Childlike Simplicity

I’ll just start off by saying that last week was a bit challenging on a personal level. A lot happened in my allotted portion of the globe. Although, I’d say Vacation Bible School, being the starting pistol to each morning that it was, had me launching into each day by way of an invigorated sprint. As it is every year, I was called upon to lead the children (100+ in all) in the opening devotion, taking about twenty minutes or so each morning to sing some fun songs and share a little about the day’s Bible lesson. It’s always a busy exchange, but it’s also refreshing.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a people-watcher. I’ve always been the kind of guy who could go to any particular event—a basketball game, parade, social gathering, or whatever—and find just as much, or even more, entertainment by watching the crowd. It’s the same with Vacation Bible School. Even as I may be leading the children, I’m observing them, too, and as I do, I’m forever being reminded that children perceive things much differently than adults.

For example, on Tuesday of last week, just before leading the children through the first song of the morning, I took a quick moment to teach the children how and why a Christian might make the sign of the cross before praying, and as I did, I joked about being careful not to poke oneself in the eye while attempting to do it for the first time. Most of the kids laughed, but I noticed one little girl in the front row nodding her head and leaning toward a friend to say with all seriousness, “I’m going to be very careful when I do this.” And she was careful. She took what I said literally and really rather earnestly.

I see things like this and I’m prompted to consider the bracing simplicity within a child’s heart.

Do you know who did a great job with capturing such scenes literarily? Lewis Carroll. A writer of children’s stories, Carroll masterfully captured by his characters the childlike matter-of-factness that can be had in everyday conversations between people. That moment on Tuesday morning brought to mind a comical moment between Alice and the White King in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

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

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

Children operate this way. Not only do they have the potential for taking hold of our words and actions, ultimately revealing to us that each is a stand-alone piece with precise implications, but they often surprise us with just how naturally easy it is for them to do it. Interestingly, in Matthew 18:1-3, Jesus refers to children as the greatest in the kingdom of heaven because of this uncanny ability, namely in relation to faith.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

Jesus wants the adults—the ones who, in most circumstances, think they know better by their reason and sensibility—to hear and believe the Gospel as a child hears it. He wants them to hear Him in the same way the White King heard Alice—simply, uncomplicatedly, unquestionably.

When a child hears that Jesus loves her, she doesn’t necessarily ask why. An adult is more likely to need a good reason. An adult is more likely to establish a sensible scale of “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad,” and from there gauge his or her value to Jesus. Unfortunately, this can leave a person wondering how it is that Christ can actually love such a scoundrel; or worse, set a person up to think that the Lord’s love is due to an exceptional life of good deeds.

But Jesus loves you because that’s who He is. It doesn’t begin with you. It begins with Him. And that’s a good thing.

Being around the VBS children this week has served my heart well in this regard. Each day began with a recalibrating glimpse into the simple joys found in being God’s child. As a result, I was better able to meet the week’s challenging work, not so much inclined toward worrying about how I was going to fix this or navigate that, but rather I was ready at every turn to say, “I am your servant, Lord. I trust you. Lead me, and I’ll follow.”

One last thing to keep in mind…

Knowing that our children so intuitively hear and see what we say and do and then trustingly run in the direction we are leading them, imagine the implications of regular swearing in front of our kids. Imagine the implications of cruel words or actions to a spouse. Imagine the implications of lying, or shredding someone’s reputation, while the kids are listening. Perhaps worst of all, imagine the implications of using excuse after excuse to justify time away from Christ in worship.

I wrote and shared a post on my Facebook page a while ago affirming just how difficult it can sometimes be for parents with children in worship. Interestingly, the children themselves are often the excuse used by parents for staying away. The little ones get antsy, and they struggle to behave. But the point of the post was to make clear what I’ve already shared above. For all the things kids have trouble doing, there’s one thing in particular they do very well: They imitate adults.

But they can’t learn to imitate what we won’t display. Keep in mind that the secular world never sleeps in this regard. It’s always ready to lead our children. One thing I’ve learned as a parent who’s aware of the secular world’s influence is that the more exhausted I become with the process of raising my children to be Godly people, the firmer my resolve and the greater my courage must be in the fight for their eternal futures. I know that a mere portion of a Sunday morning in comparison to the never-ending stimuli bombarding our children the rest of the week doesn’t seem like much. But remember: Don’t overcomplicate things. Just believe Jesus. Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy. There are infinite blessings attached to this loving mandate. Keep in mind that your time in worship with Him is a powerful portion fitted with otherworldly might. The secular world has nothing on God in this regard. You can be sure that not only will you and your family be blessed, but as your children are engaged in it with you—watching and listening and learning from your displayed devotion to the Savior—they’ll note by their God-given intuitiveness your distinct contrast to the world around them. They’ll learn what’s most important as you display it. They’ll know to trust and follow who you trust and follow. The implications to be had by this are boundless.

It’s Jesus’ Story to Tell

I was thinking about a social media exchange regarding the theological abilities of our nation’s new President that I participated in this past Saturday after our congregation’s annual “Getting Organized” meeting. But before I share its importance with you, I should probably start with a different conversation that occurred earlier in the week. I hope you’ll bear with me. I think it fits.

I had an interesting conversation with a group of students in my 7th and 8th grade religion class last Wednesday. Knowing that far too many folks these days appear to interpret the Bible according to some pretty messed up criteria, my goal this semester has been to walk the students through the process of completing an exegetical study.

