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.

The Masterpiece of Family

If I were asked to choose God’s greatest masterpiece from among the many things He has fashioned, of course I’d select His plan of salvation worked through His Son, Jesus Christ. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ on behalf of a straying creation is His greatest work. The resplendence of the Christmas season more than certifies this magnum opus. But if I had to choose a second place from among the rest of His handiwork, before I’d ever even consider the majesty of a mountain range, or the cascading and jewel-like glistening of a sunlit waterfall, or even a pitch black sky filled with an endless array of iridescent stars, I would choose the family.

The human family is truly a remarkable thing.

Besides being the fundamental building block of all societies in history, I suppose one aspect of family that’s so remarkable is that just to observe one is to see a number of important truths in our world. For one, Christians know the source code for family is born from the relationship God intends for us to have with Him. He is our Creator—our divine parent—and we are his children; and as His little ones, we are free to go to Him to receive the benefits of His loving kindness and concern, and He is sure to exercise that care as He watches over us. When we’re sick or hurting, He brings the right medicine and healing. When we’re sad, He’s there to give comfort. When we’re scared, He provides security. Perhaps best of all, when we’re lost, He seeks us out. In fact, such a scene epitomizes the Lord’s very first words to Adam and Eve in the Garden after the fall into the dreadfulness of Sin. He didn’t reprimand the misbehaving dolts, but rather His first action was one of love. Like a concerned parent, God called to his children, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9).

In an existential way, a human family portrays an orderly world and its functioning parts. From our planet and everything within its protective atmosphere all revolving around a preserving sun, to a body moving and breathing and living by way of individual cells creating tissue that become parts ultimately forming a whole, the human family is iconic of purposeful togetherness. At least Saint Paul certainly thought so, especially when considering the universal Christian family—the Church—as a functioning body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).

I suppose one of the most remarkable aspects of the masterpiece of family—an aspect that almost certainly makes all other created things jealous as they look on—is the element of unconditional love to be had between its members. God certainly intends this love to be a part of a family’s DNA, and this is a good thing because no human family is perfect.

Thomas Fuller spoke wisely when he said something about how anyone born into a family that doesn’t have the usual screw-ups and headache-makers must have been born from a flash of lightning and not in the natural way. In other words, and again, no family is perfect. As a matter of fact, every member of every human family is carrying around faults plaited in the human flesh. Sure, some members of our families cause more problems than others—and some of these problems are the worst kinds—but in the end, none of us are free from the complications we ourselves impose on others around us, no matter how big or small those complications may be. Because of this, it’s an absolute miracle that human beings can live in such close proximity to one another for very long, let alone in the same home as something called family. Being a family is not only remarkable, but it is perhaps one of the most challenging endeavors, too.

And yet, by the love God models and then sets as the standard—a love He establishes both in and between the members of a family—we can maneuver among one another with our individual distinctions knowing that we also “carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:10).

In other words, no matter how horribly dysfunctional things might seem to be, it’s the love of God among its members that makes it work and sees them through the seemingly unsurvivable times.

With this Gospel sense about us—even if we’re the only ones sitting at the Christmas dinner table who believe it—as I heard someone once say (and I don’t remember who), for Christians, a family becomes something in which we might sometimes feel trapped, and yet in our innermost, we don’t ever really want to escape. We know there’s too much to lose by doing so, and so we look around at one another and we not only see people we love, but we behold people whom God loves—people He was willing to die for. That means when even our closest family members betray, hurt, or disappoint us, they remain someone we’d fight hell and high water to keep safely within reach.

This comes to mind as I think of all of you this Christmastide.

If there’s one thing I know for sure about many of the people of God here at Our Savior, it’s that each and every day, by God’s grace, they are growing closer and closer to one another as a Christian family. I’m seeing it with my own eyes, and I’m experiencing it personally, too. As a congregation, we heard some tough news yesterday before both of the worship services regarding the health of one of our own, Pastor Zwonitzer. And yet the oxygen-like joy we have in Christ was not sucked from the room when he shared the concerning details. Instead, we took it in together, and then we exhaled together in prayer—and then we breathed in the Lord’s promised care as a Christian family during the worship service that followed the announcement. I can barely begin to top this hopeful imagery of our mutual togetherness, except to say that this kind of togetherness is happening in so many other corners of our congregation. Differences are being overcome. Care is being shown. Needs are being met. People are rallying to one another’s sides in times of both desperation and joy.

As the world around us is so easily rattled, as it appears to be coming undone by frustration and despair, I actually can’t think of a time as a pastor of a congregation when my own personal peace has felt so impenetrable. Truly, God is blessing our togetherness with love, strength, and determination that only He can provide, and it’s bringing along in its train a sense of safety—the kind of safety one experiences when he knows he’s surrounded by loved-ones.

