A Beeline to Faithfulness

That was quite the wind and rain we experienced last week, wouldn’t you say? I think it’s safe to say that autumn has arrived.

Being unable to move very quickly because of my injury, the normally simple inconvenience rain causes became a bit more concerning. At one point on Tuesday, my daughter, Evelyn, and I were standing beneath the canopy near the church’s main entrance trying to decide how we would go about making our way to the car in what had suddenly become a torrential downpour. Thankfully, I had already moved the car into the circle drive near the entrance, so it was only about fifty feet away from us. Still, she was concerned that at my pace, I would be drenched by the time I made it, and so she offered to run to the car to fetch my umbrella and then come right back, and then together we’d make our way over.

What a sweetie.

In the end, we decided just to make a run for it. Well, she ran. I hobbled with fierce determination. Although, we only did this after first calculating another option and its possible outcomes. Essentially, we measured a simple dash to the car against Evelyn running to the vehicle, opening the hatch to retrieve the umbrella, and then running back to me, only for the two of us to then return to the car holding the sail-like device amid the blustering rainstorm, stopping at one door to allow one of us to climb inside as the other then circled around to the other to get in, being sure to first close and shake the umbrella. In the end, a beeline to the car seemed the better plan. Taking a hint from Longfellow, sometimes the best thing any of us can do when it’s raining is to let it rain. In other words, sometimes things are what they are and there’s nothing we can do to change them.

I suppose another lesson to be learned by this artless scenario is that our over-contemplated attempts at avoiding the discomforting things in life often result in making things worse rather than better. Digging even deeper into the moment, I’d say we sorted through the distinction between simply talking about doing and actually doing. As Evelyn and I negotiated, the rain only seemed to get worse. Had we made straight for the car when we first came out, we’d have been a lot less wet. But we didn’t. We stood there trying to decide what we were going to do, which involved a second option involving excessive details that, the more we talked about them, the more cumbersome and toll-exacting they seemed to become. I don’t know if it relates completely, but as I type this, I’m remembering the way Saint Paul often spends time in his epistles dealing with the contours of the Christian life.

I’m guessing there are plenty of folks who, when they visit with those portions of Paul’s writings in which he speaks about genuine Godliness, figure he’s being prescriptive, that is, he’s telling his readers how to live their lives in the world. That may be true some of the time, but not always. Occasionally he’s being descriptive, which means he’s simply describing what Christians have become by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel for faith in Christ. When he does this, there’s an accompanying sense that enough time has already been spent talking about what it all means and now it’s time to just go and be it. I suppose in a practical sense, the more time we spend being unnecessarily cerebral about all of it, the more allowance for devastation our inaction seems to prove.

Think about it in a localized sense. There’s a reason why Saint Paul urges Christians not to let the sun go down on their anger (Ephesians 4:26). He knows the tendencies of Man. He knows that the longer we wait to reconcile, the more likely it is that the rainstorm of hatred will intensify. Of course, as the hatred grows fiercer, the worse things become and the less likely it will be that the two people will ever truly dry off in peace. On a larger scale, the more sedentary Christians remain, prattling away on social media about our troubled world without ever lifting a finger to change anything, the worse things are likely to become. One only needs to look around to see the necessity of Christian action. A glance will reveal the spin-rate of this world’s undoneness is continually picking up speed. School Boards across the country are often unopposed when they introduce sexually explicit materials and Critical Race Theory curriculums in their districts, often beginning as early as preschool. Christian business owners are taken to court and oftentimes fined out of existence simply for holding to the tenets of their faith and the basic science of Natural Law. What was once the quieter, but nonetheless satanic, mantra of “safe but rare” has become the full-throated cry of “Shout your abortion!” and the call for legalized slaughter of full term infants.

The rain is falling, folks. Sure, you can take some time to examine the best way through it, but one way or the other, you’re going to have to get wet. So, stop talking about it and get going. Make a beeline for faithfulness. Of course, the best place to start is by going to church. There’s not much use in trying to weather the storms if you haven’t been equipped accordingly to do so. You need what Christ gives by His Word and Sacrament gifts. Strengthened by these, may I suggest your next few steps for steering into the downpour be ones of faithfulness in your vocation as parent, child, friend, or worker? A lot can be accomplished simply by teaching your little ones while standing true to Christian conviction before family, friends, and co-workers. As you pick up speed in this, think about getting involved with your local Pro-life organization. Or perhaps you might help register Christian voters before the next election. Heck, I say if the Spirit is carrying you along with a brisk enough stride, take a chance at running for office. I already hinted at how holding a seat on your local School Board could make all the difference in the world to the next generation of citizens.

Whatever you’re thinking about doing, don’t think too long. Get out there and be who God has already made you to be. Yes, you’re going to get wet. That comes with the territory. But no matter the outcomes, the calculations for a beeline to your eternal life were already made by Christ through His life, death, and resurrection. By His victory, the courage you need for the first few steps has already been delivered. The words “It is finished!” (John 19:30) are the clarion call.

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.

The Voice of Conscience

As it is every year at this time, I never anticipate sending these notes while on vacation. I know, I know. I’m supposed to take full advantage of my time away and leave these types of things behind. It’s just that the temptation to be a pastor—to reach to you on the Lord’s Day with something even the least bit edifying—is just too great even while I’m away. Besides, the rest of my family is still sleeping and won’t be up to get ready for church for another half hour or so. With that, I have some time for coffee, a pre-sunrise view, and a visit with you.

Just so you know, as I type this here in Florida, I’m sitting in my usual chair near the window that allows an unobstructed view of the swimming pool and my favorite summertime flora. Trust me when I say I’m relaxing. With that, don’t expect whatever comes next to be too… well… profound.

Our plan this morning is to attend Zion Lutheran Church in Winter Garden. Pastor Rojas is the shepherd there. I know him. Not well, but enough to know we’ll be well fed by the faithful preaching of Law and Gospel and the right administration of the Sacrament of Christ’s holy body and blood for our forgiveness.

How about you? Will you be well fed in worship this morning, too?

