Crib to Casket

As a congregation, there’s a lot in store for Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan over the next few months. Visits from prominent guest speakers, graduations, and so many other unique opportunities will land in our midst. And yet, two of the most important dates to which we’ll give deliberate attention will be Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. National holidays, yes. Still, as a church, we’ll embrace them as days for honoring the office of “parent,” which stems naturally from God’s divinely established institution of marriage (Genesis 2:18-25).

We’ll celebrate these days not by swapping out the appointed readings for the day or by forcing the topics of “mother” or “father” into the sermon, but rather by letting the parents among us choose the distribution hymns during the Lord’s Supper. We’ll keep to a stabilizing liturgy that continues to set our eyes on Christ and His person and work for our forgiveness. The Word of God will be given. The Gospel will be preached. And in the midst of this, the congregation will give a more-than-appropriate nod of reverence by way of the Church’s rich hymnody to the Lord’s gracious care for His world through the societal-stabilizing gift of the family. (Visit https://www.lutheransforlife.org/article/gods-design-of-family/ to read more on what I mean that the family is a societal-stabilizing gift of God.)

I don’t know about you, but when I became a parent, there’s one very important thing that I learned almost immediately. I learned that no matter how I might be tempted to consider myself an expert in any given field, I will never be tempted to think of myself as anything more than an amateur as a father. Yes, Benjamin Spock tried to stir confidence in all of us in his infamous book Baby and Child Care when he wrote, “You know more than you think you do.” Still, there are those moments with my own children—conversations, situations, circumstances—in which I’m at a loss for words or certainty. I just don’t know what to do.

In one sense, these moments are to my benefit. They keep me level. They set before me that I’m never above the One who established the office of parent. They are moments for me to know that there’s only one Father with all the answers for every situation. I am merely a steward of the little ones He’s put into my care. He remains their true Father, and so I am duty-bound to rely on Him for what’s necessary for raising them.

This reminds me of something else.

As a pastor, I’m guessing that I attend more funerals than most folks. It’s part of the job. Over the years, I’ve noticed it’s not all that uncommon for families to put things into the casket to be buried with their loved one—special things, trinkets and such of lifelong importance. When I see these things in the casket—things that journeyed alongside them through their lives—I am reminded of something very parental in nature.

Hovering above the casket takes me to those moments when I was hovering above my little ones lying in the bassinet. It’s a momentary reminder that even as our little ones fit into a crib, the things we give, the songs we sing, the practices we uphold all along the way of their lives have enormous potential for remaining with them all the way through to the day when they will be fitted to a casket.

The job of parenting isn’t an easy one. The devil, the world, and the Sinful flesh sees quite well to making the task a challenging one. I think it was Bette Davis who said that you’re not officially a parent until you’ve been hated by your child. Those, as many of you already know, are true words. And yet we go forward. We make our kids brush their teeth. We argue with them about turning off the video games and going outside to play. We demand that they be home before midnight. We duke it out over their messy rooms, and we tell them a thousand times not to throw wet towels on the bathroom floor after a shower, as well as to flush the toilet and turn off the light before they leave.

There are plenty of times we find ourselves grappling with them just to get them to the Lord’s house for worship. And then the combat continues as we wrestle to keep them immersed in the liturgy, hymnody, and life of what really is the fellowship of their truest family—the holy Christian church. It’s exhausting. In fact, it can sometimes seem far too overwhelming to be worth the effort, especially during the teenage years when the child believes there are much better things to be doing than sitting in the pews at church.

But Christian parents fight on. And why?

Crib to casket.

In families, the space in between those two points is divinely appointed to mothers and fathers, and as believers, we take these life-long roles as stewards very seriously. Sure, we’ll always be those fathers who give the boyfriends of our college-aged daughters a poker face adorned with stern eyes. We’ll remain those mothers who pester our middle-aged sons not to forget to send a thank-you to aunt so-and-so for the birthday gift. But most importantly, we’ll be those parents who are forever concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of our children. We’ll never be able to shake the urge to be both nearsighted and farsighted. Nearsighted in that our eyes are fixed clearly upon the baptismal font where they were washed clean in the blood of Christ and claimed as His own; and farsighted as we look beyond that gracious act to their falling asleep in the Lord and their blessed Christian funeral.

