Memory

My wife, Jennifer, shared with me her hope that this time together as a family will be one that instills good memories in the children rather than being a recollection of a fearful time. I’m hoping for the same, as I’m sure you are, too.

Of course, after our conversation, I got to thinking about the role memories actually play in shaping us. It’s hard to argue against the influence this pandemic is having on the communal memory of the whole nation, but in this particular moment, my concern is for you and your family.

After it’s over, what will be remembered? What will be forgotten? What will the new normal be in your lives?

Well, before going any further, we have to be honest about memory’s linking to our truest condition.

Informed by God’s Word, we already know Sin’s blast radius is vast. Every living thing in the created order exists within reach of its initial detonation. “Because you have done this,” God said to the first man, “cursed is the ground because of you” (Genesis 3:17). Perhaps worse, when we actually venture into the wasteland to examine Sin’s wreckage, we discover that it didn’t just interlace with the world in ways that would give rise to COVID-19 alone, but it actually broke the whole globe. Sin is an occupying power now, one that’s intricately woven into the fabric of mankind in every way (Matthew 15:19, John 3:19, Jeremiah 17:9). With this, we shouldn’t be surprised that the human mind and its vault of memories are diseased, too.

Aware of this, I’d say Sin labors to infect the human memory in at least two notable ways.

I don’t know about you, but I experience the first of Sin’s twining grips on my memory when scenes from my past unexpectedly come to mind—words and deeds I’ve regretfully said or done. I could be doing just about anything—mowing the grass or eating a cheeseburger—and then suddenly, it’s as if I’ve been whisked into a darkened corridor, and all along its uneasy length, I’m forced to pass sinister portraits of what haunts me most. There they are, everything I wish to forget, in all of their ugly details.

Sin won’t let me forget my transgressions. It wants me to remember.

The second of Sin’s handlings is related to its effect on the flesh. Again, the Lord announced after the fall: “From dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). And Saint Paul affirms: “Outwardly we are wasting away…” (2 Corinthians 4:16). Indeed, our bodies are coming undone with age, and as they do, so also comes the deterioration of the mind. For the honest among us, there is the haunting knowledge of a lifetime of memories we’ll struggle to remember. Sin works here, too. In our “wasting away,” it steals the scenes we hold dear—the children, when they were little, what their voices sounded like or which were their favorite toys; the mannerisms of a parent or grandparent we’ve lost to Death, their smiles and the familiar scent of their embrace; the rooms of our childhood home; the summertime freedoms with family and neighborhood friends.

Sin wants us to forget these things. It wants to strip us of the outward evidence of God’s fatherly divine goodness throughout our lives.

So what do we do?

First of all, when it comes to Sin’s ugly accusation, the best weapon against this is the Gospel of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for you. Hold onto this. In other words, do what you can to stay in the Word of God. The Word of God clads the Christian in ways nothing else can. Soak it up. Be devoted to it. Talk about it. Live and breathe it as God’s people. I say this firstly because God tells us that His Word is far more powerful than the sinful flesh (Hebrews 4:12, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Jeremiah 23:29, Isaiah 55:11). Secondly, not only do I believe this, but I can confirm it as true by way of countless examples.

Here’s a great one.

Back in December of 2018, a friend of mine (someone most here at Our Savior probably know) experienced a cataclysmic aortic rupture. He wasn’t expected to survive. He’d been without blood to both hemispheres of his brain for hours before medical personnel were able to get to him and do anything to help.

Plainly speaking, no one survives such an episode. In fact, thinking back, I remember being in his room in the ICU when the surgeon who’d worked on him said she’d never operated on anyone in as bad a condition as his.

Throughout the ordeal, I was with him pretty much every day—praying, reading the Word, giving Him, as Paul would say, “the unsearchable riches of Christ…” (Ephesians 3:8). Each time I was there, the doctors gave little hope that he would ever wake up, let alone be able to function cognitively if he did.

After surgery he’d been given no sedation. The hope was that within 72 hours we’d know. Either he’d wake up, or he wouldn’t.

Now I won’t go into all of the details, but as I said, I was with him at least once a day. During those times, I often noticed him giving my hand a little squeeze during prayer. Although, the nurses politely described it as nothing more than an involuntary response to this or that going on in his body. But one day while reading from Mark 4:35-41—Jesus calming the storm—after I was done, he turned his head to me. It’d been five days of careful watching, and this was a first.