If with honesty your first inclination was to say “no,” then I suppose my question may have unexpectedly jarred your conscience to attention. That’s good. You need your conscience to be aware of its surroundings. This is true not only for knowing and understanding the looming threat of Sin and humanity’s deepest necessity for rescue, but because of the challenging days in which we live. A somnolently weak conscience, one that isn’t assisting your navigation or pestering you to stay connected to Jesus and the truth of His Word, is of little use to you. It certainly can’t match the volume of the world’s voice.

For example, having arrived in Florida just yesterday through the Orlando International Airport, I can affirm that had this been my very first visit to earth from another planet, I’d probably be somewhat puzzled by the flourishing population. I say this because the LGBTQ voice appeared to be quite dominant throughout the terminals and their various shops. It could lead one to assume that most of the world’s population is homosexual. And if that’s true, a logical question might be: “Where did all these earthlings come from?”

Homosexuality cannot produce people.

In short, from our gate to the tram, from the tram to the bus, from the bus to the car, my conscience contested loudly within me against the overwhelming voice around me. As it did, I understood the tragic miscommunication and I was able to tune it out. Admittedly, a sense of sorrow was stirred for the bustling people already so overwhelmed by the voice.

This got me thinking…

I appreciate the text of Hebrews 9. Take a look when you have a chance. The epistle’s author talks about lots of very important things throughout, but in that particular portion, he notes the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as being all-sufficient for Sin. And then at one point along the way, right around verse 14, he makes sure we understand how the blood of Christ purifies the human conscience, enlivening it within the believer for faithfulness to God. In other words, the voice of the Christian conscience is born from the Gospel and readied for real life discernment leading to Godly action.

This, of course, walks in stride with what the Apostle James wrote in James 4:17—which alludes to the fact that if our Christian conscience is doing its job, having been fed by the Word of God, we’ll know what’s right. But if we muzzle it when it speaks, knowing what’s right but refusing to listen and then do it, we fall prey to Sin and its consequences.

Finally, I suppose all this brushes into Matthew 5:13-16, too. It’s there we learn that the voice of the Christian conscience is in place not only for the self, but for others, too. Its grammar sounds a lot like God’s Word. Its tone communicates both immovable commitment and loving care. And its goal: not only to be heard, but to be seen. It operates with the desire that others would behold and be led to give glory to the Father.

Circling back around to Hebrews 9, remember what was written there about the blood of Christ purifying the conscience for faithfulness to God—which means having the ability to discern the countless external voices. While you are recalling that text, don’t forget when and where the purifying interaction happens most powerfully.

Worship. Now, if you aren’t already, go get dressed and ready for church—just as your Christian conscience already urged you to do.

Blind Leading the Blind

I was tidying up the sermon for this morning from John 3 when I ended up wandering through Matthew 15. This happened because I was wondering if perhaps Nicodemus was present during the event. Anyway, I’m curious what you think of the Lord’s words in verse 14, where He says, “Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” Jesus said these words in response to the disciples’ warning that the Pharisees were offended by His teaching.

Of course, while the Lord was always very precise with His words, He rarely minced them, either. Jesus had just shown how human piety can exist in a way that looks really nice—seemingly worthy of admiration—but in all actuality, be found horribly misaligned and apart from God. In this particular instance, Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees were knowingly breaking the Ten Commandments in order to maintain their self-aggrandizing, and yet eye-pleasing, manmade traditions. And why were they doing this? To keep themselves—their security, health, wealth, and so many other things—squarely at the control panel of their religion. Jesus made sure they knew that by deliberately nullifying even one of God’s commands, they were nullifying the entirety of God’s Word, and as a result, they were well-deserving of the stinging description Jesus recited from Isaiah, which He said was written specifically for them:

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” (Isaiah 29:13)

Thinking back to Jesus’ words to the disciples after this brief showdown, again, I’m curious, what do you think? Even better, if you could summarize his reply in one word, which would you use? On my part, I’d have a hard time choosing just one. Both ridiculous and foolish come to mind. A blind man leading another blind man is the embodiment of ridiculousness. A blind man willingly trusting another blind man to lead him is to dig past the topsoil of ridiculousness into the deeper layer of utter foolishness. It’s just not going to end well. In this case, there’s a reason Jesus chose the word “pit” as the terminus to such carelessness. It symbolized more than just an impairment relative to the eyes, but rather an all-consuming injury and gloom that would ultimately swallow the whole person. I’m guessing an attuned listener would know what Jesus meant by “pit.” He was referring to hell, and he was saying fools lead other fools right into it.

In short, it’s a really stupid idea to nullify God’s Word (even if only temporarily) for the sake of preserving and maintaining allegiance to the “self,” no matter what the reason may be. It’s one of the easier paths to hell. And if you knowingly follow someone headed along this path, Jesus can’t help but to call you ignorant. In contrast to this, and still traveling this embattled trajectory with the Pharisees well into chapter 16, we discover Jesus saying things like:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (vv.24-26)

These aren’t easy words to hear. The truth at their epicenter is even harder to admit, which is why the Pharisees were so offended by them. Jesus was preaching that the shadiest culprit in the work to divide us from God is often our own ridiculous self and its ties to this world. We’ll disregard His Word because we prefer the comfort of our opinions. We’ll legitimize any excuse to ignore His explicit directions. We’ll jettison His mandates because we favor leisure. We’ll set aside trusting His promises because, very simply, we’ve made promises to ourselves, and of course, we consider ourselves far more reliable.

The Pharisees proved the depths of their fidelity to “self” when they plotted and then carried through with the unlawful trial and execution of Jesus. They used the angle that He was a false teacher, blasphemer, and lawbreaker, even though they themselves were astounded by His wise handling of God’s Word. Nevertheless, He was disrupting their earthly authority. Without authority, they had no earthly security. To protect their self-interests, they were willing (even if only once, and with just this one man) to disregard God’s Word to keep from losing what they held dear.

“I know it’s wrong, but God won’t mind just this once.” Unfortunately, the “once” often becomes a habitual blindness existing apart from God’s Word.

I can think of countless examples in the Church where this applies. Deliberately withholding tithes and offerings is a common one. Actively participating in slanderous gossip is another. Electing to do the things that married people do, except to do them outside of marriage.

