Summer is Coming

In case you were wondering, at the time of this writing, there are 184 days until the first official day of summer. You might think I’m saying this because I’m already exhausted by winter. The only problem with your assumption is that winter doesn’t officially begin for two more days. Technically, we’re still in the fall.

Interestingly, to say “still in the fall” is to speak a phrase with more than one connotation, and no matter which you mean, the evidence of its actuality is there in support.

Take a look outside. The trees are bare. The leaves are scattered and damp beneath a recent layer of snow. The air is frigid. The sky is palled with clouds. There’s no arguing that the earth’s current position in relation to the sun is more than a few spins on the planet’s axis away from summer—half a year, to be exact. For me, this is a tiresome knowledge that can only be moderated through artificial means or by deliberate distraction. I keep a sun light in my office. Its light is weirdly simulated, but in the middle of a soul-dampening season that sees the sun disappearing completely sometimes as early as 5:00pm, it helps, even if only a little. In tandem, I stay busily distracted. I find that if I’m not thinking about the sky’s blue potential, I’m not necessarily missing it, and I’m less affected by its current grays.

Of course, there’s another meaning to “still in the fall” that we shouldn’t overlook. It hearkens back to the terminally unfortunate moment recorded in Genesis 3; that swift instant when, through self-inflicted grievousness, Mankind destroyed God’s perfect creation and positioned himself as far from God as physically and spiritually possible. The evidence mirroring this fall is plentiful. It’s all around us, sometimes subtly, and other times obviously. But either way, it is as discoverable as the seasonal image I described before.

It was subtly visible to me a few nights ago while working on a puzzle with Jennifer and the kids. We’d finished a 1,000-piece puzzle, and after a day or so of admiring the fruits of our long-suffering work, within a few minutes, we’d taken it apart and put it back in the box. In other words, what took days to complete was destroyed in seconds. Similarly, it was obvious to all of us by what happened in Mayfield, Kentucky, a town founded in 1824 and home to countless generations of families. In only a few minutes, the town was all but wiped from the map by a tornado.

To be “still in the fall” means that we exist in a world that continues to prove, not only that it is horribly infected by the destructive powers of Sin and Death, but that both it and its inhabitants are completely impotent against being consumed by them. It’s a place where this often plays out in subtle, but sinister, reversals. It’s a place in which one can claim Christianity, but be perfectly fine with cohabitation. Or perhaps cohabitation is admittedly offensive, but so is telling a Christian he or she is a walking contradiction for claiming Christ but only attending worship at Christmas and Easter. This same world is a place in which the bad we hear about someone is easily believed and the good is suspicious. It’s a place where lies easily outpace what’s objectively true. It’s a place where devout self-interest outguns concern for the neighbor. It’s a place in which one little disagreement can cause long term relationships and everything that goes with them to fall like leaves from an autumnal tree, having become completely disposable. It’s a place in which so many things unfold before us as reminders that this world exists in darkness, and no matter how hard we try, there’s no man-made light that can pierce its blanketing madness. There’s no artificial distraction vivid enough to keep its dreary sorrows apart and contained.

Only the real summer sun will do.

The official season of fall will end in a few days. When it does, we’ll cross over into the deathly hibernation of winter. It’s appropriate for Christmas to arrive at this precipice. Right in the middle of a downward dismalness anticipating and becoming Death, a Son is born. And not just any son, but rather the One God promised to send who would free Mankind from Sin, Death, and the devil’s ghastly grip (Genesis 3:16). Only this Son will do. He is God in the flesh. He is the incarnational invasion of God’s summertime love for a dying world filled with inert sinners. His presence is the incontestable assurance of a springtime restoration leading to eternal life—which He intends to be fully realized in the summer-like joy of paradise.

Jesus of Nazareth is this Gospel Son.

I suppose I should end by pointing out that our lives are not absent these wonderful Gospel images during the fall and winter. Sometimes obvious, and sometimes subtle, they’re there. An evergreen is a perfect example. Something that has become an emblem of Christmas, evergreen trees and bushes are subtle reminders accessible to us no matter the season. They remain thickly verdant with life all year long—just like a Christian’s hope born from the promise fulfilled in the Christ-child of Bethlehem. But then there are the obvious snapshots of the Gospel, too: the Word taught and proclaimed, the Absolution of Sins, Holy Baptism, the Lord’s Supper. Although, “snapshot” is probably not the best word to explain these things. These wonderful gifts of God are far more than images. They are tangible invasions of the most holy God—moments He has instituted, moments doused in the divine forgiveness that not only serves us while we are “still in the fall,” but also in place to prepare and then tie us to the promise of an eternal future in God’s heavenly summer.

I pray you will remember these things as you make your way into the Christmas celebration—and the rest of the Church Year, for that matter. Know that God loves you. Know that the Savior born of Mary is the proof. Know by this wonderful celebration that the winter of Sin and Death is not permanent. Summer is coming.

Misplaced Concerns

I received word that a childhood friend passed away recently. She wasn’t a best friend, but she was part of a circle of families close to my own. Hearing the news, more than a few memories were stirred—summertime at the public pool in Danville, Illinois, where I grew up; riding together like a gang through the neighborhoods on our mag-wheeled Huffy bikes; jumping dirt hills on KX-80s; trick-or-treating as our favorite Star Wars characters; Friday nights at the roller rink; all of these were wafted to remembrance.

