On the receiving end of wonderful care

As a pastor I have more opportunities to visit hospitals than the average member of the community. In the time here in Peoria I’ve been impressed with the three main hospitals. I must say that the architecture in them is befuddling until you figure out their systems. But the care in them is remarkable.

            And when I say care I mean (1) the care of the facilities (clean and well kept), (2) the care of security and confidentiality, and (3) the customer care they extend. Jami and I were on the receiving end of the latter earlier this week and we both feel that she was in good hands the entire time.

            It had been some time since I had waited for someone in surgery. The last time we received timely reports from the volunteers staffing the waiting room. What a marvel now to be updated through a status board, replete with color codes to let you know if your loved (by their 7-digit number) was in pre-op, in the midst of the procedure, or in recovery. Since I had given them my cell number, I received text updates, too.

            All of these advancements are simply the extension of the care our loving Father in heaven provides for us. He did not merely set the cosmos in motion and step away. No, He is intimately involved in our care, day-in and day-out, through His Holy Spirit and His only-begotten Son, Jesus, about whom St. Paul wrote to the Colossians in the first chapter: 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

            God bless your Holy Week with an ever-deepening appreciation of God’s care in time and His providential care for the hereafter in eternity. 

A Chance Encounter.

            I had started to write this blog before lunch, but I hadn’t left myself enough time to finish it. Since I didn’t want to keep my lunch date waiting, I stopped midway through the third paragraph and headed out.

            While I was out, I decided I might as well make the hospital visits, too. It’s a beautiful, sunny spring day in Peoria and the drive downtown was a pleasure. 

            After my last visit at the Order of Saint Francis medical complex I was walking down that very long hallway to the parking garage. About to overtake a group of three in conversation in front of me and to the right, a young man was overtaking me on my left. He appeared to be the age of our son, Chase. As he came up beside me, he said, quite simply, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30).

            I wasn’t wearing my clerical collar, but I did have my Pastors Companionbook in my left hand, which has a very small cross outlined in gold on the cover. The perceptive young man noticed that, deduced I was a fellow believer in Christ Jesus, and took a moment and a chance to encourage me in my day. 

            My response? I said, “Amen!” We talked a little bit as we made our way out of the hospital, he to the top floor of the garage and me to first ramp. And we blessed one another as we parted.

I doubt that I’ll run across that young man anytime soon. But it’s refreshing to remember that he and his like are out there. That little comment/connection made my day. 

"The Kingdom of God is like..."

            “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…” When I read those words my mind often pictures the large shrub of a mustard plant that has grown from such a humble beginning as a mustard seed. Perhaps yours does, too.

            Among the many excellent points that Anthony Esolen makes in a Touchstone magazine essay from years ago is that we are apt to think that the parable has to do with the lowly beginnings of the Kingdom, beginnings that are then swallowed up in greatness and are never seen again. 

            If that were His point, Jesus could have said, “The Kingdom of God may be compared to the cedar of Lebanon, the mightiest and most beautiful of all the trees, even though it came from a small seed.” But, He didn’t.

            The emphasis here certainly doesn’t exclude the great and wonderful things God has brought about in the world. Not at all. 

            But the emphasis is that the greatness of God can be found in the seemingly smallest of things. In the Christian faith the small is not transcended and dismissed. 

            And one example would be the thief on the cross next to Jesus; the thief who comes to faith. The greatness of God is found in a movement of the heart. 

            Whatever brought them there, these two beside Jesus were not good men. They were wicked men deserving of this worst of punishments. But something turned in the one man’s heart. It was an impulse, the smallest and most secret of responses to the call of God. The thief who has been so bad says to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This is the mustard seed, the speck of yeast in the dough. “Truly I say to you,” says Jesus, “this day you will be with me in Paradise.”

            All the wonder, power, and grace of God is in this almost imperceptible turn. Thanks be to Him for this gift and for its continued growth in us. 

As we speak to one another...

            Why I thought there would be a return to civility I do not know. The Mueller report, ostensibly a search to determine if there had been collusion between President Trump’s campaign and Russia, had been so highly anticipated that whatever the results were going to be someone was going to be disappointed and someone was going to be crowing. 

            So, one side is basking in what it sees as vindication while the other side defiantly says more investigation is warranted. Sigh. 