There’s another angle that comes to mind, one that meets with the thought of actively following people who lead apart from God’s Word. One way we disregard God’s Word and make excuses in favor of “self” is to choose political candidates who embrace platforms apart from what we believe as Christians. The blind lead the blind when we choose to elect men and women who are actively pushing abortion, the confusion of Natural Law under the guise of equality, radical ideologies that maintain an economy of oppressor groups (Critical Race Theory, Black Lives Matter, and the like), and so many other horribly skewed ideologies deliberately designed to spit in God’s face.

“I know God would not have me follow such a person, but I’m going to do it anyway.” Yikes. So, your preferences matter more than God’s? Good luck with that blind-leading-the-blind strategy. And by the way, there’s no such thing as luck.

It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said something about how there’s nothing in the world more dangerous than devoted ignorance and heartfelt stupidity. I’d say he was on to something there. To be led along unknowingly by falsehood is a tragedy. It’s a thousand times worse when, clinging to “self,” we do it deliberately while knowing the truth. The Bible speaks very clearly regarding the dangers of such heartfelt imprudence. Actually, God’s Word says such behavior actually negates a person’s salvation.

“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:26-30)

“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth…” That means we know better, and yet we act contrary anyway. That’s a sign of unrepentance and a full rejection of the need to amend the sinful life.

“…there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins…” That’s telling us we know Jesus was sacrificed for our transgressions, but we’d prefer to embrace our sins, anyway. That’s a bad idea. An unwillingness to repent and amend, even if we claim faith, cancels out the Lord’s sacrifice for us and we find ourselves apart from redemption.

That’s some heavy duty stuff right there. That’s God’s Word warning us about the forthcoming pit. By the way, those verses meet with Sin in general even though they’re given in relation to skipping church, the place where God promises to dole out His faith-strengthening Means of Grace that deliver forgiveness and produce a wisdom that knows better—a faith that has open eyes to see and avoid the pit.

Speaking frankly—and to bring this mental meandering to a conclusion—to willingly embrace the ignorance of “self” is not only dangerously stupid, but it’s an affront to the Lord’s crucifixion and death, which He accomplished in order to eradicate every human being’s sinful “self” that He would make us a new creation in Him (2 Corinthians 5:17). It’s an insult to Jesus’ resurrection, too. Thinking on the fact that countless churches still remain closed to in-person worship, that so many Christians remain apart from their congregations, it’s as if they’re existing in unconquerable fear, preferring to believe and live as though the last enemy, Death, still maintains looming control over us (1 Corinthians 15:26). It’s as if they’re choosing the terror that believes and lives as though the “strong man,” the devil, was not ousted by the “stronger man,” Jesus Christ (Luke 11:21-22).

Living in the “knowledge of the truth,” I’m not going to exist as though Sin, Death, and the devil hold sway over me. They don’t. I hope you won’t exist that way, either.

One last thing, since I’m thinking about it.

Something is approaching on the very near horizon that for years continues to prove itself far more potent for excuse-making than Covid-19 ever could.

Summer.

Don’t stay away from worship this summer. Don’t make excuses to skip it. Commit right now to wrestling the urge to vacation from Christ and His gifts. You need to be in worship. Your children need to be in worship, too. Don’t be tempted to “trample underfoot the Son of God” or “profane the blood” or “outrage the Spirit of grace.” Those things lead straight into pits. Instead, behold your Savior—the God of all creation who is ready and waiting with arms wide open, the One whose foremost desire is to love and forgive you, and then to send you back out into the world secured by His mercies and unafraid of the specters that would steer us toward the uncertainty of “self.”

There’s No Such Thing As Luck

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

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

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

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

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

Being lucky and being blessed are two very different things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Will Let It Slide, Right?

I’m reminded of something my daughter, Evelyn, said to me on our way to the school this past Thursday morning.

Folks in Michigan will recall that Thursday was quite the sunny day. Even at 6:45am, which is when Evelyn and I set out for the day, the sun was already well above the horizon. Turning east out of our subdivision, the sun’s beams poured through the windshield, filling the car with its glory. It felt good—the warmth on my face in crisp distinction from the chill just outside my window. Even as it was somewhat blinding, before feeling the need to adjust the sun visor, its first stirring was that of happiness.

Surprisingly, Evelyn grumbled.

“I don’t like the sun in my eyes,” she said, scooting up in her seat and reaching to adjust her visor.

“I love it,” I replied, my visor still tucked neatly above the windshield. “It feels good.”

“I don’t,” she countered. “It’s too bright.”

“Well,” I added, “we probably shouldn’t complain about it, especially since we’ve been longing for days like this all winter.”

Evelyn didn’t respond, but I could tell she was reconsidering her position.

Certainly, I understood her frustration in the moment, especially since I was piloting the vehicle. For as much as I enjoyed the sun’s resplendence, I needed to be able to see, and the sun was making that a little more difficult. Still, the last thing I ever want to do is lie to myself, expressing any dismay at all for something I’ve been waiting more than a half-year of mornings to enjoy. In my eyes, or wherever, the sunshine was a welcomed guest to a long-suffered winter.

Tapping away at the keyboard while recalling this circumstance, I suppose there are plenty of lessons within it to be learned by it. Although, I can’t think of one in particular.

Okay, how about this…

Looking back at what I just wrote, the lesson that seems most prominent is the foolishness found in lying to oneself.

One of the worst things that anyone can do is to lie to his or herself. And it’s not necessarily the lie itself that holds all the danger, but rather the potential for becoming so convinced by your own deception that you willingly exchange truth for untruth. This reminds me of a video of Joe Biden from 2015 I watched this past week. It was a quasi-interesting twenty minutes of Joe sitting before a fawning reporter and cameraman and doing what Joe does, which is to wear a triangular smile while rambling incoherently. And yet, during the purgatory-like segment of softball-question nonsense, there was something Joe spoke about with relative unequivocalness. I ended up posting something about it on Facebook. Here’s what I wrote:

“I just watched a portion of a video of Joe Biden from September of 2015 in which he attempted to describe the authenticity of his Catholic faith. Barely a few minutes into his plastic words I had a thought. To be a liar is one thing. To be a sincere liar is something altogether worse. Or as Shakespeare mused through the character of Hamlet, ‘One may smile and smile, and be a villain.’”

