Crib to Casket

As a congregation, there’s a lot in store for Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan over the next few months. Visits from prominent guest speakers, graduations, and so many other unique opportunities will land in our midst. And yet, two of the most important dates to which we’ll give deliberate attention will be Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. National holidays, yes. Still, as a church, we’ll embrace them as days for honoring the office of “parent,” which stems naturally from God’s divinely established institution of marriage (Genesis 2:18-25).

We’ll celebrate these days not by swapping out the appointed readings for the day or by forcing the topics of “mother” or “father” into the sermon, but rather by letting the parents among us choose the distribution hymns during the Lord’s Supper. We’ll keep to a stabilizing liturgy that continues to set our eyes on Christ and His person and work for our forgiveness. The Word of God will be given. The Gospel will be preached. And in the midst of this, the congregation will give a more-than-appropriate nod of reverence by way of the Church’s rich hymnody to the Lord’s gracious care for His world through the societal-stabilizing gift of the family. (Visit https://www.lutheransforlife.org/article/gods-design-of-family/ to read more on what I mean that the family is a societal-stabilizing gift of God.)

I don’t know about you, but when I became a parent, there’s one very important thing that I learned almost immediately. I learned that no matter how I might be tempted to consider myself an expert in any given field, I will never be tempted to think of myself as anything more than an amateur as a father. Yes, Benjamin Spock tried to stir confidence in all of us in his infamous book Baby and Child Care when he wrote, “You know more than you think you do.” Still, there are those moments with my own children—conversations, situations, circumstances—in which I’m at a loss for words or certainty. I just don’t know what to do.

In one sense, these moments are to my benefit. They keep me level. They set before me that I’m never above the One who established the office of parent. They are moments for me to know that there’s only one Father with all the answers for every situation. I am merely a steward of the little ones He’s put into my care. He remains their true Father, and so I am duty-bound to rely on Him for what’s necessary for raising them.

This reminds me of something else.

As a pastor, I’m guessing that I attend more funerals than most folks. It’s part of the job. Over the years, I’ve noticed it’s not all that uncommon for families to put things into the casket to be buried with their loved one—special things, trinkets and such of lifelong importance. When I see these things in the casket—things that journeyed alongside them through their lives—I am reminded of something very parental in nature.

Hovering above the casket takes me to those moments when I was hovering above my little ones lying in the bassinet. It’s a momentary reminder that even as our little ones fit into a crib, the things we give, the songs we sing, the practices we uphold all along the way of their lives have enormous potential for remaining with them all the way through to the day when they will be fitted to a casket.

The job of parenting isn’t an easy one. The devil, the world, and the Sinful flesh sees quite well to making the task a challenging one. I think it was Bette Davis who said that you’re not officially a parent until you’ve been hated by your child. Those, as many of you already know, are true words. And yet we go forward. We make our kids brush their teeth. We argue with them about turning off the video games and going outside to play. We demand that they be home before midnight. We duke it out over their messy rooms, and we tell them a thousand times not to throw wet towels on the bathroom floor after a shower, as well as to flush the toilet and turn off the light before they leave.

There are plenty of times we find ourselves grappling with them just to get them to the Lord’s house for worship. And then the combat continues as we wrestle to keep them immersed in the liturgy, hymnody, and life of what really is the fellowship of their truest family—the holy Christian church. It’s exhausting. In fact, it can sometimes seem far too overwhelming to be worth the effort, especially during the teenage years when the child believes there are much better things to be doing than sitting in the pews at church.

But Christian parents fight on. And why?

Crib to casket.

In families, the space in between those two points is divinely appointed to mothers and fathers, and as believers, we take these life-long roles as stewards very seriously. Sure, we’ll always be those fathers who give the boyfriends of our college-aged daughters a poker face adorned with stern eyes. We’ll remain those mothers who pester our middle-aged sons not to forget to send a thank-you to aunt so-and-so for the birthday gift. But most importantly, we’ll be those parents who are forever concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of our children. We’ll never be able to shake the urge to be both nearsighted and farsighted. Nearsighted in that our eyes are fixed clearly upon the baptismal font where they were washed clean in the blood of Christ and claimed as His own; and farsighted as we look beyond that gracious act to their falling asleep in the Lord and their blessed Christian funeral.