            A trip to the Presidential museum in Springfield, IL, will remind one that snide comments and accusations, character assassination, crude cartoons, and incivility have been a part of our political life for years. A trip through history will reveal that this is the way of humankind; the pendulum of incivility in correspondence will swing from greater to lesser and back again. 

            St. Paul’s instructions to the Ephesians (4:1-15) is well worth keeping in mind. It speaks to the goal of being assertive, or perhaps even confrontational: when we are correcting someone or something, the aim is always both (1) to set things right, and (2) to be reconciled. 

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” 

            God bless your conversations. May they, spoken in love, ever be seasoned with salt and a benefit to relationships and to the world. 

Disaster Relief

My thoughts over the past few days have been where a number of people’s thoughts have been – on the plight of those facing the flood waters on the Great Plains and in the Midwest. My wife, Jami, and I have most recently moved to Peoria, Illinois, from Norfolk, Nebraska, and our children live in Omaha, so there are many people we know who have experienced evacuation and tremendous loss. We have joined many of you in praying for God’s deliverance, strength, and blessings for those facing the flood waters.

If you would like to help, these are a few sites you might want to explore. There are no better stewards of resources for aid than Orphan Grain Train and the Nebraska District, LCMS. Thank you for your concern and care.

OGT.org

Ndlcms.org (and look under news and events for Disaster Relief. There you will find links for LCMS World Relief and Human Care Disaster Response, among others).

The Lenten Journey

A friend from college and I got back together after a few decades of not even knowing where the other one was (thank you, Facebook!). That was a couple of years ago. 

            But then, just last week, E. I. messaged me about an organization of which we were both a part in college. It was one of the more formative extra-curricular activities I experienced in college and it could use a bit of attention from the alumni.

            While we were talking, E. I. expressed an interest in taking part in some type of Lenten discipline. Was there anything I could suggest? I happened to be looking at my bookshelf in the study and a volume of devotions written by Walt Wangerin, Jr., caught my eye. My friend purchased it that day and we talk each week about what we’ve read (thank you, Jeff Shoumaker, for that idea!).

            In this way my friend and I are walking together on this Lenten journey. Such a pilgrimage, if you will, enables us to hold one another accountable. We are encouraged to keep up the discipline and we benefit from each other’s perspective. (These are the intended benefits of being in a Synod, a word meaning “same road”, i.e. “walking together”).

            God’s blessings be yours in abundance as together we make this forty day journey through Lent.

A thought on the passing scene...

Rider College of Business Dean Cynthia Newman resigned from her position as Dean in response to the New Jersey university banning Chick-fil-A from campus, despite it being the student body’s top pick. The university said in an email to students in November 2018 that the chain restaurant’s “corporate values have not sufficiently progressed enough to align with those of Rider.”

            We are seeing more and more of this push for Christianity to “progress” with the rest of the culture around us. We are being called to relax our adherence to orthodox Christian truths and practices and instead join with the world in what it declares is valuable and true. 

            What I really admired in Dean Newman’s response was the way in which she was not vindictive. Instead, she gives a reasoned and gracious summary of her stand:         

“I felt like I was punched in the stomach when I read that statement because I’m a very committed Christian and Chick-fil-A’s values, their corporate purpose statement is to glorify God in and to be faithful stewards in all that is entrusted to them and to have a positive influence on everyone who comes into contact with themand that mirrors my personal beliefs perfectly,” Newman told Campus Reform.

I’d have to believe that the phrase “have a positive influence on everyone who comes into contact” is the key. The Body of Christ is not called to hate anyone. We are called to love one another and to seek what’s best for one another in that love. Such love does not mean a tolerance of “anything goes.” It’s a love that is willing to sacrifice for another’s ultimate well-being. And that example was set perfectly for us by the Savior Who holds us accountable, Who offered Himself on the cross to forgive us, and Who furthermore sent the Spirit to call us to faith and lead us in life. 

The Scope of Ministry.

            This past week, while friend and associate Phil was attending the Best Practices conference for LCMS congregations in Arizona, the pastoral responsibilities were solely mine. And in that week, as I shared with the Bible class, yesterday, we ran the gambit of pastoral ministry.

