“Slowly but surely…”
This has been the mantra for my wife and I during the past several weeks as we get “slowly but surely” settled into our new home. Bins unpacked. Moving boxes recycled. Wall hangings hung. Blind fixtures installed. Furniture (at least what we have) arranged. Basement shelves built. But make no mistake, we are still very much a work in progress.
Little by little.
Bit by bit.
Slowly but surely.
Though place the order way back in December, we still wait for couches and a dining set to arrive. There are many items that haven’t found a permanent home. The basement is unmercifully flooded with boxes and random objects. And there is definitely no room yet in the garage for my car. (Please know I'm not complaining; this is just a commentary on our reality. I am keenly aware of the "first world" problems to start this post.) As much as I wish it could all be done and put away with just the snap of two fingers, it doesn’t work that way. Of course, we will get there eventually. After all, we haven’t even lived in the home for a full month yet! Slowly but surely we will achieve our desired results, gradually and methodically rather than quickly and spectacularly.
Pondering several recent conversations with fellow Christians, it dawns on me that we are all works in progress. No one is perfect. None of us have it all together. Missteps and mistakes abound, no matter our season of life. Each of us encounter spiritual hiccups in the form of people or situations. Snares set by the devil to entrap us in fear or frustration. Obstacles placed to ensure we repeatedly fail to consistently embody the Sunday faith we confess. Our evolution or maturity as Christians is not instantaneous or permanent; it peaks and craters from time to time. But if we stay the course and cling to the cross of Jesus, it will continue to grow and improve over time. Oh sure it would be awesome if we could all be the poster children for faithful followers of Jesus—always saying the right thing or willing to serve at any moment. But that’s just not the case. Sure we have good flashes; but they come in between moments where our sinful flesh gets the best of us. The Apostle Paul loved to talk about a life of perseverance (especially in Romans 5). But I think my favorite related verses is what we read in James 1:12: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him.” It is over the span of time, as works in progress and engulfed with trials, that God helps us grow in character and in hope... slowly but surely. After all, the sign of a mature Christian is not one who sprints around showing off piety like a fancy new outfit. It is not the one who seems so organized, settled in and all together. Not one who parades their good deeds and worship attendance around for all to see. Instead, the faithful and honest follower is the man or woman who knows their struggle with sin and as such relies solely on the compassion and love of Jesus. We hit our knees. We repent. We receive the grace of God. We go out to be the imperfect, but always trying salt and light kingdom representatives that Jesus expects us to be. It is the one who tries to do things right by God. It is the one who perseveres through all sorts of crud and, slowly but surely, displays genuine humility in moments of failure and graciousness in moments of success.
Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher who lived centuries before Christ, once said: “It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you don’t stop.” Great words of wisdom. Therefore, we won't stop. Slowly but surely my family will keep unpacking and getting settled into our new abode. And in terms of our relationship with God? We dare not stop there either. The apostle Paul had something similar to say too: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6) God isn’t finished with us yet. We may be works in progress, but as long as we keep moving with God by our side, He will finish the task of our eternal salvation. He will give us that crown of life. Until that time, we walk with God through whatever this world throws our way. It may sting from time-to-time, but we trust that little by little, bit by bit God is always working for our good (Romans 8:28). In the ups and downs of life and the highs and lows of our days, we hang our hope on the One who hung on the cross. We praise and thank Him for his grace and patience with us, living works-in-progress.
"For dust you are and to dust you shall return." Genesis 3:19
With COVID concerns still real and restrictions still necessary, more churches than ever (ours included) will not be doing the imposition of ashes this year. And while that may seem strange for some, it can also provide a helpful reality check. Why do we do it? What’s the point? Is our worship invalid or incomplete without it? This now suspended tradition reminds us that all such customs, although potentially helpful, are just man-made symbolic gestures. Think about it, you don’t need dirt on your forehead to remind you that you are soiled in sin and stuck in a fallen world. That evidence is all around us! The prophet Joel reminded the people of Israel that, when it came to repentance, God was interested in their attitudes far more than their actions, attentive to their hearts far more than their visible exterior, concerned with their character far more than their customs. “Yet even now,” declare the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts, not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” In other words, true repentance is an inward condition, not an outward appearance. God wants our hearts, not our foreheads. True repentance is not a matter of ashes underneath your hairline, but a repentant posture of the heart before God.
