I finished a book this past week by Andrew Murray entitled Humility: The Beauty of Holiness. It was an interesting read, although not necessarily one I’d likely recommend. My reason for dissuading you is not because the book had nothing to offer, but rather, I feel as though the author spent the energy of his zeal in some of the wrong places. It seemed that every time he got close enough to see Calvary—the truest image of God’s love and the demonstration of His humility—he jerked away from it to a synergistic interpretation, implying that Jesus was merely demonstrating something He wanted us to emulate in order to cooperate in our eternal rescue.
But that’s not what the events of Calvary were about. Jesus was accomplishing there what we could never accomplish. And to think that somehow we might be able to cooperate in any way that might compare with the salvific work of the Son of God on the cross is a gross miscalculation, a miscalculation that will have dire consequences, one of which is the dreadful pall of uncertainty regarding our eternal future.
How will we know if we’ve done enough? How will we know if we’ve held up our end of the agreement?
Admittedly, there are plenty of aspects to the Christian Faith that Jesus wants us to demonstrate. Humility is one of them. Love is one of them, too. In fact, He demonstrated both in a practical way as He washed the disciples’ feet the very same night that they would betray Him into death (John 13:1-17, 34-35). Still, He did this knowing His followers could never do it the way He could—perfectly. Even in a shallow sense, He washed their feet without ever experiencing the sensation of complaint or disgust. On our part, even the slightest hesitancy, even the minutest thought of revulsion, disqualifies us, betraying our inadequacies in comparison to Jesus’ perfect love. What’s more, the fact that we may actually follow through with such a filthy form of servitude as washing someone’s feet isn’t a testament to our goodness, but rather serves as proof of the Spirit’s influence within us as He produces the fruits of faith (Ephesians 2:8-10). We don’t want to wash someone else’s feet. But somehow, we muscle through it, anyway. Why? Because even as we’re more inclined toward “self,” Christ has promised us the Spirit to equip and enable us to serve in love.
It’s the sinner/saint on full display in everything we do.
All of this might sound somewhat critical of human ability. It’s meant to. That’s where genuine Godly humility begins—the recognition that of ourselves, none of us has anything to offer God, and even our greatest worldly achievements will always be as brittle as sun-dried autumn leaves by comparison. One touch and they break into nothing. Only Jesus has what it takes to apply an overabundance to our red-filled ledgers, canceling the debts and setting us free.
The events of Calvary demonstrate this.
On the other hand, the satirist Jean de La Bruyère said that criticizing goodness “robs us of the pleasure of being moved by some very fine things.” There’s a hint of truth to what he said. Who among us will slight an enemy for feeding a homeless person? On the contrary, observing such things through the lens of faith, such a demonstration might cause an unbeliever to see his enemy in an entirely new light, one that might even stir him to reach out for friendship.
Could that be a hint to what Jesus meant in Matthew 5 when He said that onlookers “will see your good deeds and give glory to the Father in heaven” (v. 16)? Could that be a clue to what He meant in John 13 when He said to the disciples after washing their feet that by serving in such ways “all people will know that you are my disciples” (v. 35)? Could that be a nod to what Saint Paul meant in 1 Timothy 4 when he encouraged young Timothy to keep a close eye on both his doctrine and life. “Persevere in them,” he said, “because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (v. 16).
The good deeds a Christian performs never precede salvation. We don’t partner with Jesus in our rescue. However, the good things we do follow along as products of His grace and are born from thanksgiving. Amazingly, they are more than capable of steering the doer into acts of joyful humility that God says bears the potential for leading onlookers to the only One who can save them. This Lententide, may God grant for you to consider these things.
I happened upon a familiar portion from Saint Paul this morning. At first, it seemed strangely out of step with the season of Lent. That is, until I gave it a more thorough examination. Paul wrote:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
A deliberate thrust to Lent is its cognizance of Sin. It draws us to the admittance that we are dreadfully inadequate in every way for extricating ourselves from Sin’s lethal grip. However, it’s very important to remember that Lent doesn’t labor to adjust us in this way without a clear sight of the Gospel—the Good News that we have been rescued from all that would bar us from heaven. If we lose sight of this, the season can very easily become six weeks of debilitating gloom.
But again, Lent isn’t meant for melancholy. It deals in the solemnity of perspective. In one sense, it’s working to help us identify and understand what’s bad so that we can rejoice rightly in what’s good. This makes Saint Paul’s words in Philippians 4:8 that much more resonant. Knowing the reality of our condition—fully aware of our undeserving nature—we have a better view of the external evidence of God’s gracious care.
Here’s what I mean in a very basic way.
We don’t give much thought to the fact that the same sun that was shining on Adam and Eve is shining on us. It continues to this day with its warmth. By grace alone, God makes this happen. The earth continues to spin from one season to the next. By grace alone, God sees to this unending sequence (Genesis 8:22). The birds continue their sing-song melodies. By grace alone, God continues providing their twittering voices (Matthew 6:26). The soil continues to present each day with bouquets of splendor. By grace alone, God adorns each flower’s petals with magnificence (Matthew 6:30).
His world betrayed Him, and yet God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). When we know the depths of our undeserving nature in comparison to God’s generous care, almost everything around us becomes a gift—an unmerited bestowal teaching us of God’s love.
Since I mentioned flowers, Ralph Waldo Emerson said these dainty blossoms are the earth’s laughter. Maybe he was onto something, because he also warned the preoccupied bystander to “never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.”
