Don’t Be Surprised

How can any of us not be moved to exclaim with concern, “What a world we’re living in right now!”?

Pandemics. Failing economies. Skyrocketing unemployment. Brutality. Death. Divisions. Riots.

America’s list is rather long these days.

Like me, I’m sure many of you are consuming your fair share of articles offering a wide array of perspectives on all of this. My friend shared an interesting one with me this past week. In it, Harvard Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker, was noted as suggesting that the ones leveling the most pressure on the governors to loosen the grip of the lock downs are the Christians, namely, those Pinker refers to as being afflicted by the “malignant delusion” of belief in the afterlife. In his opinion, it’s the Christians who are proving themselves to be the enemies of life and are putting their neighbors at risk. In contrast, he believes atheists—people unwilling to trust in the possibility of an afterlife—are the ones showing the truest concern for society’s health and safety. Unsurprisingly, they’re a significant portion of the voices pressing most fervently for masks, social distancing, stricter government mandates, and longer quarantines.

I read another article (well, more like a blog post) last night that connected a few more of these dots. Written by a supporter of the lock downs, the post inferred rather disingenuously that everyone is obligated to support the rioting protests no matter how violent they become. I use the word “disingenuously” because the protesters are by no means quarantining, obeying government mandates, practicing social distancing, or wearing proper masks while they burn buildings and empty the local Target store of its wine and fat fryers. The irony is thick. But it’s overlooked and given room to breathe. Why? Well, because in the blog writer’s mind, the violence is justified, being the proper reward for thousands of years of oppression fostered by Judeo-Christianity. In other words, he blamed the riots on Christians.

Both of these are interesting perspectives. Ignorant, but interesting. And certainly you, the reader, will take from them whatever you want. I’ve learned that much along the way of sharing things like these.

For those of us who follow the historic lectionary in worship, we’ve heard a lot lately about how the world is in vigorous opposition to Christ and His Church. Sunday after Sunday for several weeks of the Easter season, the Lord has reminded us from John 14 and 15—sometimes subtly, and other times directly—that the world (the collective of sinful humanity in opposition to God) is waging open war against God’s people.

Simply put, Jesus kept reminding us that the world hates us. But He said this is only true because it hates him most of all (John 15:18-25).

At one point along the way, the Lord unpacks this hatred by reminding Christians they are distinct from the world and the world knows it. It’s not because of anything inherent to any of us, but rather because by the work of the Holy Spirit for faith (whom the Lord speaks about over and over again throughout John’s Gospel), God has claimed us as His own.

“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:19).

For as frightening as this particular verse might be, it certainly does help make sense of the seemingly imbalanced nonsense Christians face day in and day out. We can understand why Professor Pinker would believe as he believes, while at the same time being one to justify keeping the local Walmart open during the lock down—a place where thousands upon thousands of people visit in a single day, touching this and that item before putting it back on the shelf undecided, and not one single employee in sight to sanitize any of it. Scientifically speaking, Walmart is a bio-hazardous mess. But Pinker, and others in the blogosphere, can turn blind eyes to such things and be found supporting both violence as well as a Governor’s threatening of churches with fines if they hold in-person worship services, even as the church-goers practice social distancing within an immaculate worship space that has had every square inch scrubbed and sanitized multiple times every day of the week, and doubly so over the course of the few hours when the congregants actually meet.

One might be tempted to think that the only real way forward for Christians is to step into a silent stride beside the world, to blend in, to do what it tells you, to keep one’s head down, and maybe even try to keep one’s faith a secret in order to abide. But I see two problems with this.

The first is that the world can smell a Christian a mile away. Clandestine or on the sleeve, a Christian’s devotion to Christ will eventually be discovered. The fruits of faith are hard to hide, and the more the world demands submission to its gods and compliance with its rites and ceremonies, the harder it will be for the Christian to continue in the lemming-like stride of ambivalence. Eventually the Christian will be found at the edge of a cliff, and in that moment, the Christian will be aware of the Lord’s words to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). But the world will be whispering there, too. It will hiss an undercurrent of doubt, asking, “You don’t really believe all that stuff, do you?”

It’s there the distinction is revealed and the Christian is forced to show his or herself as being in or out of step with the world.

If you haven’t experienced moments like this yet, trust me, you will.

I suppose the second problem I have with this is that as Jesus was speaking the words I referenced from John 15:19, in His divine omniscience, He was already mindful of what He preached in Matthew 5:13-16 where He called His believers salt and light. Salt is hard to ignore. Sprinkle a little onto a bite and give it a taste. You’ll know it’s there. Light is equally noticeable in comparison to darkness. Have a group of people close their eyes, then turn off the lights and light a candle. When they open their eyes, I guarantee they’ll be drawn to the candle’s flickering flame long before noticing anything else in the room.

Christians stand out. There’s really no way around it. And from the Lord’s perspective, this is a good thing. It means He has established us as both servants and leaders in a world filled with death and destruction. We are those who add humble, but steadfast, flavor while at the same time being those who lead with the bright beaming light of truth—namely, the Gospel. Perhaps even better, we are fortified for both of these roles by God’s Word, which means we have the source for knowing both how and why we are salt and light.

The whole of our identity is located in Christ who has redeemed us, reclaimed us, recalibrated us, and re-established us as His people in the world.

But once again, the Lord is careful to instruct us that the first test of this identity is to endure the hatred of a world that would much rather be rid of us. It’s almost Biblical the way Shakespeare wrote: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (Henry IV, Part II). This is true. The crown of righteousness borne by the Christian, while it is a joy for eternal life, it can seem heavy in this mortal life. Still, Christians are given minds to understand the weight of the crown, seeing it for what it is—a baptismal mark that not only designates the bearer as one purchased and won by the Redeemer and an inheritor of the world to come, but as one who has been led into the duty of being a dealer in hope—real hope.

