Preparing for that Last Breath

Throughout the year I hold worship services in various places offsite. One place I go to regularly is a retirement community in a nearby township. I’m there the third Tuesday of every month. I suppose, technically, I’m not necessarily obligated to go there, especially because it’s been five or so years since anyone in my congregation has been a resident there (although I should say that within the last year, family members of folks from my congregation have moved into the place).

Still, members or no members, I continue to go. I do this, first, because of the attachment. I’ve come to know the people there and it would be really hard to just sheer those lines, especially since most of them don’t see or hear from their own churches for what seems to be years at a time. However, I’ll admit to feeling a bit conflicted knowing that there are so many other things to attend to during the week here in my own congregation, and doing what I do there takes an irretrievable chunk out of one morning a month—a chunk I can rarely spare.

But still I go.

I suppose another reason I keep doing this is because of what I, as a Christian man, am so often privileged to behold there.

Take for example Helen. She’s 98. She’s completely blind. When she comes into the little room, she knows her way to the back left corner where she always sits. She can’t see the order of worship or the hymn page that I hand out before the service, but she asks for them anyway. And then all through the service, her head somewhat lifted up, an obvious happiness about her, she sings along with the liturgy, being sure to give the appropriate responses, singing the stanzas of hymns she knows, speaking the confession, praying the prayers. She knows it all. I love seeing just how deeply the Word of God by way of a memorized order of service can be embedded in a human heart and at the ready when the senses are failing.

Then there’s Margarete. She’s a 95-year-old German. Literally. Her accent is thick. She was born and raised in a village outside of Berlin. She came to the United States after World War II, so as you can probably guess, she lived through some of the worst of times in history. She’s a dear woman who will sometimes call me just to make sure I’m coming for worship as scheduled. She got my number in a roundabout way. I didn’t see her one month at worship, and because she never misses, I asked the facility director about her absence. I discovered that she’d broken her leg and was in a rehabilitation facility nearer to where her son lives. Later that week after visiting one of my own members in the hospital, I made a quick trip down to see her to say hello. She was so happy for the visit, and she expressed an incredible sadness for missing worship and not telling me. No big deal, of course. She’s 95 and her leg was broken. The fact that she was so concerned was heartwarming, and so with that, I gave her my number to ease her worry.

What a sweet lady.

Then there are the married couples who attend. We have a few. One couple in particular (relatively new in the last year) is Wally and Edna. Wally is 88. Edna is 95. They’ve been married for 63 years. This past week they sat side by side so humbly in the less-than-spectacular setting of the little room in which the service occurs. Always a kind thing to say, Wally makes small talk with the folks around him. Edna smiles. The service begins and their reverence follows along in stride. They are absolved together. They pray together. They listen to the preaching together. They receive the Lord’s Supper together. This past Tuesday I saw the Christian togetherness of this couple take another form—a beautifully human and yet still Godly form—as Wally reached over and took Edna’s hand, even if only for a moment before letting go. A simple touch, a reminder from a loving husband to a dear wife that God continues to bless them with the joy of being together in worship.

I like seeing those things. They are revealing moments.

For me personally, they stir a holy jealousy. I want what they have. If I live to be 98—like Helen—I want to do so knowing my place in the Lord’s house. I want to be able to lift my head and rise up into the Lord’s immersing grace in the liturgy, still retaining its eloquence, still holding onto all of it within the innermost chamber of my heart. I want to continue to love it so much that, like Margarete, if I’m ever unable to be present there, I want the uncomfortably nagging sensation of the absence. I never want to become comfortable with being away from worship. I want to thirst for Word and Sacrament. And like Wally and Edna, I want to be before the Lord, sitting beside the ones I love and leaning into the forthcoming decades with hands close enough to grasp if the moment requires it.

The Athenian poet Solon said so plainly, “I grow old ever learning many things.” As I get older, I’ve learned to want the things that the Christians hovering near the century mark down at Independence Village in Brighton have. If I stop going to see them, I fear I might be distracted by other, less consequential things.

And so I keep going, because these people are continual reminders to me of the prominent rank that the regular receiving of God’s grace in worship is to have. They emit the essentiality of being together as a Christian family to receive God’s gifts of forgiveness. They beam the stamina that these gifts have for meeting the twilight hours of one’s life.