Paul said the same thing in Philippians 4:8, only far better. How so? By disassembling creation’s beauty to reveal its graspable materials.
Truth. Honor. Justice. Purity. Loveliness. Commendability. Excellence. Praiseworthiness. These are beauty’s divine ingredients, the scribblings of God traced on the recipe pages of goodness in this life.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul knows that by sifting our thoughts and behaviors through these filters, we’ll be equipped for discerning the bad. We’ll know hateful people using vicious words aren’t lovely, no matter how attractive they may be physically. We’ll know living together before marriage isn’t pure, no matter how sensible the world might make it seem. We’ll know that so-called critical theories that demand diversity and equity according to the premise that certain races are innately unforgivable, or ideologies that threaten people’s lives with cancellation unless they accept dysphoric behaviors, are not praiseworthy or just, and we shouldn’t commend them.
On the other hand, and extending from the same awareness, Paul knows we’ll discover ourselves attuned to and desirous of what God considers good. We’ll know the honorable nature of holding fast to truth. We’ll know just how commendable God’s design for “family” truly is. We’ll observe others through the lens of God’s Word, thereby being enabled to navigate the confusion of this age in love. And I suppose I’m suggesting an active byproduct of all of this is a Christian’s ability to behold and be uplifted by God’s grace demonstrated in so many wonderful ways throughout the natural world.
For good reason, Paul insists that we think in this way. And Lent’s fasting certainly helps us to pay closer attention. In fact, the whole season is the perfect time for practicing such behavior so that it becomes habitual.
Lent comes in for a landing this week. It touches down with Ash Wednesday.
For many of us who take the passion of our Lord seriously, it’ll be a day begun and/or ended with an ashen cross smeared on our foreheads. Unfortunately, I’ve already seen people mocking this incredibly solemn practice. One employed a photoshopped meme of the Dos Equis spokesman from a few years ago with a black cross on his head and saying, “I don’t always fast, but when I do, I make sure everyone knows it.” The person who shared the image was implying that anyone participating in the imposition of ashes is a hypocrite. How do I know? Because he cited the text of Matthew 6:16-18 above the meme.
Too bad he’s wrong in almost every way, not only because he’s mocking the same kind of ceremony demonstrating community-wide repentance recorded in Joel 1:13-14, but because even in the Prophet Joel’s day, the actions were not for the viewer. They were for the bearer. If their intent was to reveal to the viewer the bearer’s self-righteousness (which was Jesus’ point in Matthew 6:16-18), then my critical friend would be right. But that’s not their purpose. They were starkly tangible signs meant for stirring the bearer toward and into repentance, to a recognition of the need for rescue from Sin and the admittance of complete reliance on God for accomplishing such rescue. And by the way, I should add that the Christian continuation of this Godly practice—one that employs the image of a cross—does have some benefit for an unbelieving onlooker. The cross will always be an unspoken, and yet powerful, proclamation to the world around us that Jesus is Lord.
How could that be a bad thing? Well, I’m guessing only a self-righteous person might be offended by a ceremony that puts the cross before the broader community. A cross preaches the need for a savior. A self-righteous person doesn’t need a savior.
But apart from the annual misinformed heckling of Ash Wednesday’s rich tradition, its rites and ceremonies continue to teach what I’d surmise is a two-pronged—and maybe even three-pronged—reminder. Firstly, we’ll remember as the pastor speaks the words of Genesis 3:19 that from dust we were taken, and because of this world’s fall into Sin—because Sin’s wage is Death—every citizen of this globe shall return to the dust. The carbon soot is a tangibly filthy reminder of this. Secondly, we’ll be reminded by the smear’s cruciform shape that the Rescuer has come. By His death and resurrection, He destroyed the last enemy, Death, and now through faith in His sacrifice, it is for us to be raised to live eternally with Him in glory (Hebrews 2:14; 1 Corinthians 15:26; John 11:25). I suppose thirdly, it’s no insignificant ceremony that most will, before laying down to sleep, clean the grit from their faces with water. Martin Luther taught by his Flood Prayer that for believers, all waters can now serve as reminders of the lavish washing away of Sin in Baptism. Ash Wednesday provides a particular potency to this observation, both as it meets with Sin’s filth and our entering into the sleep of Death having first been cleansed.
Beyond these things, I’m sure the conflict in Ukraine is on everyone’s minds. It’s on my mind, too. Like so many of you, I’m praying for peace daily. And while I’m not necessarily a geopolitical Einstein, I am an observer of history and behavior. I know that actions reveal deeper things. As I already shared on social media this past week, I know that America’s military has been readying for war through sensitivity trainings that assume masculinity is toxic and focus on the virtually non-existent specters of white supremacy, microaggression, gender sensitivity, and the like (or in other words, the social justice ideologues have essentially commandeered the military’s leadership in the same way they’ve commandeered our colleges and universities). In the meantime, Russia has continued gearing its powerful military for commanding and conquering everything in its path through force. (By the way, to see the ideological differences between America and Russia, take a look at this video comparing the two nations’ recruitment commercials.) I know that Biden sent no small number of troops to the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and the like), along with attack helicopters and fighter jets. I know that NATO has activated its Response Force and is readying them in the Baltic region. I know Putin’s singular demand was that NATO not bring Ukraine into its fold, thereby putting an unfriendly force on one of his most crucial borders. I also know Putin has said publicly within the last few months that he believes the Baltic States are Russian territories by right. I know that he has a history of telegraphing his moves to test the mettle of anyone who might try to stop him, which is probably why he said what he said about the Baltics. He did that with Georgia. He did it with Crimea. I know that for as little cognitive ability as Biden appears to have, it’s likely he’s at least been warned by someone that the Baltic States are Article 5 countries in NATO, and if Putin feels threatened enough by one of them and attacks, NATO partners—which includes the United States—are obligated to join in a multinational war against Russia.
