About AngelsPortion

REVEREND CHRISTOPHER I. THOMA is a husband, father, and Lutheran pastor in Michigan. He is allergic to sharks, has a 4th-degree black belt in Monopoly, is bored by scary movies, and drives a Jeep Wrangler he pretends is the Millennium Falcon.

A Love Affair with the Word

My son, Harrison, is quite the comedy-crafter.

Notice I didn’t say “comedian.” He’s not one for being on a stage and telling the jokes—at least, not yet. At this point in his life, he’s more for thinking through what he sees, stealing away the essentials, and coming up with a few lines here and there that would make for a pretty interesting routine once collected.

He’s pun-crafting royalty, too, so watch out. Anything you say might come back to you giftwrapped in genuine “dad” humor. Personally, this characteristic, alongside the fact that he’s a Christian, more than certifies him for being a great and future candidate for marriage to a young woman desiring a family.

Also, he bears a stranger curvature to his comedy. He’ll tell jokes—original and learned—that are often outside the boundaries of comedy expectations. They might not even make much sense, but the way he delivers them is often what makes them so funny. For example, not all that long ago at dinner, Harrison told the following joke to the family, and his mother has officially declared it as one of her favorites. But again, I’m guessing that much of her favor rests in the way he tells it, because in the end, the joke is rather ridiculous.

Here’s the joke…

What do bicycles and ducks have in common? They both have handlebars. Except for the duck.

Now, I don’t know if this joke is a Harrison original or if he heard it from someone else, but just the way he said it had the whole family laughing. It’s a ridiculous joke, but Harry told it with perfect timing and in a way that shows he loves telling it. Now we love it, too.

I don’t want to get too cerebral here, but as I watched Harry perform, it reminded me of something.

When it comes to my job as a preacher, many years ago I took a lesson from Richard B. Hays, a Professor of New Testament at Duke. He shared a personal story that, for me, was secretly influential. He wrote:

“When I was an undergraduate at Yale University, students flocked to Alvin Kernan’s lecture courses on Shakespeare. Kernan’s work predated the academy’s current infatuation with ideological criticism. Even though it was the late 1960s and we were living in an atmosphere charged with political suspicion and protest, none of this overtly impinged on Kernan’s lectures. Kernan was not a flashy lecturer. What, then, was the draw? He loved the texts.”

Hays went on to say:

“(Kernan’s) teaching method, as I remember it, was simply to engage in reflective close readings… delineating their rich texture of image and metaphor and opening up their complex themes – moral, philosophical, and religious. Often, Kernan would devote a significant part of his lecture time to reading the text aloud, not in a highly dramatic manner, but with sensitivity to the texts’ rhythms and semantic nuances. I would often sit in class thinking, ‘Oh, I hadn’t heard that in the text before.’ And I would leave the class pondering the problems that Shakespeare addressed: love, betrayal, fidelity, sacrifice, death, and hope.”

Hays makes the point that, yes, Kernan was considered an expert on Shakespeare. But he also points to the fact that being an expert didn’t make Kernan a fruitful teacher. It was Kernan’s loving devotion to the texts of Shakespeare that helped in this regard. When he wasn’t teaching Shakespeare, he was reading Shakespeare and enjoying it for himself, and this shaped his telling of the story when he was among others. Yes, a thorough knowledge of Shakespeare was important when it came to being trusted as an expert, but it was the love of the material—and the display of such love to others—that made all the difference. Kernan’s students could tell his expertise was far deeper than a PhD. They could see his knowledge and love were inseparable, and with that, his disposition was contagious.

I think this meets with us as Christians.

As it meets with my role as a Christian preacher, I recognize that when it comes to the Word of God, when I step into the pulpit, the assumption by the listener is that I’m the “expert.” Of course I should anticipate this assumption without needing to read Hays’ words. But because of his words, I have a different awareness. I’m mindful of the variance between the rigidity of preaching a “Law-Gospel, non-heretical, all-the-right-Lutheran-keywords” sermon and a sermon born from a Word of God with which I’ve had a genuine love affair during the time spent preparing for the preaching task. In other words, the sermon-writing process has become not only one of study, but of finding the angles in the writing process for communicating just how much I love the source material I’m preparing to share with the listener. Excitement for the task builds, and from it comes a genuine desire on my part for the person in the pews to know that the guy in the pulpit loves to tell you what he’s telling you, and he wants you to love it as much as he does.

