Twenty Go In, Nineteen Leave

I want to start off by repeating what I’ve said in a few places already, which is that I am so thankful to all who stepped up to help with Pastor Heckert’s funeral this past Saturday. I know that many of you know exactly what I mean when I say that it’s sometimes hard enough to actively serve when you feel a little more like you belong in the pews alongside everyone else in the church family receiving the ministering of the Gospel. It’s a strange dynamic, and yet your diligence to see to the care of Ilona, Paula, Mark, Stephen, and all of the Heckert family illuminated the event with the love of Christ in ways that I’ll forever struggle to describe with words that do justice.

Your faithful deeds—offshoots of the Holy Spirit alive within you by the Gospel—were pleasing to the Lord, and neither I nor the Heckerts will ever forget them.

And so now, as we go forward knowing that God will bring to us comfort and peace…

Even though it’s often very hard to see in the midst of what equally seems to be a swirling tempest of worldly reason, I know by faith that this is true. I know as Job knew that even as my flesh will return to the dust, I will stand before the Lord and see Him with my own eyes. I, you, all of us will rise again in the flesh and we will be together in the glories of heaven for all eternity.

Let me put this into the perspective I had just before I left for the cemetery on Saturday.

After the luncheon, I made my way back to the church where I put some things away and then made some preparations for the Sunday morning Divine Service. Knowing I had about five minutes before I needed to leave to get to the cemetery on time, I sat down and rendered some thoughts on Facebook. Here’s what I wrote.

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We’ll be leaving in a few moments to put into the bosom of the earth the mortal remains of our dear friend and pastor, Jakob K. Heckert. The words of the Creed regarding our Savior, Jesus, ring in our ears: “…was crucified, died, and was buried.”

Buried. Considering the events of Death, the stinger at the tip of this word carries a very unique venom.

Of course Jakob is in heaven, but in a very human sense, until the cemetery he was with us. There he was in his bed at home. There he was in the casket at the funeral home. There he was in the casket in the narthex. Even though the lid was closed, there he was beneath it and under the pall during the Divine Service. There he was in the back of the coach. There he was for any of us at any moment to reach out and touch.

There he was.

But now twenty of us will enter the cemetery and only nineteen will leave. We will be less one person, one friend.

In such a moment, the words from the Creed just beyond those describing the Lord’s victorious death and consequent burial are so desperately needed: “He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead.”

Resurrection. Think on this.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. “He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.” Twenty believers enter the cemetery sturdied by the Gospel for faith. Twenty believers traverse a muddy landscape pocked with headstones, and they go knowing that even if any or all must remain behind, all twenty will rise again.

That’s the anti-venom of promise given in the moment that disarms the sting.

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These words are a reflection of the wrestling between the sinner and the saint—the sinner seeing a somber gathering of people in a place full of dead bodies; the saint seeing that which the Holy Spirit has worked in believers, which is full trust in the promise—and eventual reality—of the resurrection of all flesh as it has been won by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior.

With that, there’s a reason we say the Christian creeds each and every Sunday. The words of such a Gospel confession are important enough that they must be ever at the edge of our hearts and minds, as well as resting at the tip of our tongues. We need a clear confession of the Christian faith when the fog of reason is threatening to overcome us.

It sure did threaten me on Saturday. But I’m confident that the Holy Spirit worked within me trust in the promise to know that even in such moments, Christ holds onto me with both hands, and He will never leave nor forsake me. He intends that I would look upon Death—the formidable foe that it is—and see a toothless, clawless, and defeated specter; one that has no hold on me. And if this is true, then the graves of the faithful are little more than beds in the earth that keep our remains until our God says the word, the angels move into place, the trumpet sounds, and the souls of God’s people in heaven are reunited to their resurrected bodies—now perfected—and we are ushered before the throne in the flesh.

That’s the endpoint for the buried body of a Christian—eternity in heaven, and not the ground.

I pray this same comfort and knowledge for you. It certainly is yours as much as it is mine.

