Don’t Change the Channel

2022 has arrived.

I watched a “2021 Year in Review” segment yesterday on Fox News. It was only a few minutes long. Unfortunately, each of the notable events mentioned were tragic in nature. The list included things like the collapsed apartment building in Florida that killed 98 residents, Derek Chauvin’s trial, the hurricane in Louisiana, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the deadly tornados that ripped through several states, and so many other heartbreaking occurrences from the previous year. Altogether—the events mentioned, the images shown, the concerned tone—sure made it seem like the ones both in front of and behind the cameras were doing everything in their power to avoid mentioning anything good about 2021. It’s as if they’re rooting for this overly-fearful world to remain firmly in terror’s grip, allowing nothing through the airwaves that might suggest a footing for joy in 2022.

The gent presenting the list, Bill Hemmer, closed out the segment by suggesting the new year is likely to be dominated by more COVID strains.

Interestingly, the very next segment was an equally grimy chain of news stories built from links of gloom, starting with a recap of Joe Biden’s recent “winter of death” comments, his vaccine mandates and the court cases emerging from them, and then, if the viewer was paying attention, a strange juxtaposition of understaffed hospitals and thousands of healthcare workers being fired for refusing to get the vaccine. Right after a handful of commercials about this and that drug for this and that condition warning of this or that possible side effect, the next segment highlighted outgoing New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s admittance that he never thought lockdowns would actually be helpful, even though all along he swore by them as crucial for preserving the lives of New Yorkers. I wonder how the tidal-sized number of people in New York who went out of business because of the lockdowns feel about his comments.

As you can see, a few minutes of TV news served to be little more than an exhausting parade of misery.

In one sense, I think all of this may have been shocking to my system, mainly because I rarely watch TV. I get most of my information by reading. However, since I’ve been ill at home (which, by the way, happens to me every year after Christmas, so Covid or not, this was nothing new), I’ve spent more time than usual with our television, primarily binge-watching 80s flicks with anyone in the house willing to watch them with me. I must confess that “Gremlins,” “Predator,” and other such gems proved to be far better choices than 24-hour news. I should add to this confession that my relatively short interlude with cable news has also served to remind me how the fictional awfulness in movies can’t hold a candle to reality. Not even Hollywood movie scripts conjuring otherworldly xenomorphs with bloodthirsty appetites can outpace the world’s creativity for genuine dreadfulness.

Perhaps a New Year’s resolution for some among us could be to spend less time watching TV and more time doing something enriching—like visiting with classic literature, or writing a poem for a loved one, or perhaps most enriching of all, upping one’s visits with the Word of God, namely attendance at church and Bible study. If you find you’re a lot sadder and more anxious these days, you should consider the recent studies suggesting that regular churchgoers were the only ones to experience improved mental health during the last twenty months.

Go figure. When you spend time with the One who has overcome Death—and He adorns you with the Gospel spoils of His victory—you certainly shouldn’t expect to leave a less enriched or hopeless person.

Still, and as I was intent to preach on Christmas Eve, going to church is not for the faint of heart. It takes guts to attend. Although, this is true not for the reasons terror-mongering TV anchors might suggest. For example, even though the Church is still in the seemingly serene season of Christmas, when pitched against Christmas’ tranquil festivities, a narrative describing troops tramping through the streets of a little town in Judea killing all the boys who are two years old and younger certainly seems to interrupt the mood. But that’s exactly what the historic lectionary’s tradition for the Second Sunday after Christmas will give to countless Christians across the world this morning—an account from Matthew 2:16-18 that won’t let anyone in the pews forget just how awful this world is and what it is willing to do to retain its power.

But don’t let this hard news convince you to change the channel of your attention too soon. Stay tuned this morning, because it won’t end on a low note.

Yes, it will be an honest report. We’ll be shown the world in which we live. But Jesus will be a part of the news story. Bill Hemmer won’t be the one bringing the message. It’ll be the one ordained for preaching: the pastor. He’ll be the one doing what God has called him to do, which is to proclaim Jesus as the Word made flesh—the divine antidote God has mindfully inserted into this world’s terrifying narrative. Jesus will be heralded as the ultimate point of origin for joy and the only pathway forward through and into a hope-filled future.

In a world of terror—a world in which the Gospel writer Matthew reminds us that not even children are safe—Jesus has come. He succeeded in His effort to defeat Sin, Death, and the devil. He’s the only one who could do it. By His death and resurrection, no matter what hopelessness the world might try to force feed into us in every imaginable and unimaginable way, we’ll always have the certainty of God’s final deliverance from all things dreadful promised to those whose faith is found in Jesus Christ (John 16:33).

