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.

Honorable Men

Resolutions for personal betterment are the topic of discussion at this moment just past the New Year’s turning point. At least for some. Others think the idea of making resolutions is ridiculous.

I don’t. As Christians, training for spiritual righteousness is a commendable thing (2 Timothy 3:16). Saint Paul said that. He also commended us to reaching higher in our Godly knowledge and ways when he wrote in Colossians 3:1-4, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

In any of the discussions I’ve had so far on the matter with folks who are actually attempting New Year’s resolutions, most have itemized things they’d like to change—such as their weight or eating habits. Others have shared with me personality characteristics they’d prefer to see barred at the exit door of 2019.

On a personal note, last year I focused on rebuilding relationships I’ve seen crumble. For the most part, I’ve been working pretty steadily at it. Some have improved. Others, I’ll admit, are proving much harder—nearly impossible—to mend. Still, I intend to keep at it. And besides, I knew I’d win some and lose some. But the upside is that maintaining the desire to be someone who works toward such things isn’t as hard as it was when I first started. The ways I’ve been going about it have become more or less habitual—which is what you want when you’re trying to make deeper, personal changes. You want whatever you’re trying to change to become a near thoughtless part of who you are as a person. It takes time to craft and become this, but eventually, it does happen.

By God’s promised grace, it’s happening in various ways in my life, and I’m glad for it. It makes me wonder why anyone would knock such efforts. Who knows? Maybe there’s a fear of darker discoveries when we take an honest inventory of ourselves.

Again, who knows? Either way, now it’s on to other improvements, and so I’ve made other resolutions. I’ll share one with you that I shared with the men in the Bible study last night at my house. I’d sort of thought it through on the way home from worship yesterday.

A few weeks back, right after the Divine Service, I took a moment to encourage folks to attend the upcoming Marriage Seminar on January 11. To introduce it, I teed up a story of having never seen the movie “Aladdin.” I explained that I’d finally sat down to watch it with my daughters, and when I arrived at a particular scene in which Jazmine was throwing a bit of a tantrum about not wanting to be considered a “prize to be won,” my lungs stole nearly all of the room’s oxygen in a surprised gasp.

I’ve been telling my daughters for years that, yes, indeed, they are prizes to be won!

When it comes to relationships with young suitors, my girls are to know and remember the Word of the Lord in 1 Corinthians 6:20. It’s there they will hear, “For you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” They are to know that when it comes to dating, as Christian girls, they’re worthy of the best characteristics in men. My girls are to know that everything and all that they are is of incredible value. They are priceless prizes to be sought out and won by the best of the best. This isn’t snobbery, but rather a teaching from the right perspective—the Christian perspective—that they’ve already seen this demonstrated by the One who loves them perfectly: Jesus Christ. My daughters were worth every drop of blood in the Lord’s veins, and as Saint Paul shares in Ephesians 5:22-33, they ought never to settle for any man who is unable to behold them against the backdrop of the mysteriously beautiful gift of God called Marriage.

In the end, I think I know why the character Jazmine said what she did. She was being treated like currency. But it doesn’t change the fact that I will continue to tell my daughters they are prizes to be won, and with that, I’m hoping for them to one day be joined in holy marriage to Godly and honorable husbands. In this is found the seed of one of my resolutions for 2020.

What can I do to make sure they find these types of men?

In 2020, as the pastor of a church and school, I will be doing whatever I can—actively, intentionally—to both model and promote honorability among the boys and men of this organization. Of course, I’m already quite mindful of such things in my day to day activities. It’s part of who I am already. But now I will be acting outwardly on this sense with more deliberateness. I will be looking for and seizing each opportunity to instill in the young men a craving for filling the gaps in male respectability in our society. We need these men to be the kinds of husbands and fathers who understand they can’t love their wives and children as God would have them if they love themselves more.

For example, in a basic sense, a man offers first passage through a doorway to others, namely to women and children. This is foundational to the ways of common courtesy alive in many of us. And yet, I say this having read a short news article about a man whose little one died in a house fire because he chose to save his video gaming system first.

This is where we are.

Another example…

A man is never to impose himself crassly upon anyone, being in a person’s face and loud. And yet a man will raise his voice above the fray if necessary. He is never so soft as to shrink from doing what’s right, no matter the boisterousness of the opponents who surround him. I say this as I observe our culture doing all it can to effeminize men, shaping them to be sheepishly ambivalent, discouraging them from confronting falsehood or bad behavior, crafting them into men who’d rather be friends with their children than steer them into verity, men who’ve become less likely to speak up and act when a sturdy viscera for truth is needed in the world around them.