It might sometimes seem like the worship here at Our Savior in Hartland is not all that important, let alone impressive, at least not in comparison to so many other things. But when I’m with these gem-like people who dwell in the midst of humanity with the rest of us, I get a brief glimpse into just how important and impressive for the soul all of it truly is. Every last bit of what we do here is preparing us for the moment of our last breath—the moment we will step into eternity to be with Christ forever.

What could be more impressive or important than that? Not much, that’s for sure.

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.

A Child in Prayer

I don’t know if I’ve shared this with you or not, but throughout the school year, I’ve called up the eighth grade boys to something new. I’ve scheduled them to help serve as lectors during the Monday chapel services. This means that sometime between arriving at school and the beginning of the Matins service at 8:10 a.m., the one on duty for that day makes his way down to the nave, gets vested, and then looks over the Epistle reading appointed for the upcoming Sunday. And then during the service, he reads it to the children.

I can say that over the course of the year, the young men have gotten much more comfortable in the effort and are doing a splendid job. But simply to report this is not why I am sharing the account. I want to share something a little more inspiring—something that serves as a reassurance to all of us that our Christian Day School is worth every bit of toil and tears we’ve put into it over the years.

When I walked into the nave to set the lectern and lectionary in place for the service (which I usually try to do long before anyone else is in there), the student for the day was already there, vested, and kneeling at the altar rail praying. I, of course, did not do what I’d gone into the nave to do until he was done. I didn’t want to disturb him.

But there he knelt in the vastness of an empty nave—the candles aglow beyond him, the windows darkened by the early morning snow—and he prayed silently. One of God’s little ones was acting on God’s promise that he had complete access to His Savior, offering petitions from his heart that he had, in that moment, been moved to speak.

If I could’ve taken a photo, I would’ve. It was an instant reminder that we aren’t just trying to educate children according to the typical philosophies; that is, we aren’t just trying to create workers who have skills and personal styles to fill and perform jobs, or to develop active citizens who recognize their own capacity for personal achievement and contribute to the society. Of course we try at these things, but in the end, we have a much more important goal behind our efforts. Everything we attempt to do here at Our Savior arises from the objective truth of the Gospel—the good news of the forgiveness of sins through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And with that as our constant heading—our north star of calibration—we are really striving toward a better thing, which in my opinion, Luther defined pretty well when he took a moment to comment on the goals of Christian education. He said so simply that the job of a Christian school is to bring children “to believe, to live, to pray, to suffer, and to die.”

In any school, there are struggles and there are successes. I just witnessed one of the fruits of success, and for that, I am humbly thankful to God that Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran School exists and that it continues to move forward supported by you as you are moved by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel!

Keep it up! Consider this little story for all that it is: a Gospel-driven encouragement to “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58)!

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.

I Pray For You – December 12, 2017

As always, I pray all is well with you and your family, namely that you know the peace of Christ and His great love for you.

Literally. I pray this. I go into the nave, kneel at the altar rail (or sit in the first pew on the pulpit side), and I pray for you—by name.

I do a lot with social media these days. It’s one of the main forms of communication that I use for the various groups that I interact with on a regular basis—synodical, legislative, and the like. I posted on Facebook a few weeks back, not long after a foreign tragedy, that I think it’s rather telling in our society when the commonplace shaping of our condolences in the face of calamity is to say that “our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by the tragedy.” Thoughts maybe, but unless you actually take action and share your thoughts of condolence with those who would be served well by hearing them (through a greeting card, an email, or some form of personal communication), even that commonplace sentiment sounds empty, and maybe even a little weird, as though our thoughts are going to somehow rise into some ethereal space and descend in a graspable way to those who need to know we’re thinking about them or that we’re concerned for their well being.

But there’s something else we should consider in this regard.

We don’t send our prayers out to people. They go to God. And again, when someone in the midst of struggle tells another person his or her story, and that listener responds by saying, “I’ll keep you in prayer,” personally, I hope the person means it. I hope it hasn’t devolved into a substance-less response that we give to folks when we just don’t know what to say. I really hope that at the next opportunity available, he or she will actually petition our faithful God for the care of the person in need.

