I Didn’t Have to Do It, but I Did

Well, today’s the day here at Our Savior. The students are back in the classrooms, the teachers are moving at top speed—well, maybe not top speed, since it’s only a half day—and the world is quickening its pace even as we continue to cruise along together in the mercies of Christ.

I’m a little short on time this morning, so I’ll need to be quick. And honestly, with the flurry of morning activities before us here at the church, not much is coming to mind at the moment. Although, as I was walking out of the school yesterday before the balloon launch with Shirley Sturkin and Georgine Shelton, I mentioned to them to remind me to share the story about what happened to me during a recent visit to the Home Depot in Fenton. I suppose I can share the story with all of you and see where it goes. Being that the seriousness of the year is upon us, maybe it’ll at least lighten the mood and make you smile. And maybe by the time I’m done, there’ll be something of theological value here, too. We’ll see.

Anyway, I have a t-shirt that I like to wear when I’m doing work around the house. It’s one that Jennifer bought for me at Walmart a few years back. It says “England” across the breast and has the Union Jack prominently displayed. I like the shirt. In fact, I like it a lot, and I happened to be wearing it one day while visiting the Home Depot in Fenton in search of wood screws and wall plates for some electrical outlets I intended to install in a basement storage closet.

I found the wood screws first, and then I made my way to the main aisle that would lead me to the section where I’d find the remainder of my required items. To get there, it was necessary to pass the appliance department. On approach, there was a rather rugged looking fellow who appeared to be guarding multiple flatbeds, each bearing some larger appliances—things like dishwashers and microwave ovens. It was an impressive stash of items he was preparing to purchase. But even with his remarkable train of products, the man himself stood out as most notable in the collection. He was decked in red, white, and blue from top to bottom. Everything on him bore an American flag, from his bandana to his pants. Even his shoes testified to the pageantry. Admittedly, being the patriot that I am, I was impressed, and I felt almost as if I should remove my hat and put my hand over my heart as I passed him.

But I didn’t, and that’s because as I made my way toward him, I could more than tell that he’d locked onto me with a stare. Having forgotten what was on the t-shirt I was wearing, I didn’t know why, at least not until he spoke.

“Nice shirt,” he intoned sarcastically. I smiled and kept my passing pace. But then he added, “Ashamed of your own flag, friend?”

Now, I suppose most folks would probably just have allowed the man his space and kept walking, relegating his rudeness to the obvious fact that he was more so zealous about the American flag than most. But still, I was a bit irritated, and I certainly didn’t feel like explaining to him that I’m not ashamed of my country’s flag. I love America. But I also love the freedom I have to wear my England t-shirt while working on my home. Still, what I did next, I suppose, could get me into trouble one day, and not just because I frequent this Home Depot fairly regularly, but because there’s always that chance that this guy might wander into Our Savior one day, and when he discovers me in the pulpit, things could get interesting pretty quickly.

Anyway, as immediately as he spoke, I turned and offered in my best British accent something like, “Oy, mate! It’s ’ard enough I’ve to drive my motorcar on the wrong side o’ the road, but must I also be coerced into ’splaining my shirt?!

As you can probably guess, I didn’t stick around long. Although, I stayed long enough to note that the surprise on his face was worth at least a couple of quid.

Returning to my previous pace, I continued my quest. I didn’t want to continue the engagement because if I found myself drawn into an actual conversation, one in which I’d have to keep the charade alive, he would’ve eventually noticed that I can’t keep the accent going for too long before it devolves into something more attuned to an Australian trying to sound Jamaican.

I can’t say for sure, but I do think he tried to apologize as I walked away. I think he said something about respecting America’s allies. Well, whatever. I turned the corner of the aisle I needed, grabbed my wall plates, and then took the long way back to the checkout lanes, traveling first among the ceiling fans and then through the outdoor garden department, all in an effort to evade my star spangled antagonist and the possibility of being forced to betray my truest accent.

