Unearthly Courage

It was quite the lineup we had on Saturday. Charlie Kirk—someone I don’t know that well, but have gotten to know much better in the past few days—he did a splendid job. Dinesh D’Souza and Rafael Cruz—both men that I know and respect and call friends—they, of course, spoke to the issues facing the Church with passion and clarity. They were inspirational in so many ways, and their verve was contagious.

Then there was Jack Phillips. And I must say, I’m not the same man I was before I met Jack.

For those of you who attended, you know it sometimes took Jack a minute or two to find the words he wanted to say. And when he finally reached to where the words were hiding, he took them, wrapped them in an easy gentleness, and handed them to us in a way that warmed all in the room. The love in his family and the story of his new life in Christ made us all smile. Sometimes we gave a chuckle as he attempted to add humor in his descriptions of situations of sheer terror. Other times he brought us to tears as we saw him doing what he could to hold back his own.

After he and his lawyer, Jake Warner, were done speaking, I took Jack back to the green room so he and his wife, Debi, could rest a little before lunch. While there, we visited a little further on some things. Before I left to get back to the conference, I confessed to Jack that for all the good he is doing for the cause of Religious Liberty in America—and specifically in the moment for my own congregation and the community in which she is serving in so many ways as the tip of the spear—I confessed that I don’t think I like being responsible for Jack and Debi having to relive the horrors they’ve endured. The death threats. Terrorized children and grandchildren. The six-figure debts. The years in court he’ll never get back. The verbal attacks and the vitriol he endures day after day. The badgering from his own state rulers and the constant dread of a new lawsuit threatening to shatter everything he holds dear and to bury him in hateful rubble. With each moment that he struggled to communicate to us the seriousness of his predicament and the concern he has that the same things are facing many of us, too—each of his words being born from a severe and tortuous pain—I was sad that he was called upon to retell it. I wanted him to know how thankful I truly was that he took the time to be with us, and I told him I would forever be his servant in the Lord. He needed only to call me—anytime—and I’d be there to help, to speak, to pray, to listen.

Jack shook my hand and smiled. He thanked me and in a few short words reminded me that even as it hurts to tell the story again and again, such care from others makes it better. And ultimately, Jesus has already figured it all out. With that, everything will be okay. In the meantime, as a Christian family, we’re in this together.

Before worship yesterday, my own devotions began with a portion from Ephesians 3:16, which reads: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being…” Luther offered the following regarding those words:

“Worldly people are full of courage and of high spirits, and so are Christians. Christians are much stronger through the Holy Spirit, for they fear neither the world nor the devil, neither death nor misfortune. This is called spiritual strength… Worldly courage endures no longer than there is some earthly good on which to rely; but the true courage trusts in God alone and has no other good or gold than God alone; in Him it withstands all evil and wins an altogether different heart and courage from that of the world.”

It would seem that we need that unearthly courage more than ever before these days. Those who attended the conference were fortunate enough to see such courage in full bloom in Jack and Debi Phillips.

This reminds me of something. Do you remember the shooting incident at the outdoor concert in Las Vegas a few years ago? Such a horrific tragedy. A day or so after the ungodly event, I remember reading a news article about reporter interviewing a survivor of the incident who offered some startling words. The survivor said, “I arrived at the concert an agnostic. I’m leaving a believer.”

While I don’t know the fullness of what the person meant by that, I assume from the context that his agnostic beliefs (which is the belief that it’s impossible to know whether or not there is a God, and so the person neither claims faith nor disbelief) this man’s position changed to one that admits God is real. Whether he saw God at work through the people involved in the rescue and caring for others (Matthew 5), or he was willing to admit that only devilry could move a heart to such darkness, thereby inferring such evil must have an opponent, whichever it was, this man took a step toward recognizing this world is coming undone and it needs rescue.

