“Look at the Heavens and Count the Stars”

I’m aware that I continue to fail at keeping this Monday morning eNews message short. Believe me, I’m trying. And this time, I won’t let you down. It’s just that there’s plenty unfolding around us to observe, ponder, and share. When it all begins to coalesce, it can get somewhat substantial. And then in my eagerness, when it all starts rolling from my fingers to the keyboard, it’s probably better—saner—for me to just let it run its course, like a boulder rolling downhill. Eventually it’ll come to a stop, but until it does, I’d better stay out of its way.

The thought I had this morning stems from a comment my daughter, Evelyn, made a few days before school started. I’d taken the Wrangler’s doors and top off, and among the five others in my family, Evelyn was the only one who accepted an invitation to go for a late-evening drive. The air was cool. The sky was clean swept of clouds. It couldn’t have been any better.

At one point, we ended up north of town, somewhere between Flint and Linden, which is mostly farmland. As we made our way along the lightless roads, Evelyn leaned back to gaze into the depth of the night sky above us. Again, that particular night offered a sky that was crisp and clear. With barely any light from the city, the stars were easily visible.

Pointing to this one and that one, she wondered aloud to her chauffeur (as best as she could above the wind noise) as to whether they were actually stars or planets. She looked for the North Star—because she knows how to find it in relation to the Big Dipper—and she gave a gleeful cheer when she did.

“It’s awesome how God put all those up there,” she said, capping the moment of discovery. “And He did it in a way so that if we’re ever lost, we’ll always be able to see them and find our way.”

A simple observation, true to anyone who’s ever navigated the ocean’s tides. And yet the words of the pretty ten-year-old girl riding shotgun in the Jeep set a little something more into motion.

On the surface, it seems she meant rather simply that God designed the universe in a way that all its parts move predictably, as though it were a grand engine that, by virtue of its unfathomable mechanics, served to display His power.

While true, her words were deeper still. Evelyn’s observation hinted to the grand presentation twirling above us as being far more a faithful exhibition of God’s thoughtful concern than His power, more a display of His inclination toward love than His creative muscle.

“And He did it in a way that, if we’re ever lost, we’ll always be able to see them and find our way.”

That’s God doing—designing, creating, acting, moving—as He cares for us, as He’s mindful of us. And that, of course, got me thinking on God’s Word, the place where He reveals this mindful love, the place where He refers to the stars as being in place not only for the mechanical governance of night and day, or solely for our delight, but as opportunities to do just what Evelyn and I were doing in that moment—beholding and then recalling His loving faithfulness.

Just off the top of my head, I can point to the obvious instance in Genesis 15:5 when God led Abram (soon to be Abraham) out into a cool evening just like the one we were enjoying. It was there that God encouraged him to behold the stars, and He reminded the childless man of His very important promise—one that would see to countless offspring, ultimately resulting in a most important descendant, Jesus Christ, coming to redeem the world.

I can also think of Saint Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:41-42 where the Apostle points to the moon and stars to help describe the resurrection of all believers in Christ. And knowing the intertwining of the divinely inspired Word, I’ll bet Daniel 7:2-3 wasn’t all that far from Paul’s mind when speaking of such things. Daniel wrote quite candidly of the resurrection at the Last Day: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.”

Beautiful. Just beautiful.

Beyond these, don’t forget the kinds of things God’s Word shares with us every year at Christmastime and Epiphany, those seasons in the Church Year when we hear words like, “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17), or we follow along as a luminous attendant in the heavens leads Magi to the Christ child (Matthew 2:1-12).

Perhaps best of all, it means something to us when we hear the Lord Jesus say of Himself in Revelation 22:16: “I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”

Again, just beautiful.

To conclude, if you can find the time, take a moment to look into the night sky. Grab your lawn chair and a favorite beverage, maybe lather up with some bug repellent if necessary, and then kick back in a place where you can see an unobstructed sky. First, look widely. Behold the splendor. Then look closely. See the precision. Ponder these things knowing that the One who put it all there has His divine heart set upon you. He loves you—enough to give His own Son into death that you would have life.