I pray regularly for the stamina necessary for being a Christian parent in this day and age. Admittedly, in comparison to America’s history, Christian parents are facing unprecedented challenges to raising Godly children. Knowing this, prayer is a big deal. But even more importantly, regular worship is essential. In fact, it is the lifeblood for a Christian family. If parents and their children are not connected to Christ and the gifts He gives in holy worship, they are being starved of not only what saves, but what preserves from the crib to the casket.

My prayer for you is always the same—that you’ll never give up in this regard, that you’ll muscle through every obstruction to being with Christ in worship, that you’ll love your kids enough to use the time you have now to shepherd them into the presence of the One who loves them more than any of us ever could.

The dividends of such an effort are immeasurable. You’ll know them in the fullest sense in heaven. It’s there that you’ll look side to side and see your family. And in that eternal moment, I guarantee you’ll bear an equally eternal smile, one to which the frowns of struggle in this life will just never compare.

Again, I Say Take Your Children to Church

Again, I say go to church. And take your children.

I say this observing men and women with their littlest ones, one end of the spectrum of life and the other crisply displayed. But it’s the invisible space—the space in between child and adult—that actually has my attention.

It’s this middle space where the ingredients are added. From boy to man, from girl to woman, all of the space in between is even now undecided—the character, the imagination, the belief systems, the ways that life will be lived, the caliber of man sought for a husband and the measure of a woman desired for a wife—all of these will be collected along the way and will simmer in this middle space.

Parents, the middle space is a powerful and determining time. Be mindful of this, and spend that time well. Go to church. Take your children. Season the middle spaces of their lives with the salt of Christ and His holy Word.

It is the most important ingredient in the recipe.

 

Take Your Children to Church

Go to church. And take your children.

Yes, yes, I know that in general children are not very good at listening or sitting still, and this can make worship very challenging. Still, I say go to church—and take your kids—because, for the record, there is something that children do magnificently.

They imitate adults.

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.

Far Better Than a Children’s Sermon

A few years ago, during the hymn at the retiring procession, my daughter Evelyn began pushing her way past her siblings in order to join her dad in the doorway at the back of the nave to sing. It wasn’t long before Madeline and Harrison began joining her. Over time, other little ones saw this happening and began to join in, too. Of course, the first time it happened, Evelyn’s facial expressions betrayed she wasn’t too pleased. She wanted it to be an alone-time moment with her dad. But now it happens pretty much every Sunday, and not necessarily with any of my own children. And by the way, Evelyn is perfectly fine with it, too, even as some Sundays there will only be two or three children joining, and other Sundays as many as nine or ten.

No matter how many gather there in the back, I love it.

Some congregations do children sermons. I won’t comment on that particular practice, except to say that there are some pretty good reasons I’ve never subscribed to it. (By the way, to give you a sense of my feelings for all things trendy in worship, take a look at this portion of the paper I gave at our recent “The Body of Christ and the Public Square” conference this past week.) Obviously, I do subscribe to what I’ve described happening in the back of the nave at the end of every service. It’s a unique moment at the outer edge of the congregation’s worship (that is, the benediction has occurred, the actual Divine Service is over, and we’re preparing to go out into the world as God’s forgiven people), and in that moment I’m able to kneel beside the littlest of God’s lambs and give them a little extra attention as their pastor. We sing together. I show them the hymn stanzas. Sometimes I explain what certain words mean. I most certainly show my excitement for their presence in worship. We make the sign of the cross and pray together, giving thanks to the Lord for the day.

I guess I’m sharing this with you because if your child suddenly tugs on your shirt sleeve and asks to join his or her pastor in the back the nave at the end of the service, you may just want to let them. It is by no means a bother to me, that’s for sure. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It is the perfect, most appropriate time and way in a worship service for something like this to occur, and I’m glad to be able to do it.

