Subduing the Fear of Stewardship

Before venturing into the swiftly approaching New Year, I woke up this morning and wanted to remind you one more time that your pastors pray for you regularly. Speaking personally, my general prayers to God for the whole congregation occur each and every morning. But of course along the way of my day as things arise, I find plenty of casual moments for whispering into the Lord’s ear regarding specific joys or disquiets that concern us as a Christian family. Beyond this daily regimen, just as I know so many of you pray for me, you need to know that I take time at least once a week to pray for each of you by name, too.

Let this be a comfort to you. Find some ease in knowing that among God’s people here at Our Savior, we have one another in mind as we call our to our gracious Lord in prayer.

Funny, isn’t it, how God knows what we will ask before we ask it, and yet He still commands for us to pray? Why? Well, as I tell the kids in my confirmation classes (and as I’m certain I’ve shared with you before), first, because He already knows that if He doesn’t command it, we won’t do it. We need the prompting. And then second, and perhaps more importantly, we have the Gospel imperative to pray—which is to say that it isn’t fear of God’s command that’s moving us to pray, but rather it is the Gospel that invigorates us for beholding the mandate to pray as good and holy. We know by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we have full and free access to the Creator of all things. Perhaps even better, just as you love to hear your own family and friends tell you they love you, so also does our God find great delight in hearing the voices of His saints as they do the same. It’s quite the wonderful relationship we have with the Creator of the cosmos, don’t you think? It is a communicative rapport like none other, and it is one in which we can take great comfort because we know that through faith in Jesus Christ, our prayers never fall on the deaf ears of the Divine One. He is always listening and acting according to His good and gracious will for us.

Having said all of this, there’s something in particular I want you to pray about in the New Year. I’m humbly asking that you pray for a more fervent grasp on what it means to be a good steward with the gifts God has given you.

For the last decade or so, I’ve done what I can by way of God’s Word to show that the topic of stewardship isn’t to be considered a dirty word in the life of the Church, that is, something to be avoided as bothersome or maybe even a little bit scary. As I’ve talked about it, I’ve done my best to make sure that God’s people know exactly what’s going on here in this congregation financially. By way of this weekly eNewsletter, I’ve been sure to share the grittiest of details.

As far as stewardship being a scary topic, in all honesty, that’s sort of how I felt about it for a very long time. Maybe you didn’t, but I did. For the longest time I was deathly afraid of discussing it, of telling folks just how important their giving was—not only for the sake of the congregation’s temporal health, but as an eternal fruit of faith—as an indicator of what is most important to us in this life. Now, while I’m not in precise alignment with Billy Graham’s theology, there is something the infamous evangelist once said that rings very true. I say this because, quite frankly, it’s an age-old verity revealed in the Scriptures. I don’t remember his wording exactly, but I think he said something like, “Show me a person’s checkbook, and I’ll show you that person’s god.”

I whole-heartedly agree. People prioritize, and then they make sure those priorities are well funded by time and treasure.

As time has gone on, the Lord has been at work recasting my perspective on stewardship. I have to imagine that it was a challenge for Him. Ask anyone who truly knows me—my wife, our parish administrator, fellow pastors, my kids—I just don’t like money. I don’t even like its smell. I think it’s this way because money has never been all that plentiful in my life, and with that, I’ve almost always seen it more as an eluding enemy than an available friend. I’m sure you can imagine how this has affected my ability to talk about it here at the church.

Nevertheless, as I said, God has changed my perspective on the subject, and so together as a congregation we have been enabled to more intimately explore the conversation. As the ever-progressing exchange has unfolded, we’ve been able to go deeper, and as I have learned, I have also shared with God’s people at Our Savior (Philippians 4:9; 2 Timothy 3:14; Galatians 6:6). Walking together in this, I’m here to say that I’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work in all of you in ways that many past and present naysayers would never have expected.

Yes, there are people out there who just can’t believe that Our Savior in Hartland is still in existence, let alone that we’re healthy and heartily accomplishing things with the kind of might that can only come from God. I guess what I’m saying is that here at Our Savior, I get the sense that by God’s grace we’re more than proving to the onlooking world—and often to ourselves—that we’re aware of the importance of Christian stewardship, and in stride with this awareness, we’ve become quite clear sighted to the fact that money isn’t what’s most important to us. Money is not our god nor our first priority. Faithfulness to Christ and His Word holds that seat.

By His holy Word, God promises to bless such faithfulness (Luke 11:28; Hebrews 11:6; Proverbs 28:20; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 4:2; 2 Thessalonians 3:3). This doesn’t mean that we’d ever expect to be rolling in cash. We certainly aren’t. What it means instead is that according to God’s good and gracious will, we live within our means, knowing He will provide exactly what is needed (both successes and failures), all of which will work in favor of the extension of His kingdom and the preservation of His Gospel among us. It means we can count on Him to have a care for us as useful tools in His hands for accomplishing things that communicate His truth to a world in need.

These are wonderful promises. And by them, there is always before us a wonderful horizon of Gospel possibilities.

If there was ever a congregation out there to know that God will not leave His faithful people high and dry, it’s us. As one of God’s pastors, I’m cognizant of the fact that I’d be failing you if I didn’t bring this to mind every now and then. I’d be letting you down if I didn’t take a moment to test your understanding in all of this. Sure, stewardship can be a scary topic for me. But I’m called to preach the whole counsel of God—which includes the topic of stewardship—and I figured this morning that if there’s ever a time to draw attention to it, it’s at the beginning of a New Year. Now’s the perfect time to start reconsidering one’s level of giving. Now’s the time to step fearlessly into the New Year armed with Christian courage, trusting that God has your wellbeing securely in hand, and that by this, you can give back to Him in faith.

By the way, I should probably clarify something. Exercising courage doesn’t necessarily mean being without fear. We are human beings, and because of this, there are plenty of things that will make us nervous. Giving is one of them. Still, courage doesn’t mean mindless action. It simply means subduing fear. Christian courage is to see our fears subdued by the Gospel reality that if God is for us, who can be against us—even when everyone and everything around us—maybe even our own selves—are telling us that the odds are impossibly stacked against us and we are certain to fail.

