Family Matters Most

Yesterday was my daughter Evelyn’s 13th birthday, and I’m not kidding when I say she has been looking forward to the day for quite some time. Becoming a teenager is a memorable thing. It’s an even bigger deal for a girl who dearly loves her family and wants so much for them to share the moment with her.

Evelyn really is that kind of girl. If she is experiencing joy, she wants that same joy to be experienced by others. I think that’s one reason why she is so invested in her church family. She loves the Lord. He has blessed her through some pretty incredible challenges, and He’s done it in ways that have brought her tremendous joy. As a result, and firstly, she’s drawn toward being in worship with others in her church. What I mean is that even though she’s already in worship every Sunday, she also attends on Wednesdays—even though she doesn’t have to. When she was in midweek catechesis, she attended Wednesday evening worship by default because I brought her to school in the mornings, and then she’d stay through for her class, which happens right after evening worship. She’s confirmed now and no longer in midweek catechesis. But she still insists on staying with me all day to attend Wednesday evening worship. Secondly, she’s drawn toward making sure the place where worship happens is in good order—that the processional cross is in place, that the hymnals are straightened, that any scrap of out-of-place paper is removed. She wants the sacred spaces to be kept in a way that prevents others from being distracted from the joy God intends to give.

She’s also the kind of girl, as I said, who loves her immediate family—a family that, as the youngest in the bunch, she can see is beginning to spread its wings and fly in multiple directions, often making it difficult for everyone to be together. But she wants that togetherness. She so often wants nothing more than to have all of us in the same place at the same time. It bothers her when even one of us is missing. And rightfully so. Who wants to be apart from the ones they love the most? Not Evelyn. And her 13th birthday celebration all but guaranteed it. We’d all be there. And not only that, but we were all relatively commitment-free. She’d be able to spend the whole day at home with her family doing whatever she wanted, having set her sights on time with her siblings, the consumption of chili dogs (her requested meal), opening presents, and then plunging into some pie and ice cream a little later.

But then I got a call that threatened to jeopardize this greatest wish and a long-anticipated day.

The call came in on Thursday morning. I was asked to give the opening prayer at the Trump rally in Warren, Michigan, on Saturday afternoon. It was an honor to be asked, to be sure. It’s something that, if you say no, you never get asked again. I had a choice to make. I told the caller that I couldn’t say yes without checking on something else first, and I assured her I’d call her right back. As soon as I hung up, I called Jennifer. Like me, she knew the day belonged to Evelyn. With that, our conversation was brief. We agreed that while this was an incredible honor, whatever Evelyn preferred would determine my answer. She was most important to both of us, and quite simply, that was that.

I walked down to the school, peeked into Evelyn’s classroom, and motioned for her to join me in the hallway. Reminding her of something that needed no reminder—the arrival of her birthday in two days—I started to tell her about what I’d just been invited to do that same day. Before I could even begin to explain that she would have the final word and that I would be absolutely fine with saying no to the request, her eyes lit up, and she burst into, “Can I go with you?! Can I go?! Can I go?!” She took a quick breath and then, true to form, added, “Can we all go?! Can the whole family go?!”

“Of course, we can all go,” I said. “But it’s your birthday—and it’s an extra-special one. You’ve been looking forward to being home with the whole family and having an easy day. I want that to be what happens if that’s what you want. Whatever you want to do is what we’ll all do. Just know I intend to be with you on your 13th birthday. There’s absolutely no way I’d miss it.”

“Will I get to meet President Trump if I go?” she asked. “Can we all meet him together?” she continued, making sure the prospect of a unique birthday joy would be her family’s, too.

“Absolutely,” I said. “We’ll all meet the President together.”

“Really?!” she replied, sounding even more excited than before.

“Yes, really,” I said. “They’ll give our whole family special seats right up front. When it’s time, they’ll call me on stage to offer the prayer, and then sometime afterward, when President Trump arrives, they’ll come and get us and take us back to meet him before he goes up to speak. We’ll get to talk with him and take some pictures.”

“Oh, this is going to be the best birthday ever!” she exclaimed. “And we’ll all be together!”

And that’s pretty much where it ended. Evelyn gave me an incredibly tight hug, and then I shepherded her back to class. The rest is what it is. Walking back to my office, I called and said yes, even though I was fully prepared to say no and never to be asked again. With that, we all went together—sadly, except for Harrison. He had a very sore throat on Friday and felt terrible when he awoke on Saturday. He preferred to stay home and sleep. We all missed him, that’s for sure. Each of us said that more than once throughout the evening. Still, it was quite an eventful night. While waiting in the Green Room before my time on stage, I met and visited with a number of folks many of us only know from a distance—such as Mike Lindell and Margorie Taylor Green. One notable moment was spent with Dick Morris. Before the family and I were ushered back to meet the President, he leaned over to ask if I’d read Erik Metaxas’ book on Luther. I had. And so we talked somewhat superficially about its contents. Along the way, I mentioned Luther’s theology of the Two Kingdoms, and that led him to ask me to explain it. I did, and he seemed convinced. And why wouldn’t he? It is the best, most precise handling of biblical Church and State theology.

Still, and as Evelyn is likely to tell you with glee, the best moment for all of us is when she got a cheerful and welcoming “Happy Birthday, Evelyn!” from President Trump followed by a warm handshake and a few pictures together with her family.

Now, I suppose I felt moved to tell you about my initial interaction with Evelyn during school because it shaped what I would eventually say during the prayer before the more than 20,000 people in attendance. If you watched the broadcast, you’d remember that I prayed for many things—religious liberty and protection from unjust laws, courage among citizens, preservation of objective truth, an unraveling of the wickedness of abortion, and God’s mighty hand for crushing Proposal 3. I asked God for these things and more. But smack dab in the middle of visiting with these requests on paper, I was first moved to scribble that our gracious Lord would restore admiration for family. In essence, I asked that we, as a nation, would be reminded of just how wonderful the bond between a father, mother, and children truly is. I did this not only because I know very well the blessings that come from having a family of my own but because God is the generous architect of the human household, and He has put the estate of family in place as a fundamental underpinning for all societies of all time. When families break, communities get weaker. When families are redefined, institutions lose more of their grip on what is sure.

If a society is to endure, it must preserve families.

I’ve also written in other places that the human family forms the quintessential transmission lines for passing this knowledge along from one generation to the next. When families come undone, when these lines are torn down, again, societies lose touch with their very identities. Families are essential to a nation’s identity. Knowing this, if I can’t first choose my family over myself, I harm the ones I love and do my country and its future generations a terrible disservice. The decision to say yes or no to a request like this might not appear to be that impactful, but in the end, its blast radius reaches further into a future than any of us could ever know. The funny thing is, the love I have for my daughter and the love she has for me made it incredibly easy to see. The love my whole family has for each other made it even more apparent.

Remember that.

Wives, love your husbands. No matter what, choose them first. Husbands, love your wives. Prefer them above everything else. Parents, love your children. Embrace them before embracing the things you think might be most beneficial to you personally. Do these things and enjoy a sturdy family, a gift of the Lord well-protected from a culture seeking to divide it. Our floundering 21st-century society needs you to do this, now more than ever.

[To view the prayer, click here.]

Natural Law is Deaf

What do you do when trying to say something to someone, and he or she just won’t listen? Seriously, I’m asking. Do you have any tried-and-true suggestions that work better than others for getting people actually to hear what you’re trying to say?

One could say I’ve been in the business of communication since 1994, yet I can affirm from experience with certainty that the following saying is true: There’s none so deaf as those who will not hear.