I know all of this. And I know it’s very bad stuff. For us here in America, I know it already means inflated expenses. I know people’s investment portfolios took a hit last week. I know gas prices rose above $100 a barrel almost overnight. I know increased costs for goods and services will continue to follow along in tow.
I also know that as I face these terrifying things, I am well equipped for dealing with the fears they stir. I am a Christian. I’ve changed. I’m someone who’s been lifted from the jagged landscape of hopelessness and set down in the verdant pasture of hope-filled faith. This also means I’ve become someone capable of working as hard as I can to change the things within my control, while at the same time submitting to God’s divine care in the things I cannot.
I can’t change the behaviors affecting Ukraine. I can’t change someone’s inclination to mock confessional Christendom. But I can labor to change myself.
Beyond Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent speaks to this, especially the season’s tradition of fasting, which is a biblical behavior geared for spiritual training. For many it involves going without something, or it can mean being resolved to spending a prayerfully selected portion of time working to improve faithfulness. Fasting isn’t required for salvation, of course, but it is hard to argue against Saint Paul commending it as good, saying that just as physical exercise benefits the body, so also do spiritual exercises aimed toward Godliness benefit a Christian both for this present life and the life to come (1 Timothy 4:8).
Thinking about this, and considering what I mentioned above, I’m willing to say that behavior is one of the best indicators of a human’s innards, both physiologically and mentally. If a person is hunched over in pain, something on the inside isn’t right. I just spent a good part of yesterday in Urgent Care, the third time in four weeks, and it’s looking as though I may have kidney stones. It’s the same with the mind and soul. People’s actions demonstrate the fundamental workings of what they believe, what they think of others, how they discern, what’s important to them. Observe a person’s actions and you’ll get a pretty good idea of his or her innermost intentions and substance.
This isn’t a hard saying. Jesus taught it in Matthew 7:17-18 when He said, “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” Of course, the Lord speaks this way throughout His Word. So do the Apostles. Take a little time with the Epistle of Saint James. Visit with both of Saint Peter’s epistles. Or Paul’s Epistles to the churches at Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus. You’ll see. Humans betray what’s on the inside by what they do.
I spent some time this past Tuesday in my religion class examining this premise with the 7th and 8th graders. We took time with the Book of Isaiah, 1 Corinthians, and Luke’s Gospel. By the time we were done, not only had we concluded that faith given by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel saves us, but also that it changes us—that it has a noticeable influence in our lives. For one, it chases after opportunities to repent and make amends for the sake of faithfulness to its Lord.
As it would go, one student dug more deeply than the others, suggesting that if a person claims Christ but has no desire, no inclination, no inner longing to wrestle against the flesh, then it’s entirely possible the person isn’t a believer. I agreed to this possibility. Why would I say this? Because again, faith produces the fruits of righteousness, just as Jesus said it would. It doesn’t remain settled in ungodly action or inaction. It has the inherent will to change, to align with Christ, to produce good fruit. This means that when, by the Spirit, we become aware of our failings, faith engages. It steers the human will into the fleshly fracas intent on waging war—and not just to fight, but to win (John 3:6; 1 Peter 2:11; Ephesians 2:10; Galatians 5:16-17).
What does all of this mean?
It means that if you are a Christian, and yet you are a serial gossip, by the power of the Holy Spirit you have what’s necessary for fighting this tendency. If you have no interest in changing, then you need to ask yourself why.
If you are a Christian, but you are short-tempered and cruel with your words in ways that regularly cause strife and division, by the power of the Holy Spirit for faith, you can be one who wrestles against these urges. If you persist in this behavior with little effort or interest in amending, then serious self-reflection is necessary.
If you are a Christian, but still your mind and body wander to mates beyond the borders of marriage, by faith, know you have what’s necessary for taking action against such ungodliness. Faith rises up to barricade against this behavior. If you have no interest in stopping—or you make excuses for continuing in it—there’s a problem.
If you are a Christian, and yet you continue to stay away from worship for fear of illness while at the same time visiting crowded grocery stores, enjoying social gatherings with friends and family, and other such things, take a moment to consider the contradiction in terms and what it might mean to Jesus.
My point: Fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12)!
Use the muscle of God at your disposal and actually compete against Sin, Death, and the devil. Take action. Do something to defeat these things, knowing that God is not only on your side, but He is with you in the fray. The pale, bludgeoned, and bloody proof is staring at you from the cross. Jesus has done all that’s required for winning you, not only from Death and Satan, but from yourself—from the Sin-nature—which does all it can to consume and digest you, which uses every weapon in its arsenal to hold you in bondage to who you were before faith.
Wrapping this up, this student was assuming that, at a bare minimum, faith would reveal itself through some sort of effort by the Christian to fight against fleshly desires. She had concluded that to rest contently in Sin is an action implying a completely different set of human innards than what Christ promises.
I happen to agree with her. And she doesn’t know it yet, but I gave her an A for the day. It’s likely I tell her as much when I see her at the Ash Wednesday service.
It’s very early, 5:30am to be precise. I’m writing this note from Cantrall, Illinois. Again, to be precise, I’m at Camp CILCA, which is just outside of Springfield.
