Victory and Defeat

After enjoying a richly fruitful event yesterday—our annual “The Body of Christ and the Public Square” conference—I’m again reminded of life’s strangeness. I acknowledge that Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan, is by no means a powerhouse of financial magnitude, nor are we large by comparison to many other churches. In truth, we are a relatively unassuming bunch of Christians who gather for Word and Sacrament ministry. By God’s grace, in that gathering, we have discovered ourselves equipped for accomplishing some pretty incredible things—namely, the courageous carrying of Christ’s Gospel into the world in ways one might not expect from a troupe like us.

We do this as Confessional Lutherans—people who are disinterested in using candied entertainment to lure people through our doors. Instead, we hold to the historic Rites and Ceremonies the Church has enjoyed for two millennia. That’s been our identity for our six-and-a-half decades here in Hartland. Within the last ten years, as the world has intensified its efforts to invade and destroy all things Godly, we’ve seen our shiftless identity draw others alongside us in defense. Some of these folks are ones you only see on TV—such as Candace Owens, Charlie Kirk, Ben Shapiro, Dinesh D’Souza, Dennis Prager, and of course, Matt Walsh, who so graciously joined us for yesterday’s conference.

How did this happen? Well, that’s a question I’m asked quite frequently.

The honest answer is, “I don’t really know.” Or perhaps better stated, “Only God knows.” Although, I suppose I could say that I’ve found myself in the right places at the right times talking with the right people. I’ll add relatively frankly that those same people found the depth and relevance of our identity refreshing. That said, even as the one running point on these conversations, I never expected any of the opportunities we enjoy today. I was doing what pastors are supposed to be doing, plain and simple. The congregation I serve was, too.

Admittedly, I’ve grown in my awareness that the times, as they say, “are a-changing.” Things are much harder for the Church these days. In fact, the way I’ll often describe this is as it relates to clergy: the days when people tipped their hats kindly to a passing clergyman on the street, listened to him with gladness giving the invocation at a public school event, or smiled as he engaged in community affairs—these are all ancient and alien experiences compared to today. Nowadays, the chance of a clergyman being attacked or spit upon by a passerby is a ready possibility. I speak from experience. Still, God leads His undershepherds accordingly. The same goes for the people who know the Good Shepherd’s voice. His mission and its subsequent peripherals haven’t changed. With that, and speaking only for myself, I’ve spoken to particular topics in specific contexts as the Spirit required. This produced results. Sometimes good. Sometimes not so good. Either way, friendships emerged. Those friendships expanded to others, eventually moving into certain spheres where an in-the-trench congregation and her pastor would subsequently find themselves engaging with some of this world’s darkest forces. And yet, God saw fit to send help from others. Some of these reinforcements speak from exceptional platforms and bear extraordinary resources.

Indeed, God has blessed us in this. And so, we go forward.

There is a saying that victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan. The point is that when things are going well, plenty are willing to say they had a hand in it being so. But when the threat of trouble comes, associations grow thin, and people take cover in the shadows. The thing about God’s people here at Our Savior is that, for the most part, we’ve never been a congregation with the urge to cut and run when things got tough. As it is in most congregations, individuals have departed from our fellowship for one reason or another. Some because they simply didn’t like me and wanted me gone. In fact, they worked really hard to get rid of me. That’s fine. Not to be too bold, but they’re elsewhere, and I’m still here. Apparently, God had other plans.

Others left because of our congregation’s hard stance against abortion, LGBTQ impositions, CRT, and the like. Unfortunately, and in my opinion, those folks couldn’t exchange their love of this world for alignment with God’s Word. Interestingly, some left our fellowship for various reasons, but when they discovered the theological conditions in other places, they regretted the decision and returned. They realized the essentiality of Confessional Lutheranism’s inherent resistance to the ever-altering whims of culture. And why are confessionally liturgical churches so sturdy? At some point, I’ll probably write a book about it. Until I do, let’s just say it’s because their identity isn’t bound to the here and now. They share ownership of a singular identity with countless generations of Christians before them. As a result, they’re less inclined to roll over and give it away when the enemy comes calling for something new. They will fight as their fore-parents fought, knowing they’re not in the fray for the temporal successes bound to this world’s timeline but for the timeless successes that only God can provide—the kind He has supplied to the confessing Church during her most challenging days throughout all of human history.

There’s something else to keep in this regard.

