I’d Like to Tell You a Story

I’d like to tell you a story. I’ve been given permission to tell it for your benefit. In some ways, many of you already know the tale’s beginning, because it is a telling of familiar things.

What I’m about to describe happened last Thursday. Even at 9:00 AM, the December sky was successfully holding back the sun’s exuberance, leaving a pre-dawn feeling.

Through my office window, I saw the counterpart to my morning meeting making her way from the parking lot to the church doors. I’d promised her the evening before following the Advent service that I’d have coffee ready and waiting when she arrived, and so I reached for and dropped a K-cup into my Keurig. A newly washed mug was already in waiting below. The reservoir was empty, so it took a quick moment to fill it. In an instant, the coffee was flowing. As it did, I was out and down the office hallway toward the darkened entryway searching for my guest.

I didn’t see her at first, although admittedly, I wasn’t wearing my glasses. Assuming she may have taken a sideway into the restroom, I stood near the door to the offices. The day school children—all but a few of the 131 of them—were already in the church nave, gathered at the chancel and practicing for the Children’s Christmas service only a few weeks away. They were rehearsing the final hymn, a masterfully orchestrated rendition of “Silent Night,” which, if you’ve ever been to this Office of Evening Prayer service, then you know there is little to compare. Because I’ve participated in it for more than twenty years, I can see it now as I think on it.

The air is cool. The pews are filled. Family and friends sit compactly, yet happily. The nave and sanctuary are dimly lit. The candles throughout are fluttering, each child holding their own light. The Advent and Christmas décor is twinkling. The voices of the children hover above all of it on the pipe organ’s melodies, as if the collective sound is coming from the heavens above, rather than the earth beneath.

It’s always quite moving. Even the rehearsals can carry a listener into divine spaces.

And then I saw my guest. Actually, no. I didn’t see her. I heard her. She was barely a step from the entryway into the narthex—and she was crying. When she saw me approaching, she quickly began wiping the tears away only to begin sobbing more deeply.

“I needed this, today,” she choked. “This is the first thing God gave me when I walked into this place this morning, and I truly needed it.”

I was gentle with my words, making sure there was no shame in the moment. What she was doing was well and good in such a place. The Lord Himself knows I’ve been in similar situations. It can be overwhelming to hear the Gospel wrapped up and delivered in a way that truly communicates its divine origin. Tears are sometimes the soul’s only reply.

We made our way down the hallway to my office. We spent the next hour sipping coffee and talking about a multitude of things. Amidst the confession of some harder histories, she noted there was no place she’d ever experienced like Our Savior. Having been raised Christian, she fell away in the years beyond her 18th birthday. But in these latter days, the need for something more had begun to overwhelm her.

She’d visited countless other churches—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and mostly otherwise—still, she never found herself in a pew or stadium seat that actually communicated a station before eternity. She didn’t say it with the precision that I intend to share right now, but again, I’ve been given permission to tell this story.

Her words crafted a narrative of far too many churches that, by their practices, imply the selling of religion. They sought to draw her closer to their ranks in the same ways the world might try—rock bands, screens, you name it. But in the swirling confusion of their seat-filling stratagem, they never could quite reach that part of her insides that was suffering. Their Gospel of justification before God always seemed wired to her ability to produce good deeds (which, for the wayward, can only default into terror), or by making a personal choice (and yet, how can a spiritual corpse—someone who knows oneself to be dead in trespasses and sins—choose Jesus?). Their sacraments were symbols, bringing very little consolation or certainty to a broken heart in need of more than referring to Jesus, but actually meeting with Him—literally—and knowing He’s there for her.

But at Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan, there was the sense of something unalike to these others.

“Our Savior is so different,” she said, repeatedly. “You’re not like the other places I’ve been.”

For her, the facility in which she was currently seated was different. For her, it not only had a sign that bore the title “church,” but once inside, it seemed to be a dwelling place for someone or something so much more—something holy. And over the course of the several Sundays she’d attended, of the people greeting and sitting beside her, none gave any sense to having been gathered by some sort of baiting impetus. None in the surrounding pews were there because of a lead guitarist with amazing skill. None were there because the pastors were stand-apart showman among a sea of humdrum preachers. None were there for a show.

And she wasn’t, either. She was in search of a place where the Divine might dwell, and her hope was that when she found Him, He’d take her back.

Stirring in this humble hope, she discovered herself sitting, standing, kneeling, praying, confessing, singing beside hundreds of others—acknowledged sinners, just like her—being carried along by a historic liturgy of solemnity and reverence. She was immersed in a service that, while strange in comparison to everything she’d collided with prior, she knew could only have been born from the same soil as countless generations of worshippers before her, a framework that began in the tiny house churches of the first century, built on the teachings of the Apostles and Prophets, all in place and sprouting up through the centuries to aim penitently grieving offenders to a gracious God who desires nothing more than to come and sit with them, to give them a Gospel of power that assures our deeds play no part in our salvation, a Gospel that takes hold of spiritual corpses and brings them to life, a Gospel that heals them and draws them close to the Son of God, Jesus Christ. This is a Gospel that heralds our God as one who holds no ill will for the sinner. He loves us. He forgives us. And He promises to be with us no matter how dark our days may be.

