Home Sweet Home

At the end of this week the Thoma family will be in Florida. God willing, I’ll be back in the saddle at Our Savior on Sunday, July 14. Until then, folks at the church won’t be hearing from me by way of the weekly eNewsletter I send out. As in the past, I’ll be setting it aside with the intent on being refreshed.

Already folks have commented, saying things like, “It’ll be good to get away and do nothing for a little while.” In response, I usually offer a word of agreement, because I certainly know what they mean. But honestly, even as I’m nodding, I have in mind something along the lines of what Voltaire scribed:

“Repose is a good thing, but boredom is its brother.”

In other words, I’ll be doing anything but nothing. Among the many relaxing activities in store, the Thoma family will be playing board games, going out to dinner and seeing the sites. We’ll be swimming, walking, watching “Shark Week” bundled under blankets on the couch, and a whole host of other things.

We’ll be taking time to be together.

On a personal front, I’ll be taking time each and every morning to write about anything and everything that comes to mind—most of which usually finds its way back to many of you in the form of whisky reviews at Angelsportion.com.

As you can see, brother “boredom” will be wholly shunned on this vacation. But there’s something else I’m expecting to do.

I’m expecting to miss all of you.

First off, while vacations are nice, it’s nice to come home. Dorothy was right—there’s no place like home. The Lord put an interesting spin on the idea of “home” when He pointed out in John 14:23 that it’s not just a place, but it also has to do with the One who makes His dwelling among the people who gather within the structure. Jesus offers so straightforwardly, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my Word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

The first thing we can take from this is that Jesus is most certainly present by His Word. He promises that, and such a promise is a tender bit of comfort for anyone wondering where they might find Jesus. You can be sure that you’ll have access to Him by His Word.

But there are a couple of other things to keep in mind.

Jesus makes His home among those who, by faith, keep His Word. The word for “keep” is τηρέω (tēreō). It means “to watch over,” or even better, “to guard.” I’d say that’s a near-perfect verb for communicating the identity of the people of God at Our Savior in Hartland. When we gather together, Jesus is here. We have His Word. We hold it as our most precious possession, and there’s no question that we’ll pit ourselves against anyone or anything seeking to snatch it away.

For that, I’m thankful. Which leads to me to a final observation.

Because of who we are in Christ, by virtue of His promises among us, I know that when I come back through the doors in a few weeks, I’ll be walking into my Christian family’s home. Home is where family lives. Our Savior is also my home because all of you—my Christian family—are here.

Truly, there’s nothing better than a familiar face, a welcoming embrace, and a kind word that is sure to let you know that while you were gone, as a member of the family—a member of the body of Christ—you were missed. When it happens, and I know it will, it’ll be one more reminder to me of just how wonderful being home can be. Even anticipating it now, I can’t help but remind you to count Our Savior as your home, as well. We are your Christian family. You belong here, too. And no matter what you’ve done, this is a place where those who, by repentance and faith, exist together and are always received… and not only by our gracious and loving Savior, but by those within the walls of this home in Hartland where the Holy Spirit is busily working by the wonderful Word of the Gospel delivering our Lord’s tidal grace.

We are family by His grace.

This, of course, means that this spiritual home and the family that occupies it are nothing of themselves. Neither exist by their own doing. God brings us together. Just as you don’t choose your earthly family, neither do you choose the family of God. You’re born into it. You’re born into the Christian community through Baptism into Christ, the One who gave Himself on the cross to win for you your place before the throne as an heir of heaven.

I think that’s pretty great stuff. And I hope you think it’s pretty great stuff, too. It is a Gospel that changes the way we deal with one another, and it strengthens all of us to be honest with ourselves—to recognize our need for a Savior from Sin—and then, together as a family, to kneel before His throne of grace to be absolved of anything and everything that would cause despair in the home.

Again, I say that’s pretty great stuff.

I suppose one more thing that makes it truly spectacular is that because of the person and work of Jesus Christ, it’s all free—free as the ocean breezes that jostle the palm tree leaves I’ll be sitting beneath in Florida very soon.

I’ll think on that while I’m away. I’ll breathe it in, and I’ll remember that together with you, in Christ, we’re family. And when I get home, it’ll be great to see you.

The Death and Burial of the Christian Faith

The school year has ended.

