Tearing Down the Tower of Self-Interest

We’ve experienced a handful of very busy weeks here at Our Savior. And while I’ll admit they have unquestionably resulted in accomplishments about which we can all smile with Godly pride, the labor leading up to them is still being felt. We’re all pretty tired. It takes a lot of work to pull together three major events—an all-day conference of national newsmakers, a banquet with the same, and a debate between two tier-one thinkers—all in a single weekend. But by God’s grace, we did it.

Along the way, I joked multiple times with Georgine, the office administrator and right hand in all things around here, that if we actually live through what we’re trying to do, then little else would be impossible for this congregation to achieve. Although, each time I said those words, I immediately recanted by saying we ought not for one second be partners in thought, word, or deed with the architects of the Tower of Babel, believing that we can somehow be and do whatever we determine apart from God’s holy will. This is God’s work. All of it. We’re tools in His hands. When it becomes about our own achievements, we will be toppled and dispersed. And deservingly so.

There’s an important image revealed by this conversation. It tells of the tragic conflict of loyalties in the human heart, and you’d be fooling yourself if you think it’s not there. In fact, I’ve witnessed it a handful of times here at Our Savior even within the last few weeks alone—people upset with one another over some pretty trivial things, and then by way of that anger, falling prey to the human tendency to be loyal to the self rather than God.

In the midst of this, a tower is discovered, one built by self-interest, even though as Christians, all of us should already know the Bible teaches that God targets such edifices for destruction.

I blame much of the current contention on the seeds of fear that COVID-19 and its many disciples continue to sow in our world. It certainly has been a handy instrument in the devil’s symphony of dread. Even in Christian communities, the people are on edge, and with that, the slightest discomforting nudge appears to be all that’s required for sending a person to one side or another of any innocuous issue, ultimately seeing them careening into combat with another human being who’s trying just as hard as the first to endure.

So what do we do?

Well, I suppose the first thing we need to do is to thank God that by His holy Law, He has not hidden our propensities from us. We can know to confess our intimate roles in the fellowship of human wickedness. We can enter into every situation knowing we are by no means innocent of the worldwide curse of Sin. And then, even as we confess our innate dreadfulness, as Christians, we do it cognizant that the Lord has already reached to us by the Gospel to make us into someone new. That’s how we were able to confess our sinfulness in the first place, because we understand the contention between our inner loyalties much better now than before faith. We know the grappling of the sinner/saint relationship. And so Saint Paul makes sense when he urges us by the power of the Holy Spirit in faith to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).

The second thing we can do is to realize the richness of such a good Word of God. In particular, we can walk away from it admitting that human vanity—loyalty to the old self—can play some pretty serious tricks on how we interpret (or even remember) situations in which we found ourselves in conflict with others. Admit it. During the time of reflection that immediately follows conflict, after the dust has settled and you’ve stormed off, often it is you’ll discover that the only way to comfort yourself is with egoistic self-coddling—by reminding yourself over and over again that you’re the good guy, that you’re not trying to cause problems, that in all circumstances you are the victim and the other person is the real offender. One of my favorite poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, spoke to this when he wrote, “And the devil did grin, for his darling sin, is pride that apes humility” (The Devil’s Thoughts, 1799).

In the situations I’m describing, this goes nowhere. Well, actually, let me rephrase that. It does go somewhere. It adds unsteady blocks to self’s flimsy tower, building upward, higher and higher, until God comes along and topples it. And He warns us that He’s aiming to do this: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18), and “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled…” (Matthew 23:12). Sometimes, because we know ourselves to be sinners, this word of warning resonates and we’re able to get out of the building, sparing the relationships we’ve jeopardized and salvaging our reputations, all before it crashes to the ground. But it’s also not beyond us sometimes to let our allegiance remain with what we’ve built, and then we discover we’re still inside the structure when it falls. In those circumstances, human relationships and standings are shredded by the tumbling debris, and there is nothing but devastation to be had.

But it’s our own fault. We knew better. We knew to put on the new self and work to fix the problem, knowing that God had already promised to bless our efforts toward faithfulness (Luke 11:28). And what were we arguing about anyway? Did it have anything to do with Christological things? Doctrinal things? Life and death things? Heaven and hell things? No? Then that’s even more concerning. If you’re balancing the stability of your place in the Christian community and throwing relationships into the trash because you prefer purple carpeting in the fellowship hall while your opponent prefers green, then you have a serious personality problem. Even worse, if now no matter what that opponent says or does, he can only irritate you and you begrudgingly despise him every time you see him, then you have a serious personality problem. You’re the kind of person who can harbor hatred. That kind of person beholds commandments four through ten—all the ones that steer us toward loving our neighbor—as lining up to be broken. You only need the opportunities to present themselves.

That’s not putting on the new self. That’s dressing up the old self and going out for a night on the town.

But again, what do we do?

Well, the answer remains the same. Repent and receive the Lord’s world-altering forgiveness. From there, know that a Christian will now be found operating very differently in the world around him.

There’s another important piece to what Saint Paul wrote in the text I mentioned from Ephesians 4. He wrote:

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (vv.26-27).

In other words, no matter what is at the heart of the conflict between two Christians, don’t slow-boil yourself in anger by refusing to sort things out. That’s another sign that you might be holed up in your wobbly tower. Get to work solving it. The longer you wait, the easier it is for the devil to stir your vanity and make you comfortable in your insubstantial pride.

And by the way, Ephesians 4:26-27 is not a difficult bit of Scripture to understand. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the easier ones in holy writ to grasp.

I suppose lastly, recognize that every Christian community is comprised of multiple personalities. God makes it that way for a reason. He places some among us who are more patient than others. Some are more imposing than others. Some are meant to be helpers, others are destined to be leaders. But no matter who’s laboring side by side, when all are firing in time as people of faith serving toward the same goal of being in alignment with God’s will, then all will be bearing their proper place in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), and the only tower to be toppled will be the one the devil is trying to build in the middle of it all. In that beautiful scene, God will be found continually tearing down that demonic rascal’s houses. And if we’re going to be wearing our hard hats and laboring in a demolition zone, then that’s the one we want to be in.

The Feast of All Saints – Go To Church

“Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say” (1 Corinthians 10:14).

Saint Paul wrote those words to the Corinthian church just as he was about to begin explaining the doctrine of Altar Fellowship, which when you really get down to the nuts and bolts of it, is all about the significance of what is happening in Holy Worship, namely, the Lord’s Supper.

This comes to mind this morning because, well, Paul’s words just felt right. They form a very short statement, easily understood by any and every Christian taking time to read this note.

If you haven’t been to church in a while, there’s a Sunday on the horizon I’d like to encourage you to consider aiming for as your return date.