I suppose that in the end—and for the sake of the limited time I have in this moment for writing an eNewsletter introduction of any real meaning for you—the takeaways here could be a few different things. The first is that I’m just as normal as you when it comes to life in the world around us. (Well, sort of normal.) I get frustrated and respond in ways that I should try better to keep in check. The second is that we ought to be careful to impose our suppositions on others based solely on what we see. Everything you see may suggest a validity in your comments, that is until the person opens his mouth to speak, and then you realize you were all wrong. I think this guy figured out really quickly that he should be more careful about who he criticizes in public. Another could be that even when challenged, rather than challenging back in a way that has more than enough potential for backfiring, we can trust that we are free to be who we are in Christ and simply converse. Looking back, I’m guessing because of my frustration, in a knee-jerk reaction to teach the guy a lesson, I missed a really good chance to not only share with him just how much I love my country and her flag, but I could have used that avenue of conversation to share with him the name of a really great church where he, too, could hear the Good News of the Gospel that, as Christians, we are free to enjoy in this nation.

I suppose there will be other opportunities in the future for getting this right. As I noted at the beginning, as God’s people, we are cruising along in the mercies of Christ each and every day. With that, we can be assured that there will be. Also, we can be assured that we’re well and good when these moments come along, and we are more than equipped to use them to the glory of Christ and the benefit of the neighbor.

You know, now that I’ve typed this, I feel like it’s something I could use over at AngelsPortion.com. In fact, I probably will. I can think of a particular something that I tried just this past week that would meet up with the narrative very well.

Anyway, I hope this helped to ease your morning stress, and maybe it even brought you a little smile.

Outpacing the Sun

Well, summer is officially at an end. School starts here at Our Savior this Monday.

I’ve seen a few social media posts from various folks noting how they can’t wait for their kids to get back to school. I’ve seen others from people with children who are dreading the return. They dread it because they enjoy having the kids home all day. They enjoy the sights and sounds, as well as the more leisurely pace when it comes to obligatory things. I’d have to agree. And to be quite honest, the week leading into each new school year, I always get a little anxious. For one thing, I think this happens because my awake time has already begun to outpace the sun and I know that it’ll be the same for the kids. What I mean is that for most of the year, I’m already awake and working well before the sun rises and I’m still at it long after the sun sets. It isn’t this way in the summer, and it’s as if the sun knows it. Leading along with a gentler pace, there are times when the rising sun through our bedroom windows is the first thing I see when I open my eyes. And it is at the end of a reasonable day from the step of my front porch that I see the sun beaming a goodbye stream on the western horizon, telling me it’s later than I think and urging me to bed, but also reminding me that it’ll be sure to wake me when it’s time.

It’s when I think of the ramped up and overly-busy schedules combined with the shorter days of Fall and Winter that I begin to get restless. I wonder how I’m going to do it all. Sometimes I find myself doing something that I’d be willing to bet you do, too. I begin segmenting my life into forward-looking timeframes. “Only forty-eight more days until All Saints Day,” I’ll say. Or perhaps I’ll whisper, “Only fifty-five days until Christmas.” I’ll do this throughout the year, knowing that when I arrive at each particular point, I’m that much closer to a time when the pace will lessen and the sun will once again greet me in my bed rather than after the morning school bell.

But there’s something else that hovers in the midst of all of this. In fact, no matter the time of year, it’s always there. It’s a short, caressing Word from Jesus to an anxious heart of worry:

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matthew 6:34).

The Lord preached these words to a group of Christians—folks like you and me—living in the trenches of a life filled with plenty of things about which to be concerned. He preached them having already offered a powerful Gospel of love—a good Word that delivered into their hearts the message that He is their Savior, that He has them well in hand, and will never fail. And so when I hear these words echoing in my anxious skull, they almost always come out of my mouth in the way that Saint Paul enunciated them to the church at Philippi: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:6-7).

You know what’s happening here in the midst of my worrisome state? The Holy Spirit is prodding my flesh and bones to know and acknowledge that I have a God who loves me. The proof is resident in the giving of His Son into death for my sins. He will carry me through both the times of leisure and the times of challenge.