I suppose I should add that sermons birthed in this way do, in fact, produce “Law-Gospel, non-heretical, all-the-right-Lutheran-keywords” results.

As all of this meets with the listener in the pews, you can beam your relationship to the Word of God with the same care. First, know that I’m not saying you need to go out into the world and be a zealous, in-your-face pest about your love for the Word of God. For most regular human beings with whom you’ll come into contact, that can and probably will backfire on you. In other words, I like cats. But there is the stereotypical cat-lover who wears nothing but cat sweatshirts, drinks from cat coffee mugs, has cat posters in his or her cubicle, names their cactus “cat,” snacks on Purina Cat Chow during office breaks, and has a license plate that says “CATLOVR.” Those folks have a way of making me somewhat annoyed with the topic of cats, and I may even discover myself whispering the words from Shakespeare which say, “I do desire we may be better strangers.”

I suppose what I’m saying is far simpler. I’m thinking that as you go about your day filled with opportunities for displaying Biblical stances in relation to various topics and situations, there will be people crossing your path who can tell the difference between a Christian who knows the Word and a Christian who is in a deep love with the Word—between someone who can recite that the Word of God is the divinely inspired, inerrant, and immutable truth and someone who would lay down his or her life before allowing such truth to be snatched away because those same truths are intricately woven into the fabric of their very being.

I’ll add in conclusion, my theory is that this distinction between Christians is going to become more and more vivid in America as time goes on. Persecution is increasing, and as it does, it has a way of revealing such things.

The Word is the Key

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.”

How true.

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.

Declared Innocent

Greeting cards are designed to communicate a crisp point in a few short words. In order to do this, they deliberately choose language that does not require much interpretation. In the words of somebody somewhere, “If you’ve used ten words, you’ve already used five more than you needed.”

Okay, so maybe I just made that up.

Anyway…

I received a greeting card in the mail last week from someone who attended our recent “The Body of Christ and the Public Square” conference. It was a kind gesture, one that was offered in gratitude for the boldness of this congregation as she continues to be a beacon in the gales of an ever-turbulent and ever-encroaching world.

Printed inside the card was a short bit from God’s Word. The text in particular was from Proverbs 28:1, which reads: “The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”

I’m guessing that the card manufacturer chose this particular text for the innards of a greeting card heralding courage most likely because it sounded good. I’m guessing the card-maker figured the text was fitting solely because of contrasting keywords like “flee” and “bold.” I’ll bet the word “lion” played a part, too. I suppose with this pre-packaged frame of mind, indeed, one could garner an image of courage in the face of struggle from this text.

Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that’s the meaning of this text..

The point of this text is the cold-truth examination of the distinction between guilt and forgiveness—wickedness and righteousness.

“The wicked flee though no one pursues…”

You know this feeling. This is guilt. It’s the feeling that people are looking at you, and they’re not just giving a glance, but rather they’re staring right into you. It’s the sense they know something about you. It’s the fear that at any moment they’ll discover the real you, who you really are deep down inside—the scars of your past, the dreadful memories you wish you could jettison into space. Guilt keeps you thinking that at any moment they’ll figure it out and come for you, and when they do, you’ll have to fess up, you’ll have to confess to the crimes and publically confront the shame you already know you deserve.

Or you could just cut and run before it happens. You could hold tightly to your guilt and flee before anyone gives chase. You could hide in the darkness with your shame.

Guilt brings this kind of inner terror and unending turmoil. With a subtle crafting of words, King Solomon paints it as seemingly foolish in Proverbs 28:1.

But then why in this inspired Word of God wouldn’t Solomon just go ahead and use the term “guilty” instead of “wicked”? Even further, in the text’s immediate counterpart, why not just say “innocent” instead of “righteous”?