I suppose that’s the better, truer, beauty inherent to the glistening stars.

Death Has No Dominion

Well, in no small number of communities across the country, the new school year begins tomorrow. For many, it will be one more moment requiring a special measure of courage.

I say this because more so than ever before, it sure seems like the planet upon which we are treading is wobbling on its axis. Nothing seems steady. Everything feels shaky and uncertain. For some—myself included—going out into the world to do very basic things often translates into weighing the risk of actually living life versus guarding every flank in terror, of finding a semblance of normal when everyone and everything around you is spiraling into abnormality.

It’s a weird way to exist. It’s scary. And it’s hard.

Speaking of the first day of school, I can only imagine the emotional storms churning in the hearts of the young mothers and fathers sending a child off to preschool. Their picturesque dreams of bright-smiling teachers giving hugs amid busy hallways filled with colorfully miniscule backpacks owned by future classmates—all of this has been replaced by the grim sterility of masked teachers with muffled voices, dystopian-like classrooms with desks claustrophobically encased in Plexiglass, friendships awkwardly unexplored due to social distancing, and so many other psychologically damaging things being employed for the sake of “safety.”

We’re not doing any of these things at Our Savior, but I’ll bet for those who must endure it in other schools, it’ll be very scary. To regularly overcome the disquiet of it all, families will need a unique form of determination and a lot of extra love during the after-school hours at home.

Speaking of scary… My wife and children know that the list of things that actually scare me is pretty short. I’m not being vain. I’ve just discovered over the years that I’m not bothered by the things that might normally scare someone else. All of my kids have tried to catch me with jump-scares, but they rarely find success. My sons say my fear gland doesn’t work properly. Maybe they’re right. Some other things… I’m not fearful of public speaking, never have been. I don’t enjoy conflict, but I’m not unwilling to engage in it. I’m not necessarily afraid of people disliking me. I guess I learned to put that fear to rest years ago. I’m not scared by horror movies. I mean, among the various life-sized mannequins in my basement, one of them is the spitting image of Michael Myers.

And since I’m tipping my hat to Halloween, haunted house attractions have always been pretty disappointing for me. I’m just not scared of eerie situations or places. I’ve seen those memes online asking if, for a million dollars, I’d be willing to spend a night alone in a place like a cemetery, an abandoned insane asylum, or a spooky house, and I think, “I’d do it for the cost of a mortgage payment. Heck, I’d do it for lunch money.” My son, Josh, asked me once during family dinner if I’d ever performed an exorcism. I told him I had. Believe me or doubt me, I’ve ministered to more than one family over the years whose home was being visited by something otherworldly. Like many pastors, I have my share of stories regarding the tangible efforts of the darkly principalities at work among this world’s people and spaces.

“Were you afraid?”

“Not really,” I said. “The devil and his pals are punks. They’re tough, but they’re nothing I need to be worried about. I have Christ, and I know they’re plenty afraid of Him.”

Of course I’m sure to remind my kids that the devil is no one to toy with. He isn’t a fairytale villain. On the contrary, I’d say he’s the only real explanation for the most horrible things that have ever happened in our world—the current societal destruction emerging from Covid-19 being one of his masterful achievements. If you ever get a chance, listen to the song “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones. I’m not a huge Stones fan, but I do like that song. It offers an honest musical snapshot of the devil’s gripping influence on this world, showing how when partnered with mankind’s Sin-nature, he can do some pretty horrible and world-altering things.

But as I was saying before, the list of things that actually unnerve me is fairly short. Although, don’t let the length of the list fool you, because each item on it can more than keep me awake at night.

For example, one of my biggest fears is losing my wife and children to tragedy. I actually have regularly-occurring dreams about one or more of my kids falling into the polar bear exhibit at a zoo—or something of that sort—and being unable to rescue them in time. The expressions of fear on their faces still stings long after I’ve awakened. I know I said before that I’m not necessarily afraid of conflict, however, as a supervising administrator, I’m hesitant to express disappointment with fellow staff. I’ll do it if I really have to, but it’s also really hard. This is true because the space between “pastor” and “supervisor” is unlike any other terrain to be navigated, and in the past—at least for me—no matter how lovingly careful I’ve attempted to be, those moments have morphed into some of the most devilishly divisive encounters I’ve ever known. In our postmodern world, it seems like the default action in these occurrences has been to be offended, draw lines and form factions, and ultimately take one’s marbles and go elsewhere.