I suppose my first reaction was to wonder what Death was doing by reaching out to such a young woman. But then I rose from my chair, heard my knees crack, and remembered my own age. Naturally, I humbly withdrew my reaction to Death’s dealings. Perhaps my departed friend wasn’t as young as I preferred her to be, and as it would go, what did that mean for me?

It means I’ve arrived at the edge of a shadowy land where, both chronologically and biologically, Death is making more rounds among the citizenry.

I could say I don’t want to think about it, but that would be foolish. I’m not going to live forever, that is, there’s no gate strong enough, no lock steely enough, no wall sturdy enough to keep Death out when its carriage arrives at my door. As it was with my childhood friend, no matter what I think is right or fair with regard to Death’s dealings, the exchange will be made, and I will go. To believe differently is to live by lies.

Of course, it’s just as inappropriate for me to dwell on these things as it is to ignore them. To dwell on Death would be to live in fear. To live in fear is to be cursed with finding Death and its dread hiding behind everything. It would be to epitomize an insightful line from Don Quixote, the one that goes something like, “Fear is sharp-sighted. It can see things underground, and even more in the skies.”

Besides, I’m a Christian. Living in fear is not what Christians do. And why? Because even though I said I won’t live forever, the truth is, I will. Yes, Death will arrive. I don’t know when, where, or how, but it will. When it does come, I will go. Still, Death won’t own me in that exchange. I have another Master to whom the fateful carriage will transport me. By the power of the Holy Spirit in faith, I can live and breathe and move within each day apart from a strict attachment to this world knowing that even though “in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). That awareness from Saint Paul is nothing less than a faithful interpretation of Christ’s promise to Martha in John 11:25-26:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

Death had come for Martha’s brother, Lazarus. It sounds like it came in a dreadful way—through illness. Jesus didn’t debate the fact of Death or its means. Instead, He comforted Martha with a better fact—a Gospel-fact—not only that Death wasn’t the end-all, but that the One who was stronger than Death was now on the scene. With Him, Death is defenseless. With Him, the bright-beaming rays of eternal life on hope’s horizon are visible. From that vantage, Death and its fear are neutralized by the Christian confidence of faith. Faith in Jesus is the antidote for fear.

Re-reading what I just wrote, I wonder if there’s more to consider when it comes to how the world around us views Death and its fear. I sometimes wonder if too many people have things somewhat out of order. What I mean is that perhaps people have lost sight of the seriousness of Death’s finality and what comes after it because they’re too distracted by the concern for the ways it might arrive—COVID-19, a school shooting, cancer, or whatever. Again, Death is coming for everyone. What happens beyond that moment is the more crucial concern. Still, so many have traded the momentousness of Death’s eternal irrevocability for the temporary nature of its occurrence. They’re afraid of dying, not necessarily the specter of Death itself.

It would seem this misplaced concern has given birth to a sharp-sighted and irrational fear strong enough to prevent people from actually living. They see danger in everything, and as a result, they’re afraid to visit family and friends, they’re afraid to return to work, they need this and that preventative measure in place before feeling safe enough to do just about anything. I read just this morning that the State of Oregon is considering establishing a permanent indoor mask mandate.

Perhaps worst of all, this fear is still keeping some Christians distant from Christ and the gifts He gives in worship.

But remember, with Jesus—and being strengthened by the Gospel means He provides—Death and its fear is counteracted. Christians don’t have to be afraid of COVID-19 or any future variants. They don’t have to live in fear of a school shooter. Certainly, Christians are mindful, using their reason and senses attuned by God’s Word to watch, discern, serve, protect, and defend against Death’s means. Indeed, we are mindful of Death. And we should be. Compared to the world around us, we know and understand its dirty dealings the best.

But we don’t dwell on them.

By faith, we have been grafted into the One who defeated Death (John 15:5). We have the One who has given us the promise that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

With promises like these in hand, when we feel the creeping nudge of fear’s tendrils, we can know to run to, not away from, Jesus. It’s only with Him that we’ll receive what’s necessary for facing off with Death and its fear. It’s only with Jesus that we’ll have what we need for living in Christian confidence, come what may.

Autumn through a Christian Lens

As is always the case, when I arrive at the church early on Sunday mornings, I dive into my usual routine. The first part of that routine is to do a little bit of reading from a smattering of sources. Of course, I always start by visiting God’s Word, but after that, I take a few minutes with the news, maybe a short portion from a book, perhaps a quick dip into email, but always a scan of social media. As those who know me best might guess, it’s from any or all these moments a morning epistle to all of you emerges.

I am, for the most part, disinterested in talking about the first thing I stumbled across on social media this morning, which was a back-and-forth between two mostly like-minded people throttling one another’s individual views on the Afghanistan withdrawal. But I will briefly confess to having observed and learned something about human character, and strangely, it’s something we can actually thank social media for uncovering. Having met these people in person, I learned by their online exchange that perhaps you don’t really absorb as much as you might think of a person’s character through face-to-face conversations. However, it seems you may be able to tell a lot more from his or her swiftly typed responses threaded together with misspelled words and doled out during a sketchy online argument. These remarks seem to be written in a hurry, and most likely, reflect a person’s first thoughts, making them an unobstructed window of sorts.

