I’d Like to Tell You a Story

I’d like to tell you a story. I’ve been given permission to tell it for your benefit. In some ways, many of you already know the tale’s beginning, because it is a telling of familiar things.

What I’m about to describe happened last Thursday. Even at 9:00 AM, the December sky was successfully holding back the sun’s exuberance, leaving a pre-dawn feeling.

Through my office window, I saw the counterpart to my morning meeting making her way from the parking lot to the church doors. I’d promised her the evening before following the Advent service that I’d have coffee ready and waiting when she arrived, and so I reached for and dropped a K-cup into my Keurig. A newly washed mug was already in waiting below. The reservoir was empty, so it took a quick moment to fill it. In an instant, the coffee was flowing. As it did, I was out and down the office hallway toward the darkened entryway searching for my guest.

I didn’t see her at first, although admittedly, I wasn’t wearing my glasses. Assuming she may have taken a sideway into the restroom, I stood near the door to the offices. The day school children—all but a few of the 131 of them—were already in the church nave, gathered at the chancel and practicing for the Children’s Christmas service only a few weeks away. They were rehearsing the final hymn, a masterfully orchestrated rendition of “Silent Night,” which, if you’ve ever been to this Office of Evening Prayer service, then you know there is little to compare. Because I’ve participated in it for more than twenty years, I can see it now as I think on it.

The air is cool. The pews are filled. Family and friends sit compactly, yet happily. The nave and sanctuary are dimly lit. The candles throughout are fluttering, each child holding their own light. The Advent and Christmas décor is twinkling. The voices of the children hover above all of it on the pipe organ’s melodies, as if the collective sound is coming from the heavens above, rather than the earth beneath.

It’s always quite moving. Even the rehearsals can carry a listener into divine spaces.

And then I saw my guest. Actually, no. I didn’t see her. I heard her. She was barely a step from the entryway into the narthex—and she was crying. When she saw me approaching, she quickly began wiping the tears away only to begin sobbing more deeply.

“I needed this, today,” she choked. “This is the first thing God gave me when I walked into this place this morning, and I truly needed it.”

I was gentle with my words, making sure there was no shame in the moment. What she was doing was well and good in such a place. The Lord Himself knows I’ve been in similar situations. It can be overwhelming to hear the Gospel wrapped up and delivered in a way that truly communicates its divine origin. Tears are sometimes the soul’s only reply.

We made our way down the hallway to my office. We spent the next hour sipping coffee and talking about a multitude of things. Amidst the confession of some harder histories, she noted there was no place she’d ever experienced like Our Savior. Having been raised Christian, she fell away in the years beyond her 18th birthday. But in these latter days, the need for something more had begun to overwhelm her.

She’d visited countless other churches—Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and mostly otherwise—still, she never found herself in a pew or stadium seat that actually communicated a station before eternity. She didn’t say it with the precision that I intend to share right now, but again, I’ve been given permission to tell this story.

Her words crafted a narrative of far too many churches that, by their practices, imply the selling of religion. They sought to draw her closer to their ranks in the same ways the world might try—rock bands, screens, you name it. But in the swirling confusion of their seat-filling stratagem, they never could quite reach that part of her insides that was suffering. Their Gospel of justification before God always seemed wired to her ability to produce good deeds (which, for the wayward, can only default into terror), or by making a personal choice (and yet, how can a spiritual corpse—someone who knows oneself to be dead in trespasses and sins—choose Jesus?). Their sacraments were symbols, bringing very little consolation or certainty to a broken heart in need of more than referring to Jesus, but actually meeting with Him—literally—and knowing He’s there for her.

But at Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan, there was the sense of something unalike to these others.

“Our Savior is so different,” she said, repeatedly. “You’re not like the other places I’ve been.”

For her, the facility in which she was currently seated was different. For her, it not only had a sign that bore the title “church,” but once inside, it seemed to be a dwelling place for someone or something so much more—something holy. And over the course of the several Sundays she’d attended, of the people greeting and sitting beside her, none gave any sense to having been gathered by some sort of baiting impetus. None in the surrounding pews were there because of a lead guitarist with amazing skill. None were there because the pastors were stand-apart showman among a sea of humdrum preachers. None were there for a show.

And she wasn’t, either. She was in search of a place where the Divine might dwell, and her hope was that when she found Him, He’d take her back.

Stirring in this humble hope, she discovered herself sitting, standing, kneeling, praying, confessing, singing beside hundreds of others—acknowledged sinners, just like her—being carried along by a historic liturgy of solemnity and reverence. She was immersed in a service that, while strange in comparison to everything she’d collided with prior, she knew could only have been born from the same soil as countless generations of worshippers before her, a framework that began in the tiny house churches of the first century, built on the teachings of the Apostles and Prophets, all in place and sprouting up through the centuries to aim penitently grieving offenders to a gracious God who desires nothing more than to come and sit with them, to give them a Gospel of power that assures our deeds play no part in our salvation, a Gospel that takes hold of spiritual corpses and brings them to life, a Gospel that heals them and draws them close to the Son of God, Jesus Christ. This is a Gospel that heralds our God as one who holds no ill will for the sinner. He loves us. He forgives us. And He promises to be with us no matter how dark our days may be.

