A Sunset in Ludington

Last week the Thoma family took Jen’s mom, Sandy, to Baldwin, Michigan for a few days as a gift to celebrate her 70th birthday. While there, we took an evening trip to Stearns Park in Ludington, which rests at the edge of Lake Michigan. We were only there for about an hour and a half, but there was enough time to explore a few dunes, play in the sand, and wander a short way into the white capping water.

Our time there ended with a stunning sunset.

As I watched the sun make its extraordinary exit, Jen snapped an unsuspecting photo of me stooping in the sand and holding a juice bottle for my diabetic daughter—you know, just in case. I didn’t know Jen had taken it until I saw it on Facebook later that night. When I saw the image, and because I only took the posture briefly, I remembered exactly what I was thinking in that moment.

I had the first portion of Ecclesiastes 7:13 on my mind. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t just thinking the words, but rather I’m certain I said them out loud.

“Consider the work of God,” I said.

I suppose these words came to mind, first and foremost, because a sunset is an inspiring thing. To be able to see this magnificent sphere that hovers nine million miles beyond the edge of our world—a rotating ball of liquid fire so big that a million earths could fit into it—to see this and to know that it was given as a gift from God is quite moving. And then to watch it trace a careful course exactly as God designed it, leaving streaks of lovely hues across the entirety of an open sky and rolling sea, one can’t help but think the divine hand of God is in that moment sketching upon a heavenly canvas.

To steal the words of Thomas Browne, such things are indeed the art of God.

But I was also a little anxious in that moment. I remember thinking that I cannot revise these things. God has put them into place, and with that, they spin and dip and rise and turn without any help from me. The anxiety set in when I thought this was one sunset closer to summer’s end. Soon this season would become another, and eventually another, and with each well-timed tipping and spinning of the earth in its orbit around this beautiful sun balanced before me, I’d remain forever powerless to coax the process to try a different way. Like it or not, summer would pass me by, and as it was last year, I’d stand in its shadow and watch. Why? Because God has fixed it into place. It is to be this way. And while I may disagree, it doesn’t change the fact that what I’m observing is actually good.

In the beginning, God spoke these things into existence and declared them so.

As I revisit these things, another thought emerges. Juvenal wrote in his Satires, “Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another.” The Natural Law that God has established steps in time with the wisdom of the Creator, and from this lovely enterprise, life is set into motion. God is actively engaged in all of this. Seeds are planted, they grow, they bear seeds, and other plants are born. God sees to this. Only those things particular to a man can combine with those of a woman to create another human being. It’s an order that can’t be changed. God established it, maintains and blesses it, and He calls it good.

But we resist this. The sin-nature would have its own way. A man would call himself a woman. A woman would call herself a man. With unprecedented ignorance, Planned Parenthood boldly argues for the right of a man to menstruate. A sixty-year-old man leaves his wife and daughter in order to live as a six-year-old girl and eventually be adopted by an elderly man and woman in England.

Sin is its own seed for insanity. It is the ultimate attempt at deviation. But when we wrestle against the Natural Law, we so foolishly wrestle against the One who established it for our good, and in the end we prove two things: We are destined for death and decay, and we need a Savior.

Another thought emerges.

That moment on the beach when the sun slipped below the edge of the world, I was reminded that the Natural Law our God has put into place is not only tireless, but for as bendable as we might seem to consider it, it is impenetrably sturdy. Look at a vacant parking lot and you’ll see what I mean. Man and his sin-stained ego are nothing more than a layer of concrete upon soil. Layer upon layer, façade after façade, the years pass, and the concrete crumbles. But without question, up from between the decaying cracks, blades of grass will emerge. They will always and eventually heed the voice of Natural Law no matter what we do to try to cover them up.

In one sense, I suppose this gives me hope, especially in this current age of radically individualized ego-insanity. I see the structures of mankind decaying and I am reminded that what God has established will never shift into untruth.

This truth sheds light on something even better—which sits at the heart of the text I whispered from Ecclesiastes 7. The entire verse is:

“Behold the work of God. Who can make straight what He has made crooked?”