A summer camp I attended in my youth, I know this place well. Even better, I eventually became CILCA’s head counselor in the early nineties, having held the position for four consecutive summers. I should add that during those same years I was also the head lifeguard, music leader, sports director, and weekend maintenance assistant to a wonderful man I’ll forever consider a friend, Derald Sasse, may his soul rest in peace.
I stayed here at CILCA this weekend, having spoken last night at the camp’s annual banquet at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Springfield. I received a kindly invitation last fall from the current Camp Director, Reverend Joshua Theilen, to be the banquet keynote speaker. I was certainly glad to accept. And of course, the topic being something along the lines of Christian engagement in the public square, I was certainly ready to drive down and prattle on about such things. I pray my words last night were of benefit to the people in attendance.
Interestingly, I’m staying in the Christian Growth Center here at the camp, which back in my day, was the only building on the camp property with air conditioning. The funny thing is, in all my years here at CILCA, I never once spent a night in this building. I maintained it. I helped clean the rooms for various groups that came through. I fixed broken windows and repaired faulty electrical outlets, but I never actually enjoyed the fruits of my labor. And yet, here I am twenty-five years later. Life is weird that way, I guess.
As soon as I finish typing this note, I’ll be hopping into the Jeep and heading back to Michigan. To get here to Illinois, I took the backroads. I’ll probably do the same thing going home. I like driving the backroads. While they’re pleasantly uneventful, there’s plenty to see. Driving along through the sleepy farmlands provides more than enough opportunities for thoughtful observation. Thinking back to these travels a few days ago, I can think of at least two things I remember pondering.
The first thing I spent some travel time thinking about was the Old Testament reading from Genesis 22 appointed for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, which tells the story of God commanding Abraham to take his son, Isaac, to a yet undisclosed place and sacrifice him. I’d call this event dreadful if I didn’t already know its substance and ultimate conclusion. As a father, could I follow through as Abraham did? And yet, if the listener is paying attention as Abraham speaks, the comfort of trust in the promises of God is woven into the narrative. Once Abraham and Isaac arrived at the place God commanded, Abraham told the servants who journeyed with them that he and his son were going to go and worship God and then return to them.
That moment is a clue as to what Abraham knew would happen. He would unreservedly follow God’s commands already knowing something of God.
God promised Abraham that Isaac would be the one through whom the Messiah would come. God assured Abraham of this. Abraham knew that God doesn’t break His promises, and so no matter what approached from the horizon, Isaac would be fine. Abraham trusted this. If you doubt this analysis, then take a look at Hebrews 11:17-19. The writer to the Hebrews acknowledges this as he digs a little deeper into Abraham’s faith, describing him as knowing full well that if he was indeed forced to follow through with the frightful deed, God would give Isaac back to him alive. He’d have to. God would reverse Death, and preserve Isaac’s life.
This is a very rich moment, both emotionally and theologically, especially as we prepare to wrap up Lent and rejoice in the Easter celebration of Christ’s resurrection. I suppose that thinking about these things probably influenced the second thing I remember pondering along the way.
While tooling along through the farmlands of Indiana and Illinois, I noticed something familiar to each of the little towns along the way. They all have conspicuous cemeteries.
Now, you might be thinking that just about every city or town in America has a cemetery. Believe it or not, they don’t. But these backroad towns do, and each is noticeably prominent, often pitched on a hill at the edge of the city, perhaps adorned with an elderly oak tree or two. And if the cemetery isn’t standing guard at the edge of town, it’s situated somewhere along the town’s main street, making it impossible for anyone to miss while passing through. In either, the collection of headstones is a community of both old and new, and from a reasonable distance, against a setting sun, their mutual silhouette looks almost city-like.
I remember when I was a kid in the seventies and eighties, my friends and I would hold our breaths when passing a cemetery. The lore was that by breathing, there was a chance we might make a wandering spirit jealous. Another version of the myth claimed that you might accidentally inhale a spirit and become possessed. Silly, I know. Good thing I know better, because now that I’m far from those youthful fooleries, I passed a particularly lengthy cemetery on Saturday evening near Lincoln, Illinois as I was making my way to Cantrall from Morton, Illinois, where my parents and sister live. Had I held my breath as I passed, I might have ended up unconscious and in a ditch. Or worse, in a cemetery.
And yet, having said this, the fact that every town has its cemetery is a reminder that at some point, my body will end up in one. There’s no avoiding it. Read the poets. Christian or not, they get the inevitability of Death. Percy Shelley called Death the veil that is finally lifted during the deepest sleep. John Donne described Death as mighty and dreadful, and yet without pride, portraying it as simply doing what it does almost boringly even as it is unstoppable. Robert Browning describes the knowledge of unavoidable Death as motivation for living life fully. Emily Dickinson, of course, is famous for portraying Death as unstoppable, being the carriage that will one day arrive for all. And when it knocks at your door, you will be unable to keep from opening it.
Since I’ve suddenly shifted to considering the poets this morning, I’ll admit to appreciating Lord Tennyson’s description of Death:
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.
Tennyson doesn’t describe Death fearfully. Instead, he sets it before his reader as something of a story’s ending. It’s the sunset to an eventful day. It is an open sky with a view to the evening star. It is a clear call of his name, and a drawing to a vessel setting sail into the open sea, a place that he loved.
I don’t know what influenced Tennyson’s perspectives on things, but I’ll say his consideration of Death is comforting. It evokes the Lord’s even more so reassuring words throughout the Gospels.
