Spencer Smith: Remember His Name

Spencer Smith.
Remember his name. He took his own life. He wrote down his reasons, and he left them as a record for anyone willing to read them—with honesty, that is.
Coronavirus restrictions. Virtual learning. Isolation.
Don’t be tempted to blame mental illness like the weasely school district superintendent tried to do. Don’t blame the parents for being ill-tuned to their son’s condition as the child psychologists are sure to do. Be honest. Accept that Spencer was fine before the lockdowns. It was the isolating restrictions that brought the despair. It was the forced distancing augmented by a computer screen classroom that chained the sadness to Spencer’s ankles. It was the inescapable loneliness that throttled the throat of his hope and killed him.
I would think that Christians have the eyes for seeing this. And we are well attuned to the knowledge that it was God who set the parameters with regard to togetherness. He knew at the very beginning that we’d need it. “It is not good for man to be alone,” were some of His first words. Just as he knew we’d need food, He knew that we’d need to be with people—in person, embracing, fully sensing and savoring the humanity of one another. God knew that a friend on a computer screen would be as fulfilling as a steak-flavored dinner squeezed from a tube dispenser. Both would be thinly veneered experiences, and would never match nor fully represent what’s real.
But now we’ve been tricked into thinking this is the best way forward. As a pastor, I’m of the mind that anything countering God’s will or wisdom could never be the best way.
With that, I offer a brief word of caution to parents.
Apart from this article, I took a little time to read similar articles being shared on this all-too-common occurrence in 2020. Most are betraying—even if only subtly—similar weaknesses in our societal armor. Not all of the articles, but many. Consider what appears to be the framing of this child’s greatest hope:
“He had dreams of playing lineman on the Brunswick High School football team, but those hopes were dashed when it was replaced by flag football.”
Don’t let extra curricular activities be your child’s all-in-all. We’ve learned all too well that the governing authorities can dash these hopes. But no earthly power can snatch away the hope we have in Christ. Parents, do whatever you can to make sure your child’s greatest hope is found only in Christ. A chief way to do this is to go to church. Go and be in the actual place and among the real people where God is distributing His gifts of love through Word and Sacrament. And if your church is not providing for in-person togetherness with the Lord as a fellowshipping community, but rather has elected to remain completely virtual, then you’re getting a tube dispenser Jesus. Christ wants more for you, which is why He mandates that His people be together:
“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:23-25)
In such a context, there’s real, long-lasting, and unflinching hope in the faithful One to be had. As a result, there’s a spurring motion of love and service from one human to the next there, too.
Indeed, it is not good for man to be alone. Spencer Smith is an unfortunate proof.
Remember his name.

The Art of Isolation

In barely a handful of days Thanksgiving will arrive, and then just beyond that, Advent. I don’t know about you, but these two moments on the calendar—seemingly so far flung from summer—seem to have arrived much more swiftly than I expected. I know why this is true. The more occupied one is, the more time carries along with a swifter pace.

Indeed, while Covid-19 may have closed so many of the typical avenues around us for living life, the pace for some hasn’t lessened. I know I’ve shared before that even the simplest of routines has become more complicated. This means more work, not less. Getting from point A to point B isn’t a straight shot anymore. It takes far more maneuvering, and as such, can make a few hours feel like a few minutes.

Some might argue that during a time when so many are isolated, a busier pace would be helpful for keeping the mind fit. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I suppose it makes sense, as long as whatever one is doing doesn’t lend itself toward frustration. I’m a big believer in having things to do—that the busier one remains with this or that project, the less of a negative impact isolation itself will have. It was J. W. von Goethe who said that enduring isolation is an art. I tend to agree. I believe times of isolation can either be harmful or beneficial. They can be occasions of fateful loneliness or uplifting solitude.

I got to thinking on this out loud yesterday during the adult Bible study. I shared with the group that when I think on what it means to be lonely, my conceptualization is to wonder just how many isolated, unseen things or moments of incredible splendor have occurred around the world throughout history. For example, yesterday I suggested that maybe the most beautiful rose that has ever existed in this world has already sprouted and blossomed in total seclusion somewhere deep in a forest and no one was there to see it. The flower was near-perfect in every way, and would have been of joyful benefit to anyone who looked upon it. But it grew, bloomed, withered, and died in total seclusion. That’s an image of loneliness. Or perhaps the most stunning diamond ever formed is right now resting somewhere deep in the earth where no one will ever reach it. It’s there. Its clarity is beyond compare. Its untapped ability for capturing and then dispersing light in countless directions is unmatchable. But it will remain isolated—unmined and unpolished—priceless, and yet existing as though it has no value at all. That’s loneliness, too.

I see loneliness in relation to value. To be lonely is to have so much value, and yet to be without the opportunity to emit that value to the benefit of anyone else.

You have value. And I do, too. God tells us this (Matthew 6:26; Romans 5:8; Psalm 139:13-16; John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:17; and so many more!). Still, when we’re locked away from others in ways that prevent us from participating in the exchange and benefits of human value established by God’s grace—the giving and receiving that occurs between real people—we can become fixed in darker places and the time becomes more burdensome. It becomes lonely.

And so where am I going with this? I guess part of what I’m trying to say this morning is that if you must be isolated, first, know you are valuable, and second, keep busy emitting that value in ways that embrace the alone time as less loneliness and more contemplative, sabbatical-like solitude. Yes, solitude is different. Like loneliness, one doesn’t go into solitude expecting others to be there. The person knows and expects the silence. But in the quiet of solitude, there’s activity occurring, and there’s the expectancy that the silence won’t prevent its occupant from coming out on the other side with something to show. Solitude is a time of discovery. It is an opportunity to go off unaccompanied in order to seek out the rose, or to dig up the diamond, and bring these things back to a world that can benefit from their value. And I suppose this is where the Christian perspective is key.