In the meantime, call me if you need me—if you are struggling, need help with some tougher questions, or just want to talk to someone who will listen as God’s servant and respond with His voice. These are some of the many reasons I’m here, and second to the preaching and teaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments, they are some of the most important.

In that Hour, Pray

A happy New Year to you and blessings!

So, did you make any resolutions for the New Year? I did, and by God’s grace, I hope to keep them. Making changes in life, especially when it feels like the changes go against the basic grains of one’s character, is really hard. Even the Lord acknowledged this to the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane when He said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” and so in that same instance, the Lord urges us to pray for the strength of spirit to overcome the desires of the flesh.

Prayer.

How often do you pray? And I’m not so sure the slip-up on the icy patch of freeway where you repeated His name over and over again actually counts. Although, I wasn’t there, so I don’t know for sure. Either way, the question still stands: How often do you pray?

I can say that I pray relatively often. You should expect that of your pastor, to be sure. I’ll add that I’ve been praying a lot more than usual these days, especially at the bedside of people living through special circumstances that call for the prayers of others. Pastor Jakob Heckert is one of those people. I pray there with him often. Almost daily, in fact.

But before I share more about that, let me get back to my original question one more time. How often do you pray? I hope it’s an everyday thing for you—or at least that it’s often. If you don’t, I don’t mean to make you feel guilty about it, however, I sure would suggest that you’re missing out on the opportunity to participate in the wonderfully free gift of speaking to the One who, as Isaiah said, made the entire cosmos, the One who made the stars and calls them all by name. The Creator of the world loves you, and He has opened Himself up to us in Jesus Christ in a way that allows us complete and total access to His throne of grace with any and all request. And ultimately, this has no lesser result than that He hears us, and He responds to the petition with that which will serve for our eternal life in Jesus.

For those of you who do pray fairly regularly, I’ll bet you have those times and places where it happens the most. For all others, I would suggest the same. Think on a place where you find yourself almost every day—whether it is in the car driving to work, before meals or bedtime, or any other time or place that you can think of—and make it a priority to speak with your God. If you don’t know what to say, grab a Lutheran Service Book and open up to page 305 (“Prayers, Intercessions, and Thanksgivings”). There are plenty of prayers from which to choose. Or you could pray the best prayer that was ever written: The Lord’s Prayer. Christ gave us that prayer for a reason, in one sense, because it is both centrifugal and centripetal in nature, that is it concerns itself with others around us while at the same time speaking to each and every concern that meets ourselves—and that’s pretty great, I think.

And while I’m on the subject, if you need help with devotional materials, let me know. I’m sure I could send you in the right direction for acquiring some good spiritual resources. Perhaps that could be your New Year’s resolution.

Anyway, I just got back from Pastor Heckert’s home a few minutes ago, and you should know that the end of his earthly journey is not far away. Still, even though his eyes have grown much dimmer and he struggles to speak, his line of sight to Christ is unhindered and his voice is confident. His last words to me today before he fell asleep were, first, that he loved me. I, of course, told him I loved him, too, because I do. It will be very hard to say goodbye when the hour comes. But then he said rather softly that he has no doubt, that he has certainty in the face of death. Then he went on to confess his faith several times—almost creedally, so—saying over and over that he believed in the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and that he believed that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation. And then he asked me to help him pray to this same God who loves him and was listening to his words. And so I did. We prayed several Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, I prayed several spontaneous prayers, and then it was Pastor Heckert who sort of brought it to a conclusion, and I think because he was having difficulty staying awake. Essentially, he said that he knew that he had lived, that he would die, but that in Christ he would never die. He said one more time that he has no doubts.

And then he fell asleep.

Imagine if God was closed off to us in such an hour.

But he isn’t. Go to Him. Speak to Him often. Even better, be present in worship where He gives the gifts of His forgiveness for the strengthening of a faith that knows without a doubt that His love is preserving and He will never let you go—not even at the hour of death. Don’t starve yourself of such confidence. Don’t neglect the right you’ve been given to approach God—to call Him “Father” and to know that you are His dear child.