Those experiences left some pretty deep scars.

Oh, and I don’t like sharks. I have my reasons.

So, where am I going with all of this?

Well, I started off talking about the general need for courage when it comes to navigating this life. Free-thinking on this, I suppose I was aimed in this direction because as we stand at the edge of a strange new period, we need to be honest about what we’re facing as a church—as Christians. We don’t necessarily need a retelling of the terrors lurking along the way. Each of us has met them in one way or another and can write his or her own list. But we do need to be honest about what scares us. And now more than ever, we need to know the necessity of courage.

I’d say Shakespeare was right when he said that courage mounts with occasion. We don’t need to wonder if there will be ample opportunities for testing our nerves. With each occasion, we’ll need to understand our responses, carefully discerning between courage and irrational action. We’ll need to readily understand that being courageous doesn’t mean being completely fearless. We’ll find ourselves afraid in the same way a white-flag coward might be afraid, but the difference will be that our fear will have been thoughtfully subdued and will most likely be rewarded with far different results. We won’t be immobilized from doing what’s faithful even when self-preservation is an available option. We’ll act knowing that courage, like character, is something we’ll employ even when no one else knows we’re doing so.

Where will we get such courage? I mentioned the answer above in the passing conversation with my son, Joshua.

Christ is the answer.

Fear thinks twice before messing with Christ. Don’t believe me? Read Psalm 27. Still don’t believe me? Read 1 John 4:8. Now skip ahead to verse 18 in the same chapter. Fear has no room to stand beside Christ, the One who is God in the flesh, who is perfect love, who was moved to save us.

I think it was the Bishop and President of our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison) who said that Christian courage is just fear that has been baptized. Man, is he ever right. Having been baptized into Christ, having been set apart from the kingdom of this world, having been made a member of the Lord’s family, a Christian meets each and every day equipped to live with an otherworldly readiness to die. Baptism pins us to such courage. Maybe you recall Paul’s words in Romans 6:3-11:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

There’s a lot that can be mined from the above text, but no matter which direction you go, it’ll likely hinge on the fact that Death has no dominion over believers just as it has no dominion over Christ. Without the sway of Death’s dominion at play in each of life’s terrifying occurrences, fear steps out of Christian courage’s way. It has to. I mean, when you really think about it, Death is the definitive power—the ultimate endpoint—for anything that might cause us to fear.

Why would we be afraid in a haunted house? The fear of being killed. Why would we be afraid on a roller coaster? Probably the same. Why would we be afraid of public speaking? The fear of looking a fool in a way that remains with us forever, only to be muted by Death. I’m pretty sure Saint Paul actually affirmed all of this in 1 Corinthians 15:26 when he said that the last enemy to be destroyed is Death.

But now that Death has indeed been destroyed, all who put their faith in Christ and His redeeming work receive the merits of this victory. For starters, Christians have access to a courage that can push fear aside so that we can actually live, knowing that even if/when Death makes an appearance, it won’t be the end of us because it has no dominion over us. It’ll be just another moment on the timeline, albeit an exceptional moment that carries us from the confines of time into the timelessness of eternity with our Lord.

There’s no fear to be had in that.

Once again, knowing this, we don’t have to be afraid of being and doing as God’s people in this mixed up world. By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, we know and believe that our Lord has faced off with the root cause of all things terrifying—and He won!

And so, please allow for this random bit of theologizing the day before the first day of school—or whatever “first” you may be facing these days—to be an encouragement to you. Stay the course. Trust your Lord. He’s got you. He’s got your family, too. All our fears have been steadily handled, and Death has been defeated.

Christian Reconciliation

It truly is amazing how at certain moments in life something that was once very baffling suddenly begins to make sense. I’m guessing you know exactly what I mean. Perhaps like me you’ve experienced situations where you felt as though you were immersed in uncertainty, but then suddenly, and for whatever reason, you saw the framework of the challenge in a different light, and by this, the solution stepped to the forefront.