Subdue your fear. By the Lord’s sacrifice on the cross, He has already bound and cast fear into the abyss of nothingness. Fear has no hold on you. Fear has no standing against the love of Christ for you (1 John 4:18).

Look to the cross and subdue your fear. And then act according to the faith that’s been given to you.

As the New Year approaches, reconsider your giving. Are you right where you should be? With a little bit of honest reflection, would you discover that you can do more? Whatever the case may be, pray, subdue the fear, and then act accordingly. God will bless your faithfulness. I guarantee it.

No Room For Compromise

I mentioned in Bible study yesterday morning that I had an interesting phone conversation the previous week with a visitor to our early worship service. I called her as a follow-up to her visit. She was intrigued by our worship practices at Our Savior—why we do what we do—and this led us into a deeper discussion about the doctrinal distinctions between various churches. At one point along the way the word “compromise” arrived on the scene of our confab.

I think Pastor Zwonitzer did a great job of thinking this through with us in his sermon this past Wednesday during the midweek Advent service. He spent time with Romans 15 talking about the things that are required for unity among God’s people, and he did this also while touching on the subject of adiaphora—that is, the things that are neither commanded nor forbidden by the Scriptures. With adiaphora, there can be compromise. Although, I’ll say that how any particular worshipping community handles adiaphora is often a demonstration of what they believe regarding the required things. But that’s a conversation for another day.

In the meantime, compromise is a word that makes a lot of sense to people these days. We’re looking for reasonable compromises to be made by our leaders when it comes to COVID restrictions. We’re hoping for amenable give-and-take between friends who may be at odds with one another over this or that particular issue. We’re longing for a spirit of cooperation to emerge between differing groups of people as we do what we can to navigate what has become one of the most turbulent eras in the history of the United States.

But having said all of this, there are times when compromise is just not an option, namely, when handling objectively true things. As it meets with the Christian Faith, take for example the theology of the divine inspiration of God’s Word. It goes without saying that this doctrine must stand uncorrupted, and any compromise in this regard must be seen for what it is: evil. To compromise on the divine inspiration of the Scriptures—which is to make wobbly its inerrancy and immutability—is little less than to call a dishonorable truce between good and evil. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that such an ungodly armistice is likely to occur when fear and uncertainty creep into and among the faithful during struggle. But the thing is, it’s in these very moments when the faithful, no matter how peaceable they might want things to be, need to hold the line at all costs, understanding compromise as the false virtue that it is in such a moment. It won’t be easy to do. Trusted voices from seemingly rationale folks will be calling the brave folks foolish. Still, it’ll be necessary in these moments for faithfulness to outclass the rational fear of death. Indeed, as Shakespeare said, “Courage mounteth with occasion,” and of course we can never be sure of the measure of courage we’ll actually need until those occasions arrive. We just know we’ll need it, and we’ll know that compromise won’t be an option.

God willing, this is how we function here at Our Savior. We are mindful of when and where compromise is an option and when and where it isn’t. For example, you’ll never hear a sermon absent the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for your sins. Why? Because that’s the heart of the Gospel, and it’s the job of the preacher to preach the Gospel. There’s no compromising on this. Another example: You can count on us to hold the line of God’s Word with regard to altar fellowship and the practice of the Lord’s Supper. Saint Paul is pretty explicit in his teachings in this regard in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. We will not compromise on these things.

There’s something else we have been unwilling to compromise. Unfortunately, many have tossed it into the category of adiaphora.

In-person worship.

Of course we’ve made adjustments here and there with regard to how we do it. All of those adjustments have been adiaphoric things. But in-person worship itself is not adiaphora. It is mandated for all able-bodied Christians. And so we do it, even when the government tells us we can’t—even when Christians mistakenly press for their own church to close its doors because they believe it’s the best way to “love thy neighbor.”

Interestingly, I read an article in passing last week that was shared by my friends, Rev. Joe Bangert and Rev. Paul Clark. It was entitled “Mental Health Improved for Only One Group During COVID: Those Who Attended Church Weekly.” I’ll bet you can figure out what the article had to say about the results from a recent Gallup poll. Suffice it to say, I was not surprised by what I read. People who’ve been attending worship regularly during this unsettled time are proving to fare far better mentally and emotionally than everyone else in the world.

Again, I am by no means surprised. But some in the church remain surprised. Or perhaps more accurately, embarrassed. Scrolling through Facebook, I noticed a comment from another pastor who shared the same article while urging caution with the accuracy of the findings. Of course he found fault with it. But then again, his church has been closed to in-person worship since March, and this study is suggesting he may be hurting his flock rather than helping it.

Heralding the importance of being present in worship during the COVID-19 unrest has been an uphill battle for many pastors and churches right from the beginning. Admittedly, here at Our Savior, the conversation was a little dicey at first. I remember a handful of scalding emails from folks when I announced internally that I was offering multiple in-person services (with the administration of the Lord’s Supper) throughout the week. The flame of concern got a little hotter when I actually recommended people sign up for and attend one of the in-person services instead of staying home and watching the online ones. I recall similar commentary aimed at me on social media when others whose churches were closed learned what I was doing. I was called unloving. I was called dangerous. I was called rogue. I was called foolish.

For the most part, that tenor has subsided, and many of my detractors have come back around and are actually doing what we’re doing—which, by the way, God continues to bless our efforts to uphold Christian liberty through mindful practices and procedures that have more than proven their effectiveness, even when cases of COVID were found in our midst. Again, I’ve believed all along that when it comes to actually loving our neighbor, what we’re doing here far outpaces anything being done out there by the big box, grocery, and retail stores.

As a community of faith navigating all of this, we needed to hold steady on the importance of in-person worship. We needed this objective truth to win the day. And it did. God saw to it. Because of this, a majority of His people here at Our Savior have remained spiritually (and yes, emotionally) healthy while so many in the world around us have starved and are now at the end of their cerebral ropes.

