Conversation

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. But then again, for as quiet as it might sometimes seem, there’s always a lot happening here at Our Savior. A good part of my time lately has been spent in one-on-one conversations with so many of you—which is a good thing. Conversation is good.

In a basic sense, conversation is the transmission of information. It’s a means by which one person takes what’s in his or her own mind and puts it into the mind of another. When that uncomplicated mechanism is functioning as it should, the experience can be incredibly beneficial. Maybe like me, some of the best conversations you’ve had in life are the ones in which you don’t necessarily recall anything in particular that was discussed, but rather you simply recall an enjoyable time together with another person, and you remember hoping to be able to visit together again, soon.

That’s not only how I feel about the people in my congregation, but so many others beyond her borders.

There are, of course, those conversations that we sometimes wish had never happened; the ones we regret. These lamentable interactions take various forms.

For me personally, I suppose the most obvious of these are the conversations in which I said something or exhibited a demeanor that I wish I could go back and erase, and not necessarily from my own memory, but from the memory banks of others involved. I’ve always believed that a man’s reputation is one of the only things he truly owns that everyone else keeps for him, and yet it seems most often others keep that reputation in mental lock boxes impervious to the man’s repentance and amended life. In other words, no matter how hard the man tries to restore himself to them, his good reputation will forever be an island from which he set sail and is never allowed to return.

It’s probably safe to say that most folks reading this write-up will understand the sadness that comes with the guilty tolling of damaged integrity. The honest readers will understand, that is.

Beyond this, some of the more regrettable conversations I experience are the ones in which gossip is the predominating tenor. Precarious are the moments shared with someone who lives by the creed, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about others, then don’t do it from way over there. Come sit by me!” I say this because it would seem their only goal is to malign someone else or to continue the spread of an infectious rumor. Either way, I regret the time lost in such conversations. I suppose while they’re occurring, my truest hope is that I won’t become diseased by the darker spirit that’s actually fostering them. Admittedly, it’s harder than one might think to remain neutral in such conversations. When we spot a gossip, it’s instinctual to try to find favor with them, because if they’re prone to speaking this way to you about others, what might they be willing to say to others about you? Additionally, it takes a steady heart to forget the juicy bits of information shared. I regularly pray for God’s protection from gossips.

Other conversations I typically regret are the ones in which my counterpart is someone who knows everything about everything. The person who’s always on board with his or her own phenomenality is, for me, a huge bore. Personally, it only takes a few minutes of listening to someone establish their own greatness before I get bored. When I get bored, I get fidgety. When I’m cornered by an overtly proud person, you can pretty much bet that I’m already looking for a polite way of escape, having been reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wit when he said something along the lines of, “The more he spoke of his honor, the more we counted our spoons.”

Another form of regrettable discussion for me are the ones laced with profanity. I don’t like to read messages bearing the language. I despise even more so hearing it. Those particular interactions leave me feeling like I’ve been invited into a conversation among bathers in the catch basin of an outhouse. I’m not sure how else to describe it. They’re crass, and as I’ve written in other places, I believe such conversations genuinely devalue human interaction. Even worse, when such low-level language is strutted before others as though it were a sign of deeper sincerity or intellect, I think the person has somehow been fooled into a grave misconception. For one, I’ve never observed profanity-pocked prattlings do anything to convince a real opponent. I’ve only seen such things make an enemy more fervent. I suppose I’d add—and for as backward as it might seem, since I’m trying to promote goodness here—I’ve seen more success emerge from a well-crafted, profanity-free invective than from a retort filled with swear words. I’ve seen a well-spoken insult convince an adversary to not only investigate an opposing argument, but to consider the adversary worthy of collegial respect.

Perhaps the worst conversations of all are the ones in which no one is really listening. These seem to be the most common these days, which is probably why I’ve found myself confessing privately to others my suspicion that dialogue is dead. More and more folks are arriving at conversations with their minds made up, and so modern discourse surrounding the more contentious topics just seems to be less about convincing an opponent to the benefits of an alternate viewpoint and more an exercise in foes taking a breath between individual monologues. With that, very little seems to be accomplished.

I suppose I could go on. But if I did, I’d only be listing more of my own sinful failings and yours. We all fit into one or more of these descriptions. And so as Christians, we continue to pray most fervently, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). Stepping forth from this desire born of faith, we add the request for a patient heart and a listening ear in the midst of conversation. And then bearing a contrite spirit, we accept the Lord’s instruction by way of His Word, taking into ourselves that “a gentle answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1), and “he who answers before listening, that is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13), and “a false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will perish” (Proverbs 19:19), and “ he who guards his lips guards his soul, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3), and “ reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18), and “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19), and “do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

And the list goes on. It seems long. It sounds difficult. But by faith, we know the Holy Spirit is carrying the water in these things. Even Saint Paul affirmed this when he wrote, “And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

The days are getting darker. Both literally and figuratively. Pray for Godly graciousness in both your listening and speech. As a nation, as a state, as a Church, as married couples, as families, as neighbors, as human beings occupying various stations in our communities, the Lord knows we’re going to need it. And honestly, the Christians are the only ones who have the life-altering Gospel that can bring it.

Have You Ever Dreamt of Falling? I Haven’t.

For the record, I made a commitment to myself three weeks ago that I was going to shorten these Monday morning eNewsletter messages. I believe my first attempt two weeks ago was reasonably successful. However, last week’s note… well… I couldn’t stop writing, even though I started the whole thing by saying I didn’t really feel like I had anything to write about.

However, midway through that confession, I paused, and suddenly the empty space was filled with notable experiences, things God is so gracious to allow into all our lives. In my particular case, that grace is something I want to observe, digest, and then share with you. Whether it’s the casual comment in passing at the Red Lobster in Troy I mentioned last week, or an open field of freshly harvested grain I stopped to enjoy last Tuesday while out on visitations—a field, by the way, I was more than tempted to wander out into and toward its encapsulating tree line because… well, just because.

If you can attune yourself to what’s going on around you, it becomes possible for the most inconspicuous of details to become a thing of fascination. Even better, when you become adjusted to the world around you by way of God’s Word, seeing these things as God would see them, the deeper meanings arrive, and with that, there’s plenty to write about.

