“… Is Causing Me to Lose My Faith.”

Photo by Emily Morter

Has anyone ever expressed to you that some recent tragedy or heartbreak has them teetering on the brink of losing their faith? Have you wrestled with this issue before or… are you wrestling with it right now?

While it might seem as if suffering some singular sucker-punching event is to blame, that isn’t the most likely cause of our faith struggles.

The child of God is faced with daily choices that will impact how his relationship with Jesus plays out. Jesus laid out for us a simple rule of thumb – a gracious promise, really – to guide and keep us in a vibrant, life-long relationship with him. He said:

Remain in me, and I will remain in you” (John 15:4 NIV).

Notice there is no threat or coercion in Jesus’ words. They sound, in fact, like more of an invitation. So how will a believer RSVP to Jesus’ invitation/promise? He can see Jesus’ promise fulfilled as he remains in him through a steady diet of devotion, study, and worship, which allow the Bible to sustain and strengthen faith; or, he can see the negative corollary to Jesus’ promise fulfilled as he drifts away from him through a steady desertion of devotion, study, and worship, without which the Bible cannot sustain and strengthen faith. Either way, Jesus is keeping his promise. The child of God determines in what way by his use – or neglect – of God’s Word.

Gradually, what may have at one time been a strong and healthy relationship with the Savior Jesus erodes into a distant memory, or digresses into a relationship like a social media friendship, which can deceive us into thinking we have a real relationship simply because we’ve scrolled past occasional updates in our newsfeed, but have not actually engaged or interacted with a person for years.

But it doesn’t seem that way in our mind. What it seems like is this: when tragedy strikes, then all of a sudden the blame is placed squarely on God’s shoulders. In the midst of pain and heartbreak, among the swirling questions of “How could God let this happen?”, the conclusion is drawn: “This singular event has caused or is causing me to lose my faith in God.”

Only that’s not very likely true. Truthfully, faith in God has been dwindling for some time, because his Word has been far away, and so then has he. While it might feel like this singular event is the cause of resentment driving a person to slam the door in God’s face and be done with him, the reality is that the person has probably just been slowly shutting the door on his face for a long time already.

When awareness of this hits a person, something profound happens. It’s called guilt. And there are really two ways to respond to that feeling of guilt. One, which Satan loves, is to pretend the guilt can be washed off our hands by simply washing ourselves clean from God. “Be done with him and the guilt goes away and you’ll feel much better.” This response is the real tragedy.

The other, God-desired response, is to run back into the loving arms of the Father, in true prodigal son-like fashion, and weep tears of joy as he welcomes you back. Mark this: he will always welcome you back. Always. Since all sin – even our relationship ruining neglect – has been paid for in full through Jesus, the Father’s arms are always open and waiting.

Dear friend, no singular event, no matter how tragic or terrible, causes us to lose our faith in God. Don’t allow faith to weaken to the point of believing such a lie. Yet, no matter how weak it may be, faith can always be reforged in the Father’s arms. It’s not too late to run back to him. It never is, even – especially! – in the face of tragedy.

What Was It about Again?

Photo by Greyson Joralemon

A commercial triggers an unexpected laugh or perhaps even a tear. It leaves enough of an impact that you find yourself asking others if they saw it.

Then, as you discuss it, it hits you: you can’t for the life of you remember what the commercial was for. You don’t even recall the product that was pitched or the service being sold. In that regard, the commercial would have to be chalked up as an advertising failure! While it was memorable enough to bring up in discussion, you can’t even remember what it was about.

That sums up Christmas for a lot of people. They like it, they think, but they don’t really know what it’s about. The result can often be that this time of year ends up being exhausting or disappointing or both. More to do = more stress (which few of us need more of in our already-in-constant-hyperdrive lives!). More stress = shorter fuse. Shorter fuse = more tension and bickering. Merry Christmas!!!