I pray regularly for the stamina necessary for being a Christian parent in this day and age. Admittedly, in comparison to America’s history, Christian parents are facing unprecedented challenges to raising Godly children. Knowing this, prayer is a big deal. But even more importantly, regular worship is essential. In fact, it is the lifeblood for a Christian family. If parents and their children are not connected to Christ and the gifts He gives in holy worship, they are being starved of not only what saves, but what preserves from the crib to the casket.

My prayer for you is always the same—that you’ll never give up in this regard, that you’ll muscle through every obstruction to being with Christ in worship, that you’ll love your kids enough to use the time you have now to shepherd them into the presence of the One who loves them more than any of us ever could.

The dividends of such an effort are immeasurable. You’ll know them in the fullest sense in heaven. It’s there that you’ll look side to side and see your family. And in that eternal moment, I guarantee you’ll bear an equally eternal smile, one to which the frowns of struggle in this life will just never compare.

A Review of the Movie “Unplanned”

The prefix “un” is a powerful device of the English language. Add it to any concept, and it is reversed.

Things once believed with conviction are found unbelievable. Sturdy ideological fabric is unraveled. Something sure is found unreliable.

This is the “un” of the film “Unplanned,” and I dare say that no matter the starting point for the viewer—whether pro-life or pro-choice—at the end of the film, neither will be found unaffected.

To start, over the last few years, I’ve given presentations to various Right to Life groups, and as part of the presentation, I’ve sometimes added that I believe that abortion won’t begin to subside until people are made to look at it—to actually look at it—like the citizens of Germany following World War II. No sooner than they were marched through the camps and shown the piles of bodies did they finally begin to learn the gravity of the evil in their midst and eventually own their Sin.

“Unplanned” isn’t quite the same thing, although it is a marching through the death camp of sorts. It certainly is far more than just a peek behind the curtain. And this is good, because for many in America, the topic of Abortion is more like a lizard’s tail than the actual lizard. They’ve grabbed at it for so long thinking they’ve captured it, but in reality, it has slipped away leaving behind only a fragment of itself. The casual pro-lifer thinks abortion is bad, but isn’t all that concerned with working to make it completely illegal. The casual pro-choicer just wants it to be “safe and rare.” I suppose in a sense, the film reminds people on both sides of the issue that none can be too sure of the ideology they have in hand until coming face to face with the actual lizard strutting its full color, until stepping through the gateway of the death camp. When this happens, when the moviegoer sees abortion sunning itself in full array, plans to hold onto what we think is true of abortion suddenly become un-planned. They are swiftly and mercilessly undone, unraveled, and marked as unbelievable.

It’s hard for anyone—anyone truly human, that is—to witness the tiniest among us struggling to avoid an invading monster, a beast that reaches up and into the womb to so violently tear her limb from limb and ultimately pull her through a much smaller suction tube toward a waste receptacle collecting the bubbling, gory chunks of visceral red. Seeing this, the complacent pro-lifer will better understand the value of exchanging attendance at a soccer game for the opportunity to actively participate on the front lines to overthrow the clinics performing these Auschwitz-like events. Beholding this, the obstinate pro-choicer might just be found choking on the lie betrayed by the grim ultrasound imagery of a sentient life fiercely engaging in self-preservation. God willing they might just see that abortion isn’t the virtue-signaling solution to inconvenience it has been made out to be, that it isn’t a medical procedure performed on a clump of cells, that it isn’t a fundamental right of a woman.

It’s homicide—cold, calculated slaughter.

“Unplanned” takes our preconceived notions—our ideological plans—and un-plans them.

Now just a bit of critical commentary, which should in no way dissuade you from seeing the film. See it. Take others with you. It is worth your dollars and time.

