The sky is far cloudier these days. The leaves are falling. The air is brisk.
Autumn is upon us.
I was speaking with a member of our congregation on Friday afternoon about how beautiful fall is in Michigan. In fact, if there’s one constructive thing you can say about Michigan’s climate, it just might be that the autumnal color change is rather spectacular. In full bloom, there’s eye candy everywhere. You don’t see this out west, and you certainly can’t experience it to this extent in the southern states.
I’ve often found it humorous the differences between groups of people calibrated by the climates of their states. For example, here in Michigan you may still discover people wearing shorts and t-shirts in this fall weather. But you won’t have any difficulty identifying a recently transplanted citizen of Florida. When you hear their teeth chattering in 50 degree weather, you’re likely to discover them in a winter coat and gloves.
“We are children of our landscape,” Lawrence Durrell said. “It dictates our behavior.”
I think this is spot-on in a much deeper sense, though—in a sin-nature sense—and it’s a lesson easily learned.
Again, for example, Tuesday was challenging for me. I’d experienced a series of difficult discussions with various individuals throughout the day. One in particular involved a visitor to the church doors. She came asking for me by name. (I suppose I should be more prepared for such interactions these days.) A discussion unfolded. By the time it was over, I’ll admit to having been so completely frustrated with the assumptions she’d made toward me and this congregation I love. After she was gone, I experienced one of those moments of questioning the value of my remaining in the pastoral office at all.
I felt helpless to convince her of anything.
At every turn of the discussion, no matter what I said, she just wouldn’t be convinced. She would continue to return to her premises of disgust with me. And the nicer I got, the more disgusted she seemed to become. She was so well-entrenched in a frame of mind that she was incapable of adapting to the environment of my tenor or understanding. Eventually she staked her position’s claim as one formed from basic human reality. In other words, she admitted to being who she was because of the climate of her own life—her experiences, her upbringing, her job, and even her former marriage.
But these kinds of things were the only components in the formula that comprised her reality.
Of course, all of us we must concede that we exist as products of our experiences. These things shape who we are in some pretty significant ways. Still, Christians are different. We aren’t limited to these alone. There’s another component we possess that carries us from one human climate to another. It gives us the ability to acclimate and understand in almost every scenario because it gives us the ability to see things as they truly are. The processional hymn we sang here at Our Savior yesterday set it before us by the words:
For faith we praise You, Lord,
From Spirit-opened hearts;
Pierced by Your two-edged sword
And all its truth imparts.
All Scripture is breathed out by You
Is meant for all and not for few
Is treasure old, yet ever new.
That component is the Word of God for faith.
The Word of God is the lens for observing and interpreting our experiences, our upbringings, our jobs, and everything else about our lives in this world—even interactions with people we might consider enemies. Without God’s Word, we can’t see just how skewed our perspectives truly are. We can’t truly know the deepest and most dangerous effects of the sin-nature mixed into mankind’s reality. Through the lens of the Bible, we can. Most importantly, we can know our need for rescue, and we can know the One sent to do the rescuing—Jesus Christ. By this Gospel, we can even be those who walk away from a frustrating conversation with an enemy having learned something from them about the world and our place in it. Baltazar Gracian was right when he said that wise people learn from their enemies, while fools only learn from their friends. The Word of God is the avenue for such wisdom.
In that moment at the door here at Our Savior, it’s true that I once again experienced the disquieting distinction between someone with an agenda shaped by the world and someone with an agenda shaped by God’s Word. We saw things very differently, and as we concluded, I was enabled to bid her farewell in kindness, while she was poised only to walk away making sure I knew she considered me to be a backwater, closed-minded jerk. Being treated that way hurts. But it doesn’t have to hurt for long. I’ve had time to reflect on the scene by way of the Word of God. And looking back, I know the only power for being at peace in those moments came by the power of the Holy Spirit given for faith. That faith was instilled by the Gospel born from God’s Word. The woman was who she was—and treated me the way she did—because of an equation that lacked that crucial component. I am who I am—and I treated her the way I did—because I have been changed by the divine revelation of God’s Word, and in a very real way, have been set free from the need to win the argument. I’m bound, instead, to be faithful.
That’s part of what Jesus meant when He said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
I don’t know if what I’m sharing here is of any use to you. Perhaps I’m overthinking the entire event. Although, as I said, it was jarring enough that I left it feeling pretty deflated and thinking that if this is the level of success I’m going to continue to experience among outsiders who are increasingly hostile to Christians who desire nothing more than to practice according to the Holy Scriptures, there are better things a guy like me could be doing with his life.
But again, the Word of God is to interpret this, not my reason or senses. First, I need to keep in mind that Jesus said the world will hate me because it hated Him first (John 15:18-25). That’s important to remember. Second, I’m reminded not to give up. The writer to the Hebrews urges us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (vv. 1-3). And lastly, I know that my words will never convert or convince an opponent’s heart. Only the Gospel can do that (Romans 1:16). And so I speak as faithfully and fully as I can, and then I trust that the Holy Spirit will accomplish accordingly. I can’t force the Gospel. I can only tell it, and then hope for the other person’s salvation as I’m glad for my own.
Recalling these things brings peace—and not the kind of peace that exists in the absence of war, but rather the kind of peace that exists right in the middle of the mess, the kind that contains a disposition toward others that seeks their good rather than their demise, even as they’d just as soon drive over me with their car. This kind of peace remains benevolent and kind, respectful and discerning—not because that’s who we are by nature, but because that’s who Jesus has made us to be. In that peace, we can rest our heads on our pillows at night knowing not to take the attacks too personally. The attackers may appear to have our names etched into their weapons, but that’s only because Christ has etched our names into the Book of Life.