Repentant Joy

In preparation for yesterday’s sermon, at one point along the way I found myself pondering the following sentence offered during the Eucharistic Prayer in the midst of the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper:

“With repentant joy we receive the salvation accomplished for us by the all-availing sacrifice of His body and His blood on the cross.”

That’s a strange sentence. It’s peculiar because within it, the petitioners fashion the words “repentant” and “joy” into a singular, personal descriptor.

At first thought, repentance would seem to bear an edge, to be the cutting result of receiving the harder news about oneself, a response acted out in humility, a response borne from a penetrating sorrow for Sin, a full-throated acknowledgement of who we are and what we’ve done. Joy, on the other hand, paints a portrait of one who bounds along without burden, happily unconcerned with the sorrowful things and smiling as though gravity is imaginary and the sun will never set.

In the swiftness of a prayerful moment, these two words seem to be the blending of passionate opposites—like the mixing of oil and water, darkness and light, pessimism and optimism.

To really get what’s behind their comradery, I suppose it’s imperative for us to first realize these words are aimed straight into our guts. In other words, as Christians, we own them in faith. But equally, as they burrow into us, they reach our center, grab hold, and then begin steering us intently toward the end of the sentence in which they dwell—to the sacrifice of Jesus for our Sin.

Both have their eyes set upon the crucified Savior.

The “repentant” half of the phrase reminds us the words aren’t careless. Life is not a bopping along with unconcerned steps. With the cross as the heading, we keep our footing and know our location. We’re bound to humility. We know that even as we live in the sunshine of God’s forgiveness of sins each and every day—that His love is given to us freely and fully—the work to accomplish our redemption wasn’t cheap. It was quite costly. The cross of Jesus Christ stands as the receipt for the dreadful expense. The image itself prompts the recognition that we are in daily need of what Christ won on that cross. Each day we fall short. Each day is encumbered by monsters—Sin, Death, the devil—all maneuvering to eat away at our inheritance as God’s children, and we should never take this lightly.

But deeper still, even as we live in this fallen world well aware of our jagged surroundings, the “joy” half of the phrase is an expression of Christian hope, a truth that knows the death of Jesus for our salvation as it meets with the “right now” but also the “not yet.” We are free to live in Christ right now knowing that our heavenly future is secure. By faith, as God’s beloved children, we are heirs of eternal life.

Repentant joy. Sounds good.

In my opinion, these words together are incredibly thick and immensely real, and even if they were spoken alone, they’d announce far more than the most eloquent and heartfelt pleas. In two words, we learn our identity as ones who live and breathe and move in this world with a joyful confidence located in the forgiveness won by Jesus for the world to come. Or perhaps another way—we live at the ready. We live knowing that in Christ we have the best of all things while remaining honest with ourselves, acknowledging that our Sin-nature knows this, too, and would see to it being snatched away.

I like the phrase “repentant joy,” and I don’t know about you, but I’m going to be more intentional about using it in my daily prayers. I’m going to be a bit more concerted about asking that the Holy Spirit continue to work this in me.

A Fool and His Sandwich at Panera

As so often happens when I’m out and around, I managed to find myself in a conversation with someone who saw me in my clerical collar and wanted to chat. And as is also becoming more common, his questions weren’t for the sake of investigation, but rather for taking the opportunity to ridicule Christianity.

I was doing my best to stay out of sight in the corner of Panera in Brighton eating my favorite chicken salad sandwich. The young man—Todd—claimed atheism as his point of origin, and for some reason, his particular approach to our discussion involved testing my abilities to reasonably explain the afterlife. To be completely honest, I was quite annoyed. I was taking advantage of some limited time in between tasks, and all I really wanted to do was eat my Napa Almond Chicken Salad sandwich in peace. Not to mention I was in the furthest corner of the restaurant for a reason. I actually wanted to avoid such interactions—which again, happen far too often these days. And lastly, as I already mentioned, it was obvious that his intentions weren’t to learn, but rather to try to prove Christianity to be the backwater foolishness he already believed it to be.

