Auschwitz. Cambodia. New York.

The extent of our lives, while filled with countless moments of ease, is also filled with moments of discomfort. We’ve all experienced such moments.

Some occur because of something we’ve said or left unsaid, done or left undone. Other such moments have been thrust upon us by the arrangements of others. But no matter the wellspring, when the whitewater has settled, we often come to the same realization of regret.

We wish we’d have done something differently to change the situation.

There is a moment in William Hazlitt’s “Sketches and Essays” when he writes so penetratingly, “We never do anything well till we cease to think about the manner of doing it.” His words need little interpretation, especially when coupled to another gathering of words he offers only a few short paragraphs later: “Reason may play the critic, and correct certain errors afterward; but if we were to wait for its formal and absolute decisions in the shifting and multifarious combinations of human affairs, the world would stand still… They stay for facts till it is too late to pronounce on the characters.”

On January 22, 2019—the anniversary of Roe V. Wade—the State of New York passed a law allowing abortion until the moment of birth. In response to this, New York City celebrated the new law by illuminating the World Trade Center’s tower in pink. Thousands of photos of Governor Cuomo’s delight while signing the bill have already been captured, perhaps matched only by the images of Hillary Clinton’s equal exuberance and the videos of the legislature offering a standing ovation at the bill’s passage. Lawmakers throughout the land have been emboldened. They’ve stepped up in support, which means other states will soon follow New York’s lead.

We’ve known this day was coming. NARAL has been openly lobbying for this for decades. The National Abortion Federation has, too. Planned Parenthood, the best known of the bunch, has been an advocate for such devilry, although it would seem they have betrayed a knowledge of the more sinister nature of such things because, for the most part, this arm of their efforts has been off the public grid.

Still, we’ve known this day was coming. At least the church has. How could we not? Knowing the truth regarding the unchecked human condition, as soon as the Roe v. Wade verdict was cast in 1973, we should have anticipated this day. The fellowship of humanity has more than proven that the pit from which it mines its wickedness has no bottom. One needs only to look at the last century. Auschwitz. The population transfers in the Soviet Union. Cambodia. Choose your genocidal atrocity.

Now we can add the State of New York to the list. It is now legal to kill a baby before the moment of its full-term birth. Very soon we’ll be adding other states.

But again, we’ve known this day was coming, and so Hazlitt’s words are piercing. They are piercing because so many continue to cogitate. We think on these things, but do not act. The world of our efforts to stop the atrocities stands still. We behold the resultant facts unfolding and only then do we pronounce on the characters. “New York is terrible!” “Governor Cuomo is a horrible person.” “The New York Legislature should be ashamed of itself!”

All of this, and yet we do nothing to actually stay the hand that slays. They continue to kill. We complain.

Perhaps worse, many of the Christian preachers are often the faultiest cogs in the machine. “The church needs only to pray,” they say, “God will handle this.” “Pastors, stay in your lane,” they warn. “Brothers, preach sin and grace, but do not discuss the government’s affairs.”

Nonsense. Utter nonsense. The pulpits are crowded with Christian preachers announcing that there is forgiveness available even to the abortionist (which of course is true), but there is an ever-dwindling number occupying the pulpits who are willing to urge their listeners to actually be who God has made them—to be those who exist in this ferocious world as ones armed with other-worldly courage for taking up a position between evil and its victims. This contingent of preachers, not the other, knows that the church—the body of Christ—is more than a theological think tank producing eloquent sermons, intriguing Facebook and Twitter posts, and cerebral committee meetings between the popular theologians sitting around drinking coffee while every now and then broaching the topic of how Nancy Pelosi and Governor Cuomo should be excommunicated.

The church is more than an ethereal collection of beliefs congealing into what can only be described as disembodied mush—an arguing for good theology without ever actually engaging in it. By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel for faith in Jesus Christ, the church has the muscle for action.

Behold the words of Jesus in Luke 10:25-37, the story of the Good Samaritan. Behold the man lying in his own blood beside the road—beaten, robbed, dying helplessly. And yet, as Priests and Levites with churchly things to do, we pass him by.

Do something. Act. “We never do anything well till we cease to think about the manner of doing it…”

Many of the religious among us are quick to pronounce judgment on New York’s governor and legislature, and of course this is certainly appropriate. They are monsters. They’re eating children. That’s what monsters do. But do not forget the ones among our own who continue to ring the dinner bell for the monsters by their fluent excuse-making and pious complacency, the ones who sit idly by as the body parts pile. Do not forget the Lord’s words to those church leaders:

“For with you is my contention, O priest… My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me” (Hosea 4:4,6).

