Emotions Matter, But They Aren’t Reliable

We’ve been studying C.S. Lewis’ volume The Screwtape Letters during the Bible study hour this summer. The most recent letter, number 16, raised an interesting point regarding preaching.

At one point along the way, the demon, Screwtape, encourages his nephew, Wormwood, to steer the Christian in his care toward attending a church where the pastor is more interested in generating emotional responses from the people than the faithful presentation of the Gospel. Through Screwtape’s fictional hand, Lewis describes Father Spike as someone who “cannot bring himself to preach anything which is not calculated” in this way. He describes the simple preaching of God’s Word as insipid, depicting a “sermon people could accept” as far less attractive than the moving words of a French philosopher like Maritain.

Having written this volume in 1942, Lewis proves himself prophetic, especially when considering American Christianity. But before I get into that, let me share something else.

I just returned from a visit to Vermont. Well, let me rephrase that. I almost visited Vermont. It would’ve been my second time traveling to and speaking with the Grassroots GOP this year. Unfortunately, I only made it as far as Chicago. The flight to Burlington was canceled. The first reason given by the woman at the kiosk was mechanical. An hour later, it was announced over the loudspeaker that they needed a pilot. An hour later, it was the weather, which I’m not sure I believe. Flights were backing up, leaving lots of stranded passengers. The airline isn’t required to reimburse or provide hotel accommodations to anyone for weather cancellations. As a result, my only options were to rebook on a flight to Burlington that left two days later or to fly back to Michigan the following afternoon. The first option would’ve put me well past my obligations in Vermont, not to mention requiring that I spend two nights sleeping at the airport. The second only offered one miserable evening. I cut my losses and chose the second.

I slept in the corner of gate E7 in Terminal 2. I’d say I got a solid 30 minutes or so of sleep until I noticed the ants. Then I moved to a different corner.

Anyway, as I said, the point of the trip was to speak to the grassroots GOP in anticipation of their primary elections. My goal in such things, as always, is to communicate the importance of Christian engagement in the public square. To accomplish this, I do what I can to unpack the biblical doctrine of the Two Kingdoms (or what so many today grossly misinterpret as the separation of Church and State), explaining its cruciality. From there, I explore where these two Kingdoms overlap, showing the importance of Christian engagement for the preservation of Religious Liberty, which, believe it or not, God intends by the doctrine.

In other words, the Church and the State can only be divided from one another absolutely when the Scripture’s teachings on the doctrine are abused. But when the doctrine is handled rightly, points of overlap emerge, and we discover that the Church and the State meet in more ways than one.

Thankfully, the trip wasn’t a complete bust. I did manage to visit the conference by Zoom, giving an hour-long presentation followed by questions. I couldn’t see the crowd, but they could see me, and I could hear them. I’m pretty sure I ruffled the theological feathers of another speaker, Dr. Carol Swain. I made an observational point during my speech, offering that, in my experience, most historically orthodox clergy are put off by politicians and public figures who, attempting to connect with American Christians, claim to receive direct communications from God. They make emotional statements like, “God told me I should run for office,” and other such things. I didn’t say it to be critical of Christians who believe Enthusiast theology (which I don’t) but rather to show a genuine divide in the Christian community. And how might a politician who’s genuinely worthy of the Christian vote bridge that divide and attract these voters? By digging deeper into what is objectively true for all biblically conservative Christians rather than what is subjectively true for some, which is that God most certainly speaks to His people through His Word—the Bible—God’s revealed will for all things. Dr. Swain was bothered by that, so she stepped to the microphone to insist that God couldn’t be kept in such a box. Well, whatever. I didn’t dig too deeply into the comment. Had it been a theological conference, I would’ve shown from God’s Word how He actually does put Himself into such boxes, not for His sake but ours. He wants us to be sure that it’s Him who’s speaking. The Scriptures do deal with this concern.

By way of example, after the 2020 election, I read countless posts from people online who repeatedly said how God had told them Trump would be rightly inaugurated as president in this term. And yet, here we are two years later, and no Trump. My guess is that whatever voice those people heard wasn’t God’s voice but someone else’s, most likely the voice of their emotions. If it’s something more, they might consider making an appointment for a CT scan—or an exorcism. My point: you don’t have to wonder about the Bible. It’s God at work communicating. Christians can be certain of this.

Again, I didn’t get into this with Dr. Swain. Maybe one day, we’ll discover an opportunity to discuss the point over coffee. In the meantime, it wasn’t my job to debate anyone’s theological traditions but rather to speak to ways Christians can unite for successful engagement in the public square. I think I did that.

After my presentation, I had a brief online conversation with one of the attendees I knew personally. During our conversation, he encouraged me to consider partnering with a local pastor he believed was “gaining popularity” in Vermont. I took his advice and looked him up. I just finished watching two of his sermons this morning.

I should interrupt whatever I’m about to type by saying the following: anyone who knows me will affirm that when it comes to engagement in the public square, I’m thoroughly exhausted by the “us against them” mentality among many Christians. A Lutheran won’t work alongside a Roman Catholic. A Baptist won’t partner with a Methodist. I think I’ve already made it clear, even this morning, that we need unity in the public square, not division. We’re not seeking altar fellowship. We’re trying to preserve some crucial civic fundamentals that maintain religious liberty, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing what’s called “cooperating in the externals” to accomplish this. Any Christian can unite with anyone else to accomplish something fully aligned with God’s will. There’s absolutely nothing theologically perverse in partnering with a Buddhist to fight abortion. Anyone who wants to stop the murder of infants in the womb is a Christian’s friend. As individuals, we may approach the goal differently and for different reasons, but we’re still aimed at the same target.

Having said all of this, of the two sermons I watched this morning (which, if I’m being honest, were really more like TED talks), the pastor mentioned Jesus five times. Not one of them was concerning the Lord’s life, death, and resurrection for the world’s redemption, but instead served more as supplemental to a song, movie, or hobby he enjoyed. He examined the spiritual “closeness of God” found in those favorite things. He referenced the Word of God a whole bunch of times while doing this. In the end, however, while he proof-texted his favorite things, he never preached the forgiveness of sins through the person and work of Jesus Christ. He didn’t preach the Gospel.

Yes, he was engaging. Indeed, he was dynamic. Absolutely, his brimming theater-style church was proof of his ever-growing popularity. All these things were true. And why? Because these were the emotional goals he was trying to achieve.