This means everything to a sermon writer. It’s also a big deal to a pastor who’s intent on sending out a note to the people of his congregation every single week of the year.

And so, since I promised to keep this short, I’ll give you a passing example.

Have you ever dreamt of falling? I haven’t. Not ever. That is until this past Wednesday.

First of all, I’m a firm believer that what happens to you during the waking hours will remain with you during the somnolent ones. Tuesday night I went to bed around 10:30 PM, which was exactly thirty-eight minutes after I’d returned home from one of the longest School Board meetings I’ve ever attended here at Our Savior. We started the meeting at 6:15 PM.

The meeting was long because there was much work to be done. We’re intent on resuming in-person instruction in our school on August 24, and yet no matter what we decide to do, the Governor is requiring all public and non-public schools to submit a plan that proves alignment with her executive mandates. The problem is that we’re not necessarily in alignment with many of her mandates as they relate to the best methods for educating children, and so we had to steer through the mess in order to remain who we are as a Christian school while at the same time doing what we can to abide without contention.

It wasn’t easy. At times, it felt a little hopeless. That night I dreamt of falling, and it’s easy enough to see why.

In the dream, before I hit the ground, I remember seeing a gravel-like ground forming beneath my feet. The gravel was the kind you might find on the side of a country highway beside a freshly harvested field—wink wink. Falling fast, the closer I got to the earth below, the more the ground spread out around me, eventually becoming so wide that I had the feeling its wind resistance was helping to slow my descent to the pace of something along the lines of an unhurried elevator. I remember thinking that while I needed to be ready for the impact, when it came, I could probably survive it. In fact, I recall thinking that if I took a running jump from the plateau when it hit the earth below, the impact might be less like a jarring collision and more like dismounting a moving sidewalk at the airport—and we all know how fun that can be.

Again, I think what happens while a person is awake sometimes makes an appearance while he or she is sleeping. I repeat this claim because earlier that day while eating lunch and tapping away at the sermon for Sunday, I’d also been reading a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge entitled “Dejection: An Ode.” Yes, yes, I do study the appointed texts in preparation for preaching. Don’t worry about that. But I’m also someone who reads from other sources, one of which is poetry. Not the newer stuff, but the classics. I appreciate great poetry more than folks might know. In fact, I think more pastors should consider spending time in the classics in general. I suggest giving poetry a try because it doesn’t necessarily play by the regular rules of communication, and what I’ve discovered is that not only will it help to expand a person’s vocabulary, but it’ll serve up fresh ways to use themes, imagery, and devices of emphasis for better communication of the Word of God. Such efforts pay dividends with a listener’s attention span.

Anyway, as I was reading Coleridge’s words, when I came across the following stanza, it fascinated me enough that I scribbled it onto a sticky note and slapped it on my bookshelf beside other quotations I don’t want to forget:

“For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.” (st. 6)

These words are not precisely from the Bible, but they certainly are a reflection of God’s Word (Colossians 1:27; Jeremiah 29:11; Hebrews 10:23; Philippians 1:6; Romans 5:5; and so many more). They are a beautiful bit of prose from the son of a pastor—and a notable theologian, himself—who knew the power of hope. More importantly, he knew that the hope we experience isn’t anything we can produce, but rather is something God gives us by the Gospel. And we stand on it in the midst of struggle.

Whether or not that’s what Coleridge actually meant for the casual reader to glean from that stanza, I can’t say for sure. Still, his seemingly effortless scribing of “not my own, seemed mine” was deeply impactful.

I think those words were somehow activated while I was sleeping, and they played a part in producing a landscape that reminded me of God’s gracious attention in all things—how He has me in his care at the edge of and over every cliff. In fact, He has me in His care all the way down, and He promises to grant me a safe landing in His merciful love, no matter how catastrophically crater-like the actual landing in this life may be. Even better, He gives to me the vigor for running forth from the platform of hope spreading out beneath me, confident of His protective care, and ready for meeting with a world in desperate need of the same hope.

Or this could all just be a result of the taco I ate before the School Board meeting.

Well, whatever. As I hinted to before (and have said countless times in the past), through the lens of faith fixed on God’s Word, a Christian sees things differently. I certainly prefer to observe things this way, and then as the words come, to share them with you. Hopefully, this particular opportunity was as valuable for you as it was for me, and God willing, it didn’t take up too much of your time.

I Wonder if the Devil is Bored.

As always, I pray things are well with you. I hope you know that’s not just lip service. Truly, every single week, my routine is the same. Starting on Monday and ending the following Sunday morning before worship, I spend time making my way through the whole list of members here at our Savior, praying for each person by name. In addition to folks on our roster, I also pray for others who are close to us as a congregation, and close to me and my family, personally.

There are enemies in that list, too.

What do I pray for? Lots of different things. Mostly that God would calm fears, temper anger, soften hearts for repentance, give ears to hear the truth and the wisdom to discern it, and most importantly, grant trust by the Gospel for faith in Christ.

Beyond this little bit of encouragement that a pastor is thinking of you and petitioning God on your behalf, I really don’t have any ideas on what to share with you this Monday morning. I guess I could stop right here. Although, having paused after that last sentence, I suppose a couple of memorable thoughts that drifted through my mind while at the Red Lobster in Troy last Friday might be of some interest. I stopped there to have a quiet lunch before making my way to Woodside Bible Church for a video shoot for Right to Life of Michigan. The first of the two thoughts has to do with something the hostess said as she led me to a table just around the corner from the front doors.

I had a mask ready in my hand when I walked into the restaurant, you know, for obvious reasons. I think the fact that I wasn’t wearing it made the hostess feel a little more at ease for pulling hers down to chat. And so we did.

Even at half past noon, the place was absolutely empty. From among the congenial things spoken between us as we traveled the restaurant’s lonely aisle ways together, I asked, “Where is everyone?

Her reply was something like, “I think going out to eat is a lot harder for folks than it used to be.”

For the record, I try to listen carefully when people are speaking to me, no matter what they’re saying. Also for the record, I’ll confess to letting moments of small talk mist away without much thought. I would have expected this moment to be no different, but for some reason, what she said remained well into my pleasantly quiet meal.

