Gospel Dominance

For those whose Easter is little more than an annual go-round with chocolate rabbits and painted eggs, the fanfare of the celebration has come and gone. Not so for the Christian Church. For us, it remains. We actually live each day in the wake of the ultimate enemy’s defeat.

Death has been conquered. Jesus has done it. Therefore, Death no longer has standing among us. No room for mastery. No room for terrorizing. No room for demands. No room for negotiation. It really is finished. Easter is the proof. And now through faith in Christ, we are His and He is ours. Living in that redemption, what’s left to frighten us?

Nothing.

The more I experience life in this fallen world, the more and more I become glad for this wonderful reality born from a Gospel of great power. It’s a Gospel that changes me. It changes the way I see the world. It changes the way I understand people. It changes the way I maneuver from task to task each new day. It changes the way I suffer during struggle. It alters the way I endure hatred from others.

By the loving promise of Death’s defeat, I can steer into all of these knowing that while I might not pass through them unscathed, I won’t go into them or come out on the other side without hope. Christ has cemented my hope, and with that, I can be content. I can have joy.

Before this contentment took root in me, it wouldn’t have been uncommon for me to get worked up in caustic situations. Not so much anymore. Take for example a recent circumstance in which my reputation was being maligned by deliberate deceit. In the past I might have run headlong into the fray to defend myself. Not so much anymore. I don’t feel the need to do so. I have a dominance in those situations that’s hard to unseat.

Yes, dominance.

There’s a saying that people only talk behind the backs of those who are dominant. Whatever that proverb might mean to the world, for me it has been reinterpreted by the Gospel. Yes, I am in a seat of dominance. But it’s a dominance that has been granted to me—a dominance of contentment in Christ. It’s a certainty that drives away worry, leaving me to know I’m completely surrounded by the Lord’s loving care. Even as I’m behind His flag, He’s also covering any and all of my exposed flanks. With this assurance in hand, I really can say, “World, do your worst.” I am content to live according to the promise of the Easter Gospel. This means that even when things seem their darkest and I begin to feel the blunt end of injustice, even if things don’t turn around in this life, one thing remains true: I’m not an inheritor of this world. I’m an inheritor of the world to come—an inheritance won by Jesus, one in which He is sure to flip the switch of the divine lights and expose all things done in darkness. In the meantime, I can be at peace in all circumstances, strengthened for continuing forward in faithfulness.

Once again, the resurrection Gospel imputes this. It imputes it today. It’ll be there imputing it again tomorrow. And the next day. That’s the promise. If the last enemy, Death, has been conquered, what else is there to concern or harm us?

Believers know the answer to this question as they go about their lives in the perpetual sunshine of Easter, and the world will squirm with frustration around us as we do.

I want you to know that when I go to the altar of God this week at Our Savior to pray privately for His people, this will be the precision of my petitions. I will pray on your behalf, asking God that in the coming days, by the power of the Holy Spirit, He will grant for you to remember these things. My prayer will be for you to be emboldened by the same Gospel that emboldens me, that you will have taken into yourself the joyful promise of the Lord’s mighty resurrection for your justification before the Heavenly Father, which is also an ultra-confident—nay, dominant—slap in the face of Death itself.

By faith, all of this is certainly yours for the taking.

Vicisti, Galilaee

Christ is risen. There is no mistaking this. The tomb is empty. He has visited with His people in the flesh. He isn’t a ghost. They have seen Him, embraced Him, and eaten meals with Him, all the while marveling at the scars of His crucifixion wounds.

Indeed, the wounds prove He was dead. Yes, His enemies killed Him. And like any other human caught in the riptide of mortality, He was embalmed according to the era’s standards and buried.

And yet, here He is. His skin is not pale. His limbs are not stiff or motionless. His eyes are not greyed and sunken. The scent of rot is not wafting. His wounds are healed. Instead, He is lively and laughing. His mouth moves, his teeth and tongue forming precious words. His voice is not shaky, but certain. His chest expands as it brings in oxygen. His hands are warm and His eyes are bright with joy.

He is alive. Risen.

Not one of His disciples could leave this interaction with fear. Not one would be found in the world with a willingness to deny His resurrection. Of course, the enemies of Jesus would circulate rumors, saying these backwater imbeciles were fashioning stories, perhaps having stolen and hidden the body of Jesus to keep the Galilean’s religion alive. But even these desperate accusations would collapse under the weight of countless more who’d testify to having seen the Lord, not dead, but alive. Even one of the enemies’ own—Saul of Tarsus, a rising star among the Pharisees—he, too, would commit himself to the Christian claim, having crossed paths with the risen Christ in a most luminously magnificent way on the road to Damascus.

Perhaps the enemies of Jesus needed only to give the current excitement time to wane. Besides, the fuel in every lamp must eventually run dry. The insignificant things are so easily lost to time’s sands. As the days and months and years pass, so many manias fade from view and are eventually forgotten. Surely, this was Christianity’s destiny. Surely, a religion being preached and defended by a handful of inconsequential no-names would evaporate. Even better, with the help of Jesus’ powerful enemies, whether they be the Pharisees, the Roman Empire, or a venomously unrelenting culture, Christianity would never even find itself a jot in the history books.

But again, here we are.

On every continent across the world, both in the lands where faith is easy and the domains where faith is hard, the Christians are rejoicing in the victory of Jesus over Sin, Death, and Satan. They can be discovered at this time every year bearing the full-throated announcement, “Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!”

Christians have always been willing to sing out what they know to be true. Interestingly, the enemies of Christ, whether in this life or the next, have all eventually joined in the chorus (Philippians 2:10). Emperor Julian (A.D. 331-363) comes to mind as an embodiment of this fact.

The son of Christian parents, and yet one who fell away in his twenties (likely because of the dangerous doctrines of false teachers like Arius), Julian did all he could during his time as Caesar to bury Christianity. His main effort for accomplishing this was by chiseling away at the rights of Christians while working to restore Roman paganism. He believed all that was required for pushing Christianity to its brink was a competing religion fortified by a collaborating Emperor. And yet, like all who came before him and all who’d come afterward, Julian realized the impenetrability of the Gospel, and eventually, he found himself confessing this truth angrily before his death.

“Vicisti, Galilaee,” were his final words. “You have conquered, O Galilean.” Not even the Roman Emperor, with all the conquering power of the known world, could bring Christianity into submission.

And so it goes throughout history. The Gospel continues forth, people are saved, and as the Lord Himself declared, the gates of hell will never find a sure footing to prevail against these wonders (Matthew 16:18).

Of course, Jesus never promised that the Church would always be set toward increase. There would be an ebb and flow to her life. He sent His apostles out to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19) even after He’d already pondered rhetorically whether He’d find any faith on the earth at all when He returned at the Last Day (Luke 18:8).

