The Little Things

Speaking only for myself, I’m starting to think it’s the little things in life that take up the most space in my insides. By little things, I mean the warmly familiar things that bring an instant smile to my face—the things that, even when they’re out of sight and mind for decades, when they suddenly return, you remember every detail as though the years of separation were mere minutes.

I write this having recently reorganized our basement storage closet. The process involved opening and inspecting various boxes and bins, a few of which contained things from my childhood. In one particular bin, I discovered a stack of fighter jet posters concealing a much grander pile of 80s-era Fangoria magazines, all in pristine condition. Oh, how I loved Fangoria—the sci-fi/horror movie images immersed in articles detailing the films’ writers, directors, special effects artists, and actors. It was all so mesmerizing. And to top it off, each magazine cover unfolded to reveal a poster-sized movie scene that, as you can guess, went straight to my bedroom walls.

The bin now emptied, a pile of cover posters rested before me, their edges pocked with thumbtack holes and brittled by forty-year-old tape fragments. Beside them were the magazines they once adorned.

Having already unfolded, flattened, and scattered the fighter jet posters across the living room floor, I did the same with the cover posters. After a few minutes of meandering and observing, as though I were in a museum, I made an empty seat in the middle and began thumbing through the pages of each magazine. Revisiting the familiar articles divided by dated advertisements, suddenly, I was ten years old again. In a flash, I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom in Danville, Illinois. It was Friday night in 1982. I’d just finished watching the second of two old black-and-white horror films on “Nightmare Theater,” a favorite show broadcast on a public access channel out of Indianapolis and hosted by the ever-cool Sammy Terry. I had a steel flashlight in hand. As usual, its bulb was dimmed by failing batteries. Still, I scanned the magazine pages, doing my best to read the tiny print. As I did, my creativity surged with desires to write stories, create props, and bring elements of other, more fantastical worlds into mine.

These little things, both the posters and magazines, brought back years of relatively simple moments on memory’s tidal crests, each hitting the shore with drenching details covering massive contextual spaces. To this day, I’d say these spaces are the largest parcels of my identity. In a very human sense, these little things own the most real estate of who I am as a person. By comparison, I stumbled across my high school and college diplomas in one of those basement bins. Academic diplomas are key notches of achievement on anyone’s timeline. But the diplomas stirred nothing. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the days I graduated from high school or college. However, these little things painted detail-rich portraits of countless moments spanning years of my life.

As plain as the time-traveling scene this past week in my living room might have been, a lot occurred in its fast-fleeting minutes. Looking back at it, at least two things come to mind that are worth sharing. The first occurred to me right in the middle of the posters on the floor. It involved my disgust for winter and the snow it brings. This might seem silly at first, so bear with me. Here’s what I remember thinking.

It was Aesop who first said, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” At first thought, I’m not so sure I fully agree with that statement. I think it’s relative, especially when considering my own family. The more I’m with my wife and children, the more I can say that familiarity breeds appreciation. On the other hand, there’s an element of truth to Aesop’s words. A brief renaissance of sorts occurred when I rediscovered those childhood things. This was only possible because, at some point many years ago, while fully absorbed in the familiarity of these little things, I found myself capable of saying goodbye to them, of boxing them up and putting them away for good. I don’t recall the moment, but I’m guessing it must have happened. These well-beloved things wouldn’t be sitting in storage bins for decades if it hadn’t. And yet, the decades-long separation played a strange role in the happiness I experienced when I rediscovered them.

This reminded me of winter.

The little things of summer are familiar loves to me. I love the sunshine. I love verdant yards. I love the landscapes. I love taking the top off my Jeep Wrangler. I love the crisp depth of a star-filled sky on a cloudless summer night. When summer first begins, I feel this way in spades. But eventually, the definitive sensation of the feeling dissipates. I find myself taking less time to admire the stars. I just don’t get around to taking the top off the Wrangler as much. Working in the yard becomes more chore-like.

But then, as if it were nature’s storage bin, snow comes along and hides all these wonderful things in winter’s closet. The snow hides the grassy landscapes. It covers the Wrangler’s hardtop. Its clouds drape the sky and conceal the stars. But in the spring, winter’s closet is opened, and all the familiar things snow was hiding are found. With them comes a resurgence of familiarity and a rebirth of incredible joy, the kind that only those little things can offer. Being away from them makes you love them all the more.

Again, it might seem silly, but it’s what I was thinking while sitting on the floor of my living room and turning the pages of Fangoria. I was thinking that snow prevents contempt for summer’s familiarity. I don’t know what that means for my longing to live in Florida.