January 22, 2019 was a moment of incredible discomfort. It was a moment of monumental regret. Could we have done something to change it? Yes. Unfortunately, in order to close this ever-widening gateway of legalized slaughter, it may take action requiring the same verve of the men and women throughout the generations who’ve heard the call to combat evil—slavery, genocide, and the like—and have responded with a willingness to put their lives on the line. I hope it hasn’t arrived at this.

Either way, I’m not going to sit around “hoping” that abortion will end. I’m going to pray and act. I’m going to pray that you will pray and act. I’m going to continue to engage in this way. I’m going to do this because I know that whatever is to be next, it’ll never happen until we come to the realization that we actually need to stop talking about it and act.

Preparing for that Last Breath

Throughout the year I hold worship services in various places offsite. One place I go to regularly is a retirement community in a nearby township. I’m there the third Tuesday of every month. I suppose, technically, I’m not necessarily obligated to go there, especially because it’s been five or so years since anyone in my congregation has been a resident there (although I should say that within the last year, family members of folks from my congregation have moved into the place).

Still, members or no members, I continue to go. I do this, first, because of the attachment. I’ve come to know the people there and it would be really hard to just sheer those lines, especially since most of them don’t see or hear from their own churches for what seems to be years at a time. However, I’ll admit to feeling a bit conflicted knowing that there are so many other things to attend to during the week here in my own congregation, and doing what I do there takes an irretrievable chunk out of one morning a month—a chunk I can rarely spare.

But still I go.

I suppose another reason I keep doing this is because of what I, as a Christian man, am so often privileged to behold there.

Take for example Helen. She’s 98. She’s completely blind. When she comes into the little room, she knows her way to the back left corner where she always sits. She can’t see the order of worship or the hymn page that I hand out before the service, but she asks for them anyway. And then all through the service, her head somewhat lifted up, an obvious happiness about her, she sings along with the liturgy, being sure to give the appropriate responses, singing the stanzas of hymns she knows, speaking the confession, praying the prayers. She knows it all. I love seeing just how deeply the Word of God by way of a memorized order of service can be embedded in a human heart and at the ready when the senses are failing.

Then there’s Margarete. She’s a 95-year-old German. Literally. Her accent is thick. She was born and raised in a village outside of Berlin. She came to the United States after World War II, so as you can probably guess, she lived through some of the worst of times in history. She’s a dear woman who will sometimes call me just to make sure I’m coming for worship as scheduled. She got my number in a roundabout way. I didn’t see her one month at worship, and because she never misses, I asked the facility director about her absence. I discovered that she’d broken her leg and was in a rehabilitation facility nearer to where her son lives. Later that week after visiting one of my own members in the hospital, I made a quick trip down to see her to say hello. She was so happy for the visit, and she expressed an incredible sadness for missing worship and not telling me. No big deal, of course. She’s 95 and her leg was broken. The fact that she was so concerned was heartwarming, and so with that, I gave her my number to ease her worry.

What a sweet lady.

Then there are the married couples who attend. We have a few. One couple in particular (relatively new in the last year) is Wally and Edna. Wally is 88. Edna is 95. They’ve been married for 63 years. This past week they sat side by side so humbly in the less-than-spectacular setting of the little room in which the service occurs. Always a kind thing to say, Wally makes small talk with the folks around him. Edna smiles. The service begins and their reverence follows along in stride. They are absolved together. They pray together. They listen to the preaching together. They receive the Lord’s Supper together. This past Tuesday I saw the Christian togetherness of this couple take another form—a beautifully human and yet still Godly form—as Wally reached over and took Edna’s hand, even if only for a moment before letting go. A simple touch, a reminder from a loving husband to a dear wife that God continues to bless them with the joy of being together in worship.

I like seeing those things. They are revealing moments.

For me personally, they stir a holy jealousy. I want what they have. If I live to be 98—like Helen—I want to do so knowing my place in the Lord’s house. I want to be able to lift my head and rise up into the Lord’s immersing grace in the liturgy, still retaining its eloquence, still holding onto all of it within the innermost chamber of my heart. I want to continue to love it so much that, like Margarete, if I’m ever unable to be present there, I want the uncomfortably nagging sensation of the absence. I never want to become comfortable with being away from worship. I want to thirst for Word and Sacrament. And like Wally and Edna, I want to be before the Lord, sitting beside the ones I love and leaning into the forthcoming decades with hands close enough to grasp if the moment requires it.

