Care with Language: One Sphere to Another

Our dear friends Rev. Joe and Carrie Bangert are in town for the weekend, and it has been a joy catching up with them. Because our families are incredibly close, having spent years together here at Our Savior—walking together through so many moments in life, our kids being theirs and theirs being ours—it was easy to shore up our time apart. It’s nothing short of visiting with family. We spent most of Saturday morning talking about our children—where they are in life and the kind of people they are becoming. Chatting in this way, it’s hard to avoid comparing generations. And so, we did that, too. We talked about how things were different in our former days, and as we did, we observed ourselves. At least, I know I did.

I suppose I could ask you, “When did you know the path you would pursue as an adult?”

I’ve shared before that my earliest memory of future possibilities envisioned an Indiana Jones life in archaeology. I wanted to dig things up, find artifacts, and solve mysteries. I wanted to rediscover the earth’s undiscoverables. At one time, I found myself wanting to be a doctor. By the time I entered high school, both desires had given way to a longing to fly fighter jets, namely, the F-15 Eagle. I loved that plane. I still do. A secret wish is that before I die, I’ll be able to go for a ride in one—or any fighter jet, for that matter.

Beyond these things, something happened during my junior year in high school that rendered my previous aspirations obsolete. I think Graham Greene described it best. He said, “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

I remember one of a few instances that signaled the door’s opening. It happened while sitting in a midday study hall scheduled right after my Creative Writing English class and just before my Spanish III class. That day in particular, I’d spent my time reading The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe.

In the story, Poe described a revelrous masquerade ball thrown by a prince for his friends in seclusion while a terrible plague was depopulating his country. As if nothing were happening outside, the extravagant décor of the prince’s gatherings betrayed a uniquely twisted personality, one that Poe described as “bold and fiery” designs that “glowed with barbaric lustre.” Poe continued using fantastical language to describe a seemingly grotesque genius inherent to a man who wanted to continue living his life of indulgence, doing all he could to forget what was happening beyond the archways of his isolation.

It’s a unique story. And yet, the point of my sharing is not necessarily its content (even though it does matter) but rather something that happened while reading the story. It was a moment when I felt a genuine appreciation for the rich use of language. Poe wrote in ways that brought me from one sphere into another. There I was sitting in the Morton High School cafeteria, feeling as though I’d been whisked away and into darkly gothic chambers filled with costumed and twirling revelers. His descriptions were incredibly palpable. Here at my computer on a Sunday morning more than thirty years after first reading the story, I still feel like I’m describing something I experienced firsthand. The party’s music, bustling atmosphere, and flickering candelabras dripping wax haven’t left me. Perhaps more significantly, I remember the passion stirred by the story’s pivotal moment from noisy merriment to a sweeping breathlessness that palled every person in every chamber of the house—the moment of moments when a visitor appeared and everything turned sideways for the prince and his guests. It was the moment that revealed Poe’s purpose for writing.

Poe described the scene:

“And then the music ceased, as I have told; and the evolutions of the waltzers were quieted; and there was an uneasy cessation of all things as before. But now there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bell of the clock; and thus it happened… the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before. And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise—then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.”

I don’t want to spoil the story (although it was published in 1842, so you’ve had 180 years to read it), but you should know that the masked figure who suddenly appeared wasn’t on the prince’s guest list. He’s never on anyone’s guest list. Still, he has access to every space that humans occupy. One day, we will meet him no matter what we do to ignore him, how we try to hide away from him, or what we do to protect against him. Everyone will. And why? For one, God did not hide the truth regarding the sinister specter’s existence. He is the last greatest enemy of all (1 Corinthians 15:26), the one visitor God told us would be Sin’s final wage (Romans 6:23).

Both then and now, Poe’s story communicates something incredibly theological to me. For my part, however, I remember reading it and realizing how much I loved the language Poe used to tell it. I remember wondering how it could be possible to take such a deep truth carried on such a moving string of language, and translate it into other languages, such as the language I’d be studying in my very next class. Could Spanish interpret the vibrancy of Poe’s English sufficiently. English and Spanish are two different spheres.

There began my desire for a career focused on handling language in the best ways for memorably communicating concepts from one person or place to another. The door opened, and my future stepped in.