I have nothing to fear. Period.

I pray the same peace for you and your family, that God would give to you a tranquil heart whenever you find yourself facing an uneasy moment. Trust Him. He is sure to provide all that you require. And I dare say that in comparison to the fiery ball around which our planet spins day after day after day, there is a much better Son who has risen, and by this, His time among us never sets. He never disappears over the horizon. His face is always shining on us. And with that, no matter the time of year, we can go to bed in peace and awake again in the same joy we had when we closed our eyes.

Real Communication

You know I write these eNewsletters on the fly, right? I mean, pretty much whatever comes to mind in the moment is what I start typing. I pray that most of the time it’s something useful to you, although my ultimate goal each time is to bring to you God’s Word while at the same time keeping you connected to each and every little thing going on at your church.

Communication is key to so much, and it’s worth every keystroke on this well-worn keyboard. George Herbert, a Welsh poet, once said, “Good words are worth much, and cost little.” I agree. Good words can be the difference between clarity and confusion, winning and losing, hope and despair, joy and terror.

In a certain sense, we deal in words here at Our Savior. Of course we know that our most precious vernacular, the Word of God, isn’t just language. Rather, it is the very powerhouse asset that created the world and sustains us even now in the Christian faith. But as Christians having a good understanding of the importance of the Word of God, we’re already in a good place for observing how significant the use of language can be in its basic sense. Words are important. Personally, I think regular communication does so much among us to foster good relationships as well as build trust with the folks in leadership (who, by the way, deserve to be trusted because they are wonderfully faithful servants of Christ). I also think that it plays a huge role in helping the congregation as a whole overcome obstacles—whether those obstacles might be a financial crisis or something troubling someone on a personal level. When we’re talking to one another (and doing so regularly) so that we are working together, we can better chart the landscape before us. We can walk in stride and help one another. I suppose that another positive thing arising from regular communication is that very little can surprise us. And if something does surprise us, we’re more so ready to steer into it and deal with it.

All of this speaks to the positives of communicating through a regular email message each week, and it makes digital communication seem worthwhile.

But having said all of this, I watched a quick YouTube video last night before bed which showed scenes of various people in different locales locked in stares with the screens of their computers and smart devices rather than in conversation with the person beside them. The point of the video was to show how we’ve lost the ability to communicate, and in so doing, we’ve forfeited our ability to actually make friends with other people. The funny thing is, even well before digital devices would ever be a sparkling glint life in the corner of a warming transistor, Charles Dickens wrote something rather prophetic in one of his shorter books entitled The Wreck of the Golden Mary. He offered, “I have heard it broached that orders should be given in great new ships by electric telegraph. I admire machinery as much as any man, and am as thankful to it as any man can be for what it does for us. But, it will never be a substitute for the face of a man, with his soul in it, encouraging another man to be brave and true.”

Indeed. I communicate with you in so many ways—through this eNewsletter, through phone calls, through texts, through social media—and yet I’ll admit that no form of communication compares to the ability to sit beside you, to see your face, to be stirred by the contours there being shaped by emotion, tone, and so many other things that God has woven into the fabric of who you are as a person. It’s really quite wonderful when you think about it, and as a pastor, it is one of the joys of everyday service.

And so, I suppose I should thank you for taking the time to read these messages I send. But also, I’d like to thank you for the times we’ve sat together as friends, especially when those times have had as their goal the extension of Christ’s kingdom. And lastly, I suppose I’d like to encourage you the next time you’re sitting and reading this eNewsletter while drinking your coffee at Starbucks or the car repair shop or wherever, feel free to save it for later. Instead, say “hello” to the person next to you. And as you do, don’t forget that as a Christian, you bear a language within you that can convince and convert the heart in a way that stirs a friendship with the Savior of the world. “Season you speech,” Saint Paul says. In other words, communicate the Gospel in conversation as the opportunities arise. I dare say that those opportunities are all around us each and every day, and the best ones unfold in person.

Losing is Hard

A Post Election Message

Losing is hard.