Still, I don’t really feel like going any further with that lesson, and so, take from the observation what you will. I’d rather talk about what I see through a different window.

Apart from the unusually summer-like warmth of the early morning air, it would appear that a handful of leaves on the bush just outside my office window are beginning to tinge with red. You know what that means, right? It means the changing of seasons is once again upon us.

For all my talk of love for the summertime sun, I’ll admit there remains in my heart a secret compartment devoted to autumn. A minute or two examining its landscapes are all that’s needed for understanding why. Every year it’s an ensemble of visual delights—abundant greens having turned to variations of bright yellows through to deep scarlets, flowers that were once reaching skyward now bent and hidden beneath leaves being kissed by a cooler autumn sun, those same leaves often being stirred up suddenly in a swirl by a wailing wind, as if following along on the tail of an invisible kite. For anyone willing to consider the beauty of God’s well-ordered world, even in its tiniest parts, autumn’s scenes are moving.

There’s an emotional richness to autumn, too. It carries in its frosty breezes a strange combination of melancholy and gladness. It bears the crisply hollow feeling of something’s absence. Take a stroll through one of fall’s naked forests and you’ll see. Life itself seems to be sleeping so deeply that nothing can wake it, and all around is damp and dying. And yet, visit that same scene wearing your favorite hat and your coziest coat. Be ready to sense the child-like urge to kick through a leaf pile before leaving to visit the nearby orchard for cider, cinnamon doughnuts, and a chance at picking the best pumpkin for carving.

Autumn is made paradoxically thick by these competing portraits. Through the lens of the Christian faith, perhaps more so than any other season, I’d say autumn silently communicates some of the most important things about life in this world.

For example, autumn more than presents the fall into Sin and the cruel nakedness of regret. It brings the indisputable reminder that our shame is uncovered. It tells us everything has changed and it’s completely beyond our capacity for returning things to what they once were. It whispers the sweeping reality of Death—the inescapability of its laying all things bare before the Creator, its far-reaching aim toward an oncoming winter of eternal condemnation, its frosty residue of guilt that covers everything it touches along the way, the penetrating chill of its finality that can shiver any and all of us to tears.

These are the stanzas of autumn’s dirge-like song. That is, unless you have Jesus. Again, through the lens of faith in Christ, autumn’s singing can turn to something altogether different.

By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, believers know they are not without Jesus in these autumnal-like moments of bleakness. He’s with them (Matthew 28:20; Psalm 23:4; Joshua 1:9; Hebrews 13:5; Romans 8:38-39). He’s strolling alongside, countering gloom with hope, drawing Christian eyes to His glorious purposes nestled and germinating among the leaves, clothing His people in a thickly warm baptismal robe of righteousness that covers Sin and repels the wrath that Sin deserves, exchanging their melancholy for joy, and promising the certainty of a heavenly spring—the resurrection from Death.

Side by side with Christ, trusting in His life, death, and resurrection for our transgressions, we know in all of our naked forests and rotting leaf piles the same thing we know while drinking cider, eating cinnamon doughnuts, and carving pumpkins: Spring is coming. It cannot be stopped. It’s approaching like a juggernaut from another sphere and it will break through winter’s borders, consuming the entirety of its kingdom. It’s only a matter of time.

While the world keeps spinning, and the people in it continue to reveal the disappointing character of Sin’s nature, isn’t it wonderful how the Gospel for faith can bring a reminder of Christian hope simply by way of a few tinted leaves outside an office window? Indeed, the Bible rings true regarding the assertion of God’s love ever-resonating even among His well-ordered creation (Matthew 6:25-33; Psalm 19:1; Psalm 96:11-12; Romans 8:19).

May God grant you comfort by these words.

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.

You Look Young for Your Age

I learned something a few days ago. It came to me just after a discussion with my wife regarding her feelings about my beard.

To begin, she’s not a fan of my beard by default, at least not at the length I’ve been keeping it lately. That being said, she doesn’t completely hate it. It’s just that when it gets a little more ZZ Top-ish, she doesn’t appreciate the scragginess when I kiss her, or the fact that she has to be a spotter at dinner, being ready with a glance and gesture to let me know that not all of my spaghetti sauce made it into my mouth.

I do appreciate her help in this regard. By the way, remind me to tell you the story sometime about what happened to me at a gas station in Milford after having eaten a bag of popcorn with the kids in the lunchroom at the school.

Anyway, Jennifer knew me when I didn’t have the beard, and so she knows why I started growing it.

First of all, while my life doesn’t move along at the speed of light, at a minimum, it’s often clocking very near the speed of sound. Speaking practically, growing a beard has made getting ready in the mornings much easier. Not having to shave gives me a few minutes more. Yes, minutes matter to me. Secondly, I’ve always had a young face. And even though I’m a long way from my thirties, even with the beard, people swear I’m barely into them. That’s nice, right? Except for a guy who has a side hustle of reviewing whiskies, without the beard, it used to be that I could barely get the lady behind the counter at the liquor store asking my age to believe the driver’s license I was showing her wasn’t fake.