The cross is a scandalously crooked thing permanently fixed in place. The world finds Calvary shameful while choosing to find value in the crumbling mammon of this life. But for the Christians, there’s no need to be offended by it. There’s no need to soften the image. Behold the work of God for what it is. Look and believe. It’s there that the Son of God died the crookedly grotesque and wretched death of all deaths in your place. Nothing can alter this fact. It’s there that He’s winning, not losing. It’s there that your eternal life was purchased, and as it meets with what’s been shared here, it served to give over to you as a gift every sunset that will ever occur in your lifetime.

Crouch into the sand and be amazed by the workings of His Natural Law, but as you do, let it be a gentle nudge to not only recall the intricacy of His beautiful world and its value, but also the certainty that what He has established—no matter your opinions of it, no matter if you agree or not—will always best. The cross itself is the unseemly proof.

Stop It In Its Tracks

Before leaving the church this past Sunday, I had a quick chat with one of the members that reminded me of a similar conversation I had with Jennifer a few days ago. She and I were sitting on the deck and recalling bygone days. We noted how parenting is so much harder now than it was when the kids were little. We laughed and affirmed for each other that we’d much rather lose sleep to a baby’s cries than sorting out the details of a much heavier situation with that same baby who is now a young adult.

Again, changing a diaper—even the messiest of the messy—is nothing compared to helping a child navigate the rough waters leading to adulthood. It’s far more terrifying when they get older.

And part of the problem in all of this is that what we do when they’re little affects the way they’ll operate as adults. Of course we shouldn’t feel as though we are to blame for every stupid decision they make, but our thumbprints are certainly noticeable on plenty. For example, if we swear a lot, odds are they’ll swear a lot, too. If we are always late to everything, chances are the kids will consider the hands of the clock to be just as irrelevant. Thinking on Evelyn for a moment…

She’s the most finicky among the kids when it comes to food. When she was little, we’d do whatever we could just to make sure she didn’t look like she belonged on a promotional poster for Orphan Grain Train. With that, we probably accommodated her more than we should’ve. Now she’s nine, and it remains that almost every meal is a struggle. We’ll be eating grilled cheese, and she’ll ask for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We’ll be eating hamburgers and she’ll request that the chef make her waffles. Just today we were eating hotdogs and she asked for one of the breakfast muffins instead.

A habit has been formed. She learned when she was young that she doesn’t necessarily need to eat what the rest of the family is eating. If she doesn’t like it, there’s a Pavlovian urge to just order up something different from the kitchen.

I suppose that because we didn’t help her transition into a better habit, we’ve had to change our ways with most of this stuff. I once described my new approach to the problem in an Angelsportion.com post. Honestly, it’s been incredibly successful. Here’s a snippet of my strategy:

——————–

I don’t know about you, but after four children, I had a portion of my guilt gland removed. It was an elective surgery. But I did it in order to embrace a very important verity. I’ve learned that to accomplish what needs accomplishing among the smaller versions of myself, a stale face and a plain tone sprinkled with a little bit of “horrible” is necessary. I can assure you that since the surgery, life has become considerably less maniacal.

“Eat your food.”

“I don’t like mashed potatoes.”

“I don’t care.”

“Can I have a bowl of cereal instead?”

“Nope.”

“But I don’t want this!”

“I don’t care. Eat it.”

“But I don’t like it!”

“Okay, how about this? I’m going to count to five. When I reach the number five, I’m going to put that food into you through one of the various holes on your body. Right now, you can choose to do it through your mouth. But sweetie, if I get to five, I’ll choose the hole. I don’t know which one it’ll be, just yet, but you need to know that’ll be the next stage of the meal and the end of this conversation.”

By the way, after a scene such as the one I’ve just described, you should know that the adults in the Thoma house now live five seconds at a time during meals. But in all honesty, it’s a small price to pay. And it really only took a few moments involving a spoonful of mashed potatoes and a child’s flared and angry nostril as a reasonable entry point to set the pace. The cereal-munching beasties are now convinced that my words, while non-aggressive, are by no means hollow.

“How do those mashed potatoes taste?” I ask with a kindly tone.

