the edge of a strange new period, we need to be honest about what we’re facing as a church—as Christians. We don’t necessarily need a retelling of the terrors lurking along the way. Each of us has met them in one way or another and can write his or her own list. But we do need to be honest about what scares us. And now more than ever, we need to know the necessity of courage.

I’d say Shakespeare was right when he said that courage mounts with occasion. We don’t need to wonder if there will be ample opportunities for testing our nerves. With each occasion, we’ll need to understand our responses, carefully discerning between courage and irrational action. We’ll need to readily understand that being courageous doesn’t mean being completely fearless. We’ll find ourselves afraid in the same way a white-flag coward might be afraid, but the difference will be that our fear will have been thoughtfully subdued and will most likely be rewarded with far different results. We won’t be immobilized from doing what’s faithful even when self-preservation is an available option. We’ll act knowing that courage, like character, is something we’ll employ even when no one else knows we’re doing so.

Where will we get such courage? I mentioned the answer above in the passing conversation with my son, Joshua.

Christ is the answer.

Fear thinks twice before messing with Christ. Don’t believe me? Read Psalm 27. Still don’t believe me? Read 1 John 4:8. Now skip ahead to verse 18 in the same chapter. Fear has no room to stand beside Christ, the One who is God in the flesh, who is perfect love, who was moved to save us.

I think it was the Bishop and President of our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison) who said that Christian courage is just fear that has been baptized. Man, is he ever right. Having been baptized into Christ, having been set apart from the kingdom of this world, having been made a member of the Lord’s family, a Christian meets each and every day equipped to live with an otherworldly readiness to die. Baptism pins us to such courage. Maybe you recall Paul’s words in Romans 6:3-11:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

There’s a lot that can be mined from the above text, but no matter which direction you go, it’ll likely hinge on the fact that Death has no dominion over believers just as it has no dominion over Christ. Without the sway of Death’s dominion at play in each of life’s terrifying occurrences, fear steps out of Christian courage’s way. It has to. I mean, when you really think about it, Death is the definitive power—the ultimate endpoint—for anything that might cause us to fear.

Why would we be afraid in a haunted house? The fear of being killed. Why would we be afraid on a roller coaster? Probably the same. Why would we be afraid of public speaking? The fear of looking a fool in a way that remains with us forever, only to be muted by Death. I’m pretty sure Saint Paul actually affirmed all of this in 1 Corinthians 15:26 when he said that the last enemy to be destroyed is Death.

But now that Death has indeed been destroyed, all who put their faith in Christ and His redeeming work receive the merits of this victory. For starters, Christians have access to a courage that can push fear aside so that we can actually live, knowing that even if/when Death makes an appearance, it won’t be the end of us because it has no dominion over us. It’ll be just another moment on the timeline, albeit an exceptional moment that carries us from the confines of time into the timelessness of eternity with our Lord.

There’s no fear to be had in that.

Once again, knowing this, we don’t have to be afraid of being and doing as God’s people in this mixed up world. By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, we know and believe that our Lord has faced off with the root cause of all things terrifying—and He won!

And so, please allow for this random bit of theologizing the day before the first day of school—or whatever “first” you may be facing these days—to be an encouragement to you. Stay the course. Trust your Lord. He’s got you. He’s got your family, too. All our fears have been steadily handled, and Death has been defeated.

The Beginning and End of Christian Love

What daily devotional materials do you use? I read from Luther every morning.

Of course, reading from Luther’s writings isn’t just an opportunity to sit at the feet of brilliance, but rather it is to be carried out into the deep water of the Bible. It’s like boarding a vessel commanded by an esteemed captain who wants to help you to truly meet with the open sea—to meet its serene breezes; to steer into its tempestuous waves.

What I read this morning was truly remarkable. I wasn’t looking for what I discovered. In fact, I get the feeling it came looking for and discovered me. It certainly is more than appropriate for sharing, considering the current climate.

“People speak of two kinds of humility: one which we are said to owe when doctrine and faith are concerned, the other when love toward our neighbor is concerned. But may God never grant me humility when the articles of faith are concerned. For then no action is called for which is a yielding for the sake of love, for the sake of peace and unity, for the sake of keeping the church from being ruined, or for the love of the imperial majesty. The fanatics and sectarians are complaining about us as though no humility and love were found among us. But we reply: First abolish the Word, doctrine, and faith? For in these matters we will not budge a handbreadth though heaven and earth were to fall because of our firmness. For the Word does not belong to me; neither do Baptism and the Lord’s Supper belong to me. God has reserved these for Himself and has said, ‘You are to teach in this way!’ I cannot pass this injunction by. Therefore your will must yield. But when we speak like this, they say that we are proud people. In reality, however, this is true humility. God has commanded us to take this attitude. We are to connive at no omissions from His Word… By the grace of God we would be glad to lie at the feet of everybody if only the Word of God remained pure and people did not interfere in God’s affairs.” (W 49, 81.)

Did you get all that? If not, take a moment to scan it again, because it’s important.

