As a congregation, there’s a lot in store for Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan over the next few months. Visits from prominent guest speakers, graduations, and so many other unique opportunities will land in our midst. And yet, two of the most important dates to which we’ll give deliberate attention will be Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. National holidays, yes. Still, as a church, we’ll embrace them as days for honoring the office of “parent,” which stems naturally from God’s divinely established institution of marriage (Genesis 2:18-25).
We’ll celebrate these days not by swapping out the appointed readings for the day or by forcing the topics of “mother” or “father” into the sermon, but rather by letting the parents among us choose the distribution hymns during the Lord’s Supper. We’ll keep to a stabilizing liturgy that continues to set our eyes on Christ and His person and work for our forgiveness. The Word of God will be given. The Gospel will be preached. And in the midst of this, the congregation will give a more-than-appropriate nod of reverence by way of the Church’s rich hymnody to the Lord’s gracious care for His world through the societal-stabilizing gift of the family. (Visit https://www.lutheransforlife.org/article/gods-design-of-family/ to read more on what I mean that the family is a societal-stabilizing gift of God.)
I don’t know about you, but when I became a parent, there’s one very important thing that I learned almost immediately. I learned that no matter how I might be tempted to consider myself an expert in any given field, I will never be tempted to think of myself as anything more than an amateur as a father. Yes, Benjamin Spock tried to stir confidence in all of us in his infamous book Baby and Child Care when he wrote, “You know more than you think you do.” Still, there are those moments with my own children—conversations, situations, circumstances—in which I’m at a loss for words or certainty. I just don’t know what to do.
In one sense, these moments are to my benefit. They keep me level. They set before me that I’m never above the One who established the office of parent. They are moments for me to know that there’s only one Father with all the answers for every situation. I am merely a steward of the little ones He’s put into my care. He remains their true Father, and so I am duty-bound to rely on Him for what’s necessary for raising them.
This reminds me of something else.
As a pastor, I’m guessing that I attend more funerals than most folks. It’s part of the job. Over the years, I’ve noticed it’s not all that uncommon for families to put things into the casket to be buried with their loved one—special things, trinkets and such of lifelong importance. When I see these things in the casket—things that journeyed alongside them through their lives—I am reminded of something very parental in nature.
Hovering above the casket takes me to those moments when I was hovering above my little ones lying in the bassinet. It’s a momentary reminder that even as our little ones fit into a crib, the things we give, the songs we sing, the practices we uphold all along the way of their lives have enormous potential for remaining with them all the way through to the day when they will be fitted to a casket.
The job of parenting isn’t an easy one. The devil, the world, and the Sinful flesh sees quite well to making the task a challenging one. I think it was Bette Davis who said that you’re not officially a parent until you’ve been hated by your child. Those, as many of you already know, are true words. And yet we go forward. We make our kids brush their teeth. We argue with them about turning off the video games and going outside to play. We demand that they be home before midnight. We duke it out over their messy rooms, and we tell them a thousand times not to throw wet towels on the bathroom floor after a shower, as well as to flush the toilet and turn off the light before they leave.
There are plenty of times we find ourselves grappling with them just to get them to the Lord’s house for worship. And then the combat continues as we wrestle to keep them immersed in the liturgy, hymnody, and life of what really is the fellowship of their truest family—the holy Christian church. It’s exhausting. In fact, it can sometimes seem far too overwhelming to be worth the effort, especially during the teenage years when the child believes there are much better things to be doing than sitting in the pews at church.
But Christian parents fight on. And why?
Crib to casket.
In families, the space in between those two points is divinely appointed to mothers and fathers, and as believers, we take these life-long roles as stewards very seriously. Sure, we’ll always be those fathers who give the boyfriends of our college-aged daughters a poker face adorned with stern eyes. We’ll remain those mothers who pester our middle-aged sons not to forget to send a thank-you to aunt so-and-so for the birthday gift. But most importantly, we’ll be those parents who are forever concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of our children. We’ll never be able to shake the urge to be both nearsighted and farsighted. Nearsighted in that our eyes are fixed clearly upon the baptismal font where they were washed clean in the blood of Christ and claimed as His own; and farsighted as we look beyond that gracious act to their falling asleep in the Lord and their blessed Christian funeral.