I liken it to the Rubik’s Cube we have at home. My kids will jumble it up and hand it to me. It takes me a little while, but usually I can figure it out. I just need some time with it. And I know what to expect of that time. It’ll be a procedure of turning the cube’s various multi-colored pieces this way and that way, all the while observing and calculating the potential of each piece’s role in the puzzle—and I’ll do it with the hope that I’m actually making progress rather than confusing the device even more. In other words, even as I’m doing what I can to solve it, I’m acutely aware that as a fallible human being, if I’m not careful, I’m more than capable of making things worse. This means being very mindful. It means thinking several turns past the present turn.

But there’s something else I expect from the process. While humming along steadily—because I’m not a quitter, and also because I don’t like to lose—I stick with it. As I do, there always seems to be that moment when persistence and fate meet one another. In other words, after a while of determined laboring, I’ll turn the cube just right and I’ll see all of its parts in a different way, ultimately revealing what it is that I need to do to solve it.

And then I do it.

I suppose like the Rubik’s Cube, the theological observation in all of this is multi-dimensional. Of course in one sense, for me as a pastor, it’s reminiscent of something that’s not all that uncommon—which is  to get handed a mixed-up problem between people with the expectation I’ll be able to fix it. In another sense, it has me thinking this morning on what can actually solve fractured human relationships in the Church when they occur.

And they definitely do occur. We certainly have our share here at Our Savior.

To start, it’s good to recognize that everyone in the situation is different—just like the individual pieces of the cube. All are in certain places as a result of various circumstances. All have individual personalities and mindsets shaped by the same. And yet, all remain a part of the same cube, which means all are part of sinful humanity, for indeed “there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). This means that every single person involved in the conflict is more than capable of self-love aimed at self-preservation. It means every single person is more than proficient at cruelty, deceit, betrayal, and so much more. Perhaps worst of all, most don’t even need a reason or motive to act on these darker inclinations in order to hurt others. They only need the opportunity. That’s the way of the sinful flesh, and everyone involved in the situation is infected by it.

It’s good to recognize this stuff. It’s even better when everyone in the situation recognizes it, and not only are they on board with it in principle, but they are ready and willing to humbly confess it personally.

That carries us to something else we can keep in mind when sorting through conflict among Christians. Unlike the world around us (which pretty much always has our demise in mind), I’d hope that Christians who know their sinful nature and know their Savior could safely assume such faith is at work in the life of their opponent, that the people involved in the conflict truly are believers in Christ who’ve staked their claim of salvation on the fact that even as they are sinners, Christ died for them (Romans 5:8). If this Gospel is indeed surging through their spiritual veins, then you, their opponent—someone mirroring this truth—can labor by the premise that all involved are “justified by (God’s) grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-25).

Beholding one another through this Gospel, acknowledging that forgiveness is already abounding between God and everyone involved, the stage is set for Christian opponents to seek genuine peace in ways unavailable to the unbelieving world. By the power of the Holy Spirit through this Gospel, all involved are enabled in some way to take hold of the cube, to diligently turn it this way and that way in search of an avenue for solving the problem. And we’ll do this, not with a desire to win or to find an endpoint that ultimately proves our side right, but rather a solution that proves faithful to Christ and His Word.

God promises to bless such laboring (1 Corinthians 15:58). Interestingly, one of His blessings is diligent hopefulness. That is to say, one very important fruit of faith in the whole experience will be that you actually make an effort to pursue a solution.

