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.

Unguarded

Even though summer doesn’t technically arrive until mid-June, for many, it has already begun. School is out. Graduations are underway. Schedules become shapeshifters ready to consume each newly liberated hour the season promises. I don’t know what this means for you, but for the pastor of a church with a school it means arranging my day in a way that gets me to the office much earlier in the morning than usual with the hope that I can find my way home by mid-afternoon. Doing this allows time I don’t normally have with the family before needing to venture out for anything church-related in the evenings.

As it is every summer, I intend to use a portion of the morning’s quiet time for reading. Hardly moved by the criticism of my fellow pastors, I rarely spend much time in the summer with anything distinctly theological, but instead, whatever is enjoyable in the moment. Although, technically everything is theological—or better yet, Christological. I’ll give you an example.

I’ve already started my summer wanderings by picking away at a collection of letters from Charles Lamb, an essayist and poet of remarkable style from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I stumbled upon the compilation in Google Books while looking for something else.

One thing is for sure, you can learn a lot by reading from a historical character’s personal correspondence. Not only do you discover the superficial things relative to culture—such as favorite foods, pastimes, manners, colloquialisms, and the like—but you learn quite a bit about the person’s hidden qualities. For instance, a rather famous Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a letter to Lamb, one in which he described summer setting in “with its usual severity.” Coleridge’s point was to complain about England’s unfortunate (but not unusual) coolness in May and June. Apparently, he didn’t like it. Interestingly, Lamb didn’t acknowledge Coleridge’s complaint in his reply, but instead carried on about how the painter who’d recently completed a portrait of Lamb had captured him in “one of those disengaged moments… when the native character is so much more honestly displayed….”

From what I know of Coleridge, which is that he was a delightfully expressive man, one who could hardly be characterized as a complainer, Lamb’s words to his friend seemed almost out of place. Or better yet, if they were intended as a subtle response to a very wise Coleridge, then they were pointed. In other words, they appeared to suggest that just like everyone else, the real Coleridge could be betrayed by an unguarded moment. For as beloved as Coleridge was by the public for his eloquent appreciation of all things, his secret dislike for English summers slipped through to Lamb.

Whether or not this was Lamb’s point isn’t exactly clear. Still, I have the nagging sense it was. Either way, like everything else in life, it can be viewed through theological lenses. In this circumstance, it first serves as a reminder that no one is perfect. It’s also a lesson to the would-be narcissists among us. For as complete as one might appear to be, the unguarded moments eventually come around, and when they do, our incompleteness breaches the surface. And this is a good thing. It brings about the opportunity for honest confession—the opportunity to recognize one’s need for rescue from Sin’s deathly grip.

Lamb wrote something else of interest in his reply to Coleridge. Having included a small facsimile of the portrait with the letter, he scribbled, “Whatever its pretensions, I know it will be dear to you, towards whom I should wish my thoughts to flow in sort of an undress rather than in the more studied graces of diction.”

Did you pick up on Lamb’s inference? He offered two things that, if thinking theologically, are likely to resonate with Christians. The first is that no matter our failings, we can be counted as dear to one another. This is true because God’s grace is holding us together as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). With this as the connective tissue for our friendships, the second thing Lamb said becomes incredibly clear. He notes his hope for genuine honesty between he and Coleridge—that the things troubling, worrying, or haunting either of them can be made bare, rather than remaining guarded by a “studied” carefulness with words. This means as brothers and sisters in Christ, we don’t need to hide our real selves, as though needing to project an image of having it all together. We don’t even have to exist in a way that stays within the easy boundaries of cordiality. Instead, we can be real friends—folks ready to walk together through both the complete and incomplete parts of life.

In short, Lamb implies what the rest of us already know by King Solomon’s words, “For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). This is the epitome of Proverbs 27:17, which reads: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another,” and certainly it’s at least a molecule in the Lord’s formula fueling the encouragement 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” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

My prayer for you today, and always, is that you will remain part of a Christian church family that truly enjoys such collegiality. We can do no better than to be surrounded by genuine Christian friends as much as possible, knowing full well that a “friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).

Summer is Coming

In case you were wondering, at the time of this writing, there are 184 days until the first official day of summer. You might think I’m saying this because I’m already exhausted by winter. The only problem with your assumption is that winter doesn’t officially begin for two more days. Technically, we’re still in the fall.

Interestingly, to say “still in the fall” is to speak a phrase with more than one connotation, and no matter which you mean, the evidence of its actuality is there in support.