Christians already know they’re not alone, so any form of alone time is somewhat illusionary. Christ is always with us, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). This means we can endure, and maybe even embrace, the alone times. For one, through faith in Christ, alone times become unfettered moments with the One who never leaves nor forsakes us. In this, we can find ourselves aimed toward a richer devotional life. We can study the Word of God, pray, and God willing, see the fruits of such solitude becoming activities designed to emit to others what we’ve learned or received. How do we do this? I can tell you how I’m doing it. Well, this Monday morning eNews is one way. I do what I can each Monday morning to think through and share something of value for you. Besides this, I’m using my isolated times to write and send cards to people. I’m making phone calls. I’m visiting where I can, and I’m receiving visitors who need to chat. I’m using whatever particular gifts God has given me for mining the diamonds and picking the flowers from the quiet so that others, too, can experience their splendor with me.

You can do this, too. You know your value, and you know the gifts God has given you. Be creative. By God’s grace, you can live as one in solitude who’s laboring to find and share treasures with others—which, I’m guessing, will help lift them from loneliness.

Of course, call me if you need help figuring out how to navigate this or coming with ideas. I’m only a phone call away and I’m brimming with ideas.

The Feast of All Saints – Go To Church

“Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say” (1 Corinthians 10:14).

Saint Paul wrote those words to the Corinthian church just as he was about to begin explaining the doctrine of Altar Fellowship, which when you really get down to the nuts and bolts of it, is all about the significance of what is happening in Holy Worship, namely, the Lord’s Supper.

This comes to mind this morning because, well, Paul’s words just felt right. They form a very short statement, easily understood by any and every Christian taking time to read this note.

If you haven’t been to church in a while, there’s a Sunday on the horizon I’d like to encourage you to consider aiming for as your return date.

A few Sundays from now—November 1—the Holy Christian Church will be celebrating All Saints’ Day. If you have plans to be somewhere else—or to do something else—might I encourage you to reconsider your plans? This time, instead of arranging your schedule to accommodate moments that will only get in the way of worship—which is to be idolatrous—consider arranging your schedule to accommodate the forgiveness of sins delivered by Christ in the sure and certain location He has promised to give it: Word and Sacrament made available in holy worship. Skip those things that would get in the way of pursuing that which gives to you all that Christ has won by virtue of His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

In fact, I challenge you that if you have been away for a while, make All Saints Sunday the day you return.

To accept this challenge, you’ll need to take a quick look in the mirror and recognize that you need to be there. You need to be there, firstly, because of the idolatrous tendencies you possess. We all possess them, and they’re evidenced by our creative excuse-making and subsequent absences. But secondly, know you need to be there because, by virtue of your Baptism into the fellowship of Saints, you actually belong there. It’s God’s home, and because you are a part of His family by faith, it’s your home, too. It’s where your real family lives, and you belong with your family.

Rest assured, if you’ve been away for a while, and because of this, you feel a little uneasy in returning, you won’t be alone in the uneasiness when you do finally reemerge. In fact, think of it this way. In the Confession at the beginning of the Divine Service, every Christian in the room, if they know what the Confession is all about, will drop to his or her knees alongside all the others. Together they’ll bow their heads. They’ll close their eyes. They’ll confess together that everyone in the room, by their thoughts, words, and deeds, are members of the fellowship of sinful humanity; by the things they’ve done and the things they’ve left undone. They’ll confess this together. And again, being a sinner myself, I can assure you that when we all go to our knees in this way, we’ll all have good reasons to do so. All will have plenty of causes for feeling the uneasy need to participate.

You won’t be alone. You won’t stand out. You won’t be different.

But there’s something else you should know.

After the sea of penitent voices speaking in solemn sadness goes quiet, you will hear a single voice—your pastor’s voice—and it will be for you as the Lord’s own voice announcing you need not fear. You need not be uneasy. You need not be afraid. Through repentance and faith in His merciful love, you belong with Him, and He will not push you away, but rather will embrace you as His own—because you are His own. He loves you, forgives you, and He stands ready to lift you to your feet by His absolving Word.

And He’ll do just that.

On All Saints’ Day, at least if you’re in a Lutheran Church of any substance, when you rise to your feet, you’ll acknowledge your place among all the other forgiven sinners in the room by singing the Introit appointed for the day, which is a combination of Revelation 7 and Psalm 31: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me.”

Sing those words with confidence. You own them as a forgiven child of God.

So, my brother or sister in Christ, hear this Gospel imperative to repent and believe in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and be moved to return. Be moved to come and get from your loving Savior what He has won for you—which is also the only thing that will sustain you in a world seeking to impose itself upon you and convince you to stay away in the first place.

Remember, in faith, you are the Lord’s saint. Aim for your special day with an eager heart. Make your way back. Join with your Christian family. Be with your Redeemer, the One who has made it possible for you to be called His holy one.