We left the conversation as only the Word of God could rightly describe, with the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7), and we made plans to meet on Thursdays at the same time in order to dig deeper into these things.

So, why I am sharing this with you, especially since in this post-modern, radically individualized age such situations happen frequently enough around here that they can barely be considered peculiar?

Chiefly, because I want to remind the members of my own congregation (and I suppose anyone else who may be on their tiptoes peering through the window of our seemingly mundane, but otherworldly, lives here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan) of two things in particular.

First, be glad that there are churches that still deal in the more reverential realms of “holy.” Be glad there are churches that keep the boundaries between the Church and the culture as crisply distinct as can be. Such places are in the divine business of building foundations for the long haul. Sure, people have the things they like, their preferences, their styles. To each his own, I suppose. “What works for some might not work for others,” we’ll hear said. Still, I wonder if perhaps that’s a somewhat loaded response for protecting a church formed to oneself, a worship community created in one’s own favorite and time-limited self-image. When you’re gone, what’s next? Whatever the next guy likes to do, I guess. True or not, at a minimum, be well aware that people know—they just know—when they’re being entertained as opposed to being led into the substantive presence of a divine Someone who is far deeper than the wowing experientials indistinguishable from the world around them could ever reach. Sure, the self-image ways may speak of Jesus, but do they really point to Him? Do they really give nothing else but Him? Do they make the introduction? And will it last? Will it survive wars? Will it persist even among the prowling monsters of this age and the next? I wonder.

The second reason I share this returns us to the tears being shed in the Narthex. There’s a reason Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan continues putting our time, treasure, and back-breaking muscle into a tuition-free, preschool through eighth grade school. Not only is it an incomparable opportunity set before our community for getting kids out of the mind-bending education system that’s shoving ungodliness down their tiny throats, but most importantly, it stands as a beacon for immersing generations of little ones in the only message that saves. From this, it becomes nothing less than a longstanding avenue for others to hear that same message through those same little ones. All a person has to do is walk in the doors, and it won’t be long before the bright-beaming light of a Christian child will have its effect on the visitor. Children are the consequential emissaries of our school’s existence. And whether this work happens through the Children’s Christmas service, or it happens among their neighborhood friends, or it happens twenty years from now in a conversation with a fellow employee in the neighboring cubicle, what we’re doing here has limitless horizons that prove themselves as thriving in our children right now. And so we put everything into our efforts here. We give it our best. We teach and preach of Christ. We train in Godliness and reverence, learning the rites and ceremonies, the creeds, the prayers, the hymnodies sung by the early Church Fathers and their people before being fed to lions. And we gather all of it up and cherish all of it together as the wonderfully sturdy gift from a loving God that it is.

It becomes a home base for the kind of Christianity that doesn’t roll over, whether it’s before the next big distracting, anthropocentric, contemporary trend, or it’s an armed regiment sent by Caesar to snatch you away to your mortal doom.

Advent Recalibrates Us

We’ve arrived at the season of Advent. The Christian Church Year has begun anew.

Of course here at Our Savior, it’s a favorite time. This is true not only as we find ourselves brimming with excitement for Christmas—the bright-beaming décor and the colorful adornments—but because we’re conscious of the season’s purpose, and we know the deeper, recalibrating consequence Advent is in place to deliver into our lives.

It sets a very important pace for the whole Church Year.

If Advent were just about getting ready for Christmas, the season’s prescribed readings would betray such an inclination. But they don’t. They’re fuller than that. Advent’s very first Gospel reading—the Palm Sunday reading from Matthew 21—is proof. As was preached yesterday:

Starting off the new Church Year by going straight to Palm Sunday teaches that we live our lives as Christians in a perpetual Holy Week. Everything and anything we do and say from the First Sunday in Advent to the Last Sunday in the Church Year is in motion toward the cross of Jesus Christ.

Advent helps to join our hopeful anticipation of the evening long ago when the Savior of the world was born to the dreadful day on Golgotha’s hill when that same Savior went into the darkness of sin and was crucified, winning our confidence against the looming reality of the day when Jesus will return and the world will be judged.

Advent preaches both the first and the second comings of Christ.