A side note: For the record, looking foolish in such conversations doesn’t concern me all that much anymore. The Word of God has already declared that the Gospel will be received as foolishness, and so what does a guy like me truly have to lose in these circumstances?

Anyway, I took the time to talk with him. Well, actually, I didn’t have much of a choice. He actually pulled out the chair across from me and sat down at my table.

Essentially, we went around and around on a few points, his mouth filled with philosophical ramblings and my mouth filled with chicken salad. As I was taking the last bite and doing my best to politely communicate that I needed to leave soon, he somehow landed at the trite phrase, “Know thyself.” Truthfully, I don’t recall exactly how he arrived there. I just remember him saying it and then trying to explain what it actually means.

Now, I’m not entirely stupid. I know Socrates repeated it. Plato, his student, taught from the phrase, too. Todd was now using it, and doing so more along the lines of the way Plato tried to spin it—saying that the mythology of religion is irrelevant and that we shouldn’t waste our time investigating such foolishness, but rather we should spend our limited days employing reason to better ourselves in the here and now with the hope of something better.

Here’s something funny… I asked Todd if he knew the origin of the phrase. He didn’t.

Another quick side note: Don’t get into a discussion and use a phrase you can’t trace to its origin.

Γνῶθι σεαυτόν is the phrase that Pausanias (2nd century B.C.) says was etched in the granite of the forecourt to the temple of Apollo in Delphi. “Know thyself” the passerby would read. I’ve heard it said that this same phrase was sometimes carved into the stone caps of early Greek ossuaries. In other words, for early Greeks, to know the self was to know something essential to the nature of man. It was to be reminded that the bones inside the burial box had arrived at the destination to which every human being who ever lived would be traveling.

“Know thyself” was not necessarily a self-empowering phrase. It was a reminder that in the end, everyone will face off with Death. Every person—good or bad, smart or not-so-smart, reasonable or unreasonable—was going to die. The phrase betrayed the futility of human betterment against Death.

I told Todd this. I also told him that Saint Paul called Death “the last enemy destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). I told him Paul could say this because Jesus (who was crucified and buried and yet whom Paul had seen personally afterward) had defeated Death on the cross. I told Todd that Paul, a man who had everything to lose by believing this foolishness, was killed for it. I told Todd that Paul wrote about a new “self” that was put on through faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross (Ephesians 4:24). In other words, now in faith, to know the self is to know Christ and His promises that surpass the limitations of ossuaries with stone caps and dreadfully depressing phrases. For the Christian, Death is now nothing more than a portal—a trail blazed by Christ—through to eternal life.

Todd said I was, in essence, simpleminded, and that everything I’d just said was unprovable. Of course there were a thousand different directions I could’ve gone in response, but I was already very late, so I told him that far too much in this life points to Todd’s position being a very dangerous gamble. I encouraged him to do a little more digging, and if he didn’t want to read the Bible, then to consider studying the Early Church Fathers. They’re rich in ways I thought might resonate with his philosophical mind. I suggested Chrysostom and Athanasius in particular. I gave him one of the new business cards that Pastor Zwonitzer had printed up for me, and then I left.

This is the most recent of my episodes at Panera.

But still, there’s a little more I learned in the jaunt—and maybe it’ll be of use to you and maybe it won’t.

It was Menander (a Greek dramatist who Saint Paul actually quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:33) who said something about the phrase “Know thyself” being a silly proverb. He said that to know the man next door is a much more useful rule. I kind of like that thought. Bringing it into the sphere of Christianity, it can mean anticipating and receiving someone—anyone—in order to find just the right way to share the Gospel that saves, even if the initial goal of that someone is to test his own intellectual skills in order to make you look like a fool. Menander’s view means knowing the needs of others and responding, even if being late to your next appointment is the result.

Know thyself. And know the man next door.

