Do We Have What It Takes?

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

The situation in Afghanistan is bad.

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

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

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

Read that again.

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

Go ahead and read that again, too.

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

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

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

Sadly, I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s No Such Thing As Luck

I don’t like the term “luck.” I don’t mind someone saying to me, “Good luck.” Although, anyone who knows me will admit I’m the kind of guy who, if someone calls me lucky, will reply with, “There’s no such thing as luck.” I don’t say it just because I’m a Christian and I know better, but also because I know myself to be someone who’s always ready to grab opportunity by the throat and throttle it until it produces what I’m after. In other words, I’m a determined person. Perhaps that’s why Han Solo was always a favorite Star Wars character. If you were ever to attempt to discourage me with the mathematical impossibility of navigating an asteroid field (which according to C3PO is 3,720 to 1), like Han, I’d likely turn to say resolutely, “Never tell me the odds!” as I proceed to steer into it, anyway.

Don’t call me lucky, and don’t tell me how something can’t be done. There’s no such thing as luck, and with that, let’s talk about how it can be done.

This past Monday I took my Jeep to a repair shop in Milford where I happened upon someone I used to be friends with on Twitter (that is, until I deleted my Twitter account). Interestingly, we’d never actually met in person, and yet he knew an awful lot about me, my family, and my church. At one point during the conversation, he referenced our Covid-19 practices here at Our Savior. He knew what they were because I’d been very open about them throughout the past year. He said we were lucky we didn’t experience an outbreak. In reply, I suggested that perhaps it wasn’t luck, but rather it was the Lord’s hand of blessing for holding to His mandates for worship and fellowship, no matter how the world around us was tempted to weaponize the phrase “love thy neighbor.”

Yes, I said it exactly as I wrote it above. Of course, I didn’t want to be too aggressive, but I also didn’t want any confusion with regard to my theological position on the matter.

He countered with the usual argument about caring for the “lesser brother” and about how easily the virus spreads. For reference, he shared how his brother’s church had experienced a serious outbreak among its members even though they were all pretty much required to be drenched in sanitizer, socially-distanced, and fully masked in order to attend worship. In his mind, any church that pressed forward without the same kinds of safety protocols in place was testing fate. I don’t think he realized that comparing Our Savior to his brother’s hermetically sealed church sort of, well, made my point for me. Again, I simply replied by suggesting that perhaps we weren’t lucky, but rather blessed. Thankfully, I was able to bring the conversation to an end by saying I needed to go out to the road and wait for my ride back to the office. (Thanks, Ed Dietrich!) However, outside at the curb, I struggled to put my friend’s terminology away completely.

Being lucky and being blessed are two very different things.

Luck is born from chance. Blessings are bestowed. In the Christian sense, I’d say blessings are emanations of God’s undeserved kindness in our lives. And no matter the form they take, God promises to bless His people for their faithfulness (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10). Indeed, God smiles upon those who, by the power of the Holy Spirit for faith, hold on when holding on is the hardest.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying that the more you pray the more God will bless you with worldly health, wealth, and wisdom; or if you just believe enough, God will take away your mortal misfortunes. That’s the kind of bad theology sold by heretics like Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen. I’m talking about the backward perspective that can actually embrace struggle as a blessing. And how is this possible? Because faith understands that anything in place to loosen our grip on this world while tightening our grip on Christ is a blessing. Even a virus can serve as a determiner in this regard. As you face off with it, are you holding on too tightly to this world, or are you clinging to Christ? I’d add that in these same moments, God promises to be at work in His people by the power of His Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:10) instilling the faithfulness that produces discernment. He’ll be there giving us the eyes to see the individual details through the lens of His Word of truth. By this, He’ll reveal that He’s working for our good, namely, that He’s setting His divine sights on drawing us closer to Him, on keeping us as His own in the faith (Romans 5:1-5; 8:28). He doesn’t want to lose anyone to fear or unbelief, and so anything He does or allows for a Christian along life’s way—no matter if it’s labeled good or bad by the world around us—can be embraced as a blessing from the one true God who loves us.

As far as the successes of Our Savior, Matthew 5:11 and 1 Peter 4:14 come to mind as relative examples of blessings taking a more difficult form. Both describe being insulted for faithfulness to Christ as blessings. Wow, do we sure know this here at Our Savior. God has mandated in-person worship (Hebrews 10:24-25). That’s what we maintained. I can promise you we were insulted by believers and unbelievers alike for this. When we made clear that God does not leave room for His Church to mandate legalistic barriers that would sound anything like, “Unless you’re wearing a mask, you cannot be with your God in worship to receive His gifts,” more insults came. Still, we were unmoved, choosing instead to encourage Christian liberty even as many loaded up their pious rifles with texts from the likes of Mark 12:31 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, taking aim and then pulling the trigger.

“Bang! You’re not requiring masks and so you’re not showing love to the neighbor!” But each of these rounds misfired because they lacked the propellant necessary for actually loving one’s neighbor rightly.

It’s impossible to love your neighbor if you set aside God’s Word, even if only temporarily. You can’t love your neighbor if you don’t love God more.

Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel used to say, “A lot of love talk is a lot of Law talk.” Think about this in light of a text like 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. If Nagel was right, then this particular text is dealing in the Law. From this angle, we’re equipped to see Saint Paul’s attempt to not only show us what genuine love looks like, but to admit our complete inability in relation to it. The love he is describing is divine—the kind that only God can produce. It’s an “always” kind of thing, which is why Saint Paul uses the word so often in the text. Knowing we can’t live up to what he’s describing, the text becomes a reminder of our need for a Savior who can. With that, what we learned in previous chapters begins to resurface. For example, chapters 10 through 12 teach us about how and where to locate this Savior and the love He gives. Before chapter 13, Paul has already revealed who sits at the midpoint of real love. Together, these become strong influencers for knowing the significance of communion with Christ and for not letting anything get between you and His love located in the Means of Grace.

I’d add to all of this that the harmonizing center of the text from chapter 13 is verses 6 and 7:

“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

This is not all that confusing when you realize Paul is talking about love in relation to God and not necessarily the neighbor. Paul personifies love here. Interestingly, Saint John said God is love (1 John 4:8). Here in verse 6, Paul says this love is offended by evil. He writes that this love is gladdened by truth. Jesus said in John 17:17 that God’s Word is truth. Together, these are all incredibly interpretive. If God’s truth mandates in-person worship, then by what we’ve learned here, He’s likely not in favor of completely shutting down churches or doing anything that might hinder a Christian’s in-person access to the verbal and visible Word He distributes there. Only a spirit of evil would translate love for the neighbor this way.

And then verse 7 lands right on us. Again, knowing that verse 6 was describing God, is verse 7 all of the sudden talking about human love aimed at others, as is typically interpreted? So then, love always protects… people? Tell that to an allied soldier in a fire fight with Nazis. Love always trusts… people? Tell that to a battered wife whose husband promises after each violent episode to never do it again; or the parent whose child has been molested by a pedophile. Love always hopes… in people? Joe Biden, as it is with any good Marxist, would appreciate this one, having you putting your faith in the government rather than Christ. Love always perseveres… for people? Let’s just be frank, Christian or not, human patience runs out.

Keeping verse 7 connected to verse 6, if it’s saying anything in relation to our love for others, I’d say it’s first describing a love instilled by God and aimed at God that will eventually result in love for neighbor. This makes more sense to me. It certainly jives with what I know of the Ten Commandments—which is that the 4th through 10th Commandments (loving the neighbor) mean nothing without first visiting with the 1st through 3rd (loving God). By this thinking, verse 7 is telling us love’s deepest commitment in faith by the power of the Holy Spirit always seeks first to protect what is God’s, always trusts in Him, always hopes in Him, always finds perseverance in Him. This kind of love will find itself unable to choose the world’s ways above God’s. This kind of love will always produce what’s best for the neighbor.

In other words, and again, you can’t even begin to love your neighbor if you don’t love God more.

Holding to this premise, things went very well for us here at Our Savior. By loving God and what He wanted more, we found ourselves retooled for avoiding the temptation of law-based and heavy-handed control, and were instead equipped with a clarity for resting in Christian liberty. Worshipping in person might have been considered unsafe to the world, but we did it anyway… because it’s what God’s truth instructs. That fostered a Gospel-driven freedom for knowing how to actually live in love for the neighbor while piloting an asteroid field of CDC protocols. In the end, this equated to countless Elder meetings spent observing data and doing what we could to balance the disquiets without imposing in ways that might separate people from God.

I think the Christians here at Our Savior navigated this mess marvelously, and God appears to have blessed this course with success. It was by no means luck.

I suppose I’ll close this lengthy meandering by sharing that I know there are some inside and outside of God’s Church who are frustrated by our success. For them, 2020 and much of 2021 disappeared without a trace, while for us here at Our Savior, we managed to go about our lives enjoying relative normalcy as a congregation, and we did it without incident. To anyone bothered by our success, just know your frustration speaks volumes. It’s eerily reminiscent of the saying that the only way to feel better about the success of an enemy is to simply believe he got lucky. I’m kind of wondering if such frustration might have something to do with a faith that believes in luck in comparison to a faith that understands God’s gracious care. I’m wondering if it might be revealing a trust that holds more firmly to this world than the next.

Well, whatever. There’s no such thing as luck, friends. I know this, and I hope you know it, too.

Take Hold

Have you ever had one of those days when no matter how hard you tried to interpret life through the lens of positivity, there was an itinerant itch of crankiness that just wouldn’t let it happen? Of course you’ve had such days. You’re a human being. I know I’ve had days like that. I just had one last week, which I guess is why I’m bringing it up—and why I’m about to examine it.

I remember feeling the grouchy cogs begin to turn when I heard that we were likely to get a few inches of snow. I know for a fact I whispered the words, “I want to move to Florida.” Following those words with a bit of daydreaming, I was so easily undercut by the harsh reality that I have neither the funds nor the general flexibility for being in Florida for any great length of time beyond the twelve or so days we, the Thoma family, enjoy there each summer. The futility of this harsh realization began draping my world in negative hues almost immediately, and the subsequent events of the day bore witness to it.

