Jacob’s Ladder

We’re only a few days into 2021. Still, I pray all is well with you so far.

Interestingly, because of my daughter Madeline’s fondness for all things 80s, I crossed into the New Year having reconnected with some favorite music from my youth. While I’m more of a hard rock kind of guy—AC/DC being the typical go-to playlist at any given moment—I found myself emptying the dishwasher to some familiars by Huey Lewis and the News.

“I Want a New Drug.” “The Heart of Rock and Roll.” “Heart and Soul.” “Back in Time.” Let me tell you, I forgot how much I appreciated these songs. They had a memorable style.

For me, I think I found the combination of catchy rhythm guitar riffs and the rasp of Huey Lewis’ voice to be a welcome change to the poppy synthesizers that were saturating the airwaves and making the 80s music scene little more than canned cheese. When it came to skill, it felt lazy, and it was almost unendurable at times. Yes, Huey Lewis and the News used keyboards. But they used them the right way—in a bluesy rock way.

Of course, I don’t mean to insult any of my friends who remain huge fans of shoulder pads and “Bonnie Tyler” hairstyles. I most definitely don’t hold anything against those of you who tap down the road listening to the Pet Shop Boys, Culture Club, or Cyndi Lauper. But truthfully, there were only so many times I could be riding along with someone listening to A-Ha’s “Take On Me” before I actually felt like climbing into whichever comic book I might have been reading, even if it meant being accosted by a couple of brutes wielding chains and a monkey wrench. Seriously. If it weren’t for bands led by the likes of Angus Young, Eddie Van Halen, Joe Elliot, and yes, Huey Lewis, the radio would’ve, for the most part, been dead to me.

Of course I hear these songs through different filters, now. As a kid, it’s the music I remember most. But now I’m listening to the lyrics more intently, and oftentimes, I’m discovering things I missed.

Again, speaking of Huey Lewis and the News, I was listening to the song “Jacob’s Ladder.” There’s no arguing it’s sort of a “works righteousness” song. Lewis sings about being put off by the TV preachers and the aggressive Law-wielding Bible-thumpers. Good for him. They are off-putting to me, too. But because this is now his interpretation of Christianity, he turns to the even less certain spirituality of trying to figure it out on his own. He sings about striving to be a good person, and day by day, doing his best to climb his way to heaven. The insinuation is that ultimately God will smile on him when he finally arrives.

“Step by step, one by one. Higher and higher. Step by step, rung by rung. Climbing Jacob’s ladder.”

It’s a sad premise. The Word of God is pretty clear that no one will gain entrance to heaven by their works. In fact, Saint Paul couldn’t have said it any more straightforwardly than when he scribed:

“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

On the contrary, God’s Word makes clear that mankind is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Good works are a fruit of saving faith, and even as we do them, it is God at work through His believers. In other words, we can’t even take credit for our good deeds (Ephesians 2:8-10). It’s one reason why you’ll hear so many Christians, namely Lutherans, say the phrase, “Soli Deo gloria,” that is, to God alone be the glory.

I must confess, however, right in the middle of Huey’s messy (but also very popular) theology, he says something of value. By value, I mean it’s genuine, and I’m guessing it resonates with most normal people:

“All I want from tomorrow is to get it better than today.”

As a person, he honestly wants to improve. He just wants tomorrow to be better than the day before it.

I get that. As I said, I think most folks do, especially at this time each year. When the month of December has changed to January, and the old year has become a new one, many are hoping for better days—better relationships, better habits, better character, better selves.

There’s nothing wrong with working to be a better person. I say, if you can make those New Year’s resolutions and actually keep them, great. I made my own, and I intend to charge forth. Just keep in mind that as so many are striving to be what the world would consider better—wealthier, the most popular, the most intelligent and most talented in every way—to be any of these or none of these is as nothing if your innermost hope isn’t built on Christ. Without Him, you will be poor no matter the size of your holdings. Without Him, you are to be pitied no matter how many fawn in your presence. Without Him, you are the most foolish, no matter how many degrees you have on your wall; the most bumbling no matter the trophies.

Whatever comes your way in 2021, let your aim in every circumstance be fixed on Christ and His work to rescue you from Sin. He’s the only One with the divine strength for climbing the rungs of perfection, and He did it in your place. He’s the only One who took every step with perfect precision, and He did it all for your sake. He’s the only One who could take a righteous stand before the Father, and He did so as both your mediator and substitute. The Christmas season we just enjoyed is the foretelling of these things. Christmas preaches the Good News that after the fall into Sin, God didn’t turn away from His rebelliously imperfect world in disgust even as He knew we’d never be able to fix what we’d broken. Instead, He sent Jesus—the Son of God having become Man—who submitted Himself to all that we are and must endure. By His perfect work, He fixed what was broken. Now there is peace between God and man. Now, by faith, we are counted as righteous.