Christmas is only a few days away, and with it will come gatherings with folks you might call family. My prayer is that you can carry this Godly perspective from your church family into your own home. To be thoroughly equipped for this, I’d encourage you first and foremost to gather for worship with your Christian family on Christmas Eve and Day. Join your brothers and sisters in Christ at the Heavenly Father’s divine table for the celebration of the coming of His Son, our Brother, who came to take away our Sin. From there, be refreshed to venture into the midst of your earthly families humbly understanding none of us is perfect—none were born from a flash of lightning—but on the other hand, we were reborn by water and the Word for faith, and so we aren’t as we were before. We are equipped for exemplifying the unconditional love God intends to be found in the midst of families, and in due course, extended to others beyond the borders of our family.

I know such love won’t always be easy, but I know for a fact that it’s possible by God’s grace at work through us.

Again, know that I’m praying specifically for peace in your families this Christmas, and I’m trusting that God will grant to you the special merriment of heart that knows no matter what happens, this peace has already been won by Jesus, the very brushstrokes carrying the splendid hues of God’s greatest masterpiece—the Gospel.

No Room For Compromise

I mentioned in Bible study yesterday morning that I had an interesting phone conversation the previous week with a visitor to our early worship service. I called her as a follow-up to her visit. She was intrigued by our worship practices at Our Savior—why we do what we do—and this led us into a deeper discussion about the doctrinal distinctions between various churches. At one point along the way the word “compromise” arrived on the scene of our confab.

I think Pastor Zwonitzer did a great job of thinking this through with us in his sermon this past Wednesday during the midweek Advent service. He spent time with Romans 15 talking about the things that are required for unity among God’s people, and he did this also while touching on the subject of adiaphora—that is, the things that are neither commanded nor forbidden by the Scriptures. With adiaphora, there can be compromise. Although, I’ll say that how any particular worshipping community handles adiaphora is often a demonstration of what they believe regarding the required things. But that’s a conversation for another day.

In the meantime, compromise is a word that makes a lot of sense to people these days. We’re looking for reasonable compromises to be made by our leaders when it comes to COVID restrictions. We’re hoping for amenable give-and-take between friends who may be at odds with one another over this or that particular issue. We’re longing for a spirit of cooperation to emerge between differing groups of people as we do what we can to navigate what has become one of the most turbulent eras in the history of the United States.

But having said all of this, there are times when compromise is just not an option, namely, when handling objectively true things. As it meets with the Christian Faith, take for example the theology of the divine inspiration of God’s Word. It goes without saying that this doctrine must stand uncorrupted, and any compromise in this regard must be seen for what it is: evil. To compromise on the divine inspiration of the Scriptures—which is to make wobbly its inerrancy and immutability—is little less than to call a dishonorable truce between good and evil. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that such an ungodly armistice is likely to occur when fear and uncertainty creep into and among the faithful during struggle. But the thing is, it’s in these very moments when the faithful, no matter how peaceable they might want things to be, need to hold the line at all costs, understanding compromise as the false virtue that it is in such a moment. It won’t be easy to do. Trusted voices from seemingly rationale folks will be calling the brave folks foolish. Still, it’ll be necessary in these moments for faithfulness to outclass the rational fear of death. Indeed, as Shakespeare said, “Courage mounteth with occasion,” and of course we can never be sure of the measure of courage we’ll actually need until those occasions arrive. We just know we’ll need it, and we’ll know that compromise won’t be an option.

God willing, this is how we function here at Our Savior. We are mindful of when and where compromise is an option and when and where it isn’t. For example, you’ll never hear a sermon absent the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for your sins. Why? Because that’s the heart of the Gospel, and it’s the job of the preacher to preach the Gospel. There’s no compromising on this. Another example: You can count on us to hold the line of God’s Word with regard to altar fellowship and the practice of the Lord’s Supper. Saint Paul is pretty explicit in his teachings in this regard in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. We will not compromise on these things.

There’s something else we have been unwilling to compromise. Unfortunately, many have tossed it into the category of adiaphora.

In-person worship.

Of course we’ve made adjustments here and there with regard to how we do it. All of those adjustments have been adiaphoric things. But in-person worship itself is not adiaphora. It is mandated for all able-bodied Christians. And so we do it, even when the government tells us we can’t—even when Christians mistakenly press for their own church to close its doors because they believe it’s the best way to “love thy neighbor.”

