“So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us” (Explanation to the Fifth Petition, Small Catechism)..

Have you ever been unforgiven? Has it happened to you that you knew you had wronged someone, you went to them and apologized, and were not forgiven?

I’ve learned over the years that unforgiveness can often sound like forgiveness. “That’s OK. I accept your apology” sounds a lot better than it actually is. I’ve learned that many will accept an apology for as long as it is convenient and then they will find a new allegation or just go back to judging.

The biggest problem with unforgiveness is the fact that it is easy. It is way too easy. Do you want the easy way out? Just don’t forgive. Forgiveness is not some pie-in-the-sky, easy-peasy, thing. Those who judge Christianity as preaching an easy doctrine of forgiveness just simply do not get it. God’s forgiveness of you came at a price greater than all the gold in Fort Knox. Christ’s “holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death” [Small Catechism, Explanation to the 2nd Article]. Try to put a dollar figure on that cost. It can’t be done.

Bonhoeffer’s greatest theological contribution: the language of “cheap grace”

But even if someone wanted to continue to judge Christians as having a doctrine of easy forgiveness, just try forgiving someone who has sinned against you. It is the hardest thing in the world to do. When Christians pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” it would seem they probably don’t really think about the depth of this petition. How many Sundays do we pray this in the Divine Service while still nursing our petty, pride-filled grudges against someone? It’s easy to say the petition. It’s even easier to fail it’s high standard. Like I wrote above, unforgiveness is the easiest business in the world.

Over the years, I’ve pastored many a person who was nursing such a grudge. Occasionally they are even nursing it against me, either for something I actually did or for nothing at all. Regardless of whomever it is they won’t forgive, I always notice the same thing:

This failure to forgive has made them absolutely miserable. They are grumpy, angry, selfish, and hopeless. Every time. It never fails.

This hopelessness proves the deadly seriousness which Christ demonstrates in His teaching. When He taught the Lord’s Prayer in Matt. 6, He wheeled back around to the Fifth Petition as if to say, “You heard me right! I DID say that you should forgive others.” 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Serious! To leave someone else unforgiven is to be unforgiven by God. The ticket to heaven, forgiveness, is gone missing.

Jesus repeats the same teaching in Matt. 18:15ff. when He sums up the Parable Of The Unmerciful Servant with the words, 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” [The unmerciful servant was thrown in jail (hell) by the King for not forgiving the small debt of another servant].

No wonder such grumpy types are so miserable! They wind up wallowing in a mud puddle of their own making. All because they would not forgive. Do I need to point out how sad this is?

It makes you rethink the whole business of forgiving those who sin against you. A couple of important points are beneficial to make here.

  1. Peace with God brings peace with your brother/sister. No forgiveness. No peace. Know forgiveness. Know peace.
  2. The person you won’t forgive is still a person for whom Jesus died. If He died for your sins, then forgiveness is the business of seeing others through the prism of the crucifix of Christ. Forgiving others is only tough because we make it so (sinful pride). If Christ loves them, so should we.
  3. In forgiveness, we do not forget sins. We learn to leave them behind and view the other person differently, without all the anger and hatred that make our lives so miserable.

In Lent, we talk about spiritual disciplines. One such discipline is reconciliation. Go! Forgive the person who has sinned against you. Especially if they have already apologized. If you said, “I accept your apology,” go and apologize to them and say it rightly:

I forgive you.

And if I have ever sinned against you, I hope you will do the same for me that we BOTH might have peace and all the other fruits of the Spirit.



Pretending To Be Someone We’re Not

As a child, I had a vivid imagination. I had started collecting comic books at a pretty young age while I was riding with my dad on his beer delivery route. Tuesdays were Koshkonong days, days he delivered to the establishments all around Lake Koshkonong near Fort Atkinson. That day always ended up at the same place, Copps Department Store in Fort. Outside the liquor department was a rotating display of comic books and sometimes I would beg my Dad to buy me one. (Well, every week in the summers I did, not that I got one every week).