Because of Christ, your eternal tomorrow is guaranteed to be better than today.

Subduing the Fear of Stewardship

Before venturing into the swiftly approaching New Year, I woke up this morning and wanted to remind you one more time that your pastors pray for you regularly. Speaking personally, my general prayers to God for the whole congregation occur each and every morning. But of course along the way of my day as things arise, I find plenty of casual moments for whispering into the Lord’s ear regarding specific joys or disquiets that concern us as a Christian family. Beyond this daily regimen, just as I know so many of you pray for me, you need to know that I take time at least once a week to pray for each of you by name, too.

Let this be a comfort to you. Find some ease in knowing that among God’s people here at Our Savior, we have one another in mind as we call our to our gracious Lord in prayer.

Funny, isn’t it, how God knows what we will ask before we ask it, and yet He still commands for us to pray? Why? Well, as I tell the kids in my confirmation classes (and as I’m certain I’ve shared with you before), first, because He already knows that if He doesn’t command it, we won’t do it. We need the prompting. And then second, and perhaps more importantly, we have the Gospel imperative to pray—which is to say that it isn’t fear of God’s command that’s moving us to pray, but rather it is the Gospel that invigorates us for beholding the mandate to pray as good and holy. We know by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we have full and free access to the Creator of all things. Perhaps even better, just as you love to hear your own family and friends tell you they love you, so also does our God find great delight in hearing the voices of His saints as they do the same. It’s quite the wonderful relationship we have with the Creator of the cosmos, don’t you think? It is a communicative rapport like none other, and it is one in which we can take great comfort because we know that through faith in Jesus Christ, our prayers never fall on the deaf ears of the Divine One. He is always listening and acting according to His good and gracious will for us.

Having said all of this, there’s something in particular I want you to pray about in the New Year. I’m humbly asking that you pray for a more fervent grasp on what it means to be a good steward with the gifts God has given you.

For the last decade or so, I’ve done what I can by way of God’s Word to show that the topic of stewardship isn’t to be considered a dirty word in the life of the Church, that is, something to be avoided as bothersome or maybe even a little bit scary. As I’ve talked about it, I’ve done my best to make sure that God’s people know exactly what’s going on here in this congregation financially. By way of this weekly eNewsletter, I’ve been sure to share the grittiest of details.

As far as stewardship being a scary topic, in all honesty, that’s sort of how I felt about it for a very long time. Maybe you didn’t, but I did. For the longest time I was deathly afraid of discussing it, of telling folks just how important their giving was—not only for the sake of the congregation’s temporal health, but as an eternal fruit of faith—as an indicator of what is most important to us in this life. Now, while I’m not in precise alignment with Billy Graham’s theology, there is something the infamous evangelist once said that rings very true. I say this because, quite frankly, it’s an age-old verity revealed in the Scriptures. I don’t remember his wording exactly, but I think he said something like, “Show me a person’s checkbook, and I’ll show you that person’s god.”

I whole-heartedly agree. People prioritize, and then they make sure those priorities are well funded by time and treasure.

As time has gone on, the Lord has been at work recasting my perspective on stewardship. I have to imagine that it was a challenge for Him. Ask anyone who truly knows me—my wife, our parish administrator, fellow pastors, my kids—I just don’t like money. I don’t even like its smell. I think it’s this way because money has never been all that plentiful in my life, and with that, I’ve almost always seen it more as an eluding enemy than an available friend. I’m sure you can imagine how this has affected my ability to talk about it here at the church.

Nevertheless, as I said, God has changed my perspective on the subject, and so together as a congregation we have been enabled to more intimately explore the conversation. As the ever-progressing exchange has unfolded, we’ve been able to go deeper, and as I have learned, I have also shared with God’s people at Our Savior (Philippians 4:9; 2 Timothy 3:14; Galatians 6:6). Walking together in this, I’m here to say that I’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work in all of you in ways that many past and present naysayers would never have expected.

Yes, there are people out there who just can’t believe that Our Savior in Hartland is still in existence, let alone that we’re healthy and heartily accomplishing things with the kind of might that can only come from God. I guess what I’m saying is that here at Our Savior, I get the sense that by God’s grace we’re more than proving to the onlooking world—and often to ourselves—that we’re aware of the importance of Christian stewardship, and in stride with this awareness, we’ve become quite clear sighted to the fact that money isn’t what’s most important to us. Money is not our god nor our first priority. Faithfulness to Christ and His Word holds that seat.