But it has to be about something, right? So we don our gay apparel and troll the ancient yuletide carols (even if we have no clue what any of that means). We channel our inner Martha Stewart (or Chip & Joanna Gaines?) and transform our home and yard into a wonderland. We craft a witty Christmas letter accompanied by a fine family photo (or at least the one without the kids making any facial disfigurations). We catch our kids’ play or musical performance (or at least someone’s video clip of it). We lay out our gift-giving budget. We take time for traditions. We bake cookies. We clean. We host. Serve. Travel. Visit. Party. Spend. Give…

So. Much. Doing.

The only problem is, when we make all the doing at Christmas our own, we leave little room for God’s doing. That’s when it’s easy to forget what it’s about (assuming we ever even knew in the first place):

I bring you good news of great joy… a Savior was born for you… Christ the Lord.  ‘…peace, good will toward mankind.” (Luke 2:10-14 EHV)

Let Christmas this year be memorable on its own merits, not yours. Let Christmas be about Christ, and be at peace.

What’s Wrong with Him/Her/Everyone Else???

Photo by John Simitopoulos

I wish they would be more like me.

That may come across as a bit arrogant or pompous. OK, it’s a lot arrogant and pompous. But can you at least appreciate my honesty?

After all, isn’t that pretty much what we mean when we’re commenting on someone else’s words or actions? “I wish they would be more like me.” They shouldn’t have done, said, or handled it the way they did, but how I would have done, said, or handled it.

Truth is, deep down we all tend to think pretty highly of ourselves, and perhaps that is most reflected by our natural inclination to analyze the behavior of others on a continual basis. Sometimes we’ll verbalize our analysis; other times we just keep it to ourselves. Either way, we are constantly giving others our own personal performance review to determine whether or not they measure up. And we use ourselves as the standard (even if we pretend to mask it with such nonsense as “Not that I am perfect, by any means, but…”).

We look for ways to deny or deflect this reality, like placing the blame on how awful social media is, but the hard truth is that such things are merely a reflection of our own ugly reality (Remember when it was convenient to blame everything on “the media”? Have we realized how much social media has shown us where the finger really should have been pointed the whole time?).

What if there was a filter we could first apply to ourselves before making an assessment of others? Would you find that helpful? Do you think it might also shape the lens through which you view the words and actions of others? Let me suggest one:

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” (1 Peter 3:8 NIV).

Before I determine whether or not someone else fits this description, I do well to perform a quick self-assessment. As I quickly realize my own shortfalls, I am less inclined to render my own judgment on someone else’s words or actions, since “I wish they would be more like me” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it anymore.

The added bonus of such a filter? It leads me back to the One who alone fits the description perfectly.

Your Smart Phone Does Not Replace Your Church Home

Photo by Álvaro Serrano

No one can dispute the blessings technology affords us in making the Word of God accessible in virtually any setting imaginable. We can download sermon videos or podcasts, sit in virtually on Bible studies, listen to our favorite hymns or worship bands, be edified through blogs, follow pastors we respect on social media for encouragement and inspiration, and the list goes on. And, we can do all of these things without even setting foot in a church!

And the devil eats it up.

Now don’t get me wrong: the devil is not thrilled that you are using your phone to stay connected to the Word of God. He doesn’t dig that part of it (he would much rather you made use of its more destructive and damaging purposes). However, he will count it as a long-term win if the believer’s connection to a phone replaces the believer’s connection to a church home.

Here is my point: that screen in your hand has the ability to bring countless spiritual blessings to you day in and day out, if you choose to use it that way. It will not, however, ever replace a local congregation of Christians. To think otherwise is to forfeit the many unique blessings Jesus provides for his children who come together as a church. Two blessings in particular that come to mind are those of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. My phone is neither smart enough nor is it properly equipped to grant me the grace that comes through those gifts God gives to his church that gathers together in person.