I’m sharing this as it carries me back around to where I started—which is, my mentioning of C.S. Lewis’ critique of pastors who calculate sermons, gearing them toward specific emotions. I’m willing to admit there’s a place for emotion in relation to theological things. I get choked up often enough while singing certain hymns or studying particular passages in Scripture. I think this is true regarding a pastor’s preaching, too. During last Sunday’s study discussion, I mentioned that a pastor needs to consider the listeners’ emotions when crafting his sermon. Hopefully, I explained that this is true, not because he’s calculating according to his personal preferences (as Lewis described Father Spike), but because he actually cares about the objective truth being revealed by God’s Word. When you care about something, it shows. People know if you genuinely believe what you’re saying. People can tell if it means the world to you, enough so that you’d rather die than see it snatched away from yourself or your listeners. In this vein, the preacher can’t help but do all he can to present the texts of Scripture clearly, having crafted the sermon’s language in ways that help bring the listener into what the texts are communicating. This can happen in lots of ways. Often, these ways will result in emotional exchanges between the preacher and the listeners.

I suppose I’ve gone on long enough this morning. In short, the pastor has to consider emotions while handling the Word of God. It’s not a process completely disassociated from human listeners. The preacher’s genuine love for God’s Word will resonate naturally, evoking particular sentiments in his writing as those same passions are inherent to the texts, and it will play out accordingly in the pews. I guess I’m suggesting that I believe as Robert Frost believed: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

On the other hand, if, instead, the chief goal of the preacher is to wow his listeners—to give them a top-dollar emotion-filled worship experience assuring his own popularity and tenure—then he’s already going in the wrong direction. He should know that what he’s doing never lasts, and he may even be setting himself up for failure. Statistics prove that pew-sitters who are accustomed to getting an emotional fix in worship, when they find a different pastor or congregation with a better product, like addicts, leave for the superior pusher. C.S. Lewis explained in letter 16 how such scenarios waft sweetly for the circling demons.

As a pastor, I don’t want to make our time together in worship into a shallow exchange of subjective emotion, doing what I can to entertain you. I want to deal in objective things. I want to preach God’s Law and Gospel—the fullness of His Word—giving you what you need for eternity’s sake. You should want me to do that, too, because anything else would be shaky.

The Fullness of Time

I don’t want to poison your morning, but you must know that summer is fast fleeting. July of 2022 is about to see itself out. It may even give incoming August a scornful glare as the two pass one another through tonight’s midnight doorway. It’s likely July will do this because it knows it’s leaving for good.

July of 2022 will never be with us again.

That’s the funny thing about time. People talk about how they’ll do this or that to save time, but in the end, time isn’t saved. I know what they’re referring to is efficiency. Still, I’m left to the plainness of thought that no one can store away extra time, putting it into an account for use at a later date. An eighty-year-old can’t take and use the time he saved when he was twenty. Time is finitely linear. C.S. Lewis described time as something that moves along at sixty minutes an hour, no matter who or what’s traveling in it. The pace is not optional. It happens with or without its passengers’ knowledge or agreement. As it carries along, no allowance is made for banking time, only spending it. In fact, if you don’t use it accordingly, it spends itself. That’s what some would call wasting time.

One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, suggested in a letter to Thomas Higginson, “To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations….” Her point was that we make the most of the time we’ve been given when we’re truly living life. I don’t know for sure what she meant by living life. Knowing her poetry, I think it meant to appreciate as much of life’s vibrancy as possible before one’s last hour and the arrival of Death’s carriage. Whatever she meant, she went on to assume that living isn’t to be a solo act. In other words, for Dickinson, time was always best spent in the company of others—within physical reach, face to face, immersed in togetherness.

I think she was right. But I also think humanity is becoming less inclined to see things that way. Recalling the phrase “save time,” consider modern technology as an example. Humans have developed technologies designed to maximize productivity. These same things have breached the borders of social life and, in many ways, are all but guaranteeing lives lived in seclusion. They’ve become rearrangements of relationships for the sake of efficiency. Texting and email, Instagram and Zoom meetings; we’re communicating with others—and saying an awful lot through some wide-reaching tools. And yet, it’s all happening without ever having to experience others personally.

My friend, Rev. Dr. Peter Scaer, posted something recently that resonated in this regard. He wrote, “I know folks who are still attending church online. They prefer it. Well then, instead of the kids coming home for Christmas, they should just meet you on Zoom. Lot less hassle.”

His words sting, but they’re also sincere.

I went to see one of my shut-ins this past Monday. Her name is Frances. She’ll be turning 100 this December. That means she was born in 1922. For perspective, that’s the year the first issue of Reader’s Digest was published, the Lincoln Memorial was completed and dedicated, and the Bolsheviks murdered Czar Nicholas II and his family, securing total control of Russia. I asked this dear Christian woman what she remembered about her youth. Even though her memory is getting somewhat strained, she managed in her gentle way to explain how life today is absolutely nothing like it was back then. She wasn’t complaining but instead observing as best she could. She reminisced briefly about regular family gatherings as well as surprise visits from friends. Certainly, the telephone was an available means of communication in her day. Although, I read that only about 35% of American households had one in the 1920s. Of course, letter-writing remained the assumed means for communicating over long distances. Still, Frances seemed to suggest that in-person togetherness is what people preferred. To put it another way, a person would be more inclined to buy a bus ticket for a trip to someone’s home the next county over before walking to the corner drug store to use the community phone. People actually invested in being together. Convenience and efficiency weren’t as crucial to the human equation. The time it took to accomplish time together was considered time well spent.

The Christian community is geared similarly. A quick visit with the instruction given in Hebrews 10:23-25 shows this. It’s there we’re reminded to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us 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.”

“…as you see the Day drawing near.”

Those are choice words. They’re another way of saying that this world’s time is running out. They also affirm Dickinson’s sentiment that time is best spent with others. In the case of the Christian community, it’s best spent together in worship. Of course, this is true not only for the Godly fellowship inherent to the gathering itself but for the sake of being together with and receiving from the One who established the community in the first place: Jesus Christ. We stir up one another to take time for worship because it’s time with Jesus, and there’s no better way to spend one’s time before the arrival of our final day. We need what this friend gives.