I was easily frustrated by other drivers on the road. Little mistakes in my everyday labors became sizable. I lost interest in things that might normally bring me joy. I found myself scrutinizing humanity with far less grace. For example, I found myself in conversation with a fellow clergyman regarding Church and State issues. As we talked, I recalled silently the familiar thought that dialogue is indeed dead, that general conversation involving differing viewpoints has become illusionary, that the modern exchange of ideas has evolved into little more than crisscrossing monologues between people incapable of actually listening to anyone but themselves.

I don’t like feeling this way. I don’t like viewing the world this way. It’s a hard way to go about life, and in the end, it can do little more than to devolve into sadness. So, how does one get free from this?

Well, for me it wasn’t anything I was able to do, but rather the doings of others. It was an unexpected email from a friend offering some encouragement. A little later that afternoon, it was an unanticipated and bright-eyed “Hey, Pastor!” coupled with a high-five from one of the second-graders passing in the school hallway. That night it was an enjoyable conversation during a game of pool with my son, Harrison. Before bed, it was an exceptionally tight and lengthy hug and “I love you” from my daughter, Madeline, followed by the same from Evelyn.

In a sense, I didn’t find a way out of the gloom. I was lifted out.

There is the saying that there is no tomorrow when a friend asks today. This means that when a friend is in need, there is nothing in our future that we can’t put off until we’ve attended to that friend. But sometimes that friend can’t ask. Sometimes he doesn’t even know he needs to ask. Sometimes he is unaware he’s been slow-boiled into his darkest identity, and with this, he doesn’t realize the identity is consuming him.

We all know people like this, folks whose essential personalities were one way, but then when we encountered them again after some time apart, they were noticeably different. They had changed. Their happiness had somehow become muted and the vibrancy of their light had become a little dimmer.

I wonder if this is becoming more common in a society shaped by digital communication and social distancing. Well, to be honest, I’m certain it is. While plenty of studies have provided mounds of data inferring it, as a pastor, I can see it for myself. I don’t really need the studies to confirm what’s right in front of my face. Having interacted with people here at Our Savior who, previously, hadn’t been out of the house or come to worship in over a year, it was easy to see the change. Yes, they were glad to be back, but it was a reserved gladness held in check by a foreign specter—almost as if it had convinced them to reconnect only because the inevitable “death by virus” was better than insanity in seclusion.

You may question this interpretation, which is fine, but I’m here to tell you that if you thought the world was becoming a negative place before the pandemic, COVID has hit the gas pedal on society’s emotional downturn toward instability.

Thinking back to what raised me from my own melancholy sulk, it was the people around me who did the heavy lifting. From that casual example, I sure hope you realize just how much you need to be with other people on a regular basis—how humans need not only to see each other’s faces, but to experience each other’s physical presences. Regular togetherness is no small thing to God, and so He urges His Church to gather for worship, making sure we’re not “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25). Of course He does this for the sake of giving Himself to His people through the richest of fare—Word and Sacrament ministry. But there are other reasons hovering in the realm of practicality that He has in mind, too.

We’re human. He knows what this means better than we do. He scribbled togetherness into our framework. Individuals were not designed to be alone in seclusion (Genesis 2:18). We’re meant to be out and among others. And why? Well, it’s the reason that before Adam gave Eve her formal name, God called her “helper.” God knows that when we’re together—whether it be in a marriage, a family, a friendship, a bible study group, serving on a board at church, or any other situation involving human togetherness—there will always be those around us who are in tune with our real selves and who will be ready to reach out to lift us up when they sense we are falling. In fact, God said this very thing about togetherness rather precisely in Ecclesiastes 4:10: “For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.”

I didn’t expect that email from the friend who sent it. But he noticed something about me on Sunday that left him thinking he should. I get tight hugs from my daughters all the time, but I didn’t expect the tight hug from Madeline that lasted three-times as long as normal. In that moment, for some reason, she was moved to give me a little extra love, and it helped. And as God would so generously provide through such faithful Christians, these happenings arrived at just the right moment, ultimately beginning the Lord’s divine effort to begin holding back the wave of negativity that was making its way toward my spiritual shore and, quite possibly, pull me out into the inescapability of deeper waters.

I pray you’ll consider these words and take them to heart. The first of which to take in is that if you sense someone is falling down or slipping away, reach out to help them. A gentle word will do. An act of kindness will help, too. A confident explanation of the courage Christ gives will prompt.

Second, if you’ve been away from your church family for a while, maybe it’s time to start making your way back. At the time of this writing, it’s been over four-hundred days since the first of the lockdown and mask mandates. It’s been over four-hundred days since a smile and a friendly embrace have been openly available between people without shame. It’s been over four-hundred days since people started unnaturally touching elbows instead of reaching out to make bare human contact by shaking hands. It’s been over four-hundred days since almost everything humanly personal about mankind since the beginning of time was relegated to the impersonal and dead-spaced world of Zoom meetings and virtual learning. Maybe it’s time to reconsider what’s separating you, not only from the places and means by which God is pleased to dwell and operate, but from the ones God has put into place as the hands and feet of His care and intended community in your life. Maybe it’s time to admit that perhaps—just perhaps—God isn’t a fan of what the last four-hundred days has produced: skyrocketing depression, a spike in suicides and domestic violence, and so much more. Perhaps God isn’t happy about what the last four-hundred days has so easily convinced us to accept as either virtuous or shameful, of the division the last four-hundred days has produced among His people, a body of believers who claim to confess Christ and the certainty against Death that faith by the power of the Holy Spirit gives. That’s what Easter is all about—which means that, if anything, you’re in a church season that is most certainly nudging you in this regard right now.