I assumed the way forward in this would be as a teacher, so I went to college and eventually graduated with a degree in education. Enticed by the opportunity to teach in a church, I drifted into my school’s Director of Christian Education program. This resulted in an internship in Michigan. A decade later, I experienced the unmistakable pull toward the seminary. Now I’m a pastor—both a teacher and preacher. I’m someone tasked with taking the most remarkable words ever put to a page and communicating them to others.

A few weeks ago, during the sermon here at Our Savior, I used one of my fast-fleeting minutes in the pulpit to examine this privilege, sharing how it actually meets with the preaching task. I mentioned that Christian preaching is, as Saint Paul demonstrates quite simply in Romans 10:14-15, a conduit from God through a person to others. Its purpose is to deliver God’s Law and Gospel—to show us our sins and to give us the solution to the sin problem, Jesus Christ. The result: faith in the Savior and the assurance of eternal life only by His person and work. I noted that a Christian sermon, while it may technically preach Law and Gospel, if it does so unprepared and disjointedly, being little more than a prattling on and on about this and that, eventually becoming a droning form of communication that actually makes it hard for the hearer to listen—such preaching might be doing more to smother its purpose than accomplish it.

In other words, the careful handling of God’s Word—which includes deliberate attention to the language used to relay it—is important. This is true because it can assist in building a platform of certainty in a listener—the fostering of a uniquely powerful (and often overlooked) byproduct: the belief that what’s being said means the world to the preacher, and he desperately wants his listeners to believe it, too. Of course, that’s not necessarily the power of the sermon. The Holy Spirit at work through the faithful proclamation of the Word is the power.

Notice I said the faithful proclamation. Care with words is a part of this and is, by no means, disconnected from the Lord’s sending of the preacher as a witness. When the preacher communicates the seriousness of sin’s predicament (that Poe’s specter is indeed looming) and the solution born from the person and work of Christ, when he does this in ways that show he’s invested in every single word, this can be an extremely sturdy bridge on the road to certainty. Such moments become unforgettable for listeners, ones that welcome concepts right into the middle of the listener’s sphere.

I can honestly say that the beginning of my awareness of these things began to take shape during my junior year in high school. In essence, I was becoming aware of the art of homiletics—the study and practice of preaching. Sure, it coalesced in my youth through visits with secular literature. But even so, the door opened, and my current role (which back then was my potential future) stepped in. Do I sometimes wonder if I’d have made it as a fighter pilot? Sometimes. I just asked myself that question a few nights ago while watching “Top Gun: Maverick” for the tenth time. And yet, as Maverick said in response to Rear Admiral Chester Cain’s ridiculing comments for not having done something grander with his life, “I’m where I belong, sir.” I thought the same thing while sipping my shallow dram of whisky and nodding in agreement. I’m right where I belong. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

I suppose that’s enough for this morning.

Inheritors of the World to Come

Perhaps you’re still trying to keep up with the latest safety recommendations for COVID? I’m not. I stopped trying to “be in the know” about these things long ago. To be clear, when it became apparent that entire fields of science were being manipulated to satisfy political agendas—many of which conveniently hindered the efforts of the Church, parental authority in schools, and so many other things that are fundamental to a moral society—my belief in the current government’s legitimate ordination became less than sturdy, and with it, my desire to cooperate in its externals. As a result, I’ve found myself accepting the possibility that God’s smiling countenance upon America, if ever ours to claim, is very near its end.

But that’s a topic for another day.

In the meantime, it seems if you can steer clear of most mainstream media sources, choosing instead to visit with some of the unprocessed and unfiltered numbers, a majority of what I think you’ll find appears to vindicate the ones who spoke out against forced vaccinations, mask-wearing, and school closings. Many studies show an astronomical surge in suicides, which is something never before seen in history. Others are proving cognitive deficiencies in children at unprecedented levels. Plenty of others imply drastic worldwide increases in cancers, strokes, cardiopulmonary diseases, respiratory illnesses, and even untimely deaths among youth within populations with the highest percentages of adherence to masking, social distancing, and vaccination acceptance.

These disastrous upturns appear to begin in the late spring of 2020. Why? What took place in 2020? I wonder.