Take a look outside. The trees are bare. The leaves are scattered and damp beneath a recent layer of snow. The air is frigid. The sky is palled with clouds. There’s no arguing that the earth’s current position in relation to the sun is more than a few spins on the planet’s axis away from summer—half a year, to be exact. For me, this is a tiresome knowledge that can only be moderated through artificial means or by deliberate distraction. I keep a sun light in my office. Its light is weirdly simulated, but in the middle of a soul-dampening season that sees the sun disappearing completely sometimes as early as 5:00pm, it helps, even if only a little. In tandem, I stay busily distracted. I find that if I’m not thinking about the sky’s blue potential, I’m not necessarily missing it, and I’m less affected by its current grays.

Of course, there’s another meaning to “still in the fall” that we shouldn’t overlook. It hearkens back to the terminally unfortunate moment recorded in Genesis 3; that swift instant when, through self-inflicted grievousness, Mankind destroyed God’s perfect creation and positioned himself as far from God as physically and spiritually possible. The evidence mirroring this fall is plentiful. It’s all around us, sometimes subtly, and other times obviously. But either way, it is as discoverable as the seasonal image I described before.

It was subtly visible to me a few nights ago while working on a puzzle with Jennifer and the kids. We’d finished a 1,000-piece puzzle, and after a day or so of admiring the fruits of our long-suffering work, within a few minutes, we’d taken it apart and put it back in the box. In other words, what took days to complete was destroyed in seconds. Similarly, it was obvious to all of us by what happened in Mayfield, Kentucky, a town founded in 1824 and home to countless generations of families. In only a few minutes, the town was all but wiped from the map by a tornado.

To be “still in the fall” means that we exist in a world that continues to prove, not only that it is horribly infected by the destructive powers of Sin and Death, but that both it and its inhabitants are completely impotent against being consumed by them. It’s a place where this often plays out in subtle, but sinister, reversals. It’s a place in which one can claim Christianity, but be perfectly fine with cohabitation. Or perhaps cohabitation is admittedly offensive, but so is telling a Christian he or she is a walking contradiction for claiming Christ but only attending worship at Christmas and Easter. This same world is a place in which the bad we hear about someone is easily believed and the good is suspicious. It’s a place where lies easily outpace what’s objectively true. It’s a place where devout self-interest outguns concern for the neighbor. It’s a place in which one little disagreement can cause long term relationships and everything that goes with them to fall like leaves from an autumnal tree, having become completely disposable. It’s a place in which so many things unfold before us as reminders that this world exists in darkness, and no matter how hard we try, there’s no man-made light that can pierce its blanketing madness. There’s no artificial distraction vivid enough to keep its dreary sorrows apart and contained.

Only the real summer sun will do.

The official season of fall will end in a few days. When it does, we’ll cross over into the deathly hibernation of winter. It’s appropriate for Christmas to arrive at this precipice. Right in the middle of a downward dismalness anticipating and becoming Death, a Son is born. And not just any son, but rather the One God promised to send who would free Mankind from Sin, Death, and the devil’s ghastly grip (Genesis 3:16). Only this Son will do. He is God in the flesh. He is the incarnational invasion of God’s summertime love for a dying world filled with inert sinners. His presence is the incontestable assurance of a springtime restoration leading to eternal life—which He intends to be fully realized in the summer-like joy of paradise.

Jesus of Nazareth is this Gospel Son.

I suppose I should end by pointing out that our lives are not absent these wonderful Gospel images during the fall and winter. Sometimes obvious, and sometimes subtle, they’re there. An evergreen is a perfect example. Something that has become an emblem of Christmas, evergreen trees and bushes are subtle reminders accessible to us no matter the season. They remain thickly verdant with life all year long—just like a Christian’s hope born from the promise fulfilled in the Christ-child of Bethlehem. But then there are the obvious snapshots of the Gospel, too: the Word taught and proclaimed, the Absolution of Sins, Holy Baptism, the Lord’s Supper. Although, “snapshot” is probably not the best word to explain these things. These wonderful gifts of God are far more than images. They are tangible invasions of the most holy God—moments He has instituted, moments doused in the divine forgiveness that not only serves us while we are “still in the fall,” but also in place to prepare and then tie us to the promise of an eternal future in God’s heavenly summer.

I pray you will remember these things as you make your way into the Christmas celebration—and the rest of the Church Year, for that matter. Know that God loves you. Know that the Savior born of Mary is the proof. Know by this wonderful celebration that the winter of Sin and Death is not permanent. Summer is coming.