Yes, get vaccinated if you want. Wear a mask—or two, even. Social distance. Do whatever. But maybe consider that it’s time to come back.

Whatever conclusion you come to, I can assure you that you’re missed, even if you’ve somehow convinced yourself you’re not. We have on average about 250 people here in worship every Sunday, and I promise they are asking about and missing those who’ve been away. The negative feelings suggesting you need to continue to stay away or that you haven’t been missed are nothing more than slow-boiled changes in your identity. The devil is fooling you. They’re most certainly not anything being emitted by your church family.

Come back. Be together with the rest of us. Know that when we see you, it’ll stir the joy you’d expect from Christian friends intent on drawing you close and not pushing you away. And on your part, be ready to be overwhelmed with the delight such a reunion will provide. It truly is a magnificent elation that togetherness in the Lord unleashes. Plenty have experienced it. I bet you will, too.

Your Light is Important

Right now, my office is a mess. Before I left it yesterday afternoon, as I turned to close the door, I scanned the room and could see the disaster to which I’d be returning. My desk is buried beneath papers. And that’s not the half of it. I have books all over the floor, countless sticky notes hanging from this or that shelf, and a number of other things strewn throughout the entirety of the space. It’s enough to give any visitor the impression I’m about as disheveled as they get.

But the thing is, I’m just not a messy person.

Of course I’m not perfectly tidy by any means. The scene I just described is proof. Still, I’m convinced I’m really not a messy person. Keeping things clean is unquestionably a part of my personality and general routine. Even at home, with anything that pertains to me personally, you’ll seldom find a trail. Of the few things I can actually call my own, I’ll rarely leave them lying around. It’s the same for my office. I prefer to work in an orderly space. And I do my best to keep it organized. It might sound somewhat neurotic, but I don’t even like my computer desktop adorned with working files or shortcuts. I keep the desktop relatively bare, with most files—working or completed—in a folder somewhere on an external hard drive that’s being automatically backed up to two other hard drives right next to it.

Having said all this, there is a particular bit of disorder in my office—at first glance, a clutter of sorts—that I don’t mind at all. It’s the vast scattering of handwritten notes and greeting cards lining my bookshelves. Each is a message I’ve received in the last twelve months from someone either within or without of Our Savior Lutheran Church and School. Right about this time each year, I begin the process of clearing these personal messages from the shelves, being sure to tuck them into a bin for safe keeping. I do this to make room for what I expect will be a new year’s stream of scribbled kindnesses.

Over the course of my twenty-five years of serving in the Church, this has been my routine, and let me tell you, it sure is something to go back and read from some of the older notes I’ve kept.

Why do I keep the old ones? Because they mean the world to me. They are dispatches from the trenches of life, communiques portraying various aspects of what it means to be God’s people existing together in the divine love established by His gracious hand at different moments on the timeline. That’s one reason. But there’s another reason, too.

Each message is a tangible reminder to me of what it means for Godly sentiment to become action. Here’s what I mean.

I teach my children never to miss the opportunity to offer a compliment. For example, I’ll tell my kids that if they think a woman’s dress is pretty, go ahead and tell her. What good is to be had by the dress being pretty if no one is willing to acknowledge it? I’ll tell my kids that if they think a friend did something well, let the friend know. How does it benefit the friendship by keeping your appreciation silent?

Sentiments that result in action can make things better, stronger. Go ahead and test me on this. A single thought that results in a spoken word or gesture of kindness has more gravity than an entire galaxy filled with unspoken sentiments. One notecard, one kind word, one genuine compliment will always raise the scale’s opposing plate stacked with unspoken sentiments.

I awoke this morning thinking the same goes for the Christian faith as it meets with the world around us.

It’s one thing to know and believe that Christ is the Savior. It’s another thing to live this faith before the world—to engage when others remain idle, to lean in when others lean back, to speak when everyone else is silent.

Action is by far the best eloquence. Shakespeare said something like that. And I agree. Still, Jesus said something even better.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

Since I preached on the text from Romans 12:9-21 yesterday, naturally Saint Paul’s words come to mind.

“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

That’s one particular place where the Apostle takes time to describe what Christian sentiment—the Christian light of faith—actually looks like when it becomes something tangible. It sounds like a list of “do this but not this” kind of stuff, but it really isn’t. Because of the re-creating work of the Gospel for faith that Paul described in the preceding chapters, this is now more of a commending of Christians to actually be who God has already made them to be. It might not have been the best analogy, but in the sermon I compared it to the caretaker of an apple orchard going out into its rows and telling the trees to produce apples.