These are sobering words. And yet, against the backdrop of history and all potential futures, they are forever comforting. The Gospel will remain. Jesus said so. Even right now in America as the snuffing of all things Christian is in an unprecedented upsurge, still, here we are. The Good News of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ is going out from the churches (the faithful ones, that is) just as the Lord, the conquering Galilean, promised. He has neither left us nor forsaken us. Indeed, He is with us always, even to the end of the age.

Bearing this in your heart, may God continue to strengthen and preserve you by His powerful Holy Spirit as you carry forth rejoicing in the victory of the One who gave His life on the cross—and then took it up again in conquering might—all for you! Undeniably, Christ has assured us that this Gospel message will continue to go before us like a juggernaut across the landscape of all things created and uncreated forevermore! Indeed, Christ is risen! Alleluia!

The Impact of God’s Love

Holy Week is upon us. God’s plan has been exacted.

His plan for our redemption—which included the cosmic annihilation of Sin, Death, and the power of the devil—was established long ago. Its forthcoming object destined for impact was first announced in the Garden of Eden shortly after the fall into Sin.

He told the serpent that a Savior would land in his newly acquired dominion. In that moment, God established the event as the center point of history, charting the forthcoming object’s course as His Word told and retold of the inevitable arrival.

The Savior’s divine origins would prove the all-encompassing span of His reach. The momentum and trajectory of His work would be unstoppable. No human being would be spared from the blast radius of His love. No Sin-sick atom or darkly spirit feeding the flesh or its powerful lords—Eternal Death and Satan—would be safe from His terrible reach.

The worldwide flood and the rescue of eight believing souls in the ark would be a hint (Genesis 7—9:13). The testing of Abraham would provide a taste (Genesis 22:1-18). The betrayal of Joseph by his brothers, his rise to power, and his generous grace would foreshadow its contours (Genesis 37—50). The deliverance of Israel from bondage through the Red Sea would offer a substantial glimpse (Exodus 14:10-15:1). On and on from these, moments in history involving the likes of David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jonah, Job, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would all whisper a foretelling of His impending and powerful arrival.

He would make His way into our orbit through the words of an angel to a lowly virgin girl (Luke 1:26-38). He would enter our atmosphere nine months later on a cool night in the miniscule Judean town of Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-20). He would speed toward the surface with unrelenting force, all along the way burning up the constricting stratosphere of hopelessness through the preaching and teaching of the Gospel. He would vaporize the dusty debris of blindness, deafness, muteness, hunger, leprosy, dropsy, demon possession, paralysis, mortal Death itself, and so much more (Matthew 14:15-21; Mark 8:28-33; John 5:1-15; John 11: 1-46; and the like).

And then He would strike.

On Good Friday, the Savior—Jesus Christ—would render His life as He crashed into the earth’s surface by way of the cross. He would do this with a force equal to and more than what was needed to cleanse the world of its horribleness. The initial concussion—one of inconceivable magnitude—would see the rocks split, worldwide darkness, the temple curtain brought to tatters, and the dead shaken from their tombs. The shockwaves from Calvary’s crater would move out in all directions, rolling across the landscape of creation, going backward and forward in time, leaving nothing untouched.

The devil and his own would be scorched and left dying. Humanity would be given life, reconciled, made right with God.

Shortly thereafter, the smoky haze from the Lord’s sin-killing encounter would dissipate, and the bright-beaming light of hope would begin shining through to the planet. A completely new air of existence would breeze through and into the lungs of Mankind. A tomb would be empty, its former inhabitant found alive, and all who believe in Him would stand justified before the Father and destined for the same resurrection triumph.

All of this makes for the centrifugal and centripetal astronomy of Holy Week, the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Vigil of Easter), and Easter Sunday. I urge you to make these times in worship your own. Go to church. Be present where God dispenses the benefits of the world-altering event of His love. Hear His Word. Take in the preaching. Receive the Lord’s Supper. Be found standing in the crater of Christ’s victorious work—His cataclysmic demise and unbounded resurrection becoming your justifying right to eternal life in glory with Him forever.

Backroad Cemeteries

It’s very early, 5:30am to be precise. I’m writing this note from Cantrall, Illinois. Again, to be precise, I’m at Camp CILCA, which is just outside of Springfield.

A summer camp I attended in my youth, I know this place well. Even better, I eventually became CILCA’s head counselor in the early nineties, having held the position for four consecutive summers. I should add that during those same years I was also the head lifeguard, music leader, sports director, and weekend maintenance assistant to a wonderful man I’ll forever consider a friend, Derald Sasse, may his soul rest in peace.

I stayed here at CILCA this weekend, having spoken last night at the camp’s annual banquet at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Springfield. I received a kindly invitation last fall from the current Camp Director, Reverend Joshua Theilen, to be the banquet keynote speaker. I was certainly glad to accept. And of course, the topic being something along the lines of Christian engagement in the public square, I was certainly ready to drive down and prattle on about such things. I pray my words last night were of benefit to the people in attendance.

Interestingly, I’m staying in the Christian Growth Center here at the camp, which back in my day, was the only building on the camp property with air conditioning. The funny thing is, in all my years here at CILCA, I never once spent a night in this building. I maintained it. I helped clean the rooms for various groups that came through. I fixed broken windows and repaired faulty electrical outlets, but I never actually enjoyed the fruits of my labor. And yet, here I am twenty-five years later. Life is weird that way, I guess.

As soon as I finish typing this note, I’ll be hopping into the Jeep and heading back to Michigan. To get here to Illinois, I took the backroads. I’ll probably do the same thing going home. I like driving the backroads. While they’re pleasantly uneventful, there’s plenty to see. Driving along through the sleepy farmlands provides more than enough opportunities for thoughtful observation. Thinking back to these travels a few days ago, I can think of at least two things I remember pondering.

The first thing I spent some travel time thinking about was the Old Testament reading from Genesis 22 appointed for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, which tells the story of God commanding Abraham to take his son, Isaac, to a yet undisclosed place and sacrifice him. I’d call this event dreadful if I didn’t already know its substance and ultimate conclusion. As a father, could I follow through as Abraham did? And yet, if the listener is paying attention as Abraham speaks, the comfort of trust in the promises of God is woven into the narrative. Once Abraham and Isaac arrived at the place God commanded, Abraham told the servants who journeyed with them that he and his son were going to go and worship God and then return to them.

That moment is a clue as to what Abraham knew would happen. He would unreservedly follow God’s commands already knowing something of God.

God promised Abraham that Isaac would be the one through whom the Messiah would come. God assured Abraham of this. Abraham knew that God doesn’t break His promises, and so no matter what approached from the horizon, Isaac would be fine. Abraham trusted this. If you doubt this analysis, then take a look at Hebrews 11:17-19. The writer to the Hebrews acknowledges this as he digs a little deeper into Abraham’s faith, describing him as knowing full well that if he was indeed forced to follow through with the frightful deed, God would give Isaac back to him alive. He’d have to. God would reverse Death, and preserve Isaac’s life.