When anything comes to an end, it’s not unusual to think on the finality of life itself—that approaching day when each of us will inhale and then exhale for the very last time. Anticipating that final moment, rich or poor, weak or strong, legendary or just a regular Joe, each and every person will at some point betray human fragility and show concern for particular things.

In those contemplative moments, some worry they’ll die without a legacy, that perhaps they’ll simply disappear into history without having made a memorable impact on this world. Others show concern for the material comfort of their twilight years and the financial wellbeing of those they leave behind. Some invest all their worry feeling they haven’t lived their lives to the fullest, being uneasy about the career they chose, the places they’ve gone, and the things they’ve seen. Many, if not most, admit to wondering about the words others will use to describe them at their funeral. What will people say?

I’ll admit that I experience the occasional commotion from such thoughts. And why wouldn’t I? Like you, I’m human.

Still, even as these thoughts muscle in, they’re never gripping enough to haunt me. I have deeper concerns, one of which took shape two weeks ago during a funeral.

The Lord’s house was full. The family of the deceased filled the first two rows of the pulpit-side pews. Among them sat three generations of ancestry. Beyond those two pews, the room held a crowd of distant relatives and close friends.

The service began, and with it came a tidal wash of something dreadful—something I don’t want happening at my funeral.

When you think about it, a Lutheran funeral really is an easy conversation of sorts. It’s situated in God’s Word. The rhythm is one in which God speaks (through His word by way of a pastor) and the congregation responds. At this particular funeral, the cadence of the conversation was far different. The Word of God was given, but silence was almost always the reply.

I spoke the invocation, but the congregation didn’t react. I prayed. There was no response. I read aloud the Scriptures, finishing as Lutherans do with “This is the Word of the Lord,” but the people didn’t answer. Even with the liturgy and all of its components printed in detail and being held in their hands, the room was hushed at every turn, only the barest number of voices being heard. What bothered me the most is that while the pipe organ was sounding out in grandeur and carrying some of the most Gospel-potent hymns that have ever been written—hope-filled anthems that have inspired armies to charge through the flames in defense of the Gospel—still the people in the funeral sat silently. Barely a handful sang.

It’s disheartening when a mighty song of Christ’s triumph over Death is resounding and the only voices to be heard are those of the pastor and maybe two or three others.

Why did it happen this way?

I refuse to say that it’s because more and more people don’t like to sing in public. Stop by Our Savior in Hartland on a Sunday sometime and you’ll hear a full-throated resonation of liturgy and hymnody that will hastily negate that perception. I also refuse to accept the premise that the liturgy and hymns are too difficult to follow or sing. Regularly immersed in these things, I know three-year-olds who can sound them out with reverence and carefree ease. Lastly, I won’t submit to the idea that what we’re doing isn’t meeting the people where they are. That’s just an excuse for dumbing things down—for embracing anthropocentric preference over Christocentric substance—and I just won’t do it.  And besides, if we’re being honest, when it comes to the things of God, that’s not the direction the Scriptures encourage.

“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” (Colossians 3:1-4).

My best guess as to why a funeral might unfold this way: The Christian faith in this family died years ago and is only now being put into the casket for burial.

What I mean is that years ago, family routines were established that competed with Sunday morning worship. Years ago, perhaps during the high school years, I’m guessing that church attendance was set before the children in the home as optional. Years ago, the parents had nothing to say about how important it is to date other Christians in preparation for eventually choosing a Christian spouse. Years ago, the parents were too distracted or timid to do and say some very important things that would prepare their children for engaging in a world spinning in opposition to the Christian faith.

And now the church organ is sounding with might but the church pews are silent and weak. It’s painful, but it’s honest. One can’t sing with integrity what one doesn’t believe.

Unfortunately, this is more and more becoming the standard. Funerals are becoming more the opportunity to exist in a fumbling and uncomfortable stillness, rather than being a time of voicing a joyful hope in Christ by people who actually believe what they’re seeing, hearing, and saying.

And it’s not just funerals.

Far too many young couples are stopping by my office and asking me to preside at their wedding even as they’re already living together. Such a scenario is becoming appallingly commonplace. In tandem, there’s the ever-increasing trend of young parents requesting baptisms for their children, but they’re only interested because grandma is pestering them. They’re willing to act on the first part of Christ’s mandate, which is to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Unfortunately, they have no intention for keeping the second part—“and teach them all things”—which is the promise to raise the children in the Christian faith (Matthew 28:19-20). Both parts go together. You can’t have one without the other.

