A Whole Lot of Nothing

There was a storm that passed through Livingston and Genesee counties last Thursday evening, one that put on quite the show as it approached. If you’re at all familiar with the show “Stranger Things,” from a distance, the storm was eerily similar to those lightning cast skies in the realm of the “Upside Down.” I fully expected to see the Shadow Monster hovering above Argentine, which is the town immediately west of us.

Jennifer and I spent some time on the front porch watching the storm roll in. It looked pretty threatening. It wasn’t until Madeline intercepted news from the frontline using her weather app that I decided to go the nearby gas station to fill up the gas cans I keep on hand for use with our generator. The forecast indicated high winds and large hail destined for Linden around 9:35 pm.

It was coming, and based on the reported time, I only had about 15 minutes to get to the gas station and back.

I managed the round trip in about 8 minutes. When I got home, the winds were picking up. What was once a relatively mild sky was now in the process of being palled by a shredded covering of blackness—a giant layer with tattered edges being pulled over the earth. There were moments when the portion of the storm creeping over our house actually took the shape of grizzled hands at the end of stub-like arms reaching after the calmer sky. Bright bursts of lightning coursed around and through all of it, and with the clouds being so low, each abrupt surge was powerful enough to rival noonday light, giving the impression someone was standing at the sun’s light switch turning it on and off again.

It was a menacing display, but it was also quite remarkable.

The storm didn’t fully arrive until about 10:00 pm, which was well after predicted. And when it did, it was a whole lot of nothing. The winds were strong at times, and there were a few periods of rain with larger-than-usual drops, but other than that, the intimidating forecast of its strength was far more than its actual grip. It appeared terrifying on approach, which stirred my worry, but in the end, it had barely enough force to knock the leaves from the trees let alone the power from the neighborhood.

Worry is a strange thing, isn’t it? Seneca wrote that there are more things “that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

How true. And while I’m one for the hearty employment of imagination, nevertheless, the mind’s eye still proves its binding to sin. Worry hires our imaginations in order to accomplish its dirty deeds of despair and trustless anxiety.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with reading the context of an uncertain scene, and by its cues, doing what’s necessary to prepare. We’d be fools to hear the forecast of a terrible storm and not do all we can to get ready. For example, our congregation just faced off with a pretty significant pile of bills. The mortgage, payroll, and a mass of other obligations came due all in the same week. We knew they were coming. We could see the clouds gathering on the horizon, and it was pretty scary. With that, we communicated and we prepared. I’m here to tell you that we navigated the winds and waves and did not sink.

A few years back, a former member of Our Savior told me to my face not only that he was leaving for a different church, but also that when such financial situations loomed at Our Savior (and such things were pretty regular back in those days), I’d miss his offerings in the collection plate. In fact, he was sure to tell others in leadership that he was giving us six months before we’d be forced to close our doors.

That was in 2011.

I’ll admit that in the moment, it was a worrisome thing to hear from him. Still, I knew right then and there that a man will only say such things if he believes the only way for success in this life and the next is by his own efforts—that everything depends on him—that the only way he can save himself and all he loves is if he shutters the windows and has plenty of gas for the generator.

I get the feeling that worry’s gravity is exceptionally heavy for such self-oriented people. Even the small storms become big for a person trapped within his or herself. The smallest things become destructive. A singular raindrop of an innocuous word from a friend has the potential for causing a massive divide between two people. That raindrop is like a torrential flood. It sends the person running for the sandbags.

As I type away at my keyboard and share these thoughts unfiltered or unfocused, I guess part of my point is to say that whether the challenge you’re facing is a monumental tempest or a raindrop of concern, steering into them believing you’re the captain is never a safe bet, and it’s dangerous.

The doors of Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan will close if God wants them to close. In the meantime, the words of Nick Fury to Agent Hill in the movie “The Avengers” comes to mind: “Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on.”

Of course for Christians, there are better words we can consider when facing insurmountable odds:

“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

These are better because they’ve been given not from fiction but from fact. They roll from the divine mouth of our loving God—a Captain who stands unrattled against any and every gale, a God who sent His Son into the cyclone of Death to defeat it from the inside, stealing away its supremacy in this world—and giving the fruits of the victory to all who trust in Him.