We left the conversation as only the Word of God could rightly describe, with the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7), and we made plans to meet on Thursdays at the same time in order to dig deeper into these things.

So, why I am sharing this with you, especially since in this post-modern, radically individualized age such situations happen frequently enough around here that they can barely be considered peculiar?

Chiefly, because I want to remind the members of my own congregation (and I suppose anyone else who may be on their tiptoes peering through the window of our seemingly mundane, but otherworldly, lives here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan) of two things in particular.

First, be glad that there are churches that still deal in the more reverential realms of “holy.” Be glad there are churches that keep the boundaries between the Church and the culture as crisply distinct as can be. Such places are in the divine business of building foundations for the long haul. Sure, people have the things they like, their preferences, their styles. To each his own, I suppose. “What works for some might not work for others,” we’ll hear said. Still, I wonder if perhaps that’s a somewhat loaded response for protecting a church formed to oneself, a worship community created in one’s own favorite and time-limited self-image. When you’re gone, what’s next? Whatever the next guy likes to do, I guess. True or not, at a minimum, be well aware that people know—they just know—when they’re being entertained as opposed to being led into the substantive presence of a divine Someone who is far deeper than the wowing experientials indistinguishable from the world around them could ever reach. Sure, the self-image ways may speak of Jesus, but do they really point to Him? Do they really give nothing else but Him? Do they make the introduction? And will it last? Will it survive wars? Will it persist even among the prowling monsters of this age and the next? I wonder.

The second reason I share this returns us to the tears being shed in the Narthex. There’s a reason Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan continues putting our time, treasure, and back-breaking muscle into a tuition-free, preschool through eighth grade school. Not only is it an incomparable opportunity set before our community for getting kids out of the mind-bending education system that’s shoving ungodliness down their tiny throats, but most importantly, it stands as a beacon for immersing generations of little ones in the only message that saves. From this, it becomes nothing less than a longstanding avenue for others to hear that same message through those same little ones. All a person has to do is walk in the doors, and it won’t be long before the bright-beaming light of a Christian child will have its effect on the visitor. Children are the consequential emissaries of our school’s existence. And whether this work happens through the Children’s Christmas service, or it happens among their neighborhood friends, or it happens twenty years from now in a conversation with a fellow employee in the neighboring cubicle, what we’re doing here has limitless horizons that prove themselves as thriving in our children right now. And so we put everything into our efforts here. We give it our best. We teach and preach of Christ. We train in Godliness and reverence, learning the rites and ceremonies, the creeds, the prayers, the hymnodies sung by the early Church Fathers and their people before being fed to lions. And we gather all of it up and cherish all of it together as the wonderfully sturdy gift from a loving God that it is.

It becomes a home base for the kind of Christianity that doesn’t roll over, whether it’s before the next big distracting, anthropocentric, contemporary trend, or it’s an armed regiment sent by Caesar to snatch you away to your mortal doom.

In the Midst of Regret, Get Behind Jesus

I posted something last week that got quite the response. If you missed it, you can read it at https://cruciformstuff.wordpress.com/2019/06/10/the-death-and-burial-of-the-christian-faith/.The thrust of my words, which I know hit some folks pretty squarely: Death comes for all, and a funeral filled with the hopelessness of a family that has strayed from the faith is a dreadful thing.

There were, as I expected, a few who reached to me in response. They said in summary: “Your words came a few years too late, Pastor. I didn’t put the effort that I probably should’ve into raising my children. I wasn’t deliberate in teaching them who they are as God’s child; how as His forgiven people we are to hold to His Word as our everything; how worship is essential to life itself, especially as we venture into a world in conflict with the Christian faith. I didn’t do these things with my kids. I didn’t steer them faithfully. Now they’ve strayed. They’re living with their boyfriend or girlfriend. They’ve married someone who is more than pulling them away from Christ. They subscribe to lifestyles that are contrary to God’s Word. My grandkids aren’t baptized. I feel terrible, pastor, and I wish I would’ve done more.”

I won’t lie. These are the words of real regret. And they hurt. Harriet Beecher Stowe rightly said, “The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.”

The honesty of regret sets before us a very important, but also very simple, question: Now what? I would say the answer to this question is of equal import and simplicity: Jesus.

The only way through regret is to look to Christ. And such remorseful pivoting is the humility of a penitent faith that acknowledges some things.

First it acknowledges the humanness in which we dwell. Even now as we say, “If I could go back, I’d do things differently,” the honest and contrite heart admits that we probably wouldn’t do things differently. We are sinners and we get trapped in the same kinds of sins over and over again—even the ones we know can destroy us.

In brutal honesty, a penitent heart of faith also acknowledges that we’re the ones responsible. We don’t look to others around us, our conditions, or anything else in order to find loopholes for excusing our thoughts, words, and deeds done or left undone. We are to blame.

It’s here that the human heart peers into a darkness of sorts. In that darkness, faith and regret wrestle.