Neither can my phone greet me with the beaming smile and firm handshake of a brother in the faith who is genuinely delighted to see me on Sunday morning (or whenever worship takes place). Nor can my phone provide the hug and consolation of a sister in Christ who is bearing a burden similar to mine. Nor can my phone allow me to slip over to the single mom struggling with her little ones and give her a break by offering to sit with her and help, or step outside with an antsy child in need of a break. Nor can my phone reach out to introduce myself to the new face who showed up that morning. Nor can my phone… you get the picture.

I am not downplaying the blessings we can appreciate through our phones and I am not advocating a “phone fast” that says you can’t or shouldn’t use it as a spiritual aid. All I am offering is a caution that we don’t allow it to replace the local Christian congregation, because it simply can’t do that, no matter how smart it is.

We should not stop gathering together with other believers, as some of you are doing. Instead, we must continue to encourage each other even more as we see the day of the Lord coming” (Hebrews 10:25 GW).

That Simple?

Photo by Thien Dang

You’re undoubtedly familiar with the K.I.S.S. approach – “Keep It Simple, Stupid” (you may substitute “Silly” for “Stupid” if use of that word is discouraged in your home). The idea behind the approach is pretty straight-forward: we’re better off keeping things simple rather than making them unnecessarily complicated. Generally speaking, the simpler something is, the less risk there is of confusion or error.

Do you suppose it’s possible that there is an avoidance of, or an aversion to, Christianity, because we can make it more complicated than it needs to be? In no way do I mean to marginalize the Bible or imply that doctrine is unimportant. But, to the extent that one fails to see the forest for the trees, maybe a reminder about the simplicity of Christianity is in order. It really isn’t that complicated.

He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12).

There you have it. Or don’t. But what determines whether or not you have it is whether or not you have the Son, Jesus Christ. To have him as Savior is to have life; to not have him is to not have life.

Some balk in disgust that it should be so easy. But I didn’t say it was easy (recall what the Father chose to give up, after all!). If it was easy, I suspect the whole world would be Christian, since “easy” is what we all seem to be chasing. No, I said it was simple. And it is.

Beautifully simple.

Dangerous Christianity

Photo by Caleb Hernandez Belmonte

There have been and there always will be those who contend that Christianity is dangerous. Proponents of this point of view today provide a number of reasons why. They claim that Christianity has become too involved in politics (I’m not so sure I disagree on this one…). They say that Christianity stifles critical thinking (apparently forgetting that some of the finest critical thinkers throughout history have been Christians). They argue that Christianity impedes freedom of equality (ironic, given that Christianity is the only all-inclusive religion, in that Christ died for all sins of all people). They feel that Christianity                                               (insert others I have undoubtedly missed here).

As a Christian, let me go on the record as saying that I agree, Christianity is dangerous.

However, I must clarify. When I state that Christianity is dangerous, what I mean to say is that Christianity, as our culture continues to allow it to be reshaped and remodeled like some pile of playdoh, is dangerous. This Christianity, however, is a far cry from biblical Christianity.

Christianity is not synonymous with politics.

Christianity is not spirituality.

Christianity is not the power of positive thinking and meditation.

Christianity is not being a good person.

These kinds of “Christianity” are dangerous, and they are dangerous because they all overlook what Christianity is: Jesus Christ. There is no greater danger to Christianity than to remove Jesus Christ from it. Without Jesus Christ there is no Savior. Without a Savior there is no hope. Without any hope there is no life.

Without Jesus Christ, you can have a whole lot of things, but you can’t have Christianity. And, if you aren’t interested in Jesus Christ, well, NOTHING is more dangerous.

 

 

And God Said… And It was So.

Photo by Jonatan Moerman

It’s actually much easier this way.

I don’t have to pass myself off as a pseudoscientist, regurgitating the arguments that others have made that are far beyond my comprehension (but consistently referencing them nonetheless, so that I sound like I know what I’m talking about).