Do you know what else is deaf? The Law. And by Law, I don’t mean civil decrees established by human beings. These things are forever listening, being proven flimsy by both good and bad considerations. I’ve heard of crimes committed by mistake that judges deemed worthy of mercy. Perhaps that’s an example of good, especially since it seems to mirror the grace our God offers to us in Christ. But I’ve also seen the sympathy of favoritism measured alongside the whines of a seemingly entitled few—as in the case of Hunter Biden and his dealings—or the current hypocrisy playing out among the liberal elite on Martha’s Vineyard. Do a little reading on those situations, and you’ll understand the saying, “The Law is for thee, not me.”

When I use the word Law, most often, I mean the Ten Commandments. In this case, I mean Natural Law.

Natural Law is entirely deaf. It cannot hear anyone’s attempts to negotiate with or whine against it, hoping for an exception. It’s not listening when you claim it’s unfair. It won’t acknowledge your preferences above its own. It shows no mercy to your accidental or intentional infringements. If you accidentally lop off a limb, it won’t feel sorrow, granting you a do-over. If you jump from a building with arms outstretched, no matter your beliefs about your potential for flight, Natural Law will bring you to the earth in painful judgment. If you dive into a swimming pool, no matter how certain you are that you’ll remain dry, Natural Law will prove your conviction foolish and soak you. Why are these things true? Well, the deepest answer always ends with what’s really going on behind the scenes (Romans 1:18). But aside from that, these things are true because physics is. Because Chemistry is. Because Natural Law is. Natural Law stands passionlessly immovable to anyone attempting to disturb it. It does so with a dry obsession utterly void of fear, concern, anger, sadness, or any care common to the cosmos that God put it in place to manage.

Interestingly, many in our world believe they’ve figured out a way to subdue Natural Law, to make it listen and obey. Their solution? Just keep talking, and along the way, try to bend its rules. Typically, such bending is coupled with a redefining of Natural Law’s language. I mention this having read a recently published paper entitled “The Dutch Protocol for Juvenile Transsexuals: Origins and Evidence” written by Michael Biggs, a Professor of Sociology and Fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford. Michigan Senator Lana Theis shared the link with me, figuring I might be interested in what Dr. Biggs had to say. She was right. I read the whole thing. My guess is that it won’t be long before Biggs is targeted for cancelation by LGBTQ, Inc. I expect this because, in short, not only is the evidence overwhelming that the use of GnRHa puberty suppression drugs in children causes irreversibly physical and psychological damage, but the practice itself began and was furthered through the weakest standards ever known to science, and this was made possible by extraordinarily deceitful language brimming with redefinitions that resulted in outrageous claims regarding its long-term safety.

My thought in this is that the devil has been long-suffering toward this particular insanity. He prompted these things back in the mid-nineties. As it would go, it’s now a standard treatment for gender dysphoric kids—who many experts agree are really only experiencing the dysphoria due to the confusion caused by the adults around them.

Nevertheless, from the mid-nineties until today, Natural Law continued to be what Natural Law is—completely deaf to the conversation and entirely unconcerned with the manipulation of its language. Every uninterpretable variant of each new word remained immutable, forever retaining its roots in what’s real. As always, Natural Law doesn’t care that a man might believe himself to be a woman. Natural Law will forever govern him as a man. And again, why? Because biology is. The study by Dr. Biggs is an essential reminder of the horrible repercussions of believing and acting otherwise.

The ones behind these irreparable disasters—the ones prattling on incessantly that gender is subjective, that men can get pregnant, and so many other ridiculous things—as they speak and speak some more, they do eventually discover an amiable and convincible listener: the sin-nature at home in the audience. The sin-nature is only partially deaf. When truth is spoken, the words are garbled. But the sin-nature hears lies exceptionally well, and it’s inclined toward hearing more. With this, I think these unremitting liars have helped answer my original question regarding what to do when someone just won’t listen, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Critical of human tendency and its favorite conversation partner (the sin-nature), the poet Elizabeth Browning observed, “For say a foolish thing oft enough—the same thing—shall pass at last for absolutely wise, and not with fools exclusively.” In other words, the only way to avoid the truth is to create your own. Of course, to do this is to lie. And yet, it’s a lie that has the potential for acceptance if spoken repeatedly. Repetition is the number one rule in marketing when it comes to audience acceptance. Joseph Goebbels, the chief propagandist for the Nazis, who, knowing the same thing Browning and all professional marketers know, is purported to have spoken rather fondly of this reality in the twisted way you might expect. He said: 

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic, or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

Whether or not Goebbels actually said this, he certainly proved the sentiment genuine. He even weaponized it so that an entire nation would sanction the oppression and murder of millions. Indeed, for liars, truth is the greatest enemy.

But this goes both ways. For truth-tellers, lies are the enemy.

And so, returning to where I began—what do you do when you are trying to communicate truth to someone who just won’t listen? In a way, I think the solution is the same for both liars and truth-tellers. Keep talking. Keep speaking the truth. As this meets with Natural Law, while it may not care about our conversations, it is, by default, already poised in the truth-tellers’ camp. When we cannot convince someone ideologically, Natural Law has a way of convincing them physically. Keen to this, we keep on talking.

Admittedly, you’ll need stamina for this. I say this for a very good reason. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to certain things troubling our society, sometimes I get sick of the sound of my own voice as I talk about them. This is true because I find myself saying the same things over and over again. It’s exhausting. Jennifer and I were just having this conversation a few nights ago regarding vulgar speech. We tire ourselves sharing our frustration with the prevalence of it in almost every aspect of society. Still, we hold a strict line on swearing in our family. Cursing is not a part of our everyday vocabulary. It’s not even something that happens during our most contentious moments as a family. But even as this may be our standard, it is by no means axiomatic in the world around us. Does that mean we’re fighting a losing battle as we continue talking about it with our kids? God’s Word says foul language doesn’t have a place among His people (Ephesians 5:4). With that, my answer is no, and so we stay the course. We keep railing against its cultural acceptability. Thankfully, this has produced tremendous dividends in our home. Disagreements result in far better and more productive conversations. And the stamina for keeping such a course? A steady diet of the Gospel for faith in Christ—the Truth in the flesh!

Forgiveness in Christ is the fuel. Connected to the Savior and the gifts He gives through Word and Sacrament, not only do we have what’s necessary for outpacing the foolishness of this world, but we have Truth at our fingertips for discerning and then countering the world’s lies with something far better (1 John 4:6).

In closing, and before I find myself down a rabbit hole, I suppose I should ask, “Do you know someone who just won’t hear you?” Yeah, I do, too. More than one, in fact. Well, for as outnumbered and exhausting as the conversations might seem, keep at it. And why? Well, as has already been shown, repetition is powerful. An even better reason is that you already know not to sit idly by and let untruth have its way. Untruth “is an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 12:22). Having this awareness, you’re obligated to war against untruth. You do this because you know that God delights in truth (3 John 1:3-4)—that the complete sum of His Word is truth, and as Christians, we have it in our midst, not only for ourselves but for others (Psalm 119:160). You also know God promises to bless and protect the efforts of His people to seek and to speak His truth (Proverbs 30:5; 2 Timothy 3:16; Matthew 6:33). How could He not, since faith already understands so well that in Christ, you will “know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32)? Free from what? Free from eternal condemnation and made free to extend the same life-giving news to others—the Gospel message that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (v. 36).

Care with Language: One Sphere to Another

Our dear friends Rev. Joe and Carrie Bangert are in town for the weekend, and it has been a joy catching up with them. Because our families are incredibly close, having spent years together here at Our Savior—walking together through so many moments in life, our kids being theirs and theirs being ours—it was easy to shore up our time apart. It’s nothing short of visiting with family. We spent most of Saturday morning talking about our children—where they are in life and the kind of people they are becoming. Chatting in this way, it’s hard to avoid comparing generations. And so, we did that, too. We talked about how things were different in our former days, and as we did, we observed ourselves. At least, I know I did.

I suppose I could ask you, “When did you know the path you would pursue as an adult?”

