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.”

I’m Halfway Through My Life

I’m supposing that most of you are just like me and you get somewhat existential sometimes, almost feeling as though you’re hovering outside of your own body and contemplating certain things at certain times in life.

Okay, so maybe that’s an over-the-top description.

What I mean is that I turned 46 this past Friday, and while I suppose that’s no big deal, Jen and I somehow found ourselves talking about how I’m most likely more than halfway through my life.

Halfway. Just saying that out loud made us both a little tense.

The uneasy feeling came because, even though statistically speaking what we’d said may be true, the truth is that we are both well aware that neither of us knows the day or the hour. I doubt anyone at Our Savior expected to hear the news back in August of 2007 that our then 46-year-old pastor, William Thompson, had suddenly and unexpectedly died. I remember when Pastor Pies called me to tell me the news. It was as if my phone wasn’t working, as though the words coming through the wires had suddenly become scrambled and the phone needed to be shaken before replying, “Say that again, because what you just said didn’t make sense.”

Jen and I both agreed that we’re not afraid to die. The nervousness comes when we consider each other’s sadness, and the sadness of the kids. For anyone who has ever lost a loved one, the sadness of Death is formidable. My brother Michael died back in July of 1995, but even so, the memories are still very vivid. I was there at his bedside when it arrived. I remember feeling as though the world had suddenly lost all of its oxygen. It was hard to breathe. And when I eventually found myself outside of that hospital room, it was as if the wind had stopped blowing and the days were already starting to fade from one to the next with hardly a memory of the sun rising or setting. For the longest time it felt like one long and never-ending day of aimless wandering.

None of us wants to experience such things. But we do. The wages for Sin is Death, plain and simple. One of the paychecks that comprises those wages is sadness.

But that verse doesn’t end so starkly. Paul adds, “…but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). I think it’s great that anytime the Paul touches on the subject of Death, he almost always reminds us that we have a conqueror of the ghastly specter in Jesus. In fact, in the very next chapter, Paul does what I did this past weekend with Jennifer. He betrays a bit of nervousness when he considers the reality of his own binding to Death in his flesh. But he’s quick to recall Christ as his deliverer.

“Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25).

Still, there’s the sadness. And Jesus knows it’s real. He reveals the blast radius of Death’s sadness-inducing power in His own self while standing at the tomb of His friend Lazarus. He wept there. He wept because Death was not in the schematics for His world, and yet it wormed its way in through the tempter, Satan, and found a resilient foothold in the lives of every last man, woman, and child. But again, we do not see the Lord weeping without having first heard the promise of the conquering of Death and the gift of eternal life through faith in Him. He gave this very promise to Martha in the middle of her petrifying sadness. “I am the resurrection and the life,” He said to her. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” But then before the Lord makes His way to the tomb to call Lazarus out, He asks Martha, “Do you believe this?”

In the midst of that conversation with Jennifer a few nights ago, by the power of the Holy Spirit streaming through His Gospel alive within us, He asked us both this question. Martha’s answer was, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who has come into the world.” In not so many words, that was our answer, too.

I pray that in those moments where you may be contemplating these heavier things—whether in the midst of a family crisis, struggling with your own health, or anything else that might bring to mind the reality of Death—I want to be there (for as long as the Lord allows me) to remind you of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for you. Death is always a moment of sadness. Nobody’s fooling anyone by saying it isn’t. But it is as anything conquered—in complete submission to its master. Christ has conquered Death. He has it on a chain that does not reach into your eternity. It’s trapped in this life, not the next. Take comfort in this.

And I suppose in the meantime, share this Gospel message with the ones who will be there at your funeral. Be sure they know that you believe it. Be sure they know that you have peace in this truth. Be sure that they know that you want that same peace for them. It’s not up to you to convert or convince their hearts, but you’ll know that same powerful Gospel that moves you to faith will have been planted in the ones you want within arm’s reach in the glories of heaven. In the face of inevitable Death, that can and does bring peace in this life, too.

The Death of My Type 1 Cousin

Type One Diabetes is a stupid disease, and I truly despise it.

My cousin, Rick Boyd, was called into the nearer presence of Christ this morning at 12:45 am. He was 47.

In his youth, a stocky comrade, he was someone you’d want on your team when the neighborhood kids got together for a game of football. Flag football? No, that was for the weak. We were out for blood. And Ricky, when he had the ball, was pretty much a juggernaut. On more than one occasion, it took both my brother Michael (RIP) and myself to take him down, and that was only after he’d dragged us twenty yards.