Essentially, I’ve divided the class into two groups. One group is wrestling with Mark 10:46-52 (the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar), and the other is handling Luke 10:25-37 (the Parable of the Good Samaritan). Both groups are tasked with studying from at least four different English translations of their assigned text (I’m helping with the Greek if they discover the need to dig deeper). They are to be concerned with discerning keywords, studying context (genre, writer, major and immediate sections, and the like), exploring parallel texts (which includes non-canonical resources), and so much more, all with the hope of exposing the primary purpose and meaning of the portion of God’s Word they are to be handling.

Pedagogically speaking, I’m not a big fan of small groups in an academic setting. I’m not convinced it’s the best way to learn. Still, I went against my own rule and gathered the students into groups according to their respective texts in order for them to discuss with one another the particular keywords they’d each discovered and were considering for his or her exposition. I hovered closely among the two groups.

For the most part, and interestingly, the students gravitated toward many of the same words. On occasion, however, one or two students would suggest the importance of a word that none of the others had considered. I was glad for that. I could go into greater detail as to why, but rest assured from their discussion, it was proof to me that they were really digging in and taking the assignment seriously.

At one point along the way, I suggested to both groups that they try to imagine themselves as onlookers to the situation, paying close attention with the mind’s eye to the visual flow of events. When they took time to do this, other aspects became visible.

With respect to keywords, an example of an obvious one from the Luke 10 text was the NIV’s term “expert in the Law” in comparison to the ESV’s rather simple descriptor “lawyer.” That’s an easy one. Does the difference matter? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, the students are going to figure that out. But when they placed themselves as observers of the conversation unfolding between Jesus and the expert in the Law, a few of the students noticed almost immediately a very strange shift. On the surface, Jesus seemingly commended the lawyer in verse 28 for giving the right answer to his question. “You have answered correctly,” Jesus said. “Do this and you will live.”

That’s great, right? Who wouldn’t want to be commended by the Lord? But in the very next verse, the lawyer appears to cop an attitude, feeling the need to justify himself, as if he’d somehow been insulted.

So, what happened?

One student in the bunch took the lead in the hunt for an answer. Eventually, he circled back around to the Lord’s reply to the lawyer, guessing that it was either the way the Lord said what He did (which we can’t necessarily determine His tone), or something wasn’t quite getting through in the English translation. Ultimately, he focused on the Lord’s words, “Do this and you will live,” because that seemed to be the critical moment of engagement in the Lord’s commendation. After a little more discussion, “Do this” became the student’s sole focus.

And that was it. In the Greek, the verb reveals the Lord’s insinuation that the lawyer, a man who thought he was keeping the Law of God perfectly, hadn’t been performing in the way he believed himself to be. “Do this” meant that if perhaps he actually got started right then and there, he might discover eternal life. Of course, that was a short, but loaded, reply to the lawyer’s self-righteous answer. To gain eternal life by way of keeping the Law is impossible. No one will pave their way to heaven with deeds. Jesus knows this. That’s why He came. But the lawyer was under the impression that he, an expert in the Law, was doing a pretty good job at actually accomplishing it. Jesus pointed out in front of the massive crowd that the show-off’s expertise in this regard was clearly lacking.

In short, here was a man whose trust for eternal life was located in himself, and the Rabbi he was challenging in that moment believed he was failing desperately at it. Like everyone else in the crowd, the lawyer needed a Savior.

This offended him. It embarrassed him, too. That meant he needed to do something to justify himself in order to regain his previous standing before the onlookers.

Knowing this particular detail in the exchange completely changes the trajectory for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. My guess is that most interpret the parable apart from this introductory text, and when they do, it becomes little more than a Sunday School story about how Jesus wants us to be good to others. But if we’re going to handle it honestly, that’s not why Jesus told the parable. The purpose of the parable is to point out how we fail, and by doing this, He’s putting before us the opportunity to admit we actually need a Savior. The astonishing part to this is that when we actually know the Lord’s real reason for teaching the parable, and then we dig into the parable itself, we may actually see the Gospel woven into its fabric. In other words, Jesus laid some gut-wrenching Law on us, but He didn’t leave us without hope. For the expert in the Law, Jesus foreshadowed the work of the Messiah—Jesus’ approaching work to accomplish our rescue—which is to say that He told the story of us and Himself.

He described someone who’d been pummeled and left for dead, and unless the wretch received help, his permanent end would be inevitable. That’s us. Sin has more than seen to this. Fascinatingly, the well-known animosity between the Jews and Samaritans is a hint to the vastness of the chasm that separates Man from God. And yet, the fact that the dying man’s chief enemy, a Samaritan, is the one who helped him is a glimpse of our Lord’s crossing over that divide in order to save us. As the story unfolded further, the scene became even clearer. The One who would be our enemy, rather than leaving us in our predicament, came down into the valley of our sorrow to be with us, to reach to us in love. He bandaged up our wounds, took us to a place where He arranged for our care, and then He promised to return to settle all accounts.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s an image of the Lord’s incarnation all the way through to His return at the Last Day, with the in-between time being His wonderful work to rescue, forgive, and sustain us as His people.

I expect that the students assigned to this text, with a little more recalibrating of their exegetical lenses, are going to discover these gems in the text for themselves. But as I mentioned at the beginning of this note, I suppose the reason I was moved to share this particular moment from my 7th and 8th grade religion class with you is because of a conversation I had on Saturday with a Christian who felt the need to defend Joe Biden’s supposed “devout” Catholicism. One tritely employed phrase that was used during the conversation (and I say “tritely” because far too many Christians believe this): “Well, you interpret the Bible one way, and Biden interprets it another way. Maybe he doesn’t accept parts that you do. That doesn’t necessarily make him wrong.”