An honorable man gives his word and is deeply harmed if he discovers himself breaking it. An honorable man puts his fiber into fighting for what’s good, for what’s important. He doesn’t accept what the world proffers as inevitable, but rather relies on what God establishes and has marked as virtuous. I offer these descriptions among an ocean of failing marriages drowning in shattered promises given by straying men who gave up long before lifting a finger to grapple through to better days with the women God gave them for a sacred unity.

In past interviews with new families desiring to enroll their children here in our school, when asked why they want their children to attend Our Savior, it isn’t uncommon for some parents to say, “Because we want them to be good people, to be moral people.” Usually I would respond with a brief explanation of our Gospel foundation, how we’re not necessarily a morality-factory—although morality is a deliberate byproduct—but rather a place that begins and ends with the Gospel as the source for all our efforts. It’s by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel that a desire to live good and decent lives according to God’s holy Law is born. With this 2020 resolution in mind, from now on I might say a little differently, “Situated firmly in the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus—which is the primary reason we exist—the fruits of morality will be taught and expected. For the girls, virtue will be heralded. For the boys, one pathway toward many of these expectations will be by way of teaching them what it means to be honorable.”

Thinking out loud with the men in the Bible study last night, I told them I believe a moral man is far different than an honorable one. I think both are capable of sinful behavior, but I get the sense from God’s Word that an honorable man is one who not only knows the rules, but plays by them. In other words, when he falls short, he’s more inclined to regret what he’s done and work to change it. That’s a face of honor. That’s humility. That looks and sounds an awful lot like the basic wisdom of faith—like humble repentance and trust in Jesus that leads to an amending of the sinful life. In fact, God did say in Proverbs 18:12 that humility strides before honor. And Proverbs 29:23 says a humble spirit will obtain honor.

So, anyway, that’s one of my resolutions for 2020. I hope I can achieve something by it. I know that however impactful the effort is, it will be even more fruitful if upheld and practiced by the parents at home. Truly, it’s there that boys are groomed for manhood—which means the first of my efforts will always be the continuation of such things among my own sons, Joshua and Harrison.

If Your Church Doesn’t Have a Christmas Day Service…

Ah, Christmas! The Feast of the Holy Nativity is upon us!

That’s right! The centuries-old celebration by the Christian Church that’s spanned the globe and been considered by believers as an event of all events, second perhaps only to the Triduum—the Holy “Three Days” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter—is just around the corner.

First, in the midst of this, most pastors are probably expecting Christmas Eve services to be well attended, but the actual festival day, the 25th, to be a bit thin. Speaking from experience, know your pastor is praying you’ll make time for both days. In a sense, the 24th and 25th are a singular event.

In contrast to my words, I remember seeing an article a few years back from a fairly popular Christian author saying he was thankful to all the Christian churches that don’t offer Christmas Day services. Being a pastor’s kid, he was trying to say that he was glad the pastors of those churches would be able to dodge another exhausting (and what often feels fruitless based on the attendance numbers) effort in order to better use the time at home with family like everyone else pretty much does.

Um. Wha—?

Okay, I get what he thinks he’s trying to say. I do. But he seems to have completely driven past the purpose for worship while saying it. In fact, at their root, his words make it sound as though it’s actually possible for time with the Savior in worship to be considered a tiring inconvenience, that it has the potential for getting in the way of more important things like cooking and opening presents and time with family.

As concerned for the mental health of pastors as his words might sound, again, they sort of miss the mark of what Christian worship is all about, and not to mention why your pastor is doing what he’s doing day in and day out in the first place. In fact, when it comes to enhancing your pastor’s mental health, I dare say you might actually accomplish that by just showing up in church to receive the gifts of Christ he’s been called to administer. I’m guessing that would make him smile, and it would probably lessen his inclination to whisper along with Isaiah, “O lord, who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?”

Even more, pastors, ask yourself this: When it comes to holding the line for Christianity in a world ever increasing in its hostility toward you and the Christ you proclaim, if the impression is given by the pastor that the most important celebrations of the year are negligible, what are you communicating with regard to the every-Sunday gatherings?

Actually, let me just go ahead and be as clear as I can. What that “pastor’s kid” author said was well-intended, but dumb. I get what he’s saying namely because I know the situation intimately. But he’s flat out wrong.

