I Really Forgive You

Obviously, I’m still on vacation. And it’s been restful, for sure. Apart from a few excursions, the Thoma family’s goal has been just to be together. Although, my early-morning alone time has produced (as it always does) daily posts for Angelsportion.com. It’s been good to revisit the humorist hiding in my keyboard. Of course, knowing we’d be gathering with God’s people at Zion in Winter Garden this morning, I was thinking of you and hoping all was well back home among God’s faithful people at Our Savior.

You should know that having taken a gamble and visited with my email this morning, I was nudged by a thought that may be of some value to some of you, while for others, it may only be worth putting into your pocket for later. It has to do with forgiveness.

I’ve always thought that forgiveness costs the offended so much more than the offender, and by this, it will forever be an incredibly imbalanced exchange. Indeed, the one who bears the scars of attack must also be the one to rise from the pain to give a comforting word to a penitent enemy who, at the victim’s expense, may even have made personal gains by his dark deeds. But you must know that while we are promised plenty of challenging experiences in life, the sacred exchange of forgiveness between the offended and the offender is one of the few that truly tests the courage of both involved.

One must be brave enough to admit the behavior and its shame. The other must be courageous enough to let it pass by while facing off with the innate desire for retribution, which is to wrestle with one of the darkest parts of the human condition.

These being true, I’ll go further and say I’m not one to agree with those who’d wander the perimeter of this exchange repeating what pop-psychology teaches—which is that for peace of mind, the offended must come to terms with an unrepentant enemy by forgiving them in one’s heart.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think that’s a teaching of Christianity.

Real forgiveness does not move from one sphere to the other without the avenue of repentance. Even as it meets with our Lord’s work on the cross, He paid the full price that accomplishes absolute forgiveness for all of Mankind’s past, present, and future atrocities. Forgiveness is there. It is available. And yet, no one receives even an atom-sized drop of heaven’s storehouses of forgiveness apart from faith. Faith is born of the Gospel, and as it is birthed, its bearer’s eyes are opened to the inescapable dreadfulness of his sinful condition. From there, trust in the sacrifice of Christ as the only rescuer is engaged. The ultimate One offended—God—works this humble faith in the offender, and in that moment, the floodgates of forgiveness are opened, and the sinner is drowned in the mercies of His divine love.

An unrepentant offender remains divided from forgiveness. Apart from forgiveness, the truth is that nothing is reconciled and the two live in completely different spheres leading to vastly different consequences.

I know some might contend that texts like Luke 7:47 and Matthew 6:14-15 are clear cut examples of the Lord instructing us to forgive everyone no matter the circumstances. With regard to Luke 7, I’d argue that we ought to pay closer attention to the love the Lord describes in that particular verse before leaning on such a loose interpretation. With regard to Matthew 6, I’d suggest an important text that comes before it: Matthew 5:43-48. It’s there Jesus describes with precision how we are to relate to devoted enemies and persecutors. The word for forgiveness isn’t used, but rather the Lord calls for us to show them genuine love and to pray for them. Christ is pressing His Christians to deeds of kindness that will serve as markers leading others to the one true merciful God awaiting the lost with open arms. By the way, you may recall He already began describing this at the beginning of the sermon in Matthew 5:16. In a way, He’ll describe the glory of the whole thing later on in Luke’s Gospel when He tells the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:17-24).

And so, boiling all of this down to relationships in general…

Did your husband cheat on you? Has he recognized and admitted to his wrongdoing and returned to seek your forgiveness? No? Then I’m not so sure you can just declare him forgiven and move on. From a Christian perspective, how would that lead him to Christ? What would that teach the children?

Did someone tell a dreadful lie about you, one that has spread like wildfire and devastated your reputation among others you once considered friends? Again, has this person come clean with you, doing what she can to amend and repair the damage? No? Again, I’m not so sure you can blanketly offer her forgiveness. How would that display for her the deeper value of forgiveness to be had from God?

I know all of this may sound somewhat controversial, especially as it seems to leave one person in the relationship to suffer. But that’s not it at all. None of this is to say you must move on from such challenging circumstances completely devoid of inner peace. God has given a way for going forward. For one, He has promised to comfort and uphold you in times of trouble (Deuteronomy 31:8; Job 5:11; Psalm 27:1; Psalm 46:1; Matthew 5:4; John 16:33; 2 Corinthians 1:3). Even better, He has already drawn you to Himself by the forgiveness He has bestowed in your life, and by this, you can go from day to day with the knowledge that you are not at war with the One who matters most, but rather you exist at peace with Him (Romans 5:1-15). It’s there you can know that no matter the offending behavior of other human beings in this awful world, be it big or small, as much as it depends on you, you can speak and act in ways that have the potential for leading your persecutors toward genuine peace with God (Romans 12:18).

With that, I pray the Lord’s blessings for you this morning, namely that you’ll be richly upheld in penitent faith by His wonderfully abundant grace given through Word and Sacrament in holy worship.

The Voice of Conscience

As it is every year at this time, I never anticipate sending these notes while on vacation. I know, I know. I’m supposed to take full advantage of my time away and leave these types of things behind. It’s just that the temptation to be a pastor—to reach to you on the Lord’s Day with something even the least bit edifying—is just too great even while I’m away. Besides, the rest of my family is still sleeping and won’t be up to get ready for church for another half hour or so. With that, I have some time for coffee, a pre-sunrise view, and a visit with you.

Just so you know, as I type this here in Florida, I’m sitting in my usual chair near the window that allows an unobstructed view of the swimming pool and my favorite summertime flora. Trust me when I say I’m relaxing. With that, don’t expect whatever comes next to be too… well… profound.

Our plan this morning is to attend Zion Lutheran Church in Winter Garden. Pastor Rojas is the shepherd there. I know him. Not well, but enough to know we’ll be well fed by the faithful preaching of Law and Gospel and the right administration of the Sacrament of Christ’s holy body and blood for our forgiveness.

How about you? Will you be well fed in worship this morning, too?

If with honesty your first inclination was to say “no,” then I suppose my question may have unexpectedly jarred your conscience to attention. That’s good. You need your conscience to be aware of its surroundings. This is true not only for knowing and understanding the looming threat of Sin and humanity’s deepest necessity for rescue, but because of the challenging days in which we live. A somnolently weak conscience, one that isn’t assisting your navigation or pestering you to stay connected to Jesus and the truth of His Word, is of little use to you. It certainly can’t match the volume of the world’s voice.

For example, having arrived in Florida just yesterday through the Orlando International Airport, I can affirm that had this been my very first visit to earth from another planet, I’d probably be somewhat puzzled by the flourishing population. I say this because the LGBTQ voice appeared to be quite dominant throughout the terminals and their various shops. It could lead one to assume that most of the world’s population is homosexual. And if that’s true, a logical question might be: “Where did all these earthlings come from?”