By such a Gospel, mistakes can be made among friends and the world they share will spin on. An alp-sized avalanche of expenses can drop on us and we’ll be okay. It won’t be easy, but in the end, the worst we have to fear in any situation is Death, and that has already been brushed aside as a whole lot of nothing.

Like the storm that passed through Linden, Michigan last Thursday.

A Resolution for Solitude

The new school year is on the approach. For many in our world, the beginning of the school year is as January 1—a day for resolutions.

People resolve to make changes in the family routine. They vow to be more vigilant with the children’s videogame and TV time. They speak out loud a commitment to more exercise. They make promises to themselves that even as exhausted as they might be at the end of the day, they’ll still take time to read to their children before bed.

I’m one to encourage people toward making such resolutions, even though I know statistics would say the efforts are often short-lived. It doesn’t change the fact that such people are concerned enough to try, which for me is like watching someone eyeing a glimmering object below the surface of a dangerously swift river. They’re cognizant of something better and more valuable, but it’s out of reach. And so inch by inch, they work their way into the water only to realize that unless they receive help from beyond themselves, the current will sweep them away.

In one sense, these scenes boil down to lessons in humility. People resolve to make changes because they know they’re not so good and want to be better, but the sin-nature is ever-vigilant to sweep our feet from beneath us each and every time. For the Christian, these experiences are opportunities to recall the frailty of humanity and the need for a Savior.

In another sense, when it comes to meeting challenges, these situations teach Christians the importance of being together as the Church—of sitting beside one another in worship, of existing as brothers and sisters in Christ beyond the doors of the church building, of working together and building one another up as being of equal necessity. All of this is in motion by God’s grace to strengthen us with saving faith so that we would be sturdy when threatened by the world and while we accomplish the seemingly impossible things of God. To know God’s great concern for those who would break away from regular fellowship with the Church, stop by Hebrews 10:19-29 for a quick recalibration. For all others interested in basking in the bright beams of His wonderful encouragement, take a trip through Psalm 31:24, 2 Corinthians 3:12, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Romans 12:4-8, Joshua 1:9, Psalm 138:3, 2 Chronicles 32:7–8, Ephesians 6:19-20, and Philippians 1:14.

Thinking on all of this, I’ve made two particular resolutions for the new school year, the second of which, at first glance, might sound counterintuitive to what I just said.

My first resolution is to give more money to the church. Because I already live pretty frugally, I don’t have many corners to cut. But with the ones I do have, the blade of mindfulness is already at their edges. For example, instead of stopping at McDonald’s four or five times in a week for a medium black coffee—which has become my routine—I’m only going to stop once, and then all of the money I would have spent will be put into the offering plate. I intend to be heedful of these little things and to make changes.

My second resolution is to steal away into solitude more often.

Yeah, I know, right. I just finished telling you that we need to be and work together as a Church, and now I’ve told you I’m going to keep to myself more than before. Let me explain.

I’m going to seek solitude, not isolation. Isolation is a removal of self from community for all the wrong reasons. It simmers in discontent. This is deadly and really quite draining. Solitude is a far different kind of alone time. In my case, solitude is time to think, to read, to explore, and then to produce. More often than not, solitude results in substantive snippets of crisp thought that eventually become sermons, poetry, short stories, and so very much more. It helps provide the wherewithal for the practical, everyday things, while at the same time stoking the coal in the locomotive’s engine for the long haul required for realizing goals and maintaining long term vision.

Solitude is healthy. It makes me better.

Throughout the school year, solitude is rare, and if summer had anything to teach me, it was the benefit of alone time without interruption to do these things. I intend to do my level best to find solitude.

I suppose in the end, if you’re like me and you make new school year resolutions, I’m glad for you. When it comes to meeting them, know that I’m already rooting for you, and I stand at the ready to help however I can. Perhaps even this little jaunt served to give you the prompt you needed.

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.

Good Luck With That

I saw a recent post on Facebook by my friend Tyrel Bramwell. He was heralding his arrival at five years in the holy ministry. Congrats, Tyrel!