The point behind this comment relates to ongoing news of several Roman Catholic bishops around the country and overseas pushing for Joe Biden to be excommunicated. They’re doing this because Joe claims that one can be a Catholic and be pro-choice—and not just the “safe but rare” kind that the Democrats proffered back in the 80s, but rather the kind that goes right over the cliff into believing abortion (in all of its grisly forms) is a gift from God, and even worse, that full-term abortion is something upon which God dotes with an similarly triangular smile.

Do you know what full-term abortion is? If you guessed a full-term newborn child being killed immediately after delivery, then you guessed rightly. The President of the United States—your president—believes such a thing is holy.

Of course, I expect the nominal Christians to come out of the shadows to say I’m misconstruing his position, that he only supports it in this or that special circumstance. These folks will say this because, well, they voted for him, and like him, they aren’t necessarily using the lens of God’s Word for discerning these things. Well, whatever. Use whichever intellectual dance moves you prefer for avoiding the visceral fact that the President of the United States has given a thumbs-up to doctors delivering and then murdering newborn children if in such a moment a mother decides she doesn’t want her child.

But let me take a brief step backward to where this started.

As a Christian, the only way to arrive at an acceptance of the pro-choice position, no matter the justification, is to lie to yourself about a great many things. It is to lie about what life is and means. It is to lie about life’s Author. It is to lie about what that Author said with regard to human dignity and the truest definition of personhood. It is to wield the Word of God in deceptive ways, and ultimately by such handling, to summarily reject it, whether the one wielding it realizes it or not. Lastly, it is to be caught in the dilemma that to reject the Word of God, by default, is to reject the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

You cannot stake a claim in Christianity and reject the Savior who sits at its heart. It just doesn’t work. Thankfully, there remain plenty of Bishops in the Roman Catholic Church who are willing to enforce this basic doctrinal premise.

I wrote and posted something else this past week that comes to mind, too. It had to do with an article from The Federalist entitled “Lockdown Mongers Can Point Fingers, But The Science Is In: They’re To Blame.” By the way, one of the two senior editors at The Federalist is a biblically astute LCMS Lutheran, Mollie Hemingway, whose father is a Confessional Lutheran pastor. I should add that The Federalist has several LCMS writers on its roster of contributors, and in my opinion, that alone makes it one of the few political/cultural news sources out there to be trusted. Anyway, here’s what I wrote when I posted the article:

“The devil has plenty of instruments in his bag, but deception is the glove he wears for wielding each one.”

Again, the point here was to say that there are plenty of tools in the devil’s toolbox for drawing us into Sin, things he uses for convincing us to believe and do the wrong things. But before he goes about his darkly deeds, his grip on each instance begins with deceptively enticing half-truths.

“Sure, I know it’s against God’s Word for me and my girlfriend to live together before marriage,” the young man says, “but it makes good financial and logistical sense to do so. I figure that as long as we have the intention of getting married, God will let this one slide.”

Don’t lie to yourself. Repent.

“It makes perfect sense that the churches are closed,” the husband and wife contemplate over Sunday morning coffee. “The science says that mass gatherings for worship are sure to be super spreaders of the virus. The Church can ‘love thy neighbor’ a lot better by masking up and staying home.”

Don’t lie to yourself. Repent.

“Certainly I’m justified in speaking poorly about that person to others,” she muses. “How could I be wrong in doing so? My friend hurt me, and I need the emotional support from other friends who understand. The only way to get the support is to tell others about what happened.”

Don’t lie to yourself. Repent.

To knowingly persist in such behaviors unrepentantly, having exchanged the truth of God’s Word for lies, won’t end well. Still, the devil will work to convince you that it will. He may even do it in ways that sound pious, kind of like Adlai Stevenson’s infamous words given in jest: “A lie is an abomination to the Lord, and a very present help in trouble.”

Again, I don’t want to lie about the sunshine and say I don’t like it. I love it, even when it’s uncomfortably shining in my eyes. It’s the same here. Don’t be fooled. Stick to the truth of God’s Word, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. No matter what happens, you’ll have the certainty of real truth. You’ll be traveling along the stepping stones of faith cut from God’s reliable quarry. Along the way, you’ll know and understand the gravity of your Sin—your very REAL Sin—and you’ll know the One who came to forgive you of that Sin, to recreate you by His wonderful love, and to send you out as someone capable of beaming the refreshing and face-warming sunlight of His love in a wintry world of Sin longing for the rescue of a divine summer.

My First Inclination

I must admit that what first came to mind for writing this morning was very short, and had I shared it as the temptation was nudging, it would have been less than helpful. Although, now that I’ve taken a moment to think through why I would’ve written it so crisply, I’m prepared to go ahead and share it, anyway, followed, of course, by an explanation.

My first inclination this morning was to write something akin to:

   Jesus loves you. He died on the cross to save you. I’m guessing you believe this, yes? That means you’re not who you were before faith. You actually want to be a better person—a more faithful person. With that, be nice to others, being kind enough to give your fellow Christians the benefit of the doubt in conflict. And whatever you do, don’t impose your opinions onto them and then get angry when you discover they disagree.

   That being said, however, if you are able, go to church. Don’t wait for an invitation. Certainly, if someone does happen to invite you, firstly, don’t get mad at them; and secondly, take a moment and consider that perhaps your unhappy response might have more to do with you than the person’s genuine concern for your wellbeing. Also, consider that it doesn’t do you much good to call yourself a Christian while actively avoiding being with the Creator who made you one. It’s kind of like saying two plus two equals five. The world seems to deal in that kind of nonsense. I mean, right now it’s calling a woman a man and a man a woman. Remember, you’re in the world but not of it. And besides, you know better, anyway. You’re a Christian. You have the truth of God’s Word. Live by it, never forgetting that Jesus lived, died, and rose for you. And why? Because He loves you. That love changes you.

   There.

   I began with the Gospel, and I ended with it. You’ve been given all you need to be and do everything I just described.

   A blessed Lent to you.

See what I mean? Without some context, that probably would’ve had some of you wondering if perhaps there was a medication I’d forgotten to take this morning.

Admittedly, last week was a rough one—enough to leave me short-of-breath for the one just beginning. Just to give you an idea, one of the week’s easier moments involved sitting through a phone call with someone I’d never met before in my life screaming profanities at me so loudly that his voice became distorted and I found myself needing to pull my ear away from the receiver. Again, this was one of the easier moments the week brought to my doorstep. What really made the week so rough were the conflicts that seemed to erupt between Christian people I know—a handful of them occurring within our own community.