“I don’t know,” she replies in a huff, doing all she can to hold back tears of defeat. “They’re in my nose.”

“Well then, honey, how do they smell?”

———————–

All humor aside, it works the same way in so many facets of life. If we want our kids to make regular visits to the dentist as adults, we need to take them when they’re little. If we want them to care about their health, we need to take them to the doctor—even when they don’t want to go.

With that, you probably get where I’m going with this.

Don’t skip church. And if you have been skipping church, stop.

And now that you’re stopping, if your kids still live at home and they’re in the habit of skipping church, pitch to them the house rules and force them to go. Be sturdy in your Fourth Commandment duties and require it. Don’t give them options. Just go. I know it’s probably a trite argument (nevertheless, it rings true), but never would you have let them skip brushing their teeth or taking showers. As long as it depends on you, don’t let them jettison from their lives that which matters more than anything else in this life: faith in Christ and all that He puts in place to sustain that faith. When this is optional to us, we are more than framing everlasting life as optional for our kids.

That’s eternally deadly—and not just for our kids, but for our grandkids and great grandkids, as well. God warns that this will reach into the third and fourth generations. In other words, the habit reaches up and into the branches of the family tree yet to come. On the other hand, God promises countless blessings to thousands of generations who, by the power of His Holy Spirit, steer into the horizon of faithfulness.

And so, as much as it depends on you, do what you can to stop it in its tracks today. In fact, the forthcoming school year is a great point on the timeline for starting over—for beginning things anew. Again, you can be certain that God will bless your efforts. In fact, it’s been my experience that when children stray, the forthrightness of their parents to remain faithful has played a significant role in those same children knowing and then realizing the joy of returning to what they knew all along was better.

Of course, as always, if you need my help in any of this, just ask.

Home Sweet Home

At the end of this week the Thoma family will be in Florida. God willing, I’ll be back in the saddle at Our Savior on Sunday, July 14. Until then, folks at the church won’t be hearing from me by way of the weekly eNewsletter I send out. As in the past, I’ll be setting it aside with the intent on being refreshed.

Already folks have commented, saying things like, “It’ll be good to get away and do nothing for a little while.” In response, I usually offer a word of agreement, because I certainly know what they mean. But honestly, even as I’m nodding, I have in mind something along the lines of what Voltaire scribed:

“Repose is a good thing, but boredom is its brother.”

In other words, I’ll be doing anything but nothing. Among the many relaxing activities in store, the Thoma family will be playing board games, going out to dinner and seeing the sites. We’ll be swimming, walking, watching “Shark Week” bundled under blankets on the couch, and a whole host of other things.

We’ll be taking time to be together.

On a personal front, I’ll be taking time each and every morning to write about anything and everything that comes to mind—most of which usually finds its way back to many of you in the form of whisky reviews at Angelsportion.com.

As you can see, brother “boredom” will be wholly shunned on this vacation. But there’s something else I’m expecting to do.

I’m expecting to miss all of you.

First off, while vacations are nice, it’s nice to come home. Dorothy was right—there’s no place like home. The Lord put an interesting spin on the idea of “home” when He pointed out in John 14:23 that it’s not just a place, but it also has to do with the One who makes His dwelling among the people who gather within the structure. Jesus offers so straightforwardly, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my Word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

The first thing we can take from this is that Jesus is most certainly present by His Word. He promises that, and such a promise is a tender bit of comfort for anyone wondering where they might find Jesus. You can be sure that you’ll have access to Him by His Word.

But there are a couple of other things to keep in mind.

Jesus makes His home among those who, by faith, keep His Word. The word for “keep” is τηρέω (tēreō). It means “to watch over,” or even better, “to guard.” I’d say that’s a near-perfect verb for communicating the identity of the people of God at Our Savior in Hartland. When we gather together, Jesus is here. We have His Word. We hold it as our most precious possession, and there’s no question that we’ll pit ourselves against anyone or anything seeking to snatch it away.

For that, I’m thankful. Which leads to me to a final observation.