I mentioned before that eventually the solution to the Rubik’s Cube is revealed, but usually it takes time and attentiveness. If I really want to solve it, I can’t give up and walk away. Well, let me rephrase that. Sure, I can give up. Giving up is probably the easiest thing anyone can do in the face of challenge. But by doing it, the endpoint—which is failure—is already pretty much predetermined. Personally, I appreciate the hopefulness Helen Keller described when she said something along the lines of, “Don’t dwell on today’s failures, but on the successes that may come tomorrow.” For as burdened by struggle as she was, she always looked to the next day as fertile ground for better opportunity. That’s pretty great. It’s hard to feel that way sometimes, but still it’s a great way to live. Pitching her words against the endurance required for reconciliation among God’s people is very near to hearing the Lord whisper by way of King Solomon in Proverbs 24:16, “For the righteous falls seven times and rises again.” It is to hear the Lord urging through the Apostle Paul in Galatians 6:9: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

A lot of bad things have happened in the last six months. Christian friendships were by no means immune to the badness. I’m certainly no exception in the mess. By my own faultiness, I’ve seen things go south in a hurry. Nevertheless, the call goes out from the Word of God to all of us: Humble yourself. Confess your sins. Be absolved by the God who loves you. Go and be reconciled to your brother or sister in Christ. If they receive you, rejoice at the refreshing rain shower of grace God is most certainly sending to both of your souls. If they turn you away, while it may be a telling moment as to the condition of their heart, still, don’t give up. If anything, be ready to receive them if they have a change of heart. Do all of this in pursuit of that rain shower you know is forming on the horizon. Chase after it for as long as you can. Eventually you’ll reach it, even if you reach it alone.

On second thought, rest assured you’ll never be in it alone. Jesus will be there, too. And that’s pretty great.

The Beginning and End of Christian Love

What daily devotional materials do you use? I read from Luther every morning.

Of course, reading from Luther’s writings isn’t just an opportunity to sit at the feet of brilliance, but rather it is to be carried out into the deep water of the Bible. It’s like boarding a vessel commanded by an esteemed captain who wants to help you to truly meet with the open sea—to meet its serene breezes; to steer into its tempestuous waves.

What I read this morning was truly remarkable. I wasn’t looking for what I discovered. In fact, I get the feeling it came looking for and discovered me. It certainly is more than appropriate for sharing, considering the current climate.

“People speak of two kinds of humility: one which we are said to owe when doctrine and faith are concerned, the other when love toward our neighbor is concerned. But may God never grant me humility when the articles of faith are concerned. For then no action is called for which is a yielding for the sake of love, for the sake of peace and unity, for the sake of keeping the church from being ruined, or for the love of the imperial majesty. The fanatics and sectarians are complaining about us as though no humility and love were found among us. But we reply: First abolish the Word, doctrine, and faith? For in these matters we will not budge a handbreadth though heaven and earth were to fall because of our firmness. For the Word does not belong to me; neither do Baptism and the Lord’s Supper belong to me. God has reserved these for Himself and has said, ‘You are to teach in this way!’ I cannot pass this injunction by. Therefore your will must yield. But when we speak like this, they say that we are proud people. In reality, however, this is true humility. God has commanded us to take this attitude. We are to connive at no omissions from His Word… By the grace of God we would be glad to lie at the feet of everybody if only the Word of God remained pure and people did not interfere in God’s affairs.” (W 49, 81.)

Did you get all that? If not, take a moment to scan it again, because it’s important.

Essentially, Luther sets faithfulness to the Word of God right beside love for the neighbor, and he does so within the context of humility. Then he takes out a hammer and smashes the idea that loving the neighbor could ever be interpreted as humble service if it includes sacrificing faithfulness to what God has mandated.

“…though heaven and earth were to fall because of our firmness.”

That phrase is important. Luther isn’t speaking figuratively. He’s being literal. Even if being faithful to God’s mandates means that the earth and sky would become completely uninhabitable, still, we obey. We do it and we trust. And why? Because neither the mandate nor what the mandate delivers belong to us. They belong to God. He’ll handle the details of their efficacy. He simply calls for us to be faithful. With this, we simply do them. We maintain them among us and follow along with them as recipients of what God is actively working.

“The fanatics and sectarians are complaining about us as though no humility and love were found among us.”

That phrase is important, too. By it, Luther identifies the true villains. First, the phrase makes plain that the fanatics and sectarians believe a church that holds to sound doctrine does so at the expense of love for the neighbor. As it might meet us this very moment, a church desiring to maintain the mandates of Christ and preserve in-person Word and Sacrament ministry during a pandemic—real or imagined—would be villainous. But Luther implies that such a church is not the villain. The fanatics and the sectarians are.