“That’s you, huh?” she’d ask.

“Yep,” I’d reply, “that’s me.”

“You look young for your age,” she’d continue.

“Yeah, well, I’m married, have four kids, and a mortgage,” I’d offer. “And one of those kids is in college.”

My beard has helped somewhat in this regard.

But without rambling on for too long about this, what lesson did I learn after my discussion with Jennifer? I learned that only one of the two reasons remains for keeping the beard.

Honoring my promise to Jennifer to do some trimming, I went upstairs to begin the task. As I gathered closely to the mirror, I realized I really don’t have a young face anymore. I saw wrinkles I’ve never seen before, and a tiredness that I used to only be able to feel but not necessarily observe. And while I’ve always had a thick head of hair, I noticed far more of it had begun silvering. In fact, most of the beard hair that ended up in the sink was gray. Jen says the gray makes me look distinguished. I don’t know about that. What I do know is that as I zipped this way and that way with the electric trimmers, I could hear the words “You look young for your age” beginning to carry a far different tone. What was once something that sort of bothered me had become in that moment a compliment.

But here’s the twist: A compliment like that is only given by someone who thinks you’re old. In other words, the tables had officially turned. To use youthfulness as a compliment is to admit I’m not youthful.

Maybe I’m digging too deeply here. I guess I do that with these things, sometimes. Nevertheless, Jennifer and I keep each other accountable when it comes to this whole aging thing. She’ll say to me just as I’ll say to her, “Don’t wish the days away.” Usually it’s said in a moment of frustration over the kids, or work, or something challenging. And certainly we say it mindful of the future—that eventually the day will come when there won’t be any more days like these. In that light, we say these words to remember to be immersed in the moment.

It was Seneca who said, “Old age is an incurable disease.” It’s an illness we all possess, and in a sense, doing whatever we can to look or feel as young or old at any given moment is not necessarily the issue, but rather the awareness that an endpoint is always eminently near. Death can and will arrive at the appointed time. I remember hearing the news that my grade school friend Todd had fallen from a tree and died. I remember hearing people say his death was untimely. But in truth, when it comes to Death, age doesn’t really matter. We’re all going to die.

Knowing this, as an extension of the lesson learned while trimming some of my beard away, I thanked the Lord for His grace, acknowledging He has been so very good to me and my family. I thanked Him for being fully immersed in every moment of my life—and the life of my family—especially when we as individuals weren’t as invested. I ended that prayer by holding Him to His promise to continue to be there for us until our very last hour together, knowing my greatest hope is not that we’ll never taste Death, but that Jennifer, Joshua, Madeline, Harrison, and Evelyn will one day be within my reach in the glories of eternal life in heaven.

I suppose one of the best lessons to be learned by all of this is that Christians can look into the mirror, see an aging expression, and yet be confident enough to face the setting sun of this mortal life it is betraying. Easter prompts this courage. It reminds us of a sunlight that never sets, one not being emitted from a sun or moon, but rather from God Himself (Revelation 21:23). It brings to mind the death of Death (2 Timothy 1:10) and the resurrection and restoration of failing bodies (Philippians 3:21). It reminds us that we aren’t inheritors of this life, but of the life to come (Titus 3:7). A glance in the mirror, while it will reveal the mortal illness of age, through the lens of faith, it can also show you the face of someone the Lord looked upon in love, someone the Lord went into the fray of Sin and Death to snatch back from the dreadful permanency of eternal Death awaiting each and every human being at the end of the illness. The next time you look in the mirror, I encourage you to think on this Gospel truth. And maybe even offer a prayer, as I did, thanking the Lord for the days you’ve been given, and for any of the days yet to come.

Gospel Dominance

For those whose Easter is little more than an annual go-round with chocolate rabbits and painted eggs, the fanfare of the celebration has come and gone. Not so for the Christian Church. For us, it remains. We actually live each day in the wake of the ultimate enemy’s defeat.

Death has been conquered. Jesus has done it. Therefore, Death no longer has standing among us. No room for mastery. No room for terrorizing. No room for demands. No room for negotiation. It really is finished. Easter is the proof. And now through faith in Christ, we are His and He is ours. Living in that redemption, what’s left to frighten us?

Nothing.

The more I experience life in this fallen world, the more and more I become glad for this wonderful reality born from a Gospel of great power. It’s a Gospel that changes me. It changes the way I see the world. It changes the way I understand people. It changes the way I maneuver from task to task each new day. It changes the way I suffer during struggle. It alters the way I endure hatred from others.

By the loving promise of Death’s defeat, I can steer into all of these knowing that while I might not pass through them unscathed, I won’t go into them or come out on the other side without hope. Christ has cemented my hope, and with that, I can be content. I can have joy.

Before this contentment took root in me, it wouldn’t have been uncommon for me to get worked up in caustic situations. Not so much anymore. Take for example a recent circumstance in which my reputation was being maligned by deliberate deceit. In the past I might have run headlong into the fray to defend myself. Not so much anymore. I don’t feel the need to do so. I have a dominance in those situations that’s hard to unseat.

Yes, dominance.