Because of who we are in Christ, by virtue of His promises among us, I know that when I come back through the doors in a few weeks, I’ll be walking into my Christian family’s home. Home is where family lives. Our Savior is also my home because all of you—my Christian family—are here.

Truly, there’s nothing better than a familiar face, a welcoming embrace, and a kind word that is sure to let you know that while you were gone, as a member of the family—a member of the body of Christ—you were missed. When it happens, and I know it will, it’ll be one more reminder to me of just how wonderful being home can be. Even anticipating it now, I can’t help but remind you to count Our Savior as your home, as well. We are your Christian family. You belong here, too. And no matter what you’ve done, this is a place where those who, by repentance and faith, exist together and are always received… and not only by our gracious and loving Savior, but by those within the walls of this home in Hartland where the Holy Spirit is busily working by the wonderful Word of the Gospel delivering our Lord’s tidal grace.

We are family by His grace.

This, of course, means that this spiritual home and the family that occupies it are nothing of themselves. Neither exist by their own doing. God brings us together. Just as you don’t choose your earthly family, neither do you choose the family of God. You’re born into it. You’re born into the Christian community through Baptism into Christ, the One who gave Himself on the cross to win for you your place before the throne as an heir of heaven.

I think that’s pretty great stuff. And I hope you think it’s pretty great stuff, too. It is a Gospel that changes the way we deal with one another, and it strengthens all of us to be honest with ourselves—to recognize our need for a Savior from Sin—and then, together as a family, to kneel before His throne of grace to be absolved of anything and everything that would cause despair in the home.

Again, I say that’s pretty great stuff.

I suppose one more thing that makes it truly spectacular is that because of the person and work of Jesus Christ, it’s all free—free as the ocean breezes that jostle the palm tree leaves I’ll be sitting beneath in Florida very soon.

I’ll think on that while I’m away. I’ll breathe it in, and I’ll remember that together with you, in Christ, we’re family. And when I get home, it’ll be great to see you.

The Death and Burial of the Christian Faith

The school year has ended.

When anything comes to an end, it’s not unusual to think on the finality of life itself—that approaching day when each of us will inhale and then exhale for the very last time. Anticipating that final moment, rich or poor, weak or strong, legendary or just a regular Joe, each and every person will at some point betray human fragility and show concern for particular things.

In those contemplative moments, some worry they’ll die without a legacy, that perhaps they’ll simply disappear into history without having made a memorable impact on this world. Others show concern for the material comfort of their twilight years and the financial wellbeing of those they leave behind. Some invest all their worry feeling they haven’t lived their lives to the fullest, being uneasy about the career they chose, the places they’ve gone, and the things they’ve seen. Many, if not most, admit to wondering about the words others will use to describe them at their funeral. What will people say?

I’ll admit that I experience the occasional commotion from such thoughts. And why wouldn’t I? Like you, I’m human.

Still, even as these thoughts muscle in, they’re never gripping enough to haunt me. I have deeper concerns, one of which took shape two weeks ago during a funeral.

The Lord’s house was full. The family of the deceased filled the first two rows of the pulpit-side pews. Among them sat three generations of ancestry. Beyond those two pews, the room held a crowd of distant relatives and close friends.

The service began, and with it came a tidal wash of something dreadful—something I don’t want happening at my funeral.

When you think about it, a Lutheran funeral really is an easy conversation of sorts. It’s situated in God’s Word. The rhythm is one in which God speaks (through His word by way of a pastor) and the congregation responds. At this particular funeral, the cadence of the conversation was far different. The Word of God was given, but silence was almost always the reply.

I spoke the invocation, but the congregation didn’t react. I prayed. There was no response. I read aloud the Scriptures, finishing as Lutherans do with “This is the Word of the Lord,” but the people didn’t answer. Even with the liturgy and all of its components printed in detail and being held in their hands, the room was hushed at every turn, only the barest number of voices being heard. What bothered me the most is that while the pipe organ was sounding out in grandeur and carrying some of the most Gospel-potent hymns that have ever been written—hope-filled anthems that have inspired armies to charge through the flames in defense of the Gospel—still the people in the funeral sat silently. Barely a handful sang.