Essentially, Luther sets faithfulness to the Word of God right beside love for the neighbor, and he does so within the context of humility. Then he takes out a hammer and smashes the idea that loving the neighbor could ever be interpreted as humble service if it includes sacrificing faithfulness to what God has mandated.

“…though heaven and earth were to fall because of our firmness.”

That phrase is important. Luther isn’t speaking figuratively. He’s being literal. Even if being faithful to God’s mandates means that the earth and sky would become completely uninhabitable, still, we obey. We do it and we trust. And why? Because neither the mandate nor what the mandate delivers belong to us. They belong to God. He’ll handle the details of their efficacy. He simply calls for us to be faithful. With this, we simply do them. We maintain them among us and follow along with them as recipients of what God is actively working.

“The fanatics and sectarians are complaining about us as though no humility and love were found among us.”

That phrase is important, too. By it, Luther identifies the true villains. First, the phrase makes plain that the fanatics and sectarians believe a church that holds to sound doctrine does so at the expense of love for the neighbor. As it might meet us this very moment, a church desiring to maintain the mandates of Christ and preserve in-person Word and Sacrament ministry during a pandemic—real or imagined—would be villainous. But Luther implies that such a church is not the villain. The fanatics and the sectarians are.

I don’t have time to give a lengthy dissertation here, but in short, Luther uses the term “fanatic” to mean someone who has strayed from a right understanding of God’s Word regarding the verbal and visible Gospel—the Word and the Sacraments. A fanatic no longer grasps Christ’s real presence and work in and through them. A fanatic has confused their source, nature, significance, and substance. Naturally, having lost sight of these things, a fanatic can neither appreciate nor practice them rightly. More than likely, a fanatic would have missed the value in the following words we sang during the Lord’s Supper yesterday:

By Your love I am invited,
Be Your love with love requited;
By this Supper let me measure,
Lord, how vast and deep love’s treasure. (“Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness” LSB 636, st. 8.)

When Luther uses the term “sectarian,” he’s taking aim at the next step in fanatical evolution: Protestantism’s teachings that the holy things of God are little more than symbols, things that man initiates, and because of this, are negligible and can be easily jettisoned at any moment or because of any circumstance, all without the fear of a seared conscience.

Fanatics and sectarians would likely argue during a time such as ours that a church and her Christians who insist on gathering together to preach, teach, pray, sing, kneel in confession, administer Baptism, and serve the Lord’s Supper are being careless and not truly loving one’s neighbor. They would likely urge the Church away from in-person worship. They would urge that she not perform baptisms. They would urge that she refrain from administering the Lord’s Supper. They would do these things, all under the banner of genuine love for the neighbor.

Once again, Luther urged, “I cannot pass this injunction by. Therefore your will must yield.”

He’s right. The fanatics and sectarians must yield, and the Church must continue on in faithfulness to the Lord’s mandates no matter how the world around her might spin a description of her actions. The Church must continue to gather for Word and Sacrament ministry. We must continue to be together. We must continue to baptize and receive the Lord’s Supper, which is only possible by way of in-person worship.

Again, some might insist, “But you’re not loving your neighbor and you’re putting people at risk!”

No, we’re not. We’re being faithful to God. Loving one’s neighbor will always have its beginning and end in being faithful to God first. Faithfulness to God is, by default, the only real way that showing love to the neighbor is possible.

Still, let’s think a little deeper on this concern.

In many cases, what this love for the neighbor actually looks like must be weighed very carefully. Sometimes that’s not so easy. Right now it sure seems like a lot of Christians have settled for the premise that to love one’s neighbor means being licensed to impose one’s subjective opinion on another, ultimately using the “love your neighbor” doctrine as a club to bludgeon them until they give you what you want. I heard this described in our Elders meeting this past Saturday as “spiritual blackmail,” and it was framed according to the all-to-familiar practice in churches of threatening absence and the withholding of giving unless certain demands are met. Personally, I think the term “spiritual extortion” is more fitting. But whichever term you use, both communicate dangerous expressions of self-righteousness born from self-love. In the end, this is about as far from loving the neighbor as it gets. Luther gave a nod to this in a piece I read last Friday:

“No one wants to be regarded as hating and envying his neighbor; and everyone, by words and gestures, can appear friendly—yes, as long as you are good to him and do what he likes. But when your love for him lessens a bit, or he by chance is angered with a word, then he is entirely through with you. Then he complains and rages about the great injustice done to him, pretends that he needs not put up with it, and praises and exalts the loyalty and love he showed toward his fellow man, how he would gladly have given him his very heart and is now so badly repaid that the devil may hereafter serve such people. This is the love of the world.” (W 21, 415 ff.)

Personally, I think a lot of this can be applied to the current debate regarding masks. It seems it’s not so much about the benefits of wearing or not wearing a mask, but rather how ready people are to mistreat others who don’t agree with their preference, all the while using the “love thy neighbor” doctrine to legitimize their behavior. The snag in all this, however, is that while some believe they’re being a good neighbor by wearing a mask, plenty of others truly believe they’re being a good neighbor by not wearing one. Both have their reasons. Both believe their positions to be arguable from science, even as both might accuse the other of believing flawed science. Naturally, both also have plenty of doctors—people far smarter than any of us—waiting in the wings and ready to support their individual positions. But none of these details changes the fact that they both believe deeply they are showing the better form of love for the neighbor by the position they’ve taken.

