Autumn through a Christian Lens

As is always the case, when I arrive at the church early on Sunday mornings, I dive into my usual routine. The first part of that routine is to do a little bit of reading from a smattering of sources. Of course, I always start by visiting God’s Word, but after that, I take a few minutes with the news, maybe a short portion from a book, perhaps a quick dip into email, but always a scan of social media. As those who know me best might guess, it’s from any or all these moments a morning epistle to all of you emerges.

I am, for the most part, disinterested in talking about the first thing I stumbled across on social media this morning, which was a back-and-forth between two mostly like-minded people throttling one another’s individual views on the Afghanistan withdrawal. But I will briefly confess to having observed and learned something about human character, and strangely, it’s something we can actually thank social media for uncovering. Having met these people in person, I learned by their online exchange that perhaps you don’t really absorb as much as you might think of a person’s character through face-to-face conversations. However, it seems you may be able to tell a lot more from his or her swiftly typed responses threaded together with misspelled words and doled out during a sketchy online argument. These remarks seem to be written in a hurry, and most likely, reflect a person’s first thoughts, making them an unobstructed window of sorts.

Still, I don’t really feel like going any further with that lesson, and so, take from the observation what you will. I’d rather talk about what I see through a different window.

Apart from the unusually summer-like warmth of the early morning air, it would appear that a handful of leaves on the bush just outside my office window are beginning to tinge with red. You know what that means, right? It means the changing of seasons is once again upon us.

For all my talk of love for the summertime sun, I’ll admit there remains in my heart a secret compartment devoted to autumn. A minute or two examining its landscapes are all that’s needed for understanding why. Every year it’s an ensemble of visual delights—abundant greens having turned to variations of bright yellows through to deep scarlets, flowers that were once reaching skyward now bent and hidden beneath leaves being kissed by a cooler autumn sun, those same leaves often being stirred up suddenly in a swirl by a wailing wind, as if following along on the tail of an invisible kite. For anyone willing to consider the beauty of God’s well-ordered world, even in its tiniest parts, autumn’s scenes are moving.

There’s an emotional richness to autumn, too. It carries in its frosty breezes a strange combination of melancholy and gladness. It bears the crisply hollow feeling of something’s absence. Take a stroll through one of fall’s naked forests and you’ll see. Life itself seems to be sleeping so deeply that nothing can wake it, and all around is damp and dying. And yet, visit that same scene wearing your favorite hat and your coziest coat. Be ready to sense the child-like urge to kick through a leaf pile before leaving to visit the nearby orchard for cider, cinnamon doughnuts, and a chance at picking the best pumpkin for carving.

Autumn is made paradoxically thick by these competing portraits. Through the lens of the Christian faith, perhaps more so than any other season, I’d say autumn silently communicates some of the most important things about life in this world.

For example, autumn more than presents the fall into Sin and the cruel nakedness of regret. It brings the indisputable reminder that our shame is uncovered. It tells us everything has changed and it’s completely beyond our capacity for returning things to what they once were. It whispers the sweeping reality of Death—the inescapability of its laying all things bare before the Creator, its far-reaching aim toward an oncoming winter of eternal condemnation, its frosty residue of guilt that covers everything it touches along the way, the penetrating chill of its finality that can shiver any and all of us to tears.

These are the stanzas of autumn’s dirge-like song. That is, unless you have Jesus. Again, through the lens of faith in Christ, autumn’s singing can turn to something altogether different.

By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, believers know they are not without Jesus in these autumnal-like moments of bleakness. He’s with them (Matthew 28:20; Psalm 23:4; Joshua 1:9; Hebrews 13:5; Romans 8:38-39). He’s strolling alongside, countering gloom with hope, drawing Christian eyes to His glorious purposes nestled and germinating among the leaves, clothing His people in a thickly warm baptismal robe of righteousness that covers Sin and repels the wrath that Sin deserves, exchanging their melancholy for joy, and promising the certainty of a heavenly spring—the resurrection from Death.