Indeed, with the mandates out there, certain things we use to do with relative ease have met at the delta where rest becomes toil, and with this, they’ve become too cumbersome. As a result, many are simply choosing not to do them. I, for one, make it a point not to go out much, anymore. In fact, if I can help it, I won’t step foot into a physical store at all. If I do, it’s only to dress up like Star Lord, Darth Vader, or a Stormtrooper in order to drift around the place pretending to shop, but really just doing what I can to make the droning sadness of our current days a little brighter for folks. Other than that, I pretty much do all my shopping online. As a family, we do our grocery shopping this way, too. To be clear, the only reason I stopped at Red Lobster that day was because I was running early and I had a gift card… and because the relatively empty parking lot promised a quiet meal free from distraction.

I suppose while I’m still on this trajectory, another personal proof of the communal frustration I’m suspecting happened last week while Jen and the kids were away for the day. Knowing I’d be eating dinner alone, I drove over to the local grocery store in Linden intent on buying one of their deli-made salads. It wasn’t until I’d already pulled into the parking lot and hopped out of the Jeep that I realized I didn’t have a mask, which of course the store requires. So I drove home. But it wasn’t to get a mask and then return. I drove home to stay, frustrated by the prospect of wasting my time and fuel on two round-trips instead of one. I just didn’t want to do it. It had already been a long day, and the salad retrieval process—something that could’ve been easy—had become a part of the day’s trouble instead of its anticipated rest. I ended up eating a bowl of chicken noodle soup, a bowl of Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries, and watching “Predator.”

“I ain’t got time to bleed.”

That’s a great line. Just as great as, “Get to the choppaaa!” Anyway…

In the end, my evening was restful. I even ate food fit for a man’s alone time. The local grocery store, however, lost one of the only sales I would’ve made there in a very long time. The hostess’ words at Red Lobster had me wondering how many others may be responding to things in the same way.

I told you at the beginning I had two thoughts. The other one that nestled into my brain resulted from a passing interaction with a gentleman in the parking lot as I was leaving Red Lobster.

For context, please know it’s not out of the ordinary for people to go out of their way to make sure the man in the clerical collar knows they’re God-fearing church-goers, making every effort to offer a passing comment to prove some sort of theological prowess or a long list of good deeds. I get why they do it. In some ways I’m glad for it, because it reminds me that there are still people out there who care to engage in such ways, even if for the wrong reasons. Nowadays I just chalk it up to the same endurance needed during the repetitive “What was that you said?” hollered between patrons and clerks because neither can understand what the other is saying from behind masks and Plexiglass shields.

By the way, an unfortunately true story describing the awkward theological reactions I sometimes get from folks can be enjoyed here: https://wp.me/p2nDyB-IS.

In the meantime, the passing words from the man outside of Red Lobster, like the hostess’ words within, had me thinking.

I was climbing into my car as he was exiting his. He called across the roof of his ruby red Cadillac, “Pray for me, Father, because I’m the kind of guy who keeps God real busy.”

I didn’t carry the conversation any further. I simply said, “I’ll pray for you and you pray for me. God be with you.” And then I drove away.

Steering through the lot and back onto Rochester Road, I remember whispering beneath Rush Limbaugh’s voice, “With everything going on in the world, with all of us keeping God so busy, the devil must be incredibly bored.”

It may sound theologically shallow to my ever-growing list of clergy-critics, but I guess what I meant by that soft-spoken moment of private humor was the two-fold acknowledgment that the devil is definitely one to work overtime in bringing division, terror, and devastation to the world, and yet with so many people matching his efforts these days, he must be getting kind of bored. Not only does it seem as if everything is exactly as the devil would want it, but it would appear he has all the right people in all the right places doing his work for him. With that, I’m guessing he has plenty more time these days for vacationing at his private island—which, by the way, I’m suspecting is probably adjacent to the island that was owned/rented by his past (and likely present) tenant, Jeffrey Epstein.

As far as I can tell, the English novelist Joseph Conrad believed in the existence of the devil. But I seem to remember him making a similar attempt at devil-describing humor when he said something about how a belief in a supernatural source of evil isn’t really necessary. Human beings alone, being more than capable of every wickedness, are plenty proof of his existence.

Conrad was right. We are more than capable. And we are definitely proof. Just look around.

Thankfully, even as we’re keeping God busy, just as the man in the Cadillac jokingly pointed out, I’d say God wants to be busy with us. He loves us. He doesn’t want to lose anyone, and so He’s continually laboring to keep the truth of His Gospel Word before us, which is the wonderfully potent message that actually has the power to instill what it communicates: forgiveness of Sin, and faith for eternal life with Christ!

He’s keeping very busy snatching us from the devil’s kingdom through Word and Sacrament ministry.

I’m not sure how the two thoughts I described above actually fit together completely, except maybe to say that as the days continue to lumber along with even the littlest occurrences becoming cumbersome instances that must be endured rather than enjoyed, remember God is keeping busy on your behalf. He’s never napping on the job (Psalm 121:4). Besides, He’s already more than proven He’s the kind of God to step up and do what needs to be done in the hour of our deepest need (Romans 5:8). Look to the cross and behold the death of His Son. That’s what I do—every single day! And why? Because it’s a visible reminder of the Gospel message’s glory—the Son of God taking my guilt and shame into Himself, and in exchange, giving to me His perfect righteousness for a new life lived out in this world until I meet with the next.

That same Gospel has the power to convince and convert you for faith, and ultimately, eternal life.

Okay, joking aside… Rest assured the devil knows the power of the Gospel, too. “Be vigilant, therefore,” Saint Peter says in 1 Peter 5. Know that the devil never vacations from his efforts to war against this saving truth. But again, take comfort in the fact that the God of all creation is on your side (Romans 8:31-29). Add to this comfort that others are praying for your endurance (Colossians 1:9, 4:3; James 5:16; Hebrews 4:16; and plenty others). I already assured you that I am. It certainly is a comfort to me personally knowing that many of you are praying for me, too.

Okay, that’s enough rambling for today. I have a day filled with devils that need to be wrestled.

