[I presented this paper was presented at the LC-MS Pacific Southwest District Pastor's Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona on Tuesday, October 5th 2021]
Good morning fellow servants of the Lord Jesus! It is good to be here with you! Let me begin by clarifying the words in our title, “Engaging with The Word in Our Changing World.” First, we will look at the word “engaging,” then “with The Word,” and finally, “in Our Changing World.”
When I say “engaging” as I do similarly in the book Faith That Engages the Culture (CPH, 2021), I don’t mean what some disappointed online Amazon shoppers who ordered the book thought I meant: engagement before marriage; thinking my book to be about preparing for holy matrimony. What I do mean is that sharing the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about living in a preoccupation of our self-conscience efforts to make the right pitch, to sell the Gospel correctly, or find a way to manipulate or at least finesse a situation successfully so that the Holy Spirit can finally be effective to change hearts for Jesus Christ. No, I don’t mean that.
What I do mean is that just as we Lutheran Christians emphasize the Word of God to the extent that we seriously invest in the Word (e.g., how beautiful are the words we borrow from Cramner and the Book of Common Prayer describing our love for the Word of Christ: “Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant us that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.”), that we would also through engagement for the Gospel equally invest in the people with whom we interact and serve in love in the Name of the Lord.
This means that we get serious about Saint Paul’s missionary strategy to become all things to all people that we may (by God’s work in us) save some by all possible means (1st Corinthians 9:22). This means we strive to know and to apply Godly pity, Godly empathy, and Godly sympathy so that the Gospel we share is received by real human beings in need: that is, in compassion our hearts must extend to those in need; then in empathy, feel – as much as possible – those needs; and then in sympathy to suffer with those we come alongside of to share their burdens as much as we possibly can. From this love, the Holy Spirit sets the stage for receptivity of the saving Gospel.
“When St. Paul states at verse 19 that he made himself a servant to all, that he might win more of them, Paul was stating his willingness to make personal adjustments for others so that nothing would unnecessarily get in the way of people receiving the Gospel he preached. ‘The changeless Gospel empowers us to sacrifice our own rights, tastes, interests, and preferences so that others might hear the message of Christ in all its power’ (TLSB, p. 1958). What was St. Paul really doing? He ‘showed himself a model of missionary adaptability’ (Lockwood, 1 Corinthians, CPH, 314). This attitude of adaptability imitates what our Savior did for us all: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9). St. Paul had what was an ‘apparently chameleonlike stance in matters of social relationships’ (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT, Eerdmans, 467). The Early Church theologian Ambrosiaster was magnificent in his observations:
Did Paul merely pretend to be all things to all men, in the way that flatterers do? No. He was a man of God and a doctor of the spirit who could diagnose every pain, and with great diligence he tended them and sympathized with them all. We all have something or other in common with everyone. This empathy is what Paul embodied in dealing with each particular person (Bray, ed., 1-2 Corinthians, ACCNT, InterVarsity Press, 86).
St. Augustine states flatly that St. Paul wasn’t pretending to be what he was not, but rather, he was showing compassion (Bray, 86). He illustrated, ‘A person who nurses a sick man becomes, in a sense sick himself, not by pretending to have a fever but by thinking sympathetically how he would like to be treated if he were sick himself’ (Bray, 86).” (Faith That Engages the Culture, CPH, 71-72)
That is, engagement makes the other person our focus as much as we are focused on the Gospel we share. We love the person. We at least listen as much as we speak (if not more); we strive to find common ground not to be self-conscious about our good works to and for the other, but rather conscious about the unique person before us for whom Jesus died and rose and who loves this person before us at this very moment – regardless of their ideology, politics, worldview, religion, or lifestyle – as much as me.
Engaging can be biblically depicted in what I call “the engagement triangle”:
Biblical engagement begins with the biblical perspective (the first “P” on top of the triangle) described in 1st Peter 3:15. I love sharing this with Christians otherwise intimidated about witnessing because it teaches us that witnessing begins long before we are face-to-face with anybody. The Scripture begins with these words: “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy…”. We begin with the King of Kings and Lord of Lord’s honored as we set Him apart in our hearts to reign in our lives, to lead us to face the astounding needs in our changing world, none of which are too hard for Him to handle.