Side by side with Christ, trusting in His life, death, and resurrection for our transgressions, we know in all of our naked forests and rotting leaf piles the same thing we know while drinking cider, eating cinnamon doughnuts, and carving pumpkins: Spring is coming. It cannot be stopped. It’s approaching like a juggernaut from another sphere and it will break through winter’s borders, consuming the entirety of its kingdom. It’s only a matter of time.

While the world keeps spinning, and the people in it continue to reveal the disappointing character of Sin’s nature, isn’t it wonderful how the Gospel for faith can bring a reminder of Christian hope simply by way of a few tinted leaves outside an office window? Indeed, the Bible rings true regarding the assertion of God’s love ever-resonating even among His well-ordered creation (Matthew 6:25-33; Psalm 19:1; Psalm 96:11-12; Romans 8:19).

May God grant you comfort by these words.

The Shape of the Gospel — Ash Wednesday

The penitential season of Lent is soon to be upon us. It begins this week with Ash Wednesday.

So, who cares? Christians do. At least, they should. Although, it would seem many Christians—even some of the clergy—are preaching and teaching against it. I don’t know why. I did hear one say it’s some sort of innovation to the Church Year and therefore to be avoided. I heard another suggest it hinders the Christian’s ability to prepare for Easter with joy. That’s sad. One sure way to rob the victory of its joy is to be ignorant of what’s at stake in the war. Ash Wednesday offers a much-needed glimpse of the battlefield.

I find it strangely interesting that even the sensual (though unofficial) liturgies of something like Mardi Gras would portray a better awareness and care for Ash Wednesday and Lent, whether their partakers actually realize it or not. Even in the midst of a celebration that holds the well-deserved reputation for overindulgent debauchery, there is the sense that it must and will come to an end.

“Live it up,” its rites and ceremonies proclaim, “for after Fat Tuesday, it must all expire.”

And it does. What once was gives way to the ashen dust of death remembered by Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the proper headstone for all things carnal.

A day in the Church Year in which believers’ foreheads are marked with the ashes of what were once lively and verdant branches (the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration), Ash Wednesday reveals that the Christian Church knows something of this world that the world itself cannot fully fathom. It knows the wage for Sin is Death—real and eternal Death. It knows this as it recalls God’s terrifying words to Adam and Eve after the fall into Sin. These words still reverberating, it hears the truth in them. It knows the necessity for their honest contemplation so that we would see the world as it ought to be seen. It knows to immerse itself in the depths of a solemnity that acknowledges the horror of the very real predicament that the entire human race is facing. The Church knows there’s so much more than just an end to things, but there’s also a terrible dreadfulness just over that end’s border for those who remain enslaved to the mess.

You can’t ignore it.

You can’t hide from it.

You can’t outrun it.

You can’t overpower it.

The inevitability of its reach is woven into the very fleshly fabric of every man, woman, and child who was ever born in the natural way.

It was with divine, and yet heartbroken, authority that God announced this to His world and its first inhabitants: “Because you have done this, cursed is the ground because of you…” (Genesis 3:17). Cursed things are put away from God. By this curse—this self-inflicted and permanent vexation—“you will return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

The thing about Ash Wednesday is that you can’t make your way into and through Lent without contemplating the veracity of the curse. Ash Wednesday has become a guardian of sorts at Lent’s contrite door, and it won’t let you into the forthcoming events without being stamped. The stamp it reaches out to give, it goes on your head and not your hand. Its dust crowns the human frame as the only appropriate coronation for someone born into the un-royal lineage of the Sin-nature. It adorns the skull that shields the corrupted human mind, the organ fed by a sinful heart so that it would calculate and then initiate every ungodly act of thought, word, or deed. The mark’s dirty-cold embers are the kind that distinguish Cain from Abel, openly identifying the murderer and reminding him of the dusty ground that opened up to swallow Godly innocence.

And yet, even as Ash Wednesday won’t let you forget the seriousness of the disease, it will be just as fervent with the cure.

