I Really Forgive You

Obviously, I’m still on vacation. And it’s been restful, for sure. Apart from a few excursions, the Thoma family’s goal has been just to be together. Although, my early-morning alone time has produced (as it always does) daily posts for Angelsportion.com. It’s been good to revisit the humorist hiding in my keyboard. Of course, knowing we’d be gathering with God’s people at Zion in Winter Garden this morning, I was thinking of you and hoping all was well back home among God’s faithful people at Our Savior.

You should know that having taken a gamble and visited with my email this morning, I was nudged by a thought that may be of some value to some of you, while for others, it may only be worth putting into your pocket for later. It has to do with forgiveness.

I’ve always thought that forgiveness costs the offended so much more than the offender, and by this, it will forever be an incredibly imbalanced exchange. Indeed, the one who bears the scars of attack must also be the one to rise from the pain to give a comforting word to a penitent enemy who, at the victim’s expense, may even have made personal gains by his dark deeds. But you must know that while we are promised plenty of challenging experiences in life, the sacred exchange of forgiveness between the offended and the offender is one of the few that truly tests the courage of both involved.

One must be brave enough to admit the behavior and its shame. The other must be courageous enough to let it pass by while facing off with the innate desire for retribution, which is to wrestle with one of the darkest parts of the human condition.

These being true, I’ll go further and say I’m not one to agree with those who’d wander the perimeter of this exchange repeating what pop-psychology teaches—which is that for peace of mind, the offended must come to terms with an unrepentant enemy by forgiving them in one’s heart.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think that’s a teaching of Christianity.

Real forgiveness does not move from one sphere to the other without the avenue of repentance. Even as it meets with our Lord’s work on the cross, He paid the full price that accomplishes absolute forgiveness for all of Mankind’s past, present, and future atrocities. Forgiveness is there. It is available. And yet, no one receives even an atom-sized drop of heaven’s storehouses of forgiveness apart from faith. Faith is born of the Gospel, and as it is birthed, its bearer’s eyes are opened to the inescapable dreadfulness of his sinful condition. From there, trust in the sacrifice of Christ as the only rescuer is engaged. The ultimate One offended—God—works this humble faith in the offender, and in that moment, the floodgates of forgiveness are opened, and the sinner is drowned in the mercies of His divine love.

An unrepentant offender remains divided from forgiveness. Apart from forgiveness, the truth is that nothing is reconciled and the two live in completely different spheres leading to vastly different consequences.

I know some might contend that texts like Luke 7:47 and Matthew 6:14-15 are clear cut examples of the Lord instructing us to forgive everyone no matter the circumstances. With regard to Luke 7, I’d argue that we ought to pay closer attention to the love the Lord describes in that particular verse before leaning on such a loose interpretation. With regard to Matthew 6, I’d suggest an important text that comes before it: Matthew 5:43-48. It’s there Jesus describes with precision how we are to relate to devoted enemies and persecutors. The word for forgiveness isn’t used, but rather the Lord calls for us to show them genuine love and to pray for them. Christ is pressing His Christians to deeds of kindness that will serve as markers leading others to the one true merciful God awaiting the lost with open arms. By the way, you may recall He already began describing this at the beginning of the sermon in Matthew 5:16. In a way, He’ll describe the glory of the whole thing later on in Luke’s Gospel when He tells the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:17-24).

And so, boiling all of this down to relationships in general…

Did your husband cheat on you? Has he recognized and admitted to his wrongdoing and returned to seek your forgiveness? No? Then I’m not so sure you can just declare him forgiven and move on. From a Christian perspective, how would that lead him to Christ? What would that teach the children?

Did someone tell a dreadful lie about you, one that has spread like wildfire and devastated your reputation among others you once considered friends? Again, has this person come clean with you, doing what she can to amend and repair the damage? No? Again, I’m not so sure you can blanketly offer her forgiveness. How would that display for her the deeper value of forgiveness to be had from God?

I know all of this may sound somewhat controversial, especially as it seems to leave one person in the relationship to suffer. But that’s not it at all. None of this is to say you must move on from such challenging circumstances completely devoid of inner peace. God has given a way for going forward. For one, He has promised to comfort and uphold you in times of trouble (Deuteronomy 31:8; Job 5:11; Psalm 27:1; Psalm 46:1; Matthew 5:4; John 16:33; 2 Corinthians 1:3). Even better, He has already drawn you to Himself by the forgiveness He has bestowed in your life, and by this, you can go from day to day with the knowledge that you are not at war with the One who matters most, but rather you exist at peace with Him (Romans 5:1-15). It’s there you can know that no matter the offending behavior of other human beings in this awful world, be it big or small, as much as it depends on you, you can speak and act in ways that have the potential for leading your persecutors toward genuine peace with God (Romans 12:18).

With that, I pray the Lord’s blessings for you this morning, namely that you’ll be richly upheld in penitent faith by His wonderfully abundant grace given through Word and Sacrament in holy worship.

Blind Leading the Blind

I was tidying up the sermon for this morning from John 3 when I ended up wandering through Matthew 15. This happened because I was wondering if perhaps Nicodemus was present during the event. Anyway, I’m curious what you think of the Lord’s words in verse 14, where He says, “Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” Jesus said these words in response to the disciples’ warning that the Pharisees were offended by His teaching.