Regret sees nothing but a hopelessly endless night. But faith in Christ and His merciful care proves stronger. By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel of forgiveness for any and all things we’ve ever done—even the grim failures marked by regret—faith beholds the deep darkness of midnight becoming a more hopeful blue, which is a kinder color promising that night won’t remain forever, but that soon the sunlit morning of a brand new day is coming. In other words, by faith we confess our sins, and we know with certainty that God in His faithfulness will forgive us and give us a brand new start.

Forgiveness buries regret. Life begins anew. Life begins right now.

In the midst of that hope-filled turnaround, Jesus has plenty of Gospel to give, and by it, He steadies us with a courage of word and skill we didn’t seem to have years ago. He reminds us that even workers who come late to the harvest will receive the same glorious reward (Matthew 20:1-16). God is merciful. He desires that all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), which also means that He won’t be working against anyone in any of their efforts to do now what they didn’t do years ago (Psalm 118:6-9).

Next, by His Gospel He never fails to show us the determination of a parent for a child. He wants for our rescue. In particular, in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), our God paints the portrait of an enduring and long-suffering love He has for us, and it’s one that He can work in us as we reach back into the lives of our own families. By God’s grace, the muscle for doing this remains available to us as we remain connected to Christ and His gifts in holy worship.

The example of Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine, comes to mind.

If ever there was a prodigal son, it was Augustine. His mother raised him in the faith, and yet he strayed terribly. He lived with a woman, fathered child, and lived a life of self-centered decadence. And yet, she prayed—which some might say is an understatement. Monica lived and breathed a vigil that God would move Augustine to embrace the Gospel truth he’d been given. When he moved away from his mother to Milan, she followed him, even joining Saint Ambrose’s church. Eventually Augustine did return to the faith, and as it would be, did so not long before his mother’s death. He wrote in his Confessions that he was thankful to God for her diligence—that she never gave up, but rather wept prayerfully for him for so many years.

Continuing on, God is certain to both remind and then comfort us that even as we are tools in His hands for others, no one within reach of any of us is convinced or converted by our efforts. Faith is worked by the power of the Gospel (Romans 1:16; 10:17). It’s not our job to save anyone. It’s our task to give that which saves and to pray to the Lord of the harvest to produce the fruit. And so we do what we can when and where we can to give the message of Christ’s death and resurrection in love as Christ gave it to us (2 Corinthians 5:14). Sometimes we’ll find ourselves in situations where we might season our speech with the salt of the Gospel (Colossians 4:6). Other times we’ll find ourselves communicating the Gospel without words. Once again, Monica comes to mind. She had been given in marriage to Patricius, an unbeliever. She tried to encourage him, but in the end, discovered that simply following the Lord’s Word in 1 Peter 3:1-6 was the better way. Eventually, Patricius became a Christian. We can be as Monica. We can display a love for Christ and His Gospel through simple, everyday deeds—such as praying before a meal and teaching the grandkids to do the same, making time to go to church even while visiting family out of state, and so many other things—knowing these actions themselves proclaim a trust in and commitment to the One who gave His life for the world. And who knows? Perhaps by these potent displays, onlookers will see Christ and give Him glory (Matthew 5:13-16).

I could go on sharing other particulars I know the Lord can work in and through you as you step from the regret of “Now what?” into the action of “Right now,” but I suppose the last thing I’ll mention is Christ’s promise to be with you. He is true to His Word, and He has more than established that He is with us always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20), a promise connected to baptism and the teaching of His Word. Naturally, from that promise comes the fortified certainty that He will never leave nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5), that He will not leave you orphaned in your newfound desire to engage in this work, but rather will come to you (John 14:18) and make His home with you (John 14:23).

God will set up residence in your midst. That’s a wonderful promise.

My prayer for you is, first, one of strength, that God would give you all that is necessary for enduring the way forward. Second, I pray for your comfort. Cast aside the regret and get behind Jesus. The devil will poke at you, doing all he can to remind you of your failures. And as you reach back into the lives of your loved ones with the saving Gospel, he’ll stir up as many disheartening obstacles as he can. He’ll see to making you feel foolish. He’ll see to the suggestion that it’s a lost cause. He’ll see to the sense that by speaking the truth in love, you are being offensive and at the edge of alienating a family member.

Don’t worry. Get behind Jesus and stay there. Trust Him. Cling to His Word. Remember, He’s the one who told Peter (a seasoned fisherman who’d already been fishing all night and caught nothing) to cast His net into the deep water at a time of day when all reasonable sense suggested it would be an incredibly foolish thing to do (Luke 5:1-11).

Jesus gives the Word. It’s a Word of great power and hope. We trust Him and we let down our nets. We don’t expect anything beyond this except that He will give the successes according to His good and gracious will. Even more so, if we labor on and eventually breathe our last without having seen any results, we can remain at peace in His comforting love, because His promise still stands that our labor in the Lord was never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). There is no doubt that something wonderful was indeed accomplished through us.

God grant for you the humble faith to believe this, the comfort to know our Lord’s forgiveness, and the courage go forward from here.