Thinking back to my time with Frances, she ended the conversation about her youth almost as quickly as I’d prompted it, saying, “It seems like it all went by so fast.” Again, she wasn’t complaining but observing. She certainly didn’t seem to be expressing regret. The time she’s been given has been put to good use. Like the rest of us, she’s not a perfect person. But she did manage to spend much of her time on all the right things. For one, she’s 99 years old and still sitting with her pastor, rejoicing in the mercies of God that are new each and every day. This tells me that by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in her for faith, she has taken into her very soul what it means to “make the best use of the time” (Colossians 4:5). She trusts her Savior, Jesus, having numbered her days accordingly (Psalm 90:12) to make sure each one includes Him. This trust is nothing less than a relaxation in the Gospel truth that all time has its fulfillment in Christ. It knows “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Connected to Christ, Frances knows each of the clock’s ticks in her life was aimed at this adoption, and now as her mortal timepiece winds down, there’s an even greater ease of knowing her grandest moments are still before her.

The Day is drawing near, and it will be a time with family and friends in a place unbound by time. More precisely, it will be a wonderfully unimaginable togetherness with Jesus—an unending face-to-face existence with the One who spent His time on earth the wisest, giving Himself over to the cross to save us for the endlessness of heaven.

Think It Through

Do you want to know what I think is one of the truest indicators of a sincere friendship?

Easy silence.

I think the sincerest kind of friendship becomes evident when two people who know the best and worst about each other can sit in silence without feeling awkward. Nothing needs to be said. Nothing needs to occur. No distraction is required. Talking about the weather is never even a thought. Instead, what’s most important is simply being together—within reach, within earshot, breathing the same air in the same space in the same part of an otherwise sprawling world. Such a relationship—one friend enjoying the quiet presence of the other—understands the dreadful alternative of the other’s absence, of being apart and out of reach, of the palpable but clumsy incompleteness that would occur if he or she were gone.

I’ve had other thoughts about the ingredients I think make for genuine friendships.

Speaking only for myself, I want to be a person who doesn’t feel the need to check his schedule when someone I care about asks for my time. Instead, I want to live as though the schedule doesn’t even exist. Not only that, but I want the ones I love to know I’m available to them in all circumstances and that they can take just as much comfort from the assumption. As busy as life so often seems, this sometimes feels like wishful thinking. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that a friend’s readiness at any moment is telling, and it’s something I long to exude.

I’ll be turning fifty this year, and as I get older, these and other theories on relationships have begun sparking in my mind. It’s almost as though God has started cracking flint rocks in my brain, kindling fires of realization about the people in my life before it gets too late into the human evening. Maybe the same kinds of analyses are happening in your life. I suppose certain stages of maturity do that. Immature people do very little reflecting. They’re most often reactionary. When it comes to ideologies, immature people usually just vomit out what they think they know, having let others do the thinking for them. I read somewhere that two of immaturity’s common denominators are a messy room and the inability to delay self-gratification.

On the other hand, maturity brings patience. It maintains focus and stays the course. It tends to think for itself. It takes time to reflect before application. For some things, the reflection is brief. For others, it’s a bit longer. Either way, it happens. In fact, it could be that thinking—careful discernment—is maturity’s most crucial task. Interestingly, when asked how he discovered the law of gravity, Isaac Newton didn’t nod to successful experimentation with his theory but instead replied, “By thinking on it continually.” His achievement was in the discerning.

Spiritual maturity most certainly thinks. Saint Paul was a thinker. His epistles are saturated with this premise.

In Philippians 4:8, Paul compels constant reflection on the things of God, writing, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” In Romans 12:2 he warns against conforming to the world, urging his readers to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” In other words, Christians must think through their challenges, weighing them against the revealed will of God exposed by His Word. Of course, before Paul wrote the twelfth chapter of Romans, he’d already set the stage for Godly reflection as a lifestyle, having jotted in 8:5-6: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

Thinking calibrated to the Word of God not only takes aim at eternal life but also gives peace in the here and now. I suppose that’s one reason Paul told the young pastor Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). Firstly, he wrote these words having already sent a previous letter to Timothy describing some incredibly complicated situations the new undershepherd would need to navigate. Secondly, Paul’s words served in this follow-up epistle as an introduction to a chapter concerned with false teachers.

Paul wanted Timothy to think through what he would do.

I think my favorite of Paul’s instructions to be a Christian who thinks—to be someone who pitches everything against the Word of God—is the summary phrase he scribbles in 2 Corinthians 2:5. It’s there he says so plainly that we are to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” This phrase needs no explanation.

These are just a few of the texts that lend themselves easily this morning. There are plenty of others, and not just in Saint Paul’s writings. In the end, the point is to think—to use the Word of God as the filter for one’s reflection on everything.

Does this mean thinking through and applying the Word of God at every stop sign you come to while driving? No. Although, if you discover your brakes are out, or you’re one to blow through stop signs purposely, some reflection on the Law and Gospel of God’s Word might be worth your while when you see one of those bright red octagons on the horizon. Apart from these, and assuming a greater maturity, does it mean thinking through raising your children; how you’ll vote; whether you should have another drink; how you’ll deal with conflict; what you’ll do in situations of sexual temptation; which organizations you’ll support with your time, talents, and treasures; how often you’ll attend worship; and so on? Yes. In all these things, take every thought captive to obey Christ. Think them through, seeking alignment with God’s revealed will, all the while trusting that His will is always best.

Do this and be at peace.

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.

You’re Already Home

Having just returned to Michigan from Florida yesterday, I suppose I’ll begin this morning’s note with a simple observation. In short, one of the most enchanting qualities of “home” is that while it sometimes feels so incredibly good to be away from it, there’s very little that compares to returning. The ghostly warmth hovering throughout—the familiar smells and the favorite spaces; one’s bed or best-loved chair—all of it together is a resonant foretaste of the purest welcome to be found only in the chambers of heaven.

Indeed, as Cicero once said, “There is no place more delightful than one’s own fireside.”

I was thinking on the plane yesterday afternoon about how difficult it can be to make one’s way back into the busyness of life. After two weeks in which the hardest thing I had to do was adore the palm trees while swimming from one end of the pool to the other, just about anything else can seem daunting. Even unpacking the suitcase last night felt like a chore, especially compared to the exertion that today will require. Today, I’ll drift from yesterday’s lazy river into the swifter current of this and that and then this and that. I’ll finish tapping out this message, and then I’ll write the prayers for the Divine Service. From there, I’ll make my way toward plenty of other preparatory things before the 9:30 AM start time. At that point, I’ll preside over the liturgy, baptizing a little one at the beginning and seeing that you get the Lord’s Supper at the end. After the Bible study hour that follows, I have a couple of meetings, and then it’s off to officiate a wedding followed by another baptism.