Please Excuse Me

I’ll be swift with my thoughts this morning. In truth, I have little energy today for much more than what I’m being moved to ponder out loud.

As a pastor, there’s something I’ve learned all too well over the years. I assure you it was already true long before the fresh stack of executive orders arrived at our doorsteps legitimizing certain human behaviors.

Few need a good reason for avoiding time with the Savior.

Unfortunately there’ve always been plenty of self-deceiving excuses available to Christians. Each of our narratives is full of them, and in our Sin, each of us is well-equipped for handily decriminalizing the reasons, no matter how foolish the road to doing so may actually be. For example, I once shared in one of my The Angels’ Portion volumes a story from years ago about crossing paths with an inactive member at a department store at 3:00 AM on Black Friday. The particular person was one who’d always insisted that after a busy week of work, it was just too challenging for him physically to get up and get ready for a 9:30 AM worship service on a Sunday morning. Standing there in line, both of us shivering in temperatures unsuited for anyone’s lengthy exposure, he spent several awkward minutes doing what he could to defend his disjointed premise.

He’s long gone from our church’s roster. But I can only imagine what my conversations with him would be like if he was still with us today, how his deeper inclination would have been granted permission to stroll about openly by our Governor’s orders, and on top of that, within a society being collectively slow-boiled into believing it’s honorable to frown upon in-person worship gatherings and the people who desire them.

Forget the whole “you’re not being a good Christian neighbor when you don’t wear a mask” thing. Christians are now telling other Christians they’re not showing Godly love for their neighbor by going to church at all!

Read that sentence again and know that the job of pastor got a lot more complicated in 2020, that’s for sure.

Putting it bluntly, no matter the real reason for staying away from worship that may be lurking beneath a person’s glossy surface, any excuse has suddenly become virtuous and neighbor-loving, and anyone insisting otherwise is labeled a guilt-shoveling villain. A question I’d set before you, however: How villainous can your pastor really be if he’s made clear over and over again that if you can’t get to the church to receive the Lord’s Word and Sacrament gifts—no matter your reason—all that’s needed is a phone call and he’ll bring it to you—masked, gloved, wrapped in bubble-wrap, in a HazMat suit, or whatever? Speaking personally, this has been a standing promise of mine since I was first ordained, and not only have I upped my ante by repeating it publicly since March of this year, but I’ve made good on it. Since March, I’ve been to some of your homes and served the Lord’s Supper through a kitchen or bedroom window. And yet, I’d still say 2020 isn’t exactly a unique situation when it comes to such an offer. If you’d have been afraid of the flu in 2019 but still desired Word and Sacrament, I’d have accommodated you. I only need to know. Phones are great for that. And for the record, the last I checked, the cell towers and communication satellites aren’t susceptible to the flu or COVID-19.

In the end, I guarantee all your pastor wants is for you to be fed with the life-sustaining gifts of God’s grace!

Again, as a man called to stand in the stead and by the command of Christ—a man bringing a Word of invitation from the King of kings—I find myself reminded on occasion of a telegram sent by Lord Charles Beresford, a British admiral who served in the Royal Navy at the turn of the twentieth century. The telegram was sent in reply to a dinner summons from Prince Albert of Wales, the man who would soon ascend the throne as King Edward the VII. The invitation to dine with the future king was delivered to Beresford assuming he would be glad for the honor and make plans to attend.

The admiral’s reply was simple.

“Very sorry can’t come. Lie to follow by post.”

In short, I actually appreciate Beresford’s response. At least he was willing to deal honestly with his king. He just didn’t want to attend, and that was easy enough to understand. I’m sure it bothered the king, but if you know the rest of the story, then you also know the king moved on to include others, eventually abandoning his relationship with Beresford. But again, the truer inclination of the admiral was that he didn’t want it, anyway. And the king—one of England’s most beloved—certainly wasn’t going to build the friendship by force.

So that was that.

Light and Darkness, Certainty and Uncertainty, Courage and Fear

Technically, the sun rose this morning at 6:04 AM. I watched it from my kitchen window. It was stunning.

Before the moment had fully developed, the world beyond my window pane was a cool and shapeless dark with very little definition. I could barely make the mist twirling up from the Shiawassee River. Although, peering straight into the darkness, after a while, my eyes were more than capable of deceit, maybe even taking hold of imagination’s hand as she beckoned toward some impossible things.

I mean, I’m pretty sure I saw a pack of velociraptors crossing from one shore of the river to the other, pausing at the water’s edge before rushing into the thicket. Or maybe it was a herd of deer.

Eventually the tree line defining the horizon (which in the first few minutes of the sun’s visibility was edged with an extraordinary copper luminescence) couldn’t seem to stop the sunlight from revealing every single detail of the world behind my home. Minutes before I could only see what I thought I could see. In the light, I could see everything for what it was.

Oh, the in-between murmurs of the sun and its rising in summer! It comes and goes, rising and setting and rising again, ever reminding its onlookers of deeper, more glorious things—always bearing a much grander intuition than we’re often willing to confess.

An intriguing characteristic of light is that when its beams break through, the terrors—both real and imagined—scatter. The very real roaches run for the baseboard crevices. The same goes for the imagined velociraptors. They, too, scramble back to the shadows. I’m sure you know what I mean. You need only to think back to your younger days and recall the fear that came with fetching something from the darkened basement—or whichever unlit space was most fearful in your home. Everything and anything with hooked claws, piercing fangs, and a leathery hide was waiting to snatch you before you could get to the light switch. Perhaps the heaviest dread in those moments came somewhere between the bottom and top steps after the item’s retrieval. In the seconds after turning off the light, with the darkness at your back, whatever unseen beasties were previously restrained by its beams were now almost certainly scurrying from their hiding places to catch you before you could leap through the door at the top.

We all know the dread that comes with darkness. We all know the comfort of the light.

There’s a broader interpretation to be had from such scenes of light and darkness, certainty and uncertainty, courage and fear. Opening the door of my home this morning and stepping out into the current state of darkly affairs in our world, I’m reminded of this, and as such, I continually retell myself two things in particular.