There’s a saying that people only talk behind the backs of those who are dominant. Whatever that proverb might mean to the world, for me it has been reinterpreted by the Gospel. Yes, I am in a seat of dominance. But it’s a dominance that has been granted to me—a dominance of contentment in Christ. It’s a certainty that drives away worry, leaving me to know I’m completely surrounded by the Lord’s loving care. Even as I’m behind His flag, He’s also covering any and all of my exposed flanks. With this assurance in hand, I really can say, “World, do your worst.” I am content to live according to the promise of the Easter Gospel. This means that even when things seem their darkest and I begin to feel the blunt end of injustice, even if things don’t turn around in this life, one thing remains true: I’m not an inheritor of this world. I’m an inheritor of the world to come—an inheritance won by Jesus, one in which He is sure to flip the switch of the divine lights and expose all things done in darkness. In the meantime, I can be at peace in all circumstances, strengthened for continuing forward in faithfulness.

Once again, the resurrection Gospel imputes this. It imputes it today. It’ll be there imputing it again tomorrow. And the next day. That’s the promise. If the last enemy, Death, has been conquered, what else is there to concern or harm us?

Believers know the answer to this question as they go about their lives in the perpetual sunshine of Easter, and the world will squirm with frustration around us as we do.

I want you to know that when I go to the altar of God this week at Our Savior to pray privately for His people, this will be the precision of my petitions. I will pray on your behalf, asking God that in the coming days, by the power of the Holy Spirit, He will grant for you to remember these things. My prayer will be for you to be emboldened by the same Gospel that emboldens me, that you will have taken into yourself the joyful promise of the Lord’s mighty resurrection for your justification before the Heavenly Father, which is also an ultra-confident—nay, dominant—slap in the face of Death itself.

By faith, all of this is certainly yours for the taking.

Backroad Cemeteries

It’s very early, 5:30am to be precise. I’m writing this note from Cantrall, Illinois. Again, to be precise, I’m at Camp CILCA, which is just outside of Springfield.

A summer camp I attended in my youth, I know this place well. Even better, I eventually became CILCA’s head counselor in the early nineties, having held the position for four consecutive summers. I should add that during those same years I was also the head lifeguard, music leader, sports director, and weekend maintenance assistant to a wonderful man I’ll forever consider a friend, Derald Sasse, may his soul rest in peace.

I stayed here at CILCA this weekend, having spoken last night at the camp’s annual banquet at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Springfield. I received a kindly invitation last fall from the current Camp Director, Reverend Joshua Theilen, to be the banquet keynote speaker. I was certainly glad to accept. And of course, the topic being something along the lines of Christian engagement in the public square, I was certainly ready to drive down and prattle on about such things. I pray my words last night were of benefit to the people in attendance.

Interestingly, I’m staying in the Christian Growth Center here at the camp, which back in my day, was the only building on the camp property with air conditioning. The funny thing is, in all my years here at CILCA, I never once spent a night in this building. I maintained it. I helped clean the rooms for various groups that came through. I fixed broken windows and repaired faulty electrical outlets, but I never actually enjoyed the fruits of my labor. And yet, here I am twenty-five years later. Life is weird that way, I guess.

As soon as I finish typing this note, I’ll be hopping into the Jeep and heading back to Michigan. To get here to Illinois, I took the backroads. I’ll probably do the same thing going home. I like driving the backroads. While they’re pleasantly uneventful, there’s plenty to see. Driving along through the sleepy farmlands provides more than enough opportunities for thoughtful observation. Thinking back to these travels a few days ago, I can think of at least two things I remember pondering.

The first thing I spent some travel time thinking about was the Old Testament reading from Genesis 22 appointed for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, which tells the story of God commanding Abraham to take his son, Isaac, to a yet undisclosed place and sacrifice him. I’d call this event dreadful if I didn’t already know its substance and ultimate conclusion. As a father, could I follow through as Abraham did? And yet, if the listener is paying attention as Abraham speaks, the comfort of trust in the promises of God is woven into the narrative. Once Abraham and Isaac arrived at the place God commanded, Abraham told the servants who journeyed with them that he and his son were going to go and worship God and then return to them.

That moment is a clue as to what Abraham knew would happen. He would unreservedly follow God’s commands already knowing something of God.

God promised Abraham that Isaac would be the one through whom the Messiah would come. God assured Abraham of this. Abraham knew that God doesn’t break His promises, and so no matter what approached from the horizon, Isaac would be fine. Abraham trusted this. If you doubt this analysis, then take a look at Hebrews 11:17-19. The writer to the Hebrews acknowledges this as he digs a little deeper into Abraham’s faith, describing him as knowing full well that if he was indeed forced to follow through with the frightful deed, God would give Isaac back to him alive. He’d have to. God would reverse Death, and preserve Isaac’s life.

This is a very rich moment, both emotionally and theologically, especially as we prepare to wrap up Lent and rejoice in the Easter celebration of Christ’s resurrection. I suppose that thinking about these things probably influenced the second thing I remember pondering along the way.

While tooling along through the farmlands of Indiana and Illinois, I noticed something familiar to each of the little towns along the way. They all have conspicuous cemeteries.