Keep At It, Mom and Dad!

I love the fact that we have so many children in worship these days. Indeed, it serves the heart well.

This is true because it means that when you look around the room, you’ll see moms and dads taking very seriously the Lord’s words in Matthew 28:19-20 where He instructs and emphasizes that Christians are actually made through the two-fold event of washing with water and the Word (Baptism) combined with a regular diet of all that the Lord has given (teaching). Baptism and teaching are inseparable parts of the same mandate.

To put this into perspective, if someone were to come to me and ask that I baptize his or her child, and yet would state an unwillingness to raise the child in the Christian faith, I would say no. I’d have to. Baptism and teaching go together. You can’t have one without the other.

So, when I look around the church during worship and I see the little ones with their parents, it always makes me smile. It reminds me of the living faith that Christ gave those parents in their baptism, and it points all of us to a horizon where we see the next generation equipped to do the same.

It also makes me want to help those families with children in any way that I can. It’s one reason why we supply the pews with those Kids in the Divine Service booklets, which are designed to be a helpful resource for teaching the “why we do what we do” of the life of faith in worship. It’s also why we encourage parents to take the kids out when they get a little rowdy but then to bring them back in as soon as they are ready. Sure, every kid gets restless, and so when they decide to bang the hymnal against the pew, or shout at the top of their lungs, or run their Tonka truck up and down the hardwood pew, that can be incredibly loud and distracting and it’s a good idea to take them out in respect of others. But once the appropriate recalibration has happened, get them right back into the church as soon as possible. The little ones belong in there with the rest of their Christian family—with their Savior, Jesus Christ.

Are there other things that we can do as a community to help parents? You bet! We can be sure to give mom a hug and say, “Keep at it, mom,” or give dad a pat on the back and say, “Good job, dad.” These gestures and words make a difference. I know they helped us when our kids were smaller.

Another thing to keep in mind (and it’s something that many folks with older children already know so well) is that so often parents of little ones feel as though they are working so hard and doing all they can just to get to and keep the child in worship, all the while feeling as though as parents, they aren’t getting anything out of the service because they’re so busy with the child.

This is a very real concern, and it’s one that when I hear it, I not only do what I can to encourage the parents—reminding them that this is a very important time in their life when faithfulness to Christ in holy worship looks and feels less like something spiritual and more like riot control. Still, they are being faithful to Christ in their service, and He by no means intends to leave the parents out of the blessings being bestowed to the whole Christian family in the worship setting. With this, I also try to remind them that the Word of God is so much more powerful than we often give credit. When it comes to worship, just being there, just being immersed in the liturgy which is entirely comprised of God’s holy Word, is by no means an empty experience for the Christian. To this, in a practical sense, I try to add that for most who come to worship regularly, the liturgy gets written into the heart and mind in a way that allows a mom or dad to do mom or dad things and still receive. Because of the liturgy, the service becomes more or less memorized, and now mom and dad can follow along and be fed without needing to juggle a hymnal, ordo, baby bottle, and infant all at the same time. They become people who live and breathe the words of worship, and what better example do we want to display for our kids than this?!

Thanks be to God for the little ones in our midst. Thanks be to God for the parents who stick with it, who give it their all to make sure that their baptized children are being raised in the Christian faith. “Therefore, my beloved brothers,” Paul said, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Of all efforts in the church, perhaps the job of parents doing all they can to get their kids to and keep them in worship is most appreciated by this text.

To such folks I say: Know that I’m rooting for you, and so are many others in our midst.

Leaving Stuff Laying Around

I have an idea—two, in fact—and they relate very closely to helping connect people with the message of Christ through our identity as a congregation. Both are easy. And both, I think, would make a difference.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that when we are clear, straight-forward, and intentional in our efforts to communicate to our surrounding community that we are a congregation that appreciates the historic liturgy, does not have rock bands or screens, holds to the Bible as the inspired, inerrant, and immutable Word of God and the sole source for faith and practice, and subscribes to the Lutheran Confessions as a true exposition of the Word of God—when we communicate these particulars to our community, we see a regular stream of “off the street” visitors. When we stop doing this, we stop the “off the street” flow.