A few Sundays from now—November 1—the Holy Christian Church will be celebrating All Saints’ Day. If you have plans to be somewhere else—or to do something else—might I encourage you to reconsider your plans? This time, instead of arranging your schedule to accommodate moments that will only get in the way of worship—which is to be idolatrous—consider arranging your schedule to accommodate the forgiveness of sins delivered by Christ in the sure and certain location He has promised to give it: Word and Sacrament made available in holy worship. Skip those things that would get in the way of pursuing that which gives to you all that Christ has won by virtue of His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

In fact, I challenge you that if you have been away for a while, make All Saints Sunday the day you return.

To accept this challenge, you’ll need to take a quick look in the mirror and recognize that you need to be there. You need to be there, firstly, because of the idolatrous tendencies you possess. We all possess them, and they’re evidenced by our creative excuse-making and subsequent absences. But secondly, know you need to be there because, by virtue of your Baptism into the fellowship of Saints, you actually belong there. It’s God’s home, and because you are a part of His family by faith, it’s your home, too. It’s where your real family lives, and you belong with your family.

Rest assured, if you’ve been away for a while, and because of this, you feel a little uneasy in returning, you won’t be alone in the uneasiness when you do finally reemerge. In fact, think of it this way. In the Confession at the beginning of the Divine Service, every Christian in the room, if they know what the Confession is all about, will drop to his or her knees alongside all the others. Together they’ll bow their heads. They’ll close their eyes. They’ll confess together that everyone in the room, by their thoughts, words, and deeds, are members of the fellowship of sinful humanity; by the things they’ve done and the things they’ve left undone. They’ll confess this together. And again, being a sinner myself, I can assure you that when we all go to our knees in this way, we’ll all have good reasons to do so. All will have plenty of causes for feeling the uneasy need to participate.

You won’t be alone. You won’t stand out. You won’t be different.

But there’s something else you should know.

After the sea of penitent voices speaking in solemn sadness goes quiet, you will hear a single voice—your pastor’s voice—and it will be for you as the Lord’s own voice announcing you need not fear. You need not be uneasy. You need not be afraid. Through repentance and faith in His merciful love, you belong with Him, and He will not push you away, but rather will embrace you as His own—because you are His own. He loves you, forgives you, and He stands ready to lift you to your feet by His absolving Word.

And He’ll do just that.

On All Saints’ Day, at least if you’re in a Lutheran Church of any substance, when you rise to your feet, you’ll acknowledge your place among all the other forgiven sinners in the room by singing the Introit appointed for the day, which is a combination of Revelation 7 and Psalm 31: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me.”

Sing those words with confidence. You own them as a forgiven child of God.

So, my brother or sister in Christ, hear this Gospel imperative to repent and believe in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and be moved to return. Be moved to come and get from your loving Savior what He has won for you—which is also the only thing that will sustain you in a world seeking to impose itself upon you and convince you to stay away in the first place.

Remember, in faith, you are the Lord’s saint. Aim for your special day with an eager heart. Make your way back. Join with your Christian family. Be with your Redeemer, the One who has made it possible for you to be called His holy one.

Assumption’s Regrets

The countdown has started. Five days until a powerhouse weekend here at Our Savior. Saturday we’ll enjoy a day-long conference filled with tier-one personalities. On Sunday we’ll gather together to celebrate our school’s 40 years of service in the community, again, being joined by appreciative newsmakers. To wrap it all up, on Monday we’ll host a debate dealing with the topics of God, culture, and politics in America—a more than crucial matter as we teeter at the edge of a world-altering election.

Much is happening. I’m assuming much will be accomplished by God’s gracious will.

Actually, I shouldn’t say I’m assuming. Better said, I’m trusting that God will accomplish great things through our efforts. And while I suppose it’s not necessarily incorrect to use the word “assume” in the context I have, overall, there’s a difference between assumption and trust.

When we assume, we deal in knowledge without the certainty of truth. We consider bits of information separated by blank spaces that we attempt to fill in through interpretation. To trust in the Lord is nothing of this sort. To trust in Him is to be found making plans—and living out those plans—according to the schematic of the Gospel. It is to act in life’s occurrences with the mindful certainty that we dwell beneath God’s forgiveness in Jesus in all circumstances. That means no matter what happens, we are certain that God will provide for the good of our salvation in every situation (Romans 8:28-39). Trust doesn’t assume He will. It has the complete list of Gospel facts—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and so it knows He will. From there, it steps out knowing that with hearts set on faithfulness to Him, when we speak, He will use our words, no matter how jumbled they might feel. When we act, He will carry us through, no matter how powerless we believe we are. When we are observing and listening, we’ll receive the necessary information for aiming each and every situation toward Godliness and peace, no matter how confusing all of it might seem to be.

Assumption doesn’t necessarily work this way. Sure, an assumption can be useful for determining certain things. For example, an assumption may be made about the contents of a milk carton based on its expiration date. An assumption may be made when a carbon monoxide detector goes off warning of dangerous fumes in a home. And yet, I have personal experience in both instances. I’ve taken a chance on a gallon of milk past its date, only to learn it was fine. I’ve also been brought to concern by a screaming carbon monoxide detector in our kitchen, only to learn after investigating that it was triggered by exhaust wafting from our car in the driveway through the garage and into the kitchen through a door left open by one of the kids.

In both circumstances, my concerned assumptions were only right until the actual facts proved otherwise.

When it comes to relationships—family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and the like—assumption is often more of a wrecking ball. It can be the corrupter of human lines of communication and the destroyer of opportunity. In the rubble of these things, assumption builds an altar to foolishness, and it worships there with incredible devotion.

“What do you even mean by all of this, Pastor Thoma?”

I don’t know. Remember, I’m typing as I’m thinking.

As I re-read what I just wrote, I guess where I’m headed with this—at least what I think I mean—is that at a person’s last hour, I’d be willing to bet a significant portion of the regrets in life will be because of the assumptions from which he or she just couldn’t break free.

People assume things of others, and then they hold to those assumptions for years like bark holds to a tree. But then one day, they discover they’re out of time, and in the shadows of the impending situation, they understand people and situations differently, and they wish for more hours from the clock. They wish they could go back and enjoy a relationship with a person they assumed all along was an enemy. They suddenly realize just how wrong they were to think that people are static in their character and personalities. People are complicated, multi-faceted creatures. They change. Who they were, the way they were, is likely very different today than it was yesterday. And so, in the last moments, people come face to face with the foolishness of their begrudging assumptions of others. They realize they never asked the questions that would fill in the blank spaces. They never investigated. In fact, it never even crossed their minds to explore, to have a conversation. Instead they remained comfortable believing they already knew the innermost thoughts and intentions of the people around them.