For the most part, each instance seemed to be nothing more than people seizing the opportunity to be mean.

It seems it’s becoming far easier for folks—even Christians—to verbally lunge at one another, to think the worst of a brother or sister in Christ, and then to go for the jugular without any concern for context, responsibility, relationship, history, authority, and a whole host of other factors that play into the lives that comprise a community of faith.

Maybe it’s different for you, but I certainly don’t wake up in the morning wondering how I can tick people off. And yet, I think sometimes people believe I do.

How does such an assumption get any traction among God’s people?

Another example: When an invitation is extended to come back to church, and then the recipient lashes out as though the invite were an unjust accusation or attack on his or her character, how does such a thing—a genuinely kind nudge to be with Jesus—become an affronting word to be received as spiritual assault and battery?

I just don’t get it.

Well, actually I do. I know how it can become this. And you do, too. I assure you that the deeper we go into Lent, the more we’re going to be confronted by the cause, the more we’re going to journey to its borders.

Sin is being unmasked handily in Lent.

The spotlight of Lent is allowing Sin’s inescapable domain to be seen for what it is—a wasteland steeped in terrible desolation. Nothing good grows within its borders. Its seeds planted by the devil hold the pitch black and oily venom of death. They produce the same. Sunday after Wednesday after Sunday after Wednesday we’re being shown the vile crop it produces in thought, word, and deed. We’re being led out into the open to see its field, actually seeing what’s at stake in the war for our salvation. We’re beholding how our sin-nature—which is the deepest, and so often the most influential part of ourselves—has the easy inclination for spitting in a rage at anyone or anything that would put Jesus at the forefront as the solution for setting everything right.

We’re also realizing that the Christian community, for as pristine as we’d hoped it would be, isn’t immune to the curse. Certainly, we can know to expect a filth-laden tirade from an unbelieving stranger—a child and servant of the world. But even as we, the believers, have been saved from the same world, we’re not unaffected by it. We’ll need to expect it from one another on occasion, too. It’s got us—all of us. As long as this world continues to spin, the sinner-saint bout will continue.

Lent is offering to Christians the clarion call to remember these things, to not avoid them, but instead to embrace the Gospel that not only has what it takes to work repentance, faith, and the amending of the sinful life, but the power to view the world and one another rightly so that we know how and what to do to actually fight against it as a community.

When we find ourselves at odds, we know by God’s Word we play a huge role in bringing it to a peaceful conclusion—and not because we feel we have to, but because we know the Holy Spirit at work within each of us desires it.

Lent is about a lot of these things, which is one more reason why as a religious system (which a clergy-friend recently used this terminology in passing to refer to such things), the season has been considered incredibly important to the Church since very early on. Sure, you could set Lent aside as one of optional import, but that would be to remove oneself from the fuller collegium of Christians from across the centuries and globe who thought otherwise. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that much of myself. I try to take care not to think I know better than the thousands of years of faithful Christianity that came before me.

So, having unpacked the motivation behind what would have been a much shorter and more frustrated-sounding note resulting from an exhausting week, take a look at that first note one more time, except now through the better lens of the Gospel’s care.  You’re likely to be far less startled by its brevity.

Once again…

Jesus loves you. He died on the cross to save you. I’m guessing you believe this, yes? That means you’re not who you were before faith. You actually want to be a better person—a more faithful person. With that, be nice to others, being kind enough to give your fellow Christians the benefit of the doubt in conflict. And whatever you do, don’t impose your opinions onto them and then get angry when you discover they disagree.

That being said, however, if you are able, go to church. Don’t wait for an invitation. Certainly, if someone does happen to invite you, firstly, don’t get mad at them; and secondly, take a moment and consider that perhaps your unhappy response might have more to do with you than the person’s genuine concern for your wellbeing. Also, consider that it doesn’t do you much good to call yourself a Christian while actively avoiding being with the Creator who made you one. It’s kind of like saying two plus two equals five. The world seems to deal in that kind of nonsense. I mean, right now it’s calling a woman a man and a man a woman. Remember, you’re in the world but not of it. And besides, you know better, anyway. You’re a Christian. You have the truth of God’s Word. Live by it, never forgetting that Jesus lived, died, and rose for you. And why? Because He loves you. That love changes you.

There.

I began with the Gospel, and I ended with it. You’ve been given all you need to be and do everything I just described.

A blessed Lent to you.

It’s Jesus’ Story to Tell

I was thinking about a social media exchange regarding the theological abilities of our nation’s new President that I participated in this past Saturday after our congregation’s annual “Getting Organized” meeting. But before I share its importance with you, I should probably start with a different conversation that occurred earlier in the week. I hope you’ll bear with me. I think it fits.

I had an interesting conversation with a group of students in my 7th and 8th grade religion class last Wednesday. Knowing that far too many folks these days appear to interpret the Bible according to some pretty messed up criteria, my goal this semester has been to walk the students through the process of completing an exegetical study.

Essentially, I’ve divided the class into two groups. One group is wrestling with Mark 10:46-52 (the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar), and the other is handling Luke 10:25-37 (the Parable of the Good Samaritan). Both groups are tasked with studying from at least four different English translations of their assigned text (I’m helping with the Greek if they discover the need to dig deeper). They are to be concerned with discerning keywords, studying context (genre, writer, major and immediate sections, and the like), exploring parallel texts (which includes non-canonical resources), and so much more, all with the hope of exposing the primary purpose and meaning of the portion of God’s Word they are to be handling.

Pedagogically speaking, I’m not a big fan of small groups in an academic setting. I’m not convinced it’s the best way to learn. Still, I went against my own rule and gathered the students into groups according to their respective texts in order for them to discuss with one another the particular keywords they’d each discovered and were considering for his or her exposition. I hovered closely among the two groups.

For the most part, and interestingly, the students gravitated toward many of the same words. On occasion, however, one or two students would suggest the importance of a word that none of the others had considered. I was glad for that. I could go into greater detail as to why, but rest assured from their discussion, it was proof to me that they were really digging in and taking the assignment seriously.

At one point along the way, I suggested to both groups that they try to imagine themselves as onlookers to the situation, paying close attention with the mind’s eye to the visual flow of events. When they took time to do this, other aspects became visible.