Well, because the Holy Spirit certifies God’s Word as being far richer than that. He’s gathering various truths for us. He’s bridging certain gaps. He’s carrying us to a better plateau for a much fuller view of the world, ourselves, and our God.

In a simple way, we are to know that according to our sin-nature, we are guilty, and because of this, we must be counted among the wicked. To be wicked is to be tallied among the unrighteous and apart from God. This is a word of warning. It depicts the high drama of standing alone before the One who has every right to judge and punish us. In this, we find ourselves at a crossroads. One road leads along the foolish way of unnecessary turmoil in guilt. The other is a far different way. It’s first few pavers step along with Saint John, saying, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

The penitent Christians who are trusting in Christ and the forgiveness He gives are equipped for a better grasp of Proverbs 28:1. Such Christians are well aware of the impinging sadness of guilt. We are well aware of Sin’s daily attempts to pall the entirety of our existence. We know how easily it is to get caught in its web. In fact, we know it so well, we can chime along with someone like Cardinal de Richelieu who said, “Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him.”

Christians know that of our own selves there is nothing good in us. Most importantly, we know the utter foolishness and haunting dread that infiltrates our lives when we deny this truth and run from it.

“…but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”

To be righteous is to be acquitted of our crimes. It is to be declared innocent. Before God, the innocent have nothing to fear. Christians know what this means, too. It means we know how this innocence has come about. We know that in the person and work of Jesus Christ, our unrighteousness has been exchanged for His righteousness. Through faith in Him, even as some might hound and accuse us, we cannot be found guilty. Paradoxically, are we guilty? Yes. Faith in Christ is humble, and it acknowledges the ever-present need for His mercy. And yet, are we innocent? Absolutely. Skip backward a single verse in the above text from 1 John and you’ll hear the apostle telling us that “the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin” (v.7).

The Christian is now recrafted for a fearless admitting to the sinner/saint reality.

This divine knowledge is only born of the Gospel, and it produces lion-sized nerve in the face of anyone or anything that would seek to bind us to our sins and cause us to fear for our eternity.

As you can see, I appreciated the greeting card. It was a nice gesture. And in the end, it was an opportunity for thoughtful reflection, as well as an occasion for observing the truest platform for Godly courage.

I pray for this courage every day, and in those petitions, I ask the same for the people in my care. I do this already knowing that God is faithful, and that we have nothing to fear because of Jesus. His death and resurrection makes it so the burden of guilt and the frightful urge to run away begin to subside, and in place of that fear, a lion’s heart starts pumping. The Gospel of God’s merciful care feeds the wildcat’s muscles for immovability, and he’s found enabled for facing off with any accuser.

In short, the one hunted by his sin becomes the hunter, and that, dear Christians, is quite comforting.

Unearthly Courage

It was quite the lineup we had on Saturday. Charlie Kirk—someone I don’t know that well, but have gotten to know much better in the past few days—he did a splendid job. Dinesh D’Souza and Rafael Cruz—both men that I know and respect and call friends—they, of course, spoke to the issues facing the Church with passion and clarity. They were inspirational in so many ways, and their verve was contagious.

Then there was Jack Phillips. And I must say, I’m not the same man I was before I met Jack.

For those of you who attended, you know it sometimes took Jack a minute or two to find the words he wanted to say. And when he finally reached to where the words were hiding, he took them, wrapped them in an easy gentleness, and handed them to us in a way that warmed all in the room. The love in his family and the story of his new life in Christ made us all smile. Sometimes we gave a chuckle as he attempted to add humor in his descriptions of situations of sheer terror. Other times he brought us to tears as we saw him doing what he could to hold back his own.