Now, don’t misunderstand the Lord’s position on Death. Jesus knows full well it’s a big deal. He knows it isn’t pretty. He knows Death is an ugly ordeal, that it’s a terrorizing power. Following His lead, Saint Paul describes it as the worst of all enemies of Man. But pretty much all of the biblical writers go out of their way to make sure we know that through faith in Christ, we don’t need to be afraid of Death. We don’t need to be fearful because Christ has defeated it. Like Abraham, we can face off with its dreadfulness with the promises of God well in hand. And so the Lord can say to Lazarus’ sisters that whoever lives and believes in Him, will live even though he dies. Saint Paul can mock Death, courageously poking at it with the Word of God’s promises, asking, “Where is your sting?” Job can speak so joyfully that even in the midst of Death, at the last, he will stand and behold God with his own eyes of flesh.
I like Tennyson’s description because he has this similar verve. It’s almost as if he’s equipped with the knowledge of faith, which we as Christians know by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel enables us to see Death for what it has now become for the believer: a turning from one page to the next.
And the next page holds an unending chapter that is far better than any that came before it.
I like that. And again, the season of Lent is certainly teaching this very point, making sure we’re ready to fully embrace the significance of the Lord’s resurrection—His conquering of Death—all for us!
To use Tennyson’s imagery, Easter is the clear call. Easter doesn’t allow for moaning of the bar. Easter sets sail for the unending horizons of eternal life through faith in the One who was crushed and killed for our iniquities, and yet was found alive on the third day, having wrestled Death and won.
Here in a few moments I’ll be packing up my car and making my way back to Michigan. I’ll be passing many of those same cemeteries I encountered on the way here. I won’t be holding my breath when I pass, just as I won’t be looking on them as fearful markers signifying hopelessness. I’ll observe them as Abraham looked upon Isaac. God is faithful to His promises. He is our hope in the midst of Death. Through that lens—the lens of faith—each of the tombstones whizzing past me will herald particular truths. The first is that unless the Lord returns first, I will die someday. There’s no way of getting around that fact. The second is that even as Death would come calling, it is not my master. Christ has won my eternal life. I am not consigned to the grave forever, but rather with my last breath, I will set sail into the joys of eternal life with my Lord at the helm.
Just yesterday (Saturday, February 20), the Life Team of Our Savior blessed our church and community by offering an “End of Life” seminar. It was well attended. I was glad for that.
The keynote speaker for the event was Genevieve Marnon, the Legislative Director for Right to Life of Michigan. I know Genevieve. She’s a great servant of the cause for life, and as you’d expect, she gave great insight into a multitude of things facing the Church in America when it comes to end-of-life decision making. All who took advantage of the day’s events were well fed.
We were also joined by Gary Borg from Lynch and Sons Funeral Home. I know the folks at Lynch and Sons well. Some years ago, Thomas Lynch, being the friend and writer that he is, wrote a kindly endorsement for my first volume of The Angels’ Portion. Knowing Tom’s directors to be top-notch, as expected, Gary’s words were valuable as he explained the funeral home’s role in the process, giving helpful tips to families for navigating what is likely to be a taxing and turbulent time.
I was tasked with kicking off the event. My topic: “How to Prepare for a Funeral Service and Beyond.” Of course, I did what I could to fulfill the expectations of this topic, being sure to talk about the nature and theology of a funeral service, as well as emphasizing and encouraging faithful practices. I talked about how to be proactive in planning one’s own funeral, and I went through the basic steps of what families should do when a loved one’s last breath occurs.
But before I could speak to any of these things, I felt the need to steer into an honest discussion of what sits at the core of the conversation.
There is the temptation to avoid the word “death” altogether. I, on the other hand, give the word a capital “D” in every sermon I write. Why? Because Death is no small thing. It’s owed our attention. It’s big. It’s powerful. When it’s lurking, you know it’s there. When it steps onto the scene, there’s no questioning its intentions. Shakespeare personified Death in this way, too, describing it as keeping court, as sitting and scoffing at the pomp of man, waiting for the inevitable moment (Richard II, III, ii, I, 160). When Death has passed through, the devastation is real. It leaves behind things that are tangible to each of the human senses. You can see its shadow in the pale skin of the deceased. You can touch and know the coldness of its labor. It even has its own smell. The people who’ve been powerless to stop its savage work on a loved one have red cheeks and bloodshot eyes. They’ve tasted the salt of their own tears. When there’s no more heavy breathing and the life-support machines have been stopped, the silence is thunderous.
W.B. Yeats once wrote that Man knows Death to the bone (Death, 1933). And he’s right. For the victim, it leaves nothing untouched. For those left behind, it cuts into the depths of their being, and its scars are long-lasting.
Against the overwhelming evidence of Death’s strangling might, in an attempt to be at peace with its inescapable work, I’ve heard some refer to Death as a friend, something to embrace as good. Yes, it’s true that an end to mortal suffering can be counted as a blessing. But the verity of such a statement isn’t so for the reasons the mortal flesh would conjure. Death is not a blessing. It’s a curse. It’s not natural. It’s completely foreign to God’s design for creation. He makes sure we understand these things in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:19. In 1 Corinthians 15:26, Saint Paul makes sure we never utter the words, “Death is a friend.” It’s not a friend. It’s the last bitterest enemy of Man.