I’ll say that while reading Tyrel’s post, his words regarding the challenges rang true.

It seems as though at any given point on the timeline, as a pastor, I exist in the midst of a handful of volatile situations in my congregation that have more than enough potential for keeping me awake at night—for causing restless friction in my family, impatience with others, and an overall sadness that can pall any sunny day. It’s in these moments when I can easily catch myself at the edge of saying, “I just don’t get paid enough to do this job.”

Interestingly, before I can ever get to the end of that sentence, the Lord so kindly, so faithfully, breathes a bit of refreshing air by His Word, being sure to bolster my resolve with other-worldly whispers of “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:14); and “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10); and “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me… I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:2-3, 33); and finally, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

In those divine reversals, I am reminded that God’s mandates of “Be faithful” are not over-lording commands from an uncaring Master to “toughen up, you crybaby,” but rather they are tender imperatives that bring along with them the viscera-tightening Spirit for actually steering fearlessly into the challenges and enduring them. They are empowering nudges that enable me to recall that by faith, I am the Lord’s, and with that, I’ll be okay. Be faithful. Even if Death is the endpoint, be faithful. Death no longer has mastery over me. I am a child of eternal life.

When the world faces off with a Christian positioned on such a foundation—a foundation that knows Death has been defanged, and as the “last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26), has been ultimately defeated by the resurrection of Jesus—the world had better rethink its strategy against such a person. They won’t roll over so easily.

Say what you want. Do what you will. Attack as you find opportunity. Just know that I have everything I need to keep going. And put this in your pipe and smoke it: Keep in mind that if you would tear me down from such a place of certainty, you would also need to dethrone the One who both won and gave it to me by His Holy Spirit through the Gospel of my redemption.

Good luck with that, tough guy.

And so whether any given scene be wrought with challenges or blossoming with joys, all become opportunities to give thanks to the Lord for His great love. I may be at war with the world, but I’m not at war with Him. That war ended at Calvary. In Jesus, I am at peace with God, and everything will be just fine.

Again, any person, place, or thing in this life scheming against someone who stands firmly on this Gospel had better go back into the devil’s basement and come up with a better plan. And once again, I say, good luck to you.

We Thank You for Your Love

The Thoma family thanks everyone for their messages, cards, meals, and so much more. Your loving kindness to us as we made our way through the situation with our son, Harrison, is a direct reflection of the Lord’s love to and for His world. We can’t begin to thank you enough. Although, I suppose by myself, I can make the effort to paint a portrait of the appreciation.

This past Friday, Harrison and I shared an elevator at Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor with a mother pushing her daughter in a stroller. The little girl couldn’t have been more than three years old.

I’d seen the two of them before. In fact, Jennifer and I saw them down near the cafeteria at the beginning of the week and we commented on what the situation might be for the little girl.

In this moment, leaning against the wall of the elevator, mom looked exhausted. She tried to fool me with a less than credible smile, but I knew better. Her daughter’s brown eyes were bright. They were locked onto the lighted buttons with the numbers 7 and 12. I couldn’t see her expression. Other than being ornamented with bandages and a couple of IV ports, she was wearing a mask. And she was balding.

They got off at the seventh floor. We exited at the twelfth.

It’s remarkable how in a singular moment one’s lens of perception refocuses, and you change from someone concerned for your own sphere of existence to having a desire to step outside of that sphere for the sake of another human being.

This happened to me in that elevator.

Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” He’s right. Sin complicates our peripheral vision. Most often we view life through our own joys and sorrows, becoming stuck in the mindset that the best and worst to us is the best and worst in the world.

But that’s just not a very honest view. I’m pretty sure I’ve offered from the pulpit on more than one occasion that Mankind is still searching for the depth of Sin’s creativity. It’s very possible that whatever “worst” may be happening to you will be easily overshadowed by someone else’s tragedy.