I’ve shared before that my earliest memory of future possibilities envisioned an Indiana Jones life in archaeology. I wanted to dig things up, find artifacts, and solve mysteries. I wanted to rediscover the earth’s undiscoverables. At one time, I found myself wanting to be a doctor. By the time I entered high school, both desires had given way to a longing to fly fighter jets, namely, the F-15 Eagle. I loved that plane. I still do. A secret wish is that before I die, I’ll be able to go for a ride in one—or any fighter jet, for that matter.

Beyond these things, something happened during my junior year in high school that rendered my previous aspirations obsolete. I think Graham Greene described it best. He said, “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

I remember one of a few instances that signaled the door’s opening. It happened while sitting in a midday study hall scheduled right after my Creative Writing English class and just before my Spanish III class. That day in particular, I’d spent my time reading The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe.

In the story, Poe described a revelrous masquerade ball thrown by a prince for his friends in seclusion while a terrible plague was depopulating his country. As if nothing were happening outside, the extravagant décor of the prince’s gatherings betrayed a uniquely twisted personality, one that Poe described as “bold and fiery” designs that “glowed with barbaric lustre.” Poe continued using fantastical language to describe a seemingly grotesque genius inherent to a man who wanted to continue living his life of indulgence, doing all he could to forget what was happening beyond the archways of his isolation.

It’s a unique story. And yet, the point of my sharing is not necessarily its content (even though it does matter) but rather something that happened while reading the story. It was a moment when I felt a genuine appreciation for the rich use of language. Poe wrote in ways that brought me from one sphere into another. There I was sitting in the Morton High School cafeteria, feeling as though I’d been whisked away and into darkly gothic chambers filled with costumed and twirling revelers. His descriptions were incredibly palpable. Here at my computer on a Sunday morning more than thirty years after first reading the story, I still feel like I’m describing something I experienced firsthand. The party’s music, bustling atmosphere, and flickering candelabras dripping wax haven’t left me. Perhaps more significantly, I remember the passion stirred by the story’s pivotal moment from noisy merriment to a sweeping breathlessness that palled every person in every chamber of the house—the moment of moments when a visitor appeared and everything turned sideways for the prince and his guests. It was the moment that revealed Poe’s purpose for writing.

Poe described the scene:

“And then the music ceased, as I have told; and the evolutions of the waltzers were quieted; and there was an uneasy cessation of all things as before. But now there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bell of the clock; and thus it happened… the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before. And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise—then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.”

I don’t want to spoil the story (although it was published in 1842, so you’ve had 180 years to read it), but you should know that the masked figure who suddenly appeared wasn’t on the prince’s guest list. He’s never on anyone’s guest list. Still, he has access to every space that humans occupy. One day, we will meet him no matter what we do to ignore him, how we try to hide away from him, or what we do to protect against him. Everyone will. And why? For one, God did not hide the truth regarding the sinister specter’s existence. He is the last greatest enemy of all (1 Corinthians 15:26), the one visitor God told us would be Sin’s final wage (Romans 6:23).

Both then and now, Poe’s story communicates something incredibly theological to me. For my part, however, I remember reading it and realizing how much I loved the language Poe used to tell it. I remember wondering how it could be possible to take such a deep truth carried on such a moving string of language, and translate it into other languages, such as the language I’d be studying in my very next class. Could Spanish interpret the vibrancy of Poe’s English sufficiently. English and Spanish are two different spheres.

There began my desire for a career focused on handling language in the best ways for memorably communicating concepts from one person or place to another. The door opened, and my future stepped in.

I assumed the way forward in this would be as a teacher, so I went to college and eventually graduated with a degree in education. Enticed by the opportunity to teach in a church, I drifted into my school’s Director of Christian Education program. This resulted in an internship in Michigan. A decade later, I experienced the unmistakable pull toward the seminary. Now I’m a pastor—both a teacher and preacher. I’m someone tasked with taking the most remarkable words ever put to a page and communicating them to others.

A few weeks ago, during the sermon here at Our Savior, I used one of my fast-fleeting minutes in the pulpit to examine this privilege, sharing how it actually meets with the preaching task. I mentioned that Christian preaching is, as Saint Paul demonstrates quite simply in Romans 10:14-15, a conduit from God through a person to others. Its purpose is to deliver God’s Law and Gospel—to show us our sins and to give us the solution to the sin problem, Jesus Christ. The result: faith in the Savior and the assurance of eternal life only by His person and work. I noted that a Christian sermon, while it may technically preach Law and Gospel, if it does so unprepared and disjointedly, being little more than a prattling on and on about this and that, eventually becoming a droning form of communication that actually makes it hard for the hearer to listen—such preaching might be doing more to smother its purpose than accomplish it.

In other words, the careful handling of God’s Word—which includes deliberate attention to the language used to relay it—is important. This is true because it can assist in building a platform of certainty in a listener—the fostering of a uniquely powerful (and often overlooked) byproduct: the belief that what’s being said means the world to the preacher, and he desperately wants his listeners to believe it, too. Of course, that’s not necessarily the power of the sermon. The Holy Spirit at work through the faithful proclamation of the Word is the power.

Notice I said the faithful proclamation. Care with words is a part of this and is, by no means, disconnected from the Lord’s sending of the preacher as a witness. When the preacher communicates the seriousness of sin’s predicament (that Poe’s specter is indeed looming) and the solution born from the person and work of Christ, when he does this in ways that show he’s invested in every single word, this can be an extremely sturdy bridge on the road to certainty. Such moments become unforgettable for listeners, ones that welcome concepts right into the middle of the listener’s sphere.

I can honestly say that the beginning of my awareness of these things began to take shape during my junior year in high school. In essence, I was becoming aware of the art of homiletics—the study and practice of preaching. Sure, it coalesced in my youth through visits with secular literature. But even so, the door opened, and my current role (which back then was my potential future) stepped in. Do I sometimes wonder if I’d have made it as a fighter pilot? Sometimes. I just asked myself that question a few nights ago while watching “Top Gun: Maverick” for the tenth time. And yet, as Maverick said in response to Rear Admiral Chester Cain’s ridiculing comments for not having done something grander with his life, “I’m where I belong, sir.” I thought the same thing while sipping my shallow dram of whisky and nodding in agreement. I’m right where I belong. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

I suppose that’s enough for this morning.

Inheritors of the World to Come

Perhaps you’re still trying to keep up with the latest safety recommendations for COVID? I’m not. I stopped trying to “be in the know” about these things long ago. To be clear, when it became apparent that entire fields of science were being manipulated to satisfy political agendas—many of which conveniently hindered the efforts of the Church, parental authority in schools, and so many other things that are fundamental to a moral society—my belief in the current government’s legitimate ordination became less than sturdy, and with it, my desire to cooperate in its externals. As a result, I’ve found myself accepting the possibility that God’s smiling countenance upon America, if ever ours to claim, is very near its end.

But that’s a topic for another day.

In the meantime, it seems if you can steer clear of most mainstream media sources, choosing instead to visit with some of the unprocessed and unfiltered numbers, a majority of what I think you’ll find appears to vindicate the ones who spoke out against forced vaccinations, mask-wearing, and school closings. Many studies show an astronomical surge in suicides, which is something never before seen in history. Others are proving cognitive deficiencies in children at unprecedented levels. Plenty of others imply drastic worldwide increases in cancers, strokes, cardiopulmonary diseases, respiratory illnesses, and even untimely deaths among youth within populations with the highest percentages of adherence to masking, social distancing, and vaccination acceptance.

These disastrous upturns appear to begin in the late spring of 2020. Why? What took place in 2020? I wonder.