            There were two baptisms this weekend: a little boy on Saturday and a little girl on Sunday. Both were wonderful celebrations as family members from near and far (Wisconsin and Kentucky) gathered and God’s grace was extended. God bless Clayton and Derby with strong faith and long life!

            There were also times to attend to matters at the end of life. During a hospital visit I was able to share the service of the Commendation of the Dying with a husband and wife as she was facing the last days of her life among us. Also, on this past Saturday there was a visitation for a family mourning the death of a son in his early 20s. Sad events, without doubt, but events in which the news of the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting is essential.

            These latter events, above, necessitated the former. It was the advent of sin in this world that led to the inevitability of death, the wages of sin.  Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men[a] because all sinned.Romans 5:12.

            Thankfully, our God did not leave us in our misery, but addressed our need for salvation with His own sacrifice and resurrection. Because of that, the former events mentioned above bring us hope and comfort amidst events like the latter. Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.Romans 6:3-4.

            God’s blessings to you as you walk in that newness of life, today. And God bring you comfort as you remember your baptism and how, in that, God has promised you life as His child in the kingdom new and glorious upon Christ Jesus’ return. 

It's good to be home...

            I missed last week’s deadline due to a trip out to Colorado. Please pardon the blog’s absence.

It’s become a regular practice for me to travel to my parents’ home in the mountains each February, before lent. I travel there to celebrate dad’s birthday. It’s good to be with my mom and dad. Their home is not the one in which I grew and the schedule is quite different from my upbringing. But it’s a blessing to be with them and to be able to help around the cabin – moving firewood up on the deck, sometimes blocking and splitting it as well, and taking part in cooking meals and cleaning up after them.

After that trip, I can say with equal fervor, it’s good to be home here. It’s good to be back with my wife, Jami. This is not the house in which we have raised our family and our schedule since moving here, which is quite different, has been tweaked a time or two. But it’s a blessing to be with her and to be back at the tasks as we find our weekly pattern rounding out.

It’s also good to be home, here, writing thoughts I want to share with you. For a number of you this has always been your church home. Others are transplants. And some of our schedules are a bit in flux – especially after the weekends continually subject to snows and cold temperatures! But it’s good to be here taking part in the life of the church, together: sharing in tasks that warm our hearts and feed our faith. 

It’s good to be home…

Fallout From the Polar Vortex

            I am ever so thankful to God for some of the things I learned through the experience of last week’s polar vortex. Our house is well insulated. Our furnace is running well. Our car batteries are strong. These are good things to know!

            But the opportunity to stay indoors, to work on things in the study, led to learning yet more things through my reading and my encounters with media, both social and news. While these things are good, even necessary to know, my initial reaction was not thankfulness. 

            The drama playing out in Virginia over a bill sponsored by a few of their delegates probably caught your attention, too. It did not make it out of committee, but the governor, a pediatric neurologist, was inclined to sign it should it have passed. This bill would not only allow for a child to be aborted at 40 weeks, but it would also have allowed for a child surviving the abortion to be put to death anyway, outside of the womb, after consultation between the mother and the physician. This possibility, previously labeled infanticide, but now becoming known as a fourth trimester abortion, followed on the heels of the joyous celebration in New York when their governor signed a similar bill. It allowed the same late term abortions which could be performed by people other than physicians and for any health reason (mental, physical, emotional, et al). Lord, have mercy.

            In a periodical I read, in almost an aside, of the casualness of sexual intercourse on college campuses across the nation. It is so commonplace in what used to be known as dating that it has become the expectation.

            And finally, in another periodical I read of the serious mental health issues and the instances of violence that appear to be connected with the use of marijuana, especially among the adolescent. Whereas Senator Cory Booker has said that “states [that have legalized marijuana] are seeing decreases in violent crime,” the states of Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon have, since the legalizing of marijuana for recreational use, seen a 37% increase in murders and a 25% increase for aggravated assault. These numbers are far greater than the national increase, even after accounting for difference in population. 

            However, in the midst of these dire items, there is still reason for thankfulness. Our God is still in control, and He is known for being at work through all things ( And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28). 

We are called to be faithful in serving Him and trusting in Him. His Spirit will keep us as we bear witness for God and the truth (God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.1 Corinthians 10:3). These things, even more so, are good to know!

