Light and Darkness

Believe it or not, even though I typically write and send these notes very early in the morning, I’m not necessarily a morning person. It’s just that putting my thoughts into words best happens in the morning. I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing it may have something to do with the effects of light and darkness on me as an individual.

There’s a whole different feeling to being “up and doing” (as Longfellow described it) at 5:30am in the summer sun, especially in comparison to the winter months when, at this same hour, the sun is still laboring on the other side of the world. In the sunshine, there’s a sense of eager vibrancy that mutes any sense of isolating dreariness, especially here in the church facility. By dreariness, I really mean loneliness, because by the time I usually arrive here any given morning, it’s likely I won’t see another person for several more hours. During the summer, the absence of people—of life-filled motion—seems less arresting, less empty. I can go from room to room doing what I need to do without even turning on lights. There’s no need for artificial illumination. The windows throughout become light bulbs, each with the sun itself serving as the incandescent filament. The loneliness dissipates even more so when, through those same windows, I see the trees, the birds on their branches, the two resident rabbits I’ve affectionately named Frank and Betty scurrying through the yard, and so many other life-filled happenings.

The 5:30am hour during winter is something altogether different. It promises darkness.

For the most part, what’s happening outside remains invisible, and the inner spaces of the facility feel a bit more cavernous. Turning on the artificial halogen lights doesn’t seem to help all that much, and what little I may have been able to see of the outside’s darkened landscape becomes lost in their cold cathode reflection. Even worse, the unnatural light glaring throughout the enormous building carries a feeling of staleness—of dreadful isolation—that only comes unraveled when the sun finally rises and life begins arriving through the visiting people.

I suppose I don’t want to be too allegorical with this stuff. Nevertheless, I think summer and winter both communicate truths about light and darkness. Speaking of truth, I think the deeper we dig into the imagery, the more we get a sense of the differences between truth and falsehood, too.

The Bible is fluent in its comparisons of light and darkness. Of course our Lord refers to Himself as “the light of the world,” reminding His listeners that whoever would follow Him “will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Saint Peter refers to Christians as a chosen people called “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Saint Paul reminds his readers on countless occasions regarding their former status as people born of darkness (Ephesians 5:8), but then he is sure to encourage us to know our new identity as “children of light” by faith, no longer “of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:5). He so joyfully announces that God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). From such grace-filled announcements, Paul can ask rhetorically regarding the Christian life, “For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). He asks this aware of what—or even better who—most prefers the darkness: Sin, Death, and the devil. They are the ones he’s identifying when he speaks of the “cosmic powers over this present darkness” with which we wrestle each day as Christians (Ephesians 6:12). These are the ones who labor to impose the pitch blackness of unbelief that “blinds the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). These are the ones born from lies, who have “nothing to do with the truth” (John 8:44). But these are also the ones who, by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, have already been judged, convicted, sentenced, and will eventually be brought to nothing (John 12:31; 16:11).

These biblical texts alone help interpret the uneasy feelings that often come with actual darkness. But they also interpret by comparison the comforting warmth we feel in the sunlight. Even better, as these words arise from the source of real light—the Holy Scriptures—they relay the genuine sense of wellbeing we get from the sun in comparison to artificial lighting. I think that’s the connection to be made in relation to truth and falsehood.

There are plenty of halogen-like lights in our world promising peace from various artificial sources. We all know how companies try to assure our happiness if only we’ll buy their product. But the idea goes deeper still. I read an article already this morning about how the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services under the Biden Administration, Xavier Becerra, believes that if children are troubled in their sexuality, they should be allowed to transition to their preferred gender. Even worse, he thinks our tax dollars should pay for it. Becerra believes it’s the duty of all Americans to help these kids embrace and follow through with the desired change in order to find the peace of mind every human deserves. First of all, we Christians know better than to think humans deserve anything. It was human sinfulness that made this world what it is. It’s only by God’s grace that He offers His care, allowing the sun to shine, the rain to fall, and the world to continue spinning. Secondly, and unfortunately for Mr. Becerra, the statistics are against him. Suicide rates are already high among youth struggling with gender dysphoria, but they only get higher among the groups that actually follow through on the transition. Why? Because most end up regretting the change and all of the physiological complications that come with it.

Gender reassignment surgery is a false promise born from counterfeit light. In short, what Becerra is proposing is the devil’s business, and Satan certainly loves to masquerade as bogus light (2 Corinthians 11:14).

Christians know what they know because God’s Word is real light providing real truth. As the Psalmist declares, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). He speaks this way already knowing that God—the One who desires that all would be saved and brought to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4)—is the source of its light, and so the Psalmist says as much when he joyfully scribes, “For it is you who light my lamp; the Lord my God lightens my darkness” (Psalm 18:28).

I was visiting with our congregation president, Jeff Hoppe, by phone in the parking lot this past week regarding our employee policy handbook when a quotation from Lyndon Johnson came to mind. Johnson said something about how the hardest task is not necessarily doing what’s right, but rather knowing what’s right. Johnson was talking about his role as president, but I think the wisdom applies in this circumstance, too. Christians are bombarded with right and wrong scenarios every day. In the category of what seems to be “right” there is the avalanche of sensible opinion after sensible opinion that ultimately forms practices. Much of it seems virtuous on the surface, but only through the lighted lens of God’s Word do we see the pocked surfaces and realize some have been misidentified as “good.”

Take for example Critical Race Theory (CRT), which is a hot topic these days.

CRT claims so virtuously to stand against racism, having birthed the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Standing against racism sounds great. I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that? Better yet, who could legitimately defend the position that black lives don’t matter? Of course they matter! Still, in the spotlight of God’s Word, the claims of CRT and its subsequent branches prove to be false narratives traveling a one way street.

The Bible teaches that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). No human being is untouched by Sin’s curse. With the same conclusiveness, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross met the curse and its cost. By faith in Jesus, a believer stands forgiven and free to live according to this forgiveness. In contrast, one of the fundamental teachings of CRT is that redemption from inherent racist tendencies isn’t possible. It teaches that while every race may be capable of discriminatory thoughts or actions, primarily only whites (of European and Asian descent), Christians, most males, and anyone who holds to traditional western values cannot escape it. They are, by default, unforgivably and immutably racist. Everyone else, by default, is morally innocent in this regard. For Christians who have a handle on God’s Word, it’s not hard to see how a position like this betrays an influence of devilish darkness.

Christians who regularly rest in the Word of God are also more likely to be able to predict the outcomes of such ideologies. The devil has always been the one at the wheel of such militant Marxist dogmas. And he’s always ready to drive the machine to its extreme—which is why I’d say that CRT’s only logical endgame is the same as the Nazis of the early twentieth century. Anyone who has ever taken aim at a utopian society has always been found in need of a “final solution” to its ungovernable problems. This should sound terrifyingly familiar when considering Nazi Germany, because it means eliminating the problem and its influences by force, and ultimately, extermination.