People need to see us as true representatives of the Lord for whom nothing is too hard; for whom nothing is impossible so that nothing will hinder His loving and merciful will intended for all. The world needs this perspective as many of today’s millennials are intentionally planning on either having no children or less children unwilling to subject their potential children to the world we live in today; as climate change (regardless of your politics) is showing up not just where Ida hit, but where it caused a shocking amount of flooding on the east coast, or as climate change has reared its ugly head through “heat domes” that make one pray power grids won’t shut down; where the fires that have destroyed so much in the western region seem to never end; where the liberty in our country has been strained to the point that while the 5th and 14th Amendments of the Constitution invoke due process, lives can nevertheless be wrecked through the unofficial juries of a cancel culture working behind the scenes; where partisan politics is so controversial and impassioned that the orders of family and church take a back-seat to the all-enveloping order of government; where our moral fabric continues to prove the “Durkheim constant” that since there is a limit to the amount of deviant behavior any community can ‘afford to recognize,’ so that as behavior worsens, the Perspective Place Engaging for Christ People 4 community adjusts its standards so that we tolerate more of what used to be reprehensible (Faith That Engages the Culture, CPH, 123). This is the time that the word “pandemic” does not just apply to the virus and its variants, but to many other coinciding issues that can make a pastor’s head swirl when discussing masks and vaccinations with concerned parishioners on both sides of the aisle (whether driven by science variously interpreted and/or politics in all its relativistic glory). And all of this is just the “extra stuff” on top of the everyday and serious issues we all must deal with for ourselves, our families, and our parishioners.
But within the chaos, the basic and visceral issues remain in the human heart: guilt, shame, fear, and anger. The Lord through His Word always keeps it simple for us: get to the heart, always get to the heart. And the heart needs the rest of 1st Peter 3:15. The word ἀπολογίαν here does not have to be weighed down with rhetoric, logic, philosophy, and advanced apologetics, etc., but keep it simple for those we teach: just speak the truth about God for all people through Jesus; and that God deals with the most realistic, practical, relevant need all people know, crave, and thirst for: life. Bring life to people who in our world today have death staring them down.
And we do it in the most radical way (as the last part of 1st Peter 3:15 teaches). For whatever issue we identify contributing to the emotional exhaustion all around us, our way as Christians is not to perpetuate and spread hatred, anger, hostility, angst, but to be gentle and kind to all. And if we are attacked, we have no need to return volley. We can be like our Savior who just took it, and then continued to love (at the same time, we ought never ignore what Jesus said about casting pearls, Matthew 7:6). Such a way is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the way of the martyrs. As for the respect (the last word of 1st Peter 3:15), we respect the Lord as we engage…so that every word and every action toward the one for whom Jesus died truly honors Christ. He is there with us as we engage always.
Then we go to “people” – the second “P” – as I have already explained in regard in 1st Corinthians 9:22; and then finally, we get to the third “P” which is when we always consider the unique “place” and reckon how any environment influences our engagement for good or for ill as we strive to use the environment to make connections for our testifying to the truth.
That’s what we mean by engaging.
As for “with The Word” (the second part of our title): this is our constant source of strength and energy. Why? For many reasons but for the purpose of our present considerations because it does not change like everything else (thank God! Our most vital resource does not change!). This Word of Christ we handle in great humility and over-flowing confidence, is the unchanging Word of Christ!
…you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever’ (1 Peter 1:23-25).
This of course stands in stark contrast to the third part of our title: “our changing world,” but let’s not let this part exert discouragement upon us (in fact, I would argue we have reason rather to be excited, thankful, and energized for the new opportunities given to us for the Gospel of Christ). It’s important to acknowledge change, but not to take it too far at the same time.
When people look upon the world today, the change can feel so overwhelming, that people are easily distracted from The Word. Before you know it, fear and anxiety reign and there is no time for seeking God because we are too busy painting the worse case scenarios in the world. Worst case scenarios take on the characteristics of apocalyptic extremism.
Such extremism always views the current age and even the season within an age to be the worst in the history of humanity. This is what we might refer to as the myth of contemporaneity that marks our contemporary age as the exceptional one especially when it comes to chaos and suffering. D.S. Russell describes the mindset:
The social order…seemed to be collapsing around them. The course of of justice was being perverted on every side; corruption had entered into business dealings and even into the law courts; violence was abroad in the land, and people did not know where to turn for justice and security (Prophecy and the Apocalyptic Dream, Hendrickson, 15)
“Throughout history many people, however, have felt that theirs was the generation like those of Noah and Lot. And they thought so under different conditions and circumstances. It is interesting to consider the various forms of 6 perceived threats spawning apocalyptic anxiety throughout the centuries. For example, after the Christian persecutions under the Roman empire ceased with Constantine (c. 280-337), there was a whole new set of tensions inherent in Rome’s decline and overall instability” (Espinosa, The Apocalyptic Anxiety of American Evangelicalism…., University of Birmingham, 27).