The Body of Christ

            Yesterday’s epistle (I Corinthians 12:12-31) led me to emphasize our callings to serve together in the Body of Christ. St. Paul makes very strong points countering the thoughts (1) “I’m not that special, the church doesn’t really need me,” and conversely (2) “You’re not that special, the church doesn’t really need you.” 

            In the congregation where I first served as the pastor with complete responsibility for the members’ well-being they had a program called “Hands in Harmony.” A member named Lloyd had developed it. It divided the congregation into seven groups. One group signed up for a month’s worth of tasks: lectors/readers, ushers, providing coffee before Sunday School and Bible class, etc. Then, they would host the next month’s group at a luncheon, where that second group would sign up for their tasks in the following month. Overall there were 110 different jobs that needed to be done for the church to provide worship and other functions each month. 

            As I recall yesterday, here, there were people opening the doors and welcoming worshippers, people handing out the bulletins and taking the collection, serving at the Information Center, serving as acolytes, preparing the coffee/cookies/fruit to be shared after each of the worship services, teaching Sunday school, monitoring the sound and the projection of the services, playing keyboards, drums, singing and reading the lessons. Oh, and to heighten your appreciation for those reading the lessons, take a look at the names they read from Nehemiah 8:1-10!

            St. Paul’s words about the Body of Christ are important for every gathering of God’s people. They are important for you. You belong, and you are deeply needed among us.

Ideology

            We’re living in an age when conversations on difficult topics are more and more rare and disagreements escalate into the hurling of invectives. A video on social media becomes viral, insinuations are made, and people are demonized before the facts are checked. How did we get here? And how shall we address this?

            In an article for “The Catholic Thing” in September of 2016, Anthony Esolen blamed the rise of ideology. “Ideology is an ersatz religion. It rushes into the emptiness when one no longer is open to the divine.” I’ve heard that echoed more recently. When the message of God to the people He would redeem to Himself is not heard, when His Word no longer has the final say, when His Church, the Body of Christ, is no longer a mediating influence, everything is up for grabs. Politics then becomes the battlefield for what will be declared right and wrong, sacred and profane.

            Please don’t misunderstand. I don’t want to paint ideology as wholly irredeemable. It is a part of most every life. We have beliefs about what is best for our nation. We have passions about the best way to accomplish something. 

But without God’s guidance, God’s call to accountability, and God’s power for sanctified change and discipleship (read “Gospel”), ideology rules the roost (and ideology is a terrible tyrant). Esolen, again: “Ideology is impatient, unkind, envious, vain; obnoxious, self-seeking, touchy; believing the worst, rejoicing in iniquity; seething against the truth, tolerating nothing; restless, without real faith or hope in God.”

A return to the Word of God is the solution. Surely, in that Word we are chastened and that’s not an easy selling point. But, in that Word we are also healed. God confronts us in our sin for the express purpose of moving us to repentance. In that repentance we will find the wondrous message of God’s complete forgiveness and never-ending love. And in that Word God Himself is at work.

Cancellation

            “Have you ever cancelled a Sunday service?” This question was posed after we cancelled our Saturday evening worship service on January 12, 2019, due to the snow. A prediction of 5-7 inches turned into 11+ inches. We didn’t hold that service, but there was still a Bradley University basketball game. In my mind I thought, “If someone can make it to the Saturday night basketball game, they can certainly make it to worship on Sunday.” And lo and behold, many of them did! Thankfully, everyone was safe and we were able to worship on Sunday, January 13, 2019, to observe the Baptism of our Lord.

            Throughout the years I have served in places where we did have to cancel the latest service on a Christmas Eve, as well as the Christmas Day worship, because of a howling blizzard. (I believe that was the same year my mother-in-law cracked her pelvis as she slipped on the ice). A midweek Advent evening service in a different year was likewise cancelled for the same reason.

            Other than that, I can remember only a few times when the worship was held but I couldn’t participate in it. One Sunday morning an abscess in my jaw finally put an end to my preaching before the 10:45 service – many thanks to Gary Gruber, an elder, for reading the sermon that day. And then there was an Ash Wednesday when I couldn’t begin to get to work. My associate was sick, too.  Arnie Awe, an elder, filled in.