It’s disheartening when a mighty song of Christ’s triumph over Death is resounding and the only voices to be heard are those of the pastor and maybe two or three others.

Why did it happen this way?

I refuse to say that it’s because more and more people don’t like to sing in public. Stop by Our Savior in Hartland on a Sunday sometime and you’ll hear a full-throated resonation of liturgy and hymnody that will hastily negate that perception. I also refuse to accept the premise that the liturgy and hymns are too difficult to follow or sing. Regularly immersed in these things, I know three-year-olds who can sound them out with reverence and carefree ease. Lastly, I won’t submit to the idea that what we’re doing isn’t meeting the people where they are. That’s just an excuse for dumbing things down—for embracing anthropocentric preference over Christocentric substance—and I just won’t do it.  And besides, if we’re being honest, when it comes to the things of God, that’s not the direction the Scriptures encourage.

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-4).

My best guess as to why a funeral might unfold this way: The Christian faith in this family died years ago and is only now being put into the casket for burial.

What I mean is that years ago, family routines were established that competed with Sunday morning worship. Years ago, perhaps during the high school years, I’m guessing that church attendance was set before the children in the home as optional. Years ago, the parents had nothing to say about how important it is to date other Christians in preparation for eventually choosing a Christian spouse. Years ago, the parents were too distracted or timid to do and say some very important things that would prepare their children for engaging in a world spinning in opposition to the Christian faith.

And now the church organ is sounding with might but the church pews are silent and weak. It’s painful, but it’s honest. One can’t sing with integrity what one doesn’t believe.

Unfortunately, this is more and more becoming the standard. Funerals are becoming more the opportunity to exist in a fumbling and uncomfortable stillness, rather than being a time of voicing a joyful hope in Christ by people who actually believe what they’re seeing, hearing, and saying.

And it’s not just funerals.

Far too many young couples are stopping by my office and asking me to preside at their wedding even as they’re already living together. Such a scenario is becoming appallingly commonplace. In tandem, there’s the ever-increasing trend of young parents requesting baptisms for their children, but they’re only interested because grandma is pestering them. They’re willing to act on the first part of Christ’s mandate, which is to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Unfortunately, they have no intention for keeping the second part—“and teach them all things”—which is the promise to raise the children in the Christian faith (Matthew 28:19-20). Both parts go together. You can’t have one without the other.

And so, coming back around to where I began…

For me personally, I suppose my chief concern is not how much money I’ll have when I die. And I suppose I don’t really care if I ever get to exotic locales on vacation. It would be nice, but I’m not salivating over it. As far as fearing that I’ve not maximized my potential, while I’m sure I could be using my talents toward more lucrative enterprises, I’m absolutely certain the Lord has me right where He wants me.

What I hope for most in the face of my own death is that, firstly, when it arrives at my door, I’ll be found trusting in Christ. I say this as I’ve been in the room with a dying person who teetered at the edge of uncertainty. Uncertainty in the face of Death is the absolute equivalent of maximum dread. It is uncontaminated terror and I’ve seen it.

And so, secondly, my hope is that none in my family will experience this terror. I hope to have passed along an uncompromising faith in Christ to my own children—one that will be more than detectable in their spouses and children, one that will more than prove itself at my funeral. My hope is that the hymns will be full, my sorrowing family will give hearty replies of thankfulness to the Lord’s comforting Gospel, and the words spoken of me by the pastor who knew me—if he chooses to speak of me at all—will be ones that in every way find their way back to Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of the faith I possessed and the faith I did all I could to secure in the hearts and minds of my own loved ones.

I don’t say this with a prideful spirit. My goal is really very simple. I want my family to be with Jesus in the glories of heaven. And as an added bonus, I want to know we’ll be within arm’s reach of one another there.

Emily Dickinson was right when she mused, “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.” Unless the Lord returns first, everyone will eventually be the guest of honor at a funeral. My encouragement to you is to make the most of the time you have for fortifying the Christian faith in your family. Do all that you can to be faithful in worship. Do all that you can to balance the joy of sporting commitments with the absolute priority of keeping to the baptismal mandate for raising your children in the faith. Be mindful in every circumstance to talk with them about the substance of what it is that we believe as Christians according to the Word of God and what it means to be a child of Christ in a world that isn’t all that fond of the Lord.