So, then, now what?

Well, now it would seem that loving one’s neighbor means stopping right there and actually doing what the “love thy neighbor” doctrine insists—which is that we become flexible to the other person’s concerns and we give them room. It means respecting their apprehensions and allowing space for our neighbor’s liberty to wear or not wear a mask, whether or not we appreciate his reasons. Christian love certainly isn’t found in shaming your neighbor, or bemoaning him as being unloving while you, the obviously better Christian, are most certainly proving a truer form of concern for the neighbor by your better practice.

That’s pretty pompous, wouldn’t you say?

How about this: You do what you think is reasonably best. I’ll do what I think is reasonably best. And let’s both agree that neither of our positions is giving room to some sort of false doctrine that jeopardizes the other person’s eternity. Let’s just leave it at that. That’s loving the neighbor. Any militancy beyond that crosses the line and ceases to be genuine Christian love.

Barely tangential, if there’s concern about the hygiene practices employed by a church in their holy spaces, I should add that it’s likely they’re more capable of using their reason, sense, and resources to love their neighbors far better than the other communal locales into which so many are willing to enter; places like Walmart, where I’ve run into so many of you shopping, picking up this and that item that had been touched by numbers of people before you, not once having been wiped clean by an employee. And don’t forget about the cashier behind the Plexiglass shield who just handled every single item in your cart, all of which will end up in your car and eventually in your home.

“But the Governor has mandated that no more than ten people assemble in indoor gatherings! You’re disobeying the Government and breaking the Romans 13 mandate!”

No, we’re not. First of all, it’s not the Government’s job to interfere in God’s affairs. When it does, it defaults on its ordination and is not to be obeyed. Period. Second, obedience to the Fourth Commandment is never accomplished at the expense of the First and Third Commandments. In all things, the Church must obey God rather than men.

“Well, God knows the dangers of the pandemic, and He knows we mean well. We’re doing all of this to His glory and for the good of our neighbor.”

That’s interesting. Let me share another bit of Luther’s wisdom I happened upon last Thursday. Again, I think this stuff came looking for me.

“For here you think, ‘I am doing this for the glory of God; I intend it for the true God; I want to serve only God. All idolaters say and intend just that. Intentions or thoughts do not count. If they did, those who martyred the Apostles and the Christians would also have been God’s servants; for they, too, thought they were rendering God a service as Christ says in John 16:2…’” (E 63, 48 f.)

And so we go forward here at Our Savior in Hartland, aligning our thoughts and intentions in all things to the holy will of God, praying as we did yesterday in the Collect for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity:

“Let Your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of Your humble servants; and that they may obtain their petitions, make them to ask such things as shall please You; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”

We pray this way in order to show love to our neighbor as it would be pleasing to God, and we do it only as we have first let our fears be comforted and our faith be strengthened by the Gospel delivered through the Word and Sacrament ministry of Christ.

Have You Ever Dreamt of Falling? I Haven’t.

For the record, I made a commitment to myself three weeks ago that I was going to shorten these Monday morning eNewsletter messages. I believe my first attempt two weeks ago was reasonably successful. However, last week’s note… well… I couldn’t stop writing, even though I started the whole thing by saying I didn’t really feel like I had anything to write about.

However, midway through that confession, I paused, and suddenly the empty space was filled with notable experiences, things God is so gracious to allow into all our lives. In my particular case, that grace is something I want to observe, digest, and then share with you. Whether it’s the casual comment in passing at the Red Lobster in Troy I mentioned last week, or an open field of freshly harvested grain I stopped to enjoy last Tuesday while out on visitations—a field, by the way, I was more than tempted to wander out into and toward its encapsulating tree line because… well, just because.

If you can attune yourself to what’s going on around you, it becomes possible for the most inconspicuous of details to become a thing of fascination. Even better, when you become adjusted to the world around you by way of God’s Word, seeing these things as God would see them, the deeper meanings arrive, and with that, there’s plenty to write about.

This means everything to a sermon writer. It’s also a big deal to a pastor who’s intent on sending out a note to the people of his congregation every single week of the year.

And so, since I promised to keep this short, I’ll give you a passing example.

Have you ever dreamt of falling? I haven’t. Not ever. That is until this past Wednesday.

First of all, I’m a firm believer that what happens to you during the waking hours will remain with you during the somnolent ones. Tuesday night I went to bed around 10:30 PM, which was exactly thirty-eight minutes after I’d returned home from one of the longest School Board meetings I’ve ever attended here at Our Savior. We started the meeting at 6:15 PM.

The meeting was long because there was much work to be done. We’re intent on resuming in-person instruction in our school on August 24, and yet no matter what we decide to do, the Governor is requiring all public and non-public schools to submit a plan that proves alignment with her executive mandates. The problem is that we’re not necessarily in alignment with many of her mandates as they relate to the best methods for educating children, and so we had to steer through the mess in order to remain who we are as a Christian school while at the same time doing what we can to abide without contention.