How about this instead? If your church has Christmas Eve services, but doesn’t offer a Christmas Day service, too—you know, the conjoined celebrations of the in-breaking of God into this world to conquer Sin, Death, and the devil—don’t be glad for that. Instead, take a moment and consider what it means. And then after you’ve contemplated for a good thirteen seconds or so, call the church office and transfer your membership to a church that does offer a Christmas Day service, because right now, you’re kinda getting shafted.

Having gone ahead and crossed the proselytizing line, if you have any friends looking for a Christ-centered celebration of the Nativity on both the Eve and the actual Day, tell them about that Lutheran church with the tuition-free school on the north side of M-59 (Highland Road) just a little east of Fenton Road in Hartland. No, not the ELCA church. That’s west of Fenton Road. You’re looking for the one east of Fenton Road with the sign that says “Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church and School.” Yeah, that one. The one at 13667 W. Highland Road. Not only have I heard that it’s a very friendly place, but I’ve heard worship means a lot to them. So much so, they’ve never closed their doors for a scheduled worship service opportunity in going on 66 years. Yeah, I know, right? Snow storms? Whatever. Power outages? They have candles. Furnace died? No biggie. Bundle up!

I short, I hear they’re pretty serious about what they do in that place. And why? Because they sure do like their time with Jesus.

Connecting the Dots

If ever there was a season for sharing our stories with one another, it’s the season of Advent. Advent is a season for gathering stories—the narratives of our lives. Even better, Advent leads the way as it ventures to gather up the accounts of the Bible—which are our stories, too—and it aims them at Jesus.

I like that.

I like that Advent plays by the all-important rule that Jesus is the key to understanding the Holy Scriptures. If you don’t approach the Bible through the lens of the Gospel, you won’t be able to see the whole picture. Your connect-the-dot picture of a puppy will look like more like a tornado of scribbles.

A big part of being a Christian is being able to connect the dots that no one else can. It means beholding this world’s monsters stacking tragedy upon tragedy and knowing the deeper concern behind it all. It also means seeing our God laboring in the middle of all of it for our rescue through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. It means being able to see Him through the fog—to see Him when and where the world can’t.

Jesus said that would be the case for His believers. In John 14:19, He said that He was going away, and yet, even as the world wouldn’t be able to see Him, we would.

Now, you may be thinking that I’m carrying this toward Christians beholding God in the gentle display of a mid-summer rain shower or the majestic grandeur of an Appalachian mountain range in winter. But that’s not what Jesus meant, and so that’s not where I’m going. That’s natural revelation. Everyone, even unbelievers, can look to these things and know there’s a chance that a divine Someone is behind it.

I’m also not headed to where my confessional friends would expect, which is to the sacramental nature of the Lord’s words, being that He said them in context of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Yes, we see Him there, even as many can’t or just won’t. Still, that would be too easy, and that’s not what started this thread spooling in my head, anyway.

I’m thinking of something else. I have Matthew 18:1-3 in mind.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

Perhaps one of the best ways to figure out what I’m talking about is to set yourself at the feet of a Christian child. Wind the child up for discussion by mentioning Jesus, and then let ’im go. Let the little one do the instructing. Of course, not just any child can do this, but rather, one who is actually being raised in the faith—a little one who is taken to church with devout regularity, a child immersed in the discussions of faith at home with family, a child who’d consider it bizarre to eat a meal without first praying, whether at home or at McDonald’s. These kids can connect the dots far better than most adults.

I’ll give you a very brief example.

This past Friday morning, my daughter Evelyn and I were making our way to school through the chilly darkness of a Michigan December. All the way there we listened and sang along to The Beach Boys.

California Girls. Good Vibrations. Fun, Fun, Fun. Surfin’ Safari. Little Deuce Coupe. I Get Around. All of our favorites were gushing from the roll bar speakers of the Jeep.

Winter was upon us, but our hearts proved a longing for summer. But then, right in the middle of it…

“If summer were Christmas,” Evelyn said, “these would be Advent songs.”

“Wha—?”

I was stunned, and I nearly drove off the road.

The ten-year-old girl was right. She could see a much bigger picture. She didn’t have to search for Jesus. She was proving herself attuned to Him, showing it was far too natural for her to know Him by faith in relation to even that very moment. In other words, she demonstrated her otherworldly eyesight by making the deeply intricate connection that Advent comes to us as people existing in the wintry darkness of Sin and Death. It sees us in our longing for rescue. And yet, it brings us along on hopeful melodies that look not only toward the warming sunrise of Jesus in Bethlehem, but to the full on summer of His second coming at the Last Day.