Homosexuality cannot produce people.

In short, from our gate to the tram, from the tram to the bus, from the bus to the car, my conscience contested loudly within me against the overwhelming voice around me. As it did, I understood the tragic miscommunication and I was able to tune it out. Admittedly, a sense of sorrow was stirred for the bustling people already so overwhelmed by the voice.

This got me thinking…

I appreciate the text of Hebrews 9. Take a look when you have a chance. The epistle’s author talks about lots of very important things throughout, but in that particular portion, he notes the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as being all-sufficient for Sin. And then at one point along the way, right around verse 14, he makes sure we understand how the blood of Christ purifies the human conscience, enlivening it within the believer for faithfulness to God. In other words, the voice of the Christian conscience is born from the Gospel and readied for real life discernment leading to Godly action.

This, of course, walks in stride with what the Apostle James wrote in James 4:17—which alludes to the fact that if our Christian conscience is doing its job, having been fed by the Word of God, we’ll know what’s right. But if we muzzle it when it speaks, knowing what’s right but refusing to listen and then do it, we fall prey to Sin and its consequences.

Finally, I suppose all this brushes into Matthew 5:13-16, too. It’s there we learn that the voice of the Christian conscience is in place not only for the self, but for others, too. Its grammar sounds a lot like God’s Word. Its tone communicates both immovable commitment and loving care. And its goal: not only to be heard, but to be seen. It operates with the desire that others would behold and be led to give glory to the Father.

Circling back around to Hebrews 9, remember what was written there about the blood of Christ purifying the conscience for faithfulness to God—which means having the ability to discern the countless external voices. While you are recalling that text, don’t forget when and where the purifying interaction happens most powerfully.

Worship. Now, if you aren’t already, go get dressed and ready for church—just as your Christian conscience already urged you to do.

Childlike Simplicity

I’ll just start off by saying that last week was a bit challenging on a personal level. A lot happened in my allotted portion of the globe. Although, I’d say Vacation Bible School, being the starting pistol to each morning that it was, had me launching into each day by way of an invigorated sprint. As it is every year, I was called upon to lead the children (100+ in all) in the opening devotion, taking about twenty minutes or so each morning to sing some fun songs and share a little about the day’s Bible lesson. It’s always a busy exchange, but it’s also refreshing.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a people-watcher. I’ve always been the kind of guy who could go to any particular event—a basketball game, parade, social gathering, or whatever—and find just as much, or even more, entertainment by watching the crowd. It’s the same with Vacation Bible School. Even as I may be leading the children, I’m observing them, too, and as I do, I’m forever being reminded that children perceive things much differently than adults.

For example, on Tuesday of last week, just before leading the children through the first song of the morning, I took a quick moment to teach the children how and why a Christian might make the sign of the cross before praying, and as I did, I joked about being careful not to poke oneself in the eye while attempting to do it for the first time. Most of the kids laughed, but I noticed one little girl in the front row nodding her head and leaning toward a friend to say with all seriousness, “I’m going to be very careful when I do this.” And she was careful. She took what I said literally and really rather earnestly.

I see things like this and I’m prompted to consider the bracing simplicity within a child’s heart.

Do you know who did a great job with capturing such scenes literarily? Lewis Carroll. A writer of children’s stories, Carroll masterfully captured by his characters the childlike matter-of-factness that can be had in everyday conversations between people. That moment on Tuesday morning brought to mind a comical moment between Alice and the White King in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.

“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people by this light.”

Children operate this way. Not only do they have the potential for taking hold of our words and actions, ultimately revealing to us that each is a stand-alone piece with precise implications, but they often surprise us with just how naturally easy it is for them to do it. Interestingly, in Matthew 18:1-3, Jesus refers to children as the greatest in the kingdom of heaven because of this uncanny ability, namely in relation to faith.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

Jesus wants the adults—the ones who, in most circumstances, think they know better by their reason and sensibility—to hear and believe the Gospel as a child hears it. He wants them to hear Him in the same way the White King heard Alice—simply, uncomplicatedly, unquestionably.

When a child hears that Jesus loves her, she doesn’t necessarily ask why. An adult is more likely to need a good reason. An adult is more likely to establish a sensible scale of “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad,” and from there gauge his or her value to Jesus. Unfortunately, this can leave a person wondering how it is that Christ can actually love such a scoundrel; or worse, set a person up to think that the Lord’s love is due to an exceptional life of good deeds.

But Jesus loves you because that’s who He is. It doesn’t begin with you. It begins with Him. And that’s a good thing.

Being around the VBS children this week has served my heart well in this regard. Each day began with a recalibrating glimpse into the simple joys found in being God’s child. As a result, I was better able to meet the week’s challenging work, not so much inclined toward worrying about how I was going to fix this or navigate that, but rather I was ready at every turn to say, “I am your servant, Lord. I trust you. Lead me, and I’ll follow.”

One last thing to keep in mind…

Knowing that our children so intuitively hear and see what we say and do and then trustingly run in the direction we are leading them, imagine the implications of regular swearing in front of our kids. Imagine the implications of cruel words or actions to a spouse. Imagine the implications of lying, or shredding someone’s reputation, while the kids are listening. Perhaps worst of all, imagine the implications of using excuse after excuse to justify time away from Christ in worship.

I wrote and shared a post on my Facebook page a while ago affirming just how difficult it can sometimes be for parents with children in worship. Interestingly, the children themselves are often the excuse used by parents for staying away. The little ones get antsy, and they struggle to behave. But the point of the post was to make clear what I’ve already shared above. For all the things kids have trouble doing, there’s one thing in particular they do very well: They imitate adults.

But they can’t learn to imitate what we won’t display. Keep in mind that the secular world never sleeps in this regard. It’s always ready to lead our children. One thing I’ve learned as a parent who’s aware of the secular world’s influence is that the more exhausted I become with the process of raising my children to be Godly people, the firmer my resolve and the greater my courage must be in the fight for their eternal futures. I know that a mere portion of a Sunday morning in comparison to the never-ending stimuli bombarding our children the rest of the week doesn’t seem like much. But remember: Don’t overcomplicate things. Just believe Jesus. Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy. There are infinite blessings attached to this loving mandate. Keep in mind that your time in worship with Him is a powerful portion fitted with otherworldly might. The secular world has nothing on God in this regard. You can be sure that not only will you and your family be blessed, but as your children are engaged in it with you—watching and listening and learning from your displayed devotion to the Savior—they’ll note by their God-given intuitiveness your distinct contrast to the world around them. They’ll learn what’s most important as you display it. They’ll know to trust and follow who you trust and follow. The implications to be had by this are boundless.