I guess one reason all of this comes to mind is because I sort of touched on it in Bible study yesterday. But I only scraped the surface. As we go deeper, we can find the encouragement for anyone who may still be fearful of attending in-person worship to consider coming back and giving it a try. Be calmed by the love of your Savior, and trust that He would never hurt or harm you by the faithful administration of His gifts of forgiveness. We’re not experiencing outbreaks. We’re not a super spreader. We’re not rogues. We’re Christians seeking to be faithful to Christ, and by His blessing, seeking to be faithful in the world around us.

Again, give it a try. The doors are open and the table is ready. And what a joy it would be for us to be together once again for the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrations.

Saying No

The previous Sunday’s Bible study here at Our Savior got a little tense near the end. The uneasiness was clearly painted on the faces of most of the participants. And why? Because during the discussion, somehow we steered into the topic of excommunication, and as we did, I offered the observation that for the most part, the Church has become weak in this department. One participant agreed, putting forth as eligible examples both pro-choice Christians and people who vote for pro-choice candidates.

“You said it, not me,” I think I said, snarkily—which meant I completely agreed. From there, I suggested that perhaps it’s time for churches and their pastors to start muscling up in an effort to tell those in their midst who would support the killing of the unborn—and vote for candidates who do—that in truth, they’ve fallen from fellowship with the Lord and can no longer commune at His table.

In other words, perhaps it’s time to tell them “no.”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” someone called out, honestly. Indeed, pastors, God be with you on such a noble quest. Although, before you go, be sure your estate is in order. Or at a minimum, have another job lined up, because unless you have broad sweeping support from the rest of the congregation, you’ll likely need a moving van.

Well, whatever. The moment stirred good conversation. In addition to carrying us a little deeper into the text of 1 John 1:5-10, it also provided a brief opportunity to better understand the Johnson Amendment, which I took a quick moment to examine relatively.

The Johnson Amendment, for as scary as most think it is, really doesn’t prohibit churches all that much. We can pretty much do what we want. Although, as it meets with the topic above, there is one particular sticking point that bothers me, and not because it’s necessarily bad, but because it would likely be misinterpreted, and as a result, misapplied.

In short, the Johnson Amendment expressly forbids a congregation from punishing one of its own for his or her individual political positions and/or voting practices. This means that if a pastor or congregation ever moved to excommunicate someone because that person was immovable in his or her support of the murder of the unborn—even after the Church has made clear the doctrines of Christ while at the same time making every effort to reconcile with the person as prescribed in Matthew 18—still, it’s possible the individual coming under the ban might consider the congregation’s action “punitive” and seek solace beneath the umbrella of the Johnson Amendment. But as I said, this would be a misapplication, and for multiple reasons, the first of which is that excommunication isn’t punitive. Its goal is restoration. It’s meant to preserve someone from continuing to willfully offend God while at the same time laboring to lead the person toward repentance and full restoration of fellowship. But odds are the courts wouldn’t be able to distinguish these things, and personally, I’m hard-pressed to find too many human beings in this post-modern century who would either. More and more people are reactively put off by someone telling them no. I say this with all seriousness because I’ve been in the situation more times than I’d prefer. Not necessarily in a formal court—although I’ve come close—but certainly in the court of public opinion here in our own midst. As a pastor, nearly every single time I’ve had to tell someone “no more,” my effort was received negatively, as something unjustly punitive, and in the end, the longtime relationship crumbled.

In our world, telling someone no is getting much harder to do. Our society has become so radically individualized that saying no is more so portrayed as cruel, as coming from an intolerance intent on smothering someone’s personal preferences. In one sense, we all know the sting of hearing someone say no. We heard it when we were young and we’ve heard it as adults, too. I heard my parents tell me that I couldn’t have a cookie just as my wife has told me more than once as an adult that I can’t just up and move to Florida. But when it cuts to the core of someone’s deeply held beliefs, especially the ones that play a part in his or her identity, we often find ourselves in much more dangerous waters. These particular waves on the undulating sea of personal relationships aren’t just making a ruckus on the surface. They’re also moving way down in the deep. Saying no in these situations can be a hard thing to do because we know they can end catastrophically.

In short, there’s always the chance that our efforts toward faithfulness will come with a price we may not want to pay.

This tension didn’t exist in the beginning. In our sinless origin, Adam and Eve knew God perfectly, as God would have us know Him. In this, whether God said yes or no, newborn humanity never questioned whether or not the answer He gave was emerging from His immeasurable love. And He actually did say no right there in the beginning. Could we eat from this and that tree in the garden? Yes. How about the tree in the middle of the garden? No. Why not? Because if you do, you’ll die.

“Okay,” we said, and off we went with a “Dum-de-dum-de-dum” to enjoy the rest of God’s wonderful creation.

But then the devil came along and convinced our first parents that God’s “no” was deceptive and cruel, that He was holding us back from a much fuller potential.

And then Mankind fell.

Fully aware of the effects of the fall into Sin, Jesus not only knew it would be tough for us to be told no, but He also knew it would be hard for His followers to tell others no, especially when it means dealing in the life-or-death, heaven-or-hell scenarios. He knows the significance of Sin’s grip. He knows that the unbelieving world will often choke on truth’s no like an addict coughing up the anti-drug, and so He speaks so plainly:

“Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:32-38).

These words are both terrifying and comforting all at the same time, and the longer I serve as a pastor, the more I learn that divine truths can sometimes be that way.

But an even deeper digging into the Lord’s words will reveal that He didn’t say any of this until He first preached:

“When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (vv.19-20).

You know what this means, right? It means that Christ is true to His promise that we will never be left to fend for ourselves in the tough situations. The Holy Spirit will be working in and through us. In fact, as the Holy Spirit moves us to seek faithfulness to the Savior, even our words will be captured by His power and used to His glory and the good of those who hear them. We don’t necessarily know how each situation will turn out, and we may even walk away from the conversation feeling as though we put our own foot in our mouths, but we can know by faith the source of the truest courage for faithfulness to Christ and love for the neighbor. We can say the hard things and know that even if we feel alone, we aren’t. The One who spoke the powerful words noted above is the same One who capped Saint Mathew’s Gospel with the words: “And behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the age” (28:20).