Yes, situations requiring the hope we bring can be sketchy. Carrying the message of Christ crucified into any setting can be risky. But again, Christians have been given the task of doing it, and it is accomplished, for the most part, by just being who we are in Jesus Christ—servants and leaders, salt and light—no matter the flatland, valley, hill, or cliff.

Personally, I think all of this begs deep reflection right now.

And by the way, Jesus has been very clear along the way to say that any ability for reflecting on any of this (discerning the knowing, being, and doing) will be discovered only as we are connected to His Word (John 14:23-31, John 15:1-8). Disregard the Word—both verbal and visible—and your trip over the cliff is all but certain.

In conclusion, I suppose that’s my simplest prayer for you this morning is that you would remain fixed in the Word of God in all things, and there, knowing and understanding the world’s hatred for you, still you’d be found courageous. I pray for your readiness in season and out of season to be salt and light, fully prepared at the edge of each cliff to step out of stride with this world, if necessary, and “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

The New Normal

I hope all is well with you and your family. I continue to pray for you daily, trusting that the Lord knows your struggles, and even before any particular challenge may begin, He’s already at work using it for the good of your salvation (Romans 8:28).

It’s important to say and repeat this. We need the comfort of knowing that God is not our enemy, even if sometimes it seems as though He is. We need to be reminded that when we don’t know what’s going on, we can go to what we do know: The Gospel. We are not at war with God. He loves us. In fact, He proved it. Even in our most vile state of hatred toward Him, He was moved to give Jesus into death for us (Romans 5:1-8).

While the more typical struggles continue to abound, it would seem that in so many homes across our state and nation a good number of rarer struggles are taking root. As a pastor, someone laboring in the middle of this particular aspect of it all, I can assure you that for every gilded remark about how the quarantine was essential for our own safety, or that it was good in the sense that it forced families to reconnect, there are plenty of households experiencing the very real and exponential increase in anxiety, depression, marital discord, and violence. Where I knew of two divorces in progress, now I know of ten. Domestic abuse has skyrocketed. People I know to be very strong have crumpled emotionally in my presence. I came across an article last Saturday in National Review noting an unprecedented spike in suicides during the lockdown. One particular doctor reported one full year’s worth of attempts in four weeks’ time.

Again, I’m praying for you and your family. I hope you’re praying for me and mine, too.

But as we extend this care to one another, be mindful that the ones we so often consider to be the most resilient among us—the children—they’re being hit the hardest. They’re experiencing one of the most abrupt and life-altering events in American history, and for the most part, the only advice anyone has to share is that we must do our best to help them adjust to “the new normal.” A trip through the CDC guidelines for the reopening of schools will chill your spine when you see what the new normal might look like for a public school preschooler—a desk surrounded in plexiglass; directional arrows on the floor; gloves and masks; a six-foot expanse between friends at lunch, on the playground, and on the bus. I imagine the school supply lists this coming fall will be unlike anything any of us have ever seen.

At first, I wasn’t too sure how I felt about the usage of the phrase “the new normal.” But now I do. It seems sneaky. On the surface, it seems to be a relatively innocuous term folks are using to ease others into a level of comfortability with abnormality. But digging a little deeper into this thought as I tap away here at the keyboard this morning, I’m not convinced it’s as innocent a term as its well-intentioned users might think.

Again, for the most part, it’s a phrase that sounds like a gentle coaxing toward a crucial realization, but in reality, its heart is much colder than that. When you hear it, you are meant to know you have no other choice in the matter. You’re meant to understand that if you want to live and survive in the land of the new normal, you must comply. You’re meant to know that there’s no going back to the way things were before. Things are what they are, and this is the ordinary of “now”—the new normal.

I’m pretty good at remembering the first time I heard certain things. Seriously. I remember the first time I heard the word “innovative” as a kid. I liked the way it sounded—crisp and intelligent—and used it probably more than I should have. I remember first hearing the phrase “the new normal” several years ago. It stayed with me. In fact, I’ll bet if I looked back at my various scribblings, I probably wrote something about it. I know I was sharing with someone about how a particular lifestyle was being artificially—and so overwhelmingly—inserted into pretty much everything involved in daily life. Everything on TV, every movie, commercial, song, parade, sporting event, religion, you name it—it was (and still is) being crammed down society’s throat as ordinary.

“Well,” I’m almost certain I heard my conversation partner say, “get used to it. It’s the new normal.”

As far as the phrase goes, in one sense, it has a bit of an irony connected to it.

Libby Sartain, the head of HR for Yahoo, wrote in the foreword of a book by John Putzier that the person to be credited with the phrase’s first usage was a technology investor by the name of Roger McNamee. She claimed he used it in an interview with a magazine in 2003.

Unfortunately, Sartain was wrong. The phrase “the new normal” was around long before McNamee. In fact, an effortless search within the last few minutes uncovered it was used in lots of various writings by a number of people in history. Take for example the following piece by Henry Wood written in the wake of World War I. It was published in 1918 in the “National Electric Light Association Bulletin.”

“To consider the problems before us we must divide our epoch into three periods, that of war, that of transition, that of the new normal, which undoubtedly will supersede the old. The questions before us, therefore, are, broadly, two: How shall we pass from war to the new normal with the least jar, in the shortest time? In that respect should the new normal be shaped to differ from the old?”

So why bother to share all of this? Well, two reasons, I guess.

First, because once again, the inspired Word of God proves true—namely, the Holy Spirit at work in Ecclesiastes 1:9:

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

The Holy Spirit is winking at us through King Solomon’s pen. He’s reminding us that there’s nothing new about the phrase “the new normal” just as there’s nothing new about the human condition it’s attempting to define. Perhaps deeper still, the heavier hand the phrase embodies as it tries to shepherd the world into an acceptance of darker, more harmful things, well, that shouldn’t surprise us, either.