It’s Really Not That Complicated

I pray all is well with you and your family as we dive deeper into the darker and colder months of the year here in Michigan. Those who know me best will agree that the further we go toward the seemingly sunless frigidity of winter, the more I’ll long for the clear blue skies and richly warm sunshine of summer. For me, summertime is not only a period for physical and mental rejuvenation, but it carries in its streaming rays a much simpler mode of life. Winter brings snow, extra layers of clothing, scraping windshields, shoveling and salting walkways—all of this just to go from one place to the next. For many, it means doing all of it in the dark, only to return home later that day in the same pitched shadows, with barely an opportunity in between to enjoy unobstructed sunshine.

Summer, on the other hand, is simpler. It means waking with the sun already nudging you with its warmth. It means walking directly to the car unhindered, driving to work in the sunlight, and returning home again with the same gleams of wellbeing caressing your face. It means after-dinner hours enjoying that same heavenly light and the beautiful landscape that light so effortlessly highlights for our viewing pleasure.

Winter has a sense of complication. Summer feels much easier.

Speaking of complicated versus easy, while at the same time still thinking about the events of our recent “The Body of Christ and the Public Square” conference, I’ve noticed from conversations with folks in attendance that no small number come to the event expecting the extraordinary woes of our day to be met with extraordinary solutions. And yet, when the emotion that’s almost always mixed in gets stripped away, it’s discovered that the problems themselves are often less complicated than we expected. In truth, the answers to the concerns are usually just as simple, requiring only the stamina of living every day according to one’s values, as opposed to formulating complex strategies that will, at some point, require brute force muscle.

In other words, our hearts and minds expect the astonishing when what we need is usually quite ordinary.

I more than hinted to this in my speech. I noticed Abby Johnson, Candace Owens, and Charlie Kirk all said more or less the same thing in theirs. And why? Because it’s true. While we like to complicate things, more often than not, the solutions we need are usually very simple.

That logic applies to salvation, too.

For starters, it’s not beyond us to complicate what God has done to win our forgiveness. Perhaps we find ourselves making deals with Him, promising to do this or that, all the while hoping that He’s figuring into His calculations our good deeds against our bad. Or maybe we try to avoid Him altogether, figuring we’ll never measure up to His expectations, ultimately finding ourselves in despair. But God’s simple reply to all of this is that His Son’s sacrifice on the cross was enough. No deals are necessary. No calculations are required. No need to avoid His presence. All is well between God and Man through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Believe this and all will be well with your eternity.

On the other hand, perhaps we look to our God expecting fantastical displays and magical deliverances. We ask to hear His voice. We pray for a sign. We expect a miracle. But in the end, His reaching to us occurs by way of very ordinary things. He gives us a book filled with the promises of His love (Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Psalm 119:105). He sends us the Good News of our rescue through the preaching of a less-than-spectacular servant—a pastor (Romans 10:14-15). He claims us as His own by combining His Word with water to wash us clean in the blood of the Savior (Matthew 28:19; Romans 6:3-10; Galatians 3:27), and He attaches a promise to what He does there, saying, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). He makes His presence among us, bringing even more of His wonderful love by means of commonplace food items—bread and wine (Matthew 26:17–29; Mark 14:12–25; Luke 22:7–38; 1 Corinthians 11:23-29).

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea, which in the end, is that your God doesn’t want you wrestling with the complication of uncertainty. He wants to assure you of His love through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He wants you to be uncomplicated by the fetters of sinful human tendency, which as I said, bears the potential for making something very easy into something very hard.

My advice: Look to the cross. Be reminded of the holy One who hung there. Rest assured that what He did on that cross was the most extraordinary act of God wrapped up in the unsettling usualness of a common criminal’s death. But there amid the agony and bloody sweat, among the excruciating sighs, and finally, by His dying breath, your complicated account was settled with God. Through faith in His sacrifice on your behalf, your eternal balance reads, “Amount due: $0.00.”

Believe this. It really is that simple.

Absurdity

One thing I appreciate about summer is that the time I spend writing tends to occur more so in the sunlight than in the darkness. It may sound absurd, but there’s a very real sense of invigoration I get during moments when the sun is streaming through my office window, not necessarily directly, but still enough to cause the glossier book covers on my shelves to glisten.

It’s even better when it’s shining directly on me as I tap away at the keyboard. It’s an easy feeling; a restorative feeling.