It wasn’t easy. At times, it felt a little hopeless. That night I dreamt of falling, and it’s easy enough to see why.

In the dream, before I hit the ground, I remember seeing a gravel-like ground forming beneath my feet. The gravel was the kind you might find on the side of a country highway beside a freshly harvested field—wink wink. Falling fast, the closer I got to the earth below, the more the ground spread out around me, eventually becoming so wide that I had the feeling its wind resistance was helping to slow my descent to the pace of something along the lines of an unhurried elevator. I remember thinking that while I needed to be ready for the impact, when it came, I could probably survive it. In fact, I recall thinking that if I took a running jump from the plateau when it hit the earth below, the impact might be less like a jarring collision and more like dismounting a moving sidewalk at the airport—and we all know how fun that can be.

Again, I think what happens while a person is awake sometimes makes an appearance while he or she is sleeping. I repeat this claim because earlier that day while eating lunch and tapping away at the sermon for Sunday, I’d also been reading a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge entitled “Dejection: An Ode.” Yes, yes, I do study the appointed texts in preparation for preaching. Don’t worry about that. But I’m also someone who reads from other sources, one of which is poetry. Not the newer stuff, but the classics. I appreciate great poetry more than folks might know. In fact, I think more pastors should consider spending time in the classics in general. I suggest giving poetry a try because it doesn’t necessarily play by the regular rules of communication, and what I’ve discovered is that not only will it help to expand a person’s vocabulary, but it’ll serve up fresh ways to use themes, imagery, and devices of emphasis for better communication of the Word of God. Such efforts pay dividends with a listener’s attention span.

Anyway, as I was reading Coleridge’s words, when I came across the following stanza, it fascinated me enough that I scribbled it onto a sticky note and slapped it on my bookshelf beside other quotations I don’t want to forget:

“For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.” (st. 6)

These words are not precisely from the Bible, but they certainly are a reflection of God’s Word (Colossians 1:27; Jeremiah 29:11; Hebrews 10:23; Philippians 1:6; Romans 5:5; and so many more). They are a beautiful bit of prose from the son of a pastor—and a notable theologian, himself—who knew the power of hope. More importantly, he knew that the hope we experience isn’t anything we can produce, but rather is something God gives us by the Gospel. And we stand on it in the midst of struggle.

Whether or not that’s what Coleridge actually meant for the casual reader to glean from that stanza, I can’t say for sure. Still, his seemingly effortless scribing of “not my own, seemed mine” was deeply impactful.

I think those words were somehow activated while I was sleeping, and they played a part in producing a landscape that reminded me of God’s gracious attention in all things—how He has me in his care at the edge of and over every cliff. In fact, He has me in His care all the way down, and He promises to grant me a safe landing in His merciful love, no matter how catastrophically crater-like the actual landing in this life may be. Even better, He gives to me the vigor for running forth from the platform of hope spreading out beneath me, confident of His protective care, and ready for meeting with a world in desperate need of the same hope.

Or this could all just be a result of the taco I ate before the School Board meeting.

Well, whatever. As I hinted to before (and have said countless times in the past), through the lens of faith fixed on God’s Word, a Christian sees things differently. I certainly prefer to observe things this way, and then as the words come, to share them with you. Hopefully, this particular opportunity was as valuable for you as it was for me, and God willing, it didn’t take up too much of your time.

Light and Darkness, Certainty and Uncertainty, Courage and Fear

Technically, the sun rose this morning at 6:04 AM. I watched it from my kitchen window. It was stunning.

Before the moment had fully developed, the world beyond my window pane was a cool and shapeless dark with very little definition. I could barely make the mist twirling up from the Shiawassee River. Although, peering straight into the darkness, after a while, my eyes were more than capable of deceit, maybe even taking hold of imagination’s hand as she beckoned toward some impossible things.

I mean, I’m pretty sure I saw a pack of velociraptors crossing from one shore of the river to the other, pausing at the water’s edge before rushing into the thicket. Or maybe it was a herd of deer.

Eventually the tree line defining the horizon (which in the first few minutes of the sun’s visibility was edged with an extraordinary copper luminescence) couldn’t seem to stop the sunlight from revealing every single detail of the world behind my home. Minutes before I could only see what I thought I could see. In the light, I could see everything for what it was.

Oh, the in-between murmurs of the sun and its rising in summer! It comes and goes, rising and setting and rising again, ever reminding its onlookers of deeper, more glorious things—always bearing a much grander intuition than we’re often willing to confess.

An intriguing characteristic of light is that when its beams break through, the terrors—both real and imagined—scatter. The very real roaches run for the baseboard crevices. The same goes for the imagined velociraptors. They, too, scramble back to the shadows. I’m sure you know what I mean. You need only to think back to your younger days and recall the fear that came with fetching something from the darkened basement—or whichever unlit space was most fearful in your home. Everything and anything with hooked claws, piercing fangs, and a leathery hide was waiting to snatch you before you could get to the light switch. Perhaps the heaviest dread in those moments came somewhere between the bottom and top steps after the item’s retrieval. In the seconds after turning off the light, with the darkness at your back, whatever unseen beasties were previously restrained by its beams were now almost certainly scurrying from their hiding places to catch you before you could leap through the door at the top.

