Little by Little

I hope all is well with you so far this year. That might seem a strange thing to say, especially since we’re only a week into 2023. Still, we both know a lot can happen in a week. In truth, a lot can happen in mere seconds. Anything can change in an instant. An honest person—someone who knows by faith the inner workings of this fallen world—will not only admit to this but will embrace it as inevitable.

I’m guessing that for those looking in on faith from the outside, a Christian who rolls with change’s inevitability might appear to be living a disinterested life. Amid good or bad change, a Christian can speak alongside Job, saying, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Such a person might appear to be drifting through life as though it were a mighty river sweeping him away feebly in its current.

On the other hand, perhaps the Christian can roll with life’s punches because he understands the intricacies of life and its changes in a way that onlookers cannot.

Admittedly, I’m somewhat of a mixed bag regarding change. Some people thrive on change. I don’t. I prefer most things to remain the same. There’s certainty in the steady things. Although, like most people, now and then, I get the urge to move things around in my personal spaces. I’ll be sitting at my desk, and then suddenly, I’ll rise and move an entire section of books from one shelf to another. I’ll be sitting at the bar in my basement, and then somewhat abruptly, I’ll rearrange the movie memorabilia sitting on cabinets and hanging on the walls. Those landscape alterations might not seem like a big deal to most. However, the urge that stirs them is genuine, and it acknowledges something deeply relevant to life. The seemingly innate need to change things is a reminder that something is seriously wrong with this world, and whatever it is, it needs to be made right.

But there’s something else proven by the exercise. The urge to rearrange things returns. It might be a week later. It might be two years later. Either way, it returns. This proves that no matter what I do to get things in the right places, the deeper disorder remains.

By faith, Christians can get along in such a world, no matter the changes. Good or bad, we’re the kind of people who endure.

I’m sure I’ve shared before that I appreciate Washington Irving. I read his infamous The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at least once a year. I do this not only because he spends his best energy delving into classical tales from early America but because, unlike modern writers, Irving handles the frightful things with a poetic style. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that he seems to take hold of scary things and presents them nonchalantly, almost as though they ought to be expected even while they are surprising. For a Christian, that kind of storytelling makes sense. As someone fitted by the Holy Spirit to endure, Irving makes sense to us when he writes, “There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse…it is often a comfort to shift one’s position and be bruised in a new place.”

Perhaps that’s part of what the Lord meant when He instructed His followers to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). He doesn’t intend for His Christians to be punching bags. He means for us to know we should never expect to be hit only once. More will come. And so, don’t be foolish. Situate yourself for endurance.

Thinking about these things, I should mention that Christians are by no means complacent about change. Christian endurance is far different than giving up and floating helplessly downstream. The knowledge of the deeper disorder keeps us vigilant. Because of this, we’re far more attuned to change than the rest of the world around us. It seems for most people in the world, change is of little consequence so long as it doesn’t bring personal inconvenience. In one sense, that’s how things got so bad in Nazi Germany. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum attempted to memorialize that reality with a wall plaque of Rev. Martin Niemöller’s words, which were:

“First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Little by little, changes were made that targeted particular groups of people. Eventually, those changes crossed over into Niemöller’s sphere. But when they did, it was too late. Collectively, the little modifications had become unstoppable juggernauts. Truth be told, for as many people who lived relatively untouched lives during the 1930s and 40s, Christians were the first to see the dangers and sound the alarm, ultimately doing all they could to trip the Nazi jackboots. Many died trying. Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one. But he wasn’t the only one. There were plenty of others.

I suppose with the New Year comes both the awareness of and inclination for change. Mostly, I’m guessing a person’s New Year resolutions exist within the Niemöller-type frame. They’re personal, and it’s likely they’ll only allow inconvenience if a personal benefit is involved. People try to eat better, to exercise more, to be healthier. The intent in these things is good. And I’m certainly one to root for their success. I suppose what’s coming to mind this morning is not only the need to encourage continued endurance amid discomforting changes in our world but to encourage awareness of change beyond the safety of self. In other words, just because it doesn’t affect you doesn’t mean it isn’t worth your attention. It might be hurting someone else. That should matter to you. If it doesn’t, the time may come when you’ll have no choice but to be concerned.

For example, back in 2021, Scott Smith could have cared less about the demands of LGBTQ, Inc. in schools. But then his 15-year-old daughter was raped by a transgender student in the women’s bathroom at her high school. He responded angrily against the Loudoun County School Board (as any loving father should have), was arrested, and branded a domestic terrorist by the National School Boards Association, Merrick Garland, and President Biden. Interestingly, it took such a startling tragedy to stoke nationwide parental concerns for these and other issues. Now countless seats on School Boards across America have been seized by parents intent on jettisoning these radical—but already very entrenched—ideologies from our schools. They’re discovering and unbinding the dangerous grip of Critical Race Theory. They’re uncovering and dismantling the attempts by progressive ideologue teachers to read pornographic literature to 1st graders. They’re finding all these things and more, and they’re waging war against the disorder.

As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Little by little, changes were made. And now we’re cleaning up some pretty big messes. As Christians, we know the sources of these messes: Sin, Death, and Satan.

These are the powers at work in the deeper disorder.