Puke.

God didn’t give us His Word so we could do whatever the heck we want with it, picking and choosing this or that portion, ultimately making it say whatever we feel like making it say. It is divinely inspired, inerrant, and immutable—and with that, there are intentions behind every single Word. If you don’t believe this, not only will you never be able to secure a faithful interpretation, but in the end, you’ll see it as having very little value to begin with. When this happens, you’ll have become no different than the self-righteous lawyer in Luke 10 who felt he had no need for Jesus, because after all, Jesus is the very Word made flesh (John 1:14). If you reject the Lord’s Word, by default you reject Him. That leads to big trouble. Eternal trouble.

I doubt our new President will ever allow a faithful pastor thirty or forty minutes of his time to exegize alongside him some of the Biblical texts he believes give license for murdering babies in (and out of) the womb, for allowing men who think they’re women to compete in women’s sports, or so many other ungodly ideologies. In fact, I know he won’t do this. He’s already verbally condemned the catholic bishops who’ve said he should be excommunicated for his radical handling of God’s Word in these particular arenas.

In the end, I guess I’m just going to continue to work with what I have—which means doing what I can to teach the students in the 7th and 8th grade at Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran School in Hartland, Michigan, the powerful contents of God’s Word. And as I do this, I’m going to do what I can to help carry them into a love for Biblical study, one that continues into adulthood. God willing, it’ll be a love that sees the value in taking time to wrestle with what God’s Word actually teaches, rather than relegating it to a thin scan and the shallow realm of “What does this mean to me?” as so many Christians are in the unfortunate habit of doing.

Dying to Meet You

Do you have time for a quick story? Since you’re here, I’ll go ahead and share it.

We took a phone call here at Our Savior this past Friday. I didn’t answer it. Nikki, our Parish Administrator, did. It was someone calling to chat with me. Even though I wasn’t necessarily steeped in anything crucial, Nikki took a message for me. She does this because she knows that while technically Friday is my day off—and I probably shouldn’t tell you this—but I’m always in the office on Fridays. I have a few regularly scheduled appointments in the morning, and then after that, I use the rest of the day to catch up on things I didn’t have time for during the week. She runs block for me to let me do my thing.

Anyway, a woman called to let me know she didn’t appreciate the comparison I’d made in a recent radio bit equating Christians who justify skipping worship on a regular basis to so-called believers who justify voting for a candidate who favors abortion.

To be fair, the woman wasn’t rude with her critique—which was a welcomed difference in comparison to so many other calls or email messages I’ve received from metro-Detroit listeners. Instead, Nikki described her as someone who, with a conversational tone, was troubled “by likening someone absent from church to a Christian who’d support abortion,” and her hope was that I’d reconsider broadcasting the particular segment in its current form.

I’ll admit the association is a brutal one. And I’m more than willing to reconsider my words. The problem is, I didn’t write the script on this particular radio bit. My daughter did. Evelyn’s the one who made the observation and ultimately formed the comparative conclusion. I was so inspired by her insight, I wrote down what was spoken between us and together we recorded the 60-second radio spot right then and there. Again, I put into the microphone what I said. Evelyn put into it what she said. The brief conversation fit perfectly between the 15-second intro and the 15-second outro of my one-minute-and-thirty-seconds of airtime.

The context was simple. While waiting in my office before school, Evelyn was scanning the images from one of our previous church pictorial directories. Turning the pages, she stumbled upon the picture of someone she didn’t recognize. Second only to her dad, Evelyn practically lives here at Our Savior. She knows everyone’s name. And if she doesn’t know a member’s name, she certainly knows all the faces. Looking at a pictorial directory of people officially labeled as “members,” one holding the kindly faces of countless people she considers as members of her Christian family, it was natural for her to ask about someone she didn’t recognize. I didn’t say much at first, but I was careful not to be deceptive. Had I dodged her question, she would’ve known. Remember, like me, she’s here every Sunday. If she doesn’t recognize you, it’s probably because you don’t attend. That being the case in this particular instance, when she asked for the identity of the person, I said very nonchalantly, “She’s a member of the congregation, but she just doesn’t come to church very often.”

“Well, I’ve never seen her before in my life,” she replied, sounding somewhat concerned—just as I’d expect from this little girl with such a huge heart for her church family. “Does she work on Sundays?”

“No,” I answered, again trying not to give her any more information than she required.

“So, she could be here on Sundays?”

“I suppose.”

Evelyn thought for a moment, and then she laid the situation out unembellished. “How can she consider herself a member of a church she doesn’t even want to attend?”

My answer: “That’s a really good question, honey.”

Her next uninhibited reply, being the ardent pro-life girl that she is: “That’s kind of like people who call themselves Christian but support abortion. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

First of all, can you tell Evelyn is in tune with what’s going on around her, both in her church and her world? Second, there you have it. Even a child understands the inconsistency. How can we claim to be a devoted follower of someone we want nothing to do with? Using the same logic, how can we claim faith in Christ who is the Word made flesh (John 1:14), and yet be in opposition to the Word of God when it comes to topics like abortion?

It just doesn’t make any sense, and my little girl knew it.

