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.

Forgiveness is Hard

I took a tangential turn in the sermon yesterday. I mentioned from the pulpit that when I got to the church and was looking over my sermon manuscript, I experienced the urge to add something to the text.
During the sermon, right after considering the immeasurable depth of the Lord’s efforts to save us by way of His sacrificial death, I steered into the expense of forgiveness as it unfolds among people. Just as the forgiveness of Christ isn’t cheap, it isn’t cheap between any of us, either. It was a hard-fought forgiveness that streamed from the Lord’s work on Calvary’s cross. It’ll often be a hard-fought reality among God’s people, too.
Of course I don’t mean to say that the Lord found it difficult to forgive us. In His perfect love, that’s always His first inclination. He desires to show mercy to the contrite. He desires to be gracious to the penitent sinner. He reminds us by His Word that when His forgiveness is given, He forgets our wicked deeds and we begin anew (Hebrews 8:12).
But we’re not God. We struggle to forgive. We find it even harder to forget.
My point is that as true, deep, consequential forgiveness is needed among people, we should be wary of a couple of things.
First, for the offender, I suppose I’d be skeptical of forgiveness that is too superficially given. If it comes thoughtlessly and without expense to the offended, then the wounds are probably not being mended properly and things are bottling up and heading for catastrophe at a much later date. Take the time to talk about it. Really talk about it. Reconcile. Mend. Confess again and again if need be. Actually ask for forgiveness. Say the words.
If necessary, I’ll walk with you through this. Just send me a message. I am your servant.
Second, for the one offended, know that forgiveness is possible. It’s always possible. But it won’t be easy. It’s going to hurt. A lot.
Dear Christian, this is a reflection of the suffering of our Lord and what He endured to win our forgiveness. There are plenty of Scripture texts I could share in this moment that talk about partaking in the sufferings of Christ. Dealing in the excruciating exchange of forgiveness between people who have done ungodly things to one another is a way this partaking happens.
I share all of this—and I think I was moved to actually say it from the pulpit—because we need to hear it more and more. There are marriages that need mending. There are friendships that need healing. There are families that need recalibrating. There are lives that are in upheaval because forgiveness is exactly what’s needed even as it seems so impossible.
But it’s not impossible. It’s just hard. Really hard. And God promises He will accomplish it through His people—human beings who have their hearts and minds set on His loving kindness—a loving kindness that actually did achieve the impossible. He points to the death of His Son on the cross as the proof.
I hope these words speak straight to your middle. And know that I’m praying for you in such situations.

Taking the Law on Two Legs

Excuses.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of excuses. We’ve also been ones to employ them.

It was Shakespeare who said in his passionate way that when we make excuses for our faults, the very act itself “doth make the fault the worse…” (King John, IV, ii).

He’s right, you know. It’s a very deep hole we begin to dig when we betray to others the calculations that comprise our darkly justifications for our truest selves and our behaviors. That’s what we do when we make excuses. We reveal the real tenacity for covering our tracks and holding to our Sin.

Since we’re Christians and God promises to forgive our faltering, why not just be honest and admit to it?

Because the Sin-nature is strong. We war against honesty and continue with our excuse-making because the Sin-nature knows a little something about confession that it doesn’t want to admit. The Sin-nature knows that honest confession is completely incompatible toward gaining what we want when we want it. Honesty doesn’t fit into the divine equation of trust in God as opposed to self. Honesty is an exercise in letting go of the badness and clinging to the good. Excuses are the ways we find for keeping at least one finger on the bad.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the season of Lent doesn’t tolerate excuses. Every Sunday in Lent sees excuse-making bowled over. It leaves no room for reasoning a way through or legitimizing our sinful doings. It looks us squarely in the eyes and says unflinchingly, “You can’t fool me. I know a schemer when I see one.”