This is a very rich moment, both emotionally and theologically, especially as we prepare to wrap up Lent and rejoice in the Easter celebration of Christ’s resurrection. I suppose that thinking about these things probably influenced the second thing I remember pondering along the way.

While tooling along through the farmlands of Indiana and Illinois, I noticed something familiar to each of the little towns along the way. They all have conspicuous cemeteries.

Now, you might be thinking that just about every city or town in America has a cemetery. Believe it or not, they don’t. But these backroad towns do, and each is noticeably prominent, often pitched on a hill at the edge of the city, perhaps adorned with an elderly oak tree or two. And if the cemetery isn’t standing guard at the edge of town, it’s situated somewhere along the town’s main street, making it impossible for anyone to miss while passing through. In either, the collection of headstones is a community of both old and new, and from a reasonable distance, against a setting sun, their mutual silhouette looks almost city-like.

I remember when I was a kid in the seventies and eighties, my friends and I would hold our breaths when passing a cemetery. The lore was that by breathing, there was a chance we might make a wandering spirit jealous. Another version of the myth claimed that you might accidentally inhale a spirit and become possessed. Silly, I know. Good thing I know better, because now that I’m far from those youthful fooleries, I passed a particularly lengthy cemetery on Saturday evening near Lincoln, Illinois as I was making my way to Cantrall from Morton, Illinois, where my parents and sister live. Had I held my breath as I passed, I might have ended up unconscious and in a ditch. Or worse, in a cemetery.

And yet, having said this, the fact that every town has its cemetery is a reminder that at some point, my body will end up in one. There’s no avoiding it. Read the poets. Christian or not, they get the inevitability of Death. Percy Shelley called Death the veil that is finally lifted during the deepest sleep. John Donne described Death as mighty and dreadful, and yet without pride, portraying it as simply doing what it does almost boringly even as it is unstoppable. Robert Browning describes the knowledge of unavoidable Death as motivation for living life fully. Emily Dickinson, of course, is famous for portraying Death as unstoppable, being the carriage that will one day arrive for all. And when it knocks at your door, you will be unable to keep from opening it.

Since I’ve suddenly shifted to considering the poets this morning, I’ll admit to appreciating Lord Tennyson’s description of Death:

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.

Tennyson doesn’t describe Death fearfully. Instead, he sets it before his reader as something of a story’s ending. It’s the sunset to an eventful day. It is an open sky with a view to the evening star. It is a clear call of his name, and a drawing to a vessel setting sail into the open sea, a place that he loved.

I don’t know what influenced Tennyson’s perspectives on things, but I’ll say his consideration of Death is comforting. It evokes the Lord’s even more so reassuring words throughout the Gospels.

Now, don’t misunderstand the Lord’s position on Death. Jesus knows full well it’s a big deal. He knows it isn’t pretty. He knows Death is an ugly ordeal, that it’s a terrorizing power. Following His lead, Saint Paul describes it as the worst of all enemies of Man. But pretty much all of the biblical writers go out of their way to make sure we know that through faith in Christ, we don’t need to be afraid of Death. We don’t need to be fearful because Christ has defeated it. Like Abraham, we can face off with its dreadfulness with the promises of God well in hand. And so the Lord can say to Lazarus’ sisters that whoever lives and believes in Him, will live even though he dies. Saint Paul can mock Death, courageously poking at it with the Word of God’s promises, asking, “Where is your sting?” Job can speak so joyfully that even in the midst of Death, at the last, he will stand and behold God with his own eyes of flesh.

I like Tennyson’s description because he has this similar verve. It’s almost as if he’s equipped with the knowledge of faith, which we as Christians know by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel enables us to see Death for what it has now become for the believer: a turning from one page to the next.

And the next page holds an unending chapter that is far better than any that came before it.

I like that. And again, the season of Lent is certainly teaching this very point, making sure we’re ready to fully embrace the significance of the Lord’s resurrection—His conquering of Death—all for us!

To use Tennyson’s imagery, Easter is the clear call. Easter doesn’t allow for moaning of the bar. Easter sets sail for the unending horizons of eternal life through faith in the One who was crushed and killed for our iniquities, and yet was found alive on the third day, having wrestled Death and won.

Here in a few moments I’ll be packing up my car and making my way back to Michigan. I’ll be passing many of those same cemeteries I encountered on the way here. I won’t be holding my breath when I pass, just as I won’t be looking on them as fearful markers signifying hopelessness. I’ll observe them as Abraham looked upon Isaac. God is faithful to His promises. He is our hope in the midst of Death. Through that lens—the lens of faith—each of the tombstones whizzing past me will herald particular truths. The first is that unless the Lord returns first, I will die someday. There’s no way of getting around that fact. The second is that even as Death would come calling, it is not my master. Christ has won my eternal life. I am not consigned to the grave forever, but rather with my last breath, I will set sail into the joys of eternal life with my Lord at the helm.

Guilt

The season of Lent is a powerful time in the Church Year. Throughout its forty days, if there’s one thing in particular it draws out and defines with its penitential crispness, it’s the authenticity of human guilt.

Guilt is an incredibly palpable thing, isn’t it?

It’s thick. It’s strong. It’s voracious.

A terrible task-master, guilt binds its victims, keeping them in chains, all the while haunting every square inch of its chosen domain. As a pastor, I’ve learned to recognize guilt in people—and not because I exist in some sort of sphere of unimpeachable innocence, but because I know and have met my own dreadfulness of thoughts, words, and deeds. I am very familiar with guilt’s shape and stamina, and like you, I can be found wrestling with it, too.

As a pastor who is fully prepared to admit this, that means I’m a lot harder to fool when it comes to guilt.

It’s so often easy enough to see it peering back from its victim’s eyes like a shadowy knight in the watchtower of a guarded fortress. It can be sensed in a person’s physical presence. It disturbs human posture and is betrayed by facial expressions. On the phone or in person, its grip alters the human voice. By email or text message, it chooses certain words and repeats certain phrases that reveal its in-dwelling.

Guilt is by no means shy in these regards. It isn’t necessarily concerned by the possibility of its own notoriety. Admittedly, however, it would prefer to dwell in the peace of secrecy, hoping its host will deny its existence and thereby miss the telltale traces of its acidosis. This is true because it knows that to deny its presence is to preserve and protect the master that planted it—Sin. The denial of Sin’s guilt is the embracing of wickedness. It is to justify it, and to find the license for willfully employing it.

But again, for guilt’s host to be aware of its existence is just as acceptable, too. It quite enjoys its castle adorned in the paraments of hopelessness, fear, anxiety, and depression.

Whether it’s outright disavowal or fearful seclusion to avoid being found out, guilt is happy to live in the pitch black darkness of either. It will do anything to protect its domain, anything to smother the approaching lantern of Truth’s messenger, anything to prevent the invasion of a better, chain-shattering, Lord.