Of course, while the Lord was always very precise with His words, He rarely minced them, either. Jesus had just shown how human piety can exist in a way that looks really nice—seemingly worthy of admiration—but in all actuality, be found horribly misaligned and apart from God. In this particular instance, Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees were knowingly breaking the Ten Commandments in order to maintain their self-aggrandizing, and yet eye-pleasing, manmade traditions. And why were they doing this? To keep themselves—their security, health, wealth, and so many other things—squarely at the control panel of their religion. Jesus made sure they knew that by deliberately nullifying even one of God’s commands, they were nullifying the entirety of God’s Word, and as a result, they were well-deserving of the stinging description Jesus recited from Isaiah, which He said was written specifically for them:

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” (Isaiah 29:13)

Thinking back to Jesus’ words to the disciples after this brief showdown, again, I’m curious, what do you think? Even better, if you could summarize his reply in one word, which would you use? On my part, I’d have a hard time choosing just one. Both ridiculous and foolish come to mind. A blind man leading another blind man is the embodiment of ridiculousness. A blind man willingly trusting another blind man to lead him is to dig past the topsoil of ridiculousness into the deeper layer of utter foolishness. It’s just not going to end well. In this case, there’s a reason Jesus chose the word “pit” as the terminus to such carelessness. It symbolized more than just an impairment relative to the eyes, but rather an all-consuming injury and gloom that would ultimately swallow the whole person. I’m guessing an attuned listener would know what Jesus meant by “pit.” He was referring to hell, and he was saying fools lead other fools right into it.

In short, it’s a really stupid idea to nullify God’s Word (even if only temporarily) for the sake of preserving and maintaining allegiance to the “self,” no matter what the reason may be. It’s one of the easier paths to hell. And if you knowingly follow someone headed along this path, Jesus can’t help but to call you ignorant. In contrast to this, and still traveling this embattled trajectory with the Pharisees well into chapter 16, we discover Jesus saying things like:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (vv.24-26)

These aren’t easy words to hear. The truth at their epicenter is even harder to admit, which is why the Pharisees were so offended by them. Jesus was preaching that the shadiest culprit in the work to divide us from God is often our own ridiculous self and its ties to this world. We’ll disregard His Word because we prefer the comfort of our opinions. We’ll legitimize any excuse to ignore His explicit directions. We’ll jettison His mandates because we favor leisure. We’ll set aside trusting His promises because, very simply, we’ve made promises to ourselves, and of course, we consider ourselves far more reliable.

The Pharisees proved the depths of their fidelity to “self” when they plotted and then carried through with the unlawful trial and execution of Jesus. They used the angle that He was a false teacher, blasphemer, and lawbreaker, even though they themselves were astounded by His wise handling of God’s Word. Nevertheless, He was disrupting their earthly authority. Without authority, they had no earthly security. To protect their self-interests, they were willing (even if only once, and with just this one man) to disregard God’s Word to keep from losing what they held dear.

“I know it’s wrong, but God won’t mind just this once.” Unfortunately, the “once” often becomes a habitual blindness existing apart from God’s Word.

I can think of countless examples in the Church where this applies. Deliberately withholding tithes and offerings is a common one. Actively participating in slanderous gossip is another. Electing to do the things that married people do, except to do them outside of marriage.

There’s another angle that comes to mind, one that meets with the thought of actively following people who lead apart from God’s Word. One way we disregard God’s Word and make excuses in favor of “self” is to choose political candidates who embrace platforms apart from what we believe as Christians. The blind lead the blind when we choose to elect men and women who are actively pushing abortion, the confusion of Natural Law under the guise of equality, radical ideologies that maintain an economy of oppressor groups (Critical Race Theory, Black Lives Matter, and the like), and so many other horribly skewed ideologies deliberately designed to spit in God’s face.

“I know God would not have me follow such a person, but I’m going to do it anyway.” Yikes. So, your preferences matter more than God’s? Good luck with that blind-leading-the-blind strategy. And by the way, there’s no such thing as luck.

It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said something about how there’s nothing in the world more dangerous than devoted ignorance and heartfelt stupidity. I’d say he was on to something there. To be led along unknowingly by falsehood is a tragedy. It’s a thousand times worse when, clinging to “self,” we do it deliberately while knowing the truth. The Bible speaks very clearly regarding the dangers of such heartfelt imprudence. Actually, God’s Word says such behavior actually negates a person’s salvation.

“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:26-30)

“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth…” That means we know better, and yet we act contrary anyway. That’s a sign of unrepentance and a full rejection of the need to amend the sinful life.

“…there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins…” That’s telling us we know Jesus was sacrificed for our transgressions, but we’d prefer to embrace our sins, anyway. That’s a bad idea. An unwillingness to repent and amend, even if we claim faith, cancels out the Lord’s sacrifice for us and we find ourselves apart from redemption.

That’s some heavy duty stuff right there. That’s God’s Word warning us about the forthcoming pit. By the way, those verses meet with Sin in general even though they’re given in relation to skipping church, the place where God promises to dole out His faith-strengthening Means of Grace that deliver forgiveness and produce a wisdom that knows better—a faith that has open eyes to see and avoid the pit.

Speaking frankly—and to bring this mental meandering to a conclusion—to willingly embrace the ignorance of “self” is not only dangerously stupid, but it’s an affront to the Lord’s crucifixion and death, which He accomplished in order to eradicate every human being’s sinful “self” that He would make us a new creation in Him (2 Corinthians 5:17). It’s an insult to Jesus’ resurrection, too. Thinking on the fact that countless churches still remain closed to in-person worship, that so many Christians remain apart from their congregations, it’s as if they’re existing in unconquerable fear, preferring to believe and live as though the last enemy, Death, still maintains looming control over us (1 Corinthians 15:26). It’s as if they’re choosing the terror that believes and lives as though the “strong man,” the devil, was not ousted by the “stronger man,” Jesus Christ (Luke 11:21-22).

