You Look Young for Your Age

I learned something a few days ago. It came to me just after a discussion with my wife regarding her feelings about my beard.

To begin, she’s not a fan of my beard by default, at least not at the length I’ve been keeping it lately. That being said, she doesn’t completely hate it. It’s just that when it gets a little more ZZ Top-ish, she doesn’t appreciate the scragginess when I kiss her, or the fact that she has to be a spotter at dinner, being ready with a glance and gesture to let me know that not all of my spaghetti sauce made it into my mouth.

I do appreciate her help in this regard. By the way, remind me to tell you the story sometime about what happened to me at a gas station in Milford after having eaten a bag of popcorn with the kids in the lunchroom at the school.

Anyway, Jennifer knew me when I didn’t have the beard, and so she knows why I started growing it.

First of all, while my life doesn’t move along at the speed of light, at a minimum, it’s often clocking very near the speed of sound. Speaking practically, growing a beard has made getting ready in the mornings much easier. Not having to shave gives me a few minutes more. Yes, minutes matter to me. Secondly, I’ve always had a young face. And even though I’m a long way from my thirties, even with the beard, people swear I’m barely into them. That’s nice, right? Except for a guy who has a side hustle of reviewing whiskies, without the beard, it used to be that I could barely get the lady behind the counter at the liquor store asking my age to believe the driver’s license I was showing her wasn’t fake.

“That’s you, huh?” she’d ask.

“Yep,” I’d reply, “that’s me.”

“You look young for your age,” she’d continue.

“Yeah, well, I’m married, have four kids, and a mortgage,” I’d offer. “And one of those kids is in college.”

My beard has helped somewhat in this regard.

But without rambling on for too long about this, what lesson did I learn after my discussion with Jennifer? I learned that only one of the two reasons remains for keeping the beard.

Honoring my promise to Jennifer to do some trimming, I went upstairs to begin the task. As I gathered closely to the mirror, I realized I really don’t have a young face anymore. I saw wrinkles I’ve never seen before, and a tiredness that I used to only be able to feel but not necessarily observe. And while I’ve always had a thick head of hair, I noticed far more of it had begun silvering. In fact, most of the beard hair that ended up in the sink was gray. Jen says the gray makes me look distinguished. I don’t know about that. What I do know is that as I zipped this way and that way with the electric trimmers, I could hear the words “You look young for your age” beginning to carry a far different tone. What was once something that sort of bothered me had become in that moment a compliment.

But here’s the twist: A compliment like that is only given by someone who thinks you’re old. In other words, the tables had officially turned. To use youthfulness as a compliment is to admit I’m not youthful.

Maybe I’m digging too deeply here. I guess I do that with these things, sometimes. Nevertheless, Jennifer and I keep each other accountable when it comes to this whole aging thing. She’ll say to me just as I’ll say to her, “Don’t wish the days away.” Usually it’s said in a moment of frustration over the kids, or work, or something challenging. And certainly we say it mindful of the future—that eventually the day will come when there won’t be any more days like these. In that light, we say these words to remember to be immersed in the moment.

It was Seneca who said, “Old age is an incurable disease.” It’s an illness we all possess, and in a sense, doing whatever we can to look or feel as young or old at any given moment is not necessarily the issue, but rather the awareness that an endpoint is always eminently near. Death can and will arrive at the appointed time. I remember hearing the news that my grade school friend Todd had fallen from a tree and died. I remember hearing people say his death was untimely. But in truth, when it comes to Death, age doesn’t really matter. We’re all going to die.

Knowing this, as an extension of the lesson learned while trimming some of my beard away, I thanked the Lord for His grace, acknowledging He has been so very good to me and my family. I thanked Him for being fully immersed in every moment of my life—and the life of my family—especially when we as individuals weren’t as invested. I ended that prayer by holding Him to His promise to continue to be there for us until our very last hour together, knowing my greatest hope is not that we’ll never taste Death, but that Jennifer, Joshua, Madeline, Harrison, and Evelyn will one day be within my reach in the glories of eternal life in heaven.