One of the first comic books I got was a Bicentennial origin issue of Captain America and Falcon. I wore that comic book out and used to imagine what it must be like to be Captain America.

As I got older, I got into sports and became a good first baseman (probably not great). My hero was Cecil Cooper of the Milwaukee Brewers, underrated but a great player, golden glove and a very good hitter as well. One of the best trades in Milwaukee Brewers history was George Scott for Cecil Cooper. I always wanted to be him for a time. Playing First Base, I would get down low like Cecil did with a big stretch (which could cut off a few feet from any throw). Problem was that our shortstop had an inaccurate cannon of an arm and I couldn’t train him to throw strikes at my low glove. But part of my rep at First was for still making the catches on his wild throws. (Well, MOST of the time…).

My baseball hero.

Later I wanted to be a great sax player like my hero, Michael Brecker, or a great rock guitarist like my heroes Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. For much of my youth I was busy fantasizing what it would be like to be someone else.

Michael Brecker–the greatest sax player ever IMHO

It’s a natural tendency in youth to dream about being famous…or being the greatest at something. As I got older, I found out that many famous people are not happy and that fame is the reason why. Fame is a classic example of the old cliche, “Be careful what you wish/pray for. You just might get it.” When he died, George Harrison was remembered in an obituary for being “the grumpy Beatle.” The author noted that he was famous and not happy about it.

I think it’s a natural tendency for anyone conceived and born into sin (all of us) to think we are better at many things than we really are. It certainly is a natural tendency for us to seek attention and, even worse, put our own worries, strengths, opinions, etc. above anyone or anything else. All sin is a breaking of the First Commandment, You shall have no other gods. The greatest idol of them all is the idol of self, the false god we see every time we stare into the mirror.

When it comes to spiritual disciplines like meditation, study of the Word, prayer, good works and the like, we should NEVER tell others or God that we are good at them. We simply are not spiritual superheroes and, thanks to our sin, never will be. The mythological “prayer warrior” of so much evangelical talk is simply not to be found. Books at the Christian book store on prayer are often written from the perspective of an author who thinks he or she is good at prayer. Maybe once they were not, but they got better and now they are passing on their expertise to you, the hapless reader.

The rite of Individual Confession and Absolution in our hymnal, Lutheran Service Book, has a moment where the person confessing says, “my worship and prayers have faltered.” What this means is that the rite ASSUMES this worship-and-prayer-faltering to be true. Using the full force of the Law, the rite doesn’t let you pretend to be someone you are not. Indeed, the only way to stand before Christ the Judge and the pastor confessor is as the sinner you are. You have failed at prayer. Your worship is half-hearted. Your attention to God’s Word is often divided and unfocused. Bad habits in church attendance become harder and harder to reform. And forgiving the other person who has offended you? Let’s not get started.

You are not a spiritual superhero. Neither am I. You are not a “prayer warrior.” Neither am I. The season of Lent reminds us that, if you and I were these things, Jesus would not have needed to die for us. We would not be offering Christ’s gifts of forgiveness and life every Sunday if these false assertions were somehow true. Galatians 2:21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose [ESV]. When we think we’re someone we are not, we often don’t realize the way we “nullify the grace of God.” As Luther liked to put it, “Christ dwells in sinners.” The implication is that He does not dwell in anyone who denies their sin by assuming their righteousness (self-righteousness).

One of the great blessings of forgiveness is contentment. I never became Captain America. I never became Cecil Cooper. I never became Michael Brecker…or Eric Clapton. In God’s grace, I am Dan Torkelson, a husband, a father, a pastor, a sinner redeemed by the blood of Christ. I can be happy with that.

Is there anything better? Is there anything better than to be the person God has made of you? This Lent, be sinners and Christ will dwell richly in you. In His forgiveness, He sets you free to be the people He has called you to be.

Sincerely in Christ,


The Idol Of Current Events

“But Pastor, aren’t we supposed to stay up on the news?”