"Lord, I'm flawed and a failure. But I am yours, save me!"
This is a confession we can make no matter the use of external traditions or practices. But if we can use something so that these resonate a bitter deeper, in a way that convicts us and strikes us to our sinful core than so be it. As such, the reason for this ritual practice that starts the season of Lent boils down to three primary purposes: First, the ashes remind people of their sinfulness. Second, the ashes remind people of their mortality. Third, the ashes remind people that they have been redeemed. If you partake in ashes or not (this year or any other), just remember this... whether you receive that dirty smudge and reminder of death on Ash Wednesday or not, what is far more significant than the symbolic act of putting this mark of ashes on the forehead, is the Gospel-laden action of washing them off afterwards. The ashes are only worth “celebrating” if it serves to bring us back to the soul-cleansing, dirt-washing, sin-removing work of our Savior Jesus. In Jesus, our slow-to-anger and merciful God relents over our deserved and pending disaster. We are plucked from the perils of wrath and hell, and placed into the cleansing blood of Jesus. No longer is our final destination the dust of the ground, but now we look forward to the beautiful gates of paradise. As a believer splashes water on his/her forehead to remove that dirty mark, we remember our baptism where we were cleansed of sin through water and the Word. We know we can’t save ourselves so we “rend our hearts” back to the Lord to receive the gift of purifying that only Jesus can give. Whether literally marked with ashes or not, we enter the penitential season of Lent praying that God would have mercy on us, forgive us our sin and bring us to everlasting life!
"Create in us a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit with us" (Psalm 51)
I've come across this picture many times. I'm not sure of it's origins so I can't give proper credit to the phrase or the photo. Nevertheless, it's a good note of encouragement to keep things in perspective. Easy to read. Nearly effortless to remember. Certainly simple enough to post onto our timelines and newsfeeds. Yet often much more challenging to actually put into practice. The world overwhelms us with responsibilities and commitments. We have much to do. We have bills to pay. We have children to parent. We have work deadlines to meet. We have tasks to accomplish. We have expectations to live up to.
In the chaotic and busy lives of His people, God promises to be with us. He doesn't leave us to ourselves, drowning in a sea of responsibilities and unending to-do lists. In stress and in grief, He is there. In thralls of depression and ensnared in a funk, He is there. In exhaustive loneliness and untamed anger, He is there. God is with you. These are the words of Isaiah written on the post-it note: "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (43:2) This reflective snapshot of Israel’s history reminds us that God will not allow anything to destroy His beloved people. We still walk through the dangerous waters and threatening fires, but we will be divinely protected. To those He has created, redeemed, and called by name He invites us to cast aside fear in favor of faith. He is alone is our Savior and source of peace.
No matter what’s happening around us, if we try to keep the proverbial water out of our lives ourselves, we will inevitably be weighed down and sink. Instead, turn to the Lord. He is there. He loves you. He is with you. Don’t look inwardly; but look outside of yourselves and up to the heavens. Then pray over these words from scripture, “…those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)
I remember coasting through my senior year of high school. I had already been accepted to the college I was planning to attend and the majority of my course load was either required or relatively easy. Senioritis had kicked in and was in full effect! But then there was my still 100% required English class. Though the class itself was not incredibly difficult nor was the classwork too burdensome, I had coasted a bit too long and a bit too far. Not-so-suddenly my grade dropped to the danger point of not being able to graduate. Yikes, talk about a wake-up call! A direct result of my laziness and thoroughly enjoying the fun of a socially active senior year left me in a precarious position. Fortunately, with a few extra assignments and a generous, albeit a bit wacky, English teacher, I was able to finish the year off strong. I passed the class and did not have to miss any of the graduation day festivities. There is great danger in coasting through things. We miss important events, overlook essential details, or we fall into an apathetic laziness that can have all sorts of ramifications for our lives.
This year, as the church season of Lent soon begins, we would do well to ensure we don’t miss the indispensable narrative of Jesus’ passion week. Lent is a season of 40 days where we take time, intentionally and meditatively, to zero in and reflect on the need for and preparations of Easter Sunday. We dare not coast through Lent. It could be an easy trap though, anxiously anticipating the victorious celebration of Easter without taking time for prayerful self-examination. That’s like celebrating the cure without acknowledging the severity of the disease. Our gratitude and excitement for Easter is more deeply appreciated when we take time to consider the brokenness brought on by our sin and the suffering of our Lord.
