Judas or Peter

I’ll be honest with you. I’m not feeling all that inspired this morning as I plink away at the keyboard to write my weekly eNews. Of course there are plenty of things happening, so there should be something worth observing and then sharing for the benefit of others.

I’m definitely an observer. I’m always watching. Well, that sounded a little creepy, didn’t it? Perhaps a better way to say it is that I’m always sorting. I’m always taking in as much of what’s going on around me as I can, and as I process it, I’m sorting it. I’m putting it into categories of thought.

But I’m not the only one who does this. You do it, too. We all do. In my case, after everything has been processed, the written word is its regular release valve.

But this morning, I’m sort of disinterested in opening the valve. And yet, here we are. I’m typing anyway. You’re reading. Now what?

I’ve established this regular duty that has blossomed into an expectation. That’s what. A good number have come to expect something from me by this eNewsletter every week all year long, and so now it is my responsibility to persevere—to filter my disinterest away and get the job done.

Maybe that’s where this free-thinking ramble is leading—to the topic of perseverance.

I don’t know about you, but I experience those times in my life where my resolve seems somewhat flimsy, my courage is minimal, and my strength feels as though it’s waning. Sometimes things are silent and dark, and I’ll catch myself mumbling beneath a breath, “I can’t go on.”

Everyone has those moments.

As I type this, what immediately comes to mind is a discussion we had in the Adult Bible study here at Our Savior a couple of weeks ago. We talked about how as human beings, when it comes to a right understanding of our Sin and what actually justifies us before God, we can find ourselves teetering at the edge of two categories of personality: Judas and Peter.

Both of these disciples found themselves steeped in the thickest mires of atrocious betrayal. Judas sold the Lord to His enemies. Peter denied association with Him, even calling down divine curses upon himself in order to mask his lies. Face to face with Jesus in both circumstances, who can survive such an act of deliberate dreadfulness against the one true God?

Judas gave up and is no more. But Peter persevered and was restored to the brethren.

What gives?

Faith in the all-availing sacrifice of Christ. Faith in the One whose love is greater than our betrayals. That’s what.

I don’t always know where I am in any given moment on the timeline. The darkness swirls. The headwinds are strong. I’ll say I can’t go on. But by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ, I’ll know I can. I’ll know I must—and not because my relationship with Him requires that I earn my way back into His graces, but because He loves me. That love changes things completely. I must go on.

I mentioned in the sermon two weeks ago that I never usually go in the “what this means to me personally” direction while preaching, but I did anyway that day. Pondering the “Good Shepherd” text from John 10, I mentioned that from everything we’d heard from all of the readings combined (Psalm 23; Ezekiel 34:11-16; 1 Peter 2:21-25; John 10:11-16), the most meaningful part for me as an individual was the real, down in the trenches context in which the Word of God was leading. Side by side, the texts communicated that Jesus is truly the only One who can look upon me in my dreadful, filthy, ungrateful, and wandering state and still love me so incomparably that He would tuck me into His arm while He fights off the circling wolf packs of Sin, Death, and the Devil. Knowing that these monsters have been defanged through the person and work of Jesus Christ, my resolve becomes sturdier. My courage begins to overtake my fears. My strength returns. I can persevere.

I learn and relearn a valuable lesson each time I find myself despairing for the strength to take another step. I learn that for the Christian, perseverance doesn’t emerge from within any one of us. It comes from the outside. It’s given to us and then worked within us by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. With that, perseverance becomes synonymous with faith. Christians persevere—we press forward even when pressing forward seems foolish—because our eyes are on Christ. He has our trust.

“I can’t go on,” I’ll sometimes say.

“Yes, you can,” the powerful Gospel for faith always replies. “Look. There’s Jesus. He’s already broken through the enemy’s fiercest strongholds. Do you see His cross? And His empty tomb? He’s made a way through. The ramparts are crumbling. The opposing forces, while they remain fiercely vicious, they are in disarray and are weakening. Get back in behind Him and follow. He more than has you in His care.”

A Prayer Before and During the 2018 Mid-term Elections

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

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

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

This is our charge as Christian citizens.

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

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

Conviction: The Yes and No of Faith

In one of my morning devotions last week, Luther said something rather interesting regarding the work of the Holy Spirit and the faith He instills by the Gospel in Christians. I found it almost as startling as I did comforting.