Experience is the Best Teacher

Julius Caesar is the one who said that experience is the best teacher. At least I think he did. I’ll check on that after I finish typing this morning. If I’m wrong, I’ll fix what I wrote. If it’s still here when you’re reading it, then I was right.
That being said, the thing about experience is that she’s a relentless teacher. And the strangest part of being in her class is that she does almost everything in reverse. What I mean is that she tests you on the material before she teaches any of her lessons. I suppose the comfort in this is that if you fail, you don’t get put back a grade, and it’s not necessarily the end of the road. Although, I did see a church sign in Linden last week which read, “If at first you don’t succeed, just make sure it didn’t happen while skydiving.”
Or something like that.
The COVID-19 classroom of experience has been a tough one. We’ve learned a lot from its devilish curriculum. Some of what we’ve learned has actually been good. Just as much of it has been bad. All of it has more than added to the storehouse of knowledge.
While sitting in this particular class, I have to believe that most Christians with any sense for the necessity of God’s Word are likely to have stopped by the Book of Proverbs for a visit sometime during the past few months. I know I’ve found myself there, and I’ve shared some texts I’ve pondered. The Book of Proverbs is filled with important instruction. It’s overflowing with opportunities to meet with experience in ways that will make whatever lesson is being learned something that keeps our hearts and minds where they belong: Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen for the transgressions of the world.
In other words, the point to all of Proverbs’ wisdom is Jesus.
Of course the most essential and thematic verses in Proverbs are the ones I would imagine most Christians know fairly well, texts such as, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7), and “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (2:6). The Church of all ages has known texts like these to be in place to, as I said already, set our hearts in the firm location of faith. But the Church has also known these texts to reveal the pragmatics of faith—or better yet, what faith actually looks like. Having these texts in our pockets as we proceed, our hearts and minds are readied for everything else in the book that follows. Since at the moment I’m thinking on the topic of experience, I know these same texts help us take proper aim at the results experience might bring, helping us to better extrapolate words like:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding… Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.” (3:5,7).
These holy instructions remind us to trust in the Lord in all things. We shouldn’t be so quick to trust ourselves. We shouldn’t begin by looking inwardly. We should begin by looking to the externals of God’s faithful Word. Don’t trust what you think you know. Go with what God says, even if it is counter to your understanding. Hearing such things, at least for me personally, gives texts like the following some uncomfortable traction:
“Wisdom rests in the heart of a man of understanding, but it makes itself known even in the midst of fools” (14:33).
Wisdom is made known in the midst of fools. Fools will prove their foolishness by scoffing at Godly wisdom. They’ll despise it. They’ll actually move in active opposition to it. Seven verses into the very first chapter of the Book of Proverbs, the stage is already set for us to expect this.
Of course these days, according to the Sin-nature, we’re all proving just how hard it is to trust God before we trust ourselves. At one point or another throughout the COVID-19 ordeal, we’ve all demonstrated just how easy it is to align with foolishness. Still, God’s Word remains the same as it meets with our experiences and the lessons learned throughout. In all of it, He continues to offer the clarion call to trust Him no matter what. “Don’t be a fool,” He says to the Christian. “You already know by my Word that I’m trustworthy.” In tandem with His powerful Word, He urges this trust knowing you’re already more than capable of matching that Word to plenty of moments in your own life proving His dependability. Thirty seconds alone to think, even with a migraine, and I can come up with plenty.
God has never let me down.
Having those experiences in mind, we have a far better perspective on His countless mandates to be with Him in worship—in person, together with other Christians—to receive His holy gifts of Word and Sacrament. While it might not make sense to our Governor, it makes perfect sense to us. And with this knowledge, we can easily know and accept that apart from natural incapacity (which is to say we’re a shut-in), nothing should keep us away, and anyone or anything confessing otherwise is claiming a level of trustworthiness above God and is in alignment with foolishness.
In particular, Hebrews 10:19-31 reveals such obstacles—human or not, real or imagined—will be judged accordingly.
In the meantime, we simply take God at His Word, knowing it is immutable. He knew what He was saying when He spoke. He knew the situations we’d be in. He knows everything, sees everything, and yet is above everything. He gives us the promise that He’s working for the good of those who love and trust Him by faith. He’s not even remotely interested in allowing anything into our lives that would keep us from Him. He’s actively seeking us, and with the fullest measure of His divine heart, is wanting us to look to Him as the better bet in every situation.
Every. Single. Situation.
My prayer today is one of hopeful thanksgiving for the Christians who know and believe this. But also, my prayer is that if you somehow missed it before, you won’t miss it now—and I suppose I should add that if you don’t feel comfortable worshipping at Our Savior, I’m very near the edge of begging you to go somewhere you do, that is, if you can find a place that’s actually open. You need to be fed. You shouldn’t stay away from the Lord’s gifts for you. When the feast is both bountiful and available, a starved soul is an unnecessary tragedy.
Remember, no poison can be in the cup the divine Physician sends. Do you believe this? I sure do. I hope you do, too.

Death Has No Dominion

Well, in no small number of communities across the country, the new school year begins tomorrow. For many, it will be one more moment requiring a special measure of courage.

I say this because more so than ever before, it sure seems like the planet upon which we are treading is wobbling on its axis. Nothing seems steady. Everything feels shaky and uncertain. For some—myself included—going out into the world to do very basic things often translates into weighing the risk of actually living life versus guarding every flank in terror, of finding a semblance of normal when everyone and everything around you is spiraling into abnormality.

It’s a weird way to exist. It’s scary. And it’s hard.

Speaking of the first day of school, I can only imagine the emotional storms churning in the hearts of the young mothers and fathers sending a child off to preschool. Their picturesque dreams of bright-smiling teachers giving hugs amid busy hallways filled with colorfully miniscule backpacks owned by future classmates—all of this has been replaced by the grim sterility of masked teachers with muffled voices, dystopian-like classrooms with desks claustrophobically encased in Plexiglass, friendships awkwardly unexplored due to social distancing, and so many other psychologically damaging things being employed for the sake of “safety.”