After he and his lawyer, Jake Warner, were done speaking, I took Jack back to the green room so he and his wife, Debi, could rest a little before lunch. While there, we visited a little further on some things. Before I left to get back to the conference, I confessed to Jack that for all the good he is doing for the cause of Religious Liberty in America—and specifically in the moment for my own congregation and the community in which she is serving in so many ways as the tip of the spear—I confessed that I don’t think I like being responsible for Jack and Debi having to relive the horrors they’ve endured. The death threats. Terrorized children and grandchildren. The six-figure debts. The years in court he’ll never get back. The verbal attacks and the vitriol he endures day after day. The badgering from his own state rulers and the constant dread of a new lawsuit threatening to shatter everything he holds dear and to bury him in hateful rubble. With each moment that he struggled to communicate to us the seriousness of his predicament and the concern he has that the same things are facing many of us, too—each of his words being born from a severe and tortuous pain—I was sad that he was called upon to retell it. I wanted him to know how thankful I truly was that he took the time to be with us, and I told him I would forever be his servant in the Lord. He needed only to call me—anytime—and I’d be there to help, to speak, to pray, to listen.

Jack shook my hand and smiled. He thanked me and in a few short words reminded me that even as it hurts to tell the story again and again, such care from others makes it better. And ultimately, Jesus has already figured it all out. With that, everything will be okay. In the meantime, as a Christian family, we’re in this together.

Before worship yesterday, my own devotions began with a portion from Ephesians 3:16, which reads: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being…” Luther offered the following regarding those words:

“Worldly people are full of courage and of high spirits, and so are Christians. Christians are much stronger through the Holy Spirit, for they fear neither the world nor the devil, neither death nor misfortune. This is called spiritual strength… Worldly courage endures no longer than there is some earthly good on which to rely; but the true courage trusts in God alone and has no other good or gold than God alone; in Him it withstands all evil and wins an altogether different heart and courage from that of the world.”

It would seem that we need that unearthly courage more than ever before these days. Those who attended the conference were fortunate enough to see such courage in full bloom in Jack and Debi Phillips.

This reminds me of something. Do you remember the shooting incident at the outdoor concert in Las Vegas a few years ago? Such a horrific tragedy. A day or so after the ungodly event, I remember reading a news article about reporter interviewing a survivor of the incident who offered some startling words. The survivor said, “I arrived at the concert an agnostic. I’m leaving a believer.”

While I don’t know the fullness of what the person meant by that, I assume from the context that his agnostic beliefs (which is the belief that it’s impossible to know whether or not there is a God, and so the person neither claims faith nor disbelief) this man’s position changed to one that admits God is real. Whether he saw God at work through the people involved in the rescue and caring for others (Matthew 5), or he was willing to admit that only devilry could move a heart to such darkness, thereby inferring such evil must have an opponent, whichever it was, this man took a step toward recognizing this world is coming undone and it needs rescue.

Yesterday, Sunday, those of you who made it to church here at Our Savior, you heard the Good News of that rescue. We were blessed to have some visiting clergy. Reverend Rahn from the Lutheran Heritage Foundation, and Bishop Peter Anibati, the Bishop of the South Sudanese Lutheran Church, were both with us. Reverend Rahn preached the Gospel, and as he did, you met with and received from the One—Jesus Christ—who provides for the rescue of a world steeped in terror. Last week you heard me preach, quite literally, that on the cross, Christ gave Himself over—horrifyingly, grotesquely, vividly. He plunged into Death’s mouth, down its throat, and into its belly to be digested. From there, he was the poison that killed Death. And then He tore back up and out of Death’s corpse by way of His resurrection at Easter. You were told by way of the story of the Widow of Nain that never before has there ever been someone who could contend with the terrors of this world, namely Death, and win. And yet, the Gospel declares that the day has come, and the One who can do it is Jesus. The week before that, Pastor Zwonitzer delivered the same Good News of incredible power. Receiving a steady diet of this Gospel here at Our Savior, whether you realize it or not, you are being forearmed for meeting with a world that would seek to crush and utterly destroy you. You are being fed by His Word and Sacraments for the courage Luther described in the portion above. This supernatural food meets you where you are, and it instills the very message that supersedes the world’s hope and gives true Christian hope.

This is the same kind of hope many of you saw beaming brightly from Jack and his lovely wife, Debi—two of the humblest, and yet fiercest, heroes in American Christianity. Period.