You can imagine what I had told this poor woman just before she said this. I had told her to turn the news off. Her husband, standing right there, said “Thank you” when I said that.

But behind her question was, I believe, a fairly commonly-held belief. I think it goes something like this. You can’t be a good citizen if you are not up on current events.

I would like to challenge that idea. To some extent, I agree with the premise in theory. I would suggest that most people are not really up on current events, no matter how much they have the 24/7 networks on. But that is another post for another day…actually I’ve written on it many times. I don’t need to belabor it.

I would more specifically like to challenge the idea that it is responsible to be up on current events, especially when the news is stressing us out like never before. I would also like to challenge this idea based on history. Before “instant news” it was not possible for people to be as up on current events as we are today. Were their lives impoverished for it? It doesn’t look like it to me. Were they bad citizens for not having the technology to know about the latest Covid death in Kansas City? (I’m in Wisconsin).

You see, being “up on current events” in our context could just be a cover for being addicted to screens. One idol feeds another idol…

Indeed, American education did not always stress current events. The “pop current events” quizzes of my youth–which I was good at–were a relatively new trend in education at the time. In the early to mid 1970s, public education largely dropped Civics classes, which were about our government and how it is organized and had a direct connection to good citizenship. The emphasis on current events rose largely in the civics void. My generation was taught that good citizens were up on current events.

Again, in theory I don’t disagree, but without a good education in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, do Americans today have a well-developed enough filter to really understand current events? Last summer, I watched 20 somethings defile the Lincoln Memorial in the name of “anti-racism.” What I (and many) saw was kids who were poorly educated, even with their college degrees. The Declaration probably never saw a greater champion than Lincoln in assuring that the nation saw “all men [as] created equal;” the Constitution’s concern for freedom equally so. The sheer ignorance of these actions belies the poverty of their educations. The mob was never known for careful critical thinking.

But the same ignorance that moves anxiety-to-anger in the mobs is often seen in those who cannot seem to turn off the news as well. I admit. I surely have been guilty of this. I have not always practiced what I preach. When my mother was in the nursing home before she died, I would hear how worked up she was over the news…which was constantly on in her little room. I told her to shut the TV off and go down to the library down the hall and check out some books. Interestingly, she did! And it made all the difference.

You see, I think what’s actually happening is that “being up on current events” has become a cover for our collective addiction to screens. I can justify staring blankly into my dumb phone if I am reading the news and not, say, watching pornography or playing games, or just looking at silly memes. After all, isn’t it important that we stay up on current events?

I make no apologies for telling my mother (and the woman from my congregation in the quote at the outset) to turn off the TV and the news. One, I am not confident in any of what is called news reporting today. I cannot say that I am up on current events simply by listening to the networks. Two, I probably can make the argument that the person who is not tuned in to current events may be a better citizen than the one who is. Three. if all the news does is ratchet up anxiety, it’s not even healthy for us to be so tuned in.

It’s Lent, so my advice is to go on a news fast. I have quite literally been on one for almost two months, with rare exceptions. Life’s a lot better. Turn it off. Hear God’s Word and meditate on it. The good works that follow will make you a better citizen than anything else I can think of.

And don’t believe them when they tell you that you need to be up on current events. I’m not sure I even know what that means anymore.



YOU Need Lent!

A very concerned member here at St. John was conversing with me on the phone a couple of days after we tightened Covid protocols in mid-November. I know this person and her family to be what I occasionally refer to as “freedom fighters.” They have been concerned about the loss of freedoms due to the advent of Covid and the events of last year’s “summer of anger.” These are thoughts and concerns I generally share as the Christian Church depends on freedom of speech–the First Amendment–to proclaim the better message of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ without impediment. I am cautious, however, not to turn Constitutional freedoms into an idol. Yes. They can become an idol, a false god.

She expressed a particular concern that did not hide the intent possibly to quit coming to church or, at the very least, disrespect the new protocols. The particular concern was a concern about judgmental-ism. Would she and her family be judged negatively by the congregation?