Even though, for the most part, it would seem we are through the darker days of Harrison’s situation, I don’t mean to look back at it and say everything was simple and carefree in comparison to others. There’s nothing to downplay about what Harrison has endured. Two procedures to open up his body to his hip socket and pelvis in order to manually clean them, excruciating pain both day and night through the first three days, the taxation of round-the-clock sequestering to his room by Infectious Disease doctors—all of these things were monumentally challenging to a boy who just wants to be twelve. I’ll admit that through all of this, I discovered myself hovering above a chasm of worry, especially when the attending physician assured us that his kind of infection is deadly serious, and if not fatal, can cause irreversible bone damage. We’ve been reminded on more than one occasion that had Jennifer not been moved to take him to the ER when she did, things almost certainly would have been worse.

Again, no downplaying. We’ve been teetering at this precipice.

Nevertheless, I saw another parent in the elevator, someone both like and unlike me. I saw a child in there, too, someone similar and dissimilar to Harrison. They were like us because they’re human and struggling. They’re different in ways I can’t necessarily describe. Except for one. My guess in the moment was that while my son was going through a lot, he was slowly improving, and I suspected he had a chance at full recovery. But the future of the little girl with brown eyes and cancer was less certain.

In the midst of personal concern, God granted my field of vision to become a bit wider. I could see both her and her mom as all of you have seen the Thoma family.

Like all of you—people in the midst of woeful struggles none of us may ever know—I was moved to look beyond my own sadness and take time to care. To be totally honest, I tried to discover their room number on the 7th floor so that I could send the little girl an anonymous gift from the hospital gift shop. Of course, no one would share that information. Instead, I took a moment to do something better, to do what Christians do. I prayed for her—for her entire family—as all of you have done for us.

First off, I don’t know if an anonymous surprise from the gift shop would have accomplished the moment of joy I was hoping for her, but I feel safe in assuming it might’ve. So many of you are the proof of this. So many of you reached out to help us in the same ways, all showing a field of vision well beyond the self. This is nothing less than the Holy Spirit at work by way of the Gospel you’ve received. Christ’s effort to live, die, and rise again for your redemption wasn’t lost on you. You’ve been recreated by this powerful act, and the Thoma family has been the recipient through meals, gas cards, and the like.

But there’s something more.

Aristides said, “And to me there is no doubt but that the earth abides through the supplication of the Christians.”

Gift or no gift, I know the prayer I prayed for that mother and daughter will suffice. Again, all of you are proof. God hears the cries of His people and He answers according to His good and gracious will. And that’s all I asked for—His will to be done—that He would grant peace, healing, and hearts set upon trusting in His Son for real rescue.

As a family, we are grateful for your care, but as a pastor and friend to you, I’m most grateful for who you are in Christ—the example you are even to me. I’m grateful that He has made you people with a broader field of vision than what the sinful flesh can muster, even in the midst of struggle. He has made you His bright beaming lights emitting a great and wonderful love to the world around you through acts of mercy and prayers that seek His faithful will in the lives of others.

I am truly grateful to be your pastor. God is at work through you, offering a care for His world so often flexed by way of muscle that only the holy Christian church bears.

With all of this in mind, there’s one more thing I’d ask of the countless people who prayed for us. I’m asking for all of you to turn the diligence of your prayers back to the Lord on behalf of someone else. Adam Pushman’s niece, Lucille Aldred, has been suffering from cancer. The tumors they thought were in remission in this little girl have returned. Needless to say, Lucille’s parents are scared, and scared parents wrestle with fathoming how God could allow such things. My request of all those who prayed for us: Pray diligently for Lucille. Pray continually. Under the banner of His gracious will, ask for healing as well as for steadiness and comfort to the parents.

Spread the word to other churches. Tell family and friends. Pray.

May God continue to strengthen you for this. And again, thank you for lifting us before God. Let’s do it now for Lucille.

Taking the Law on Two Legs

Excuses.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of excuses. We’ve also been ones to employ them.

It was Shakespeare who said in his passionate way that when we make excuses for our faults, the very act itself “doth make the fault the worse…” (King John, IV, ii).

He’s right, you know. It’s a very deep hole we begin to dig when we betray to others the calculations that comprise our darkly justifications for our truest selves and our behaviors. That’s what we do when we make excuses. We reveal the real tenacity for covering our tracks and holding to our Sin.

Since we’re Christians and God promises to forgive our faltering, why not just be honest and admit to it?