I went back to be with him the very next day. When I walked into the room, the man who was barely alive the day before, was sitting up and watching baseball. The nurse was absolutely beaming. He’d quite literally awakened an hour before I’d arrived, and the breathing tube had been taken out only moments before I walked through the door.

I can’t even begin to tell you the joy at seeing my groggy, but living, friend! And the grin he gave when he saw me, it was breathtaking. For the first time in days, I could talk with him and hear him reply.

I did most of the talking, of course, not only because he was exhausted, but because his throat was very sore from the breathing tube. Still, we heard the Word of God again, prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and this time, he prayed every single word along with me. I was able to give him a get-well card his fellow choir members had made for him, and he was able to hold it with his own hands and read it.

I asked him some questions, to sort of gauge where he was cognitively. Looking back, I’m glad I did, because if there was ever a time when Sin’s grip on human memory would’ve proven itself, it would’ve been then.

I asked if he remembered anything.

He said he remembered Jesus on a boat with the disciples calming a storm. When I asked what he remembered about it, he whispered raspily the sense of a familiar voice, and when the voice stopped speaking, he wanted to hear more.

Do you get it, friends?

If God’s Word is merely language—something that can be shelved like a favorite novel during this time of worldwide trouble—then it certainly made no earthly sense for me to be speaking it into this man’s ears. And yet, there was my friend telling me he not only heard God’s Word, but he wanted more.

Not even the natural deterioration of a Sin-destroyed body of flesh could get in the way of the power of God’s Word. It sort of reminds me of the Lord speaking into the ears of the lifeless son of the Widow of Nain and raising him from the dead (Luke 7:11-17).

Again, I share this story as an urging to stay in the Word during this time away from your church. God’s Word will continue to write into your heart and mind the certainty of a divine memory that knows all that Jesus has done to save you. It will continue to certify for you just who you are by faith in His sacrifice.

Beyond this, and I suppose as a side note to this time of quarantine, I’d encourage you to do things together with your family. Pack up the video games and put aside the mobile phones. Spend time together. If it’s just you and your spouse, do the same. If it’s just you and the dog, do the same. And while you’re doing this, take some pictures. Or perhaps you could keep a journal. I guarantee that in a few years you’ll come back to these crystalized memories of the pandemic of 2020 and you’ll remember the feeling of joy more so than the sense of dread. You’ll have something in hand to remind you just how much the Lord has blessed you.

I give one last example in this regard.

One of the great things about my The Angels’ Portion volumes is that they serve as annals for the Thoma family. They’re a retelling of so much of what has happened in our lives. In fact, it’s not uncommon for one of the kids to fetch a volume from the shelf during dinner and ask me to read a few of their favorite tales from among our countless everyday adventures. Within seconds, long-forgotten events in which we all participated come back to life, and with them arrive the sights, sounds, and smells—the enjoyment of distant times and former selves joining with us in the “right now.”

For the Thoma’s, these books are Godly ramparts against Sin’s effort to cause us to forget.

Finally, I’ll conclude this longer note by reminding you of God’s memory.

When He forgives you, He forgets your sins. We may remember them, but He doesn’t. “I will remember their wickedness no longer,” He says resolutely (Hebrews 8:12). This means if you were to stand before Him and say, “Hey, God, do you remember that one terrible thing I did yesterday?” His answer would be, “I forgave you, and so I really have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Even better, while He forgets your sins, He can never forget His loving promises (Psalm 136:23, Psalm 105:8, Psalm 103:17, and Hebrews 13:5). The death of His Son for the sins of the whole world is the fulfillment of His greatest promise. His merciful memory is locked to this. All who believe in His Son, Jesus Christ, are ever-remembered by the Creator of the world as being His beloved and forgiven children.

Let all of this be of comfort to you during this time. It certainly is comforting to me and my family.

Fishing ≠ Worship

It would appear that our world is indefinitely fixed with the global stamp which reads “Pandemic,” and so I don’t know what the future holds. For the most part, I’d say our efforts to maintain as a church engaged in public worship together here at Our Savior in Hartland is succeeding. It hasn’t been without snags, but it’s certainly been well worth the labor. (To see what we’re doing, click here.)

All I can say now is that we’ll keep doing what we’re doing as safely as we can for as long as we can. We’ll keep this stride knowing that if we need to make changes, we will.

I should say that through all of this, the people who comprise the congregation of Our Savior have proven one thing in particular. Instead of fleeing from public Word and Sacrament ministry, we’ve shown an instinctive desire for preserving it, and an even more visceral dismay at the possibility it could be snatched away. There’s a hunger for it, and we just don’t want to exchange it for other, less communal avenues—at least until we’ve met the absolute end of the road in our abilities to make it happen. With this spirit, we’ve been far more inclined to triple our efforts rather than reduce them.