We all know the dread that comes with darkness. We all know the comfort of the light.

There’s a broader interpretation to be had from such scenes of light and darkness, certainty and uncertainty, courage and fear. Opening the door of my home this morning and stepping out into the current state of darkly affairs in our world, I’m reminded of this, and as such, I continually retell myself two things in particular.

The first is that things won’t be as they are forever. This world had a beginning. Because of Sin, it will have an end, too. No matter the invented truths of today, the Lord promises that at the Last Day, the divine light of truth will eventually break through with its fullest brightness at the appearing of Christ in glory (Titus 2:13, Revelation 1:7-8, Malachi 4:2). In that ensuing moment, nothing will be obscure. Everyone will see things as they truly are. Every system of belief, every controversy, every philosophy will be revealed by and measured against the only standard of judgment that ever mattered in this life: the truth of God’s Word.

This thought reminds me that the imagined velociraptor-like sense that truth appears so often to be losing ground to untruth will be proven infinitesimally short-lived soon enough. Regardless of the truths being cast aside in our world—that a man is not a woman and a woman is not a man; that killing an unborn child is murder; that all lives, no matter the skin color, have value; that murderous rioting beneath a banner of virtue is the devil’s business—while these truths may be hidden from so many right now, eventually the lights will come on. The sun will rise and we’ll see the landscape clearly. It’ll be a moment experienced by the whole world, and all will acknowledge it on their knees, either in humble gladness, or in terror (Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10-11).

It’ll be a moment in which all accounts are settled.

In relation to this, the second thing I do my best to keep in mind is that temporal worry is just plain foolishness. In Matthew 6:25-34, Christ explains the futility of worry and the better exchange found in faith. Christ is always the better bet, and so He teaches trust in Him as powerful against worry. Trust severs worry’s fuel line, which is fear. When fear is starved, it does what every malnourished thing eventually does—it dies. Personally, going forth from fear’s funeral, I can live in confidence through each and every day leading toward the final judgment knowing by faith that Christ has settled my account for me. By the power of the Holy Spirit at work through this Gospel, He is establishing in me the desire to seek and abide in His truth in all situations. In other words, my opinions take a back seat to His opinions.

Looking to the days ahead, if we establish our footing on anything other than the truth of God’s Word, we are doomed. And certainly, if there’s anything to be learned from the last few months it’s that no human word or deed can assure us of what’s next, let alone what’s true. Not an executive order, a doctor’s opinion, a social media post, or news report.

There’s lots of uncertainty at the bottom of the basement steps. But through faith in Christ, we can know to reach for the light switch of God’s Word. It’s there we learn that no matter how dark the days may become, “nothing in all creation is hidden from His sight” (Hebrews 4:13). He is well aware, and by no means has He lost control.

As the cities continue to burn, as de-educated punks continue to topple monuments, while self-righteous thugs deliberately trample others because of skin color, continue to let your legs carry you to the place where your finger can flip the switch. Be found in the bright beaming light of the truth which affirms, “‘Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’” (Jeremiah 23:24).

Rest assured He sees it all. He sees and knows you, too. He also knows what’s happening around you. Trust Him. Follow Him. Labor in these dark days by the strength He provides, being assured by the light of His Gospel truth that as you make your way through this seemingly unhinged world of ungodly wokeness, “your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Don’t Be Surprised

How can any of us not be moved to exclaim with concern, “What a world we’re living in right now!”?

Pandemics. Failing economies. Skyrocketing unemployment. Brutality. Death. Divisions. Riots.

America’s list is rather long these days.

Like me, I’m sure many of you are consuming your fair share of articles offering a wide array of perspectives on all of this. My friend shared an interesting one with me this past week. In it, Harvard Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker, was noted as suggesting that the ones leveling the most pressure on the governors to loosen the grip of the lock downs are the Christians, namely, those Pinker refers to as being afflicted by the “malignant delusion” of belief in the afterlife. In his opinion, it’s the Christians who are proving themselves to be the enemies of life and are putting their neighbors at risk. In contrast, he believes atheists—people unwilling to trust in the possibility of an afterlife—are the ones showing the truest concern for society’s health and safety. Unsurprisingly, they’re a significant portion of the voices pressing most fervently for masks, social distancing, stricter government mandates, and longer quarantines.

I read another article (well, more like a blog post) last night that connected a few more of these dots. Written by a supporter of the lock downs, the post inferred rather disingenuously that everyone is obligated to support the rioting protests no matter how violent they become. I use the word “disingenuously” because the protesters are by no means quarantining, obeying government mandates, practicing social distancing, or wearing proper masks while they burn buildings and empty the local Target store of its wine and fat fryers. The irony is thick. But it’s overlooked and given room to breathe. Why? Well, because in the blog writer’s mind, the violence is justified, being the proper reward for thousands of years of oppression fostered by Judeo-Christianity. In other words, he blamed the riots on Christians.