We’re not doing any of these things at Our Savior, but I’ll bet for those who must endure it in other schools, it’ll be very scary. To regularly overcome the disquiet of it all, families will need a unique form of determination and a lot of extra love during the after-school hours at home.

Speaking of scary… My wife and children know that the list of things that actually scare me is pretty short. I’m not being vain. I’ve just discovered over the years that I’m not bothered by the things that might normally scare someone else. All of my kids have tried to catch me with jump-scares, but they rarely find success. My sons say my fear gland doesn’t work properly. Maybe they’re right. Some other things… I’m not fearful of public speaking, never have been. I don’t enjoy conflict, but I’m not unwilling to engage in it. I’m not necessarily afraid of people disliking me. I guess I learned to put that fear to rest years ago. I’m not scared by horror movies. I mean, among the various life-sized mannequins in my basement, one of them is the spitting image of Michael Myers.

And since I’m tipping my hat to Halloween, haunted house attractions have always been pretty disappointing for me. I’m just not scared of eerie situations or places. I’ve seen those memes online asking if, for a million dollars, I’d be willing to spend a night alone in a place like a cemetery, an abandoned insane asylum, or a spooky house, and I think, “I’d do it for the cost of a mortgage payment. Heck, I’d do it for lunch money.” My son, Josh, asked me once during family dinner if I’d ever performed an exorcism. I told him I had. Believe me or doubt me, I’ve ministered to more than one family over the years whose home was being visited by something otherworldly. Like many pastors, I have my share of stories regarding the tangible efforts of the darkly principalities at work among this world’s people and spaces.

“Were you afraid?”

“Not really,” I said. “The devil and his pals are punks. They’re tough, but they’re nothing I need to be worried about. I have Christ, and I know they’re plenty afraid of Him.”

Of course I’m sure to remind my kids that the devil is no one to toy with. He isn’t a fairytale villain. On the contrary, I’d say he’s the only real explanation for the most horrible things that have ever happened in our world—the current societal destruction emerging from Covid-19 being one of his masterful achievements. If you ever get a chance, listen to the song “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones. I’m not a huge Stones fan, but I do like that song. It offers an honest musical snapshot of the devil’s gripping influence on this world, showing how when partnered with mankind’s Sin-nature, he can do some pretty horrible and world-altering things.

But as I was saying before, the list of things that actually unnerve me is fairly short. Although, don’t let the length of the list fool you, because each item on it can more than keep me awake at night.

For example, one of my biggest fears is losing my wife and children to tragedy. I actually have regularly-occurring dreams about one or more of my kids falling into the polar bear exhibit at a zoo—or something of that sort—and being unable to rescue them in time. The expressions of fear on their faces still stings long after I’ve awakened. I know I said before that I’m not necessarily afraid of conflict, however, as a supervising administrator, I’m hesitant to express disappointment with fellow staff. I’ll do it if I really have to, but it’s also really hard. This is true because the space between “pastor” and “supervisor” is unlike any other terrain to be navigated, and in the past—at least for me—no matter how lovingly careful I’ve attempted to be, those moments have morphed into some of the most devilishly divisive encounters I’ve ever known. In our postmodern world, it seems like the default action in these occurrences has been to be offended, draw lines and form factions, and ultimately take one’s marbles and go elsewhere.

Those experiences left some pretty deep scars.

Oh, and I don’t like sharks. I have my reasons.

So, where am I going with all of this?

Well, I started off talking about the general need for courage when it comes to navigating this life. Free-thinking on this, I suppose I was aimed in this direction because as we stand at the edge of a strange new period, we need to be honest about what we’re facing as a church—as Christians. We don’t necessarily need a retelling of the terrors lurking along the way. Each of us has met them in one way or another and can write his or her own list. But we do need to be honest about what scares us. And now more than ever, we need to know the necessity of courage.

I’d say Shakespeare was right when he said that courage mounts with occasion. We don’t need to wonder if there will be ample opportunities for testing our nerves. With each occasion, we’ll need to understand our responses, carefully discerning between courage and irrational action. We’ll need to readily understand that being courageous doesn’t mean being completely fearless. We’ll find ourselves afraid in the same way a white-flag coward might be afraid, but the difference will be that our fear will have been thoughtfully subdued and will most likely be rewarded with far different results. We won’t be immobilized from doing what’s faithful even when self-preservation is an available option. We’ll act knowing that courage, like character, is something we’ll employ even when no one else knows we’re doing so.

Where will we get such courage? I mentioned the answer above in the passing conversation with my son, Joshua.

Christ is the answer.

Fear thinks twice before messing with Christ. Don’t believe me? Read Psalm 27. Still don’t believe me? Read 1 John 4:8. Now skip ahead to verse 18 in the same chapter. Fear has no room to stand beside Christ, the One who is God in the flesh, who is perfect love, who was moved to save us.

I think it was the Bishop and President of our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison) who said that Christian courage is just fear that has been baptized. Man, is he ever right. Having been baptized into Christ, having been set apart from the kingdom of this world, having been made a member of the Lord’s family, a Christian meets each and every day equipped to live with an otherworldly readiness to die. Baptism pins us to such courage. Maybe you recall Paul’s words in Romans 6:3-11:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

There’s a lot that can be mined from the above text, but no matter which direction you go, it’ll likely hinge on the fact that Death has no dominion over believers just as it has no dominion over Christ. Without the sway of Death’s dominion at play in each of life’s terrifying occurrences, fear steps out of Christian courage’s way. It has to. I mean, when you really think about it, Death is the definitive power—the ultimate endpoint—for anything that might cause us to fear.