Living in the “knowledge of the truth,” I’m not going to exist as though Sin, Death, and the devil hold sway over me. They don’t. I hope you won’t exist that way, either.

One last thing, since I’m thinking about it.

Something is approaching on the very near horizon that for years continues to prove itself far more potent for excuse-making than Covid-19 ever could.

Summer.

Don’t stay away from worship this summer. Don’t make excuses to skip it. Commit right now to wrestling the urge to vacation from Christ and His gifts. You need to be in worship. Your children need to be in worship, too. Don’t be tempted to “trample underfoot the Son of God” or “profane the blood” or “outrage the Spirit of grace.” Those things lead straight into pits. Instead, behold your Savior—the God of all creation who is ready and waiting with arms wide open, the One whose foremost desire is to love and forgive you, and then to send you back out into the world secured by His mercies and unafraid of the specters that would steer us toward the uncertainty of “self.”

God Will Let It Slide, Right?

I’m reminded of something my daughter, Evelyn, said to me on our way to the school this past Thursday morning.

Folks in Michigan will recall that Thursday was quite the sunny day. Even at 6:45am, which is when Evelyn and I set out for the day, the sun was already well above the horizon. Turning east out of our subdivision, the sun’s beams poured through the windshield, filling the car with its glory. It felt good—the warmth on my face in crisp distinction from the chill just outside my window. Even as it was somewhat blinding, before feeling the need to adjust the sun visor, its first stirring was that of happiness.

Surprisingly, Evelyn grumbled.

“I don’t like the sun in my eyes,” she said, scooting up in her seat and reaching to adjust her visor.

“I love it,” I replied, my visor still tucked neatly above the windshield. “It feels good.”

“I don’t,” she countered. “It’s too bright.”

“Well,” I added, “we probably shouldn’t complain about it, especially since we’ve been longing for days like this all winter.”

Evelyn didn’t respond, but I could tell she was reconsidering her position.

Certainly, I understood her frustration in the moment, especially since I was piloting the vehicle. For as much as I enjoyed the sun’s resplendence, I needed to be able to see, and the sun was making that a little more difficult. Still, the last thing I ever want to do is lie to myself, expressing any dismay at all for something I’ve been waiting more than a half-year of mornings to enjoy. In my eyes, or wherever, the sunshine was a welcomed guest to a long-suffered winter.

Tapping away at the keyboard while recalling this circumstance, I suppose there are plenty of lessons within it to be learned by it. Although, I can’t think of one in particular.

Okay, how about this…

Looking back at what I just wrote, the lesson that seems most prominent is the foolishness found in lying to oneself.

One of the worst things that anyone can do is to lie to his or herself. And it’s not necessarily the lie itself that holds all the danger, but rather the potential for becoming so convinced by your own deception that you willingly exchange truth for untruth. This reminds me of a video of Joe Biden from 2015 I watched this past week. It was a quasi-interesting twenty minutes of Joe sitting before a fawning reporter and cameraman and doing what Joe does, which is to wear a triangular smile while rambling incoherently. And yet, during the purgatory-like segment of softball-question nonsense, there was something Joe spoke about with relative unequivocalness. I ended up posting something about it on Facebook. Here’s what I wrote:

“I just watched a portion of a video of Joe Biden from September of 2015 in which he attempted to describe the authenticity of his Catholic faith. Barely a few minutes into his plastic words I had a thought. To be a liar is one thing. To be a sincere liar is something altogether worse. Or as Shakespeare mused through the character of Hamlet, ‘One may smile and smile, and be a villain.’”

The point behind this comment relates to ongoing news of several Roman Catholic bishops around the country and overseas pushing for Joe Biden to be excommunicated. They’re doing this because Joe claims that one can be a Catholic and be pro-choice—and not just the “safe but rare” kind that the Democrats proffered back in the 80s, but rather the kind that goes right over the cliff into believing abortion (in all of its grisly forms) is a gift from God, and even worse, that full-term abortion is something upon which God dotes with an similarly triangular smile.

Do you know what full-term abortion is? If you guessed a full-term newborn child being killed immediately after delivery, then you guessed rightly. The President of the United States—your president—believes such a thing is holy.

Of course, I expect the nominal Christians to come out of the shadows to say I’m misconstruing his position, that he only supports it in this or that special circumstance. These folks will say this because, well, they voted for him, and like him, they aren’t necessarily using the lens of God’s Word for discerning these things. Well, whatever. Use whichever intellectual dance moves you prefer for avoiding the visceral fact that the President of the United States has given a thumbs-up to doctors delivering and then murdering newborn children if in such a moment a mother decides she doesn’t want her child.

But let me take a brief step backward to where this started.

As a Christian, the only way to arrive at an acceptance of the pro-choice position, no matter the justification, is to lie to yourself about a great many things. It is to lie about what life is and means. It is to lie about life’s Author. It is to lie about what that Author said with regard to human dignity and the truest definition of personhood. It is to wield the Word of God in deceptive ways, and ultimately by such handling, to summarily reject it, whether the one wielding it realizes it or not. Lastly, it is to be caught in the dilemma that to reject the Word of God, by default, is to reject the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

You cannot stake a claim in Christianity and reject the Savior who sits at its heart. It just doesn’t work. Thankfully, there remain plenty of Bishops in the Roman Catholic Church who are willing to enforce this basic doctrinal premise.

