The Tragedy of Parkland, Florida

I meant to get word out to you yesterday, something of a comfort following the events in Parkland, Florida. And while I managed to tap away at the computer for a few minutes, seeing a scrap of my thoughts end up on Facebook, I hadn’t yet finished what I intended to share with you, my Christian family. There certainly was a lot more on my heart and mind.

And so, with that…

Once again as a nation, as a community, as individual members of the fellowship of human depravity, we find ourselves shaken by a horrific school shooting. Together, our guts are turning inside out as we watch the newscasts, read the articles, see the images—the terrible images—of one weeping parent’s outstretched arms as she receives her child with thankfulness while another portrays a parent wincing in collapse, embracing the pavement of the crime scene’s perimeter, having just learned her child is gone—snatched away so violently, so unjustly, so unfairly.

And what are we to do? Just like you, I ask myself this question. Of course, as a Christian, I know that God is the only One to whom we can turn. We do so in prayer. And this is good. But it is something that happens most often while we’re alone. We turn to our God in worship, too. We receive there the gifts that sustain not only for the good times, but also, and perhaps most importantly, for the bad. And we do it together. We stand beside one another, not necessarily knowing the deepest concerns, but more than able to admit to being equals in this world before God.

This is good, because even as we gather before him in the unified confession of our sins, we leave His presence as a holy people, justified by His grace, empowered by the Holy Spirit with hope, and enabled to endure in a world of uncertainty, sorrow, and pain.

There’s a lot to be mined from this divine reality.

The faith that is comprised of these things has eyes that are open to see what the world cannot see. It has ears to hear what the world cannot hear. It has a heart that is willing to admit to what is truly happening in this world and what is at stake.

I speak this way having participated in a press conference yesterday afternoon in which I stood beside a group of fellow Christian pastors in support of another pastor who’s received death threats from the LGBTQ community for, in essence, his biblical stance on sexuality. No, I am not in fellowship with this man theologically. He and I have very different views on any number of theological things. And I can say the same of a majority of the Christian pastors who stood there at the podium in solidarity. But that wasn’t the point. The point is that we have a common, external goal that involved protecting a Christian pastor’s freedom to submit to and ultimately proclaim the Word of God as the standard for faith, practice, and life in this world.

But here’s the more simplified take-away of my participation in the press conference as it relates to the events in Parkland, Florida…

If we as a society are willing to allow (and perhaps even applaud) any community to threaten another in such ways over such things—for what in the midst of common discourse would be considered differences of opinion—should we be surprised when the society’s children kill one another? Something else is behind this. So much more is going on.

I think that the most honest answer to this particular question was penned by Rev. Dr. Peter J. Scaer, a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne and a friend of this congregation. Perhaps you remember him being with us last year to preach and to lead Bible study. I encourage you to read his words. I’ve shared them here. They beg you, the reader, to assess with honesty the compilation of situations in our culture and then to dig deep enough to admit to the findings—the God-awful findings.

Still, we’re asking, “What do we do?”

Go to church.

Heed the biblical mandate to be present in the house of God to confess your participation in sin. Be absolved of your failings, and then receive more and more of His blessed forgiveness by the Gospel gifts that preserve through this world’s darkness. Don’t look upon your time with God in holy worship as something so easily traded away for anything else in this life, no matter what it may be. Everything else is transient, and in an instant can be snatched away. Eternal life is just that: Eternal. Be immersed in the Word of God proclaimed and the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood administered for the forgiveness of sins. I’m absolutely certain that God will open your eyes in ways that such tragedies won’t surprise you, but also, they won’t overwhelm you to the point of uncertainty or despair. Instead, you’ll be equipped to grieve for and with others. You’ll be able to shine the light of Christ to those who need it. And if, God forbid, such a tragedy happens to you and your family, you’ll most certainly mourn deeply, but not as one with no hope. And I’ll be willing to bet that same hope will burst into a bright-burning pyre in others in your Christian family, folks who will wrap their arms around you, who will come down to you in your sadness, who will point you to the One who has borne your grief and sorrows in a way that certifies them as temporary and never permanent.

God be with you, my dear friends. Know that I am praying for you and your families.

Cue the Bolt of Lightning

I pray all has been well with you so far this week, most especially since the recent snowfall made travel for some very difficult. It certainly does give each Christian behind the wheel an opportunity to pause before setting out to seek the Lord’s care and then pause once arriving to give Him thanks for the safe keeping. If in between those two points, an accident occurs, it remains an opportunity to call out to Him as Luther once urged: “O, you have helped me before, help me now!”

Speaking of Luther…

I read the following line from Luther in my morning devotions yesterday: “Man does not even know his own sin, and thinks his blindness is the highest wisdom.” When I finished that sentence, even as it was right in the middle of a paragraph, I paused. In a way, the comment struck like a lightning bolt to a weathervane, and it made me think. In fact, it sort of reminded me of the warning that God gives to His priests in Hosea 4:4,6: “For with you is my contention, O priest… My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…”

The point: Without God’s help, without God revealing to Man in some way that he is doing wrong, it is highly likely that Man will continue to move along in the ignorance of his sin, perhaps even considering his own efforts—all things he does with the best of intentions, things he does for the benefit of family, for self, for work, for life in general—as being wise, when in reality it is harmful to the soul and dreadfully diminishing of his relationship with Christ.