By His holy Word, God promises to bless such faithfulness (Luke 11:28; Hebrews 11:6; Proverbs 28:20; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 4:2; 2 Thessalonians 3:3). This doesn’t mean that we’d ever expect to be rolling in cash. We certainly aren’t. What it means instead is that according to God’s good and gracious will, we live within our means, knowing He will provide exactly what is needed (both successes and failures), all of which will work in favor of the extension of His kingdom and the preservation of His Gospel among us. It means we can count on Him to have a care for us as useful tools in His hands for accomplishing things that communicate His truth to a world in need.

These are wonderful promises. And by them, there is always before us a wonderful horizon of Gospel possibilities.

If there was ever a congregation out there to know that God will not leave His faithful people high and dry, it’s us. As one of God’s pastors, I’m cognizant of the fact that I’d be failing you if I didn’t bring this to mind every now and then. I’d be letting you down if I didn’t take a moment to test your understanding in all of this. Sure, stewardship can be a scary topic for me. But I’m called to preach the whole counsel of God—which includes the topic of stewardship—and I figured this morning that if there’s ever a time to draw attention to it, it’s at the beginning of a New Year. Now’s the perfect time to start reconsidering one’s level of giving. Now’s the time to step fearlessly into the New Year armed with Christian courage, trusting that God has your wellbeing securely in hand, and that by this, you can give back to Him in faith.

By the way, I should probably clarify something. Exercising courage doesn’t necessarily mean being without fear. We are human beings, and because of this, there are plenty of things that will make us nervous. Giving is one of them. Still, courage doesn’t mean mindless action. It simply means subduing fear. Christian courage is to see our fears subdued by the Gospel reality that if God is for us, who can be against us—even when everyone and everything around us—maybe even our own selves—are telling us that the odds are impossibly stacked against us and we are certain to fail.

Subdue your fear. By the Lord’s sacrifice on the cross, He has already bound and cast fear into the abyss of nothingness. Fear has no hold on you. Fear has no standing against the love of Christ for you (1 John 4:18).

Look to the cross and subdue your fear. And then act according to the faith that’s been given to you.

As the New Year approaches, reconsider your giving. Are you right where you should be? With a little bit of honest reflection, would you discover that you can do more? Whatever the case may be, pray, subdue the fear, and then act accordingly. God will bless your faithfulness. I guarantee it.

Life is Short. Eternity is Not.

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. —Job 1:21
God is good. Even when the terrors of mortality are befalling us, He is good. Believe it or not, that’s an essential aspect of Christmas—the fact that Jesus has stepped into the darkness for us.
Essentially, a major theme of the whole Bible is the affronting knowledge of human beings’ inabilities to get free from the darkness. In my humble opinion, the myth of human moral progress or innate goodness dies more and more when I read of the continued incline of homicide and suicide rates, or perhaps that moment a few years ago involving a father having to put his son’s body parts into a plastic bag after a bomb went off in a Palm Sunday worship service. I could add cancer to this list of examples. Instead, I’ll just say rather straightforwardly that the most valuable thinkers in the Christian communities are the ones who can admit to the fact that any optimism about the capability of human nature against the darkness of Sin, Death, and the devil is, as the Book of Ecclesiastes says, “the sacrifice of fools.”
And so, when we consider the darkness, when we look into it, we are taught by the Word of God to understand it rightly. It permeates not only the world, but also our very selves, and we are helpless against it.
But now, Jesus steps onto the scene. God takes upon Himself human flesh and reaches out to us. Serving us, loving us, caring for us, He calls Himself the Light of the world. He makes sure that we know—and He proves it over and over and over again—that He is the only One who can venture into this darkness and dispel it. And He does. His birth, His life, His suffering, His cross, His resurrection, His ascension—these events change everything; almost as if the world was spinning in one direction and then suddenly it was reversed.
Because Jesus changes everything, faith in Him changes everything, too. Terror isn’t dominating. Hope is there. We have hope because we have Jesus.
This is the innermost message of Christmas, and this same message is the good word that we need each and every day of our lives—not just twice a year at Christmas and Easter. I know this may be tough to hear, but I say it because I love you in the Lord and I want you to be steadied with the same divine muscle that has steadied every true believer throughout the history of man.
That being said, go to church. You’ll have ample opportunities, I’m sure.
Here at Our Savior, tonight will be the fourth midweek Advent service—the Office of Evening Prayer, to be precise. It begins at 7:00pm. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. We’ll be gathering together for the Divine Service at 4:30pm and 10:30pm. The next day is Christmas. We’ll gather on Christmas morning for the Divine Service at 10:00am.
If you had other plans, put them aside, or at least reschedule them. Come and be strengthened by the Christmas proclamation of the Savior’s birth to rescue you. Join your Christian family in the pews and at the Lord’s Altar. Do this remembering that life is short, but eternity is long—timeless, in fact. Receive what surpasses all understanding and keeps the heart and mind of the believer in Christ Jesus, our Lord, for and into this eternity.