Because the Sin-nature is strong. We war against honesty and continue with our excuse-making because the Sin-nature knows a little something about confession that it doesn’t want to admit. The Sin-nature knows that honest confession is completely incompatible toward gaining what we want when we want it. Honesty doesn’t fit into the divine equation of trust in God as opposed to self. Honesty is an exercise in letting go of the badness and clinging to the good. Excuses are the ways we find for keeping at least one finger on the bad.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the season of Lent doesn’t tolerate excuses. Every Sunday in Lent sees excuse-making bowled over. It leaves no room for reasoning a way through or legitimizing our sinful doings. It looks us squarely in the eyes and says unflinchingly, “You can’t fool me. I know a schemer when I see one.”

Throughout the season, the introit and Psalms both have elements of this. The collects contain it, too. The readings more than tell us this. The hymns put all of it to music. And God willing, the preaching and teaching of the Pastor will steer straight into it with you, as well. He will unflinchingly remind you that your family’s absence from worship and study is hurting and not helping. He will warn that your loveless stewardship of the Lord’s gifts is destined only for cataclysm. He’ll try to dissuade you from the excuses you are making, urging you not to try to justify Sin, but to bind yourself to truth, because in the end, there is but one Arbiter of earth and sky—Jesus Christ—and He already knows your secret ambitions. His Word has already met with and judged every excuse mankind could ever think to devise.

But that’s not the whole message that Lent and its servants have to give. Lent also serves up the realization that honest confession is far better because it beholds the consoling and empowering smile of absolution.

The Gospel of God’s absolving love through the person and work of Jesus Christ restores, recreates, and empowers.

Pearl S. Buck said something about how every mistake has a midway point for remedying the situation, for turning things around and fixing them. The Gospel goes further and says that apart from outright rejection of Christ or passing the moment of death, there’s no point at all on the mortal timeline when a believer has gone beyond the sphere of God’s grace. This is the Good News that Christ is there with His Gospel at every twist and turn along the way, giving what the shameful heart needs to gird up and take the accusations of the Law on two legs.

Admitting to Sin’s ugly residence in our hearts is bravery not weakness.

I haven’t been a pastor too long, just over eleven years now. But even in that short period of time, I can truly say that when it comes to excuses for this or that Sin, the wellspring of surprising novelty has run pretty dry. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve heard them all, and for the most part, all are emblematic meanderings that circle stereotypical causes. For the one who claims to have fallen out of love with his wife, I wait patiently for the mistress to eventually come to light. For the one who can rarely make it to worship, I am saddened by his or her Sunday morning exploits broadcast on Facebook.

There are few excuses I hear that hold up or are even the least bit interesting anymore.

I don’t know if that should scare people away from talking to me, or if it should encourage them. I hope it’s the latter. I hope people will sit with me and know that I’m going to do my best as a servant of Christ to give honesty in order to retrieve honesty. Honesty in these situations leads to a realization of need. Need has its hands out in ready anticipation for what Christ promises to give, which is forgiveness, the assurance of His love, and the stamina for facing off with those things that drag us down into arenas where we think we need to make excuses.

My prayer for you is that this holy season will help you to see the One who gave His life as your ransom, that you won’t feel the need to make excuses for your Sin but rather you’d know and experience the freedom of access to His immeasurable grace. Take that grace. It’s yours. You don’t need to justify your Sins in order to convince Him that you are worthy. Confess them. Be honest. You’ve failed and you are in desperate need. Admit and then recognize that no matter where you are, no matter how far astray you’ve gone, the cross of Jesus Christ stands as the midway point for remedying your mistakes. Look there. He will receive you, and He will turn it all around.

Road Signs

Here we are at the edge of Lent. I say “edge” because we haven’t quite crossed over its border.