We didn’t send out mailings this past spring. We didn’t see many visitors. We left the “Now enrolling…” message on the sign for most of the summer. We didn’t see many visitors. I changed the sign two weeks ago to what it says now (see the photo), and as I expected, we’ve seen a pick up in the flow of visitors.

I believe this is indicative of something we’ve already known for a while around here: People are searching, but they’re searching for substance. They’re looking for something more than what they can get in an entertainment complex or a movie theater. They are looking for something that doesn’t just look and sound like a church, but something that feels like a church—something that emits a sense of care and concern for holy things, and in so doing, provides a setting of reverence in the presence of the Holy One.

This is a comment I receive regularly from visitors with regard to our worship life: “You guys aren’t like the other churches I’ve visited.”

Sometimes that’s meant as a compliment, sometimes not. But whether it’s good or bad, its message is unmistakable. There are fewer and fewer congregations like us.

So, here are the ideas. The first is the easiest.

We need money for effective marketing of this message to the community. We don’t have any in our budget and we need some. If that’s something you feel like supporting, please do. Any time we receive funding for marketing, we always spend it well and it always produces results. I have plenty of leads on ways to do it, and I think I’m creative enough to fashion some decent messages to the community. So again, if this is something you feel like supporting, go for it.

The second idea is still easy, but it takes a little more intentional effort.

Remember all of the Kids in the Divine Service booklets we used to have in the pews but swapped out for the new ones? Well, they’re sitting in a box on the floor in the entryway to the church office. There’s about 150 of them. I don’t want to throw them out. I’d rather give them away. With that…

Another frequent comment from visitors is that these volumes are priceless for teaching, and often they’ll ask if they can take four or five copies with them to share with friends. That’s a great thing, because when they look inside, not only will they find substance regarding solid, Biblical, and historical worship, but they’ll find information about our congregation—a church that does it! So, if they’re looking for a congregation like that, they’ll know where to find one!

So the idea is this: Take some of the older versions of the Kids in the Divine Service booklets from the box—as many as you want—and leave them in places here and there throughout your day. For example, if you have lunch with a friend at Leo’s in Hartland, take a few in and leave them at the table before you go. When you go to the library, take a few in and leave them on a study table. When you visit a hospital or nursing home, take a few in and leave them in one of the waiting room chairs.

People will find and read things that people leave behind. They always do. You know how I know this? My son Harrison, that’s how. He went with me to Walmart a few years back and was walking around reading a proof copy (which is a copy that I and others use to edit the manuscript before the final print) of one of my The Angels’ Portion volumes. He got distracted and set it down, and then lost it. He couldn’t remember where he’d left it. About a month later I got an email from someone who’d picked it up and had read the whole thing. He loved it, and since I was local, he reached out to me through my website to see if I wanted it back. In the end, I told him to keep it, and then eventually I met him at the Fenton Walmart and signed it for him. Fun, huh?! And an introduction was made. Since then, I do this purposely with every proof copy of any of my books. When I’m done with it (as long as it isn’t chock full of embarrassing mistakes that make it unreadable), I leave it behind for people to keep and read. And like it was with the first time, connections have almost always been made. In fact, I’ll be doing an online radio interview with a smaller, up-and-coming podcaster in a few weeks, and it’s the result of one of the proof copies ending up in his hands.

Now, it might not always work out like this, but there’s also the chance that it will. And it doesn’t hurt to try, does it?

So, take those Kids in the Divine Service booklets and do the same. Let’s see what happens.

By the way, remind me to tell you about the conversation I had at Tim Horton’s in Hartland this morning.

On second thought, maybe I’ll just add it to the sermon. I think it fits well with Paul’s emphasis in the Epistle.