I’ve never participated in the circulation of memes mocking folks like Whoopi Goldberg and Bryan Cranston who said they’d leave the country if Trump won the election. I didn’t participate, and not because I wanted them to stick around. Personally, I think that the dear Lady Liberty that America is would be a much better off if she weren’t always scratching at her celebritous fleas. Still, I never participated because, quite simply, I was dealing honestly. I know how hard it is to lose. I know what it’s like to have a long-suffering and hopeful expectation for victory building in momentum over the course of what feels like a calendar-consuming “forever” suddenly become something else in a little more than an hour of election result postings.

Losing is hard. It hurts terribly. And if one is not careful, it can negatively recalibrate so much more than emotions. It can lead to some of the deeper, darker places that would see words spoken between people—between families, friends, and neighbors—and to have those relationships broken beyond repair.

Losing is hard. Forgiveness—real, down in the filth forgiveness—is too. Look to Christ on the cross and measure the effort to win our forgiveness. It wasn’t easy. It was hard. Now, I’m not talking about the perfect love that put Him there. It’s God’s innermost nature to love us and want to save us. It’s His alien work to punish. In His truest nature, when God looks upon us, He does so in love. I mean, when Adam fell into Sin, He didn’t crash down with a thundering voice, “What have you done?” But instead, He called out, “Where are you?” His first work was to find us in our shame and bring us back. Of course human love doesn’t even come close to this perfect love. It’s tainted, and it doesn’t guarantee forgiveness. I can, in a sense, love a friend, and yet never be rid of the gnat-like memories of the times they’ve hurt me. Forgiveness, like losing, is hard.

But by God’s grace, and perhaps strangely, there is the opportunity before so many of us to see that losing and forgiveness walk in stride. Losing means someone else stands above us on the pedestal in victory. Forgiveness means putting aside selfish pride to be the victor and existing in humility below another, too. I dare say that with forgiveness as the focal point of losing’s horizon, things can and will be okay.

A Love Like Theirs

I have a story to tell you about Wally and Ellie. Maybe you know them, and maybe you don’t. When they were in worship, they’d sit together on the pulpit side of the nave near the front. Technically they’re not members of this congregation, although as lifelong and faithful Lutherans, I treated them as though they were. They’d been attending for some time thanks to one of our families stopping by and picking them up. Although that came to end this past year when Ellie suffered a mild stroke and became more so homebound.

Anyway, as I said, I have a story to share, and because I’m a storyteller at heart, I thought I’d do it in narrative form. I hope you’ll take the time to read it. I share it as I beheld it in my mind’s eye while Ellie shared it with me…

It was the Fourth of July. It had been a long and tiring day. Even so, neither complained. The time with their son and his children was precious and always well worth the toll to the body.

Wally unlocked and opened the door to the apartment, being sure to turn on the light while at the same time holding the door for Ellie, just as he always did.

“Thank you, dear,” she said, moving slowly with her walker. Once inside, she made her way to her favorite recliner, which was just beyond their little round kitchen table stacked with various knickknacks held sacred by both. Giving as full an exhale as her petite frame could, she plopped down and closed her eyes.

Wally followed. Placing his hand on her tiny shoulder as he passed, he offered, “It’s getting late, Ellie.” In the same manner as his frail bride, he dropped into his favorite place on the couch just across the way from her. “How about we do our devotion and then get to bed?” he asked.

“Okay,” she whispered, her eyes still closed.

Wally reached to the coffee table at his knees, and taking a volume from the top of a short stack of tattered editions, he turned to a page already being reserved by a frilly bookmark Ellie had made in a former day, a time when her eyes and hands kept a keener pace.

He read the text—a brief portion from John 6 describing a faltering crowd of Jesus’ followers and Peter’s words of faith, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” A simple explanation by the devotional’s author followed. In all, it only took a few minutes. Ellie closed with prayer. She gave thanks for the wonderful day with her husband and family. They prayed the Lord’s Prayer together.