Along these lines, Ibram X. Kendi, one of the foremost leaders in the Critical Race Theory arena, insists that “there is no such thing as a not-racist idea.” He goes on to say there are only “racist ideas and antiracist ideas” and that encouraging different groups to love each other accomplishes little to nothing. He’s even more adamant that while diversity education is good, it can’t solve what he claims is an inherent problem. From his perspective, the only real way to defeat racism is to completely destroy the Western capitalist system and to further the Marxist dogmas that employ more racism. His words precisely:

“The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” (How to Be an Antiracist, p. 287)

What he means is that those he believes are innately racist must be met by an equal force of racism (more virtuous, of course) in order to subdue their inclinations and bring society into balance.

Kendi’s light of truth is horribly halogened. It is a false light guiding toward a dreadful end. But people are buying into it because it’s being sold as righteous. Interestingly, President Joe Biden is fully behind it. This isn’t surprising since a recent poll showed that 85% of democrats favor CRT even as almost 60% of Americans see it as unfavorably dangerous. Still, Joe Bidenhas been very open about wanting CRT to be taught in our schools, governing our workplaces, and steering our military. I don’t mean to be cruel, only honest, which is why I’ll say I suspect this is only true of Biden because he lacks the cognitive abilities for actually sorting out CRT’s endgame as he’s led along by halogenic handlers. Unfortunately, as it is with the radical LGBTQ agenda, your kids are likely already incredibly immersed in this stuff at school, online, through the movies and TV shows they watch, and so many other avenues of influence in life.

This is all the more reason for staying connected to worship and Bible study! Equipped with God’s Word, Christians are clad in the “armor of light” (Romans 13:12), and as such, are made ready for marking, avoiding, and fighting against these dangerous untruths. Kept apart from God’s Word, we can only expect to walk in darkness.

Indeed, there’s light and darkness, and for the most part, neither are all that difficult to discern. But within the category of “light,” there’s the need to distinguish between real light and fake light. That’s a little harder. With that, look to the Word of God. It’s there you’ll be equipped for discerning such things. It’s there you’ll realize that fake light doesn’t belong in the category of light at all, but rather it belongs to darkness. It’s by the real light—the Word of God—that you’ll be better equipped for measuring anything and everything according to the revealed will of God. It’s there you’ll meet the One who is the Light of the world—the embodied fulfillment of God’s will for Man—the One who is for us the precise emanation of “the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79). Summarizing this beautiful little text, it’s God’s will that we would know our Sin, believe in the One who delivered us from Sin, and walk in faithfulness to Him. This is the real sunlight of truth. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel for faith in Jesus Christ given by the verbal and visible Word of God (Word and Sacrament ministry) will you “know the truth,” and that truth “will set you free” (John 8:32).

The Routine of Rest

I suppose that with the beginning of summer comes changes to routine. In this particular instance, I fully embrace the change. With anything else, however, I struggle with disruptions to routine. I’m a perpetual preschooler in the sense that I prefer to know what’s next. If you don’t know what I mean by that statement, ask a preschool teacher to explain it. Better yet, ask a substitute preschool teacher. Such a person will likely have experienced what happens after accidentally introducing an unexpected change to a classroom regimen. My guess is you’ll hear the nightmarish tale of having been tied to the craft table and circled by a mutinous band of rage-filled three-year-olds chanting, “It’s music time at nine o’clock, and then we have our morning snack. You skipped music time! You skipped music time! You skipped music time!”

Since I appreciate routine, you probably guessed I’m not a big fan of surprises, either. One example worth sharing as it meets with my job as a pastor: I don’t like cryptic requests for future discussions. In other words, I get a little worked up when people approach me saying they have something very important they need to discuss but they can’t tell me what it’s about. That usually leaves me in a psychological dead space that can (and likely will) be filled with just about anything.

“Maybe she’s angry with me about something,” I begin thinking. “I wonder what I did.”

“Perhaps he’s going to corner me with a big investment opportunity,” I ponder uneasily. “Doesn’t he know I’m pretty much broke?”

“I’ll bet they’re aliens,” I guardedly wonder, “and they’re planning to get me alone in a room so they can eat, digest, and then mimic me.”

Who knows?

Now before I free-think myself too far away from any of this being even a little bit worth your while, when it comes to surprises imposing upon routines, ironically, I was actually pleasantly surprised to identify a particular routine occurring in my life that I didn’t know about. I recognized it when Jennifer observed, “You can’t just sit still and relax, can you? You always need to be doing something.”

A minute or two after her remark, I realized she was right. (Of course, I didn’t tell her she was right. Every husband knows to limit how many times a day he admits such things.)  I was surprised by the realization that much of the gratification I get in life is found in the process of doing rather than actually reaching the destination of completion.

Don’t get me wrong. The joy that comes with a completed project is nice. But as a person whose primary task is to minister to people, the hard truth is that I rarely enjoy a series of completed projects. Almost everything I do is an on-going process, which is why I rarely complain about tasks like mowing my lawn or repairing things around the house; or why I’ve even been known on occasion to mop the floor of the church or scrub a carpet stain in the narthex. Seeing something actually begin and end provides occasional fulfillment. But strangely, just as Jennifer inadvertently suggested, the fulfillment achieved by completed tasks is often short-lived for me, which is why when a project is done, I’m almost always on to something else. I can’t sit still and relax. I must get about the process of doing.

The point I think I’m making is that I realized one of my fundamental routines is to exist in a perpetual state of pursuit. The more I think about this, the more I realize the good and bad aspects of it.

A good side to this is that I’m never bored enough to ask, “What’s the use in living?” I’m too busy mining life for its gems to be worried about asking what life has in store. Look around. There’s plenty to keep any and all of us busy.

Another positive aspect to such a routine is the strengthening of determination and the gladness that eventually ensues. The more I experience obstacles to my aspirations, the more I feel the need to find ways to break through, occasioning an even greater measure of gladness when I finally arrive at the prize. Success is certainly sweetest when all along it seemed impossibly out of reach.

But there are negative aspects to this routine, too. It can slowly boil you into false narratives.

To dwell in single-minded pursuit of anything has the potential for seeing a person distracted from far greater blessings happening on the periphery. This can be detrimental to family, friendships, and so much more. The typical example of this can be found in the parent who’s always working and never has time for the children. Such a person misses out on a lot, much to the injury of those they love. Another real-world example that comes to mind involves my wife’s grandfather who spent most of his days building a seawall at his home in Florida. While Jennifer’s grandmother (wheelchair-bound) passed the time doing various things indoors, my thought was that he was missing valuable time with her as he worked on the wall day after day, adding layer after layer of concrete. I’m guessing he died preparing to mix another bag of cement, convinced that just one more day of laboring on his seawall would result in its perfection.

Stepping from this particular image, I suppose another dangerous aspect to a routine of always doing and never resting is the prospect of human effort becoming the sole determiner for success not only in this life, but also for the life to come.

When it comes to eternal life, we would never want to be deceived into thinking God is recording a tally sheet of our good deeds. And lest you think that’s the point of Jesus words in Matthew 25:34-40, take another quick look:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

Consider the word “inherit” which occurs right at the beginning of the King’s proclamation. An inheritance isn’t something you earn. It’s something you receive because of who you are in relation to the giver. A son does not inherit from his father because he worked hard, but rather because he was his son. By faith, we are sons and daughters of the king (Galatians 3:26), and as such, we are inheritors of the kingdom.