That’s more or less the second reason. As believers in Christ, we shouldn’t necessarily be surprised by the world’s ability to concoct dreadful normals and call them “new.” I think it was G.K. Chesterton, or maybe it was C.S. Lewis (or someone best-known by his first two initials), who said something about how the latest monsters produced by the world shouldn’t necessarily amaze us until the normal nature of Mankind begins to amaze us. I think part of the point was to say that by God’s Word we already know the reservoir of human depravity will never fully be explored in any of our lifetimes, so how can the never-before-seen monsters that continue to crawl from its bottomless depths be all that astonishing to us?

Again, there’s really nothing new in this regard, especially when it comes to the downward trajectory of humanity.

Since I was already thinking on our public schools… It was less than fifty years ago that students actually studied the Bible in class, even if only as great literature. Now the Bible is strictly forbidden. Within the last sixty years, our public schools used to teach gun safety—with real guns! Now kindergartners get expelled for making gun-like gestures with their hands on the playground. In the time of yesteryear, parents would discipline their children for misbehavior in school. Now teachers are blamed for the children’s misdeeds, even being fired for touching students while breaking up a fight. I remember feeling terrible, almost sick, when I’d overlooked or forgotten to complete a homework assignment. But now, I suppose many teachers are blessed to get half of a completed assignment, let alone any of the homework at all.

The phrase “the new normal” has become synonymous for the passive acceptance of a devolving society.

Maybe you heard that Fred Willard died recently. The folks from my generation will remember him as a brilliantly dry comedian, someone cut from the same witty cloth as men like Bob Newhart or Bill Murray. After I learned of his death, I watched a short clip of an interview with him. In it, he described the essence of his comedy as a continual attempt at putting himself into abnormal situations and then acting as if they were normal.

I think he nailed my concern for “the new normal.” Much of what we’re experiencing right now isn’t normal. Maintaining distances of six feet between friends and family rather than sharing embraces; wearing masks that hide the smiles adorning our unique and friendly faces; two-dimensional birthday or anniversary celebrations minimally enjoyed by way of video streaming rather than the warm resonations of a room filled with in-person sights, sounds, and smells; none of these describe normal human behavior, even at a base level. This is all abnormal, and it’s the innermost marrow of comedic foolishness to live as though it’s normal.

In truth, Christians exist in a sphere apart from this, which means we have a capability for seeing and analyzing this silliness for what it is. For one, the Holy Spirit at work in us for faith makes it so. Add to this the steady equipping by the Word of God and we’re found standing a little taller as our confidence for discernment and action begins to breathe. We may not be able to change things too drastically, and certainly we need be mindful of finding middle ground among communities of people with varying concerns, but in the end, that certainly doesn’t negate the fact that God’s people can see and know what the world cannot, and then do what we can to help steer things into better waters.

Indeed, we can truly serve as salt and light in the midst of the devolution into new normals. We can be a source of better flavor to an otherwise stale world. We can be a stream of much needed radiance in darkness and confusion. We can be found taking the lead in situations where others might want only to follow. We can know when to give a little in the face of change, and we can know when to stand firm and resist societal adjustment completely. We can know when to be silent and cooperate, just as we can know when the world around us needs so much more than compliance, but rather needs the boldness of action, maybe even resistance. Perhaps best of all, we can carry into the world what is the truest “new normal”—the fact that Christ is the world’s Redeemer. He has conquered the abnormal brokenness of this world and has exchanged it with the new, better normal of His merciful forgiveness. By His life, death, and resurrection, He has reversed the downward spiral into undoneness and made a way for humanity’s rescue (Isaiah 43:19). “Behold, I am making all things new,” He declares so wonderfully of His glorious work to save us (Revelation 21:5).

His people are, by default, the emissaries out in front with this life-altering message.

The Gospel we possess as a community is more important now than ever before. It’s what we are charged with bringing to the world. Sure, like the rest of you, I have my opinions about what’s going on around us right now, but I sure hope you know my opinions are tempered by the desire to never see the Gospel dimmed for you by the world’s impositions. They’re equally tempered by the desire to keep my particular church and school I’ve been charged with shepherding—Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Hartland, Michigan—from participating in anything harmful that might slink up and out of the tarry goo of the new normal. If we do discover the Gospel taking a back seat, or we find ourselves partnering in this way, then I’ll do what I can to defend against it. And if for some reason it overtakes our ranks, I’ll be the first to sit with church leadership to reconsider the legitimacy of our existence as a Christian congregation and school.

The times are not easy ones. Still, we know God is good. Pray to the Father in and through Jesus Christ that all of God’s people would be found faithful to His will and Word (John 16:24) in the midst of whatever the new normal might bring. He loves you. He is listening. He will answer. He will give His people His care. He will provide us the obstacles we need when we’re ready to run headlong apart from His will. He’ll provide the way of escape in the midst of trouble. He’ll deliver wisdom in the midst of confusion. He’ll drench us in comfort when we are sad, and He’ll give fervent courage in the face of fear.

Trust me. I speak from brutally wonderful experience in all of these, as I’m sure many of you do, too.

Quid Est Veritas?

For those of you who made it to worship at Our Savior yesterday, if you took anything more from the sermon than the Gospel of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, I hope it’s that you noticed I didn’t use the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” once in the whole sermon.

That was deliberate.

Like me, I’m sure many of you are exhausted by those words. Almost every radio commercial includes them. Nearly every news report is in some way related to them. So many in-person and online conversations I have are about them. They dwell at the center of many conflicts among far too many of us. Also, if you tune into sermons around the world, you’ll discover a lot of preachers crafting their sermons to include them whether or not they actually fit into the theme at hand.