Today will be nothing like yesterday’s palm trees. I expect I won’t find my way home until mid-evening. I’m grateful to Rev. Christian Preus for joining us this morning as a guest preacher and for taking time during the Bible study hour to talk about the up-and-coming Luther Classical College. Not only will this help, but if you’re at all concerned about sending your child off to any of today’s modern colleges or universities, his time with us will be worthwhile.

Having said all these things with an unmistakable tenor, you must know that none of them changes the point I made in the beginning. No matter what’s going on, L. Frank Baum was correct to make his character Dorothy repeat, “There’s no place like home.” Surrounded by her family and friends at the end (who echoed through the characters she discovered in Oz), Dorothy realized, as so many often do, that it’s not necessary to travel the world to find what we need. Home is where you’ll often find it. In that sense, home is more than things. It’s people. It’s routines. It’s a sense of belonging. It often requires from you just as much as it gives, and that’s okay. It’s a two-way investment that creates unique relationships resulting in lives actually lived rather than only being observed from afar. You’re not just passing through. Instead, you belong—with and for the others who are there, too. God so graciously works these things into our lives, settling the solitary in a home (Psalm 68:6) and blessing them with a wonderful synergy of both needing and being needed.

These thoughts on home bring something else to mind.

Last week I learned a new word from Rev. Dr. Scott Murray. He used the term “theologism.” If I recall correctly, he defined it as a religious statement that many people regularly say, having accepted as totally self-evident. But when the saying is rigorously tested, it’s proven to be far less than all-encompassing. In particular, he identified as an example the saying, “God hates sin but loves the sinner.” I think he’s right. Psalm 5:5 is an easy example of God’s dislike for sinners. The first chapter of the Prophet Malachi combined with Saint Paul’s handling of the same material in Romans 9:10-13 is another example. Personally, I think many Christians gravitate toward the saying because they feel God needs a little help in the Public Relations department. In other words, rather than simply accepting that God hates Sin and everything it produces—which includes sinners—we attempt to soften the blow of such things. When we do, we confuse the theology and allow wiggle room for missing the seriousness of the predicament and our need for actual rescue. When that happens, we begin redefining Sin in ways that enable us to remain comfortable with it in certain forms. I think it’s better to say that hate is an alien thing for God. His natural inclination is one of love, which is why the Gospel is far more prominent in the Bible than God’s hatred. If anything, we are to know that what’s innate to God’s very being has overpowered what He knows we’re due and what He has every right to exact. In other words, His love moved Him to do what was necessary for rescuing even the things He hates. In our case, by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ, He makes us into friends.

Perhaps another theologism is the saying, “We’re only just passing through this life. Heaven is our home.”

For the most part, the saying is true, especially when you consider Saint Paul’s words in Philippians 3:20. He refers to Christians as citizens of heaven awaiting the Lord’s return. Hebrews 13:14 speaks similarly, describing God’s people as awaiting the arrival of “the city that is to come.” The Apostle Peter calls us “sojourners and exiles” in 1 Peter 2:11.

I suppose I start to steer away from this saying as all-encompassing or all-interpreting when I realize how it licenses far too many for disengagement in this world’s affairs, as though they don’t belong. This bothers me, especially when I read the Lord’s words in John 17:14-16, which is a moment where He prays to the Father on our behalf, saying, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”

Two things come to mind in this.

Firstly, and indeed, we are foreigners in this world. The world hates us, but mostly because we do not rely on it as the source of our lives. We look to something else, that is, someone else—namely, Jesus. John 15:19 confirms this. Here in John 17, the genitive preposition “ἐκ” (which is often translated into English as “of”) implies the same thing. The word means “out of, out from, by means of, or as a result of”—which is to say the source of our lives and existence does not come from this world. It comes from God.

Secondly, the Lord digs deeper into this when He prays that we not be extracted from the world but protected while living in it. In other words, we belong here, and until the Lord returns on the Last Day bringing the new heaven and earth, this world, as a location, is just as much our home as is heaven—even as exiles, even as sojourners, even as prisoners. What’s more, God’s Word (which is also Jesus Himself [John 1:1-3, 14]) is referenced as the source of this protection right at the beginning of the Lord’s plea in verse 14 above. From this perspective, we understand our home as far more than the house in which we live or the community in which we dwell, whether in the past, present, or future. Instead, the definition of home becomes akin to Solomon’s inspired words in Proverbs 24:3-4: “By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.”

Your truest and final dwelling is coming. But your home—both in this life as a foretaste and the next as fulfilled—is in the Word. I’m guessing this isn’t far from what the Lord meant when He said in John 14:23, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

I suppose I should probably end this morning’s note right here, primarily because I need to get started on some other things. In the end, know that even as eternal life is yours in Christ, you’re not just passing through this mortal life. By faith in Him, eternal life is happening to you right now, too. Holding fast to Him and His Word, no matter where you are, you’re already home. He’s with you, and wherever He promises to dwell, there, too, is the Christian’s own fireside.

A “Praise God” Moment

Apart from posting daily at AngelsPortion.com, I’ve read a little of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations each morning before writing whatever comes to mind. I do this not only because I’m on vacation or because I thoroughly enjoy Dickens’ storytelling but because of his care with words and my goal beyond the reading. His unrestrained festival and mastery of language is the mind’s perfect ignitor at 5:30 in the morning. After twenty minutes with Dickens, it’s hard to avoid thinking and writing creatively, which is what each morning on retreat beckons me to do.

I know I’m an easy target for people who say I’d be better off sleeping in. But here’s the thing—you should try it. Seriously. Firstly, be sure to spend some time in God’s Word. Life is in the Word. Then, after you’ve received what truly feeds the soul, take a chance on a chapter or two from a classic writer, someone like Dickens. Take a chance on Oliver Twist or The Cricket on the Hearth. You’ll see. Whether you actually enjoy the story in your hands or not, excellent word crafting will affect you. Make a habit of letting it do so, and you may very well begin seeing the world around you in a fresher, more genuine way. It may even prompt you to respond audibly. Good writing will encourage this. Superb writing will spark it.