I suppose one of the best lessons to be learned by all of this is that Christians can look into the mirror, see an aging expression, and yet be confident enough to face the setting sun of this mortal life it is betraying. Easter prompts this courage. It reminds us of a sunlight that never sets, one not being emitted from a sun or moon, but rather from God Himself (Revelation 21:23). It brings to mind the death of Death (2 Timothy 1:10) and the resurrection and restoration of failing bodies (Philippians 3:21). It reminds us that we aren’t inheritors of this life, but of the life to come (Titus 3:7). A glance in the mirror, while it will reveal the mortal illness of age, through the lens of faith, it can also show you the face of someone the Lord looked upon in love, someone the Lord went into the fray of Sin and Death to snatch back from the dreadful permanency of eternal Death awaiting each and every human being at the end of the illness. The next time you look in the mirror, I encourage you to think on this Gospel truth. And maybe even offer a prayer, as I did, thanking the Lord for the days you’ve been given, and for any of the days yet to come.

Gospel Dominance

For those whose Easter is little more than an annual go-round with chocolate rabbits and painted eggs, the fanfare of the celebration has come and gone. Not so for the Christian Church. For us, it remains. We actually live each day in the wake of the ultimate enemy’s defeat.

Death has been conquered. Jesus has done it. Therefore, Death no longer has standing among us. No room for mastery. No room for terrorizing. No room for demands. No room for negotiation. It really is finished. Easter is the proof. And now through faith in Christ, we are His and He is ours. Living in that redemption, what’s left to frighten us?

Nothing.

The more I experience life in this fallen world, the more and more I become glad for this wonderful reality born from a Gospel of great power. It’s a Gospel that changes me. It changes the way I see the world. It changes the way I understand people. It changes the way I maneuver from task to task each new day. It changes the way I suffer during struggle. It alters the way I endure hatred from others.

By the loving promise of Death’s defeat, I can steer into all of these knowing that while I might not pass through them unscathed, I won’t go into them or come out on the other side without hope. Christ has cemented my hope, and with that, I can be content. I can have joy.

Before this contentment took root in me, it wouldn’t have been uncommon for me to get worked up in caustic situations. Not so much anymore. Take for example a recent circumstance in which my reputation was being maligned by deliberate deceit. In the past I might have run headlong into the fray to defend myself. Not so much anymore. I don’t feel the need to do so. I have a dominance in those situations that’s hard to unseat.

Yes, dominance.

There’s a saying that people only talk behind the backs of those who are dominant. Whatever that proverb might mean to the world, for me it has been reinterpreted by the Gospel. Yes, I am in a seat of dominance. But it’s a dominance that has been granted to me—a dominance of contentment in Christ. It’s a certainty that drives away worry, leaving me to know I’m completely surrounded by the Lord’s loving care. Even as I’m behind His flag, He’s also covering any and all of my exposed flanks. With this assurance in hand, I really can say, “World, do your worst.” I am content to live according to the promise of the Easter Gospel. This means that even when things seem their darkest and I begin to feel the blunt end of injustice, even if things don’t turn around in this life, one thing remains true: I’m not an inheritor of this world. I’m an inheritor of the world to come—an inheritance won by Jesus, one in which He is sure to flip the switch of the divine lights and expose all things done in darkness. In the meantime, I can be at peace in all circumstances, strengthened for continuing forward in faithfulness.

Once again, the resurrection Gospel imputes this. It imputes it today. It’ll be there imputing it again tomorrow. And the next day. That’s the promise. If the last enemy, Death, has been conquered, what else is there to concern or harm us?

Believers know the answer to this question as they go about their lives in the perpetual sunshine of Easter, and the world will squirm with frustration around us as we do.

I want you to know that when I go to the altar of God this week at Our Savior to pray privately for His people, this will be the precision of my petitions. I will pray on your behalf, asking God that in the coming days, by the power of the Holy Spirit, He will grant for you to remember these things. My prayer will be for you to be emboldened by the same Gospel that emboldens me, that you will have taken into yourself the joyful promise of the Lord’s mighty resurrection for your justification before the Heavenly Father, which is also an ultra-confident—nay, dominant—slap in the face of Death itself.

By faith, all of this is certainly yours for the taking.

Backroad Cemeteries

It’s very early, 5:30am to be precise. I’m writing this note from Cantrall, Illinois. Again, to be precise, I’m at Camp CILCA, which is just outside of Springfield.

A summer camp I attended in my youth, I know this place well. Even better, I eventually became CILCA’s head counselor in the early nineties, having held the position for four consecutive summers. I should add that during those same years I was also the head lifeguard, music leader, sports director, and weekend maintenance assistant to a wonderful man I’ll forever consider a friend, Derald Sasse, may his soul rest in peace.