In the broad scheme of things, nothing else really matters all that much. Life in this world is temporary. Life in the next is eternal. Unfortunately, far too many in the church don’t even begin to think about such things until the time of parental influence is too far out of reach or Death is already applying the brakes to the carriage and preparing to stop at the door.

My proposition: Consider and act on it now. In fact, the time before us—the season of summer—is the perfect time to begin. Summer is filled with grand temptations for steering clear of Christian worship and daily devotion. But don’t. Wrestle through it with your kids and commit wholeheartedly to continued time with the Lord.

It’s the right thing to do. It’s the faithful thing. And it’ll be worth it in the end.

Basic Human Courtesy

I have to admit that last week was one of the more grueling weeks of the 2018-19 year. I was moving non-stop from Monday morning until the men’s Bible Study group last night. From morning until evening, every minute was pretty much accounted for. I suppose I wouldn’t even bother to mention this if it weren’t for something that happened earlier in the week that pretty much doubled the weight of the calendar’s challenges. Although, in the right frame of mind, what occurred bore valuable lessons well worth sharing.

The story begins with a funeral—and it was one of the most contentious circumstances in all my years as a pastor.

The first of the facts is that much of the funeral was pre-arranged. It was to be a Lutheran service coming to its conclusion in a Lutheran cemetery. The Bible readings and hymns were all selected years ago. I was present when they were chosen. I assisted in the choosing and I wrote them down. The funeral home handling the burial details had them recorded, too. It was also decided at the time that I would preach and preside at the funeral. And why wouldn’t I? I’d been regularly tending to this person’s spiritual care for over a decade, and in many ways, was counted as an extension of the family.

Thankfully, these plans went pretty much unscathed. And the one change that was eventually made to the plans—the fact that Pastor Pies did the preaching—was more than appropriate. He’d cared for the deceased for plenty more years than I.

And so, the trouble began as it relates to who and what we are as Lutheran Christians and what that actually means when it mixes with the “however the spirit moves you” flavor of Christianity trending in America.

If you know anything about Our Savior in Hartland—which I’m assuming many of you do—then you know it is a confessional Lutheran church of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. We hold to the historic rites and ceremonies as the best means for carrying and communicating the Christian Gospel for faith. The person being buried was a lifelong and devout LC-MS Lutheran Christian and a longtime member of this congregation. One would assume that with such well-established and careful intentions by the deceased and her pastor, the funeral event would be fairly easy for the extended family to navigate, and one might think that the contours of Lutheran doctrine and practice would be an assumed rudder for steering the funeral ship through rough waters for a group of people stricken by grief.

But the essential dilemma is that the one representing the family was by no means Lutheran, and throughout the process desired that I know it.

For example, the derogatory word “sanctimonious” comes to mind. Along with a few choice expletives and a couple of times of hanging up on me, I was called this pretty straightforwardly as I treaded as carefully as possible, doing my best to hold to our doctrine and practice. But still, through every careful explanation, I was told that all this congregation really cares about is its doctrine and holier-than-thou fluff, which was further explained as being something “no real Christian cares about. Real Christians care about people, not doctrines.”

Unfortunately, it only got uglier from there. Statements like “I hate your stupid doctrines” and “I hope your dog dies” were words crassly stitched into the conversation’s fabric.

Yes, someone actually wished for the death of my dog. I suppose it’s a good thing I don’t have one.

Anyway, herein is the first lesson I think we can learn.