Why would we be afraid in a haunted house? The fear of being killed. Why would we be afraid on a roller coaster? Probably the same. Why would we be afraid of public speaking? The fear of looking a fool in a way that remains with us forever, only to be muted by Death. I’m pretty sure Saint Paul actually affirmed all of this in 1 Corinthians 15:26 when he said that the last enemy to be destroyed is Death.

But now that Death has indeed been destroyed, all who put their faith in Christ and His redeeming work receive the merits of this victory. For starters, Christians have access to a courage that can push fear aside so that we can actually live, knowing that even if/when Death makes an appearance, it won’t be the end of us because it has no dominion over us. It’ll be just another moment on the timeline, albeit an exceptional moment that carries us from the confines of time into the timelessness of eternity with our Lord.

There’s no fear to be had in that.

Once again, knowing this, we don’t have to be afraid of being and doing as God’s people in this mixed up world. By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, we know and believe that our Lord has faced off with the root cause of all things terrifying—and He won!

And so, please allow for this random bit of theologizing the day before the first day of school—or whatever “first” you may be facing these days—to be an encouragement to you. Stay the course. Trust your Lord. He’s got you. He’s got your family, too. All our fears have been steadily handled, and Death has been defeated.

The Beginning and End of Christian Love

What daily devotional materials do you use? I read from Luther every morning.

Of course, reading from Luther’s writings isn’t just an opportunity to sit at the feet of brilliance, but rather it is to be carried out into the deep water of the Bible. It’s like boarding a vessel commanded by an esteemed captain who wants to help you to truly meet with the open sea—to meet its serene breezes; to steer into its tempestuous waves.

What I read this morning was truly remarkable. I wasn’t looking for what I discovered. In fact, I get the feeling it came looking for and discovered me. It certainly is more than appropriate for sharing, considering the current climate.

“People speak of two kinds of humility: one which we are said to owe when doctrine and faith are concerned, the other when love toward our neighbor is concerned. But may God never grant me humility when the articles of faith are concerned. For then no action is called for which is a yielding for the sake of love, for the sake of peace and unity, for the sake of keeping the church from being ruined, or for the love of the imperial majesty. The fanatics and sectarians are complaining about us as though no humility and love were found among us. But we reply: First abolish the Word, doctrine, and faith? For in these matters we will not budge a handbreadth though heaven and earth were to fall because of our firmness. For the Word does not belong to me; neither do Baptism and the Lord’s Supper belong to me. God has reserved these for Himself and has said, ‘You are to teach in this way!’ I cannot pass this injunction by. Therefore your will must yield. But when we speak like this, they say that we are proud people. In reality, however, this is true humility. God has commanded us to take this attitude. We are to connive at no omissions from His Word… By the grace of God we would be glad to lie at the feet of everybody if only the Word of God remained pure and people did not interfere in God’s affairs.” (W 49, 81.)

Did you get all that? If not, take a moment to scan it again, because it’s important.

Essentially, Luther sets faithfulness to the Word of God right beside love for the neighbor, and he does so within the context of humility. Then he takes out a hammer and smashes the idea that loving the neighbor could ever be interpreted as humble service if it includes sacrificing faithfulness to what God has mandated.

“…though heaven and earth were to fall because of our firmness.”

That phrase is important. Luther isn’t speaking figuratively. He’s being literal. Even if being faithful to God’s mandates means that the earth and sky would become completely uninhabitable, still, we obey. We do it and we trust. And why? Because neither the mandate nor what the mandate delivers belong to us. They belong to God. He’ll handle the details of their efficacy. He simply calls for us to be faithful. With this, we simply do them. We maintain them among us and follow along with them as recipients of what God is actively working.

“The fanatics and sectarians are complaining about us as though no humility and love were found among us.”

That phrase is important, too. By it, Luther identifies the true villains. First, the phrase makes plain that the fanatics and sectarians believe a church that holds to sound doctrine does so at the expense of love for the neighbor. As it might meet us this very moment, a church desiring to maintain the mandates of Christ and preserve in-person Word and Sacrament ministry during a pandemic—real or imagined—would be villainous. But Luther implies that such a church is not the villain. The fanatics and the sectarians are.

I don’t have time to give a lengthy dissertation here, but in short, Luther uses the term “fanatic” to mean someone who has strayed from a right understanding of God’s Word regarding the verbal and visible Gospel—the Word and the Sacraments. A fanatic no longer grasps Christ’s real presence and work in and through them. A fanatic has confused their source, nature, significance, and substance. Naturally, having lost sight of these things, a fanatic can neither appreciate nor practice them rightly. More than likely, a fanatic would have missed the value in the following words we sang during the Lord’s Supper yesterday:

By Your love I am invited,
Be Your love with love requited;
By this Supper let me measure,
Lord, how vast and deep love’s treasure. (“Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness” LSB 636, st. 8.)

When Luther uses the term “sectarian,” he’s taking aim at the next step in fanatical evolution: Protestantism’s teachings that the holy things of God are little more than symbols, things that man initiates, and because of this, are negligible and can be easily jettisoned at any moment or because of any circumstance, all without the fear of a seared conscience.