There are plenty of other texts like this in the Bible. Another great one comes to mind. It’s James 2:14-18.

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

With even a sliver of honesty, James’ argument is convincing. It’s hard to argue against faith being a skeletal creature if not for the musculature of Christian deeds. With what’s going on in our world, it’s even harder to argue against your role as a light-beaming Christian being incredibly important.

The days before us are very dark. Joe Biden, the President-elect (or whatever) said those particular words. He meant them with regard to COVID-19, but I can assure you from what he has pledged to do in his first 100 days, for the Church, his words mean something else. Unrelenting persecution is about to be let off the leash. Basic Christian teaching is about to be labeled as bigotry at the federal level. I’ve not been one to get too worked up about 501c3 restrictions, but I do realize how helpful they are to some. Just know tax-exempt status will likely disappear under a Biden presidency, and many of the churches already hovering at the cliff of financial disaster will almost certainly be nudged over its edge by their property taxes alone. Churches are going to close. The people they serve will suffer. The curriculums of Christian schools will draw even more spiteful ire. Their hiring and firing practices will come under vicious assault. We can expect countless new lawsuits to be leveled against anyone seeking to do business under the title “Christian.” I’m certain our own Governor Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel will be the first ones to hound these organizations, being eager to press the button of prosecution.

More and more, Christianity will find itself existing in the shadows.

But keeping our Christian sentiment to ourselves—believing quietly—will be about the worst thing we can do. Christian action will be required, both as a formal organization and as individuals. The plain truth is that we’re going to need more people who not only know and understand just what James meant when he wrote that faith without works is dead, but we’ll need those same people to be courageous enough to believe and act on these words, people who take Jesus seriously when He calls for His believers to let their lights shine before men.

I suppose my innermost sentiment this morning is that you will be one of those people. And this message, like the messages currently adorning my bookshelves, is a materialized dispatch from the trenches by a friend who loves and appreciates you in the Lord and wants to encourage you in your faithfulness. Let this message be a virtual notecard resting on the bookshelf of your mind, one commending you as God’s child, and heartening you to continue to be who God made you to be—a person who knows what it means to be a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.

The Art of Isolation

In barely a handful of days Thanksgiving will arrive, and then just beyond that, Advent. I don’t know about you, but these two moments on the calendar—seemingly so far flung from summer—seem to have arrived much more swiftly than I expected. I know why this is true. The more occupied one is, the more time carries along with a swifter pace.

Indeed, while Covid-19 may have closed so many of the typical avenues around us for living life, the pace for some hasn’t lessened. I know I’ve shared before that even the simplest of routines has become more complicated. This means more work, not less. Getting from point A to point B isn’t a straight shot anymore. It takes far more maneuvering, and as such, can make a few hours feel like a few minutes.

Some might argue that during a time when so many are isolated, a busier pace would be helpful for keeping the mind fit. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I suppose it makes sense, as long as whatever one is doing doesn’t lend itself toward frustration. I’m a big believer in having things to do—that the busier one remains with this or that project, the less of a negative impact isolation itself will have. It was J. W. von Goethe who said that enduring isolation is an art. I tend to agree. I believe times of isolation can either be harmful or beneficial. They can be occasions of fateful loneliness or uplifting solitude.

I got to thinking on this out loud yesterday during the adult Bible study. I shared with the group that when I think on what it means to be lonely, my conceptualization is to wonder just how many isolated, unseen things or moments of incredible splendor have occurred around the world throughout history. For example, yesterday I suggested that maybe the most beautiful rose that has ever existed in this world has already sprouted and blossomed in total seclusion somewhere deep in a forest and no one was there to see it. The flower was near-perfect in every way, and would have been of joyful benefit to anyone who looked upon it. But it grew, bloomed, withered, and died in total seclusion. That’s an image of loneliness. Or perhaps the most stunning diamond ever formed is right now resting somewhere deep in the earth where no one will ever reach it. It’s there. Its clarity is beyond compare. Its untapped ability for capturing and then dispersing light in countless directions is unmatchable. But it will remain isolated—unmined and unpolished—priceless, and yet existing as though it has no value at all. That’s loneliness, too.

I see loneliness in relation to value. To be lonely is to have so much value, and yet to be without the opportunity to emit that value to the benefit of anyone else.

You have value. And I do, too. God tells us this (Matthew 6:26; Romans 5:8; Psalm 139:13-16; John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:17; and so many more!). Still, when we’re locked away from others in ways that prevent us from participating in the exchange and benefits of human value established by God’s grace—the giving and receiving that occurs between real people—we can become fixed in darker places and the time becomes more burdensome. It becomes lonely.

And so where am I going with this? I guess part of what I’m trying to say this morning is that if you must be isolated, first, know you are valuable, and second, keep busy emitting that value in ways that embrace the alone time as less loneliness and more contemplative, sabbatical-like solitude. Yes, solitude is different. Like loneliness, one doesn’t go into solitude expecting others to be there. The person knows and expects the silence. But in the quiet of solitude, there’s activity occurring, and there’s the expectancy that the silence won’t prevent its occupant from coming out on the other side with something to show. Solitude is a time of discovery. It is an opportunity to go off unaccompanied in order to seek out the rose, or to dig up the diamond, and bring these things back to a world that can benefit from their value. And I suppose this is where the Christian perspective is key.