So, why then does the King recall the things the inheritors have done?

Because these are the naturally-occurring proofs of family membership. These are the customs—the traditions and culture—of the citizens of the kingdom. Notice that the inheritors don’t really even remember what the Lord is describing. And why? Because they weren’t performing the deeds in a calculated way, one intent on seeing them worked into some sort of divine ledger used to tally their credits toward the forthcoming reward. Instead, they simply did them because of who they were by nature of faith.

This is not a text teaching works righteousness, but rather an accounting of the eternal reward given to those who trust in Christ for salvation.

Martin Luther weighed in on this, saying things like, “If the saints did their good works in order to win the kingdom of heaven, they would never win it. Rather, they would be counted among the wicked, for they would be considering with evil eyes their own good…” (On The Enslaved Will, 163 f.).

In particular, and because we’re heading into the new routines of summer, this takes aim at one very important theme behind God’s mandate regarding Sabbath rest. Being the gifted Old Testament exegete that he was, Luther explains the mandate very simply in his Small Catechism:

“Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

In other words, an important thrust of the Third Commandment is to keep us connected to the source of God’s perfect labors on our behalf. We can work all we want at so many other things in life, and we’ll likely experience a multitude of successes as we do. But when it comes to considering human effort as an all-encompassing factor in the narrative of Man, we should stop and take a contemplative breather. We should understand that we do not deserve nor can we even begin to earn our place in God’s presence. It’s by God’s grace—by His work—that we take our place before Him, whether here on earth or in heaven. Here in this sphere, He reaches to us by His Word both in worship and study. That’s Sabbath rest—a time set aside for God to engage us in some extraordinary ways. This is one reason why Lutherans (at least LCMS Lutherans) refer to holy worship as the “Divine Service.” The tendency is to think that Christians gather for worship simply to praise God, but it’s really the other way around. God is gathering us in order that He might serve us—that He might care for us. We rest in the arms of God’s wonderful love in worship as He serves us with His abundant mercy and wonderfully rich grace through Word and Sacrament ministry. He speaks and works, and by the nature of faith, we listen and reply with thanksgiving and praise. Keep these things in mind as the new summer routines take hold. Spend the extra time in the summer sun doing and then doing some more. But then be sure to stop doing and relax. Go to church. Rest in the arms of your Savior in worship, recognizing there’s nothing you can do for Him that He needs, but instead, you need everything He has promised to do for you.

Absurdity

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

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

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

Here’s what I mean.

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

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

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

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

Christians exist at the edge of absurdity, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blind Leading the Blind

I was tidying up the sermon for this morning from John 3 when I ended up wandering through Matthew 15. This happened because I was wondering if perhaps Nicodemus was present during the event. Anyway, I’m curious what you think of the Lord’s words in verse 14, where He says, “Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” Jesus said these words in response to the disciples’ warning that the Pharisees were offended by His teaching.

Of course, while the Lord was always very precise with His words, He rarely minced them, either. Jesus had just shown how human piety can exist in a way that looks really nice—seemingly worthy of admiration—but in all actuality, be found horribly misaligned and apart from God. In this particular instance, Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees were knowingly breaking the Ten Commandments in order to maintain their self-aggrandizing, and yet eye-pleasing, manmade traditions. And why were they doing this? To keep themselves—their security, health, wealth, and so many other things—squarely at the control panel of their religion. Jesus made sure they knew that by deliberately nullifying even one of God’s commands, they were nullifying the entirety of God’s Word, and as a result, they were well-deserving of the stinging description Jesus recited from Isaiah, which He said was written specifically for them:

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” (Isaiah 29:13)

Thinking back to Jesus’ words to the disciples after this brief showdown, again, I’m curious, what do you think? Even better, if you could summarize his reply in one word, which would you use? On my part, I’d have a hard time choosing just one. Both ridiculous and foolish come to mind. A blind man leading another blind man is the embodiment of ridiculousness. A blind man willingly trusting another blind man to lead him is to dig past the topsoil of ridiculousness into the deeper layer of utter foolishness. It’s just not going to end well. In this case, there’s a reason Jesus chose the word “pit” as the terminus to such carelessness. It symbolized more than just an impairment relative to the eyes, but rather an all-consuming injury and gloom that would ultimately swallow the whole person. I’m guessing an attuned listener would know what Jesus meant by “pit.” He was referring to hell, and he was saying fools lead other fools right into it.

In short, it’s a really stupid idea to nullify God’s Word (even if only temporarily) for the sake of preserving and maintaining allegiance to the “self,” no matter what the reason may be. It’s one of the easier paths to hell. And if you knowingly follow someone headed along this path, Jesus can’t help but to call you ignorant. In contrast to this, and still traveling this embattled trajectory with the Pharisees well into chapter 16, we discover Jesus saying things like:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (vv.24-26)

These aren’t easy words to hear. The truth at their epicenter is even harder to admit, which is why the Pharisees were so offended by them. Jesus was preaching that the shadiest culprit in the work to divide us from God is often our own ridiculous self and its ties to this world. We’ll disregard His Word because we prefer the comfort of our opinions. We’ll legitimize any excuse to ignore His explicit directions. We’ll jettison His mandates because we favor leisure. We’ll set aside trusting His promises because, very simply, we’ve made promises to ourselves, and of course, we consider ourselves far more reliable.

The Pharisees proved the depths of their fidelity to “self” when they plotted and then carried through with the unlawful trial and execution of Jesus. They used the angle that He was a false teacher, blasphemer, and lawbreaker, even though they themselves were astounded by His wise handling of God’s Word. Nevertheless, He was disrupting their earthly authority. Without authority, they had no earthly security. To protect their self-interests, they were willing (even if only once, and with just this one man) to disregard God’s Word to keep from losing what they held dear.

“I know it’s wrong, but God won’t mind just this once.” Unfortunately, the “once” often becomes a habitual blindness existing apart from God’s Word.

I can think of countless examples in the Church where this applies. Deliberately withholding tithes and offerings is a common one. Actively participating in slanderous gossip is another. Electing to do the things that married people do, except to do them outside of marriage.

There’s another angle that comes to mind, one that meets with the thought of actively following people who lead apart from God’s Word. One way we disregard God’s Word and make excuses in favor of “self” is to choose political candidates who embrace platforms apart from what we believe as Christians. The blind lead the blind when we choose to elect men and women who are actively pushing abortion, the confusion of Natural Law under the guise of equality, radical ideologies that maintain an economy of oppressor groups (Critical Race Theory, Black Lives Matter, and the like), and so many other horribly skewed ideologies deliberately designed to spit in God’s face.

“I know God would not have me follow such a person, but I’m going to do it anyway.” Yikes. So, your preferences matter more than God’s? Good luck with that blind-leading-the-blind strategy. And by the way, there’s no such thing as luck.

It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said something about how there’s nothing in the world more dangerous than devoted ignorance and heartfelt stupidity. I’d say he was on to something there. To be led along unknowingly by falsehood is a tragedy. It’s a thousand times worse when, clinging to “self,” we do it deliberately while knowing the truth. The Bible speaks very clearly regarding the dangers of such heartfelt imprudence. Actually, God’s Word says such behavior actually negates a person’s salvation.