The first is that things won’t be as they are forever. This world had a beginning. Because of Sin, it will have an end, too. No matter the invented truths of today, the Lord promises that at the Last Day, the divine light of truth will eventually break through with its fullest brightness at the appearing of Christ in glory (Titus 2:13, Revelation 1:7-8, Malachi 4:2). In that ensuing moment, nothing will be obscure. Everyone will see things as they truly are. Every system of belief, every controversy, every philosophy will be revealed by and measured against the only standard of judgment that ever mattered in this life: the truth of God’s Word.

This thought reminds me that the imagined velociraptor-like sense that truth appears so often to be losing ground to untruth will be proven infinitesimally short-lived soon enough. Regardless of the truths being cast aside in our world—that a man is not a woman and a woman is not a man; that killing an unborn child is murder; that all lives, no matter the skin color, have value; that murderous rioting beneath a banner of virtue is the devil’s business—while these truths may be hidden from so many right now, eventually the lights will come on. The sun will rise and we’ll see the landscape clearly. It’ll be a moment experienced by the whole world, and all will acknowledge it on their knees, either in humble gladness, or in terror (Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10-11).

It’ll be a moment in which all accounts are settled.

In relation to this, the second thing I do my best to keep in mind is that temporal worry is just plain foolishness. In Matthew 6:25-34, Christ explains the futility of worry and the better exchange found in faith. Christ is always the better bet, and so He teaches trust in Him as powerful against worry. Trust severs worry’s fuel line, which is fear. When fear is starved, it does what every malnourished thing eventually does—it dies. Personally, going forth from fear’s funeral, I can live in confidence through each and every day leading toward the final judgment knowing by faith that Christ has settled my account for me. By the power of the Holy Spirit at work through this Gospel, He is establishing in me the desire to seek and abide in His truth in all situations. In other words, my opinions take a back seat to His opinions.

Looking to the days ahead, if we establish our footing on anything other than the truth of God’s Word, we are doomed. And certainly, if there’s anything to be learned from the last few months it’s that no human word or deed can assure us of what’s next, let alone what’s true. Not an executive order, a doctor’s opinion, a social media post, or news report.

There’s lots of uncertainty at the bottom of the basement steps. But through faith in Christ, we can know to reach for the light switch of God’s Word. It’s there we learn that no matter how dark the days may become, “nothing in all creation is hidden from His sight” (Hebrews 4:13). He is well aware, and by no means has He lost control.

As the cities continue to burn, as de-educated punks continue to topple monuments, while self-righteous thugs deliberately trample others because of skin color, continue to let your legs carry you to the place where your finger can flip the switch. Be found in the bright beaming light of the truth which affirms, “‘Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’” (Jeremiah 23:24).

Rest assured He sees it all. He sees and knows you, too. He also knows what’s happening around you. Trust Him. Follow Him. Labor in these dark days by the strength He provides, being assured by the light of His Gospel truth that as you make your way through this seemingly unhinged world of ungodly wokeness, “your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

It’s Good to Be Home

It’s good to be home. Still, vacations certainly are great. They’re the allotment of time and distance you set aside for setting things aside.

But let me just shoot straight with you. I get more than a little anxious before coming home. We haven’t been taking vacations as a family for that many years, so I can look back at each of them and say with conviction that I’ve never once thought while thrashing around in the pool with Jen and the kids, “You know, I’ve had enough of vacation. Let’s get back to reality.” For me, Voltaire’s comment amount rest being a brother to boredom falls flat on its face when I’m enjoying my early morning vacation ritual of sitting at my computer drinking coffee, unrestricted, free to type whatever I feel like, and as I do, every now and then, catching a glimpse of a favorite palm tree covered in scurrying anoles just outside the window.

For me, vacationing does not share the same parentage as boredom.

You may have a different locale with different rituals, but I’m sure it’s the same for you. Still, let me dig a little deeper into the anxiousness, because I’m guessing this might be familiar to you, too.

While on vacation, we usually drive cars that are better than our own. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not like we troop through the rental lot in search of the Porsche section—although, I’ve pestered Jen about it once or twice. We usually get a minivan. And if we’ve paid more than $250 to borrow it for the whole trip, we consider ourselves as having been ripped off. I’m not kidding. Jen is the one who plans all this stuff, and she is magnificent this way. This year she managed to get us situated for the whole two weeks in a really nice Dodge Caravan for only $238. But more to my point, it had 115,000 miles less than the car I drive now, and as far as I could tell, not one of its dashboard warning lights was beaming steadily.

While on vacation, even though we only go out to eat about four or five times over the course of the entire two weeks, that’s still far more than we do as a family in an entire year—maybe even two years. And rest assured, our time in the various restaurants while vacationing is never wearisome. The staff is kind and equipped to serve, smiling and ready to bring us whatever we ask. We are kings and queens for the moment.

While on vacation, we do whatever we feel like doing. Of course, with the fear of COVID-19 looming everywhere this year, it was more of a challenge when it came to getting out and finding things to do. And yet, we never grew tired of the swimming pool. We were never met with exhaustion playing board games. We were never fatigued by huddling together on the couch, a bowl of popcorn in hand and watching “Shark Week” episodes featuring our favorite underwater cameraman personality, Andy Casagrande.

My point here is that while vacations are a temporary respite from reality, we can become anxious when we find ourselves actually heading back into reality. We want the vacation to be our permanent reality. We don’t want to come back to the car that has trouble starting. We don’t want to come back to the places where we are rarely, if ever, the one being served. We don’t want to come back to the relationships peppered with conflict. We don’t want to resubmit ourselves to stress-filled schedules filled with ungrateful patrons eager to tell you how undelighted they are with you. We don’t want the seemingly impossible workloads or the pressurized deadlines.

In the final analysis, across the expanse of a year’s fifty-two weeks, we want a reversal. We want fifty weeks of ease, and only two weeks of trouble.

But consider that word “reversal” for a moment.