Christians already know they’re not alone, so any form of alone time is somewhat illusionary. Christ is always with us, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). This means we can endure, and maybe even embrace, the alone times. For one, through faith in Christ, alone times become unfettered moments with the One who never leaves nor forsakes us. In this, we can find ourselves aimed toward a richer devotional life. We can study the Word of God, pray, and God willing, see the fruits of such solitude becoming activities designed to emit to others what we’ve learned or received. How do we do this? I can tell you how I’m doing it. Well, this Monday morning eNews is one way. I do what I can each Monday morning to think through and share something of value for you. Besides this, I’m using my isolated times to write and send cards to people. I’m making phone calls. I’m visiting where I can, and I’m receiving visitors who need to chat. I’m using whatever particular gifts God has given me for mining the diamonds and picking the flowers from the quiet so that others, too, can experience their splendor with me.

You can do this, too. You know your value, and you know the gifts God has given you. Be creative. By God’s grace, you can live as one in solitude who’s laboring to find and share treasures with others—which, I’m guessing, will help lift them from loneliness.

Of course, call me if you need help figuring out how to navigate this or coming with ideas. I’m only a phone call away and I’m brimming with ideas.

Read That Again Very Slowly

I should start this morning by mentioning I experienced a “flux capacitor” moment last night in my garage. If you’ve seen the movie “Back to the Future” then you’ll know that Doc Brown came up with the idea for the device that makes time travel possible right after he hit his head. Well, I was fetching a Halloween bin from the attic storage in our garage when I fell off of the top rung of our eight-foot ladder and hit my head, giving my forehead a pretty good split. Thankfully, I didn’t need stitches. Nevertheless, once I was back to my feet and the stars in my eyes were dissipating, strangely, what I wanted to write about this morning became clear. So here it is.

I flashed back to something I’d read from Luther last week about prayer. In particular, he landed on the topic by way of Psalm 42:4, which reads:

“These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.”

Luther observed:

“The multitude needs a certain place and certain days and hours suitable for listening to the Word of God; and therefore God has ordained and instituted the Holy Sacraments to be administered to the congregation at a place where all gather together for prayer and thanksgiving. The advantage of this is that when Christians gather together, prayer is more powerful than at other times. We can and should most certainly pray at all places and hours, but prayer is nowhere so strong and powerful as when, in unity of Spirit, the whole congregation is gathered together to pray.”

Did you catch all that?

First of all, understand that Luther wasn’t one to speak loosely. When he wrote things like “God has ordained and instituted,” he meant exactly that. God has established certain things that we do not have the freedom to adjust. And thankfully, just as Luther used the word “advantage” to describe what God has mandated, we can be assured that God puts these particulars into place for our good and not our harm. I suppose in addition, being the biblical exegete that Luther was, had he been challenged on this, you could’ve expected him to write in tiny print a list of proof texts as long as your dining room table.

Beyond this, Luther’s observation had me thinking about a particular irony unfolding in the Christian churches throughout the world right at this very moment. Interestingly, forces from both within and without are still doing their level best to keep the churches closed and the people apart, while at the same time desperately desiring deliverance from the COVID-19 scourge. Again, this is somewhat ironic. Even better, I’d say its satire is epitomized by the comments I’ve heard from so many, words that sound a lot like, “I’m being a better Christian neighbor by staying home and away from others. But not to worry! I’m using my alone time to pray, most especially for this mess to be over!”

Admittedly, such words bring to mind a recent tweet from the Flat Earth Society. Having a hard time swallowing the verity of the organization, a person asked, “Is the Flat Earth Society an actual thing with actual members?” And the group spokesman tweeted in reply, “By all means, yes! The Flat Earth Society has members all around the globe!” It was to this reply that another person chimed in, “Go back and read what you just wrote… very… slowly.”

Eh-hem.

“…when Christians gather together, prayer is more powerful… prayer is nowhere so strong and powerful as when, in unity of Spirit, the whole congregation is gathered together to pray.”

Now, read that again… very… slowly.

Tearing Down the Tower of Self-Interest

We’ve experienced a handful of very busy weeks here at Our Savior. And while I’ll admit they have unquestionably resulted in accomplishments about which we can all smile with Godly pride, the labor leading up to them is still being felt. We’re all pretty tired. It takes a lot of work to pull together three major events—an all-day conference of national newsmakers, a banquet with the same, and a debate between two tier-one thinkers—all in a single weekend. But by God’s grace, we did it.

Along the way, I joked multiple times with Georgine, the office administrator and right hand in all things around here, that if we actually live through what we’re trying to do, then little else would be impossible for this congregation to achieve. Although, each time I said those words, I immediately recanted by saying we ought not for one second be partners in thought, word, or deed with the architects of the Tower of Babel, believing that we can somehow be and do whatever we determine apart from God’s holy will. This is God’s work. All of it. We’re tools in His hands. When it becomes about our own achievements, we will be toppled and dispersed. And deservingly so.