There’s a rock song that holds the line, “I hate the sound of my own voice.” It’s eerily resonant right now. I’ve gotten to the point of despising the sound of my own voice when I say “COVID-19” or “coronavirus.”

Still, I try to stay abreast of the data, and so part of the struggle for me is due to the hydra-like nature of information and the ever-shifting landscape of the “data” feeding it. (I put the word data in quotation marks for a reason.)

I read a news article from CBS (WWMT in west Michigan) about how hospitalizations in Michigan have dropped 65% in the last month. There was a point of connection to another article reminding the reader that this number doesn’t even factor in that 99% of all COVID-19 related deaths were most likely due to other illnesses. This was good news. But then no sooner had I finished the article, did I read a more fearful article from Fox News sharing Dr. Fauci’s concern that a second wave could hit in the fall. I then landed on another piece from CNN inferring that millions more in America will become infected and die unless mask-wearing becomes the new normal in our society. These two articles were bad news—very bad news.

I refer to all of this as “hydra-like” because, as with the mythical creature, when one fearful head is cut off with the flaming sword of data, plenty of folks are waiting in the wings with opposing data to grow more heads in its place. With every news story saying one thing, plenty more are armed and ready for saying the exact opposite. Unfortunately, these “my-data-is-better-than-your-data” scuffles happening among us regular folks are also happening at the top levels of government. For example, I’m reminded of a brief conversation I had last week with Georgine at the church.

Regardless of what I believe is happening, I shared with her that the Mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, had just finished a press conference in which he gleefully reported that what’s being done across the state to stop the spread of the virus is definitely working. To prove this, one of the details he shared was that the number of cases in Detroit (a major hotspot in the nation) was in a steady curve downward, shrinking daily by half. Again, he was elated by this, and really rather hopeful. Essentially, the data he offered lopped off one of fear’s heads.

But then our Governor, Gretchen Whitmer (someone working closely with Duggan and mining from the same data sources) held a press conference in which she said, essentially, while we’re doing a lot to curb the spread of the virus, data shows we’re not doing enough, and because of this, the extension of her various lock down orders would be the safest way forward for all in Michigan. The next couple of news stories that crossed my feed were grim tales of death and destruction, several in particular aimed at a 77-year-old barber in Owosso, Karl Manke, portraying him as dangerously defiant for reopening his shop in the midst of the lock down. Besides the fact that he felt he had to reopen in order to survive, the stories recounted him being ticketed twice, having his license revoked, and subsequently shamed by the Attorney General as an “imminent threat” to his community.

One of fear’s heads was lopped off. “Don’t worry. What we’re doing is working.” Within moments, two of fear’s heads grew back. “Be worried. What we’re doing is not enough. And watch out, because cold-blooded folks like Karl Manke could be anywhere!”

I suppose going a little further into all of this, I can’t help but sense two particular undercurrents tugging at the rest of us. Both require honesty to grasp.

The first is that for many, it seems data isn’t really data anymore, at least not in an objective sense. People are inclined to believe a certain way, and so data-mining has become little more than a point on the timeline where people stopped digging any deeper because they already found what their belief system required. For me, that teeters at the edge of fanaticism, and quite honestly, I wrestle with it in discussions with itinerant folks wielding what they refer to as “unarguable facts.” So far, it would seem every fact is frustratingly arguable. That’s part of the problem. Who’s telling the truth?

Streaming directly from this, a second undercurrent takes hold. It steers toward the realization that one too many humans on both sides of the mess are indeed functioning as fanatics and are showing themselves to be just as Winston Churchill so brilliantly described—people incapable of changing their minds or the subject.

Around and around we go talking about the same stuff, this fact canceling out that fact, and that datum voiding this detail, all the while doubling down on our trolling efforts and having completely lost sight of where we were trying to go in the first place.

For Christians, it’s in moments like these that Psalm 119:105 beams a little more brightly.

“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

Much of what we’re hearing these days does little more than stir “Pontius Pilate,” “What is truth?” type confusion (John 18:38). And yet, by the Word of God, Christians have a point of origin for discerning truth from falsehood, fact from opinion, right from wrong. As we tread along darkened paths, the lamplight of God’s holy Word brings clarity. We can know by the Word of God that fear is unwarranted in any situation. Jesus—the Way, the Truth, and the Life—is standing right in front of us. He’s with us and leading us. He’s giving us the forgiveness we need for our failings, and by that same Gospel, He’s equipping us with courage for living in this world. On top of that, He’s giving us a dexterity of heart for measuring the words and deeds aimed at us (and the thoughts, words, and deeds we might want to aim at others) against the truth of God’s Word.

In other words, a Christian has what is necessary for discerning truth and acting according to it in this fog-laden landscape of opinion editorials.

Of course if you’re starved of that Word, it won’t be so easy, and I dare say it’ll be noticeable in the substance of your opinions. The further you are from the Word—the less you are immersed in it, the more you avoid time with it—the thicker the fog will become, and the harder it will be to navigate, let alone offer anything of value to the conversation.

By the way, I’m not suggesting the Bible is just a book (like so many others) filled with great advice and worth learning, or that being immersed in the Word means having texts from scripture written on paper or cards or whatever and scattered around the house serving as talismans to fan away spiritual plumes. (Believe it or not, I know people who think that if they just keep their unread Bible on the nightstand, they’ll be protected while sleeping at night. That’s an unfortunate misunderstanding.)