I crossed paths this morning with a superb line.

The first sentence of chapter 54 in Great Expectations spoke eloquently of spring in England, describing it as a place where “the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.” This verbal arrangement’s crispness caused me to say aloud, “Michigan and England are more than historical cousins. They’re neighbors.”

Why did I respond this way? Because what Dickens described was so incredibly familiar that I had to respond. I knew exactly what he was talking about. Like the people thousands of miles away in England, I know the Michigan days when springtime promises summer, but its breezes remind me of winter—when its sun hints at sunscreen, but its shade demands a jacket. Dickens’ snare of careful language caught me with truth in a way that caused a celebratory response.

I suppose that’s one thing of importance to consider this morning, especially in preparation for hearing from the historic lectionary’s suggested Gospel readings of either Luke 15:1-10 or Luke 15:11-32. Since I won’t be at Our Savior in Hartland this morning, I can’t say for sure which Gospel reading Bishop Hardy has selected. Either way, Jesus’ careful words in either text are more than capable of ensnaring the listener with a two-part truth.

The first part is that, in our Sin, we are lost. The second is that God’s love moves Him to seek and find us. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done any more than it matters our origins or appearance. We mean a lot to Him. We are His sheep. We are His precious silver coins. We are His children. When we wander away, He’s willing to endanger Himself to find us. When we are lost, He’s willing to get on His hands and knees in the filth to retrieve us. When we reject and insult Him, He continues giving us the inheritance of His Gospel, and then He stands ready at the edge of His kingdom’s property to embrace us when that same Gospel produces a penitent faith that longs for home.

I’m guessing that some of the Lord’s listeners whispered audibly to themselves the familiarity of what Jesus was describing. In some circumstances, the Scriptures tell us that people heard the Lord’s preaching and couldn’t help but call out God’s praises. And why was this true? Because again, His Word caught them in truth. It reminisced the messianic promises given so long ago—words that described God Himself as the One who would not only do the ultimate finding of that which was lost, but He would accomplish it by enduring humanly unendurable consequences. How could they not be glad about this forthcoming victory taking shape before their eyes?!

I’ll add that beyond the simpler perspective of basic language, not only were Jesus’ words so incredibly well-crafted, but they were (and remain) life-giving words—words through which the Holy Spirit works to find and then recast the human heart into something far better than it was before.

I suppose these things lead me to something else.

I’ve been told by some people that Christians ought not to act too celebratory following the overturning of Roe V. Wade. I even received a reprimand by text from the Michigan Senate Majority Leader for disagreeing publicly with his expression of this sentiment. I’ll say that while I understand the premise of his concern, he’s wrong. This isn’t an “in your face” moment for the Church. It’s a “Praise God!” moment. And yet, it doesn’t change the fact that what has happened is a vindicating triumph destined to bother the enemies of God no matter what. There’s just no way around the world receiving this as an “in your face” moment. That’s how it works for the world when God’s people win and death loses to life.

Knowing this, imagine if Moses had warned the Israelites not to express their songs of praise too openly on the other side of the Red Sea after being delivered from certain death (Exodus 15:1-21). Imagine if he’d urged such things because he was concerned about offending his former family—that is, the house of Pharaoh—and preserving future political relations with them. Imagine if the disciples, having gone into Jerusalem after the Lord’s victorious resurrection and ascension, had subdued their joy out of concern for offending their fellow countrymen or the Sanhedrin’s failed attempt at suppressing the Gospel (Luke 24:51-53).

Go anywhere you want in the Bible and imagine this of God’s people amid His victories.

Again, here’s the thing. When God’s people celebrate His victories, it is a powerfully confident proclamation of the Gospel itself. Neither the Israelites nor the ragtag band of disciples deserved rescue. It’s the same with the unborn. The Sin-nature makes all human beings into God’s enemies. But God rescues us, anyway. He wants to save. And when He does, spiking the football, dancing, giving high-fives to one’s teammates—rejoicing—is in perfect order because it’s a fruit of faith. It knows it’s been snatched from the edge of eternal death by truth. For the record, Jesus describes the very corridors of heaven resonating with similar angelic gladness when even one sinner is snatched by truth in this way (Luke 15:7).

But wouldn’t our gleeful response in victory make the devil and his ilk angry at and less inclined to work with us?

You bet.

Such rejoicing is an affirmation and perpetuation of the Gospel itself, which the devil and his compatriots hate. And why? Because the Gospel will always be the means through which the Holy Spirit works to change the hearts of God’s enemies into His friends (Romans 1:16). If you subdue this Gospel joy in such moments, you risk hiding the opportunity for a good word of truth to snatch others away and into the Lord’s kingdom (Matthew 5:16).

I don’t know about you, but I intend to celebrate and do it openly. After fifty years, it’s certainly time for it. Yes, I’ll continue supporting the areas of opportunity most pro-choicers are saying will become horribly burdensome—such as adoption, foster care, and the like. By the way, I don’t know how anyone could look into the eyes of an unadopted or foster child and say he or she is the reason we need to protect abortion. That’s just sick. But that’s the logic of those who lost this round, and we’re delighted they did. When they lose, death loses. Praise God for that!

Vacation

A lot has happened in the past few days, hasn’t it? For one, Roe V. Wade was overturned. Praise God for this. Now, America actually has a good reason for expressing pride during the month of June—Godly pride, that is. Personally, I’d say the timing couldn’t have been better.

First of all, and liturgically speaking, the day the ruling was handed down—June 24—is traditionally celebrated by the Church as the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. I know lots of folks are jumping up and down about the ruling happening on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is a distinctly Roman Catholic devotional celebration more or less born from private revelations the Jesuits claimed Saint Gertrude experienced in the 1600s. The point of the celebration has become Christ’s love for humanity. I suppose that’s a fine theme, too. Except to say that the Sacred Heart celebration was never really a fixed feast date. It moved around throughout history based on various papal decrees. I can’t say for sure, but I think it still does. If that’s the case, then remembering June 24 becomes more difficult.