Yesterday, Sunday, those of you who made it to church here at Our Savior, you heard the Good News of that rescue. We were blessed to have some visiting clergy. Reverend Rahn from the Lutheran Heritage Foundation, and Bishop Peter Anibati, the Bishop of the South Sudanese Lutheran Church, were both with us. Reverend Rahn preached the Gospel, and as he did, you met with and received from the One—Jesus Christ—who provides for the rescue of a world steeped in terror. Last week you heard me preach, quite literally, that on the cross, Christ gave Himself over—horrifyingly, grotesquely, vividly. He plunged into Death’s mouth, down its throat, and into its belly to be digested. From there, he was the poison that killed Death. And then He tore back up and out of Death’s corpse by way of His resurrection at Easter. You were told by way of the story of the Widow of Nain that never before has there ever been someone who could contend with the terrors of this world, namely Death, and win. And yet, the Gospel declares that the day has come, and the One who can do it is Jesus. The week before that, Pastor Zwonitzer delivered the same Good News of incredible power. Receiving a steady diet of this Gospel here at Our Savior, whether you realize it or not, you are being forearmed for meeting with a world that would seek to crush and utterly destroy you. You are being fed by His Word and Sacraments for the courage Luther described in the portion above. This supernatural food meets you where you are, and it instills the very message that supersedes the world’s hope and gives true Christian hope.

This is the same kind of hope many of you saw beaming brightly from Jack and his lovely wife, Debi—two of the humblest, and yet fiercest, heroes in American Christianity. Period.

My prayer for you, dearest Christian, is that even as you go about your day and week and are confronted by struggles—as you watch and listen to the newscasts, as you behold the sadness, the terror, the creeping hopelessness that seems to pall a Christian’s world day after day—my prayer is that you would first be calmed by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, which is a message not just of God’s existence, but one that actually displays and works His wonderful love revealed in Jesus Christ and His life, death, and resurrection. Sturdied by this, emboldened by this, made courageous by this and by this alone, go out into the world to be salt and light. Be the ones whom God will use to show a suffering world that He exists, He loves us, and He has reached out to us in our moment of greatest need. Be emitters of a Gospel that proclaims that on the cross, Jesus has already figured it all out, and with that, everything will be okay. And in the meantime, as a Christian family, take comfort in knowing we’re in this together. In Him, no matter the terrors that appear to consume this fallen world, we are and have been well cared for in and through the person and work of our rescuer, Jesus Christ.

A Love Like Theirs

I have a story to tell you about Wally and Ellie. Maybe you know them, and maybe you don’t. When they were in worship, they’d sit together on the pulpit side of the nave near the front. Technically they’re not members of this congregation, although as lifelong and faithful Lutherans, I treated them as though they were. They’d been attending for some time thanks to one of our families stopping by and picking them up. Although that came to end this past year when Ellie suffered a mild stroke and became more so homebound.

Anyway, as I said, I have a story to share, and because I’m a storyteller at heart, I thought I’d do it in narrative form. I hope you’ll take the time to read it. I share it as I beheld it in my mind’s eye while Ellie shared it with me…

It was the Fourth of July. It had been a long and tiring day. Even so, neither complained. The time with their son and his children was precious and always well worth the toll to the body.

Wally unlocked and opened the door to the apartment, being sure to turn on the light while at the same time holding the door for Ellie, just as he always did.

“Thank you, dear,” she said, moving slowly with her walker. Once inside, she made her way to her favorite recliner, which was just beyond their little round kitchen table stacked with various knickknacks held sacred by both. Giving as full an exhale as her petite frame could, she plopped down and closed her eyes.

Wally followed. Placing his hand on her tiny shoulder as he passed, he offered, “It’s getting late, Ellie.” In the same manner as his frail bride, he dropped into his favorite place on the couch just across the way from her. “How about we do our devotion and then get to bed?” he asked.

“Okay,” she whispered, her eyes still closed.