I wrote and posted something else this past week that comes to mind, too. It had to do with an article from The Federalist entitled “Lockdown Mongers Can Point Fingers, But The Science Is In: They’re To Blame.” By the way, one of the two senior editors at The Federalist is a biblically astute LCMS Lutheran, Mollie Hemingway, whose father is a Confessional Lutheran pastor. I should add that The Federalist has several LCMS writers on its roster of contributors, and in my opinion, that alone makes it one of the few political/cultural news sources out there to be trusted. Anyway, here’s what I wrote when I posted the article:

“The devil has plenty of instruments in his bag, but deception is the glove he wears for wielding each one.”

Again, the point here was to say that there are plenty of tools in the devil’s toolbox for drawing us into Sin, things he uses for convincing us to believe and do the wrong things. But before he goes about his darkly deeds, his grip on each instance begins with deceptively enticing half-truths.

“Sure, I know it’s against God’s Word for me and my girlfriend to live together before marriage,” the young man says, “but it makes good financial and logistical sense to do so. I figure that as long as we have the intention of getting married, God will let this one slide.”

Don’t lie to yourself. Repent.

“It makes perfect sense that the churches are closed,” the husband and wife contemplate over Sunday morning coffee. “The science says that mass gatherings for worship are sure to be super spreaders of the virus. The Church can ‘love thy neighbor’ a lot better by masking up and staying home.”

Don’t lie to yourself. Repent.

“Certainly I’m justified in speaking poorly about that person to others,” she muses. “How could I be wrong in doing so? My friend hurt me, and I need the emotional support from other friends who understand. The only way to get the support is to tell others about what happened.”

Don’t lie to yourself. Repent.

To knowingly persist in such behaviors unrepentantly, having exchanged the truth of God’s Word for lies, won’t end well. Still, the devil will work to convince you that it will. He may even do it in ways that sound pious, kind of like Adlai Stevenson’s infamous words given in jest: “A lie is an abomination to the Lord, and a very present help in trouble.”

Again, I don’t want to lie about the sunshine and say I don’t like it. I love it, even when it’s uncomfortably shining in my eyes. It’s the same here. Don’t be fooled. Stick to the truth of God’s Word, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. No matter what happens, you’ll have the certainty of real truth. You’ll be traveling along the stepping stones of faith cut from God’s reliable quarry. Along the way, you’ll know and understand the gravity of your Sin—your very REAL Sin—and you’ll know the One who came to forgive you of that Sin, to recreate you by His wonderful love, and to send you out as someone capable of beaming the refreshing and face-warming sunlight of His love in a wintry world of Sin longing for the rescue of a divine summer.

Backroad Cemeteries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guilt

The season of Lent is a powerful time in the Church Year. Throughout its forty days, if there’s one thing in particular it draws out and defines with its penitential crispness, it’s the authenticity of human guilt.

Guilt is an incredibly palpable thing, isn’t it?

It’s thick. It’s strong. It’s voracious.

A terrible task-master, guilt binds its victims, keeping them in chains, all the while haunting every square inch of its chosen domain. As a pastor, I’ve learned to recognize guilt in people—and not because I exist in some sort of sphere of unimpeachable innocence, but because I know and have met my own dreadfulness of thoughts, words, and deeds. I am very familiar with guilt’s shape and stamina, and like you, I can be found wrestling with it, too.

As a pastor who is fully prepared to admit this, that means I’m a lot harder to fool when it comes to guilt.

It’s so often easy enough to see it peering back from its victim’s eyes like a shadowy knight in the watchtower of a guarded fortress. It can be sensed in a person’s physical presence. It disturbs human posture and is betrayed by facial expressions. On the phone or in person, its grip alters the human voice. By email or text message, it chooses certain words and repeats certain phrases that reveal its in-dwelling.

Guilt is by no means shy in these regards. It isn’t necessarily concerned by the possibility of its own notoriety. Admittedly, however, it would prefer to dwell in the peace of secrecy, hoping its host will deny its existence and thereby miss the telltale traces of its acidosis. This is true because it knows that to deny its presence is to preserve and protect the master that planted it—Sin. The denial of Sin’s guilt is the embracing of wickedness. It is to justify it, and to find the license for willfully employing it.

But again, for guilt’s host to be aware of its existence is just as acceptable, too. It quite enjoys its castle adorned in the paraments of hopelessness, fear, anxiety, and depression.

Whether it’s outright disavowal or fearful seclusion to avoid being found out, guilt is happy to live in the pitch black darkness of either. It will do anything to protect its domain, anything to smother the approaching lantern of Truth’s messenger, anything to prevent the invasion of a better, chain-shattering, Lord.

From purely a human perspective, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a great place for seeing the examination of these two natures of guilt. For example, Queen Gertrude says so frankly of strong denial, “The Lady doth protest too much, methinks” (III, ii). This is hinting that to so boldly defend one’s absolute incorruptibility—to make excuses for or justify one’s bad behavior—is itself evidence of self-deception in relation to guilt. Further into the play, Shakespeare takes aim at the futility of concealing guilt for fear of being found out, saying that eventually it “spills itself in fearing to be spilt” (Act 4, Scene V). In other words, the continued filling of guilt’s ever-swelling balloon can only last for so long before it bursts, ultimately spattering its gore across the landscape of a person’s life. Things will get messy. Little episodes will become big. Plans will come undone.

So, what to do?