These are the kinds of folks who will stare at the edge of regret for having interpreted as hurtful years of genuine attempts at friendship from others.

In truth, this is idolatry. It’s self-worship.

Digging just a little bit deeper, by way of such idolatry—such self-worship—we take detrimental missteps in life. Because of assumptions, we’ll have been silent when we should’ve spoken. Because of assumptions, we will have reacted when we should’ve remained an observer. Because of our assumptions, we may just learn all too late that we were wrong, that we treated as an enemy someone who could’ve been a friend, that we did something to make a relationship that could have been a joy into something unbearably thorn-like.

I guess what I’m saying is don’t be this kind of person, especially with your Christian family. Instead, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Instead of assuming, how about letting the Gospel do the steering in our lives as Christians with one another, and by it being found pursuing “unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). Instead of holding tightly to your grudge, assuming it’s justified, almost virtuous, how about you “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Ephesians 4:31). How about being “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Don’t be the person who learns all too late that the most important things we can know of others were, unfortunately, hidden behind a foolish assumption that we don’t need to learn more because we already know what we’ll discover. More often than not in such situations, at least in my experience, I’ve discovered that what I expected to be true and what was actually true were not exactly in perfect alignment.

Take a chance. Reach out. Have a conversation. Find out more. Odds are you have a few blank spaces that need filling.

Experience is the Best Teacher

Julius Caesar is the one who said that experience is the best teacher. At least I think he did. I’ll check on that after I finish typing this morning. If I’m wrong, I’ll fix what I wrote. If it’s still here when you’re reading it, then I was right.
That being said, the thing about experience is that she’s a relentless teacher. And the strangest part of being in her class is that she does almost everything in reverse. What I mean is that she tests you on the material before she teaches any of her lessons. I suppose the comfort in this is that if you fail, you don’t get put back a grade, and it’s not necessarily the end of the road. Although, I did see a church sign in Linden last week which read, “If at first you don’t succeed, just make sure it didn’t happen while skydiving.”
Or something like that.
The COVID-19 classroom of experience has been a tough one. We’ve learned a lot from its devilish curriculum. Some of what we’ve learned has actually been good. Just as much of it has been bad. All of it has more than added to the storehouse of knowledge.
While sitting in this particular class, I have to believe that most Christians with any sense for the necessity of God’s Word are likely to have stopped by the Book of Proverbs for a visit sometime during the past few months. I know I’ve found myself there, and I’ve shared some texts I’ve pondered. The Book of Proverbs is filled with important instruction. It’s overflowing with opportunities to meet with experience in ways that will make whatever lesson is being learned something that keeps our hearts and minds where they belong: Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen for the transgressions of the world.
In other words, the point to all of Proverbs’ wisdom is Jesus.
Of course the most essential and thematic verses in Proverbs are the ones I would imagine most Christians know fairly well, texts such as, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7), and “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (2:6). The Church of all ages has known texts like these to be in place to, as I said already, set our hearts in the firm location of faith. But the Church has also known these texts to reveal the pragmatics of faith—or better yet, what faith actually looks like. Having these texts in our pockets as we proceed, our hearts and minds are readied for everything else in the book that follows. Since at the moment I’m thinking on the topic of experience, I know these same texts help us take proper aim at the results experience might bring, helping us to better extrapolate words like:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding… Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.” (3:5,7).
These holy instructions remind us to trust in the Lord in all things. We shouldn’t be so quick to trust ourselves. We shouldn’t begin by looking inwardly. We should begin by looking to the externals of God’s faithful Word. Don’t trust what you think you know. Go with what God says, even if it is counter to your understanding. Hearing such things, at least for me personally, gives texts like the following some uncomfortable traction:
“Wisdom rests in the heart of a man of understanding, but it makes itself known even in the midst of fools” (14:33).
Wisdom is made known in the midst of fools. Fools will prove their foolishness by scoffing at Godly wisdom. They’ll despise it. They’ll actually move in active opposition to it. Seven verses into the very first chapter of the Book of Proverbs, the stage is already set for us to expect this.
Of course these days, according to the Sin-nature, we’re all proving just how hard it is to trust God before we trust ourselves. At one point or another throughout the COVID-19 ordeal, we’ve all demonstrated just how easy it is to align with foolishness. Still, God’s Word remains the same as it meets with our experiences and the lessons learned throughout. In all of it, He continues to offer the clarion call to trust Him no matter what. “Don’t be a fool,” He says to the Christian. “You already know by my Word that I’m trustworthy.” In tandem with His powerful Word, He urges this trust knowing you’re already more than capable of matching that Word to plenty of moments in your own life proving His dependability. Thirty seconds alone to think, even with a migraine, and I can come up with plenty.
God has never let me down.
Having those experiences in mind, we have a far better perspective on His countless mandates to be with Him in worship—in person, together with other Christians—to receive His holy gifts of Word and Sacrament. While it might not make sense to our Governor, it makes perfect sense to us. And with this knowledge, we can easily know and accept that apart from natural incapacity (which is to say we’re a shut-in), nothing should keep us away, and anyone or anything confessing otherwise is claiming a level of trustworthiness above God and is in alignment with foolishness.
In particular, Hebrews 10:19-31 reveals such obstacles—human or not, real or imagined—will be judged accordingly.
In the meantime, we simply take God at His Word, knowing it is immutable. He knew what He was saying when He spoke. He knew the situations we’d be in. He knows everything, sees everything, and yet is above everything. He gives us the promise that He’s working for the good of those who love and trust Him by faith. He’s not even remotely interested in allowing anything into our lives that would keep us from Him. He’s actively seeking us, and with the fullest measure of His divine heart, is wanting us to look to Him as the better bet in every situation.
Every. Single. Situation.
My prayer today is one of hopeful thanksgiving for the Christians who know and believe this. But also, my prayer is that if you somehow missed it before, you won’t miss it now—and I suppose I should add that if you don’t feel comfortable worshipping at Our Savior, I’m very near the edge of begging you to go somewhere you do, that is, if you can find a place that’s actually open. You need to be fed. You shouldn’t stay away from the Lord’s gifts for you. When the feast is both bountiful and available, a starved soul is an unnecessary tragedy.
Remember, no poison can be in the cup the divine Physician sends. Do you believe this? I sure do. I hope you do, too.

Chasing Happiness

I don’t mean to alarm you, but it’s nearing the end of September and it’s 44 degrees outside right now. And this past Saturday before an early morning meeting with the Elders, I noticed the leaves on one of the trees near the church’s bell tower beginning a course toward yellow. Even before the sun had pierced the horizon, in the dim light, there was the illusion of the tree’s plume being tinged by a bright beam. Of course it wasn’t the sun causing the leaves to glow. It was the onset of autumn.