No matter what the new year has in store, Christians can smile even as they’re muscling through the mess. And sometimes, just sometimes, some of us are blessed enough to do it while enjoying the 80s films that made us smile as kids. But as I suggested before, perhaps an even better idea would be a trip through the pages of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, or Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth, or perhaps a casual visit with Robert Frost—all after church, of course.

God bless and keep you in 2022. I would promise it to be a time of joyful hope, but I don’t need to. God already has. Look to the cross and see the incredibly vivid reminder for yourself.

Misplaced Concerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we don’t dwell on them.

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

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

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.

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.

Death Has No Dominion

Well, in no small number of communities across the country, the new school year begins tomorrow. For many, it will be one more moment requiring a special measure of courage.

I say this because more so than ever before, it sure seems like the planet upon which we are treading is wobbling on its axis. Nothing seems steady. Everything feels shaky and uncertain. For some—myself included—going out into the world to do very basic things often translates into weighing the risk of actually living life versus guarding every flank in terror, of finding a semblance of normal when everyone and everything around you is spiraling into abnormality.

It’s a weird way to exist. It’s scary. And it’s hard.

Speaking of the first day of school, I can only imagine the emotional storms churning in the hearts of the young mothers and fathers sending a child off to preschool. Their picturesque dreams of bright-smiling teachers giving hugs amid busy hallways filled with colorfully miniscule backpacks owned by future classmates—all of this has been replaced by the grim sterility of masked teachers with muffled voices, dystopian-like classrooms with desks claustrophobically encased in Plexiglass, friendships awkwardly unexplored due to social distancing, and so many other psychologically damaging things being employed for the sake of “safety.”

We’re not doing any of these things at Our Savior, but I’ll bet for those who must endure it in other schools, it’ll be very scary. To regularly overcome the disquiet of it all, families will need a unique form of determination and a lot of extra love during the after-school hours at home.

Speaking of scary… My wife and children know that the list of things that actually scare me is pretty short. I’m not being vain. I’ve just discovered over the years that I’m not bothered by the things that might normally scare someone else. All of my kids have tried to catch me with jump-scares, but they rarely find success. My sons say my fear gland doesn’t work properly. Maybe they’re right. Some other things… I’m not fearful of public speaking, never have been. I don’t enjoy conflict, but I’m not unwilling to engage in it. I’m not necessarily afraid of people disliking me. I guess I learned to put that fear to rest years ago. I’m not scared by horror movies. I mean, among the various life-sized mannequins in my basement, one of them is the spitting image of Michael Myers.

And since I’m tipping my hat to Halloween, haunted house attractions have always been pretty disappointing for me. I’m just not scared of eerie situations or places. I’ve seen those memes online asking if, for a million dollars, I’d be willing to spend a night alone in a place like a cemetery, an abandoned insane asylum, or a spooky house, and I think, “I’d do it for the cost of a mortgage payment. Heck, I’d do it for lunch money.” My son, Josh, asked me once during family dinner if I’d ever performed an exorcism. I told him I had. Believe me or doubt me, I’ve ministered to more than one family over the years whose home was being visited by something otherworldly. Like many pastors, I have my share of stories regarding the tangible efforts of the darkly principalities at work among this world’s people and spaces.

“Were you afraid?”

“Not really,” I said. “The devil and his pals are punks. They’re tough, but they’re nothing I need to be worried about. I have Christ, and I know they’re plenty afraid of Him.”

Of course I’m sure to remind my kids that the devil is no one to toy with. He isn’t a fairytale villain. On the contrary, I’d say he’s the only real explanation for the most horrible things that have ever happened in our world—the current societal destruction emerging from Covid-19 being one of his masterful achievements. If you ever get a chance, listen to the song “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones. I’m not a huge Stones fan, but I do like that song. It offers an honest musical snapshot of the devil’s gripping influence on this world, showing how when partnered with mankind’s Sin-nature, he can do some pretty horrible and world-altering things.

But as I was saying before, the list of things that actually unnerve me is fairly short. Although, don’t let the length of the list fool you, because each item on it can more than keep me awake at night.

For example, one of my biggest fears is losing my wife and children to tragedy. I actually have regularly-occurring dreams about one or more of my kids falling into the polar bear exhibit at a zoo—or something of that sort—and being unable to rescue them in time. The expressions of fear on their faces still stings long after I’ve awakened. I know I said before that I’m not necessarily afraid of conflict, however, as a supervising administrator, I’m hesitant to express disappointment with fellow staff. I’ll do it if I really have to, but it’s also really hard. This is true because the space between “pastor” and “supervisor” is unlike any other terrain to be navigated, and in the past—at least for me—no matter how lovingly careful I’ve attempted to be, those moments have morphed into some of the most devilishly divisive encounters I’ve ever known. In our postmodern world, it seems like the default action in these occurrences has been to be offended, draw lines and form factions, and ultimately take one’s marbles and go elsewhere.