With such preaching, along comes the Law and Gospel, sin and grace, real warning and real hope that humans need. I suppose many church-goers, like the world around us, might prefer we remain in the frothier upland of “Jingle Bells” and such. But Advent digs deeper than that. It’s honest. It doesn’t hold back on the harder news of our spiritual blindness. Advent more than remembers the sightlessness of the sin-nature. The Word of God is clear that without the recreating work of the Holy Spirit by the Gospel message of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, the Savior is unknowable to us (John 1:9-10). In fact, by default, according to the sin-nature, we’re not even the least bit interested in knowing Him (Romans 8:7). We haven’t the slightest morsel of interest for seeking the love that God is bringing. But that right there is perhaps a wonderful glimpse the beautifully balanced gilding of Advent’s. Shakespeare said it well. “Love sought is good, but giv’n unsought is better” (Twelfth Night, III, i, 170). We did not seek the Lord’s love, but He reached to us in Jesus and gave it anyway.

When this message has its way with us, it changes the nature of things. The blur of sorts remains, but now as believers, it isn’t one that doesn’t know what’s coming. It isn’t one that doesn’t know where to discover this hope that helps us see clearly. We’re waiting for Christmas. We can’t see it yet, but we know it’s coming. And when it arrives, we know the substance of the celebration. We’re waiting for Holy Week. We’re not there yet, but we know it will arrive. When it does, we know its innermost drive. We’re always watching for the Last Day. It hasn’t arrived yet. But still, when it does, we’ll be ready.

“Your light will break forth like the dawn,” the Prophet Isaiah says of these things. Paul speaks similarly when he describes us as looking through a dimly lit glass (1 Corinthians 13:12). Both Isaiah and Paul mean to say that even as we are waiting, by faith in Christ, each of these moments already sits at the edge of arrival—and we’re ready.

Believers know this stuff. It’s craziness to the world. But for us, everything is different now.

For those who were with us in the Adult Bible study yesterday, you’ll remember I mentioned that I feel bad for churches that don’t use lectionaries or follow the Church Year Calendar. Those churches are more likely to miss these imports of Advent. They’re more likely to get immersed in a pastor’s favorite topics, being fed anecdote after useless anecdote about anything and everything except a determined preaching of Christ crucified for transgressions—which is the heartbeat of the whole Church Year and its Lectionary, the first of its cadence beginning with Advent.

A four week sermon series on how to be a better tither at Christmas just seems to miss the mark.

By the way, since I mentioned Paul and his dimly light glass, and thinking on a church that knows how to observe Advent in comparison to one that doesn’t, all of this sort of reminds me of a scene from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

———-

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.

“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people by this light!”

———-

The scene above might not be the tightest fit, but it did come to mind while typing. Even if only slightly, it reveals that while we and the world might be seeing the same things, we have completely dissimilar interpretations.

And so, in the end, what’s the message here? I don’t know. Again, I’m just typing stuff. I guess boiling it down, consider this visitation with the topics of Advent, the Church Year, and the prescribed readings of the Lectionary as an encouragement to go to church. Don’t just make plans for Christmas. Immerse yourself in Advent, too. You need what the season offers—perhaps more than you might’ve been taught to know.

A Love Affair with the Word

My son, Harrison, is quite the comedy-crafter.

Notice I didn’t say “comedian.” He’s not one for being on a stage and telling the jokes—at least, not yet. At this point in his life, he’s more for thinking through what he sees, stealing away the essentials, and coming up with a few lines here and there that would make for a pretty interesting routine once collected.

He’s pun-crafting royalty, too, so watch out. Anything you say might come back to you giftwrapped in genuine “dad” humor. Personally, this characteristic, alongside the fact that he’s a Christian, more than certifies him for being a great and future candidate for marriage to a young woman desiring a family.

Also, he bears a stranger curvature to his comedy. He’ll tell jokes—original and learned—that are often outside the boundaries of comedy expectations. They might not even make much sense, but the way he delivers them is often what makes them so funny. For example, not all that long ago at dinner, Harrison told the following joke to the family, and his mother has officially declared it as one of her favorites. But again, I’m guessing that much of her favor rests in the way he tells it, because in the end, the joke is rather ridiculous.

Here’s the joke…

What do bicycles and ducks have in common? They both have handlebars. Except for the duck.

Now, I don’t know if this joke is a Harrison original or if he heard it from someone else, but just the way he said it had the whole family laughing. It’s a ridiculous joke, but Harry told it with perfect timing and in a way that shows he loves telling it. Now we love it, too.

I don’t want to get too cerebral here, but as I watched Harry perform, it reminded me of something.

When it comes to my job as a preacher, many years ago I took a lesson from Richard B. Hays, a Professor of New Testament at Duke. He shared a personal story that, for me, was secretly influential. He wrote:

“When I was an undergraduate at Yale University, students flocked to Alvin Kernan’s lecture courses on Shakespeare. Kernan’s work predated the academy’s current infatuation with ideological criticism. Even though it was the late 1960s and we were living in an atmosphere charged with political suspicion and protest, none of this overtly impinged on Kernan’s lectures. Kernan was not a flashy lecturer. What, then, was the draw? He loved the texts.”