There’s an important image revealed by this conversation. It tells of the tragic conflict of loyalties in the human heart, and you’d be fooling yourself if you think it’s not there. In fact, I’ve witnessed it a handful of times here at Our Savior even within the last few weeks alone—people upset with one another over some pretty trivial things, and then by way of that anger, falling prey to the human tendency to be loyal to the self rather than God.

In the midst of this, a tower is discovered, one built by self-interest, even though as Christians, all of us should already know the Bible teaches that God targets such edifices for destruction.

I blame much of the current contention on the seeds of fear that COVID-19 and its many disciples continue to sow in our world. It certainly has been a handy instrument in the devil’s symphony of dread. Even in Christian communities, the people are on edge, and with that, the slightest discomforting nudge appears to be all that’s required for sending a person to one side or another of any innocuous issue, ultimately seeing them careening into combat with another human being who’s trying just as hard as the first to endure.

So what do we do?

Well, I suppose the first thing we need to do is to thank God that by His holy Law, He has not hidden our propensities from us. We can know to confess our intimate roles in the fellowship of human wickedness. We can enter into every situation knowing we are by no means innocent of the worldwide curse of Sin. And then, even as we confess our innate dreadfulness, as Christians, we do it cognizant that the Lord has already reached to us by the Gospel to make us into someone new. That’s how we were able to confess our sinfulness in the first place, because we understand the contention between our inner loyalties much better now than before faith. We know the grappling of the sinner/saint relationship. And so Saint Paul makes sense when he urges us by the power of the Holy Spirit in faith to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).

The second thing we can do is to realize the richness of such a good Word of God. In particular, we can walk away from it admitting that human vanity—loyalty to the old self—can play some pretty serious tricks on how we interpret (or even remember) situations in which we found ourselves in conflict with others. Admit it. During the time of reflection that immediately follows conflict, after the dust has settled and you’ve stormed off, often it is you’ll discover that the only way to comfort yourself is with egoistic self-coddling—by reminding yourself over and over again that you’re the good guy, that you’re not trying to cause problems, that in all circumstances you are the victim and the other person is the real offender. One of my favorite poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, spoke to this when he wrote, “And the devil did grin, for his darling sin, is pride that apes humility” (The Devil’s Thoughts, 1799).

In the situations I’m describing, this goes nowhere. Well, actually, let me rephrase that. It does go somewhere. It adds unsteady blocks to self’s flimsy tower, building upward, higher and higher, until God comes along and topples it. And He warns us that He’s aiming to do this: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18), and “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled…” (Matthew 23:12). Sometimes, because we know ourselves to be sinners, this word of warning resonates and we’re able to get out of the building, sparing the relationships we’ve jeopardized and salvaging our reputations, all before it crashes to the ground. But it’s also not beyond us sometimes to let our allegiance remain with what we’ve built, and then we discover we’re still inside the structure when it falls. In those circumstances, human relationships and standings are shredded by the tumbling debris, and there is nothing but devastation to be had.

But it’s our own fault. We knew better. We knew to put on the new self and work to fix the problem, knowing that God had already promised to bless our efforts toward faithfulness (Luke 11:28). And what were we arguing about anyway? Did it have anything to do with Christological things? Doctrinal things? Life and death things? Heaven and hell things? No? Then that’s even more concerning. If you’re balancing the stability of your place in the Christian community and throwing relationships into the trash because you prefer purple carpeting in the fellowship hall while your opponent prefers green, then you have a serious personality problem. Even worse, if now no matter what that opponent says or does, he can only irritate you and you begrudgingly despise him every time you see him, then you have a serious personality problem. You’re the kind of person who can harbor hatred. That kind of person beholds commandments four through ten—all the ones that steer us toward loving our neighbor—as lining up to be broken. You only need the opportunities to present themselves.

That’s not putting on the new self. That’s dressing up the old self and going out for a night on the town.

But again, what do we do?

Well, the answer remains the same. Repent and receive the Lord’s world-altering forgiveness. From there, know that a Christian will now be found operating very differently in the world around him.

There’s another important piece to what Saint Paul wrote in the text I mentioned from Ephesians 4. He wrote:

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (vv.26-27).

In other words, no matter what is at the heart of the conflict between two Christians, don’t slow-boil yourself in anger by refusing to sort things out. That’s another sign that you might be holed up in your wobbly tower. Get to work solving it. The longer you wait, the easier it is for the devil to stir your vanity and make you comfortable in your insubstantial pride.

And by the way, Ephesians 4:26-27 is not a difficult bit of Scripture to understand. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the easier ones in holy writ to grasp.

I suppose lastly, recognize that every Christian community is comprised of multiple personalities. God makes it that way for a reason. He places some among us who are more patient than others. Some are more imposing than others. Some are meant to be helpers, others are destined to be leaders. But no matter who’s laboring side by side, when all are firing in time as people of faith serving toward the same goal of being in alignment with God’s will, then all will be bearing their proper place in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), and the only tower to be toppled will be the one the devil is trying to build in the middle of it all. In that beautiful scene, God will be found continually tearing down that demonic rascal’s houses. And if we’re going to be wearing our hard hats and laboring in a demolition zone, then that’s the one we want to be in.