I know that to many in mainstream evangelical Christianity, a traditional Lutheran funeral service can seem a little stiff. This is true for various reasons, one of which being that we don’t see a funeral as a free-for-all therapy session in the face of grief. It’s a time to hover with the preeminent and saving truth of the Gospel. With that, we’re not ones to let anyone and everyone get up in the midst of the service to speak about whatever as it relates to the deceased. It’s not that eulogies are bad. They have their place. It’s just that between the Invocation and Benediction of a Lutheran funeral service, something else is to occur entirely. We are to be laser-focused on the Gospel of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. The fluff of the world gives way to the sturdy underpinnings of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins and the hope that comes for facing the last enemy, which is Death (1 Corinthians 15:26). This means we hold to the belief that little Susie’s poem about auntie would be better suited during the viewing or while folks are fellowshipping at the luncheon. It’s not going to happen during the service.

We also don’t give room for anyone and everyone to assist with the liturgy or do the Bible readings. We believe as the scriptures teach, that pastors are the ones called to stand in the stead and by the command of Christ in these things. Pastors are, as Saint Paul says, stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1). With that, if Cousin Sally wants to be a part of the service, at the most it’ll be to sing a solo stanza from a pre-determined hymn.

Speaking of hymnody, we don’t typically allow secular music to be played during the service, either. Why? Mainly because of the first point I made, but also because it’s just flat out dangerous. Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” may have been a beloved song for many in the family, but like it or not, it preaches a theological message that is about as counterintuitive to the Christian message as it gets.

A funeral is a holy event, and if the pastor is doing his job, he’ll get in between the world’s things and the Church’s things—for the sake of the people. He’ll protect and encourage the rites and ceremonies—the words and motions and places and times that make sure that everyone in the house of the Lord knows nothing less than that God is unquestionably present and at work for our good. Doctrine and practice, the rites and ceremonies of a funeral, all are in place to communicate an unclouded Gospel and provide genuine comfort.

The last of this—and you’ve probably guessed it already—is that in a traditional Lutheran funeral, God pretty much does all the talking. He has the first and last word on everything. He does this through the reading of His holy scriptures. Through the preaching, He showers His merciful love on heartbroken listeners like a torrential rain on a drying landscape. Even the hymns we sing and prayers we pray are a resonation of this bountiful relief found only in the risen Savior, Jesus. There’s no room for the world’s transient attempts at comfort in the face of Death. They’re completely out of their league in this regard—an atom-sized splinter of import in comparison to the saving message of Christ and Him crucified and raised so that Death would be defanged and we would live eternally.

That’s the first lesson—the world says, “I want it my way,” while God intends something far more substantial.

There are at least two more lessons that come to mind. But before I share them, I ask you to be prepared to really contemplate them—to really think about what I’m saying. I say this because in our radically individualized world, far too often will folks believe they’re thinking something through, but in reality, they’re merely rearranging their personal agendas in order to build better defenses around what they already believe and want so desperately to continue believing.

I’m asking for you to really think about this stuff.

The second lesson is that, while I won’t assume to speak for you, I’m guessing that any one of us would expect pastors—no matter the denomination—to take their ordination vows seriously. A Lutheran pastor intends to keep to the doctrines and practices to which he has subscribed just as a Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal would. With that, I can assure you that even as I’d never expect for a pastor from another denomination to come into my church and tell me how things ought to be done, I’d never step foot into his church expecting him to abide by Lutheran practices. If I were to engage in such behavior, it would only expose the cracks in my character as opposed to revealing another pastor’s seemingly offensive practices. In other words, he’s not the jerk. I am.

This stirs a final lesson.

Basic human courtesy is still a thing among Christians, right? I mean, it still exists, yes?

I know that plenty among the Christian ranks expel a lot of energy critiquing the doctrine and practices of other congregations or denominations. No denomination is immune from engaging in such banter. Every Baptist has his Lutheran joke. Every Lutheran has his Baptist joke. Trust me, I get why this happens. Doctrine and practice matter, and denominations differ greatly on some pretty significant things. I do my fair share of speaking to this very topic during the Sunday morning Bible study here at Our Savior. I want my people to know the differences. Saint Paul makes that very point in 1 Corinthians 11:17-19. In my efforts in the public square, I do the same thing. I take every opportunity to show how bad doctrines producing bad practices has the potential for harming the efforts of the Church Universal as we attempt to face off together with the princes of this world. In both of these forums, plenty of folks have shared with me that when they see something happening in a church that is clearly unfaithful, they cringe with a desire to fix it. And again, rightly so. Once more, Paul was concerned about these things among the churches and pastors. He wasn’t messing around when he instructed Timothy to watch his doctrine and life (practices) closely. By doing this, Timothy would save both himself and his hearers (1 Timothy 4:16).