Fanatics and sectarians would likely argue during a time such as ours that a church and her Christians who insist on gathering together to preach, teach, pray, sing, kneel in confession, administer Baptism, and serve the Lord’s Supper are being careless and not truly loving one’s neighbor. They would likely urge the Church away from in-person worship. They would urge that she not perform baptisms. They would urge that she refrain from administering the Lord’s Supper. They would do these things, all under the banner of genuine love for the neighbor.

Once again, Luther urged, “I cannot pass this injunction by. Therefore your will must yield.”

He’s right. The fanatics and sectarians must yield, and the Church must continue on in faithfulness to the Lord’s mandates no matter how the world around her might spin a description of her actions. The Church must continue to gather for Word and Sacrament ministry. We must continue to be together. We must continue to baptize and receive the Lord’s Supper, which is only possible by way of in-person worship.

Again, some might insist, “But you’re not loving your neighbor and you’re putting people at risk!”

No, we’re not. We’re being faithful to God. Loving one’s neighbor will always have its beginning and end in being faithful to God first. Faithfulness to God is, by default, the only real way that showing love to the neighbor is possible.

Still, let’s think a little deeper on this concern.

In many cases, what this love for the neighbor actually looks like must be weighed very carefully. Sometimes that’s not so easy. Right now it sure seems like a lot of Christians have settled for the premise that to love one’s neighbor means being licensed to impose one’s subjective opinion on another, ultimately using the “love your neighbor” doctrine as a club to bludgeon them until they give you what you want. I heard this described in our Elders meeting this past Saturday as “spiritual blackmail,” and it was framed according to the all-to-familiar practice in churches of threatening absence and the withholding of giving unless certain demands are met. Personally, I think the term “spiritual extortion” is more fitting. But whichever term you use, both communicate dangerous expressions of self-righteousness born from self-love. In the end, this is about as far from loving the neighbor as it gets. Luther gave a nod to this in a piece I read last Friday:

“No one wants to be regarded as hating and envying his neighbor; and everyone, by words and gestures, can appear friendly—yes, as long as you are good to him and do what he likes. But when your love for him lessens a bit, or he by chance is angered with a word, then he is entirely through with you. Then he complains and rages about the great injustice done to him, pretends that he needs not put up with it, and praises and exalts the loyalty and love he showed toward his fellow man, how he would gladly have given him his very heart and is now so badly repaid that the devil may hereafter serve such people. This is the love of the world.” (W 21, 415 ff.)

Personally, I think a lot of this can be applied to the current debate regarding masks. It seems it’s not so much about the benefits of wearing or not wearing a mask, but rather how ready people are to mistreat others who don’t agree with their preference, all the while using the “love thy neighbor” doctrine to legitimize their behavior. The snag in all this, however, is that while some believe they’re being a good neighbor by wearing a mask, plenty of others truly believe they’re being a good neighbor by not wearing one. Both have their reasons. Both believe their positions to be arguable from science, even as both might accuse the other of believing flawed science. Naturally, both also have plenty of doctors—people far smarter than any of us—waiting in the wings and ready to support their individual positions. But none of these details changes the fact that they both believe deeply they are showing the better form of love for the neighbor by the position they’ve taken.

So, then, now what?

Well, now it would seem that loving one’s neighbor means stopping right there and actually doing what the “love thy neighbor” doctrine insists—which is that we become flexible to the other person’s concerns and we give them room. It means respecting their apprehensions and allowing space for our neighbor’s liberty to wear or not wear a mask, whether or not we appreciate his reasons. Christian love certainly isn’t found in shaming your neighbor, or bemoaning him as being unloving while you, the obviously better Christian, are most certainly proving a truer form of concern for the neighbor by your better practice.

That’s pretty pompous, wouldn’t you say?

How about this: You do what you think is reasonably best. I’ll do what I think is reasonably best. And let’s both agree that neither of our positions is giving room to some sort of false doctrine that jeopardizes the other person’s eternity. Let’s just leave it at that. That’s loving the neighbor. Any militancy beyond that crosses the line and ceases to be genuine Christian love.

Barely tangential, if there’s concern about the hygiene practices employed by a church in their holy spaces, I should add that it’s likely they’re more capable of using their reason, sense, and resources to love their neighbors far better than the other communal locales into which so many are willing to enter; places like Walmart, where I’ve run into so many of you shopping, picking up this and that item that had been touched by numbers of people before you, not once having been wiped clean by an employee. And don’t forget about the cashier behind the Plexiglass shield who just handled every single item in your cart, all of which will end up in your car and eventually in your home.

“But the Governor has mandated that no more than ten people assemble in indoor gatherings! You’re disobeying the Government and breaking the Romans 13 mandate!”

No, we’re not. First of all, it’s not the Government’s job to interfere in God’s affairs. When it does, it defaults on its ordination and is not to be obeyed. Period. Second, obedience to the Fourth Commandment is never accomplished at the expense of the First and Third Commandments. In all things, the Church must obey God rather than men.

“Well, God knows the dangers of the pandemic, and He knows we mean well. We’re doing all of this to His glory and for the good of our neighbor.”

That’s interesting. Let me share another bit of Luther’s wisdom I happened upon last Thursday. Again, I think this stuff came looking for me.

“For here you think, ‘I am doing this for the glory of God; I intend it for the true God; I want to serve only God. All idolaters say and intend just that. Intentions or thoughts do not count. If they did, those who martyred the Apostles and the Christians would also have been God’s servants; for they, too, thought they were rendering God a service as Christ says in John 16:2…’” (E 63, 48 f.)