This morning, a second thought is kindled. It’s a scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I don’t remember the words exactly. I only recall that Frodo is about to part company with Sam, Merry, Pippen, and the others at the sea’s edge. Observing the moment, Gandalf does not forbid anyone in the group from crying over the coming separation. Instead, he reminds them that not all tears are born from bad things. Some tears come from joy. Sometimes that joy is actually hope anticipating future joy. His point is that separation can only be temporary for those bound by hope. Hope knows a future togetherness. These friends won’t be apart forever. And when they do meet again, all the little things that made their journey so wonderful will be remembered with twice the joy.

Looking back on that moment among my childhood things, I experienced a sliver-sized sense of what Tolkien meant. I experienced joy’s fulfillment following separation. Observing this through the lens of faith helps make better sense of other things, too. By the Gospel, more often than not, I’ve learned it’s the little things that matter the most. Achievements—making lots of money, driving the nicest car, having the biggest home—these things mean very little to me. Marrying my wife, experiencing the birth of my children, teaching them of Christ, the glorious mundaneness of worship week after week, being dedicated to the minutest of details in my vocation as a pastor, writing what I hope will be a memorably picturesque note to you every Sunday since 2015—these are the little things. They take up the most real estate in my life, and they’re worth every square inch. In a far greater sense, I’m certain they’ll bring incredible joy when their fruits are rediscovered and remembered in the togetherness of heaven (Revelation 14:13).

And so, typical to my Sunday morning ramblings, I’ve already gone on long enough. I’ll end by sharing what happened when my two daughters happened down the stairs and discovered the living room floor showcasing my 80s childhood. In short, they each negotiated multiple acquisitions. Evelyn bargained for all the fighter jet posters. Finding success, she immediately went to work attaching them to her bedroom walls. Madeline took several of the cover posters and did the same. I was glad to see these things loved again. As for what remained, I refolded them into their original cover forms and went to Walmart. I returned with fifteen picture frames. Two hours later, a handful of my favorite Fangoria covers were beautifying my basement walls. After decades apart, we were together again, which brought me joy.

Know that the future and forever togetherness inherent to the Gospel of salvation through faith in Christ will be far better.

Complaining

As I type this, a bag sits on the chair across from my office desk. The bag has puzzles inside. I don’t know who placed it there, but I’m assuming it to be a kindly gesture by someone who knows my family likes such things. Somewhat of a betrayal of my observational skills, I think the bag was delivered to my office this past Wednesday. I can’t say for sure, mainly because last week was a bit of a blur. A lot happened in a very short period. Some of it was easy. Other parts were more challenging. All of it is in the Lord’s hands. It’s His church. We can all sleep easier knowing that.

I should say that as grateful as I am for the gifted puzzles, unfortunately, I do have one concern about the bag. It is adorned with a wintry scene bearing a smiling snowman. Above the frosty gent are the words, “Let it snow!” Again, thank you to whoever gave us the puzzles. What a treat! Nevertheless, I need you to know I’m going to burn this bag once my family removes the thoughtful gifts in its keep. I dread the snow and everything that comes with it. I say, keep the snow upstairs in heaven’s attic, and instead, let the warm sunshine continue to gild the grassy summertime landscapes down here.

Summer is better. Summer is my thing.

Of course, this isn’t to be. Anything I might call “my thing” is never really mine to control. Nothing is. Even the things I might consider autonomic—something like breathing—will one day cease. I won’t be in control at that moment. And so, for as much as I want summer to remain, winter is coming. Beyond that, there’s no use in complaining about it—even though I’m pretty sure I will continue to do so.

Technically, I have no right to complain. I live in Michigan, a tundra-like state. I do so by choice. Well, maybe not by choice. I blame my wife, Jennifer. She’s from Michigan. I met her, fell in love, and I stayed here because I wanted to be where she was. Thankfully, God saw fit to put me into a congregation I dearly love. Or perhaps better stated, I’d die for the people of Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan. Considering Joe Biden’s recent speech, it seems that’s becoming less a rhetorical statement and more a possibility.

Still, if I had the magical ability to lift Our Savior Lutheran Church and all its people from the earth and set them down on a gulf-kissed shore in Florida, I would. The place would look nice with some pineapple trees in our gardens and a few palm trees by our bell tower. I know I’m a stickler for stewardship, but if anyone suggested during a congregation meeting that we install a pool, I’d probably go for it. I mean, why not? Hey, trustees, what do you think?