This is by no means an indictment of anyone in our midst who hasn’t wanted to participate, nor is it a finger of critique aimed at other congregations. These are serious times, and I believe so many are gauging their situations and communities with honesty. Like us, they’re balancing. They’re doing what they need to do to be faithful. I’m glad for that. That being said, however, I’ll admit to being surprised by the road sign in front of a nearby Methodist church that reads something like, “We’re closed for March and April. Enjoy the break. Take this time to go fishing.”

Enjoy the break? Go fishing?

Hmm.

Putting the best construction on this, I’m hoping their sign committee (if they have such a thing) is just trying to be funny. Or perhaps they’re using insider terms, words that only the congregation members will understand. Maybe the sign is a wink to a recent sermon which preached that even as they’re no longer gathering together formally, they’ll be receiving God’s Word in other ways, and as they do, their communal focus will be to become better fishers of men among their neighbors. Still, the wording of the sign sure makes it look like taking a break from worship is a good thing, that somehow leisurely activities are viable alternatives to remembering the Sabbath Day and keeping it holy.

Thinking on the Third Commandment, Luther explains in the Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Pandemic or not, the Church has never been underwhelmed by people who bear the name “Christian” and yet betray a lack of love for holding the preaching and teaching of God’s Word in worship as important. The last thing I want to see is a church broadcasting such a disposition as good practice. It isn’t good. It’s ungodly. It’s deadly to the soul. It embraces a course of spiritual starvation that robs the Christian heart of hope.

On second thought, I want to take back what I said above about not knowing what the future holds. I know plenty of what the future holds.

I’m not talking about the financial markets or executive orders. I’m not talking about whether or not the store shelves will finally be stocked like they used to be. I’m not even talking about which of us, if any, will contract the coronavirus.

I’m talking about Death.

We’re all going to die. Virus or not, Death has ten thousand other doors for us to pass through, and at some point in our lives, each of us will go through one.

Being a reader of poetry, I appreciate how so many versifiers throughout history have observed and shared this fact. Dorothy Parker’s words come to mind:

It costs me never a stab nor squirm
To tread by chance upon a worm.
“Aha, my little dear,” I say,
“Your clan will pay me back one day.”

And of course, there’s Emily Dickinson’s infamous rhyme:

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.

Poems like these, no matter who wrote them, are observances of the point that we’re all going to die. They remind us that never in the history of the world has there ever been a man, woman, or child from any race, color, or creed who could stand his or her ground when mortal Death came calling, saying to the dreadful specter, “I refuse to go.”

All have gone. All will go. And God affirms this. The wage for Sin is death (Romans 6:23a).

And yet, there’s something else I know about the future. It’s an awareness fed by a divine wellspring of hope born from the Holy Spirit through the Word of the Gospel. I know that Death doesn’t have the last word for believers in Christ.

“…but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b).

Through faith in Jesus Christ, eternal life is the final decree echoing well beyond Death’s ten-thousand doors and into an everlasting future.

It was François Rabelais (a 15th century French monk who was, unfortunately, overly influenced by humanism) who said with uncertainty at his Death something like, “I am going to the great perhaps.”

These words were spoken by a man who traded the truth of Mankind’s absolute depravity, as well as the certainty of an all-surpassing salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, for the deficient belief that, perhaps, mankind had a chance by his own merits, or perhaps through philosophy and science, we might gain better certainty of our eternal future.

Oh, the uncertainty of the great “perhaps”! Oh, the terror of doubt at the hour of Death!

But there’s no need for such uncertainty. Christians have certainty. The Gospel Word of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for our salvation is the beacon of eternal hope, and Christians lean into the headwinds of the future with it well in hand. Its luminescence is fed by the Word of God and His holy Sacraments—the verbal and visible means of grace Christ has established and then mandated for His Church to gather and distribute. The Lord warns that without the oil of these means continually being poured into the lamps of our hearts, the daily readiness of our hope in Him will be extinguished. No question. If the flame of faith isn’t being fed by this fuel, it cannot burn with the torch-like strength necessary for withstanding the squalls of this attacking world (Matthew 25:1-13).