Wally reached to the coffee table at his knees, and taking a volume from the top of a short stack of tattered editions, he turned to a page already being reserved by a frilly bookmark Ellie had made in a former day, a time when her eyes and hands kept a keener pace.

He read the text—a brief portion from John 6 describing a faltering crowd of Jesus’ followers and Peter’s words of faith, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” A simple explanation by the devotional’s author followed. In all, it only took a few minutes. Ellie closed with prayer. She gave thanks for the wonderful day with her husband and family. They prayed the Lord’s Prayer together.

“Ok, then,” Wally said, closing the book and returning it to its place. “I’ll close up out here. You go on ahead and I’ll be there in a minute.” His back quite sore from the day, he gave a slight grunt and arose to help Ellie. Repositioning her walker, he took her hand into his and helped her to her feet.

“I’ll see you in a minute,” he said again.

“Ok,” she said softly. “Don’t be long.”

“I won’t.”

Ellie was already in bed when Wally came in. He changed into his pajamas and climbed in beside her. But he was only there a moment before pulling back the covers and getting out of bed.

“I’m feeling a little warm,” he said. “I’m going to go turn the air down a bit.” Another moment passed and he was back. Ellie turned toward him as he worked to fluff his pillow.

“I love you,” she said.

“I love you, too,” he returned.

They kissed.

Ellie reached to turn off the light, and with its click, she settled back in beside her husband. A minute or two of silence between them, Ellie offered a final remark for the evening. “It certainly was a wonderful day,” she said. “A truly wonderful day.”

Wally didn’t answer.

“Are you already asleep?” she chuckled wearily, turning back toward him in the darkness. Wally was silent.

She nudged him once. And then again. Turning back to the bedside table, she turned on the light. Wally’s eyes were closed, but his mouth was open. She nudged him again, and this time he gave a gurgling sound. He wasn’t sleeping. He was struggling.

She called the emergency number for the facility, and within minutes a team was in the apartment attending to Wally. In Ellie’s own words, from that moment until the time they arrived at the hospital, life had become somewhat blurry. She doesn’t remember getting dressed. She doesn’t remember the drive. She remembers being gathered at his bedside and hearing the doctors say that Wally had suffered a massive stroke and that his time with her would most likely be very short.

Ellie stayed with Wally through the night.

Their son arrived the next morning, bringing in tow his eight-year-old daughter. Wally was showing signs of consciousness—holding Ellie’s hand and squeezing when she asked him questions, affirming for her that he trusted in Jesus for his salvation, and smiling whenever she talked, even if it wasn’t to him. He loved her voice. He had always loved her voice.

In the midst of the hushed hospital room, somehow Wally became aware that his granddaughter had brought along a pen.

“Grampa’s wiggling his fingers to me, Grandma,” the little girl said.

“I think he wants your pen, honey,” she replied. Without hesitation, the little girl placed the pen into the hand of the man she’d so often given her own hand to hold. But there was no paper, and so Ellie turned over an empty tissue box to its plain white base and gave it to her granddaughter. The little girl held it firmly. Wally wrote in large capital letters.

LOVE ELLIE, he crafted slowly and carefully.

“He loves you, Grandma,” the little girl said as Wally continued scribing something else, a number.

“71?” the eight-year-old asked, turning back to her grandmother.

“Seventy-one years,” she said, her mouth betraying a quiver and her eyes beginning to wet. “We’ve been married for seventy-one years. That’s how long we’ve been together. That’s how long he’s loved me.”

Awash with a toothy smile, “Write something for me, Grampa,” the cheerful grandchild said.

Giving a labored but still genuine smile to match hers, he reached to the tissue box and began to scribble again.

S… O… M… E… T… H… I… N… G.

Ellie, her son, and her granddaughter beamed brightly together.

“He wrote you ‘something,’” Ellie said and grasped for Wally’s hand.

He took his last breath in that moment.