I don’t have time to give a lengthy dissertation here, but in short, Luther uses the term “fanatic” to mean someone who has strayed from a right understanding of God’s Word regarding the verbal and visible Gospel—the Word and the Sacraments. A fanatic no longer grasps Christ’s real presence and work in and through them. A fanatic has confused their source, nature, significance, and substance. Naturally, having lost sight of these things, a fanatic can neither appreciate nor practice them rightly. More than likely, a fanatic would have missed the value in the following words we sang during the Lord’s Supper yesterday:

By Your love I am invited,
Be Your love with love requited;
By this Supper let me measure,
Lord, how vast and deep love’s treasure. (“Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness” LSB 636, st. 8.)

When Luther uses the term “sectarian,” he’s taking aim at the next step in fanatical evolution: Protestantism’s teachings that the holy things of God are little more than symbols, things that man initiates, and because of this, are negligible and can be easily jettisoned at any moment or because of any circumstance, all without the fear of a seared conscience.

Fanatics and sectarians would likely argue during a time such as ours that a church and her Christians who insist on gathering together to preach, teach, pray, sing, kneel in confession, administer Baptism, and serve the Lord’s Supper are being careless and not truly loving one’s neighbor. They would likely urge the Church away from in-person worship. They would urge that she not perform baptisms. They would urge that she refrain from administering the Lord’s Supper. They would do these things, all under the banner of genuine love for the neighbor.

Once again, Luther urged, “I cannot pass this injunction by. Therefore your will must yield.”

He’s right. The fanatics and sectarians must yield, and the Church must continue on in faithfulness to the Lord’s mandates no matter how the world around her might spin a description of her actions. The Church must continue to gather for Word and Sacrament ministry. We must continue to be together. We must continue to baptize and receive the Lord’s Supper, which is only possible by way of in-person worship.

Again, some might insist, “But you’re not loving your neighbor and you’re putting people at risk!”

No, we’re not. We’re being faithful to God. Loving one’s neighbor will always have its beginning and end in being faithful to God first. Faithfulness to God is, by default, the only real way that showing love to the neighbor is possible.

Still, let’s think a little deeper on this concern.

In many cases, what this love for the neighbor actually looks like must be weighed very carefully. Sometimes that’s not so easy. Right now it sure seems like a lot of Christians have settled for the premise that to love one’s neighbor means being licensed to impose one’s subjective opinion on another, ultimately using the “love your neighbor” doctrine as a club to bludgeon them until they give you what you want. I heard this described in our Elders meeting this past Saturday as “spiritual blackmail,” and it was framed according to the all-to-familiar practice in churches of threatening absence and the withholding of giving unless certain demands are met. Personally, I think the term “spiritual extortion” is more fitting. But whichever term you use, both communicate dangerous expressions of self-righteousness born from self-love. In the end, this is about as far from loving the neighbor as it gets. Luther gave a nod to this in a piece I read last Friday:

“No one wants to be regarded as hating and envying his neighbor; and everyone, by words and gestures, can appear friendly—yes, as long as you are good to him and do what he likes. But when your love for him lessens a bit, or he by chance is angered with a word, then he is entirely through with you. Then he complains and rages about the great injustice done to him, pretends that he needs not put up with it, and praises and exalts the loyalty and love he showed toward his fellow man, how he would gladly have given him his very heart and is now so badly repaid that the devil may hereafter serve such people. This is the love of the world.” (W 21, 415 ff.)

Personally, I think a lot of this can be applied to the current debate regarding masks. It seems it’s not so much about the benefits of wearing or not wearing a mask, but rather how ready people are to mistreat others who don’t agree with their preference, all the while using the “love thy neighbor” doctrine to legitimize their behavior. The snag in all this, however, is that while some believe they’re being a good neighbor by wearing a mask, plenty of others truly believe they’re being a good neighbor by not wearing one. Both have their reasons. Both believe their positions to be arguable from science, even as both might accuse the other of believing flawed science. Naturally, both also have plenty of doctors—people far smarter than any of us—waiting in the wings and ready to support their individual positions. But none of these details changes the fact that they both believe deeply they are showing the better form of love for the neighbor by the position they’ve taken.