Hays went on to say:

“(Kernan’s) teaching method, as I remember it, was simply to engage in reflective close readings… delineating their rich texture of image and metaphor and opening up their complex themes – moral, philosophical, and religious. Often, Kernan would devote a significant part of his lecture time to reading the text aloud, not in a highly dramatic manner, but with sensitivity to the texts’ rhythms and semantic nuances. I would often sit in class thinking, ‘Oh, I hadn’t heard that in the text before.’ And I would leave the class pondering the problems that Shakespeare addressed: love, betrayal, fidelity, sacrifice, death, and hope.”

Hays makes the point that, yes, Kernan was considered an expert on Shakespeare. But he also points to the fact that being an expert didn’t make Kernan a fruitful teacher. It was Kernan’s loving devotion to the texts of Shakespeare that helped in this regard. When he wasn’t teaching Shakespeare, he was reading Shakespeare and enjoying it for himself, and this shaped his telling of the story when he was among others. Yes, a thorough knowledge of Shakespeare was important when it came to being trusted as an expert, but it was the love of the material—and the display of such love to others—that made all the difference. Kernan’s students could tell his expertise was far deeper than a PhD. They could see his knowledge and love were inseparable, and with that, his disposition was contagious.

I think this meets with us as Christians.

As it meets with my role as a Christian preacher, I recognize that when it comes to the Word of God, when I step into the pulpit, the assumption by the listener is that I’m the “expert.” Of course I should anticipate this assumption without needing to read Hays’ words. But because of his words, I have a different awareness. I’m mindful of the variance between the rigidity of preaching a “Law-Gospel, non-heretical, all-the-right-Lutheran-keywords” sermon and a sermon born from a Word of God with which I’ve had a genuine love affair during the time spent preparing for the preaching task. In other words, the sermon-writing process has become not only one of study, but of finding the angles in the writing process for communicating just how much I love the source material I’m preparing to share with the listener. Excitement for the task builds, and from it comes a genuine desire on my part for the person in the pews to know that the guy in the pulpit loves to tell you what he’s telling you, and he wants you to love it as much as he does.

I suppose I should add that sermons birthed in this way do, in fact, produce “Law-Gospel, non-heretical, all-the-right-Lutheran-keywords” results.

As all of this meets with the listener in the pews, you can beam your relationship to the Word of God with the same care. First, know that I’m not saying you need to go out into the world and be a zealous, in-your-face pest about your love for the Word of God. For most regular human beings with whom you’ll come into contact, that can and probably will backfire on you. In other words, I like cats. But there is the stereotypical cat-lover who wears nothing but cat sweatshirts, drinks from cat coffee mugs, has cat posters in his or her cubicle, names their cactus “cat,” snacks on Purina Cat Chow during office breaks, and has a license plate that says “CATLOVR.” Those folks have a way of making me somewhat annoyed with the topic of cats, and I may even discover myself whispering the words from Shakespeare which say, “I do desire we may be better strangers.”

I suppose what I’m saying is far simpler. I’m thinking that as you go about your day filled with opportunities for displaying Biblical stances in relation to various topics and situations, there will be people crossing your path who can tell the difference between a Christian who knows the Word and a Christian who is in a deep love with the Word—between someone who can recite that the Word of God is the divinely inspired, inerrant, and immutable truth and someone who would lay down his or her life before allowing such truth to be snatched away because those same truths are intricately woven into the fabric of their very being.

I’ll add in conclusion, my theory is that this distinction between Christians is going to become more and more vivid in America as time goes on. Persecution is increasing, and as it does, it has a way of revealing such things.

The Word is the Key

The sky is far cloudier these days. The leaves are falling. The air is brisk.

Autumn is upon us.

I was speaking with a member of our congregation on Friday afternoon about how beautiful fall is in Michigan. In fact, if there’s one constructive thing you can say about Michigan’s climate, it just might be that the autumnal color change is rather spectacular. In full bloom, there’s eye candy everywhere. You don’t see this out west, and you certainly can’t experience it to this extent in the southern states.

I’ve often found it humorous the differences between groups of people calibrated by the climates of their states. For example, here in Michigan you may still discover people wearing shorts and t-shirts in this fall weather. But you won’t have any difficulty identifying a recently transplanted citizen of Florida. When you hear their teeth chattering in 50 degree weather, you’re likely to discover them in a winter coat and gloves.

“We are children of our landscape,” Lawrence Durrell said. “It dictates our behavior.”

How true.

I think this is spot-on in a much deeper sense, though—in a sin-nature sense—and it’s a lesson easily learned.

Again, for example, Tuesday was challenging for me. I’d experienced a series of difficult discussions with various individuals throughout the day. One in particular involved a visitor to the church doors. She came asking for me by name. (I suppose I should be more prepared for such interactions these days.) A discussion unfolded. By the time it was over, I’ll admit to having been so completely frustrated with the assumptions she’d made toward me and this congregation I love. After she was gone, I experienced one of those moments of questioning the value of my remaining in the pastoral office at all.