I don’t have to lose any sleep over the possibility that what is “conclusive” or “undeniable” or “irrefutable” today may very well turn out to be none of those in another decade or so.

I can pause and simply marvel at the wonder of that which defies any logical or scientific explanation, rather than suppress the internal anguish over not having an answer.

I can actually love and appreciate the gifts of science and discovery more, not less, because they continually heighten my reverence for the One who gave them.

I can direct my thanks and gratitude for the wonder of this world to its Creator, rather than needing to anthropomorphize nature, science, or evolution to express my awe.

Read through Genesis 1 when you have a moment. It’s right there, repeatedly stated, so that you don’t somehow miss it.

And God said… and it was so.”

Honestly, if you are willing to entertain the possibility that the world doesn’t revolve around you, and that there might just be a higher authority, then it isn’t a stretch at all to take Him at his Word and believe that it really is his world.

It’s actually much easier this way.

Get Everything you Want

Photo by Jennifer Pallian

It’s easy for us to spend so much time focusing on everything we don’t like or don’t have, that we leave ourselves precious little time to focus on what we actually want.

So, what do you want?

To be happy? Fair enough, but that will require you to actually go a step further and 1) define what happiness means to you and 2) determine how you can achieve it.

More time? OK, but that desire presumes you also have in mind exactly how you would spend that extra time if you had it… and could then figure out how to get it.

More money? Join the club! Who wouldn’t mind a bit more money? Again, though, “more” is not a very helpful description – how much more do you want? And for what?

Funny how we can be so very specific in pinpointing everything in life that we dislike or don’t want, but we let ourselves off the hook when it comes to being specific about what we do want. Instead, we just speak in vague generalities – more of this or more of that… and we wonder why we never seem to get what we want. Why should we expect to get “it” when we haven’t even specified exactly what “it” is?

What if I told you there was a way to get anything you want? It’s true. There is a way. It’s laid out for us in Psalm 37:4:

Delight yourself in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart” (ESV).

Do you want to receive whatever your heart desires? Then simply align the desires of your heart with your delight in the Lord, and you’ll get whatever you want. So will the Lord.

Afterward

 

While I generally attempt to keep my posts short and sweet, this post is a little bit longer. It is the manuscript of the funeral sermon preached for my father-in-law, a very dear man, a man through whom the Lord blessed many, many people. A child of God first and foremost, he is now blessed to enjoy his eternal “afterward.”


THE CHRISTIAN MEMORIAL OF MARTIN LUTHER SCHWARTZ

St. John’s Ev. Lutheran Church – Hastings, MN (WELS)

Psalm 73
23 Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.
27 Those who are far from you will perish;
you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.
28 But as for me, it is good to be near God.
I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge;
I will tell of all your deeds.

It happened again only yesterday, during the visitation, which saw a line of lives touched by Martin Luther Schwartz that extended out of the funeral home and spilled into the parking lot for the duration of the visitation hours. The question was asked or discussed by more than one close family member, “What’s going on afterward?” Was there a planned get together? Would people be meeting up somewhere to catch up more over a late meal? You may have been wondering the same thing already this morning – when that guy up front is done talking and everyone wakes up again, what’s happening afterward?

Really, we never stop asking the question in life, do we? As one stage of life comes to an end, we’re already thinking about what’s next. Graduation from high school – where you going to college? Graduation from college – where you going to get a job? Landed the first job – when are you getting married? Married – when will you start having kids? We’re always asking what’s next, what’s happening afterward?

Did you hear Marty’s “afterward” in the words from Psalm 73 this morning? The question “What’s happening afterward?” doesn’t need to be asked of him anymore, because he’s received the final answer. The psalmist Asaph put it this way: “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory” (v.23,24). “Afterward you will take me into glory.” Marty knew glory on the football field. He now knows a glory that transcends touchdowns and supersedes sports. He now knows in glory the One who made him, redeemed, him, and set him apart as his own through the gift of faith. He now knows in full what he preached and taught so many of us only in part. He now knows from experience the peace of God that elusively transcended his mere human understanding of it. He now knows perfection. He now knows Jesus in a way that not even the finest Christmas carol or Easter hymn could never come close to capturing. All of this, and so much more, is Marty’s “afterward.”