Absurdity

One thing I appreciate about summer is that the time I spend writing tends to occur more so in the sunlight than in the darkness. It may sound absurd, but there’s a very real sense of invigoration I get during moments when the sun is streaming through my office window, not necessarily directly, but still enough to cause the glossier book covers on my shelves to glisten.

It’s even better when it’s shining directly on me as I tap away at the keyboard. It’s an easy feeling; a restorative feeling.

I just used the word “absurd” in the text above to describe your possible reaction to the scene. I did this because I’ve learned that what is sensible to one may be completely inane to another. I described something I enjoy doing in the sunshine. For you, the thought of typing on a keyboard in the sunshine is absurd. You’d rather work in the garden, or ride your bike, or swim in your pool. The funny thing is, for as sublime as either of our preferred moments in the sunshine might be, we’re both only a step from absurdity.

Here’s what I mean.

I’m a writer at heart. I could spin verbal yarns about almost anything. Just ask my kids. This is true because creativity with language has always been something I loved to explore. But the thing about writing (especially in this day and age) is that you don’t have to be all that good at it to be successful. For the most part, you only need two things. Firstly, you need to be irrational enough to put your thoughts into the public realm. I say “irrational” because, these days, willingly writing for public consumption is like volunteering to be a fox for the hounds.

Secondly, what you write needs to be reasonably intelligible. If what you say makes little sense to the reader, your efforts will have been in vain.

In short, without these two ingredients, a writer is destined for absurdity.

The same goes for your gardening or bike riding or swimming. One misplaced element and the activity becomes absurd. Planting seeds but not watering them is ridiculous. Riding a bicycle with no chain on the gears is senseless. Paddling around in a waterless pool wearing water wings is a sign you may need psychiatric help.

Christians exist at the edge of absurdity, too.

In one sense, this is true because the Gospel is already nonsensical to the observing world. It makes very little sense that the innocent would die for the guilty, that the One opposed and dejected would first be moved to forgive His dejectors and “love them to the end” (John 13:1). Indeed, this is the absurdly wonderful image of our rescuing God.

In another sense, Christians exist at the edge of absurdity’s shadowlands because as we still retain the Sin-nature, we are more than capable of claiming faith while doing so apart from faith’s key ingredients.

For example, how is it possible for faith to assert absolute devotion to Christ while only moving the person in which it dwells to attend worship three or four times a year, sometimes far less? Frankly, that’s absurd. How can faith stake a genuine claim in the Savior as the Lover of all nations and the Redeemer of the world while partitioning particular races into permanently unforgivable categories of “victim” and “oppressor” as Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory does? That doesn’t make any sense. How can faith claim to abide in Christ and yet be so distant from the truths of the Lord’s holy Word by embracing the murder of unborn children or dysphoric gender ideologies that confuse Natural Law and destroy the family? That’s farcical.

Seeds with no water won’t grow. A bike with no chain won’t go anywhere. Dive into a pool with no water and you’re likely to be maimed or killed. Exist as a Christian apart from Christ and His Word and Sacrament gifts and your faith will starve and die. A dead faith is no faith, and such a condition is guaranteed to lead into the mouth of destructive falsehoods resulting in eternal Death.

Pastors are charged with bringing this warning. Interestingly, pastors have been offering this kindly advice born from the Holy Scriptures since, well, forever. There are plenty of reasons for this. I think Luigi Pirandello, the Italian playwright and poet summed up one of them when he said, “Life is full of infinite absurdities, which, strangely enough, do not need to appear plausible, since they are true.”

Sinful humanity will do absurd things. That’s the rule, not the exception. Christians are by no means hovering outside of this tendency. I can assure you I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of this verity countless times just in the last week. Nevertheless, by genuine faith in Jesus Christ—by humble repentance and faith given by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel—we are free from sinful absurdity’s eternal consequences and empowered for waging a deliberate war against it. This is true because in contrast to the unbelieving world, even in the midst of our own insanity, we have something the world does not: the Word of God. It’s there that we learn to identify our absurdities, coming face to face with just how deeply terrible they are. But it’s also by that same Word—namely, the Gospel—we are introduced and grafted to the One who has rescued us from perpetual bondage to them (John 15:5-8), and are changed into people who love truth.

I suppose I’m sharing these things because just outside my window is a clear blue sky promising a beautiful day of sunshine. This brings to mind the forthcoming summer. Every year at this time, I want to do what I can to encourage you to be faithful during the summer months. Don’t stay away from worship and study. Be authentic. Know that you need what the Lord gives by these things. You’re already aware that you need moisture in your garden, a chain on your bike, and water in your pool. Admit your need for the key ingredients for faith delivered by way of Word and Sacrament ministry. As a Christian, measuring their value as worthy of deliberate ongoing absence just doesn’t make sense. In fact, it’s just plain absurd.

The Impact of God’s Love

Holy Week is upon us. God’s plan has been exacted.

His plan for our redemption—which included the cosmic annihilation of Sin, Death, and the power of the devil—was established long ago. Its forthcoming object destined for impact was first announced in the Garden of Eden shortly after the fall into Sin.

He told the serpent that a Savior would land in his newly acquired dominion. In that moment, God established the event as the center point of history, charting the forthcoming object’s course as His Word told and retold of the inevitable arrival.

The Savior’s divine origins would prove the all-encompassing span of His reach. The momentum and trajectory of His work would be unstoppable. No human being would be spared from the blast radius of His love. No Sin-sick atom or darkly spirit feeding the flesh or its powerful lords—Eternal Death and Satan—would be safe from His terrible reach.

The worldwide flood and the rescue of eight believing souls in the ark would be a hint (Genesis 7—9:13). The testing of Abraham would provide a taste (Genesis 22:1-18). The betrayal of Joseph by his brothers, his rise to power, and his generous grace would foreshadow its contours (Genesis 37—50). The deliverance of Israel from bondage through the Red Sea would offer a substantial glimpse (Exodus 14:10-15:1). On and on from these, moments in history involving the likes of David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jonah, Job, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would all whisper a foretelling of His impending and powerful arrival.

He would make His way into our orbit through the words of an angel to a lowly virgin girl (Luke 1:26-38). He would enter our atmosphere nine months later on a cool night in the miniscule Judean town of Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-20). He would speed toward the surface with unrelenting force, all along the way burning up the constricting stratosphere of hopelessness through the preaching and teaching of the Gospel. He would vaporize the dusty debris of blindness, deafness, muteness, hunger, leprosy, dropsy, demon possession, paralysis, mortal Death itself, and so much more (Matthew 14:15-21; Mark 8:28-33; John 5:1-15; John 11: 1-46; and the like).