Both of these are interesting perspectives. Ignorant, but interesting. And certainly you, the reader, will take from them whatever you want. I’ve learned that much along the way of sharing things like these.

For those of us who follow the historic lectionary in worship, we’ve heard a lot lately about how the world is in vigorous opposition to Christ and His Church. Sunday after Sunday for several weeks of the Easter season, the Lord has reminded us from John 14 and 15—sometimes subtly, and other times directly—that the world (the collective of sinful humanity in opposition to God) is waging open war against God’s people.

Simply put, Jesus kept reminding us that the world hates us. But He said this is only true because it hates him most of all (John 15:18-25).

At one point along the way, the Lord unpacks this hatred by reminding Christians they are distinct from the world and the world knows it. It’s not because of anything inherent to any of us, but rather because by the work of the Holy Spirit for faith (whom the Lord speaks about over and over again throughout John’s Gospel), God has claimed us as His own.

“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:19).

For as frightening as this particular verse might be, it certainly does help make sense of the seemingly imbalanced nonsense Christians face day in and day out. We can understand why Professor Pinker would believe as he believes, while at the same time being one to justify keeping the local Walmart open during the lock down—a place where thousands upon thousands of people visit in a single day, touching this and that item before putting it back on the shelf undecided, and not one single employee in sight to sanitize any of it. Scientifically speaking, Walmart is a bio-hazardous mess. But Pinker, and others in the blogosphere, can turn blind eyes to such things and be found supporting both violence as well as a Governor’s threatening of churches with fines if they hold in-person worship services, even as the church-goers practice social distancing within an immaculate worship space that has had every square inch scrubbed and sanitized multiple times every day of the week, and doubly so over the course of the few hours when the congregants actually meet.

One might be tempted to think that the only real way forward for Christians is to step into a silent stride beside the world, to blend in, to do what it tells you, to keep one’s head down, and maybe even try to keep one’s faith a secret in order to abide. But I see two problems with this.

The first is that the world can smell a Christian a mile away. Clandestine or on the sleeve, a Christian’s devotion to Christ will eventually be discovered. The fruits of faith are hard to hide, and the more the world demands submission to its gods and compliance with its rites and ceremonies, the harder it will be for the Christian to continue in the lemming-like stride of ambivalence. Eventually the Christian will be found at the edge of a cliff, and in that moment, the Christian will be aware of the Lord’s words to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). But the world will be whispering there, too. It will hiss an undercurrent of doubt, asking, “You don’t really believe all that stuff, do you?”

It’s there the distinction is revealed and the Christian is forced to show his or herself as being in or out of step with the world.

If you haven’t experienced moments like this yet, trust me, you will.

I suppose the second problem I have with this is that as Jesus was speaking the words I referenced from John 15:19, in His divine omniscience, He was already mindful of what He preached in Matthew 5:13-16 where He called His believers salt and light. Salt is hard to ignore. Sprinkle a little onto a bite and give it a taste. You’ll know it’s there. Light is equally noticeable in comparison to darkness. Have a group of people close their eyes, then turn off the lights and light a candle. When they open their eyes, I guarantee they’ll be drawn to the candle’s flickering flame long before noticing anything else in the room.

Christians stand out. There’s really no way around it. And from the Lord’s perspective, this is a good thing. It means He has established us as both servants and leaders in a world filled with death and destruction. We are those who add humble, but steadfast, flavor while at the same time being those who lead with the bright beaming light of truth—namely, the Gospel. Perhaps even better, we are fortified for both of these roles by God’s Word, which means we have the source for knowing both how and why we are salt and light.

The whole of our identity is located in Christ who has redeemed us, reclaimed us, recalibrated us, and re-established us as His people in the world.

But once again, the Lord is careful to instruct us that the first test of this identity is to endure the hatred of a world that would much rather be rid of us. It’s almost Biblical the way Shakespeare wrote: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (Henry IV, Part II). This is true. The crown of righteousness borne by the Christian, while it is a joy for eternal life, it can seem heavy in this mortal life. Still, Christians are given minds to understand the weight of the crown, seeing it for what it is—a baptismal mark that not only designates the bearer as one purchased and won by the Redeemer and an inheritor of the world to come, but as one who has been led into the duty of being a dealer in hope—real hope.

Yes, situations requiring the hope we bring can be sketchy. Carrying the message of Christ crucified into any setting can be risky. But again, Christians have been given the task of doing it, and it is accomplished, for the most part, by just being who we are in Jesus Christ—servants and leaders, salt and light—no matter the flatland, valley, hill, or cliff.

Personally, I think all of this begs deep reflection right now.

And by the way, Jesus has been very clear along the way to say that any ability for reflecting on any of this (discerning the knowing, being, and doing) will be discovered only as we are connected to His Word (John 14:23-31, John 15:1-8). Disregard the Word—both verbal and visible—and your trip over the cliff is all but certain.