“The Holy Spirit is no skeptic,” Luther wrote. “He has not written an uncertain delusion in our hearts, but a strong, great certainty, which does not let us waver, and (may it please God) will not let us waver, but (praise be to God) makes us as sure as we are that we are now alive, and that two and three makes five” (On the Enslaved Will, 8 ff.).

Incredible. And when you consider the words of 1 Thessalonians 1:5, you know he’s right.

“Our Gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.”

That Greek word Saint Paul uses here, which typically translates as “conviction,” is πληροφορίᾳ (plerophoria), and it means “complete certainty and full assurance.” Paul uses the word in other places, too. Colossian 2:2 and Romans 15:29 are a couple of examples. It is a word that, unlike so many words in our English vocabulary, is unmistakable in its purpose. It can’t be bent in a way that lessens the impact of its drive. When a first century Christian heard this word while listening to Paul’s epistle being read, he or she knew that there was no mistaking Paul’s own confidence in the Gospel and the commanding skill of the Holy Spirit at work within those who trust in Jesus as the Savior of the world.

And if for some reason they didn’t quite get it, they needed only to look around to see Christians laying their lives and livelihoods at Death’s stoop rather than forsake the One who gave His life as their ransom. Luther affirmed this when he kept on in the paragraph I mentioned above.

“We Christians must be sure of our Gospel and must be able firmly and without any wavering to say yes and no and stand by it.”

Yes and no.

Yes, I believe in Christ. No, I will not deny Him. Yes, I confess His Word as inspired, immutable, and inerrant, and the only source for faith, life, and practice. No, I will not deny His Word and follow the whims of the culture. Yes, I trust in Jesus for all that I have. No, I will not put my faith in the transient and mammonous things of this world.

Yes and no.

By the way, Jesus said this way before Luther.

“Simply let your yes be yes and your no be no; anything beyond this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:36).

Part of the Lord’s point here as He preaches the Sermon on the Mount: Don’t overthink or confuse your confession in ways that can, and often do, only serve to allow loopholes of escape from what is right and wrong, true and untrue. By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel for faith, be found confident in your stance on Him as the truest foundation. He isn’t a wobbly Savior. He’s steady and sure. And He’s not out to make you a wobbly Christian. The Word He gives to you is powerful. Its force is nothing less than tidal by size. And when it comes to the information it brings—Law and Gospel—it is so much clearer than many in this day and age would ever confess it to be.

The Holy Spirit by the verbal and visible Gospel—Word and Sacrament—feeds to you the fortitude to say yes and no in a way that aligns with this. Without it, we become the wobbly ones. We become those who aren’t sure of what we believe or who we are as baptized children of the Heavenly Father.

Conviction—complete certainly and full assurance—is located in Jesus alone. He is the birthplace of salvation and the very reason we can have confidence in the forgiveness of sins He has won on Calvary’s cross. The Father sends the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name by the message of the Gospel to establish this within us. Be completely certain and fully assured by this promise. Trust that what’s being given at your church—Word and Sacrament—is of utmost importance and is good for you and your family. When you are sitting there in the pews, when you are handling the Word of God in Bible study, when you are engaged in these things, the promise is that, actually, these things are first engaging with you. You are being given things that Paul told the church of Ephesus are divine elements of “power” and “conviction.” The Holy Spirit who works through these, while at the same time being alive in you, is by no means skeptical of these heavenly gifts. He can’t be. Instead, He is devoted to them, and He’s fully committed to taking up residence and establishing the same confident devotion in you.

Thanks be to God for this!

Outpacing the Sun

Well, summer is officially at an end. School starts here at Our Savior this Monday.

I’ve seen a few social media posts from various folks noting how they can’t wait for their kids to get back to school. I’ve seen others from people with children who are dreading the return. They dread it because they enjoy having the kids home all day. They enjoy the sights and sounds, as well as the more leisurely pace when it comes to obligatory things. I’d have to agree. And to be quite honest, the week leading into each new school year, I always get a little anxious. For one thing, I think this happens because my awake time has already begun to outpace the sun and I know that it’ll be the same for the kids. What I mean is that for most of the year, I’m already awake and working well before the sun rises and I’m still at it long after the sun sets. It isn’t this way in the summer, and it’s as if the sun knows it. Leading along with a gentler pace, there are times when the rising sun through our bedroom windows is the first thing I see when I open my eyes. And it is at the end of a reasonable day from the step of my front porch that I see the sun beaming a goodbye stream on the western horizon, telling me it’s later than I think and urging me to bed, but also reminding me that it’ll be sure to wake me when it’s time.