No Room For Compromise

I mentioned in Bible study yesterday morning that I had an interesting phone conversation the previous week with a visitor to our early worship service. I called her as a follow-up to her visit. She was intrigued by our worship practices at Our Savior—why we do what we do—and this led us into a deeper discussion about the doctrinal distinctions between various churches. At one point along the way the word “compromise” arrived on the scene of our confab.

I think Pastor Zwonitzer did a great job of thinking this through with us in his sermon this past Wednesday during the midweek Advent service. He spent time with Romans 15 talking about the things that are required for unity among God’s people, and he did this also while touching on the subject of adiaphora—that is, the things that are neither commanded nor forbidden by the Scriptures. With adiaphora, there can be compromise. Although, I’ll say that how any particular worshipping community handles adiaphora is often a demonstration of what they believe regarding the required things. But that’s a conversation for another day.

In the meantime, compromise is a word that makes a lot of sense to people these days. We’re looking for reasonable compromises to be made by our leaders when it comes to COVID restrictions. We’re hoping for amenable give-and-take between friends who may be at odds with one another over this or that particular issue. We’re longing for a spirit of cooperation to emerge between differing groups of people as we do what we can to navigate what has become one of the most turbulent eras in the history of the United States.

But having said all of this, there are times when compromise is just not an option, namely, when handling objectively true things. As it meets with the Christian Faith, take for example the theology of the divine inspiration of God’s Word. It goes without saying that this doctrine must stand uncorrupted, and any compromise in this regard must be seen for what it is: evil. To compromise on the divine inspiration of the Scriptures—which is to make wobbly its inerrancy and immutability—is little less than to call a dishonorable truce between good and evil. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that such an ungodly armistice is likely to occur when fear and uncertainty creep into and among the faithful during struggle. But the thing is, it’s in these very moments when the faithful, no matter how peaceable they might want things to be, need to hold the line at all costs, understanding compromise as the false virtue that it is in such a moment. It won’t be easy to do. Trusted voices from seemingly rationale folks will be calling the brave folks foolish. Still, it’ll be necessary in these moments for faithfulness to outclass the rational fear of death. Indeed, as Shakespeare said, “Courage mounteth with occasion,” and of course we can never be sure of the measure of courage we’ll actually need until those occasions arrive. We just know we’ll need it, and we’ll know that compromise won’t be an option.

God willing, this is how we function here at Our Savior. We are mindful of when and where compromise is an option and when and where it isn’t. For example, you’ll never hear a sermon absent the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for your sins. Why? Because that’s the heart of the Gospel, and it’s the job of the preacher to preach the Gospel. There’s no compromising on this. Another example: You can count on us to hold the line of God’s Word with regard to altar fellowship and the practice of the Lord’s Supper. Saint Paul is pretty explicit in his teachings in this regard in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. We will not compromise on these things.

There’s something else we have been unwilling to compromise. Unfortunately, many have tossed it into the category of adiaphora.

In-person worship.

Of course we’ve made adjustments here and there with regard to how we do it. All of those adjustments have been adiaphoric things. But in-person worship itself is not adiaphora. It is mandated for all able-bodied Christians. And so we do it, even when the government tells us we can’t—even when Christians mistakenly press for their own church to close its doors because they believe it’s the best way to “love thy neighbor.”

Interestingly, I read an article in passing last week that was shared by my friends, Rev. Joe Bangert and Rev. Paul Clark. It was entitled “Mental Health Improved for Only One Group During COVID: Those Who Attended Church Weekly.” I’ll bet you can figure out what the article had to say about the results from a recent Gallup poll. Suffice it to say, I was not surprised by what I read. People who’ve been attending worship regularly during this unsettled time are proving to fare far better mentally and emotionally than everyone else in the world.

Again, I am by no means surprised. But some in the church remain surprised. Or perhaps more accurately, embarrassed. Scrolling through Facebook, I noticed a comment from another pastor who shared the same article while urging caution with the accuracy of the findings. Of course he found fault with it. But then again, his church has been closed to in-person worship since March, and this study is suggesting he may be hurting his flock rather than helping it.