            My general rule of thumb is that if I can make it to the church, I will. And we will have a worship service. But I would encourage everyone to be sensible. Don’t take risks on your life or well-being to be in worship. God-willing we’ll be open the next time a worship opportunity presents itself, so you’ll get another chance if you miss this one! 

            There are many things for which to be thankful in this past weekend’s experience: (1)I’m thankful that for most of my pastoral ministry the weather has been fine and I’ve been in good health. (2) I’m thankful for the technology we have in this age to alert members that services won’t be held. (3) I’m thankful for the workers who step up in these moments – Jamie who knows how to get the previously mentioned alerts sent, and Jeff for his work in clearing the sidewalks and making certain the lot gets cleared. (4) Finally, I’m thankful for the snow and the moisture it means for our land.  

Some of you may have seen a few photos on Facebook regarding a Winter family tradition involving a barefoot dash in the snow. I’m thankful I got to do that, too! 

The birds are just a start.

            With the thoroughly insulated grill we have (and the delight I take in the weather that goes with my last name) I’ve been out on the back patio with some regularity over the last few weeks grilling our evening meal. On a few of those evenings I heard the hooting of an owl in the nearby woods.

            We also have Canadian geese who enjoy our neighborhood’s water feature. While I’m very glad our property isn’t closest to that fountain (and all the mess on the grounds nearby) we still occasionally hear their honking as they take flight.

            Along with these larger birds we have seen many smaller ones up close, on the birdfeeders in the back yard. So far, the regular patrons are chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, cardinals, blue jays, and a redheaded woodpecker. 

            That brought the question “why are these so noticeable?” to my mind this weekend. My conclusions are that (a) the neighborhoods were very new where we’ve lived before, i.e. hardly any mature trees. We’d see and hear mourning doves on the roofs, but that was about it. And (b) it’s been while grilling out back, eating at our breakfast table, and reading in the evening that these birds are noticeable. We recognize their presence when we’re quiet and available.

            With that in mind I’d like to encourage you to take some time to notice these and other 1st Article wonders of God’s providence in your life (1st Article of the Apostles’ Creed, that is, along with its meaning in Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism). We are encouraged in Isaiah 40:26 “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?” And we know the answer to that – it’s God. Let your mind linger on how much He cares for us in all these things, as well as in the giving of His Son, Jesus Christ, for the sins of the world.

            Take some time to notice the beauty, the majesty, and the plenty all around you. I’m looking forward to putting out our here-to-fore unvisited hummingbird feeder when the weather allows!

It's not what I wanted. But, it was good.

“It’s not what I’d wanted. But it was good.”

            Does this sound like a description of a Christmas present recently opened? I suppose it could be, with just a touch of disappointment in the voice during the first sentence. And then the second sentence hurries right in there, trying to convince the gift-giver it’s still a wonderful present!

            Or could it be said with a sound of surprise in the first sentence? It’s the wrong order brought to you by the restaurant wait staff. But it tasted good!

            For me, the first sentence has to do with the fact that I lost my voice by the close of the 9:30 service on Christmas Eve and there was precious little of it left on Christmas Day. I wasn’t able to sing many of the songs that I love and here it is, Saturday, December 29th, and I’m still struggling with it. This is not what I’d wanted for the first celebration of the nativity of our Lord, here.

            But, there was so much good to enjoy! There was beautiful music throughout the services – harp, violin, brass, choral, organ, keyboard and guitars. The setting was, itself, stunning with the trees, the poinsettias, and the lighting. We had a great visit with Jami’s parents and our son and his wife, Chase and Krista, through the holidays.

            And truly, “good” is far too tame a word. I should probably describe it as great, because all of these surrounded, embellished, and amplified the adoration of the Christ child, born to Mary. Jesus was the center of it, as He rightly is: the One Who came to set us free from sin, death and everlasting condemnation through His suffering, death, and triumphant resurrection. 

            God the Father gave us a gift we didn’t know that we wanted, a gift we didn’t know how deeply we needed. Thank you, God, for the gift of Your Son, Jesus, and the opportunities we have had at Christmas to rejoice in this. 