Bottom line: we are tempted by our sin, the world, and the devil to think that we are living in the absolute worst of times. But the fact is, unless this is Satan’s little season (Revelation 20:3) which is impossible for us to know, it is important we guard against despair (in fact, even if it is Satan’s little season, we have cause to rejoice for the strength and endurance the Lord promises to give to His Church against which not even the gates of hell will prevail, Matthew 16:18).
But let’s face it, sometimes it is just living in a season with so much change occurring at once that causes us to feel the strain, and even burn-out as servants of Christ. I heard a statistic that when pastors experience major crises within their congregations, they will seek a new call about 80% of the time. Well, it could be argued that in the last 20 months, all of us have undergone major crises in our congregations. Talk about the occasion for us to play musical chairs within the synod right now. We are reactive people, and sometimes we think the best way to cope with change is to change. It’s human nature: if so much change is cast upon us beyond our control, then we think we can make ourselves feel better by conducting change within our control.
Change is upon us and in heavy doses. Lewis calls our perpetual dealing with change the law of undulation (rising and falling): “[our] nearest approach to constancy is undulation – the repeated return to a level from which [we] repeatedly fall back. It is a series of valleys and peaks.” (Screwtape Letters, 40-41) But what I’m describing now -- especially after 20 months of the pandemic -- is the law of undulation on steroids.
We are Christians but none of us will disagree with Heraclitus (540-475 B.C.) who said, “All things are in flux” and “You cannot step into the same river twice,” unless we make the exception referring to the river of our Holy Baptism. But in the world, it is change, change, and change, and recently the quality and quantity of that change has felt for many to be overbearing. We can feel the urgency perhaps now more than ever in this prayer from our service of Compline: “Be present, merciful 7 God, and protect us…we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may find our rest in You, through Jesus Christ, our Lord” (LSB, 257).
I think like many of us I’ve been fascinated by the markers our Lord Jesus used to describe the end times (of which we are currently living in of course and have been since the first century), but among those signs, our Savior used the words, “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). This is the second to last sign before the second coming before the last sign of the whole world receiving the Gospel.
What does it look like when “the love of many will grow cold?” I think we’re seeing it in spades. Tanner Garrity for Insidehook (Sept 8th) entitled his piece, “Our Brains Aren’t Built to Handle This Much Bad News.” He begins his writing by stating, “Exhaustion is the enemy of empathy. This far into the pandemic, we’re all struggling to care.” Bingo! He observes, “it feels difficult to look around and find much hope these days, that’s because it is.” Yes! And he remarks while quoting The Atlantic, “the exhaustion that has stemmed from almost 20 months of living amidst a deadly virus has complicated our collective ability to appreciate the misfortune we already live with.” Amen! I think he’s right.
He speaks of the cumulative snowball that “mingles with the rest of the issues in the victim’s life, creating an avalanche.” We often hear the analogy about putting on your oxygen mask first so that you can help the person next to you, but during times like these we’re holding onto our oxygen mask in sheer desperation and exhaustion with no relief in sight. Who knows when we will get around to helping our neighbor? In feeling overwhelmed and as if we are hanging on by a thread, how do I exert enough energy to care for others? It feels like “the love of many [growing] cold.” This is what we are faced with in this new normal.
And this is what the Church must step up to and minister to. But I’m not standing here before you my fellow pastors to give you a laundry list of what you must do, but I’m starting by talking about what is intended that we begin with for ourselves (that is, the gifts of God for you and me to receive -- every one of my points will come in the way of what is available for you to receive -- and rejoice in), so that we are strong enough to tend to our oxygen and then be very enabled to share it with those we are called to serve.
We begin Engaging with The Word in Our Changing World by receiving the way the Word would have us view things. This is our first form of engaging with The Word in our changing world. We receive God’s glasses to walk by faith and not by sight. We therefore reject the doom and the gloom. We therefore hold to God working behind the scenes. This is nothing new for Him.