But the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist is cemented to June 24. Even better, its origin isn’t speculative. It remembers events and characters actually recorded in God’s inspired Word, having been fixed on the calendar by Christians since the fifth century. This is no insignificant thing when we consider the SCOTUS ruling in relation to the date. Yes, it celebrates John’s birth, but it also digs deeper. It’s seasoned with the memory of John who, as an unborn child in Elizabeth’s womb, leaped for joy when Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, the mother of our Lord, stepped into her presence. And why did the unborn forerunner of Christ begin stirring with joy at that moment? The scriptures tell us it was because Mary was pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1:41-45). Even superficially, the Bible considers John and Jesus to be far more than clumps of cells as the vile pro-choice ideologues would claim.

Second of all, and a little closer to home, the 6 to 3 ruling by the highest court in the land was well timed in the sense that it arrived on the heels of 14 pastoral and lay delegates who, at our recent English District convention, voted anonymously against a resolution affirming life and the important resources made available for preserving it pre and post-birth. I know that’s not very many votes, especially since there were a few hundred in attendance over the three days. Still, I struggled to stomach the fact that 14 people representing a handful of LCMS congregations in my own district had just proved themselves to be at odds not only with the church body in which they hold membership but with God’s Word. If that weren’t enough, a handful of pastors and delegates voted against a resolution affirming human sexuality as God designed it—namely, that men cannot be women and women cannot be men. A small number opposed this biblical truth, and yet, it was still quite bothersome. Another resolution decrying Critical Race Theory and its ideological promulgators, such as the openly Marxist organization “Black Lives Matter,” had a much larger contingent of dissenters. There were 44 among us who voted against that particular resolution.

For the record, I intend to do a little investigating. If I can know the voting record of my elected representatives in congress, I should be able to know the votes (and the reasons) of those who voted on doctrinal issues. I mean, if any electoral process requires the integrity of letting one’s yes be yes and no be no (Matthew 5:37), it’s in forums that discern and determine the future of the Church’s doctrine and practice.

Of course, this same thing happened in many of the other district conventions bearing similar resolutions. Thankfully, the English District passed all of the resolutions I mentioned with overwhelming support. This is proof that we still have an overwhelming number of faithful pastors and lay leaders throughout the 22 states we call home. I thank Bishop Jamison Hardy for leading the way in this regard.

Anyway, enough with this stuff. I’m writing from a bright little spot about an hour and thirty minutes south of Tampa, Florida. The sun has just arisen. There’s a palm tree just outside the nearest window. I can see the anoles are already skittering up and down the tree’s trunk as though it were a miniature highway. I don’t know what they’re doing, but whatever it is, it seems far more important than what I’m doing at the moment.

I don’t have to do anything right now. Not even this tapping at the keyboard is required. I’m on vacation.

I won’t tell you where the Thoma family is presently holed up only because I value your friendship and I’d miss you if you were gone. You know the saying: I could tell you but then I’d have to… well… you know. It’s likely those of you closest to me also know that of all the routine things the Thoma family might do in a year, the two weeks of vacation we attempt each summer are the most sacrosanct. There is no other moment amid the earth’s regular orbiting of the sun when we get to be together, just us, for such a significant stretch of time. Not even the days post-Christmas and Easter offer the kind of rest we get in these moments. In that sense, this time is untouchably holy.

It hasn’t always been this way.

It wasn’t until 2016 that we took our first real family vacation. I’ve been serving in the church since 1994, and yet, before 2016, I’d never gone away for any significant amount of personal time. The only time I can remember being out of the saddle for more than a week with family doing something that wasn’t necessarily church-related occurred in the summer of 1995 when my brother Michael died. Other than that, I had only ever scooted away for two or three days in the middle of the week a handful of times. Not much changed after Jennifer and I got married in 1997. We took two or three midweek days to visit family, but we were always sure to return home no later than Saturday night so that I could climb back onto Sunday morning’s horse.

But then, Jennifer took a chance. Without really even including me in the plans, she scheduled a ten-day vacation in Florida. She paid the airfare, reserved a house with a pool, and rented a van that seated six people. The phone conversation was incredibly brief. If I remember correctly, it happened sometime in January, and it went something like this:

“Chris, whatever you have scheduled from June 25 to July 7,” she said, plainly, “get someone else to do it.”

“Um,” I likely mumbled.

“We’re going to Florida for two weeks.”

“We are?”

“Yes,” she replied, just as simply as she began. “All six of us.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll tell you more tonight when you get home. Love you.”

That was about it. Needless to say, I first checked to make sure I wasn’t presiding at any weddings, and then I noted in my calendar accordingly.

Admittedly, it was challenging at first to step away from my duties. It felt alien to be so far out of reach. The life of a pastor is a 24/7 thing, and it’s not kept cleanly compartmentalized in public and personal boxes—at least, not like so many other jobs. It’s just the plain truth that the public’s gravity is almost always stronger than the personal. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I’m always within reach of anyone who needs me. This is good. But it can also be incredibly draining, not only for me but for my family. Ask them. Plenty of family moments have been abruptly altered by a phone call and my sudden departure. That’s not a complaint. It’s what I signed up for. Still, and I suppose humanly speaking, rest is needed, and if the 24/7 access to anyone and everyone isn’t kept in check, the pastor and his family can be irrevocably harmed. In a way, I’ve been forcibly taught that a vacation is one of the necessary barriers that help to preserve my family’s wellbeing.

Sometimes we need to be forcibly taught what’s good for us.

The English novelist Lisa St. Aubin de Terán said something about how taking a vacation is like flirting with actual life. I don’t know the context of her words. I only know that she wrote them. I’m guessing she meant that for many, vacationing is a brief interlude with a way of life they cannot have. In a sense, that’s true. I’d love to wake up each morning and do what I’m doing right now with a palm tree outside my window. And after a brief bit of early morning writing, I’d awaken my lovely family with the crisp aromas and crackling sounds of breakfast, all before inviting them to join me for a leisurely dip in the pool, the rest of the day being an open horizon leading toward whatever we’d prefer.

This is the life I’m flirting with right now. That being said, one day, I intend to make it a reality. Strangely, I had to be forcibly introduced to it. And now that I know it, I never want to surrender its pursuit. In fact, I’ve learned I need it. Without the rest these two weeks in a year provide, the potential weariness of the year’s remaining days would almost certainly overtake me.

I suppose this word-rambling is leading me to something else.