I stayed here at CILCA this weekend, having spoken last night at the camp’s annual banquet at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Springfield. I received a kindly invitation last fall from the current Camp Director, Reverend Joshua Theilen, to be the banquet keynote speaker. I was certainly glad to accept. And of course, the topic being something along the lines of Christian engagement in the public square, I was certainly ready to drive down and prattle on about such things. I pray my words last night were of benefit to the people in attendance.

Interestingly, I’m staying in the Christian Growth Center here at the camp, which back in my day, was the only building on the camp property with air conditioning. The funny thing is, in all my years here at CILCA, I never once spent a night in this building. I maintained it. I helped clean the rooms for various groups that came through. I fixed broken windows and repaired faulty electrical outlets, but I never actually enjoyed the fruits of my labor. And yet, here I am twenty-five years later. Life is weird that way, I guess.

As soon as I finish typing this note, I’ll be hopping into the Jeep and heading back to Michigan. To get here to Illinois, I took the backroads. I’ll probably do the same thing going home. I like driving the backroads. While they’re pleasantly uneventful, there’s plenty to see. Driving along through the sleepy farmlands provides more than enough opportunities for thoughtful observation. Thinking back to these travels a few days ago, I can think of at least two things I remember pondering.

The first thing I spent some travel time thinking about was the Old Testament reading from Genesis 22 appointed for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, which tells the story of God commanding Abraham to take his son, Isaac, to a yet undisclosed place and sacrifice him. I’d call this event dreadful if I didn’t already know its substance and ultimate conclusion. As a father, could I follow through as Abraham did? And yet, if the listener is paying attention as Abraham speaks, the comfort of trust in the promises of God is woven into the narrative. Once Abraham and Isaac arrived at the place God commanded, Abraham told the servants who journeyed with them that he and his son were going to go and worship God and then return to them.

That moment is a clue as to what Abraham knew would happen. He would unreservedly follow God’s commands already knowing something of God.

God promised Abraham that Isaac would be the one through whom the Messiah would come. God assured Abraham of this. Abraham knew that God doesn’t break His promises, and so no matter what approached from the horizon, Isaac would be fine. Abraham trusted this. If you doubt this analysis, then take a look at Hebrews 11:17-19. The writer to the Hebrews acknowledges this as he digs a little deeper into Abraham’s faith, describing him as knowing full well that if he was indeed forced to follow through with the frightful deed, God would give Isaac back to him alive. He’d have to. God would reverse Death, and preserve Isaac’s life.

This is a very rich moment, both emotionally and theologically, especially as we prepare to wrap up Lent and rejoice in the Easter celebration of Christ’s resurrection. I suppose that thinking about these things probably influenced the second thing I remember pondering along the way.

While tooling along through the farmlands of Indiana and Illinois, I noticed something familiar to each of the little towns along the way. They all have conspicuous cemeteries.

Now, you might be thinking that just about every city or town in America has a cemetery. Believe it or not, they don’t. But these backroad towns do, and each is noticeably prominent, often pitched on a hill at the edge of the city, perhaps adorned with an elderly oak tree or two. And if the cemetery isn’t standing guard at the edge of town, it’s situated somewhere along the town’s main street, making it impossible for anyone to miss while passing through. In either, the collection of headstones is a community of both old and new, and from a reasonable distance, against a setting sun, their mutual silhouette looks almost city-like.

I remember when I was a kid in the seventies and eighties, my friends and I would hold our breaths when passing a cemetery. The lore was that by breathing, there was a chance we might make a wandering spirit jealous. Another version of the myth claimed that you might accidentally inhale a spirit and become possessed. Silly, I know. Good thing I know better, because now that I’m far from those youthful fooleries, I passed a particularly lengthy cemetery on Saturday evening near Lincoln, Illinois as I was making my way to Cantrall from Morton, Illinois, where my parents and sister live. Had I held my breath as I passed, I might have ended up unconscious and in a ditch. Or worse, in a cemetery.

And yet, having said this, the fact that every town has its cemetery is a reminder that at some point, my body will end up in one. There’s no avoiding it. Read the poets. Christian or not, they get the inevitability of Death. Percy Shelley called Death the veil that is finally lifted during the deepest sleep. John Donne described Death as mighty and dreadful, and yet without pride, portraying it as simply doing what it does almost boringly even as it is unstoppable. Robert Browning describes the knowledge of unavoidable Death as motivation for living life fully. Emily Dickinson, of course, is famous for portraying Death as unstoppable, being the carriage that will one day arrive for all. And when it knocks at your door, you will be unable to keep from opening it.