Of course as adults, there will always be plenty of unknown angles to Evelyn’s observation that we’ll discover. COVID-19 has made things a little crazier these days. However, rest assured that the person in the picture was MIA long before COVID-19. That being said, be careful not to square the angles for escape from her scrutiny’s sting with whatever illegitimate excuses at whatever moment work best for you. And be sure to take even greater care not to overcomplicate or find offense in what’s been laid bare. If you do, you’re sure to miss a simple truth revealed by way of a simple faith, the same kind of child-like faith described by the Lord in Matthew 18:3 and now being demonstrated by a little girl who sees time with her Savior, concern for the members of her church family, and doing everything humanly possible to protect the lives of unborn children as essential and non-negotiable to the Christian life.

Her evaluation was simple, but it was a good one. I suppose in essence, it reminds us that even as our God cannot be in contradiction with Himself, He does not grant us space for being in contradiction with Him, either. This is built into the Lord’s announcement, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30).

Now, to begin wrapping all of this up, right after Nikki told me about the call on Friday, I posted on Facebook the very first thing that came to mind:

“I’m beginning to think that for some Christians, worship and Bible study are so precious they feel they need to ration them. Go to church.”

Yes, it was a sarcastic play on words.

“Well, I don’t support abortion, so don’t put my skipping church into the same category.”

But they are in the same category. Don’t have other gods. Don’t misuse God’s name. Don’t skip church. Don’t kill. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. These are all a part of the same list of things we do to thumb our noses at God, and ultimately, they’re things that keep us separated from Him. And yet, our Lord reaches to us by His Gospel. He empowers us there by His Holy Spirit for acknowledging our dreadful disobedience. Only by the power of the Gospel can we know to repent of these Sins and be changed to desire faithfulness (Romans 1:16).

I don’t necessarily know what many of the other churches around us are doing, but opportunities for holy worship are plentiful here at Our Savior. We have two Divine Services on Sunday. We enjoy the Office of Matins on Monday, another Divine Service on Wednesday, and an abbreviated Responsive Prayer (liturgics) service on Thursday.

And God is continually blessing all of our time together during these occasions for worship.

Dear Christians, there’s no need to ration your time with Christ. There’s an abundance! Indeed, the Lord is here, and His merciful gifts are overflowing all week long. Surely you can make it to one of those services to receive from the bounty that belongs to those who are His own? Wear your mask if you want to. Or don’t. No one is judging anyone in this regard. And why would we? The goal is simply to gather with the Lord and receive His care just as He desires to give it.

Quite honestly, I say all of this with a rather sizable concern in mind. For me personally, it’s one thing to be unrecognizable to Evelyn. Truthfully, if you are yet to meet her, you are missing out. But it’s a thing of far greater terror—the greatest terror there is—to be unrecognizable to Christ; to be one to hear Him say at one’s last hour, “I never knew you. Away from me…” (Matthew 7:23).

Go to church. You belong there. And even if you don’t feel like you belong just yet, go anyway. Christ is dying to meet you. Well, “died” to be more precise. And I know a church full of people who are eager to make the introduction.

The Masterpiece of Family

If I were asked to choose God’s greatest masterpiece from among the many things He has fashioned, of course I’d select His plan of salvation worked through His Son, Jesus Christ. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ on behalf of a straying creation is His greatest work. The resplendence of the Christmas season more than certifies this magnum opus. But if I had to choose a second place from among the rest of His handiwork, before I’d ever even consider the majesty of a mountain range, or the cascading and jewel-like glistening of a sunlit waterfall, or even a pitch black sky filled with an endless array of iridescent stars, I would choose the family.

The human family is truly a remarkable thing.

Besides being the fundamental building block of all societies in history, I suppose one aspect of family that’s so remarkable is that just to observe one is to see a number of important truths in our world. For one, Christians know the source code for family is born from the relationship God intends for us to have with Him. He is our Creator—our divine parent—and we are his children; and as His little ones, we are free to go to Him to receive the benefits of His loving kindness and concern, and He is sure to exercise that care as He watches over us. When we’re sick or hurting, He brings the right medicine and healing. When we’re sad, He’s there to give comfort. When we’re scared, He provides security. Perhaps best of all, when we’re lost, He seeks us out. In fact, such a scene epitomizes the Lord’s very first words to Adam and Eve in the Garden after the fall into the dreadfulness of Sin. He didn’t reprimand the misbehaving dolts, but rather His first action was one of love. Like a concerned parent, God called to his children, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9).

In an existential way, a human family portrays an orderly world and its functioning parts. From our planet and everything within its protective atmosphere all revolving around a preserving sun, to a body moving and breathing and living by way of individual cells creating tissue that become parts ultimately forming a whole, the human family is iconic of purposeful togetherness. At least Saint Paul certainly thought so, especially when considering the universal Christian family—the Church—as a functioning body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).

I suppose one of the most remarkable aspects of the masterpiece of family—an aspect that almost certainly makes all other created things jealous as they look on—is the element of unconditional love to be had between its members. God certainly intends this love to be a part of a family’s DNA, and this is a good thing because no human family is perfect.

Thomas Fuller spoke wisely when he said something about how anyone born into a family that doesn’t have the usual screw-ups and headache-makers must have been born from a flash of lightning and not in the natural way. In other words, and again, no family is perfect. As a matter of fact, every member of every human family is carrying around faults plaited in the human flesh. Sure, some members of our families cause more problems than others—and some of these problems are the worst kinds—but in the end, none of us are free from the complications we ourselves impose on others around us, no matter how big or small those complications may be. Because of this, it’s an absolute miracle that human beings can live in such close proximity to one another for very long, let alone in the same home as something called family. Being a family is not only remarkable, but it is perhaps one of the most challenging endeavors, too.