Remember: That filthy mark is in the shape of a cross. It’s smeared onto the penitently-postured foreheads of Ash Wednesday’s observers who know their need for a Savior. It serves as a silent proclamation of God’s truest inclinations in our darkness. It’s the shape of the Gospel—the death of the Savior, Jesus Christ, for a cursed world. The Great Exchange—His righteousness for our unrighteousness. It tells of a birthright, not earned, but given in love. It beams through dusty grime the truth of an imperishable crown of blamelessness, not earned by the wearer, but won and granted by the Savior. Cain is marked and no one can touch him. God has been gracious. For us, even in that smeared cross’ quiet, there thunders above every human wearing it an otherworldly hope for eternal life through faith in the Savior who was nailed to it on Good Friday. The booming crack of its message drowns out the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh’s accusations to the contrary.

Ash Wednesday’s mark serves as a gentle reminder of something else in particular. It heralds rebirth.

That cross of ash will dot the same place where God first made the sign of the cross upon His Christians in Holy Baptism. If only for a few hours, it will make visible the invisible, leading each of its bearers back to the moment when God He put His own name on them, claiming them as His through the washing of water and the Word, thereby grafting them into the entirety of Christ’s self-submitting work to accomplish Mankind’s redemption (Romans 6:1-10).

It’s been said that the best opportunities are seldom labeled. This “best opportunity” of Ash Wednesday is, in fact, labeled. Its tag may be grimy, but it happens to be one of the most condensed opportunities in the entirety of the Church Year for a right understanding of our condition in Sin and our glorious rescue by the Son of God. Don’t keep it at arm’s length, but rather embrace the opportunity to gather with the faithful and sing as we do in the appointed tract, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).

If you have any say in your evening activities, I encourage you to participate. Set aside 7:00pm this Wednesday. Make your way to Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan. Or go to your own church if it is offering a service. Either way, just don’t make the mistake of missing out on the powerful manner and message of the Ash Wednesday proclamation. You’ll be given the opportunity to look Sin and Death square in the eyes. You’ll see your mortality there. But you’ll see so very brightly and hear so very clearly the Good News of your brand new beginning through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the compassion of God who took upon Himself human flesh and made His dwelling among us for our rescue.

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 the significance of what is happening in Holy Worship, namely, the Lord’s Supper.

This comes to mind this morning because, well, Paul’s words just felt right. They form a very short statement, easily understood by any and every Christian taking time to read this note.

If you haven’t been to church in a while, there’s a Sunday on the horizon I’d like to encourage you to consider aiming for as your return date.

A few Sundays from now—November 1—the Holy Christian Church will be celebrating All Saints’ Day. If you have plans to be somewhere else—or to do something else—might I encourage you to reconsider your plans? This time, instead of arranging your schedule to accommodate moments that will only get in the way of worship—which is to be idolatrous—consider arranging your schedule to accommodate the forgiveness of sins delivered by Christ in the sure and certain location He has promised to give it: Word and Sacrament made available in holy worship. Skip those things that would get in the way of pursuing that which gives to you all that Christ has won by virtue of His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

In fact, I challenge you that if you have been away for a while, make All Saints Sunday the day you return.

To accept this challenge, you’ll need to take a quick look in the mirror and recognize that you need to be there. You need to be there, firstly, because of the idolatrous tendencies you possess. We all possess them, and they’re evidenced by our creative excuse-making and subsequent absences. But secondly, know you need to be there because, by virtue of your Baptism into the fellowship of Saints, you actually belong there. It’s God’s home, and because you are a part of His family by faith, it’s your home, too. It’s where your real family lives, and you belong with your family.

Rest assured, if you’ve been away for a while, and because of this, you feel a little uneasy in returning, you won’t be alone in the uneasiness when you do finally reemerge. In fact, think of it this way. In the Confession at the beginning of the Divine Service, every Christian in the room, if they know what the Confession is all about, will drop to his or her knees alongside all the others. Together they’ll bow their heads. They’ll close their eyes. They’ll confess together that everyone in the room, by their thoughts, words, and deeds, are members of the fellowship of sinful humanity; by the things they’ve done and the things they’ve left undone. They’ll confess this together. And again, being a sinner myself, I can assure you that when we all go to our knees in this way, we’ll all have good reasons to do so. All will have plenty of causes for feeling the uneasy need to participate.