There’s a reason Jesus said on occasion, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:15). He knows that the Word of God—namely, the proclamation of the Gospel—brings what’s needed for Sin. This cure is also, by God’s design, a medicine for the ousting of paralyzing guilt. The first pill in its prescribed regimen of truth is big and hard to swallow, and yet it delivers directly to our insides the very important knowledge-filled remedy that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

The course continues along in a way that moves from concern to sweetness, first urging us not to deny or be fearful of our guilt (1 John 1:8). Both are self-deceptions leading to eternal harm. Instead, we are invited to confess our truest selves and our failings, knowing that God is faithful and just, and He will wash the guilt away (1 John 1:9). His faithfulness is embodied by Jesus, who did not come to condemn us, but to save us (John 3:17). Through faith in Him, we have full access to the throne of God’s grace in every time of need (Hebrews 4:16), being certain that God will receive us—that He will not shame us in our guilt, but rather will help us by taking it away (Isaiah 50:7; Psalm 103:12).

This wonderful routing of guilt from the fortress of Man is on full display in the person and work of Jesus Christ—His cross and empty tomb. It’s there that we see our guilt being heaped upon His shoulders. It’s there that we see our fear and shame infused with His divine body. It’s there that our hope is born, and by faith in His sacrifice and victory, the gates of fault’s domain are kicked open and guilt is dragged to its eternal demise.

You don’t have to be afraid to say you’ve done wrong. God forgives. And by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in His people, offended Christians are prepared to forgive in return.

Let this Gospel be of comfort to you. Better yet, be empowered by it to put away the need to hide your guilt. And whatever you do, don’t deny its existence. Besides, God already knows it’s there, and He desires for us to own this truth, too. Even better, He doesn’t want to leave us in it. He would have us look to and know the One He sent for our rescue—Jesus Christ—and in Him discover the mettle for coming clean, for real repentance, for the real receiving of the mercy won for us on Calvary’s cross. It is by confession of Sin and faith in Christ that guilt’s shame is turned back on itself and made into nothing.

Lent is teaching us these things. Lent is leading us to Good Friday and Easter—those eternal moments on the mortal timeline that seal the deal on this wonderful news.

As Seen On TV

I went to Meijer in Hartland this past Friday, and while making my way to the hardware section to find a replacement bulb for the lamp on my desk, I overheard a rather animated child begging his mom with tantrum-like sounds to buy him a particular item he’d discovered on one of the end caps. I don’t know what the item was, but from his insistence, it sounded as though he might die if he didn’t own it.

I’m guessing it was some sort of fantastical device—like a teleporter—because at one point he called out something like, “I saw it on TV, and it’s the coolest thing ever!” Indeed, a teleportation device would be the coolest thing ever.

But whatever it was, I couldn’t help thinking I was experiencing the male version of Veruca Salt from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and that this child’s exuberance was likely triggered by commercial advertising. In a passing moment between mind-numbing segments of his favorite TV show, the emptier compartments of his developing cerebrum had been stirred to entrancement by the possibility of owning a product the TV had convinced him he needed for experiencing true joy. And here it was in all its glory, well within reach of his Wonka Bar-stained fingers.

But Mom said no, and then continued, “Now you know what to ask for from Santa for Christmas.”

The child’s response was by no means subdued. He wanted it, and he made sure everyone within earshot knew it. As for me, I grabbed the lightbulb I needed and walked away wondering how she plans on wrapping the kid’s gifts. I hear it’s challenging to wrap coal, not only because it’s lumpy, but because it’s so dirty. The dust alone prevents the tape from adhering to the paper as it should. Ask my kids. It’s always the easiest of their gifts to unwrap.

Anyway…

The funny thing is, for as much as any of us may have wanted to chastise little Veruca, none of us is immune to the psychology of advertising. It was Stephen Leacock (in my humble opinion, Canada’s version of Mark Twain) who said something about how advertising is pretty much the science of arresting human intelligence long enough to squeeze some money from it. If you think about it, he’s right. We all have items in our homes to prove those moments of arrested mindfulness—those things that demonstrate just how powerful the world can be for reaching into our lives to convince us that what it offers can be our all-in-all for joy.

But now, admit it. Many of those things the world sold you are now consigned to miscellaneous junk boxes littering the shelves of the basement storage closet.

Digging a little deeper into this, I get the sense that for many, impulse buys aren’t the only proof that the world has reached into our lives in this way. Far too many in our world appear to base the value of their lives on whether or not they get the new car or the new boat or the new furniture, or whether or not the kids have all the right fashions and all the latest tech. So many are living their lives and measuring their personal value according to the seemingly infinite (and yet false) promise of joy that the world labors tirelessly to attach to things.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently wrong with buying a new car, just as there’s nothing inherently wrong with your kids having nice things to wear. The problem emerges when these things become the sole source for our identity and happiness. When this occurs, the old saying becomes true: “God sends the meat, but the devil sends the cooks.” God is the giver of everything we have, but the devil has his ways of making us see and interpret these gifts according to very different standards. These things become less representative of the kindness and generosity of a God who loves us, and more about our deservedness or our supposed self-made successes.

Again, don’t get me wrong. God gives us our reason and our senses in order that we would use them to their fullest potential, and by them we should seek to do our best in all things. You certainly won’t accomplish anything unless you act. And odds are you won’t be successful unless your acting is born from genuine effort. In fact, I have a piece of paper taped to the bookshelf beside my desk that heralds this very point in its extreme. It bears a quotation from Calvin Coolidge, and admittedly, much of what I do in life is in subscription to the basic premise of his words. Maybe I’ve shared it with you before. The quotation reads:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

To be clear, Coolidge used the term “omnipotent” in a hyperbolic sense. What he meant in context is that when it comes solely to man’s capacity, persistence is where the bulk of our muscle is to be located. And as I said, I wholeheartedly agree with him. Still, as Christians, we know and do all of this acknowledging the One who is the giver of both the tangibles as well as the intangibles. We rest in the mindfulness that all we have is from God, and no matter how hard we may work to get it, He was the one who gave us everything required to do it, even the drive. In the end, the source of our joy, even as it may be interwoven with certain things or abilities, is always located in Him alone.