So, then, now what?

Well, now it would seem that loving one’s neighbor means stopping right there and actually doing what the “love thy neighbor” doctrine insists—which is that we become flexible to the other person’s concerns and we give them room. It means respecting their apprehensions and allowing space for our neighbor’s liberty to wear or not wear a mask, whether or not we appreciate his reasons. Christian love certainly isn’t found in shaming your neighbor, or bemoaning him as being unloving while you, the obviously better Christian, are most certainly proving a truer form of concern for the neighbor by your better practice.

That’s pretty pompous, wouldn’t you say?

How about this: You do what you think is reasonably best. I’ll do what I think is reasonably best. And let’s both agree that neither of our positions is giving room to some sort of false doctrine that jeopardizes the other person’s eternity. Let’s just leave it at that. That’s loving the neighbor. Any militancy beyond that crosses the line and ceases to be genuine Christian love.

Barely tangential, if there’s concern about the hygiene practices employed by a church in their holy spaces, I should add that it’s likely they’re more capable of using their reason, sense, and resources to love their neighbors far better than the other communal locales into which so many are willing to enter; places like Walmart, where I’ve run into so many of you shopping, picking up this and that item that had been touched by numbers of people before you, not once having been wiped clean by an employee. And don’t forget about the cashier behind the Plexiglass shield who just handled every single item in your cart, all of which will end up in your car and eventually in your home.

“But the Governor has mandated that no more than ten people assemble in indoor gatherings! You’re disobeying the Government and breaking the Romans 13 mandate!”

No, we’re not. First of all, it’s not the Government’s job to interfere in God’s affairs. When it does, it defaults on its ordination and is not to be obeyed. Period. Second, obedience to the Fourth Commandment is never accomplished at the expense of the First and Third Commandments. In all things, the Church must obey God rather than men.

“Well, God knows the dangers of the pandemic, and He knows we mean well. We’re doing all of this to His glory and for the good of our neighbor.”

That’s interesting. Let me share another bit of Luther’s wisdom I happened upon last Thursday. Again, I think this stuff came looking for me.

“For here you think, ‘I am doing this for the glory of God; I intend it for the true God; I want to serve only God. All idolaters say and intend just that. Intentions or thoughts do not count. If they did, those who martyred the Apostles and the Christians would also have been God’s servants; for they, too, thought they were rendering God a service as Christ says in John 16:2…’” (E 63, 48 f.)

And so we go forward here at Our Savior in Hartland, aligning our thoughts and intentions in all things to the holy will of God, praying as we did yesterday in the Collect for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity:

“Let Your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of Your humble servants; and that they may obtain their petitions, make them to ask such things as shall please You; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”

We pray this way in order to show love to our neighbor as it would be pleasing to God, and we do it only as we have first let our fears be comforted and our faith be strengthened by the Gospel delivered through the Word and Sacrament ministry of Christ.

Conversation

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. But then again, for as quiet as it might sometimes seem, there’s always a lot happening here at Our Savior. A good part of my time lately has been spent in one-on-one conversations with so many of you—which is a good thing. Conversation is good.

In a basic sense, conversation is the transmission of information. It’s a means by which one person takes what’s in his or her own mind and puts it into the mind of another. When that uncomplicated mechanism is functioning as it should, the experience can be incredibly beneficial. Maybe like me, some of the best conversations you’ve had in life are the ones in which you don’t necessarily recall anything in particular that was discussed, but rather you simply recall an enjoyable time together with another person, and you remember hoping to be able to visit together again, soon.

That’s not only how I feel about the people in my congregation, but so many others beyond her borders.

There are, of course, those conversations that we sometimes wish had never happened; the ones we regret. These lamentable interactions take various forms.