And yet, by the love God models and then sets as the standard—a love He establishes both in and between the members of a family—we can maneuver among one another with our individual distinctions knowing that we also “carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:10).

In other words, no matter how horribly dysfunctional things might seem to be, it’s the love of God among its members that makes it work and sees them through the seemingly unsurvivable times.

With this Gospel sense about us—even if we’re the only ones sitting at the Christmas dinner table who believe it—as I heard someone once say (and I don’t remember who), for Christians, a family becomes something in which we might sometimes feel trapped, and yet in our innermost, we don’t ever really want to escape. We know there’s too much to lose by doing so, and so we look around at one another and we not only see people we love, but we behold people whom God loves—people He was willing to die for. That means when even our closest family members betray, hurt, or disappoint us, they remain someone we’d fight hell and high water to keep safely within reach.

This comes to mind as I think of all of you this Christmastide.

If there’s one thing I know for sure about many of the people of God here at Our Savior, it’s that each and every day, by God’s grace, they are growing closer and closer to one another as a Christian family. I’m seeing it with my own eyes, and I’m experiencing it personally, too. As a congregation, we heard some tough news yesterday before both of the worship services regarding the health of one of our own, Pastor Zwonitzer. And yet the oxygen-like joy we have in Christ was not sucked from the room when he shared the concerning details. Instead, we took it in together, and then we exhaled together in prayer—and then we breathed in the Lord’s promised care as a Christian family during the worship service that followed the announcement. I can barely begin to top this hopeful imagery of our mutual togetherness, except to say that this kind of togetherness is happening in so many other corners of our congregation. Differences are being overcome. Care is being shown. Needs are being met. People are rallying to one another’s sides in times of both desperation and joy.

As the world around us is so easily rattled, as it appears to be coming undone by frustration and despair, I actually can’t think of a time as a pastor of a congregation when my own personal peace has felt so impenetrable. Truly, God is blessing our togetherness with love, strength, and determination that only He can provide, and it’s bringing along in its train a sense of safety—the kind of safety one experiences when he knows he’s surrounded by loved-ones.

Christmas is only a few days away, and with it will come gatherings with folks you might call family. My prayer is that you can carry this Godly perspective from your church family into your own home. To be thoroughly equipped for this, I’d encourage you first and foremost to gather for worship with your Christian family on Christmas Eve and Day. Join your brothers and sisters in Christ at the Heavenly Father’s divine table for the celebration of the coming of His Son, our Brother, who came to take away our Sin. From there, be refreshed to venture into the midst of your earthly families humbly understanding none of us is perfect—none were born from a flash of lightning—but on the other hand, we were reborn by water and the Word for faith, and so we aren’t as we were before. We are equipped for exemplifying the unconditional love God intends to be found in the midst of families, and in due course, extended to others beyond the borders of our family.

I know such love won’t always be easy, but I know for a fact that it’s possible by God’s grace at work through us.

Again, know that I’m praying specifically for peace in your families this Christmas, and I’m trusting that God will grant to you the special merriment of heart that knows no matter what happens, this peace has already been won by Jesus, the very brushstrokes carrying the splendid hues of God’s greatest masterpiece—the Gospel.

Spencer Smith: Remember His Name

Spencer Smith.
Remember his name. He took his own life. He wrote down his reasons, and he left them as a record for anyone willing to read them—with honesty, that is.
Coronavirus restrictions. Virtual learning. Isolation.
Don’t be tempted to blame mental illness like the weasely school district superintendent tried to do. Don’t blame the parents for being ill-tuned to their son’s condition as the child psychologists are sure to do. Be honest. Accept that Spencer was fine before the lockdowns. It was the isolating restrictions that brought the despair. It was the forced distancing augmented by a computer screen classroom that chained the sadness to Spencer’s ankles. It was the inescapable loneliness that throttled the throat of his hope and killed him.
I would think that Christians have the eyes for seeing this. And we are well attuned to the knowledge that it was God who set the parameters with regard to togetherness. He knew at the very beginning that we’d need it. “It is not good for man to be alone,” were some of His first words. Just as he knew we’d need food, He knew that we’d need to be with people—in person, embracing, fully sensing and savoring the humanity of one another. God knew that a friend on a computer screen would be as fulfilling as a steak-flavored dinner squeezed from a tube dispenser. Both would be thinly veneered experiences, and would never match nor fully represent what’s real.
But now we’ve been tricked into thinking this is the best way forward. As a pastor, I’m of the mind that anything countering God’s will or wisdom could never be the best way.
With that, I offer a brief word of caution to parents.
Apart from this article, I took a little time to read similar articles being shared on this all-too-common occurrence in 2020. Most are betraying—even if only subtly—similar weaknesses in our societal armor. Not all of the articles, but many. Consider what appears to be the framing of this child’s greatest hope:
“He had dreams of playing lineman on the Brunswick High School football team, but those hopes were dashed when it was replaced by flag football.”
Don’t let extra curricular activities be your child’s all-in-all. We’ve learned all too well that the governing authorities can dash these hopes. But no earthly power can snatch away the hope we have in Christ. Parents, do whatever you can to make sure your child’s greatest hope is found only in Christ. A chief way to do this is to go to church. Go and be in the actual place and among the real people where God is distributing His gifts of love through Word and Sacrament. And if your church is not providing for in-person togetherness with the Lord as a fellowshipping community, but rather has elected to remain completely virtual, then you’re getting a tube dispenser Jesus. Christ wants more for you, which is why He mandates that His people be together:
“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:23-25)
In such a context, there’s real, long-lasting, and unflinching hope in the faithful One to be had. As a result, there’s a spurring motion of love and service from one human to the next there, too.
Indeed, it is not good for man to be alone. Spencer Smith is an unfortunate proof.
Remember his name.