Again, be encouraged to pay closer attention in the New Year. Perhaps a personal resolution for change might be to become more aware of what’s changing around you—whether the change is good or bad, who it affects, and what you can do to help. Doing this, I’m certain you’ll find ways to flex the already empowered muscle of faith in a world that desperately needs what you have to offer, not only for the sake of living peaceful and godly lives (1 Timothy 2:2) but for leading others to the only One who capable of bringing an all-surpassing order to the deeper disorder. Jesus accomplished this on the cross. He proved it by His resurrection. Now we live in this Gospel, owning the spoils of His victory, and employing them in the world around us.

We are not drifting through life. We are engaging in it with an altogether different kind—a divinely impenetrable kind—of endurance and discernment amid change.

Jacob’s Ladder

We’re only a few days into 2021. Still, I pray all is well with you so far.

Interestingly, because of my daughter Madeline’s fondness for all things 80s, I crossed into the New Year having reconnected with some favorite music from my youth. While I’m more of a hard rock kind of guy—AC/DC being the typical go-to playlist at any given moment—I found myself emptying the dishwasher to some familiars by Huey Lewis and the News.

“I Want a New Drug.” “The Heart of Rock and Roll.” “Heart and Soul.” “Back in Time.” Let me tell you, I forgot how much I appreciated these songs. They had a memorable style.

For me, I think I found the combination of catchy rhythm guitar riffs and the rasp of Huey Lewis’ voice to be a welcome change to the poppy synthesizers that were saturating the airwaves and making the 80s music scene little more than canned cheese. When it came to skill, it felt lazy, and it was almost unendurable at times. Yes, Huey Lewis and the News used keyboards. But they used them the right way—in a bluesy rock way.

Of course, I don’t mean to insult any of my friends who remain huge fans of shoulder pads and “Bonnie Tyler” hairstyles. I most definitely don’t hold anything against those of you who tap down the road listening to the Pet Shop Boys, Culture Club, or Cyndi Lauper. But truthfully, there were only so many times I could be riding along with someone listening to A-Ha’s “Take On Me” before I actually felt like climbing into whichever comic book I might have been reading, even if it meant being accosted by a couple of brutes wielding chains and a monkey wrench. Seriously. If it weren’t for bands led by the likes of Angus Young, Eddie Van Halen, Joe Elliot, and yes, Huey Lewis, the radio would’ve, for the most part, been dead to me.

Of course I hear these songs through different filters, now. As a kid, it’s the music I remember most. But now I’m listening to the lyrics more intently, and oftentimes, I’m discovering things I missed.

Again, speaking of Huey Lewis and the News, I was listening to the song “Jacob’s Ladder.” There’s no arguing it’s sort of a “works righteousness” song. Lewis sings about being put off by the TV preachers and the aggressive Law-wielding Bible-thumpers. Good for him. They are off-putting to me, too. But because this is now his interpretation of Christianity, he turns to the even less certain spirituality of trying to figure it out on his own. He sings about striving to be a good person, and day by day, doing his best to climb his way to heaven. The insinuation is that ultimately God will smile on him when he finally arrives.

“Step by step, one by one. Higher and higher. Step by step, rung by rung. Climbing Jacob’s ladder.”

It’s a sad premise. The Word of God is pretty clear that no one will gain entrance to heaven by their works. In fact, Saint Paul couldn’t have said it any more straightforwardly than when he scribed:

“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

On the contrary, God’s Word makes clear that mankind is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Good works are a fruit of saving faith, and even as we do them, it is God at work through His believers. In other words, we can’t even take credit for our good deeds (Ephesians 2:8-10). It’s one reason why you’ll hear so many Christians, namely Lutherans, say the phrase, “Soli Deo gloria,” that is, to God alone be the glory.

I must confess, however, right in the middle of Huey’s messy (but also very popular) theology, he says something of value. By value, I mean it’s genuine, and I’m guessing it resonates with most normal people:

“All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today.”

As a person, he honestly wants to improve. He just wants tomorrow to be better than the day before it.

I get that. As I said, I think most folks do, especially at this time each year. When the month of December has changed to January, and the old year has become a new one, many are hoping for better days—better relationships, better habits, better character, better selves.

There’s nothing wrong with working to be a better person. I say, if you can make those New Year’s resolutions and actually keep them, great. I made my own, and I intend to charge forth. Just keep in mind that as so many are striving to be what the world would consider better—wealthier, the most popular, the most intelligent and most talented in every way—to be any of these or none of these is as nothing if your innermost hope isn’t built on Christ. Without Him, you will be poor no matter the size of your holdings. Without Him, you are to be pitied no matter how many fawn in your presence. Without Him, you are the most foolish, no matter how many degrees you have on your wall; the most bumbling no matter the trophies.

Whatever comes your way in 2021, let your aim in every circumstance be fixed on Christ and His work to rescue you from Sin. He’s the only One with the divine strength for climbing the rungs of perfection, and He did it in your place. He’s the only One who took every step with perfect precision, and He did it all for your sake. He’s the only One who could take a righteous stand before the Father, and He did so as both your mediator and substitute. The Christmas season we just enjoyed is the foretelling of these things. Christmas preaches the Good News that after the fall into Sin, God didn’t turn away from His rebelliously imperfect world in disgust even as He knew we’d never be able to fix what we’d broken. Instead, He sent Jesus—the Son of God having become Man—who submitted Himself to all that we are and must endure. By His perfect work, He fixed what was broken. Now there is peace between God and man. Now, by faith, we are counted as righteous.

Because of Christ, your eternal tomorrow is guaranteed to be better than today.

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.