Those experiences left some pretty deep scars.

Oh, and I don’t like sharks. I have my reasons.

So, where am I going with all of this?

Well, I started off talking about the general need for courage when it comes to navigating this life. Free-thinking on this, I suppose I was aimed in this direction because as we stand at the edge of a strange new period, we need to be honest about what we’re facing as a church—as Christians. We don’t necessarily need a retelling of the terrors lurking along the way. Each of us has met them in one way or another and can write his or her own list. But we do need to be honest about what scares us. And now more than ever, we need to know the necessity of courage.

I’d say Shakespeare was right when he said that courage mounts with occasion. We don’t need to wonder if there will be ample opportunities for testing our nerves. With each occasion, we’ll need to understand our responses, carefully discerning between courage and irrational action. We’ll need to readily understand that being courageous doesn’t mean being completely fearless. We’ll find ourselves afraid in the same way a white-flag coward might be afraid, but the difference will be that our fear will have been thoughtfully subdued and will most likely be rewarded with far different results. We won’t be immobilized from doing what’s faithful even when self-preservation is an available option. We’ll act knowing that courage, like character, is something we’ll employ even when no one else knows we’re doing so.

Where will we get such courage? I mentioned the answer above in the passing conversation with my son, Joshua.

Christ is the answer.

Fear thinks twice before messing with Christ. Don’t believe me? Read Psalm 27. Still don’t believe me? Read 1 John 4:8. Now skip ahead to verse 18 in the same chapter. Fear has no room to stand beside Christ, the One who is God in the flesh, who is perfect love, who was moved to save us.

I think it was the Bishop and President of our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison) who said that Christian courage is just fear that has been baptized. Man, is he ever right. Having been baptized into Christ, having been set apart from the kingdom of this world, having been made a member of the Lord’s family, a Christian meets each and every day equipped to live with an otherworldly readiness to die. Baptism pins us to such courage. Maybe you recall Paul’s words in Romans 6:3-11:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

There’s a lot that can be mined from the above text, but no matter which direction you go, it’ll likely hinge on the fact that Death has no dominion over believers just as it has no dominion over Christ. Without the sway of Death’s dominion at play in each of life’s terrifying occurrences, fear steps out of Christian courage’s way. It has to. I mean, when you really think about it, Death is the definitive power—the ultimate endpoint—for anything that might cause us to fear.

Why would we be afraid in a haunted house? The fear of being killed. Why would we be afraid on a roller coaster? Probably the same. Why would we be afraid of public speaking? The fear of looking a fool in a way that remains with us forever, only to be muted by Death. I’m pretty sure Saint Paul actually affirmed all of this in 1 Corinthians 15:26 when he said that the last enemy to be destroyed is Death.

But now that Death has indeed been destroyed, all who put their faith in Christ and His redeeming work receive the merits of this victory. For starters, Christians have access to a courage that can push fear aside so that we can actually live, knowing that even if/when Death makes an appearance, it won’t be the end of us because it has no dominion over us. It’ll be just another moment on the timeline, albeit an exceptional moment that carries us from the confines of time into the timelessness of eternity with our Lord.

There’s no fear to be had in that.

Once again, knowing this, we don’t have to be afraid of being and doing as God’s people in this mixed up world. By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, we know and believe that our Lord has faced off with the root cause of all things terrifying—and He won!

And so, please allow for this random bit of theologizing the day before the first day of school—or whatever “first” you may be facing these days—to be an encouragement to you. Stay the course. Trust your Lord. He’s got you. He’s got your family, too. All our fears have been steadily handled, and Death has been defeated.

Light and Darkness, Certainty and Uncertainty, Courage and Fear

Technically, the sun rose this morning at 6:04 AM. I watched it from my kitchen window. It was stunning.

Before the moment had fully developed, the world beyond my window pane was a cool and shapeless dark with very little definition. I could barely make the mist twirling up from the Shiawassee River. Although, peering straight into the darkness, after a while, my eyes were more than capable of deceit, maybe even taking hold of imagination’s hand as she beckoned toward some impossible things.

I mean, I’m pretty sure I saw a pack of velociraptors crossing from one shore of the river to the other, pausing at the water’s edge before rushing into the thicket. Or maybe it was a herd of deer.