But as I said, I have no right to complain. Come to think of it, at a base level, none of us has a right to complain about discomforting things we experience in this world. These things exist because of Sin. Sin is our fault, and complaining about it is a bit like turning on the stove, putting our hand in the flame, and then whining that we were burned. Besides, in the grand scheme of things, the One to whom we’re most likely directing our complaints—God—isn’t responsible for Sin. The fact that He handled it anyway says something about Him.

He loves us.

That brings something else to mind this morning: the Complaint Psalms—Psalms such as 3, 31, 44, 64, 142, and others. The Psalms of Complaint certainly are good examples of divinely inspired writers whining to God. That being said, such Psalms assume a few things.

Firstly, they assume a distinction between good and bad complaining. Bad complaining is often described in the scriptures as grumbling. Grumbling is the negative bemoaning that happens when our attention is more set on self than Christ. We want what we want. When we don’t get it, we complain. Perhaps worse, we end up blaming God for our woes rather than trusting in His divine care. I think good complaining—biblical concern—is different. God expects His people to complain to Him. He expects us, like Him, to be bothered by Sin’s darkly products. If we’re not expressing our concern in some measure for Sin’s grip on humanity and its dreadful horribleness unfolding in the lives of every man, woman, and child across the planet, then we’re far denser than we might give ourselves credit. This same assumption understands faith. It understands, firstly, that God is ready to hear the cries of His people; and secondly, we go to Him because He’s the only One capable of doing anything about Sin. Yes, we can complain about the ungodliness of abortion. We can even get involved, doing everything we can to stop it. Still, God is the only One who will see to its permanent demise. This leads to another assumption about good complaining: the anticipation and expectation of God’s love. We know God will always be ready to exchange our concern with His comforting Gospel—the wonderful proclamation of our deliverance from Sin through the person and work of Christ and the promise to strengthen us for meeting the challenges that stirred our concern in the first place.

He loves us. He hears us. He’s with us. He enlightens and empowers us, using the momentum of our Godly concerns to work through us in His world.

Still, as with the rest of God’s Word, the Complaint Psalms are in place to herald Christ. They meet with the Sin problem, being sure to dole out the only hope that can soothe our visceral concerns. Take a look at some of the Psalms I mentioned above. They never leave the complainer without hope.

I’m not so sure my complaining about snow fits into the category of good griping. While I’m burning the snowman bag, I’ll reflect on what I do know—which is that if it’s the Lord’s will, He’ll see me through another season that more than taxes me holistically. This world—His world—will continue to spin. Winter will become spring. Summer will return after that. All along the way, He’ll take both my bad and good complaints and put His faithful Word before me—both His Law and Gospel. He’ll give His Law to reveal my sinful selfishness and His Gospel to forgive and strengthen me for being His trusting child who engages in the surrounding world.

In all, I’d say that will forever be a pretty good gig for whiners like me.

“Let Us Run the Race…”

As always, I pray all is well with you and your family, and that as we make our way toward summer, you are beginning to receive some relief from winter’s grip.

When I say grip, I mean it. Michigan winters are long. I grew up in central Illinois. Until I moved here in 1994, I was ignorant to the fact that it’s all but guaranteed that eight of Michigan’s twelve months will deliver a measure of frigidity. It’s a truth that tips its bowler cap reminiscently to the British notion that there’s only one way to ensure summer in England and that’s to have it framed and hanging in the living room.

And yet Michiganders press on, we endure, knowing that when summer does finally arrive in our state, there will be few other places in America that can capture our hearts for home in comparison.

Although, “endure” is an interesting word to use in relation to something we love, isn’t it?

As a pastor, even as I’ve needed to endure troubling people, places, and things, I’ve also been on the scene to watch other people endure, too. About thirty-six hours ago I was sitting at gate B16 in the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on my way to St. Louis, and across the way at gate B15 was a family enduring their restless two-year-old. Come to think of it, we were all enduring the toddler. I’m sure they love their son, but I have to imagine that in that particular moment they were doing what they could to get through the oncoming hours of travel, ultimately hoping for the peace that comes with arriving at their final destination—which appeared to be Knoxville, Tennessee.

Observing those folks (not gawking, of course), I’d say they were doing a stellar job of receiving the disdain-filled stares of the folks around them, while at the same time managing their own inclinations to put a red tag on the kid and check him as extra baggage at the door of the plane before boarding because they knew they wouldn’t get away with stuffing him into the overhead bin.