The Athenian poet Solon said so plainly, “I grow old ever learning many things.” As I get older, I’ve learned to want the things that the Christians hovering near the century mark down at Independence Village in Brighton have. If I stop going to see them, I fear I might be distracted by other, less consequential things.

And so I keep going, because these people are continual reminders to me of the prominent rank that the regular receiving of God’s grace in worship is to have. They emit the essentiality of being together as a Christian family to receive God’s gifts of forgiveness. They beam the stamina that these gifts have for meeting the twilight hours of one’s life.

It might sometimes seem like the worship here at Our Savior in Hartland is not all that important, let alone impressive, at least not in comparison to so many other things. But when I’m with these gem-like people who dwell in the midst of humanity with the rest of us, I get a brief glimpse into just how important and impressive for the soul all of it truly is. Every last bit of what we do here is preparing us for the moment of our last breath—the moment we will step into eternity to be with Christ forever.

What could be more impressive or important than that? Not much, that’s for sure.

Persistence and Determination

If you’ve ever been in my office, then you may know that right behind where I sit at my desk there are bookshelves, and on them, I’ve taped little quotations that I appreciate. Over time, as I’ve pulled books from the shelves, some of the quotations have torn away and ended up in the garbage. The ones that remain are tattered, and eventually, they’ll come off, too. But whatever. I’ll replace them with other tidbits from various folks from across a wide spectrum of thought.

And no matter what I put there or what happens to the paper after I do, I’ll remember the words. I’ll have looked at them so many times, they’ll be written into me.

If you were to look at all of them as a singular item, you’d notice a similarity to the words I choose to put there. In one way or another, they all speak to courage and resolve. For example, there’s one from Father Gabriel Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist. When Amorth was asked if he was afraid of the devil, he answered, “Afraid of that beast? He’s the one who should be afraid of me because I work in the name of the Lord of the world. He is only an ape of God.”

Those who know me best wouldn’t be surprised that a few of the quotations are from Shakespeare. I like Shakespeare a lot. In Act II of Julius Caesar, he wrote, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”

Apart from the likes of Shakespeare, one of my favorites is from Calvin Coolidge. I’m not necessarily a fan of Coolidge, but he did offer rather memorably: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Okay, so maybe he’s a little off when he says that persistence and determination are omnipotent. Only God is all-powerful. But I think we get his point. He’s trying to say that within the field of any particular endeavor, not even the brightest and most talented have a chance against the one who persists undeterred. The persistent and determined are most likely to win the prize.

As God’s people, how does this measure against us?

Well, first we begin with God. We can actually say that when we consider who God is, persistence and determination are divine qualities. When we think on our Sin, we truly learn this. He has His heart set on us, and so He continues to chase after us with His Gospel. His holy will is laser-focused on what is needed to save us, and He accomplishes it. No one can argue the loving persistence and determination of God to save us as it is revealed in Jesus Christ. Look to Calvary and see for yourself. The passersby cursing and taunting Him as He hung there, and still He cried, “Father, forgive them.”

He loves us when we are most unlovable. He cares for us when in our darkened hearts we want nothing to do with Him. He provides for us even when we reject what we need from Him the most—His grace. In all of this, our God is the preeminent image of persistence and determination.

But now, how about us?

I already noted the relationship of our Sin-nature to God’s fortitude. They don’t even compare. And yet, God still calls for us to persist. He says in 1 Peter 5:9 that we are to stand firm against the devil. He says in Ephesians 6:13 that we are to hold the line against evil. In 1 Corinthians 15:58 He says that we are to be steadfast and immovable in and against this world. In James 1:12, God says that as we remain strong during trial, we are certain to receive the crown of eternal life. In Matthew 5:12, Jesus calls for His Christians to endure, knowing that the reward for such stamina is great in heaven. Revelation 2:10 so eloquently chimes that we are to be faithful to the point of death and thereby receive the crown of life.

How can God mandate all of this knowing who we are in our ill-footed weaknesses?

The answer is simple. He must do it through us. Of course with that, I could visit with an equal number of texts that teach this, but instead think on just one.

“For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

Christians already know by God’s Word (at least they should) that the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel and sanctifies us with His gifts in order to make us His own. This happens in the ways He says it happens. It happens through baptism. It happens through the Lord’s Supper. It happens through the preaching. It happens by way of His holy Word. In all of these Word and Sacrament means, the Holy Spirit is calling us by the Gospel. These are means of certainty by which God reaches to and takes up residence in us.