Why do we give such precious little thought or preparation to that afterward? Why do we focus on one earthly, temporal afterward, and then another, and another, but put off the afterward that awaits us all, the one that comes when this short life is lived out to its close and the funeral is our own? Why do we not give more attention to the afterward that will last into eternity? Why is our afterward so often nothing more than an afterthought?

I can say this with certainty: if we could see so much as a sliver, a glimpse of the glory of heaven that Martin Schwartz is now experiencing, there would be a cataclysmic shift in our priorities. Every excuse under the sun that we can drum up for not taking our spiritual health more seriously would be shattered. We’d be scrambling to discover more of what the psalmist meant in verse 28, “But as for me, it is good to be near God” and we would crave feverishly to be near God.

So why don’t we? Well now, you didn’t think the devil was just going to up and call it quits because of an empty tomb, did you? Did you think because the Lord Jesus himself descended into hell on his victory parade that the Evil One would politely acknowledge it and throw in the towel? Hell no! Easter once again reminded us that Jesus’ resurrection means death has been defeated, that all who are in Christ will rise again and live eternally, just as Jesus rose and lives and rules eternally. The devil can’t undo that.

Easter once again reminded us that Jesus’ resurrection means death has been defeated, that all who are in Christ will rise again and live eternally, just as Jesus rose and lives and rules eternally. The devil can’t undo that.”

But he doesn’t have to. All he has to do is keep you too busy to be concerned about it. All he has to do is keep you so preoccupied with earthly afterwards, so focused on what’s next in this life, that you lose sight of your heavenly afterward. He seeks to do that by keeping you not near to God, but as far away from him as possible, so that you fit the description of those in verse 27, “Those who are far off from you will perish.” Find a good reason to not be in worship this Sunday, and the next, and the next after that. Ignore history and evidence and facts and instead believe the naïve lie the skeptic sows about the Bible being mere fable fabricated by men. Keep it closed. Forget your baptism. Leave your spot at the Lord’s table vacant when He offers you His body and blood to eat and to drink for forgiveness. Keep away from all of these gifts of grace that God gives you to stay close to him, and rest assured, you will drift away from God as far as you like. I guarantee it. And your afterward will remain an afterthought, and your eternity filled with utterly painful regret.

But there is another way. And it is a way that was modeled for us by Martin Luther Schwartz through the faith by which he both lived and died. I expect that down to just about the last person here, we would agree that Pastor, brother, dad, grandpa, uncle, Marty, was genuinely one of the finest people to have been a part of our lives. Now, we can let it remain at that and presume that the best way to honor him, to show how much respect we had for him, is to simply acknowledge what a great guy he was. Or, we can take it a step further and seek to discover if there was anything that could be attributed to his being considered such a good guy. What was it that made it feel like he was genuinely interested in you when you spoke with him? Why was he willing to drop virtually anything he was doing to lend you a hand or help you? How did he so rarely lose his cool? What accounted for his gentle kindness and overall peaceful demeanor? How was it that so many enviable qualities and characteristics could be embodied in one man?

Friends, I believe it is because these verses from Ps. 73 could have just as easily been written by Marty himself. Throughout his life, he knew what it meant to be able to say, “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel… Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. As for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds” (v.23-26, 28). And only one change need be made. Instead of “and afterward you will take me into glory,” he can now say, “and afterward you have taken me into glory.”