Still, as much as any of us might find concern for a church’s handling of its own doctrine and practices among its own people, it remains a basic human courtesy to keep your commentary to yourself while right in the middle of it, especially if you find yourself in a situation where you are the recipient of the church’s efforts. Your silence in those moments doesn’t mean you approve, but rather that you have the ability for discerning self-restraint. Talk about it as much as you want with whomever you want after it’s all over, but in the midst of it, be respectful. Prove by your silence in that moment the integrity of the words you may find yourself using in the next. Plenty move forward in these circumstances bent on establishing proper piety, but fewer these days are making their way to an opponent with that piety immersed in the tenderness of humility.

I dare say that such self-restraint is an incredibly important asset that serves very well in any and all conversations, especially those designed to communicate critiques across theological borders.

I suppose in the end, there are plenty more lessons we can learn from this situation. Suffice it to say that this is enough for now.

As I said, I pray you will consider these things, and if anything, you’ll understand why pastors hold the line in this regard. Don’t shout and swear at him. Don’t wish dreadful things upon him. Give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s not trying to be offensive. He’s just trying to do his job. He’s just trying to be faithful.

Forgiveness is Hard

I took a tangential turn in the sermon yesterday. I mentioned from the pulpit that when I got to the church and was looking over my sermon manuscript, I experienced the urge to add something to the text.
During the sermon, right after considering the immeasurable depth of the Lord’s efforts to save us by way of His sacrificial death, I steered into the expense of forgiveness as it unfolds among people. Just as the forgiveness of Christ isn’t cheap, it isn’t cheap between any of us, either. It was a hard-fought forgiveness that streamed from the Lord’s work on Calvary’s cross. It’ll often be a hard-fought reality among God’s people, too.
Of course I don’t mean to say that the Lord found it difficult to forgive us. In His perfect love, that’s always His first inclination. He desires to show mercy to the contrite. He desires to be gracious to the penitent sinner. He reminds us by His Word that when His forgiveness is given, He forgets our wicked deeds and we begin anew (Hebrews 8:12).
But we’re not God. We struggle to forgive. We find it even harder to forget.
My point is that as true, deep, consequential forgiveness is needed among people, we should be wary of a couple of things.
First, for the offender, I suppose I’d be skeptical of forgiveness that is too superficially given. If it comes thoughtlessly and without expense to the offended, then the wounds are probably not being mended properly and things are bottling up and heading for catastrophe at a much later date. Take the time to talk about it. Really talk about it. Reconcile. Mend. Confess again and again if need be. Actually ask for forgiveness. Say the words.
If necessary, I’ll walk with you through this. Just send me a message. I am your servant.
Second, for the one offended, know that forgiveness is possible. It’s always possible. But it won’t be easy. It’s going to hurt. A lot.
Dear Christian, this is a reflection of the suffering of our Lord and what He endured to win our forgiveness. There are plenty of Scripture texts I could share in this moment that talk about partaking in the sufferings of Christ. Dealing in the excruciating exchange of forgiveness between people who have done ungodly things to one another is a way this partaking happens.
I share all of this—and I think I was moved to actually say it from the pulpit—because we need to hear it more and more. There are marriages that need mending. There are friendships that need healing. There are families that need recalibrating. There are lives that are in upheaval because forgiveness is exactly what’s needed even as it seems so impossible.
But it’s not impossible. It’s just hard. Really hard. And God promises He will accomplish it through His people—human beings who have their hearts and minds set on His loving kindness—a loving kindness that actually did achieve the impossible. He points to the death of His Son on the cross as the proof.
I hope these words speak straight to your middle. And know that I’m praying for you in such situations.

Crib to Casket

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

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

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

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

This reminds me of something else.

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

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

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

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

But Christian parents fight on. And why?

Crib to casket.

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

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

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

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