With respect to keywords, an example of an obvious one from the Luke 10 text was the NIV’s term “expert in the Law” in comparison to the ESV’s rather simple descriptor “lawyer.” That’s an easy one. Does the difference matter? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, the students are going to figure that out. But when they placed themselves as observers of the conversation unfolding between Jesus and the expert in the Law, a few of the students noticed almost immediately a very strange shift. On the surface, Jesus seemingly commended the lawyer in verse 28 for giving the right answer to his question. “You have answered correctly,” Jesus said. “Do this and you will live.”

That’s great, right? Who wouldn’t want to be commended by the Lord? But in the very next verse, the lawyer appears to cop an attitude, feeling the need to justify himself, as if he’d somehow been insulted.

So, what happened?

One student in the bunch took the lead in the hunt for an answer. Eventually, he circled back around to the Lord’s reply to the lawyer, guessing that it was either the way the Lord said what He did (which we can’t necessarily determine His tone), or something wasn’t quite getting through in the English translation. Ultimately, he focused on the Lord’s words, “Do this and you will live,” because that seemed to be the critical moment of engagement in the Lord’s commendation. After a little more discussion, “Do this” became the student’s sole focus.

And that was it. In the Greek, the verb reveals the Lord’s insinuation that the lawyer, a man who thought he was keeping the Law of God perfectly, hadn’t been performing in the way he believed himself to be. “Do this” meant that if perhaps he actually got started right then and there, he might discover eternal life. Of course, that was a short, but loaded, reply to the lawyer’s self-righteous answer. To gain eternal life by way of keeping the Law is impossible. No one will pave their way to heaven with deeds. Jesus knows this. That’s why He came. But the lawyer was under the impression that he, an expert in the Law, was doing a pretty good job at actually accomplishing it. Jesus pointed out in front of the massive crowd that the show-off’s expertise in this regard was clearly lacking.

In short, here was a man whose trust for eternal life was located in himself, and the Rabbi he was challenging in that moment believed he was failing desperately at it. Like everyone else in the crowd, the lawyer needed a Savior.

This offended him. It embarrassed him, too. That meant he needed to do something to justify himself in order to regain his previous standing before the onlookers.

Knowing this particular detail in the exchange completely changes the trajectory for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. My guess is that most interpret the parable apart from this introductory text, and when they do, it becomes little more than a Sunday School story about how Jesus wants us to be good to others. But if we’re going to handle it honestly, that’s not why Jesus told the parable. The purpose of the parable is to point out how we fail, and by doing this, He’s putting before us the opportunity to admit we actually need a Savior. The astonishing part to this is that when we actually know the Lord’s real reason for teaching the parable, and then we dig into the parable itself, we may actually see the Gospel woven into its fabric. In other words, Jesus laid some gut-wrenching Law on us, but He didn’t leave us without hope. For the expert in the Law, Jesus foreshadowed the work of the Messiah—Jesus’ approaching work to accomplish our rescue—which is to say that He told the story of us and Himself.

He described someone who’d been pummeled and left for dead, and unless the wretch received help, his permanent end would be inevitable. That’s us. Sin has more than seen to this. Fascinatingly, the well-known animosity between the Jews and Samaritans is a hint to the vastness of the chasm that separates Man from God. And yet, the fact that the dying man’s chief enemy, a Samaritan, is the one who helped him is a glimpse of our Lord’s crossing over that divide in order to save us. As the story unfolded further, the scene became even clearer. The One who would be our enemy, rather than leaving us in our predicament, came down into the valley of our sorrow to be with us, to reach to us in love. He bandaged up our wounds, took us to a place where He arranged for our care, and then He promised to return to settle all accounts.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s an image of the Lord’s incarnation all the way through to His return at the Last Day, with the in-between time being His wonderful work to rescue, forgive, and sustain us as His people.

I expect that the students assigned to this text, with a little more recalibrating of their exegetical lenses, are going to discover these gems in the text for themselves. But as I mentioned at the beginning of this note, I suppose the reason I was moved to share this particular moment from my 7th and 8th grade religion class with you is because of a conversation I had on Saturday with a Christian who felt the need to defend Joe Biden’s supposed “devout” Catholicism. One tritely employed phrase that was used during the conversation (and I say “tritely” because far too many Christians believe this): “Well, you interpret the Bible one way, and Biden interprets it another way. Maybe he doesn’t accept parts that you do. That doesn’t necessarily make him wrong.”

Puke.

God didn’t give us His Word so we could do whatever the heck we want with it, picking and choosing this or that portion, ultimately making it say whatever we feel like making it say. It is divinely inspired, inerrant, and immutable—and with that, there are intentions behind every single Word. If you don’t believe this, not only will you never be able to secure a faithful interpretation, but in the end, you’ll see it as having very little value to begin with. When this happens, you’ll have become no different than the self-righteous lawyer in Luke 10 who felt he had no need for Jesus, because after all, Jesus is the very Word made flesh (John 1:14). If you reject the Lord’s Word, by default you reject Him. That leads to big trouble. Eternal trouble.

I doubt our new President will ever allow a faithful pastor thirty or forty minutes of his time to exegize alongside him some of the Biblical texts he believes give license for murdering babies in (and out of) the womb, for allowing men who think they’re women to compete in women’s sports, or so many other ungodly ideologies. In fact, I know he won’t do this. He’s already verbally condemned the catholic bishops who’ve said he should be excommunicated for his radical handling of God’s Word in these particular arenas.

In the end, I guess I’m just going to continue to work with what I have—which means doing what I can to teach the students in the 7th and 8th grade at Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran School in Hartland, Michigan, the powerful contents of God’s Word. And as I do this, I’m going to do what I can to help carry them into a love for Biblical study, one that continues into adulthood. God willing, it’ll be a love that sees the value in taking time to wrestle with what God’s Word actually teaches, rather than relegating it to a thin scan and the shallow realm of “What does this mean to me?” as so many Christians are in the unfortunate habit of doing.

Strumming the Chords of Memory

I’m once again taking the opportunity to get a jumpstart on the eNews for this week.

You know how it goes for me. The sermon is done, and so now whatever comes to mind this morning is going to be quarried for gems.

I suppose with today being the 66th anniversary of our congregation, and since anniversaries are something of meaning, how about this?