I felt helpless to convince her of anything.

At every turn of the discussion, no matter what I said, she just wouldn’t be convinced. She would continue to return to her premises of disgust with me. And the nicer I got, the more disgusted she seemed to become. She was so well-entrenched in a frame of mind that she was incapable of adapting to the environment of my tenor or understanding. Eventually she staked her position’s claim as one formed from basic human reality. In other words, she admitted to being who she was because of the climate of her own life—her experiences, her upbringing, her job, and even her former marriage.

But these kinds of things were the only components in the formula that comprised her reality.

Of course, all of us we must concede that we exist as products of our experiences. These things shape who we are in some pretty significant ways. Still, Christians are different. We aren’t limited to these alone. There’s another component we possess that carries us from one human climate to another. It gives us the ability to acclimate and understand in almost every scenario because it gives us the ability to see things as they truly are. The processional hymn we sang here at Our Savior yesterday set it before us by the words:

For faith we praise You, Lord,
From Spirit-opened hearts;
Pierced by Your two-edged sword
And all its truth imparts.
All Scripture is breathed out by You
Is meant for all and not for few
Is treasure old, yet ever new.

That component is the Word of God for faith.

The Word of God is the lens for observing and interpreting our experiences, our upbringings, our jobs, and everything else about our lives in this world—even interactions with people we might consider enemies. Without God’s Word, we can’t see just how skewed our perspectives truly are. We can’t truly know the deepest and most dangerous effects of the sin-nature mixed into mankind’s reality. Through the lens of the Bible, we can. Most importantly, we can know our need for rescue, and we can know the One sent to do the rescuing—Jesus Christ. By this Gospel, we can even be those who walk away from a frustrating conversation with an enemy having learned something from them about the world and our place in it. Baltazar Gracian was right when he said that wise people learn from their enemies, while fools only learn from their friends. The Word of God is the avenue for such wisdom.

In that moment at the door here at Our Savior, it’s true that I once again experienced the disquieting distinction between someone with an agenda shaped by the world and someone with an agenda shaped by God’s Word. We saw things very differently, and as we concluded, I was enabled to bid her farewell in kindness, while she was poised only to walk away making sure I knew she considered me to be a backwater, closed-minded jerk. Being treated that way hurts. But it doesn’t have to hurt for long. I’ve had time to reflect on the scene by way of the Word of God. And looking back, I know the only power for being at peace in those moments came by the power of the Holy Spirit given for faith. That faith was instilled by the Gospel born from God’s Word. The woman was who she was—and treated me the way she did—because of an equation that lacked that crucial component. I am who I am—and I treated her the way I did—because I have been changed by the divine revelation of God’s Word, and in a very real way, have been set free from the need to win the argument. I’m bound, instead, to be faithful.

That’s part of what Jesus meant when He said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

I don’t know if what I’m sharing here is of any use to you. Perhaps I’m overthinking the entire event. Although, as I said, it was jarring enough that I left it feeling pretty deflated and thinking that if this is the level of success I’m going to continue to experience among outsiders who are increasingly hostile to Christians who desire nothing more than to practice according to the Holy Scriptures, there are better things a guy like me could be doing with his life.

But again, the Word of God is to interpret this, not my reason or senses. First, I need to keep in mind that Jesus said the world will hate me because it hated Him first (John 15:18-25). That’s important to remember. Second, I’m reminded not to give up. The writer to the Hebrews urges us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (vv. 1-3). And lastly, I know that my words will never convert or convince an opponent’s heart. Only the Gospel can do that (Romans 1:16). And so I speak as faithfully and fully as I can, and then I trust that the Holy Spirit will accomplish accordingly. I can’t force the Gospel. I can only tell it, and then hope for the other person’s salvation as I’m glad for my own.

Recalling these things brings peace—and not the kind of peace that exists in the absence of war, but rather the kind of peace that exists right in the middle of the mess, the kind that contains a disposition toward others that seeks their good rather than their demise, even as they’d just as soon drive over me with their car. This kind of peace remains benevolent and kind, respectful and discerning—not because that’s who we are by nature, but because that’s who Jesus has made us to be. In that peace, we can rest our heads on our pillows at night knowing not to take the attacks too personally. The attackers may appear to have our names etched into their weapons, but that’s only because Christ has etched our names into the Book of Life.

Declared Innocent

Greeting cards are designed to communicate a crisp point in a few short words. In order to do this, they deliberately choose language that does not require much interpretation. In the words of somebody somewhere, “If you’ve used ten words, you’ve already used five more than you needed.”

Okay, so maybe I just made that up.