When I say these things regarding the Word, I mean what Saint John means in John 1:1-14 and 1 John 5:6-12. I mean what Saint Augustine meant when he wrote of the verbal and visible means of the Word of God—Word and Sacrament—the Word read, preached, given in Absolution, poured out in Holy Baptism, and fed into us by way of the Lord’s Supper. To be apart from the Word is to be apart from Christ, the Word made flesh. It is to be distant from Him, and to be disconnected from the supply chain of His faith-sustaining gifts. And take note, this avenue of distribution isn’t as opaquely intangible as one might think. God works in real, concrete, face-to-face, in-person ways. He has established His church for functioning in, with, and under these ways (Hebrews 10:23-31). You don’t want to be starved of this. The Sin-nature is strong, and like every human being before you who has ever deliberately neglected the Word in this way, having fitted this or that excuse into seemingly reasonable contexts calling for separation, basic human history proves you’ll be in jeopardy of losing sight of the forgiveness Jesus won and delivered to you by His life, death, and resurrection. And if this occurs, the resultant life that flows from such faith—which includes the ability to live as God’s child in this world, discerning good from evil, right from wrong, and being a reliable source of truth in the midst of falsehood—all of this will become a jumbled, uninterpretable mess of uncertainty.

Remember this, especially during these times. It is eternally important.

Illusionary Moons

Last Thursday morning on the way to the church, I stopped my Jeep beside a farm on Linden Road and attempted to take a picture of the moon. The pale sphere was massive and full, and it hung just above the horizon. Its appearance was so grand, and its presence so near, I felt as though I could reach out and touch it.

To be sure, we all know the foolishness of trying to capture celestial moments like this. And my foolishness was proven by the moon’s barely representable image on my camera. Before my naked eye, it looked grand, but in reality, it wasn’t so. What I was seeing was an illusion.

I’ve read about this before. I know there’s more than one theory as to why the moon looks the way it does when it’s so close to the horizon. Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher, wrote that it had nothing to do with science, but was really nothing more than a trick of the mind.

Philosophers. Go figure.

Ptolemy claimed it had something to do with a combination of things, namely optics and light refraction. Strange, though. Even though what I was doing in that moment was a waste of time—because it has never worked for me before—I still attempted to capture the image anyway. And of course, the result was as it has been in the past: a distant and blurry dot seated in an unreachable expanse.

Funny. We keep on doing the same old things.

In the end, I suppose it wasn’t a complete waste of time. I drove away with plenty to consider.

Mindful of God’s Word, I realized how even the natural laws can serve as powerful extensions for much deeper truths. Even a solitary moment beside a farmer’s field on a brisk and misty morning can be a useful metaphor capable of teaching something really very important, maybe even becoming a moment for multi-tiered self-diagnosis.

At first, I was reminded of how humanity tries to encapsulate things that just aren’t there—to grasp the ungraspable, to control the uncontrollable, to take hold of something’s fixed substance but really only being found swatting at its shadow. I suppose the topic of human sexuality was the first example that came to mind that morning, but that probably because I was listening to a podcast hosted by a transgender man discussing current attempts across the country to expand the meaning of the word “sex” to include “sexual orientation and gender identity” in the civil rights legislation in various states.

He argued with heartfelt sincerity, and he presented his case with believable concern.

In that moment, there was the grandest of illusionary moons right in front of me. In the podcast, there was a biological man putting himself before this spinning globe as a woman, doing all he could to play the part. But then I paused the podcast, stopped my car, and I took the picture. Natural Law remained fixed. The moon was as the moon really is. When I pressed the play button, no matter how hard he tried to sound feminine, his deeper, gentlemanly voice always betrayed the biological man. I’m sure if I saw a picture of him, the same betrayal would occur.

This was my initial contemplation, and for the record, it didn’t really last all that long. I stopped the podcast, and drove the rest of the way to the church listening to a mix of songs Evelyn made for me. And as I did, more applications swept through.

For one, I pondered the temptation of Man to believe his deeds play a part in salvation.

Our efforts seem so grand. Our good deeds appear so bright, beaming with a superior light in comparison to the other stars in the heavens. But then God takes out the camera of His holy Word, and through the lens of His Law, we see the distance between us and what we would like to believe our abilities to be. The parable Christ told of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14 reveals this foolishness clearly. The momentary self-analysis Paul performs in Romans 7:14-24 does, too. And if we somehow miss these easily-digestible texts, there’s always the all-encompassing reminder of Mankind’s birth in Sin in places like Psalm 51:5.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

In summary, God doesn’t hold back on making sure we see our attempts to win His favor by our deeds for what they are: an infinitesimal speck on the horizon of worthiness. In fact, even using the word “worthiness” is being overly generous. In Sin, we’re completely dead (Ephesians 2:5). Apart from the Holy Spirit’s work in and through us for faith in Christ, we’re a dead sky—deep, dark, and completely barren.

Then there’s the Gospel—and the moon’s metaphor works here, too. In this instance, however, the illusion is reversed.

The sinful flesh struggles within me to communicate one thing, but the eyes of faith see something completely different. My sinful flesh would have me believe that because I am so dreadful, God is distant, that He could never love me, that He’ll be forever out of reach, that I’ll be forever squinting to see His mercy. But the Holy Spirit works through the Gospel, and by faith, I put down the mechanisms of this world and behold that which they cannot reveal. God is not far, but near. He is with me. He has seen me in my desperate state, and He’s reached to me in love through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. By Him, I am not lost, but rescued. By Him, I am not condemned, rather I’m justified and counted as His holy one (John 3:16-18).

Of all the allegories born from that beautiful display by the moon last Thursday, this was the best one. If I’d had a lawn chair in the car, I’d have set it near the edge of the field and watched until the moon finally dissipated into a more sunlit atmosphere. I’d probably have broken into chanting Psalms 8, 19, and 139; all texts proclaiming the majestic glory of God’s wonderful creation.

With that image in your mind, I offer one last important note.

Notice that God’s Word was the translator in all of this. As I observed the natural world, God’s Word was governing my discoveries. And so I say, stay in the Word. Live in it. Hold fast to it. It will always provide the better, truer, view of your surroundings. With a faith fed by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God, each and every moment will always be so much more than a natural occurrence. Each moment will hold the potential for teaching. It will be an opportunity for seeing Christ at work when and where the world cannot, just as the Lord said in John 14:19.