Interestingly, I read an article in passing last week that was shared by my friends, Rev. Joe Bangert and Rev. Paul Clark. It was entitled “Mental Health Improved for Only One Group During COVID: Those Who Attended Church Weekly.” I’ll bet you can figure out what the article had to say about the results from a recent Gallup poll. Suffice it to say, I was not surprised by what I read. People who’ve been attending worship regularly during this unsettled time are proving to fare far better mentally and emotionally than everyone else in the world.

Again, I am by no means surprised. But some in the church remain surprised. Or perhaps more accurately, embarrassed. Scrolling through Facebook, I noticed a comment from another pastor who shared the same article while urging caution with the accuracy of the findings. Of course he found fault with it. But then again, his church has been closed to in-person worship since March, and this study is suggesting he may be hurting his flock rather than helping it.

Heralding the importance of being present in worship during the COVID-19 unrest has been an uphill battle for many pastors and churches right from the beginning. Admittedly, here at Our Savior, the conversation was a little dicey at first. I remember a handful of scalding emails from folks when I announced internally that I was offering multiple in-person services (with the administration of the Lord’s Supper) throughout the week. The flame of concern got a little hotter when I actually recommended people sign up for and attend one of the in-person services instead of staying home and watching the online ones. I recall similar commentary aimed at me on social media when others whose churches were closed learned what I was doing. I was called unloving. I was called dangerous. I was called rogue. I was called foolish.

For the most part, that tenor has subsided, and many of my detractors have come back around and are actually doing what we’re doing—which, by the way, God continues to bless our efforts to uphold Christian liberty through mindful practices and procedures that have more than proven their effectiveness, even when cases of COVID were found in our midst. Again, I’ve believed all along that when it comes to actually loving our neighbor, what we’re doing here far outpaces anything being done out there by the big box, grocery, and retail stores.

As a community of faith navigating all of this, we needed to hold steady on the importance of in-person worship. We needed this objective truth to win the day. And it did. God saw to it. Because of this, a majority of His people here at Our Savior have remained spiritually (and yes, emotionally) healthy while so many in the world around us have starved and are now at the end of their cerebral ropes.

I guess one reason all of this comes to mind is because I sort of touched on it in Bible study yesterday. But I only scraped the surface. As we go deeper, we can find the encouragement for anyone who may still be fearful of attending in-person worship to consider coming back and giving it a try. Be calmed by the love of your Savior, and trust that He would never hurt or harm you by the faithful administration of His gifts of forgiveness. We’re not experiencing outbreaks. We’re not a super spreader. We’re not rogues. We’re Christians seeking to be faithful to Christ, and by His blessing, seeking to be faithful in the world around us.

Again, give it a try. The doors are open and the table is ready. And what a joy it would be for us to be together once again for the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrations.

Spencer Smith: Remember His Name

Spencer Smith.
Remember his name. He took his own life. He wrote down his reasons, and he left them as a record for anyone willing to read them—with honesty, that is.
Coronavirus restrictions. Virtual learning. Isolation.
Don’t be tempted to blame mental illness like the weasely school district superintendent tried to do. Don’t blame the parents for being ill-tuned to their son’s condition as the child psychologists are sure to do. Be honest. Accept that Spencer was fine before the lockdowns. It was the isolating restrictions that brought the despair. It was the forced distancing augmented by a computer screen classroom that chained the sadness to Spencer’s ankles. It was the inescapable loneliness that throttled the throat of his hope and killed him.
I would think that Christians have the eyes for seeing this. And we are well attuned to the knowledge that it was God who set the parameters with regard to togetherness. He knew at the very beginning that we’d need it. “It is not good for man to be alone,” were some of His first words. Just as he knew we’d need food, He knew that we’d need to be with people—in person, embracing, fully sensing and savoring the humanity of one another. God knew that a friend on a computer screen would be as fulfilling as a steak-flavored dinner squeezed from a tube dispenser. Both would be thinly veneered experiences, and would never match nor fully represent what’s real.
But now we’ve been tricked into thinking this is the best way forward. As a pastor, I’m of the mind that anything countering God’s will or wisdom could never be the best way.
With that, I offer a brief word of caution to parents.
Apart from this article, I took a little time to read similar articles being shared on this all-too-common occurrence in 2020. Most are betraying—even if only subtly—similar weaknesses in our societal armor. Not all of the articles, but many. Consider what appears to be the framing of this child’s greatest hope:
“He had dreams of playing lineman on the Brunswick High School football team, but those hopes were dashed when it was replaced by flag football.”
Don’t let extra curricular activities be your child’s all-in-all. We’ve learned all too well that the governing authorities can dash these hopes. But no earthly power can snatch away the hope we have in Christ. Parents, do whatever you can to make sure your child’s greatest hope is found only in Christ. A chief way to do this is to go to church. Go and be in the actual place and among the real people where God is distributing His gifts of love through Word and Sacrament. And if your church is not providing for in-person togetherness with the Lord as a fellowshipping community, but rather has elected to remain completely virtual, then you’re getting a tube dispenser Jesus. Christ wants more for you, which is why He mandates that His people be together:
“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:23-25)
In such a context, there’s real, long-lasting, and unflinching hope in the faithful One to be had. As a result, there’s a spurring motion of love and service from one human to the next there, too.
Indeed, it is not good for man to be alone. Spencer Smith is an unfortunate proof.
Remember his name.