In the text I mentioned from Philippians 2, Saint Paul is making the point that as God is at work in us, He is sure to flex the muscle of His divine determination to accomplish His will and work, or as the text describes, “His good pleasure.”

By the way, Paul describes the heart of God’s good pleasure in 1 Timothy 2:4 where he writes, “God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Jesus gives it even more contour when He says pretty straightforwardly in John 6:40, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

In the end, do you know what all of this means, how it all fits together in relation to the topic at hand? It means that for believers, by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel for faith in Jesus, the divine attributes of persistence and determination become available to us.

As believers, we can withstand because God withstands. We can persist because God persists. We can endure because the One who loves us and is at work in us endures. We can trust Him as He both mandates and promises, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).

I probably don’t need to describe for you just how important this is in today’s society. We’re teetering rather closely to the persecutions experienced by the early church. Christians are being put in jail. Christian business owners are being fined and taken to court for following the doctrines of their faith.

It’s a mess out there. Yes, even here in America.

So what do we do? Maybe the better question is what do we have to lose? What’s the worst that could happen for taking a stand with Christ? Death, I suppose. Death is pretty scary. I suppose to avoid it we could settle into quietly subdued positions of fear. We could remain silent and hope that the storms that threaten the Christian Church will just pass us by. Yeah, we could do that.

Or we could be determined to persist.

“Cowards die many times before their death, but the valiant never taste of death but once.”

“Afraid of that beast? He’s the one who should be afraid of me.”

“Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Even better—“And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’” (Revelation 14:13).

Did you like how the Holy Spirit interrupted and sealed the conversation regarding those who remained faithful until the end? He capped the discussion by inserting, “Indeed!” You need to know that when the Holy Spirit speaks, it’s pretty significant. In fact, it’s something absolutely worthy of resonation throughout the very corridors of heaven itself.

There is no fear in Jesus. I pray you will know and believe this. I pray that when the time comes—no matter what any particular moment may set before you—you will remain faithful. You should know that I pray this for you daily. I know God hears my prayers—that He is hearing your prayers, too—and in that knowledge, I have peace. Even better, I am persistently determined to continue asking alongside Saint Paul the rhetorical question “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

You Aren’t Perfect. Jesus Is.

Well, we’re seven full days into 2019. How’s it going so far? Maybe not enough has happened for you to answer that question. Maybe too much has happened and you’re already wishing for 2020.

A friend of mine posted a meme on Facebook with the picture of a person in exercise clothing sitting on the couch eating a bag of chips and saying something like, “Well, 2019 is a bust. But hey, I totally got this in 2020.”

Funny, I guess. As it meets the truest edges of the human condition, far too true. In our sin, 2019 is already a bust. “We fancy men are individuals,” Ralph Waldo Emerson chimed, “and so are pumpkins; and every pumpkin in the field goes through every point of pumpkin history.”

Every human being in the field of humanity goes through every point of what it means to be human. We are born and we die, and in between we find ourselves incapable of anything even remotely resembling perfection. And yet, we have a perfect Savior who stepped into the field to become one of us. This is good news. We are to know that “…we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The perfect Son of God has faced off with everything it means to be human, and He did it without failing. He didn’t make promises only to end up on the couch of failure eating chips. He succeeded in everything. He kept the Law without the slightest infraction. He loved God and neighbor perfectly. Perhaps most astoundingly, He was counted as guilty of our crimes and judged in our place, ultimately accomplishing of our salvation through His perfect death and justifying resurrection. I suppose that’s why the writer to the Hebrews kept his ink pen full, adding to the verse I just shared: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (v. 16).

You aren’t perfect. Jesus is. And that’s what counts. He’s the judge in this courtroom. By virtue of your baptism into Him, your imperfections are covered by the white robe of His perfect righteousness (Galatians 3:27; Revelation 7:9). Through faith in Him, you are found acquitted—declared innocent by the only One with the authority to set a prisoner free.

No matter what you face in the New Year, know that you have complete and total access to the throne of grace. This means you have unlimited access to the source of forgiveness, life, salvation, and victory that leads to eternal life.

Keep that promise close to you.

And by the way, the best way to keep something as close to you as possible is to wear it. See the fifth sentence of the fifth full paragraph above. Baptism sure is something, huh?

A New Year’s Day “Thank You”

I thought I’d take a quick moment and offer an anticipatory New Year’s Day “thank you” from a pastor’s perspective to all the faithful Christians who make up all of the Christian congregations.

Thank you.

Thank you to the one who sees visitors, and without hesitation, greets them with a beaming smile and a genuine welcome.