Throughout the season, the introit and Psalms both have elements of this. The collects contain it, too. The readings more than tell us this. The hymns put all of it to music. And God willing, the preaching and teaching of the Pastor will steer straight into it with you, as well. He will unflinchingly remind you that your family’s absence from worship and study is hurting and not helping. He will warn that your loveless stewardship of the Lord’s gifts is destined only for cataclysm. He’ll try to dissuade you from the excuses you are making, urging you not to try to justify Sin, but to bind yourself to truth, because in the end, there is but one Arbiter of earth and sky—Jesus Christ—and He already knows your secret ambitions. His Word has already met with and judged every excuse mankind could ever think to devise.

But that’s not the whole message that Lent and its servants have to give. Lent also serves up the realization that honest confession is far better because it beholds the consoling and empowering smile of absolution.

The Gospel of God’s absolving love through the person and work of Jesus Christ restores, recreates, and empowers.

Pearl S. Buck said something about how every mistake has a midway point for remedying the situation, for turning things around and fixing them. The Gospel goes further and says that apart from outright rejection of Christ or passing the moment of death, there’s no point at all on the mortal timeline when a believer has gone beyond the sphere of God’s grace. This is the Good News that Christ is there with His Gospel at every twist and turn along the way, giving what the shameful heart needs to gird up and take the accusations of the Law on two legs.

Admitting to Sin’s ugly residence in our hearts is bravery not weakness.

I haven’t been a pastor too long, just over eleven years now. But even in that short period of time, I can truly say that when it comes to excuses for this or that Sin, the wellspring of surprising novelty has run pretty dry. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve heard them all, and for the most part, all are emblematic meanderings that circle stereotypical causes. For the one who claims to have fallen out of love with his wife, I wait patiently for the mistress to eventually come to light. For the one who can rarely make it to worship, I am saddened by his or her Sunday morning exploits broadcast on Facebook.

There are few excuses I hear that hold up or are even the least bit interesting anymore.

I don’t know if that should scare people away from talking to me, or if it should encourage them. I hope it’s the latter. I hope people will sit with me and know that I’m going to do my best as a servant of Christ to give honesty in order to retrieve honesty. Honesty in these situations leads to a realization of need. Need has its hands out in ready anticipation for what Christ promises to give, which is forgiveness, the assurance of His love, and the stamina for facing off with those things that drag us down into arenas where we think we need to make excuses.

My prayer for you is that this holy season will help you to see the One who gave His life as your ransom, that you won’t feel the need to make excuses for your Sin but rather you’d know and experience the freedom of access to His immeasurable grace. Take that grace. It’s yours. You don’t need to justify your Sins in order to convince Him that you are worthy. Confess them. Be honest. You’ve failed and you are in desperate need. Admit and then recognize that no matter where you are, no matter how far astray you’ve gone, the cross of Jesus Christ stands as the midway point for remedying your mistakes. Look there. He will receive you, and He will turn it all around.

Preparing for that Last Breath

Throughout the year I hold worship services in various places offsite. One place I go to regularly is a retirement community in a nearby township. I’m there the third Tuesday of every month. I suppose, technically, I’m not necessarily obligated to go there, especially because it’s been five or so years since anyone in my congregation has been a resident there (although I should say that within the last year, family members of folks from my congregation have moved into the place).

Still, members or no members, I continue to go. I do this, first, because of the attachment. I’ve come to know the people there and it would be really hard to just sheer those lines, especially since most of them don’t see or hear from their own churches for what seems to be years at a time. However, I’ll admit to feeling a bit conflicted knowing that there are so many other things to attend to during the week here in my own congregation, and doing what I do there takes an irretrievable chunk out of one morning a month—a chunk I can rarely spare.

But still I go.

I suppose another reason I keep doing this is because of what I, as a Christian man, am so often privileged to behold there.

Take for example Helen. She’s 98. She’s completely blind. When she comes into the little room, she knows her way to the back left corner where she always sits. She can’t see the order of worship or the hymn page that I hand out before the service, but she asks for them anyway. And then all through the service, her head somewhat lifted up, an obvious happiness about her, she sings along with the liturgy, being sure to give the appropriate responses, singing the stanzas of hymns she knows, speaking the confession, praying the prayers. She knows it all. I love seeing just how deeply the Word of God by way of a memorized order of service can be embedded in a human heart and at the ready when the senses are failing.