This is the story as Ellie recalled it while we sat together last Tuesday. Again, as you can see, I took the liberty of crafting what I was visualizing as she spoke. It was a Godly and serene event, one in which Ellie, even now, takes great comfort.

“Wally is with Jesus,” she said. “And I don’t feel slighted at all. We had 71 years together in a wonderful, Christian marriage.”

“This is true, Ellie,” I said. “And thanks be to God, because of Jesus, you’ll see him again.”

“Yes, I will,” she replied. “I’ll see him, again. Who knows when that’ll be, but I know it’ll be.”

Wally is with Jesus. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Ellie is at peace in this wrestling with Death. The Gospel wins.

On the way back to the church, my car radio was tuned to a local rock station. Normally I have it on a talk radio station, but for some reason, today was different. Still thinking about what had just happened, I adjusted the volume much lower than it was when I arrived. It just felt wrong to listen to anything other than silence. Still, I could hear a familiar voice through the speakers. True to the station’s ordinary playlists, it was Axle Rose, the lead singer of Guns N’ Roses, and he was singing a familiar song from the late 80s, one that spoke of his pride in his ability to bed pretty much any woman he wanted followed by nights of heavy drinking that turned into half-conscious days of gritty debauchery. It was a song that described the absolute opposite of what I’d just heard and seen.

Now, I don’t know anything about Axle Rose. I don’t know his beliefs, and even if I did, I could never tell you the contents of his heart. Nevertheless, in that moment of contrasting images, I imagined that if his lyrics are in any way revelatory of the truest corners of his viscera, like the rest of us—like Wally—he will one day breathe his last, and when he does, I wondered if he’d ever be able to scratch on the bottom of a tissue box for someone else what Wally scratched for Ellie. Would he even have an Ellie, someone there holding his hand, being with him through the darkest hours of the night, reminding him of Jesus, encouraging him to trust in the One who breaks the darkness?

I wondered.

But then I thought of something else, and I sat in my car in the church parking lot for a few minutes savoring the realization.

For one, seventy-one years is a long time to be married, especially in this day and age. It’s something to be celebrated. But seventy-one years is also a time frame in which plenty of struggle is possible. I know this to be true. Wally and Ellie told me the stories of their lives when I visited with them. Just for starters, I know they lost three children to cancer at young ages. Such things can tax a marriage to its extremities and has the potential for causing divisions between a husband and wife that many of us will never fully know.

In one sense, and looking on from the story I shared, they had a perfect marriage. But we all know that no marriage is perfect and that’s because no human is perfect. You, me, Axle Rose, Wally and Ellie, we all swim together in the fellowship of human depravity and are in need of help from outside of our sphere. This means that while some marriages will last seventy-one years, others will only last six months. This means that some will be able to live their lives without fear of addiction while others won’t, and yet, all will have grievous thorns in their flesh that haunt just the same and bear an equal potency for separation from God.

We’re in this together. That’s our first point of order. But the overarching lesson to be learned is not necessarily that Wally and Ellie had a Maybury life in comparison to a guy like Axle Rose, but rather it is that together they were a living testament to the fact that Jesus was there, right in the middle of it all, proving that His Gospel is powerful enough to outlast the assaults, temptations, and storms that came to them throughout the seventy-one years. The moments at the end of Wally’s life are a collage of images declaring this. It is for us to look upon them and be moved to know that Jesus is right in the middle of it all for us, too, no matter what we’re experiencing. In all truth, we already know that He’s the kind of Savior who goes right into the midst of the messes, who’ll sit down right next to Axle Rose and dine with him, giving the same Gospel that can convert and convince for faith. Certainly He’s dining with you and me, too. In humility and faith, we’re willing to acknowledge that we’re at the table with the tax collectors and sinners.