Heralding the importance of being present in worship during the COVID-19 unrest has been an uphill battle for many pastors and churches right from the beginning. Admittedly, here at Our Savior, the conversation was a little dicey at first. I remember a handful of scalding emails from folks when I announced internally that I was offering multiple in-person services (with the administration of the Lord’s Supper) throughout the week. The flame of concern got a little hotter when I actually recommended people sign up for and attend one of the in-person services instead of staying home and watching the online ones. I recall similar commentary aimed at me on social media when others whose churches were closed learned what I was doing. I was called unloving. I was called dangerous. I was called rogue. I was called foolish.

For the most part, that tenor has subsided, and many of my detractors have come back around and are actually doing what we’re doing—which, by the way, God continues to bless our efforts to uphold Christian liberty through mindful practices and procedures that have more than proven their effectiveness, even when cases of COVID were found in our midst. Again, I’ve believed all along that when it comes to actually loving our neighbor, what we’re doing here far outpaces anything being done out there by the big box, grocery, and retail stores.

As a community of faith navigating all of this, we needed to hold steady on the importance of in-person worship. We needed this objective truth to win the day. And it did. God saw to it. Because of this, a majority of His people here at Our Savior have remained spiritually (and yes, emotionally) healthy while so many in the world around us have starved and are now at the end of their cerebral ropes.

I guess one reason all of this comes to mind is because I sort of touched on it in Bible study yesterday. But I only scraped the surface. As we go deeper, we can find the encouragement for anyone who may still be fearful of attending in-person worship to consider coming back and giving it a try. Be calmed by the love of your Savior, and trust that He would never hurt or harm you by the faithful administration of His gifts of forgiveness. We’re not experiencing outbreaks. We’re not a super spreader. We’re not rogues. We’re Christians seeking to be faithful to Christ, and by His blessing, seeking to be faithful in the world around us.

Again, give it a try. The doors are open and the table is ready. And what a joy it would be for us to be together once again for the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrations.

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.

Hope and COVID

I wrote and shared this note of encouragement with my congregation this morning. If it can serve you and your Christian community, too, then praise God.
——————

Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The Lord be with you.

I woke up this morning with the urge to reach out to you. I hope you’ll take a little time to read my words.

The COVID cases in Livingston County are rising. Even in our own congregation we’ve seen a few cases here and there, which certainly doesn’t stir us to complacency, but rather to acknowledge the enemy is indeed at the gates. The pastors here know this. The Elders know this. And so even as it’s inevitable that we’ll continue to see cases among us for some time, we intend to make our way through, being sure to put our hope in Christ and seeking first and foremost to be faithful to His mandates above all others.

As a Christian, this had me thinking.

This past Sunday, as a congregation, we didn’t get to hear the readings appointed for the Second Sunday in Advent because we enjoyed Advent Lessons and Carols instead (although, Pastor Zwonitzer did preach on the Old testament text). If I could go back, I would plug the Gospel reading into the service. The appointed text was from Luke 21:25-36, and it focuses our attention on the Last Day. Take a look:

“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Reading through and thinking on this text this morning—and remember, I’m a guy who visualizes what I’m reading—I realized something. If you really think about it, Jesus paints a dreadfully terrifying picture. He speaks of worldwide distress. He speaks of globe-encompassing fear. He says we’ll see and experience frightening things—things that cause everything on earth and everything in the sky to shake. Many among us might be able to imagine an earthquake, but have you ever thought about the cosmic power necessary for rattling the sun, moon, and stars—and for us on earth to actually see them shaking and coming apart as they’re throttled in their orbit? When it comes to inescapable terror, such things are completely beyond human comprehension. There will be nothing scarier.

Still, did you notice how the Lord described the response of His Christians in this moment of moments? He said that while everyone around us would be fainting with fear and foreboding, we’d find a strange vigor for standing up straight, for lifting our heads. And how would this be possible? Because the Spirit for faith alive within us would awaken a resident and unshakeable hope—a hope that knows the redemption we have in our Savior, Jesus Christ, who loves us. Jesus is making sure that we understand that in Him, we don’t ever need to be afraid.

I dare say that the same Spirit is at work in us now. How do I know this? Because this kind of pastoral care being shown by Jesus wasn’t just limited to His description of what we’d face at the coming of the Last Day, but rather He gives by His Gospel Word the same hope for facing every single day of our lives (Romans 15:13).