It might sound somewhat absurd, but last week I spent about $12 to buy specialized batteries for a ramshackle calculator I’ve had since high school. But that’s only the half of it. I spent another $10 to buy three weirdly-sized batteries for a miniature, and equally bedraggled, R2D2 toy I’ve had for nearly as long.

For reference, the calculator’s screen is being held together with tape. The device’s black metal face is more than well-worn, with plenty of age-betraying scratches and dents. Honestly, it isn’t much to look at. And technologically speaking, it’s not even that advanced, especially in comparison to the calculators of today. For the twelve dollars I spent to revive it, I could’ve bought a brand new one with far greater capabilities.

The same goes for my R2D2, which by the way, sits on my desk just below my computer monitor. His white plastic case has yellowed with time, not to mention at some point along the way, the foot from one of his robotic legs came loose. It took superglue and surgeon-like skill to repair and reattach it in a way that it could still function. Like my calculator, he’s pretty beat up, which means he’s not going to be winning any astrodroid beauty pageants in this galaxy anytime soon. And yet, with the new batteries, at least he continues to be as I remember and expect. When you press his button, he whirs, boops, and beeps with glee. Even better, the tiny light on his dome still twinkles magnificently.

To look at these items, you’d think I was crazy for keeping them around, let alone spending as much as I did on batteries to keep them functioning. The thing is, for as immaterial as they might seem, they’re mine. They mean something to me.

I remember the store in my hometown of Danville, Illinois, where I bought the calculator. The last time I visited, I discovered the store no longer exists. Nevertheless, the calculator I got from one of its shelves is still helping me with math problems. I remember loaning the calculator to an old girlfriend—Estella—who, by the way, is the reason behind the tape holding it together.

As far as R2D2 goes, sure, I could buy another miniature figure just like him to adorn my workspace, and it would probably have more articulating parts and cooler sounds. But this is my R2D2. Again, he might not be much to look at, but he’s mine. And truth be told, even if he somehow loses all functions, or I discover him in a completely unrepairable state, I’ll never throw him away. He means something to me. I have memories stored away in my brain that only he can stir. Rest assured that even if he becomes nothing more than a pile of parts to be scooped up and put into a ziplock bag, I’ll keep R2 for as long as my mind will recognize him.

I suppose in a broad sense, when I consider all of this as a Christian, I can’t help but be reminded of how our God thinks on all of us in love. The human race is coming undone, and for the most part, it isn’t much to speak of. We lie. We cheat. We steal. Heck, we even have it in us to grind up babies in the womb. Overall, if there’s a line marking the borderland of horribleness, at some point along the way we’ll cross it. Still, God thinks on us in love. Even Saint Paul, at one time a devilish persecutor of Christians, couldn’t help but share how astounded he was with God’s mercy.

“For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).

Of course Paul didn’t just aim that honesty at himself. He turned it toward the entire human race, making sure we’re all fully aware of the predicament we’re in, while at the same time showing the divergence of God’s actions.

“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

The contrast is astounding. Paul didn’t use the term “sinners” lightly. He knew the core of the word. He knew he was referring to all of mankind, himself included, as rebelliously hateful enemies of God and completely dead to righteousness with every fiber of our being. And yet, it’s in this condition that God reached to us. Our yellowing nature, our lives barely being held together by the flimsy tape of human frailty, our broken efforts and our pummeled pasts—God sees all of this. And yet He doesn’t throw us away. We mean something to Him, and so He was willing to do the work and to pay the seemingly craziest price to restore what would otherwise be considered as junk.

That has me thinking from another perspective.

As I noted already, when I plink away at my old calculator or I admire my old R2D2 toy, some pretty substantial memories are stirred. I did quite a bit of reading last fall from Abraham Lincoln’s various writings, and at one point along the way I remember him saying something about how memories are like mystic chords that swell a chorus when strummed. This pathetic old calculator, this silly little R2D2, as trivial as they both may be, are tools for strumming. When I see them, I remember former days. When I reach out to touch them, I reconnect with a vastness of people, places, times and the like, all of which—through the lens of faith—leave me marveling at what, how, and to where God has carried me along the timeline of my own life.

Everything along the way has value. Unfortunately, and as the French novelist Georges Duhamel once said, it’s often true that we don’t know the true value of our life’s moments until they have undergone the test of memory. In other words, what’s happening right now matters, and it will either be remembered with fondness, or it will haunt us like the chains strung around the neck of Jacob Marley’s ghost.

As we navigate life, this can be a petrifying thought, even for Christians.

But be comforted. One thing is for sure, God thinks on and reaches to us in love. The death of Jesus Christ for sinners is the all-surpassing Gospel announcement of this. The One who was given over for our redemption, He is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (Revelation 22:13). I don’t know how it is for you, but knowing He was and is always with me, I can look back at the things in my life that I regret and be reminded that I meant something to Him then and I mean something to Him now, that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, that His mercies never come to an end, that each day is a new day in His loving kindness, that His grace is fresh and bountiful every morning (Lamentations 3:22-24). I can ponder the fact that even my worst day filled with my most grievous Sins has been long forgotten by the One who, by virtue of His atoning sacrifice, looks me in the eye through the words of Isaiah 43:25 and says with a certain and thundering voice, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.”

With this Gospel at the ready each and every day, when my course in this life finally comes to an end and I draw my final breath, both the joys and regrets of life will all be found resting in the promise of a tearless future in the nearest presence of Jesus Christ, my Savior—the One who promised never to leave or forsake me (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5). Through this lens of faith, even my calculator can be a reminder—a weird reminder, but a reminder nonetheless. It whispers that the same Savior who was with me as I tapped away in 10th grade math class in Danville, Illinois, is the same one who is with me now as I prepare to do a little computing with the average attendance numbers for a church and school four hundred miles away in Hartland, Michigan.

And a small, motionless R2D2 with a similar story looks on in twinkling affirmation.

Dying to Meet You

Do you have time for a quick story? Since you’re here, I’ll go ahead and share it.