No wonder our God commands for us to go to church (Hebrews 10:19-31). No wonder we hear our Lord say over and over again to so many just how important it is to hear the Word of God and keep it (Luke 11:28). And by the way, by keeping His Word, He doesn’t mean in the shallow sense of simply knowing and obeying it, as is often preached by so many. The word in the Greek is phylassontes (φυλάσσοντες). It means to fulfill one’s orders as a guard—to protect and defend a most precious possession, and to make sure no one can steal it away, being ready to raise a sword and shield against anyone or anything trying to steal it away. The harder truth in this is that sometimes the “anyone” is us and the “anything” is fishing.

Pondering all of this as I tap away at the keyboard this morning, I suppose there’s one more thing I know about the future.

What we do now will shape our practices later. Without absolute connections to Word and Sacrament ministry, people will drift away. It’s the nature of Man, and there’s plenty of data external to the Word of God to prove this. In the midst of a time when the sources for Word and Sacrament seem to be far more limited—a time that could feel a little like a spiritual drought—don’t let go of God’s Word. Get it from faithful sources where and when you can. If you can go to church, do it. If you’re concerned about being in public spaces during this time, stay home. Either way, commit to regular devotions, to watching your church’s services that are shared online, to hearing the Word of God and keeping it.

Let fishing be what you do after your most valuable possession has been secured and the oil in your lamp has been replenished.

In Favor of Self

I hope you’re not expecting me to talk about the coronavirus. Sure, it’s on our minds. But since we’re already being so diligent, how about we catch our collective breath and get back to considering other things?

Mindful of the season of Lent, the current desktop image for my computer is the portrait by Carl Heinrich Bloch entitled “An Angel Comforting Jesus before His Arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.”

Yes, it’s a rather long title. Even so, it’s a moving image, one that not only gives a glimpse into the Lord’s diligent prayer in the garden before His capture and eventual crucifixion, but it also attempts to portray in the moment His exhaustion and absolute loneliness—the kind of loneliness that can only be soothed by otherworldly comfort. Thus the angel in the image (Luke 22:41-43).

The portrait is deeply moving in its depiction. But it’s equally moving because of what it doesn’t portray. It’s just Jesus and the angel. No one else. And yet the Gospel narratives remind us that Jesus was only a stone’s throw from friends. The Lord had asked for His disciples to keep watch with Him as He prayed. He was preparing to enter into the hours that belonged to the powers of darkness (Luke 22:53), but before taking that first fateful step, He wanted nothing more than to pray to His Father, having the comforting presence of friends at His flanks as He did.

But they slept. In the midst of the Lord’s praying, even as the intensity of the oncoming moments caused His sweat to become drops of blood, his friends slept.

This is a telling moment, and it sheds a little light on something of the human nature.

I’ll give you an example relative to me.

Over the past few years, I’ve experienced a fair share of disconcertion from people who disapprove of me engaging in the affairs of the state. On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed an equal portion of encouragement from friends all around the state and nation who are glad for a clergyman’s willingness to carry the concerns of the Church before the princes of this world, and then to share the details of the efforts with others through writing.

But here’s the twist…

A couple of weeks ago after the Republican Primary Candidate Forum here in Livingston County, I did the kind of thing I’ve done a thousand times in the past. I took the liberty of writing a piece about the event, namely the handful of men and women running for the particular seat in Congress. As usual, it was an attempt on my part to think out loud, to observe critically, and to tip my hat to what an opposing party’s candidate might bring to the table of critique. Of course, all readers were free to take from it whatever they wanted.

Interestingly, very soon after I posted the piece, my phone began chirping with private messages from online friends and acquaintances who’d always been so glad in the past for my engagement in the public square, but were now rather unhappy with me. So unhappy, in fact, they were going out of their way to discourage me from involvement in politics altogether, urging me to consider that pastors shouldn’t be so outspoken in the public square. Seriously. They were imploring me to delete the piece and to bow out of the conversation.

I should add to this that my closer friends—the ones who actually know me as a person and know I’d never close the door on a conversation with anyone—they didn’t do this. They reached to me with their opinions, and they did so in courteous ways. I listened to them, considered their points of view, and then I gave a little more of the content behind mine. Those conversations were incredibly enriching, and I can say those friendships are even stronger now than they were before. I’m glad for that.

But what happened with the other folks? Why the 180 degree turn from being so glad for my activities in the public square to working overtime to convince me to tone down my efforts and exit the discussion completely?

Well, apart from the strange criticisms of my writing style, which so many already know so well—my typical words, forms, and device choices (which, out of respect to a few folks, I did end up going back to rearrange here and there)—the deeper thread of concern, the one that was common to all of their pings to my phone, was that my article came to its conclusion with me recommending one particular candidate as the best performer in the forum and ultimately the best bet for beating the opposition.