And so, coming back around to where I began…

For me personally, I suppose my chief concern is not how much money I’ll have when I die. And I suppose I don’t really care if I ever get to exotic locales on vacation. It would be nice, but I’m not salivating over it. As far as fearing that I’ve not maximized my potential, while I’m sure I could be using my talents toward more lucrative enterprises, I’m absolutely certain the Lord has me right where He wants me.

What I hope for most in the face of my own death is that, firstly, when it arrives at my door, I’ll be found trusting in Christ. I say this as I’ve been in the room with a dying person who teetered at the edge of uncertainty. Uncertainty in the face of Death is the absolute equivalent of maximum dread. It is uncontaminated terror and I’ve seen it.

And so, secondly, my hope is that none in my family will experience this terror. I hope to have passed along an uncompromising faith in Christ to my own children—one that will be more than detectable in their spouses and children, one that will more than prove itself at my funeral. My hope is that the hymns will be full, my sorrowing family will give hearty replies of thankfulness to the Lord’s comforting Gospel, and the words spoken of me by the pastor who knew me—if he chooses to speak of me at all—will be ones that in every way find their way back to Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of the faith I possessed and the faith I did all I could to secure in the hearts and minds of my own loved ones.

I don’t say this with a prideful spirit. My goal is really very simple. I want my family to be with Jesus in the glories of heaven. And as an added bonus, I want to know we’ll be within arm’s reach of one another there.

Emily Dickinson was right when she mused, “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.” Unless the Lord returns first, everyone will eventually be the guest of honor at a funeral. My encouragement to you is to make the most of the time you have for fortifying the Christian faith in your family. Do all that you can to be faithful in worship. Do all that you can to balance the joy of sporting commitments with the absolute priority of keeping to the baptismal mandate for raising your children in the faith. Be mindful in every circumstance to talk with them about the substance of what it is that we believe as Christians according to the Word of God and what it means to be a child of Christ in a world that isn’t all that fond of the Lord.

In the broad scheme of things, nothing else really matters all that much. Life in this world is temporary. Life in the next is eternal. Unfortunately, far too many in the church don’t even begin to think about such things until the time of parental influence is too far out of reach or Death is already applying the brakes to the carriage and preparing to stop at the door.

My proposition: Consider and act on it now. In fact, the time before us—the season of summer—is the perfect time to begin. Summer is filled with grand temptations for steering clear of Christian worship and daily devotion. But don’t. Wrestle through it with your kids and commit wholeheartedly to continued time with the Lord.

It’s the right thing to do. It’s the faithful thing. And it’ll be worth it in the end.

Road Signs

Here we are at the edge of Lent. I say “edge” because we haven’t quite crossed over its border.

This past Sunday, Septuagesima, is the first of the three Pre-Lenten Sundays. The word literally means “seventy days,” and it’s pointing to the fact that we’re about seventy days from Easter. Next Sunday, the one that always makes a select few of the school children giggle when I say its name, is Sexagesima—sixty days. The Sunday after that is Quinquagesima, or fifty days. Lent doesn’t actually begin until Ash Wednesday. It lasts for forty days, which is mindful of the Lord’s forty days in the wilderness, Noah and his family’s time in the ark before being delivered, and the forty years the Israelites spent in the wilderness before finally entering into the promised land. Of course if you do the math, realizing that Sundays are in Lent but not of Lent, then you’ll discover that Lent lasts right up until the Vigil of Easter, which is the Saturday before Easter Sunday.

So why the Pre-Lenten Sundays? Isn’t Lent long enough already?

I suppose. Although, if you’re in tune with the seasons of the Church Year, you’ll already know that while each one has something to teach us, they’re also doing something to prepare us for what’s coming next. But the stark contrast between the brightness of Epiphany’s powerful miracles is almost too strange for dropping us right at the doorstep of one of the most sobering events of the year—Ash Wednesday—which begins the season for more intently meditating on the approaching sacrifice of Jesus. The Pre-Lenten Sundays help ease the jolt. They’re kind of like a very slow immersion into a really cold swimming pool. You need a little time to ease into something that has the potential for shocking your system. Lent isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a solemn and deeply penitential time. Every single bit of its very visceral fervor is aimed at that one particular Friday in the Church Year that Christians call “Good.”