I suppose I should add that as Christians, in one sense, it’s okay to be fearful. Fear can serve as a protective mechanism, and God doesn’t want us to test Him by living insensibly. That Baptist pastor in the news who so brazenly told his congregation to go out and deliberately contract COVID just to get it over with is an example of what we should not do. In fact, I’d say he sounded eerily similar to the devil as he was tempting Jesus to throw Himself from the temple peak in Matthew 4:5-7. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” the Lord replied. In other words, we’re not to test God’s care for us by deliberately putting ourselves into harm’s way. But in the same vein, if a Christian is found in a jeopardous situation and yet is embracing fear in the same way that unbelievers embrace it—that is, rolling along in senseless and unbridled terror as if there was no hope—then I’d suspect such Christians are failing to grasp what Jesus actually meant by hope.

Trust the Lord. Use your reason and senses to do what makes sense in your context for your safety and for the safety of your family. But don’t let your human reason and senses rise above faithfulness to the Lord. Reason and sense can be reliable, but both are tainted by Sin. They can and will fail you. But Jesus won’t fail you. He has you well in hand. He loves you. Which is why He gave the warning about the Last Day in the way that He did. He didn’t hold anything back. He wants you to be ready for both the easy stuff and the hard stuff. That readiness is more than permeating this COVID-19 moment, too. Believe it or not, He said what He said being well aware of the nature of 2020.

And so, God be with you this day and always. Know that I love you in the Lord, and I’m here as you need me. The same goes for Pastor Zwonitzer and Pastor Hardy. We are your servants, and as such, we stand at the ready to give you the only remedy for the wounds of fear: The Gospel that we are saved by grace through faith in the One who gave His life that we would not die, but live!

Call if you need me.

In His holy and most precious name,
Pastor Thoma+

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.

The Devil Comes Out

It may be somewhat of an abrupt way to begin, but as a pastor, I’ve seen and experienced plenty to affirm the existence of the devil. And I’m not just talking about the philosophical deduction that comes from observing our world in chaos and concluding that he’s the only possible explanation for all of it. Instead, I’m admitting to being fairly sure I’ve met him face to face a time or two. Even further, I’m confessing to having experienced unexplainable things, that is, I’ve been brought into situations involving particular places or people, and what was going on around me didn’t play by the rules of natural expectation. I won’t give you the details, but rest assured, some would serve well as scripts for horror flicks.

I guess what I’m saying is that if you disbelieve the existence of the devil, I’m here to tell you that you’re fooling yourself. He’s real. And every now and then I find myself working with someone who has the bruises—both physically and spiritually—to prove it.

It used to be a fashionable thing to say that the devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. I’ll be honest and say I never really fell for that line. The devil has always been captain of the blowhards. Anyone at all familiar with the scriptures will know it was his prideful arrogance that brought about his fall (Isaiah 14:12–15 and Ezekiel 28:12–17), and so I find it difficult to believe that he’d ever be willing to give up the spotlight in any room. Although, if indeed his non-existence has been one of the go-to plays in his playbook, I think he’s using it less and less these days. From some of the things I’ve read and seen lately, I get the sense he’s beginning to step from the shadows in order to let more and more people know he’s there. In fact, I think he’s not all that far from coming out of the closet completely, since that seems to be the grandest sign of nobility in our culture these days. In other words, don’t be surprised if one day you hear the pronouncement that the devil has announced his premier interview and that it’ll take place on “Ellen”—or better yet, “The View.”

But to come out would mean he’s willing to tip his BLM, Inc. hat to the existence of God, too, and wouldn’t it make life harder on the devil if people believed God actually exists?

Not as long as the devil emerges as the hero in comparison.

The devil has been hard at work in our radically individualized society framing himself as the first in a long line of “misunderstoods” who have throughout history been met by unjust systems built by self-appointed and self-righteously intolerant people—God, of course, being the chief of the intolerants. To establish this premise, the devil has been exemplary in his usage of universities and the civil government—one being a locale for learning “truth” and the other a system of legislators, judges, and lawyers in place for employing that truth on behalf of victims for the sake of justice.

Truly, it is as the old saying goes, “The devil makes his Christmas pies of lawyers’ tongues and clerks’ fingers.”

In addition to this, it sure seems the devil is more openly making his case from the reasonable premise that there are two sides to every story, and yet God has written all the so-called “official” literature on the subject, so the system is inherently rigged and isn’t to be trusted. It’s time to see things from a better perspective. And so the devil is more forthrightly suggesting that, yes, while the pathways apart from God are different, they aren’t necessarily bad. And they’re certainly not condemnable. But because God says they are, the devil becomes the good guy, and God is the over-lording villain working to support a system that needs to be completely torn down and rebuilt.