My prayer for you, dearest Christian, is that even as you go about your day and week and are confronted by struggles—as you watch and listen to the newscasts, as you behold the sadness, the terror, the creeping hopelessness that seems to pall a Christian’s world day after day—my prayer is that you would first be calmed by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, which is a message not just of God’s existence, but one that actually displays and works His wonderful love revealed in Jesus Christ and His life, death, and resurrection. Sturdied by this, emboldened by this, made courageous by this and by this alone, go out into the world to be salt and light. Be the ones whom God will use to show a suffering world that He exists, He loves us, and He has reached out to us in our moment of greatest need. Be emitters of a Gospel that proclaims that on the cross, Jesus has already figured it all out, and with that, everything will be okay. And in the meantime, as a Christian family, take comfort in knowing we’re in this together. In Him, no matter the terrors that appear to consume this fallen world, we are and have been well cared for in and through the person and work of our rescuer, Jesus Christ.

God Forgets

I’m not sure what it is about the month of October this year. It’s almost as if something otherworldly has been perching in the branches of the trees—something dark—and as the leaves have begun falling away, the menacing creature has been exposed and is now swooping down to stir the hearts of God’s people to sadness.

I speak these words with great seriousness.

Within the past week or so, no small number of people—not only members of my own congregation, but others beyond our borders—have sought me out in order to confess haunting sins of the past. These deep-reaching glooms seem to have a permanent grip on their hearts and minds, and perhaps worse, are feasting on their joyful hope.

It’s no surprise. Guilt is a demonic beastie. He’s sturdy. He’s ferocious. He’s versatile. He’s enduring. He’s stealthy. Perhaps worst of all, he remembers everything. He observes the events of our past and present—everything that creates our history—and he records it in his ledger. The ledger has dates, times, images—everything needful for our indictment.

Of course, he doesn’t perform his work alone. Regret labors beside him. He’s equal to Guilt’s skill. Together, they scheme. They step in tandem. They slink into our circles of existence, and knowing the opportune moments, they strike. One and then the other. They grab hold, and as one shoves the ledger’s ugly and accusing contents in our faces, the other injects a stinging venom of hopelessness—the shameful memories, the disgraceful offenses, the reprehensible wounds on the soul so easily re-torn and bloodied.

In the scuffle with these fiends, it would seem the scene’s fittest description belongs to James Joyce, who said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Guilt and Regret are no small things. They’re real and they’re ruthless.

Still, I’m glad people have approached me—a Christian pastor—for help with these things. Not that I’m above the assaults of Guilt and Regret, or that I’m somehow immune to the venomous doses they’d try to administer. Believe me. I’m not. I know my own sins and I know them well. But I do have the antidote. And I’ve been tasked with keeping it on hand for you, too. The One in whose stead I stand—Jesus Christ—has charged me with bringing to others the only thing that can neutralize the venom and outmatch the darkly creatures of Guilt and Regret.

The Gospel.

Only the Gospel can bring these things into submission. A vacation can’t outwit them. They’ll be with you all along the way. Drugs and alcohol can’t do it. When the fog of inebriation lifts, they’ll be there to serve you another drink or give you another hit. Mortal distractions—a movie, a song, a favorite book—as nice as they might be, still, they can’t outrun them. When the credits are rolling, the last song fades, and the hardcover closes, they’ll be ready to resume their feasting.

Only the Gospel can meet these monsters.

Only the Good News that Jesus Christ has taken upon Himself all of our sins of past, present, and future can meet these monsters each and every day right where they are and exceed their command. Only the powerful message of Christ crucified in our place—the message of His deed of immeasurable mercy—can clad the Christian heart and mind with the steely knowledge that Jesus has shackled Guilt and Regret to an inevitable end in darkness far from the glories of heaven. This same Gospel clears the penitent sinner’s cloudy sky, urging him or her to recall that even as Guilt and Regret remember everything, the only One who has the authority to grant entrance into heaven forgets.

“I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12).