From purely a human perspective, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a great place for seeing the examination of these two natures of guilt. For example, Queen Gertrude says so frankly of strong denial, “The Lady doth protest too much, methinks” (III, ii). This is hinting that to so boldly defend one’s absolute incorruptibility—to make excuses for or justify one’s bad behavior—is itself evidence of self-deception in relation to guilt. Further into the play, Shakespeare takes aim at the futility of concealing guilt for fear of being found out, saying that eventually it “spills itself in fearing to be spilt” (Act 4, Scene V). In other words, the continued filling of guilt’s ever-swelling balloon can only last for so long before it bursts, ultimately spattering its gore across the landscape of a person’s life. Things will get messy. Little episodes will become big. Plans will come undone.

So, what to do?

There’s a reason Jesus said on occasion, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:15). He knows that the Word of God—namely, the proclamation of the Gospel—brings what’s needed for Sin. This cure is also, by God’s design, a medicine for the ousting of paralyzing guilt. The first pill in its prescribed regimen of truth is big and hard to swallow, and yet it delivers directly to our insides the very important knowledge-filled remedy that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

The course continues along in a way that moves from concern to sweetness, first urging us not to deny or be fearful of our guilt (1 John 1:8). Both are self-deceptions leading to eternal harm. Instead, we are invited to confess our truest selves and our failings, knowing that God is faithful and just, and He will wash the guilt away (1 John 1:9). His faithfulness is embodied by Jesus, who did not come to condemn us, but to save us (John 3:17). Through faith in Him, we have full access to the throne of God’s grace in every time of need (Hebrews 4:16), being certain that God will receive us—that He will not shame us in our guilt, but rather will help us by taking it away (Isaiah 50:7; Psalm 103:12).

This wonderful routing of guilt from the fortress of Man is on full display in the person and work of Jesus Christ—His cross and empty tomb. It’s there that we see our guilt being heaped upon His shoulders. It’s there that we see our fear and shame infused with His divine body. It’s there that our hope is born, and by faith in His sacrifice and victory, the gates of fault’s domain are kicked open and guilt is dragged to its eternal demise.

You don’t have to be afraid to say you’ve done wrong. God forgives. And by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in His people, offended Christians are prepared to forgive in return.

Let this Gospel be of comfort to you. Better yet, be empowered by it to put away the need to hide your guilt. And whatever you do, don’t deny its existence. Besides, God already knows it’s there, and He desires for us to own this truth, too. Even better, He doesn’t want to leave us in it. He would have us look to and know the One He sent for our rescue—Jesus Christ—and in Him discover the mettle for coming clean, for real repentance, for the real receiving of the mercy won for us on Calvary’s cross. It is by confession of Sin and faith in Christ that guilt’s shame is turned back on itself and made into nothing.

Lent is teaching us these things. Lent is leading us to Good Friday and Easter—those eternal moments on the mortal timeline that seal the deal on this wonderful news.

My First Inclination

I must admit that what first came to mind for writing this morning was very short, and had I shared it as the temptation was nudging, it would have been less than helpful. Although, now that I’ve taken a moment to think through why I would’ve written it so crisply, I’m prepared to go ahead and share it, anyway, followed, of course, by an explanation.

My first inclination this morning was to write something akin to:

   Jesus loves you. He died on the cross to save you. I’m guessing you believe this, yes? That means you’re not who you were before faith. You actually want to be a better person—a more faithful person. With that, be nice to others, being kind enough to give your fellow Christians the benefit of the doubt in conflict. And whatever you do, don’t impose your opinions onto them and then get angry when you discover they disagree.

   That being said, however, if you are able, go to church. Don’t wait for an invitation. Certainly, if someone does happen to invite you, firstly, don’t get mad at them; and secondly, take a moment and consider that perhaps your unhappy response might have more to do with you than the person’s genuine concern for your wellbeing. Also, consider that it doesn’t do you much good to call yourself a Christian while actively avoiding being with the Creator who made you one. It’s kind of like saying two plus two equals five. The world seems to deal in that kind of nonsense. I mean, right now it’s calling a woman a man and a man a woman. Remember, you’re in the world but not of it. And besides, you know better, anyway. You’re a Christian. You have the truth of God’s Word. Live by it, never forgetting that Jesus lived, died, and rose for you. And why? Because He loves you. That love changes you.

   There.

   I began with the Gospel, and I ended with it. You’ve been given all you need to be and do everything I just described.

   A blessed Lent to you.

See what I mean? Without some context, that probably would’ve had some of you wondering if perhaps there was a medication I’d forgotten to take this morning.

Admittedly, last week was a rough one—enough to leave me short-of-breath for the one just beginning. Just to give you an idea, one of the week’s easier moments involved sitting through a phone call with someone I’d never met before in my life screaming profanities at me so loudly that his voice became distorted and I found myself needing to pull my ear away from the receiver. Again, this was one of the easier moments the week brought to my doorstep. What really made the week so rough were the conflicts that seemed to erupt between Christian people I know—a handful of them occurring within our own community.

For the most part, each instance seemed to be nothing more than people seizing the opportunity to be mean.

It seems it’s becoming far easier for folks—even Christians—to verbally lunge at one another, to think the worst of a brother or sister in Christ, and then to go for the jugular without any concern for context, responsibility, relationship, history, authority, and a whole host of other factors that play into the lives that comprise a community of faith.

Maybe it’s different for you, but I certainly don’t wake up in the morning wondering how I can tick people off. And yet, I think sometimes people believe I do.

How does such an assumption get any traction among God’s people?

Another example: When an invitation is extended to come back to church, and then the recipient lashes out as though the invite were an unjust accusation or attack on his or her character, how does such a thing—a genuinely kind nudge to be with Jesus—become an affronting word to be received as spiritual assault and battery?

I just don’t get it.

Well, actually I do. I know how it can become this. And you do, too. I assure you that the deeper we go into Lent, the more we’re going to be confronted by the cause, the more we’re going to journey to its borders.

Sin is being unmasked handily in Lent.

The spotlight of Lent is allowing Sin’s inescapable domain to be seen for what it is—a wasteland steeped in terrible desolation. Nothing good grows within its borders. Its seeds planted by the devil hold the pitch black and oily venom of death. They produce the same. Sunday after Wednesday after Sunday after Wednesday we’re being shown the vile crop it produces in thought, word, and deed. We’re being led out into the open to see its field, actually seeing what’s at stake in the war for our salvation. We’re beholding how our sin-nature—which is the deepest, and so often the most influential part of ourselves—has the easy inclination for spitting in a rage at anyone or anything that would put Jesus at the forefront as the solution for setting everything right.

We’re also realizing that the Christian community, for as pristine as we’d hoped it would be, isn’t immune to the curse. Certainly, we can know to expect a filth-laden tirade from an unbelieving stranger—a child and servant of the world. But even as we, the believers, have been saved from the same world, we’re not unaffected by it. We’ll need to expect it from one another on occasion, too. It’s got us—all of us. As long as this world continues to spin, the sinner-saint bout will continue.