The Devil Comes Out

It may be somewhat of an abrupt way to begin, but as a pastor, I’ve seen and experienced plenty to affirm the existence of the devil. And I’m not just talking about the philosophical deduction that comes from observing our world in chaos and concluding that he’s the only possible explanation for all of it. Instead, I’m admitting to being fairly sure I’ve met him face to face a time or two. Even further, I’m confessing to having experienced unexplainable things, that is, I’ve been brought into situations involving particular places or people, and what was going on around me didn’t play by the rules of natural expectation. I won’t give you the details, but rest assured, some would serve well as scripts for horror flicks.

I guess what I’m saying is that if you disbelieve the existence of the devil, I’m here to tell you that you’re fooling yourself. He’s real. And every now and then I find myself working with someone who has the bruises—both physically and spiritually—to prove it.

It used to be a fashionable thing to say that the devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. I’ll be honest and say I never really fell for that line. The devil has always been captain of the blowhards. Anyone at all familiar with the scriptures will know it was his prideful arrogance that brought about his fall (Isaiah 14:12–15 and Ezekiel 28:12–17), and so I find it difficult to believe that he’d ever be willing to give up the spotlight in any room. Although, if indeed his non-existence has been one of the go-to plays in his playbook, I think he’s using it less and less these days. From some of the things I’ve read and seen lately, I get the sense he’s beginning to step from the shadows in order to let more and more people know he’s there. In fact, I think he’s not all that far from coming out of the closet completely, since that seems to be the grandest sign of nobility in our culture these days. In other words, don’t be surprised if one day you hear the pronouncement that the devil has announced his premier interview and that it’ll take place on “Ellen”—or better yet, “The View.”

But to come out would mean he’s willing to tip his BLM, Inc. hat to the existence of God, too, and wouldn’t it make life harder on the devil if people believed God actually exists?

Not as long as the devil emerges as the hero in comparison.

The devil has been hard at work in our radically individualized society framing himself as the first in a long line of “misunderstoods” who have throughout history been met by unjust systems built by self-appointed and self-righteously intolerant people—God, of course, being the chief of the intolerants. To establish this premise, the devil has been exemplary in his usage of universities and the civil government—one being a locale for learning “truth” and the other a system of legislators, judges, and lawyers in place for employing that truth on behalf of victims for the sake of justice.

Truly, it is as the old saying goes, “The devil makes his Christmas pies of lawyers’ tongues and clerks’ fingers.”

In addition to this, it sure seems the devil is more openly making his case from the reasonable premise that there are two sides to every story, and yet God has written all the so-called “official” literature on the subject, so the system is inherently rigged and isn’t to be trusted. It’s time to see things from a better perspective. And so the devil is more forthrightly suggesting that, yes, while the pathways apart from God are different, they aren’t necessarily bad. And they’re certainly not condemnable. But because God says they are, the devil becomes the good guy, and God is the over-lording villain working to support a system that needs to be completely torn down and rebuilt.

Do you see what he’s done here? Indeed, it is as Elizabeth Barrett Browning said: “The devil’s most devilish when he’s respectable.”

For the record, while so many in our world are succumbing to this kind of “critical theory”—even in the Church—I intend to stand as diligently against it as I can. I’m not going to fall for it, but rather I’m going to fight it with everything I’ve got. I hope you will, too.

But how?

I mentioned at the beginning that I’m more than certain I’ve met the devil. I mentioned that I’ve worked with people who’ve been tormented by him personally and I’ve stood against others who were clearly sent by his directives. In each of the circumstances, my practice has been the same—to advise or engage in an exorcism. But I don’t mean the kind you see in the movies. I mean the exercise of Word and Sacrament ministry—the pure preaching and teaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the holy sacraments according to Christ’s command—all of this most certainly being delivered to the world through the Church in the midst of holy worship.