And by the way, I mean no offense when I say that if Lent is treated as being no big deal at your church, then go somewhere else. Your pastor isn’t doing it right and you’re missing out. Again, no offense, but you need to ditch the place. You’re being starved of one of the most vigorously focused times in the Church Year.

That reminds me… I had a conversation last week with a few of our school kids about a text in 1 John 5 where the Apostle asks sort of rhetorically: “Who is it that overcomes the world?” (v. 5). I spoke to them about how the world is actively warring against us, and strangely, its assaults aren’t really all that off-putting. It entices us. It reaches to us and convinces us into beliefs and behaviors that are counter to Christ and His holy will. Essentially I said that the world offers up a whole lot of road signs pointing to no real destination, at least none of any real or truthful value leading to eternal life. In fact, everything the world sets before us has the potential for leading to condemnation. But then in the very next sentence, John answers his own question: “Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” In the verses immediately following this answer, John encourages the reader toward the means for not only discerning this, but for being equipped to withstand and ultimately overcome the world—the Spirit, the water, and the blood—which are really just first century synonyms for the Word of God and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. John presses his readers to look to road signs that actually lead to something good know, road signs that actually give what they communicate. And he urges us to never become disconnected from these means by which Jesus takes up residence among His believers to feed and strengthen them for overcoming the world.

Thinking back on the conversation, I realize that this is a very Lenten text. Lent is a time filled with spiritual road signs. For example, in the midst of Lent’s penitential atmosphere, there’s a long-standing Christian practice of wrestling with the worldly flesh through fasting, which means folks deliberately set aside or give something up for Lent. In a sense, the act is meant to be a road sign (not at the same level as Word and Sacrament, of course), and it’s done for a handful of reasons. Hopefully one of the principle reasons is so that each and every time they experience the craving for the thing they’ve set aside, the very yearning itself will direct their attention to what the Lord set aside in order to accomplish our redemption. He set aside His divine majesty, and in utter humility, He submitted Himself to the powers of Sin, Death, and all that hell could raise to destroy us. And what did He give up? His life. He didn’t do any of this for Himself. He did it for us.

Ash Wednesday, the very first experience of Lent, is an incredibly potent road sign. The ashen mark smeared on our foreheads to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19). And yet the mark—a cross—it points to the singular event among all others in human history that had the muscle for defeating death at its own game and setting us free from its curse. When that mark is made, it is formed in the same way a pastor crafted it on us when we were baptized. Ash Wednesday points to the fact that all who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27). We were buried by baptism into His death, and by His resurrection, we rise, too (Romans 6:4). Death has no hold on us because it has no hold on Christ (Romans 6:9).

Lent is full of these types of road signs, and the Pre-Lenten season is helping to hone our senses for seeing them.

Lent itself will lead us through a forty day journey of carefully absorbed and distinctly precise meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus for the sins of all. I hope you’ll engage in it. As a Christian, I guarantee it’ll be well worth your while.

I Have A Theory…

I have a theory. To tee this up, I need to do a little explaining.

I’m a true moviegoer. And whether or not my wife, Jennifer, would admit to it, apart from the stereotypical chick flick (which for me to watch is tantamount to having my wisdom teeth removed without anesthesia), I’m fairly eclectic. I like all sorts. However, I’ll admit to liking horror and action movies the most. Growing up in the 70s and 80s in Danville, Illinois, horror movies were my go-to favorites. In fact, on Friday nights, I’d stay up late to watch a show called “Sammy Terry’s Nightmare Theater.” If I recall correctly, it was a broadcast out of an obscure studio on a public access station somewhere in Indianapolis. The host—Sammy Terry—would show two scary movies back to back, and in between at the commercial breaks, he’d do campy routines and commentary with his rubber spider “George” bouncing from an elastic string beside him. He showed all the classic films, movies like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “The Wolf Man.” But he also showed the other, more hokey, films of the era. There were a few that teetered on spooky, but not very many. In fact, I don’t actually remember ever feeling scared by any of the movies. I do remember thinking how awfully ridiculous they seemed even as I was oftentimes rooting for the hero to defeat the guy in the rubber suit, and if the acting was really bad, sometimes the other way around.

Still, I loved watching them. They were fun.