Interestingly, the people who imposed these things upon us continue to claim that what they did was beneficial, and they’re even insisting we vote to keep them in their stations. Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan, wants four more years. The one who, by executive order, required my local Ace Hardware to rope off its gardening and paint sections; the one who mandated that all Michigan hospitals forego countless life-saving treatments and surgical procedures; the one who sent state employees to tape off public play structures; the one who ticketed un-masked dog-walkers; the one who sent Michigan State Police to fine barbers and give citations to clergy holding worship services; the one who fortified a context in which newborns, who are now two years old, have only recently been allowed to see the unmasked faces of their caregivers, extended family, and closest childhood friends; the one who orchestrated unvaccinated employee terminations—this diabolical Governor wants to keep her job. She militantly choreographed these things and more while keeping the abortion clinics wide open and ensuring Michiganders had unhindered access to lottery tickets and liquor. This fiendish woman is insisting we give her another shot in Lansing.

Is there any doubt that I will do everything I can to see that she is not re-elected? Tudor Dixon, what can I do to help?

Of course, that’s a topic for another day, as well.

Still, no matter the ever-increasing pile of irrefutable data proving the destruction that has occurred (and continues to occur) over the last two years, some continue to show a strange tenacity for rejecting what the data shows. Why? Well, one reason might be because it’s tough to break free from the habit-forming rites and ceremonies of what has become the COVID religion. For the most part, I’ve been able to tune it out. Still, every time I stop for gas and, like you, find myself signing away years of my life for a few gallons, most of the commercials on the pump’s tiny screen involve COVID clergy repeating this new religion’s liturgies. The presiding minister says, “Mask up! Get vaccinated! This promise is for you and your children; vaccination now saves you!” The congregation resounds its amens and alleluias with, “It’s safe and effective! Love your neighbor!”

Speaking as a tradition-and-liturgy-loving Lutheran, when it comes to retaining true religion (which is what Saint James calls Christianity in the first chapter of his epistle [1:26-27], referring specifically to Christianity’s visible distinction from the world’s persona), that’s a big part of what liturgy, rites, and ceremonies are for. They deliver a clear, structured, and authoritative word from the word’s source. They repetitively do this. Repetition weaves subject matter into a person’s heart and mind, not only stirring trustworthiness but making it so that wherever the person might be, the content of his or her faith is accessible in an involuntary way. Immersing in such things creates credal boundaries designed to help a believer remain within the true faith while avoiding heterodox teachings. Again, all of these are reasons why I’m a full subscriber to liturgical Christianity. An added benefit (and again, speaking only for myself): the confines of credal Christianity have assisted many believers in identifying and defending against the inching impositions of the new credal COVID religion. Churches that are essentially “anything goes” in nature and practice don’t have the protective borders that historic liturgical churches have. In an “anything goes” world, an “anything goes” church is already a perfect match for the world’s ways. It’s just how humanity works.

But that, too, is a topic for another day.

Another thought: I think the willful cancellation of in-person worship says a lot about modern Christianity. Across the span of 2,000 years, closing the Church’s doors at Easter for fear of sickness and death seemed to communicate something viscerally wrong with 21st-century Christianity. The pastors who led the charge—or the people of God who pressured or threatened their pastors toward blind compliance—this side of the situation, I think the decision will haunt all. “At the time, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.” True. But the resurrection of Jesus is the cemented victory over death and all its creeping tendrils, the most creeping of all being fear. It should be the last celebration ever to be canceled. In Christ, for a believer, to die is not death but life. Do we tempt death with foolish practices? No. In uncertain situations, we take reasonable precautions, never imposing on God’s Word in the process. Still, do we do these things because we’re afraid of death? By no means. Why would we be? There’s a reason the Lutheran funeral liturgy includes (or at least should include) the Lord’s words to Martha at Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus spoke plainly of death to the saddened and fearful sister, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26). If one keeps reading the text, you’ll see the Lord didn’t end His sentence there. He asked Martha directly, “Do you believe this?” Martha’s answer will be heard and then seen.

21st-century Christians were asked, “Do you believe this?” Our communal words and deeds were incredibly disappointing.

As I said, the decision to close churches will forever haunt many Christians and clergy. But apparently, not everyone. Believe it or not, some churches are happy to remain closed to this day, and the members of those churches appear unbothered by it, too. Beyond those fellowships, many congregations have been seduced into online worship as a viable option, not just for shut-ins, be for able-bodied church-goers. Pastors and church leaders have steered God’s people into a church-certified justification for never stepping foot in the Lord’s house again. Pajamas, coffee, and church when it’s convenient—a complete disconnection from the worshipping community—have become pious. Worse than that, virtual communion is now a thing.