“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:26-30)

“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth…” That means we know better, and yet we act contrary anyway. That’s a sign of unrepentance and a full rejection of the need to amend the sinful life.

“…there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins…” That’s telling us we know Jesus was sacrificed for our transgressions, but we’d prefer to embrace our sins, anyway. That’s a bad idea. An unwillingness to repent and amend, even if we claim faith, cancels out the Lord’s sacrifice for us and we find ourselves apart from redemption.

That’s some heavy duty stuff right there. That’s God’s Word warning us about the forthcoming pit. By the way, those verses meet with Sin in general even though they’re given in relation to skipping church, the place where God promises to dole out His faith-strengthening Means of Grace that deliver forgiveness and produce a wisdom that knows better—a faith that has open eyes to see and avoid the pit.

Speaking frankly—and to bring this mental meandering to a conclusion—to willingly embrace the ignorance of “self” is not only dangerously stupid, but it’s an affront to the Lord’s crucifixion and death, which He accomplished in order to eradicate every human being’s sinful “self” that He would make us a new creation in Him (2 Corinthians 5:17). It’s an insult to Jesus’ resurrection, too. Thinking on the fact that countless churches still remain closed to in-person worship, that so many Christians remain apart from their congregations, it’s as if they’re existing in unconquerable fear, preferring to believe and live as though the last enemy, Death, still maintains looming control over us (1 Corinthians 15:26). It’s as if they’re choosing the terror that believes and lives as though the “strong man,” the devil, was not ousted by the “stronger man,” Jesus Christ (Luke 11:21-22).

Living in the “knowledge of the truth,” I’m not going to exist as though Sin, Death, and the devil hold sway over me. They don’t. I hope you won’t exist that way, either.

One last thing, since I’m thinking about it.

Something is approaching on the very near horizon that for years continues to prove itself far more potent for excuse-making than Covid-19 ever could.

Summer.

Don’t stay away from worship this summer. Don’t make excuses to skip it. Commit right now to wrestling the urge to vacation from Christ and His gifts. You need to be in worship. Your children need to be in worship, too. Don’t be tempted to “trample underfoot the Son of God” or “profane the blood” or “outrage the Spirit of grace.” Those things lead straight into pits. Instead, behold your Savior—the God of all creation who is ready and waiting with arms wide open, the One whose foremost desire is to love and forgive you, and then to send you back out into the world secured by His mercies and unafraid of the specters that would steer us toward the uncertainty of “self.”

There’s No Such Thing As Luck

I don’t like the term “luck.” I don’t mind someone saying to me, “Good luck.” Although, anyone who knows me will admit I’m the kind of guy who, if someone calls me lucky, will reply with, “There’s no such thing as luck.” I don’t say it just because I’m a Christian and I know better, but also because I know myself to be someone who’s always ready to grab opportunity by the throat and throttle it until it produces what I’m after. In other words, I’m a determined person. Perhaps that’s why Han Solo was always a favorite Star Wars character. If you were ever to attempt to discourage me with the mathematical impossibility of navigating an asteroid field (which according to C3PO is 3,720 to 1), like Han, I’d likely turn to say resolutely, “Never tell me the odds!” as I proceed to steer into it, anyway.

Don’t call me lucky, and don’t tell me how something can’t be done. There’s no such thing as luck, and with that, let’s talk about how it can be done.

This past Monday I took my Jeep to a repair shop in Milford where I happened upon someone I used to be friends with on Twitter (that is, until I deleted my Twitter account). Interestingly, we’d never actually met in person, and yet he knew an awful lot about me, my family, and my church. At one point during the conversation, he referenced our Covid-19 practices here at Our Savior. He knew what they were because I’d been very open about them throughout the past year. He said we were lucky we didn’t experience an outbreak. In reply, I suggested that perhaps it wasn’t luck, but rather it was the Lord’s hand of blessing for holding to His mandates for worship and fellowship, no matter how the world around us was tempted to weaponize the phrase “love thy neighbor.”

Yes, I said it exactly as I wrote it above. Of course, I didn’t want to be too aggressive, but I also didn’t want any confusion with regard to my theological position on the matter.

He countered with the usual argument about caring for the “lesser brother” and about how easily the virus spreads. For reference, he shared how his brother’s church had experienced a serious outbreak among its members even though they were all pretty much required to be drenched in sanitizer, socially-distanced, and fully masked in order to attend worship. In his mind, any church that pressed forward without the same kinds of safety protocols in place was testing fate. I don’t think he realized that comparing Our Savior to his brother’s hermetically sealed church sort of, well, made my point for me. Again, I simply replied by suggesting that perhaps we weren’t lucky, but rather blessed. Thankfully, I was able to bring the conversation to an end by saying I needed to go out to the road and wait for my ride back to the office. (Thanks, Ed Dietrich!) However, outside at the curb, I struggled to put my friend’s terminology away completely.

Being lucky and being blessed are two very different things.

Luck is born from chance. Blessings are bestowed. In the Christian sense, I’d say blessings are emanations of God’s undeserved kindness in our lives. And no matter the form they take, God promises to bless His people for their faithfulness (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10). Indeed, God smiles upon those who, by the power of the Holy Spirit for faith, hold on when holding on is the hardest.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying that the more you pray the more God will bless you with worldly health, wealth, and wisdom; or if you just believe enough, God will take away your mortal misfortunes. That’s the kind of bad theology sold by heretics like Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen. I’m talking about the backward perspective that can actually embrace struggle as a blessing. And how is this possible? Because faith understands that anything in place to loosen our grip on this world while tightening our grip on Christ is a blessing. Even a virus can serve as a determiner in this regard. As you face off with it, are you holding on too tightly to this world, or are you clinging to Christ? I’d add that in these same moments, God promises to be at work in His people by the power of His Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:10) instilling the faithfulness that produces discernment. He’ll be there giving us the eyes to see the individual details through the lens of His Word of truth. By this, He’ll reveal that He’s working for our good, namely, that He’s setting His divine sights on drawing us closer to Him, on keeping us as His own in the faith (Romans 5:1-5; 8:28). He doesn’t want to lose anyone to fear or unbelief, and so anything He does or allows for a Christian along life’s way—no matter if it’s labeled good or bad by the world around us—can be embraced as a blessing from the one true God who loves us.

As far as the successes of Our Savior, Matthew 5:11 and 1 Peter 4:14 come to mind as relative examples of blessings taking a more difficult form. Both describe being insulted for faithfulness to Christ as blessings. Wow, do we sure know this here at Our Savior. God has mandated in-person worship (Hebrews 10:24-25). That’s what we maintained. I can promise you we were insulted by believers and unbelievers alike for this. When we made clear that God does not leave room for His Church to mandate legalistic barriers that would sound anything like, “Unless you’re wearing a mask, you cannot be with your God in worship to receive His gifts,” more insults came. Still, we were unmoved, choosing instead to encourage Christian liberty even as many loaded up their pious rifles with texts from the likes of Mark 12:31 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, taking aim and then pulling the trigger.

“Bang! You’re not requiring masks and so you’re not showing love to the neighbor!” But each of these rounds misfired because they lacked the propellant necessary for actually loving one’s neighbor rightly.

