Friends are Friends

I’m sitting here wondering… who are the people in your life you trust, and why do you trust them? I know that’s a deeper question than it sounds. Each of us has people in our lives we’ll trust for one thing but not another. Still, there are those we keep close in everything. They are second selves in a way—people we’ll lean on no matter the circumstance.

I’m guessing that for many of you, it’s your family that best fits within the boundaries of this description. Speaking for myself, I can certainly affirm that my wife, Jennifer, is the one person I trust unreservedly with everything. She’s also the person I can trust to not pester me when there are situations happening that, while I need to keep them confidential, are clearly weighing me down. She never pries, but instead, does what she can to cheer me up, all the while encouraging me to keep pressing forward, especially when she can clearly see that I don’t feel like I can. This, again, is an aspect of her trustworthiness.

I have a trustworthy Bishop, too. He’s more than an ecclesiastical supervisor. He’s a friend. Even better, he’s a pastor’s pastor to all in the district. What I mean is that for any of the church professionals out there within reach of his supervision, if they have no one else to trust aside from Christ, they can trust him. I’m glad for that.

Since I mentioned the idea of confidential things, in contrast to those you’d trust, there are those around each of us who display a tendency for handling secrets in the same way they handle cash. They circulate them, using them to buy and sell with others. By the way, those folks are often the first ones to pester for secret information, ultimately betraying their lack of intention or ability for ever keeping to themselves whatever it is you may share. There’s another term for those people: Gossipers. For the record, I keep gossipers at arm’s length. In fact, anyone who knows me will know I have a tendency to come down hard on gossipers. Gossip is poison to the Church and it should never be tolerated.

Of course, keeping confidence isn’t the only thing that makes a person trustworthy. Again, speaking only for myself, the people I keep closest are the ones I know will receive my words honestly—easy or hard—and in turn, they know I’ll do the same with theirs. I hope Jennifer doesn’t mind that I’m repeatedly using her as an example, but this reminds me of something she articulated so wisely a few years ago. In fact, I mentioned it in The Angels’ Portion, Volume III. I may have shared it with you before. Either way, here’s what I wrote:

“‘Friends are friends until they’re not,’ my brilliant wife has observed. And the substance of her meaning is a direct outflow of her life as a pastor’s wife. She knows all too well that her husband is always just one decision, action, conversation, or sermon away from ticking someone off and seeing that which once was become a thing of the past. She knows all too well that if she shows up on Sunday and gets the cold shoulder from someone who only last week was as fresh and friendly as a springtime sprig, it’s because of something I did.”

Friends are friends until they’re not, which is why I’m guessing that like me, the people you trust the most are the ones who continue to prove the long-lasting nature of real friendship that can withstand being over-taxed by mistakes, careless words, or whatever else might cause division between people. Most often the first action of a trusted friend, at least the kind I’ve described so far, won’t be to attack you, but rather will be to seek peaceful ways to fortify his or her friendship with you through faithfulness to Christ.

I appreciate the phrase, “True friendship is never serene.” Marie de Sévigné said that. She was right. And her point: True friendships are not without turbulence. Still, I’m guessing they have something that other relationships do not: Humility and forgiveness.

Humility will always be a sturdy bridge for carrying heavier issues over from one person to another. And if forgiveness is there waiting on the other side, the friendship will be proven capable of withstanding what breaks all other relationships.

Christians, in particular, know these things very well. And why wouldn’t we? We know that even as we were God’s enemies, completely dead in our trespasses and sins, Christ humbly submitted Himself to death on our behalf (Ephesians 2:1; Romans 5:6). The forgiveness He won for us by His death is the foundation of our very identity as human beings. From this, we know without question that He is the absolute epitome of “friend,” having made clear to us that there is no greater love to be found among friends than that one would be self-sacrificing, that one would lay down his life for the other (John 15:13). When Jesus speaks this way, of course He’s referring to Himself as the only One capable of being the truest friend. And yet, He certainly gives this faithful Word in order to establish the same selfless relationships between His people, knowing that by the power of the Holy Spirit, we would be found emitting to each other in much simpler ways what He first demonstrated to us in the greatest of ways.