The world is turning toward winter.

My wife, Jennifer, bought a special type of lamp for me. I haven’t used it yet, but it’s one that’s supposed to help with the seasonal doldrums that come along in the wake of winter’s relentless (and seemingly endless) plodding. She knows I love the summertime. She knows I love the longer days, and that as they grow shorter, I do everything I can to get as much from them as possible. I’ll be outside. I’ll take the top and doors off of the Wrangler, even if only to get an hour or two of enjoyment between passing rainclouds. I do everything I can to pull from each day. Admittedly, I’m easily irritated by kids who’d rather be inside playing a video game instead of doing the same. I see them on the couch with controllers in their hands and I’m reminded of something Peter Shaffer, the English playwright, said of his wife’s disinterest in the surrounding splendor while on vacation in Tuscany:

“All my wife has taken from the Mediterranean—from that whole vast intuitive culture—are four bottles of Chianti to make into lamps.”

But as I was saying, I struggle to find joy in winter. I struggle to discover happiness in what seems to be the monopoly of its darkness, and so I do all I can to relish in what summer gives before it’s gone. I suppose one particular bit of happiness I find in winter is, in itself, paradoxical. I do a lot more writing during the colder, darker months of the year. I do it to help survive winter—to be distracted from its confinement, to sort of take a little time each day to jot myself into imaginary spheres where I’m in control of the pace of the earth’s position and rotation. In those moments, I give far more ticks of the clock to the daylight. If I didn’t have this as mental medicine, I can only imagine the depressions I might endure.

Perhaps you have similar practices that help to get you through your personal melancholies.

Admittedly, every year at this time, I’m reminded of how the changing seasons run parallel with a number of things in life. For one, I’m reminded to embrace the happy times—to appreciate family, friends, and the moments we have together in the “right now.” I recall these things knowing that everything could be very different tomorrow. Come to think of it, tomorrow itself is never a certain thing. This has begun to make more sense as my children get older. With each and every step toward adulthood, I’m reminded of just how momentary the current days truly are. At the moment, all four of my children still live at home, but it won’t be long before each will pass from the summertime of his or her life with mom and dad into the winter of “farewell.” Of course, they’ll move beyond that winter toward the spring and summer of new careers and family, and God willing, the parents will be brought along with them into these seasons of happiness.

All the same, too many parents know exactly the mixed emotions of this icy in-between that I’m describing, and so as the twilight of the events draws near, parents do their best to take as much joy from the moments as each will give. They’ll do what they can to hold onto the happiness.

I suppose before I go any further with my Monday morning tip-tapping of the keyboard’s keys—of putting onto your screen whatever I feel like putting there in the moment—I suppose I should get to some sort of point. Or how about a question? I think there’s one hidden in what I’ve shared so far.

How about this: What makes for real happiness?

Misery seems easy enough to find. Funny thing is, I sometimes think a good portion of society’s misery comes from its endless chasing after happiness. I also sometimes wonder if while we waste a lot of time trying to capture contentment, do we really even know what it looks like, and would we know it if we actually caught it? I’m guessing that for the most part, no. Elderly parents reminisce regarding the happier days when their kids were little and at home. But in many of those moments, they were longing for easier days with older, less dependent children—ones who didn’t whine or get in trouble at school—ones who would finally know enough to run to the toilet to throw up rather than just doing it right there in their bed. At the same time, children are unhappy under the watchful yoke of their parents. They want to be free. But as adults with the flu, they long for the days when mom would coddle them with a makeshift bed on the couch and a never-ending supply of chicken noodle soup and cartoons.

Youthfulness or maturity, obscurity or fame, poverty or wealth, sickness or health—none of these things, or anything in between has ever truly succeeded at being the ultimate conduit for happiness.

The Bible speaks of happiness in some pretty strange ways. One of those ways is hope.

In Proverbs 10:28, King Solomon wrote that the “hope of the righteous will be gladness.” In Romans 15:13, Saint Paul actually connects both joy and peace with the hope of faith when He says, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

At first glance, texts like these might seem counterintuitive. We often see joyful happiness as the emotional object that comes with having something material in hand. We believe that only by holding the first place trophy will we experience joy. For many in our world, only by having more money in hand will they be happy. Few consider the process of hoping for joy to be the joy itself.

Another strange way the Bible talks about happiness is in connection to suffering. The Apostle James wrote:

“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:2-3).

Here we are told that we can actually experience happiness when the world is coming down on us. Of course, James was only repeating what Jesus said in John 15, just a few sentences before He began prepping the disciples for persecution:

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

But notice how Jesus phrased His statement. His joy would be our joy, and He inferred this joy would be ours right now. This should give us a hint as to what real joy—real happiness—truly is. It’s the comforting knowledge given by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel for faith. It’s the divine awareness implanted deep down in our core that knows the freedom from Sin, Death, and the power of the devil won for us by Christ. The world can’t give to us anything remotely close to this. Only God can. And He promises that such happiness can be experienced in both good times and bad. Why? Because it is as Nehemiah proclaimed: “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10). Such joy has steely innards. Its foundation is one of divine confidence, and its framework is built according to the schematic that knows no matter what happens, it stands before the Father justified on account of Christ. By this, Christian joy forever bears in mind the impermanence of this world as it anticipates the world to come in His eternal presence.

“You will show me the path of life,” King David wrote in Psalm 16:11, “and in Your presence is fullness of joy.”

Add to this Saint Paul’s words from Romans 5:1-2:

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

The peace we’ll experience in its fullest sense in the future of heaven is the same peace of which we have a foretaste right now. Beautiful. Our God reminds us by His holy Word that through faith in His Son, right here in this life, we know that any chance for being at war for our eternal future has passed.

We needn’t fear.

In this we can be hopeful. In this we can be happy.

Saying No

The previous Sunday’s Bible study here at Our Savior got a little tense near the end. The uneasiness was clearly painted on the faces of most of the participants. And why? Because during the discussion, somehow we steered into the topic of excommunication, and as we did, I offered the observation that for the most part, the Church has become weak in this department. One participant agreed, putting forth as eligible examples both pro-choice Christians and people who vote for pro-choice candidates.

“You said it, not me,” I think I said, snarkily—which meant I completely agreed. From there, I suggested that perhaps it’s time for churches and their pastors to start muscling up in an effort to tell those in their midst who would support the killing of the unborn—and vote for candidates who do—that in truth, they’ve fallen from fellowship with the Lord and can no longer commune at His table.