It’s impossible to love your neighbor if you set aside God’s Word, even if only temporarily. You can’t love your neighbor if you don’t love God more.

Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel used to say, “A lot of love talk is a lot of Law talk.” Think about this in light of a text like 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. If Nagel was right, then this particular text is dealing in the Law. From this angle, we’re equipped to see Saint Paul’s attempt to not only show us what genuine love looks like, but to admit our complete inability in relation to it. The love he is describing is divine—the kind that only God can produce. It’s an “always” kind of thing, which is why Saint Paul uses the word so often in the text. Knowing we can’t live up to what he’s describing, the text becomes a reminder of our need for a Savior who can. With that, what we learned in previous chapters begins to resurface. For example, chapters 10 through 12 teach us about how and where to locate this Savior and the love He gives. Before chapter 13, Paul has already revealed who sits at the midpoint of real love. Together, these become strong influencers for knowing the significance of communion with Christ and for not letting anything get between you and His love located in the Means of Grace.

I’d add to all of this that the harmonizing center of the text from chapter 13 is verses 6 and 7:

“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

This is not all that confusing when you realize Paul is talking about love in relation to God and not necessarily the neighbor. Paul personifies love here. Interestingly, Saint John said God is love (1 John 4:8). Here in verse 6, Paul says this love is offended by evil. He writes that this love is gladdened by truth. Jesus said in John 17:17 that God’s Word is truth. Together, these are all incredibly interpretive. If God’s truth mandates in-person worship, then by what we’ve learned here, He’s likely not in favor of completely shutting down churches or doing anything that might hinder a Christian’s in-person access to the verbal and visible Word He distributes there. Only a spirit of evil would translate love for the neighbor this way.

And then verse 7 lands right on us. Again, knowing that verse 6 was describing God, is verse 7 all of the sudden talking about human love aimed at others, as is typically interpreted? So then, love always protects… people? Tell that to an allied soldier in a fire fight with Nazis. Love always trusts… people? Tell that to a battered wife whose husband promises after each violent episode to never do it again; or the parent whose child has been molested by a pedophile. Love always hopes… in people? Joe Biden, as it is with any good Marxist, would appreciate this one, having you putting your faith in the government rather than Christ. Love always perseveres… for people? Let’s just be frank, Christian or not, human patience runs out.

Keeping verse 7 connected to verse 6, if it’s saying anything in relation to our love for others, I’d say it’s first describing a love instilled by God and aimed at God that will eventually result in love for neighbor. This makes more sense to me. It certainly jives with what I know of the Ten Commandments—which is that the 4th through 10th Commandments (loving the neighbor) mean nothing without first visiting with the 1st through 3rd (loving God). By this thinking, verse 7 is telling us love’s deepest commitment in faith by the power of the Holy Spirit always seeks first to protect what is God’s, always trusts in Him, always hopes in Him, always finds perseverance in Him. This kind of love will find itself unable to choose the world’s ways above God’s. This kind of love will always produce what’s best for the neighbor.

In other words, and again, you can’t even begin to love your neighbor if you don’t love God more.

Holding to this premise, things went very well for us here at Our Savior. By loving God and what He wanted more, we found ourselves retooled for avoiding the temptation of law-based and heavy-handed control, and were instead equipped with a clarity for resting in Christian liberty. Worshipping in person might have been considered unsafe to the world, but we did it anyway… because it’s what God’s truth instructs. That fostered a Gospel-driven freedom for knowing how to actually live in love for the neighbor while piloting an asteroid field of CDC protocols. In the end, this equated to countless Elder meetings spent observing data and doing what we could to balance the disquiets without imposing in ways that might separate people from God.

I think the Christians here at Our Savior navigated this mess marvelously, and God appears to have blessed this course with success. It was by no means luck.

I suppose I’ll close this lengthy meandering by sharing that I know there are some inside and outside of God’s Church who are frustrated by our success. For them, 2020 and much of 2021 disappeared without a trace, while for us here at Our Savior, we managed to go about our lives enjoying relative normalcy as a congregation, and we did it without incident. To anyone bothered by our success, just know your frustration speaks volumes. It’s eerily reminiscent of the saying that the only way to feel better about the success of an enemy is to simply believe he got lucky. I’m kind of wondering if such frustration might have something to do with a faith that believes in luck in comparison to a faith that understands God’s gracious care. I’m wondering if it might be revealing a trust that holds more firmly to this world than the next.

Well, whatever. There’s no such thing as luck, friends. I know this, and I hope you know it, too.

God Will Let It Slide, Right?

I’m reminded of something my daughter, Evelyn, said to me on our way to the school this past Thursday morning.

Folks in Michigan will recall that Thursday was quite the sunny day. Even at 6:45am, which is when Evelyn and I set out for the day, the sun was already well above the horizon. Turning east out of our subdivision, the sun’s beams poured through the windshield, filling the car with its glory. It felt good—the warmth on my face in crisp distinction from the chill just outside my window. Even as it was somewhat blinding, before feeling the need to adjust the sun visor, its first stirring was that of happiness.

Surprisingly, Evelyn grumbled.

“I don’t like the sun in my eyes,” she said, scooting up in her seat and reaching to adjust her visor.

“I love it,” I replied, my visor still tucked neatly above the windshield. “It feels good.”

“I don’t,” she countered. “It’s too bright.”

“Well,” I added, “we probably shouldn’t complain about it, especially since we’ve been longing for days like this all winter.”

Evelyn didn’t respond, but I could tell she was reconsidering her position.

Certainly, I understood her frustration in the moment, especially since I was piloting the vehicle. For as much as I enjoyed the sun’s resplendence, I needed to be able to see, and the sun was making that a little more difficult. Still, the last thing I ever want to do is lie to myself, expressing any dismay at all for something I’ve been waiting more than a half-year of mornings to enjoy. In my eyes, or wherever, the sunshine was a welcomed guest to a long-suffered winter.

Tapping away at the keyboard while recalling this circumstance, I suppose there are plenty of lessons within it to be learned by it. Although, I can’t think of one in particular.

Okay, how about this…

Looking back at what I just wrote, the lesson that seems most prominent is the foolishness found in lying to oneself.

One of the worst things that anyone can do is to lie to his or herself. And it’s not necessarily the lie itself that holds all the danger, but rather the potential for becoming so convinced by your own deception that you willingly exchange truth for untruth. This reminds me of a video of Joe Biden from 2015 I watched this past week. It was a quasi-interesting twenty minutes of Joe sitting before a fawning reporter and cameraman and doing what Joe does, which is to wear a triangular smile while rambling incoherently. And yet, during the purgatory-like segment of softball-question nonsense, there was something Joe spoke about with relative unequivocalness. I ended up posting something about it on Facebook. Here’s what I wrote:

“I just watched a portion of a video of Joe Biden from September of 2015 in which he attempted to describe the authenticity of his Catholic faith. Barely a few minutes into his plastic words I had a thought. To be a liar is one thing. To be a sincere liar is something altogether worse. Or as Shakespeare mused through the character of Hamlet, ‘One may smile and smile, and be a villain.’”