Pray. He is listening. As His baptized child, you will always be someone for whom He has a care.

This Is Really Not Cool

What a joy it was to receive the proclamation of the Gospel from Pastor Heckert yesterday, even by way of the video. I hope that all in attendance were able to hear it well, and that they were edified by the love of Christ proclaimed through Pastor Heckert to the body of believers.

I’ll admit that I was concerned as to how well the sound would work in a room full of people. Even though I’d already spent a lot of time working with the audio stream in the video, I just didn’t feel comfortable with it. And then the unthinkable…

When I arrived at the church yesterday morning—right around 6:15 a.m.—I went into the nave and did one more test drive of the sermon in order to adjust the TV’s equalizer even if only a little more and I discovered that the video file wasn’t working as before. Somehow the file on the thumb drive that I had plugged into the Blu-ray player had become corrupted, and so the image was jittery and the audio was the same. I don’t know what happened, but it was what it was.

Needless to say, I started to sweat because while my video camera is pretty decent—recording in HD—it’s no small thing to convert the HD MTS video files it creates into MPEG-2 files we can watch on a DVD or Blu-ray player—which is the technology I was working with. Not to mention I would need to boost the audio and do some processing to remove a strange hissing sound that came out in the recording while we were at Pastor Heckert’s house. With the acoustics of our church, the hissing sound made the video almost unwatchable.

But there is a lesson to be learned in all of this.

Even as I started to worry, I knew I’d need to get in gear and start the whole process all over again. And so I prayed. It was a short prayer, one I said as I jogged back to my office. I think it went something like this: “Heavenly Father, this is really not cool. You’re gonna need to intervene here—big time—because I can only make my computer process at certain speeds and I don’t have much time. I’m in a mess. Help. Please. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

With that, I got to work on it right away, and after about an hour and a half, I had a video that, in my opinion, was far better than the first. Imagine that. In other words, what had unfolded as a nightmarish scenario, God used for good, and from it I believe a better, more easily viewed/heard sermon video was produced.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).

You know, Saint Paul’s words above apply to more than just last-minute crunches like the one I described. These words, inspired by the Holy Spirit, cut to the heart of who we are in the midst of a fallen world. There’s plenty out there to cause us worry—sickness, messy finances, broken relationships, you name it—but God has given us a promise that He will hear our prayers, and He will act according to His good and gracious will, all of which leads to our salvation. That’s what Paul means here. In the midst of a cold world, God’s holy will for our eternal future will produce a peace like a super-heated fire burning in the furnace of our souls. It will warm us to the knowledge of His ever-present love—to the knowledge that He will always have a care for us. And what is that peace? It is the peace proclaimed by the angels to the shepherds in Bethlehem—peace between God and man, peace located in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.

My prayer to God for you this day is that no matter the challenges you may be facing—big or small—trust your Savior. Pray to Him. He loves you, and He love to listen to you. And whatever He does to help, just know that it will be worked for your good according to His will. That’s a peaceful thought. Actually, it’s more than a thought. It’s a powerful knowledge and reality worked by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel message. Hear it often. Receive it with joy, knowing that you mean so much to your God.

Behold and See

The Lord is with you this day! And a blessed Reformation Day to you!

I just returned from a visit with Pastor Heckert, and as always, it was a time of togetherness and refreshment in Christ. Of the many things we talked about, one was with regard to the Epistle reading for this Sunday from 1 John 3:1-3, the first verse in particular, which is: “See what kind of love the Father as given us, that we should be called children of God…”

In the original Greek text, the first word in the sentence is Ἴδετε, which is typically translated as “see.” Sometimes people will even translate it as “behold,” although there’s another word better translated as “behold,” and that’s ἰδοὺ. In particular, ἰδοὺ is used when something extraordinary is happening—like an angel is delivering a message, or the Holy Spirit is descending on Christ at His Baptism. It is an emphatic word calling attention to detail or a particular idea. Another way to put it is that it is the “Wow, would you look at that!” of the first century.