I did a little bit of devotional reading each day while I was away. Every now and then, Luther spoke of God as staging a great reversal in Christ. We most often hear it referred to as “the great exchange.” If you ever get a chance to read from some of Luther’s writing on this subject, do so. His excitement is palpable. In fact, I sometimes think his words are at their poetic best whenever he’s dealing with this topic in particular. And why would they be this way? Because of all people who needed a reversal, it was Martin Luther, a man who monopolized the time of his father confessor because he couldn’t find the end to his own faults in a single day. He was a man terrified that he could never do enough to find God’s favor and win eternal life. But here in the great reversal, terrified sinners discover a God who, even in our ghastliness, loves us beyond measure. We discover a God who has no desire whatsoever to give sinners what they truly deserve. Instead, we behold Jesus on the cross and we see God working hard to lose so that we might win. We see Him taking the lowliest position of a foot-washing servant, laboring to make sinful peasants into righteous princes. We behold Him striving to endow the simplest of human words and means with an extraordinary power for delivering immeasurable forgiveness from the storehouses of heaven itself. For a guy like Luther—and for all of us for that matter—the Gospel turns what was once an awful truth of our inescapability from God’s divine reach into the most comforting of truths.

There’s an interesting aspect to all of this that relates to the anxiety of wishing a two-week vacation and the fifty weeks of reality that follow could switch places. By the Gospel, in a sense, God helps us to see that in Christ, this has actually happened. He gives us the eyes of faith for seeing that in the scheme of things, life in this world is really more like the “two weeks” of trouble in comparison to the inevitable “fifty weeks” of eternal rest we’ll experience with Christ.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m in the midst of a stressful situation while at the same time knowing that very soon I’ll be leaving it all behind, the worry I experience in those harder moments feels a little more like borrowed trouble. With that, I can endure it because I don’t really own it. It’s the same with life in this world. I don’t own it. Christ does. He took all its troubles into Himself on the cross. He carried them with Him into the grave. He rose again to justify my freedom from their permanence, which means I can make my way through all of this world’s nonsense knowing it’s already passing away, and in less than a blink in eternity’s eye, I’ll soon be resting with Him.

I want to add one last thing.

When I returned home and found myself among so many of you, I again experienced the joy of one of God’s most generous provisions to humans for enduring the relative “two weeks” we spend on this earth. I came home to friends.

Cicero referred to a friend as a “second self.” Aristotle referred to friendship itself as “a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” For as insightful as these two philosophers were, they certainly spoke most handily in this regard. Coming home to friends, dwelling with you in the midst of this world’s struggles as a community of people immersed in the mercies of God and prepared to labor together, well, that helps to steer the anxiety away, too.

For that I am grateful to our gracious God who put you into my life, and I can repeat what I said at the beginning of this note: It’s good to be home.

By the way, I also began yesterday’s sermon with that sentence, and then doing something that probably seemed a little out of character to all of you, I asked Alexis Shirk (who was sitting in the first row near her parents) to snap a quick picture of the congregation for me. I had her do this because only moments before I stepped into the pulpit to preach, having just surveyed a Godly sea of 240 familiar faces, I remembered once again what a privilege it is to be the one preaching God’s Law and Gospel to people I love. It was an instance confirming for me the Christian proverb that “a faithful friend is the medicine of life; and those who fear the Lord shall find him.”

Learning to Do Nothing

Considering 2020’s winter and spring cargo, my hope is that its summer will bring to us a semblance of calm. The Thoma clan will be leaving for Florida soon. We were concerned we might not be able to go, but as it turns out, Governor Ron DeSantis moved into the necessary phases for reopening, and this made it possible. We certainly are more than ready for a few days of tranquility in our happy place doing nothing. Although, I saw a colorful moth of some sort flittering leisurely outside my office window on Saturday after the Board of Elders meeting, and my first thought was that if I were an insect, that wouldn’t be me. I’d most likely be an ant. You never see a tranquil ant. You never see an ant sitting still doing nothing. They’re always doing something, scurrying this way and that way. Even Jennifer would agree I’d most definitely be an ant.

I’ve shared with you before that when we first started taking vacations a few years back, I had to force myself to do it. Stepping out of the pace and leaving everything behind felt wrong. Not so much anymore. Now I cannot hardly wait to put everything down and wander into the weeds. But I didn’t get to this point by myself. It took a friend (and member) here at Our Savior (and you know who you are) to say to me with incredible forthrightness, “Pastor, you need to get away. You need to learn how to do nothing.” And then he went on from there assuring me that if I didn’t learn how to do it on my own, he’d be forced to teach me.

Don’t worry. There was nothing contentious about the conversation. Still, with his words in the back pocket of my mind, it felt as though I’d just met my teacher for a summer school class designed to keep me from being useful. Those who know me best will understand why the phrase “learn to do nothing” would cause me to bristle, even if the reason for my bristling sounds a bit crazy.

First of all, if you don’t know how to do something, then yes, you need to be taught. And yet, the truest test of anything learned would seem to be the skill for applying it. To learn how to do nothing seems innately counterintuitive to this. How can nothing be something applied? It just sounds weird. And lazy. Not to mention, learning to do nothing sounds eerily reminiscent of things I’m already overly concerned about when I think of the current generation’s trajectory.

Define “learning” however you’d like, but for me, it’s really rather simple. In an elementary sense, it’s the process of bringing objective truths and the intellect together, not just for knowledge, but for producing capability. You learn in order to understand and do. But let’s be clear. Capability doesn’t always mean the skill for demonstrating what’s been learned. It does, however, assume a basic facility for communicating what’s been learned, resulting in the ability to prove critical reasoning and present evidence for one’s position.

As I said, learning to do nothing feels like the opposite of all this, and it reminds me of a generation that is, in many ways, proving that while it has learned to read, write, and communicate, it is yet to figure out what’s worth reading, writing, or communicating. Even worse, the journey of learning—critical thinking—appears to have become little more than the lazy gathering of pre-packaged opinions mined from the internet and assembled into superficial philosophies easily encompassed by a meme that ninety-nine percent of the time contains misspellings.

In this regard, learning how to be someone skilled at doing “nothing” sort of bothers me.

I know, I know. All of this is an over-analyzation of my friend’s words “learn to do nothing,” and it lands far from his intended encouragement to embrace the opportunities God gives for rest. I suppose this is what happens sometimes when I free-think and free-type.