Yes, God already knows all things. And yet, He commands for us to pray.

I’ve thought a lot about this over the course of my life, asking myself, “If God knows all things—that is, He knows all things before I even ask—why does He want me to pray?”

By the Word of God, I’ve come to two conclusions. The first I’ll explain this way.

When my son Joshua was little, unprompted, he would tell me all the time how much he loved me. He’s seventeen now. As he’s gotten older, he still tells me that he loves me, but it’s not as often as before. Do I know that he loves me? Yes. But oh how I love to hear it. What father wouldn’t? In a sense, God loves to hear his children speak their love to Him. It isn’t a narcissistic thing, but rather it is something spoken in the midst of a relationship built on love—real, genuine, long-lasting familial love.

The second is that God knows our sinful hearts, and with that, He knows we won’t pray unless he tells us to. But again, this isn’t a hard command, but rather it is an encouraging opportunity He establishes for our good. He wants us to know the joy and importance of having complete and total access to Him, by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus, through prayer. And why? Well, it comes back around to where the thought started. Because He loves us, plain and simple.

Having said all of this, I want you to know that when I tell you that I’ll keep you in prayer, I really do. I appreciate talking with God. And again, even though He already knows everything I’m going to say, that doesn’t stop me from telling Him your name and explaining to Him what’s happening and why I really want Him to act on your behalf. Most importantly, just as Jacob wrestled with God in Genesis 32, being unwilling to let his divine opponent go until He blessed him, I hold God to His promise to bless you—to accomplish His holy will in your lives by virtue of the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord. In all of this, I know He hears me. I know He responds. I know He will act—and is, even now, already acting—to bring to completion the good work He intends, which in its core is your eternal salvation!

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.

You Belong Here

I pray all is well and that the Lord is blessing your Adventide devotion with the peace of Christ.

Admittedly and obviously, as the pastor here at Our Savior, I have a very different perspective than most when it comes to the Lord’s house. Now, I don’t mean that it’s better. I mean it’s different. For example, the view from the altar, pulpit, and lectern is very different than the view from the pews or the choir loft. Another example, and this one is bit stranger…

Maybe you knew and maybe you didn’t, but the last few years, with the ferocious weather we’ve endured, there were four or five nights when I found it necessary to spend the night here at the church in order to assure that the lights would be on and the doors would be open for Sunday worship the very next day. Pastor Pies, Sr. and Pastor Pies, Jr. made it a point that if a Divine Service was scheduled, it was going to happen, and the only thing that would be cause for canceling would be the Lord’s return in glory. I’m of the same mind, and so I don’t intend to let a cancellation ever happen on my watch. The problem is that I live considerably further away than the Pies family, and so with that, a sleepover is necessary.

Nevertheless, the point of this little narrative is to say that at 2 AM, when the lights are out and the snow is crackling against the windows, when the howling winds are creeping in and echoing in the empty halls, the church building becomes a very different place—almost alien. When it’s empty and dark and the voices of the day have all gone, this place is only half itself. Its guts are gone and you can feel it.

But when it’s bright and full—when the children are giggling in the school classrooms and corridors, when the worshippers are gathering together to sing their full-throated praises, when the sermon is booming and the organ is rattling the seams of the stained glass, when the study-goers are calling out in discussion and the whole group is learning and laughing together—this place becomes otherworldly in a different sense, almost heavenly. It becomes the fullness of its identity when its innards—you, the body of believers—return. And in this return, the Lord proves Himself to be at work by His Holy Spirit gathering His people to a place where He can be with them, where eternal life will beam because the gift of forgiveness through Word and Sacrament is being doled out with such plenty that you’d never think these hallways could ever be dark or that there could ever be silence in the rafters.

In the end, this place is what it is because of Christ and not us. And yet, Christ gathers people. And it is into people that Christ places His mercy—the light and life of His love—so that when the building’s rooms are dark and the noise is much less, we know that the true light hasn’t been extinguished. It’s simply gone out with those to whom God has given it (Matthew 5:14).

With that, know that you belong here. When you’re gone, you’re missed. Your light is a big deal to me and to the rest of your Christian family. I certainly ponder this while lying on the cot in my office in the middle of a blustery winter’s night.