By getting back to God’s view, I would like to pick this so-called avalanche apart and call the deception for what it is. Our changing world is not overwhelming even as it can certainly feel as though it were. And mind you, I am not standing here slipping into positive thinking or the law of attraction. No. In fact, I’m not even denying that some of us may be feeling despair right now. We could be. But there is a Scriptural duality when it comes to despair. St. Paul knew both poles: In 2 nd Corinthians 1:8 he recounted “his own experience with his fellow missionaries: ‘We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.’ If you have ever felt this way, you’re not alone…However, 2nd Corinthians 1:8 is not the last word on the topic of despair. In the same Book of 2nd Corinthians, St. Paul also wrote this: ‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair’ (2nd Corinthians 4:8). Both references use the same core word for despair. [But Christians] despair when their eyes of faith are taken off Christ… [and Christians do not despair] as their eyes of faith are kept on Jesus.” (Espinosa, Faith That Sees Through the Culture, CPH, 27, 241-242)
So, we may receive anew the eyes of faith to see that through the crises the Lord is opening new vistas for our growing stronger in our faith than ever before. This catastrophe of a season is intended by God to work for our good. It has been granted us by the mercy of God to bless us in ways that we can’t even imagine. In addressing our current changes and challenges, we are once again returning to our Lutheran theology of the cross. Luther:
God says to us, “Do not grow weary. Do not teach Me, and do not teach yourself. Leave yourself to Me. I will be your Master; I will lead you in the way in which I desire that you should walk. You think that all is lost when it does not work out as you desire. Your thinking is harmful to you, and it hinders Me. It must not work out according to your understanding, but must be superior to your understanding; sink yourself into not-knowing and I will give you My knowledge. Not-knowing is true-knowledge; not knowing where you are going is truly knowing where you are going. To know Me makes you simple. Thus Abraham went out from his fatherland and he knew not whither he went. He committed himself and cast aside his own knowing, and went the true way and reached the right end” (Day By Day We Magnify Thee, 342, quoting Luther from his commentary on The seven penitential Psalms, 1517).
Luther again, “When God wants to strengthen a man’s faith He first weakens it by feigning to break faith with him. He thrusts him into many tribulations and makes him so weary that he is driven to despair and yet He gives him strength to be still and persevere…for God must help such a person. In this way God hides life under death, heaven under hell, wisdom under folly, and grace under sin” (Day By Day We Magnify Thee, 343, quoting Luther from his Sermons from the year 1527).
That’s the theology of the cross.
The first thing we receive to engage ourselves and our people for coping during this time is to receive the Lord’s Word in our changing world to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7); and to insist that God will keep His promise to work good through all of what we are currently facing. He cannot lie. He will keep His promise. Receive these lenses of faith brothers. This is what we know to be true through the theology of the cross. When our Savior was outstretched on the tree of the cross, no one could see how glorious it truly was, no one could see what was really happening: He was crushing Satan’s head and releasing us from the power of our sins. But we see it as we put on the eyes of faith.
Now for the second way for Engaging The Word in our Changing World: Rev. David Fleming wrote an outstanding paper entitled, “Loneliness in the Parsonage (or Pastor’s Home)” and from this paper I share these highlights on what we receive from the LORD to engage with The Word in Our Changing World in respect to the second challenge. The first challenge is despair, the second challenge is related, and yet distinct. This pandemic we are living through has produced with it a pandemic of loneliness and isolation and it has spread to you and me.
Before the pandemic in 2018, Cigna’s loneliness survey uncovered, “that nearly half of Americans report being lonely and feeling left out. One in four rarely or never felt as though there are people who understand them. Only 18% feel that there are people they can talk to. Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation. Studies during the COVID pandemic have indicated increases in isolation…” (Fleming, 1). Related to this is the fact that suicide rates have increased. “In 2021 Japan’s 10 Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, appointed a Minister of Loneliness following the lead of the United Kingdom. In 2018 Prime Minister Theresa May added “Loneliness” to the charge of the under secretary for sport and civil society. Loneliness has the same health impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Multiple studies show that loneliness is linked to poorer outcomes from cancer and heart surgery” (Fleming, 1).
Pastors and their wives are no strangers to this threat. It is a significant problem to put it mildly.
“Loneliness is actually quite difficult to define, because it is not directly linked to external causes…Kevin Vost [however] offers this helpful definition: “Loneliness is a product of our God-given human capacity to think and reflect about things. It is defined as a ‘perceived social isolation…’” (Fleming, 2, quotes Kevin Vost, The Catholic Guide to Loneliness…, Sophia Institute Press, 5).
We are not of course confusing loneliness with holy solitude. Our Lord Jesus taught and demonstrated the importance of solitude for prayer. We all need down time for example for various forms of rest and self-care, but loneliness is exacerbated by three things in particular: “frenetic lives, online interactions, and lack of face-to-face conversation” (Fleming, 5).
Here, we are given the opportunity to RECEIVE the Lord’s gifts of time and relationships in a wholesome and salutary fashion. This is not so much about for us to do, but to guard and protect against the attacks upon us especially during stressful seasons such as the one we’re in. One temptation to say “no” to is the temptation to permit a hectic paced life:
We overschedule our days and complain constantly about being too busy… we keep up with hundreds of acquaintances but rarely see our best friends; we bombard ourselves with video clips and emails and instant messages; we even interrupt our interruptions (Fleming, 5, quotes Will Schwalbe, Books for Living, Alfred A. Knopf [publisher], 13).