First, I’ll admit the acting isn’t the best—except for Ashley Bratcher, who plays Abby Johnson, the woman who lived the story you’re seeing on the screen. No matter how awkward some of the scripted scenes were, she invested herself fully in the drama required to carry each one. She is perhaps challenged for best performance by one of the smallest, briefest roles in the film. Anisa Nyell Johnson, whose character is only mentioned in the credits as “Rhonda’s Mom,” is on screen for maybe less than two or three minutes, but in that short period of time, she gives a stirring performance. In fact, I must confess that the only time I came close to tears during the film is when Johnson’s character pleaded with tearful screams through the fence to her daughter Rhonda not to go through with the abortion. Her voice, her tears, her description of the joy that comes from children—namely to think on the joy that has already been given to the whole family by way of the beautiful five-year-old daughter holding Rhonda’s hand in that moment as she walked into the clinic. That scene communicated better than so many of the others the very real helplessness some may be feeling at the fence.

Brooks Ryan, who plays Abby’s husband Doug, is terrible. Kaiser Johnson, who plays the lawyer, Jeff, is even worse. I’m glad his part was small. But again, between these two, I’d say the dreadful acting had more to do with scenes that were poorly scripted—which is pretty typical of Pure Flix films. It’s one reason why I don’t watch their movies. They’re almost always too awkward in their handling of sacred things, and the theology is often just as bad.

With that, I’ll just come right out and say that at times, the spirituality presented by the film was bothersome, and this is true in a couple of ways.

First of all, I’m one who thinks that the creed-less pop-spirituality offered by the arena-type churches with rock bands, screens, and no crosses on the walls (which was the brief portrayal of Christian worship in the film) is dangerous to the pro-life cause. This type of worship is shallow, and its perpetuators are seen as flaky rather than committed. All of it together is fertilizer for the roots of why the world around us doesn’t take Christianity very seriously. We’re not seen as the ageless and unbroken church that we are—one equipped with an unearthly courage that has withstood the fires of persecution and death, one that speaks its own language with powerful reverence and timeless rite and ceremony, one that exists as a culture completely distinct from all others. Rather, such thin Christianity is seen as trying to emulate the world’s ways in order to fit in. With this, why would we expect anyone outside of the church to stand up and take notice when we’re on the move or have something to say about a world-altering subject such as abortion, especially since we’ve already shown that we’re more interested in following the world’s lead?

But that is, of course, a discussion for another time.

Second, if you’re going to communicate the message of redemption, then just do it. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Don’t tiptoe around it, otherwise, you run the risk of appearing half-invested in what you are trying to communicate. Just be honest. That’s what the viewer is expecting, anyway. I know the filmmakers said they didn’t want to make a “preachy” film. Still, from beginning to end, the Christian perspective is more than made known through the portrayal of prayer, the repeated discussions of God, the worship scene, the Bible quotations, the theme of humility toward enemies, the mantra of hope, and the like. All of this sets the stage for what could have been a gripping and climactic moment of Gospel when Abby finally arrives at the realization of the truest depth of what she’s done.

[Spoiler alert.]

Doug wakes up in the middle of the night to find her gone. He discovers her crumpled on the floor in the living room near the couch. She’s weeping bitterly. Her Christian husband comes to comfort her. She defines the contours of her sadness with unveiled clarity: As the director of the clinic, she’s the one responsible for the killing of over 22,000 human beings. How can she find her way through this? How could someone like her—someone nearly Hitler-esque—ever be reconciled to God?

“All you have to do is ask for forgiveness,” Doug replies, robotically.

“But how can God even begin to forgive someone like me?” are the essentials of her paralyzing and dreadfully overwhelming sadness.

“Well, because He’s God,” Doug replies, like a shallow dolt, essentially revealing God as the carefree Grampa in his rocking chair on the front porch in the sky. He doesn’t care what you’ve done. He just smiles and waves it off.

No. He does care. Sin is formidable. Death, too. And His care for us against these things cost Him a lot. For one, Sin has a price—a massively dreadful price. From the sinister actions leading to the deathly gas chambers in Germany to the thoughtless, but unkind, comment we made to our spouse at dinner, Sin has a wage and it is eternal Death—separation from God for all time. The wage for Sin will be paid out one way or another by someone. The heavenly Father sent Christ. Christ was that someone.

