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.

Again, I Say Take Your Children to Church

Again, I say go to church. And take your children.

I say this observing men and women with their littlest ones, one end of the spectrum of life and the other crisply displayed. But it’s the invisible space—the space in between child and adult—that actually has my attention.

It’s this middle space where the ingredients are added. From boy to man, from girl to woman, all of the space in between is even now undecided—the character, the imagination, the belief systems, the ways that life will be lived, the caliber of man sought for a husband and the measure of a woman desired for a wife—all of these will be collected along the way and will simmer in this middle space.

Parents, the middle space is a powerful and determining time. Be mindful of this, and spend that time well. Go to church. Take your children. Season the middle spaces of their lives with the salt of Christ and His holy Word.

It is the most important ingredient in the recipe.

 

A Prayer Before and During the 2018 Mid-term Elections

Heavenly Father, look down and see the ferocity of this world and its hunger for our ruin. Be merciful to us in the midst of the waning moments before this crucial election—one that will determine at the highest levels in Michigan and across the nation the value of the unborn, an election that will either defend or further concede the objective truth of Your natural laws, one that will result in the guarding or the further sacrificing of the sanctity of holy marriage, one that will either shield or surrender the religious liberties born from Your Word that are foundational to this state and nation.

Merciful God, know that we aren’t so vain in this very simple moment of prayer as to believe that we are somehow capable of anything good and right and true without Your blessing, without Your wisdom, and without the perfect love that descends only from You. To believe anything else is vanity. In these moments before November 6, we confess intimate knowledge of the weakness of our own flesh for success in the contest before us. We admit to our awareness of the power of the true enemy, that old evil foe, the devil, who is ever seeking to advance against us. We acknowledge that if we are to look to ourselves for strength in the forthcoming combat, then all is already lost.

But you have made clear by the signal of Your Holy Word that Your people must step forth to face off with the challenges ahead; and we have staked a claim in this call. Even now, so many in our ranks are taking up positions in the frontline trenches. But they do not take their places and we do not seek to join them because we desire glory, but rather we stand together hoping to be a bronze wall of faithfulness to You for the sake of Your Gospel and the good of our neighbors. We do this knowing that with each new day before us, as the sun rises and sets, in stride with a government that can rightly be called “good,” Your purposes for salvation will have the freedom to be extended into a world in need.

This is our charge as Christian citizens.

Come and be with us, Lord. Help us, we pray. Take command of our legions. Send Your Holy Spirit to move us to act with courage. Work through us to elect and send candidates into positions of leadership who are fully equipped to drive back and strip from our government’s agenda any and all things that would oppose the cause of truth. According to Your gracious will, accomplish this through them. Give them victory, and then see to their care. As they serve, remind them by the Gospel of Your Son, Jesus Christ, that You love them, too; that they were worth every drop of blood in the His holy veins, and by this blood, they are more than equipped with a nerve that can do nothing less than to plant them firmly so that they might lean forward with an unflinching stare into the eyes of evil and push back against its dreadful appetites.

God, please grant this to us, both in our state and our nation. And still, Your will is best and we pray that it would be done among us. All this we ask through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Close Quarters

Last week was a busy one because of our “The Body of Christ and the Pubic Square” conference. With a lot of us working in close quarters with so many people on so many things, a good number of us are tired, both physically and mentally.

Just thinking about everything that goes into the conference, I get tired. Just typing those words, I’m reminded of something else.

My daughter, Madeline, has been compiling a list of favorite songs on her phone. In fact, every Wednesday night as we drive home from midweek catechesis together, at some point along the way, she’ll announce how many hours of music she has gathered. Our first Wednesday evening of traveling together, she told me she has a playlist that’s about ten hours long. Just last Wednesday I learned she’s closing in on hour eleven.

“Why are you doing this, again?” I asked the first time she shared it.

“Because if we drive to Florida, I need at least eighteen hours of listening music.”

“Oh, okay.”

As a result of the initial conversation, while driving home together on Wednesdays, I’ll help with her list. I play songs from a thumb drive connected to my car stereo and I make recommendations. Most of the time she knows the songs because we listen to music a lot in our house. But if she doesn’t, and she likes it, she’ll make a note to add it. Last week we added “Land Down Under” by Men and Work, “The Rubberband Man” by Spinners, “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield, and a few other rock songs from folks like ACDC and Billy Squire.