Before we can even begin to fathom the glorious purpose and momentum of a Christian funeral, we need to be wise to what we’re actually dealing with. Death is everything I’ve described. It’s real, and it’s coming for all. Each of us will breathe our last and be returned to the bosom of the earth. We don’t know how or when it will happen, we just know that it will. And when it does, what will we do? What shall we expect from and for those around us? Where is our hope in the midst of the mess?
A Christian funeral beholds Christ right in the middle of it.
In the midst of the initial sadness—Christ. When the machines are being unplugged and rolled away—Christ. When the plans are being made at the funeral home—Christ. When the readings and hymns are being selected and the obituary is being crafted from memories—Christ. When the bell tolls and the service begins, when the casket is closed and the mortal remains are covered by the pall—Christ. When the sermon is ringing out to the listeners—Christ and more Christ! Yes, the loved-one in the casket will be remembered, and likely in some heart-warming ways. Nevertheless, none of these will rise to the prominent station of “most important.” At a Christian funeral, Jesus owns that spot. And so the unmistakable communiqué to be dispatched to the troubled community will be the Good News of Death’s cure—the great heralding of Death’s utter defeat at the hands of Christ.
A Christian funeral is to be nothing less than the proclamation of this Gospel—the overabundant proclamation of the world-splitting news that Death no longer rules the spaces between heaven and hell because of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, Death is no longer the believer’s lord. It is not the believer’s master. It is not the believer’s end. Jesus has seen to this. He said so Himself: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Trusting in the divine Son of God, the One who throttled Death by His own demise on Calvary’s cross, believers—both in the casket and in the pews—can be sure that Death has been remedied. The process itself, no matter how it may unfold, is now only for believers to close their eyes and exhale a last breath in mortality, and then to open their eyes and inhale the freshness of eternal life in the nearest presence of Christ in heaven.
Christ made sure of this.
If we don’t understand these things, a funeral can devolve into a circus sideshow very quickly. If we don’t empower our pastors to direct our funerals in a Godly way, being sure to leave behind very clear instructions for our families, then our own funerals very well could become less of what Christ would desire and more of what the unbelieving world would do to find peace, which ultimately means everyone in attendance will be left searching for hope in all the wrong places.
Lent is a good time to have a seminar like the one we had. This is true because Lent takes seriously what plagues humanity, knowing the immensity of the Lord’s work to save us from it, while at the same time knowing that Easter is on the very near horizon.
My prayer for you this day is that you would know the immensity of the Lord’s work, too, and that you would look to Him in all things, being assured of eternal life through faith in Him. Lent reminds us of the serious nature of the wage for Sin, which is Death. Easter reminds us that neither has a hold on Jesus. This being true, by faith in Him, they don’t have a hold on you, either.
The penitential season of Lent is soon to be upon us. It begins this week with Ash Wednesday.
So, who cares? Christians do. At least, they should. Although, it would seem many Christians—even some of the clergy—are preaching and teaching against it. I don’t know why. I did hear one say it’s some sort of innovation to the Church Year and therefore to be avoided. I heard another suggest it hinders the Christian’s ability to prepare for Easter with joy. That’s sad. One sure way to rob the victory of its joy is to be ignorant of what’s at stake in the war. Ash Wednesday offers a much-needed glimpse of the battlefield.
I find it strangely interesting that even the sensual (though unofficial) liturgies of something like Mardi Gras would portray a better awareness and care for Ash Wednesday and Lent, whether their partakers actually realize it or not. Even in the midst of a celebration that holds the well-deserved reputation for overindulgent debauchery, there is the sense that it must and will come to an end.
“Live it up,” its rites and ceremonies proclaim, “for after Fat Tuesday, it must all expire.”
And it does. What once was gives way to the ashen dust of death remembered by Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the proper headstone for all things carnal.
A day in the Church Year in which believers’ foreheads are marked with the ashes of what were once lively and verdant branches (the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration), Ash Wednesday reveals that the Christian Church knows something of this world that the world itself cannot fully fathom. It knows the wage for Sin is Death—real and eternal Death. It knows this as it recalls God’s terrifying words to Adam and Eve after the fall into Sin. These words still reverberating, it hears the truth in them. It knows the necessity for their honest contemplation so that we would see the world as it ought to be seen. It knows to immerse itself in the depths of a solemnity that acknowledges the horror of the very real predicament that the entire human race is facing. The Church knows there’s so much more than just an end to things, but there’s also a terrible dreadfulness just over that end’s border for those who remain enslaved to the mess.
You can’t ignore it.
You can’t hide from it.
You can’t outrun it.
You can’t overpower it.
The inevitability of its reach is woven into the very fleshly fabric of every man, woman, and child who was ever born in the natural way.
It was with divine, and yet heartbroken, authority that God announced this to His world and its first inhabitants: “Because you have done this, cursed is the ground because of you…” (Genesis 3:17). Cursed things are put away from God. By this curse—this self-inflicted and permanent vexation—“you will return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
The thing about Ash Wednesday is that you can’t make your way into and through Lent without contemplating the veracity of the curse. Ash Wednesday has become a guardian of sorts at Lent’s contrite door, and it won’t let you into the forthcoming events without being stamped. The stamp it reaches out to give, it goes on your head and not your hand. Its dust crowns the human frame as the only appropriate coronation for someone born into the un-royal lineage of the Sin-nature. It adorns the skull that shields the corrupted human mind, the organ fed by a sinful heart so that it would calculate and then initiate every ungodly act of thought, word, or deed. The mark’s dirty-cold embers are the kind that distinguish Cain from Abel, openly identifying the murderer and reminding him of the dusty ground that opened up to swallow Godly innocence.