For me personally, I suppose the most obvious of these are the conversations in which I said something or exhibited a demeanor that I wish I could go back and erase, and not necessarily from my own memory, but from the memory banks of others involved. I’ve always believed that a man’s reputation is one of the only things he truly owns that everyone else keeps for him, and yet it seems most often others keep that reputation in mental lock boxes impervious to the man’s repentance and amended life. In other words, no matter how hard the man tries to restore himself to them, his good reputation will forever be an island from which he set sail and is never allowed to return.

It’s probably safe to say that most folks reading this write-up will understand the sadness that comes with the guilty tolling of damaged integrity. The honest readers will understand, that is.

Beyond this, some of the more regrettable conversations I experience are the ones in which gossip is the predominating tenor. Precarious are the moments shared with someone who lives by the creed, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about others, then don’t do it from way over there. Come sit by me!” I say this because it would seem their only goal is to malign someone else or to continue the spread of an infectious rumor. Either way, I regret the time lost in such conversations. I suppose while they’re occurring, my truest hope is that I won’t become diseased by the darker spirit that’s actually fostering them. Admittedly, it’s harder than one might think to remain neutral in such conversations. When we spot a gossip, it’s instinctual to try to find favor with them, because if they’re prone to speaking this way to you about others, what might they be willing to say to others about you? Additionally, it takes a steady heart to forget the juicy bits of information shared. I regularly pray for God’s protection from gossips.

Other conversations I typically regret are the ones in which my counterpart is someone who knows everything about everything. The person who’s always on board with his or her own phenomenality is, for me, a huge bore. Personally, it only takes a few minutes of listening to someone establish their own greatness before I get bored. When I get bored, I get fidgety. When I’m cornered by an overtly proud person, you can pretty much bet that I’m already looking for a polite way of escape, having been reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wit when he said something along the lines of, “The more he spoke of his honor, the more we counted our spoons.”

Another form of regrettable discussion for me are the ones laced with profanity. I don’t like to read messages bearing the language. I despise even more so hearing it. Those particular interactions leave me feeling like I’ve been invited into a conversation among bathers in the catch basin of an outhouse. I’m not sure how else to describe it. They’re crass, and as I’ve written in other places, I believe such conversations genuinely devalue human interaction. Even worse, when such low-level language is strutted before others as though it were a sign of deeper sincerity or intellect, I think the person has somehow been fooled into a grave misconception. For one, I’ve never observed profanity-pocked prattlings do anything to convince a real opponent. I’ve only seen such things make an enemy more fervent. I suppose I’d add—and for as backward as it might seem, since I’m trying to promote goodness here—I’ve seen more success emerge from a well-crafted, profanity-free invective than from a retort filled with swear words. I’ve seen a well-spoken insult convince an adversary to not only investigate an opposing argument, but to consider the adversary worthy of collegial respect.

Perhaps the worst conversations of all are the ones in which no one is really listening. These seem to be the most common these days, which is probably why I’ve found myself confessing privately to others my suspicion that dialogue is dead. More and more folks are arriving at conversations with their minds made up, and so modern discourse surrounding the more contentious topics just seems to be less about convincing an opponent to the benefits of an alternate viewpoint and more an exercise in foes taking a breath between individual monologues. With that, very little seems to be accomplished.

I suppose I could go on. But if I did, I’d only be listing more of my own sinful failings and yours. We all fit into one or more of these descriptions. And so as Christians, we continue to pray most fervently, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). Stepping forth from this desire born of faith, we add the request for a patient heart and a listening ear in the midst of conversation. And then bearing a contrite spirit, we accept the Lord’s instruction by way of His Word, taking into ourselves that “a gentle answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1), and “he who answers before listening, that is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13), and “a false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will perish” (Proverbs 19:19), and “ he who guards his lips guards his soul, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3), and “ reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18), and “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19), and “do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

And the list goes on. It seems long. It sounds difficult. But by faith, we know the Holy Spirit is carrying the water in these things. Even Saint Paul affirmed this when he wrote, “And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

The days are getting darker. Both literally and figuratively. Pray for Godly graciousness in both your listening and speech. As a nation, as a state, as a Church, as married couples, as families, as neighbors, as human beings occupying various stations in our communities, the Lord knows we’re going to need it. And honestly, the Christians are the only ones who have the life-altering Gospel that can bring it.