Evelyn had connected the dots. She could see Jesus where the world could not. By her leading, I saw Him, too.

My prayer for you is that you would see Jesus so easily—that you would know He is with you in each and every moment.

I’ll admit it can be a lot harder for adults in this regard. We’re carrying things children aren’t. Still, our Lord urges us to believe as they do, setting an even deeper plea before us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

These are good words—just a few more dots in a design that sketches our kindly Advent King, Jesus.

I’d Like to Tell You a Story

I’d like to tell you a story. I’ve been given permission to tell it for your benefit. In some ways, many of you already know the tale’s beginning, because it is a telling of familiar things.

What I’m about to describe happened last Thursday. Even at 9:00 AM, the December sky was successfully holding back the sun’s exuberance, leaving a pre-dawn feeling.

Through my office window, I saw the counterpart to my morning meeting making her way from the parking lot to the church doors. I’d promised her the evening before following the Advent service that I’d have coffee ready and waiting when she arrived, and so I reached for and dropped a K-cup into my Keurig. A newly washed mug was already in waiting below. The reservoir was empty, so it took a quick moment to fill it. In an instant, the coffee was flowing. As it did, I was out and down the office hallway toward the darkened entryway searching for my guest.

I didn’t see her at first, although admittedly, I wasn’t wearing my glasses. Assuming she may have taken a sideway into the restroom, I stood near the door to the offices. The day school children—all but a few of the 131 of them—were already in the church nave, gathered at the chancel and practicing for the Children’s Christmas service only a few weeks away. They were rehearsing the final hymn, a masterfully orchestrated rendition of “Silent Night,” which, if you’ve ever been to this Office of Evening Prayer service, then you know there is little to compare. Because I’ve participated in it for more than twenty years, I can see it now as I think on it.

The air is cool. The pews are filled. Family and friends sit compactly, yet happily. The nave and sanctuary are dimly lit. The candles throughout are fluttering, each child holding their own light. The Advent and Christmas décor is twinkling. The voices of the children hover above all of it on the pipe organ’s melodies, as if the collective sound is coming from the heavens above, rather than the earth beneath.

It’s always quite moving. Even the rehearsals can carry a listener into divine spaces.

And then I saw my guest. Actually, no. I didn’t see her. I heard her. She was barely a step from the entryway into the narthex—and she was crying. When she saw me approaching, she quickly began wiping the tears away only to begin sobbing more deeply.

“I needed this, today,” she choked. “This is the first thing God gave me when I walked into this place this morning, and I truly needed it.”

I was gentle with my words, making sure there was no shame in the moment. What she was doing was well and good in such a place. The Lord Himself knows I’ve been in similar situations. It can be overwhelming to hear the Gospel wrapped up and delivered in a way that truly communicates its divine origin. Tears are sometimes the soul’s only reply.

We made our way down the hallway to my office. We spent the next hour sipping coffee and talking about a multitude of things. Amidst the confession of some harder histories, she noted there was no place she’d ever experienced like Our Savior. Having been raised Christian, she fell away in the years beyond her 18th birthday. But in these latter days, the need for something more had begun to overwhelm her.

She’d visited countless other churches—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and mostly otherwise—still, she never found herself in a pew or stadium seat that actually communicated a station before eternity. She didn’t say it with the precision that I intend to share right now, but again, I’ve been given permission to tell this story.

Her words crafted a narrative of far too many churches that, by their practices, imply the selling of religion. They sought to draw her closer to their ranks in the same ways the world might try—rock bands, screens, you name it. But in the swirling confusion of their seat-filling stratagem, they never could quite reach that part of her insides that was suffering. Their Gospel of justification before God always seemed wired to her ability to produce good deeds (which, for the wayward, can only default into terror), or by making a personal choice (and yet, how can a spiritual corpse—someone who knows oneself to be dead in trespasses and sins—choose Jesus?). Their sacraments were symbols, bringing very little consolation or certainty to a broken heart in need of more than referring to Jesus, but actually meeting with Him—literally—and knowing He’s there for her.

But at Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan, there was the sense of something unalike to these others.

“Our Savior is so different,” she said, repeatedly. “You’re not like the other places I’ve been.”