During the season of Lent, we see God putting back together a shattered world, and more importantly our shattered relationship with the Creator. We dare not miss this story because we’re too busy or distracted. We dare not overlook it because we’re having too much fun or spiritually slacking off. We dare not become so apathetic of despondent from COVID restrictions and wearisome limitations that we see Lent come and go without giving it any time or meditation.
Think of it this way… When driving a car, if I take my foot off the pedal, the car does not speed up. It doesn’t even maintain the same speed. Instead, from the very moment I take my foot off the accelerator, the car begins to slow down. Allowing the car to coast is inviting the car to stop. It may take some time, but left on its own, the car will stop eventually. It is inevitable. Before you know it, a long hill or unanticipated obstacle comes and you don’t have the momentum to move forward. This Lent I encourage you be intentional about not coasting in your relationship with Jesus. Lent is not a time for us to take the foot off the pedal, but to intentionally keep moving to Jesus. Find a resource, like this one here, to study and grow—grasping tightly to the incredible tools the Lord gives us in His Word and in worship to ensure our coasting doesn’t end in a complete spiritual stop!
Have you ever helped a young child with a glittery craft project? Or perhaps you have gotten a Christmas card covered with sparkly glitter? We all know the hellish struggle of trying to get glitter out of clothing and carpet. I remember a meme that said: “Forget the vacuum, the only way to get rid of glitter is to burn your house down and move.” There is a silly truth in that; once glitter gets on you it never seems to go away.
Last night on the radio, I heard the story of a young woman who found out her boyfriend was being unfaithful to her. Instead of keying his car or slashing his tires, she decided to enact revenge by “glitter bombing” his apartment. In nearly every inch of his apartment, this scorned women dumped multiple containers of glitter. This two-timing guy had glitter all over his bed, couches, clothing, carpet, throughout the kitchen… everywhere. Even with the most thorough and deepest attempts at cleaning his apartment, this man will still be finding sparkling reminders of this event for years to come. Every time this man vacuums or does laundry, he will be reminded of his infidelity. I can only imagine the number of days he will walk out of his apartment with a spec of glitter on his face or embedded in his clothing. For the rest of his life, the mere mention of glitter will remind him of his cheating ways.
Thank goodness God doesn’t deal with us in such vengeful ways. Without question, sin clings to us far deeper and more permanent than glitter does. Try as we might, we can’t clean it up. We can’t scrub it off. It will always be there. Sin is far too invasive and stubborn to disappear quietly and with ease. The prophet Jeremiah spoke to the Old Testament people to convict them of this sad fact: “Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, declares the Lord GOD.” (Jeremiah 2:22) This is the reality and damning nature of sin. It distorts and destroys. It blots and blemishes. We cannot remove it—no matter how hard we try. No amount of soap or good deeds can remove the sin that stains. But within this disgraceful problem, lies the beautiful heart of the Gospel. God invites us to the foot of the cross so that He can do what we cannot do. “Come now, let us settle the matter," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)
The Lord cleanses and forgives. God removes your sin. You are not stained any longer. He has settled the matter. The horrific glitter of sin is completely removed; no more specs can be found. We must no longer constantly dwell on the reminders of sin that once covered our old lives. We are different now. We are justified. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are restored to a new life. Hear this same good news from the words of the Apostle Paul, “… But now you have had every stain washed off: now you have been set apart as holy: now you have been pronounced free from guilt; in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:11 WNT) Praise God for his cleansing power. In Jesus we are made new.
Friends, what are we to do? Please read, it’s lengthy but worthwhile. Remember the One who is really in charge!
(adapted from letter of fellow pastoral colleague)
I pen this letter in a time of cultural turmoil. The people of our nation are angry and divided. More than 150 years ago, as the dark clouds of civil war began to gather on the horizon, Abraham Lincoln warned a nation of angry people that a house divided against itself cannot stand. This Biblical principle stands today.