The point behind this comment relates to ongoing news of several Roman Catholic bishops around the country and overseas pushing for Joe Biden to be excommunicated. They’re doing this because Joe claims that one can be a Catholic and be pro-choice—and not just the “safe but rare” kind that the Democrats proffered back in the 80s, but rather the kind that goes right over the cliff into believing abortion (in all of its grisly forms) is a gift from God, and even worse, that full-term abortion is something upon which God dotes with an similarly triangular smile.

Do you know what full-term abortion is? If you guessed a full-term newborn child being killed immediately after delivery, then you guessed rightly. The President of the United States—your president—believes such a thing is holy.

Of course, I expect the nominal Christians to come out of the shadows to say I’m misconstruing his position, that he only supports it in this or that special circumstance. These folks will say this because, well, they voted for him, and like him, they aren’t necessarily using the lens of God’s Word for discerning these things. Well, whatever. Use whichever intellectual dance moves you prefer for avoiding the visceral fact that the President of the United States has given a thumbs-up to doctors delivering and then murdering newborn children if in such a moment a mother decides she doesn’t want her child.

But let me take a brief step backward to where this started.

As a Christian, the only way to arrive at an acceptance of the pro-choice position, no matter the justification, is to lie to yourself about a great many things. It is to lie about what life is and means. It is to lie about life’s Author. It is to lie about what that Author said with regard to human dignity and the truest definition of personhood. It is to wield the Word of God in deceptive ways, and ultimately by such handling, to summarily reject it, whether the one wielding it realizes it or not. Lastly, it is to be caught in the dilemma that to reject the Word of God, by default, is to reject the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

You cannot stake a claim in Christianity and reject the Savior who sits at its heart. It just doesn’t work. Thankfully, there remain plenty of Bishops in the Roman Catholic Church who are willing to enforce this basic doctrinal premise.

I wrote and posted something else this past week that comes to mind, too. It had to do with an article from The Federalist entitled “Lockdown Mongers Can Point Fingers, But The Science Is In: They’re To Blame.” By the way, one of the two senior editors at The Federalist is a biblically astute LCMS Lutheran, Mollie Hemingway, whose father is a Confessional Lutheran pastor. I should add that The Federalist has several LCMS writers on its roster of contributors, and in my opinion, that alone makes it one of the few political/cultural news sources out there to be trusted. Anyway, here’s what I wrote when I posted the article:

“The devil has plenty of instruments in his bag, but deception is the glove he wears for wielding each one.”

Again, the point here was to say that there are plenty of tools in the devil’s toolbox for drawing us into Sin, things he uses for convincing us to believe and do the wrong things. But before he goes about his darkly deeds, his grip on each instance begins with deceptively enticing half-truths.

“Sure, I know it’s against God’s Word for me and my girlfriend to live together before marriage,” the young man says, “but it makes good financial and logistical sense to do so. I figure that as long as we have the intention of getting married, God will let this one slide.”

Don’t lie to yourself. Repent.

“It makes perfect sense that the churches are closed,” the husband and wife contemplate over Sunday morning coffee. “The science says that mass gatherings for worship are sure to be super spreaders of the virus. The Church can ‘love thy neighbor’ a lot better by masking up and staying home.”

Don’t lie to yourself. Repent.

“Certainly I’m justified in speaking poorly about that person to others,” she muses. “How could I be wrong in doing so? My friend hurt me, and I need the emotional support from other friends who understand. The only way to get the support is to tell others about what happened.”

Don’t lie to yourself. Repent.

To knowingly persist in such behaviors unrepentantly, having exchanged the truth of God’s Word for lies, won’t end well. Still, the devil will work to convince you that it will. He may even do it in ways that sound pious, kind of like Adlai Stevenson’s infamous words given in jest: “A lie is an abomination to the Lord, and a very present help in trouble.”

Again, I don’t want to lie about the sunshine and say I don’t like it. I love it, even when it’s uncomfortably shining in my eyes. It’s the same here. Don’t be fooled. Stick to the truth of God’s Word, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. No matter what happens, you’ll have the certainty of real truth. You’ll be traveling along the stepping stones of faith cut from God’s reliable quarry. Along the way, you’ll know and understand the gravity of your Sin—your very REAL Sin—and you’ll know the One who came to forgive you of that Sin, to recreate you by His wonderful love, and to send you out as someone capable of beaming the refreshing and face-warming sunlight of His love in a wintry world of Sin longing for the rescue of a divine summer.

“Let Us Run the Race…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s Someone I’d Like You to Meet

I had an interesting thought that came to me during the Elders meeting yesterday morning. It happened while leading the group through a portion of Article IV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. Essentially, I was reminded of something that happened a few weeks back while watching my daughter, Evelyn, during her horseback riding lessons.

At one point during her lesson, I could tell just by looking at her that her blood sugar was getting low, and so as she lapped the place where I was observing, I asked her how she was feeling. She confirmed that she was a bit tired and feeling a little woozy. Of course, the last thing you want to be doing with low blood sugar is riding a horse, and so I asked her to come back around to me so I could give her a juice bottle. I knew after a few big gulps, she’d start to feel better and be able to keep going. Besides, she wanted to keep riding. It bothers her when her Type 1 diabetes gets in the way of her abilities to just be a normal kid. With that, she turned her steed (whose name is Moe) in a circle and trotted up beside the platform where I was sitting. I gave her the juice bottle. She took a few big gulps, gave it back to me, and then gave Moe the cue to proceed.

Strangely, Moe was slow to move.

When he finally did—and I know this is going to sound weird—he seemed to be acting judiciously, as if he knew Evelyn needed him to be a little more careful with her. The more I watched, the more I noticed his apparent awareness. For example, when Evelyn gives him the cue for cantering, which is a relatively swifter pace of travel somewhere between and trot and a gallop, usually Moe hops right into it. But not this time. Evelyn gave the cue and Moe was slower to engage, taking a few extra paces to transition into it rather than taking off abruptly.

Again, the more I watched, the more I noticed these things. He didn’t take the turns as roughly as before. He added a few extra paces to his stops.

Intrigued, I grabbed my phone and did a search online to see what I could find out about the intellectual abilities of horses. I wanted to know whether or not they actually had the capacity for caring all that much about the welfare of the rider. I was surprised to learn that the so-called science is up in the air on the subject. For every article that said horses form emotional bonds with their riders or caregivers, another would frame their behavior as more animalistic and instinctual. In other words, they could be trained to act in ways that make it look like they care.

I can’t say for sure. Although, I’d say for my part, I believe the former analysis rather than the latter. I say this not only because of what I observed over the course of Evelyn’s thirty-minute lesson, but because of one article that suggested horses actually do have the cognitive ability for communicating with humans. Essentially, a study was performed proving horses are more than capable of telling their trainers when they are too hot or too cold. The horses in the study, if they were too hot, they would touch their noses to a certain placard indicating they didn’t want to wear a blanket. If they were cold, they’d do the same thing with a different placard, indicating they wanted a blanket. In my mind, if horses can think certain things through and ultimately tell us what they want, then I think it’s likely they can take in what we’re communicating and reply through deliberate action. Just watching Moe with Evelyn, I think he knew something wasn’t quite right with her, and he was watching out for her. He was one way, and then when she changed, he changed, and not in a mindless way, but in a measured way.