Random Thoughts on the Passing Scene

            We are one week from Christmas Eve and though I do have a sermon or two to write it’s high time to contribute here, again, (or so our son, Chase, suggests). So here are a few thoughts about what’s going on around us.

            Many thanks, again, to President Dale Meyer of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, for sharing this gem from G. K. Chesterton (G.K.C.). It was in the larger context of the Wisdom of God which has come to be among us in Christ Jesus. As we contemplate our need for the wisdom of God this quote emphasizes how much we need it. “If a man says, ‘I’d like to find something greater than myself,’ he may be a fool or a madman, but he has the essential. But if a man says, ‘I’d like to find something smaller than myself,’ there is only one adequate answer – ‘you couldn’t.’”

            I used to be a stickler in Advent. I would steal myself against celebrating, contemplating, or enjoying the Christmas season until after December 25th, when the 12 days of Christmas truly begin. But I found that I was pretty much alone in wanting to watch Christmas movies and enjoy Christmas music so late in the season. So, while I very much appreciate the significance of Advent – considering the three-fold coming of Jesus at the nativity, in the Word and Sacraments, today, and in glory at the end of days – I’m also enjoying here in December that great segment of our hymnody that revels in the birth of Christ Jesus in Bethlehem.

            There was a bit of a kerfuffle I noticed on the news last week. It was suggested that Pope Francis was considering changing the wording of the Lord’s Prayer. The Pope could be a little more circumspect when he addresses the press, but I found the explanation in the National Catholic Register helpful. It seems the Catholic church in France has begun to say, “don’t let me fall into temptation,” rather than, “lead us not into temptation.” Pope Francis simply suggested that the Italian Catholics might want to follow suit. Again, he ought to know that what he says is going to be examined every which way. All this leads me to thankfulness for what we have known all along, courtesy of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism and its explanations (this one in the latest translation):“God tempts no one. We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice…”

            And finally, back to G.K.C. Here is the last segment of his Christmas Poem, (which may lead you to want to google it for yourself!). 

To an open house in the evening
Home shall all men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

            God bless you as together we trek to the manger in Bethlehem, once more, rejoicing in the birth of our Savior Jesus the Christ. 

Some good thoughts from Dale Meyer

Dale Meyer, the president of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, has some good thoughts for these days:

These days after Thanksgiving now have names, “Black Friday,” “Small Business Saturday” and “Cyber Monday.”  The names show what our culture truly values-stuff, buying and getting stuff, and all the businesses that thrive on this culture of consumption. Remember that “consumption,” the old word for tuberculosis, a dread disease? The culture of consumption is so pervasive that even church people may not see the fundamental challenge, this disease eroding our reliance upon God. Do we finally rest our lives on the stuff we can see, buy and enjoy, or faith, trusting in the promises of God? (2 Corinthians 5:7). Even tomorrow’s “Giving Tuesday” is disguised consumption. It just happens to flow to charities instead of capitalist businesses, but it’s still about money. 

St. Paul: “You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain” (Galatians 4:10-11). Paul had labored to free the Gentiles from their notion that what they did (for us these days, acquire or give) made life good before God and others. Apply Paul’s arguments to our consumption. “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law (by what you buy, a legal transaction) but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16). “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law (by the things you’ve built up) or by hearing with faith?” (3:2). Yes, we do need stuff, “daily bread,” to live, but consumption is no Gospel; it’s in the law. If I do this then… If I don’t buy this, then… “‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (3:10). Consumption will prove a fatal disease.    

Can a person of faith shop on “Black Friday,” “Small Business Saturday,” or “Cyber Monday?” Yes, so long as you don’t value the quality of your life by what you have and acquire. Christ sets us free from slavery to stuff. “Giving Tuesday” thrives on altruism, selfless concern for the welfare of others, and that benefits countless people, but don’t give as a guilt offering because you spent on yourself the previous days. Give because He loves you so much that He gave Himself for you and now through you His gifts can flow to others. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). Who’s your Lord, God or mammon? (Matthew 6:24).

Out and/or Up

“Let my prayer rise before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” So begins the Psalmody in the Lutheran Service Book“Evening Prayer” service, a translation of Psalm 141. It came to mind the other day as I heard a little dust-up on prayer relayed over the radio. 