In other words, every time you gather for worship, in a sense, you can be sure you are experiencing an exorcism. You are gathering together with the One true God—the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit—who loves you, and He is giving to you His merciful gifts of forgiveness and the knowledge of the way of righteousness, and He’s driving from you the powers of Sin, Death, and the lying devil.

This is how you keep from falling for the deception.

This is how you prevent the devil from inhabiting your heart and mind.

This is how you are equipped for the seemingly endless warfare against his tireless assaults.

Apart from this, using your reason and mortal senses alone, your defenses will be weak and you’ll be fooled. But with the continued strength of the Holy Spirit by way of the Gospel of God’s grace, your fortifications will be sturdy as your otherworldly senses are heightened. By these, the devil won’t be sly enough to make it into your camp undetected. Even better, when you see him slinking into the camps of others, you’ll be ready and able to grab your weapons and run to their aid to protect and defend them.

Read That Again Very Slowly

I should start this morning by mentioning I experienced a “flux capacitor” moment last night in my garage. If you’ve seen the movie “Back to the Future” then you’ll know that Doc Brown came up with the idea for the device that makes time travel possible right after he hit his head. Well, I was fetching a Halloween bin from the attic storage in our garage when I fell off of the top rung of our eight-foot ladder and hit my head, giving my forehead a pretty good split. Thankfully, I didn’t need stitches. Nevertheless, once I was back to my feet and the stars in my eyes were dissipating, strangely, what I wanted to write about this morning became clear. So here it is.

I flashed back to something I’d read from Luther last week about prayer. In particular, he landed on the topic by way of Psalm 42:4, which reads:

“These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.”

Luther observed:

“The multitude needs a certain place and certain days and hours suitable for listening to the Word of God; and therefore God has ordained and instituted the Holy Sacraments to be administered to the congregation at a place where all gather together for prayer and thanksgiving. The advantage of this is that when Christians gather together, prayer is more powerful than at other times. We can and should most certainly pray at all places and hours, but prayer is nowhere so strong and powerful as when, in unity of Spirit, the whole congregation is gathered together to pray.”

Did you catch all that?

First of all, understand that Luther wasn’t one to speak loosely. When he wrote things like “God has ordained and instituted,” he meant exactly that. God has established certain things that we do not have the freedom to adjust. And thankfully, just as Luther used the word “advantage” to describe what God has mandated, we can be assured that God puts these particulars into place for our good and not our harm. I suppose in addition, being the biblical exegete that Luther was, had he been challenged on this, you could’ve expected him to write in tiny print a list of proof texts as long as your dining room table.

Beyond this, Luther’s observation had me thinking about a particular irony unfolding in the Christian churches throughout the world right at this very moment. Interestingly, forces from both within and without are still doing their level best to keep the churches closed and the people apart, while at the same time desperately desiring deliverance from the COVID-19 scourge. Again, this is somewhat ironic. Even better, I’d say its satire is epitomized by the comments I’ve heard from so many, words that sound a lot like, “I’m being a better Christian neighbor by staying home and away from others. But not to worry! I’m using my alone time to pray, most especially for this mess to be over!”

Admittedly, such words bring to mind a recent tweet from the Flat Earth Society. Having a hard time swallowing the verity of the organization, a person asked, “Is the Flat Earth Society an actual thing with actual members?” And the group spokesman tweeted in reply, “By all means, yes! The Flat Earth Society has members all around the globe!” It was to this reply that another person chimed in, “Go back and read what you just wrote… very… slowly.”

Eh-hem.

“…when Christians gather together, prayer is more powerful… prayer is nowhere so strong and powerful as when, in unity of Spirit, the whole congregation is gathered together to pray.”

Now, read that again… very… slowly.

Tearing Down the Tower of Self-Interest

We’ve experienced a handful of very busy weeks here at Our Savior. And while I’ll admit they have unquestionably resulted in accomplishments about which we can all smile with Godly pride, the labor leading up to them is still being felt. We’re all pretty tired. It takes a lot of work to pull together three major events—an all-day conference of national newsmakers, a banquet with the same, and a debate between two tier-one thinkers—all in a single weekend. But by God’s grace, we did it.

Along the way, I joked multiple times with Georgine, the office administrator and right hand in all things around here, that if we actually live through what we’re trying to do, then little else would be impossible for this congregation to achieve. Although, each time I said those words, I immediately recanted by saying we ought not for one second be partners in thought, word, or deed with the architects of the Tower of Babel, believing that we can somehow be and do whatever we determine apart from God’s holy will. This is God’s work. All of it. We’re tools in His hands. When it becomes about our own achievements, we will be toppled and dispersed. And deservingly so.