Nowadays, scary movies bore me. Often they’re already too off-putting to me because of the foul language and/or the unnecessary sexual content. I’m exhausted by how these two elements are almost standard to American cinema. There was a period of time in the 70s and 80s when some really great movies came out, and they didn’t necessarily rely on these things to be successful. From among those, I do have some favorites—“Alien,” “The Thing,” and “Jaws” (yeah, go figure, a movie about a shark). And while the special effects and the storylines had gotten more impressive than what Sammy Terry used to show, still, I can’t say that I’ve found the one flick that has truly tested my nerve. Not even the movie “The Exorcist” had me on edge the first time I saw it. Thinking back on that movie in particular, maybe it’s because God knew I’d be meeting up with the real thing today. Who knows? But with that, the search continues to find the one movie that will stir the need to look over my shoulder and pick up my pace after I turn out the basement lights to make my way up the stairs.

More to the point of why I’m telling you all of this… my theory.

I’ve seen a lot of scary movies over the years. Within the last few months I happened to watch a few of the newer horror movies at the suggestion of friends, and aside from being mostly unimpressed by the gratuitous content, I did find myself hovering in the realm of a newer concern. Here’s the why and what of the concern.

Scary movies are meant to scare. I get that. But before they make it into theaters, it’s pretty typical that test audiences will watch them in order to measure the level of tolerance moviegoers will have for certain images. One thing you could always count on was that children in movies would get along relatively unscathed. They might get chased. They might be found in peril. But they’d never die. If a scene ever depicted something tragic happening to a child, the mainstream test audiences most often rejected it and it was cut from the final release.

In books it’s different. Just read a couple of Stephen King’s volumes and you’ll see. But not in the movies. To read about it is one thing. To put it on screen has been, for the most part, taboo.

But not so much anymore. Now these scenarios and scenes are becoming more prominent. The last thee horror films I’ve watched, the children in them have either been unbearably dispatched on screen in some rather vivid ways, or they themselves have been the brutally emotionless antagonist behind the terror, doing things and using means that make the 80s slasher films look like a director’s cut of “The Little Mermaid” (which I’ve never seen, by the way).

Add to this that I read recently that the market for theater-released scary movies is sliding a bit, which is probably why so many of these movies go straight to or are produced only for Amazon and Netflix. Apparently people aren’t all that willing to pay $12 to $15 per person to go to a theater to see them anymore.

All of this makes me wonder.

First of all, it makes me wonder if I should keep trying to find that one film that actually scares me, or if I should just stick with action films. I’m thinking I’ve come to a fork in the road in this regard.

Second, I wonder if one of the reasons people don’t go to the theaters to see these movies as much anymore is because people aren’t all that shocked by the actual stories they present. Real life is scary enough as it is. They can get their daily dose of horror just by listening to or watching the news.

Lastly, circling back around to the topic of kids in movies, I wonder if our view of children has become so twisted that we can’t make heads or tails of what’s appropriate and what isn’t. Pedophilia is on the rise in America. Child sex-trafficking is a problem pretty much everywhere. News reports are chock full with stories of little ones being left in hot cars while mom goes into the casino to gamble, or children found strapped in car seats and traumatized from a parent’s death at the steering wheel from an opioid overdose. Considering the abortion debate, which is no longer about taking the life of what the pro-choice folks would simply deem an unseen “clump of cells,” but rather has reached the level of killing a newly delivered, full-term child. The Governor of Virginia just affirmed that this would be acceptable if the child was deemed unwanted, even as the child was more than capable of surviving outside the womb. Now the deathly things are happening right out in the open where everyone can see them. It’s not an obscure scenario. It’s no longer a hushed conversation. It’s no longer a menacing act that is relatively hidden in the underbelly of society or within the womb.

So, where’s the outrage? Why the general complacency in response? My theory is that it’s because the death of children is becoming commonplace. It’s no big deal anymore. American society is truly becoming desensitized to the horrors perpetrated against the most vulnerable among us.

I wonder if the change in cinematic patterns is just one of the many indicators betraying this view of children by the general populace. Again, as it meets the topic of abortion, I think we see this in two ways, both of which mirror the treatment of children in the latest horror movies. The first is that children are becoming something of little value—someone easily eighty-sixed in the most gruesome of ways, a character of little value to the storyline; or second, the child is seen as the enemy—a terror, an inconvenience, an antagonist in what was once a pleasant storyline, and if he or she survives until the end, things will only be terrible, so it’s imperative to destroy her.

Some of the scenes I’ve witnessed in these recent films tells me that the tolerance of the general test audiences has reached a disheartening level.