And then He would strike.

On Good Friday, the Savior—Jesus Christ—would render His life as He crashed into the earth’s surface by way of the cross. He would do this with a force equal to and more than what was needed to cleanse the world of its horribleness. The initial concussion—one of inconceivable magnitude—would see the rocks split, worldwide darkness, the temple curtain brought to tatters, and the dead shaken from their tombs. The shockwaves from Calvary’s crater would move out in all directions, rolling across the landscape of creation, going backward and forward in time, leaving nothing untouched.

The devil and his own would be scorched and left dying. Humanity would be given life, reconciled, made right with God.

Shortly thereafter, the smoky haze from the Lord’s sin-killing encounter would dissipate, and the bright-beaming light of hope would begin shining through to the planet. A completely new air of existence would breeze through and into the lungs of Mankind. A tomb would be empty, its former inhabitant found alive, and all who believe in Him would stand justified before the Father and destined for the same resurrection triumph.

All of this makes for the centrifugal and centripetal astronomy of Holy Week, the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Vigil of Easter), and Easter Sunday. I urge you to make these times in worship your own. Go to church. Be present where God dispenses the benefits of the world-altering event of His love. Hear His Word. Take in the preaching. Receive the Lord’s Supper. Be found standing in the crater of Christ’s victorious work—His cataclysmic demise and unbounded resurrection becoming your justifying right to eternal life in glory with Him forever.

Backroad Cemeteries

It’s very early, 5:30am to be precise. I’m writing this note from Cantrall, Illinois. Again, to be precise, I’m at Camp CILCA, which is just outside of Springfield.

A summer camp I attended in my youth, I know this place well. Even better, I eventually became CILCA’s head counselor in the early nineties, having held the position for four consecutive summers. I should add that during those same years I was also the head lifeguard, music leader, sports director, and weekend maintenance assistant to a wonderful man I’ll forever consider a friend, Derald Sasse, may his soul rest in peace.

I stayed here at CILCA this weekend, having spoken last night at the camp’s annual banquet at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Springfield. I received a kindly invitation last fall from the current Camp Director, Reverend Joshua Theilen, to be the banquet keynote speaker. I was certainly glad to accept. And of course, the topic being something along the lines of Christian engagement in the public square, I was certainly ready to drive down and prattle on about such things. I pray my words last night were of benefit to the people in attendance.

Interestingly, I’m staying in the Christian Growth Center here at the camp, which back in my day, was the only building on the camp property with air conditioning. The funny thing is, in all my years here at CILCA, I never once spent a night in this building. I maintained it. I helped clean the rooms for various groups that came through. I fixed broken windows and repaired faulty electrical outlets, but I never actually enjoyed the fruits of my labor. And yet, here I am twenty-five years later. Life is weird that way, I guess.

As soon as I finish typing this note, I’ll be hopping into the Jeep and heading back to Michigan. To get here to Illinois, I took the backroads. I’ll probably do the same thing going home. I like driving the backroads. While they’re pleasantly uneventful, there’s plenty to see. Driving along through the sleepy farmlands provides more than enough opportunities for thoughtful observation. Thinking back to these travels a few days ago, I can think of at least two things I remember pondering.

The first thing I spent some travel time thinking about was the Old Testament reading from Genesis 22 appointed for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, which tells the story of God commanding Abraham to take his son, Isaac, to a yet undisclosed place and sacrifice him. I’d call this event dreadful if I didn’t already know its substance and ultimate conclusion. As a father, could I follow through as Abraham did? And yet, if the listener is paying attention as Abraham speaks, the comfort of trust in the promises of God is woven into the narrative. Once Abraham and Isaac arrived at the place God commanded, Abraham told the servants who journeyed with them that he and his son were going to go and worship God and then return to them.

That moment is a clue as to what Abraham knew would happen. He would unreservedly follow God’s commands already knowing something of God.

God promised Abraham that Isaac would be the one through whom the Messiah would come. God assured Abraham of this. Abraham knew that God doesn’t break His promises, and so no matter what approached from the horizon, Isaac would be fine. Abraham trusted this. If you doubt this analysis, then take a look at Hebrews 11:17-19. The writer to the Hebrews acknowledges this as he digs a little deeper into Abraham’s faith, describing him as knowing full well that if he was indeed forced to follow through with the frightful deed, God would give Isaac back to him alive. He’d have to. God would reverse Death, and preserve Isaac’s life.

This is a very rich moment, both emotionally and theologically, especially as we prepare to wrap up Lent and rejoice in the Easter celebration of Christ’s resurrection. I suppose that thinking about these things probably influenced the second thing I remember pondering along the way.

While tooling along through the farmlands of Indiana and Illinois, I noticed something familiar to each of the little towns along the way. They all have conspicuous cemeteries.

Now, you might be thinking that just about every city or town in America has a cemetery. Believe it or not, they don’t. But these backroad towns do, and each is noticeably prominent, often pitched on a hill at the edge of the city, perhaps adorned with an elderly oak tree or two. And if the cemetery isn’t standing guard at the edge of town, it’s situated somewhere along the town’s main street, making it impossible for anyone to miss while passing through. In either, the collection of headstones is a community of both old and new, and from a reasonable distance, against a setting sun, their mutual silhouette looks almost city-like.

I remember when I was a kid in the seventies and eighties, my friends and I would hold our breaths when passing a cemetery. The lore was that by breathing, there was a chance we might make a wandering spirit jealous. Another version of the myth claimed that you might accidentally inhale a spirit and become possessed. Silly, I know. Good thing I know better, because now that I’m far from those youthful fooleries, I passed a particularly lengthy cemetery on Saturday evening near Lincoln, Illinois as I was making my way to Cantrall from Morton, Illinois, where my parents and sister live. Had I held my breath as I passed, I might have ended up unconscious and in a ditch. Or worse, in a cemetery.

And yet, having said this, the fact that every town has its cemetery is a reminder that at some point, my body will end up in one. There’s no avoiding it. Read the poets. Christian or not, they get the inevitability of Death. Percy Shelley called Death the veil that is finally lifted during the deepest sleep. John Donne described Death as mighty and dreadful, and yet without pride, portraying it as simply doing what it does almost boringly even as it is unstoppable. Robert Browning describes the knowledge of unavoidable Death as motivation for living life fully. Emily Dickinson, of course, is famous for portraying Death as unstoppable, being the carriage that will one day arrive for all. And when it knocks at your door, you will be unable to keep from opening it.

Since I’ve suddenly shifted to considering the poets this morning, I’ll admit to appreciating Lord Tennyson’s description of Death:

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.

