Twenty/Twenty and Fifty by Five Hundred
The numbers listed have special meaning for me. “Twenty/twenty” usually refers to eyesight. Having 20/20 vision means that we see at twenty feet what we’re supposed to see and that we don’t need glasses or contacts to see past our outstretched arms. An old adage says, “Hindsight is twenty-twenty,” meaning that we usually have a better view of our lives and circumstances by looking back than by anticipation or current perception.
This week seems appropriate for a bit of retrospective, for taking stock of both the Ask the Pastor column and of my life in general. Why now? The other numbers hold the clues: I celebrated my fiftieth birthday a few weeks ago and today am sitting down to write my five hundredth newspaper column. I thought that the conjunction of these two events provided opportunity to invite my readers to get to know me a bit better while helping me to sharpen my focus.
Ask the Pastor began because I once lived in southeast Texas where Lutheranism was unfamiliar. While there, my wife learned to paraphrase the Apostles’ Creed in order to summarize our beliefs for coworkers who wondered if Lutherans weren’t some cult. In a town with probably fifty or sixty churches, only the Catholic priest, the Episcopal priest, and I ever wore clergy collars.
I knew that some small town papers had weekly features written by members of a local ministerial alliance. I asked the editor of the Jasper Newsboy if he’d ever considered such a thing, figuring that I could use my turn in the rotation to let people know more about the Lutheran Church and about Christianity in general. I also wanted an outlet for writing, something I’ve enjoyed since junior high. The editor replied that he’d twice started such weekly articles but each soon died of neglect — in other words, the pastors would get busy on other projects and no one kept writing after a couple months.
Since he sounded hesitant, I said, “All right, Willis. How about you let me have a column. I’ll answer reader questions on just about any topic, as long as they somehow touch on religion. I promise to keep going if you’ll give it fair opportunity to develop a readership.” He agreed and we tossed around a few thoughts about length and format, as well as the name of the beast. We couldn’t think of anything better than “Ask the Pastor,” and so it’s been for about a dozen years.
Unless I’ve been sick, on vacation, or totally buried in work, I’ve sat down for a few hours each week to read questions, do research, and write my responses. There was a brief hiatus when we moved to Missouri, but Gary Beissenherz, publisher of the Concordian, liked what he saw of my Texas writing and soon allowed ATP to resume.
By the time I came to Emma, I also regularly posted the column to email lists and archived it on the web. It now has its own web log, where newer writings are published after they appear in the paper. I also expand, clean up, and post archived responses from bygone years. Because many columns addressed more than one question, the blog already harbors over five hundred separate posts, even though many of the vintage columns remain undone.
I hope that as I’ve gone along, my readers have learned as much as I have about Christianity, Scripture, faith, life, and, especially, God’s love for us in Christ Jesus. I’ve tried to continue in the spirit of Solomon, who said, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. (Ecclesiastes 9:10)” After all, the verse goes on to remind us that “there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom” once we die.
This passage provides a nice bridge to the “fifty” part of this column. Fifty is the age where doctors encourage us to get annual checkups on things we’ve long taken for granted. It’s when AARP invites us to become members. It’s a half century of wrestling with life’s problems, of sinning and being forgiven, of taking stock and realizing the truth of Jesus’ words to the apostles, “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ (Luke 17:10)”
It didn’t take turning fifty to remind me that I’ve not been the Christian, the pastor, the son, the husband, the father, or the brother that God wanted me to be. Through accidents and illness, my body has been reminding me for years that I wasn’t going to live here forever. I remain an unworthy servant to my God and to my fellow man, to strangers and enemies and to family and friends. I realize that I haven’t come near to fulfilling my duty. My hands all too often stop short of doing their tasks with all their might.
Getting to the point, I’m just one more poor, miserable sinner stretching in a continuing line from Adam. By nature, from my beginnings in the womb, I’m every bit as worthless as every other person ever born of a woman ... except One. Jesus found the task of saving mankind set before Him and He did it with all his might. He’s the reason that I can write and preach about hope when I’m feeling hopeless or faith when God’s holy Law reminds me just how faithless I am.
When this perfect Person, the God-man Jesus Christ, looked back on His life, he could do so with no regrets. He fulfilled His vocation as our Savior to absolute perfection. If Satan made a final attempt to lure Him from the cross, attempting to convince our Lord that His task was incomplete, Jesus could trust that He’d done no evil and He’d neglected no good. He kept the Law perfectly in order to save His Father’s lost and lawless children from eternal damnation. Knowing that He had fulfilled every Scripture, kept every commandment, and carried every sin, He confidently called out to His Father from the cross, “It is finished. (John 19:30)”
Jesus completed His tasks in order to forgive us who forsake our own obligations. He did all that His Father asked to pay the price for our sins of unmet obligations. He avoided committing any evils of thought, word, and deed in order to pay for our sins of body, mind, and mouth. By His faithful service, we unworthy servants find forgiveness and new strength to carry on in Christ’s footsteps. His Spirit moves us to look back at our own lives only long enough to repent and then directs us to the cross and the open tomb. He keeps us from dragging our present lives through our past mistakes, instead applying Jesus’ past to our present condition and keeping us mindful of the glory yet to come when we are raised perfect and holy for all eternity.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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