As Seen On TV

I went to Meijer in Hartland this past Friday, and while making my way to the hardware section to find a replacement bulb for the lamp on my desk, I overheard a rather animated child begging his mom with tantrum-like sounds to buy him a particular item he’d discovered on one of the end caps. I don’t know what the item was, but from his insistence, it sounded as though he might die if he didn’t own it.

I’m guessing it was some sort of fantastical device—like a teleporter—because at one point he called out something like, “I saw it on TV, and it’s the coolest thing ever!” Indeed, a teleportation device would be the coolest thing ever.

But whatever it was, I couldn’t help thinking I was experiencing the male version of Veruca Salt from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and that this child’s exuberance was likely triggered by commercial advertising. In a passing moment between mind-numbing segments of his favorite TV show, the emptier compartments of his developing cerebrum had been stirred to entrancement by the possibility of owning a product the TV had convinced him he needed for experiencing true joy. And here it was in all its glory, well within reach of his Wonka Bar-stained fingers.

But Mom said no, and then continued, “Now you know what to ask for from Santa for Christmas.”

The child’s response was by no means subdued. He wanted it, and he made sure everyone within earshot knew it. As for me, I grabbed the lightbulb I needed and walked away wondering how she plans on wrapping the kid’s gifts. I hear it’s challenging to wrap coal, not only because it’s lumpy, but because it’s so dirty. The dust alone prevents the tape from adhering to the paper as it should. Ask my kids. It’s always the easiest of their gifts to unwrap.

Anyway…

The funny thing is, for as much as any of us may have wanted to chastise little Veruca, none of us is immune to the psychology of advertising. It was Stephen Leacock (in my humble opinion, Canada’s version of Mark Twain) who said something about how advertising is pretty much the science of arresting human intelligence long enough to squeeze some money from it. If you think about it, he’s right. We all have items in our homes to prove those moments of arrested mindfulness—those things that demonstrate just how powerful the world can be for reaching into our lives to convince us that what it offers can be our all-in-all for joy.

But now, admit it. Many of those things the world sold you are now consigned to miscellaneous junk boxes littering the shelves of the basement storage closet.

Digging a little deeper into this, I get the sense that for many, impulse buys aren’t the only proof that the world has reached into our lives in this way. Far too many in our world appear to base the value of their lives on whether or not they get the new car or the new boat or the new furniture, or whether or not the kids have all the right fashions and all the latest tech. So many are living their lives and measuring their personal value according to the seemingly infinite (and yet false) promise of joy that the world labors tirelessly to attach to things.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently wrong with buying a new car, just as there’s nothing inherently wrong with your kids having nice things to wear. The problem emerges when these things become the sole source for our identity and happiness. When this occurs, the old saying becomes true: “God sends the meat, but the devil sends the cooks.” God is the giver of everything we have, but the devil has his ways of making us see and interpret these gifts according to very different standards. These things become less representative of the kindness and generosity of a God who loves us, and more about our deservedness or our supposed self-made successes.

Again, don’t get me wrong. God gives us our reason and our senses in order that we would use them to their fullest potential, and by them we should seek to do our best in all things. You certainly won’t accomplish anything unless you act. And odds are you won’t be successful unless your acting is born from genuine effort. In fact, I have a piece of paper taped to the bookshelf beside my desk that heralds this very point in its extreme. It bears a quotation from Calvin Coolidge, and admittedly, much of what I do in life is in subscription to the basic premise of his words. Maybe I’ve shared it with you before. The quotation reads:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

To be clear, Coolidge used the term “omnipotent” in a hyperbolic sense. What he meant in context is that when it comes solely to man’s capacity, persistence is where the bulk of our muscle is to be located. And as I said, I wholeheartedly agree with him. Still, as Christians, we know and do all of this acknowledging the One who is the giver of both the tangibles as well as the intangibles. We rest in the mindfulness that all we have is from God, and no matter how hard we may work to get it, He was the one who gave us everything required to do it, even the drive. In the end, the source of our joy, even as it may be interwoven with certain things or abilities, is always located in Him alone.

And so, it is to Him we are thankful at all times and in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

But deeper still, this has me pondering something else.

As we’ve already established, everything that we are and everything that we have is from God. The Word of God declares this (Romans 11:36). But as we examine that same Word and we find ourselves getting into the grittiest, most molecular details, we realize that of ourselves the only thing we ever really bring to the table in any circumstance is the Sin-nature (Psalm 51:5; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 3:10). That’s not so great. And yet, far too often it’s the Sin-nature at the steering wheel when it comes to the handling of God’s gifts to us—namely, what we give back to Him in thanksgiving. In other words, we often find ourselves giving back to God the pittance that remains from everything else we first gave to the devil, the world, and ourselves. That’s not so great, either.

I know I may be a little ahead of myself, but for those of you who know me, you’ll know I’m the kind of guy who finds value in making New Year’s resolutions. As I’ve written in other places, resolutions for personal betterment are by no means a bad thing. In fact, I commend all willing to try. Even Saint Paul encouraged Christians to practice reaching higher in their Godliness (Colossians 3:1-4). The New Year is on the very near horizon (thankfully), and with that, I’m already making plans to reach higher. One of the things I intend to do (which I do pretty much every year) is to re-evaluate my stewardship. I want to get better at it. I want to be more mindful.