Terrible.

I have one thing to say about these things, especially as I think back to where I began: If you think the skyrocketing rates of suicide, illnesses, and premature deaths are alarming, these are nothing compared to the spiritual havoc that all this has created. It’s a mess of spiritual illnesses and deaths that reach into the world after this world. You name the tragedy—disease, lightning strike, shark attack, an automobile accident. All these things and more kill in this life. But Christians are not inheritors of this life. We are heirs of the life to come. A disconnected and starved faith kills the life to come—the unending life.

I should probably wrap up this morning’s rambling with some sort of point. I guess I’m saying that if you’ve been away from your church since 2020, having somehow become convinced that staying at home will keep you safe from all things leading to death, I beg you to reconsider your position. In truth, all the so-called reasonable excuses have dried up. Now you’re willfully committing spiritual suicide. Unfortunately, the COVID religion continues to bolster the virtue in doing so, convincing so many that they’re somehow showing genuine Christian love to their neighbors by abiding in its provably destructive dogmas.

Again, terrible—the devil’s scheme, for sure. Beware.

Remember, you can’t even begin to love your neighbor if you don’t love God more. You don’t get to the second table of the Ten Commandments (commandments four through ten) before passing through the first table (commandments one through three). God’s Word is not cloudy in this regard. Right there in the first table, trust in God above all things is chief, His name is above all others, and time with Him in worship is above all other opportunities. If these things are negligible or arbitrary to you, you’ve already wandered beyond the boundaries of the one true faith before your first hello to a neighbor. That said, there’s a good chance you’re apart from all the other salvation-crucial details inherent to the Gospel you claim to confess. Go to church. Be in study. Hear the preaching. Receive Word and Sacrament ministry for the benefit of a sturdy faith and a right trust in the Conqueror of death and its reverberating fears. Get back inside the safe keeping of this Conqueror’s sheep pen. Hear His voice and follow Him.

Unlike the inept and ever-varying science-shifters the prophets of COVID have proven to be, Jesus Christ is steady and can be trusted. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He has promised never to leave or forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5). In my book, that settles it. What’s more, He gives these promises to Christians and then, with devout concern, asks rhetorically, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). The answer: passing appeasement and pleasure in this temporary life but everything dreadful in the unending next.

A Trojan Horse of Sorts

I was at a conference in San Diego the week before last. Apart from the time I had with my wife in the evenings, I’m not so sure it was the best use of my life’s fast-fleeting hours. I went as a guest of Charlie Kirk. His organization, Turning Point USA, orchestrated the event and paid for our travel and lodging.

I was glad to go. Jen was, too. I learned some things and met a few people. While I did those things, Jen went to a Safari Park and met a rhinoceros, or as the park rangers call the creatures, “chubby unicorns.”

Again, I was glad to go. Admittedly, I was also glad to leave.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate Charlie Kirk and his efforts. That’s one reason we’ve partnered with him here at Our Savior in Hartland more than once. He’s sharply intelligent and can readily tap into his intelligence and share it with accessible language. I think I appreciate him most for his grasp on the essential crossovers between Church and State. He knows biblically, historically, and practically where these two estates meet, and he knows why it’s important for Christians to be mindful of these things.

Unfortunately, the folks running his conference and many of the guest presenters proved to have a far lesser grasp on these things than their leader. When Charlie came on stage to introduce the three-day event, he promised a smorgasbord of speakers who would offer help and resources for navigating the turbulent waters of Church and State engagement. Remarkably, he teed up this promise by first commending the Nicene Creed as essential to the gathering. I was glad about that. Next, he expected the speakers and attendees to put their denominational particulars aside to cooperate in the acceptable externals. In these locales, different branches of Christendom are free to unify to accomplish shared goals. I was glad about that, too. Enough, already! The “us against them” mentality in the Church is not helping!

Still, only a handful of speakers did what Charlie described. David Barton, Dr. James Lindsay, Bob McEwen, and Dr. Larry Arnn were a few. The rest of the event was dominated by mega-church pastors giving sermons that did, in fact, insist on acceptance of distinctly theological things—things about God laying this or that unprovable premise on the speaker’s heart, pre/post-tribulation concerns, “deeds, not creeds” dogmatics, and a whole host of other rudderless theological ramblings particular to popular evangelical Christendom. Moreover, these same speakers went out of their way to take jabs at traditional churches. Lutheran, Roman Catholic, old-school Presbyterian, or old-guard Methodist, it didn’t matter. If your church was inclined toward maintaining tradition and creeds, historic rites and ceremonies, you needed to get with the times. You needed to be courageous, to step out of conformity and get radical for Jesus. Courage, courage, courage! Get radical for Jesus!