And so, it is to Him we are thankful at all times and in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

But deeper still, this has me pondering something else.

As we’ve already established, everything that we are and everything that we have is from God. The Word of God declares this (Romans 11:36). But as we examine that same Word and we find ourselves getting into the grittiest, most molecular details, we realize that of ourselves the only thing we ever really bring to the table in any circumstance is the Sin-nature (Psalm 51:5; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 3:10). That’s not so great. And yet, far too often it’s the Sin-nature at the steering wheel when it comes to the handling of God’s gifts to us—namely, what we give back to Him in thanksgiving. In other words, we often find ourselves giving back to God the pittance that remains from everything else we first gave to the devil, the world, and ourselves. That’s not so great, either.

I know I may be a little ahead of myself, but for those of you who know me, you’ll know I’m the kind of guy who finds value in making New Year’s resolutions. As I’ve written in other places, resolutions for personal betterment are by no means a bad thing. In fact, I commend all willing to try. Even Saint Paul encouraged Christians to practice reaching higher in their Godliness (Colossians 3:1-4). The New Year is on the very near horizon (thankfully), and with that, I’m already making plans to reach higher. One of the things I intend to do (which I do pretty much every year) is to re-evaluate my stewardship. I want to get better at it. I want to be more mindful.

I don’t know where you fit into this discussion, but I’m pretty sure that all of us could reach higher in this regard, too. As a pastor, I certainly know some long-term, impactful ways for giving back to God in thankfulness for His loving kindness. They’re not necessarily things you’ll find on an end cap at Meijer, and yet they’re the coolest things ever. I say this because they will provide greatly when it comes to securing the Church’s borders in a time of increasing persecution, while at the same time they’ll serve to extend the Gospel to that same persecuting world in desperate need of hearing the Good News. I’m here to tell you I’ll be taking aim at and ramping up my efforts to support those kinds of efforts here at Our Savior in 2021. Maybe you could think about doing so, too.

The Art of Isolation

In barely a handful of days Thanksgiving will arrive, and then just beyond that, Advent. I don’t know about you, but these two moments on the calendar—seemingly so far flung from summer—seem to have arrived much more swiftly than I expected. I know why this is true. The more occupied one is, the more time carries along with a swifter pace.

Indeed, while Covid-19 may have closed so many of the typical avenues around us for living life, the pace for some hasn’t lessened. I know I’ve shared before that even the simplest of routines has become more complicated. This means more work, not less. Getting from point A to point B isn’t a straight shot anymore. It takes far more maneuvering, and as such, can make a few hours feel like a few minutes.

Some might argue that during a time when so many are isolated, a busier pace would be helpful for keeping the mind fit. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I suppose it makes sense, as long as whatever one is doing doesn’t lend itself toward frustration. I’m a big believer in having things to do—that the busier one remains with this or that project, the less of a negative impact isolation itself will have. It was J. W. von Goethe who said that enduring isolation is an art. I tend to agree. I believe times of isolation can either be harmful or beneficial. They can be occasions of fateful loneliness or uplifting solitude.

I got to thinking on this out loud yesterday during the adult Bible study. I shared with the group that when I think on what it means to be lonely, my conceptualization is to wonder just how many isolated, unseen things or moments of incredible splendor have occurred around the world throughout history. For example, yesterday I suggested that maybe the most beautiful rose that has ever existed in this world has already sprouted and blossomed in total seclusion somewhere deep in a forest and no one was there to see it. The flower was near-perfect in every way, and would have been of joyful benefit to anyone who looked upon it. But it grew, bloomed, withered, and died in total seclusion. That’s an image of loneliness. Or perhaps the most stunning diamond ever formed is right now resting somewhere deep in the earth where no one will ever reach it. It’s there. Its clarity is beyond compare. Its untapped ability for capturing and then dispersing light in countless directions is unmatchable. But it will remain isolated—unmined and unpolished—priceless, and yet existing as though it has no value at all. That’s loneliness, too.

I see loneliness in relation to value. To be lonely is to have so much value, and yet to be without the opportunity to emit that value to the benefit of anyone else.

You have value. And I do, too. God tells us this (Matthew 6:26; Romans 5:8; Psalm 139:13-16; John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:17; and so many more!). Still, when we’re locked away from others in ways that prevent us from participating in the exchange and benefits of human value established by God’s grace—the giving and receiving that occurs between real people—we can become fixed in darker places and the time becomes more burdensome. It becomes lonely.

And so where am I going with this? I guess part of what I’m trying to say this morning is that if you must be isolated, first, know you are valuable, and second, keep busy emitting that value in ways that embrace the alone time as less loneliness and more contemplative, sabbatical-like solitude. Yes, solitude is different. Like loneliness, one doesn’t go into solitude expecting others to be there. The person knows and expects the silence. But in the quiet of solitude, there’s activity occurring, and there’s the expectancy that the silence won’t prevent its occupant from coming out on the other side with something to show. Solitude is a time of discovery. It is an opportunity to go off unaccompanied in order to seek out the rose, or to dig up the diamond, and bring these things back to a world that can benefit from their value. And I suppose this is where the Christian perspective is key.