You may have other criteria behind your determining of trusted friends. I certainly have others I’ve not shared. Nevertheless, what I can tell you with relative simplicity is that when humility and forgiveness are present in a person, the rest of what we might consider to be not-so-likeable qualities are most often barely noticeable—which makes complete sense. It’s a lot harder to see the bad stuff when Jesus is blocking your view.

You Look Young for Your Age

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s you, huh?” she’d ask.

“Yep,” I’d reply, “that’s me.”

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

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

My beard has helped somewhat in this regard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Subduing the Fear of Stewardship

Before venturing into the swiftly approaching New Year, I woke up this morning and wanted to remind you one more time that your pastors pray for you regularly. Speaking personally, my general prayers to God for the whole congregation occur each and every morning. But of course along the way of my day as things arise, I find plenty of casual moments for whispering into the Lord’s ear regarding specific joys or disquiets that concern us as a Christian family. Beyond this daily regimen, just as I know so many of you pray for me, you need to know that I take time at least once a week to pray for each of you by name, too.

Let this be a comfort to you. Find some ease in knowing that among God’s people here at Our Savior, we have one another in mind as we call our to our gracious Lord in prayer.

Funny, isn’t it, how God knows what we will ask before we ask it, and yet He still commands for us to pray? Why? Well, as I tell the kids in my confirmation classes (and as I’m certain I’ve shared with you before), first, because He already knows that if He doesn’t command it, we won’t do it. We need the prompting. And then second, and perhaps more importantly, we have the Gospel imperative to pray—which is to say that it isn’t fear of God’s command that’s moving us to pray, but rather it is the Gospel that invigorates us for beholding the mandate to pray as good and holy. We know by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we have full and free access to the Creator of all things. Perhaps even better, just as you love to hear your own family and friends tell you they love you, so also does our God find great delight in hearing the voices of His saints as they do the same. It’s quite the wonderful relationship we have with the Creator of the cosmos, don’t you think? It is a communicative rapport like none other, and it is one in which we can take great comfort because we know that through faith in Jesus Christ, our prayers never fall on the deaf ears of the Divine One. He is always listening and acting according to His good and gracious will for us.

Having said all of this, there’s something in particular I want you to pray about in the New Year. I’m humbly asking that you pray for a more fervent grasp on what it means to be a good steward with the gifts God has given you.

For the last decade or so, I’ve done what I can by way of God’s Word to show that the topic of stewardship isn’t to be considered a dirty word in the life of the Church, that is, something to be avoided as bothersome or maybe even a little bit scary. As I’ve talked about it, I’ve done my best to make sure that God’s people know exactly what’s going on here in this congregation financially. By way of this weekly eNewsletter, I’ve been sure to share the grittiest of details.

As far as stewardship being a scary topic, in all honesty, that’s sort of how I felt about it for a very long time. Maybe you didn’t, but I did. For the longest time I was deathly afraid of discussing it, of telling folks just how important their giving was—not only for the sake of the congregation’s temporal health, but as an eternal fruit of faith—as an indicator of what is most important to us in this life. Now, while I’m not in precise alignment with Billy Graham’s theology, there is something the infamous evangelist once said that rings very true. I say this because, quite frankly, it’s an age-old verity revealed in the Scriptures. I don’t remember his wording exactly, but I think he said something like, “Show me a person’s checkbook, and I’ll show you that person’s god.”

I whole-heartedly agree. People prioritize, and then they make sure those priorities are well funded by time and treasure.

As time has gone on, the Lord has been at work recasting my perspective on stewardship. I have to imagine that it was a challenge for Him. Ask anyone who truly knows me—my wife, our parish administrator, fellow pastors, my kids—I just don’t like money. I don’t even like its smell. I think it’s this way because money has never been all that plentiful in my life, and with that, I’ve almost always seen it more as an eluding enemy than an available friend. I’m sure you can imagine how this has affected my ability to talk about it here at the church.

Nevertheless, as I said, God has changed my perspective on the subject, and so together as a congregation we have been enabled to more intimately explore the conversation. As the ever-progressing exchange has unfolded, we’ve been able to go deeper, and as I have learned, I have also shared with God’s people at Our Savior (Philippians 4:9; 2 Timothy 3:14; Galatians 6:6). Walking together in this, I’m here to say that I’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work in all of you in ways that many past and present naysayers would never have expected.