Strangely, success often appears among such people as defeat—as struggle, suffering, hardship, and adversity. If you doubt it can be this way, consider the crucifixion of Jesus—the absolute epitome of the world’s depiction of failure. And yet, by the Lord’s gruesome self-giving, the cure to Sin’s poison was accomplished and delivered, and the old evil foe, the devil, was forever defanged. The incarnation of Jesus—God’s lowering of Himself to our station—and His eventual death on the cross, these two things demonstrate the truest glory of God. Jesus and His Heavenly Father believed and acknowledged this together in John 12:23-32. In the same way, Christians who crave faithfulness to this glory rather than the glory of prestige already have a proper bearing. They can trust even as victory and defeat seem blurry, assured that God is in the fracas with them and He is using even the hardest moments for His faithful people as it serves His righteous purposes.

There’s another saying relative to this that’s worth considering. I’ve heard it said (and I’ve likely shared it before) that the real tragedy in loss is the pain experienced from almost winning. I don’t know who said it, but I certainly appreciate its insight. It’s an honest observation of how it can hurt to arrive at the finish line but not cross it. But again, for Christians, it’s not necessarily about the finish line. It’s about the race. When it comes to humanity in general, the finish line gets crossed in death. Although, in one sense, Christians have already crossed the finish line as they’ve died to themselves and were reborn in Jesus. Baptized into Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work for faith in the One who already crossed the threshold by His death and resurrection, ultimately winning the victory, a Christian is accounted with His finish-line triumph. Knowing this, the race becomes a joyful venturing alongside the One who promises never to leave or forsake us as we run.

Of course, just as the world would interpret the Lord’s death as defeat, so also will it see the struggles we face as Christians—and even our mortal death—in the same light. But again, Christians know better.

“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Saint Paul wrote those words. His words consolidate both living and dying into one unending life.

As Paul’s words meet with the here and now, we know that the hills and valleys, the straightaways and the turns, the uneven roads and the smooth terrain all provide opportunities for God’s victorious Gospel to drive us toward the next moment. What that moment will be—how it will feel, what will be at stake, the measure of effort it will exact—we don’t know. But what we do know is that if God is for us, who can be against us (Romans 8:31). He’s on our side. The victory is His. We get to go forth in faithfulness to Him regardless of the current climate of our culture. There’s courage to be had by this knowledge.

I mean, when not even death can scare you, what would any of us have to fear if someone vomited threats on us for saying that an unborn child is a person worthy of life; or that men can’t be women and women can’t be men; or that the answer to racism is not more racism as Critical Race Theory would insist? Of course, these are rhetorical questions easily answered.

Death has been conquered. In Jesus, we have life. This is at the heart of what we do here at Our Savior in Hartland. God is blessing our efforts as they’re born from this trust in the middle of both ease and struggle. I’m glad for both because I know they serve as tools of a God who has given unbreakable promises of His loving care.

Habits

While sorting through some computer files on Friday, I ended up in the folder that contains all the messages like this one that I’ve ever sent since I started writing them back in 2015. As it would go, today’s message will be the 400th one sent. That’s quite a few, I’d say. Being conservative with the total word count for each, I’m guessing I’ve written at least 480,000 words along the way. Well, what can I say? I’ve spoken clearly over the years regarding my writing illness. For me, it’s an itch, one that, if I don’t scratch it, would likely drive me mad.

Or perhaps it’s better described as a routine. Apart from all the other things I regularly plink out on this keyboard, I’ve tapped through this Sunday morning message so many times for so many years that it’s become a habit. It’s something I just wake up and start doing. I’ve been asked over the years if I worry about finding myself in the moment with nothing to share. I suppose, on occasion, I’ve experienced writer’s block. Still, the short answer to the question is no. When I can’t think of anything to say, I take a quick look around me—whether that means reading an article, reexamining the past week’s events, or just looking out the window. In the end, I always find something worth considering. Once an idea is revealed, I just start typing. Again, it’s second nature—an exercise in the force of habit.

Habits are strange things. Some take a deliberate effort to form. Others seem to happen on their own. Of course, both kinds have the potential to become good or bad. Understanding the gravity of habit, Mark Twain said that to reform one, a person must first realize they are “not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” In other words, if you want to change—if you’re going to overcome and do better—it’ll take steady and deliberate mindfulness.

I used the words “second nature” a few sentences ago. I think there is a reason habits are often referred to in this way. A second nature implies a first nature. A first nature is a primal one. It’s what we’d be if the second nature weren’t laboring to outpace it. Admittedly, I have plenty of first-nature impulses that I suppress with second-nature behaviors. Some of these habits aren’t so good, and I’m working to coax them down the stairs. Other habits I’ve formed serve to help not only me but others, too. One I’ve probably shared with you before is the habit of searching my immediate environment in situations of conflict for cruciform things. By cruciform, I mean cross-shaped. Most of the time, I find something. But sometimes I don’t. Either way, the habit itself is a trained recollection of the Gospel. It’s a reminder that the person on the warpath before me is someone for whom the Lord died. In heated moments, remembering that Christ met me as His enemy and, by His gracious sacrifice on the cross, did what was necessary to make me His friend, the way I handle conflicts changes. It doesn’t mean I’m always successful at diffusing them. Still, I rarely leave such situations regretting what I’ve done or said, mainly because I deliberately tried to steer both of us toward Christ. Without this second nature overpowering my first-nature inclination to win at all costs—an inclination my wife and children know very well from our time together playing games—things would unfold much differently, and it wouldn’t be pretty.