Experience is the Best Teacher

Julius Caesar is the one who said that experience is the best teacher. At least I think he did. I’ll check on that after I finish typing this morning. If I’m wrong, I’ll fix what I wrote. If it’s still here when you’re reading it, then I was right.
That being said, the thing about experience is that she’s a relentless teacher. And the strangest part of being in her class is that she does almost everything in reverse. What I mean is that she tests you on the material before she teaches any of her lessons. I suppose the comfort in this is that if you fail, you don’t get put back a grade, and it’s not necessarily the end of the road. Although, I did see a church sign in Linden last week which read, “If at first you don’t succeed, just make sure it didn’t happen while skydiving.”
Or something like that.
The COVID-19 classroom of experience has been a tough one. We’ve learned a lot from its devilish curriculum. Some of what we’ve learned has actually been good. Just as much of it has been bad. All of it has more than added to the storehouse of knowledge.
While sitting in this particular class, I have to believe that most Christians with any sense for the necessity of God’s Word are likely to have stopped by the Book of Proverbs for a visit sometime during the past few months. I know I’ve found myself there, and I’ve shared some texts I’ve pondered. The Book of Proverbs is filled with important instruction. It’s overflowing with opportunities to meet with experience in ways that will make whatever lesson is being learned something that keeps our hearts and minds where they belong: Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen for the transgressions of the world.
In other words, the point to all of Proverbs’ wisdom is Jesus.
Of course the most essential and thematic verses in Proverbs are the ones I would imagine most Christians know fairly well, texts such as, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7), and “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (2:6). The Church of all ages has known texts like these to be in place to, as I said already, set our hearts in the firm location of faith. But the Church has also known these texts to reveal the pragmatics of faith—or better yet, what faith actually looks like. Having these texts in our pockets as we proceed, our hearts and minds are readied for everything else in the book that follows. Since at the moment I’m thinking on the topic of experience, I know these same texts help us take proper aim at the results experience might bring, helping us to better extrapolate words like:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding… Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.” (3:5,7).
These holy instructions remind us to trust in the Lord in all things. We shouldn’t be so quick to trust ourselves. We shouldn’t begin by looking inwardly. We should begin by looking to the externals of God’s faithful Word. Don’t trust what you think you know. Go with what God says, even if it is counter to your understanding. Hearing such things, at least for me personally, gives texts like the following some uncomfortable traction:
“Wisdom rests in the heart of a man of understanding, but it makes itself known even in the midst of fools” (14:33).
Wisdom is made known in the midst of fools. Fools will prove their foolishness by scoffing at Godly wisdom. They’ll despise it. They’ll actually move in active opposition to it. Seven verses into the very first chapter of the Book of Proverbs, the stage is already set for us to expect this.
Of course these days, according to the Sin-nature, we’re all proving just how hard it is to trust God before we trust ourselves. At one point or another throughout the COVID-19 ordeal, we’ve all demonstrated just how easy it is to align with foolishness. Still, God’s Word remains the same as it meets with our experiences and the lessons learned throughout. In all of it, He continues to offer the clarion call to trust Him no matter what. “Don’t be a fool,” He says to the Christian. “You already know by my Word that I’m trustworthy.” In tandem with His powerful Word, He urges this trust knowing you’re already more than capable of matching that Word to plenty of moments in your own life proving His dependability. Thirty seconds alone to think, even with a migraine, and I can come up with plenty.
God has never let me down.
Having those experiences in mind, we have a far better perspective on His countless mandates to be with Him in worship—in person, together with other Christians—to receive His holy gifts of Word and Sacrament. While it might not make sense to our Governor, it makes perfect sense to us. And with this knowledge, we can easily know and accept that apart from natural incapacity (which is to say we’re a shut-in), nothing should keep us away, and anyone or anything confessing otherwise is claiming a level of trustworthiness above God and is in alignment with foolishness.
In particular, Hebrews 10:19-31 reveals such obstacles—human or not, real or imagined—will be judged accordingly.
In the meantime, we simply take God at His Word, knowing it is immutable. He knew what He was saying when He spoke. He knew the situations we’d be in. He knows everything, sees everything, and yet is above everything. He gives us the promise that He’s working for the good of those who love and trust Him by faith. He’s not even remotely interested in allowing anything into our lives that would keep us from Him. He’s actively seeking us, and with the fullest measure of His divine heart, is wanting us to look to Him as the better bet in every situation.
Every. Single. Situation.
My prayer today is one of hopeful thanksgiving for the Christians who know and believe this. But also, my prayer is that if you somehow missed it before, you won’t miss it now—and I suppose I should add that if you don’t feel comfortable worshipping at Our Savior, I’m very near the edge of begging you to go somewhere you do, that is, if you can find a place that’s actually open. You need to be fed. You shouldn’t stay away from the Lord’s gifts for you. When the feast is both bountiful and available, a starved soul is an unnecessary tragedy.
Remember, no poison can be in the cup the divine Physician sends. Do you believe this? I sure do. I hope you do, too.

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.

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.