Yes, there are people out there who just can’t believe that Our Savior in Hartland is still in existence, let alone that we’re healthy and heartily accomplishing things with the kind of might that can only come from God. I guess what I’m saying is that here at Our Savior, I get the sense that by God’s grace we’re more than proving to the onlooking world—and often to ourselves—that we’re aware of the importance of Christian stewardship, and in stride with this awareness, we’ve become quite clear sighted to the fact that money isn’t what’s most important to us. Money is not our god nor our first priority. Faithfulness to Christ and His Word holds that seat.

By His holy Word, God promises to bless such faithfulness (Luke 11:28; Hebrews 11:6; Proverbs 28:20; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 4:2; 2 Thessalonians 3:3). This doesn’t mean that we’d ever expect to be rolling in cash. We certainly aren’t. What it means instead is that according to God’s good and gracious will, we live within our means, knowing He will provide exactly what is needed (both successes and failures), all of which will work in favor of the extension of His kingdom and the preservation of His Gospel among us. It means we can count on Him to have a care for us as useful tools in His hands for accomplishing things that communicate His truth to a world in need.

These are wonderful promises. And by them, there is always before us a wonderful horizon of Gospel possibilities.

If there was ever a congregation out there to know that God will not leave His faithful people high and dry, it’s us. As one of God’s pastors, I’m cognizant of the fact that I’d be failing you if I didn’t bring this to mind every now and then. I’d be letting you down if I didn’t take a moment to test your understanding in all of this. Sure, stewardship can be a scary topic for me. But I’m called to preach the whole counsel of God—which includes the topic of stewardship—and I figured this morning that if there’s ever a time to draw attention to it, it’s at the beginning of a New Year. Now’s the perfect time to start reconsidering one’s level of giving. Now’s the time to step fearlessly into the New Year armed with Christian courage, trusting that God has your wellbeing securely in hand, and that by this, you can give back to Him in faith.

By the way, I should probably clarify something. Exercising courage doesn’t necessarily mean being without fear. We are human beings, and because of this, there are plenty of things that will make us nervous. Giving is one of them. Still, courage doesn’t mean mindless action. It simply means subduing fear. Christian courage is to see our fears subdued by the Gospel reality that if God is for us, who can be against us—even when everyone and everything around us—maybe even our own selves—are telling us that the odds are impossibly stacked against us and we are certain to fail.

Subdue your fear. By the Lord’s sacrifice on the cross, He has already bound and cast fear into the abyss of nothingness. Fear has no hold on you. Fear has no standing against the love of Christ for you (1 John 4:18).

Look to the cross and subdue your fear. And then act according to the faith that’s been given to you.

As the New Year approaches, reconsider your giving. Are you right where you should be? With a little bit of honest reflection, would you discover that you can do more? Whatever the case may be, pray, subdue the fear, and then act accordingly. God will bless your faithfulness. I guarantee it.

The Masterpiece of Family

If I were asked to choose God’s greatest masterpiece from among the many things He has fashioned, of course I’d select His plan of salvation worked through His Son, Jesus Christ. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ on behalf of a straying creation is His greatest work. The resplendence of the Christmas season more than certifies this magnum opus. But if I had to choose a second place from among the rest of His handiwork, before I’d ever even consider the majesty of a mountain range, or the cascading and jewel-like glistening of a sunlit waterfall, or even a pitch black sky filled with an endless array of iridescent stars, I would choose the family.

The human family is truly a remarkable thing.

Besides being the fundamental building block of all societies in history, I suppose one aspect of family that’s so remarkable is that just to observe one is to see a number of important truths in our world. For one, Christians know the source code for family is born from the relationship God intends for us to have with Him. He is our Creator—our divine parent—and we are his children; and as His little ones, we are free to go to Him to receive the benefits of His loving kindness and concern, and He is sure to exercise that care as He watches over us. When we’re sick or hurting, He brings the right medicine and healing. When we’re sad, He’s there to give comfort. When we’re scared, He provides security. Perhaps best of all, when we’re lost, He seeks us out. In fact, such a scene epitomizes the Lord’s very first words to Adam and Eve in the Garden after the fall into the dreadfulness of Sin. He didn’t reprimand the misbehaving dolts, but rather His first action was one of love. Like a concerned parent, God called to his children, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9).