Here, we can address the myth that quality does not need quantity. The truth, however, is that to develop quality time we need to have a generous quantity to facilitate that desired quality. (Fleming, 5)
The second threat towards loneliness is online interactions. We’ve been “hijacked by…dopamine deliveries” (Fleming, 5, quoting Jenni Russell, “Rise of the machines has us tapping into an era of lonely desperation,” The Australian Times, November 22, 2019) “…social media has been designed to get us dependent on ‘likes’ rather than engaged interactions. It breeds and fosters a kind of narcissism that is more interested in how others reward me, than in how I am learning about and serving others.” (Fleming, 5). It’s little wonder therefore that four people can sit down at a table in a restaurant, converse over their course, and then all of them retreat to their mobiles for the rest of the dinner.
The last of the three producers of contemporary loneliness is the lack of face-to-face conversation. Eric Jacobsen “argues that the car windshield, television screen, and smartphone are the three pieces of glass that have exacerbated a lack of belonging in our society” (Fleming, 5, quotes Jacobsen, Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated by Screens, Brazos Press, xi)
Recall what we said about what happens when love grows cold. Anthony Esolen in “About Face: On Beauty and the Personal Being of God and Man” (Touchstone 33:1, Jan/Feb 2020, 26-29), “argues that because we’ve lost delight in the Creator, we’ve lost delight in the creation, in mankind, in beauty, and in life around us. So many hide in their man-caves staring at a pixelated world alone in the dark.” (Fleming, 7). This Esolen asserts is “the mark of an exhausted civilization.” (Fleming, 7).
So, what can we receive in the face of this challenge to Engage with The Word in Our Changing World? Let us first review the wisdom in the Proverbs, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” And here lies the next invitation for you to receive close friends so that you may engage with The Word of Christ in our Changing World that is dying from loneliness and isolation. Be wary of the dopamine injections on social media. Having 40 friends much less 4000 does little for your good (though I am not at all discounting the opportunities for disseminating the Word of Christ on social media, that’s different). But when it comes to combating our loneliness and isolation, let us seek these things instead:
A fresh commitment to be alone with our Best Friend Jesus Christ. I will confess to you brothers that I am not coming to you with a pious theory, but I am coming to you from the school of hard knocks. In late July and into early August 2020 I 12 experienced a series of panic attacks (it was a terrible experience), but I had to take stock and I was blessed. I had gotten to the point that I believed I was just too busy to daily be substantially in the Word of God and prayer. Well, after the panic attacks the Lord taught me that I was just too busy. Now, the time is non-negotiable. To me the logic is simple: if I have time to sleep, to eat, and to do the most basic things each day, then I most certainly have time for the one thing needful (as our Lord put it in St. Luke’s Gospel 10:42).
Receive the Word through the priority of daily time in the Word of God and prayer. Counter loneliness with holy solitude. I also recommend that while quality spiritual discipline will include quiet to listen and for contemplation, that it ought also confess, sing, and pray audibly so that the Words of our Lord would literally touch our eardrums; that we would feel Jesus touching our ears so that we would receive His Word as clearly and as tangibly as possible. In this daily discipline we keep distinct the important differences between the words “complain” and “lament”. Rev. Dr. Timothy Seals teaches that the Hebrew for “complain” capitulates to stress and anxiety caused by a lack of faith and trust that is destructive and unable to see the possibilities of what God would do through our trials, but “lament” is different. The Hebrew means a superior activity, so that as we observe and keep the Word of God before us (and Dr. Seals explains that lament is described in liturgical structure), we can truly express our burdens to God and as it is prayer, we remember that God will keep His promises. It is honest openness to God that we feel empty, but it is always followed by “But” (as in praying to God, “BUT You are faithful!”) remembering that God who kept His promises will do so again (Bible Study on September 19th 2021, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Claremont, CA).
Put another way, lament is what sanctifies our complaint, but without lamenting complaining is empty and the sign of an unraveling faith. Harold Senkbeil: “[Lamentation Psalms] teach us how to file a complaint with God. And complaining isn’t whining; if you’ve ever read your medical records, you’ll know that medical complaints are simply the physical symptoms of your distress. When you go to your doctor, you’re not whining; you’re just explaining where you hurt. You list your complaints because you know your condition should receive attention. It may not go away; some of the symptoms may remain. But you’ve gone to someone who can do something about it.” (Christ and Calamity, Lexham Press, 25)
This is our time to impress upon our people to be in the Word of Christ and prayer. This is the time for spiritual revival and perhaps for developing the strongest spiritual discipline we’ve ever known in our lives, and to bask in the feast of the Word of Christ and prayer that has been given to us for free.