I pray regularly for the stamina necessary for being a Christian parent in this day and age. Admittedly, in comparison to America’s history, Christian parents are facing unprecedented challenges to raising Godly children. Knowing this, prayer is a big deal. But even more importantly, regular worship is essential. In fact, it is the lifeblood for a Christian family. If parents and their children are not connected to Christ and the gifts He gives in holy worship, they are being starved of not only what saves, but what preserves from the crib to the casket.
My prayer for you is always the same—that you’ll never give up in this regard, that you’ll muscle through every obstruction to being with Christ in worship, that you’ll love your kids enough to use the time you have now to shepherd them into the presence of the One who loves them more than any of us ever could.
The dividends of such an effort are immeasurable. You’ll know them in the fullest sense in heaven. It’s there that you’ll look side to side and see your family. And in that eternal moment, I guarantee you’ll bear an equally eternal smile, one to which the frowns of struggle in this life will just never compare.
Go to church. And take your children.
Yes, yes, I know that in general children are not very good at listening or sitting still, and this can make worship very challenging. Still, I say go to church—and take your kids—because, for the record, there is something that children do magnificently.
They imitate adults.
I have a theory. To tee this up, I need to do a little explaining.
I’m a true moviegoer. And whether or not my wife, Jennifer, would admit to it, apart from the stereotypical chick flick (which for me to watch is tantamount to having my wisdom teeth removed without anesthesia), I’m fairly eclectic. I like all sorts. However, I’ll admit to liking horror and action movies the most. Growing up in the 70s and 80s in Danville, Illinois, horror movies were my go-to favorites. In fact, on Friday nights, I’d stay up late to watch a show called “Sammy Terry’s Nightmare Theater.” If I recall correctly, it was a broadcast out of an obscure studio on a public access station somewhere in Indianapolis. The host—Sammy Terry—would show two scary movies back to back, and in between at the commercial breaks, he’d do campy routines and commentary with his rubber spider “George” bouncing from an elastic string beside him. He showed all the classic films, movies like “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “The Wolf Man.” But he also showed the other, more hokey, films of the era. There were a few that teetered on spooky, but not very many. In fact, I don’t actually remember ever feeling scared by any of the movies. I do remember thinking how awfully ridiculous they seemed even as I was oftentimes rooting for the hero to defeat the guy in the rubber suit, and if the acting was really bad, sometimes the other way around.
Still, I loved watching them. They were fun.
Nowadays, scary movies bore me. Often they’re already too off-putting to me because of the foul language and/or the unnecessary sexual content. I’m exhausted by how these two elements are almost standard to American cinema. There was a period of time in the 70s and 80s when some really great movies came out, and they didn’t necessarily rely on these things to be successful. From among those, I do have some favorites—“Alien,” “The Thing,” and “Jaws” (yeah, go figure, a movie about a shark). And while the special effects and the storylines had gotten more impressive than what Sammy Terry used to show, still, I can’t say that I’ve found the one flick that has truly tested my nerve. Not even the movie “The Exorcist” had me on edge the first time I saw it. Thinking back on that movie in particular, maybe it’s because God knew I’d be meeting up with the real thing today. Who knows? But with that, the search continues to find the one movie that will stir the need to look over my shoulder and pick up my pace after I turn out the basement lights to make my way up the stairs.
More to the point of why I’m telling you all of this… my theory.
I’ve seen a lot of scary movies over the years. Within the last few months I happened to watch a few of the newer horror movies at the suggestion of friends, and aside from being mostly unimpressed by the gratuitous content, I did find myself hovering in the realm of a newer concern. Here’s the why and what of the concern.