Tennyson doesn’t describe Death fearfully. Instead, he sets it before his reader as something of a story’s ending. It’s the sunset to an eventful day. It is an open sky with a view to the evening star. It is a clear call of his name, and a drawing to a vessel setting sail into the open sea, a place that he loved.

I don’t know what influenced Tennyson’s perspectives on things, but I’ll say his consideration of Death is comforting. It evokes the Lord’s even more so reassuring words throughout the Gospels.

Now, don’t misunderstand the Lord’s position on Death. Jesus knows full well it’s a big deal. He knows it isn’t pretty. He knows Death is an ugly ordeal, that it’s a terrorizing power. Following His lead, Saint Paul describes it as the worst of all enemies of Man. But pretty much all of the biblical writers go out of their way to make sure we know that through faith in Christ, we don’t need to be afraid of Death. We don’t need to be fearful because Christ has defeated it. Like Abraham, we can face off with its dreadfulness with the promises of God well in hand. And so the Lord can say to Lazarus’ sisters that whoever lives and believes in Him, will live even though he dies. Saint Paul can mock Death, courageously poking at it with the Word of God’s promises, asking, “Where is your sting?” Job can speak so joyfully that even in the midst of Death, at the last, he will stand and behold God with his own eyes of flesh.

I like Tennyson’s description because he has this similar verve. It’s almost as if he’s equipped with the knowledge of faith, which we as Christians know by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel enables us to see Death for what it has now become for the believer: a turning from one page to the next.

And the next page holds an unending chapter that is far better than any that came before it.

I like that. And again, the season of Lent is certainly teaching this very point, making sure we’re ready to fully embrace the significance of the Lord’s resurrection—His conquering of Death—all for us!

To use Tennyson’s imagery, Easter is the clear call. Easter doesn’t allow for moaning of the bar. Easter sets sail for the unending horizons of eternal life through faith in the One who was crushed and killed for our iniquities, and yet was found alive on the third day, having wrestled Death and won.

Here in a few moments I’ll be packing up my car and making my way back to Michigan. I’ll be passing many of those same cemeteries I encountered on the way here. I won’t be holding my breath when I pass, just as I won’t be looking on them as fearful markers signifying hopelessness. I’ll observe them as Abraham looked upon Isaac. God is faithful to His promises. He is our hope in the midst of Death. Through that lens—the lens of faith—each of the tombstones whizzing past me will herald particular truths. The first is that unless the Lord returns first, I will die someday. There’s no way of getting around that fact. The second is that even as Death would come calling, it is not my master. Christ has won my eternal life. I am not consigned to the grave forever, but rather with my last breath, I will set sail into the joys of eternal life with my Lord at the helm.

My First Inclination

I must admit that what first came to mind for writing this morning was very short, and had I shared it as the temptation was nudging, it would have been less than helpful. Although, now that I’ve taken a moment to think through why I would’ve written it so crisply, I’m prepared to go ahead and share it, anyway, followed, of course, by an explanation.

My first inclination this morning was to write something akin to:

   Jesus loves you. He died on the cross to save you. I’m guessing you believe this, yes? That means you’re not who you were before faith. You actually want to be a better person—a more faithful person. With that, be nice to others, being kind enough to give your fellow Christians the benefit of the doubt in conflict. And whatever you do, don’t impose your opinions onto them and then get angry when you discover they disagree.

   That being said, however, if you are able, go to church. Don’t wait for an invitation. Certainly, if someone does happen to invite you, firstly, don’t get mad at them; and secondly, take a moment and consider that perhaps your unhappy response might have more to do with you than the person’s genuine concern for your wellbeing. Also, consider that it doesn’t do you much good to call yourself a Christian while actively avoiding being with the Creator who made you one. It’s kind of like saying two plus two equals five. The world seems to deal in that kind of nonsense. I mean, right now it’s calling a woman a man and a man a woman. Remember, you’re in the world but not of it. And besides, you know better, anyway. You’re a Christian. You have the truth of God’s Word. Live by it, never forgetting that Jesus lived, died, and rose for you. And why? Because He loves you. That love changes you.

   There.

   I began with the Gospel, and I ended with it. You’ve been given all you need to be and do everything I just described.

   A blessed Lent to you.

See what I mean? Without some context, that probably would’ve had some of you wondering if perhaps there was a medication I’d forgotten to take this morning.

Admittedly, last week was a rough one—enough to leave me short-of-breath for the one just beginning. Just to give you an idea, one of the week’s easier moments involved sitting through a phone call with someone I’d never met before in my life screaming profanities at me so loudly that his voice became distorted and I found myself needing to pull my ear away from the receiver. Again, this was one of the easier moments the week brought to my doorstep. What really made the week so rough were the conflicts that seemed to erupt between Christian people I know—a handful of them occurring within our own community.

For the most part, each instance seemed to be nothing more than people seizing the opportunity to be mean.

It seems it’s becoming far easier for folks—even Christians—to verbally lunge at one another, to think the worst of a brother or sister in Christ, and then to go for the jugular without any concern for context, responsibility, relationship, history, authority, and a whole host of other factors that play into the lives that comprise a community of faith.

Maybe it’s different for you, but I certainly don’t wake up in the morning wondering how I can tick people off. And yet, I think sometimes people believe I do.

How does such an assumption get any traction among God’s people?

Another example: When an invitation is extended to come back to church, and then the recipient lashes out as though the invite were an unjust accusation or attack on his or her character, how does such a thing—a genuinely kind nudge to be with Jesus—become an affronting word to be received as spiritual assault and battery?

I just don’t get it.

Well, actually I do. I know how it can become this. And you do, too. I assure you that the deeper we go into Lent, the more we’re going to be confronted by the cause, the more we’re going to journey to its borders.

Sin is being unmasked handily in Lent.

The spotlight of Lent is allowing Sin’s inescapable domain to be seen for what it is—a wasteland steeped in terrible desolation. Nothing good grows within its borders. Its seeds planted by the devil hold the pitch black and oily venom of death. They produce the same. Sunday after Wednesday after Sunday after Wednesday we’re being shown the vile crop it produces in thought, word, and deed. We’re being led out into the open to see its field, actually seeing what’s at stake in the war for our salvation. We’re beholding how our sin-nature—which is the deepest, and so often the most influential part of ourselves—has the easy inclination for spitting in a rage at anyone or anything that would put Jesus at the forefront as the solution for setting everything right.

We’re also realizing that the Christian community, for as pristine as we’d hoped it would be, isn’t immune to the curse. Certainly, we can know to expect a filth-laden tirade from an unbelieving stranger—a child and servant of the world. But even as we, the believers, have been saved from the same world, we’re not unaffected by it. We’ll need to expect it from one another on occasion, too. It’s got us—all of us. As long as this world continues to spin, the sinner-saint bout will continue.