From this, springs the living out of two other marvelous gifts that we may receive. The first one brothers, we’ve allowed to get dusty and kept on the shelf for too long, and this is again for us and for our precious flocks. I’m talking about the gift of Individual Confession and Absolution (Lutheran Service Book, pgs. 292-293).
As pastors we are in the crosshairs of the Enemy. He tries to lead us for example into “destructive comparisons and attempts to measure up to others. Why should we regard this as a spiritual battle? Because the adversary’s goal is to drive the pastor out of the ministry!” (Confession and Absolution, CTCR 2012, 21) Luther elaborates: “For I know [says Christ] that the devil will harass you severely for My sake, to sadden and weary you, to make you impatient, to induce you to defect, and to make you say: ‘I wish I had never had anything to do with this!’ That is the sentiment of many right now. I myself have been assailed by such aversion and weariness, and the thought has come to me: ‘If I had not begun to do so, I would never again preach another word; I would let everything take whatever course it may.’ … But Christ declares: ‘That is not the right attitude. Do not let the devil, the world, or your own flesh overcome you; but think of how I have loved you and still love you.” (Ibid., 21)
“The pastor who finds himself under such attack should not wait until he gains the victory over these spiritual foes before availing himself of the benefits of private confession and absolution. On the contrary, he will find in confession and absolution the very allies that can bring support and encouragement as he continues to wage war on these satanic forces. Confessing his failures and acknowledging his helplessness may even bring the pastor to a better understanding of the sources of the anger and discouragement. It will work to restore and strengthen his conviction that all pastors serve their Lord as both recipients and stewards of the Gospel’s absolution, helping him once again to ‘major in’ the things that really are important.” (Ibid., 21)
And this resource is also for your flock, and it is one that highlights the face-to-face contact that we all yearn for to rise above loneliness and isolation.
Finally, we are also in the position to highlight (if I may be so bold) the forgotten means of grace listed in the Smalcald Articles (The Third Part, Article IV): “…God is superabundantly generous in His grace…Also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren. ‘Where two or three are gathered’ (Matthew 18:20) and other such verses [especially Romans 1:12].’” We need to be intentional for receiving the gift of friends. Lewis celebrates the great gift of friends: “…Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vison to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isaiah VI, 3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall all have.” (The Four Loves, 92-93)
These things embolden us to seek out face-to-face contact. This is the season – even with all its restrictions – for us to go out to people, to reach out, to insist on face-to-face contact (something we have more opportunity serving in the Pacific Southwest District). This is what under-shepherds do right? We call, we visit, we get face-to-face. We should receive it for ourselves, face-to-face with a pastor who will care for us; we should do it with our people (face-to-face with them to comfort them and strengthen them); and we should do it with friends (find ways to see each other face-to-face) with our short list of close friends; and with our larger small groups and even through special efforts that address the hardship for some to come to Church right now. If they can’t come to us, we can still often go to them, even if it means gathering in an ally (as one pastor recently told me he did). If we’re too busy to do this, then we are probably just too busy. To get face-to-face is to suddenly see hope in the chaos.
So, what have we covered for our changing world thus far?
First, despair: that tries to convince us that this is the worst of times. Instead, receive God’s lenses to see through the despair and that the Lord is working good. Let us be His willing servants for the best that is yet to come.
Second, loneliness and isolation: that sucks us into frenetic lives, social media, and the avoidance of face-to-face conversation. Instead, receive God’s pastor for you 15 to serve you; serve your people face-to-face, get together in as many ways as possible for friendships to grow even if its in an ally way.
And now our third and last consideration in our changing world: anxiety and anger.
The pandemic has led to a phenomenon that is called a “Great Reassessment.” Heather Long writes for The Washington Post in her article, “Why America has 8.4 million unemployed when there are 10 million job openings” (September 4 2021): “The pandemic and all the anxieties, lockdowns and time at home have changed people. Some want to work remotely forever. Others want to spend more time with family. And others want a more flexible or more meaningful career path. It’s the ‘you only live once’ mentality on steroids. Meanwhile, companies are beefing up automation and redoing entire supply chains and office setups.”