I know that a good number of you are swimming in such situations, whether it be with family, friends, or co-workers. And I suppose if you aren’t experiencing such situations, well, then you’re weird, because the rest of us are. With that, trust me. The day is coming when you won’t be weird for long. Of course, I’ll keep you in my prayers, trusting that God will preserve and protect you in those moments requiring the courage of a love that says no. I know He’ll guide your words. He will shine His love through you to others, even when it doesn’t feel like it. Most importantly, I’m certain He will keep His promise that whoever loses his life for His sake, will find it—which is to say the ultimate discovery of eternal life is ours to claim through faith.

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.

Christian Reconciliation

It truly is amazing how at certain moments in life something that was once very baffling suddenly begins to make sense. I’m guessing you know exactly what I mean. Perhaps like me you’ve experienced situations where you felt as though you were immersed in uncertainty, but then suddenly, and for whatever reason, you saw the framework of the challenge in a different light, and by this, the solution stepped to the forefront.

I liken it to the Rubik’s Cube we have at home. My kids will jumble it up and hand it to me. It takes me a little while, but usually I can figure it out. I just need some time with it. And I know what to expect of that time. It’ll be a procedure of turning the cube’s various multi-colored pieces this way and that way, all the while observing and calculating the potential of each piece’s role in the puzzle—and I’ll do it with the hope that I’m actually making progress rather than confusing the device even more. In other words, even as I’m doing what I can to solve it, I’m acutely aware that as a fallible human being, if I’m not careful, I’m more than capable of making things worse. This means being very mindful. It means thinking several turns past the present turn.

But there’s something else I expect from the process. While humming along steadily—because I’m not a quitter, and also because I don’t like to lose—I stick with it. As I do, there always seems to be that moment when persistence and fate meet one another. In other words, after a while of determined laboring, I’ll turn the cube just right and I’ll see all of its parts in a different way, ultimately revealing what it is that I need to do to solve it.

And then I do it.

I suppose like the Rubik’s Cube, the theological observation in all of this is multi-dimensional. Of course in one sense, for me as a pastor, it’s reminiscent of something that’s not all that uncommon—which is  to get handed a mixed-up problem between people with the expectation I’ll be able to fix it. In another sense, it has me thinking this morning on what can actually solve fractured human relationships in the Church when they occur.

And they definitely do occur. We certainly have our share here at Our Savior.

To start, it’s good to recognize that everyone in the situation is different—just like the individual pieces of the cube. All are in certain places as a result of various circumstances. All have individual personalities and mindsets shaped by the same. And yet, all remain a part of the same cube, which means all are part of sinful humanity, for indeed “there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). This means that every single person involved in the conflict is more than capable of self-love aimed at self-preservation. It means every single person is more than proficient at cruelty, deceit, betrayal, and so much more. Perhaps worst of all, most don’t even need a reason or motive to act on these darker inclinations in order to hurt others. They only need the opportunity. That’s the way of the sinful flesh, and everyone involved in the situation is infected by it.

It’s good to recognize this stuff. It’s even better when everyone in the situation recognizes it, and not only are they on board with it in principle, but they are ready and willing to humbly confess it personally.

That carries us to something else we can keep in mind when sorting through conflict among Christians. Unlike the world around us (which pretty much always has our demise in mind), I’d hope that Christians who know their sinful nature and know their Savior could safely assume such faith is at work in the life of their opponent, that the people involved in the conflict truly are believers in Christ who’ve staked their claim of salvation on the fact that even as they are sinners, Christ died for them (Romans 5:8). If this Gospel is indeed surging through their spiritual veins, then you, their opponent—someone mirroring this truth—can labor by the premise that all involved are “justified by (God’s) grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-25).

Beholding one another through this Gospel, acknowledging that forgiveness is already abounding between God and everyone involved, the stage is set for Christian opponents to seek genuine peace in ways unavailable to the unbelieving world. By the power of the Holy Spirit through this Gospel, all involved are enabled in some way to take hold of the cube, to diligently turn it this way and that way in search of an avenue for solving the problem. And we’ll do this, not with a desire to win or to find an endpoint that ultimately proves our side right, but rather a solution that proves faithful to Christ and His Word.

God promises to bless such laboring (1 Corinthians 15:58). Interestingly, one of His blessings is diligent hopefulness. That is to say, one very important fruit of faith in the whole experience will be that you actually make an effort to pursue a solution.

I mentioned before that eventually the solution to the Rubik’s Cube is revealed, but usually it takes time and attentiveness. If I really want to solve it, I can’t give up and walk away. Well, let me rephrase that. Sure, I can give up. Giving up is probably the easiest thing anyone can do in the face of challenge. But by doing it, the endpoint—which is failure—is already pretty much predetermined. Personally, I appreciate the hopefulness Helen Keller described when she said something along the lines of, “Don’t dwell on today’s failures, but on the successes that may come tomorrow.” For as burdened by struggle as she was, she always looked to the next day as fertile ground for better opportunity. That’s pretty great. It’s hard to feel that way sometimes, but still it’s a great way to live. Pitching her words against the endurance required for reconciliation among God’s people is very near to hearing the Lord whisper by way of King Solomon in Proverbs 24:16, “For the righteous falls seven times and rises again.” It is to hear the Lord urging through the Apostle Paul in Galatians 6:9: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

A lot of bad things have happened in the last six months. Christian friendships were by no means immune to the badness. I’m certainly no exception in the mess. By my own faultiness, I’ve seen things go south in a hurry. Nevertheless, the call goes out from the Word of God to all of us: Humble yourself. Confess your sins. Be absolved by the God who loves you. Go and be reconciled to your brother or sister in Christ. If they receive you, rejoice at the refreshing rain shower of grace God is most certainly sending to both of your souls. If they turn you away, while it may be a telling moment as to the condition of their heart, still, don’t give up. If anything, be ready to receive them if they have a change of heart. Do all of this in pursuit of that rain shower you know is forming on the horizon. Chase after it for as long as you can. Eventually you’ll reach it, even if you reach it alone.

On second thought, rest assured you’ll never be in it alone. Jesus will be there, too. And that’s pretty great.