What made Marty who he was is simple. He knew what it was to be near God. More specifically, he knew and trusted in Jesus. He knew his Savior. His life was about Jesus. Trace that back to his own father, who passed the Christian faith down to his children, Marty’s brothers and sisters, who all still today know what it means to be near Jesus. Follow the trail of faith from there to the next generation of Schwartzes, which know what it means to be near Jesus, a handful of whom, like Marty, as pastors, have determined to spend their whole lives helping others be near Jesus. Follow the trail further to the next generation, including grandchildren, who know what it means to be near Jesus. Do you see the common thread? And, no, it isn’t “be more like Marty so you can get to heaven, too,” but rather, “be more like Marty who knew how important it was to be near the only One – Jesus – who can open heaven for anyone.” Marty, good as he was, was a far cry from the perfection required for entrance into heaven. His sin disqualified him, too. But he knew his Savior, Jesus, took care of that. He knew the Jesus who paid for his sin in full through the perfect sacrifice of himself, and rose again to guarantee the glory that Marty now knows in his heavenly afterward.

Now I want to also acknowledge that there may be some who are thinking, “Pssshhhh… I know plenty of other good folks like Marty, and they aren’t Christians. You don’t need Jesus to be good.” Let me just say, you’re right, you’re absolutely right! I also know lots of genuinely good people who, sadly, won’t be in heaven if nothing changes. I’m sure we all do. But that doesn’t mean we make the exception the rule. Just because there are some good people in the world who don’t have faith in Jesus as Marty did, doesn’t in any way diminish the correlation between Marty’s character and his Christian faith. Nor does it change the reality that salvation still only comes through faith in Christ Jesus. No, we don’t let exceptions to the rule govern our life. There’s a chance you could zip through a stop sign or a red light on your way home and not get in an accident and die, sure. But just because that may happen, you’d be foolish to presume that would be the norm! You know you are better off and much safer by not living according to what may happen, or what you think could happen, or what you feel might happen.

Instead, like Marty and the psalmist, let God hold you by your right hand and guide you with his counsel. Let God be your strength and portion forever. Let the Sovereign Lord be your refuge. See that it truly is good to be near God, to remain always near Jesus. Then, dear friends, through Jesus Christ, you’ll enjoy the same afterward as Marty, you, too, will be taken into glory. May God in his grace – and only by his grace – grant it to you, as he has his servant, Martin Luther Schwartz. Amen.

May 10, 2017

Is that ALL you can do?

Photo by Patrick Fore

I’m quite sure I’ve said it myself, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Perhaps you’ve heard it in the wake of a tragedy or when things have taken an abrupt turn for the worse: “All we can do now is pray.”

Cringe.

I know what you mean. I even know what I’ve meant when I’ve used the phrase. But I still don’t like it, and I try to avoid using it. Here’s why.

1. It diminishes the power and privilege of prayer.

The Almighty Triune God has not gifted Christians with the powerful privilege of prayer as a mere afterthought, as if prayer is simply something to keep us busy and out of his way while he manages the cosmos. It isn’t like the meaningless task daddy assigns to his little helper during a project just so she can feel like she’s contributing, when in fact her effort has zero impact on the actual outcome. No, prayer changes things. It heals hurt. It diverts disaster. It alters eternities. And, to be clear, it accomplishes all this not because of some intrinsic power prayer would have on its own, but only when and because it is directed to the One true God who hears and answers accordingly.

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14–15 NIV).

2. It is NEVER “all we can do.”

It may only sound this way to me, but the statement “All we can do now is pray” seems to imply that every other course of action on our part has been exhausted. But is that ever actually the case? Can anyone say that in any given situation, we have really done everything we could possibly do? I’m not so sure. Could we create more awareness about a certain matter (resulting in exponentially more prayers being offered up)? Wrestle with specific Scripture? Educate ourselves more about a topic? Contribute a gift? The list goes on, and I don’t know that we can ever fully exhaust it when it comes to our actions accompanying our prayers.

Maybe instead of “All we can do now is pray,” we could tweak it a bit: What we can ALL do now is pray. That speaks positively of prayer, and leaves the door wide open for faith-born action to accompany our prayers.