In other words, perhaps it’s time to tell them “no.”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” someone called out, honestly. Indeed, pastors, God be with you on such a noble quest. Although, before you go, be sure your estate is in order. Or at a minimum, have another job lined up, because unless you have broad sweeping support from the rest of the congregation, you’ll likely need a moving van.

Well, whatever. The moment stirred good conversation. In addition to carrying us a little deeper into the text of 1 John 1:5-10, it also provided a brief opportunity to better understand the Johnson Amendment, which I took a quick moment to examine relatively.

The Johnson Amendment, for as scary as most think it is, really doesn’t prohibit churches all that much. We can pretty much do what we want. Although, as it meets with the topic above, there is one particular sticking point that bothers me, and not because it’s necessarily bad, but because it would likely be misinterpreted, and as a result, misapplied.

In short, the Johnson Amendment expressly forbids a congregation from punishing one of its own for his or her individual political positions and/or voting practices. This means that if a pastor or congregation ever moved to excommunicate someone because that person was immovable in his or her support of the murder of the unborn—even after the Church has made clear the doctrines of Christ while at the same time making every effort to reconcile with the person as prescribed in Matthew 18—still, it’s possible the individual coming under the ban might consider the congregation’s action “punitive” and seek solace beneath the umbrella of the Johnson Amendment. But as I said, this would be a misapplication, and for multiple reasons, the first of which is that excommunication isn’t punitive. Its goal is restoration. It’s meant to preserve someone from continuing to willfully offend God while at the same time laboring to lead the person toward repentance and full restoration of fellowship. But odds are the courts wouldn’t be able to distinguish these things, and personally, I’m hard-pressed to find too many human beings in this post-modern century who would either. More and more people are reactively put off by someone telling them no. I say this with all seriousness because I’ve been in the situation more times than I’d prefer. Not necessarily in a formal court—although I’ve come close—but certainly in the court of public opinion here in our own midst. As a pastor, nearly every single time I’ve had to tell someone “no more,” my effort was received negatively, as something unjustly punitive, and in the end, the longtime relationship crumbled.

In our world, telling someone no is getting much harder to do. Our society has become so radically individualized that saying no is more so portrayed as cruel, as coming from an intolerance intent on smothering someone’s personal preferences. In one sense, we all know the sting of hearing someone say no. We heard it when we were young and we’ve heard it as adults, too. I heard my parents tell me that I couldn’t have a cookie just as my wife has told me more than once as an adult that I can’t just up and move to Florida. But when it cuts to the core of someone’s deeply held beliefs, especially the ones that play a part in his or her identity, we often find ourselves in much more dangerous waters. These particular waves on the undulating sea of personal relationships aren’t just making a ruckus on the surface. They’re also moving way down in the deep. Saying no in these situations can be a hard thing to do because we know they can end catastrophically.

In short, there’s always the chance that our efforts toward faithfulness will come with a price we may not want to pay.

This tension didn’t exist in the beginning. In our sinless origin, Adam and Eve knew God perfectly, as God would have us know Him. In this, whether God said yes or no, newborn humanity never questioned whether or not the answer He gave was emerging from His immeasurable love. And He actually did say no right there in the beginning. Could we eat from this and that tree in the garden? Yes. How about the tree in the middle of the garden? No. Why not? Because if you do, you’ll die.

“Okay,” we said, and off we went with a “Dum-de-dum-de-dum” to enjoy the rest of God’s wonderful creation.

But then the devil came along and convinced our first parents that God’s “no” was deceptive and cruel, that He was holding us back from a much fuller potential.

And then Mankind fell.

Fully aware of the effects of the fall into Sin, Jesus not only knew it would be tough for us to be told no, but He also knew it would be hard for His followers to tell others no, especially when it means dealing in the life-or-death, heaven-or-hell scenarios. He knows the significance of Sin’s grip. He knows that the unbelieving world will often choke on truth’s no like an addict coughing up the anti-drug, and so He speaks so plainly:

“Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:32-38).

These words are both terrifying and comforting all at the same time, and the longer I serve as a pastor, the more I learn that divine truths can sometimes be that way.

But an even deeper digging into the Lord’s words will reveal that He didn’t say any of this until He first preached:

“When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (vv.19-20).

You know what this means, right? It means that Christ is true to His promise that we will never be left to fend for ourselves in the tough situations. The Holy Spirit will be working in and through us. In fact, as the Holy Spirit moves us to seek faithfulness to the Savior, even our words will be captured by His power and used to His glory and the good of those who hear them. We don’t necessarily know how each situation will turn out, and we may even walk away from the conversation feeling as though we put our own foot in our mouths, but we can know by faith the source of the truest courage for faithfulness to Christ and love for the neighbor. We can say the hard things and know that even if we feel alone, we aren’t. The One who spoke the powerful words noted above is the same One who capped Saint Mathew’s Gospel with the words: “And behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the age” (28:20).

I know that a good number of you are swimming in such situations, whether it be with family, friends, or co-workers. And I suppose if you aren’t experiencing such situations, well, then you’re weird, because the rest of us are. With that, trust me. The day is coming when you won’t be weird for long. Of course, I’ll keep you in my prayers, trusting that God will preserve and protect you in those moments requiring the courage of a love that says no. I know He’ll guide your words. He will shine His love through you to others, even when it doesn’t feel like it. Most importantly, I’m certain He will keep His promise that whoever loses his life for His sake, will find it—which is to say the ultimate discovery of eternal life is ours to claim through faith.

Celebrating the Job of “Parent” on Labor Day

I pray you’re having (or had) a restful weekend. The unofficial end of summer, Labor Day, has been set before us once again. Believe it or not, Labor Day has been around since 1894. It was established as a day to celebrate the efforts of this nation’s workers—the ones who keep the cylinders in the American engine firing.

Of course, the tendency on Labor Day is to shine the brightest spotlights on the most obvious laborers among us—the skilled trades, medical doctors, engineers, teachers, law enforcement, and so many more. Such vocations deserve our admiration, and naturally, a civil society with any hope of long-term survival needs them. Mindful of these, however, we also need the small, medium, and large organizations and businesses that employ these workers. And among both the employers and employees, we know we are bettered by the innovators, those people who are willing to take a chance that might lead to discovery, even if only very small.

It was Jonathan Swift who said, “He was a bold man who first ate an oyster.”

Still, for as much as these jobs are all needed for an ordered and functioning society, there’s one particular vocation that might be far from our minds the first Monday in September. I’m talking about the vocation of “parent.”

Sure, mothers have “Mother’s Day” and fathers have “Father’s Day,” but I think the labor involved with parenting deserves a nod today, too. Why? Because say what you want about the importance of any job in our world today, it doesn’t change the fact that since the beginning, the task of parenting has always been the center-most cog in every societal machine. Without fathers and mothers, nothing else turns as it should. And there are countless proofs for this.