Conversation

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. But then again, for as quiet as it might sometimes seem, there’s always a lot happening here at Our Savior. A good part of my time lately has been spent in one-on-one conversations with so many of you—which is a good thing. Conversation is good.

In a basic sense, conversation is the transmission of information. It’s a means by which one person takes what’s in his or her own mind and puts it into the mind of another. When that uncomplicated mechanism is functioning as it should, the experience can be incredibly beneficial. Maybe like me, some of the best conversations you’ve had in life are the ones in which you don’t necessarily recall anything in particular that was discussed, but rather you simply recall an enjoyable time together with another person, and you remember hoping to be able to visit together again, soon.

That’s not only how I feel about the people in my congregation, but so many others beyond her borders.

There are, of course, those conversations that we sometimes wish had never happened; the ones we regret. These lamentable interactions take various forms.

For me personally, I suppose the most obvious of these are the conversations in which I said something or exhibited a demeanor that I wish I could go back and erase, and not necessarily from my own memory, but from the memory banks of others involved. I’ve always believed that a man’s reputation is one of the only things he truly owns that everyone else keeps for him, and yet it seems most often others keep that reputation in mental lock boxes impervious to the man’s repentance and amended life. In other words, no matter how hard the man tries to restore himself to them, his good reputation will forever be an island from which he set sail and is never allowed to return.

It’s probably safe to say that most folks reading this write-up will understand the sadness that comes with the guilty tolling of damaged integrity. The honest readers will understand, that is.

Beyond this, some of the more regrettable conversations I experience are the ones in which gossip is the predominating tenor. Precarious are the moments shared with someone who lives by the creed, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about others, then don’t do it from way over there. Come sit by me!” I say this because it would seem their only goal is to malign someone else or to continue the spread of an infectious rumor. Either way, I regret the time lost in such conversations. I suppose while they’re occurring, my truest hope is that I won’t become diseased by the darker spirit that’s actually fostering them. Admittedly, it’s harder than one might think to remain neutral in such conversations. When we spot a gossip, it’s instinctual to try to find favor with them, because if they’re prone to speaking this way to you about others, what might they be willing to say to others about you? Additionally, it takes a steady heart to forget the juicy bits of information shared. I regularly pray for God’s protection from gossips.

Other conversations I typically regret are the ones in which my counterpart is someone who knows everything about everything. The person who’s always on board with his or her own phenomenality is, for me, a huge bore. Personally, it only takes a few minutes of listening to someone establish their own greatness before I get bored. When I get bored, I get fidgety. When I’m cornered by an overtly proud person, you can pretty much bet that I’m already looking for a polite way of escape, having been reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wit when he said something along the lines of, “The more he spoke of his honor, the more we counted our spoons.”

Another form of regrettable discussion for me are the ones laced with profanity. I don’t like to read messages bearing the language. I despise even more so hearing it. Those particular interactions leave me feeling like I’ve been invited into a conversation among bathers in the catch basin of an outhouse. I’m not sure how else to describe it. They’re crass, and as I’ve written in other places, I believe such conversations genuinely devalue human interaction. Even worse, when such low-level language is strutted before others as though it were a sign of deeper sincerity or intellect, I think the person has somehow been fooled into a grave misconception. For one, I’ve never observed profanity-pocked prattlings do anything to convince a real opponent. I’ve only seen such things make an enemy more fervent. I suppose I’d add—and for as backward as it might seem, since I’m trying to promote goodness here—I’ve seen more success emerge from a well-crafted, profanity-free invective than from a retort filled with swear words. I’ve seen a well-spoken insult convince an adversary to not only investigate an opposing argument, but to consider the adversary worthy of collegial respect.

Perhaps the worst conversations of all are the ones in which no one is really listening. These seem to be the most common these days, which is probably why I’ve found myself confessing privately to others my suspicion that dialogue is dead. More and more folks are arriving at conversations with their minds made up, and so modern discourse surrounding the more contentious topics just seems to be less about convincing an opponent to the benefits of an alternate viewpoint and more an exercise in foes taking a breath between individual monologues. With that, very little seems to be accomplished.

I suppose I could go on. But if I did, I’d only be listing more of my own sinful failings and yours. We all fit into one or more of these descriptions. And so as Christians, we continue to pray most fervently, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). Stepping forth from this desire born of faith, we add the request for a patient heart and a listening ear in the midst of conversation. And then bearing a contrite spirit, we accept the Lord’s instruction by way of His Word, taking into ourselves that “a gentle answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1), and “he who answers before listening, that is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13), and “a false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will perish” (Proverbs 19:19), and “ he who guards his lips guards his soul, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3), and “ reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18), and “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19), and “do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

And the list goes on. It seems long. It sounds difficult. But by faith, we know the Holy Spirit is carrying the water in these things. Even Saint Paul affirmed this when he wrote, “And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

The days are getting darker. Both literally and figuratively. Pray for Godly graciousness in both your listening and speech. As a nation, as a state, as a Church, as married couples, as families, as neighbors, as human beings occupying various stations in our communities, the Lord knows we’re going to need it. And honestly, the Christians are the only ones who have the life-altering Gospel that can bring it.

Declared Innocent

Greeting cards are designed to communicate a crisp point in a few short words. In order to do this, they deliberately choose language that does not require much interpretation. In the words of somebody somewhere, “If you’ve used ten words, you’ve already used five more than you needed.”

Okay, so maybe I just made that up.

Anyway…

I received a greeting card in the mail last week from someone who attended our recent “The Body of Christ and the Public Square” conference. It was a kind gesture, one that was offered in gratitude for the boldness of this congregation as she continues to be a beacon in the gales of an ever-turbulent and ever-encroaching world.

Printed inside the card was a short bit from God’s Word. The text in particular was from Proverbs 28:1, which reads: “The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”

I’m guessing that the card manufacturer chose this particular text for the innards of a greeting card heralding courage most likely because it sounded good. I’m guessing the card-maker figured the text was fitting solely because of contrasting keywords like “flee” and “bold.” I’ll bet the word “lion” played a part, too. I suppose with this pre-packaged frame of mind, indeed, one could garner an image of courage in the face of struggle from this text.

Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that’s the meaning of this text..

The point of this text is the cold-truth examination of the distinction between guilt and forgiveness—wickedness and righteousness.

“The wicked flee though no one pursues…”

You know this feeling. This is guilt. It’s the feeling that people are looking at you, and they’re not just giving a glance, but rather they’re staring right into you. It’s the sense they know something about you. It’s the fear that at any moment they’ll discover the real you, who you really are deep down inside—the scars of your past, the dreadful memories you wish you could jettison into space. Guilt keeps you thinking that at any moment they’ll figure it out and come for you, and when they do, you’ll have to fess up, you’ll have to confess to the crimes and publically confront the shame you already know you deserve.

Or you could just cut and run before it happens. You could hold tightly to your guilt and flee before anyone gives chase. You could hide in the darkness with your shame.

Guilt brings this kind of inner terror and unending turmoil. With a subtle crafting of words, King Solomon paints it as seemingly foolish in Proverbs 28:1.

But then why in this inspired Word of God wouldn’t Solomon just go ahead and use the term “guilty” instead of “wicked”? Even further, in the text’s immediate counterpart, why not just say “innocent” instead of “righteous”?

Well, because the Holy Spirit certifies God’s Word as being far richer than that. He’s gathering various truths for us. He’s bridging certain gaps. He’s carrying us to a better plateau for a much fuller view of the world, ourselves, and our God.

In a simple way, we are to know that according to our sin-nature, we are guilty, and because of this, we must be counted among the wicked. To be wicked is to be tallied among the unrighteous and apart from God. This is a word of warning. It depicts the high drama of standing alone before the One who has every right to judge and punish us. In this, we find ourselves at a crossroads. One road leads along the foolish way of unnecessary turmoil in guilt. The other is a far different way. It’s first few pavers step along with Saint John, saying, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

The penitent Christians who are trusting in Christ and the forgiveness He gives are equipped for a better grasp of Proverbs 28:1. Such Christians are well aware of the impinging sadness of guilt. We are well aware of Sin’s daily attempts to pall the entirety of our existence. We know how easily it is to get caught in its web. In fact, we know it so well, we can chime along with someone like Cardinal de Richelieu who said, “Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him.”

Christians know that of our own selves there is nothing good in us. Most importantly, we know the utter foolishness and haunting dread that infiltrates our lives when we deny this truth and run from it.

“…but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”

To be righteous is to be acquitted of our crimes. It is to be declared innocent. Before God, the innocent have nothing to fear. Christians know what this means, too. It means we know how this innocence has come about. We know that in the person and work of Jesus Christ, our unrighteousness has been exchanged for His righteousness. Through faith in Him, even as some might hound and accuse us, we cannot be found guilty. Paradoxically, are we guilty? Yes. Faith in Christ is humble, and it acknowledges the ever-present need for His mercy. And yet, are we innocent? Absolutely. Skip backward a single verse in the above text from 1 John and you’ll hear the apostle telling us that “the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin” (v.7).

The Christian is now recrafted for a fearless admitting to the sinner/saint reality.

This divine knowledge is only born of the Gospel, and it produces lion-sized nerve in the face of anyone or anything that would seek to bind us to our sins and cause us to fear for our eternity.

As you can see, I appreciated the greeting card. It was a nice gesture. And in the end, it was an opportunity for thoughtful reflection, as well as an occasion for observing the truest platform for Godly courage.

I pray for this courage every day, and in those petitions, I ask the same for the people in my care. I do this already knowing that God is faithful, and that we have nothing to fear because of Jesus. His death and resurrection makes it so the burden of guilt and the frightful urge to run away begin to subside, and in place of that fear, a lion’s heart starts pumping. The Gospel of God’s merciful care feeds the wildcat’s muscles for immovability, and he’s found enabled for facing off with any accuser.

In short, the one hunted by his sin becomes the hunter, and that, dear Christians, is quite comforting.

Unearthly Courage

It was quite the lineup we had on Saturday. Charlie Kirk—someone I don’t know that well, but have gotten to know much better in the past few days—he did a splendid job. Dinesh D’Souza and Rafael Cruz—both men that I know and respect and call friends—they, of course, spoke to the issues facing the Church with passion and clarity. They were inspirational in so many ways, and their verve was contagious.

Then there was Jack Phillips. And I must say, I’m not the same man I was before I met Jack.

For those of you who attended, you know it sometimes took Jack a minute or two to find the words he wanted to say. And when he finally reached to where the words were hiding, he took them, wrapped them in an easy gentleness, and handed them to us in a way that warmed all in the room. The love in his family and the story of his new life in Christ made us all smile. Sometimes we gave a chuckle as he attempted to add humor in his descriptions of situations of sheer terror. Other times he brought us to tears as we saw him doing what he could to hold back his own.

After he and his lawyer, Jake Warner, were done speaking, I took Jack back to the green room so he and his wife, Debi, could rest a little before lunch. While there, we visited a little further on some things. Before I left to get back to the conference, I confessed to Jack that for all the good he is doing for the cause of Religious Liberty in America—and specifically in the moment for my own congregation and the community in which she is serving in so many ways as the tip of the spear—I confessed that I don’t think I like being responsible for Jack and Debi having to relive the horrors they’ve endured. The death threats. Terrorized children and grandchildren. The six-figure debts. The years in court he’ll never get back. The verbal attacks and the vitriol he endures day after day. The badgering from his own state rulers and the constant dread of a new lawsuit threatening to shatter everything he holds dear and to bury him in hateful rubble. With each moment that he struggled to communicate to us the seriousness of his predicament and the concern he has that the same things are facing many of us, too—each of his words being born from a severe and tortuous pain—I was sad that he was called upon to retell it. I wanted him to know how thankful I truly was that he took the time to be with us, and I told him I would forever be his servant in the Lord. He needed only to call me—anytime—and I’d be there to help, to speak, to pray, to listen.

Jack shook my hand and smiled. He thanked me and in a few short words reminded me that even as it hurts to tell the story again and again, such care from others makes it better. And ultimately, Jesus has already figured it all out. With that, everything will be okay. In the meantime, as a Christian family, we’re in this together.