Remember, I’m more of an ant than a moth.

And so, admittedly, over the years I’ve eventually learned to do nothing, knowing that sometimes nothing is actually something. Better said, I’ve learned to rest. Rest is good. It’s refreshing, replenishing. I’ve learned to ask rhetorically with W.H. Davies, “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” Let the moment with the moth outside my window affirm the things one can learn by doing nothing. I’d just returned from an Elders meeting thick with important church business, and yet as I took a moment of rest to observe the colorfully darting crawly on the bush just beyond the window, I was inspired to self-analyze. I was sitting still, and yet I was learning to admit something of myself.

That’s what it’s like for me on vacation, and that’s why I love it so much. Doing nothing provides so many opportunities for a million other soul-replenishing somethings to occur. It becomes an occasion to understand what God means when He says, “Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:6). It’s a chance to see that being too much about the affairs of life can prevent one from knowing why any of it matters, anyway. Taking time to rest helps to reteach the very important lesson that one ought not to use every bit of energy trying to catch something that, in the end, will never be caught.

The amusing thing is, and going back to where this morning ramble began, I couldn’t figure this out on my own. Someone had to tell me—even worse, nag me!—to do it. Similarly, God found it necessary to command rest for all of us, namely that we stop what we’re doing and engage with Him in holy worship. The Third Commandment mandates this (Exodus 20:8-11). Still, when you consider God’s intention here, it isn’t hard to see how it’s a command born from His love (Mark 2:27). He knows we need a break, and not just any kind of break, but rather the kind of respite that provides the avenue for receiving what He loves to give—the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal salvation (Matthew 11:28-30).

God knows humanity intimately, and so He knows that unless He requires this restful time with Him in worship, we just won’t do it. We’ll have far too many other sensible “somethings” that get in the way. And so His holy Law instructs us to take at least one day of the week to join with other believers in the rejuvenating arms of His love, receiving as a community the gifts of His Word and Sacraments—the means of Grace that keep us as His own and strengthen us for going back out into the world as His useful people.

As the summer rolls in, and assuming the lock down restrictions continue to be eased and the passage of time gives you and yours a little less room for anxiety, my hope is that if you’ve been away from worship, you’ll consider returning. It might feel weird at first. Expect that. It’s been a long time for many of you. But don’t let that trepidation stop you. It’s the Lord’s house, and you are a member of His family. This means it’s your home, too, and you belong where the much fuller delivery of the Father’s gifts are provided.

He certainly wants to give these gifts to you. He certainly wants to give you His rest.

Two more quick things…

First, this will be the last eNews for the next two weeks. I intend to do what I do every year while on vacation—which is to wake up at 6:00 AM, make some coffee, eat some breakfast, sit by the window where I can see my favorite palm tree, write a bit of something to post at AngelsPortion.com, and then when the other vacationers awaken and finish their breakfasts, join them in the pool. Beyond that morning routine, each day will be filled with carefree leisure. That’s what I intend to do. Of course, the two Sundays we’ll be away, we’ll be sure to find our way into the Lord’s house to receive the kind of refreshment that tops even this.

Second, if you’ve annulled any vacation plans, maybe reconsider the cancellation. I encourage you to go somewhere and do nothing. Yes, nothing. Rest. Unwind. Take some time to let the winds of this life’s cares get away from you for a little while. And even if there’s something preventing you from actually getting away from home, commit to doing something that brings you joy. Find time each day for those tranquil moments that each and every honest human being needs—the moments God gives because He knows you need them, too.

Of course if you do manage to steal away to the distant lands of “nothing” but find yourself unable to locate among its citizens a faithful congregation in which to worship, let me know. Just be sure to do it before Friday. After that, I probably won’t be able to research churches for you because there’s a good chance I’ll be in the middle of a “Death Ball” match. And if I’m not in the actual game, I’ll most likely be on the sidelines nursing some life-threatening injuries. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you should visit https://wp.me/p2nDyB-1di and maybe https://wp.me/p2nDyB-1o6.

Don’t Be Surprised

How can any of us not be moved to exclaim with concern, “What a world we’re living in right now!”?

Pandemics. Failing economies. Skyrocketing unemployment. Brutality. Death. Divisions. Riots.

America’s list is rather long these days.

Like me, I’m sure many of you are consuming your fair share of articles offering a wide array of perspectives on all of this. My friend shared an interesting one with me this past week. In it, Harvard Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker, was noted as suggesting that the ones leveling the most pressure on the governors to loosen the grip of the lock downs are the Christians, namely, those Pinker refers to as being afflicted by the “malignant delusion” of belief in the afterlife. In his opinion, it’s the Christians who are proving themselves to be the enemies of life and are putting their neighbors at risk. In contrast, he believes atheists—people unwilling to trust in the possibility of an afterlife—are the ones showing the truest concern for society’s health and safety. Unsurprisingly, they’re a significant portion of the voices pressing most fervently for masks, social distancing, stricter government mandates, and longer quarantines.

I read another article (well, more like a blog post) last night that connected a few more of these dots. Written by a supporter of the lock downs, the post inferred rather disingenuously that everyone is obligated to support the rioting protests no matter how violent they become. I use the word “disingenuously” because the protesters are by no means quarantining, obeying government mandates, practicing social distancing, or wearing proper masks while they burn buildings and empty the local Target store of its wine and fat fryers. The irony is thick. But it’s overlooked and given room to breathe. Why? Well, because in the blog writer’s mind, the violence is justified, being the proper reward for thousands of years of oppression fostered by Judeo-Christianity. In other words, he blamed the riots on Christians.

Both of these are interesting perspectives. Ignorant, but interesting. And certainly you, the reader, will take from them whatever you want. I’ve learned that much along the way of sharing things like these.

For those of us who follow the historic lectionary in worship, we’ve heard a lot lately about how the world is in vigorous opposition to Christ and His Church. Sunday after Sunday for several weeks of the Easter season, the Lord has reminded us from John 14 and 15—sometimes subtly, and other times directly—that the world (the collective of sinful humanity in opposition to God) is waging open war against God’s people.

Simply put, Jesus kept reminding us that the world hates us. But He said this is only true because it hates him most of all (John 15:18-25).