It’s when I think of the ramped up and overly-busy schedules combined with the shorter days of Fall and Winter that I begin to get restless. I wonder how I’m going to do it all. Sometimes I find myself doing something that I’d be willing to bet you do, too. I begin segmenting my life into forward-looking timeframes. “Only forty-eight more days until All Saints Day,” I’ll say. Or perhaps I’ll whisper, “Only fifty-five days until Christmas.” I’ll do this throughout the year, knowing that when I arrive at each particular point, I’m that much closer to a time when the pace will lessen and the sun will once again greet me in my bed rather than after the morning school bell.

But there’s something else that hovers in the midst of all of this. In fact, no matter the time of year, it’s always there. It’s a short, caressing Word from Jesus to an anxious heart of worry:

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matthew 6:34).

The Lord preached these words to a group of Christians—folks like you and me—living in the trenches of a life filled with plenty of things about which to be concerned. He preached them having already offered a powerful Gospel of love—a good Word that delivered into their hearts the message that He is their Savior, that He has them well in hand, and will never fail. And so when I hear these words echoing in my anxious skull, they almost always come out of my mouth in the way that Saint Paul enunciated them to the church at Philippi: Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:6-7).

You know what’s happening here in the midst of my worrisome state? The Holy Spirit is prodding my flesh and bones to know and acknowledge that I have a God who loves me. The proof is resident in the giving of His Son into death for my sins. He will carry me through both the times of leisure and the times of challenge.

I have nothing to fear. Period.

I pray the same peace for you and your family, that God would give to you a tranquil heart whenever you find yourself facing an uneasy moment. Trust Him. He is sure to provide all that you require. And I dare say that in comparison to the fiery ball around which our planet spins day after day after day, there is a much better Son who has risen, and by this, His time among us never sets. He never disappears over the horizon. His face is always shining on us. And with that, no matter the time of year, we can go to bed in peace and awake again in the same joy we had when we closed our eyes.

God Will Plant the Seed Through You

The Lord is with you this day! I hope all is well, and that as you find yourself getting ready for the new school year, you feel refreshed from having enjoyed a relaxing summer.

Thinking on the term “refreshed,” I would encourage you to roll with the invigoration you’ve experienced and re-engage with your church family in the coming year. There will be plenty before us as we move forward together by God’s grace, working diligently by the strength He provides to bring His Gospel message to the world around us—and not just through our immediate mission efforts, but through each and every one of us as individuals in our communities, teams, neighborhoods, and families.

Proverbs 15:4 says so eloquently that the “tongue that brings healing is a tree of life…” Of course, all kinds of references to other texts in God’s Word could be considered when thinking on such a verse. Healing is God’s action, namely, the gift of restoration He gives by His abundant mercy. Christ Himself is the tree of life, and we being the branches, use our tongues to share His merciful action for the sake of rescuing us from Sin, Death, and the power of the devil.

In other words, a tongue that brings the restorative message of the Gospel, is attached to a splendid and blessed person born of the same message. And the message itself, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work through it, gives not only the courage, but also the best words at the best time and in the best order. It may not necessarily feel like it, but trust that what I tell you is true. God will use you to plant a seed in order that, one day, it might grow to His glory and the salvation of the person.

Climb the High Dive

I was reading back through a letter I wrote to all of you. The letter was sent not long after our June quarterly congregation meeting in June of 2014. I thought I might re-send it, first, because what it says is along the lines of what I was going to say in this opening monologue; and two, because I heard a news item this morning on the way into the office about what the newscaster was calling “the happiness of time efficiency.” He said that happier people are those who can take a big job and somehow reduce the time it takes to accomplish that job so that other jobs can be accomplished. I don’t know if that makes sense, but what he said in addition is that often times people will spin their wheels re-creating something when much of what needs done is already in place.

Most of you know I don’t prefer to recycle, but having read through the letter, the words resonated with a freshness that I thought we could reconsider via this eNewsletter. Why? Because the words were important then and they’re important now. Sourced from God’s Word, they still meet each and every one of us in real ways right here and right now—especially since we just transferred $10,000 from our designated funds to cover payroll. But even with that happening, don’t be afraid. God is at work. And with that, keep reading…

At our annual “Getting Organized” meeting that took place back in January of this year, I presented the results of an informal survey I conducted. Essentially, I called the local Methodist, Baptist, ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), and two non-denominational churches and asked several questions, one of which was: “What is the process for becoming a member of your congregation?” Here’s what I discovered.