You Can’t Do Everything

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Don’t tell Jen I told you.

She got a little angry with me this weekend, and it wasn’t because I went out and around Linden and Fenton dressed as Star Lord from “Guardians of the Galaxy”—which I did, by the way. Don’t believe me? Well, then you need to click here.

The reason she gave for her grievance was that it feels like I’m far busier than I was before the quarantine and I’m giving even less time to the family, not more. Of course in response, I did what you’d expect a husband to do.

I made excuses.

I offered that when it comes to pastoring God’s people, things are much more complicated these days. Just trying to commune even only a handful of folks takes all day, and who would’ve ever believed I’d one day be ministering to a shut-in through an exterior window of her home?

Sheesh, this COVID-19 stuff is crazy.

I’m also doing what I can to be at the church every day, not only for making sure I’m on top of anything urgent—messages, pastoral care situations, and the like—but to assure I don’t fall behind on writing obligations while making sure God’s house is available to His people if necessary. I don’t want to close the doors to anyone desiring to pray before the altar of God, which I also do every single day.

Even more, while I’m not necessarily going anywhere when I’m at the church, time certainly moves along swiftly. I’m on the phone a lot, and I’m answering emails pretty much 24/7. I can easily spend three or four hours every day just trying to get back with people. Add to this that recording worship services has steered me into a whole new task that I’m still trying to master.

I did try to point out that, technically, I’m home in the evenings. I’m not out visiting anyone or attending meetings. But Jen was swift to present evidence that I continue the same pace when I’m home.

Once again I tried to swerve around her words, this time saying that perhaps the quarantine was getting to her and she needed to get out of the house. It was nearing dinnertime, and like a good husband trying to change the subject, I asked if she wanted to go for a quick drive. She agreed and asked where we might go. I said I needed to get over to the UPS store to ship some things, and then I mentioned one more phone call I needed to make about a graveside funeral service, but that I could make the call really quickly along the way.

She just looked at me.

The look was all I needed.

She was right about me. Even in that sensitive moment, I’d already partitioned a percentage of our time together to others.

I’m going to let you in on three more secrets. The first is that God was right when He aimed His people to confession and absolution. Using Saint Paul’s pen, He commanded, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:13-15).

The second secret is that it’s one thing when someone else knows you’re being an idiot, but it’s something altogether different when you actually arrive at this honest realization of yourself. It’s scary, but also liberating.

The third secret is that I apologized to Jen, and she forgave me.

Amazingly, just as God knew it could, confession and forgiveness born from Christian love changed the scenario altogether. An honest admittance of my stupidity combined with her gracious heart helped bring us together, putting us back onto the same page. In fact, and perhaps humorously, we still ended up finding our way to the UPS store. She wanted to help me do what I needed to do. We were living in the light of Christ’s peace. This meant that running an errand together really wasn’t all that weird. In fact, it’s never been unusual for a “Jen and Chris” date to include getting groceries at Walmart, and so now we were accomplishing something together, rather than apart. And by the way, Jen proved her gracious heart one more time by allowing the phone call. When it comes to the work of the Church, she’s well-skilled at wife-of-a-pastor stuff. She can distinguish between essential and non-essential things (far better than our Governor, that’s for sure).

Okay, one more secret and then I’m done.

My truest ailment in all of this: I can get to feeling pretty guilty sometimes. I’m not completely sure, but I think it has something to do with my self-diagnosed “completion complex.” Whatever goal I set, I need to see it through to the end. Mix into this the disappointment that comes when something doesn’t work out as I’ve planned. Add to this that I’m doing lots of different things with and for lots of different people, many of whom are more than gracious. However, there are plenty others who live by Eric Hoffer’s thought that to “have a grievance is to have a purpose in life.”

Mix all of this together, and after a while, it can become easy for just about anyone to believe their onlookers are keeping track of their deeds in two different kinds of ledgers—that they’re permanently etching the things we’ve done wrong into stone, but scribbling the things we’ve done well into the surface of water.

I do have fairly thick skin, and I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but sometimes I do, and it gets the better of me. It stirs me to juggle everything I can all the time, doing my best to not let anyone down.

It may be admirable to some, but in the end, it’s a foolish way to live. It’s far too taxing on the body and mind. And the thing is, I know it. I tell plenty of other people this. But like every good hypocrite, I rarely do it myself.

Again, confession is the key, here, and forgiveness is the cure. God used Jennifer in that moment to prompt it. With her voice, He reminded me that I don’t need to do everything—and I certainly don’t need to be afraid to fess up to my sins—which means admitting I’ve not really been home with my family even while I’ve been home with my family. And you know me. I’ve written or said a thousand times before that the most courageous among us are those who can admit when they’ve done wrong. Those are the people I truly respect. I’m not one to latch onto “self-esteem” lingo, but in this regard, I’d like to be respectable.

I should add that God also made sure to let me know that He’s ever-vigilant to show mercy, and one of the great ways He does this is through other Christians. When it comes to the family of believers, His desire to forgive the penitent heart doesn’t have an expiration date. That’s partly what He meant when He said, “Bear with each other and forgive one another…” And when two people can live in this Christian love—not necessarily human love, but Christian love—then this Gospel truth will prove itself so wonderfully true.

In the end, this was a moment when God looked at me through my wife’s eyes and said, “You can’t do everything, dummy. But you don’t have to, anyway. It’s my job to be God, the Creator. It’s your job to be Chris, the created—a husband, a father, and then finally, a pastor. Are you doing your best to be faithful in these roles? Yes? Then, slow your roll, apologize to your lovely wife, receive My forgiveness through her—because I can’t wait to give it!—and then take her for a drive. Kind of like your relationship with Me, I’ll bet if she is part of your life rather than just tagging along, you’ll accomplish every bit of the daily nonsense that needs accomplishing. You may even get those packages shipped and that phone call made.”