But the candidate I favored wasn’t the candidate they favored.

Simply put, my trajectory didn’t align with these particular friends’ preferences. This angered them—enough so that it erased their previous sentiments, replacing them with words of admonition, words meant for quieting any influence I might have on a larger community of readers still teetering at the edge of a decision.

Interesting.

The disciples slept. Why did they fall asleep? It’s not that they weren’t Jesus’ friends. Of course they were. It’s also not that they weren’t in favor of Him. They had great favor for the Lord. It’s just that they were more in favor of themselves and what they wanted, and with this, His particular trajectory would remain out of alignment with theirs.

He was suffering, and He wanted the comfort of their watchful companionship. They were tired and went to sleep.

The human nature.

Again, Lent is a time to reinvigorate the combat against the human nature. It’s a time for us to observe and then apply extra pressure to those situations in which we put our wants first, and as a result, discovering ourselves saying and doing things that fracture relationships, things we wish we could take back. It’s a time to examine the motives behind our responses and to see if they really can withstand the beaming light of God’s Word that’s always ready to challenge them.

I, for one, am glad for the season of Lent. As I’ve said before, it’s incredibly recalibrating. Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Life is made up of marble and mud,” which is to say sometimes life is sturdy and steady, and sometimes it’s shifting and messy. Lent—its liturgies, readings, prayers, and the like—they all work together to remind us of something here. They lock arms as one and burrow through our hardened exteriors (which we like to think are impenetrable) and they implant in the core of our human nature. Lent prompts us to recall we’re far more shifting and messy than we’d ever like to admit. Lent shines a light on the fact that as we go about our days making our lists of “bad guys” and “good guys,” it should be no surprise that we have the tendency to shift so many of the people we know from one list to the other and then back again, all the while our own names remain strangely fixed in the list of good guys.

It’s not necessarily that we’re against anyone in any particular moment. It’s just that we’re always more in favor of ourselves. Again, that’s the human nature—the Sin-nature.

Just so you know, Christ went to the cross to drown this nature in the tides of His blood. Lent reminds us that when it comes to the human nature, there really aren’t two lists. There’s only one—the bad guys. But Lent also primes our hearts to know that Jesus went to the cross for every single person on that dreadful list (Matthew 9:12; 1 Timothy 1:15). With this, there’s an urgency to Lent’s plea for contrition. It calls for us to awaken to the fact that if in our own hearts and minds we never seem to find ourselves on the list of bad guys, then we’re heading toward a Good Friday event that will appear to be of little value to us.

Lent calls out, “Repent! Turn around and go the other way! Wake from sleep and watch with Jesus (Romans 13:11)!” Lent sets before us the gory, but ever-so-splendid, message of the Gospel of our Lord’s passion. It encourages us, “Wait and watch with your Lord. You’re not going to want to miss what the Son of God is about to do for you and the rest of the whole world beside you on the ‘bad guys’ list.”

Christians and Swearing

I sat down this morning intending to write something relative to Lent, something helpful to you. However, the only thought that keeps emerging from my early morning mind is one that’s already been swirling around in it for a while. It’s sitting at the forefront right now because of a Facebook conversation between two friends that I re-read just a few moments ago.

Who knows? Maybe this will find its way around to the topic of Lent. Maybe it won’t. Either way, I’m suspecting it might be something that concerns you, too, and if we can at least gather something of value from it, then great.

So here goes…

Have you noticed that more and more Christians are finding it perfectly acceptable to use profanity in their social media postings, whether it be casual conversation, sharing of memes, or whatever? And I don’t mean the relatively inane adjectives employed for emphasis on rare occasions. I mean the worst of the worst. It sure seems like more and more believers are practicing the crassest corners of our language as they’d so easily employ any other portions the dictionary might claim.

I don’t get it. Somehow these words have found a comfortable home in the vocabulary of so many believers.

Why?

At the Marriage Seminar we held at Our Savior this past Saturday, the leader of the event, Pastor Ron Farah, asked all in attendance to consider and then define the term “communication.” I didn’t speak up too often throughout the four-hour workshop, but in that moment, I raised my hand and took the opportunity to speak. I shared that I’m one who believes words to be the clothing in which we dress our thoughts. In other words, the thoughts in our mind are presented to others through the avenue of language. The best communication, I believe, occurs when people take care with the words they choose. Mindful of this, why would I seek to dress the thoughts of my intellect in gutter rags when I could adorn them for respectability?