“Ok, then,” Wally said, closing the book and returning it to its place. “I’ll close up out here. You go on ahead and I’ll be there in a minute.” His back quite sore from the day, he gave a slight grunt and arose to help Ellie. Repositioning her walker, he took her hand into his and helped her to her feet.

“I’ll see you in a minute,” he said again.

“Ok,” she said softly. “Don’t be long.”

“I won’t.”

Ellie was already in bed when Wally came in. He changed into his pajamas and climbed in beside her. But he was only there a moment before pulling back the covers and getting out of bed.

“I’m feeling a little warm,” he said. “I’m going to go turn the air down a bit.” Another moment passed and he was back. Ellie turned toward him as he worked to fluff his pillow.

“I love you,” she said.

“I love you, too,” he returned.

They kissed.

Ellie reached to turn off the light, and with its click, she settled back in beside her husband. A minute or two of silence between them, Ellie offered a final remark for the evening. “It certainly was a wonderful day,” she said. “A truly wonderful day.”

Wally didn’t answer.

“Are you already asleep?” she chuckled wearily, turning back toward him in the darkness. Wally was silent.

She nudged him once. And then again. Turning back to the bedside table, she turned on the light. Wally’s eyes were closed, but his mouth was open. She nudged him again, and this time he gave a gurgling sound. He wasn’t sleeping. He was struggling.

She called the emergency number for the facility, and within minutes a team was in the apartment attending to Wally. In Ellie’s own words, from that moment until the time they arrived at the hospital, life had become somewhat blurry. She doesn’t remember getting dressed. She doesn’t remember the drive. She remembers being gathered at his bedside and hearing the doctors say that Wally had suffered a massive stroke and that his time with her would most likely be very short.

Ellie stayed with Wally through the night.

Their son arrived the next morning, bringing in tow his eight-year-old daughter. Wally was showing signs of consciousness—holding Ellie’s hand and squeezing when she asked him questions, affirming for her that he trusted in Jesus for his salvation, and smiling whenever she talked, even if it wasn’t to him. He loved her voice. He had always loved her voice.

In the midst of the hushed hospital room, somehow Wally became aware that his granddaughter had brought along a pen.

“Grampa’s wiggling his fingers to me, Grandma,” the little girl said.

“I think he wants your pen, honey,” she replied. Without hesitation, the little girl placed the pen into the hand of the man she’d so often given her own hand to hold. But there was no paper, and so Ellie turned over an empty tissue box to its plain white base and gave it to her granddaughter. The little girl held it firmly. Wally wrote in large capital letters.

LOVE ELLIE, he crafted slowly and carefully.

“He loves you, Grandma,” the little girl said as Wally continued scribing something else, a number.

“71?” the eight-year-old asked, turning back to her grandmother.

“Seventy-one years,” she said, her mouth betraying a quiver and her eyes beginning to wet. “We’ve been married for seventy-one years. That’s how long we’ve been together. That’s how long he’s loved me.”

Awash with a toothy smile, “Write something for me, Grampa,” the cheerful grandchild said.

Giving a labored but still genuine smile to match hers, he reached to the tissue box and began to scribble again.

S… O… M… E… T… H… I… N… G.

Ellie, her son, and her granddaughter beamed brightly together.

“He wrote you ‘something,’” Ellie said and grasped for Wally’s hand.

He took his last breath in that moment.

This is the story as Ellie recalled it while we sat together last Tuesday. Again, as you can see, I took the liberty of crafting what I was visualizing as she spoke. It was a Godly and serene event, one in which Ellie, even now, takes great comfort.

“Wally is with Jesus,” she said. “And I don’t feel slighted at all. We had 71 years together in a wonderful, Christian marriage.”

“This is true, Ellie,” I said. “And thanks be to God, because of Jesus, you’ll see him again.”

“Yes, I will,” she replied. “I’ll see him, again. Who knows when that’ll be, but I know it’ll be.”

Wally is with Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Ellie is at peace in this wrestling with Death. The Gospel wins.