For one, as I sort of hinted to already, a human family shepherded by a father and mother serves as a society’s conduit for transmitting cultural identity, tradition, and so much more. When the traditional family breaks down, becoming irrelevant, stabilizing structures in a society become irrelevant and break down, too. Unfortunately, I think we’re seeing more and more of this in our nation and world.

I suppose another thought that comes to mind is that apart from God-given talents, much of the magic behind what eventually becomes a child’s marketable skill was likely planted by the child’s parents. The words they spoke, the time spent together, the modeling of relationships, the patience displayed in the midst of struggle, the correction given, the forgiveness bestowed—all of these things that occur in the middle spaces between birth and adulthood are highly influential in a child’s life, more so than most are probably willing to admit.

Unpacking this thought a bit more, I’d add to the list that without parents, it’s nearly impossible for children to learn how to love others. And I don’t mean sexual love, or the affection found between friends, but real love—the kind of love God has for us, the kind of love Saint Paul described when he wrote, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Kids learn sacrificial love from parents. It’s there they see a tangible demonstration each and every day of what it means to love someone else more than they sometimes appear to love you.

Unfortunately, parents aren’t always successful in this. Sometimes they demonstrate the wrong kind of love.

For example, a father who continually belittles his wife, maybe calling her fat (if even only in jest), is teaching his observing daughter something of love. But it’s the wrong kind, and statistics show that if it’s a normalized expression of affection in the home, she’ll be far more likely to engage in harmful relationships that could result in marriage to a cruel husband. In the same situation, an observing son is taught something of love, too. But again, it’s the wrong kind. It’s the kind that would make him into that cruel husband.

Parenting is indeed a tough job. But as you can see, it’s also a very important job. And so, today—Labor Day—I tip my hat to all the parents who continue to labor through the mess of this world, even when it seems futile. I give an extra bit of thanks to God for the parents who, after an exhaustive week at the office or factory or classroom or wherever, rather than sleep in on Sunday morning, they continue to give their all in a job that never ends. They get the kids up, feed them, put them in their Sunday best, and take them to church. They guide them to the Lord’s house where together as a family, they’ll receive the gifts that maintain the most important relationship in the greatest household ever: their identity as baptized children and members of the Heavenly Father’s family.

Serving diligently in this role, with Christian hearts aimed at trusting in Christ for all that is required to actually accomplish it, parents engage in the single most important laboring in the entire cosmos.

There’s no other job in society that even comes close.

“Look at the Heavens and Count the Stars”

I’m aware that I continue to fail at keeping this Monday morning eNews message short. Believe me, I’m trying. And this time, I won’t let you down. It’s just that there’s plenty unfolding around us to observe, ponder, and share. When it all begins to coalesce, it can get somewhat substantial. And then in my eagerness, when it all starts rolling from my fingers to the keyboard, it’s probably better—saner—for me to just let it run its course, like a boulder rolling downhill. Eventually it’ll come to a stop, but until it does, I’d better stay out of its way.

The thought I had this morning stems from a comment my daughter, Evelyn, made a few days before school started. I’d taken the Wrangler’s doors and top off, and among the five others in my family, Evelyn was the only one who accepted an invitation to go for a late-evening drive. The air was cool. The sky was clean swept of clouds. It couldn’t have been any better.

At one point, we ended up north of town, somewhere between Flint and Linden, which is mostly farmland. As we made our way along the lightless roads, Evelyn leaned back to gaze into the depth of the night sky above us. Again, that particular night offered a sky that was crisp and clear. With barely any light from the city, the stars were easily visible.

Pointing to this one and that one, she wondered aloud to her chauffeur (as best as she could above the wind noise) as to whether they were actually stars or planets. She looked for the North Star—because she knows how to find it in relation to the Big Dipper—and she gave a gleeful cheer when she did.

“It’s awesome how God put all those up there,” she said, capping the moment of discovery. “And He did it in a way so that if we’re ever lost, we’ll always be able to see them and find our way.”

A simple observation, true to anyone who’s ever navigated the ocean’s tides. And yet the words of the pretty ten-year-old girl riding shotgun in the Jeep set a little something more into motion.

On the surface, it seems she meant rather simply that God designed the universe in a way that all its parts move predictably, as though it were a grand engine that, by virtue of its unfathomable mechanics, served to display His power.

While true, her words were deeper still. Evelyn’s observation hinted to the grand presentation twirling above us as being far more a faithful exhibition of God’s thoughtful concern than His power, more a display of His inclination toward love than His creative muscle.

“And He did it in a way that, if we’re ever lost, we’ll always be able to see them and find our way.”

That’s God doing—designing, creating, acting, moving—as He cares for us, as He’s mindful of us. And that, of course, got me thinking on God’s Word, the place where He reveals this mindful love, the place where He refers to the stars as being in place not only for the mechanical governance of night and day, or solely for our delight, but as opportunities to do just what Evelyn and I were doing in that moment—beholding and then recalling His loving faithfulness.

Just off the top of my head, I can point to the obvious instance in Genesis 15:5 when God led Abram (soon to be Abraham) out into a cool evening just like the one we were enjoying. It was there that God encouraged him to behold the stars, and He reminded the childless man of His very important promise—one that would see to countless offspring, ultimately resulting in a most important descendant, Jesus Christ, coming to redeem the world.

I can also think of Saint Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:41-42 where the Apostle points to the moon and stars to help describe the resurrection of all believers in Christ. And knowing the intertwining of the divinely inspired Word, I’ll bet Daniel 7:2-3 wasn’t all that far from Paul’s mind when speaking of such things. Daniel wrote quite candidly of the resurrection at the Last Day: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.”

Beautiful. Just beautiful.

Beyond these, don’t forget the kinds of things God’s Word shares with us every year at Christmastime and Epiphany, those seasons in the Church Year when we hear words like, “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17), or we follow along as a luminous attendant in the heavens leads Magi to the Christ child (Matthew 2:1-12).

Perhaps best of all, it means something to us when we hear the Lord Jesus say of Himself in Revelation 22:16: “I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”

Again, just beautiful.

To conclude, if you can find the time, take a moment to look into the night sky. Grab your lawn chair and a favorite beverage, maybe lather up with some bug repellent if necessary, and then kick back in a place where you can see an unobstructed sky. First, look widely. Behold the splendor. Then look closely. See the precision. Ponder these things knowing that the One who put it all there has His divine heart set upon you. He loves you—enough to give His own Son into death that you would have life.

I suppose that’s the better, truer, beauty inherent to the glistening stars.