Lent is offering to Christians the clarion call to remember these things, to not avoid them, but instead to embrace the Gospel that not only has what it takes to work repentance, faith, and the amending of the sinful life, but the power to view the world and one another rightly so that we know how and what to do to actually fight against it as a community.

When we find ourselves at odds, we know by God’s Word we play a huge role in bringing it to a peaceful conclusion—and not because we feel we have to, but because we know the Holy Spirit at work within each of us desires it.

Lent is about a lot of these things, which is one more reason why as a religious system (which a clergy-friend recently used this terminology in passing to refer to such things), the season has been considered incredibly important to the Church since very early on. Sure, you could set Lent aside as one of optional import, but that would be to remove oneself from the fuller collegium of Christians from across the centuries and globe who thought otherwise. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that much of myself. I try to take care not to think I know better than the thousands of years of faithful Christianity that came before me.

So, having unpacked the motivation behind what would have been a much shorter and more frustrated-sounding note resulting from an exhausting week, take a look at that first note one more time, except now through the better lens of the Gospel’s care.  You’re likely to be far less startled by its brevity.

Once again…

Jesus loves you. He died on the cross to save you. I’m guessing you believe this, yes? That means you’re not who you were before faith. You actually want to be a better person—a more faithful person. With that, be nice to others, being kind enough to give your fellow Christians the benefit of the doubt in conflict. And whatever you do, don’t impose your opinions onto them and then get angry when you discover they disagree.

That being said, however, if you are able, go to church. Don’t wait for an invitation. Certainly, if someone does happen to invite you, firstly, don’t get mad at them; and secondly, take a moment and consider that perhaps your unhappy response might have more to do with you than the person’s genuine concern for your wellbeing. Also, consider that it doesn’t do you much good to call yourself a Christian while actively avoiding being with the Creator who made you one. It’s kind of like saying two plus two equals five. The world seems to deal in that kind of nonsense. I mean, right now it’s calling a woman a man and a man a woman. Remember, you’re in the world but not of it. And besides, you know better, anyway. You’re a Christian. You have the truth of God’s Word. Live by it, never forgetting that Jesus lived, died, and rose for you. And why? Because He loves you. That love changes you.

There.

I began with the Gospel, and I ended with it. You’ve been given all you need to be and do everything I just described.

A blessed Lent to you.

Let’s Be Honest About Death

Just yesterday (Saturday, February 20), the Life Team of Our Savior blessed our church and community by offering an “End of Life” seminar. It was well attended. I was glad for that.

The keynote speaker for the event was Genevieve Marnon, the Legislative Director for Right to Life of Michigan. I know Genevieve. She’s a great servant of the cause for life, and as you’d expect, she gave great insight into a multitude of things facing the Church in America when it comes to end-of-life decision making. All who took advantage of the day’s events were well fed.

We were also joined by Gary Borg from Lynch and Sons Funeral Home. I know the folks at Lynch and Sons well. Some years ago, Thomas Lynch, being the friend and writer that he is, wrote a kindly endorsement for my first volume of The Angels’ Portion. Knowing Tom’s directors to be top-notch, as expected, Gary’s words were valuable as he explained the funeral home’s role in the process, giving helpful tips to families for navigating what is likely to be a taxing and turbulent time.

I was tasked with kicking off the event. My topic: “How to Prepare for a Funeral Service and Beyond.” Of course, I did what I could to fulfill the expectations of this topic, being sure to talk about the nature and theology of a funeral service, as well as emphasizing and encouraging faithful practices. I talked about how to be proactive in planning one’s own funeral, and I went through the basic steps of what families should do when a loved one’s last breath occurs.

But before I could speak to any of these things, I felt the need to steer into an honest discussion of what sits at the core of the conversation.

Death.

There is the temptation to avoid the word “death” altogether. I, on the other hand, give the word a capital “D” in every sermon I write. Why? Because Death is no small thing. It’s owed our attention. It’s big. It’s powerful. When it’s lurking, you know it’s there. When it steps onto the scene, there’s no questioning its intentions. Shakespeare personified Death in this way, too, describing it as keeping court, as sitting and scoffing at the pomp of man, waiting for the inevitable moment (Richard II, III, ii, I, 160). When Death has passed through, the devastation is real. It leaves behind things that are tangible to each of the human senses. You can see its shadow in the pale skin of the deceased. You can touch and know the coldness of its labor. It even has its own smell. The people who’ve been powerless to stop its savage work on a loved one have red cheeks and bloodshot eyes. They’ve tasted the salt of their own tears. When there’s no more heavy breathing and the life-support machines have been stopped, the silence is thunderous.

W.B. Yeats once wrote that Man knows Death to the bone (Death, 1933). And he’s right. For the victim, it leaves nothing untouched. For those left behind, it cuts into the depths of their being, and its scars are long-lasting.

Against the overwhelming evidence of Death’s strangling might, in an attempt to be at peace with its inescapable work, I’ve heard some refer to Death as a friend, something to embrace as good. Yes, it’s true that an end to mortal suffering can be counted as a blessing. But the verity of such a statement isn’t so for the reasons the mortal flesh would conjure. Death is not a blessing. It’s a curse. It’s not natural. It’s completely foreign to God’s design for creation. He makes sure we understand these things in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:19. In 1 Corinthians 15:26, Saint Paul makes sure we never utter the words, “Death is a friend.” It’s not a friend. It’s the last bitterest enemy of Man.

Before we can even begin to fathom the glorious purpose and momentum of a Christian funeral, we need to be wise to what we’re actually dealing with. Death is everything I’ve described. It’s real, and it’s coming for all. Each of us will breathe our last and be returned to the bosom of the earth. We don’t know how or when it will happen, we just know that it will. And when it does, what will we do? What shall we expect from and for those around us? Where is our hope in the midst of the mess?

A Christian funeral beholds Christ right in the middle of it.

In the midst of the initial sadness—Christ. When the machines are being unplugged and rolled away—Christ. When the plans are being made at the funeral home—Christ. When the readings and hymns are being selected and the obituary is being crafted from memories—Christ. When the bell tolls and the service begins, when the casket is closed and the mortal remains are covered by the pall—Christ. When the sermon is ringing out to the listeners—Christ and more Christ! Yes, the loved-one in the casket will be remembered, and likely in some heart-warming ways. Nevertheless, none of these will rise to the prominent station of “most important.” At a Christian funeral, Jesus owns that spot. And so the unmistakable communiqué to be dispatched to the troubled community will be the Good News of Death’s cure—the great heralding of Death’s utter defeat at the hands of Christ.