God forgets the sins of those who’ve been forgiven. And even as we so often try to present before Him our atrocious histories, He is far too preoccupied with the white robe of righteous we are wearing by repentant faith. He is far too mindful of you being His absolved child, and with that, the case on your sins has been closed. There is nothing left to discuss in the matter. Not that He won’t discuss it with you, of course. You belong with Him, and He loves you. When you’re hurting, He wants to help you. But as far as your sins are concerned, He’ll tell you the same thing I’m telling you—which is that no matter what you’ve done, the sacrificial blood of Jesus Christ has sealed the deal on eternity for all who believe in Him. No one can accuse you with any legitimacy—not in heaven, in hell, or in between. This means that at this very moment—and in every moment—you can live in the joyful freedom that “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).

If you’re going to remember anything, let it be that.

Christians Have No License to Hate

Minna Antrim once said, “To be loved is to be fortunate, but to be hated is to achieve distinction.”

I think on these words sometimes.

In one sense, her words are offered as a warning to those pursuing notoriety, reminding them they won’t be loved by everyone when they arrive at fame’s station. In another sense, she sets the words before her readers as a reminder, a prodding emblem for those laboring to achieve for the sake of a common betterment. We are to know that as we wrestle toward good, we’ll accumulate along the way some who despise us.

Why is this?

Because hate is natural to Man’s fallen fabric. It’s the oily-black blood flowing in the sin-nature’s veins, bringing malevolent nutrition to all parts of its body.

I think this proves Lord Byron’s words true when he wrote that “hatred is by far the longest pleasure; men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.”

Hatred is easy for us, and we can do it for a long time.

I remember a few months back I was listening to a fellow clergyman and friend (well, now I’d call him a former friend) making the point before a group of listeners that the Bible gives license to hate as God hates. He didn’t speak to anything specifically, and yet because I know the texts, I suppose I was assuming he was thinking on the passages that say God hates things like divorce (Malachi 2:16) and idolatry (Hosea 9:15) and other such resulting weeds that grew from the soil of man’s sinful heart. Paul says in Romans 7:15, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” And for the record, in the Book of Revelation, Jesus says, “Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” In context, the Nicolaitans were a group that more than proffered sexual immorality. And please take note that Jesus said He hated the works of the Nicolaitans, not the Nicolaitans themselves.

Having said all of this, what I remember most about my former friend’s overall words was the sense of defending a Christian’s right to hate in an emotional sense. I remember walking away with a sinking feeling of disconnect with his words. It seemed as though he was trying to cram the broader theology of God’s righteous anger against Sin into the lesser box of simple human passion and its fleshly responses. He seemed to be working to stir the already sin-capable hearts of his listeners to take up a cause, one that involved wielding the sword of God’s vengeance in hand under the guise of a righteous vigor against evil.

Friends, if this was the goal, it was wrong, and it just won’t do among us.

There’s an interesting passage in the Book of Hebrews which reads, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.”

The word “therefore” is pivotal here. What comes after it is to be understood as the result of what preceded it.

Contextually, the writer of the book sets the stage as having an inspired knowledge of God the Father having said the words to His Son, Jesus. And surrounding the short accolade of this particular verse, all of the Father’s verbiage points to His divine hatred and righteous judgment for evil, and how ultimately, it has been heaped upon Christ in His death on the cross. Christ was the propitiation of God’s righteous wrath against wrongdoing. From this, and finally, the anointing of Christ’s efforts for the extension of His kingdom—which is our anointing as well by virtue of having been baptized into the death of Christ—becomes one of joy.

That’s the word the writer uses to describe what’s driving our efforts for the extension of the Kingdom in this world. Joy.

By faith, we can hate evil in the purest sense of its ancient definition—meaning we despise it as the opposite of what God, who in perfect love, intended for His creation. But how do we wage war against others being consumed by this evil. The Book of Hebrews points its inspired finger at joy.

So be honest. Can the word “joy” at all—or could it ever be—an emotionally hate-filled word? Is it possible to ever say that you joyfully hate someone? If you can, you’ve got serious problems. If you try to defend it as such, you are a liar and unable to see that Godly joy is incapable of producing hatred, but rather it is unbreakably intertwined with the other eight fruits of the Spirit, which are love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22,23).