Now, you might be thinking that just about every city or town in America has a cemetery. Believe it or not, they don’t. But these backroad towns do, and each is noticeably prominent, often pitched on a hill at the edge of the city, perhaps adorned with an elderly oak tree or two. And if the cemetery isn’t standing guard at the edge of town, it’s situated somewhere along the town’s main street, making it impossible for anyone to miss while passing through. In either, the collection of headstones is a community of both old and new, and from a reasonable distance, against a setting sun, their mutual silhouette looks almost city-like.

I remember when I was a kid in the seventies and eighties, my friends and I would hold our breaths when passing a cemetery. The lore was that by breathing, there was a chance we might make a wandering spirit jealous. Another version of the myth claimed that you might accidentally inhale a spirit and become possessed. Silly, I know. Good thing I know better, because now that I’m far from those youthful fooleries, I passed a particularly lengthy cemetery on Saturday evening near Lincoln, Illinois as I was making my way to Cantrall from Morton, Illinois, where my parents and sister live. Had I held my breath as I passed, I might have ended up unconscious and in a ditch. Or worse, in a cemetery.

And yet, having said this, the fact that every town has its cemetery is a reminder that at some point, my body will end up in one. There’s no avoiding it. Read the poets. Christian or not, they get the inevitability of Death. Percy Shelley called Death the veil that is finally lifted during the deepest sleep. John Donne described Death as mighty and dreadful, and yet without pride, portraying it as simply doing what it does almost boringly even as it is unstoppable. Robert Browning describes the knowledge of unavoidable Death as motivation for living life fully. Emily Dickinson, of course, is famous for portraying Death as unstoppable, being the carriage that will one day arrive for all. And when it knocks at your door, you will be unable to keep from opening it.

Since I’ve suddenly shifted to considering the poets this morning, I’ll admit to appreciating Lord Tennyson’s description of Death:

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.

Tennyson doesn’t describe Death fearfully. Instead, he sets it before his reader as something of a story’s ending. It’s the sunset to an eventful day. It is an open sky with a view to the evening star. It is a clear call of his name, and a drawing to a vessel setting sail into the open sea, a place that he loved.

I don’t know what influenced Tennyson’s perspectives on things, but I’ll say his consideration of Death is comforting. It evokes the Lord’s even more so reassuring words throughout the Gospels.

Now, don’t misunderstand the Lord’s position on Death. Jesus knows full well it’s a big deal. He knows it isn’t pretty. He knows Death is an ugly ordeal, that it’s a terrorizing power. Following His lead, Saint Paul describes it as the worst of all enemies of Man. But pretty much all of the biblical writers go out of their way to make sure we know that through faith in Christ, we don’t need to be afraid of Death. We don’t need to be fearful because Christ has defeated it. Like Abraham, we can face off with its dreadfulness with the promises of God well in hand. And so the Lord can say to Lazarus’ sisters that whoever lives and believes in Him, will live even though he dies. Saint Paul can mock Death, courageously poking at it with the Word of God’s promises, asking, “Where is your sting?” Job can speak so joyfully that even in the midst of Death, at the last, he will stand and behold God with his own eyes of flesh.

I like Tennyson’s description because he has this similar verve. It’s almost as if he’s equipped with the knowledge of faith, which we as Christians know by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel enables us to see Death for what it has now become for the believer: a turning from one page to the next.

And the next page holds an unending chapter that is far better than any that came before it.

I like that. And again, the season of Lent is certainly teaching this very point, making sure we’re ready to fully embrace the significance of the Lord’s resurrection—His conquering of Death—all for us!

To use Tennyson’s imagery, Easter is the clear call. Easter doesn’t allow for moaning of the bar. Easter sets sail for the unending horizons of eternal life through faith in the One who was crushed and killed for our iniquities, and yet was found alive on the third day, having wrestled Death and won.

Here in a few moments I’ll be packing up my car and making my way back to Michigan. I’ll be passing many of those same cemeteries I encountered on the way here. I won’t be holding my breath when I pass, just as I won’t be looking on them as fearful markers signifying hopelessness. I’ll observe them as Abraham looked upon Isaac. God is faithful to His promises. He is our hope in the midst of Death. Through that lens—the lens of faith—each of the tombstones whizzing past me will herald particular truths. The first is that unless the Lord returns first, I will die someday. There’s no way of getting around that fact. The second is that even as Death would come calling, it is not my master. Christ has won my eternal life. I am not consigned to the grave forever, but rather with my last breath, I will set sail into the joys of eternal life with my Lord at the helm.

Let’s Be Honest About Death

Just yesterday (Saturday, February 20), the Life Team of Our Savior blessed our church and community by offering an “End of Life” seminar. It was well attended. I was glad for that.

The keynote speaker for the event was Genevieve Marnon, the Legislative Director for Right to Life of Michigan. I know Genevieve. She’s a great servant of the cause for life, and as you’d expect, she gave great insight into a multitude of things facing the Church in America when it comes to end-of-life decision making. All who took advantage of the day’s events were well fed.

We were also joined by Gary Borg from Lynch and Sons Funeral Home. I know the folks at Lynch and Sons well. Some years ago, Thomas Lynch, being the friend and writer that he is, wrote a kindly endorsement for my first volume of The Angels’ Portion. Knowing Tom’s directors to be top-notch, as expected, Gary’s words were valuable as he explained the funeral home’s role in the process, giving helpful tips to families for navigating what is likely to be a taxing and turbulent time.