Every time this happened, as the only one in the crowd wearing a clerical collar, I felt somewhat like a visual representation of what they were belittling—and I’m pretty sure some of the pastors around me betrayed the same discomfort with their glances. That being said, the onstage indictments didn’t miss their mark. I actually do believe that creedal Christianity is the best way to preserve truth and foster the genuine courage required for defending it. I think what they were doing was very near the epitome of nonsense. And not only that, but in my experience, the encroaching world appears utterly unconcerned by their zealousness. And the reason? Well, let me get to that.

Relative to my long-standing opinion on this, the guest speaker I appreciated the most was Dr. James Lindsay, the foremost “Paul Revere” on Critical Theory. To grasp his impact, you should know that when people write books decrying Critical Theory, he’s often their source material, being the one most frequently quoted in the footnotes. Formerly a devout atheist and now a confessed agnostic, Lindsay was the presenter I appreciated the most. He was an objective observer of the Church, making his insight valuably unbiased. In fact, his observations were a “Trojan Horse” of sorts when it came to the overall vibe of the event.

During his presentation, he referred to Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire, the father of Critical Pedagogy, as one of Critical Theory’s truest originators. As he did, he made a stinging observation that had many in the room pulling back on their amens and alleluias. He said that fundamental to Freire’s position was the deconstruction of the traditional churches. Lest he offend his hosts outrightly, Lindsay implied that Freire didn’t appear concerned in his various writings about the newer, more contemporary churches. These churches were already apart from what could shield their deeper connection to truth. They’d given it up voluntarily in their efforts to be found acceptable to the world rather than distinct from it. He inferred that the framework of contemporary churches (whether they’re willing to admit it or not) is primarily experiential—the manipulation of emotional highs and lows. He explained this as the best platform for replacing hard and fast truth with subjective sensitivity, namely, making what someone “feels” about truth the center of the experience. On the flip side, he sensed Freire’s concern for traditional churches being natural fortresses against this strategy. Freire believed them to be set apart from culture by objective boundaries. Their creeds hold the line on what is and is not true. Their traditions and worship practices are near impenetrable expressions of those truths. It would seem in Freire’s mind, if Critical Pedagogy was going to help usher in a purer era of socialism, the traditional churches needed to be in the reticule of the effort’s heaviest artillery. Tear down the traditional institutions and rebuild new ones. The contemporary churches have already proven themselves willing to follow along in stride, being shaped by their inherent desires for acceptability to the culture rather than expecting the culture to conform to the truths they hold dear.

In summary, one of Critical Theory’s most influential proprietors appeared to believe that traditional churches were society’s last line of defense against its pedagogies.

Strangely, Dr. Lindsay’s presentation was the only one of the many I attended that allowed questions. Of course, I raised my hand. The microphone runner seemed to avoid me with incredible precision at first. But I kept my hand up. Eventually, someone nearby pleaded my case, and I was granted the last question. The runner handed me the microphone just as the moderator announced that only two minutes remained for the final question. Already somewhat familiar with Freire, especially his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (which I happened to visit with very much in passing last year before giving a speech that compared specific sociopolitical agendas to the creature in the film “The Thing”), I asked him if it would be a good idea for mainstream evangelical churches—many of which seem to epitomize the description of chasing after emotional experiences—to start moving back toward embracing creedal traditions that have proven in history to help shield Christians from deceptive ideologies like Critical Theory. Secondly, I asked what suggestions he might offer to churches that want to begin such a return. Before Dr. Lindsay could answer, another speaker sitting beside him took the microphone (much to Dr. Lindsay’s wide-eyed surprise) and returned to the premise that it’s not about style but rather that pastors just need to be courageous.

“You guys just need to be brave. All we really need from you is to step outside your comfort zones and show some courage.”