Anyway…

I received a greeting card in the mail last week from someone who attended our recent “The Body of Christ and the Public Square” conference. It was a kind gesture, one that was offered in gratitude for the boldness of this congregation as she continues to be a beacon in the gales of an ever-turbulent and ever-encroaching world.

Printed inside the card was a short bit from God’s Word. The text in particular was from Proverbs 28:1, which reads: “The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”

I’m guessing that the card manufacturer chose this particular text for the innards of a greeting card heralding courage most likely because it sounded good. I’m guessing the card-maker figured the text was fitting solely because of contrasting keywords like “flee” and “bold.” I’ll bet the word “lion” played a part, too. I suppose with this pre-packaged frame of mind, indeed, one could garner an image of courage in the face of struggle from this text.

Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that’s the meaning of this text..

The point of this text is the cold-truth examination of the distinction between guilt and forgiveness—wickedness and righteousness.

“The wicked flee though no one pursues…”

You know this feeling. This is guilt. It’s the feeling that people are looking at you, and they’re not just giving a glance, but rather they’re staring right into you. It’s the sense they know something about you. It’s the fear that at any moment they’ll discover the real you, who you really are deep down inside—the scars of your past, the dreadful memories you wish you could jettison into space. Guilt keeps you thinking that at any moment they’ll figure it out and come for you, and when they do, you’ll have to fess up, you’ll have to confess to the crimes and publically confront the shame you already know you deserve.

Or you could just cut and run before it happens. You could hold tightly to your guilt and flee before anyone gives chase. You could hide in the darkness with your shame.

Guilt brings this kind of inner terror and unending turmoil. With a subtle crafting of words, King Solomon paints it as seemingly foolish in Proverbs 28:1.

But then why in this inspired Word of God wouldn’t Solomon just go ahead and use the term “guilty” instead of “wicked”? Even further, in the text’s immediate counterpart, why not just say “innocent” instead of “righteous”?

Well, because the Holy Spirit certifies God’s Word as being far richer than that. He’s gathering various truths for us. He’s bridging certain gaps. He’s carrying us to a better plateau for a much fuller view of the world, ourselves, and our God.

In a simple way, we are to know that according to our sin-nature, we are guilty, and because of this, we must be counted among the wicked. To be wicked is to be tallied among the unrighteous and apart from God. This is a word of warning. It depicts the high drama of standing alone before the One who has every right to judge and punish us. In this, we find ourselves at a crossroads. One road leads along the foolish way of unnecessary turmoil in guilt. The other is a far different way. It’s first few pavers step along with Saint John, saying, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

The penitent Christians who are trusting in Christ and the forgiveness He gives are equipped for a better grasp of Proverbs 28:1. Such Christians are well aware of the impinging sadness of guilt. We are well aware of Sin’s daily attempts to pall the entirety of our existence. We know how easily it is to get caught in its web. In fact, we know it so well, we can chime along with someone like Cardinal de Richelieu who said, “Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him.”

Christians know that of our own selves there is nothing good in us. Most importantly, we know the utter foolishness and haunting dread that infiltrates our lives when we deny this truth and run from it.

“…but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”

To be righteous is to be acquitted of our crimes. It is to be declared innocent. Before God, the innocent have nothing to fear. Christians know what this means, too. It means we know how this innocence has come about. We know that in the person and work of Jesus Christ, our unrighteousness has been exchanged for His righteousness. Through faith in Him, even as some might hound and accuse us, we cannot be found guilty. Paradoxically, are we guilty? Yes. Faith in Christ is humble, and it acknowledges the ever-present need for His mercy. And yet, are we innocent? Absolutely. Skip backward a single verse in the above text from 1 John and you’ll hear the apostle telling us that “the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin” (v.7).

The Christian is now recrafted for a fearless admitting to the sinner/saint reality.

This divine knowledge is only born of the Gospel, and it produces lion-sized nerve in the face of anyone or anything that would seek to bind us to our sins and cause us to fear for our eternity.

As you can see, I appreciated the greeting card. It was a nice gesture. And in the end, it was an opportunity for thoughtful reflection, as well as an occasion for observing the truest platform for Godly courage.

I pray for this courage every day, and in those petitions, I ask the same for the people in my care. I do this already knowing that God is faithful, and that we have nothing to fear because of Jesus. His death and resurrection makes it so the burden of guilt and the frightful urge to run away begin to subside, and in place of that fear, a lion’s heart starts pumping. The Gospel of God’s merciful care feeds the wildcat’s muscles for immovability, and he’s found enabled for facing off with any accuser.

In short, the one hunted by his sin becomes the hunter, and that, dear Christians, is quite comforting.

Unearthly Courage

It was quite the lineup we had on Saturday. Charlie Kirk—someone I don’t know that well, but have gotten to know much better in the past few days—he did a splendid job. Dinesh D’Souza and Rafael Cruz—both men that I know and respect and call friends—they, of course, spoke to the issues facing the Church with passion and clarity. They were inspirational in so many ways, and their verve was contagious.