I share this as I look back on the events of this past Sunday—Anniversary Sunday. As a good number of you know, Reverend Dr. Peter Scaer was with us, and at one point on Saturday evening while he and I were sitting together and visiting over a couple of my nicer whiskies, while Jen had gone upstairs to tuck the kids into bed, he asked about attendance numbers and the basic demographics of the congregation. I shared some of the details—about how things are really turning around in this place in some pretty amazing ways. But somehow in the midst of the conversation, I was drawn to confess to him a very personal frustration: Many of our families with young children appear to care so much more about making sure their kids are involved in sports—hockey, wrestling, or whatever—rather than being in worship and Bible study. Confirmation responsibilities on Sunday morning? Sure, when hockey season is done. Worship and Sunday School? No, not this week or next. We have indoor soccer tournaments that will consume the next two weekends completely.

Not all, but unfortunately, far too great a number of families are caught up in this swirling torrent of making sure that our children are socially adaptable or well-rounded individuals, seemingly unaware as to just how harmful it is, that by doing this we are actually training them to see time with Jesus as optional—and for that matter, that the time with the Lord isn’t even the most preferred option among the ones vying or our attention. All of this is pretty much an unabashed casting aside of the First and Third Commandments, as well as the duties of parents well-established by the Fourth Commandment. It doesn’t even seem to blush as it shuns all of the New Testament texts which mandate togetherness with Christ and His church for the benefit of our souls as He feeds us through Word and Sacrament.

I dare say, the attention given to these other priorities is the very reason we saw our usual 220-per-week attendance number drop to 165 this past Sunday. But in the end, I suppose that what bothers me more than anything else is the fact that we continue to do this deliberately. Christian parents are starving and killing the souls of an entire generation of children. And they think they are doing the right thing.

Cue the lightning bolt.

So, what did the good doctor say to me this past Saturday night with regard to this?

“You’re the pastor, Thoma,” he said in a round-about way. “What have you done to show these people their sins?”

Hmm. What have I done? I guess I sort of preach about it here and there. I touch on the topic in Bible study occasionally. But again, if people aren’t in regular attendance in these places, they will have missed it. Have I steered into it directly? Have I ever thought about dedicating an entire newsletter to the issue? Have I come right out and given the knowledge of the Scriptures to God’s people? Perhaps not.

For with you is my contention, O priest… My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…

People of Our Savior, forgive me for failing you in this way—whether it was because of a fear of offending you or because of a level of apathy—forgive me. And hear now, first, the Word of the Lord’s Lawful warning as it meets this challenge among the gathering of saints in this place.

Worship and Bible study is not optional. Don’t ever fool yourself into thinking that it is. There’s only one other character outside of you with such a scheming intention: the Devil. He does not want you in worship (or study) because he knows that it is of the utmost essential for your life and faith and it is where you belong. And so, when you begin to consider it as just another gathering of like-minded people—a country club measure of sights and sounds that you can take or leave—behold as the writer to the Hebrews (chapter 12) pulls back the spiritual curtain on holy worship and warns:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them… But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven… Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

With this in mind, step back in the same inspired Word to chapter 11, which speaks not only to the confidence of our baptismal right as Christians to be with God in worship, but to be careful not to refuse those who warn us when we fall away to other distractions, or even worse, when we set our hearts and minds upon other things and deliberately refuse Christ as He comes to be with us, most especially by the preaching and the Lord’s Supper:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. 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 spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

I know. These are tough words to hear. And not just because they speak to some, but because they speak to all of us. Every one of us is guilty of such spiritual recklessness. Even me. Again, please forgive me.

Now hear the Word of the Gospel—and I will most certainly be listening to it for myself as I write it.

God knows the heart of sinful Man. He knows the innermost desire to absent ourselves from His presence. He knows it well because it was the very first thing Mankind did in the Garden after the fall into sin. We hid from Him. But God did not leave us there. His first words to fallen Man were to seek and find him. “Where are you?” He called to Adam—to us. This tells you a lot about your God. He loves you. He does not give up on you. He does not want to lose you. He does not want to lose your children.

In Jesus Christ, He has reached out to all of us in the fullest of ways. He took upon Himself human flesh and gave up His life to redeem us—to buy us back from Sin, Death, and the power of the Devil. In our baptism, He has poured upon us the merits of this work and He has recreated us to be His children—little ones of faith who see the world and all of its trappings around us in a very different way; to have priorities that are no longer as that of the world. How can this be? Because we are forgiven. We are holy. The Holy Spirit lives in us as God’s people. We are no longer as we were before.

Thanks be to God for this!

Now, repent. The Gospel gives all that is necessary for amending the sinful life. Repent and change. Don’t be mad. Don’t get angry and begin seeking out a church that keeps silent on these things, one that is unwilling to steer into this with you for fear of offending you. You don’t want that. The Lord’s Word already told you that you don’t need that. You need truth. Rejoice now that the one God has set in place to give this to you has indeed given it. Why? Because it stems the results of God’s own dreadful foretelling: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…” I don’t want this for you.

Now, before closing, I should make a quick clarification. If you are planning to be away for a tournament, no sweat. Just be sure to find a faithful Lutheran congregation and go to church. I know for a fact that some of our families do this, and for that, I commend their faithfulness. Either way, just know that you don’t have to be here, but you do need to be in worship. That’s the priority. Be fed. Don’t skip it and think you’ll pick it up next week. Habits form and it becomes all too easy to slip away. And if you don’t know which church to go to, let me know. I can help with that. I want to help with that!

And so, with all of this being said, know that I’m praying for you. Know that I am trusting that by the Gospel truth that has been given, God—the Father, the + Son, and the Holy Spirit—will strengthen you, and He will bless and preserve you as His holy child.

I won’t stop moving with this important kind of encouragement. You need it. I need it. We all need the rightly divided Law and Gospel. Thanks be to God that our Lord has given these to us as the treasures that they are!

Indeed, thanks be to God!