In short, Christians do not hate anyone. We are to love others. We are to seek peace with others. We are to be patient and kind. We are to exercise and amplify goodness. We are to seek faithfulness to Christ and thereby be found faithful to our neighbors. We are to engage with others gently, employing the carefulness that comes only by way of self-control.

And should any of us ever give the impression that we hate anyone while claiming the Bible as our justifier, I’m willing to say such a person will have stepped beyond the truest borders of the Word of God, and frankly, is no longer holding valid citizenship in the Kingdom of Christ until repentant faith is restored.

I suppose if you disagree, you could take it up with the Apostle John—the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 13:23)—who wrote, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:21); and “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15); and “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness… But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:9,11).

If you need more help with this, knock on King Solomon’s door. He’ll be sure to remind you that “hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses” (Proverbs 10:12). And I suppose if you need a final lesson, sit at the feet of Jesus and hear Him say so gently and plainly, “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).

I suppose my point in sharing this is, first, because I sat down to type something—anything—and this is what came out. But second, because we are dwelling in some rather confusing times, ones that call for us to be vigilant and steadfast in the face of some pretty unsettling efforts against us. Still, our Lord’s superior Word doesn’t change. It is immutable. And so we trust Him. He knows far better than we do what will win the hearts of others, even those who’d rather see us fed to the lions.

And so, Christians, do not hate. Love as Christ loved you and gave His own life for yours. Only the love of Christ—lived out through us—can meet with courage the opponents of the Church and expect to be blessed. Such love is truly a fearless love, for “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

The Devil and the Liturgy

It was Henry David Thoreau who said that “life is frittered away by detail.”

I can’t exactly say why this comes to mind this morning. But since it’s out there, now, I suppose what he meant was that it’s very possible for us to travel the vast and winding lanes of our lives spending far too much time concerned over the throwaway minutiae rather than enjoying the actual journey. Perhaps this applies to people, as well. Perhaps the lens of our examination is often focused too finely that we miss the human being for the over-magnified imperfections of the individual.

Perhaps.

In a sense, I think this maxim can be applied to the Church.

As a side to the Gospel of Matthew, I’ve been working through The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis with the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students in my theology class on Wednesdays. We’re taking careful steps through the volume. Last week we happened upon a portion of advisory text from the well-experienced demon, Screwtape, to his nephew-demon, Wormwood, which offered, “There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us.”

By “the Enemy’s camp,” Screwtape means the Church. He goes on to say, “One of our greatest allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.”

I’ve read the book no less than fifteen times, and so I know where he intends to go with this. Nevertheless, notice the elementary nature of Screwtape’s vantage point. He knows and understands the Church to be a singular entity spanning the entirety of human history and finding itself born from something eternal. His words assume a culture, a language, and way of life that belongs to all believers and not just a few. It isn’t born from any of us in particular, but rather is rooted in Christ and His Word.

In other words, the Church’s identity isn’t the sole property of any one generation, thereby giving it that generation license to change what it looks and sounds like just because it no longer appreciates the details.

Screwtape continues, “But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is…”

It’s from this point forward that Screwtape turns the lesson to the things a Christian might see as flaws in the people sitting in the pews around him, and Screwtape suggests that Wormwood might begin cultivating in his patient the feeling that the Church—the true Church—is nothing more than one giant mechanized establishment of hypocrisy going through the motions.

“I don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites!”

Have you ever heard this? It’s certainly not new to me—or most pastors, for that matter. It’s a tired go-to excuse that I hear quite often when chatting with inactive members, and every time I do, I hear the words of Jesus from Mark 2:17 ricocheting in the empty spaces of my feeble mind: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” And which of us pastors in such a moment could forget the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14, which begins with the words, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable…”

“I don’t go to church because it’s boring. They do the same thing over and over again.”