So, in order to bring this to an end… I suppose the first thing I’d encourage among you is to rejoice in the blessings God has given to you, namely that He has granted you faith in Jesus, but also that He has so generously sustained you and your family in the middle of a world that is most certainly coming undone. Second, give thanks that whether or not He has allowed an “Ellie” of sorts in your life or immediate family, you are surrounded by a congregation of believers, a fellowship of saints, who love you, pray for you, and would most certainly be there at your bedside if your last hour was at hand. Why? Because we know we’re in this together. We’re God’s family. Third, and perhaps last, think on those who don’t know such a peaceful joy in this life. Prayerfully consider how you might take this peace that you have here among your Christian family and communicate just what it means to you while in the presence of others drowning in an often overwhelming tide of secularism. There may be an “Axle Rose” or two who come to the realization that contentment in this life is much more than money, possessions, and a life of self-service; and maybe through your Gospel words and actions, they’ll see the Lord Jesus sitting at the table with them and giving to them something so much better.

With that, God bless and keep you this day. As always, you are in my prayers. I mean, of course you are! You are my Christian family!

Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse

As always, I pray all is well for you this week and that the approaching Fourth of July holiday will be a joyous one.

I had an interesting occurrence this past week, one that, of course, stirred a particular thought that I’d like to share.

During Philip Haney’s visit here at Our Savior, I managed to have a quick conversation with a pastor with whom I’m friends online but have never actually met in person. It was nice to visit together in person, and while we were talking in my office, at one point his eyes shifted to the shelf beyond my desk where I keep all of my classical literature volumes. If you’ve ever been in my office for any length of time, then you’ll know I have reasonably full assemblage of Dickens and Shakespeare and Twain and so many others—all the good stuff. But as he was observing the selections from a short distance, he noticed lying sideways across the top of editions by Hemingway, Hawthorne, and Poe an obviously well-read volume entitled The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks.

Yes, you read that rightly. I have a book that I read pretty regularly about how to survive a zombie apocalypse.

“What’s a guy like you doing reading a book like that?” was the tone of my friend’s commentary.

The essentials of my answer:

While the book is written with a tone of complete seriousness, it’s easy to see how it deals with itself and its own momentousness as being nothing short of laughably entertaining. With that, it’s not entirely uncommon for me, before wading into challenging moments of great seriousness, to first read from Psalm 27 or 32, and then to measure my own emotions by flipping through Brooks’ volume for some satirical levity. In other words, after receiving the right comfort for my soul from the Lord, I’ll say to myself before things get a little crazy, “Well, it could be worse,” and then I’ll turn to a chapter about how important it is in a zombie apocalypse to keep one’s hair short lest the undead have one more thing to grab in close-quarters combat.

Yeah, I know. Silly, right? Still, I share it because it leads to a deeper point, at least for me—and I hope I can explain it properly.

God speaks by way of His Word regarding the ultimate peace we have in Jesus, how it overcomes all things. This Word actually changes us to know that there is nothing that this world can throw at us that is so powerful that it can conquer our Lord and His promises. Giving this serious consideration, that’s what I mean when I read the zombie guide and say, “Well, it could be worse.” Sure, things can always get worse. Zombies are the perfect example. But still, the promise is that even if we suddenly find ourselves surrounded by them, the promises of God do not change. There’s still nothing that can ever be so overwhelming in the life of a Christian that it can actually usurp God’s loving might and His efforts to keep us in steadfast in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Christ died that we might have eternal life—not a zombie-free life. With that in mind, and as silly as it may sound, I really can make my way into some pretty threatening situations without getting too flustered, overly-bothered, or angry. In fact, after reading about strategies for protecting a two-story home from a ghoulish horde, a smile and a lighter step comes a little more easily when talking to someone who’d much rather call me an enemy than a friend. And trust me, a kindly, easier smile in such circumstances is much more fruitful than one that is forced.

With that, take what you can from this casual rambling from a fellow human being who struggles with sin in this world and the challenges it brings just as much as the next person. And I suppose you can be assured that if you ever need a good handbook on zombies, I’m your guy.