In conclusion, I suppose that’s my simplest prayer for you this morning is that you would remain fixed in the Word of God in all things, and there, knowing and understanding the world’s hatred for you, still you’d be found courageous. I pray for your readiness in season and out of season to be salt and light, fully prepared at the edge of each cliff to step out of stride with this world, if necessary, and “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

The New Normal

I hope all is well with you and your family. I continue to pray for you daily, trusting that the Lord knows your struggles, and even before any particular challenge may begin, He’s already at work using it for the good of your salvation (Romans 8:28).

It’s important to say and repeat this. We need the comfort of knowing that God is not our enemy, even if sometimes it seems as though He is. We need to be reminded that when we don’t know what’s going on, we can go to what we do know: The Gospel. We are not at war with God. He loves us. In fact, He proved it. Even in our most vile state of hatred toward Him, He was moved to give Jesus into death for us (Romans 5:1-8).

While the more typical struggles continue to abound, it would seem that in so many homes across our state and nation a good number of rarer struggles are taking root. As a pastor, someone laboring in the middle of this particular aspect of it all, I can assure you that for every gilded remark about how the quarantine was essential for our own safety, or that it was good in the sense that it forced families to reconnect, there are plenty of households experiencing the very real and exponential increase in anxiety, depression, marital discord, and violence. Where I knew of two divorces in progress, now I know of ten. Domestic abuse has skyrocketed. People I know to be very strong have crumpled emotionally in my presence. I came across an article last Saturday in National Review noting an unprecedented spike in suicides during the lockdown. One particular doctor reported one full year’s worth of attempts in four weeks’ time.

Again, I’m praying for you and your family. I hope you’re praying for me and mine, too.

But as we extend this care to one another, be mindful that the ones we so often consider to be the most resilient among us—the children—they’re being hit the hardest. They’re experiencing one of the most abrupt and life-altering events in American history, and for the most part, the only advice anyone has to share is that we must do our best to help them adjust to “the new normal.” A trip through the CDC guidelines for the reopening of schools will chill your spine when you see what the new normal might look like for a public school preschooler—a desk surrounded in plexiglass; directional arrows on the floor; gloves and masks; a six-foot expanse between friends at lunch, on the playground, and on the bus. I imagine the school supply lists this coming fall will be unlike anything any of us have ever seen.

At first, I wasn’t too sure how I felt about the usage of the phrase “the new normal.” But now I do. It seems sneaky. On the surface, it seems to be a relatively innocuous term folks are using to ease others into a level of comfortability with abnormality. But digging a little deeper into this thought as I tap away here at the keyboard this morning, I’m not convinced it’s as innocent a term as its well-intentioned users might think.

Again, for the most part, it’s a phrase that sounds like a gentle coaxing toward a crucial realization, but in reality, its heart is much colder than that. When you hear it, you are meant to know you have no other choice in the matter. You’re meant to understand that if you want to live and survive in the land of the new normal, you must comply. You’re meant to know that there’s no going back to the way things were before. Things are what they are, and this is the ordinary of “now”—the new normal.

I’m pretty good at remembering the first time I heard certain things. Seriously. I remember the first time I heard the word “innovative” as a kid. I liked the way it sounded—crisp and intelligent—and used it probably more than I should have. I remember first hearing the phrase “the new normal” several years ago. It stayed with me. In fact, I’ll bet if I looked back at my various scribblings, I probably wrote something about it. I know I was sharing with someone about how a particular lifestyle was being artificially—and so overwhelmingly—inserted into pretty much everything involved in daily life. Everything on TV, every movie, commercial, song, parade, sporting event, religion, you name it—it was (and still is) being crammed down society’s throat as ordinary.

“Well,” I’m almost certain I heard my conversation partner say, “get used to it. It’s the new normal.”

As far as the phrase goes, in one sense, it has a bit of an irony connected to it.

Libby Sartain, the head of HR for Yahoo, wrote in the foreword of a book by John Putzier that the person to be credited with the phrase’s first usage was a technology investor by the name of Roger McNamee. She claimed he used it in an interview with a magazine in 2003.

Unfortunately, Sartain was wrong. The phrase “the new normal” was around long before McNamee. In fact, an effortless search within the last few minutes uncovered it was used in lots of various writings by a number of people in history. Take for example the following piece by Henry Wood written in the wake of World War I. It was published in 1918 in the “National Electric Light Association Bulletin.”

“To consider the problems before us we must divide our epoch into three periods, that of war, that of transition, that of the new normal, which undoubtedly will supersede the old. The questions before us, therefore, are, broadly, two: How shall we pass from war to the new normal with the least jar, in the shortest time? In that respect should the new normal be shaped to differ from the old?”

So why bother to share all of this? Well, two reasons, I guess.

First, because once again, the inspired Word of God proves true—namely, the Holy Spirit at work in Ecclesiastes 1:9:

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

The Holy Spirit is winking at us through King Solomon’s pen. He’s reminding us that there’s nothing new about the phrase “the new normal” just as there’s nothing new about the human condition it’s attempting to define. Perhaps deeper still, the heavier hand the phrase embodies as it tries to shepherd the world into an acceptance of darker, more harmful things, well, that shouldn’t surprise us, either.