This past Sunday, Septuagesima, is the first of the three Pre-Lenten Sundays. The word literally means “seventy days,” and it’s pointing to the fact that we’re about seventy days from Easter. Next Sunday, the one that always makes a select few of the school children giggle when I say its name, is Sexagesima—sixty days. The Sunday after that is Quinquagesima, or fifty days. Lent doesn’t actually begin until Ash Wednesday. It lasts for forty days, which is mindful of the Lord’s forty days in the wilderness, Noah and his family’s time in the ark before being delivered, and the forty years the Israelites spent in the wilderness before finally entering into the promised land. Of course if you do the math, realizing that Sundays are in Lent but not of Lent, then you’ll discover that Lent lasts right up until the Vigil of Easter, which is the Saturday before Easter Sunday.

So why the Pre-Lenten Sundays? Isn’t Lent long enough already?

I suppose. Although, if you’re in tune with the seasons of the Church Year, you’ll already know that while each one has something to teach us, they’re also doing something to prepare us for what’s coming next. But the stark contrast between the brightness of Epiphany’s powerful miracles is almost too strange for dropping us right at the doorstep of one of the most sobering events of the year—Ash Wednesday—which begins the season for more intently meditating on the approaching sacrifice of Jesus. The Pre-Lenten Sundays help ease the jolt. They’re kind of like a very slow immersion into a really cold swimming pool. You need a little time to ease into something that has the potential for shocking your system. Lent isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a solemn and deeply penitential time. Every single bit of its very visceral fervor is aimed at that one particular Friday in the Church Year that Christians call “Good.”

And by the way, I mean no offense when I say that if Lent is treated as being no big deal at your church, then go somewhere else. Your pastor isn’t doing it right and you’re missing out. Again, no offense, but you need to ditch the place. You’re being starved of one of the most vigorously focused times in the Church Year.

That reminds me… I had a conversation last week with a few of our school kids about a text in 1 John 5 where the Apostle asks sort of rhetorically: “Who is it that overcomes the world?” (v. 5). I spoke to them about how the world is actively warring against us, and strangely, its assaults aren’t really all that off-putting. It entices us. It reaches to us and convinces us into beliefs and behaviors that are counter to Christ and His holy will. Essentially I said that the world offers up a whole lot of road signs pointing to no real destination, at least none of any real or truthful value leading to eternal life. In fact, everything the world sets before us has the potential for leading to condemnation. But then in the very next sentence, John answers his own question: “Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” In the verses immediately following this answer, John encourages the reader toward the means for not only discerning this, but for being equipped to withstand and ultimately overcome the world—the Spirit, the water, and the blood—which are really just first century synonyms for the Word of God and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. John presses his readers to look to road signs that actually lead to something good know, road signs that actually give what they communicate. And he urges us to never become disconnected from these means by which Jesus takes up residence among His believers to feed and strengthen them for overcoming the world.

Thinking back on the conversation, I realize that this is a very Lenten text. Lent is a time filled with spiritual road signs. For example, in the midst of Lent’s penitential atmosphere, there’s a long-standing Christian practice of wrestling with the worldly flesh through fasting, which means folks deliberately set aside or give something up for Lent. In a sense, the act is meant to be a road sign (not at the same level as Word and Sacrament, of course), and it’s done for a handful of reasons. Hopefully one of the principle reasons is so that each and every time they experience the craving for the thing they’ve set aside, the very yearning itself will direct their attention to what the Lord set aside in order to accomplish our redemption. He set aside His divine majesty, and in utter humility, He submitted Himself to the powers of Sin, Death, and all that hell could raise to destroy us. And what did He give up? His life. He didn’t do any of this for Himself. He did it for us.

Ash Wednesday, the very first experience of Lent, is an incredibly potent road sign. The ashen mark smeared on our foreheads to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19). And yet the mark—a cross—it points to the singular event among all others in human history that had the muscle for defeating death at its own game and setting us free from its curse. When that mark is made, it is formed in the same way a pastor crafted it on us when we were baptized. Ash Wednesday points to the fact that all who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27). We were buried by baptism into His death, and by His resurrection, we rise, too (Romans 6:4). Death has no hold on us because it has no hold on Christ (Romans 6:9).

Lent is full of these types of road signs, and the Pre-Lenten season is helping to hone our senses for seeing them.

Lent itself will lead us through a forty day journey of carefully absorbed and distinctly precise meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus for the sins of all. I hope you’ll engage in it. As a Christian, I guarantee it’ll be well worth your while.