Here was the chance, even if only for a second, to point to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for every Sin, even the Sin of murdering 22,000 people. Here was the chance to communicate to everyone in the theater the expanse of God’s love in Christ, the chance to meet each and every person watching the film, all of whom are most certainly wrestling with some form of guilt from this or that Sin—many staying far from Christian churches because they believe their Sins are far too great to be forgiven, maybe in this instance, squirming through the film because they’ve had an abortion. Here was the most potent of opportunities to proclaim God’s truest love for all displayed through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ.

But they blew it because they didn’t want to be too preachy.

Still, even with this dropping of the ball, the film is a monumental achievement. It manages to tell a distressing story and it does so with a brutal and convincing scrupulousness that meets the single most bloodthirsty issue of our day.

I should add to its credit that within the first five minutes of the film, you’ll learn the distinction between those who shout “Baby killer!” through the fence at a young and confused girl and those who are seeking to be faithful to Christ and serve in the trenches in love. Equally, and while I almost don’t want to admit it, the movie works to humanize the people working in the clinic. They are people with families who really do think that they’re helping women. In that sense, “Unplanned” is a movie made for people so that they understand other people.

But most importantly, the movie works to convince the majority that they never really had the lizard, only its tail.

I highly recommend the film, and again, I encourage you to see it. You’ll be changed. It’ll be a hard metamorphosis to experience, but it’ll be worth it. You’ll be given an insider’s look into what’s happening in abortion clinics across the country. What you’ll see, you won’t be able to unsee. It’ll be seared into your mind. For many, I hope the images are all that was needed to turn thoughts into actions and actions into results—the ultimate result being a collective awakening and a final ridding of the abomination that is abortion from this country.

The Veil Will Be Lifted

Lent has a strange way about it, doesn’t it?

If your church actually celebrates Lent, and you’ve been at all able to attend worship throughout the season, then you’ve more than noticed the peculiar nature of the whole thing.

The kids in the 3rd grade here in our school were wondering why we veil the crucifixes during Lent. To a few of them, it seemed like the last thing we should be doing. A student from one of the upper grades had the same thought and mentioned it to me before school one morning.

“Isn’t that kinda what the season of Lent is all about—Jesus dying on the cross?” he asked.

A very intuitive question regarding a practice that might appear to be counterintuitive. But if you know why we do it, it isn’t as capricious as you might think.

The Christian Church has marked Lent in this way for centuries, and depending upon which history writer you go to, there are various reasons given—and by the way, I fully expect my clergy-friends to critique this post, some of whom being sure to tell me what I’ve got wrong, here. But in the end, no matter the interpretation of the practice in the Church’s annals, most unfold carrying similar themes.

As a young pastor, when I first saw veils on crucifixes here in my own church, I didn’t ask why they were there. I just assumed it had to do with texts like Isaiah 25:7 which reads:

“And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.”

The veil Isaiah is talking about is Sin.

When you know that it’s the Messiah who will take upon and then lift the veil, and when you couple that with Saint Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:21, which say that “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” it makes sense for the veil to be applied to Jesus on the cross, especially during the season of Lent.

I also thought it might have to do with the veil in the temple and the fact that Christ is the One who accomplished that which would cause its tearing in half (Hebrews 10:19-22).

But I learned that neither of these were the actual reasons the church has participated in the practice. Oh, well. It sure was teaching me something, even if I didn’t know what it was, exactly. In other words, it had me thinking.

For one, most historians will pretty much tell you that the practice of veiling church adornments was far more dramatic than it is today. In fact, walking into a church in the twelfth century, you’d have seen the entire sanctuary space veiled. The pulpit and lectern would have been visible, but the altar itself would have been blocked from view. Extending out from there, all crucifixes, icons, statues, and in some cases, even some of the stained glass windows would have veils, too.

The fact that something is hidden from our sight should be the first thing we notice. Veils are barriers. They block us from seeing what’s really there.