And so we go forward here at Our Savior in Hartland, aligning our thoughts and intentions in all things to the holy will of God, praying as we did yesterday in the Collect for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity:

“Let Your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of Your humble servants; and that they may obtain their petitions, make them to ask such things as shall please You; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”

We pray this way in order to show love to our neighbor as it would be pleasing to God, and we do it only as we have first let our fears be comforted and our faith be strengthened by the Gospel delivered through the Word and Sacrament ministry of Christ.

Have You Ever Dreamt of Falling? I Haven’t.

For the record, I made a commitment to myself three weeks ago that I was going to shorten these Monday morning eNewsletter messages. I believe my first attempt two weeks ago was reasonably successful. However, last week’s note… well… I couldn’t stop writing, even though I started the whole thing by saying I didn’t really feel like I had anything to write about.

However, midway through that confession, I paused, and suddenly the empty space was filled with notable experiences, things God is so gracious to allow into all our lives. In my particular case, that grace is something I want to observe, digest, and then share with you. Whether it’s the casual comment in passing at the Red Lobster in Troy I mentioned last week, or an open field of freshly harvested grain I stopped to enjoy last Tuesday while out on visitations—a field, by the way, I was more than tempted to wander out into and toward its encapsulating tree line because… well, just because.

If you can attune yourself to what’s going on around you, it becomes possible for the most inconspicuous of details to become a thing of fascination. Even better, when you become adjusted to the world around you by way of God’s Word, seeing these things as God would see them, the deeper meanings arrive, and with that, there’s plenty to write about.

This means everything to a sermon writer. It’s also a big deal to a pastor who’s intent on sending out a note to the people of his congregation every single week of the year.

And so, since I promised to keep this short, I’ll give you a passing example.

Have you ever dreamt of falling? I haven’t. Not ever. That is until this past Wednesday.

First of all, I’m a firm believer that what happens to you during the waking hours will remain with you during the somnolent ones. Tuesday night I went to bed around 10:30 PM, which was exactly thirty-eight minutes after I’d returned home from one of the longest School Board meetings I’ve ever attended here at Our Savior. We started the meeting at 6:15 PM.

The meeting was long because there was much work to be done. We’re intent on resuming in-person instruction in our school on August 24, and yet no matter what we decide to do, the Governor is requiring all public and non-public schools to submit a plan that proves alignment with her executive mandates. The problem is that we’re not necessarily in alignment with many of her mandates as they relate to the best methods for educating children, and so we had to steer through the mess in order to remain who we are as a Christian school while at the same time doing what we can to abide without contention.

It wasn’t easy. At times, it felt a little hopeless. That night I dreamt of falling, and it’s easy enough to see why.

In the dream, before I hit the ground, I remember seeing a gravel-like ground forming beneath my feet. The gravel was the kind you might find on the side of a country highway beside a freshly harvested field—wink wink. Falling fast, the closer I got to the earth below, the more the ground spread out around me, eventually becoming so wide that I had the feeling its wind resistance was helping to slow my descent to the pace of something along the lines of an unhurried elevator. I remember thinking that while I needed to be ready for the impact, when it came, I could probably survive it. In fact, I recall thinking that if I took a running jump from the plateau when it hit the earth below, the impact might be less like a jarring collision and more like dismounting a moving sidewalk at the airport—and we all know how fun that can be.

Again, I think what happens while a person is awake sometimes makes an appearance while he or she is sleeping. I repeat this claim because earlier that day while eating lunch and tapping away at the sermon for Sunday, I’d also been reading a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge entitled “Dejection: An Ode.” Yes, yes, I do study the appointed texts in preparation for preaching. Don’t worry about that. But I’m also someone who reads from other sources, one of which is poetry. Not the newer stuff, but the classics. I appreciate great poetry more than folks might know. In fact, I think more pastors should consider spending time in the classics in general. I suggest giving poetry a try because it doesn’t necessarily play by the regular rules of communication, and what I’ve discovered is that not only will it help to expand a person’s vocabulary, but it’ll serve up fresh ways to use themes, imagery, and devices of emphasis for better communication of the Word of God. Such efforts pay dividends with a listener’s attention span.

Anyway, as I was reading Coleridge’s words, when I came across the following stanza, it fascinated me enough that I scribbled it onto a sticky note and slapped it on my bookshelf beside other quotations I don’t want to forget:

“For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.” (st. 6)

These words are not precisely from the Bible, but they certainly are a reflection of God’s Word (Colossians 1:27; Jeremiah 29:11; Hebrews 10:23; Philippians 1:6; Romans 5:5; and so many more). They are a beautiful bit of prose from the son of a pastor—and a notable theologian, himself—who knew the power of hope. More importantly, he knew that the hope we experience isn’t anything we can produce, but rather is something God gives us by the Gospel. And we stand on it in the midst of struggle.

Whether or not that’s what Coleridge actually meant for the casual reader to glean from that stanza, I can’t say for sure. Still, his seemingly effortless scribing of “not my own, seemed mine” was deeply impactful.

I think those words were somehow activated while I was sleeping, and they played a part in producing a landscape that reminded me of God’s gracious attention in all things—how He has me in his care at the edge of and over every cliff. In fact, He has me in His care all the way down, and He promises to grant me a safe landing in His merciful love, no matter how catastrophically crater-like the actual landing in this life may be. Even better, He gives to me the vigor for running forth from the platform of hope spreading out beneath me, confident of His protective care, and ready for meeting with a world in desperate need of the same hope.

Or this could all just be a result of the taco I ate before the School Board meeting.