Interestingly, the people who imposed these things upon us continue to claim that what they did was beneficial, and they’re even insisting we vote to keep them in their stations. Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan, wants four more years. The one who, by executive order, required my local Ace Hardware to rope off its gardening and paint sections; the one who mandated that all Michigan hospitals forego countless life-saving treatments and surgical procedures; the one who sent state employees to tape off public play structures; the one who ticketed un-masked dog-walkers; the one who sent Michigan State Police to fine barbers and give citations to clergy holding worship services; the one who fortified a context in which newborns, who are now two years old, have only recently been allowed to see the unmasked faces of their caregivers, extended family, and closest childhood friends; the one who orchestrated unvaccinated employee terminations—this diabolical Governor wants to keep her job. She militantly choreographed these things and more while keeping the abortion clinics wide open and ensuring Michiganders had unhindered access to lottery tickets and liquor. This fiendish woman is insisting we give her another shot in Lansing.

Is there any doubt that I will do everything I can to see that she is not re-elected? Tudor Dixon, what can I do to help?

Of course, that’s a topic for another day, as well.

Still, no matter the ever-increasing pile of irrefutable data proving the destruction that has occurred (and continues to occur) over the last two years, some continue to show a strange tenacity for rejecting what the data shows. Why? Well, one reason might be because it’s tough to break free from the habit-forming rites and ceremonies of what has become the COVID religion. For the most part, I’ve been able to tune it out. Still, every time I stop for gas and, like you, find myself signing away years of my life for a few gallons, most of the commercials on the pump’s tiny screen involve COVID clergy repeating this new religion’s liturgies. The presiding minister says, “Mask up! Get vaccinated! This promise is for you and your children; vaccination now saves you!” The congregation resounds its amens and alleluias with, “It’s safe and effective! Love your neighbor!”

Speaking as a tradition-and-liturgy-loving Lutheran, when it comes to retaining true religion (which is what Saint James calls Christianity in the first chapter of his epistle [1:26-27], referring specifically to Christianity’s visible distinction from the world’s persona), that’s a big part of what liturgy, rites, and ceremonies are for. They deliver a clear, structured, and authoritative word from the word’s source. They repetitively do this. Repetition weaves subject matter into a person’s heart and mind, not only stirring trustworthiness but making it so that wherever the person might be, the content of his or her faith is accessible in an involuntary way. Immersing in such things creates credal boundaries designed to help a believer remain within the true faith while avoiding heterodox teachings. Again, all of these are reasons why I’m a full subscriber to liturgical Christianity. An added benefit (and again, speaking only for myself): the confines of credal Christianity have assisted many believers in identifying and defending against the inching impositions of the new credal COVID religion. Churches that are essentially “anything goes” in nature and practice don’t have the protective borders that historic liturgical churches have. In an “anything goes” world, an “anything goes” church is already a perfect match for the world’s ways. It’s just how humanity works.

But that, too, is a topic for another day.

Another thought: I think the willful cancellation of in-person worship says a lot about modern Christianity. Across the span of 2,000 years, closing the Church’s doors at Easter for fear of sickness and death seemed to communicate something viscerally wrong with 21st-century Christianity. The pastors who led the charge—or the people of God who pressured or threatened their pastors toward blind compliance—this side of the situation, I think the decision will haunt all. “At the time, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.” True. But the resurrection of Jesus is the cemented victory over death and all its creeping tendrils, the most creeping of all being fear. It should be the last celebration ever to be canceled. In Christ, for a believer, to die is not death but life. Do we tempt death with foolish practices? No. In uncertain situations, we take reasonable precautions, never imposing on God’s Word in the process. Still, do we do these things because we’re afraid of death? By no means. Why would we be? There’s a reason the Lutheran funeral liturgy includes (or at least should include) the Lord’s words to Martha at Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus spoke plainly of death to the saddened and fearful sister, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26). If one keeps reading the text, you’ll see the Lord didn’t end His sentence there. He asked Martha directly, “Do you believe this?” Martha’s answer will be heard and then seen.

21st-century Christians were asked, “Do you believe this?” Our communal words and deeds were incredibly disappointing.

As I said, the decision to close churches will forever haunt many Christians and clergy. But apparently, not everyone. Believe it or not, some churches are happy to remain closed to this day, and the members of those churches appear unbothered by it, too. Beyond those fellowships, many congregations have been seduced into online worship as a viable option, not just for shut-ins, be for able-bodied church-goers. Pastors and church leaders have steered God’s people into a church-certified justification for never stepping foot in the Lord’s house again. Pajamas, coffee, and church when it’s convenient—a complete disconnection from the worshipping community—have become pious. Worse than that, virtual communion is now a thing.

Terrible.

I have one thing to say about these things, especially as I think back to where I began: If you think the skyrocketing rates of suicide, illnesses, and premature deaths are alarming, these are nothing compared to the spiritual havoc that all this has created. It’s a mess of spiritual illnesses and deaths that reach into the world after this world. You name the tragedy—disease, lightning strike, shark attack, an automobile accident. All these things and more kill in this life. But Christians are not inheritors of this life. We are heirs of the life to come. A disconnected and starved faith kills the life to come—the unending life.

I should probably wrap up this morning’s rambling with some sort of point. I guess I’m saying that if you’ve been away from your church since 2020, having somehow become convinced that staying at home will keep you safe from all things leading to death, I beg you to reconsider your position. In truth, all the so-called reasonable excuses have dried up. Now you’re willfully committing spiritual suicide. Unfortunately, the COVID religion continues to bolster the virtue in doing so, convincing so many that they’re somehow showing genuine Christian love to their neighbors by abiding in its provably destructive dogmas.

Again, terrible—the devil’s scheme, for sure. Beware.

Remember, you can’t even begin to love your neighbor if you don’t love God more. You don’t get to the second table of the Ten Commandments (commandments four through ten) before passing through the first table (commandments one through three). God’s Word is not cloudy in this regard. Right there in the first table, trust in God above all things is chief, His name is above all others, and time with Him in worship is above all other opportunities. If these things are negligible or arbitrary to you, you’ve already wandered beyond the boundaries of the one true faith before your first hello to a neighbor. That said, there’s a good chance you’re apart from all the other salvation-crucial details inherent to the Gospel you claim to confess. Go to church. Be in study. Hear the preaching. Receive Word and Sacrament ministry for the benefit of a sturdy faith and a right trust in the Conqueror of death and its reverberating fears. Get back inside the safe keeping of this Conqueror’s sheep pen. Hear His voice and follow Him.

Unlike the inept and ever-varying science-shifters the prophets of COVID have proven to be, Jesus Christ is steady and can be trusted. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He has promised never to leave or forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5). In my book, that settles it. What’s more, He gives these promises to Christians and then, with devout concern, asks rhetorically, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). The answer: passing appeasement and pleasure in this temporary life but everything dreadful in the unending next.

Complaining

As I type this, a bag sits on the chair across from my office desk. The bag has puzzles inside. I don’t know who placed it there, but I’m assuming it to be a kindly gesture by someone who knows my family likes such things. Somewhat of a betrayal of my observational skills, I think the bag was delivered to my office this past Wednesday. I can’t say for sure, mainly because last week was a bit of a blur. A lot happened in a very short period. Some of it was easy. Other parts were more challenging. All of it is in the Lord’s hands. It’s His church. We can all sleep easier knowing that.

I should say that as grateful as I am for the gifted puzzles, unfortunately, I do have one concern about the bag. It is adorned with a wintry scene bearing a smiling snowman. Above the frosty gent are the words, “Let it snow!” Again, thank you to whoever gave us the puzzles. What a treat! Nevertheless, I need you to know I’m going to burn this bag once my family removes the thoughtful gifts in its keep. I dread the snow and everything that comes with it. I say, keep the snow upstairs in heaven’s attic, and instead, let the warm sunshine continue to gild the grassy summertime landscapes down here.

Summer is better. Summer is my thing.

Of course, this isn’t to be. Anything I might call “my thing” is never really mine to control. Nothing is. Even the things I might consider autonomic—something like breathing—will one day cease. I won’t be in control at that moment. And so, for as much as I want summer to remain, winter is coming. Beyond that, there’s no use in complaining about it—even though I’m pretty sure I will continue to do so.