Before worship yesterday, my own devotions began with a portion from Ephesians 3:16, which reads: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being…” Luther offered the following regarding those words:

“Worldly people are full of courage and of high spirits, and so are Christians. Christians are much stronger through the Holy Spirit, for they fear neither the world nor the devil, neither death nor misfortune. This is called spiritual strength… Worldly courage endures no longer than there is some earthly good on which to rely; but the true courage trusts in God alone and has no other good or gold than God alone; in Him it withstands all evil and wins an altogether different heart and courage from that of the world.”

It would seem that we need that unearthly courage more than ever before these days. Those who attended the conference were fortunate enough to see such courage in full bloom in Jack and Debi Phillips.

This reminds me of something. Do you remember the shooting incident at the outdoor concert in Las Vegas a few years ago? Such a horrific tragedy. A day or so after the ungodly event, I remember reading a news article about reporter interviewing a survivor of the incident who offered some startling words. The survivor said, “I arrived at the concert an agnostic. I’m leaving a believer.”

While I don’t know the fullness of what the person meant by that, I assume from the context that his agnostic beliefs (which is the belief that it’s impossible to know whether or not there is a God, and so the person neither claims faith nor disbelief) this man’s position changed to one that admits God is real. Whether he saw God at work through the people involved in the rescue and caring for others (Matthew 5), or he was willing to admit that only devilry could move a heart to such darkness, thereby inferring such evil must have an opponent, whichever it was, this man took a step toward recognizing this world is coming undone and it needs rescue.

Yesterday, Sunday, those of you who made it to church here at Our Savior, you heard the Good News of that rescue. We were blessed to have some visiting clergy. Reverend Rahn from the Lutheran Heritage Foundation, and Bishop Peter Anibati, the Bishop of the South Sudanese Lutheran Church, were both with us. Reverend Rahn preached the Gospel, and as he did, you met with and received from the One—Jesus Christ—who provides for the rescue of a world steeped in terror. Last week you heard me preach, quite literally, that on the cross, Christ gave Himself over—horrifyingly, grotesquely, vividly. He plunged into Death’s mouth, down its throat, and into its belly to be digested. From there, he was the poison that killed Death. And then He tore back up and out of Death’s corpse by way of His resurrection at Easter. You were told by way of the story of the Widow of Nain that never before has there ever been someone who could contend with the terrors of this world, namely Death, and win. And yet, the Gospel declares that the day has come, and the One who can do it is Jesus. The week before that, Pastor Zwonitzer delivered the same Good News of incredible power. Receiving a steady diet of this Gospel here at Our Savior, whether you realize it or not, you are being forearmed for meeting with a world that would seek to crush and utterly destroy you. You are being fed by His Word and Sacraments for the courage Luther described in the portion above. This supernatural food meets you where you are, and it instills the very message that supersedes the world’s hope and gives true Christian hope.

This is the same kind of hope many of you saw beaming brightly from Jack and his lovely wife, Debi—two of the humblest, and yet fiercest, heroes in American Christianity. Period.

My prayer for you, dearest Christian, is that even as you go about your day and week and are confronted by struggles—as you watch and listen to the newscasts, as you behold the sadness, the terror, the creeping hopelessness that seems to pall a Christian’s world day after day—my prayer is that you would first be calmed by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, which is a message not just of God’s existence, but one that actually displays and works His wonderful love revealed in Jesus Christ and His life, death, and resurrection. Sturdied by this, emboldened by this, made courageous by this and by this alone, go out into the world to be salt and light. Be the ones whom God will use to show a suffering world that He exists, He loves us, and He has reached out to us in our moment of greatest need. Be emitters of a Gospel that proclaims that on the cross, Jesus has already figured it all out, and with that, everything will be okay. And in the meantime, as a Christian family, take comfort in knowing we’re in this together. In Him, no matter the terrors that appear to consume this fallen world, we are and have been well cared for in and through the person and work of our rescuer, Jesus Christ.

Resolve

I can’t even begin to tell you how much stuff is happening around here. And then when I look at the calendar of events in which we as a congregation are active in our extended community with the chance to make a difference—multiple conferences, leadership meetings, legislative endeavors, you name it—the list pretty much doubles.

It’s opportune battlefront after opportune battlefront.

It’s exhilarating sometimes—and also very hopeful. But it’s also quite exhausting. The human geist that would take a deliberate step beyond thoughts and words into a field of deliberate action must demand of the body a certain diligence—a measure of understanding, resilience, and as the calendar is proving, stamina.

But there’s something else required.

Resolve.

In other words, before you jump into the trench and load the chamber of your weapon for these engagements, you must know why you’re there and what’s at stake. An unwavering commitment to going the distance to serve a cause born from your heart is essential. So many in history have pointed to the futility of a soldiery that fights without concern for or investment in an effort. In such circumstances, a committed soldier is worth a thousand uncommitted ones. It was John Keegan, the renowned military historian, who said, “Soldiers, when committed to a task, can’t compromise. It’s unrelenting devotion to the standards of duty and courage, absolute loyalty to others, not letting the task go until it’s been done.”

I said before that while the calendar seems to be an endless campaign of engagement, it’s all very hopeful. This is true because the Lord never fails to introduce me to people who exhibit the resolve I described. What’s even more impressive is that so many are entirely dismissive of being an all-star in the match. They’re not here for the Heisman Trophy. They’ve learned and practiced the fundamentals, and now they’re here to play the game and to play the game hard. They are seeing their loves—unborn children, Religious Liberty, Natural Law, Constitutional rights, you name it—all under assault from a formidable and equally committed enemy. They’ve suited up to take the field and to push the opposition back.

Again, they do this because they want to protect their loves, and they want to make sure that when the enemy approaches to attack, there will be no question as to their verve. As Homer said, they’re wise to resolve and patient to perform. The only giving up is in death, and in the meantime, the enemy will endure an unforgettable war—and perhaps even regret waging it.