Have you heard this one, too? Again, I have. Although, there’s something else worth considering here. Screwtape already hinted to it. There’s a very real difference between Tradition and Traditionalism. I like to think of Tradition as “the living faith of the dead.” It’s the life and culture of the Church unbound by time—just as Screwtape described fearfully. The going-through-the-motions of Traditionalism is “the dead faith of the living.” I suspect that while Screwtape would prefer a Christian not locate himself in a liturgical church because of the possibility of what a liturgy properly understood might ultimately reveal and teach, but if his “patient” must end up there, Traditionalism would be the best he could hope for. He would prefer that the Christian interpret all of the gloriously Gospel-centered words and actions as Traditionalistic, as little more than the mechanically necessary, but soullessly hollow, placating of a deity—just in case that deity is actually real.

That’s dead faith. The demons are just fine with folks going through the motions.

By the way, Traditionalism isn’t owned by the liturgical churches alone. This more than happens in the ones with coffee bars in their narthexes, too. It happens in every church building in every nation across the world.

But steering away from all of this, my interest remains back at Screwtape’s point of origin. It’s quite the calibrating assessment that a demon would surmise that a gathering of worshippers that looks and sounds nothing like the Church of history—a church that shuns the liturgy—is fertile ground for the greatest success among the ranks of the underworld. And why? Well, in the end, the details of personal preference—what I like and dislike—reign supreme in such worship spaces. What makes me happy becomes the standard determiner, and when that happens, Sin is not so easily defined, and if that’s true, then neither is the Gospel remedy. From this, the only result would be that objective truth is obscured and Christian hearts are more easily led into uncertainty.

Don’t lie to yourself. It’s true. People are naturally desperate to chase after what they like. In this case, I’d say it’s how so many in mainstream evangelicalism find room for slandering the Church’s historic liturgy—and guys like me who appreciate it. The liturgy takes Man out of the driver’s seat, while Man wants God as his co-pilot. The liturgy doesn’t steer us where we want to go, but rather where we need to go. From its organic origins in the early house churches, all the way through the centuries, the liturgy has been a means for seeing that the shifting uncertainties of anthropocentric tendency aimed at doom are exchanged for Christocentric truths that establish certainty and save. They’re not just words and motions—rites and ceremonies—but rather they’re Godly contexts born from eternity that keep your eyes on Jesus. Every turn of the liturgy is in place to take the spotlight from you and put it on Christ.

The liturgy isn’t oppressing you. It’s serving you. It’s keeping you from frittering away at the wrong things and missing the point of the reason you’ve come into the presence of Christ at all.

This is why the historic liturgy remains so important, especially today. It’s why words like the following from Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel come to mind as so penetrating:

Thus, the liturgy can be a great gift, haven, and joy to people who live in a society and a world where they can’t be quite sure what things are going to be like five years from now, or whether tomorrow everything will be changed. In a world where everything has gotten to be so transitory and “throw it away tomorrow,” is there anything that they can count on as lasting, that they can be sure will still be there tomorrow, next Sunday, next year, and when they die? The liturgy delivers the answer, “Yes!” Same old liturgy every Sunday. You can count on it like it’s been there for a thousand years and more. When people bump into that in a world where there isn’t anything else they can be sure of like that, there is something real! And so we decline the demands of a consumer society which has to have a new model every year or every week if you’re going to sell. For then you’re talking marketing, and you’re not talking the Church of Christ and the holy liturgy. (“Whose Liturgy Is It?” Logia II 2, [April 1993]: 7.)

Liturgy. Leitourgia. Λειτουργία. This is the word the Bible uses. Jesus participated in liturgy. The Church lived it out in the Book of Acts. Paul encouraged it in his Epistles. He even instructed on how to do it. I guess if the Bible and its central figures are keen to the importance of liturgy, then perhaps we ought to be as well.

I suppose lastly, from the profoundly faithful and deep-thinking mind of C.S. Lewis, it would appear that the demons know the importance of the liturgy, too, and they have a justifiably deep-rooted fear that if we were to somehow come to the realization of its truest benefits, we might actually embrace it and be far harder to catch. We may even demand it of our pastors and defend it in our churches. I mean, which demon losing a patient in this way would want to hear as Wormwood heard from Screwtape: “Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties…”