Death Has No Dominion

Well, in no small number of communities across the country, the new school year begins tomorrow. For many, it will be one more moment requiring a special measure of courage.

I say this because more so than ever before, it sure seems like the planet upon which we are treading is wobbling on its axis. Nothing seems steady. Everything feels shaky and uncertain. For some—myself included—going out into the world to do very basic things often translates into weighing the risk of actually living life versus guarding every flank in terror, of finding a semblance of normal when everyone and everything around you is spiraling into abnormality.

It’s a weird way to exist. It’s scary. And it’s hard.

Speaking of the first day of school, I can only imagine the emotional storms churning in the hearts of the young mothers and fathers sending a child off to preschool. Their picturesque dreams of bright-smiling teachers giving hugs amid busy hallways filled with colorfully miniscule backpacks owned by future classmates—all of this has been replaced by the grim sterility of masked teachers with muffled voices, dystopian-like classrooms with desks claustrophobically encased in Plexiglass, friendships awkwardly unexplored due to social distancing, and so many other psychologically damaging things being employed for the sake of “safety.”

We’re not doing any of these things at Our Savior, but I’ll bet for those who must endure it in other schools, it’ll be very scary. To regularly overcome the disquiet of it all, families will need a unique form of determination and a lot of extra love during the after-school hours at home.

Speaking of scary… My wife and children know that the list of things that actually scare me is pretty short. I’m not being vain. I’ve just discovered over the years that I’m not bothered by the things that might normally scare someone else. All of my kids have tried to catch me with jump-scares, but they rarely find success. My sons say my fear gland doesn’t work properly. Maybe they’re right. Some other things… I’m not fearful of public speaking, never have been. I don’t enjoy conflict, but I’m not unwilling to engage in it. I’m not necessarily afraid of people disliking me. I guess I learned to put that fear to rest years ago. I’m not scared by horror movies. I mean, among the various life-sized mannequins in my basement, one of them is the spitting image of Michael Myers.

And since I’m tipping my hat to Halloween, haunted house attractions have always been pretty disappointing for me. I’m just not scared of eerie situations or places. I’ve seen those memes online asking if, for a million dollars, I’d be willing to spend a night alone in a place like a cemetery, an abandoned insane asylum, or a spooky house, and I think, “I’d do it for the cost of a mortgage payment. Heck, I’d do it for lunch money.” My son, Josh, asked me once during family dinner if I’d ever performed an exorcism. I told him I had. Believe me or doubt me, I’ve ministered to more than one family over the years whose home was being visited by something otherworldly. Like many pastors, I have my share of stories regarding the tangible efforts of the darkly principalities at work among this world’s people and spaces.

“Were you afraid?”

“Not really,” I said. “The devil and his pals are punks. They’re tough, but they’re nothing I need to be worried about. I have Christ, and I know they’re plenty afraid of Him.”

Of course I’m sure to remind my kids that the devil is no one to toy with. He isn’t a fairytale villain. On the contrary, I’d say he’s the only real explanation for the most horrible things that have ever happened in our world—the current societal destruction emerging from Covid-19 being one of his masterful achievements. If you ever get a chance, listen to the song “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones. I’m not a huge Stones fan, but I do like that song. It offers an honest musical snapshot of the devil’s gripping influence on this world, showing how when partnered with mankind’s Sin-nature, he can do some pretty horrible and world-altering things.

But as I was saying before, the list of things that actually unnerve me is fairly short. Although, don’t let the length of the list fool you, because each item on it can more than keep me awake at night.

For example, one of my biggest fears is losing my wife and children to tragedy. I actually have regularly-occurring dreams about one or more of my kids falling into the polar bear exhibit at a zoo—or something of that sort—and being unable to rescue them in time. The expressions of fear on their faces still stings long after I’ve awakened. I know I said before that I’m not necessarily afraid of conflict, however, as a supervising administrator, I’m hesitant to express disappointment with fellow staff. I’ll do it if I really have to, but it’s also really hard. This is true because the space between “pastor” and “supervisor” is unlike any other terrain to be navigated, and in the past—at least for me—no matter how lovingly careful I’ve attempted to be, those moments have morphed into some of the most devilishly divisive encounters I’ve ever known. In our postmodern world, it seems like the default action in these occurrences has been to be offended, draw lines and form factions, and ultimately take one’s marbles and go elsewhere.

Those experiences left some pretty deep scars.

Oh, and I don’t like sharks. I have my reasons.

So, where am I going with all of this?

Well, I started off talking about the general need for courage when it comes to navigating this life. Free-thinking on this, I suppose I was aimed in this direction because as we stand at the edge of a strange new period, we need to be honest about what we’re facing as a church—as Christians. We don’t necessarily need a retelling of the terrors lurking along the way. Each of us has met them in one way or another and can write his or her own list. But we do need to be honest about what scares us. And now more than ever, we need to know the necessity of courage.

I’d say Shakespeare was right when he said that courage mounts with occasion. We don’t need to wonder if there will be ample opportunities for testing our nerves. With each occasion, we’ll need to understand our responses, carefully discerning between courage and irrational action. We’ll need to readily understand that being courageous doesn’t mean being completely fearless. We’ll find ourselves afraid in the same way a white-flag coward might be afraid, but the difference will be that our fear will have been thoughtfully subdued and will most likely be rewarded with far different results. We won’t be immobilized from doing what’s faithful even when self-preservation is an available option. We’ll act knowing that courage, like character, is something we’ll employ even when no one else knows we’re doing so.

Where will we get such courage? I mentioned the answer above in the passing conversation with my son, Joshua.

Christ is the answer.

Fear thinks twice before messing with Christ. Don’t believe me? Read Psalm 27. Still don’t believe me? Read 1 John 4:8. Now skip ahead to verse 18 in the same chapter. Fear has no room to stand beside Christ, the One who is God in the flesh, who is perfect love, who was moved to save us.

I think it was the Bishop and President of our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison) who said that Christian courage is just fear that has been baptized. Man, is he ever right. Having been baptized into Christ, having been set apart from the kingdom of this world, having been made a member of the Lord’s family, a Christian meets each and every day equipped to live with an otherworldly readiness to die. Baptism pins us to such courage. Maybe you recall Paul’s words in Romans 6:3-11:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

There’s a lot that can be mined from the above text, but no matter which direction you go, it’ll likely hinge on the fact that Death has no dominion over believers just as it has no dominion over Christ. Without the sway of Death’s dominion at play in each of life’s terrifying occurrences, fear steps out of Christian courage’s way. It has to. I mean, when you really think about it, Death is the definitive power—the ultimate endpoint—for anything that might cause us to fear.