As you might expect, this sent me into the realm of theology.

I don’t know who said it, but there is the quote which goes something like, “Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.” In other words, even a horse knows better than to expect goodness in people, let alone count on them for much anything at all. A jesting proverb, and yet a truthful one acknowledging the innate sinfulness of Man. Just by watching Moe with my daughter, I couldn’t help but recall past and present interactions with certain people who’ve proven themselves far less capable of the simple kindnesses being shown even by this horse. Admittedly, however, in that same moment I felt shame nudging me for being just as capable of reckless unkindness. There’ve been times when I was annoyed and short-tempered. There have been times when someone else’s need was of little consequence to me and I cantered along to other things unconcerned for their wellbeing.

But here was Moe, a creature designed and given by God, showing me a better way.

I don’t know what it is about moments like this, but when I experience them, I almost always discover some sort of lesson ready and waiting in the motion-filled details. And each one usually involves being neck-deep in silent confession with my Lord, which, I’d say, is a good thing. Through the combined lens of repentance and faith, I’m forever being reminded of just how undeserving I am of every ounce of concern God gives. And yet, He continues to give it (1 John 1:8-9). He doesn’t want me to fall. He wants to carry me through to the end of my days securely in His care. Thankful for His grace, I become more aware of the opportunities faith reveals for a humble approach in my dealings with others as I wrestle to put aside the “self” in order to show Christ-like care to others—even those I’d consider to be my enemies.

To come at it from another angle, without genuine Christian humility, it’s very possible that the wrongs we exact in the lives of others, in comparison to the wrongs they measure against us, will never be weighed by the same scales. When this is true, nothing ever becomes reconcilable. Our deeds will always be justified and theirs will always be condemnable. You know, I should probably just go ahead and be blunt in this regard: If you’re someone who rarely sees the guilt of his or her own sin in any given situation, but rather is forever innocent, always being on the receiving end of the offensive actions of others, I know a horse you should meet. His name is Moe, and I’d be glad to arrange an introduction.

Take Hold

Have you ever had one of those days when no matter how hard you tried to interpret life through the lens of positivity, there was an itinerant itch of crankiness that just wouldn’t let it happen? Of course you’ve had such days. You’re a human being. I know I’ve had days like that. I just had one last week, which I guess is why I’m bringing it up—and why I’m about to examine it.

I remember feeling the grouchy cogs begin to turn when I heard that we were likely to get a few inches of snow. I know for a fact I whispered the words, “I want to move to Florida.” Following those words with a bit of daydreaming, I was so easily undercut by the harsh reality that I have neither the funds nor the general flexibility for being in Florida for any great length of time beyond the twelve or so days we, the Thoma family, enjoy there each summer. The futility of this harsh realization began draping my world in negative hues almost immediately, and the subsequent events of the day bore witness to it.

I was easily frustrated by other drivers on the road. Little mistakes in my everyday labors became sizable. I lost interest in things that might normally bring me joy. I found myself scrutinizing humanity with far less grace. For example, I found myself in conversation with a fellow clergyman regarding Church and State issues. As we talked, I recalled silently the familiar thought that dialogue is indeed dead, that general conversation involving differing viewpoints has become illusionary, that the modern exchange of ideas has evolved into little more than crisscrossing monologues between people incapable of actually listening to anyone but themselves.

I don’t like feeling this way. I don’t like viewing the world this way. It’s a hard way to go about life, and in the end, it can do little more than to devolve into sadness. So, how does one get free from this?

Well, for me it wasn’t anything I was able to do, but rather the doings of others. It was an unexpected email from a friend offering some encouragement. A little later that afternoon, it was an unanticipated and bright-eyed “Hey, Pastor!” coupled with a high-five from one of the second-graders passing in the school hallway. That night it was an enjoyable conversation during a game of pool with my son, Harrison. Before bed, it was an exceptionally tight and lengthy hug and “I love you” from my daughter, Madeline, followed by the same from Evelyn.

In a sense, I didn’t find a way out of the gloom. I was lifted out.

There is the saying that there is no tomorrow when a friend asks today. This means that when a friend is in need, there is nothing in our future that we can’t put off until we’ve attended to that friend. But sometimes that friend can’t ask. Sometimes he doesn’t even know he needs to ask. Sometimes he is unaware he’s been slow-boiled into his darkest identity, and with this, he doesn’t realize the identity is consuming him.

We all know people like this, folks whose essential personalities were one way, but then when we encountered them again after some time apart, they were noticeably different. They had changed. Their happiness had somehow become muted and the vibrancy of their light had become a little dimmer.

I wonder if this is becoming more common in a society shaped by digital communication and social distancing. Well, to be honest, I’m certain it is. While plenty of studies have provided mounds of data inferring it, as a pastor, I can see it for myself. I don’t really need the studies to confirm what’s right in front of my face. Having interacted with people here at Our Savior who, previously, hadn’t been out of the house or come to worship in over a year, it was easy to see the change. Yes, they were glad to be back, but it was a reserved gladness held in check by a foreign specter—almost as if it had convinced them to reconnect only because the inevitable “death by virus” was better than insanity in seclusion.

You may question this interpretation, which is fine, but I’m here to tell you that if you thought the world was becoming a negative place before the pandemic, COVID has hit the gas pedal on society’s emotional downturn toward instability.

Thinking back to what raised me from my own melancholy sulk, it was the people around me who did the heavy lifting. From that casual example, I sure hope you realize just how much you need to be with other people on a regular basis—how humans need not only to see each other’s faces, but to experience each other’s physical presences. Regular togetherness is no small thing to God, and so He urges His Church to gather for worship, making sure we’re 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 10:25). Of course He does this for the sake of giving Himself to His people through the richest of fare—Word and Sacrament ministry. But there are other reasons hovering in the realm of practicality that He has in mind, too.

We’re human. He knows what this means better than we do. He scribbled togetherness into our framework. Individuals were not designed to be alone in seclusion (Genesis 2:18). We’re meant to be out and among others. And why? Well, it’s the reason that before Adam gave Eve her formal name, God called her “helper.” God knows that when we’re together—whether it be in a marriage, a family, a friendship, a bible study group, serving on a board at church, or any other situation involving human togetherness—there will always be those around us who are in tune with our real selves and who will be ready to reach out to lift us up when they sense we are falling. In fact, God said this very thing about togetherness rather precisely in Ecclesiastes 4:10: “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.”

I didn’t expect that email from the friend who sent it. But he noticed something about me on Sunday that left him thinking he should. I get tight hugs from my daughters all the time, but I didn’t expect the tight hug from Madeline that lasted three-times as long as normal. In that moment, for some reason, she was moved to give me a little extra love, and it helped. And as God would so generously provide through such faithful Christians, these happenings arrived at just the right moment, ultimately beginning the Lord’s divine effort to begin holding back the wave of negativity that was making its way toward my spiritual shore and, quite possibly, pull me out into the inescapability of deeper waters.

I pray you’ll consider these words and take them to heart. The first of which to take in is that if you sense someone is falling down or slipping away, reach out to help them. A gentle word will do. An act of kindness will help, too. A confident explanation of the courage Christ gives will prompt.