A Christian funeral is to be nothing less than the proclamation of this Gospel—the overabundant proclamation of the world-splitting news that Death no longer rules the spaces between heaven and hell because of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, Death is no longer the believer’s lord. It is not the believer’s master. It is not the believer’s end. Jesus has seen to this. He said so Himself: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Trusting in the divine Son of God, the One who throttled Death by His own demise on Calvary’s cross, believers—both in the casket and in the pews—can be sure that Death has been remedied. The process itself, no matter how it may unfold, is now only for believers to close their eyes and exhale a last breath in mortality, and then to open their eyes and inhale the freshness of eternal life in the nearest presence of Christ in heaven.

Christ made sure of this.

If we don’t understand these things, a funeral can devolve into a circus sideshow very quickly. If we don’t empower our pastors to direct our funerals in a Godly way, being sure to leave behind very clear instructions for our families, then our own funerals very well could become less of what Christ would desire and more of what the unbelieving world would do to find peace, which ultimately means everyone in attendance will be left searching for hope in all the wrong places.

Lent is a good time to have a seminar like the one we had. This is true because Lent takes seriously what plagues humanity, knowing the immensity of the Lord’s work to save us from it, while at the same time knowing that Easter is on the very near horizon.

My prayer for you this day is that you would know the immensity of the Lord’s work, too, and that you would look to Him in all things, being assured of eternal life through faith in Him. Lent reminds us of the serious nature of the wage for Sin, which is Death. Easter reminds us that neither has a hold on Jesus. This being true, by faith in Him, they don’t have a hold on you, either.

The Shape of the Gospel — Ash Wednesday

The penitential season of Lent is soon to be upon us. It begins this week with Ash Wednesday.

So, who cares? Christians do. At least, they should. Although, it would seem many Christians—even some of the clergy—are preaching and teaching against it. I don’t know why. I did hear one say it’s some sort of innovation to the Church Year and therefore to be avoided. I heard another suggest it hinders the Christian’s ability to prepare for Easter with joy. That’s sad. One sure way to rob the victory of its joy is to be ignorant of what’s at stake in the war. Ash Wednesday offers a much-needed glimpse of the battlefield.

I find it strangely interesting that even the sensual (though unofficial) liturgies of something like Mardi Gras would portray a better awareness and care for Ash Wednesday and Lent, whether their partakers actually realize it or not. Even in the midst of a celebration that holds the well-deserved reputation for overindulgent debauchery, there is the sense that it must and will come to an end.

“Live it up,” its rites and ceremonies proclaim, “for after Fat Tuesday, it must all expire.”

And it does. What once was gives way to the ashen dust of death remembered by Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the proper headstone for all things carnal.

A day in the Church Year in which believers’ foreheads are marked with the ashes of what were once lively and verdant branches (the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration), Ash Wednesday reveals that the Christian Church knows something of this world that the world itself cannot fully fathom. It knows the wage for Sin is Death—real and eternal Death. It knows this as it recalls God’s terrifying words to Adam and Eve after the fall into Sin. These words still reverberating, it hears the truth in them. It knows the necessity for their honest contemplation so that we would see the world as it ought to be seen. It knows to immerse itself in the depths of a solemnity that acknowledges the horror of the very real predicament that the entire human race is facing. The Church knows there’s so much more than just an end to things, but there’s also a terrible dreadfulness just over that end’s border for those who remain enslaved to the mess.

You can’t ignore it.

You can’t hide from it.

You can’t outrun it.

You can’t overpower it.

The inevitability of its reach is woven into the very fleshly fabric of every man, woman, and child who was ever born in the natural way.

It was with divine, and yet heartbroken, authority that God announced this to His world and its first inhabitants: “Because you have done this, cursed is the ground because of you…” (Genesis 3:17). Cursed things are put away from God. By this curse—this self-inflicted and permanent vexation—“you will return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

The thing about Ash Wednesday is that you can’t make your way into and through Lent without contemplating the veracity of the curse. Ash Wednesday has become a guardian of sorts at Lent’s contrite door, and it won’t let you into the forthcoming events without being stamped. The stamp it reaches out to give, it goes on your head and not your hand. Its dust crowns the human frame as the only appropriate coronation for someone born into the un-royal lineage of the Sin-nature. It adorns the skull that shields the corrupted human mind, the organ fed by a sinful heart so that it would calculate and then initiate every ungodly act of thought, word, or deed. The mark’s dirty-cold embers are the kind that distinguish Cain from Abel, openly identifying the murderer and reminding him of the dusty ground that opened up to swallow Godly innocence.

And yet, even as Ash Wednesday won’t let you forget the seriousness of the disease, it will be just as fervent with the cure.

Remember: That filthy mark is in the shape of a cross. It’s smeared onto the penitently-postured foreheads of Ash Wednesday’s observers who know their need for a Savior. It serves as a silent proclamation of God’s truest inclinations in our darkness. It’s the shape of the Gospel—the death of the Savior, Jesus Christ, for a cursed world. The Great Exchange—His righteousness for our unrighteousness. It tells of a birthright, not earned, but given in love. It beams through dusty grime the truth of an imperishable crown of blamelessness, not earned by the wearer, but won and granted by the Savior. Cain is marked and no one can touch him. God has been gracious. For us, even in that smeared cross’ quiet, there thunders above every human wearing it an otherworldly hope for eternal life through faith in the Savior who was nailed to it on Good Friday. The booming crack of its message drowns out the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh’s accusations to the contrary.

Ash Wednesday’s mark serves as a gentle reminder of something else in particular. It heralds rebirth.

That cross of ash will dot the same place where God first made the sign of the cross upon His Christians in Holy Baptism. If only for a few hours, it will make visible the invisible, leading each of its bearers back to the moment when God He put His own name on them, claiming them as His through the washing of water and the Word, thereby grafting them into the entirety of Christ’s self-submitting work to accomplish Mankind’s redemption (Romans 6:1-10).

It’s been said that the best opportunities are seldom labeled. This “best opportunity” of Ash Wednesday is, in fact, labeled. Its tag may be grimy, but it happens to be one of the most condensed opportunities in the entirety of the Church Year for a right understanding of our condition in Sin and our glorious rescue by the Son of God. Don’t keep it at arm’s length, but rather embrace the opportunity to gather with the faithful and sing as we do in the appointed tract, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).

If you have any say in your evening activities, I encourage you to participate. Set aside 7:00pm this Wednesday. Make your way to Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan. Or go to your own church if it is offering a service. Either way, just don’t make the mistake of missing out on the powerful manner and message of the Ash Wednesday proclamation. You’ll be given the opportunity to look Sin and Death square in the eyes. You’ll see your mortality there. But you’ll see so very brightly and hear so very clearly the Good News of your brand new beginning through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the compassion of God who took upon Himself human flesh and made His dwelling among us for our rescue.

It’s Jesus’ Story to Tell

I was thinking about a social media exchange regarding the theological abilities of our nation’s new President that I participated in this past Saturday after our congregation’s annual “Getting Organized” meeting. But before I share its importance with you, I should probably start with a different conversation that occurred earlier in the week. I hope you’ll bear with me. I think it fits.