Why would we be afraid in a haunted house? The fear of being killed. Why would we be afraid on a roller coaster? Probably the same. Why would we be afraid of public speaking? The fear of looking a fool in a way that remains with us forever, only to be muted by Death. I’m pretty sure Saint Paul actually affirmed all of this in 1 Corinthians 15:26 when he said that the last enemy to be destroyed is Death.

But now that Death has indeed been destroyed, all who put their faith in Christ and His redeeming work receive the merits of this victory. For starters, Christians have access to a courage that can push fear aside so that we can actually live, knowing that even if/when Death makes an appearance, it won’t be the end of us because it has no dominion over us. It’ll be just another moment on the timeline, albeit an exceptional moment that carries us from the confines of time into the timelessness of eternity with our Lord.

There’s no fear to be had in that.

Once again, knowing this, we don’t have to be afraid of being and doing as God’s people in this mixed up world. By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, we know and believe that our Lord has faced off with the root cause of all things terrifying—and He won!

And so, please allow for this random bit of theologizing the day before the first day of school—or whatever “first” you may be facing these days—to be an encouragement to you. Stay the course. Trust your Lord. He’s got you. He’s got your family, too. All our fears have been steadily handled, and Death has been defeated.

Christian Reconciliation

It truly is amazing how at certain moments in life something that was once very baffling suddenly begins to make sense. I’m guessing you know exactly what I mean. Perhaps like me you’ve experienced situations where you felt as though you were immersed in uncertainty, but then suddenly, and for whatever reason, you saw the framework of the challenge in a different light, and by this, the solution stepped to the forefront.

I liken it to the Rubik’s Cube we have at home. My kids will jumble it up and hand it to me. It takes me a little while, but usually I can figure it out. I just need some time with it. And I know what to expect of that time. It’ll be a procedure of turning the cube’s various multi-colored pieces this way and that way, all the while observing and calculating the potential of each piece’s role in the puzzle—and I’ll do it with the hope that I’m actually making progress rather than confusing the device even more. In other words, even as I’m doing what I can to solve it, I’m acutely aware that as a fallible human being, if I’m not careful, I’m more than capable of making things worse. This means being very mindful. It means thinking several turns past the present turn.

But there’s something else I expect from the process. While humming along steadily—because I’m not a quitter, and also because I don’t like to lose—I stick with it. As I do, there always seems to be that moment when persistence and fate meet one another. In other words, after a while of determined laboring, I’ll turn the cube just right and I’ll see all of its parts in a different way, ultimately revealing what it is that I need to do to solve it.

And then I do it.

I suppose like the Rubik’s Cube, the theological observation in all of this is multi-dimensional. Of course in one sense, for me as a pastor, it’s reminiscent of something that’s not all that uncommon—which is  to get handed a mixed-up problem between people with the expectation I’ll be able to fix it. In another sense, it has me thinking this morning on what can actually solve fractured human relationships in the Church when they occur.

And they definitely do occur. We certainly have our share here at Our Savior.

To start, it’s good to recognize that everyone in the situation is different—just like the individual pieces of the cube. All are in certain places as a result of various circumstances. All have individual personalities and mindsets shaped by the same. And yet, all remain a part of the same cube, which means all are part of sinful humanity, for indeed “there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). This means that every single person involved in the conflict is more than capable of self-love aimed at self-preservation. It means every single person is more than proficient at cruelty, deceit, betrayal, and so much more. Perhaps worst of all, most don’t even need a reason or motive to act on these darker inclinations in order to hurt others. They only need the opportunity. That’s the way of the sinful flesh, and everyone involved in the situation is infected by it.

It’s good to recognize this stuff. It’s even better when everyone in the situation recognizes it, and not only are they on board with it in principle, but they are ready and willing to humbly confess it personally.

That carries us to something else we can keep in mind when sorting through conflict among Christians. Unlike the world around us (which pretty much always has our demise in mind), I’d hope that Christians who know their sinful nature and know their Savior could safely assume such faith is at work in the life of their opponent, that the people involved in the conflict truly are believers in Christ who’ve staked their claim of salvation on the fact that even as they are sinners, Christ died for them (Romans 5:8). If this Gospel is indeed surging through their spiritual veins, then you, their opponent—someone mirroring this truth—can labor by the premise that all involved are “justified by (God’s) grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-25).

Beholding one another through this Gospel, acknowledging that forgiveness is already abounding between God and everyone involved, the stage is set for Christian opponents to seek genuine peace in ways unavailable to the unbelieving world. By the power of the Holy Spirit through this Gospel, all involved are enabled in some way to take hold of the cube, to diligently turn it this way and that way in search of an avenue for solving the problem. And we’ll do this, not with a desire to win or to find an endpoint that ultimately proves our side right, but rather a solution that proves faithful to Christ and His Word.

God promises to bless such laboring (1 Corinthians 15:58). Interestingly, one of His blessings is diligent hopefulness. That is to say, one very important fruit of faith in the whole experience will be that you actually make an effort to pursue a solution.

I mentioned before that eventually the solution to the Rubik’s Cube is revealed, but usually it takes time and attentiveness. If I really want to solve it, I can’t give up and walk away. Well, let me rephrase that. Sure, I can give up. Giving up is probably the easiest thing anyone can do in the face of challenge. But by doing it, the endpoint—which is failure—is already pretty much predetermined. Personally, I appreciate the hopefulness Helen Keller described when she said something along the lines of, “Don’t dwell on today’s failures, but on the successes that may come tomorrow.” For as burdened by struggle as she was, she always looked to the next day as fertile ground for better opportunity. That’s pretty great. It’s hard to feel that way sometimes, but still it’s a great way to live. Pitching her words against the endurance required for reconciliation among God’s people is very near to hearing the Lord whisper by way of King Solomon in Proverbs 24:16, “For the righteous falls seven times and rises again.” It is to hear the Lord urging through the Apostle Paul in Galatians 6:9: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

A lot of bad things have happened in the last six months. Christian friendships were by no means immune to the badness. I’m certainly no exception in the mess. By my own faultiness, I’ve seen things go south in a hurry. Nevertheless, the call goes out from the Word of God to all of us: Humble yourself. Confess your sins. Be absolved by the God who loves you. Go and be reconciled to your brother or sister in Christ. If they receive you, rejoice at the refreshing rain shower of grace God is most certainly sending to both of your souls. If they turn you away, while it may be a telling moment as to the condition of their heart, still, don’t give up. If anything, be ready to receive them if they have a change of heart. Do all of this in pursuit of that rain shower you know is forming on the horizon. Chase after it for as long as you can. Eventually you’ll reach it, even if you reach it alone.

On second thought, rest assured you’ll never be in it alone. Jesus will be there, too. And that’s pretty great.