In an existential way, a human family portrays an orderly world and its functioning parts. From our planet and everything within its protective atmosphere all revolving around a preserving sun, to a body moving and breathing and living by way of individual cells creating tissue that become parts ultimately forming a whole, the human family is iconic of purposeful togetherness. At least Saint Paul certainly thought so, especially when considering the universal Christian family—the Church—as a functioning body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).

I suppose one of the most remarkable aspects of the masterpiece of family—an aspect that almost certainly makes all other created things jealous as they look on—is the element of unconditional love to be had between its members. God certainly intends this love to be a part of a family’s DNA, and this is a good thing because no human family is perfect.

Thomas Fuller spoke wisely when he said something about how anyone born into a family that doesn’t have the usual screw-ups and headache-makers must have been born from a flash of lightning and not in the natural way. In other words, and again, no family is perfect. As a matter of fact, every member of every human family is carrying around faults plaited in the human flesh. Sure, some members of our families cause more problems than others—and some of these problems are the worst kinds—but in the end, none of us are free from the complications we ourselves impose on others around us, no matter how big or small those complications may be. Because of this, it’s an absolute miracle that human beings can live in such close proximity to one another for very long, let alone in the same home as something called family. Being a family is not only remarkable, but it is perhaps one of the most challenging endeavors, too.

And yet, by the love God models and then sets as the standard—a love He establishes both in and between the members of a family—we can maneuver among one another with our individual distinctions knowing that we also “carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:10).

In other words, no matter how horribly dysfunctional things might seem to be, it’s the love of God among its members that makes it work and sees them through the seemingly unsurvivable times.

With this Gospel sense about us—even if we’re the only ones sitting at the Christmas dinner table who believe it—as I heard someone once say (and I don’t remember who), for Christians, a family becomes something in which we might sometimes feel trapped, and yet in our innermost, we don’t ever really want to escape. We know there’s too much to lose by doing so, and so we look around at one another and we not only see people we love, but we behold people whom God loves—people He was willing to die for. That means when even our closest family members betray, hurt, or disappoint us, they remain someone we’d fight hell and high water to keep safely within reach.

This comes to mind as I think of all of you this Christmastide.

If there’s one thing I know for sure about many of the people of God here at Our Savior, it’s that each and every day, by God’s grace, they are growing closer and closer to one another as a Christian family. I’m seeing it with my own eyes, and I’m experiencing it personally, too. As a congregation, we heard some tough news yesterday before both of the worship services regarding the health of one of our own, Pastor Zwonitzer. And yet the oxygen-like joy we have in Christ was not sucked from the room when he shared the concerning details. Instead, we took it in together, and then we exhaled together in prayer—and then we breathed in the Lord’s promised care as a Christian family during the worship service that followed the announcement. I can barely begin to top this hopeful imagery of our mutual togetherness, except to say that this kind of togetherness is happening in so many other corners of our congregation. Differences are being overcome. Care is being shown. Needs are being met. People are rallying to one another’s sides in times of both desperation and joy.

As the world around us is so easily rattled, as it appears to be coming undone by frustration and despair, I actually can’t think of a time as a pastor of a congregation when my own personal peace has felt so impenetrable. Truly, God is blessing our togetherness with love, strength, and determination that only He can provide, and it’s bringing along in its train a sense of safety—the kind of safety one experiences when he knows he’s surrounded by loved-ones.

Christmas is only a few days away, and with it will come gatherings with folks you might call family. My prayer is that you can carry this Godly perspective from your church family into your own home. To be thoroughly equipped for this, I’d encourage you first and foremost to gather for worship with your Christian family on Christmas Eve and Day. Join your brothers and sisters in Christ at the Heavenly Father’s divine table for the celebration of the coming of His Son, our Brother, who came to take away our Sin. From there, be refreshed to venture into the midst of your earthly families humbly understanding none of us is perfect—none were born from a flash of lightning—but on the other hand, we were reborn by water and the Word for faith, and so we aren’t as we were before. We are equipped for exemplifying the unconditional love God intends to be found in the midst of families, and in due course, extended to others beyond the borders of our family.