Scary movies are meant to scare. I get that. But before they make it into theaters, it’s pretty typical that test audiences will watch them in order to measure the level of tolerance moviegoers will have for certain images. One thing you could always count on was that children in movies would get along relatively unscathed. They might get chased. They might be found in peril. But they’d never die. If a scene ever depicted something tragic happening to a child, the mainstream test audiences most often rejected it and it was cut from the final release.
In books it’s different. Just read a couple of Stephen King’s volumes and you’ll see. But not in the movies. To read about it is one thing. To put it on screen has been, for the most part, taboo.
But not so much anymore. Now these scenarios and scenes are becoming more prominent. The last thee horror films I’ve watched, the children in them have either been unbearably dispatched on screen in some rather vivid ways, or they themselves have been the brutally emotionless antagonist behind the terror, doing things and using means that make the 80s slasher films look like a director’s cut of “The Little Mermaid” (which I’ve never seen, by the way).
Add to this that I read recently that the market for theater-released scary movies is sliding a bit, which is probably why so many of these movies go straight to or are produced only for Amazon and Netflix. Apparently people aren’t all that willing to pay $12 to $15 per person to go to a theater to see them anymore.
All of this makes me wonder.
First of all, it makes me wonder if I should keep trying to find that one film that actually scares me, or if I should just stick with action films. I’m thinking I’ve come to a fork in the road in this regard.
Second, I wonder if one of the reasons people don’t go to the theaters to see these movies as much anymore is because people aren’t all that shocked by the actual stories they present. Real life is scary enough as it is. They can get their daily dose of horror just by listening to or watching the news.
Lastly, circling back around to the topic of kids in movies, I wonder if our view of children has become so twisted that we can’t make heads or tails of what’s appropriate and what isn’t. Pedophilia is on the rise in America. Child sex-trafficking is a problem pretty much everywhere. News reports are chock full with stories of little ones being left in hot cars while mom goes into the casino to gamble, or children found strapped in car seats and traumatized from a parent’s death at the steering wheel from an opioid overdose. Considering the abortion debate, which is no longer about taking the life of what the pro-choice folks would simply deem an unseen “clump of cells,” but rather has reached the level of killing a newly delivered, full-term child. The Governor of Virginia just affirmed that this would be acceptable if the child was deemed unwanted, even as the child was more than capable of surviving outside the womb. Now the deathly things are happening right out in the open where everyone can see them. It’s not an obscure scenario. It’s no longer a hushed conversation. It’s no longer a menacing act that is relatively hidden in the underbelly of society or within the womb.
So, where’s the outrage? Why the general complacency in response? My theory is that it’s because the death of children is becoming commonplace. It’s no big deal anymore. American society is truly becoming desensitized to the horrors perpetrated against the most vulnerable among us.
I wonder if the change in cinematic patterns is just one of the many indicators betraying this view of children by the general populace. Again, as it meets the topic of abortion, I think we see this in two ways, both of which mirror the treatment of children in the latest horror movies. The first is that children are becoming something of little value—someone easily eighty-sixed in the most gruesome of ways, a character of little value to the storyline; or second, the child is seen as the enemy—a terror, an inconvenience, an antagonist in what was once a pleasant storyline, and if he or she survives until the end, things will only be terrible, so it’s imperative to destroy her.
Some of the scenes I’ve witnessed in these recent films tells me that the tolerance of the general test audiences has reached a disheartening level.
So, what do we do?
Well, we can’t necessarily change Hollywood. And we can’t change the videogame manufacturers who, in my humble opinion, are the modern day mind-altering drug dealers to this generation. I suppose as a Christian community, what we can do is, first, to see our kids as the precious gifts of God that they are (Psalm 127:3) and to realize that He loves them very much (Mark 10:13-16). And perhaps second, recognizing ourselves as stewards of these gifts, we can seek to provide for them toward Godliness, which means to shield them for as long as we can from those things that would serve to pull them away from their Creator. We can work diligently to take them to church, the place where they’ll receive the greatest care possible—even when they don’t want to go. We do this because we know that even as enticing as the sinful world might be, it’s lively intentions are never to serve our little ones, but rather to consume and digest them into a much darker kingdom—a kingdom that has fixations that are anything but what the Lord and His Gospel would provide for their eternal salvation.