There’s an important image revealed by this conversation. It tells of the tragic conflict of loyalties in the human heart, and you’d be fooling yourself if you think it’s not there. In fact, I’ve witnessed it a handful of times here at Our Savior even within the last few weeks alone—people upset with one another over some pretty trivial things, and then by way of that anger, falling prey to the human tendency to be loyal to the self rather than God.

In the midst of this, a tower is discovered, one built by self-interest, even though as Christians, all of us should already know the Bible teaches that God targets such edifices for destruction.

I blame much of the current contention on the seeds of fear that COVID-19 and its many disciples continue to sow in our world. It certainly has been a handy instrument in the devil’s symphony of dread. Even in Christian communities, the people are on edge, and with that, the slightest discomforting nudge appears to be all that’s required for sending a person to one side or another of any innocuous issue, ultimately seeing them careening into combat with another human being who’s trying just as hard as the first to endure.

So what do we do?

Well, I suppose the first thing we need to do is to thank God that by His holy Law, He has not hidden our propensities from us. We can know to confess our intimate roles in the fellowship of human wickedness. We can enter into every situation knowing we are by no means innocent of the worldwide curse of Sin. And then, even as we confess our innate dreadfulness, as Christians, we do it cognizant that the Lord has already reached to us by the Gospel to make us into someone new. That’s how we were able to confess our sinfulness in the first place, because we understand the contention between our inner loyalties much better now than before faith. We know the grappling of the sinner/saint relationship. And so Saint Paul makes sense when he urges us by the power of the Holy Spirit in faith to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).

The second thing we can do is to realize the richness of such a good Word of God. In particular, we can walk away from it admitting that human vanity—loyalty to the old self—can play some pretty serious tricks on how we interpret (or even remember) situations in which we found ourselves in conflict with others. Admit it. During the time of reflection that immediately follows conflict, after the dust has settled and you’ve stormed off, often it is you’ll discover that the only way to comfort yourself is with egoistic self-coddling—by reminding yourself over and over again that you’re the good guy, that you’re not trying to cause problems, that in all circumstances you are the victim and the other person is the real offender. One of my favorite poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, spoke to this when he wrote, “And the devil did grin, for his darling sin, is pride that apes humility” (The Devil’s Thoughts, 1799).

In the situations I’m describing, this goes nowhere. Well, actually, let me rephrase that. It does go somewhere. It adds unsteady blocks to self’s flimsy tower, building upward, higher and higher, until God comes along and topples it. And He warns us that He’s aiming to do this: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18), and “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled…” (Matthew 23:12). Sometimes, because we know ourselves to be sinners, this word of warning resonates and we’re able to get out of the building, sparing the relationships we’ve jeopardized and salvaging our reputations, all before it crashes to the ground. But it’s also not beyond us sometimes to let our allegiance remain with what we’ve built, and then we discover we’re still inside the structure when it falls. In those circumstances, human relationships and standings are shredded by the tumbling debris, and there is nothing but devastation to be had.

But it’s our own fault. We knew better. We knew to put on the new self and work to fix the problem, knowing that God had already promised to bless our efforts toward faithfulness (Luke 11:28). And what were we arguing about anyway? Did it have anything to do with Christological things? Doctrinal things? Life and death things? Heaven and hell things? No? Then that’s even more concerning. If you’re balancing the stability of your place in the Christian community and throwing relationships into the trash because you prefer purple carpeting in the fellowship hall while your opponent prefers green, then you have a serious personality problem. Even worse, if now no matter what that opponent says or does, he can only irritate you and you begrudgingly despise him every time you see him, then you have a serious personality problem. You’re the kind of person who can harbor hatred. That kind of person beholds commandments four through ten—all the ones that steer us toward loving our neighbor—as lining up to be broken. You only need the opportunities to present themselves.

That’s not putting on the new self. That’s dressing up the old self and going out for a night on the town.

But again, what do we do?

Well, the answer remains the same. Repent and receive the Lord’s world-altering forgiveness. From there, know that a Christian will now be found operating very differently in the world around him.

There’s another important piece to what Saint Paul wrote in the text I mentioned from Ephesians 4. He wrote:

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (vv.26-27).

In other words, no matter what is at the heart of the conflict between two Christians, don’t slow-boil yourself in anger by refusing to sort things out. That’s another sign that you might be holed up in your wobbly tower. Get to work solving it. The longer you wait, the easier it is for the devil to stir your vanity and make you comfortable in your insubstantial pride.

And by the way, Ephesians 4:26-27 is not a difficult bit of Scripture to understand. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the easier ones in holy writ to grasp.