            Apparently, a major television network’s anchor recently disparaged the thought of praying for someone, suggesting that prayers don’t do anything. I think it was made out of frustration with people who say they’re praying for people in terrible loss instead of promoting some legislation to prevent further suffering and loss. 

I would argue against the “futility of prayer” comment in two senses. Firstly, prayer places whatever is in my mind or on my heart before God Almighty and He can do with it whatever He knows is best for all concerned. He loves us and He raised His Son from the dead: there is nothing beyond His capability. And secondly, since I am intentionally placing things before God, it changes me and my perspective on the issues at hand. It causes me to rely on God in His mercy through Christ Jesus, our Lord. 

            Another thing that has been on my mind is the way prayer is often referenced on the television. As (1) the fires have been raging in California, (2) people have been shot in Thousand Oaks and (3) turmoil has been experienced in other places, I have heard any number of people say something like “Our thoughts and prayers go out to them.” I believe I know what they mean to say – that the people going through such trial and suffering are often in our minds and we sympathize with them and we wish the best for them. 

            But, I believe it’s better to observe the following rule of thumb: thoughts go outand prayers go up, (like incense, as in the Psalmody, above). Our thoughts and our hearts can go out to people, but when we say that prayers go out to them that is tantamount to wishful thinking, and prayers are much more than that. 

Prayers go up to God on their behalf. And as we place their needs before our Glorious and Gracious King, we can keep in mind what C. S. Lewis said of the gift of prayer God gave us: Prayers are not always—in the crude, factual sense of the word—"granted." This is not because prayer is a weaker kind of causality, but because it is a stronger kind. When it "works" at all it works unlimited by space and time. That is why God has retained a discretionary power of granting or refusing it; except on that condition prayer would destroy us. It is not unreasonable for a headmaster to say, "Such and such things you may do according to the fixed rules of this school. But such and such other things are too dangerous to be left to general rules. If you want to do them you must come and make a request and talk over the whole matter with me in my study. And then—we'll see."(God in the Dock, essay 11 on Work and Prayer). 

After Election Day

            “God grant me the serenity to accept the candidates that I didn’t select, the courage to pray for all of them and the wisdom to remember that God is still on the throne.”

            There. That’s done for a while.

            I pray you took the time to exercise the franchise and cast your ballots this week. We are a most fortunate people to have the regular opportunity to alter our government when we see fit. 

            Now, it’s time to pray (1) for our representatives and (2) for a peaceful acceptance of the decisions we have made in this republic. And the One to Whom the prayers are directed is the God Who is truly in control and has our best and eternal interests in mind.

Saints Among Us

             Years ago I had purchased both the Oxford Dictionary of Saints and Butler’s Lives of Saints to add to my morning devotions. Along with reading the Scriptures I would look up the saint whose day it was on either the Roman Catholic or Anglican calendar so that I might grow from their heroic examples. They’d been recognized by the Church for something significant and I thought I should probably take notice, too.

            As time has gone by I’ve been widening that understanding and appreciation of the saints. I’d always known that Lutheran recognition that all who trust in Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of sins are the saints of God, even though on this side of the grave they will struggle with their sinful nature. But it’s been good to give that wider definition some intentional consideration.

            Who in your life has been an example of a child of God whose witness you’ve grown to appreciate? Have you had grandparents who shared a wonderful confidence that God will work these things out? Have you had parents whose stewardship or devotion were exemplary patterns to follow?

            On this All Saints’ Day I’m taking some time to give thanks to God for: Paul, and his extraordinary zest for working with junior high kids in Sunday School; Janice, whose love for her students was obvious; Alan, in the daily devotions he shared; Carlene, in her growing and vocal appreciation for the book of Romans; Jami, and her wonderful understanding of God’s presence in the difficult times when it appears one’s prayers are not being answered with a “yes”; Kent, and his whole life stewardship; and Arlene, whose counsel was to pray some more when you cannot get to sleep – and “There is nothing you can do that will make God love you more. And there is nothing you can do that will make God love you less.”

            I’m sorry to leave this list so incomplete. There are many, many more whose witness to me has helped me to grow in Christ, and I know I will find many, many more in this place. I pray that you can think of such people, today, and lift a prayer of thankfulness to God for His Spirit’s work in and through the saints in your life.