Since I’ve suddenly shifted to considering the poets this morning, I’ll admit to appreciating Lord Tennyson’s description of Death:

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.

Tennyson doesn’t describe Death fearfully. Instead, he sets it before his reader as something of a story’s ending. It’s the sunset to an eventful day. It is an open sky with a view to the evening star. It is a clear call of his name, and a drawing to a vessel setting sail into the open sea, a place that he loved.

I don’t know what influenced Tennyson’s perspectives on things, but I’ll say his consideration of Death is comforting. It evokes the Lord’s even more so reassuring words throughout the Gospels.

Now, don’t misunderstand the Lord’s position on Death. Jesus knows full well it’s a big deal. He knows it isn’t pretty. He knows Death is an ugly ordeal, that it’s a terrorizing power. Following His lead, Saint Paul describes it as the worst of all enemies of Man. But pretty much all of the biblical writers go out of their way to make sure we know that through faith in Christ, we don’t need to be afraid of Death. We don’t need to be fearful because Christ has defeated it. Like Abraham, we can face off with its dreadfulness with the promises of God well in hand. And so the Lord can say to Lazarus’ sisters that whoever lives and believes in Him, will live even though he dies. Saint Paul can mock Death, courageously poking at it with the Word of God’s promises, asking, “Where is your sting?” Job can speak so joyfully that even in the midst of Death, at the last, he will stand and behold God with his own eyes of flesh.

I like Tennyson’s description because he has this similar verve. It’s almost as if he’s equipped with the knowledge of faith, which we as Christians know by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel enables us to see Death for what it has now become for the believer: a turning from one page to the next.

And the next page holds an unending chapter that is far better than any that came before it.

I like that. And again, the season of Lent is certainly teaching this very point, making sure we’re ready to fully embrace the significance of the Lord’s resurrection—His conquering of Death—all for us!

To use Tennyson’s imagery, Easter is the clear call. Easter doesn’t allow for moaning of the bar. Easter sets sail for the unending horizons of eternal life through faith in the One who was crushed and killed for our iniquities, and yet was found alive on the third day, having wrestled Death and won.

Here in a few moments I’ll be packing up my car and making my way back to Michigan. I’ll be passing many of those same cemeteries I encountered on the way here. I won’t be holding my breath when I pass, just as I won’t be looking on them as fearful markers signifying hopelessness. I’ll observe them as Abraham looked upon Isaac. God is faithful to His promises. He is our hope in the midst of Death. Through that lens—the lens of faith—each of the tombstones whizzing past me will herald particular truths. The first is that unless the Lord returns first, I will die someday. There’s no way of getting around that fact. The second is that even as Death would come calling, it is not my master. Christ has won my eternal life. I am not consigned to the grave forever, but rather with my last breath, I will set sail into the joys of eternal life with my Lord at the helm.

Let’s Be Honest About Death

Just yesterday (Saturday, February 20), the Life Team of Our Savior blessed our church and community by offering an “End of Life” seminar. It was well attended. I was glad for that.

The keynote speaker for the event was Genevieve Marnon, the Legislative Director for Right to Life of Michigan. I know Genevieve. She’s a great servant of the cause for life, and as you’d expect, she gave great insight into a multitude of things facing the Church in America when it comes to end-of-life decision making. All who took advantage of the day’s events were well fed.

We were also joined by Gary Borg from Lynch and Sons Funeral Home. I know the folks at Lynch and Sons well. Some years ago, Thomas Lynch, being the friend and writer that he is, wrote a kindly endorsement for my first volume of The Angels’ Portion. Knowing Tom’s directors to be top-notch, as expected, Gary’s words were valuable as he explained the funeral home’s role in the process, giving helpful tips to families for navigating what is likely to be a taxing and turbulent time.

I was tasked with kicking off the event. My topic: “How to Prepare for a Funeral Service and Beyond.” Of course, I did what I could to fulfill the expectations of this topic, being sure to talk about the nature and theology of a funeral service, as well as emphasizing and encouraging faithful practices. I talked about how to be proactive in planning one’s own funeral, and I went through the basic steps of what families should do when a loved one’s last breath occurs.