Lent is offering to Christians the clarion call to remember these things, to not avoid them, but instead to embrace the Gospel that not only has what it takes to work repentance, faith, and the amending of the sinful life, but the power to view the world and one another rightly so that we know how and what to do to actually fight against it as a community.

When we find ourselves at odds, we know by God’s Word we play a huge role in bringing it to a peaceful conclusion—and not because we feel we have to, but because we know the Holy Spirit at work within each of us desires it.

Lent is about a lot of these things, which is one more reason why as a religious system (which a clergy-friend recently used this terminology in passing to refer to such things), the season has been considered incredibly important to the Church since very early on. Sure, you could set Lent aside as one of optional import, but that would be to remove oneself from the fuller collegium of Christians from across the centuries and globe who thought otherwise. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that much of myself. I try to take care not to think I know better than the thousands of years of faithful Christianity that came before me.

So, having unpacked the motivation behind what would have been a much shorter and more frustrated-sounding note resulting from an exhausting week, take a look at that first note one more time, except now through the better lens of the Gospel’s care.  You’re likely to be far less startled by its brevity.

Once again…

Jesus loves you. He died on the cross to save you. I’m guessing you believe this, yes? That means you’re not who you were before faith. You actually want to be a better person—a more faithful person. With that, be nice to others, being kind enough to give your fellow Christians the benefit of the doubt in conflict. And whatever you do, don’t impose your opinions onto them and then get angry when you discover they disagree.

That being said, however, if you are able, go to church. Don’t wait for an invitation. Certainly, if someone does happen to invite you, firstly, don’t get mad at them; and secondly, take a moment and consider that perhaps your unhappy response might have more to do with you than the person’s genuine concern for your wellbeing. Also, consider that it doesn’t do you much good to call yourself a Christian while actively avoiding being with the Creator who made you one. It’s kind of like saying two plus two equals five. The world seems to deal in that kind of nonsense. I mean, right now it’s calling a woman a man and a man a woman. Remember, you’re in the world but not of it. And besides, you know better, anyway. You’re a Christian. You have the truth of God’s Word. Live by it, never forgetting that Jesus lived, died, and rose for you. And why? Because He loves you. That love changes you.

There.

I began with the Gospel, and I ended with it. You’ve been given all you need to be and do everything I just described.

A blessed Lent to you.

Let’s Be Honest About Death

Just yesterday (Saturday, February 20), the Life Team of Our Savior blessed our church and community by offering an “End of Life” seminar. It was well attended. I was glad for that.

The keynote speaker for the event was Genevieve Marnon, the Legislative Director for Right to Life of Michigan. I know Genevieve. She’s a great servant of the cause for life, and as you’d expect, she gave great insight into a multitude of things facing the Church in America when it comes to end-of-life decision making. All who took advantage of the day’s events were well fed.

We were also joined by Gary Borg from Lynch and Sons Funeral Home. I know the folks at Lynch and Sons well. Some years ago, Thomas Lynch, being the friend and writer that he is, wrote a kindly endorsement for my first volume of The Angels’ Portion. Knowing Tom’s directors to be top-notch, as expected, Gary’s words were valuable as he explained the funeral home’s role in the process, giving helpful tips to families for navigating what is likely to be a taxing and turbulent time.

I was tasked with kicking off the event. My topic: “How to Prepare for a Funeral Service and Beyond.” Of course, I did what I could to fulfill the expectations of this topic, being sure to talk about the nature and theology of a funeral service, as well as emphasizing and encouraging faithful practices. I talked about how to be proactive in planning one’s own funeral, and I went through the basic steps of what families should do when a loved one’s last breath occurs.

But before I could speak to any of these things, I felt the need to steer into an honest discussion of what sits at the core of the conversation.

Death.

There is the temptation to avoid the word “death” altogether. I, on the other hand, give the word a capital “D” in every sermon I write. Why? Because Death is no small thing. It’s owed our attention. It’s big. It’s powerful. When it’s lurking, you know it’s there. When it steps onto the scene, there’s no questioning its intentions. Shakespeare personified Death in this way, too, describing it as keeping court, as sitting and scoffing at the pomp of man, waiting for the inevitable moment (Richard II, III, ii, I, 160). When Death has passed through, the devastation is real. It leaves behind things that are tangible to each of the human senses. You can see its shadow in the pale skin of the deceased. You can touch and know the coldness of its labor. It even has its own smell. The people who’ve been powerless to stop its savage work on a loved one have red cheeks and bloodshot eyes. They’ve tasted the salt of their own tears. When there’s no more heavy breathing and the life-support machines have been stopped, the silence is thunderous.

W.B. Yeats once wrote that Man knows Death to the bone (Death, 1933). And he’s right. For the victim, it leaves nothing untouched. For those left behind, it cuts into the depths of their being, and its scars are long-lasting.

Against the overwhelming evidence of Death’s strangling might, in an attempt to be at peace with its inescapable work, I’ve heard some refer to Death as a friend, something to embrace as good. Yes, it’s true that an end to mortal suffering can be counted as a blessing. But the verity of such a statement isn’t so for the reasons the mortal flesh would conjure. Death is not a blessing. It’s a curse. It’s not natural. It’s completely foreign to God’s design for creation. He makes sure we understand these things in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:19. In 1 Corinthians 15:26, Saint Paul makes sure we never utter the words, “Death is a friend.” It’s not a friend. It’s the last bitterest enemy of Man.

Before we can even begin to fathom the glorious purpose and momentum of a Christian funeral, we need to be wise to what we’re actually dealing with. Death is everything I’ve described. It’s real, and it’s coming for all. Each of us will breathe our last and be returned to the bosom of the earth. We don’t know how or when it will happen, we just know that it will. And when it does, what will we do? What shall we expect from and for those around us? Where is our hope in the midst of the mess?

A Christian funeral beholds Christ right in the middle of it.

In the midst of the initial sadness—Christ. When the machines are being unplugged and rolled away—Christ. When the plans are being made at the funeral home—Christ. When the readings and hymns are being selected and the obituary is being crafted from memories—Christ. When the bell tolls and the service begins, when the casket is closed and the mortal remains are covered by the pall—Christ. When the sermon is ringing out to the listeners—Christ and more Christ! Yes, the loved-one in the casket will be remembered, and likely in some heart-warming ways. Nevertheless, none of these will rise to the prominent station of “most important.” At a Christian funeral, Jesus owns that spot. And so the unmistakable communiqué to be dispatched to the troubled community will be the Good News of Death’s cure—the great heralding of Death’s utter defeat at the hands of Christ.