Know you’re passing away. Even better, as a Christian rescued from Death, know the new self which has been established and given by Christ. Accept that this self will be considered foolish to a world of neighbors, and yet be ready for the Holy Spirit at work in that self to be open and aware of these other selfs around you—to the dire spiritual conditions of the person next door. It’ll be in those moments that the foolishness of the Gospel is given through you. And knowing the new self also means trusting the Lord when He promises these opportunities will never be seized in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Good Luck With That

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck with that, tough guy.

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

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

In the Midst of Regret, Get Behind Jesus

I posted something last week that got quite the response. If you missed it, you can read it at https://cruciformstuff.wordpress.com/2019/06/10/the-death-and-burial-of-the-christian-faith/.The thrust of my words, which I know hit some folks pretty squarely: Death comes for all, and a funeral filled with the hopelessness of a family that has strayed from the faith is a dreadful thing.

There were, as I expected, a few who reached to me in response. They said in summary: “Your words came a few years too late, Pastor. I didn’t put the effort that I probably should’ve into raising my children. I wasn’t deliberate in teaching them who they are as God’s child; how as His forgiven people we are to hold to His Word as our everything; how worship is essential to life itself, especially as we venture into a world in conflict with the Christian faith. I didn’t do these things with my kids. I didn’t steer them faithfully. Now they’ve strayed. They’re living with their boyfriend or girlfriend. They’ve married someone who is more than pulling them away from Christ. They subscribe to lifestyles that are contrary to God’s Word. My grandkids aren’t baptized. I feel terrible, pastor, and I wish I would’ve done more.”

I won’t lie. These are the words of real regret. And they hurt. Harriet Beecher Stowe rightly said, “The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.”

The honesty of regret sets before us a very important, but also very simple, question: Now what? I would say the answer to this question is of equal import and simplicity: Jesus.

The only way through regret is to look to Christ. And such remorseful pivoting is the humility of a penitent faith that acknowledges some things.

First it acknowledges the humanness in which we dwell. Even now as we say, “If I could go back, I’d do things differently,” the honest and contrite heart admits that we probably wouldn’t do things differently. We are sinners and we get trapped in the same kinds of sins over and over again—even the ones we know can destroy us.

In brutal honesty, a penitent heart of faith also acknowledges that we’re the ones responsible. We don’t look to others around us, our conditions, or anything else in order to find loopholes for excusing our thoughts, words, and deeds done or left undone. We are to blame.

It’s here that the human heart peers into a darkness of sorts. In that darkness, faith and regret wrestle.

Regret sees nothing but a hopelessly endless night. But faith in Christ and His merciful care proves stronger. By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel of forgiveness for any and all things we’ve ever done—even the grim failures marked by regret—faith beholds the deep darkness of midnight becoming a more hopeful blue, which is a kinder color promising that night won’t remain forever, but that soon the sunlit morning of a brand new day is coming. In other words, by faith we confess our sins, and we know with certainty that God in His faithfulness will forgive us and give us a brand new start.

Forgiveness buries regret. Life begins anew. Life begins right now.

In the midst of that hope-filled turnaround, Jesus has plenty of Gospel to give, and by it, He steadies us with a courage of word and skill we didn’t seem to have years ago. He reminds us that even workers who come late to the harvest will receive the same glorious reward (Matthew 20:1-16). God is merciful. He desires that all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), which also means that He won’t be working against anyone in any of their efforts to do now what they didn’t do years ago (Psalm 118:6-9).

Next, by His Gospel He never fails to show us the determination of a parent for a child. He wants for our rescue. In particular, in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), our God paints the portrait of an enduring and long-suffering love He has for us, and it’s one that He can work in us as we reach back into the lives of our own families. By God’s grace, the muscle for doing this remains available to us as we remain connected to Christ and His gifts in holy worship.

The example of Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine, comes to mind.