But before I could speak to any of these things, I felt the need to steer into an honest discussion of what sits at the core of the conversation.

Death.

There is the temptation to avoid the word “death” altogether. I, on the other hand, give the word a capital “D” in every sermon I write. Why? Because Death is no small thing. It’s owed our attention. It’s big. It’s powerful. When it’s lurking, you know it’s there. When it steps onto the scene, there’s no questioning its intentions. Shakespeare personified Death in this way, too, describing it as keeping court, as sitting and scoffing at the pomp of man, waiting for the inevitable moment (Richard II, III, ii, I, 160). When Death has passed through, the devastation is real. It leaves behind things that are tangible to each of the human senses. You can see its shadow in the pale skin of the deceased. You can touch and know the coldness of its labor. It even has its own smell. The people who’ve been powerless to stop its savage work on a loved one have red cheeks and bloodshot eyes. They’ve tasted the salt of their own tears. When there’s no more heavy breathing and the life-support machines have been stopped, the silence is thunderous.

W.B. Yeats once wrote that Man knows Death to the bone (Death, 1933). And he’s right. For the victim, it leaves nothing untouched. For those left behind, it cuts into the depths of their being, and its scars are long-lasting.

Against the overwhelming evidence of Death’s strangling might, in an attempt to be at peace with its inescapable work, I’ve heard some refer to Death as a friend, something to embrace as good. Yes, it’s true that an end to mortal suffering can be counted as a blessing. But the verity of such a statement isn’t so for the reasons the mortal flesh would conjure. Death is not a blessing. It’s a curse. It’s not natural. It’s completely foreign to God’s design for creation. He makes sure we understand these things in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:19. In 1 Corinthians 15:26, Saint Paul makes sure we never utter the words, “Death is a friend.” It’s not a friend. It’s the last bitterest enemy of Man.

Before we can even begin to fathom the glorious purpose and momentum of a Christian funeral, we need to be wise to what we’re actually dealing with. Death is everything I’ve described. It’s real, and it’s coming for all. Each of us will breathe our last and be returned to the bosom of the earth. We don’t know how or when it will happen, we just know that it will. And when it does, what will we do? What shall we expect from and for those around us? Where is our hope in the midst of the mess?

A Christian funeral beholds Christ right in the middle of it.

In the midst of the initial sadness—Christ. When the machines are being unplugged and rolled away—Christ. When the plans are being made at the funeral home—Christ. When the readings and hymns are being selected and the obituary is being crafted from memories—Christ. When the bell tolls and the service begins, when the casket is closed and the mortal remains are covered by the pall—Christ. When the sermon is ringing out to the listeners—Christ and more Christ! Yes, the loved-one in the casket will be remembered, and likely in some heart-warming ways. Nevertheless, none of these will rise to the prominent station of “most important.” At a Christian funeral, Jesus owns that spot. And so the unmistakable communiqué to be dispatched to the troubled community will be the Good News of Death’s cure—the great heralding of Death’s utter defeat at the hands of Christ.

A Christian funeral is to be nothing less than the proclamation of this Gospel—the overabundant proclamation of the world-splitting news that Death no longer rules the spaces between heaven and hell because of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, Death is no longer the believer’s lord. It is not the believer’s master. It is not the believer’s end. Jesus has seen to this. He said so Himself: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Trusting in the divine Son of God, the One who throttled Death by His own demise on Calvary’s cross, believers—both in the casket and in the pews—can be sure that Death has been remedied. The process itself, no matter how it may unfold, is now only for believers to close their eyes and exhale a last breath in mortality, and then to open their eyes and inhale the freshness of eternal life in the nearest presence of Christ in heaven.

Christ made sure of this.

If we don’t understand these things, a funeral can devolve into a circus sideshow very quickly. If we don’t empower our pastors to direct our funerals in a Godly way, being sure to leave behind very clear instructions for our families, then our own funerals very well could become less of what Christ would desire and more of what the unbelieving world would do to find peace, which ultimately means everyone in attendance will be left searching for hope in all the wrong places.

Lent is a good time to have a seminar like the one we had. This is true because Lent takes seriously what plagues humanity, knowing the immensity of the Lord’s work to save us from it, while at the same time knowing that Easter is on the very near horizon.