That was it. The session was over. But I wasn’t done. I ended up connecting with Dr. Lindsay backstage. We had a wonderfully refreshing conversation. Before concluding, he expressed a willingness to speak at our “The Body of Christ and the Public Square” conference here at Our Savior in 2023. As a side, he mentioned he has close friends in Ann Arbor and that he’s an enjoyer of whisky, which puts him within range of a quiet evening with a Lutheran pastor who owns a rather significant selection of uisge beatha—the water of life. I’ve already sent the details to his scheduler. God willing, things will work out accordingly.

I suppose one of the lessons I learned at this conference is that anyone can prattle on about courage, but in the end, genuine courage is conditional. In other words, the value of any particular belief or effort cannot necessarily be judged by the amount of courage it takes to defend it. Foolishness can very easily be mistaken for courage. Genuine courage can only serve as a natural application for objective truth. It results in a willingness to live and die for truth when living for it will be hard and dying for it will be easy. But it only really associates so viscerally in this way with truth, not lies. Dying for a lie is not courage but foolishness.

Foolishness, not cowardice, is courage’s truest opposite.

Foolishness thinks going against natural law and touting one’s confused sexuality is brave. Foolishness believes disrupting a pro-life rally by shouting “My body, my choice!” takes guts. Foolishness believes that canceling someone for expressing an opposing opinion is valorous. Foolishness thinks that a fifty-year-old man who leaves his wife and children to live as a six-year-old transager/transgender girl is valiantly embracing what he feels is his most authentic identity. On similar fronts, foolishness believes creedal things such as pledges and confessional statements of belief are dangerously divisive. Foolishness considers tradition, whether wearing vestments for worship or favoring marriage between one man and one woman, as blind conformity that suppresses progress. Foolishness believes that historic rites and ceremonies, whether kneeling for prayer with hands folded, eyes closed, and head bowed, or standing for the national anthem with one’s hand over the heart, are all mechanically spiritless and often representative of past oppression.

But in reality, why is foolishness so opposed to these things? Firstly, foolishness cannot tolerate anything that would bind the subjective desires of the radical self to someone or something else’s standards. This intolerance foretells the Last Day’s potential turmoil. As I’ve written before, when the divine lights come on at the Last Day, the radically individualized self will be measured against God’s standards, not its own. Secondly, these things teach. They are ancient conduits for communicating truth from one generation to the next. Freire’s sincerest point is that cultural transformation begins by first tearing down the old and its conduits and erecting the new.

I left the conference with a better view of some things. I hope I’m wrong, but it sure seems as though many of America’s mainstream churches—perhaps more accurately, their pastors—while they might not be holding hands with the Marxist left, seem to be in a pinky-finger relationship with certain Marxist ideologies. In that sense, they have far too much in common, and that’s incredibly troubling.

I’ve already shared all this in a lengthy phone conversation with Charlie’s folks. They need to understand that no small number of clergy and church leaders from some of the largest denominations in the world—many of whom I continue doing my level best to encourage toward engagement in the public square—would be disinclined to show up at such an event. And if they did attend, perhaps worse, they would likely feel validated in their desire toward disunity and disengagement. Again, I don’t want that. We need to be working together.

I don’t know for sure how Charlie will receive my commentary. Nevertheless, I know him to be a Godly and contemplative man, so I’m assuming he’ll at least consider the perspective, taking from it what he feels is helpful toward making next year’s event even better.

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.

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.

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.

Sure of His Courage

There is the saying that goes something like, “Until it matters, no man can be sure of his courage.” I appreciate those words. Indeed, one can hardly be considered courageous from ease’s protective tower. Knowing this, I suppose that’s why each year on Good Friday, the words by the Gospel-writer Mark to describe Joseph of Arimathea are piercing. Each year they find their way deeper into my contemplation of the Lord’s sacrificial death on the cross.

It’s not long after the Lord’s final breath that we read:

“And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (15:42-43).

Why are these words so resonant? Because they describe a man who, for the most part, has kept his faith in Jesus an unchallenged secret. And why would he do this? Because as a member of the Sanhedrin—the primary human force in opposition to Jesus—Joseph knew what would happen to him if it was ever discovered. He and his family would be utterly undone economically, socially, and religiously. But then suddenly, none of these things appear to matter anymore. Mark writes that Joseph “took courage,” having been moved to act beyond the boundaries of his fears and request custody of the Lord’s body from Pilate.

What caused this? He witnessed the death of His Savior, Jesus.

