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.

I Have A Theory…

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.

The Wind Just Keeps On Blowing

Isn’t it strange how we do what we do as humans, and still the earth just continues to spin, doing what nature does?

Here we are in Michigan in February enjoying temperatures that could get as high as the mid-fifties—almost as if it were a spring day. Just four days ago the wind chill was registering at -35 degrees. Just four days ago it was eighty degrees colder and the entire state was facing a natural gas crisis of catastrophic proportion. The whole scene reminds me of a line in one of my favorite movies as a kid, “Red Dawn.” During a brief moment of quiet from what has already been a long and exhausting war to take back their home soil from invading forces, the character Matt says to his older brother Jed, “It’s kind of strange, isn’t it, how the mountains pay us no attention at all? You laugh or you cry, and the wind just keeps on blowing.”

The wind just keeps on blowing.

During those very cold days, while I managed to make it out and around to visit a few folks, I found it necessary to be home with my family to help tend to their needs. During the quiet times, I took the opportunity to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a very long time: Get my email inboxes a little more under control.

I spent an entire afternoon reading through countless email messages, many new and just as many old. I saved some. I deleted most. In fact, across three accounts I deleted no less than six hundred or so.

There was one that I discovered that I ended up deciding not to delete. In fact, I don’t think I ever will. And now because of its date and time stamps, it’ll forever be the last email in one of my accounts. All the rest have been sent into virtual nothingness.

The message I saved was from Lorraine Haas. She sent it on January 26 of 2017, and it was in response to the eNews she’d received the day before. Little did I know that thirty days later I’d be preaching and presiding at her funeral.

The thing is, Lorraine responded to almost every single eNews she ever received from me. Had I kept all of her messages throughout the years, I’d have hundreds. And what was common to them all (at least the ones related to the eNews) is that, first, she commented on this or that news item, making sure that I knew that she’d read the entire email; and second, by her words she was sure to have a brightness of commendation to share for what her congregation was doing. She was a perpetual encourager for the Gospel. She knew all of the volunteers and staff were working as hard as they could to accomplish the mission, and with that, she never spoke a negatively critical word.

Well, let me rephrase that. She never spoke a critical word by way of email. In private, face to face and a little whisky in our glasses, she more than shared her mind on things. I always knew what mattered to Lorraine. But still, you and I both know that the written word hangs around a lot longer than the spoken word. I’m pretty sure Lorraine knew that, and so whatever she put into permanent print, you could be assured that it would always be an uplifting bit of phraseology meant to make your day better and not worse.

This particular (and unfortunately only remaining) email I kept from Lorraine was very short. I share it with you exactly as I received it. Re-reading it, I know why I’ve kept it sitting in my inbox for so long. It’s only a few sentences long, but it’s a tome of God’s grace.

And the Lord be with You also dear Pastor…May God Bless and Keep You, with Courage and Strength in the coming Day…He loves You, and Me and our Church…..His Church! Blessings dear Pastor, and your dear Family…..Lorraine

“It’s kind of strange, isn’t it, how the mountains pay us no attention at all? You laugh or you cry, and the wind just keeps on blowing.”

Actually, no. The mountains, as sturdy as they are, will pass away. The winds of this world will eventually cease. The laughing and crying of this life will one day be left to the archives of what once was. But the Word of the Lord stands forever. Even now, by way of an email sent by a friend who died years ago, that Word of the Gospel alive in her continues to breathe life into a guy like me—and now into all of you.

It’s as if it reaches to us from the sphere of the divine. In a sense, it does.

Analyzing her sentences, I sometimes wonder if she capitalized words for the same reason I capitalize certain words. I do it in sermons all the time. I have the tendency to capitalize words that are either incredibly important or are in some way an extension of God’s divine work. For example, and as I’m sure I’ve shared with you before, I almost always capitalize the letters “d” and “s” in the words “death” and “sin.” I capitalize them because they’re no small thing to us. They’re dreadful powers in this world. If they weren’t, then Jesus’ work on the cross would be less needful to any of us. Equally, I’ll sometimes capitalize words like “redeem” or “love” or “salvation,” especially when they are connected to the person or work of Jesus.

I could be overanalyzing Lorraine’s note, but I wonder if she did the same thing. For example, she capitalized words like “bless” and “keep.” She also emphasized the first letters of “courage” and “strength.” Most interestingly, she capitalized the words “day,” “you,” “me,” and “church.” Why? Well, as peculiar as it may seem, I’d say that each and every one of those words is an offshoot of the vine of Christ. He blesses and keeps us. The courage and strength we need from day to day comes from Him alone. And with that, each one of those days belongs to Him. Each one holds the promise of His great love that is carrying you, me, and the whole church to the Last Day.

With this perspective, go back and read all of Lorraine’s note one more time. Take it in carefully. I’m sure you’ll get a sense of the ever-living faith that surpasses all understanding, a faith built upon and strengthened for eternal resonation by the powerful Word of God that keeps hearts and minds in Christ Jesus; a Word so powerful that, in fact, not even death can silence it.

Yes, the wind just keeps on blowing. But the war will eventually end. And when it does, when the wind rustles its last leaf, we’ll be gathered into the nearer presence of Christ. In that place, we’ll see all those who’ve died in the faith—all those for whom we’ve shed a tear while the mountains looked on with disinterest and the breezes continued to blow. We’ll see Lorraine again.