This is a tall order. But as Christian parents, we signed up for it. When we brought our little ones to the font of Holy Baptism, we committed ourselves to the war. Yesterday in the Divine Service, as a newborn among us was baptized, together we prayed for his parents, as well as all parents. That’s you and me, too. It was a prayer that affirmed the importance of these things:
“Lord and Giver of life, look with kindness upon the father and mother of this child and upon all parents. Let them ever rejoice in the gift You have given them. Enable them to be teachers and examples of righteousness for their children. Strengthen them in their own Baptism that they may share eternally with their children the salvation you have given them; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”
Know that every time we pray this prayer, I’m rooting for you and you’re rooting for me. Know that we’re standing together as a Christian community to help and support one another, calling out a willingness to fight beside one another. Most importantly, know that Jesus is leading the way for His battalions. Take your children by the hand and get in behind Him. Trust Him to get you and your family through to brighter days that see your little ones becoming parents who raise your grandkids in the same Christian faith. The world would certainly see otherwise, and yet, this is our prayer for one another.
I thought I’d take a quick moment and offer an anticipatory New Year’s Day “thank you” from a pastor’s perspective to all the faithful Christians who make up all of the Christian congregations.
Thank you to the one who sees visitors, and without hesitation, greets them with a beaming smile and a genuine welcome.
Thank you to the one serving on the altar guild, the one who won’t leave until that one flower that just won’t sit correctly among the bouquets adorning the Lord’s altar is right, the one who will take such great care well before and after worship to see that the Lord’s holy things are kept in careful ways, ways befitting of royalty.
Thank you to the one who will traverse the aisles of the church nave, doing what he or she can to see to a presentable place of worship.
Thank you to the one who gives hours of time to decorate the church nave by season, the one who carries and lifts and unfolds and irons all so that in a few short weeks it will be necessary to carry and lift and fold once more.
Thank you to the one who stands near the entrance of the church nave before worship being certain that all in attendance have what they need before worship begins.
Thank you to the one who gives a smile of encouragement to the young father and mother struggling with their little ones.
Thank you to that young couple for wrestling through a challenging morning, for getting the little ones breakfast, for getting them dressed, for doing all they can to teach their little ones the vernacular of the Church’s faith and worship in the same way their parents taught them.
Thank you to the single parent who does this alone.
Thank you to the one who serves on a board or committee, giving tirelessly so that a specific gathering of people in a particular place might be a useful tool in the Lord’s hands for the extension of His Gospel kingdom.
Thank you to the one who sees a crooked banner and gives it a nudge to straighten it.
Thank you to the one who walks through the entirety of the church/school campus after worship or an event in order to make sure that doors are locked, the alarms are set, and that the facility that the Lord has seen fit to grant is safe and ready for the next day’s potential.
Thank you to the one who vacuums the floors and takes out the garbage, the one who sees a wall that needs some care that can only come by way of a paintbrush and then paints it.
Thank you to the one who sees a light bulb in need of replacement and gets a ladder and changes it, the same one who spends countless Saturday afternoons traversing the halls to find and make repairs.
Thank you to the one who makes sure that the coffee and snacks are plentiful and ready before the gathering of God’s people for study of His Word. Thank you to the one who cleans it all up, puts away all of the supplies, and begins to prepare for the next gathering.
Thank you to the one who teaches Sunday School, the one who gives of oneself Sunday after Sunday for the sake of Christ’s littlest lambs.
Thank you to the one who helps find and recruit the Sunday School teachers, who spends time petitioning God for faithful servants to go before Him with His holy Word.
Thank you to the one who teaches in a Christian day school, the one who dedicates a lifetime for the sake of the eternity of others.
Thank you to the one who volunteers in the day school, the one who helps with crafts, with reading, with special luncheons for the teachers and children, with playground supervision, with field trip chaperoning, with office help, and with so much more.