Back in the day, no one used the term ADHD. There was no such thing. But if someone ever used the words “hyperactive,” Ricky came to mind. In fact, at some point along the way he’d been coached by someone to vigorously shake his hands when he could feel the energy building, except as he did this, it was less of a tool of release for him and more of an indicator that we’d all better get the heck out of his way. For those of us on his team, that was the moment you knew to hand him the football.

Ricky was a counterpart to so many of the adventures of my childhood—camping trips, late night gatherings with family and friends, endless biking around Danville, Illinois where we grew up. You name it, Ricky was often there somewhere. He didn’t have siblings. We were his siblings. His dad left when he was very little, and so we filled that void, too.

He also didn’t have a pancreas that worked the way it was supposed to. Like my daughter, Evelyn, he had Type 1 Diabetes. As a kid, I didn’t necessarily know the breadth of the disease my aunt would refer to when giving him a shot, but I knew it was there. It was the only thing that ever seemed to bring Ricky, the powerhouse kid on the team, to a halt.

I never really fathomed the seriousness of his plight.

Even as he grew older and we lost touch, having lived so far away from one another, I wasn’t kept unaware that his body had begun to succumb to the darker prospects of the disease. A few limbs were amputated and he eventually went blind.

Again, he died last night. Complications from Type 1 Diabetes is what will be printed on the certificate.

Having said all of this, it wasn’t all that long ago that someone said to me that there are so many children out there that have it far worse than my daughter. In the moment, I was really rather angry for the statement. Of course I know it’s true. Things could be worse. But still, it was a heartlessly ignorant thing to say. In a sense, I’ve held onto that ignorant lack of understanding of this disease, and I suppose it was for a moment like this.

Yes, we Christians know that no one knows the day or hour of one’s death—only the Lord. It could be fifty years from now. It could be tomorrow. But there is a statistical “normal” we have as humans, and the terrible truth is that people with Type 1, on average, live much shorter lives than those whose pancreases are intact. To be specific, they live an average of sixteen to twenty fewer years than others.

In this situation, Ricky lived thirty years less than a man my age probably will, and as you might expect, this is a terror that lurks in the minds of parents of Type 1 children.

Yes, I trust Christ. Still, when I look at my daughter, this little bit of ungodly information twists my insides in ways that result in the feeling of needing to micromanage the little things. I know Jennifer feels it, too.

With that, I’m not really sure what to say from all of this. I suppose I could offer that if you know the parent of a Type 1 Diabetic, know also that there are hidden concerns that might cause them to seem overly dramatic. Don’t tell them it could be worse. They already know it, and the hovering is the evidence. They already know that while they’re in charge of the care, every little bit of micromanaged success in the fight against this monster means a changing of the odds. To me, it means that for as long as I can, I’m going to work to make sure my little girl has a better shot at outliving me, and not the other way around.

God’s Jurisdiction

During the sermon yesterday, I did a little bit of preemptive work with Paul’s understanding of Sin so that when we got around to his words in Romans 5:1-5 we’d get the fullest measure of the joy from the Gospel proclaimed there. Part of that preemptive work included confronting the fact that in this day and age, we do a pretty good job of writing Sin off as no big deal, calling both the badness within us and the badness we produce by different names, hoping to find a way to wiggle out of it. I mentioned the current popularity of referring to our Sin as obsessive behaviors, as results of our genetics or pathology, or as simply disorders or lifestyles different from the mainstream.

I certainly wasn’t arguing that the capability for particular sins isn’t written into each of us in a unique way. It most certainly is. You know your own tendencies. I know mine. The problem I was attempting to confront is the excuse-making that sets itself in place to block the guilt associated with the sins. If we are not to blame, if we are not guilty, then we don’t need a Savior and we miss the measure of Christ’s expense on the cross. Falling into this devilry, we produce the fruits that accompany such disregard. We find the loophole we need to never be wrong in any discussion, to never be guilty of offense in any situation coming undone, to never be the one who isn’t carrying his fair share of the load, to never be the one who actually bears responsibility. In essence, we get to avoid using the word “Sin” altogether, as if it applies to everyone else except us.

I went a little further—even touching on it in the adult Bible study later in the morning—and I offered that Sin really only makes sense when it is considered within the context of God. What I meant was that if we are going to understand it rightly, and most especially how it meets with us, then maybe one place to start is with acknowledging the fact that we are under the jurisdiction of an ultimate judge of right and wrong. Whether we like it or not, whether we’re willing to admit it or not, we are subject to a divine Someone who can actually determine what human conduct is supposed to be.