Most importantly, we’ll see our Lord, the giver of life, face to face.

Till then, as long as I can help it, I’m never going to delete that email from Lorraine. In fact, I’m going to store it away with several messages like it that I’ve kept from my dearly departed friend and pastor, Jakob Heckert. Personally, these Gospel-driven notes are far too valuable as divine sources of encouragement to this particular pastor.

Preparing for that Last Breath

Throughout the year I hold worship services in various places offsite. One place I go to regularly is a retirement community in a nearby township. I’m there the third Tuesday of every month. I suppose, technically, I’m not necessarily obligated to go there, especially because it’s been five or so years since anyone in my congregation has been a resident there (although I should say that within the last year, family members of folks from my congregation have moved into the place).

Still, members or no members, I continue to go. I do this, first, because of the attachment. I’ve come to know the people there and it would be really hard to just sheer those lines, especially since most of them don’t see or hear from their own churches for what seems to be years at a time. However, I’ll admit to feeling a bit conflicted knowing that there are so many other things to attend to during the week here in my own congregation, and doing what I do there takes an irretrievable chunk out of one morning a month—a chunk I can rarely spare.

But still I go.

I suppose another reason I keep doing this is because of what I, as a Christian man, am so often privileged to behold there.

Take for example Helen. She’s 98. She’s completely blind. When she comes into the little room, she knows her way to the back left corner where she always sits. She can’t see the order of worship or the hymn page that I hand out before the service, but she asks for them anyway. And then all through the service, her head somewhat lifted up, an obvious happiness about her, she sings along with the liturgy, being sure to give the appropriate responses, singing the stanzas of hymns she knows, speaking the confession, praying the prayers. She knows it all. I love seeing just how deeply the Word of God by way of a memorized order of service can be embedded in a human heart and at the ready when the senses are failing.

Then there’s Margarete. She’s a 95-year-old German. Literally. Her accent is thick. She was born and raised in a village outside of Berlin. She came to the United States after World War II, so as you can probably guess, she lived through some of the worst of times in history. She’s a dear woman who will sometimes call me just to make sure I’m coming for worship as scheduled. She got my number in a roundabout way. I didn’t see her one month at worship, and because she never misses, I asked the facility director about her absence. I discovered that she’d broken her leg and was in a rehabilitation facility nearer to where her son lives. Later that week after visiting one of my own members in the hospital, I made a quick trip down to see her to say hello. She was so happy for the visit, and she expressed an incredible sadness for missing worship and not telling me. No big deal, of course. She’s 95 and her leg was broken. The fact that she was so concerned was heartwarming, and so with that, I gave her my number to ease her worry.

What a sweet lady.

Then there are the married couples who attend. We have a few. One couple in particular (relatively new in the last year) is Wally and Edna. Wally is 88. Edna is 95. They’ve been married for 63 years. This past week they sat side by side so humbly in the less-than-spectacular setting of the little room in which the service occurs. Always a kind thing to say, Wally makes small talk with the folks around him. Edna smiles. The service begins and their reverence follows along in stride. They are absolved together. They pray together. They listen to the preaching together. They receive the Lord’s Supper together. This past Tuesday I saw the Christian togetherness of this couple take another form—a beautifully human and yet still Godly form—as Wally reached over and took Edna’s hand, even if only for a moment before letting go. A simple touch, a reminder from a loving husband to a dear wife that God continues to bless them with the joy of being together in worship.

I like seeing those things. They are revealing moments.

For me personally, they stir a holy jealousy. I want what they have. If I live to be 98—like Helen—I want to do so knowing my place in the Lord’s house. I want to be able to lift my head and rise up into the Lord’s immersing grace in the liturgy, still retaining its eloquence, still holding onto all of it within the innermost chamber of my heart. I want to continue to love it so much that, like Margarete, if I’m ever unable to be present there, I want the uncomfortably nagging sensation of the absence. I never want to become comfortable with being away from worship. I want to thirst for Word and Sacrament. And like Wally and Edna, I want to be before the Lord, sitting beside the ones I love and leaning into the forthcoming decades with hands close enough to grasp if the moment requires it.

The Athenian poet Solon said so plainly, “I grow old ever learning many things.” As I get older, I’ve learned to want the things that the Christians hovering near the century mark down at Independence Village in Brighton have. If I stop going to see them, I fear I might be distracted by other, less consequential things.

And so I keep going, because these people are continual reminders to me of the prominent rank that the regular receiving of God’s grace in worship is to have. They emit the essentiality of being together as a Christian family to receive God’s gifts of forgiveness. They beam the stamina that these gifts have for meeting the twilight hours of one’s life.

It might sometimes seem like the worship here at Our Savior in Hartland is not all that important, let alone impressive, at least not in comparison to so many other things. But when I’m with these gem-like people who dwell in the midst of humanity with the rest of us, I get a brief glimpse into just how important and impressive for the soul all of it truly is. Every last bit of what we do here is preparing us for the moment of our last breath—the moment we will step into eternity to be with Christ forever.

What could be more impressive or important than that? Not much, that’s for sure.

A New Year’s Day “Thank You”

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.

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).

Thank you.

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.