Then there’s Margarete. She’s a 95-year-old German. Literally. Her accent is thick. She was born and raised in a village outside of Berlin. She came to the United States after World War II, so as you can probably guess, she lived through some of the worst of times in history. She’s a dear woman who will sometimes call me just to make sure I’m coming for worship as scheduled. She got my number in a roundabout way. I didn’t see her one month at worship, and because she never misses, I asked the facility director about her absence. I discovered that she’d broken her leg and was in a rehabilitation facility nearer to where her son lives. Later that week after visiting one of my own members in the hospital, I made a quick trip down to see her to say hello. She was so happy for the visit, and she expressed an incredible sadness for missing worship and not telling me. No big deal, of course. She’s 95 and her leg was broken. The fact that she was so concerned was heartwarming, and so with that, I gave her my number to ease her worry.

What a sweet lady.

Then there are the married couples who attend. We have a few. One couple in particular (relatively new in the last year) is Wally and Edna. Wally is 88. Edna is 95. They’ve been married for 63 years. This past week they sat side by side so humbly in the less-than-spectacular setting of the little room in which the service occurs. Always a kind thing to say, Wally makes small talk with the folks around him. Edna smiles. The service begins and their reverence follows along in stride. They are absolved together. They pray together. They listen to the preaching together. They receive the Lord’s Supper together. This past Tuesday I saw the Christian togetherness of this couple take another form—a beautifully human and yet still Godly form—as Wally reached over and took Edna’s hand, even if only for a moment before letting go. A simple touch, a reminder from a loving husband to a dear wife that God continues to bless them with the joy of being together in worship.

I like seeing those things. They are revealing moments.

For me personally, they stir a holy jealousy. I want what they have. If I live to be 98—like Helen—I want to do so knowing my place in the Lord’s house. I want to be able to lift my head and rise up into the Lord’s immersing grace in the liturgy, still retaining its eloquence, still holding onto all of it within the innermost chamber of my heart. I want to continue to love it so much that, like Margarete, if I’m ever unable to be present there, I want the uncomfortably nagging sensation of the absence. I never want to become comfortable with being away from worship. I want to thirst for Word and Sacrament. And like Wally and Edna, I want to be before the Lord, sitting beside the ones I love and leaning into the forthcoming decades with hands close enough to grasp if the moment requires it.

The Athenian poet Solon said so plainly, “I grow old ever learning many things.” As I get older, I’ve learned to want the things that the Christians hovering near the century mark down at Independence Village in Brighton have. If I stop going to see them, I fear I might be distracted by other, less consequential things.

And so I keep going, because these people are continual reminders to me of the prominent rank that the regular receiving of God’s grace in worship is to have. They emit the essentiality of being together as a Christian family to receive God’s gifts of forgiveness. They beam the stamina that these gifts have for meeting the twilight hours of one’s life.

It might sometimes seem like the worship here at Our Savior in Hartland is not all that important, let alone impressive, at least not in comparison to so many other things. But when I’m with these gem-like people who dwell in the midst of humanity with the rest of us, I get a brief glimpse into just how important and impressive for the soul all of it truly is. Every last bit of what we do here is preparing us for the moment of our last breath—the moment we will step into eternity to be with Christ forever.

What could be more impressive or important than that? Not much, that’s for sure.

The Feast of All Saints – Go To Church

“Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say” (1 Corinthians 10:14).

Saint Paul wrote those words to the Corinthian church just as he was about to begin explaining the doctrine of Altar Fellowship, which when you really get down to the nuts and bolts of it, is all about what’s happening in Holy Worship, namely, the Lord’s Supper.

This post begins as it does because Paul’s words just felt right. I wanted to urge you to flee from idolatrous things. You are sensible people. Judge for yourselves the words that follow, the first of which is a very short and easily understood statement.

Flee from idolatry.