The actual deed—the very intersecting act of God’s redeeming plan in this world—that’s what sits at the heart of faith. Joseph saw it. Whether or not he fully understood what had happened, it would certainly appear that his faith knew the significance of the gory details. In that moment, his faith became a daring powerhouse more than ready to flex the divine muscles the Holy Spirit had granted it. It moved him to go before Pilate and do something that would very soon thereafter become public knowledge.

What does this mean for us?

If anything, it means none of us ought to take Good Friday for granted. It means there’s something to be said for a day that’s spends itself thinking on the epicentral event of our Lord’s work to win us back from Sin, Death, and the power of the devil. It means if ever there was a day for doing something that might unmask our oft-hidden commitment to Christ—such as missing an extra-curricular activity or asking for time off from work to attend worship—Good Friday is that day. In one sense, that’s what the Greek word for “took courage” (τολμήσας [tolmēsas]) insinuates. At its root, it means to take a chance, to dare, to be bold in a way that lowers one’s defenses, maybe even in a way that provokes evil to attack.

Joseph took courage. He did this knowing that to do so could result in trouble. But he did it, anyway. Maybe you can, too. You certainly have less to lose than Joseph, even if only to give up some time to attend one of the two services occurring here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan. The Tre Ore service occurs at 1:00pm, and the Tenebrae service is at 7:00pm. I’m preaching at both, and I can’t wait to do so.

God bless and keep you by His grace.

Pay Attention to Holy Week

Today is Palm Sunday, also called “Passion Sunday.” Palm Sunday is the doorway into the arena of Holy Week. For those who know, today is a pivotal day in the Church Year. By “those who know,” I mean those who know what’s coming. They celebrate by waving palm branches. Later today, some will fold those branches into the shape of a cross while studying the worship schedule and making plans to return for services during the week. They do this because they’ve learned the value of pondering each of our Lord’s words and actions as He makes His way to the cross and empty tomb—even the ones that may seem inconsequential. From His washing of the disciples’ feet to a mid-trial glance at Peter, everything becomes important, and believers don’t want to miss any of it.

The first few days—Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday—are days of intense preparation underpinned by a passionate awareness of what’s looming. Then comes the holy Triduum—the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.

In the evening on Maundy Thursday, our Lord knows He’s in the final hours, and so He establishes His Holy Supper, a divine meal that both gives and assures us of His presence and forgiveness. Establishing this, it truly is as the Apostle John describes:

“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).

Indeed, He loved them to the end. If we somehow get distracted from this on Maundy Thursday, it’s likely we won’t on Good Friday. Good Friday demands the attention of all. It is the battle royale—the conflict of all conflicts on a cosmic scale. Jesus goes into the powers of darkness, not for Himself, but for us. It’s there that our salvation is exacted. Moving into the evening of Holy Saturday, or the Vigil of Easter, believers endure the darkness of what appears to be the Savior’s terrible defeat. And yet, they do this by holding to the ancient promises given throughout the scriptures, finally coming face to face with an angel who declares, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:6-7).

Easter Sunday is the first step from Holy Week into an entirely new season—one of victory, one that celebrates the conquering of Sin and Satan, as well as the death of Death itself; all of it accomplished by the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was dead but is now alive, and who now reigns for all time.

Today, Palm Sunday, we celebrate. Again, we wave palm branches. We sing with festive voices. Next Sunday we celebrate, too. We’ll sing just as brightly. Our Easter suits and dresses will match the day’s tenor. In between these two Sundays, things aren’t so easy. Holy Week isn’t easy. Rest assured Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan, is a church that’s mindful of this. Knowing this, you’re invited to be present for each of the worship opportunities provided. You’re invited to hear the Word of God read and preached. You’ll want to hear this Word. It saves. You’ll want to take in the rites and be immersed in the ceremonies, all of which are born from the devotion of countless generations of Christians before you who knew something in particular about Holy Week.

And what was it they knew so well?

Well, as Pierre Corneille once observed, “We triumph without glory when we conquer without danger.” This saying is useful to Christians if only to remind us of how easy it is to be robbed of something’s truest value when we don’t know its truest cost. Holy Week spends itself revealing the cost. Without taking time to consider the immensity of it all, without taking at least a few strides alongside our suffering Savior, it’s possible to arrive at Easter without a sense of its worth.

Don’t do that. Pay attention to Holy Week. In my many years as a pastor, I’ve never met anyone who has regretted it.