I had an interesting conversation with a group of students in my 7th and 8th grade religion class last Wednesday. Knowing that far too many folks these days appear to interpret the Bible according to some pretty messed up criteria, my goal this semester has been to walk the students through the process of completing an exegetical study.

Essentially, I’ve divided the class into two groups. One group is wrestling with Mark 10:46-52 (the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar), and the other is handling Luke 10:25-37 (the Parable of the Good Samaritan). Both groups are tasked with studying from at least four different English translations of their assigned text (I’m helping with the Greek if they discover the need to dig deeper). They are to be concerned with discerning keywords, studying context (genre, writer, major and immediate sections, and the like), exploring parallel texts (which includes non-canonical resources), and so much more, all with the hope of exposing the primary purpose and meaning of the portion of God’s Word they are to be handling.

Pedagogically speaking, I’m not a big fan of small groups in an academic setting. I’m not convinced it’s the best way to learn. Still, I went against my own rule and gathered the students into groups according to their respective texts in order for them to discuss with one another the particular keywords they’d each discovered and were considering for his or her exposition. I hovered closely among the two groups.

For the most part, and interestingly, the students gravitated toward many of the same words. On occasion, however, one or two students would suggest the importance of a word that none of the others had considered. I was glad for that. I could go into greater detail as to why, but rest assured from their discussion, it was proof to me that they were really digging in and taking the assignment seriously.

At one point along the way, I suggested to both groups that they try to imagine themselves as onlookers to the situation, paying close attention with the mind’s eye to the visual flow of events. When they took time to do this, other aspects became visible.

With respect to keywords, an example of an obvious one from the Luke 10 text was the NIV’s term “expert in the Law” in comparison to the ESV’s rather simple descriptor “lawyer.” That’s an easy one. Does the difference matter? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, the students are going to figure that out. But when they placed themselves as observers of the conversation unfolding between Jesus and the expert in the Law, a few of the students noticed almost immediately a very strange shift. On the surface, Jesus seemingly commended the lawyer in verse 28 for giving the right answer to his question. “You have answered correctly,” Jesus said. “Do this and you will live.”

That’s great, right? Who wouldn’t want to be commended by the Lord? But in the very next verse, the lawyer appears to cop an attitude, feeling the need to justify himself, as if he’d somehow been insulted.

So, what happened?

One student in the bunch took the lead in the hunt for an answer. Eventually, he circled back around to the Lord’s reply to the lawyer, guessing that it was either the way the Lord said what He did (which we can’t necessarily determine His tone), or something wasn’t quite getting through in the English translation. Ultimately, he focused on the Lord’s words, “Do this and you will live,” because that seemed to be the critical moment of engagement in the Lord’s commendation. After a little more discussion, “Do this” became the student’s sole focus.

And that was it. In the Greek, the verb reveals the Lord’s insinuation that the lawyer, a man who thought he was keeping the Law of God perfectly, hadn’t been performing in the way he believed himself to be. “Do this” meant that if perhaps he actually got started right then and there, he might discover eternal life. Of course, that was a short, but loaded, reply to the lawyer’s self-righteous answer. To gain eternal life by way of keeping the Law is impossible. No one will pave their way to heaven with deeds. Jesus knows this. That’s why He came. But the lawyer was under the impression that he, an expert in the Law, was doing a pretty good job at actually accomplishing it. Jesus pointed out in front of the massive crowd that the show-off’s expertise in this regard was clearly lacking.

In short, here was a man whose trust for eternal life was located in himself, and the Rabbi he was challenging in that moment believed he was failing desperately at it. Like everyone else in the crowd, the lawyer needed a Savior.

This offended him. It embarrassed him, too. That meant he needed to do something to justify himself in order to regain his previous standing before the onlookers.

Knowing this particular detail in the exchange completely changes the trajectory for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. My guess is that most interpret the parable apart from this introductory text, and when they do, it becomes little more than a Sunday School story about how Jesus wants us to be good to others. But if we’re going to handle it honestly, that’s not why Jesus told the parable. The purpose of the parable is to point out how we fail, and by doing this, He’s putting before us the opportunity to admit we actually need a Savior. The astonishing part to this is that when we actually know the Lord’s real reason for teaching the parable, and then we dig into the parable itself, we may actually see the Gospel woven into its fabric. In other words, Jesus laid some gut-wrenching Law on us, but He didn’t leave us without hope. For the expert in the Law, Jesus foreshadowed the work of the Messiah—Jesus’ approaching work to accomplish our rescue—which is to say that He told the story of us and Himself.

He described someone who’d been pummeled and left for dead, and unless the wretch received help, his permanent end would be inevitable. That’s us. Sin has more than seen to this. Fascinatingly, the well-known animosity between the Jews and Samaritans is a hint to the vastness of the chasm that separates Man from God. And yet, the fact that the dying man’s chief enemy, a Samaritan, is the one who helped him is a glimpse of our Lord’s crossing over that divide in order to save us. As the story unfolded further, the scene became even clearer. The One who would be our enemy, rather than leaving us in our predicament, came down into the valley of our sorrow to be with us, to reach to us in love. He bandaged up our wounds, took us to a place where He arranged for our care, and then He promised to return to settle all accounts.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s an image of the Lord’s incarnation all the way through to His return at the Last Day, with the in-between time being His wonderful work to rescue, forgive, and sustain us as His people.

I expect that the students assigned to this text, with a little more recalibrating of their exegetical lenses, are going to discover these gems in the text for themselves. But as I mentioned at the beginning of this note, I suppose the reason I was moved to share this particular moment from my 7th and 8th grade religion class with you is because of a conversation I had on Saturday with a Christian who felt the need to defend Joe Biden’s supposed “devout” Catholicism. One tritely employed phrase that was used during the conversation (and I say “tritely” because far too many Christians believe this): “Well, you interpret the Bible one way, and Biden interprets it another way. Maybe he doesn’t accept parts that you do. That doesn’t necessarily make him wrong.”

Puke.

God didn’t give us His Word so we could do whatever the heck we want with it, picking and choosing this or that portion, ultimately making it say whatever we feel like making it say. It is divinely inspired, inerrant, and immutable—and with that, there are intentions behind every single Word. If you don’t believe this, not only will you never be able to secure a faithful interpretation, but in the end, you’ll see it as having very little value to begin with. When this happens, you’ll have become no different than the self-righteous lawyer in Luke 10 who felt he had no need for Jesus, because after all, Jesus is the very Word made flesh (John 1:14). If you reject the Lord’s Word, by default you reject Him. That leads to big trouble. Eternal trouble.

I doubt our new President will ever allow a faithful pastor thirty or forty minutes of his time to exegize alongside him some of the Biblical texts he believes give license for murdering babies in (and out of) the womb, for allowing men who think they’re women to compete in women’s sports, or so many other ungodly ideologies. In fact, I know he won’t do this. He’s already verbally condemned the catholic bishops who’ve said he should be excommunicated for his radical handling of God’s Word in these particular arenas.