I just used the word “absurd” in the text above to describe your possible reaction to the scene. I did this because I’ve learned that what is sensible to one may be completely inane to another. I described something I enjoy doing in the sunshine. For you, the thought of typing on a keyboard in the sunshine is absurd. You’d rather work in the garden, or ride your bike, or swim in your pool. The funny thing is, for as sublime as either of our preferred moments in the sunshine might be, we’re both only a step from absurdity.

Here’s what I mean.

I’m a writer at heart. I could spin verbal yarns about almost anything. Just ask my kids. This is true because creativity with language has always been something I loved to explore. But the thing about writing (especially in this day and age) is that you don’t have to be all that good at it to be successful. For the most part, you only need two things. Firstly, you need to be irrational enough to put your thoughts into the public realm. I say “irrational” because, these days, willingly writing for public consumption is like volunteering to be a fox for the hounds.

Secondly, what you write needs to be reasonably intelligible. If what you say makes little sense to the reader, your efforts will have been in vain.

In short, without these two ingredients, a writer is destined for absurdity.

The same goes for your gardening or bike riding or swimming. One misplaced element and the activity becomes absurd. Planting seeds but not watering them is ridiculous. Riding a bicycle with no chain on the gears is senseless. Paddling around in a waterless pool wearing water wings is a sign you may need psychiatric help.

Christians exist at the edge of absurdity, too.

In one sense, this is true because the Gospel is already nonsensical to the observing world. It makes very little sense that the innocent would die for the guilty, that the One opposed and dejected would first be moved to forgive His dejectors and “love them to the end” (John 13:1). Indeed, this is the absurdly wonderful image of our rescuing God.

In another sense, Christians exist at the edge of absurdity’s shadowlands because as we still retain the Sin-nature, we are more than capable of claiming faith while doing so apart from faith’s key ingredients.

For example, how is it possible for faith to assert absolute devotion to Christ while only moving the person in which it dwells to attend worship three or four times a year, sometimes far less? Frankly, that’s absurd. How can faith stake a genuine claim in the Savior as the Lover of all nations and the Redeemer of the world while partitioning particular races into permanently unforgivable categories of “victim” and “oppressor” as Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory does? That doesn’t make any sense. How can faith claim to abide in Christ and yet be so distant from the truths of the Lord’s holy Word by embracing the murder of unborn children or dysphoric gender ideologies that confuse Natural Law and destroy the family? That’s farcical.

Seeds with no water won’t grow. A bike with no chain won’t go anywhere. Dive into a pool with no water and you’re likely to be maimed or killed. Exist as a Christian apart from Christ and His Word and Sacrament gifts and your faith will starve and die. A dead faith is no faith, and such a condition is guaranteed to lead into the mouth of destructive falsehoods resulting in eternal Death.

Pastors are charged with bringing this warning. Interestingly, pastors have been offering this kindly advice born from the Holy Scriptures since, well, forever. There are plenty of reasons for this. I think Luigi Pirandello, the Italian playwright and poet summed up one of them when he said, “Life is full of infinite absurdities, which, strangely enough, do not need to appear plausible, since they are true.”

Sinful humanity will do absurd things. That’s the rule, not the exception. Christians are by no means hovering outside of this tendency. I can assure you I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of this verity countless times just in the last week. Nevertheless, by genuine faith in Jesus Christ—by humble repentance and faith given by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel—we are free from sinful absurdity’s eternal consequences and empowered for waging a deliberate war against it. This is true because in contrast to the unbelieving world, even in the midst of our own insanity, we have something the world does not: the Word of God. It’s there that we learn to identify our absurdities, coming face to face with just how deeply terrible they are. But it’s also by that same Word—namely, the Gospel—we are introduced and grafted to the One who has rescued us from perpetual bondage to them (John 15:5-8), and are changed into people who love truth.

I suppose I’m sharing these things because just outside my window is a clear blue sky promising a beautiful day of sunshine. This brings to mind the forthcoming summer. Every year at this time, I want to do what I can to encourage you to be faithful during the summer months. Don’t stay away from worship and study. Be authentic. Know that you need what the Lord gives by these things. You’re already aware that you need moisture in your garden, a chain on your bike, and water in your pool. Admit your need for the key ingredients for faith delivered by way of Word and Sacrament ministry. As a Christian, measuring their value as worthy of deliberate ongoing absence just doesn’t make sense. In fact, it’s just plain absurd.