The genius of our nation’s founding is proclaimed in its motto, “E Pluribus Unum”—“Out of Many, One.” Gathered on our shores are peoples of different origins, different trades, different creeds, different colors, different dreams. The social experiment called “The United States of America” was designed to offer all people the freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness. We don’t seem very happy these days. We have lost the sense of “oneness,” as we prefer to identify ourselves with the people who look like us, sound like us, think like us and agree with us. When we come across those that differ from our worldview, we shut them out, slam the door, and ostracize them. Our divide grows wider, deeper and more dangerous.
The intent of this letter is not to share with you my personal opinions and political views, but to express what Christians, are called to do as members of this society. Those of us who are Christians, who are in the world but not of the world, must first and foremost identify ourselves as followers of Jesus—disciples of the Savior. Recall these words from the Apostle Paul, “But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control.” (3:20-21) We are alien residents here on earth; but we dare not shy away from having an impact or bearing fruit. We are dedicated to the principles of His Word and are
Happy Epiphany to you all!
That’s right, today is a party day in the life of the church. This is the church calendar day known as “The Epiphany of our Lord.”
Every year on the twelfth day of Christmas, January 6th, this commemoration is observed in the church as a celebration of Jesus’ manifestation (in Greek lit. epiphany) to earth as both 100% God and 100% man. “From heaven above to earth He comes, to bear good news to every home!” (LSB 358) If Christmas celebrates the Father’s giving of the gift of Christ Jesus to us sinners, then Epiphany might be said to be the Father unwrapping this gift for us. During the weeks of Epiphany the Father is making His Son known to the world. The redemptive and saving work of Jesus shines forth from heaven and is revealed to all mankind. Throughout this Epiphany season we rejoice over and declare loudly that Jesus is the Savior of ALL people—Jews and Gentiles alike.
This past Monday afternoon my wife and I had some errands to run. One of them, unfortunately, brought us to the Willowbrook Mall. Yikes! It was a madhouse. There were people everywhere. Mega traffic and an uncanny parking shortage for a weekday afternoon. Inside the mall, people were standing in lines all over the place just to get into the stores they wanted. Apparently Bath & Body was having quite the sale because their bags flooded the mall. Social distancing didn’t seem to apply on the escalators. Facemasked consumers flooded the Food Court. People waiting to make returns, getting frustrated as they waited to make exchanges. People searching store-to-store looking for some sweet after-Christmas sales. Uggs boots 40% off! Monster sale at the Children’s Place. Up to 75% off at Bloomingdales. In that setting, it was as if Christmas was all about getting what you can get while the getting is good. The only things missing was Charlie Brown searching for an aluminum Christmas tree. It was crazy!
And yet, as I stood waiting outside the restroom, I heard something. Very faintly in the background, I could still hear this song playing, 3 days after Christmas… “Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel… Born is the King of Israel!” Who knows how many people actually heard it. It wasn’t exactly quiet within the walls of Willowbrook. Who knows if anyone listened to the subtle, quiet reminder of what this season is actually all about. But I did. I heard it. The chorus pierced through the noise and hit me right to the core. In the midst of chaotic commercialism and mall madness, God enabled me to forget about the traffic, the crowds and my errands. Just for a moment, he recalibrated my gaze so I could stare back into the humble manger of Christmas. Steve, don’t forget about the Gift. “Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel… Born is the King of Israel!” Born is the King. Born is my King. Born is your King. Born is the King of kings. The message of Christmas doesn’t stop as the calendar moves forward. It doesn’t lessen as the decorations are taken down. It isn’t dampened as the Christmas music is boxed away for use again in another ten months. Keep listening and looking for the ways God will share His love and Gospel message with you. The angels still sing and shepherds still worship. Let’s join them! Don’t let the racket of New Year sales or crowds of rabid shoppers overtake the peace of Christmas. Dear friends in Christ, continue to rejoice and celebrate the spirit of Christmas; “For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)
Are you ready?
Have you tried starting the snowblower?
Have you pulled the shovels out from the back of the garage?
It’s coming, ready or not!
As we encounter the first blizzard of the winter, consider these words:
“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)
In this verse we are reminded of God’s compassion and mercy. The heart of the Creator revealed by the evidence of the creation. There can be no better image of purity than snow, freshly fallen and covering an otherwise bare landscape. Stained by sin, tainted by unfaithfulness, we are purified and cleansed by the declaration of God. The purity and righteousness of God covers us. The snow falls… all of nature testifies—you are loved and forgiven by God!