And yet, even as Ash Wednesday won’t let you forget the seriousness of the disease, it will be just as fervent with the cure.
Remember: That filthy mark is in the shape of a cross. It’s smeared onto the penitently-postured foreheads of Ash Wednesday’s observers who know their need for a Savior. It serves as a silent proclamation of God’s truest inclinations in our darkness. It’s the shape of the Gospel—the death of the Savior, Jesus Christ, for a cursed world. The Great Exchange—His righteousness for our unrighteousness. It tells of a birthright, not earned, but given in love. It beams through dusty grime the truth of an imperishable crown of blamelessness, not earned by the wearer, but won and granted by the Savior. Cain is marked and no one can touch him. God has been gracious. For us, even in that smeared cross’ quiet, there thunders above every human wearing it an otherworldly hope for eternal life through faith in the Savior who was nailed to it on Good Friday. The booming crack of its message drowns out the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh’s accusations to the contrary.
Ash Wednesday’s mark serves as a gentle reminder of something else in particular. It heralds rebirth.
That cross of ash will dot the same place where God first made the sign of the cross upon His Christians in Holy Baptism. If only for a few hours, it will make visible the invisible, leading each of its bearers back to the moment when God He put His own name on them, claiming them as His through the washing of water and the Word, thereby grafting them into the entirety of Christ’s self-submitting work to accomplish Mankind’s redemption (Romans 6:1-10).
It’s been said that the best opportunities are seldom labeled. This “best opportunity” of Ash Wednesday is, in fact, labeled. Its tag may be grimy, but it happens to be one of the most condensed opportunities in the entirety of the Church Year for a right understanding of our condition in Sin and our glorious rescue by the Son of God. Don’t keep it at arm’s length, but rather embrace the opportunity to gather with the faithful and sing as we do in the appointed tract, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).
If you have any say in your evening activities, I encourage you to participate. Set aside 7:00pm this Wednesday. Make your way to Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan. Or go to your own church if it is offering a service. Either way, just don’t make the mistake of missing out on the powerful manner and message of the Ash Wednesday proclamation. You’ll be given the opportunity to look Sin and Death square in the eyes. You’ll see your mortality there. But you’ll see so very brightly and hear so very clearly the Good News of your brand new beginning through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the compassion of God who took upon Himself human flesh and made His dwelling among us for our rescue.
I hope you’re not expecting me to talk about the coronavirus. Sure, it’s on our minds. But since we’re already being so diligent, how about we catch our collective breath and get back to considering other things?
Mindful of the season of Lent, the current desktop image for my computer is the portrait by Carl Heinrich Bloch entitled “An Angel Comforting Jesus before His Arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.”
Yes, it’s a rather long title. Even so, it’s a moving image, one that not only gives a glimpse into the Lord’s diligent prayer in the garden before His capture and eventual crucifixion, but it also attempts to portray in the moment His exhaustion and absolute loneliness—the kind of loneliness that can only be soothed by otherworldly comfort. Thus the angel in the image (Luke 22:41-43).
The portrait is deeply moving in its depiction. But it’s equally moving because of what it doesn’t portray. It’s just Jesus and the angel. No one else. And yet the Gospel narratives remind us that Jesus was only a stone’s throw from friends. The Lord had asked for His disciples to keep watch with Him as He prayed. He was preparing to enter into the hours that belonged to the powers of darkness (Luke 22:53), but before taking that first fateful step, He wanted nothing more than to pray to His Father, having the comforting presence of friends at His flanks as He did.
But they slept. In the midst of the Lord’s praying, even as the intensity of the oncoming moments caused His sweat to become drops of blood, his friends slept.
This is a telling moment, and it sheds a little light on something of the human nature.
I’ll give you an example relative to me.
Over the past few years, I’ve experienced a fair share of disconcertion from people who disapprove of me engaging in the affairs of the state. On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed an equal portion of encouragement from friends all around the state and nation who are glad for a clergyman’s willingness to carry the concerns of the Church before the princes of this world, and then to share the details of the efforts with others through writing.
But here’s the twist…
A couple of weeks ago after the Republican Primary Candidate Forum here in Livingston County, I did the kind of thing I’ve done a thousand times in the past. I took the liberty of writing a piece about the event, namely the handful of men and women running for the particular seat in Congress. As usual, it was an attempt on my part to think out loud, to observe critically, and to tip my hat to what an opposing party’s candidate might bring to the table of critique. Of course, all readers were free to take from it whatever they wanted.
Interestingly, very soon after I posted the piece, my phone began chirping with private messages from online friends and acquaintances who’d always been so glad in the past for my engagement in the public square, but were now rather unhappy with me. So unhappy, in fact, they were going out of their way to discourage me from involvement in politics altogether, urging me to consider that pastors shouldn’t be so outspoken in the public square. Seriously. They were imploring me to delete the piece and to bow out of the conversation.
I should add to this that my closer friends—the ones who actually know me as a person and know I’d never close the door on a conversation with anyone—they didn’t do this. They reached to me with their opinions, and they did so in courteous ways. I listened to them, considered their points of view, and then I gave a little more of the content behind mine. Those conversations were incredibly enriching, and I can say those friendships are even stronger now than they were before. I’m glad for that.
But what happened with the other folks? Why the 180 degree turn from being so glad for my activities in the public square to working overtime to convince me to tone down my efforts and exit the discussion completely?