Second, if you’ve been away from your church family for a while, maybe it’s time to start making your way back. At the time of this writing, it’s been over four-hundred days since the first of the lockdown and mask mandates. It’s been over four-hundred days since a smile and a friendly embrace have been openly available between people without shame. It’s been over four-hundred days since people started unnaturally touching elbows instead of reaching out to make bare human contact by shaking hands. It’s been over four-hundred days since almost everything humanly personal about mankind since the beginning of time was relegated to the impersonal and dead-spaced world of Zoom meetings and virtual learning. Maybe it’s time to reconsider what’s separating you, not only from the places and means by which God is pleased to dwell and operate, but from the ones God has put into place as the hands and feet of His care and intended community in your life. Maybe it’s time to admit that perhaps—just perhaps—God isn’t a fan of what the last four-hundred days has produced: skyrocketing depression, a spike in suicides and domestic violence, and so much more. Perhaps God isn’t happy about what the last four-hundred days has so easily convinced us to accept as either virtuous or shameful, of the division the last four-hundred days has produced among His people, a body of believers who claim to confess Christ and the certainty against Death that faith by the power of the Holy Spirit gives. That’s what Easter is all about—which means that, if anything, you’re in a church season that is most certainly nudging you in this regard right now.

Yes, get vaccinated if you want. Wear a mask—or two, even. Social distance. Do whatever. But maybe consider that it’s time to come back.

Whatever conclusion you come to, I can assure you that you’re missed, even if you’ve somehow convinced yourself you’re not. We have on average about 250 people here in worship every Sunday, and I promise they are asking about and missing those who’ve been away. The negative feelings suggesting you need to continue to stay away or that you haven’t been missed are nothing more than slow-boiled changes in your identity. The devil is fooling you. They’re most certainly not anything being emitted by your church family.

Come back. Be together with the rest of us. Know that when we see you, it’ll stir the joy you’d expect from Christian friends intent on drawing you close and not pushing you away. And on your part, be ready to be overwhelmed with the delight such a reunion will provide. It truly is a magnificent elation that togetherness in the Lord unleashes. Plenty have experienced it. I bet you will, too.

You Look Young for Your Age

I learned something a few days ago. It came to me just after a discussion with my wife regarding her feelings about my beard.

To begin, she’s not a fan of my beard by default, at least not at the length I’ve been keeping it lately. That being said, she doesn’t completely hate it. It’s just that when it gets a little more ZZ Top-ish, she doesn’t appreciate the scragginess when I kiss her, or the fact that she has to be a spotter at dinner, being ready with a glance and gesture to let me know that not all of my spaghetti sauce made it into my mouth.

I do appreciate her help in this regard. By the way, remind me to tell you the story sometime about what happened to me at a gas station in Milford after having eaten a bag of popcorn with the kids in the lunchroom at the school.

Anyway, Jennifer knew me when I didn’t have the beard, and so she knows why I started growing it.

First of all, while my life doesn’t move along at the speed of light, at a minimum, it’s often clocking very near the speed of sound. Speaking practically, growing a beard has made getting ready in the mornings much easier. Not having to shave gives me a few minutes more. Yes, minutes matter to me. Secondly, I’ve always had a young face. And even though I’m a long way from my thirties, even with the beard, people swear I’m barely into them. That’s nice, right? Except for a guy who has a side hustle of reviewing whiskies, without the beard, it used to be that I could barely get the lady behind the counter at the liquor store asking my age to believe the driver’s license I was showing her wasn’t fake.

“That’s you, huh?” she’d ask.

“Yep,” I’d reply, “that’s me.”

“You look young for your age,” she’d continue.

“Yeah, well, I’m married, have four kids, and a mortgage,” I’d offer. “And one of those kids is in college.”

My beard has helped somewhat in this regard.

But without rambling on for too long about this, what lesson did I learn after my discussion with Jennifer? I learned that only one of the two reasons remains for keeping the beard.

Honoring my promise to Jennifer to do some trimming, I went upstairs to begin the task. As I gathered closely to the mirror, I realized I really don’t have a young face anymore. I saw wrinkles I’ve never seen before, and a tiredness that I used to only be able to feel but not necessarily observe. And while I’ve always had a thick head of hair, I noticed far more of it had begun silvering. In fact, most of the beard hair that ended up in the sink was gray. Jen says the gray makes me look distinguished. I don’t know about that. What I do know is that as I zipped this way and that way with the electric trimmers, I could hear the words “You look young for your age” beginning to carry a far different tone. What was once something that sort of bothered me had become in that moment a compliment.

But here’s the twist: A compliment like that is only given by someone who thinks you’re old. In other words, the tables had officially turned. To use youthfulness as a compliment is to admit I’m not youthful.

Maybe I’m digging too deeply here. I guess I do that with these things, sometimes. Nevertheless, Jennifer and I keep each other accountable when it comes to this whole aging thing. She’ll say to me just as I’ll say to her, “Don’t wish the days away.” Usually it’s said in a moment of frustration over the kids, or work, or something challenging. And certainly we say it mindful of the future—that eventually the day will come when there won’t be any more days like these. In that light, we say these words to remember to be immersed in the moment.

It was Seneca who said, “Old age is an incurable disease.” It’s an illness we all possess, and in a sense, doing whatever we can to look or feel as young or old at any given moment is not necessarily the issue, but rather the awareness that an endpoint is always eminently near. Death can and will arrive at the appointed time. I remember hearing the news that my grade school friend Todd had fallen from a tree and died. I remember hearing people say his death was untimely. But in truth, when it comes to Death, age doesn’t really matter. We’re all going to die.

Knowing this, as an extension of the lesson learned while trimming some of my beard away, I thanked the Lord for His grace, acknowledging He has been so very good to me and my family. I thanked Him for being fully immersed in every moment of my life—and the life of my family—especially when we as individuals weren’t as invested. I ended that prayer by holding Him to His promise to continue to be there for us until our very last hour together, knowing my greatest hope is not that we’ll never taste Death, but that Jennifer, Joshua, Madeline, Harrison, and Evelyn will one day be within my reach in the glories of eternal life in heaven.

I suppose one of the best lessons to be learned by all of this is that Christians can look into the mirror, see an aging expression, and yet be confident enough to face the setting sun of this mortal life it is betraying. Easter prompts this courage. It reminds us of a sunlight that never sets, one not being emitted from a sun or moon, but rather from God Himself (Revelation 21:23). It brings to mind the death of Death (2 Timothy 1:10) and the resurrection and restoration of failing bodies (Philippians 3:21). It reminds us that we aren’t inheritors of this life, but of the life to come (Titus 3:7). A glance in the mirror, while it will reveal the mortal illness of age, through the lens of faith, it can also show you the face of someone the Lord looked upon in love, someone the Lord went into the fray of Sin and Death to snatch back from the dreadful permanency of eternal Death awaiting each and every human being at the end of the illness. The next time you look in the mirror, I encourage you to think on this Gospel truth. And maybe even offer a prayer, as I did, thanking the Lord for the days you’ve been given, and for any of the days yet to come.