I was tasked with kicking off the event. My topic: “How to Prepare for a Funeral Service and Beyond.” Of course, I did what I could to fulfill the expectations of this topic, being sure to talk about the nature and theology of a funeral service, as well as emphasizing and encouraging faithful practices. I talked about how to be proactive in planning one’s own funeral, and I went through the basic steps of what families should do when a loved one’s last breath occurs.

But before I could speak to any of these things, I felt the need to steer into an honest discussion of what sits at the core of the conversation.

Death.

There is the temptation to avoid the word “death” altogether. I, on the other hand, give the word a capital “D” in every sermon I write. Why? Because Death is no small thing. It’s owed our attention. It’s big. It’s powerful. When it’s lurking, you know it’s there. When it steps onto the scene, there’s no questioning its intentions. Shakespeare personified Death in this way, too, describing it as keeping court, as sitting and scoffing at the pomp of man, waiting for the inevitable moment (Richard II, III, ii, I, 160). When Death has passed through, the devastation is real. It leaves behind things that are tangible to each of the human senses. You can see its shadow in the pale skin of the deceased. You can touch and know the coldness of its labor. It even has its own smell. The people who’ve been powerless to stop its savage work on a loved one have red cheeks and bloodshot eyes. They’ve tasted the salt of their own tears. When there’s no more heavy breathing and the life-support machines have been stopped, the silence is thunderous.

W.B. Yeats once wrote that Man knows Death to the bone (Death, 1933). And he’s right. For the victim, it leaves nothing untouched. For those left behind, it cuts into the depths of their being, and its scars are long-lasting.

Against the overwhelming evidence of Death’s strangling might, in an attempt to be at peace with its inescapable work, I’ve heard some refer to Death as a friend, something to embrace as good. Yes, it’s true that an end to mortal suffering can be counted as a blessing. But the verity of such a statement isn’t so for the reasons the mortal flesh would conjure. Death is not a blessing. It’s a curse. It’s not natural. It’s completely foreign to God’s design for creation. He makes sure we understand these things in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:19. In 1 Corinthians 15:26, Saint Paul makes sure we never utter the words, “Death is a friend.” It’s not a friend. It’s the last bitterest enemy of Man.

Before we can even begin to fathom the glorious purpose and momentum of a Christian funeral, we need to be wise to what we’re actually dealing with. Death is everything I’ve described. It’s real, and it’s coming for all. Each of us will breathe our last and be returned to the bosom of the earth. We don’t know how or when it will happen, we just know that it will. And when it does, what will we do? What shall we expect from and for those around us? Where is our hope in the midst of the mess?

A Christian funeral beholds Christ right in the middle of it.

In the midst of the initial sadness—Christ. When the machines are being unplugged and rolled away—Christ. When the plans are being made at the funeral home—Christ. When the readings and hymns are being selected and the obituary is being crafted from memories—Christ. When the bell tolls and the service begins, when the casket is closed and the mortal remains are covered by the pall—Christ. When the sermon is ringing out to the listeners—Christ and more Christ! Yes, the loved-one in the casket will be remembered, and likely in some heart-warming ways. Nevertheless, none of these will rise to the prominent station of “most important.” At a Christian funeral, Jesus owns that spot. And so the unmistakable communiqué to be dispatched to the troubled community will be the Good News of Death’s cure—the great heralding of Death’s utter defeat at the hands of Christ.

A Christian funeral is to be nothing less than the proclamation of this Gospel—the overabundant proclamation of the world-splitting news that Death no longer rules the spaces between heaven and hell because of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, Death is no longer the believer’s lord. It is not the believer’s master. It is not the believer’s end. Jesus has seen to this. He said so Himself: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Trusting in the divine Son of God, the One who throttled Death by His own demise on Calvary’s cross, believers—both in the casket and in the pews—can be sure that Death has been remedied. The process itself, no matter how it may unfold, is now only for believers to close their eyes and exhale a last breath in mortality, and then to open their eyes and inhale the freshness of eternal life in the nearest presence of Christ in heaven.

Christ made sure of this.

If we don’t understand these things, a funeral can devolve into a circus sideshow very quickly. If we don’t empower our pastors to direct our funerals in a Godly way, being sure to leave behind very clear instructions for our families, then our own funerals very well could become less of what Christ would desire and more of what the unbelieving world would do to find peace, which ultimately means everyone in attendance will be left searching for hope in all the wrong places.

Lent is a good time to have a seminar like the one we had. This is true because Lent takes seriously what plagues humanity, knowing the immensity of the Lord’s work to save us from it, while at the same time knowing that Easter is on the very near horizon.

My prayer for you this day is that you would know the immensity of the Lord’s work, too, and that you would look to Him in all things, being assured of eternal life through faith in Him. Lent reminds us of the serious nature of the wage for Sin, which is Death. Easter reminds us that neither has a hold on Jesus. This being true, by faith in Him, they don’t have a hold on you, either.

The Shape of the Gospel — Ash Wednesday

The penitential season of Lent is soon to be upon us. It begins this week with Ash Wednesday.