I know such love won’t always be easy, but I know for a fact that it’s possible by God’s grace at work through us.

Again, know that I’m praying specifically for peace in your families this Christmas, and I’m trusting that God will grant to you the special merriment of heart that knows no matter what happens, this peace has already been won by Jesus, the very brushstrokes carrying the splendid hues of God’s greatest masterpiece—the Gospel.

Celebrating the Job of “Parent” on Labor Day

I pray you’re having (or had) a restful weekend. The unofficial end of summer, Labor Day, has been set before us once again. Believe it or not, Labor Day has been around since 1894. It was established as a day to celebrate the efforts of this nation’s workers—the ones who keep the cylinders in the American engine firing.

Of course, the tendency on Labor Day is to shine the brightest spotlights on the most obvious laborers among us—the skilled trades, medical doctors, engineers, teachers, law enforcement, and so many more. Such vocations deserve our admiration, and naturally, a civil society with any hope of long-term survival needs them. Mindful of these, however, we also need the small, medium, and large organizations and businesses that employ these workers. And among both the employers and employees, we know we are bettered by the innovators, those people who are willing to take a chance that might lead to discovery, even if only very small.

It was Jonathan Swift who said, “He was a bold man who first ate an oyster.”

Still, for as much as these jobs are all needed for an ordered and functioning society, there’s one particular vocation that might be far from our minds the first Monday in September. I’m talking about the vocation of “parent.”

Sure, mothers have “Mother’s Day” and fathers have “Father’s Day,” but I think the labor involved with parenting deserves a nod today, too. Why? Because say what you want about the importance of any job in our world today, it doesn’t change the fact that since the beginning, the task of parenting has always been the center-most cog in every societal machine. Without fathers and mothers, nothing else turns as it should. And there are countless proofs for this.

For one, as I sort of hinted to already, a human family shepherded by a father and mother serves as a society’s conduit for transmitting cultural identity, tradition, and so much more. When the traditional family breaks down, becoming irrelevant, stabilizing structures in a society become irrelevant and break down, too. Unfortunately, I think we’re seeing more and more of this in our nation and world.

I suppose another thought that comes to mind is that apart from God-given talents, much of the magic behind what eventually becomes a child’s marketable skill was likely planted by the child’s parents. The words they spoke, the time spent together, the modeling of relationships, the patience displayed in the midst of struggle, the correction given, the forgiveness bestowed—all of these things that occur in the middle spaces between birth and adulthood are highly influential in a child’s life, more so than most are probably willing to admit.

Unpacking this thought a bit more, I’d add to the list that without parents, it’s nearly impossible for children to learn how to love others. And I don’t mean sexual love, or the affection found between friends, but real love—the kind of love God has for us, the kind of love Saint Paul described when he wrote, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Kids learn sacrificial love from parents. It’s there they see a tangible demonstration each and every day of what it means to love someone else more than they sometimes appear to love you.

Unfortunately, parents aren’t always successful in this. Sometimes they demonstrate the wrong kind of love.

For example, a father who continually belittles his wife, maybe calling her fat (if even only in jest), is teaching his observing daughter something of love. But it’s the wrong kind, and statistics show that if it’s a normalized expression of affection in the home, she’ll be far more likely to engage in harmful relationships that could result in marriage to a cruel husband. In the same situation, an observing son is taught something of love, too. But again, it’s the wrong kind. It’s the kind that would make him into that cruel husband.

Parenting is indeed a tough job. But as you can see, it’s also a very important job. And so, today—Labor Day—I tip my hat to all the parents who continue to labor through the mess of this world, even when it seems futile. I give an extra bit of thanks to God for the parents who, after an exhaustive week at the office or factory or classroom or wherever, rather than sleep in on Sunday morning, they continue to give their all in a job that never ends. They get the kids up, feed them, put them in their Sunday best, and take them to church. They guide them to the Lord’s house where together as a family, they’ll receive the gifts that maintain the most important relationship in the greatest household ever: their identity as baptized children and members of the Heavenly Father’s family.

Serving diligently in this role, with Christian hearts aimed at trusting in Christ for all that is required to actually accomplish it, parents engage in the single most important laboring in the entire cosmos.

There’s no other job in society that even comes close.