Nevertheless, for this effort to become second nature, it took discipline. I actually had to practice it. Now it just happens.

When it comes to habits, I suppose Christians have the upper hand compared to the world around them. This is true because we know so much more about the first nature—the Sin nature (Romans 3:23). We know that we are innately corrupt and that apart from faith, even the good we might think we do is soiled (Isaiah 64:6). That being said, we also know the Gospel has changed us. The Gospel reveals God’s merciful first nature located in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:8). It brings us the life-altering message of what He has done to save us from our first nature of enmity. This same message—endowed with the Holy Spirit’s power for faith and its fruits—establishes a second nature, a new nature (Colossians 3:9-10). This new nature is ever mindful of the first nature’s dangerous capability and, as a result, works intentionally to outpace it. In other words, it practices spiritual discipline.

Fully aware of Sin’s dreadful grip, Saint Paul wrote straightforwardly:

“For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:22-25b).

Paul can write this way because he knows the power of what Christ has done for him on the cross. Naturally, he attributes his ability to wrestle with the Sinful nature to that same power at work in Him. It’s the same for all Christians. We know that because Jesus has defeated death (1 Corinthians 15:26), the first nature of Sin and its poison-filled tendrils have no rightful claim or permanent grip on us. As a result, we see the Law of God in an entirely new light. Like Saint Paul, we delight in it as preeminently useful in the struggle against the first nature. We actually delight in its strictness, counting it all joy when God commands us to observe the routine boundaries of the Ten Commandments. They’re incredibly preserving, so we acknowledge them as useful in the spiritual battle.

We can learn still more from Saint Paul in 1 Cor. 9:24-27:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

Employing the verb ὑπωπιάζω (translated as “discipline”), Paul sets before the reader a visceral word that quite literally means to “strike beneath the eye.” It implies struggle. Paul tells the reader he’s doing something essential—sometimes severe—to keep something else “under control” (v.27). He’s taking his new nature in Christ very seriously. He’s actively employing it physically to enslave his first nature to something better.

By the way, maybe you noticed how Paul acknowledged in verse 27 spiritual discipline’s corporate effects. I did. I hope other pastors recognize it, too. Paul wrote plainly that his habits affect others, and if he doesn’t feed the good ones while fighting the bad ones, his work as an apostle could very quickly become of little use not only to himself but to the body of believers to whom God sent him.

Being summertime—a time when worship attendance tends to trend lower—I find Paul’s encouragement toward spiritual discipline to be reminiscent of the habits haunting texts like Hebrews 10:24-25, which reminds all Christians to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Three habits, in particular, appear in this sentence. Those in the habit of attending worship are urged to make a habit of reaching out to those who’ve fallen into the habit of skipping church—which is to say, be in the habit of helping others out of their spiritually bad habits.

I suppose to wrap this up, I’ll simply say I appreciate the piety of habit. Routines born from God’s Word that help to keep one’s heart, soul, and mind set on Christ are good things. It’s one reason I appreciate making New Year’s resolutions. Good habits need a beginning. While I’m at it, I’ll say it’s also why I prefer the historic liturgy to other, more contemporary forms of worship. There’s something to be said for engaging in worship styles that some might categorize as habitual. They involve people saying and doing the same things over and over again. In this case, the habits are centuries-long. And why? Well, they’ve stood the test of time for a reason. For one, the thing about a habit is that it can steer without much help. In one sense, the biblically substantive rites and ceremonies—the communal habits of God’s people—have helped to steer Christian communities through some dark theological days. Looking at all the flighty nonsense today that passes as Christian worship, I appreciate the habit of historic liturgy that much more. It makes it possible for God’s people to go to a church and hear a really screwed-up sermon but still walk away, never missing out on solid biblical teaching. The historic liturgy is designed to keep God’s people immersed in the promises of Christ, no matter the failings of the one leading it. When we mess with this, we mess with an excellent habit.

As one called to lead in such habits—someone who is more than capable of falling short—I’m glad for the second nature of the liturgy. Suppose the government one day decides to snatch away all of our worship volumes (as they’re doing in China), I’m guessing the very first time you gather with fellow Christians in worship to discover you don’t actually need a service book because the liturgy has become habitual, you’ll agree, too.