I don’t know where you fit into this discussion, but I’m pretty sure that all of us could reach higher in this regard, too. As a pastor, I certainly know some long-term, impactful ways for giving back to God in thankfulness for His loving kindness. They’re not necessarily things you’ll find on an end cap at Meijer, and yet they’re the coolest things ever. I say this because they will provide greatly when it comes to securing the Church’s borders in a time of increasing persecution, while at the same time they’ll serve to extend the Gospel to that same persecuting world in desperate need of hearing the Good News. I’m here to tell you I’ll be taking aim at and ramping up my efforts to support those kinds of efforts here at Our Savior in 2021. Maybe you could think about doing so, too.

Chasing Happiness

I don’t mean to alarm you, but it’s nearing the end of September and it’s 44 degrees outside right now. And this past Saturday before an early morning meeting with the Elders, I noticed the leaves on one of the trees near the church’s bell tower beginning a course toward yellow. Even before the sun had pierced the horizon, in the dim light, there was the illusion of the tree’s plume being tinged by a bright beam. Of course it wasn’t the sun causing the leaves to glow. It was the onset of autumn.

The world is turning toward winter.

My wife, Jennifer, bought a special type of lamp for me. I haven’t used it yet, but it’s one that’s supposed to help with the seasonal doldrums that come along in the wake of winter’s relentless (and seemingly endless) plodding. She knows I love the summertime. She knows I love the longer days, and that as they grow shorter, I do everything I can to get as much from them as possible. I’ll be outside. I’ll take the top and doors off of the Wrangler, even if only to get an hour or two of enjoyment between passing rainclouds. I do everything I can to pull from each day. Admittedly, I’m easily irritated by kids who’d rather be inside playing a video game instead of doing the same. I see them on the couch with controllers in their hands and I’m reminded of something Peter Shaffer, the English playwright, said of his wife’s disinterest in the surrounding splendor while on vacation in Tuscany:

“All my wife has taken from the Mediterranean—from that whole vast intuitive culture—are four bottles of Chianti to make into lamps.”

But as I was saying, I struggle to find joy in winter. I struggle to discover happiness in what seems to be the monopoly of its darkness, and so I do all I can to relish in what summer gives before it’s gone. I suppose one particular bit of happiness I find in winter is, in itself, paradoxical. I do a lot more writing during the colder, darker months of the year. I do it to help survive winter—to be distracted from its confinement, to sort of take a little time each day to jot myself into imaginary spheres where I’m in control of the pace of the earth’s position and rotation. In those moments, I give far more ticks of the clock to the daylight. If I didn’t have this as mental medicine, I can only imagine the depressions I might endure.

Perhaps you have similar practices that help to get you through your personal melancholies.

Admittedly, every year at this time, I’m reminded of how the changing seasons run parallel with a number of things in life. For one, I’m reminded to embrace the happy times—to appreciate family, friends, and the moments we have together in the “right now.” I recall these things knowing that everything could be very different tomorrow. Come to think of it, tomorrow itself is never a certain thing. This has begun to make more sense as my children get older. With each and every step toward adulthood, I’m reminded of just how momentary the current days truly are. At the moment, all four of my children still live at home, but it won’t be long before each will pass from the summertime of his or her life with mom and dad into the winter of “farewell.” Of course, they’ll move beyond that winter toward the spring and summer of new careers and family, and God willing, the parents will be brought along with them into these seasons of happiness.

All the same, too many parents know exactly the mixed emotions of this icy in-between that I’m describing, and so as the twilight of the events draws near, parents do their best to take as much joy from the moments as each will give. They’ll do what they can to hold onto the happiness.

I suppose before I go any further with my Monday morning tip-tapping of the keyboard’s keys—of putting onto your screen whatever I feel like putting there in the moment—I suppose I should get to some sort of point. Or how about a question? I think there’s one hidden in what I’ve shared so far.

How about this: What makes for real happiness?

Misery seems easy enough to find. Funny thing is, I sometimes think a good portion of society’s misery comes from its endless chasing after happiness. I also sometimes wonder if while we waste a lot of time trying to capture contentment, do we really even know what it looks like, and would we know it if we actually caught it? I’m guessing that for the most part, no. Elderly parents reminisce regarding the happier days when their kids were little and at home. But in many of those moments, they were longing for easier days with older, less dependent children—ones who didn’t whine or get in trouble at school—ones who would finally know enough to run to the toilet to throw up rather than just doing it right there in their bed. At the same time, children are unhappy under the watchful yoke of their parents. They want to be free. But as adults with the flu, they long for the days when mom would coddle them with a makeshift bed on the couch and a never-ending supply of chicken noodle soup and cartoons.

Youthfulness or maturity, obscurity or fame, poverty or wealth, sickness or health—none of these things, or anything in between has ever truly succeeded at being the ultimate conduit for happiness.

The Bible speaks of happiness in some pretty strange ways. One of those ways is hope.

In Proverbs 10:28, King Solomon wrote that the “hope of the righteous will be gladness.” In Romans 15:13, Saint Paul actually connects both joy and peace with the hope of faith when He says, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

At first glance, texts like these might seem counterintuitive. We often see joyful happiness as the emotional object that comes with having something material in hand. We believe that only by holding the first place trophy will we experience joy. For many in our world, only by having more money in hand will they be happy. Few consider the process of hoping for joy to be the joy itself.

Another strange way the Bible talks about happiness is in connection to suffering. The Apostle James wrote:

“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:2-3).