One of the reasons that the church first started employing the practice of veiling the visuals in churches is because if ever there was a time to not be distracted by anything else around us and to listen to the Word of God—to really listen to the inspired texts given by God with the message of that which saves us—it was Lent. The story of the One who has come to die and rise again—and every iota of what that means—is at the center of Lent’s message. It is the most precise of the commemorative times. If somehow we missed the Gospel throughout the rest of the year, it is imperative that we not miss it now. Just for a time, cover the crosses. Cover the icons. Cover the images. Cover it all.

Just listen.

Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of the Gospel of our suffering Savior, Jesus Christ (Romans 10:17). Listen carefully. You’re hearing what happened. It’s the story that has a power no other story possesses. Listen. Listen very carefully.

In order to teach the students another of the reasons for veiling the crucifixes, during our Thursday chapel service I read to them Exodus 34:29-35. This is a portion of the story of Moses veiling his face after being in the presence of the Lord on Mount Sinai. The veil hid the glory of God that was still reflecting from Moses even after he’d left the Lord’s presence.

In the New Testament, when Jesus speaks of the glory of God, He often does so in reference to the truest glory of God being displayed on the cross (John 7:39; 12:23-29; Mark 10:37-38). Behold, the One true God who would die for the sins of the world! There is nothing more glorious in all of history than this. When we put a veil on the crucifix, we are saying something about the manifested glory that’s truly being represented there.

The veils teach us this.

I suppose another motive brings us back around to where we began. Veils block our views of things. I probably don’t have to remind you of the depth of the theology behind the fact that the Second person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, was veiled in the flesh (John 1:14; Philippians 2:7-8, and the like). It’s the reason we sing at Christmastime, “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see; Hail, th’ incarnate Deity: Pleased, as man, with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel!”

Emmanuel, God with us—and yet veiled.

But finally, veils are anticipatory. They keep us at the edge of our seats as we await the one great day when the veil of this life will be lifted and we will see God face to face. One day we will depart from this life and we will be raised in our bodies to be with God in His nearest presence.

Thinking on this, can you guess when the veils will be removed from the crucifixes? Yep, Easter, the celebratory day of the resurrection of our Lord and the promise that we, too, will pass through death and rise to new life! In this, the veil is lifted forevermore!

I pray that as you continue to keep the Lenten fast, the various practices swirling among you in the midst of the season will serve to keep your focus on Christ and His work to save you. It’s a powerful time of penitent reflection and spiritual honing, all for the purpose of knowing more deeply the passion of our Savior—the cost for our sins and His willingness to pay it.

Taking the Law on Two Legs

Excuses.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of excuses. We’ve also been ones to employ them.

It was Shakespeare who said in his passionate way that when we make excuses for our faults, the very act itself “doth make the fault the worse…” (King John, IV, ii).

He’s right, you know. It’s a very deep hole we begin to dig when we betray to others the calculations that comprise our darkly justifications for our truest selves and our behaviors. That’s what we do when we make excuses. We reveal the real tenacity for covering our tracks and holding to our Sin.

Since we’re Christians and God promises to forgive our faltering, why not just be honest and admit to it?

Because the Sin-nature is strong. We war against honesty and continue with our excuse-making because the Sin-nature knows a little something about confession that it doesn’t want to admit. The Sin-nature knows that honest confession is completely incompatible toward gaining what we want when we want it. Honesty doesn’t fit into the divine equation of trust in God as opposed to self. Honesty is an exercise in letting go of the badness and clinging to the good. Excuses are the ways we find for keeping at least one finger on the bad.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the season of Lent doesn’t tolerate excuses. Every Sunday in Lent sees excuse-making bowled over. It leaves no room for reasoning a way through or legitimizing our sinful doings. It looks us squarely in the eyes and says unflinchingly, “You can’t fool me. I know a schemer when I see one.”

Throughout the season, the introit and Psalms both have elements of this. The collects contain it, too. The readings more than tell us this. The hymns put all of it to music. And God willing, the preaching and teaching of the Pastor will steer straight into it with you, as well. He will unflinchingly remind you that your family’s absence from worship and study is hurting and not helping. He will warn that your loveless stewardship of the Lord’s gifts is destined only for cataclysm. He’ll try to dissuade you from the excuses you are making, urging you not to try to justify Sin, but to bind yourself to truth, because in the end, there is but one Arbiter of earth and sky—Jesus Christ—and He already knows your secret ambitions. His Word has already met with and judged every excuse mankind could ever think to devise.