My prayer for you this day is that you would know the immensity of the Lord’s work, too, and that you would look to Him in all things, being assured of eternal life through faith in Him. Lent reminds us of the serious nature of the wage for Sin, which is Death. Easter reminds us that neither has a hold on Jesus. This being true, by faith in Him, they don’t have a hold on you, either.

The Shape of the Gospel — Ash Wednesday

The penitential season of Lent is soon to be upon us. It begins this week with Ash Wednesday.

So, who cares? Christians do. At least, they should. Although, it would seem many Christians—even some of the clergy—are preaching and teaching against it. I don’t know why. I did hear one say it’s some sort of innovation to the Church Year and therefore to be avoided. I heard another suggest it hinders the Christian’s ability to prepare for Easter with joy. That’s sad. One sure way to rob the victory of its joy is to be ignorant of what’s at stake in the war. Ash Wednesday offers a much-needed glimpse of the battlefield.

I find it strangely interesting that even the sensual (though unofficial) liturgies of something like Mardi Gras would portray a better awareness and care for Ash Wednesday and Lent, whether their partakers actually realize it or not. Even in the midst of a celebration that holds the well-deserved reputation for overindulgent debauchery, there is the sense that it must and will come to an end.

“Live it up,” its rites and ceremonies proclaim, “for after Fat Tuesday, it must all expire.”

And it does. What once was gives way to the ashen dust of death remembered by Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the proper headstone for all things carnal.

A day in the Church Year in which believers’ foreheads are marked with the ashes of what were once lively and verdant branches (the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration), Ash Wednesday reveals that the Christian Church knows something of this world that the world itself cannot fully fathom. It knows the wage for Sin is Death—real and eternal Death. It knows this as it recalls God’s terrifying words to Adam and Eve after the fall into Sin. These words still reverberating, it hears the truth in them. It knows the necessity for their honest contemplation so that we would see the world as it ought to be seen. It knows to immerse itself in the depths of a solemnity that acknowledges the horror of the very real predicament that the entire human race is facing. The Church knows there’s so much more than just an end to things, but there’s also a terrible dreadfulness just over that end’s border for those who remain enslaved to the mess.

You can’t ignore it.

You can’t hide from it.

You can’t outrun it.

You can’t overpower it.

The inevitability of its reach is woven into the very fleshly fabric of every man, woman, and child who was ever born in the natural way.

It was with divine, and yet heartbroken, authority that God announced this to His world and its first inhabitants: “Because you have done this, cursed is the ground because of you…” (Genesis 3:17). Cursed things are put away from God. By this curse—this self-inflicted and permanent vexation—“you will return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

The thing about Ash Wednesday is that you can’t make your way into and through Lent without contemplating the veracity of the curse. Ash Wednesday has become a guardian of sorts at Lent’s contrite door, and it won’t let you into the forthcoming events without being stamped. The stamp it reaches out to give, it goes on your head and not your hand. Its dust crowns the human frame as the only appropriate coronation for someone born into the un-royal lineage of the Sin-nature. It adorns the skull that shields the corrupted human mind, the organ fed by a sinful heart so that it would calculate and then initiate every ungodly act of thought, word, or deed. The mark’s dirty-cold embers are the kind that distinguish Cain from Abel, openly identifying the murderer and reminding him of the dusty ground that opened up to swallow Godly innocence.

And yet, even as Ash Wednesday won’t let you forget the seriousness of the disease, it will be just as fervent with the cure.

Remember: That filthy mark is in the shape of a cross. It’s smeared onto the penitently-postured foreheads of Ash Wednesday’s observers who know their need for a Savior. It serves as a silent proclamation of God’s truest inclinations in our darkness. It’s the shape of the Gospel—the death of the Savior, Jesus Christ, for a cursed world. The Great Exchange—His righteousness for our unrighteousness. It tells of a birthright, not earned, but given in love. It beams through dusty grime the truth of an imperishable crown of blamelessness, not earned by the wearer, but won and granted by the Savior. Cain is marked and no one can touch him. God has been gracious. For us, even in that smeared cross’ quiet, there thunders above every human wearing it an otherworldly hope for eternal life through faith in the Savior who was nailed to it on Good Friday. The booming crack of its message drowns out the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh’s accusations to the contrary.

Ash Wednesday’s mark serves as a gentle reminder of something else in particular. It heralds rebirth.

