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giving hugs amid busy hallways filled with colorfully miniscule backpacks owned by future classmates—all of this has been replaced by the grim sterility of masked teachers with muffled voices, dystopian-like classrooms with desks claustrophobically encased in Plexiglass, friendships awkwardly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.