But in 1 John 3:1, while the Apostle could have chosen to use ἰδοὺ, he doesn’t. It certainly would have been appropriate in the sense that being called a child of God is an amazingly incredible thing. But again, instead, he chose Ἴδετε, a much simpler form which means to see something and understand—to comprehend its significance.

Pastor Heckert and I talked about this, and we came to the realization that Ἴδετε works well because the fuller context of the reading is specifically situated in Jesus Christ. In other words, certainly we can marvel that we are God’s children, but more importantly, we are to know and understand that the greatness of God’s love—and therefore our role and title and His children—is seen and understood completely in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the One who died and rose again to win for us this blessed reality. The word ἰδοὺ (Wow, look at that!) insinuates something you don’t want to miss, but Ἴδετε speaks to understanding what’s at the heart of what is before you. In this case, it is the divine love of God displayed in Jesus on the cross for sinful humanity. Yes, even while we were God’s enemies, He gave of Himself for our rescue. We see and understand this when we, by faith, look to His Son, Jesus.

Pretty great stuff.

And so, with that, look to the Son of God. See in Him God’s undeserved kindness toward you. Looking upon the cross, know and understand the price for Sin, but more importantly, look there to know and understand what Saint John calls “ποταπὴν ἀγάπην”—the sort of love (“agape” – the perfect love that only God can have)—that is located in Jesus Christ.

Looking there, the Christian is never left to wonder as to God’s intentions for humanity. In Jesus, the message is crystal clear.

My Heart Breaks to Tell You This

My heart breaks to tell you this.

A little while ago this evening, I spoke with Paula, Pastor Heckert’s daughter. She participated in a conference call earlier this tonight with Pastor Heckert, her mom, her brothers, and the oncologists. The cancer is spreading rapidly and is bearing down aggressively—so aggressively, in fact, that they’re fearing the end of the fight may be much closer than previously determined. In the doctors’ words, our dear friend and pastor is looking at about three to six weeks of mortal life.

Overall, Pastor Heckert has experienced little pain. I believe this to be a blessing of the Lord in that it has allowed him to continue to preach the Gospel—his life and love as a man of God. However, the newest cancer in his shoulder is causing painful trouble, and I know from the trip he took to the ER last week that the new cancer in his hip is, too. It was recommended that he receive radiation to help relieve the pain in his shoulder. Nevertheless, the oncologists have given very little room for thinking that there is anything else that can be done, and with that, they’ve recommended hospice.

I love Pastor Heckert. And I know you do, too. He tried to give me books from his library a few weeks back, and I told him plainly, “I don’t want your books. I want you.” I suppose when I said that, I was feeling the insecurity of what it means to hold onto this life—and in a sense, I was displaying it. He, of course, hugged me and told me of Jesus, his Savior, and he beamed the peace that he has in the only One who can rescue any and all of us from the terrors of this world. I went home with a few books in a box and a gladdened heart at having had spent the time with a faithful friend.

I suppose I’ll simply say that even as the days grow shorter in our stride with friends in this life, our inheritance is beyond this mortal coil, and it rests fully in the One who stopped Death in its tracks. In fact, this Sunday we’ll hear the story of Jesus raising the Widow of Nain’s son from death. I suppose it’s perfect timing for such a story. That’s the same Lord who reminds us that Death is an appropriate end-bringer to the emptiness of human hope. Christian hope is far different than human hope. Death has no footing in the realm of Christian hope. The cross stands above this world as the certification of such a truth.

Trust Jesus. And marvel at the faith in Him that’s been planted so firmly and so vividly by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel in our dear pastor and friend, Jakob Heckert.

I humbly ask you to keep the vigil for a peaceful visitation of the angels to carry him to the throne of grace at his last breath. It’s an all-consuming thought for me right now, and for that I’m glad. Christ before our eyes, in our hearts, and from our lips is always the best.