You won’t be alone. You won’t stand out. You won’t be different.

But there’s something else you should know.

After the sea of penitent voices speaking in solemn sadness goes quiet, you will hear a single voice—your pastor’s voice—and it will be for you as the Lord’s own voice announcing you need not fear. You need not be uneasy. You need not be afraid. Through repentance and faith in His merciful love, you belong with Him, and He will not push you away, but rather will embrace you as His own—because you are His own. He loves you, forgives you, and He stands ready to lift you to your feet by His absolving Word.

And He’ll do just that.

On All Saints’ Day, at least if you’re in a Lutheran Church of any substance, when you rise to your feet, you’ll acknowledge your place among all the other forgiven sinners in the room by singing the Introit appointed for the day, which is a combination of Revelation 7 and Psalm 31: “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.”

Sing those words with confidence. You own them as a forgiven child of God.

So, my brother or sister in Christ, hear this Gospel imperative to repent and believe in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and be moved to return. Be moved to come and get from your loving Savior 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 and convince you to stay away in the first place.

Remember, in faith, you are the Lord’s saint. Aim for your special day with an eager heart. Make your way back. Join with your Christian family. Be with your Redeemer, the One who has made it possible for you to be called His holy one.

Celebrating the Job of “Parent” on Labor Day

I pray you’re having (or had) a restful weekend. The unofficial end of summer, Labor Day, has been set before us once again. Believe it or not, Labor Day has been around since 1894. It was established as a day to celebrate the efforts of this nation’s workers—the ones who keep the cylinders in the American engine firing.

Of course, the tendency on Labor Day is to shine the brightest spotlights on the most obvious laborers among us—the skilled trades, medical doctors, engineers, teachers, law enforcement, and so many more. Such vocations deserve our admiration, and naturally, a civil society with any hope of long-term survival needs them. Mindful of these, however, we also need the small, medium, and large organizations and businesses that employ these workers. And among both the employers and employees, we know we are bettered by the innovators, those people who are willing to take a chance that might lead to discovery, even if only very small.

It was Jonathan Swift who said, “He was a bold man who first ate an oyster.”

Still, for as much as these jobs are all needed for an ordered and functioning society, there’s one particular vocation that might be far from our minds the first Monday in September. I’m talking about the vocation of “parent.”

Sure, mothers have “Mother’s Day” and fathers have “Father’s Day,” but I think the labor involved with parenting deserves a nod today, too. Why? Because say what you want about the importance of any job in our world today, it doesn’t change the fact that since the beginning, the task of parenting has always been the center-most cog in every societal machine. Without fathers and mothers, nothing else turns as it should. And there are countless proofs for this.

For one, as I sort of hinted to already, a human family shepherded by a father and mother serves as a society’s conduit for transmitting cultural identity, tradition, and so much more. When the traditional family breaks down, becoming irrelevant, stabilizing structures in a society become irrelevant and break down, too. Unfortunately, I think we’re seeing more and more of this in our nation and world.

I suppose another thought that comes to mind is that apart from God-given talents, much of the magic behind what eventually becomes a child’s marketable skill was likely planted by the child’s parents. The words they spoke, the time spent together, the modeling of relationships, the patience displayed in the midst of struggle, the correction given, the forgiveness bestowed—all of these things that occur in the middle spaces between birth and adulthood are highly influential in a child’s life, more so than most are probably willing to admit.

Unpacking this thought a bit more, I’d add to the list that without parents, it’s nearly impossible for children to learn how to love others. And I don’t mean sexual love, or the affection found between friends, but real love—the kind of love God has for us, the kind of love Saint Paul described when he wrote, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Kids learn sacrificial love from parents. It’s there they see a tangible demonstration each and every day of what it means to love someone else more than they sometimes appear to love you.

Unfortunately, parents aren’t always successful in this. Sometimes they demonstrate the wrong kind of love.