But that’s not the whole message that Lent and its servants have to give. Lent also serves up the realization that honest confession is far better because it beholds the consoling and empowering smile of absolution.

The Gospel of God’s absolving love through the person and work of Jesus Christ restores, recreates, and empowers.

Pearl S. Buck said something about how every mistake has a midway point for remedying the situation, for turning things around and fixing them. The Gospel goes further and says that apart from outright rejection of Christ or passing the moment of death, there’s no point at all on the mortal timeline when a believer has gone beyond the sphere of God’s grace. This is the Good News that Christ is there with His Gospel at every twist and turn along the way, giving what the shameful heart needs to gird up and take the accusations of the Law on two legs.

Admitting to Sin’s ugly residence in our hearts is bravery not weakness.

I haven’t been a pastor too long, just over eleven years now. But even in that short period of time, I can truly say that when it comes to excuses for this or that Sin, the wellspring of surprising novelty has run pretty dry. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve heard them all, and for the most part, all are emblematic meanderings that circle stereotypical causes. For the one who claims to have fallen out of love with his wife, I wait patiently for the mistress to eventually come to light. For the one who can rarely make it to worship, I am saddened by his or her Sunday morning exploits broadcast on Facebook.

There are few excuses I hear that hold up or are even the least bit interesting anymore.

I don’t know if that should scare people away from talking to me, or if it should encourage them. I hope it’s the latter. I hope people will sit with me and know that I’m going to do my best as a servant of Christ to give honesty in order to retrieve honesty. Honesty in these situations leads to a realization of need. Need has its hands out in ready anticipation for what Christ promises to give, which is forgiveness, the assurance of His love, and the stamina for facing off with those things that drag us down into arenas where we think we need to make excuses.

My prayer for you is that this holy season will help you to see the One who gave His life as your ransom, that you won’t feel the need to make excuses for your Sin but rather you’d know and experience the freedom of access to His immeasurable grace. Take that grace. It’s yours. You don’t need to justify your Sins in order to convince Him that you are worthy. Confess them. Be honest. You’ve failed and you are in desperate need. Admit and then recognize that no matter where you are, no matter how far astray you’ve gone, the cross of Jesus Christ stands as the midway point for remedying your mistakes. Look there. He will receive you, and He will turn it all around.

Again, I Say Take Your Children to Church

Again, I say go to church. And take your children.

I say this observing men and women with their littlest ones, one end of the spectrum of life and the other crisply displayed. But it’s the invisible space—the space in between child and adult—that actually has my attention.

It’s this middle space where the ingredients are added. From boy to man, from girl to woman, all of the space in between is even now undecided—the character, the imagination, the belief systems, the ways that life will be lived, the caliber of man sought for a husband and the measure of a woman desired for a wife—all of these will be collected along the way and will simmer in this middle space.

Parents, the middle space is a powerful and determining time. Be mindful of this, and spend that time well. Go to church. Take your children. Season the middle spaces of their lives with the salt of Christ and His holy Word.

It is the most important ingredient in the recipe.

 

It’s Very Different There than Here

I don’t mean to disregard the fearlessness and dedication required of any of the clergy who came before me, and yet I have this nagging sense that when my forefathers in the ministry ventured out into America wearing a clerical collar—perhaps to run an errand, or dare I say, speak by invitation in a public forum—my guess is never did they experience concern that someone might spew curses or spit upon them simply for being who they are as a servant of Christ.

Brothers, let’s agree that the challenges differ from age to age. But may we also agree that the Christian Church’s history in America is as a distant and alien land, and they do things very differently there than they do here?

Take Your Children to Church

Go to church. And take your children.

Yes, yes, I know that in general children are not very good at listening or sitting still, and this can make worship very challenging. Still, I say go to church—and take your kids—because, for the record, there is something that children do magnificently.

They imitate adults.