That’s more or less the second reason. As believers in Christ, we shouldn’t necessarily be surprised by the world’s ability to concoct dreadful normals and call them “new.” I think it was G.K. Chesterton, or maybe it was C.S. Lewis (or someone best-known by his first two initials), who said something about how the latest monsters produced by the world shouldn’t necessarily amaze us until the normal nature of Mankind begins to amaze us. I think part of the point was to say that by God’s Word we already know the reservoir of human depravity will never fully be explored in any of our lifetimes, so how can the never-before-seen monsters that continue to crawl from its bottomless depths be all that astonishing to us?

Again, there’s really nothing new in this regard, especially when it comes to the downward trajectory of humanity.

Since I was already thinking on our public schools… It was less than fifty years ago that students actually studied the Bible in class, even if only as great literature. Now the Bible is strictly forbidden. Within the last sixty years, our public schools used to teach gun safety—with real guns! Now kindergartners get expelled for making gun-like gestures with their hands on the playground. In the time of yesteryear, parents would discipline their children for misbehavior in school. Now teachers are blamed for the children’s misdeeds, even being fired for touching students while breaking up a fight. I remember feeling terrible, almost sick, when I’d overlooked or forgotten to complete a homework assignment. But now, I suppose many teachers are blessed to get half of a completed assignment, let alone any of the homework at all.

The phrase “the new normal” has become synonymous for the passive acceptance of a devolving society.

Maybe you heard that Fred Willard died recently. The folks from my generation will remember him as a brilliantly dry comedian, someone cut from the same witty cloth as men like Bob Newhart or Bill Murray. After I learned of his death, I watched a short clip of an interview with him. In it, he described the essence of his comedy as a continual attempt at putting himself into abnormal situations and then acting as if they were normal.

I think he nailed my concern for “the new normal.” Much of what we’re experiencing right now isn’t normal. Maintaining distances of six feet between friends and family rather than sharing embraces; wearing masks that hide the smiles adorning our unique and friendly faces; two-dimensional birthday or anniversary celebrations minimally enjoyed by way of video streaming rather than the warm resonations of a room filled with in-person sights, sounds, and smells; none of these describe normal human behavior, even at a base level. This is all abnormal, and it’s the innermost marrow of comedic foolishness to live as though it’s normal.

In truth, Christians exist in a sphere apart from this, which means we have a capability for seeing and analyzing this silliness for what it is. For one, the Holy Spirit at work in us for faith makes it so. Add to this the steady equipping by the Word of God and we’re found standing a little taller as our confidence for discernment and action begins to breathe. We may not be able to change things too drastically, and certainly we need be mindful of finding middle ground among communities of people with varying concerns, but in the end, that certainly doesn’t negate the fact that God’s people can see and know what the world cannot, and then do what we can to help steer things into better waters.

Indeed, we can truly serve as salt and light in the midst of the devolution into new normals. We can be a source of better flavor to an otherwise stale world. We can be a stream of much needed radiance in darkness and confusion. We can be found taking the lead in situations where others might want only to follow. We can know when to give a little in the face of change, and we can know when to stand firm and resist societal adjustment completely. We can know when to be silent and cooperate, just as we can know when the world around us needs so much more than compliance, but rather needs the boldness of action, maybe even resistance. Perhaps best of all, we can carry into the world what is the truest “new normal”—the fact that Christ is the world’s Redeemer. He has conquered the abnormal brokenness of this world and has exchanged it with the new, better normal of His merciful forgiveness. By His life, death, and resurrection, He has reversed the downward spiral into undoneness and made a way for humanity’s rescue (Isaiah 43:19). “Behold, I am making all things new,” He declares so wonderfully of His glorious work to save us (Revelation 21:5).

His people are, by default, the emissaries out in front with this life-altering message.

The Gospel we possess as a community is more important now than ever before. It’s what we are charged with bringing to the world. Sure, like the rest of you, I have my opinions about what’s going on around us right now, but I sure hope you know my opinions are tempered by the desire to never see the Gospel dimmed for you by the world’s impositions. They’re equally tempered by the desire to keep my particular church and school I’ve been charged with shepherding—Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Hartland, Michigan—from participating in anything harmful that might slink up and out of the tarry goo of the new normal. If we do discover the Gospel taking a back seat, or we find ourselves partnering in this way, then I’ll do what I can to defend against it. And if for some reason it overtakes our ranks, I’ll be the first to sit with church leadership to reconsider the legitimacy of our existence as a Christian congregation and school.

The times are not easy ones. Still, we know God is good. Pray to the Father in and through Jesus Christ that all of God’s people would be found faithful to His will and Word (John 16:24) in the midst of whatever the new normal might bring. He loves you. He is listening. He will answer. He will give His people His care. He will provide us the obstacles we need when we’re ready to run headlong apart from His will. He’ll provide the way of escape in the midst of trouble. He’ll deliver wisdom in the midst of confusion. He’ll drench us in comfort when we are sad, and He’ll give fervent courage in the face of fear.

Trust me. I speak from brutally wonderful experience in all of these, as I’m sure many of you do, too.

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.