So, who cares? Christians do. At least, they should. Although, it would seem many Christians—even some of the clergy—are preaching and teaching against it. I don’t know why. I did hear one say it’s some sort of innovation to the Church Year and therefore to be avoided. I heard another suggest it hinders the Christian’s ability to prepare for Easter with joy. That’s sad. One sure way to rob the victory of its joy is to be ignorant of what’s at stake in the war. Ash Wednesday offers a much-needed glimpse of the battlefield.

I find it strangely interesting that even the sensual (though unofficial) liturgies of something like Mardi Gras would portray a better awareness and care for Ash Wednesday and Lent, whether their partakers actually realize it or not. Even in the midst of a celebration that holds the well-deserved reputation for overindulgent debauchery, there is the sense that it must and will come to an end.

“Live it up,” its rites and ceremonies proclaim, “for after Fat Tuesday, it must all expire.”

And it does. What once was gives way to the ashen dust of death remembered by Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the proper headstone for all things carnal.

A day in the Church Year in which believers’ foreheads are marked with the ashes of what were once lively and verdant branches (the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration), Ash Wednesday reveals that the Christian Church knows something of this world that the world itself cannot fully fathom. It knows the wage for Sin is Death—real and eternal Death. It knows this as it recalls God’s terrifying words to Adam and Eve after the fall into Sin. These words still reverberating, it hears the truth in them. It knows the necessity for their honest contemplation so that we would see the world as it ought to be seen. It knows to immerse itself in the depths of a solemnity that acknowledges the horror of the very real predicament that the entire human race is facing. The Church knows there’s so much more than just an end to things, but there’s also a terrible dreadfulness just over that end’s border for those who remain enslaved to the mess.

You can’t ignore it.

You can’t hide from it.

You can’t outrun it.

You can’t overpower it.

The inevitability of its reach is woven into the very fleshly fabric of every man, woman, and child who was ever born in the natural way.

It was with divine, and yet heartbroken, authority that God announced this to His world and its first inhabitants: “Because you have done this, cursed is the ground because of you…” (Genesis 3:17). Cursed things are put away from God. By this curse—this self-inflicted and permanent vexation—“you will return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

The thing about Ash Wednesday is that you can’t make your way into and through Lent without contemplating the veracity of the curse. Ash Wednesday has become a guardian of sorts at Lent’s contrite door, and it won’t let you into the forthcoming events without being stamped. The stamp it reaches out to give, it goes on your head and not your hand. Its dust crowns the human frame as the only appropriate coronation for someone born into the un-royal lineage of the Sin-nature. It adorns the skull that shields the corrupted human mind, the organ fed by a sinful heart so that it would calculate and then initiate every ungodly act of thought, word, or deed. The mark’s dirty-cold embers are the kind that distinguish Cain from Abel, openly identifying the murderer and reminding him of the dusty ground that opened up to swallow Godly innocence.

And yet, even as Ash Wednesday won’t let you forget the seriousness of the disease, it will be just as fervent with the cure.

Remember: That filthy mark is in the shape of a cross. It’s smeared onto the penitently-postured foreheads of Ash Wednesday’s observers who know their need for a Savior. It serves as a silent proclamation of God’s truest inclinations in our darkness. It’s the shape of the Gospel—the death of the Savior, Jesus Christ, for a cursed world. The Great Exchange—His righteousness for our unrighteousness. It tells of a birthright, not earned, but given in love. It beams through dusty grime the truth of an imperishable crown of blamelessness, not earned by the wearer, but won and granted by the Savior. Cain is marked and no one can touch him. God has been gracious. For us, even in that smeared cross’ quiet, there thunders above every human wearing it an otherworldly hope for eternal life through faith in the Savior who was nailed to it on Good Friday. The booming crack of its message drowns out the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh’s accusations to the contrary.

Ash Wednesday’s mark serves as a gentle reminder of something else in particular. It heralds rebirth.

That cross of ash will dot the same place where God first made the sign of the cross upon His Christians in Holy Baptism. If only for a few hours, it will make visible the invisible, leading each of its bearers back to the moment when God He put His own name on them, claiming them as His through the washing of water and the Word, thereby grafting them into the entirety of Christ’s self-submitting work to accomplish Mankind’s redemption (Romans 6:1-10).

It’s been said that the best opportunities are seldom labeled. This “best opportunity” of Ash Wednesday is, in fact, labeled. Its tag may be grimy, but it happens to be one of the most condensed opportunities in the entirety of the Church Year for a right understanding of our condition in Sin and our glorious rescue by the Son of God. Don’t keep it at arm’s length, but rather embrace the opportunity to gather with the faithful and sing as we do in the appointed tract, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).

If you have any say in your evening activities, I encourage you to participate. Set aside 7:00pm this Wednesday. Make your way to Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan. Or go to your own church if it is offering a service. Either way, just don’t make the mistake of missing out on the powerful manner and message of the Ash Wednesday proclamation. You’ll be given the opportunity to look Sin and Death square in the eyes. You’ll see your mortality there. But you’ll see so very brightly and hear so very clearly the Good News of your brand new beginning through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the compassion of God who took upon Himself human flesh and made His dwelling among us for our rescue.

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.