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but hopefully you get the point.

Along these lines, however, past partners in exchanges on this topic have been quick to pull studies from thin air suggesting that people who swear a lot are above average in intelligence and may actually have better communication skills. It’s funny how the internet has made everyone into an expert. Playing that game, I’m equal in digital expertise by finding an equivalent number of studies proving the exact opposite. Put differently, I don’t believe the premise that profanity proves the swiftness and depth of a person’s intellect.

Anyway, my purer point isn’t how smart a person is or isn’t, or whether or not they’d beat me in Scrabble. First of all, my point is that profanity seriously devalues dialogue and the people engaging in it. Perhaps further, it grossly misrepresents the Christian faith. For these reasons alone, believers should avoid using it, that is, if they want their words to matter.

I’m sure there are plenty out there who think I’m nothing more than a shrieking ninny in this regard. Maybe. Although, I did take time to do a radio bit relative to the subject a few months back, and it’s gotten a pretty positive response. You can listen to it here: https://aminutetostopandthink.podbean.com/e/concern-for-others-must-always-be-a-part-of-your-calculation/

In the meantime, Colossians 3:8 and Ephesians 5:4-5 deal directly with this issue… so there’s that, too.

Another little something that comes to mind…

First off, we don’t swear in our home, and I dare say it isn’t just because we’re a “pastor family.” It’s because we know words matter. Think of it in the sense of swimming. Swimming is fun. Sure, you could swim in any kind of water. But why not the crystal clear shoreline of a pristine oceanfront instead of a sewage overflow. Or how about the attempts of a young man to woo the one he desires as his bride? He could hand her a wad of flowers he haphazardly ripped from the neighbor’s flower bed at the last second. Or he could present her with a well-arranged, and color-coordinated bouquet demonstrating he cares, that he took time, thought, and expense to show her his love. Some bodies of water are healthier than others for swimming. All efforts to communicate will in some way display the value of the participants to one another. Innately, some words are just better, too.

Along these lines, and as another example, every chance I get, I ask my daughter, Madeline, about her school day. She’s in high school. As I pry, I’ll ask her about the “boy” scene—you know, just to stay in tune with what she’s thinking in that department and to be ready to help her navigate. We have a great relationship, so we can have these conversations. Her response to the boy question is almost always the same.

“Dad, all of the boys at my school swear all the time.”

“All of them?” I’ll ask.

“All of them,” is her reply. “I guess,” she’ll begin with gentle passivity, “I’m just not interested in dating anyone who swears all the time. It feels sort of disrespectful.”

Good. I’m glad she’s keeping her eyes and ears open for someone better than what the vernacular of this generation of classmates is betraying. She doesn’t need to settle for the gutter. She’s valuable. How a boy speaks to her, while it reflects a lot of other things—culture, maturity, and the like—it also shines a light on his understanding of her as a person. I should also be sure to point out that it presupposes what’s important to the boy’s parents. Again, take a listen to the radio bit I shared above. It’s a true story. And you’ll see what I mean.

So, what does all of this have to do with Lent? Well, hold on a second. I think I’m almost there.

Since I’m already at this (and most likely have offended a few folks), when speaking of Christians using vulgarity, I should add that I don’t just mean the typical words that make PG movies into PG-13. There’s another particular phrase that’ll cause me to bristle.

“Oh, my God!” a woman will say emphatically in discussion, and the Thoma’s will get a little tense.

“Daddy,” Evelyn will whisper while tugging at my coat, “she just took the Lord’s name in vain.”

“Yes, I know,” is my returned whisper. “How about we just continue to show reverence for God and not do what she did, okay?”

“Okay,” is her reply.

Again, good. I’m glad Evelyn was so bothered by this that she felt the need to speak up. It means she not only has a sense of an acceptable manner for calling upon the name of the Lord, but she also understands that language itself has gravity and it affects people in its orbit. The way we use it matters. Habitually tossing out “Oh, my God” exclamatorily in casual conversation is not one of the ways it should be employed. Personally, when I hear the phrase used carelessly, I cringe. When I hear a fellow Christian say it, it takes everything in me not to claw my ears out of my skull. It’s an outright affront to the Second Commandment. Sure, I get how cultural swear words may slip into our lives undetected, but with this one, Christians should know better.

But they don’t. Why?