Then there was Jack Phillips. And I must say, I’m not the same man I was before I met Jack.

For those of you who attended, you know it sometimes took Jack a minute or two to find the words he wanted to say. And when he finally reached to where the words were hiding, he took them, wrapped them in an easy gentleness, and handed them to us in a way that warmed all in the room. The love in his family and the story of his new life in Christ made us all smile. Sometimes we gave a chuckle as he attempted to add humor in his descriptions of situations of sheer terror. Other times he brought us to tears as we saw him doing what he could to hold back his own.

After he and his lawyer, Jake Warner, were done speaking, I took Jack back to the green room so he and his wife, Debi, could rest a little before lunch. While there, we visited a little further on some things. Before I left to get back to the conference, I confessed to Jack that for all the good he is doing for the cause of Religious Liberty in America—and specifically in the moment for my own congregation and the community in which she is serving in so many ways as the tip of the spear—I confessed that I don’t think I like being responsible for Jack and Debi having to relive the horrors they’ve endured. The death threats. Terrorized children and grandchildren. The six-figure debts. The years in court he’ll never get back. The verbal attacks and the vitriol he endures day after day. The badgering from his own state rulers and the constant dread of a new lawsuit threatening to shatter everything he holds dear and to bury him in hateful rubble. With each moment that he struggled to communicate to us the seriousness of his predicament and the concern he has that the same things are facing many of us, too—each of his words being born from a severe and tortuous pain—I was sad that he was called upon to retell it. I wanted him to know how thankful I truly was that he took the time to be with us, and I told him I would forever be his servant in the Lord. He needed only to call me—anytime—and I’d be there to help, to speak, to pray, to listen.

Jack shook my hand and smiled. He thanked me and in a few short words reminded me that even as it hurts to tell the story again and again, such care from others makes it better. And ultimately, Jesus has already figured it all out. With that, everything will be okay. In the meantime, as a Christian family, we’re in this together.

Before worship yesterday, my own devotions began with a portion from Ephesians 3:16, which reads: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being…” Luther offered the following regarding those words:

“Worldly people are full of courage and of high spirits, and so are Christians. Christians are much stronger through the Holy Spirit, for they fear neither the world nor the devil, neither death nor misfortune. This is called spiritual strength… Worldly courage endures no longer than there is some earthly good on which to rely; but the true courage trusts in God alone and has no other good or gold than God alone; in Him it withstands all evil and wins an altogether different heart and courage from that of the world.”

It would seem that we need that unearthly courage more than ever before these days. Those who attended the conference were fortunate enough to see such courage in full bloom in Jack and Debi Phillips.

This reminds me of something. Do you remember the shooting incident at the outdoor concert in Las Vegas a few years ago? Such a horrific tragedy. A day or so after the ungodly event, I remember reading a news article about reporter interviewing a survivor of the incident who offered some startling words. The survivor said, “I arrived at the concert an agnostic. I’m leaving a believer.”

While I don’t know the fullness of what the person meant by that, I assume from the context that his agnostic beliefs (which is the belief that it’s impossible to know whether or not there is a God, and so the person neither claims faith nor disbelief) this man’s position changed to one that admits God is real. Whether he saw God at work through the people involved in the rescue and caring for others (Matthew 5), or he was willing to admit that only devilry could move a heart to such darkness, thereby inferring such evil must have an opponent, whichever it was, this man took a step toward recognizing this world is coming undone and it needs rescue.

Yesterday, Sunday, those of you who made it to church here at Our Savior, you heard the Good News of that rescue. We were blessed to have some visiting clergy. Reverend Rahn from the Lutheran Heritage Foundation, and Bishop Peter Anibati, the Bishop of the South Sudanese Lutheran Church, were both with us. Reverend Rahn preached the Gospel, and as he did, you met with and received from the One—Jesus Christ—who provides for the rescue of a world steeped in terror. Last week you heard me preach, quite literally, that on the cross, Christ gave Himself over—horrifyingly, grotesquely, vividly. He plunged into Death’s mouth, down its throat, and into its belly to be digested. From there, he was the poison that killed Death. And then He tore back up and out of Death’s corpse by way of His resurrection at Easter. You were told by way of the story of the Widow of Nain that never before has there ever been someone who could contend with the terrors of this world, namely Death, and win. And yet, the Gospel declares that the day has come, and the One who can do it is Jesus. The week before that, Pastor Zwonitzer delivered the same Good News of incredible power. Receiving a steady diet of this Gospel here at Our Savior, whether you realize it or not, you are being forearmed for meeting with a world that would seek to crush and utterly destroy you. You are being fed by His Word and Sacraments for the courage Luther described in the portion above. This supernatural food meets you where you are, and it instills the very message that supersedes the world’s hope and gives true Christian hope.