For example, a father who continually belittles his wife, maybe calling her fat (if even only in jest), is teaching his observing daughter something of love. But it’s the wrong kind, and statistics show that if it’s a normalized expression of affection in the home, she’ll be far more likely to engage in harmful relationships that could result in marriage to a cruel husband. In the same situation, an observing son is taught something of love, too. But again, it’s the wrong kind. It’s the kind that would make him into that cruel husband.

Parenting is indeed a tough job. But as you can see, it’s also a very important job. And so, today—Labor Day—I tip my hat to all the parents who continue to labor through the mess of this world, even when it seems futile. I give an extra bit of thanks to God for the parents who, after an exhaustive week at the office or factory or classroom or wherever, rather than sleep in on Sunday morning, they continue to give their all in a job that never ends. They get the kids up, feed them, put them in their Sunday best, and take them to church. They guide them to the Lord’s house where together as a family, they’ll receive the gifts that maintain the most important relationship in the greatest household ever: their identity as baptized children and members of the Heavenly Father’s family.

Serving diligently in this role, with Christian hearts aimed at trusting in Christ for all that is required to actually accomplish it, parents engage in the single most important laboring in the entire cosmos.

There’s no other job in society that even comes close.

Death Has No Dominion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Were you afraid?”

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

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

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

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

Those experiences left some pretty deep scars.

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

So, where am I going with all of this?

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

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

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

Christ is the answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s no fear to be had in that.

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

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

The Christian Birthright of Prayer

We’ve entered into Holy Week. This is the week of weeks in the Church Year. When it comes to our life together as a congregation, it’s surreal to be apart like this. It’s not an easy thing.

I want you to know that during this time I’m praying for you—every single day.

Each and every day I’m on my knees before the altar of God here at Our Savior, not just praying for the world in a general sense, but for all believers in Christ—and most especially for the people of God here at Our Savior in Hartland.

While I don’t get through the whole roster of names in the congregation in a single day, I can pretty much guarantee that each member’s name is spoken out loud and into the divine ears of God at least every other day or so.

When I pray, I’m praying for your health. I’m praying for your livelihood. I’m praying for your family. I’m praying for your renewed strength and a spiritual stamina in the face of adversity to trust in the One who gave His life that you would have eternal life—an everlasting home beyond the pale edges of this passing world.

No matter the circumstances in this life, I do this confidently—as I’m sure other pastors do, too—because there are a few things I know of God.

It certainly isn’t that God needs informing. A bird does not fall from the sky without His knowledge (Matthew 10:29). He knows the number of hairs on the head of every human being (Luke 12:7). Our thoughts are not too quiet for Him to hear, and the slightest of gestures never escapes His view (Psalm 139:1-3). Well beyond us even these things, the sun and moon and stars all continue on their courses according to His gracious and upholding care (Hebrews 1:3). He knows your joys and sorrows. And the scale of the occurrence does not matter. From the bloodiest of wars to the most insignificant slights against any one of us, God foreknew their hours (Isaiah 42:9). Nothing is lost on Him, and so He doesn’t need for me to tell Him what’s going on.

Of course, I reach to God in prayer because I need Him. But perhaps more importantly, I do this because He invites me into His presence to speak as a privilege of faith (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18).

We’ve entered into Holy Week, which means we’ve made our way into a time when the Church remembers that at the death of Jesus, the temple’s curtain was torn from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51), signifying the Lord’s work on the cross as all-sufficient for granting every believer full access to the Heavenly Father. Believers have been given the promise that we can go to our God through Jesus, and He promises to hear and answer us as we pray according to His will (John 14:6-14, 1 John 5:14).

There’s great comfort in this birthright of faith, and it serves us in both the good times and the bad.

Ambrose Bierce wrote somewhat snidely of Christians that prayer is really just nothing more than an attempt by unworthy petitioners to get the laws of the universe annulled. Setting aside his condescension for a moment, in a sense, Bierce is right. We don’t deserve anything from God. And yes, we are asking Him to rewrite the universal laws. In humility, we ask to be forgiven of our seemingly unforgiveable crimes. We do this knowing full well that the order of this universe is one of justice, that the guilty pay for their own crimes, and the innocent go free. But we are approaching God already knowing He has heaped the punishment we are due upon His own Son. The innocent One was sentenced to death. The guilty were set free.