For her, the facility in which she was currently seated was different. For her, it not only had a sign that bore the title “church,” but once inside, it seemed to be a dwelling place for someone or something so much more—something holy. And over the course of the several Sundays she’d attended, of the people greeting and sitting beside her, none gave any sense to having been gathered by some sort of baiting impetus. None in the surrounding pews were there because of a lead guitarist with amazing skill. None were there because the pastors were stand-apart showman among a sea of humdrum preachers. None were there for a show.

And she wasn’t, either. She was in search of a place where the Divine might dwell, and her hope was that when she found Him, He’d take her back.

Stirring in this humble hope, she discovered herself sitting, standing, kneeling, praying, confessing, singing beside hundreds of others—acknowledged sinners, just like her—being carried along by a historic liturgy of solemnity and reverence. She was immersed in a service that, while strange in comparison to everything she’d collided with prior, she knew could only have been born from the same soil as countless generations of worshippers before her, a framework that began in the tiny house churches of the first century, built on the teachings of the Apostles and Prophets, all in place and sprouting up through the centuries to aim penitently grieving offenders to a gracious God who desires nothing more than to come and sit with them, to give them a Gospel of power that assures our deeds play no part in our salvation, a Gospel that takes hold of spiritual corpses and brings them to life, a Gospel that heals them and draws them close to the Son of God, Jesus Christ. This is a Gospel that heralds our God as one who holds no ill will for the sinner. He loves us. He forgives us. And He promises to be with us no matter how dark our days may be.

We left the conversation as only the Word of God could rightly describe, with the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7), and we made plans to meet on Thursdays at the same time in order to dig deeper into these things.

So, why I am sharing this with you, especially since in this post-modern, radically individualized age such situations happen frequently enough around here that they can barely be considered peculiar?

Chiefly, because I want to remind the members of my own congregation (and I suppose anyone else who may be on their tiptoes peering through the window of our seemingly mundane, but otherworldly, lives here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan) of two things in particular.

First, be glad that there are churches that still deal in the more reverential realms of “holy.” Be glad there are churches that keep the boundaries between the Church and the culture as crisply distinct as can be. Such places are in the divine business of building foundations for the long haul. Sure, people have the things they like, their preferences, their styles. To each his own, I suppose. “What works for some might not work for others,” we’ll hear said. Still, I wonder if perhaps that’s a somewhat loaded response for protecting a church formed to oneself, a worship community created in one’s own favorite and time-limited self-image. When you’re gone, what’s next? Whatever the next guy likes to do, I guess. True or not, at a minimum, be well aware that people know—they just know—when they’re being entertained as opposed to being led into the substantive presence of a divine Someone who is far deeper than the wowing experientials indistinguishable from the world around them could ever reach. Sure, the self-image ways may speak of Jesus, but do they really point to Him? Do they really give nothing else but Him? Do they make the introduction? And will it last? Will it survive wars? Will it persist even among the prowling monsters of this age and the next? I wonder.

The second reason I share this returns us to the tears being shed in the Narthex. There’s a reason Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan continues putting our time, treasure, and back-breaking muscle into a tuition-free, preschool through eighth grade school. Not only is it an incomparable opportunity set before our community for getting kids out of the mind-bending education system that’s shoving ungodliness down their tiny throats, but most importantly, it stands as a beacon for immersing generations of little ones in the only message that saves. From this, it becomes nothing less than a longstanding avenue for others to hear that same message through those same little ones. All a person has to do is walk in the doors, and it won’t be long before the bright-beaming light of a Christian child will have its effect on the visitor. Children are the consequential emissaries of our school’s existence. And whether this work happens through the Children’s Christmas service, or it happens among their neighborhood friends, or it happens twenty years from now in a conversation with a fellow employee in the neighboring cubicle, what we’re doing here has limitless horizons that prove themselves as thriving in our children right now. And so we put everything into our efforts here. We give it our best. We teach and preach of Christ. We train in Godliness and reverence, learning the rites and ceremonies, the creeds, the prayers, the hymnodies sung by the early Church Fathers and their people before being fed to lions. And we gather all of it up and cherish all of it together as the wonderfully sturdy gift from a loving God that it is.

It becomes a home base for the kind of Christianity that doesn’t roll over, whether it’s before the next big distracting, anthropocentric, contemporary trend, or it’s an armed regiment sent by Caesar to snatch you away to your mortal doom.