So, what do we do?

Well, we can’t necessarily change Hollywood. And we can’t change the videogame manufacturers who, in my humble opinion, are the modern day mind-altering drug dealers to this generation. I suppose as a Christian community, what we can do is, first, to see our kids as the precious gifts of God that they are (Psalm 127:3) and to realize that He loves them very much (Mark 10:13-16). And perhaps second, recognizing ourselves as stewards of these gifts, we can seek to provide for them toward Godliness, which means to shield them for as long as we can from those things that would serve to pull them away from their Creator. We can work diligently to take them to church, the place where they’ll receive the greatest care possible—even when they don’t want to go. We do this because we know that even as enticing as the sinful world might be, it’s lively intentions are never to serve our little ones, but rather to consume and digest them into a much darker kingdom—a kingdom that has fixations that are anything but what the Lord and His Gospel would provide for their eternal salvation.

This is a tall order. But as Christian parents, we signed up for it. When we brought our little ones to the font of Holy Baptism, we committed ourselves to the war. Yesterday in the Divine Service, as a newborn among us was baptized, together we prayed for his parents, as well as all parents. That’s you and me, too. It was a prayer that affirmed the importance of these things:

“Lord and Giver of life, look with kindness upon the father and mother of this child and upon all parents. Let them ever rejoice in the gift You have given them. Enable them to be teachers and examples of righteousness for their children. Strengthen them in their own Baptism that they may share eternally with their children the salvation you have given them; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”

Know that every time we pray this prayer, I’m rooting for you and you’re rooting for me. Know that we’re standing together as a Christian community to help and support one another, calling out a willingness to fight beside one another. Most importantly, know that Jesus is leading the way for His battalions. Take your children by the hand and get in behind Him. Trust Him to get you and your family through to brighter days that see your little ones becoming parents who raise your grandkids in the same Christian faith. The world would certainly see otherwise, and yet, this is our prayer for one another.

You Aren’t Perfect. Jesus Is.

Well, we’re seven full days into 2019. How’s it going so far? Maybe not enough has happened for you to answer that question. Maybe too much has happened and you’re already wishing for 2020.

A friend of mine posted a meme on Facebook with the picture of a person in exercise clothing sitting on the couch eating a bag of chips and saying something like, “Well, 2019 is a bust. But hey, I totally got this in 2020.”

Funny, I guess. As it meets the truest edges of the human condition, far too true. In our sin, 2019 is already a bust. “We fancy men are individuals,” Ralph Waldo Emerson chimed, “and so are pumpkins; and every pumpkin in the field goes through every point of pumpkin history.”

Every human being in the field of humanity goes through every point of what it means to be human. We are born and we die, and in between we find ourselves incapable of anything even remotely resembling perfection. And yet, we have a perfect Savior who stepped into the field to become one of us. This is good news. We are to know that “…we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The perfect Son of God has faced off with everything it means to be human, and He did it without failing. He didn’t make promises only to end up on the couch of failure eating chips. He succeeded in everything. He kept the Law without the slightest infraction. He loved God and neighbor perfectly. Perhaps most astoundingly, He was counted as guilty of our crimes and judged in our place, ultimately accomplishing of our salvation through His perfect death and justifying resurrection. I suppose that’s why the writer to the Hebrews kept his ink pen full, adding to the verse I just shared: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (v. 16).

You aren’t perfect. Jesus is. And that’s what counts. He’s the judge in this courtroom. By virtue of your baptism into Him, your imperfections are covered by the white robe of His perfect righteousness (Galatians 3:27; Revelation 7:9). Through faith in Him, you are found acquitted—declared innocent by the only One with the authority to set a prisoner free.

No matter what you face in the New Year, know that you have complete and total access to the throne of grace. This means you have unlimited access to the source of forgiveness, life, salvation, and victory that leads to eternal life.

Keep that promise close to you.

And by the way, the best way to keep something as close to you as possible is to wear it. See the fifth sentence of the fifth full paragraph above. Baptism sure is something, huh?

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!

Love Doesn’t Always Say Yes

Have you ever experienced one of those moments where something you knew to be so plainly obvious was spoken or acted out in a way that truly resonated as it had never resonated before? That happened to me last week during a visit with one of our member shut-ins.