Take a vacation from the day-to-day and go to church. Don’t be fooled into thinking you have no time for it. You do. And you need it. Join your holy Savior in worship. To do so is to enjoy a divine romance with life—eternal life. Although, this is a flirtation that extends far beyond what I’ve already described. To be with your loving Savior each week in worship is by no means to experience something you’ll never have. Instead, it is a rest-filled foretaste and proclamation of the divine promises of God’s forgiveness that are already yours by faith, something you will fully retire into when you breathe your last breath. Unfortunately, this is something that far too many Christians appear to resist, especially during the summer months. And so, for a person’s wellbeing, Christ and His pastors must sometimes forcibly say, “Go to church. And take your kids.” They do this because they know the routine rest that worship provides is necessary. It’s fundamental to Christian health, both as individuals and as a community.

We’ll be going to church this morning. Just like a vacation itself, worship is a relationship with life—the One who is the way, the truth, and the life—we never want to surrender. We need what Christ gives. We need the rest God imputes by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel preached and administered. And so, we go. No matter where we are, we go. This year we’ll be attending Redeemer Lutheran Church in Englewood, Florida, which is a confessional congregation helmed by one of the Lord’s faithful servants, Reverend James T. Kress. Although I suppose now that I told you this, you can figure out the general vicinity of our retreat. Still, I suppose if you want to use this information to crash our time of respite, you’ll need to move quickly. Worship begins at 9:15 A.M. Also, I should say you wouldn’t be crashing anything. It would be a pleasure to sit beside you and your family in the pews, partaking together of God’s gracious gifts of Word and Sacrament with the rest of His people at Redeemer.

I’m okay with that. But I’ll draw the line there. Don’t plan on following us to our rental home after the Benediction. I love you in the Lord and all that, but rest assured I’ll be driving like a criminal on the show “Cops” to lose you along the way.

Eerily Applicable: The Screwtape Letters

Moving into the summer months, there is a transition that occurs here at Our Savior in Hartland. We move from a typical Sunday School arrangement into what we call “Family Sunday School.” The typical Sunday School structure is as you’d suspect. The adults gather for study with the pastor, while the children are shepherded according to their appropriate grade levels to classes taught by an adult volunteer joined by one or more assistants. When summer comes around, we gather adults and children together for study, with each lesson being taught by the pastors, seminarians, and others. Last summer we studied the liturgy. In summers before that we studied our Lord’s passion, the biblical themes of our congregation’s stained-glass windows, and plenty of other worthwhile topics. This year we’ll be trying something a little different. We’ll be visiting with ten of the thirty-one letters in C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters.

If you’re unfamiliar with the book, just know it’s a stranger bit of Christian fiction, the kind that only the brilliant author of the Chronicles of Narnia series could summon. Although, I hesitate to call this unique work by Lewis fiction. In a way, its point is genuine. It observes the Christian faith through the eyes of a demon named Screwtape. An uncle to Wormwood and an undersecretary in hell, Screwtape is writing to his nephew, offering his best advice for accomplishing the condemnation of Wormwood’s “patient,” a young man in England during World War II.

I’ve read the book several times over the years, usually a few letters at a time, and only as the urge to turn a few pages surprised me. I’ll be starting this summer study, which begins today. I’ll introduce the book’s characters before handling the Preface and Letter 1. From there, I’ll turn over the remaining sessions to others throughout the summer. I’ll wrap it all up in August. Along the way, we’ll do our best to make the material graspable to all, even the youngest among us. The book does dig relatively deep. This means it will take a little extra effort to bring the kids along. That being said, I’m not one to impose upon children a list of inabilities foreign to them. In fact, I have a feeling they’ll understand far more than any of us may expect. Besides, Christ Himself reminds us that when we grow up, we need to be more like them than adults, especially when it comes to the things of faith (Matthew 18:1-6).

In preparation for this morning’s effort, there is a line in Letter 1 which reads, “The trouble with argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy’s own ground.” By the “Enemy,” Screwtape means God. Screwtape continues advising Wormwood that it’s best to keep his patient away from the exchange of opposing viewpoints, primarily because it involves genuine contemplation, and genuine contemplation is the potential pathway to discovering objective truth. An honest handling of objective truth can only lead to the divine. Equally, Screwtape discourages courteous discussion. In other words, keep it as a heated exchange of little more than emotional declarative statements fed by the distractions of what he refers to as “real life,” namely, what interests the patient personally. “And don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real,’” the undersecretary demon makes clear. This is to say, let him define reality in whatever ways he wants to. This is the essence of the old proverb, “Devil take the hindmost.” It describes someone serving his or her own self-interests at the expense of what’s right or wrong, true or untrue.

These things being the content of just the first letter (and the doorway to all the others), already the reader can see how timelessly insightful C.S. Lewis is for revealing hell’s tactics. He wrote this book eighty years ago, and yet, when we compare it to what’s happening in our world today, it seems a much more recent editorial.

Not much has changed. And why? Well for one, I suppose Satan appreciates consistency, knowing not to fix what isn’t broken. In a way, his appreciation of consistency reveals his devilish hypocrisy, too. What I mean is that it’s a nod to the only things that truly are consistent: God and His natural law. By nature, creation is bothered by shifting inconsistency, but instead takes comfort in reliability. Just ask a preschooler, someone who is the epitome of natural law at work in humanity. Try swapping story time with craft time on the schedule. You’ll learn very quickly the innate urge to abide by the natural order of things. In fact, you’ll learn it takes some pretty smooth talking to steer away from it.

Again, part of Lewis’ point is that honest observation and genuine discussion have the potential for revealing these consistent boundaries—at least that they actually exist. When one realizes objective truth exists (as Lewis makes abundantly clear in his book Mere Christianity), the likely endpoint is, at a minimum, an acceptance not only of God’s existence, but an embracing of Him as the wellspring of these truths.

Of course, Christians equipped with the Word of God already know the deepest of all these things, which is the two-fold thread woven into and through the entirety of objective truth’s fabric. It’s God’s gracious warning of our dreadful condition—our unalterable predicament in Sin (Romans 3:23). And yet, He pierces the hopeless situation with the bright-beaming light of His love, revealing to us that He has sent and accomplished the solution to this humanly unsolvable problem. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, who by His incarnation became one of us and atoned for the Sin of the whole world (1 John 2:2).