“Resignations are the highest on record – up 13 percent over pre-pandemic levels…There’s a surge in retirements…And there’s been a boost in entrepreneurship that has caused the biggest jump in years in new business applications.” These changes have produced another one: an increase in relocations. Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chair from 2006 to 2014 said, “We are reallocating where we want to work and how we want to work. People are trying to figure out what their best options are and where they want to be.” And this has caused new problems. For example, “In recent months, health care workers and educators have quit their jobs at the highest rate on record, stretching back to 2002.”
None of this happens in a vacuum and it hurts. A popular BBQ restaurant in Winter Park, Florida had to shut down after its workforce dwindled to just four employees. The owner said, “Despite paying more than any restaurant I am aware of, no one wants to work.” But that’s not all they said. Listen to the anger: “Damn you pandemic and the political machine for making more appealing to not work than to be an active part of the workforce in our country. It’s pathetic. And it has disastrous results” (Grace Dean, Insider, September 17th 2021).
Did you catch the connection that the restaurant owner made between the restaurant’s plight and “the political machine”? Beth Ellwood writing for PsyPost wrote her piece entitled, “Multi-country study suggests that the psychological burden of COVID-19 has led to increased political unrest.” It records the results of 16 a survey of residents of the United States, Italy, Denmark, and Hungary. The findings reveal that COVID-19 is “associated with increased antisystemic attitudes and stronger intentions to participate in political violence.” The pandemic has generated “a psychological pathway linking the mental burden of COVID-19 to anti-government attitudes… [and have led to] increased feelings of social marginalization. This marginalization may have led to aggression and rebellion against existing societal structures.”
In FEMA’s Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program, counselors are taught the phases of disasters that run from Pre-Disorder to Impact, followed by a Heroic period of initial response, leading to a sense of stability called “Honeymoon,” but if things don’t get better drops into a valley referred to as “Disillusionment” as we strive towards eventual Reconstruction (FEMA, CCP Trainer’s Guide, Module 5, 11), but it is that “Disillusionment” stage that can drive people crazy. It’s arriving to a sense that “things are under control,” and then the rug is pulled out from under you again. This is about the time nerves get raw and raw nerves often need someone or something to blame.
Of course, the impact can be inward directed. In getting back to our prior consideration of despair, “America’s pandemic of despair shows up most obviously in the mounting number of suicide and suicide attempts. According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide rates are higher today than at any other time since the Great Depression. Unless one takes into account just how different our world is today, its impossible to grasp what that data point really means. Today, we have emergency rooms, a much better knowledge of poison and poison control, better technologies, and emergency medications like NARCAN. These incredible, life-saving medical interventions mean that a large percentage of patients who attempt suicide survive. But adjusting for these medical advances, we are likely living through the worst suicide crisis in our nation’s history.” (John Stonestreet and Shane Morris, The Church’s Answer to Suicide, Breakpoint: Colson Center, September 7th 2021)
But what happens when the impact is directed outwardly? We can go into attack mode. Anne Applebaum writing for The Atlantic elaborates on mod justice trampling democratic discourse (her piece is entitled, “The New Puritans,” August 31st 2021). She writes, “Scarlet letters are a thing of the past. Except, of course, they aren’t. Right here in America, right now, it is possible to meet people who have 17 lost everything – jobs, money, friends, colleagues – after violating no laws, and sometimes no workplace rules either. Instead, they have broken (or are accused of having broken) social codes having to do with race, sex, personal behavior, or even acceptable humor, which may not have existed five years ago or maybe five months ago. Some have made egregious errors of judgment. Some have done nothing at all. It is not always easy to tell.” And now, Applebaum reports, “62% of Americans, including a majority of self-described moderates and liberals, are afraid to speak their mind about politics.” She adds, “This is the story of moral panic, of cultural institutions policing or purifying themselves in the face of disapproving crowds. The crowds are no longer literal, as they once were in Salem, but rather online mobs, organized via Twitter, Facebook, or sometimes internal company Slack channels.” Part of her sad conclusion includes, “a profound generational shift has transpired. ‘I think people’s tolerance for discomfort – people’s tolerance for dissonance, for not hearing exactly what they want to hear – has now gone done to zero…Discomfort used to be a term of praise about pedagogy.”
All this sets people up to respond accordingly: fight or flight. Flight can be as extreme as suicide or at least remaining hidden in that pixelated world alone in the dark we mentioned above, whereas fight ranges from nationalizing the Christian faith that trades loving one’s enemy for demonizing one’s opponent, to sociopathic acts of violence in crowds.
How do we even begin to engage?
Earlier I shared the Engagement Triangle that keeps us grounded in the unchanging Word of God for our constantly changing world:
The practical goals of being equipped with the biblical spheres of consideration for sharing the life-giving Gospel are perspective, people, and place. But how do we summarize what the Christian is seeking to do with these?
