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.

Good Luck With That

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck with that, tough guy.

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

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

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.