And so I did. I mean, we did.

Prayerfully Mindful

I mentioned to Jennifer that these Monday morning eNews introductions are a little harder to write because of the quarantine. Normally I can sit down, and within a few minutes, I discover a thought that leads me into something worth sharing—something that is, hopefully, of use to you. But not so much these days. I think this is true because I’m apart from my best writing prompts—you!

Most of what inspires me emerges from daily, face-to-face interactions with people, and right now, I’m at a severe disadvantage in this—at least for the time being.

I suppose I could mine social media. Although, that’s not my preferred place to interact with you, nor is it the safest place these days to look for material in general…unless, of course, I want to spend time providing verbal contour for what the Bible already describes well enough as the Sin-nature. Social media is a real ugly place right now. It seems the worst parts of ourselves are parading through its alleyways. Fear of COVID-19 is playing a big part, but so is the lack of space being allowed to the fearful by the bombastic among us.

Indeed, there are varying degrees of concern. I’ll confess I used to be more concerned than I am now. I’ve been included in a few local and federal conversations suggesting that while the virus is indeed a mean kid on the block—the kind you don’t want to run into if you don’t have to—nevertheless the incoming data is more than proving the kid to be less the monster and more the mouse casting an unnecessarily frightening shadow. In the end, most folks are more likely to die from flesh-eating bacteria they encountered while working in the yard than to contract and die from COVID-19. Of course I’m still bathing in hand sanitizer, both for your sake and for the sake of my family. (By the way, I keep poking at Jennifer, saying that in a few years, don’t be surprised if there’s a spike in never-before-seen hand cancers.)

I’m doing my best to land in the middle, while at the same time, I’m unwilling to accept statements sourced from wholly insufficient evidence claiming absolute certainty. That’s about as close to the definition of ignorance as any could get, and folks who do this are fanning preventable wildfires of panic. No one should be making decisions (or declarations) in this way. It’s a bad idea, and history proves bad results when people do. And yet this seems to be the general tenor for many in the mainstream media. Of course this practice has touched down with a thud in social media. To make things worse, radical individualism remains in high gear.

Everyone is right and no one is wrong. What a mess.

I participated in one particular phone call with a friend in D.C. suggesting that if the shelter-in-place orders in some of the stricter states (Michigan being one of them) go much further than April 30, it’s likely civil disobedience will begin to erupt. People are already beginning to protest in mass numbers in many state capitals. If civil unrest does become open disobedience, the Church will need to be ready to weigh in. I shared this information with my Bishop among a gathering of other English District (LCMS) pastors during a recent Zoom meeting, and in so doing, I expressed my concern that the brothers ought to be ready, if necessary, to help their people navigate the turbulence. For starters, silently, I’m hoping all pastors are brushing up on their understanding of the “Two Kingdoms” doctrine.

As a quick side note, I’m also finding it rather interesting how certain pastors I know, ones who’ve been incredibly vocal in their opposition to the Church having anything to do with politics, well, it seems they’re asking me what I know, what I’ve heard, what my plans are. They’ve a newfound interest in all-things-government now that so much of what they do has been seized by the civil authorities. The government has claimed emergency authority for stepping into the Church’s sphere, and now the so-called separation of Church and State has become blurry, while at the same time making the purposes for my own efforts in the public square all the more clear. An avenue has presented itself for the state to justify control of the Church, and now churches are being fined, pastors are being ticketed, and in some states some pretty ridiculous mandates have been issued, even ones forbidding online services.

Interesting, huh? But how far should we let this go? When do we actually need to say out loud, “I will obey God and not men”?

Anyway, getting back to the premise of social media as an ugly place…

Just to give you an example, I’ve come pretty close a few times in the last week to deleting my Facebook account altogether. I actually typed up a list of the pros and cons while walking on the treadmill. Both categories had an equal number of items. So much for that. Also, while I try not to unfriend people, no matter how cruel they can be, I’ll admit to having come close a few times this past week to begging some folks to unfriend me. But I didn’t… as usual.

Believe it or not, I sort of have to be in Facebook. I’m certainly not here for casual scrolling before bed. It’s a significant means of communication for me. Not only has it been beneficial for communicating our congregation’s theological identity, but there are groups in which I’m involved that only use Facebook forums for meetings. I can’t participate if I’m not in it.

In the meantime, the essential skills I’ve learned over the years for using social media are proving valuable. I continue to do my level best to stay in the mix while at the same time letting the hurtful commentary sail by without incident. I have to ignore quite a bit of personal accosting (much of which comes through private messaging) if I want to participate in the open waters of discussion I think are of consequence—or if I want to make or encourage points I believe are important. Truthfully, however, I confess to having discovered a long while ago that ignoring the venomous words from folks on social media isn’t as hard as one might think. Over time, I’ve learned that the people with whom I share genuine relationships are less likely to attack and more likely to either converse or simply ignore me. The folks who steam and then go for my jugular, well, I’ve realized it’s really me who’s injecting the poison into my veins when I let their words actually matter to me. When I remember that violent language—insults, name-calling, all-caps swearing, persistent trolling—is typically nothing more than the veiling of shallow opinion, when I remember their words and actions are really more at enmity with reality, then their efforts lose their sting and I can move on to other things unshaken. Usually I just say something like “okay” and then move along.

Publilius Syrus was right when he said that cruelty is strengthened by tears. And so the saying must go: “Sticks and stones may break my bones…” Well, you know the rest.

There’s lots of venom being spit in these arenas right now, and because I’m cognizant that social media is one of the only avenues for human interaction for many of you right now, I pray specifically for your mental agility in avoiding its darker underbelly. I can’t avoid it, but I hope you can.