This may sound somewhat strange, but one of the best aspects of the season of Lent, especially as it is designed to recalibrate us toward objectively true things, is to be confronted with the true nature of Sin and what that means for Mankind’s future. To know this, is to know the need—a very personal need. It is to then be found at the foot of the cross, a place where we can breathe a sigh of relief as having narrowly escaped destruction because the One hanging on that cross paid the price for our deliverance.

Knowing the weight of our Sin is a good way to understand the weight of the Gospel of our salvation through Jesus Christ. And that’s where we must reside—in the Gospel. The Gospel is powerful. It gives us the ability to confess our sin in true repentance and faith—not to excuse our Sin away as a bad habit, or justifiable in certain circumstances, or as nothing at all—but rather to admit whole-heartedly that we are dust and to dust we shall return. It supplies us with a brightly beaming hope in the One who by His work raises us from the dust and sets us into His resurrected life: Jesus Christ, the Son of God!

This is a big part of the theology of Lent. And I pray that this message is resonating with you, that you are embracing it and carrying it forth into the world around you. With this supernatural knowledge pacing through your spirit, you’d be amazed at how the sun shines a little more brightly and the days are just a little more splendid, even when facing some pretty hefty struggles in this world.

With that, God be with you in the oncoming day and week. Call if you need me.

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.

Life is Short. Eternity is Not.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21

God is good. Even when the terrors of mortality are befalling us, He is good. That’s what this whole week is about—the fact that Jesus has stepped into the darkness for us.

In last night’s sermon (Holy Wednesday), I preached, essentially, that a major theme of the whole Bible is the affronting knowledge of human beings’ inabilities to get free from the darkness. I even gave my humble opinion, sharing that I truly believe that the myth of human moral progress or longevity or innate goodness dies more and more when we behold events like sarin gas attacks on civilians, or situations involving a father having to put his son’s body parts into a plastic bag after a bomb goes off in a Palm Sunday worship service. I could add cancer to those examples. I shared rather straightforwardly that the most valuable thinkers in the Christian communities are the ones who can admit to the fact that any optimism about the capability of human nature against the darkness of Sin, Death, and the Devil is, as the Book of Ecclesiastes says, “the sacrifice of fools.”

And so, when we consider the darkness, when we look into it, we are taught by the Word of God to understand it rightly. It permeates not only the world, but also our very selves, and we are helpless against it.

But now, Jesus steps onto the scene. God takes upon Himself human flesh and reaches out to us. Serving us, loving us, caring for us, He calls Himself the Light of the world. He makes sure that we know—and He proves it over and over and over again—that He is the only One who can venture into this darkness and dispel it. And He does. His life, His suffering, His cross, His resurrection, His ascension—these events change everything; almost as if the world was spinning in one direction and then suddenly it was reversed.

Because Jesus changes everything, faith in Him changes everything, too. Terror isn’t dominating. Hope is there. We have hope because we have Jesus.

This is the message of Holy Week and Easter, and this same message is the good word that we need each and every day of our lives. Before I gave you an update, I wanted to share that Good News with you, and not just because what I need to share is tough, but because I love you in the Lord and I want you to be steadied with the same muscle that has steadied every true believer throughout the history of man.

Pastor Heckert, our dear friend, has stage four lung cancer. Without sharing all of the details, the doctor has indicated that without treatment, we are looking at a window of mortal life of about three to six months. And yet, the doctor also indicated that with an immediate beginning to some aggressive radiation, as much as two years may be gained. As it stands, Pastor Heckert will begin the radiation this week, starting first with the tumor on his hip.

I want you to know that when I was at his home yesterday, he expressed his love for the Lord so very clearly—as always—and that he is trusting firmly in the will of God. This is the Holy Spirit alive and well in a Christ-centered Christian human being. I dare say that in that moment of pastoral care, being that I love the man so very much, it was almost more difficult to serve him the comforting Gospel as opposed to seeing that he wanted to serve me, too, so that I would not be sad. This is a testament to his calling as a pastor and a witness to the fruits of faith being borne and shared.

Please keep him in your prayers. As I learn more, I will communicate with you.

In this, God grant to you His eternal peace as you cling to the Savior and His promise of love, forgiveness, and eternal life.

Also, come to church tonight. If you had something planned, put it aside. Reschedule it. Come and be strengthened by the Maundy Thursday proclamation and the reception of the Lord’s Supper. Join your Christian family in the pews and at the Lord’s Altar.

Life is short. Eternity is long—timeless, in fact. Receive what surpasses all understanding and keeps the heart and mind of the believer in Christ Jesus, our Lord, for and into this eternity.

In Jesus,

Pastor Thoma+