I suppose lastly, recognize that every Christian community is comprised of multiple personalities. God makes it that way for a reason. He places some among us who are more patient than others. Some are more imposing than others. Some are meant to be helpers, others are destined to be leaders. But no matter who’s laboring side by side, when all are firing in time as people of faith serving toward the same goal of being in alignment with God’s will, then all will be bearing their proper place in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), and the only tower to be toppled will be the one the devil is trying to build in the middle of it all. In that beautiful scene, God will be found continually tearing down that demonic rascal’s houses. And if we’re going to be wearing our hard hats and laboring in a demolition zone, then that’s the one we want to be in.

The Feast of All Saints – Go To Church

“Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say” (1 Corinthians 10:14).

Saint Paul wrote those words to the Corinthian church just as he was about to begin explaining the doctrine of Altar Fellowship, which when you really get down to the nuts and bolts of it, is all about the significance of what is happening in Holy Worship, namely, the Lord’s Supper.

This comes to mind this morning because, well, Paul’s words just felt right. They form a very short statement, easily understood by any and every Christian taking time to read this note.

If you haven’t been to church in a while, there’s a Sunday on the horizon I’d like to encourage you to consider aiming for as your return date.

A few Sundays from now—November 1—the Holy Christian Church will be celebrating All Saints’ Day. If you have plans to be somewhere else—or to do something else—might I encourage you to reconsider your plans? This time, instead of arranging your schedule to accommodate moments that will only get in the way of worship—which is to be idolatrous—consider arranging your schedule to accommodate the forgiveness of sins delivered by Christ in the sure and certain location He has promised to give it: Word and Sacrament made available in holy worship. Skip those things that would get in the way of pursuing that which gives to you all that Christ has won by virtue of His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

In fact, I challenge you that if you have been away for a while, make All Saints Sunday the day you return.

To accept this challenge, you’ll need to take a quick look in the mirror and recognize that you need to be there. You need to be there, firstly, because of the idolatrous tendencies you possess. We all possess them, and they’re evidenced by our creative excuse-making and subsequent absences. But secondly, know you need to be there because, by virtue of your Baptism into the fellowship of Saints, you actually belong there. It’s God’s home, and because you are a part of His family by faith, it’s your home, too. It’s where your real family lives, and you belong with your family.

Rest assured, if you’ve been away for a while, and because of this, you feel a little uneasy in returning, you won’t be alone in the uneasiness when you do finally reemerge. In fact, think of it this way. In the Confession at the beginning of the Divine Service, every Christian in the room, if they know what the Confession is all about, will drop to his or her knees alongside all the others. Together they’ll bow their heads. They’ll close their eyes. They’ll confess together that everyone in the room, by their thoughts, words, and deeds, are members of the fellowship of sinful humanity; by the things they’ve done and the things they’ve left undone. They’ll confess this together. And again, being a sinner myself, I can assure you that when we all go to our knees in this way, we’ll all have good reasons to do so. All will have plenty of causes for feeling the uneasy need to participate.

You won’t be alone. You won’t stand out. You won’t be different.

But there’s something else you should know.

After the sea of penitent voices speaking in solemn sadness goes quiet, you will hear a single voice—your pastor’s voice—and it will be for you as the Lord’s own voice announcing you need not fear. You need not be uneasy. You need not be afraid. Through repentance and faith in His merciful love, you belong with Him, and He will not push you away, but rather will embrace you as His own—because you are His own. He loves you, forgives you, and He stands ready to lift you to your feet by His absolving Word.

And He’ll do just that.

On All Saints’ Day, at least if you’re in a Lutheran Church of any substance, when you rise to your feet, you’ll acknowledge your place among all the other forgiven sinners in the room by singing the Introit appointed for the day, which is a combination of Revelation 7 and Psalm 31: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me.”

Sing those words with confidence. You own them as a forgiven child of God.

So, my brother or sister in Christ, hear this Gospel imperative to repent and believe in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and be moved to return. Be moved to come and get from your loving Savior what He has won for you—which is also the only thing that will sustain you in a world seeking to impose itself upon you and convince you to stay away in the first place.

Remember, in faith, you are the Lord’s saint. Aim for your special day with an eager heart. Make your way back. Join with your Christian family. Be with your Redeemer, the One who has made it possible for you to be called His holy one.

Assumption’s Regrets

The countdown has started. Five days until a powerhouse weekend here at Our Savior. Saturday we’ll enjoy a day-long conference filled with tier-one personalities. On Sunday we’ll gather together to celebrate our school’s 40 years of service in the community, again, being joined by appreciative newsmakers. To wrap it all up, on Monday we’ll host a debate dealing with the topics of God, culture, and politics in America—a more than crucial matter as we teeter at the edge of a world-altering election.