We took a phone call here at Our Savior this past Friday. I didn’t answer it. Nikki, our Parish Administrator, did. It was someone calling to chat with me. Even though I wasn’t necessarily steeped in anything crucial, Nikki took a message for me. She does this because she knows that while technically Friday is my day off—and I probably shouldn’t tell you this—but I’m always in the office on Fridays. I have a few regularly scheduled appointments in the morning, and then after that, I use the rest of the day to catch up on things I didn’t have time for during the week. She runs block for me to let me do my thing.

Anyway, a woman called to let me know she didn’t appreciate the comparison I’d made in a recent radio bit equating Christians who justify skipping worship on a regular basis to so-called believers who justify voting for a candidate who favors abortion.

To be fair, the woman wasn’t rude with her critique—which was a welcomed difference in comparison to so many other calls or email messages I’ve received from metro-Detroit listeners. Instead, Nikki described her as someone who, with a conversational tone, was troubled “by likening someone absent from church to a Christian who’d support abortion,” and her hope was that I’d reconsider broadcasting the particular segment in its current form.

I’ll admit the association is a brutal one. And I’m more than willing to reconsider my words. The problem is, I didn’t write the script on this particular radio bit. My daughter did. Evelyn’s the one who made the observation and ultimately formed the comparative conclusion. I was so inspired by her insight, I wrote down what was spoken between us and together we recorded the 60-second radio spot right then and there. Again, I put into the microphone what I said. Evelyn put into it what she said. The brief conversation fit perfectly between the 15-second intro and the 15-second outro of my one-minute-and-thirty-seconds of airtime.

The context was simple. While waiting in my office before school, Evelyn was scanning the images from one of our previous church pictorial directories. Turning the pages, she stumbled upon the picture of someone she didn’t recognize. Second only to her dad, Evelyn practically lives here at Our Savior. She knows everyone’s name. And if she doesn’t know a member’s name, she certainly knows all the faces. Looking at a pictorial directory of people officially labeled as “members,” one holding the kindly faces of countless people she considers as members of her Christian family, it was natural for her to ask about someone she didn’t recognize. I didn’t say much at first, but I was careful not to be deceptive. Had I dodged her question, she would’ve known. Remember, like me, she’s here every Sunday. If she doesn’t recognize you, it’s probably because you don’t attend. That being the case in this particular instance, when she asked for the identity of the person, I said very nonchalantly, “She’s a member of the congregation, but she just doesn’t come to church very often.”

“Well, I’ve never seen her before in my life,” she replied, sounding somewhat concerned—just as I’d expect from this little girl with such a huge heart for her church family. “Does she work on Sundays?”

“No,” I answered, again trying not to give her any more information than she required.

“So, she could be here on Sundays?”

“I suppose.”

Evelyn thought for a moment, and then she laid the situation out unembellished. “How can she consider herself a member of a church she doesn’t even want to attend?”

My answer: “That’s a really good question, honey.”

Her next uninhibited reply, being the ardent pro-life girl that she is: “That’s kind of like people who call themselves Christian but support abortion. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

First of all, can you tell Evelyn is in tune with what’s going on around her, both in her church and her world? Second, there you have it. Even a child understands the inconsistency. How can we claim to be a devoted follower of someone we want nothing to do with? Using the same logic, how can we claim faith in Christ who is the Word made flesh (John 1:14), and yet be in opposition to the Word of God when it comes to topics like abortion?

It just doesn’t make any sense, and my little girl knew it.

Of course as adults, there will always be plenty of unknown angles to Evelyn’s observation that we’ll discover. COVID-19 has made things a little crazier these days. However, rest assured that the person in the picture was MIA long before COVID-19. That being said, be careful not to square the angles for escape from her scrutiny’s sting with whatever illegitimate excuses at whatever moment work best for you. And be sure to take even greater care not to overcomplicate or find offense in what’s been laid bare. If you do, you’re sure to miss a simple truth revealed by way of a simple faith, the same kind of child-like faith described by the Lord in Matthew 18:3 and now being demonstrated by a little girl who sees time with her Savior, concern for the members of her church family, and doing everything humanly possible to protect the lives of unborn children as essential and non-negotiable to the Christian life.

Her evaluation was simple, but it was a good one. I suppose in essence, it reminds us that even as our God cannot be in contradiction with Himself, He does not grant us space for being in contradiction with Him, either. This is built into the Lord’s announcement, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30).

Now, to begin wrapping all of this up, right after Nikki told me about the call on Friday, I posted on Facebook the very first thing that came to mind:

“I’m beginning to think that for some Christians, worship and Bible study are so precious they feel they need to ration them. Go to church.”

Yes, it was a sarcastic play on words.

“Well, I don’t support abortion, so don’t put my skipping church into the same category.”

But they are in the same category. Don’t have other gods. Don’t misuse God’s name. Don’t skip church. Don’t kill. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. These are all a part of the same list of things we do to thumb our noses at God, and ultimately, they’re things that keep us separated from Him. And yet, our Lord reaches to us by His Gospel. He empowers us there by His Holy Spirit for acknowledging our dreadful disobedience. Only by the power of the Gospel can we know to repent of these Sins and be changed to desire faithfulness (Romans 1:16).

I don’t necessarily know what many of the other churches around us are doing, but opportunities for holy worship are plentiful here at Our Savior. We have two Divine Services on Sunday. We enjoy the Office of Matins on Monday, another Divine Service on Wednesday, and an abbreviated Responsive Prayer (liturgics) service on Thursday.

And God is continually blessing all of our time together during these occasions for worship.

Dear Christians, there’s no need to ration your time with Christ. There’s an abundance! Indeed, the Lord is here, and His merciful gifts are overflowing all week long. Surely you can make it to one of those services to receive from the bounty that belongs to those who are His own? Wear your mask if you want to. Or don’t. No one is judging anyone in this regard. And why would we? The goal is simply to gather with the Lord and receive His care just as He desires to give it.

Quite honestly, I say all of this with a rather sizable concern in mind. For me personally, it’s one thing to be unrecognizable to Evelyn. Truthfully, if you are yet to meet her, you are missing out. But it’s a thing of far greater terror—the greatest terror there is—to be unrecognizable to Christ; to be one to hear Him say at one’s last hour, “I never knew you. Away from me…” (Matthew 7:23).

Go to church. You belong there. And even if you don’t feel like you belong just yet, go anyway. Christ is dying to meet you. Well, “died” to be more precise. And I know a church full of people who are eager to make the introduction.