The reason I mention all of this is because what Madeline doesn’t realize is that she’ll probably never get to use that playlist because I have no intention of ever driving to Florida. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love all four of my kids, but speaking only for myself, I don’t think my family of six would make it to Florida alive if we had to be in such close quarters for so long. Again, don’t get me wrong. There’s an over-abundance of love among us. But even as that love is there, my kids are most certainly individuals who need their own spaces, so when it comes to mixing with certain siblings, it can get ugly in a hurry. What I’m saying is that six people—no matter how much they love each other—in a relatively cramped Ford Explorer (that probably wouldn’t make it all the way to Florida, anyway) for eighteen hours has the potential for becoming something more akin to putting a wolverine, a badger, an opossum, a muskrat, a puma, and a timber wolf into a giant wet sleeping bag and swinging it around. (And yes, I thought about each one of those animals before I listed them, but I won’t tell you who’s who. Well, maybe I will tell you two of them. I’m the timber wolf and Jen is the puma.)

So how does this meet up with where I began?

Well, I suppose that in the end, even after the ruckus, all of these animals are a part of the animal kingdom and do still live in the same forest. There are wolves and pumas and muskrats and badgers all wandering in and among the same trees and streams.

That’s us as a congregation. We’re part of the same kingdom.

There are so many in our midst with so many attributes and gifts that God Himself has designed and graciously given. Used according to His calculations, they are a blessing to so many, and they often result in bringing to life something like our “The Body of Christ and the Public Square” conference. But because we’re human beings tainted by sin, there’s the chance of being in close quarters in any effort and growing exhausted with one another. When this happens, we discover ourselves capable of marking territories and guarding our dens.

I suppose at this point, the rules of the animal analogy start to break down, and here’s why. Unlike animals, it is by no means acceptable to eat our own. Saying this, I want you to know that I see all of you as members of my Christian family. And I’m glad that so many of you see everyone else that same way, because this means that even if you may find yourself spending eighteen hours in a car with one of your highly particularized brothers or sisters in Christ—or working for ten weeks on the details of a conference—you’ll emerge at the end of the excursion in a relationship that remains built on familial love. God gives that love. And that love isn’t so easily discarded. As I said, animals find it quite natural to eat their own. As a Christian family, that is to be far from us. And I believe it is. This side of a very exhausting event, I can see it, and I’m glad for it.

Circling the Wagons

This community—Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church and School—is truly a family. How do I know this? Well, first of all, and in a practical sense, when I sent out that urgent message last week about a member of this church in need of employment, I didn’t get responses of mere well wishes; that is, none among you epitomized the scathing words in James 2:16 regarding others in genuine need: “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

Instead, the family’s wagons were circled in support of this church member.

Within minutes of sending the email, I received from you offers for prayer as well as viable leads. Within hours, I’d received more viable leads, several text messages, and some really generous help that could only make the person’s résumé better. By the end of the day, the email had been shared with others outside of our circles. Because of your efforts, it reached several employers willing to talk with the person and others ready to hire him right away.

Besides all of this, how else do I know that Our Savior is truly a family?

Because God says so by His word. Not only does He refer to us as members of one body, each with different roles and yet belonging to each other (Romans 12:5), but Jesus call us His brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11). This is possible by virtue of our baptism into Him (Galatians 3:26-29). Having been baptized into Christ, you have become God’s children. You are sons and daughters of the Holy One, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are heirs of the heavenly kingdom. Thankfully, God has promised in Jesus Christ to work in and through you the very things you accomplished for one of our family members in need (Philippians 1:6).

I’m glad to call all of you my family. It’s a blessing of the Lord, and its one for which I give daily thanks.

Ash Wednesday: Well Worth Your While

Well, Lent is on the way, and it begins with Ash Wednesday, the day in the church year when the nave and sanctuary are draped in black, and we are, perhaps more so than any other day, drawn to penitent recognition that within the divine courtroom, God has a case against all of us in our sin.

There are plenty of things people choose to avoid seeing and hearing. They do so for various reasons. We all know the reason people avoid the discussion on Sin. It hurts. It’s the one thing in this life that none of us can escape—not through ducking and covering, not through quick and convincing talking, not by all out avoidance. Sin finds us, and it does so easily. Why? Because it’s already in us. We take the sin-nature with us wherever we go, and like a spiritual slime, we are quite capable of leaving a trail of it behind.