Thank you to the one who gives time and effort to comfort the bereaved, the one who cries with the widow, the one who makes and delivers a meal in a time of crisis, who sends note cards with comforting texts from God’s Word edged with personal words of loving kindness.
Thank you to the one who refills a luncheon attendee’s coffee just because, and the one who helps take down tables and put away chairs.
Thank you to the one who steps up to meet burdens borne only by principle leadership, the one who sits in meeting after meeting making the most difficult of decisions, the one who takes those hours-long concerns home at night and wrestles with them there, too.
Thank you to the one who learns of a need and adds an extra zero to his or her offering check before putting it into the offering plate. Thank you to the one who does this not just stirred by a particular need, but because of a continued evaluation of one’s giving, a careful reconsidering of the commitment made and the desire to reach higher if possible.
Thank you to the one who shows such incredible love to the workers—to the pastor, the school principal, the day school teachers, the office administrators, and all others—the one who writes kindly notes of encouragement, who helps fold and send congregation letters, who takes time to diagnose and then fix a problem with a vehicle, who bakes a little something extra for a servant’s family to enjoy.
Thank you to the one who keeps the same pew warm Sunday after Sunday, the one who never misses because to do so would to be found hungry—no, starving—for that which is needed for life in this world and a heart set for the next.
Thank you to all who truly emit what the Psalmist meant when he wrote by the power of the Holy Spirit, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (84:10).
By God’s grace alive and at work through you, I am more than confident that 2019 will be even better than 2018. You will continue to be salt. You will continue to be lights in the world and a collective city on a hill (Matthew 5:13-16). The Lord’s Word will continue to go forth through days of both persecution and rest. His mighty arm will be evident among us, and many who walk in darkness will see a great light; and those who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on them a light will shine (Isaiah 9:2).
Again, thank you. It is a privilege and pleasure to serve beside and among you. And may the one true God—the Father, the +Son, and the Holy Spirit—bless and preserve you for such faithfulness.
“Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say” (1 Corinthians 10:14).
Saint Paul wrote those words to the Corinthian church just as he was about to begin explaining the doctrine of Altar Fellowship, which when you really get down to the nuts and bolts of it, is all about what’s happening in Holy Worship, namely, the Lord’s Supper.
This post begins as it does because Paul’s words just felt right. I wanted to urge you to flee from idolatrous things. You are sensible people. Judge for yourselves the words that follow, the first of which is a very short and easily understood statement.
Flee from idolatry.
Today, if your church is at all mindful of her history, she will be observing the Feast of All Saints. If you have plans to be somewhere else, or to do something else, change your plans. This time, instead of rearranging your schedule to accommodate idolatry, change your schedule to accommodate the forgiveness of sins delivered through Word and Sacrament. Skip that which would conflict with those divine things which give to you all that Christ has won by virtue of His life, death, and resurrection.
Go to church. Take a look in the mirror and recognize that you need to be there, not only because of your idolatrous tendencies—which is evidenced by your excuses and your absence—but also because you belong there by virtue of your baptism into the fellowship of Saints.
Know this—you won’t be alone in feeling a little uneasy if you’ve been away for a while and then suddenly reemerge. In fact, think of it this way. In the Confession of Sins right at the beginning of the Divine Service, we drop to our knees as an entire congregation. We bow our heads. We close our eyes. We confess that all of us are members of the fellowship of sinful man in our thoughts, words, and deed; by the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone. We confess this together, and with that, I can affirm for you as a fellow sinner that there are plenty of reasons for everyone in the room to feel uneasy. You most certainly won’t be alone. We’re all acknowledging that God knows something about us, and it isn’t pretty.
But know this, too—after all of the penitent voices speaking in solemn sadness go quiet, you will hear a solitary voice, the voice of your pastor, the one Christ has called to stand in His stead and by His command, and it will be for you as the Lord’s own voice announcing to you that you need not fear. You need not be uneasy. You need not be afraid. Through repentance and faith in His mercy, you belong here, and He wants you to know with absolute certainty that He loves you, forgives you, and will lift you to your feet to sing as much in the Introit appointed for the day: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me.”