Essentially she shared with me the concern that some of her grandchildren had opted to move in with their significant others. She had suspected this might be happening, but it was confirmed when one of the grandchildren called to say she’d be coming to a family gathering at her home and was wondering if she might bring her boyfriend along. During the conversation, the granddaughter admitted to Grandma that she was living with her boyfriend and hoped it would be acceptable for the two of them to sleep together in the same room.

“Honey,” she said with the kindly and gentle voice I know her to possess, “I’ll always love you. But no unmarried couples will be sleeping together in my house. It goes against what the Bible teaches, which means it goes against Jesus, and that means I have to tell you no.”

As soon as she said this, I was struck. Love doesn’t always say yes. Sometimes it says no.

Again, this is an unspoken obviosity for me. It probably is for most of you, too. As a parent, it’s a default reality. Although I’m not so foolish as to think that it’s not an altogether different matter in our culture these days, and most especially when certain unexpected situations hit us close to home. And yet, in that moment, her courageously plain words communicated to a granddaughter a message that was principled and precise. What she’d taught her when she was four years old hadn’t changed now that she was twenty-two. Just as it was back then, it was now. And not because she was a stubborn old lady stuck in her ways, but because God’s Word is immutable—unchanging and absolute. Steady on this, her words were gentle, but crucial in the moment. They communicated that the love of a Christian grandmother for a granddaughter was bound to act in faithfulness to Christ’s Word, and by this, she would seek her granddaughter’s good. She would do what she could to help shepherd her away from something bad to something so much better.

“I have to tell you no,” she said so crisply. Sometimes love says no.

In our world, telling someone no is getting much harder to do. Our society has become so radically individualized that saying no is more so portrayed as cruel, as coming from an intolerant opposition to someone’s personal preferences. In one sense, we all know the sting of hearing someone say no. We heard it when we were young and we’ve heard it as adults, too. I heard my parents tell me that I couldn’t have the cookie I wanted just as I’ve heard the word as an adult in various circumstances. But when it cuts to the core of someone’s identity as it did for this woman’s granddaughter, we often find ourselves in much more dangerous waters. The waves on this sea undulate between personal relationships that go very, very deep. Saying no in these situations can be a hard thing to do because we know there is the chance that it will come with a price we may not want to pay.

In truth, this tension didn’t exist in the beginning. In our sinless origin, Adam and Eve knew God perfectly, as God would have us know Him. In this, whether God said yes or no, there was no question that the answer He gave was emerging from His immeasurable love. And He did say no right there in the beginning. Could we eat from this and that tree in the garden? Yes. How about the tree in the middle of the garden? No. Why not? Because if you do, you’ll die.

Knowing the effects of the fall into Sin, Jesus knew it would be tough. In fact, in an almost rhetorical way, he says no to us when we ask, “Your Word is clearly leading me to tell someone no. If I do it, seeking faithfulness to you and serving in love, everything will come together just fine, being real easy, right?” He knows the significance of Sin’s grip. He knows that the world will choke on faithfulness like an addict coughing up the anti-drug, and so He says so plainly, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:32-38).

These words are both terrifying and comforting all at the same time. The longer I serve as a pastor, the more I learn that divine truths can sometimes be that way. But an even deeper digging into the Lord’s words will reveal that He didn’t say any of this until He first preached:

“When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (vv.19-20).

You know what this means, right? It means that Christ is true to His Word that we will never be left to fend for ourselves. The Holy Spirit will be working in and through us. In fact, as the Holy Spirit moves us to seek faithfulness to the Savior, even our words will be captured by His power and used to His glory and the good of those who hear them. We don’t necessarily know how each situation will turn out, and we may even walk away from the conversation feeling as though we put our own foot in our mouths, but we can know by faith the source of the truest courage for faithfulness to Christ and love for the neighbor. We can say the hard things and know that even if we feel alone, we aren’t. The One who spoke the powerful words I noted above is the One who capped Saint Mathew’s Gospel with the words: “And behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the age” (28:20).

I know that a good number of you are swimming in such situations. And if you aren’t, there’s a good chance that you will be one day. As always, I keep all of you in my prayers. I know that God will preserve and protect you in those moments where the courage of a love that says no will be required. He will guide your words. He will shine His love through you to others, even when it doesn’t feel like it, and He will keep His promise that whoever loses his life for His sake, will find it—which is to say the ultimate discovery of eternal life is ours to claim through faith.

Of course you know I’ll do what I can to help in these situations. You only need to ask.