On the way back to the church, my car radio was tuned to a local rock station. Normally I have it on a talk radio station, but for some reason, today was different. Still thinking about what had just happened, I adjusted the volume much lower than it was when I arrived. It just felt wrong to listen to anything other than silence. Still, I could hear a familiar voice through the speakers. True to the station’s ordinary playlists, it was Axle Rose, the lead singer of Guns N’ Roses, and he was singing a familiar song from the late 80s, one that spoke of his pride in his ability to bed pretty much any woman he wanted followed by nights of heavy drinking that turned into half-conscious days of gritty debauchery. It was a song that described the absolute opposite of what I’d just heard and seen.

Now, I don’t know anything about Axle Rose. I don’t know his beliefs, and even if I did, I could never tell you the contents of his heart. Nevertheless, in that moment of contrasting images, I imagined that if his lyrics are in any way revelatory of the truest corners of his viscera, like the rest of us—like Wally—he will one day breathe his last, and when he does, I wondered if he’d ever be able to scratch on the bottom of a tissue box for someone else what Wally scratched for Ellie. Would he even have an Ellie, someone there holding his hand, being with him through the darkest hours of the night, reminding him of Jesus, encouraging him to trust in the One who breaks the darkness?

I wondered.

But then I thought of something else, and I sat in my car in the church parking lot for a few minutes savoring the realization.

For one, seventy-one years is a long time to be married, especially in this day and age. It’s something to be celebrated. But seventy-one years is also a time frame in which plenty of struggle is possible. I know this to be true. Wally and Ellie told me the stories of their lives when I visited with them. Just for starters, I know they lost three children to cancer at young ages. Such things can tax a marriage to its extremities and has the potential for causing divisions between a husband and wife that many of us will never fully know.

In one sense, and looking on from the story I shared, they had a perfect marriage. But we all know that no marriage is perfect and that’s because no human is perfect. You, me, Axle Rose, Wally and Ellie, we all swim together in the fellowship of human depravity and are in need of help from outside of our sphere. This means that while some marriages will last seventy-one years, others will only last six months. This means that some will be able to live their lives without fear of addiction while others won’t, and yet, all will have grievous thorns in their flesh that haunt just the same and bear an equal potency for separation from God.

We’re in this together. That’s our first point of order. But the overarching lesson to be learned is not necessarily that Wally and Ellie had a Maybury life in comparison to a guy like Axle Rose, but rather it is that together they were a living testament to the fact that Jesus was there, right in the middle of it all, proving that His Gospel is powerful enough to outlast the assaults, temptations, and storms that came to them throughout the seventy-one years. The moments at the end of Wally’s life are a collage of images declaring this. It is for us to look upon them and be moved to know that Jesus is right in the middle of it all for us, too, no matter what we’re experiencing. In all truth, we already know that He’s the kind of Savior who goes right into the midst of the messes, who’ll sit down right next to Axle Rose and dine with him, giving the same Gospel that can convert and convince for faith. Certainly He’s dining with you and me, too. In humility and faith, we’re willing to acknowledge that we’re at the table with the tax collectors and sinners.

So, in order to bring this to an end… I suppose the first thing I’d encourage among you is to rejoice in the blessings God has given to you, namely that He has granted you faith in Jesus, but also that He has so generously sustained you and your family in the middle of a world that is most certainly coming undone. Second, give thanks that whether or not He has allowed an “Ellie” of sorts in your life or immediate family, you are surrounded by a congregation of believers, a fellowship of saints, who love you, pray for you, and would most certainly be there at your bedside if your last hour was at hand. Why? Because we know we’re in this together. We’re God’s family. Third, and perhaps last, think on those who don’t know such a peaceful joy in this life. Prayerfully consider how you might take this peace that you have here among your Christian family and communicate just what it means to you while in the presence of others drowning in an often overwhelming tide of secularism. There may be an “Axle Rose” or two who come to the realization that contentment in this life is much more than money, possessions, and a life of self-service; and maybe through your Gospel words and actions, they’ll see the Lord Jesus sitting at the table with them and giving to them something so much better.

With that, God bless and keep you this day. As always, you are in my prayers. I mean, of course you are! You are my Christian family!