The two non-denominational churches I contacted are very similar to one another. Both encourage prospective members to choose and join one of several small groups they call “Life Groups”. These groups meet once a week for six weeks and are tailored to be “relevant” to the participants’ needs (newly divorced, alcoholics, even sports fans). Again, prospective members are encouraged to join one of these groups, but it is not a requirement for membership. They can join whenever they want.

Both the Methodist and ELCA churches offer a single, three-hour class. The class takes place as needed on a Saturday. Church leaders are present to meet the prospective members and to talk about the church’s structure and membership expectations. Church doctrine is not discussed, and membership is granted at the conclusion of the session if the participant desires.

The Baptist church does not offer a class. It expects prospective members to learn as they go. A person can join when they decide they are ready.

So, why am I sharing all of this? Because whenever a church starts to talk about money, the topic of attendance and attracting new members never seems to be too far behind.

At our recent quarterly congregation meeting in June, during the discussion surrounding our annual budget proposal, I found myself compelled to urge all in attendance to keep a few things in the proper perspective when it comes to money and membership.

First, I asked folks to consider how the Bible defines healthy stewardship. I offered some basics to show that we are indeed aligned with and practicing these truths. Do we have our struggles? Yes. Are they big? In my opinion, it depends on who you talk to. But big or small, should we worry that we are doing things in an “unhealthy” way as a congregation? Well, according to the Scriptures, no.

Second, I reminded folks that we cannot necessarily factor “faith” into the financial predictions necessary for preparing a budget. What we can do is identify those things that God allows to stand before us as demanding of our trust in Him – the challenges – or as Luther called them, “tentatio.” I pointed out that “tentatio” is a necessary part of growing as Christians. God uses it to test and refine His people. It isn’t necessarily designed to be pleasant, but God knows best and so He allows the ones He loves to be challenged in order to strengthen hope in Him (Romans 5:1-5). In other words, “tentatio” is a good thing!

Next, I asked folks to consider how the Bible says real Christians are actually made. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word of the Gospel, both verbal and visible – Word and Sacrament. I urged folks to consider that if they, as individual Christians, are not reaching out to folks around them with the Gospel, we should not expect our pews to fill up too rapidly. I affirmed that, yes, it is true that as the pastor I am called by Christ to this place to preach and teach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments according to Christ’s mandate, but I’m not the only one around here who is called to live and to speak the hope that lives within him to family, friends, or neighbors while I’m at Walmart, or the car repair shop, or Leo’s Coney Island in Hartland. And while I know for sure that there are others doing this, nevertheless, if there are only a few of us, then…well… I think you get the point.

Finally, I urged that we need to understand that our church is vastly different from the others in the area, which brings me back around to where this letter started. Once our visitors have reached a point where they are willing to invest the time and energy to become a member here at Our Savior, it takes more than a few hours on a Saturday. A typical new member class takes about fifteen to twenty weeks to complete…and it’s not shallow. Not only do folks learn the Biblical theology behind the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, Christian faith and life, but they learn to discern objective truth by way of the Word of God. For example, they learn the difference between things like “norma normata” and “norma normans”, “exegesis” versus “eisegesis”. It takes a while to do this. But why is it this way? Because Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church takes very seriously our Lord’s mandate for making Christians. God has made it clear that the people who gather in fellowship together here must know what is taught, believed, and confessed at this altar (1 Corinthians 10:14-22).

Now, having read all of this, take a moment and think about what it is that may be preventing you from consciously reaching out and inviting someone you know to church with you. What is stopping you from helping to fill the new member class? Is it fear? Is it doubt? Maybe you don’t think you’ll say the right words? Whatever it is, I’ll bet the following bits of advice will help. The first is a practical truth I find myself employing often. The second is a Biblical truth for all Christians.