Technically, I have no right to complain. I live in Michigan, a tundra-like state. I do so by choice. Well, maybe not by choice. I blame my wife, Jennifer. She’s from Michigan. I met her, fell in love, and I stayed here because I wanted to be where she was. Thankfully, God saw fit to put me into a congregation I dearly love. Or perhaps better stated, I’d die for the people of Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan. Considering Joe Biden’s recent speech, it seems that’s becoming less a rhetorical statement and more a possibility.

Still, if I had the magical ability to lift Our Savior Lutheran Church and all its people from the earth and set them down on a gulf-kissed shore in Florida, I would. The place would look nice with some pineapple trees in our gardens and a few palm trees by our bell tower. I know I’m a stickler for stewardship, but if anyone suggested during a congregation meeting that we install a pool, I’d probably go for it. I mean, why not? Hey, trustees, what do you think?

But as I said, I have no right to complain. Come to think of it, at a base level, none of us has a right to complain about discomforting things we experience in this world. These things exist because of Sin. Sin is our fault, and complaining about it is a bit like turning on the stove, putting our hand in the flame, and then whining that we were burned. Besides, in the grand scheme of things, the One to whom we’re most likely directing our complaints—God—isn’t responsible for Sin. The fact that He handled it anyway says something about Him.

He loves us.

That brings something else to mind this morning: the Complaint Psalms—Psalms such as 3, 31, 44, 64, 142, and others. The Psalms of Complaint certainly are good examples of divinely inspired writers whining to God. That being said, such Psalms assume a few things.

Firstly, they assume a distinction between good and bad complaining. Bad complaining is often described in the scriptures as grumbling. Grumbling is the negative bemoaning that happens when our attention is more set on self than Christ. We want what we want. When we don’t get it, we complain. Perhaps worse, we end up blaming God for our woes rather than trusting in His divine care. I think good complaining—biblical concern—is different. God expects His people to complain to Him. He expects us, like Him, to be bothered by Sin’s darkly products. If we’re not expressing our concern in some measure for Sin’s grip on humanity and its dreadful horribleness unfolding in the lives of every man, woman, and child across the planet, then we’re far denser than we might give ourselves credit. This same assumption understands faith. It understands, firstly, that God is ready to hear the cries of His people; and secondly, we go to Him because He’s the only One capable of doing anything about Sin. Yes, we can complain about the ungodliness of abortion. We can even get involved, doing everything we can to stop it. Still, God is the only One who will see to its permanent demise. This leads to another assumption about good complaining: the anticipation and expectation of God’s love. We know God will always be ready to exchange our concern with His comforting Gospel—the wonderful proclamation of our deliverance from Sin through the person and work of Christ and the promise to strengthen us for meeting the challenges that stirred our concern in the first place.

He loves us. He hears us. He’s with us. He enlightens and empowers us, using the momentum of our Godly concerns to work through us in His world.

Still, as with the rest of God’s Word, the Complaint Psalms are in place to herald Christ. They meet with the Sin problem, being sure to dole out the only hope that can soothe our visceral concerns. Take a look at some of the Psalms I mentioned above. They never leave the complainer without hope.

I’m not so sure my complaining about snow fits into the category of good griping. While I’m burning the snowman bag, I’ll reflect on what I do know—which is that if it’s the Lord’s will, He’ll see me through another season that more than taxes me holistically. This world—His world—will continue to spin. Winter will become spring. Summer will return after that. All along the way, He’ll take both my bad and good complaints and put His faithful Word before me—both His Law and Gospel. He’ll give His Law to reveal my sinful selfishness and His Gospel to forgive and strengthen me for being His trusting child who engages in the surrounding world.

In all, I’d say that will forever be a pretty good gig for whiners like me.

Time and Eternity

It happens every year. I step from summer’s easier pace to the starting gate of autumn. It’s there I see the valley below traced with the winding hills of a forthcoming marathon—a new school year, an overabundance of midweek events, winter’s frigidity and scrooged sunlight, and so many other things that stir an unwelcomed anxiousness. I don’t know about you, but I really struggle this time of year.

“I don’t know about you….”

I suppose that’s a strange phrase because odds are, I do know about you. As different as each of us might be, we’re also very much alike. I’m guessing that, like me, as you travel around the sun on this ever-spinning planet, you meet with those moments in life when time itself feels like an irregular heartbeat, like the world had slowed to a crawl before suddenly launching into lightspeed. It’s enough to give someone emotional whiplash. You know the sayings. Time flies when you’re having fun. A watched pot never boils. Fast or slow, the passage of time often feels relative to the things occurring within it.

I’m probably thinking about these things because of an article by Ronald C. Lasky I happened upon last week in Scientific American. The piece was entitled “Does Time Tick at the Same Rate for Everyone?” While I’m not much of a scientist, I was captured by the idea. It turned out to be a rather interesting examination of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and how it generated other concepts like time dilation and the “Twin Paradox.” Using a narrative of twins (one stationary and the other on a high-velocity, round-trip mission to a distant star) to explain the premise, and then pointing to successful experiments, the answer to the article’s title question was, essentially, no, time does not tick at the same rate for everyone. In fact, if certain factors were true, it’s entirely possible for the oldest in a group of siblings to leave the others and return as the youngest, implying that time could be manipulated. Near the end of the article, Lasky rested the contextual boundaries of his complicated discussion within the words, “The traveler’s actions define the events.” In other words, where the person is and what he is doing ultimately determines the person’s relation to time.

That’s intriguing. For me, it was a reminder of something else entirely. Saint Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:16 came to mind: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”

As Christians, outwardly—physically—we’re in decay. Inwardly—spiritually—we’re being revitalized and renewed.

The first thing Paul acknowledges here is that we’re all coming undone materially regardless of our scientific theories. We’re wasting away. And he’s right. No one has ever outpaced death. However, secondly, Christ conquered death and rose from its bondage to this decay (v. 14). As a result, by the power of the Holy Spirit for faith in His sacrifice for us, we’re not destined for death but for life. This is Paul’s way of saying that we’re not winding down toward a dreadful end, but instead, with our eyes of faith fixed on Christ, we’re winding up toward the timelessness of eternity (vv. 17-18). Relative to Lasky’s article, Paul just explained where faith puts a person—and what it has that person doing—all in relation to time. Because of our newness in Christ, time moves at a different pace for us. What’s more, we’re inclined to use time differently because we have an altogether different mindset about its purpose, one born from the divine knowledge of the resurrection. Even our decaying bodies will one day be restored! Jesus’ victory reaches into that, too! By this, the unwinding of time can’t ever become something prompting us to live every moment to the fullest in a carnal sense, doing all we can to achieve and gather everything our heart would desire in this life before we pass away. Paul gave a sarcastic wink to this decadent Epicurean philosophy in 1 Corinthians 15:32. Essentially, the Apostle admitted that if the resurrection to eternal life is a hoax, then we might as well eat and drink for tomorrow we die, and beyond that, there’s nothing.

But Paul knows the resurrection to eternal life isn’t a hoax. It’s real. And it’s ours in time right now. This being true, we don’t see our days in this life as self-serving. We already have everything we need—Jesus Christ, the Giver of eternity—the greatest treasure both time and timelessness could ever afford. From this ever-renewing perspective, we’re now found applying each of our moments toward faithfulness to Him, retaining this advantage over time, and trusting that whether we live or die, through faith in Christ, we’re already children of heaven’s eternal glory (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Maybe this is far too complicated a thought for an early morning musing. Well, it is what it is. And to be clear, this analogy breaks from the original intent of Lesky’s comment about the traveler’s actions defining the events when we remember that we’re not the traveler. Jesus is—with a capital “T.” His person and work define our existence in relation to time and eternity. We’d be lost if our actions were to define or determine the events. We don’t have what it takes to break this time barrier. Time would expire, and we’d not only be found undone outwardly but also undone inwardly forever.