Much is happening. I’m assuming much will be accomplished by God’s gracious will.

Actually, I shouldn’t say I’m assuming. Better said, I’m trusting that God will accomplish great things through our efforts. And while I suppose it’s not necessarily incorrect to use the word “assume” in the context I have, overall, there’s a difference between assumption and trust.

When we assume, we deal in knowledge without the certainty of truth. We consider bits of information separated by blank spaces that we attempt to fill in through interpretation. To trust in the Lord is nothing of this sort. To trust in Him is to be found making plans—and living out those plans—according to the schematic of the Gospel. It is to act in life’s occurrences with the mindful certainty that we dwell beneath God’s forgiveness in Jesus in all circumstances. That means no matter what happens, we are certain that God will provide for the good of our salvation in every situation (Romans 8:28-39). Trust doesn’t assume He will. It has the complete list of Gospel facts—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and so it knows He will. From there, it steps out knowing that with hearts set on faithfulness to Him, when we speak, He will use our words, no matter how jumbled they might feel. When we act, He will carry us through, no matter how powerless we believe we are. When we are observing and listening, we’ll receive the necessary information for aiming each and every situation toward Godliness and peace, no matter how confusing all of it might seem to be.

Assumption doesn’t necessarily work this way. Sure, an assumption can be useful for determining certain things. For example, an assumption may be made about the contents of a milk carton based on its expiration date. An assumption may be made when a carbon monoxide detector goes off warning of dangerous fumes in a home. And yet, I have personal experience in both instances. I’ve taken a chance on a gallon of milk past its date, only to learn it was fine. I’ve also been brought to concern by a screaming carbon monoxide detector in our kitchen, only to learn after investigating that it was triggered by exhaust wafting from our car in the driveway through the garage and into the kitchen through a door left open by one of the kids.

In both circumstances, my concerned assumptions were only right until the actual facts proved otherwise.

When it comes to relationships—family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and the like—assumption is often more of a wrecking ball. It can be the corrupter of human lines of communication and the destroyer of opportunity. In the rubble of these things, assumption builds an altar to foolishness, and it worships there with incredible devotion.

“What do you even mean by all of this, Pastor Thoma?”

I don’t know. Remember, I’m typing as I’m thinking.

As I re-read what I just wrote, I guess where I’m headed with this—at least what I think I mean—is that at a person’s last hour, I’d be willing to bet a significant portion of the regrets in life will be because of the assumptions from which he or she just couldn’t break free.

People assume things of others, and then they hold to those assumptions for years like bark holds to a tree. But then one day, they discover they’re out of time, and in the shadows of the impending situation, they understand people and situations differently, and they wish for more hours from the clock. They wish they could go back and enjoy a relationship with a person they assumed all along was an enemy. They suddenly realize just how wrong they were to think that people are static in their character and personalities. People are complicated, multi-faceted creatures. They change. Who they were, the way they were, is likely very different today than it was yesterday. And so, in the last moments, people come face to face with the foolishness of their begrudging assumptions of others. They realize they never asked the questions that would fill in the blank spaces. They never investigated. In fact, it never even crossed their minds to explore, to have a conversation. Instead they remained comfortable believing they already knew the innermost thoughts and intentions of the people around them.

These are the kinds of folks who will stare at the edge of regret for having interpreted as hurtful years of genuine attempts at friendship from others.

In truth, this is idolatry. It’s self-worship.

Digging just a little bit deeper, by way of such idolatry—such self-worship—we take detrimental missteps in life. Because of assumptions, we’ll have been silent when we should’ve spoken. Because of assumptions, we will have reacted when we should’ve remained an observer. Because of our assumptions, we may just learn all too late that we were wrong, that we treated as an enemy someone who could’ve been a friend, that we did something to make a relationship that could have been a joy into something unbearably thorn-like.

I guess what I’m saying is don’t be this kind of person, especially with your Christian family. Instead, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Instead of assuming, how about letting the Gospel do the steering in our lives as Christians with one another, and by it being found pursuing “unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). Instead of holding tightly to your grudge, assuming it’s justified, almost virtuous, how about you “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Ephesians 4:31). How about being “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Don’t be the person who learns all too late that the most important things we can know of others were, unfortunately, hidden behind a foolish assumption that we don’t need to learn more because we already know what we’ll discover. More often than not in such situations, at least in my experience, I’ve discovered that what I expected to be true and what was actually true were not exactly in perfect alignment.

Take a chance. Reach out. Have a conversation. Find out more. Odds are you have a few blank spaces that need filling.