Most of us live in subconscious denial of the shortness of life on this earth for much of our lives. Often the bathroom mirror is powerless, even when it is obvious life is passing by. Barring some unforeseen illness or accident, hardly expected, life for a long time seems to extend far into the future. Its shortness has a hard time registering on our minds.
But over time it begins to dawn on us that life on earth, in every case, always has its dusk, toward which our momentum seems only to increase as time passes by. What changes, of course, is perspective. And some events in life are important teachers that remind us not only of the brevity of our sojourn on this earth but also of the relative insignificance of much that we deem important during our earlier years. There are few better occasions to gain perspective than a church anniversary. I attended one a week ago Sunday as a former pastor.
It had been more than 25 years since I had visited the congregation and had seen some of the people (except in memories of long-past events) and they had seen me (except in the congregation’s collection of confirmation pictures). I expect we all gained some perspective that week-ago Sunday. Children whom I had been privileged to baptize introduced me to their children. Couples for whose weddings I officiated introduced me to their grandchildren. Patriarchs and matriarchs who were the pillars of the congregation now used walkers to stay erect. All provided a lesson in perspective.
It wasn’t necessarily a lesson that I hadn’t learned already before. It was just the latest lesson along the way. It is a lesson that we all can use and probably need to have repeated. Hopefully the young people present received it as one of their first lessons in perspective as well. There is a place for youthful optimism and exhuberance that moves this world along, but it has a comparatively unimportant place when the dusk of life approaches, when finally the only optimism that will really matter is voiced by trembling lips as they mouth “The Lord is my Shepherd…” and the only exhuberance that will be important will be anticipation of joining celestial choirs in thanking God for His grace.
The proximity of Earth Day (4/22) and Easter Sunday (4/20) on this year’s calendar is interesting.
Several years after it was invented, our family went out to see a local observance of Earth Day on a patch of South Dakota prairie outside our community. We found a group of ill-kempt people in primitive circumstances, determined to save the earth with their tin foil solar ovens and crude makeshift looms. It was quite the vivid picture of the paucity of human efforts to address what they believed to be a truly big issue.
We know, of course, that this world suffers from something far more serious than carbon emissions. God’s creation suffers right along with humankind since the fall into sin, which resulted in the first “earth day” recorded in Genesis 3. It wasn’t pretty: “Cursed is the ground for thy sake….In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (vv. 17, 19). Paul adds, “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Rom. 8:22). Of course, the earth is still the Lord’s (Ps. 24:1) and we are its stewards, and we are to be concerned about proper care and treatment of God’s creation. But well-intentioned human efforts to save it will always be too little.
And the same is even more true where mankind’s far more serious problem is concerned, i.e., the Eden emissions that pollute our every day on this earth. Because of our sinfulness, the earth day announced to Adam in Genesis 3 awaits us all: “…till thou return unto the ground, for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (v. 19). Meager human efforts to make amends are easily brushed aside by death’s power.
“But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57). Thanks to His incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection and the power of His Spirit working faith in our lives, when our own earth day comes (and it will come soon), what safety and comfort we will find in knowing “…that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come…shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (vv. 21, 38-39). What’s more, this earth also will “be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
The resurrection of Christ puts everything, including Earth Day, into proper perspective.
On a recent trip I noticed the roadway sign “CONTINENTAL DIVIDE,” the point where the flow of North American rivers changes direction from eastward to westward. I happened to think that our Synod right now is crossing its own “contiventional divide,” the time when the flow of our Synod-wide activity changes directions from backward to the 2013 convention to forward to the 2016 convention.
Yesterday (March 1) marked the final official action remaining from our Synod’s 2013 convention, i.e., the deadline for congregational ballots to determine whether the constitutional amendment changing the word “counselor” (as in “circuit counselor”) to “visitor” (as in “circuit visitor”) throughout our Handbook was supported and ratified by two-thirds of the congregations that returned ballots. All that remains now is to prepare the report and announce the results, a first order of business this coming week.