And so…

“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:51-56).

Thankfulness in the Middle of Withoutness

Today is a day for appreciation. Well, I suppose every day is such a day, especially for Christians. We know the compassion of the one true God who loves humanity, no matter our wretchedness. This love was most fully expressed through the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer. If there’s something to appreciate, it’s that. In fact, this Gospel is the lens through which we view our world.

Beyond this, everyday appreciation is a muscle to be flexed. I mean that it takes practice to become something we engage in habitually. And yet, it’s a routine worth forming. Better yet, it’s an economy of sorts with a rather astounding exchange rate. In my own life, I’ve learned the more appreciation I uncover for the blessings I’ve been given, the less concerned I seem to be for what I don’t have. The more appreciation I have for where I am in life, the less time I spend wondering what could have been had I done things differently.

Maybe you know what I mean. Of course, you do. Any honest human being understands it’s impossible to be angry and happy simultaneously, just as it’s impossible to be disparagingly frustrated and appreciative simultaneously. These two passions can’t exist in the same sphere at the same time. One will always outbox the other. Let me give you an example.

Two weeks ago, during a nightmarish layover in Chicago, I found myself standing in a line no less than a football field in length. Indeed, there were hundreds of stranded passengers, and, as a general collective, the emotions were running hot throughout. I stood immersed in that thickly volatile line for three hours before finally reaching the desk and speaking with an American Airlines representative who, through a less-than-four-minute discussion, informed me there was nothing the airline could or would be doing to help or accommodate me.

I was being left helplessly without.

I did not express my rage to the representative. I’m not that kind of person. Besides, it probably wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. She had already endured the same sentiments from hundreds of people before me, and she would continue to suffer them with the same emotional immunity after I wandered off to find food and a place to sleep for the night. Still, I was mad.

I was frustrated.

I was feeling contemptuous.

I wasn’t experiencing any discernible reason for thankfulness—until I saw a particular little boy holding his big sister’s hand.

I told Jennifer and the kids the story when I got back to Michigan. The boy was no more than five or six years old. Both of his legs had been amputated and replaced with prosthetics. He was hobbling along unnaturally, laughing as he attempted to keep up with his sister amid the bustling crowd. Hand in hand, they passed right by me, both giggling. I don’t remember noticing the parents. Instead, I was more caught up in the playful coaxing of the sister. She was poking fun at him for slowing her down. She wasn’t being cruel, but instead big-sisterly. She was speaking as one speaks to a little one while at the same time doing what any typical big sister would do to any typical little brother. Except the boy wasn’t typical—at least not according to the assumed definition of typical. He didn’t have legs. He was forever without. But here he was laughing with his sister. He was tottering along without concern for what he didn’t have while rejoicing in the moment for something he did have, which was an incredibly devoted sibling.

I immediately felt a little sick to my stomach for being so inconvenienced by my travel woes. Combined, they were a relatively insignificant withoutness that I would undoubtedly forget in time. I can’t recall for sure if I did or not, but I likely whispered to myself, as I often sigh in other troubling situations, “In a hundred years, who’s going to care?” I speak this way to reposition my thinking. It’s a deliberate admittance that any moment of struggle, while I might not want to go through it again, will inevitably become laughable upon future reflection. In another sense, it’s also a subtle acknowledgment that past situations of struggle often become memories of having learned something important or discovered a personal strength, or better yet, a vivid depiction of God’s faithful deliverance when I could not self-deliver. In other words, my struggles play a part in God’s broader plan for my completeness.

This sounds familiar (Romans 5:1-5; 8:28). It also takes me back to the big sister.

Her playful pushback—calling him a slowpoke and saying he’d never get to where he was going if he didn’t keep moving—believe it or not, this reminded me of texts like Luke 18:21, Psalm 27, 1 Corinthians 9:24, Galatians 6:9, and others. These texts encourage believers not to give up, to keep pushing onward, to stay the course of faithfulness, always looking to Christ. They remind me that God has made promises and that He’s never One to break them. The sister’s persistent presence brought to mind such texts as Matthew 28:20, Zephaniah 3:17, Hebrews 13:5, Romans 8:38-39, Isaiah 41:10, and countless more. These remind me that God is with me in my struggles. The world would try to convince me that He is present as my enemy. Faith speaks something better. It knows He’s holding tightly to my hand. It knows the crowd is chaotically swirling, but it also admits God knows right where I am. He’s never going to lose sight of me. And all along the way, He’ll be prodding me in ways that lead me to discover proficiencies He is instilling for a faith that can meet with struggle and survive, even becoming thankful right in the middle of the storm.

God employs struggle in this way. Human storms are rarely fun, but they’re not necessarily bad.

Before attempting to fall asleep on the floor at gate E7 in O’Hare’s Terminal 2, I asked the Lord to forgive me for my foolishness. After that, I found myself as I described before: unable to be both angry and grateful simultaneously. At that point, gratefulness took over. I thanked Him for allowing those two children to pass by. That brief intersection in time was a reminder of something essential. I also discovered a quiet appreciation for the woman at the American Airlines desk who was tolerating the ire of countless travelers, doing what she could to at least listen to their concerns. I discovered a measure of thankfulness that I would be sleeping on the ground in an air-conditioned building instead of outside in the heat and humidity. I was thankful for the sandwich I could afford to buy before I got situated at my little campsite. I was thankful for the people who played a part in making it. I relearned what was meant by the old saying that when eating the fruit, be mindful of the one who planted the tree.

The Gospel goes the deepest in this regard.

Christians know God is always the One to whom thanksgiving is due. No matter who planted the tree, the trail of every tree’s planting and subsequent fruit leads to Him. In fact, Jesus encourages His believers in Matthew 6:26-29 to look around for easy reminders of this. A bird flitters around, doing what it can to eat and feed its young. It’s likely the flowers in your garden did not plant themselves, but rather, you did. Still, whether it’s the swooping birds or the well-dressed lilies of the field, God is the Creator, and we can behold His steady care on full display for His world even by looking at them. As we look, Jesus asks rhetorically, “Are you not of more value than they?” Of course, we are. This knowledge can only deliver the believer to the foot of the cross, the Kingdom that Jesus wants us to pursue (v. 33). It’s there we can measure our withouts against the greatest withoutness ever endured—the greatest struggle ever suffered, resulting in the most extraordinary care ever bestowed, all of it unfolding so that He could fill us with what truly satisfies—something that does not rust and thieves cannot steal: the forgiveness of our Sins.

With this as our heading, everything else seems so trivial. Everything else—both the blessings and struggles—seem worthy of appreciation.

But here’s the thing: we’re sinners and saints. We slip in and out of both thanklessness and gratitude. I did last week. I went from despair to hope that Thursday night in the airport, but I became frustrated by the whole thing again when I wrote last Sunday’s eNews message. I’d been on the phone with American Airlines for hours on Saturday, trying to get some financial satisfaction, all to no avail. I was getting angry. Looking back at what I wrote, I can see the nonchalance of thanklessness’s grip at work in the Sinful nature. It’s subtle, but it’s there. It wasn’t until later in the morning that I did find the ability to say, once again, “In a hundred years, who’s gonna care.”

God fed me with His love. He took me by the hand and coaxed me along in my withoutness toward something of far greater value that I’ll never be without: the love of God given through the person and work of Jesus Christ, my Savior.

I pray the same comfort for you.

The Fullness of Time

I don’t want to poison your morning, but you must know that summer is fast fleeting. July of 2022 is about to see itself out. It may even give incoming August a scornful glare as the two pass one another through tonight’s midnight doorway. It’s likely July will do this because it knows it’s leaving for good.

July of 2022 will never be with us again.