So, stop making excuses. They don’t measure up, anyway, and you know it. Stop skipping church. You already know there’s no better place to be. Hear this Gospel imperative to repent and believe in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Be moved to come and get from Christ what He has won for you—which is also the only thing that will sustain you in a world seeking to impose itself upon you day after seemingly endless day.
In and by faith, you are a Saint. Today is your day. Join your fellow believers. Be with your Redeemer at the feast!
Last week was a busy one because of our “The Body of Christ and the Pubic Square” conference. With a lot of us working in close quarters with so many people on so many things, a good number of us are tired, both physically and mentally.
Just thinking about everything that goes into the conference, I get tired. Just typing those words, I’m reminded of something else.
My daughter, Madeline, has been compiling a list of favorite songs on her phone. In fact, every Wednesday night as we drive home from midweek catechesis together, at some point along the way, she’ll announce how many hours of music she has gathered. Our first Wednesday evening of traveling together, she told me she has a playlist that’s about ten hours long. Just last Wednesday I learned she’s closing in on hour eleven.
“Why are you doing this, again?” I asked the first time she shared it.
“Because if we drive to Florida, I need at least eighteen hours of listening music.”
As a result of the initial conversation, while driving home together on Wednesdays, I’ll help with her list. I play songs from a thumb drive connected to my car stereo and I make recommendations. Most of the time she knows the songs because we listen to music a lot in our house. But if she doesn’t, and she likes it, she’ll make a note to add it. Last week we added “Land Down Under” by Men and Work, “The Rubberband Man” by Spinners, “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield, and a few other rock songs from folks like ACDC and Billy Squire.
The reason I mention all of this is because what Madeline doesn’t realize is that she’ll probably never get to use that playlist because I have no intention of ever driving to Florida. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love all four of my kids, but speaking only for myself, I don’t think my family of six would make it to Florida alive if we had to be in such close quarters for so long. Again, don’t get me wrong. There’s an over-abundance of love among us. But even as that love is there, my kids are most certainly individuals who need their own spaces, so when it comes to mixing with certain siblings, it can get ugly in a hurry. What I’m saying is that six people—no matter how much they love each other—in a relatively cramped Ford Explorer (that probably wouldn’t make it all the way to Florida, anyway) for eighteen hours has the potential for becoming something more akin to putting a wolverine, a badger, an opossum, a muskrat, a puma, and a timber wolf into a giant wet sleeping bag and swinging it around. (And yes, I thought about each one of those animals before I listed them, but I won’t tell you who’s who. Well, maybe I will tell you two of them. I’m the timber wolf and Jen is the puma.)
So how does this meet up with where I began?
Well, I suppose that in the end, even after the ruckus, all of these animals are a part of the animal kingdom and do still live in the same forest. There are wolves and pumas and muskrats and badgers all wandering in and among the same trees and streams.
That’s us as a congregation. We’re part of the same kingdom.
There are so many in our midst with so many attributes and gifts that God Himself has designed and graciously given. Used according to His calculations, they are a blessing to so many, and they often result in bringing to life something like our “The Body of Christ and the Public Square” conference. But because we’re human beings tainted by sin, there’s the chance of being in close quarters in any effort and growing exhausted with one another. When this happens, we discover ourselves capable of marking territories and guarding our dens.
I suppose at this point, the rules of the animal analogy start to break down, and here’s why. Unlike animals, it is by no means acceptable to eat our own. Saying this, I want you to know that I see all of you as members of my Christian family. And I’m glad that so many of you see everyone else that same way, because this means that even if you may find yourself spending eighteen hours in a car with one of your highly particularized brothers or sisters in Christ—or working for ten weeks on the details of a conference—you’ll emerge at the end of the excursion in a relationship that remains built on familial love. God gives that love. And that love isn’t so easily discarded. As I said, animals find it quite natural to eat their own. As a Christian family, that is to be far from us. And I believe it is. This side of a very exhausting event, I can see it, and I’m glad for it.