Eventually the tree line defining the horizon (which in the first few minutes of the sun’s visibility was edged with an extraordinary copper luminescence) couldn’t seem to stop the sunlight from revealing every single detail of the world behind my home. Minutes before I could only see what I thought I could see. In the light, I could see everything for what it was.

Oh, the in-between murmurs of the sun and its rising in summer! It comes and goes, rising and setting and rising again, ever reminding its onlookers of deeper, more glorious things—always bearing a much grander intuition than we’re often willing to confess.

An intriguing characteristic of light is that when its beams break through, the terrors—both real and imagined—scatter. The very real roaches run for the baseboard crevices. The same goes for the imagined velociraptors. They, too, scramble back to the shadows. I’m sure you know what I mean. You need only to think back to your younger days and recall the fear that came with fetching something from the darkened basement—or whichever unlit space was most fearful in your home. Everything and anything with hooked claws, piercing fangs, and a leathery hide was waiting to snatch you before you could get to the light switch. Perhaps the heaviest dread in those moments came somewhere between the bottom and top steps after the item’s retrieval. In the seconds after turning off the light, with the darkness at your back, whatever unseen beasties were previously restrained by its beams were now almost certainly scurrying from their hiding places to catch you before you could leap through the door at the top.

We all know the dread that comes with darkness. We all know the comfort of the light.

There’s a broader interpretation to be had from such scenes of light and darkness, certainty and uncertainty, courage and fear. Opening the door of my home this morning and stepping out into the current state of darkly affairs in our world, I’m reminded of this, and as such, I continually retell myself two things in particular.

The first is that things won’t be as they are forever. This world had a beginning. Because of Sin, it will have an end, too. No matter the invented truths of today, the Lord promises that at the Last Day, the divine light of truth will eventually break through with its fullest brightness at the appearing of Christ in glory (Titus 2:13, Revelation 1:7-8, Malachi 4:2). In that ensuing moment, nothing will be obscure. Everyone will see things as they truly are. Every system of belief, every controversy, every philosophy will be revealed by and measured against the only standard of judgment that ever mattered in this life: the truth of God’s Word.

This thought reminds me that the imagined velociraptor-like sense that truth appears so often to be losing ground to untruth will be proven infinitesimally short-lived soon enough. Regardless of the truths being cast aside in our world—that a man is not a woman and a woman is not a man; that killing an unborn child is murder; that all lives, no matter the skin color, have value; that murderous rioting beneath a banner of virtue is the devil’s business—while these truths may be hidden from so many right now, eventually the lights will come on. The sun will rise and we’ll see the landscape clearly. It’ll be a moment experienced by the whole world, and all will acknowledge it on their knees, either in humble gladness, or in terror (Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10-11).

It’ll be a moment in which all accounts are settled.

In relation to this, the second thing I do my best to keep in mind is that temporal worry is just plain foolishness. In Matthew 6:25-34, Christ explains the futility of worry and the better exchange found in faith. Christ is always the better bet, and so He teaches trust in Him as powerful against worry. Trust severs worry’s fuel line, which is fear. When fear is starved, it does what every malnourished thing eventually does—it dies. Personally, going forth from fear’s funeral, I can live in confidence through each and every day leading toward the final judgment knowing by faith that Christ has settled my account for me. By the power of the Holy Spirit at work through this Gospel, He is establishing in me the desire to seek and abide in His truth in all situations. In other words, my opinions take a back seat to His opinions.

Looking to the days ahead, if we establish our footing on anything other than the truth of God’s Word, we are doomed. And certainly, if there’s anything to be learned from the last few months it’s that no human word or deed can assure us of what’s next, let alone what’s true. Not an executive order, a doctor’s opinion, a social media post, or news report.

There’s lots of uncertainty at the bottom of the basement steps. But through faith in Christ, we can know to reach for the light switch of God’s Word. It’s there we learn that no matter how dark the days may become, “nothing in all creation is hidden from His sight” (Hebrews 4:13). He is well aware, and by no means has He lost control.

As the cities continue to burn, as de-educated punks continue to topple monuments, while self-righteous thugs deliberately trample others because of skin color, continue to let your legs carry you to the place where your finger can flip the switch. Be found in the bright beaming light of the truth which affirms, “‘Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’” (Jeremiah 23:24).

Rest assured He sees it all. He sees and knows you, too. He also knows what’s happening around you. Trust Him. Follow Him. Labor in these dark days by the strength He provides, being assured by the light of His Gospel truth that as you make your way through this seemingly unhinged world of ungodly wokeness, “your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).