That cross of ash will dot the same place where God first made the sign of the cross upon His Christians in Holy Baptism. If only for a few hours, it will make visible the invisible, leading each of its bearers back to the moment when God He put His own name on them, claiming them as His through the washing of water and the Word, thereby grafting them into the entirety of Christ’s self-submitting work to accomplish Mankind’s redemption (Romans 6:1-10).

It’s been said that the best opportunities are seldom labeled. This “best opportunity” of Ash Wednesday is, in fact, labeled. Its tag may be grimy, but it happens to be one of the most condensed opportunities in the entirety of the Church Year for a right understanding of our condition in Sin and our glorious rescue by the Son of God. Don’t keep it at arm’s length, but rather embrace the opportunity to gather with the faithful and sing as we do in the appointed tract, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).

If you have any say in your evening activities, I encourage you to participate. Set aside 7:00pm this Wednesday. Make your way to Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan. Or go to your own church if it is offering a service. Either way, just don’t make the mistake of missing out on the powerful manner and message of the Ash Wednesday proclamation. You’ll be given the opportunity to look Sin and Death square in the eyes. You’ll see your mortality there. But you’ll see so very brightly and hear so very clearly the Good News of your brand new beginning through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the compassion of God who took upon Himself human flesh and made His dwelling among us for our rescue.

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.

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).

Opinions at Easter

The Lord is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Don’t you just love that announcement? I sure do, especially during times of uncertainty. Standing on the foundation of Christ’s all-sufficient death and justifying resurrection, the rest of the world can do all it wants to terrorize God’s people, and yet we are unmoved in spirit.

He is risen. Death holds no dominion over us. And that’s that. We have life—real life.

A few times during this world-wide pandemic, like others, I’ve caught myself bemoaning what not only felt like the tragic loss of the final weeks of Lent, but of Holy Week and Easter. And please, don’t get me wrong. I more than wish we could have celebrated these times together. But the more I view the situation through the lens of God’s handiwork, the more I realize the importance of the strange context in which we heard and received some of the most important texts the Bible has to offer. We heard what God thinks about Sin and Death. We heard what He intended to do about it. We heard the story of His plan in action.

We heard God’s opinion.

Everyone has an opinion about what life should or should not be like in our nation and state right now. Unfortunately, part of the curse of social media is that we all get to read those opinions over and over and over again, and this includes the insulting ones. When it comes to opinions, I’m certainly no exception. I have mine, and I share them where and when appropriate. Interestingly, Voltaire mused something about opinions being more devastating than plagues.

That’s ironically fitting.

In the end, God’s opinion is all that matters. Once again, He is risen. Death holds no dominion over us. And that’s that. We have life—real life.

And so here we are in quarantine, and the world continues to preach to us what life is to be. Life is the economy. Life is civil freedom. Life is a vaccine. Life is a doctor saying the data is right. Life is another doctor saying the data is wrong. Life is family. Life is rest. Life is hand sanitizer, a face mask, and a pair of gloves in public. Life is curbside pickup. Life is whatever the governor decides. Life is what the citizens choose. Life is your terror. Life is your overreaction. Life is this and that.

As everyone funnels into these discussions, my hope is that for the Christians engaging in the conversation—the ones who know the deeper meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—the reality of Easter will be there for them like a lifeboat of truth in a rising flood of confusion. No matter the threat, Christians will always have in their pockets the reminder that Death has been conquered, and with that, the assuring knowledge that life—real life—is located firmly and surely in Jesus Christ alone.

It can’t be found in money. It can’t be found in fame. It’s not located in anything this world would offer. Apart from Jesus, real life in the midst of a world coming undone will always be a mist-like dream that shifts with every societal breeze. Apart from Christ, real life will always be the vaccine (or essential oil, if you prefer) that remains out of reach. It’ll be the foreign language that no one can read, write, or come close to pronouncing correctly.

In the days ahead, even as the Church continues to receive the Word of the risen Christ through some pretty weird mediums, my prayer is that you’ll commit to receiving that same Word—that you’ll remain immersed in it in every possible way, being sure to see it and hear it for all that it is during this time of questioning what life is all about. If you can, join the online Bible studies. Watch and re-watch the worship services. Listen and re-listen to the sermons. I can promise you’ll read or hear something new each and every time. Most importantly, you’ll continue to be nourished by the wellspring of real life, just as Christ said (John 6:63), and you’ll be more than ready for that future day when we can all be together to rejoice before the altar of God—and I’m not just talking about when the quarantine finally ends.

But you Christians knew that, didn’t you?