Do you see what he’s done here? Indeed, it is as Elizabeth Barrett Browning said: “The devil’s most devilish when he’s respectable.”

For the record, while so many in our world are succumbing to this kind of “critical theory”—even in the Church—I intend to stand as diligently against it as I can. I’m not going to fall for it, but rather I’m going to fight it with everything I’ve got. I hope you will, too.

But how?

I mentioned at the beginning that I’m more than certain I’ve met the devil. I mentioned that I’ve worked with people who’ve been tormented by him personally and I’ve stood against others who were clearly sent by his directives. In each of the circumstances, my practice has been the same—to advise or engage in an exorcism. But I don’t mean the kind you see in the movies. I mean the exercise of Word and Sacrament ministry—the pure preaching and teaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the holy sacraments according to Christ’s command—all of this most certainly being delivered to the world through the Church in the midst of holy worship.

In other words, every time you gather for worship, in a sense, you can be sure you are experiencing an exorcism. You are gathering together with the One true God—the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit—who loves you, and He is giving to you His merciful gifts of forgiveness and the knowledge of the way of righteousness, and He’s driving from you the powers of Sin, Death, and the lying devil.

This is how you keep from falling for the deception.

This is how you prevent the devil from inhabiting your heart and mind.

This is how you are equipped for the seemingly endless warfare against his tireless assaults.

Apart from this, using your reason and mortal senses alone, your defenses will be weak and you’ll be fooled. But with the continued strength of the Holy Spirit by way of the Gospel of God’s grace, your fortifications will be sturdy as your otherworldly senses are heightened. By these, the devil won’t be sly enough to make it into your camp undetected. Even better, when you see him slinking into the camps of others, you’ll be ready and able to grab your weapons and run to their aid to protect and defend them.

The Art of Isolation

In barely a handful of days Thanksgiving will arrive, and then just beyond that, Advent. I don’t know about you, but these two moments on the calendar—seemingly so far flung from summer—seem to have arrived much more swiftly than I expected. I know why this is true. The more occupied one is, the more time carries along with a swifter pace.

Indeed, while Covid-19 may have closed so many of the typical avenues around us for living life, the pace for some hasn’t lessened. I know I’ve shared before that even the simplest of routines has become more complicated. This means more work, not less. Getting from point A to point B isn’t a straight shot anymore. It takes far more maneuvering, and as such, can make a few hours feel like a few minutes.

Some might argue that during a time when so many are isolated, a busier pace would be helpful for keeping the mind fit. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I suppose it makes sense, as long as whatever one is doing doesn’t lend itself toward frustration. I’m a big believer in having things to do—that the busier one remains with this or that project, the less of a negative impact isolation itself will have. It was J. W. von Goethe who said that enduring isolation is an art. I tend to agree. I believe times of isolation can either be harmful or beneficial. They can be occasions of fateful loneliness or uplifting solitude.

I got to thinking on this out loud yesterday during the adult Bible study. I shared with the group that when I think on what it means to be lonely, my conceptualization is to wonder just how many isolated, unseen things or moments of incredible splendor have occurred around the world throughout history. For example, yesterday I suggested that maybe the most beautiful rose that has ever existed in this world has already sprouted and blossomed in total seclusion somewhere deep in a forest and no one was there to see it. The flower was near-perfect in every way, and would have been of joyful benefit to anyone who looked upon it. But it grew, bloomed, withered, and died in total seclusion. That’s an image of loneliness. Or perhaps the most stunning diamond ever formed is right now resting somewhere deep in the earth where no one will ever reach it. It’s there. Its clarity is beyond compare. Its untapped ability for capturing and then dispersing light in countless directions is unmatchable. But it will remain isolated—unmined and unpolished—priceless, and yet existing as though it has no value at all. That’s loneliness, too.

I see loneliness in relation to value. To be lonely is to have so much value, and yet to be without the opportunity to emit that value to the benefit of anyone else.

You have value. And I do, too. God tells us this (Matthew 6:26; Romans 5:8; Psalm 139:13-16; John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:17; and so many more!). Still, when we’re locked away from others in ways that prevent us from participating in the exchange and benefits of human value established by God’s grace—the giving and receiving that occurs between real people—we can become fixed in darker places and the time becomes more burdensome. It becomes lonely.