Because there are plenty of things Christians do that they shouldn’t. I do stuff. You do stuff. We’re humans. Humans are burdened by the human will. The human will is infected by the Sin-nature. The Sin-nature is great at establishing habits. Habits can become things we do but don’t necessarily realize or see, as if we’re completely oblivious to them. Yes, oblivious. Better yet, ignorant. The Sin-nature is an ever-present reminder that, indeed, we are ignorant humans. On the other hand, and as it meets with this thread, we need to understand that ignorance is by no means a justifier for behavior. You can’t kill someone because you didn’t know it was wrong. We can’t say we’re innocent because we’re ignorant.

At its barest minimum, ignorance will always be proof of our nature—a well-defined footprint of Sin.

So, why bring all of this up? Because again, it came to mind. I suppose it was worth pondering because Lent is good for this kind of discussion. Lent is a time to deal with the ignorance of sinful habits.

Okay, okay. I know some out there will say, “We should fight our sinful behaviors all year long and not just at Lent!”

Yes, I know.

And by the way, Lutherans do fight it year-round. At least they should. In my church, every service begins on bended knee in humble confession, followed by the absolving word of God’s forgiveness. Such a rite and ceremony are regular ammo for taking out the underpinnings of every ignorant thing that haunts us. We humbly submit to God all of the sins we know and the ones we don’t—thoughts, words, and deed—things done and things left undone. And then God replies with a gracious Word of love that washes away all of the specters, and He lifts us to our feet ready to engage in the war.

Still, Lutherans go a little further with this during the season of Lent. It’s a season that provides for the deliberate taking of aim at the deepest and darkest parts of the human nature and frame. This is the tarry muck from which the Sin-stained habits crawl. Lent calls for six weeks of thoughtful self-examination. It sets us at the shoreline of the tar pit so we can see these things for what they are, and it does this as preparation for viewing Good Friday and Easter Sunday rightly—for knowing the immense price tag of Christ’s efforts on our behalf. Certainly we are self-examiners all year long. But when it comes to the precise targeting of particular Church seasons, Epiphany doesn’t necessarily take aim like Lent. Christmas doesn’t either. Lent is a unique time of the year.

Self-examination. It’s good stuff. My Lenten encouragement for you: Do what you can to benefit from this aspect of Lent’s intentions. And I suppose as you do, be sure to know that by God’s grace through faith in Jesus, you have, as Saint Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:16, “the mind of Christ.” This means that by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel you have all the weaponry you need for waging war against the sinful flesh and being in alignment with the will of God—which is the salvation of your soul.

As you live your life of faith, you can do so with the Godly desire for wrestling and winning against the craving to embrace Sin—whether that be gossip, adultery, covetousness, or taking the Lord’s name in vain. And speaking of, when it comes to the other colorful bits of vocabulary we employ that have the tendency for misrepresenting the Church’s identity, well, you can pin those down for the count, too.

I’ll pray for you in your ignorance. You pray for me in mine. I certainly have plenty of sins that I need to lay before the Lord daily.

As we do this together, let’s “fix our eyes on 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” (Hebrews 12:2). Let’s look to Him and know by faith that when we fail, He won’t be waiting in the wing to condemn us. He took that condemnation into Himself on the cross. The price for our failures was paid. By His victory, He stands at the ready to pick up all who look to Him for help—to dust them off, to bind up their wounds, to forgive them, and to send them back out into the world to be His people once more.

Take Care with Your Words

I know I’ve shared with you countless times before that I’m a huge fan of Shakespeare. I’ve also told you with great honesty that I can only take him a little bit at a time. What I mean is that I can read through the entirety of one of his works, but then it’ll be a long while before I pick up anything else he’s written. It’s ornate stuff, and spending too much time it tires my brain.

I do appreciate his usage of language. Again, I’m sure I’ve shared with some of you before that I find his insults to be the most intriguing. I hope that doesn’t offend you. If it does, please recall I didn’t say enjoyable. I said intriguing.

I say this because Shakespeare has such an inventive way with language. He can stab at you grammatically, and sometimes, you don’t even know he’s done it until it finally clicks a few days later. He can say things that while on the surface appear to mean one thing, in their core, mean something completely different. And then of course there are those times when he hides nothing and just lets the innermost thoughts of this or that character explode like brimstone meteors from a furious volcano.

“Such short-liv’d wits do wither as they grow,” he says abusively to another by way of the princess in the second act of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

“O wonderful, when devils tell the truth!” he writes as the angry Lady Anne to Gloucester in the first act of Richard III, her words coming very close to alienating a character needed as an ally.