But already during the past two weeks the Board of Directors and the Council of Presidents, turning their attention forward, have met to determine the designation of regions for the 2016 convention elections (a determination to be made at least 24 months prior to conventions). The board and council agreed that the same regional boundaries designated for 2013 convention elections will also be the regional boundaries for the 2016 convention.
And so we begin our sometimes-whitewater journey toward the convention of the summer of 2016. Already meetings are taking place to determine how better or best to navigate the flow of pre-convention requirements provided in our Synod’s Bylaws. My intention is again to alert the congregations of the Synod via a series of appropriately timed postcards of the next turns of events that will require their participation.
We have managed this flow of events once before, and we have learned a few things that should be helpful in making our way even more smoothly through certain frothy areas. But the entire process is still quite new and begins with expectations that will beg our attention almost immediately, as districts prepare for their own conventions in 2015. Let’s enjoy the ride.
Eighteen years ago while serving as district president, I became aware of some unrest in one of our well-established congregations caused by a small group of people whose interests didn’t fit in. Most of the congregation wanted to continue to do things more conventionally, which I certainly supported. This small group wanted to try new things, most of them very acceptable to our LCMS way of thinking and doing.
I remember meeting with this group in one of their living rooms one evening. They were truly a black sheep group, having fallen out of favor not only with their congregation but with surrounding LCMS congregations and pastors. I provided a little counsel about some things that interested them that were out of step with the Synod. Having obtained their cooperation, I also recognized among them a real energy and interest in serving their Lord. Rather than discourage or oppose them, I advocated their peaceful release from their former congregation, supported their efforts to form an LCMS congregation, and provided initial pastoral service on Sundays when I was available to do so.
The rest of their story to date is 18 years of hard and faithful labor, abundantly blessed by God. They began by purchasing an old building with many rooms to serve as their Father’s House. Using their own considerable talents and resources, they remodeled it to provide worship space and modest beginnings for an early childhood ministry. They called a pastor who also recognized their interest and energy in serving their Lord and provided faithful and compatible spiritual leadership. Their small number and ministry to the community began to grow. After several years they sold their first building to purchase a more suitable one. They and their ministry continued to prosper over the years.
This past Sunday I preached for the dedication of their most recent building, purchased with the help of the district church extension fund. The text I used was Isaiah 54:2. It was a wonderful day of reminiscing and marveling and giving thanks by congregation and pastor, district personnel, the fifth vice-president of the Synod, and members and pastors of surrounding congregations.
It was a glorious dedication by a now-much-larger congregation of their 120,000 sq. ft. building that they have been able to convert into a church-like exterior, a beautiful sanctuary, and an amazing Early Childhood Center serving more than 200 children. And there is plenty of room to spare…for a future interest, a parochial school.
An amazing story, in which I was privileged to play a small part. I only mention it, as someone with a more conservative bent, because I marvel how I was led to recognize the need to do the right thing, to step outside the box and “not hold back” (Isaiah 54:2).
In the cathedral in Cambridge, England, the cushion of a kneeler has embroidered on it (so I have been told) just two words: “Think…Thank.” Etymologically, the two words are said to originate from the same root word, which comes as no surprise. It’s just what we do. When something causes us stop to think, we also stop to thank, also amid unlikely circumstances.
We saw this again a week ago after the 85 tornados devastated parts of the Midwest. Even as residents of communities struck by the storms dug themselves out of the rubble of their former blessings and began to think about their considerable losses, how often their thoughts focused on their remaining blessings and turned to giving thanks. It’s what we do, especially as Christians.
Perhaps the greatest example of that kind of thanksgiving will be before us this Friday as our liturgical calendar calls for the “Commemoration of Noah.” After surviving the most horrific storm and devastating losses imaginable, Noah immediately built an altar and gave thanks to God that he and his family were spared. He couldn’t help but “Think…Thank.”
Calamity is not a requirement, of course. A family gathering with turkey and all the trimmings can also serve as an opportunity to think about the wisdom of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “What hast thou that thou didst not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). “Think…Thank.”