Well, whatever. As I hinted to before (and have said countless times in the past), through the lens of faith fixed on God’s Word, a Christian sees things differently. I certainly prefer to observe things this way, and then as the words come, to share them with you. Hopefully, this particular opportunity was as valuable for you as it was for me, and God willing, it didn’t take up too much of your time.

Light and Darkness, Certainty and Uncertainty, Courage and Fear

Technically, the sun rose this morning at 6:04 AM. I watched it from my kitchen window. It was stunning.

Before the moment had fully developed, the world beyond my window pane was a cool and shapeless dark with very little definition. I could barely make the mist twirling up from the Shiawassee River. Although, peering straight into the darkness, after a while, my eyes were more than capable of deceit, maybe even taking hold of imagination’s hand as she beckoned toward some impossible things.

I mean, I’m pretty sure I saw a pack of velociraptors crossing from one shore of the river to the other, pausing at the water’s edge before rushing into the thicket. Or maybe it was a herd of deer.

Eventually the tree line defining the horizon (which in the first few minutes of the sun’s visibility was edged with an extraordinary copper luminescence) couldn’t seem to stop the sunlight from revealing every single detail of the world behind my home. Minutes before I could only see what I thought I could see. In the light, I could see everything for what it was.

Oh, the in-between murmurs of the sun and its rising in summer! It comes and goes, rising and setting and rising again, ever reminding its onlookers of deeper, more glorious things—always bearing a much grander intuition than we’re often willing to confess.

An intriguing characteristic of light is that when its beams break through, the terrors—both real and imagined—scatter. The very real roaches run for the baseboard crevices. The same goes for the imagined velociraptors. They, too, scramble back to the shadows. I’m sure you know what I mean. You need only to think back to your younger days and recall the fear that came with fetching something from the darkened basement—or whichever unlit space was most fearful in your home. Everything and anything with hooked claws, piercing fangs, and a leathery hide was waiting to snatch you before you could get to the light switch. Perhaps the heaviest dread in those moments came somewhere between the bottom and top steps after the item’s retrieval. In the seconds after turning off the light, with the darkness at your back, whatever unseen beasties were previously restrained by its beams were now almost certainly scurrying from their hiding places to catch you before you could leap through the door at the top.

We all know the dread that comes with darkness. We all know the comfort of the light.

There’s a broader interpretation to be had from such scenes of light and darkness, certainty and uncertainty, courage and fear. Opening the door of my home this morning and stepping out into the current state of darkly affairs in our world, I’m reminded of this, and as such, I continually retell myself two things in particular.

The first is that things won’t be as they are forever. This world had a beginning. Because of Sin, it will have an end, too. No matter the invented truths of today, the Lord promises that at the Last Day, the divine light of truth will eventually break through with its fullest brightness at the appearing of Christ in glory (Titus 2:13, Revelation 1:7-8, Malachi 4:2). In that ensuing moment, nothing will be obscure. Everyone will see things as they truly are. Every system of belief, every controversy, every philosophy will be revealed by and measured against the only standard of judgment that ever mattered in this life: the truth of God’s Word.

This thought reminds me that the imagined velociraptor-like sense that truth appears so often to be losing ground to untruth will be proven infinitesimally short-lived soon enough. Regardless of the truths being cast aside in our world—that a man is not a woman and a woman is not a man; that killing an unborn child is murder; that all lives, no matter the skin color, have value; that murderous rioting beneath a banner of virtue is the devil’s business—while these truths may be hidden from so many right now, eventually the lights will come on. The sun will rise and we’ll see the landscape clearly. It’ll be a moment experienced by the whole world, and all will acknowledge it on their knees, either in humble gladness, or in terror (Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10-11).

It’ll be a moment in which all accounts are settled.

In relation to this, the second thing I do my best to keep in mind is that temporal worry is just plain foolishness. In Matthew 6:25-34, Christ explains the futility of worry and the better exchange found in faith. Christ is always the better bet, and so He teaches trust in Him as powerful against worry. Trust severs worry’s fuel line, which is fear. When fear is starved, it does what every malnourished thing eventually does—it dies. Personally, going forth from fear’s funeral, I can live in confidence through each and every day leading toward the final judgment knowing by faith that Christ has settled my account for me. By the power of the Holy Spirit at work through this Gospel, He is establishing in me the desire to seek and abide in His truth in all situations. In other words, my opinions take a back seat to His opinions.

Looking to the days ahead, if we establish our footing on anything other than the truth of God’s Word, we are doomed. And certainly, if there’s anything to be learned from the last few months it’s that no human word or deed can assure us of what’s next, let alone what’s true. Not an executive order, a doctor’s opinion, a social media post, or news report.

There’s lots of uncertainty at the bottom of the basement steps. But through faith in Christ, we can know to reach for the light switch of God’s Word. It’s there we learn that no matter how dark the days may become, “nothing in all creation is hidden from His sight” (Hebrews 4:13). He is well aware, and by no means has He lost control.

As the cities continue to burn, as de-educated punks continue to topple monuments, while self-righteous thugs deliberately trample others because of skin color, continue to let your legs carry you to the place where your finger can flip the switch. Be found in the bright beaming light of the truth which affirms, “‘Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’” (Jeremiah 23:24).

Rest assured He sees it all. He sees and knows you, too. He also knows what’s happening around you. Trust Him. Follow Him. Labor in these dark days by the strength He provides, being assured by the light of His Gospel truth that as you make your way through this seemingly unhinged world of ungodly wokeness, “your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Don’t Be Surprised

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

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

America’s list is rather long these days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Normal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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