But there you have it. One would think to admire Shakespeare’s skill for his piercing wit—at least until you see the results in the manuscript. In other words, just like in real life, insults never seem to help to change the situation. They just never seem to bring a situation to a better end. I can tell you I’m no stranger to this. I work with words all the time, and I confess to arranging them in ways I knew might jostle the reader. Let this confession reveal my sorrow as much as my guilt when it didn’t play out as I’d hoped. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

However, and on the other hand, while I wouldn’t encourage you to insult anyone, there’s something to be said for not shying away from calling things as you see them. There’s definitely an honesty in that.

While the rest of the world looks the other way, the Bible has a tendency for steering into things, too. It calls sin a sin. And there’s something to be said for driving right into those troubling situations we’d much rather avoid—defining the scene at hand in clear terms, not sugar-coating it, and then taking action, sometimes stern, to deal with the challenges born from that scene—all the while knowing that when it comes to debris, it won’t be an easy road ahead.

Part of my point here, though, is to once again suggest there’s something to be said about thinking through the words we would use and then employing wit in ways we hope will help rather than be used just to look smart or win an argument with a foe. Even recently, I wrote something that, if analyzed carefully, employed a multitude of styles, forms, and devices. I included satire. I used opposition point-of-view and imagery. I used simile and metaphor. I definitely used hyperbole. Even as I was typing on the fly, I was thinking it through. I was making it so that a long bit of observation would be easy to follow till its end.

Unfortunately, the topic was more emotional than even I expected, and with that, people did what people do. They got mad, drew lines, and went for each other’s throats. I know why they did this. They’d already chosen positions, and my words didn’t land in their camps. It was human nature to be frustrated. In the end, I later admitted to having learned a lesson in this regard. Essentially I wrote in response to the whole situation that when it comes to a writer having sympathy for all readers, no matter how careful the writer tries to be with the tools of the craft, whatever is eventually scribed will never be the antidote that cures the rage of all who’ll read it and respond. In tandem, I submitted that if not even the Word of God succeeds in doing this, what would lead a guy like me to think it would be any different? People are people. They’ll read it how they read it.

In the meantime, if we’re going to take a chance and put ourselves out there in front of others, the best we can do is to realize that words do matter. We can’t ultimately control their reception, but we can care when we put the words in order. Indeed, if you’re going to put your words out for public consumption, such care matters a lot.

As it relates to the topic of writing, notice how Saint Paul hints to this care when he brings together the courage to say what needs to be said as it’s measured by self-control.

“God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).

In other words, we don’t need to be afraid to deal with difficult things—people, situations, jobs, you name it. By virtue of our Baptism into Christ, we are new creations, and with this, we’ve been given Christian courage. We can say what needs to be said. Heck, the courage to say anything at all is a pretty big deal in this day and age of internet-shaming and digital vitriol. Trust me. I know. Still, this same courage isn’t absent of reflection before putting our fingers to the keyboard, understanding that even as there is a time for everything to be spoken, as Christians, our hearts are to be set on Christ and His love displayed through self-controlled. To do this is to do everything in its perfect time—the right time (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Will our words accomplish what we want them to accomplish? Not always. But did we take great care in fashioning them? If yes, then sleep well. God is good. He’ll handle the outcomes. Again, the words I wrote that drew ire were fairly complex. Things people took as insulting were written as from the perspective of someone in opposition to what I actually believed. Readers missed that twist, and so I pursued peace. I took the time to go back and fix those parts that seemed less than helpful. In the meantime, God is still handling the outcomes—and I’m sleeping just fine. He’s good, and with that, I have no worries whatsoever.

But I reiterate, in the midst of any particular situation, be sure to come out on the other side knowing you prayerfully considered what you were saying. Ask yourself, is what you’re about to scribe for your own justification or for extending a hand to your opponent in order to convince them to your position? Will your subsequent actions move the ball forward or stop it dead in its tracks? Are you seeking the will of God or your own will toward personal gain?

What is your goal? If it isn’t in some way peace in Christ, step away from the computer and go take a nap.

As Lent unfolds, I’d encourage you to ponder these things. It never hurts to consider the sanctified encouragement of God through His Word as we live according to the Gospel promise that even as we fall short in so many ways, we are forgiven. This forgiveness empowers us to be those who are more than capable of having a genuine stare-off with the world around us, and yet do so in ways that give glory to God and serve to the benefit of our neighbor. And while it is happening, we can be certain that our faithful God continues to love us and promises to keep with us each and every day, His steps matching our steps in every circumstance.

Don’t forget that. It really is a big part of who we are Christians in and against this world.