If not, might I suggest one practical—nay, Godly—way to persevere in it?

I once heard someone define the advancement of a civilization as the communal ability to increase in things it can do without having to think about doing them.

Don’t let this definition be the description of your relationships with others. Think before you type. Think once more before you post. Check your information. Check the spirit behind your words. Why are you writing? Why are you responding? And then think one last time as you move your mouse and lead the cursor to the symbol for posting.

Be prayerfully mindful of what you’re about to say.

By the way, this isn’t novel advice for Christians. We know what humans are capable of. We know our God knows the sinful inclinations of the heart, too, and so He warns us. We trust Him for the better weapons that lead to peace on the other side of war.

“Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends” (Proverbs 17:9).

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).

“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26).

“Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit” (1 Peter 3:10).

“The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Proverbs 15:28).

“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (Proverbs 17:27).

Of course, none of this is to say that truth must be silent in the face of error. Indeed, errors need fixing. Just be careful when you aim to do so. And be ready to realize you may be just as wrong as the person you’re trying to correct.

No one but Christ has all the answers. Indeed, we’re truly living in a time for testing our own humility.

I suppose I could wrap this up by sharing that pastors, whether in real life or in the virtual world, live and die by the maxim that we’re always only one word away from ticking someone off. These days it seems no matter where we are and what we are saying, someone is offended. God willing, most pastors are carefully deliberating as they scribe. Having said this, whether or not you’re in the same kind of unavoidable spotlight as pastors, here in the midst of what is nothing less than the close quarters of a social media concentration camp, all of us together can be mindful of the long-term damage a careless word leaves behind in a community of friends.

Again, my point here, please be prayerfully mindful.

For those who’ve found themselves already offended (or far too easily offended by pretty much everything), I simply say to pray and then move along. Pray for a heart of peace and keep going. If you’re already cruising along deflecting the hypersensitivity, or you’re covering over the careless offenses with a humble spirit, odds are the irritations will ricochet right off you and probably won’t even rise to the level of Matthew 18 and its instructions for reconciliation. Of course, if they do, I’m here to help. But in the end, my guess is that by God’s grace, you’ll make it through this slow-moving narrative where, seemingly, everyone’s opinion is the annoying theme resonating on every page. Just move on, trusting that with each turn of the page, you’ll be closer to the end of this worldwide episode, and with that, the moments of annoyance along the way will comprise a volume worthy of being filed in the “Of Little Use to Anyone” section of your mental library.

Okay, I guess that’s enough typing for this morning. Sheesh, I sure do miss seeing you folks in person.

Opinions at Easter

The Lord is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Don’t you just love that announcement? I sure do, especially during times of uncertainty. Standing on the foundation of Christ’s all-sufficient death and justifying resurrection, the rest of the world can do all it wants to terrorize God’s people, and yet we are unmoved in spirit.

He is risen. Death holds no dominion over us. And that’s that. We have life—real life.

A few times during this world-wide pandemic, like others, I’ve caught myself bemoaning what not only felt like the tragic loss of the final weeks of Lent, but of Holy Week and Easter. And please, don’t get me wrong. I more than wish we could have celebrated these times together. But the more I view the situation through the lens of God’s handiwork, the more I realize the importance of the strange context in which we heard and received some of the most important texts the Bible has to offer. We heard what God thinks about Sin and Death. We heard what He intended to do about it. We heard the story of His plan in action.

We heard God’s opinion.

Everyone has an opinion about what life should or should not be like in our nation and state right now. Unfortunately, part of the curse of social media is that we all get to read those opinions over and over and over again, and this includes the insulting ones. When it comes to opinions, I’m certainly no exception. I have mine, and I share them where and when appropriate. Interestingly, Voltaire mused something about opinions being more devastating than plagues.

That’s ironically fitting.

In the end, God’s opinion is all that matters. Once again, He is risen. Death holds no dominion over us. And that’s that. We have life—real life.

And so here we are in quarantine, and the world continues to preach to us what life is to be. Life is the economy. Life is civil freedom. Life is a vaccine. Life is a doctor saying the data is right. Life is another doctor saying the data is wrong. Life is family. Life is rest. Life is hand sanitizer, a face mask, and a pair of gloves in public. Life is curbside pickup. Life is whatever the governor decides. Life is what the citizens choose. Life is your terror. Life is your overreaction. Life is this and that.

As everyone funnels into these discussions, my hope is that for the Christians engaging in the conversation—the ones who know the deeper meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—the reality of Easter will be there for them like a lifeboat of truth in a rising flood of confusion. No matter the threat, Christians will always have in their pockets the reminder that Death has been conquered, and with that, the assuring knowledge that life—real life—is located firmly and surely in Jesus Christ alone.

It can’t be found in money. It can’t be found in fame. It’s not located in anything this world would offer. Apart from Jesus, real life in the midst of a world coming undone will always be a mist-like dream that shifts with every societal breeze. Apart from Christ, real life will always be the vaccine (or essential oil, if you prefer) that remains out of reach. It’ll be the foreign language that no one can read, write, or come close to pronouncing correctly.

In the days ahead, even as the Church continues to receive the Word of the risen Christ through some pretty weird mediums, my prayer is that you’ll commit to receiving that same Word—that you’ll remain immersed in it in every possible way, being sure to see it and hear it for all that it is during this time of questioning what life is all about. If you can, join the online Bible studies. Watch and re-watch the worship services. Listen and re-listen to the sermons. I can promise you’ll read or hear something new each and every time. Most importantly, you’ll continue to be nourished by the wellspring of real life, just as Christ said (John 6:63), and you’ll be more than ready for that future day when we can all be together to rejoice before the altar of God—and I’m not just talking about when the quarantine finally ends.

But you Christians knew that, didn’t you?