I’ve learned over the years that the way people endure struggle often reveals more about them than the actual thing being endured. I was reminded of this rather vividly earlier this week when I was called to the scene of an unexpected death. There were family members of the deceased who claimed faith in Christ, and yet were completely inconsolable—more so than I’ve ever seen before—wailing and calling out that life was now over, that all hope was lost, that God was their enemy, that they hated Him, that He was punishing them even as they’d been so faithful to Him in church attendance and prayer and giving. (For the record, I found out later after talking to their pastor they weren’t actually as faithful as they’d claimed.)

Over the course of the hour after I arrived, other Christian family and friends arrived, too. I didn’t learn of their faith in Christ by asking, but instead beheld them embracing the inconsolable ones and offering them the reassurance that hope was not lost, that God was not doling out injustice, that He was not scheming to harm or destroy them.

To be clear, I’m not belittling anyone’s moment of grief. I’ve been in and around it enough to know that it’s different for everyone. And besides, it truly was an unfortunate scene. Still, when it comes to relationship status, I’d say that for the most part, everyone in the room held equal shares of the burden of the moment. But for some reason, one group in particular seemed capable of finding their way in the darkness, of believing that even amid the coldness of Death, the summer of eternal life through faith in Christ was approaching on the horizon. They were proving a deep trust that the sadness would eventually pass, that the Day of Days was coming. It was only a matter of time. Armed with this knowledge, they were going to press forward displaying a different kind of grief, one that emitted hope and was capable of shepherding others in the same.

Paul said something about this in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14:

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”

Those who fall asleep in Jesus are brought along with Him. In the moment of their passing, no matter how dark it might seem to be, they are immediately carried to where He is. This is true by virtue of His unarguable power over Death.

Saint Paul’s words are Easter words. Easter owns them. I’m here to tell you that it’s no coincidence that God established Easter in the springtime. Spring steps forth from the grave of winter with its heart set toward summer, the sunlit upland of new life in full bloom.

Until then, indeed, the need to endure is rarely an easy thing. Just look around. But as you do, I’d caution those of you expecting to discover nothing but hopelessness unfolding throughout the world that you’ll likely see Christians continuing to prove the engine of endurance being fed by the Gospel of hope. History itself testifies to this. In a sense, you are enjoying the benefits of this verity. Fellowship in the Christian congregation you call home exists in part because the Christians who were tossed into dens filled with lions endured. The faith you are laboring to pass along to your children and grandchildren continues because Christians staked by Nero endured. The Bible—the Word of God for faith is even now in your hands because the Apostles who went out with a willingness to be crucified—even upside down—endured. The world has continued year after year to pit itself against Christianity, and yet countless generations continue in the way of salvation. Why? Because that which is the power of God unto salvation—the Gospel (Romans 1:16)—continues to endure, just as the Lord said (Matthew 16:15-20). And so, like those who’ve gone before us, we are not fearful as the world is fearful. We do not grieve as the world grieves. We do not endure unpleasantness and struggle and suffering and pain as the world endures. We have hope. We have that which has reached into us from the divine spheres and kindled our hearts with the warmth of a joy that can withstand the temperatures of mortal struggle that fall below freezing.

We know the summer of eternal life is coming. It’s not that we think it’s coming, but rather by the power of the Holy Spirit alive in us, we know it. That being true, and all of our senses being so attuned by faith to this Gospel reality, we cannot help but invest in its inevitability, ultimately letting it be visible to the people around us.

I know I don’t always do this as I should, which is why I need to continue to prepare.

I don’t know about you, but I dedicate time in the spring to preparing for summer. I clean up the yard. I trim back bushes. I prepare flower beds. I test sprinkler heads. I swap the snow blower in the garage with the lawn mower in the shed. (Michigan being what it is, sometimes I learn that I’ve made the swap a little too early.) I do countless things to make sure all is in order. I’m sure the Christians who are faithful in worship will make the appropriate connection here. They don’t need help understanding that because Christ fully accomplished our redemption, there isn’t anything we do for God that somehow plays a part in winning the unending summer of heaven. And yet, they also understand that the same Savior calls for us to prepare. He urges us to a readiness that doesn’t doze off so easily, but rather remains aware, that actively engages in order to keep itself well-stocked and complete for the Day’s arrival when we will be brought into Christ’s presence (Matthew 24:42-44; 25:1-13 ).

Christians know that holding “unswervingly to the hope we profess” means “drawing near to God” where He locates Himself (Hebrews 10:22-27). They know God’s divine prompting for readiness means being with Him in worship, together with other Christians, to receive as one like-minded, supportive, and believing family His gifts of Word and Sacrament that feed the flame of faith for running the race (Hebrews 12:1-2) and enduring until the end (James 1:12).