This is the same kind of hope many of you saw beaming brightly from Jack and his lovely wife, Debi—two of the humblest, and yet fiercest, heroes in American Christianity. Period.

My prayer for you, dearest Christian, is that even as you go about your day and week and are confronted by struggles—as you watch and listen to the newscasts, as you behold the sadness, the terror, the creeping hopelessness that seems to pall a Christian’s world day after day—my prayer is that you would first be calmed by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, which is a message not just of God’s existence, but one that actually displays and works His wonderful love revealed in Jesus Christ and His life, death, and resurrection. Sturdied by this, emboldened by this, made courageous by this and by this alone, go out into the world to be salt and light. Be the ones whom God will use to show a suffering world that He exists, He loves us, and He has reached out to us in our moment of greatest need. Be emitters of a Gospel that proclaims that on the cross, Jesus has already figured it all out, and with that, everything will be okay. And in the meantime, as a Christian family, take comfort in knowing we’re in this together. In Him, no matter the terrors that appear to consume this fallen world, we are and have been well cared for in and through the person and work of our rescuer, Jesus Christ.

God Forgets

I’m not sure what it is about the month of October this year. It’s almost as if something otherworldly has been perching in the branches of the trees—something dark—and as the leaves have begun falling away, the menacing creature has been exposed and is now swooping down to stir the hearts of God’s people to sadness.

I speak these words with great seriousness.

Within the past week or so, no small number of people—not only members of my own congregation, but others beyond our borders—have sought me out in order to confess haunting sins of the past. These deep-reaching glooms seem to have a permanent grip on their hearts and minds, and perhaps worse, are feasting on their joyful hope.

It’s no surprise. Guilt is a demonic beastie. He’s sturdy. He’s ferocious. He’s versatile. He’s enduring. He’s stealthy. Perhaps worst of all, he remembers everything. He observes the events of our past and present—everything that creates our history—and he records it in his ledger. The ledger has dates, times, images—everything needful for our indictment.

Of course, he doesn’t perform his work alone. Regret labors beside him. He’s equal to Guilt’s skill. Together, they scheme. They step in tandem. They slink into our circles of existence, and knowing the opportune moments, they strike. One and then the other. They grab hold, and as one shoves the ledger’s ugly and accusing contents in our faces, the other injects a stinging venom of hopelessness—the shameful memories, the disgraceful offenses, the reprehensible wounds on the soul so easily re-torn and bloodied.

In the scuffle with these fiends, it would seem the scene’s fittest description belongs to James Joyce, who said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Guilt and Regret are no small things. They’re real and they’re ruthless.

Still, I’m glad people have approached me—a Christian pastor—for help with these things. Not that I’m above the assaults of Guilt and Regret, or that I’m somehow immune to the venomous doses they’d try to administer. Believe me. I’m not. I know my own sins and I know them well. But I do have the antidote. And I’ve been tasked with keeping it on hand for you, too. The One in whose stead I stand—Jesus Christ—has charged me with bringing to others the only thing that can neutralize the venom and outmatch the darkly creatures of Guilt and Regret.

The Gospel.

Only the Gospel can bring these things into submission. A vacation can’t outwit them. They’ll be with you all along the way. Drugs and alcohol can’t do it. When the fog of inebriation lifts, they’ll be there to serve you another drink or give you another hit. Mortal distractions—a movie, a song, a favorite book—as nice as they might be, still, they can’t outrun them. When the credits are rolling, the last song fades, and the hardcover closes, they’ll be ready to resume their feasting.

Only the Gospel can meet these monsters.

Only the Good News that Jesus Christ has taken upon Himself all of our sins of past, present, and future can meet these monsters each and every day right where they are and exceed their command. Only the powerful message of Christ crucified in our place—the message of His deed of immeasurable mercy—can clad the Christian heart and mind with the steely knowledge that Jesus has shackled Guilt and Regret to an inevitable end in darkness far from the glories of heaven. This same Gospel clears the penitent sinner’s cloudy sky, urging him or her to recall that even as Guilt and Regret remember everything, the only One who has the authority to grant entrance into heaven forgets.

“I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12).

God forgets the sins of those who’ve been forgiven. And even as we so often try to present before Him our atrocious histories, He is far too preoccupied with the white robe of righteous we are wearing by repentant faith. He is far too mindful of you being His absolved child, and with that, the case on your sins has been closed. There is nothing left to discuss in the matter. Not that He won’t discuss it with you, of course. You belong with Him, and He loves you. When you’re hurting, He wants to help you. But as far as your sins are concerned, He’ll tell you the same thing I’m telling you—which is that no matter what you’ve done, the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ has sealed the deal on eternity for all who believe in Him. No one can accuse you with any legitimacy—not in heaven, in hell, or in between. This means that at this very moment—and in every moment—you can live in the joyful freedom that “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).

If you’re going to remember anything, let it be that.