Interestingly, Screwtape references his disdain for Christ’s incarnation right away in the first letter. Referring to the patient’s humanity, he reminds Wormwood, “Remember, he is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (Oh that abominable advantage of the Enemy’s!) you don’t realize how enslaved they are….” Amazingly, Screwtape speaks to humanity’s bondage in Sin while at the same time expressing frustration that Jesus, out of great love, stepped into it, submitting Himself to the same bondage.

As the book goes on, these types of theological premises expand. As they do, we get an inside look at just how frustrating they are to the old evil foe, Satan. At the same time, we become more attuned to the vile tactics he uses for obscuring our view of God’s loving effort to save us. As you get deeper into the book, I guarantee you’ll sense their familiarity.

And so, if you haven’t already, I encourage you to read The Screwtape Letters. It’ll be well worth your while. Although don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself being distracted from reading it. Again, even though it’s technically fiction, I doubt the devil is too appreciative of it. It’s far too accurate a depiction for his liking.

It’s Complicated

Have you ever had one of those moments when you suddenly realized you’d matured in your understanding of something? Usually, the process of mental maturity is a gradual one, moving along so slowly that you don’t necessarily realize the things you are realizing. Every now and then I’ll observe what feels like sudden realizations with my kids. They’ll use a word they’ve never used before, or they’ll ask a question in a way that proves a much deeper awareness of a certain subject. In those instances, it’s as if I saw them leap from one of life’s steppingstones to the next. I enjoy such moments. They’re milestone flashes for any parent.

I rarely notice these moments in myself. I usually just move along knowing what I know. Of course, I’m always learning as I go, and as my knowledge base grows (or is cultivated), God willing, I’m faithfully employing every fiber of its muscle as possible. Still, there are those moments when I realize I’ve changed, that I’m not processing things as before. I’ll give you an example.

Today, Our Savior in Hartland celebrates the Festival of the Holy Trinity. Each year, Holy Trinity Sunday is an opportunity to meet with the wonderful, and yet ungraspability, of our Triune God. Hopefully other churches are blessed to do the same. I suppose they need to care about such things, first. We certainly do. Following along with the historic lectionary, we’re always so incredibly blessed to wade into certain occasions that eventually pull us into the deeper waters of divine truth. We’re not guided by the “sermon series” whims of clergyfolk who, perhaps being huge fans of Star Wars, want to spend the whole summer donning various costumes from the nine films all the while complicatedly imposing the Gospel upon each.

For as interesting as that sounds… (yawn). But hey, you do you, I guess.

Anyway, having revisited the texts appointed for today, most especially John 3:1-17, I realized I’ve become someone geared toward and appreciative of simplicity. In other words, I used to be someone prone to spinning my wheels in the mud of over-analysis. Nowadays, I’m comfortable seeing things through very simple lenses, and the simplicity is providing a clarity of sight about complex things that I don’t recall having before. Of course, I’m not saying that life doesn’t require contemplation. It does. What I’m saying is that with the Gospel for faith as the essential interpreter for pretty much everything, I experience what the Lord described in Matthew 18:1-6, which is a childlike sense.

Interestingly, John 3:1-17 is a reminder that while our God may be thoroughly unsearchable in His being, He really isn’t that hard to figure out. In short, sin is real and identifiable. It is condemnable. Everyone on the planet is infected by it. But God’s desire toward sinful man is one of love. It really is that simple. He loves us and wants for our salvation. It’s only when we complicate His desire for our rescue communicated straightforwardly by His Word that we complicate His desire’s reach into the world, sometimes negating it altogether. Nicodemus proves this repeatedly as he attempts to interpret Jesus’ words according to his reason. Doing so complicates his grasp at holy things and produces some pretty ridiculous conclusions, even one statement about climbing back up into his mother’s womb to be reborn, which seems almost a snide poke at Jesus’ simple preaching.

Thinking about all of this, I can’t help but recall what the month of June has become—LGBTQ+ pride month—along with all the denominations of Christians around the world who’ve somehow reasoned their way into believing God’s okay with the lifestyle.

The Bible is by no means unclear regarding God’s displeasure for the LGBTQ+ sexual ideology. It also doesn’t deny God His rightful due as the supreme determiner of right and wrong. In other words, when we stand before the throne on the Last Day, it will be according to His standards, not ours. What He considers godly and ungodly will be counted as such. Nevertheless, there is an aspect of the sinful nature that tries to wiggle free from God’s definitions so as not to be counted guilty for sinful behaviors we’d prefer to overlook or maintain. When we do this, the baseline of God’s Law appears cloudy—is made complicated. We no longer believe we’re doing anything wrong because, well, life in this world isn’t that easy to compartmentalize, right? The Bible might present itself in clear terms, and yet, there are plenty of reasonable explanations for people being the way they are and doing what they do. Surely, God understands this and is likely to be flexible with His boundaries. I mean, perhaps people were born a certain way—with certain inclinations—and if God created them, surely He won’t be justified in condemning what He created. 

When we complicate our thinking this way, not only do we lose sight of God’s right and wrong, but the Gospel He put in place to meet it becomes clouded, too. In other words, if the LGBTQ+ lifestyle is not as God describes it in His Word, that is, it does not have God’s Law leaning against it, then two things in particular must be true. Firstly, God’s Word cannot be trusted—or at a minimum, we appear to have the freedom to take from it what we want and to forget about the rest. Secondly, it seems logical that the Jesus described by the scriptures as the Word made flesh—the One who came to save us from real, genuine, inescapable Sin—isn’t to be trusted, either, or again at a minimum, He isn’t as necessary in certain circumstances as we suspected. Saint Paul said that God’s Law has no hold on righteousness (Galatians 5:16-26). So, if I’ve convinced myself that what I’m doing isn’t sinful, but rather is acceptable to God, I won’t for a second believe I need a Savior’s rescue from it.

That’s not good. To do this is to deceive oneself and confuse truth (Romans 1:25, 1 John 1:8). What’s more, it’s an overly complicated and eternally terminal way to interact with God.

I say keep it simple—or as I discovered myself whispering alongside Saint Jerome this morning, “O, holy simplicity.” Honor God’s Word as reliable and true, and then stick with His definitions. Trust His desires, not yours. If you’re at all like me, when you keep things simple, being sure to view things through the lens of the scriptures, desiring to align with God’s desires, you’ll often discover the cultural fog beginning to dissipate, and with it, the fear of facing off with just about everything that might crawl out from beneath its cover.

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).