Advent Recalibrates Us

We’ve arrived at the season of Advent. The Christian Church Year has begun anew.

Of course here at Our Savior, it’s a favorite time. This is true not only as we find ourselves brimming with excitement for Christmas—the bright-beaming décor and the colorful adornments—but because we’re conscious of the season’s purpose, and we know the deeper, recalibrating consequence Advent is in place to deliver into our lives.

It sets a very important pace for the whole Church Year.

If Advent were just about getting ready for Christmas, the season’s prescribed readings would betray such an inclination. But they don’t. They’re fuller than that. Advent’s very first Gospel reading—the Palm Sunday reading from Matthew 21—is proof. As was preached yesterday:

Starting off the new Church Year by going straight to Palm Sunday teaches that we live our lives as Christians in a perpetual Holy Week. Everything and anything we do and say from the First Sunday in Advent to the Last Sunday in the Church Year is in motion toward the cross of Jesus Christ.

Advent helps to join our hopeful anticipation of the evening long ago when the Savior of the world was born to the dreadful day on Golgotha’s hill when that same Savior went into the darkness of sin and was crucified, winning our confidence against the looming reality of the day when Jesus will return and the world will be judged.

Advent preaches both the first and the second comings of Christ.

With such preaching, along comes the Law and Gospel, sin and grace, real warning and real hope that humans need. I suppose many church-goers, like the world around us, might prefer we remain in the frothier upland of “Jingle Bells” and such. But Advent digs deeper than that. It’s honest. It doesn’t hold back on the harder news of our spiritual blindness. Advent more than remembers the sightlessness of the sin-nature. The Word of God is clear that without the recreating work of the Holy Spirit by the Gospel message of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, the Savior is unknowable to us (John 1:9-10). In fact, by default, according to the sin-nature, we’re not even the least bit interested in knowing Him (Romans 8:7). We haven’t the slightest morsel of interest for seeking the love that God is bringing. But that right there is perhaps a wonderful glimpse the beautifully balanced gilding of Advent’s. Shakespeare said it well. “Love sought is good, but giv’n unsought is better” (Twelfth Night, III, i, 170). We did not seek the Lord’s love, but He reached to us in Jesus and gave it anyway.

When this message has its way with us, it changes the nature of things. The blur of sorts remains, but now as believers, it isn’t one that doesn’t know what’s coming. It isn’t one that doesn’t know where to discover this hope that helps us see clearly. We’re waiting for Christmas. We can’t see it yet, but we know it’s coming. And when it arrives, we know the substance of the celebration. We’re waiting for Holy Week. We’re not there yet, but we know it will arrive. When it does, we know its innermost drive. We’re always watching for the Last Day. It hasn’t arrived yet. But still, when it does, we’ll be ready.

“Your light will break forth like the dawn,” the Prophet Isaiah says of these things. Paul speaks similarly when he describes us as looking through a dimly lit glass (1 Corinthians 13:12). Both Isaiah and Paul mean to say that even as we are waiting, by faith in Christ, each of these moments already sits at the edge of arrival—and we’re ready.

Believers know this stuff. It’s craziness to the world. But for us, everything is different now.

For those who were with us in the Adult Bible study yesterday, you’ll remember I mentioned that I feel bad for churches that don’t use lectionaries or follow the Church Year Calendar. Those churches are more likely to miss these imports of Advent. They’re more likely to get immersed in a pastor’s favorite topics, being fed anecdote after useless anecdote about anything and everything except a determined preaching of Christ crucified for transgressions—which is the heartbeat of the whole Church Year and its Lectionary, the first of its cadence beginning with Advent.

A four week sermon series on how to be a better tither at Christmas just seems to miss the mark.

By the way, since I mentioned Paul and his dimly light glass, and thinking on a church that knows how to observe Advent in comparison to one that doesn’t, all of this sort of reminds me of a scene from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

———-

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.

“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people by this light!”

———-

The scene above might not be the tightest fit, but it did come to mind while typing. Even if only slightly, it reveals that while we and the world might be seeing the same things, we have completely dissimilar interpretations.

And so, in the end, what’s the message here? I don’t know. Again, I’m just typing stuff. I guess boiling it down, consider this visitation with the topics of Advent, the Church Year, and the prescribed readings of the Lectionary as an encouragement to go to church. Don’t just make plans for Christmas. Immerse yourself in Advent, too. You need what the season offers—perhaps more than you might’ve been taught to know.

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.