Christians already know they’re not alone, so any form of alone time is somewhat illusionary. Christ is always with us, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). This means we can endure, and maybe even embrace, the alone times. For one, through faith in Christ, alone times become unfettered moments with the One who never leaves nor forsakes us. In this, we can find ourselves aimed toward a richer devotional life. We can study the Word of God, pray, and God willing, see the fruits of such solitude becoming activities designed to emit to others what we’ve learned or received. How do we do this? I can tell you how I’m doing it. Well, this Monday morning eNews is one way. I do what I can each Monday morning to think through and share something of value for you. Besides this, I’m using my isolated times to write and send cards to people. I’m making phone calls. I’m visiting where I can, and I’m receiving visitors who need to chat. I’m using whatever particular gifts God has given me for mining the diamonds and picking the flowers from the quiet so that others, too, can experience their splendor with me.

You can do this, too. You know your value, and you know the gifts God has given you. Be creative. By God’s grace, you can live as one in solitude who’s laboring to find and share treasures with others—which, I’m guessing, will help lift them from loneliness.

Of course, call me if you need help figuring out how to navigate this or coming with ideas. I’m only a phone call away and I’m brimming with ideas.

Tearing Down the Tower of Self-Interest

We’ve experienced a handful of very busy weeks here at Our Savior. And while I’ll admit they have unquestionably resulted in accomplishments about which we can all smile with Godly pride, the labor leading up to them is still being felt. We’re all pretty tired. It takes a lot of work to pull together three major events—an all-day conference of national newsmakers, a banquet with the same, and a debate between two tier-one thinkers—all in a single weekend. But by God’s grace, we did it.

Along the way, I joked multiple times with Georgine, the office administrator and right hand in all things around here, that if we actually live through what we’re trying to do, then little else would be impossible for this congregation to achieve. Although, each time I said those words, I immediately recanted by saying we ought not for one second be partners in thought, word, or deed with the architects of the Tower of Babel, believing that we can somehow be and do whatever we determine apart from God’s holy will. This is God’s work. All of it. We’re tools in His hands. When it becomes about our own achievements, we will be toppled and dispersed. And deservingly so.

There’s an important image revealed by this conversation. It tells of the tragic conflict of loyalties in the human heart, and you’d be fooling yourself if you think it’s not there. In fact, I’ve witnessed it a handful of times here at Our Savior even within the last few weeks alone—people upset with one another over some pretty trivial things, and then by way of that anger, falling prey to the human tendency to be loyal to the self rather than God.

In the midst of this, a tower is discovered, one built by self-interest, even though as Christians, all of us should already know the Bible teaches that God targets such edifices for destruction.

I blame much of the current contention on the seeds of fear that COVID-19 and its many disciples continue to sow in our world. It certainly has been a handy instrument in the devil’s symphony of dread. Even in Christian communities, the people are on edge, and with that, the slightest discomforting nudge appears to be all that’s required for sending a person to one side or another of any innocuous issue, ultimately seeing them careening into combat with another human being who’s trying just as hard as the first to endure.

So what do we do?

Well, I suppose the first thing we need to do is to thank God that by His holy Law, He has not hidden our propensities from us. We can know to confess our intimate roles in the fellowship of human wickedness. We can enter into every situation knowing we are by no means innocent of the worldwide curse of Sin. And then, even as we confess our innate dreadfulness, as Christians, we do it cognizant that the Lord has already reached to us by the Gospel to make us into someone new. That’s how we were able to confess our sinfulness in the first place, because we understand the contention between our inner loyalties much better now than before faith. We know the grappling of the sinner/saint relationship. And so Saint Paul makes sense when he urges us by the power of the Holy Spirit in faith to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).

The second thing we can do is to realize the richness of such a good Word of God. In particular, we can walk away from it admitting that human vanity—loyalty to the old self—can play some pretty serious tricks on how we interpret (or even remember) situations in which we found ourselves in conflict with others. Admit it. During the time of reflection that immediately follows conflict, after the dust has settled and you’ve stormed off, often it is you’ll discover that the only way to comfort yourself is with egoistic self-coddling—by reminding yourself over and over again that you’re the good guy, that you’re not trying to cause problems, that in all circumstances you are the victim and the other person is the real offender. One of my favorite poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, spoke to this when he wrote, “And the devil did grin, for his darling sin, is pride that apes humility” (The Devil’s Thoughts, 1799).

In the situations I’m describing, this goes nowhere. Well, actually, let me rephrase that. It does go somewhere. It adds unsteady blocks to self’s flimsy tower, building upward, higher and higher, until God comes along and topples it. And He warns us that He’s aiming to do this: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18), and “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled…” (Matthew 23:12). Sometimes, because we know ourselves to be sinners, this word of warning resonates and we’re able to get out of the building, sparing the relationships we’ve jeopardized and salvaging our reputations, all before it crashes to the ground. But it’s also not beyond us sometimes to let our allegiance remain with what we’ve built, and then we discover we’re still inside the structure when it falls. In those circumstances, human relationships and standings are shredded by the tumbling debris, and there is nothing but devastation to be had.