A Christian funeral is to be nothing less than the proclamation of this Gospel—the overabundant proclamation of the world-splitting news that Death no longer rules the spaces between heaven and hell because of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, Death is no longer the believer’s lord. It is not the believer’s master. It is not the believer’s end. Jesus has seen to this. He said so Himself: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Trusting in the divine Son of God, the One who throttled Death by His own demise on Calvary’s cross, believers—both in the casket and in the pews—can be sure that Death has been remedied. The process itself, no matter how it may unfold, is now only for believers to close their eyes and exhale a last breath in mortality, and then to open their eyes and inhale the freshness of eternal life in the nearest presence of Christ in heaven.

Christ made sure of this.

If we don’t understand these things, a funeral can devolve into a circus sideshow very quickly. If we don’t empower our pastors to direct our funerals in a Godly way, being sure to leave behind very clear instructions for our families, then our own funerals very well could become less of what Christ would desire and more of what the unbelieving world would do to find peace, which ultimately means everyone in attendance will be left searching for hope in all the wrong places.

Lent is a good time to have a seminar like the one we had. This is true because Lent takes seriously what plagues humanity, knowing the immensity of the Lord’s work to save us from it, while at the same time knowing that Easter is on the very near horizon.

My prayer for you this day is that you would know the immensity of the Lord’s work, too, and that you would look to Him in all things, being assured of eternal life through faith in Him. Lent reminds us of the serious nature of the wage for Sin, which is Death. Easter reminds us that neither has a hold on Jesus. This being true, by faith in Him, they don’t have a hold on you, either.

The Shape of the Gospel — Ash Wednesday

The penitential season of Lent is soon to be upon us. It begins this week with Ash Wednesday.

So, who cares? Christians do. At least, they should. Although, it would seem many Christians—even some of the clergy—are preaching and teaching against it. I don’t know why. I did hear one say it’s some sort of innovation to the Church Year and therefore to be avoided. I heard another suggest it hinders the Christian’s ability to prepare for Easter with joy. That’s sad. One sure way to rob the victory of its joy is to be ignorant of what’s at stake in the war. Ash Wednesday offers a much-needed glimpse of the battlefield.

I find it strangely interesting that even the sensual (though unofficial) liturgies of something like Mardi Gras would portray a better awareness and care for Ash Wednesday and Lent, whether their partakers actually realize it or not. Even in the midst of a celebration that holds the well-deserved reputation for overindulgent debauchery, there is the sense that it must and will come to an end.

“Live it up,” its rites and ceremonies proclaim, “for after Fat Tuesday, it must all expire.”

And it does. What once was gives way to the ashen dust of death remembered by Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the proper headstone for all things carnal.

A day in the Church Year in which believers’ foreheads are marked with the ashes of what were once lively and verdant branches (the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration), Ash Wednesday reveals that the Christian Church knows something of this world that the world itself cannot fully fathom. It knows the wage for Sin is Death—real and eternal Death. It knows this as it recalls God’s terrifying words to Adam and Eve after the fall into Sin. These words still reverberating, it hears the truth in them. It knows the necessity for their honest contemplation so that we would see the world as it ought to be seen. It knows to immerse itself in the depths of a solemnity that acknowledges the horror of the very real predicament that the entire human race is facing. The Church knows there’s so much more than just an end to things, but there’s also a terrible dreadfulness just over that end’s border for those who remain enslaved to the mess.

You can’t ignore it.

You can’t hide from it.

You can’t outrun it.

You can’t overpower it.

The inevitability of its reach is woven into the very fleshly fabric of every man, woman, and child who was ever born in the natural way.

It was with divine, and yet heartbroken, authority that God announced this to His world and its first inhabitants: “Because you have done this, cursed is the ground because of you…” (Genesis 3:17). Cursed things are put away from God. By this curse—this self-inflicted and permanent vexation—“you will return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

The thing about Ash Wednesday is that you can’t make your way into and through Lent without contemplating the veracity of the curse. Ash Wednesday has become a guardian of sorts at Lent’s contrite door, and it won’t let you into the forthcoming events without being stamped. The stamp it reaches out to give, it goes on your head and not your hand. Its dust crowns the human frame as the only appropriate coronation for someone born into the un-royal lineage of the Sin-nature. It adorns the skull that shields the corrupted human mind, the organ fed by a sinful heart so that it would calculate and then initiate every ungodly act of thought, word, or deed. The mark’s dirty-cold embers are the kind that distinguish Cain from Abel, openly identifying the murderer and reminding him of the dusty ground that opened up to swallow Godly innocence.

And yet, even as Ash Wednesday won’t let you forget the seriousness of the disease, it will be just as fervent with the cure.

Remember: That filthy mark is in the shape of a cross. It’s smeared onto the penitently-postured foreheads of Ash Wednesday’s observers who know their need for a Savior. It serves as a silent proclamation of God’s truest inclinations in our darkness. It’s the shape of the Gospel—the death of the Savior, Jesus Christ, for a cursed world. The Great Exchange—His righteousness for our unrighteousness. It tells of a birthright, not earned, but given in love. It beams through dusty grime the truth of an imperishable crown of blamelessness, not earned by the wearer, but won and granted by the Savior. Cain is marked and no one can touch him. God has been gracious. For us, even in that smeared cross’ quiet, there thunders above every human wearing it an otherworldly hope for eternal life through faith in the Savior who was nailed to it on Good Friday. The booming crack of its message drowns out the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh’s accusations to the contrary.

Ash Wednesday’s mark serves as a gentle reminder of something else in particular. It heralds rebirth.

That cross of ash will dot the same place where God first made the sign of the cross upon His Christians in Holy Baptism. If only for a few hours, it will make visible the invisible, leading each of its bearers back to the moment when God He put His own name on them, claiming them as His through the washing of water and the Word, thereby grafting them into the entirety of Christ’s self-submitting work to accomplish Mankind’s redemption (Romans 6:1-10).

It’s been said that the best opportunities are seldom labeled. This “best opportunity” of Ash Wednesday is, in fact, labeled. Its tag may be grimy, but it happens to be one of the most condensed opportunities in the entirety of the Church Year for a right understanding of our condition in Sin and our glorious rescue by the Son of God. Don’t keep it at arm’s length, but rather embrace the opportunity to gather with the faithful and sing as we do in the appointed tract, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).

If you have any say in your evening activities, I encourage you to participate. Set aside 7:00pm this Wednesday. Make your way to Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan. Or go to your own church if it is offering a service. Either way, just don’t make the mistake of missing out on the powerful manner and message of the Ash Wednesday proclamation. You’ll be given the opportunity to look Sin and Death square in the eyes. You’ll see your mortality there. But you’ll see so very brightly and hear so very clearly the Good News of your brand new beginning through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the compassion of God who took upon Himself human flesh and made His dwelling among us for our rescue.