That’s the funny thing about time. People talk about how they’ll do this or that to save time, but in the end, time isn’t saved. I know what they’re referring to is efficiency. Still, I’m left to the plainness of thought that no one can store away extra time, putting it into an account for use at a later date. An eighty-year-old can’t take and use the time he saved when he was twenty. Time is finitely linear. C.S. Lewis described time as something that moves along at sixty minutes an hour, no matter who or what’s traveling in it. The pace is not optional. It happens with or without its passengers’ knowledge or agreement. As it carries along, no allowance is made for banking time, only spending it. In fact, if you don’t use it accordingly, it spends itself. That’s what some would call wasting time.

One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, suggested in a letter to Thomas Higginson, “To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations….” Her point was that we make the most of the time we’ve been given when we’re truly living life. I don’t know for sure what she meant by living life. Knowing her poetry, I think it meant to appreciate as much of life’s vibrancy as possible before one’s last hour and the arrival of Death’s carriage. Whatever she meant, she went on to assume that living isn’t to be a solo act. In other words, for Dickinson, time was always best spent in the company of others—within physical reach, face to face, immersed in togetherness.

I think she was right. But I also think humanity is becoming less inclined to see things that way. Recalling the phrase “save time,” consider modern technology as an example. Humans have developed technologies designed to maximize productivity. These same things have breached the borders of social life and, in many ways, are all but guaranteeing lives lived in seclusion. They’ve become rearrangements of relationships for the sake of efficiency. Texting and email, Instagram and Zoom meetings; we’re communicating with others—and saying an awful lot through some wide-reaching tools. And yet, it’s all happening without ever having to experience others personally.

My friend, Rev. Dr. Peter Scaer, posted something recently that resonated in this regard. He wrote, “I know folks who are still attending church online. They prefer it. Well then, instead of the kids coming home for Christmas, they should just meet you on Zoom. Lot less hassle.”

His words sting, but they’re also sincere.

I went to see one of my shut-ins this past Monday. Her name is Frances. She’ll be turning 100 this December. That means she was born in 1922. For perspective, that’s the year the first issue of Reader’s Digest was published, the Lincoln Memorial was completed and dedicated, and the Bolsheviks murdered Czar Nicholas II and his family, securing total control of Russia. I asked this dear Christian woman what she remembered about her youth. Even though her memory is getting somewhat strained, she managed in her gentle way to explain how life today is absolutely nothing like it was back then. She wasn’t complaining but instead observing as best she could. She reminisced briefly about regular family gatherings as well as surprise visits from friends. Certainly, the telephone was an available means of communication in her day. Although, I read that only about 35% of American households had one in the 1920s. Of course, letter-writing remained the assumed means for communicating over long distances. Still, Frances seemed to suggest that in-person togetherness is what people preferred. To put it another way, a person would be more inclined to buy a bus ticket for a trip to someone’s home the next county over before walking to the corner drug store to use the community phone. People actually invested in being together. Convenience and efficiency weren’t as crucial to the human equation. The time it took to accomplish time together was considered time well spent.

The Christian community is geared similarly. A quick visit with the instruction given in Hebrews 10:23-25 shows this. It’s there we’re reminded to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 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.”

“…as you see the Day drawing near.”

Those are choice words. They’re another way of saying that this world’s time is running out. They also affirm Dickinson’s sentiment that time is best spent with others. In the case of the Christian community, it’s best spent together in worship. Of course, this is true not only for the Godly fellowship inherent to the gathering itself but for the sake of being together with and receiving from the One who established the community in the first place: Jesus Christ. We stir up one another to take time for worship because it’s time with Jesus, and there’s no better way to spend one’s time before the arrival of our final day. We need what this friend gives.

Thinking back to my time with Frances, she ended the conversation about her youth almost as quickly as I’d prompted it, saying, “It seems like it all went by so fast.” Again, she wasn’t complaining but observing. She certainly didn’t seem to be expressing regret. The time she’s been given has been put to good use. Like the rest of us, she’s not a perfect person. But she did manage to spend much of her time on all the right things. For one, she’s 99 years old and still sitting with her pastor, rejoicing in the mercies of God that are new each and every day. This tells me that by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in her for faith, she has taken into her very soul what it means to “make the best use of the time” (Colossians 4:5). She trusts her Savior, Jesus, having numbered her days accordingly (Psalm 90:12) to make sure each one includes Him. This trust is nothing less than a relaxation in the Gospel truth that all time has its fulfillment in Christ. It knows “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Connected to Christ, Frances knows each of the clock’s ticks in her life was aimed at this adoption, and now as her mortal timepiece winds down, there’s an even greater ease of knowing her grandest moments are still before her.

The Day is drawing near, and it will be a time with family and friends in a place unbound by time. More precisely, it will be a wonderfully unimaginable togetherness with Jesus—an unending face-to-face existence with the One who spent His time on earth the wisest, giving Himself over to the cross to save us for the endlessness of heaven.

Think It Through

Do you want to know what I think is one of the truest indicators of a sincere friendship?

Easy silence.

I think the sincerest kind of friendship becomes evident when two people who know the best and worst about each other can sit in silence without feeling awkward. Nothing needs to be said. Nothing needs to occur. No distraction is required. Talking about the weather is never even a thought. Instead, what’s most important is simply being together—within reach, within earshot, breathing the same air in the same space in the same part of an otherwise sprawling world. Such a relationship—one friend enjoying the quiet presence of the other—understands the dreadful alternative of the other’s absence, of being apart and out of reach, of the palpable but clumsy incompleteness that would occur if he or she were gone.

I’ve had other thoughts about the ingredients I think make for genuine friendships.

Speaking only for myself, I want to be a person who doesn’t feel the need to check his schedule when someone I care about asks for my time. Instead, I want to live as though the schedule doesn’t even exist. Not only that, but I want the ones I love to know I’m available to them in all circumstances and that they can take just as much comfort from the assumption. As busy as life so often seems, this sometimes feels like wishful thinking. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that a friend’s readiness at any moment is telling, and it’s something I long to exude.

I’ll be turning fifty this year, and as I get older, these and other theories on relationships have begun sparking in my mind. It’s almost as though God has started cracking flint rocks in my brain, kindling fires of realization about the people in my life before it gets too late into the human evening. Maybe the same kinds of analyses are happening in your life. I suppose certain stages of maturity do that. Immature people do very little reflecting. They’re most often reactionary. When it comes to ideologies, immature people usually just vomit out what they think they know, having let others do the thinking for them. I read somewhere that two of immaturity’s common denominators are a messy room and the inability to delay self-gratification.

On the other hand, maturity brings patience. It maintains focus and stays the course. It tends to think for itself. It takes time to reflect before application. For some things, the reflection is brief. For others, it’s a bit longer. Either way, it happens. In fact, it could be that thinking—careful discernment—is maturity’s most crucial task. Interestingly, when asked how he discovered the law of gravity, Isaac Newton didn’t nod to successful experimentation with his theory but instead replied, “By thinking on it continually.” His achievement was in the discerning.

Spiritual maturity most certainly thinks. Saint Paul was a thinker. His epistles are saturated with this premise.

In Philippians 4:8, Paul compels constant reflection on the things of God, writing, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” In Romans 12:2 he warns against conforming to the world, urging his readers to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” In other words, Christians must think through their challenges, weighing them against the revealed will of God exposed by His Word. Of course, before Paul wrote the twelfth chapter of Romans, he’d already set the stage for Godly reflection as a lifestyle, having jotted in 8:5-6: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

Thinking calibrated to the Word of God not only takes aim at eternal life but also gives peace in the here and now. I suppose that’s one reason Paul told the young pastor Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). Firstly, he wrote these words having already sent a previous letter to Timothy describing some incredibly complicated situations the new undershepherd would need to navigate. Secondly, Paul’s words served in this follow-up epistle as an introduction to a chapter concerned with false teachers.

Paul wanted Timothy to think through what he would do.