Some might say that to try to avoid this reality is the depth of the action’s sinful reflection, but I’d say that to knowingly avoid it is the deepest point in Sin’s dark trench. If you know you need rescue, but are equally unwilling to admit it and seek after help, you are an accomplice to your own demise.

God would not have it this way. This is the deeper, lovelier dimension to what is one of the most somber events in the Church Year. On Ash Wednesday, the job of the preacher is to make sure that you know—unequivocally, unmistakably, unreservedly—that you are a sinner, and the wage for Sin is nothing less than eternal death. You will be staged for this truth by an ashen mark in the shape of a cross on your forehead while hearing the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But then you will hear how in the deepest reaches of your forsakenness, by a cross, Jesus Christ reached down and took your place in the divine courtroom. He stepped forth from eternity and took the judgment into Himself in every single way and with all of its brute force, and He rescued you.

He would not have you lost, but found. He would not leave you dead, but alive. He would not see you punished for your crimes, but rather freed to be His child of grace in this world.

I encourage you to come to the Lord’s house on Ash Wednesday. If you have other plans, cancel them. This is more important. Participate in the ancient ceremony of the Imposition of Ashes. Gather with your church family to recall the common and worldwide dreadfulness of our fall into sin, but do so prepared to receive the Good News of deliverance through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the sins of that same world. Be there to consume that same Good News by way of the Lord’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, a meal that actually delivers the forgiveness of sins as it reaches in all directions and ages, flowing unbound to you from the divine Son of God who hung on that cross.

Don’t avoid Ash Wednesday. Embrace it. It will be well worth your while.

It’s Not Given to You to Destroy Sin

In my devotional reading this morning, I came across the following, which is Luther speaking from the perspective of Jesus regarding John 15:16:

“It is not given to you to destroy sin; that is for you too lofty a thing, and it belongs to My calling alone. But you should bear fruit, first, that God thereby be honored and praised, and that you may show your obedience; therefore to the good and betterment of your neighbor, so that it can be seen that you truly believe in Christ and belong to Him.”

Two phrases in particular stood out for me in this paragraph. They were: “It is not given to you to destroy sin…” and “…so that it can be seen that you truly believe in Christ and belong to Him.”

The first one hit home because it brought to mind the fact that for many Christians, they believe that their faith means policing the world and everyone in it—that as Christians, we must be out and about like super-spiritual vigilantes crushing all those who would oppose Christ and His Church. And while there are times when we must do all that we can to impair or crush the sinful world’s efforts—some of those things being precisely what we as a congregation are doing as we interface with the Kingdom of the Left on issues of Abortion, Marriage, and Religious Liberty—it’s impossible for sinners to actually do all that would be necessary for winning the war being fought against the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh. Only Christ can do that.

With that, the second phrase gathers some momentum. It reminds us that Christ does indeed call for us to step up, to be steady and faithful in the combat—to show forth the fruits of faith so that the world will be able to see who we are and to whom we are obedient. As I mentioned before, sometimes that obedience means marching off and into the war to crush enemy strongholds in sin, but more often than not, it may not be that exciting. It could just mean being who you are as a Christian right where God has placed you—as a mother, a father, a student, a teacher, a business owner, a grandparent, a giver, a helper, a speaker, and so many other things. Believe it or not, it’s right there that your witness is often most potent. It’s in these daily regimens of faithfulness that so many challenges are met head on and the devil is frustrated. He hates diligently faithful Christians. He hates Christians who, as it has been said, “believe loudly.” This means not only those who are willing to stand up and speak for truth, but those who live it each and every day right where they live, breathe, and have their daily being.

I suppose that’s my encouragement to you today—to know that this congregation, as she exists in her mission to seek and save the lost, is not one requiring that all involved in the efforts be all-stars. Many of you have heard me say the following before: We don’t need all-stars, but rather we need people who know the fundamentals and come to play hard. The “playing hard” means not only knowing what you believe and why you believe it, but simply showing forth the fruits in a way for the world to see and know that you have a Lord, His name is Jesus, you trust Him, and you’d give up your life before ever forsaking Him.

That itself is a powerful witness that can and will happen no matter where you are, and in my experiences in places where the heat has been turned up, the Christians emitting such substance were the ones the opposing forces knew wouldn’t roll over in the face of challenge. And those same Christians served as beacons that led others to Christ’s hopeful deliverance in the face of a world that’s coming undone.

That’s a picture of the kind of people who comprise the ranks of Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan. I say that unreservedly, and with that, I am so incredibly proud… and blessed… to serve here.