If ever there was a prodigal son, it was Augustine. His mother raised him in the faith, and yet he strayed terribly. He lived with a woman, fathered child, and lived a life of self-centered decadence. And yet, she prayed—which some might say is an understatement. Monica lived and breathed a vigil that God would move Augustine to embrace the Gospel truth he’d been given. When he moved away from his mother to Milan, she followed him, even joining Saint Ambrose’s church. Eventually Augustine did return to the faith, and as it would be, did so not long before his mother’s death. He wrote in his Confessions that he was thankful to God for her diligence—that she never gave up, but rather wept prayerfully for him for so many years.

Continuing on, God is certain to both remind and then comfort us that even as we are tools in His hands for others, no one within reach of any of us is convinced or converted by our efforts. Faith is worked by the power of the Gospel (Romans 1:16; 10:17). It’s not our job to save anyone. It’s our task to give that which saves and to pray to the Lord of the harvest to produce the fruit. And so we do what we can when and where we can to give the message of Christ’s death and resurrection in love as Christ gave it to us (2 Corinthians 5:14). Sometimes we’ll find ourselves in situations where we might season our speech with the salt of the Gospel (Colossians 4:6). Other times we’ll find ourselves communicating the Gospel without words. Once again, Monica comes to mind. She had been given in marriage to Patricius, an unbeliever. She tried to encourage him, but in the end, discovered that simply following the Lord’s Word in 1 Peter 3:1-6 was the better way. Eventually, Patricius became a Christian. We can be as Monica. We can display a love for Christ and His Gospel through simple, everyday deeds—such as praying before a meal and teaching the grandkids to do the same, making time to go to church even while visiting family out of state, and so many other things—knowing these actions themselves proclaim a trust in and commitment to the One who gave His life for the world. And who knows? Perhaps by these potent displays, onlookers will see Christ and give Him glory (Matthew 5:13-16).

I could go on sharing other particulars I know the Lord can work in and through you as you step from the regret of “Now what?” into the action of “Right now,” but I suppose the last thing I’ll mention is Christ’s promise to be with you. He is true to His Word, and He has more than established that He is with us always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20), a promise connected to baptism and the teaching of His Word. Naturally, from that promise comes the fortified certainty that He will never leave nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5), that He will not leave you orphaned in your newfound desire to engage in this work, but rather will come to you (John 14:18) and make His home with you (John 14:23).

God will set up residence in your midst. That’s a wonderful promise.

My prayer for you is, first, one of strength, that God would give you all that is necessary for enduring the way forward. Second, I pray for your comfort. Cast aside the regret and get behind Jesus. The devil will poke at you, doing all he can to remind you of your failures. And as you reach back into the lives of your loved ones with the saving Gospel, he’ll stir up as many disheartening obstacles as he can. He’ll see to making you feel foolish. He’ll see to the suggestion that it’s a lost cause. He’ll see to the sense that by speaking the truth in love, you are being offensive and at the edge of alienating a family member.

Don’t worry. Get behind Jesus and stay there. Trust Him. Cling to His Word. Remember, He’s the one who told Peter (a seasoned fisherman who’d already been fishing all night and caught nothing) to cast His net into the deep water at a time of day when all reasonable sense suggested it would be an incredibly foolish thing to do (Luke 5:1-11).

Jesus gives the Word. It’s a Word of great power and hope. We trust Him and we let down our nets. We don’t expect anything beyond this except that He will give the successes according to His good and gracious will. Even more so, if we labor on and eventually breathe our last without having seen any results, we can remain at peace in His comforting love, because His promise still stands that our labor in the Lord was never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). There is no doubt that something wonderful was indeed accomplished through us.

God grant for you the humble faith to believe this, the comfort to know our Lord’s forgiveness, and the courage go forward from here.

The Death and Burial of the Christian Faith

The school year has ended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did it happen this way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s not just funerals.

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

And so, coming back around to where I began…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basic Human Courtesy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This stirs a final lesson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crib to Casket

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

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

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

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

This reminds me of something else.

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

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

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

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

But Christian parents fight on. And why?

Crib to casket.

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

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

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

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