Well, apart from the strange criticisms of my writing style, which so many already know so well—my typical words, forms, and device choices (which, out of respect to a few folks, I did end up going back to rearrange here and there)—the deeper thread of concern, the one that was common to all of their pings to my phone, was that my article came to its conclusion with me recommending one particular candidate as the best performer in the forum and ultimately the best bet for beating the opposition.
But the candidate I favored wasn’t the candidate they favored.
Simply put, my trajectory didn’t align with these particular friends’ preferences. This angered them—enough so that it erased their previous sentiments, replacing them with words of admonition, words meant for quieting any influence I might have on a larger community of readers still teetering at the edge of a decision.
The disciples slept. Why did they fall asleep? It’s not that they weren’t Jesus’ friends. Of course they were. It’s also not that they weren’t in favor of Him. They had great favor for the Lord. It’s just that they were more in favor of themselves and what they wanted, and with this, His particular trajectory would remain out of alignment with theirs.
He was suffering, and He wanted the comfort of their watchful companionship. They were tired and went to sleep.
The human nature.
Again, Lent is a time to reinvigorate the combat against the human nature. It’s a time for us to observe and then apply extra pressure to those situations in which we put our wants first, and as a result, discovering ourselves saying and doing things that fracture relationships, things we wish we could take back. It’s a time to examine the motives behind our responses and to see if they really can withstand the beaming light of God’s Word that’s always ready to challenge them.
I, for one, am glad for the season of Lent. As I’ve said before, it’s incredibly recalibrating. Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Life is made up of marble and mud,” which is to say sometimes life is sturdy and steady, and sometimes it’s shifting and messy. Lent—its liturgies, readings, prayers, and the like—they all work together to remind us of something here. They lock arms as one and burrow through our hardened exteriors (which we like to think are impenetrable) and they implant in the core of our human nature. Lent prompts us to recall we’re far more shifting and messy than we’d ever like to admit. Lent shines a light on the fact that as we go about our days making our lists of “bad guys” and “good guys,” it should be no surprise that we have the tendency to shift so many of the people we know from one list to the other and then back again, all the while our own names remain strangely fixed in the list of good guys.
It’s not necessarily that we’re against anyone in any particular moment. It’s just that we’re always more in favor of ourselves. Again, that’s the human nature—the Sin-nature.
Just so you know, Christ went to the cross to drown this nature in the tides of His blood. Lent reminds us that when it comes to the human nature, there really aren’t two lists. There’s only one—the bad guys. But Lent also primes our hearts to know that Jesus went to the cross for every single person on that dreadful list (Matthew 9:12; 1 Timothy 1:15). With this, there’s an urgency to Lent’s plea for contrition. It calls for us to awaken to the fact that if in our own hearts and minds we never seem to find ourselves on the list of bad guys, then we’re heading toward a Good Friday event that will appear to be of little value to us.
Lent calls out, “Repent! Turn around and go the other way! Wake from sleep and watch with Jesus (Romans 13:11)!” Lent sets before us the gory, but ever-so-splendid, message of the Gospel of our Lord’s passion. It encourages us, “Wait and watch with your Lord. You’re not going to want to miss what the Son of God is about to do for you and the rest of the whole world beside you on the ‘bad guys’ list.”
We’re set upon the very eve of Lent. We’re preparing to recall the most intimate work of Jesus of Nazareth—the Son of God—as He makes His way into Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world. We’re preparing to take in the details, as affronting as they may be.
We’re preparing to wonder at this great, but disfigured, spectacle.
The Gospel text for Septuagesima, Matthew 20:1-16, helped to get us ready. By it, Jesus presented the backward story of a Master who rewarded the workers, not according to their labors, but according to His generosity. He didn’t give them what they deserved, but according to what flowed from His kindly heart concerned for their well-being.
There goes Jesus. He’s entering into Jerusalem. He’s being kindly. He’s being generous. He’s not leaving us to our demise—to what we deserve—but rather is giving Himself in our place. He’s being as generous as anyone would never be—the innocent One giving Himself for the guilty so that we would be declared innocent by His work.
Then there was the Sunday of Sexagesima. The text from Luke 8:4-15 continued the preparation. It considered the backwardness of the Gospel Word of God and it whispers, “Do you even believe a word of it?”
It set before us a parable of a sower who goes out to sow seed. It tells of various types of soil, each a recipient of the seed. And as each soil receives the seeds, only one is considered good soil. Only one takes the seed into itself and produces a hearty crop.
The disciples don’t understand, and so they ask Jesus to explain. And He does, finally telling them that seed is the Word of God, and the good soil are those who hear the Word and hold fast to it, who bear fruit by it. All the other soils either despised it, found little use for it, or accepted it according to their own determinations.
But again, not the good soil.
Interestingly, there’s a summarizing verse in this parable that seems to bring the entire section of parables together. It’s verse 18, and in it Jesus concludes, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”
Then there was Quinquagesima Sunday. Luke 18:31-43 was its voice. There we were prepared to see the One going into Jerusalem to save us. As we beheld Him, we were implored to take Him for all that He is—namely that he is the Word made flesh dwelling among us. To reject His Word is to reject Him. To reject Him, is to reject the all-availing sacrifice He made on our behalf.
This is to be any soil but the good soil.
“Take care then how you hear,” Jesus urges. As Lent takes hold of you and pulls you toward its center, receive the Law and Gospel—the stinging and chastising and cultivating, as well as the reinstating and comforting and healing. The whole of it is good. It’s given in love from a God whose desire is to save you rather than give you what you deserve.