And so where am I going with this? I guess part of what I’m trying to say this morning is that if you must be isolated, first, know you are valuable, and second, keep busy emitting that value in ways that embrace the alone time as less loneliness and more contemplative, sabbatical-like solitude. Yes, solitude is different. Like loneliness, one doesn’t go into solitude expecting others to be there. The person knows and expects the silence. But in the quiet of solitude, there’s activity occurring, and there’s the expectancy that the silence won’t prevent its occupant from coming out on the other side with something to show. Solitude is a time of discovery. It is an opportunity to go off unaccompanied in order to seek out the rose, or to dig up the diamond, and bring these things back to a world that can benefit from their value. And I suppose this is where the Christian perspective is key.

Christians already know they’re not alone, so any form of alone time is somewhat illusionary. Christ is always with us, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). This means we can endure, and maybe even embrace, the alone times. For one, through faith in Christ, alone times become unfettered moments with the One who never leaves nor forsakes us. In this, we can find ourselves aimed toward a richer devotional life. We can study the Word of God, pray, and God willing, see the fruits of such solitude becoming activities designed to emit to others what we’ve learned or received. How do we do this? I can tell you how I’m doing it. Well, this Monday morning eNews is one way. I do what I can each Monday morning to think through and share something of value for you. Besides this, I’m using my isolated times to write and send cards to people. I’m making phone calls. I’m visiting where I can, and I’m receiving visitors who need to chat. I’m using whatever particular gifts God has given me for mining the diamonds and picking the flowers from the quiet so that others, too, can experience their splendor with me.

You can do this, too. You know your value, and you know the gifts God has given you. Be creative. By God’s grace, you can live as one in solitude who’s laboring to find and share treasures with others—which, I’m guessing, will help lift them from loneliness.

Of course, call me if you need help figuring out how to navigate this or coming with ideas. I’m only a phone call away and I’m brimming with ideas.

Read That Again Very Slowly

I should start this morning by mentioning I experienced a “flux capacitor” moment last night in my garage. If you’ve seen the movie “Back to the Future” then you’ll know that Doc Brown came up with the idea for the device that makes time travel possible right after he hit his head. Well, I was fetching a Halloween bin from the attic storage in our garage when I fell off of the top rung of our eight-foot ladder and hit my head, giving my forehead a pretty good split. Thankfully, I didn’t need stitches. Nevertheless, once I was back to my feet and the stars in my eyes were dissipating, strangely, what I wanted to write about this morning became clear. So here it is.

I flashed back to something I’d read from Luther last week about prayer. In particular, he landed on the topic by way of Psalm 42:4, which reads:

“These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.”

Luther observed:

“The multitude needs a certain place and certain days and hours suitable for listening to the Word of God; and therefore God has ordained and instituted the Holy Sacraments to be administered to the congregation at a place where all gather together for prayer and thanksgiving. The advantage of this is that when Christians gather together, prayer is more powerful than at other times. We can and should most certainly pray at all places and hours, but prayer is nowhere so strong and powerful as when, in unity of Spirit, the whole congregation is gathered together to pray.”

Did you catch all that?

First of all, understand that Luther wasn’t one to speak loosely. When he wrote things like “God has ordained and instituted,” he meant exactly that. God has established certain things that we do not have the freedom to adjust. And thankfully, just as Luther used the word “advantage” to describe what God has mandated, we can be assured that God puts these particulars into place for our good and not our harm. I suppose in addition, being the biblical exegete that Luther was, had he been challenged on this, you could’ve expected him to write in tiny print a list of proof texts as long as your dining room table.

Beyond this, Luther’s observation had me thinking about a particular irony unfolding in the Christian churches throughout the world right at this very moment. Interestingly, forces from both within and without are still doing their level best to keep the churches closed and the people apart, while at the same time desperately desiring deliverance from the COVID-19 scourge. Again, this is somewhat ironic. Even better, I’d say its satire is epitomized by the comments I’ve heard from so many, words that sound a lot like, “I’m being a better Christian neighbor by staying home and away from others. But not to worry! I’m using my alone time to pray, most especially for this mess to be over!”

Admittedly, such words bring to mind a recent tweet from the Flat Earth Society. Having a hard time swallowing the verity of the organization, a person asked, “Is the Flat Earth Society an actual thing with actual members?” And the group spokesman tweeted in reply, “By all means, yes! The Flat Earth Society has members all around the globe!” It was to this reply that another person chimed in, “Go back and read what you just wrote… very… slowly.”

Eh-hem.

“…when Christians gather together, prayer is more powerful… prayer is nowhere so strong and powerful as when, in unity of Spirit, the whole congregation is gathered together to pray.”

Now, read that again… very… slowly.