It’s a good question, even if some of what she was saying to me struck me as a willingness to forego Christ’s gifts for a time, which is not faithful at all. There the Lord’s judgment is her bigger problem. Still, as it has played out in most Christian congregations including St. John, this judgmental-ism cuts both ways. While this woman was afraid of pro-maskers disrespecting her positions, most of my anti-masking contingent has been equally judgmental of the pro-maskers (fearful, “germophobes,” etc). She was right to be concerned about vain and unnecessary judgment coming back to her. My suspicion is that she probably had not countenanced the judgmental-ism of her own positions. I love her in Christ and this love “always rejoices in the truth” [1 Cor. 13:6], difficult though the truth often is.

As the whole world has staked out hardened positions on practically every subject under the sun–fueled by the utter failure of a news media to report facts without bias and politicians who use this bias to further their own agendas–this judgmental-ism is on steroids. You see it in the hideous practice of “cancel culture,” (an absolutely shameless violation of the 8th Commandment). You see it in the arguments re masking and vaccines and politics and, if you listen carefully enough, you hear it sometimes in the pure befuddlement many people express as they simply cannot understand how the world “out there” has gone so crazy. Even if I can relate to these sentiments as a sinner, I have to say as a pastor that none of it is righteous. As I stated last night in our Ash Wednesday service, you will not be saved for all your right-ness or even all your concern despite not being sure what is right..

YOU, dear reader, need Lent. No matter where you are on any of the stupidly binary spectra of issues out there, YOU… need… Lent. YOU need to return to the Lord. YOU need the Christ whose sacrifice for YOUR sins is the main theme of this Lenten season. YOU need to take your eyes off the news, off the people you don’t agree with, off the ones you refuse to forgive, off the difficulties of this life, etc. etc. etc.

Instead, as the Gradual for Lent states so powerfully, Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:2). YOU need Lent because YOU need Christ. You don’t need anything else.

I joked last night in the sermon that I was eager for Lent to begin this year, indeed I would have had it begin 40 days ago. Personally, I suspect Lent did begin for me shortly after Christmas. I have turned off the news. I am daily meditating on the Scriptures again. I am focusing hard on my prayer life. And in my spare time I am listening to audiobooks on history and classics of literature.

Not that I am so much better a person than anyone else. I only share this to tell you that I feel so much better than I did after Christmas. Yes. I had Covid around then, even as I was physically doing fine. Nevertheless, after the silly season of our national life from summer through Christmas, I was in a spiritual hole. All of it had worn me out. At an emotional and spiritual level, I was struggling. I too am a sinner who needs Lent.

So I deleted all of my news apps (3 in total), turned off nearly all of my phone notifications, picked up John Kleinig’s marvelous, Grace Upon Grace and reviewed what he writes about meditation (ch.2) and prayer (ch.3). I set out on a journey, a journey that looks a lot like Lent, only it was for about 40 days prior to the actual Lent.

Now Lent is here and I am very glad for it. I will be happy to stay in these disciplines and be refreshed by them. We often forget that the word Lent means “Spring.” Lent often suffers from a negative reputation by those who do not properly understand it. Lent is a little spring. It is a time of personal reflection and renewal. It is a time where Christ does His thing, renewing our daily lives in repentance and forgiveness. Whether your Lent began yesterday or it began when mine did back in January, all of this wonderful stuff is the daily life of the genuine Christian. The genuine Christian is not better than others just because they are Christians. They are sinners who have gone to the Font, gone to the Altar, heard the Word, tasted God’s grace, and have been renewed by Him. In Lent, we don’t renew ourselves. In Lent, Christ renews us.

I remain so very weak in these disciplines. Part of my renewed prayer is that God may strengthen me in them. He has…and He offers the same strength to you. One of the reasons I know YOU need Lent is because I need Lent. The disciplines of Lent are always going to be what we need the most.

God grant that you have a genuine Lent and that it be just the beginning of every day of the rest of your lives being a day of renewal and refreshment until this old earth passes away and we stand together in the new heavens and the new earth.