If that isn’t counter to the way of normalcy in this world’s order, then I don’t know what is. And yet, Christians reach to God, asking Him to continue in this mercy, praying through the merits and mediation of Christ.

But there’s something more to my reasons for praying.

I also pray because by the power of the Gospel for faith, the Holy Spirit is alive in me (Romans 1:16-17, Romans 8:10-11), and He is at work recreating me to be one who loves God and desires faithfulness to Him (Galatians 5:22-25). In other words, a very real facet of my life as a Christian involves actually telling and showing God I love Him. Prayer is a very real fruit of faith in this regard.

A very basic way to think of it…

I’m a father, and while I know my children love me, there’s an element of proof to their love when they say it. It serves both our hearts well, and it feels good to hear. God is the same way. He knows that by faith we love Him, and yet He also loves to hear us say it—and so we pray.

By the way, another very practical way the Bible describes our prayers to God is not just according to the sense of hearing, but by the sense of smell. As we have those favorite aromas—flowers, a sizzling steak, a spouse’s cologne or perfume (for me it’s a good Scotch, sunscreen, a swimming pool, and Florida palm trees)—so also are our prayers compared to a fragrant incense wafting to the heavens and into the divine nostrils of God (Psalm 141:2, Revelation 8:3). Prayers arising to Him by faith, calling out to Him according to His gracious will in Christ Jesus, these are ever-so-sweet to Him, and He loves to receive and then respond to them. By contrast, prayers in contradiction to His will—words tossed out toward the sky in unbelief, the use of His name in vain, greed, arrogant self-righteousness, and the like—these are sour and off-putting to God, and He waves them away from His face in disgust (James 4:3, Isaiah 1:15-18, Luke 18:9-14, Proverbs 3:34, 1 Peter 5:5).

I suppose the last thing I’ll say is that even as prayer is to be a part of the Christian life, I’m guessing prayer isn’t so easy for everyone. Some folks want to pray, but just don’t know what to say.

First of all, know that this concern is, in a sense, a prayer in itself. You’re showing God you want to speak to Him, and because He is worthy of your best, you want to do it in a way and with words that will show Him this love. Wrestling with this concern, remember, He knows you love Him. Let that comfort you. No matter how the thoughts or words come out, He won’t turn away from you. He’ll listen.

Secondly, if you struggle to focus, don’t be afraid to use pre-written prayers. There’s nothing wrong with the practice. This is how the Church has prayed since the beginning, and I do it all the time. Just because I may be using someone else’s words, doesn’t mean what I’m praying is of lesser value to God. Pre-written prayers can be an incredible help in times when inner clarity seems out of reach. In fact, because I know folks are struggling right now to find the right words in the midst of this worldwide pandemic, I posted a Vigil of Prayer on Our Savior’s website. If you are struggling to pray, take a look at the video and pray along.

(https://www.oursaviorhartland.org/prayer-vigil/)

Also, think practically. When one is feeling like a novice, the way to better skills is to study the efforts of others and to practice. Think about it. How did you first learn to speak? Most likely by mimicking the words of your parents. Praying while using the words of our Christian fore-parents is a good practice. Don’t let anyone tell you that unless your words are spontaneous or whatever you’re not really praying. That’s ridiculous. If someone does tell you this, then brush it off. They’ve made prayer into a legalistic venture, and you should avoid their advice altogether.

Thirdly, the easiest and best place to start is with the prayer the Lord taught us. There’s no better prayer than the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). Start with that. It doesn’t get any better.

To close, and as I’ve said already, be mindful that we have prayer for such times as these. This COVID-19 situation is, if anything, an exercise in knowing to whom we should run in times of trouble. Turning to the only One who can rescue us from all our burdens and give us the gift of real rest is always the better bet (Matthew 11:28).

Go to Him in faith. Pray for your needs. Pray for the needs of others. He loves you. He loves them. And He’s listening. He has already promised that no matter what is happening, He will work all things for your good (Romans 8:28).