I think my favorite of Paul’s instructions to be a Christian who thinks—to be someone who pitches everything against the Word of God—is the summary phrase he scribbles in 2 Corinthians 2:5. It’s there he says so plainly that we are to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” This phrase needs no explanation.

These are just a few of the texts that lend themselves easily this morning. There are plenty of others, and not just in Saint Paul’s writings. In the end, the point is to think—to use the Word of God as the filter for one’s reflection on everything.

Does this mean thinking through and applying the Word of God at every stop sign you come to while driving? No. Although, if you discover your brakes are out, or you’re one to blow through stop signs purposely, some reflection on the Law and Gospel of God’s Word might be worth your while when you see one of those bright red octagons on the horizon. Apart from these, and assuming a greater maturity, does it mean thinking through raising your children; how you’ll vote; whether you should have another drink; how you’ll deal with conflict; what you’ll do in situations of sexual temptation; which organizations you’ll support with your time, talents, and treasures; how often you’ll attend worship; and so on? Yes. In all these things, take every thought captive to obey Christ. Think them through, seeking alignment with God’s revealed will, all the while trusting that His will is always best.

Do this and be at peace.

Habits

While sorting through some computer files on Friday, I ended up in the folder that contains all the messages like this one that I’ve ever sent since I started writing them back in 2015. As it would go, today’s message will be the 400th one sent. That’s quite a few, I’d say. Being conservative with the total word count for each, I’m guessing I’ve written at least 480,000 words along the way. Well, what can I say? I’ve spoken clearly over the years regarding my writing illness. For me, it’s an itch, one that, if I don’t scratch it, would likely drive me mad.

Or perhaps it’s better described as a routine. Apart from all the other things I regularly plink out on this keyboard, I’ve tapped through this Sunday morning message so many times for so many years that it’s become a habit. It’s something I just wake up and start doing. I’ve been asked over the years if I worry about finding myself in the moment with nothing to share. I suppose, on occasion, I’ve experienced writer’s block. Still, the short answer to the question is no. When I can’t think of anything to say, I take a quick look around me—whether that means reading an article, reexamining the past week’s events, or just looking out the window. In the end, I always find something worth considering. Once an idea is revealed, I just start typing. Again, it’s second nature—an exercise in the force of habit.

Habits are strange things. Some take a deliberate effort to form. Others seem to happen on their own. Of course, both kinds have the potential to become good or bad. Understanding the gravity of habit, Mark Twain said that to reform one, a person must first realize they are “not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” In other words, if you want to change—if you’re going to overcome and do better—it’ll take steady and deliberate mindfulness.

I used the words “second nature” a few sentences ago. I think there is a reason habits are often referred to in this way. A second nature implies a first nature. A first nature is a primal one. It’s what we’d be if the second nature weren’t laboring to outpace it. Admittedly, I have plenty of first-nature impulses that I suppress with second-nature behaviors. Some of these habits aren’t so good, and I’m working to coax them down the stairs. Other habits I’ve formed serve to help not only me but others, too. One I’ve probably shared with you before is the habit of searching my immediate environment in situations of conflict for cruciform things. By cruciform, I mean cross-shaped. Most of the time, I find something. But sometimes I don’t. Either way, the habit itself is a trained recollection of the Gospel. It’s a reminder that the person on the warpath before me is someone for whom the Lord died. In heated moments, remembering that Christ met me as His enemy and, by His gracious sacrifice on the cross, did what was necessary to make me His friend, the way I handle conflicts changes. It doesn’t mean I’m always successful at diffusing them. Still, I rarely leave such situations regretting what I’ve done or said, mainly because I deliberately tried to steer both of us toward Christ. Without this second nature overpowering my first-nature inclination to win at all costs—an inclination my wife and children know very well from our time together playing games—things would unfold much differently, and it wouldn’t be pretty.

Nevertheless, for this effort to become second nature, it took discipline. I actually had to practice it. Now it just happens.

When it comes to habits, I suppose Christians have the upper hand compared to the world around them. This is true because we know so much more about the first nature—the Sin nature (Romans 3:23). We know that we are innately corrupt and that apart from faith, even the good we might think we do is soiled (Isaiah 64:6). That being said, we also know the Gospel has changed us. The Gospel reveals God’s merciful first nature located in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:8). It brings us the life-altering message of what He has done to save us from our first nature of enmity. This same message—endowed with the Holy Spirit’s power for faith and its fruits—establishes a second nature, a new nature (Colossians 3:9-10). This new nature is ever mindful of the first nature’s dangerous capability and, as a result, works intentionally to outpace it. In other words, it practices spiritual discipline.

Fully aware of Sin’s dreadful grip, Saint Paul wrote straightforwardly:

“For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:22-25b).

Paul can write this way because he knows the power of what Christ has done for him on the cross. Naturally, he attributes his ability to wrestle with the Sinful nature to that same power at work in Him. It’s the same for all Christians. We know that because Jesus has defeated death (1 Corinthians 15:26), the first nature of Sin and its poison-filled tendrils have no rightful claim or permanent grip on us. As a result, we see the Law of God in an entirely new light. Like Saint Paul, we delight in it as preeminently useful in the struggle against the first nature. We actually delight in its strictness, counting it all joy when God commands us to observe the routine boundaries of the Ten Commandments. They’re incredibly preserving, so we acknowledge them as useful in the spiritual battle.

We can learn still more from Saint Paul in 1 Cor. 9:24-27:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

Employing the verb ὑπωπιάζω (translated as “discipline”), Paul sets before the reader a visceral word that quite literally means to “strike beneath the eye.” It implies struggle. Paul tells the reader he’s doing something essential—sometimes severe—to keep something else “under control” (v.27). He’s taking his new nature in Christ very seriously. He’s actively employing it physically to enslave his first nature to something better.

By the way, maybe you noticed how Paul acknowledged in verse 27 spiritual discipline’s corporate effects. I did. I hope other pastors recognize it, too. Paul wrote plainly that his habits affect others, and if he doesn’t feed the good ones while fighting the bad ones, his work as an apostle could very quickly become of little use not only to himself but to the body of believers to whom God sent him.

Being summertime—a time when worship attendance tends to trend lower—I find Paul’s encouragement toward spiritual discipline to be reminiscent of the habits haunting texts like Hebrews 10:24-25, which reminds all Christians to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 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.” Three habits, in particular, appear in this sentence. Those in the habit of attending worship are urged to make a habit of reaching out to those who’ve fallen into the habit of skipping church—which is to say, be in the habit of helping others out of their spiritually bad habits.

I suppose to wrap this up, I’ll simply say I appreciate the piety of habit. Routines born from God’s Word that help to keep one’s heart, soul, and mind set on Christ are good things. It’s one reason I appreciate making New Year’s resolutions. Good habits need a beginning. While I’m at it, I’ll say it’s also why I prefer the historic liturgy to other, more contemporary forms of worship. There’s something to be said for engaging in worship styles that some might categorize as habitual. They involve people saying and doing the same things over and over again. In this case, the habits are centuries-long. And why? Well, they’ve stood the test of time for a reason. For one, the thing about a habit is that it can steer without much help. In one sense, the biblically substantive rites and ceremonies—the communal habits of God’s people—have helped to steer Christian communities through some dark theological days. Looking at all the flighty nonsense today that passes as Christian worship, I appreciate the habit of historic liturgy that much more. It makes it possible for God’s people to go to a church and hear a really screwed-up sermon but still walk away, never missing out on solid biblical teaching. The historic liturgy is designed to keep God’s people immersed in the promises of Christ, no matter the failings of the one leading it. When we mess with this, we mess with an excellent habit.

As one called to lead in such habits—someone who is more than capable of falling short—I’m glad for the second nature of the liturgy. Suppose the government one day decides to snatch away all of our worship volumes (as they’re doing in China), I’m guessing the very first time you gather with fellow Christians in worship to discover you don’t actually need a service book because the liturgy has become habitual, you’ll agree, too.