I suppose in a more precise sense, I pray this same resolve for Christians when it comes to their concern for the Church, for faithfulness in worship and study, for the snatching away of the Christian faith from our children by the culture, for the unnerving dissolution of marriages and the fracturing of families, for the objective truth of God’s holy Word. I pray with the deepest concern that before we venture out to fight the hordes seeking to steal away our right to this or that, we’ll have already committed to the causes that feed the very reasons we’d be committed to these other efforts.

I mean, every life is valuable, and yet for argument’s sake—and from the Christian perspective—what good is there in being pro-life if you see very little value in taking your own children to church, being sure to introduce them to the One who can give them eternal life? What good is standing against the wealth-stealing pestilence of big government socialism when you can’t rightly govern your tithes and offerings to the Lord with the current freedom you possess? Or what good is there in fighting for traditional marriage when you yourself are living with your boyfriend or girlfriend outside of the holy estate’s boundaries?

Sort of disingenuous, don’t you think?

I do.

As Christians, let these kinds of things matter to you, especially before joining the regiments gearing up to defend the freedoms we hold dear as Americans. I guarantee you’ll have a better perspective on your loves while having a better grasp on the value of the freedoms in place to keep them secure.

Stop It In Its Tracks

Before leaving the church this past Sunday, I had a quick chat with one of the members that reminded me of a similar conversation I had with Jennifer a few days ago. She and I were sitting on the deck and recalling bygone days. We noted how parenting is so much harder now than it was when the kids were little. We laughed and affirmed for each other that we’d much rather lose sleep to a baby’s cries than sorting out the details of a much heavier situation with that same baby who is now a young adult.

Again, changing a diaper—even the messiest of the messy—is nothing compared to helping a child navigate the rough waters leading to adulthood. It’s far more terrifying when they get older.

And part of the problem in all of this is that what we do when they’re little affects the way they’ll operate as adults. Of course we shouldn’t feel as though we are to blame for every stupid decision they make, but our thumbprints are certainly noticeable on plenty. For example, if we swear a lot, odds are they’ll swear a lot, too. If we are always late to everything, chances are the kids will consider the hands of the clock to be just as irrelevant. Thinking on Evelyn for a moment…

She’s the most finicky among the kids when it comes to food. When she was little, we’d do whatever we could just to make sure she didn’t look like she belonged on a promotional poster for Orphan Grain Train. With that, we probably accommodated her more than we should’ve. Now she’s nine, and it remains that almost every meal is a struggle. We’ll be eating grilled cheese, and she’ll ask for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We’ll be eating hamburgers and she’ll request that the chef make her waffles. Just today we were eating hotdogs and she asked for one of the breakfast muffins instead.

A habit has been formed. She learned when she was young that she doesn’t necessarily need to eat what the rest of the family is eating. If she doesn’t like it, there’s a Pavlovian urge to just order up something different from the kitchen.

I suppose that because we didn’t help her transition into a better habit, we’ve had to change our ways with most of this stuff. I once described my new approach to the problem in an Angelsportion.com post. Honestly, it’s been incredibly successful. Here’s a snippet of my strategy:

——————–

I don’t know about you, but after four children, I had a portion of my guilt gland removed. It was an elective surgery. But I did it in order to embrace a very important verity. I’ve learned that to accomplish what needs accomplishing among the smaller versions of myself, a stale face and a plain tone sprinkled with a little bit of “horrible” is necessary. I can assure you that since the surgery, life has become considerably less maniacal.

“Eat your food.”

“I don’t like mashed potatoes.”

“I don’t care.”

“Can I have a bowl of cereal instead?”

“Nope.”

“But I don’t want this!”

“I don’t care. Eat it.”

“But I don’t like it!”

“Okay, how about this? I’m going to count to five. When I reach the number five, I’m going to put that food into you through one of the various holes on your body. Right now, you can choose to do it through your mouth. But sweetie, if I get to five, I’ll choose the hole. I don’t know which one it’ll be, just yet, but you need to know that’ll be the next stage of the meal and the end of this conversation.”

By the way, after a scene such as the one I’ve just described, you should know that the adults in the Thoma house now live five seconds at a time during meals. But in all honesty, it’s a small price to pay. And it really only took a few moments involving a spoonful of mashed potatoes and a child’s flared and angry nostril as a reasonable entry point to set the pace. The cereal-munching beasties are now convinced that my words, while non-aggressive, are by no means hollow.

“How do those mashed potatoes taste?” I ask with a kindly tone.

“I don’t know,” she replies in a huff, doing all she can to hold back tears of defeat. “They’re in my nose.”

“Well then, honey, how do they smell?”

———————–

All humor aside, it works the same way in so many facets of life. If we want our kids to make regular visits to the dentist as adults, we need to take them when they’re little. If we want them to care about their health, we need to take them to the doctor—even when they don’t want to go.

With that, you probably get where I’m going with this.

Don’t skip church. And if you have been skipping church, stop.

And now that you’re stopping, if your kids still live at home and they’re in the habit of skipping church, pitch to them the house rules and force them to go. Be sturdy in your Fourth Commandment duties and require it. Don’t give them options. Just go. I know it’s probably a trite argument (nevertheless, it rings true), but never would you have let them skip brushing their teeth or taking showers. As long as it depends on you, don’t let them jettison from their lives that which matters more than anything else in this life: faith in Christ and all that He puts in place to sustain that faith. When this is optional to us, we are more than framing everlasting life as optional for our kids.

That’s eternally deadly—and not just for our kids, but for our grandkids and great grandkids, as well. God warns that this will reach into the third and fourth generations. In other words, the habit reaches up and into the branches of the family tree yet to come. On the other hand, God promises countless blessings to thousands of generations who, by the power of His Holy Spirit, steer into the horizon of faithfulness.

And so, as much as it depends on you, do what you can to stop it in its tracks today. In fact, the forthcoming school year is a great point on the timeline for starting over—for beginning things anew. Again, you can be certain that God will bless your efforts. In fact, it’s been my experience that when children stray, the forthrightness of their parents to remain faithful has played a significant role in those same children knowing and then realizing the joy of returning to what they knew all along was better.

Of course, as always, if you need my help in any of this, just ask.