Here we are told that we can actually experience happiness when the world is coming down on us. Of course, James was only repeating what Jesus said in John 15, just a few sentences before He began prepping the disciples for persecution:

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

But notice how Jesus phrased His statement. His joy would be our joy, and He inferred this joy would be ours right now. This should give us a hint as to what real joy—real happiness—truly is. It’s the comforting knowledge given by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel for faith. It’s the divine awareness implanted deep down in our core that knows the freedom from Sin, Death, and the power of the devil won for us by Christ. The world can’t give to us anything remotely close to this. Only God can. And He promises that such happiness can be experienced in both good times and bad. Why? Because it is as Nehemiah proclaimed: “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10). Such joy has steely innards. Its foundation is one of divine confidence, and its framework is built according to the schematic that knows no matter what happens, it stands before the Father justified on account of Christ. By this, Christian joy forever bears in mind the impermanence of this world as it anticipates the world to come in His eternal presence.

“You will show me the path of life,” King David wrote in Psalm 16:11, “and in Your presence is fullness of joy.”

Add to this Saint Paul’s words from Romans 5:1-2:

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

The peace we’ll experience in its fullest sense in the future of heaven is the same peace of which we have a foretaste right now. Beautiful. Our God reminds us by His holy Word that through faith in His Son, right here in this life, we know that any chance for being at war for our eternal future has passed.

We needn’t fear.

In this we can be hopeful. In this we can be happy.

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.

“Look at the Heavens and Count the Stars”

I’m aware that I continue to fail at keeping this Monday morning eNews message short. Believe me, I’m trying. And this time, I won’t let you down. It’s just that there’s plenty unfolding around us to observe, ponder, and share. When it all begins to coalesce, it can get somewhat substantial. And then in my eagerness, when it all starts rolling from my fingers to the keyboard, it’s probably better—saner—for me to just let it run its course, like a boulder rolling downhill. Eventually it’ll come to a stop, but until it does, I’d better stay out of its way.

The thought I had this morning stems from a comment my daughter, Evelyn, made a few days before school started. I’d taken the Wrangler’s doors and top off, and among the five others in my family, Evelyn was the only one who accepted an invitation to go for a late-evening drive. The air was cool. The sky was clean swept of clouds. It couldn’t have been any better.

At one point, we ended up north of town, somewhere between Flint and Linden, which is mostly farmland. As we made our way along the lightless roads, Evelyn leaned back to gaze into the depth of the night sky above us. Again, that particular night offered a sky that was crisp and clear. With barely any light from the city, the stars were easily visible.

Pointing to this one and that one, she wondered aloud to her chauffeur (as best as she could above the wind noise) as to whether they were actually stars or planets. She looked for the North Star—because she knows how to find it in relation to the Big Dipper—and she gave a gleeful cheer when she did.

“It’s awesome how God put all those up there,” she said, capping the moment of discovery. “And He did it in a way so that if we’re ever lost, we’ll always be able to see them and find our way.”

A simple observation, true to anyone who’s ever navigated the ocean’s tides. And yet the words of the pretty ten-year-old girl riding shotgun in the Jeep set a little something more into motion.

On the surface, it seems she meant rather simply that God designed the universe in a way that all its parts move predictably, as though it were a grand engine that, by virtue of its unfathomable mechanics, served to display His power.

While true, her words were deeper still. Evelyn’s observation hinted to the grand presentation twirling above us as being far more a faithful exhibition of God’s thoughtful concern than His power, more a display of His inclination toward love than His creative muscle.

“And He did it in a way that, if we’re ever lost, we’ll always be able to see them and find our way.”

That’s God doing—designing, creating, acting, moving—as He cares for us, as He’s mindful of us. And that, of course, got me thinking on God’s Word, the place where He reveals this mindful love, the place where He refers to the stars as being in place not only for the mechanical governance of night and day, or solely for our delight, but as opportunities to do just what Evelyn and I were doing in that moment—beholding and then recalling His loving faithfulness.

Just off the top of my head, I can point to the obvious instance in Genesis 15:5 when God led Abram (soon to be Abraham) out into a cool evening just like the one we were enjoying. It was there that God encouraged him to behold the stars, and He reminded the childless man of His very important promise—one that would see to countless offspring, ultimately resulting in a most important descendant, Jesus Christ, coming to redeem the world.

I can also think of Saint Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:41-42 where the Apostle points to the moon and stars to help describe the resurrection of all believers in Christ. And knowing the intertwining of the divinely inspired Word, I’ll bet Daniel 7:2-3 wasn’t all that far from Paul’s mind when speaking of such things. Daniel wrote quite candidly of the resurrection at the Last Day: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.”

Beautiful. Just beautiful.

Beyond these, don’t forget the kinds of things God’s Word shares with us every year at Christmastime and Epiphany, those seasons in the Church Year when we hear words like, “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17), or we follow along as a luminous attendant in the heavens leads Magi to the Christ child (Matthew 2:1-12).

Perhaps best of all, it means something to us when we hear the Lord Jesus say of Himself in Revelation 22:16: “I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”

Again, just beautiful.

To conclude, if you can find the time, take a moment to look into the night sky. Grab your lawn chair and a favorite beverage, maybe lather up with some bug repellent if necessary, and then kick back in a place where you can see an unobstructed sky. First, look widely. Behold the splendor. Then look closely. See the precision. Ponder these things knowing that the One who put it all there has His divine heart set upon you. He loves you—enough to give His own Son into death that you would have life.

I suppose that’s the better, truer, beauty inherent to the glistening stars.

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.