Today, if your church is at all mindful of her history, she will be observing the Feast of All Saints. If you have plans to be somewhere else, or to do something else, change your plans. This time, instead of rearranging your schedule to accommodate idolatry, change your schedule to accommodate the forgiveness of sins delivered through Word and Sacrament. Skip that which would conflict with those divine things which give to you all that Christ has won by virtue of His life, death, and resurrection.

Go to church. Take a look in the mirror and recognize that you need to be there, not only because of your idolatrous tendencies—which is evidenced by your excuses and your absence—but also because you belong there by virtue of your baptism into the fellowship of Saints.

Know this—you won’t be alone in feeling a little uneasy if you’ve been away for a while and then suddenly reemerge. In fact, think of it this way. In the Confession of Sins right at the beginning of the Divine Service, we drop to our knees as an entire congregation. We bow our heads. We close our eyes. We confess that all of us are members of the fellowship of sinful man in our thoughts, words, and deed; by the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone. We confess this together, and with that, I can affirm for you as a fellow sinner that there are plenty of reasons for everyone in the room to feel uneasy. You most certainly won’t be alone. We’re all acknowledging that God knows something about us, and it isn’t pretty.

But know this, too—after all of the penitent voices speaking in solemn sadness go quiet, you will hear a solitary voice, the voice of your pastor, the one Christ has called to stand in His stead and by His command, and it will be for you as the Lord’s own voice announcing to you that you need not fear. You need not be uneasy. You need not be afraid. Through repentance and faith in His mercy, you belong here, and He wants you to know with absolute certainty that He loves you, forgives you, and will lift you to your feet to sing as much in the Introit appointed for the day: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me.”

So, stop making excuses. They don’t measure up, anyway, and you know it. Stop skipping church. You already know there’s no better place to be. Hear this Gospel imperative to repent and believe in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Be moved to come and get from Christ what He has won for you—which is also the only thing that will sustain you in a world seeking to impose itself upon you day after seemingly endless day.

In and by faith, you are a Saint. Today is your day. Join your fellow believers. Be with your Redeemer at the feast!

But God Won’t

Can you believe that the Fourth Sunday in Advent is already upon us? I sure can’t. The days seem to have flown by, and before you know it, the New Year will arrive. I wonder what the Lord has in store for us in 2017. I know one thing He’s planning: Word and Sacrament. That never changes. And that’s good, because we need Him to be consistent, predictable, steady and sure. Why? Because we aren’t. And neither is the world in which we live.

Sure, the sun keeps rising and shining, the seasons keep changing so predictably, and the whole world seems to be about its regular business. But remember, the Lord is the One maintaining these things. The fabric of the world—all that comprises its nature—has been corrupted by sin. With this, it is both unsteady and untrustworthy. The world and its mammonous things will fail us.

But God won’t.

The next time you have doubts about this, take a quick look at a crucifix. You might not feel anything in particular, but you’ll see something. You’ll see in the image a hint as to God’s current and future plans for you because of the giving of His Son for your salvation. You may even be reminded that while everything else was and is even now sometimes very unsure—even our own selves—God acted on our behalf. Jesus, Bethlehem’s infant champion, set His face like flint to the edge and then into an utter darkness from which no one could ever emerge. His death beamed brightly in that blackness. It shattered the unsteady swirls and the unreliable messes that we not only make for ourselves, but those that we endure at the hands of the unholy trinity: the Devil, the World, and the Sinful Flesh.

My prayer for you is that you will behold the light of Christ each and every day, that you will be reinvigorated by the Christmas celebration soon to be upon us, and that you will be made keen to behold and expect the simple and mundane, but saving and most powerful gifts God gives with such regularity day in and day out throughout the year. Word and Sacrament is where it’s at, my friends—Absolution, the preaching of the Gospel, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Baptism—all God’s Word given in wonderfully tangible ways.

2017 is sure to be a medley of completely different challenges, but thanks be to God that our Lord will never let up with all that’s required for navigating into the safe harbors of His wonderful grace.