Dying to Meet You

Do you have time for a quick story? Since you’re here, I’ll go ahead and share it.

We took a phone call here at Our Savior this past Friday. I didn’t answer it. Nikki, our Parish Administrator, did. It was someone calling to chat with me. Even though I wasn’t necessarily steeped in anything crucial, Nikki took a message for me. She does this because she knows that while technically Friday is my day off—and I probably shouldn’t tell you this—but I’m always in the office on Fridays. I have a few regularly scheduled appointments in the morning, and then after that, I use the rest of the day to catch up on things I didn’t have time for during the week. She runs block for me to let me do my thing.

Anyway, a woman called to let me know she didn’t appreciate the comparison I’d made in a recent radio bit equating Christians who justify skipping worship on a regular basis to so-called believers who justify voting for a candidate who favors abortion.

To be fair, the woman wasn’t rude with her critique—which was a welcomed difference in comparison to so many other calls or email messages I’ve received from metro-Detroit listeners. Instead, Nikki described her as someone who, with a conversational tone, was troubled “by likening someone absent from church to a Christian who’d support abortion,” and her hope was that I’d reconsider broadcasting the particular segment in its current form.

I’ll admit the association is a brutal one. And I’m more than willing to reconsider my words. The problem is, I didn’t write the script on this particular radio bit. My daughter did. Evelyn’s the one who made the observation and ultimately formed the comparative conclusion. I was so inspired by her insight, I wrote down what was spoken between us and together we recorded the 60-second radio spot right then and there. Again, I put into the microphone what I said. Evelyn put into it what she said. The brief conversation fit perfectly between the 15-second intro and the 15-second outro of my one-minute-and-thirty-seconds of airtime.

The context was simple. While waiting in my office before school, Evelyn was scanning the images from one of our previous church pictorial directories. Turning the pages, she stumbled upon the picture of someone she didn’t recognize. Second only to her dad, Evelyn practically lives here at Our Savior. She knows everyone’s name. And if she doesn’t know a member’s name, she certainly knows all the faces. Looking at a pictorial directory of people officially labeled as “members,” one holding the kindly faces of countless people she considers as members of her Christian family, it was natural for her to ask about someone she didn’t recognize. I didn’t say much at first, but I was careful not to be deceptive. Had I dodged her question, she would’ve known. Remember, like me, she’s here every Sunday. If she doesn’t recognize you, it’s probably because you don’t attend. That being the case in this particular instance, when she asked for the identity of the person, I said very nonchalantly, “She’s a member of the congregation, but she just doesn’t come to church very often.”

“Well, I’ve never seen her before in my life,” she replied, sounding somewhat concerned—just as I’d expect from this little girl with such a huge heart for her church family. “Does she work on Sundays?”

“No,” I answered, again trying not to give her any more information than she required.

“So, she could be here on Sundays?”

“I suppose.”

Evelyn thought for a moment, and then she laid the situation out unembellished. “How can she consider herself a member of a church she doesn’t even want to attend?”

My answer: “That’s a really good question, honey.”

Her next uninhibited reply, being the ardent pro-life girl that she is: “That’s kind of like people who call themselves Christian but support abortion. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

First of all, can you tell Evelyn is in tune with what’s going on around her, both in her church and her world? Second, there you have it. Even a child understands the inconsistency. How can we claim to be a devoted follower of someone we want nothing to do with? Using the same logic, how can we claim faith in Christ who is the Word made flesh (John 1:14), and yet be in opposition to the Word of God when it comes to topics like abortion?

It just doesn’t make any sense, and my little girl knew it.

Of course as adults, there will always be plenty of unknown angles to Evelyn’s observation that we’ll discover. COVID-19 has made things a little crazier these days. However, rest assured that the person in the picture was MIA long before COVID-19. That being said, be careful not to square the angles for escape from her scrutiny’s sting with whatever illegitimate excuses at whatever moment work best for you. And be sure to take even greater care not to overcomplicate or find offense in what’s been laid bare. If you do, you’re sure to miss a simple truth revealed by way of a simple faith, the same kind of child-like faith described by the Lord in Matthew 18:3 and now being demonstrated by a little girl who sees time with her Savior, concern for the members of her church family, and doing everything humanly possible to protect the lives of unborn children as essential and non-negotiable to the Christian life.

Her evaluation was simple, but it was a good one. I suppose in essence, it reminds us that even as our God cannot be in contradiction with Himself, He does not grant us space for being in contradiction with Him, either. This is built into the Lord’s announcement, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30).

Now, to begin wrapping all of this up, right after Nikki told me about the call on Friday, I posted on Facebook the very first thing that came to mind:

“I’m beginning to think that for some Christians, worship and Bible study are so precious they feel they need to ration them. Go to church.”

Yes, it was a sarcastic play on words.

“Well, I don’t support abortion, so don’t put my skipping church into the same category.”

But they are in the same category. Don’t have other gods. Don’t misuse God’s name. Don’t skip church. Don’t kill. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. These are all a part of the same list of things we do to thumb our noses at God, and ultimately, they’re things that keep us separated from Him. And yet, our Lord reaches to us by His Gospel. He empowers us there by His Holy Spirit for acknowledging our dreadful disobedience. Only by the power of the Gospel can we know to repent of these Sins and be changed to desire faithfulness (Romans 1:16).

I don’t necessarily know what many of the other churches around us are doing, but opportunities for holy worship are plentiful here at Our Savior. We have two Divine Services on Sunday. We enjoy the Office of Matins on Monday, another Divine Service on Wednesday, and an abbreviated Responsive Prayer (liturgics) service on Thursday.

And God is continually blessing all of our time together during these occasions for worship.

Dear Christians, there’s no need to ration your time with Christ. There’s an abundance! Indeed, the Lord is here, and His merciful gifts are overflowing all week long. Surely you can make it to one of those services to receive from the bounty that belongs to those who are His own? Wear your mask if you want to. Or don’t. No one is judging anyone in this regard. And why would we? The goal is simply to gather with the Lord and receive His care just as He desires to give it.

Quite honestly, I say all of this with a rather sizable concern in mind. For me personally, it’s one thing to be unrecognizable to Evelyn. Truthfully, if you are yet to meet her, you are missing out. But it’s a thing of far greater terror—the greatest terror there is—to be unrecognizable to Christ; to be one to hear Him say at one’s last hour, “I never knew you. Away from me…” (Matthew 7:23).

Go to church. You belong there. And even if you don’t feel like you belong just yet, go anyway. Christ is dying to meet you. Well, “died” to be more precise. And I know a church full of people who are eager to make the introduction.