Thank you to the one serving on the altar guild, the one who won’t leave until that one flower that just won’t sit correctly among the bouquets adorning the Lord’s altar is right, the one who will take such great care well before and after worship to see that the Lord’s holy things are kept in careful ways, ways befitting of royalty.

Thank you to the one who will traverse the aisles of the church nave, doing what he or she can to see to a presentable place of worship.

Thank you to the one who gives hours of time to decorate the church nave by season, the one who carries and lifts and unfolds and irons all so that in a few short weeks it will be necessary to carry and lift and fold once more.

Thank you to the one who stands near the entrance of the church nave before worship being certain that all in attendance have what they need before worship begins.

Thank you to the one who gives a smile of encouragement to the young father and mother struggling with their little ones.

Thank you to that young couple for wrestling through a challenging morning, for getting the little ones breakfast, for getting them dressed, for doing all they can to teach their little ones the vernacular of the Church’s faith and worship in the same way their parents taught them.

Thank you to the single parent who does this alone.

Thank you to the one who serves on a board or committee, giving tirelessly so that a specific gathering of people in a particular place might be a useful tool in the Lord’s hands for the extension of His Gospel kingdom.

Thank you to the one who sees a crooked banner and gives it a nudge to straighten it.

Thank you to the one who walks through the entirety of the church/school campus after worship or an event in order to make sure that doors are locked, the alarms are set, and that the facility that the Lord has seen fit to grant is safe and ready for the next day’s potential.

Thank you to the one who vacuums the floors and takes out the garbage, the one who sees a wall that needs some care that can only come by way of a paintbrush and then paints it.

Thank you to the one who sees a light bulb in need of replacement and gets a ladder and changes it, the same one who spends countless Saturday afternoons traversing the halls to find and make repairs.

Thank you to the one who makes sure that the coffee and snacks are plentiful and ready before the gathering of God’s people for study of His Word. Thank you to the one who cleans it all up, puts away all of the supplies, and begins to prepare for the next gathering.

Thank you to the one who teaches Sunday School, the one who gives of oneself Sunday after Sunday for the sake of Christ’s littlest lambs.

Thank you to the one who helps find and recruit the Sunday School teachers, who spends time petitioning God for faithful servants to go before Him with His holy Word.

Thank you to the one who teaches in a Christian day school, the one who dedicates a lifetime for the sake of the eternity of others.

Thank you to the one who volunteers in the day school, the one who helps with crafts, with reading, with special luncheons for the teachers and children, with playground supervision, with field trip chaperoning, with office help, and with so much more.

Thank you to the one who gives time and effort to comfort the bereaved, the one who cries with the widow, the one who makes and delivers a meal in a time of crisis, who sends note cards with comforting texts from God’s Word edged with personal words of loving kindness.

Thank you to the one who refills a luncheon attendee’s coffee just because, and the one who helps take down tables and put away chairs.

Thank you to the one who steps up to meet burdens borne only by principle leadership, the one who sits in meeting after meeting making the most difficult of decisions, the one who takes those hours-long concerns home at night and wrestles with them there, too.

Thank you to the one who learns of a need and adds an extra zero to his or her offering check before putting it into the offering plate. Thank you to the one who does this not just stirred by a particular need, but because of a continued evaluation of one’s giving, a careful reconsidering of the commitment made and the desire to reach higher if possible.

Thank you to the one who shows such incredible love to the workers—to the pastor, the school principal, the day school teachers, the office administrators, and all others—the one who writes kindly notes of encouragement, who helps fold and send congregation letters, who takes time to diagnose and then fix a problem with a vehicle, who bakes a little something extra for a servant’s family to enjoy.

Thank you to the one who keeps the same pew warm Sunday after Sunday, the one who never misses because to do so would to be found hungry—no, starving—for that which is needed for life in this world and a heart set for the next.

Thank you to all who truly emit what the Psalmist meant when he wrote by the power of the Holy Spirit, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (84:10).

Thank you.

By God’s grace alive and at work through you, I am more than confident that 2019 will be even better than 2018. You will continue to be salt. You will continue to be lights in the world and a collective city on a hill (Matthew 5:13-16). The Lord’s Word will continue to go forth through days of both persecution and rest. His mighty arm will be evident among us, and many who walk in darkness will see a great light; and those who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on them a light will shine (Isaiah 9:2).

Again, thank you. It is a privilege and pleasure to serve beside and among you. And may the one true God—the Father, the +Son, and the Holy Spirit—bless and preserve you for such faithfulness.