In the end, I guess I’m just going to continue to work with what I have—which means doing what I can to teach the students in the 7th and 8th grade at Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran School in Hartland, Michigan, the powerful contents of God’s Word. And as I do this, I’m going to do what I can to help carry them into a love for Biblical study, one that continues into adulthood. God willing, it’ll be a love that sees the value in taking time to wrestle with what God’s Word actually teaches, rather than relegating it to a thin scan and the shallow realm of “What does this mean to me?” as so many Christians are in the unfortunate habit of doing.

Strumming the Chords of Memory

I’m once again taking the opportunity to get a jumpstart on the eNews for this week.

You know how it goes for me. The sermon is done, and so now whatever comes to mind this morning is going to be quarried for gems.

I suppose with today being the 66th anniversary of our congregation, and since anniversaries are something of meaning, how about this?

It might sound somewhat absurd, but last week I spent about $12 to buy specialized batteries for a ramshackle calculator I’ve had since high school. But that’s only the half of it. I spent another $10 to buy three weirdly-sized batteries for a miniature, and equally bedraggled, R2D2 toy I’ve had for nearly as long.

For reference, the calculator’s screen is being held together with tape. The device’s black metal face is more than well-worn, with plenty of age-betraying scratches and dents. Honestly, it isn’t much to look at. And technologically speaking, it’s not even that advanced, especially in comparison to the calculators of today. For the twelve dollars I spent to revive it, I could’ve bought a brand new one with far greater capabilities.

The same goes for my R2D2, which by the way, sits on my desk just below my computer monitor. His white plastic case has yellowed with time, not to mention at some point along the way, the foot from one of his robotic legs came loose. It took superglue and surgeon-like skill to repair and reattach it in a way that it could still function. Like my calculator, he’s pretty beat up, which means he’s not going to be winning any astrodroid beauty pageants in this galaxy anytime soon. And yet, with the new batteries, at least he continues to be as I remember and expect. When you press his button, he whirs, boops, and beeps with glee. Even better, the tiny light on his dome still twinkles magnificently.

To look at these items, you’d think I was crazy for keeping them around, let alone spending as much as I did on batteries to keep them functioning. The thing is, for as immaterial as they might seem, they’re mine. They mean something to me.

I remember the store in my hometown of Danville, Illinois, where I bought the calculator. The last time I visited, I discovered the store no longer exists. Nevertheless, the calculator I got from one of its shelves is still helping me with math problems. I remember loaning the calculator to an old girlfriend—Estella—who, by the way, is the reason behind the tape holding it together.

As far as R2D2 goes, sure, I could buy another miniature figure just like him to adorn my workspace, and it would probably have more articulating parts and cooler sounds. But this is my R2D2. Again, he might not be much to look at, but he’s mine. And truth be told, even if he somehow loses all functions, or I discover him in a completely unrepairable state, I’ll never throw him away. He means something to me. I have memories stored away in my brain that only he can stir. Rest assured that even if he becomes nothing more than a pile of parts to be scooped up and put into a ziplock bag, I’ll keep R2 for as long as my mind will recognize him.

I suppose in a broad sense, when I consider all of this as a Christian, I can’t help but be reminded of how our God thinks on all of us in love. The human race is coming undone, and for the most part, it isn’t much to speak of. We lie. We cheat. We steal. Heck, we even have it in us to grind up babies in the womb. Overall, if there’s a line marking the borderland of horribleness, at some point along the way we’ll cross it. Still, God thinks on us in love. Even Saint Paul, at one time a devilish persecutor of Christians, couldn’t help but share how astounded he was with God’s mercy.

“For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).

Of course Paul didn’t just aim that honesty at himself. He turned it toward the entire human race, making sure we’re all fully aware of the predicament we’re in, while at the same time showing the divergence of God’s actions.

“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

The contrast is astounding. Paul didn’t use the term “sinners” lightly. He knew the core of the word. He knew he was referring to all of mankind, himself included, as rebelliously hateful enemies of God and completely dead to righteousness with every fiber of our being. And yet, it’s in this condition that God reached to us. Our yellowing nature, our lives barely being held together by the flimsy tape of human frailty, our broken efforts and our pummeled pasts—God sees all of this. And yet He doesn’t throw us away. We mean something to Him, and so He was willing to do the work and to pay the seemingly craziest price to restore what would otherwise be considered as junk.

That has me thinking from another perspective.

As I noted already, when I plink away at my old calculator or I admire my old R2D2 toy, some pretty substantial memories are stirred. I did quite a bit of reading last fall from Abraham Lincoln’s various writings, and at one point along the way I remember him saying something about how memories are like mystic chords that swell a chorus when strummed. This pathetic old calculator, this silly little R2D2, as trivial as they both may be, are tools for strumming. When I see them, I remember former days. When I reach out to touch them, I reconnect with a vastness of people, places, times and the like, all of which—through the lens of faith—leave me marveling at what, how, and to where God has carried me along the timeline of my own life.

Everything along the way has value. Unfortunately, and as the French novelist Georges Duhamel once said, it’s often true that we don’t know the true value of our life’s moments until they have undergone the test of memory. In other words, what’s happening right now matters, and it will either be remembered with fondness, or it will haunt us like the chains strung around the neck of Jacob Marley’s ghost.

As we navigate life, this can be a petrifying thought, even for Christians.

But be comforted. One thing is for sure, God thinks on and reaches to us in love. The death of Jesus Christ for sinners is the all-surpassing Gospel announcement of this. The One who was given over for our redemption, He is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (Revelation 22:13). I don’t know how it is for you, but knowing He was and is always with me, I can look back at the things in my life that I regret and be reminded that I meant something to Him then and I mean something to Him now, that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, that His mercies never come to an end, that each day is a new day in His loving kindness, that His grace is fresh and bountiful every morning (Lamentations 3:22-24). I can ponder the fact that even my worst day filled with my most grievous Sins has been long forgotten by the One who, by virtue of His atoning sacrifice, looks me in the eye through the words of Isaiah 43:25 and says with a certain and thundering voice, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.”

With this Gospel at the ready each and every day, when my course in this life finally comes to an end and I draw my final breath, both the joys and regrets of life will all be found resting in the promise of a tearless future in the nearest presence of Jesus Christ, my Savior—the One who promised never to leave or forsake me (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5). Through this lens of faith, even my calculator can be a reminder—a weird reminder, but a reminder nonetheless. It whispers that the same Savior who was with me as I tapped away in 10th grade math class in Danville, Illinois, is the same one who is with me now as I prepare to do a little computing with the average attendance numbers for a church and school four hundred miles away in Hartland, Michigan.

And a small, motionless R2D2 with a similar story looks on in twinkling affirmation.