1. Perspective invests in the person before us so that we may know their peculiar needs knowing that all needs emanate from core sin.
2. People leads us to find the common ground we might share with that person.
3. Place considers how the local culture’s environment might present connections for the Gospel to be presented.
Today, it feels like it is all about who is right and who is wrong; which side of the ongoing culture war are you on; and whether you are sufficiently prepared to fight for what is right, all the while prepared to tear your opponent apart. We are ready to cancel whatever we perceive wants to cancel us. But here we have a resource in The Word already given us by the Holy Spirit to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5) and instead of returning evil for evil, overcoming evil with good (Romans 12). That resource which is the Word of Christ leads us to also know and to live the love of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We have no need to fight; no need to be argumentative; and no need to feel threatened. We just don’t have to get sucked into false conflicts. The issues I’ve raised are real and we must treat them seriously, but they are also smokescreens to keep us from ever getting to what is really needed, Jesus, and His gift of life in the face of a culture enamored with death. We can love unconditionally with the love of Christ as we speak the truth in love.
In the book I talk about the needs, common ground, and connections we have with all people when it comes to science, politics, dehumanization that comes through secularism, sexuality, addiction, and depression, but the principles apply to all issues.
We constantly receive Jesus Christ through His Word and Sacrament also so that we never have to be overcome by anger and evil. Having received Christ, let us not express the exhaustion and love growing cold that has no hope. Instead, let us go forth with the absolute conviction that the Holy Spirit will always lead us to find some sort of common ground to begin forming a relationship with whomever God puts in front of us. The world doesn’t expect us to even try. It expects us to be angry 19 and militant like everyone else, but our LORD was unfazed even as He stood before Pilate (John 18).
When St. Paul went before the Areopagus, he was not insulting nor flattering when he observed common ground, “Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22). St. Paul found a way to connect to them. For crying out loud, he even quoted their poets! Right now, Critical Race Theory (C.R.T.) has a lot of Christians nervous, but don’t let it get you nervous. Instead, find your connection. It is concerned about racism that goes beyond individuals into the very fabric and structure of the institutions within our society. And while you may not agree with much of its analyses or implications even towards Christianity, you and I don’t have to panic, and we can still find areas of common ground and concern when it comes to social justice.
In the face of despair, join your fellow human being and remember that even we Christians know despair, but hold to the One who holds all who call on His Name.
In the face of loneliness and isolation, join your fellow human being and remember that we know the LORD who saw this as the first human problem already in paradise before the Fall.
In the face of anxiety and anger, join your fellow being admitting that we are not immune, but that we don’t have to be because our LORD invites us to cast all our anxieties on him because he cares for us (1st Peter 5:7). And anger? God permits us to be, but without sin (Ephesians 4:26) because by sinning anger would have us deny that Christ bore that sin on Calvary’s cross and covered it with His blood. We just don’t have to be slaves to sin anymore (Romans 6).
Find that common ground. And here’s where we get back to receptivity. The Lord has already provided it. It’s always there for the taking! For the person who might perceive science to be against the faith, then celebrate the common ground that we all operate probabilistically in our daily lives; when it comes to politics, we all want to be protected by our government; when it comes to dehumanization, we all want to be counted as valuable and important, worthy for the pursuit of life and happiness; when it comes to sexuality, we all want to love and to be loved; when it comes to addiction, we all battle shame and lie to ourselves; and when it comes to depression, we are all predisposed at some level to mental illness and the need to be cared for. We can always find common ground.
And when we do, then we can share the greatest gift the universe has ever known. Here’s the irony: as crazy as things are today and as tempted as we are to jump on that apocalyptic worst of times conclusion I mentioned earlier, our world and culture is dying for – even in its myriad diversity – to be included. Inclusiveness is the great yearning of our time: to belong, to be a part of, not to be left out, and to have a place at the table; and at the end of the day continue to enjoy the gift of life.
Inclusiveness has never been more greatly served than when Jesus Christ did not pour out His blood on the cross of Calvary for a few, or for some, or for many, but when He did it for ALL. God’s love has never proved itself more inclusive. Yes, of course, if we want it then we need to know the exclusive Savior of sin and death. Of course, Law is not forgotten. We need to know our problem before we properly yearn for the solution, but the point is that we have the solution. We have Jesus. In Him, everyone gets their Creator’s love forever. In Him, we find out what is really causing the pain behind our great fears, anxieties, and divisions. In Him, we can engage with the Word of Christ and truly meet the needs of our ever-changing World, with the love and mercy of God that in Christ never changes.