But it’s our own fault. We knew better. We knew to put on the new self and work to fix the problem, knowing that God had already promised to bless our efforts toward faithfulness (Luke 11:28). And what were we arguing about anyway? Did it have anything to do with Christological things? Doctrinal things? Life and death things? Heaven and hell things? No? Then that’s even more concerning. If you’re balancing the stability of your place in the Christian community and throwing relationships into the trash because you prefer purple carpeting in the fellowship hall while your opponent prefers green, then you have a serious personality problem. Even worse, if now no matter what that opponent says or does, he can only irritate you and you begrudgingly despise him every time you see him, then you have a serious personality problem. You’re the kind of person who can harbor hatred. That kind of person beholds commandments four through ten—all the ones that steer us toward loving our neighbor—as lining up to be broken. You only need the opportunities to present themselves.

That’s not putting on the new self. That’s dressing up the old self and going out for a night on the town.

But again, what do we do?

Well, the answer remains the same. Repent and receive the Lord’s world-altering forgiveness. From there, know that a Christian will now be found operating very differently in the world around him.

There’s another important piece to what Saint Paul wrote in the text I mentioned from Ephesians 4. He wrote:

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (vv.26-27).

In other words, no matter what is at the heart of the conflict between two Christians, don’t slow-boil yourself in anger by refusing to sort things out. That’s another sign that you might be holed up in your wobbly tower. Get to work solving it. The longer you wait, the easier it is for the devil to stir your vanity and make you comfortable in your insubstantial pride.

And by the way, Ephesians 4:26-27 is not a difficult bit of Scripture to understand. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the easier ones in holy writ to grasp.

I suppose lastly, recognize that every Christian community is comprised of multiple personalities. God makes it that way for a reason. He places some among us who are more patient than others. Some are more imposing than others. Some are meant to be helpers, others are destined to be leaders. But no matter who’s laboring side by side, when all are firing in time as people of faith serving toward the same goal of being in alignment with God’s will, then all will be bearing their proper place in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), and the only tower to be toppled will be the one the devil is trying to build in the middle of it all. In that beautiful scene, God will be found continually tearing down that demonic rascal’s houses. And if we’re going to be wearing our hard hats and laboring in a demolition zone, then that’s the one we want to be in.

The Feast of All Saints – Go To Church

“Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say” (1 Corinthians 10:14).

Saint Paul wrote those words to the Corinthian church just as he was about to begin explaining the doctrine of Altar Fellowship, which when you really get down to the nuts and bolts of it, is all about the significance of what is happening in Holy Worship, namely, the Lord’s Supper.

This comes to mind this morning because, well, Paul’s words just felt right. They form a very short statement, easily understood by any and every Christian taking time to read this note.

If you haven’t been to church in a while, there’s a Sunday on the horizon I’d like to encourage you to consider aiming for as your return date.

A few Sundays from now—November 1—the Holy Christian Church will be celebrating All Saints’ Day. If you have plans to be somewhere else—or to do something else—might I encourage you to reconsider your plans? This time, instead of arranging your schedule to accommodate moments that will only get in the way of worship—which is to be idolatrous—consider arranging your schedule to accommodate the forgiveness of sins delivered by Christ in the sure and certain location He has promised to give it: Word and Sacrament made available in holy worship. Skip those things that would get in the way of pursuing that which gives to you all that Christ has won by virtue of His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

In fact, I challenge you that if you have been away for a while, make All Saints Sunday the day you return.

To accept this challenge, you’ll need to take a quick look in the mirror and recognize that you need to be there. You need to be there, firstly, because of the idolatrous tendencies you possess. We all possess them, and they’re evidenced by our creative excuse-making and subsequent absences. But secondly, know you need to be there because, by virtue of your Baptism into the fellowship of Saints, you actually belong there. It’s God’s home, and because you are a part of His family by faith, it’s your home, too. It’s where your real family lives, and you belong with your family.

Rest assured, if you’ve been away for a while, and because of this, you feel a little uneasy in returning, you won’t be alone in the uneasiness when you do finally reemerge. In fact, think of it this way. In the Confession at the beginning of the Divine Service, every Christian in the room, if they know what the Confession is all about, will drop to his or her knees alongside all the others. Together they’ll bow their heads. They’ll close their eyes. They’ll confess together that everyone in the room, by their thoughts, words, and deeds, are members of the fellowship of sinful humanity; by the things they’ve done and the things they’ve left undone. They’ll confess this together. And again, being a sinner myself, I can assure you that when we all go to our knees in this way, we’ll all have good reasons to do so. All will have plenty of causes for feeling the uneasy need to participate.

You won’t be alone. You won’t stand out. You won’t be different.

But there’s something else you should know.

After the sea of penitent voices speaking in solemn sadness goes quiet, you will hear a single voice—your pastor’s voice—and it will be for you as the Lord’s own voice announcing you need not fear. You need not be uneasy. You need not be afraid. Through repentance and faith in His merciful love, you belong with Him, and He will not push you away, but rather will embrace you as His own—because you are His own. He loves you, forgives you, and He stands ready to lift you to your feet by His absolving Word.

And He’ll do just that.

On All Saints’ Day, at least if you’re in a Lutheran Church of any substance, when you rise to your feet, you’ll acknowledge your place among all the other forgiven sinners in the room by singing the Introit appointed for the day, which is a combination of Revelation 7 and Psalm 31: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me.”

Sing those words with confidence. You own them as a forgiven child of God.

So, my brother or sister in Christ, hear this Gospel imperative to repent and believe in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and be moved to return. Be moved to come and get from your loving Savior what He has won for you—which is also the only thing that will sustain you in a world seeking to impose itself upon you and convince you to stay away in the first place.

Remember, in faith, you are the Lord’s saint. Aim for your special day with an eager heart. Make your way back. Join with your Christian family. Be with your Redeemer, the One who has made it possible for you to be called His holy one.

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.