1) Climb the ladder to the high dive and jump! When I was a kid, there was a public pool near my home. It was the rule that once you climbed the ladder to the high dive, the lifeguard would not let you climb back down. The only way down was to jump into the water. One day, I didn’t necessarily have the courage to do it, but somehow I forced myself to climb knowing full well that once I was up there it was out of my control. Think about someone you want to share the Gospel with and then climb the ladder to the high dive. Pick up the phone and dial the number for that person. Let it ring. Since most folks have caller ID, if you chicken out, you will have already passed the point of no return and they will wonder why you called…and surely you don’t want to lie. Write a letter, put it into an envelope and put a stamp on it and then drop it in the mailbox at the post office. You can’t get it out now. You’re stuck. Type up an email and hit “send” before your fear causes you to reconsider. You can’t get that email back. It’s now sitting in the inbox of someone you would love to see beside you in holy worship. Climb the ladder to the high dive because then you’ll have to jump into the water! And if you are like me, after a few jumps, it wasn’t so scary anymore.

2) Rest assured that it’s not your job to convert someone. It is the job of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:8-9, 1 Corinthians 12:3, Romans 1:16, John 1:12-13, John 3:5-8). There really is nothing to fear (Psalm 27:1). Be faithful (Matthew 25:23). Be the Christian God has made you to be and simply give the message (Matthew 5:13-16, Luke 14:23). God has promised to work through that message to accomplish His purposes (Philippians 2:13). The results are not in your hands. If after you give the message, you find yourself in a discussion that you don’t think you can handle, just be honest. Tell the person you don’t know the answers to his questions. Offer to find out more. Or better yet, let me try! Pass along my phone number and email address. Let’s work together to make the introduction! And if after all of this you feel like nothing appears to be taking root, don’t consider yourself a failure. Remember, Christ Himself was often rejected, even by His own family (John 6:41-71). Instead, keep that person in prayer and be ready. You have given a powerful Gospel. It can change a heart and mind at any moment. Just look at Nicodemus, a devout Pharisee. He received the Gospel (John 3) and was later found defending Jesus before his fellow Pharisees (John 6)—even to the point of being ridiculed—and then at the tomb as a believer preparing the Lord’s body for burial at the conclusion of John’s Gospel account. While you are praying for the Gospel to take root, set your sights on someone else!

While we do have many seats in the Lord’s house that are filled, we also have quite a few that are empty. And while I can understand why people gravitate toward thinking that more members just naturally means more offerings, you really need to keep that as far from your heart and mind as possible. That is not the right connection to make. We’re not after money. Large structures, big budgets, plentiful staffing, many and various programs and activities does not necessarily mean a church is successful. We are called to be faithful – faithful Christians reaching out to the world around us with the sole purpose of introducing others to the One who gave His life for their rescue. While this is happening, those same Christians trust that God is faithful and will provide all that is necessary for this body and life!

If you are already actively reaching out to others, great! Keep at it. Your labor is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). If not, pray that God would grant you the courage to start! If you need help, call me. I am your servant. Let’s work at it together.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Some of you probably already knew this, but Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets. She had an incredible grasp of language; and not only that, but she could string together a necklace of words with such uncommon precision, and pair nearly every phrase with incredible rhyme schemes, that it’s hard not to appreciate her skill. I have her entire collection of works, and I must say, I visit with it often. And even as I read her poetry knowing that she wasn’t necessarily a Christian—although she grew up in a Christian home and was influenced by Christian tradition—her words ring true in many ways, whether she realized it or not. For example, a personal favorite of her lyrics goes something like this:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

I like that. Hope perches in the soul and never stops singing its song. Sounds like the hope we have in Jesus, if you ask me. By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, hope lives and breathes and moves within us even as we face days of both sunshine and rain, of blue skies and clouds. Or as Saint Paul says in Romans 5:1-5: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

One more time: “And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (v. 2).

I like that. It speaks of hope as it flows from God’s glory. You and I know by the Holy Word that the truest form of God’s glory is seen on the cross in the death Jesus Christ for our forgiveness—at least that’s the way Jesus talked about it (John 12:23-33; Mark 10:36-38, and others).

And I like this, too: “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Here Paul makes sure we understand that our hope in the suffering, crucified, and risen Savior is never to our shame, but rather it is the wellspring of God’s love that actually pours into our hearts to steady our resolve and sturdy our grasp of the only One who can save us—Christ, the Son of God!

May this hope continue to be yours as the summer days roll in. Remember to hold fast to the means by which God feeds and sustains this hope—Word and Sacrament ministry. You need this stuff. I need this stuff. The whole world needs this stuff. Why? Because it has what sets hope in the soul where it can sing and sing and sing, never growing tired of its joyful song of salvation.