At one point along the way, the Lord unpacks this hatred by reminding Christians they are distinct from the world and the world knows it. It’s not because of anything inherent to any of us, but rather because by the work of the Holy Spirit for faith (whom the Lord speaks about over and over again throughout John’s Gospel), God has claimed us as His own.

“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:19).

For as frightening as this particular verse might be, it certainly does help make sense of the seemingly imbalanced nonsense Christians face day in and day out. We can understand why Professor Pinker would believe as he believes, while at the same time being one to justify keeping the local Walmart open during the lock down—a place where thousands upon thousands of people visit in a single day, touching this and that item before putting it back on the shelf undecided, and not one single employee in sight to sanitize any of it. Scientifically speaking, Walmart is a bio-hazardous mess. But Pinker, and others in the blogosphere, can turn blind eyes to such things and be found supporting both violence as well as a Governor’s threatening of churches with fines if they hold in-person worship services, even as the church-goers practice social distancing within an immaculate worship space that has had every square inch scrubbed and sanitized multiple times every day of the week, and doubly so over the course of the few hours when the congregants actually meet.

One might be tempted to think that the only real way forward for Christians is to step into a silent stride beside the world, to blend in, to do what it tells you, to keep one’s head down, and maybe even try to keep one’s faith a secret in order to abide. But I see two problems with this.

The first is that the world can smell a Christian a mile away. Clandestine or on the sleeve, a Christian’s devotion to Christ will eventually be discovered. The fruits of faith are hard to hide, and the more the world demands submission to its gods and compliance with its rites and ceremonies, the harder it will be for the Christian to continue in the lemming-like stride of ambivalence. Eventually the Christian will be found at the edge of a cliff, and in that moment, the Christian will be aware of the Lord’s words to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). But the world will be whispering there, too. It will hiss an undercurrent of doubt, asking, “You don’t really believe all that stuff, do you?”

It’s there the distinction is revealed and the Christian is forced to show his or herself as being in or out of step with the world.

If you haven’t experienced moments like this yet, trust me, you will.

I suppose the second problem I have with this is that as Jesus was speaking the words I referenced from John 15:19, in His divine omniscience, He was already mindful of what He preached in Matthew 5:13-16 where He called His believers salt and light. Salt is hard to ignore. Sprinkle a little onto a bite and give it a taste. You’ll know it’s there. Light is equally noticeable in comparison to darkness. Have a group of people close their eyes, then turn off the lights and light a candle. When they open their eyes, I guarantee they’ll be drawn to the candle’s flickering flame long before noticing anything else in the room.

Christians stand out. There’s really no way around it. And from the Lord’s perspective, this is a good thing. It means He has established us as both servants and leaders in a world filled with death and destruction. We are those who add humble, but steadfast, flavor while at the same time being those who lead with the bright beaming light of truth—namely, the Gospel. Perhaps even better, we are fortified for both of these roles by God’s Word, which means we have the source for knowing both how and why we are salt and light.

The whole of our identity is located in Christ who has redeemed us, reclaimed us, recalibrated us, and re-established us as His people in the world.

But once again, the Lord is careful to instruct us that the first test of this identity is to endure the hatred of a world that would much rather be rid of us. It’s almost Biblical the way Shakespeare wrote: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (Henry IV, Part II). This is true. The crown of righteousness borne by the Christian, while it is a joy for eternal life, it can seem heavy in this mortal life. Still, Christians are given minds to understand the weight of the crown, seeing it for what it is—a baptismal mark that not only designates the bearer as one purchased and won by the Redeemer and an inheritor of the world to come, but as one who has been led into the duty of being a dealer in hope—real hope.

Yes, situations requiring the hope we bring can be sketchy. Carrying the message of Christ crucified into any setting can be risky. But again, Christians have been given the task of doing it, and it is accomplished, for the most part, by just being who we are in Jesus Christ—servants and leaders, salt and light—no matter the flatland, valley, hill, or cliff.

Personally, I think all of this begs deep reflection right now.

And by the way, Jesus has been very clear along the way to say that any ability for reflecting on any of this (discerning the knowing, being, and doing) will be discovered only as we are connected to His Word (John 14:23-31, John 15:1-8). Disregard the Word—both verbal and visible—and your trip over the cliff is all but certain.

In conclusion, I suppose that’s my simplest prayer for you this morning is that you would remain fixed in the Word of God in all things, and there, knowing and understanding the world’s hatred for you, still you’d be found courageous. I pray for your readiness in season and out of season to be salt and light, fully prepared at the edge of each cliff to step out of stride with this world, if necessary, and “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

The New Normal

I hope all is well with you and your family. I continue to pray for you daily, trusting that the Lord knows your struggles, and even before any particular challenge may begin, He’s already at work using it for the good of your salvation (Romans 8:28).

It’s important to say and repeat this. We need the comfort of knowing that God is not our enemy, even if sometimes it seems as though He is. We need to be reminded that when we don’t know what’s going on, we can go to what we do know: The Gospel. We are not at war with God. He loves us. In fact, He proved it. Even in our most vile state of hatred toward Him, He was moved to give Jesus into death for us (Romans 5:1-8).

While the more typical struggles continue to abound, it would seem that in so many homes across our state and nation a good number of rarer struggles are taking root. As a pastor, someone laboring in the middle of this particular aspect of it all, I can assure you that for every gilded remark about how the quarantine was essential for our own safety, or that it was good in the sense that it forced families to reconnect, there are plenty of households experiencing the very real and exponential increase in anxiety, depression, marital discord, and violence. Where I knew of two divorces in progress, now I know of ten. Domestic abuse has skyrocketed. People I know to be very strong have crumpled emotionally in my presence. I came across an article last Saturday in National Review noting an unprecedented spike in suicides during the lockdown. One particular doctor reported one full year’s worth of attempts in four weeks’ time.

Again, I’m praying for you and your family. I hope you’re praying for me and mine, too.

But as we extend this care to one another, be mindful that the ones we so often consider to be the most resilient among us—the children—they’re being hit the hardest. They’re experiencing one of the most abrupt and life-altering events in American history, and for the most part, the only advice anyone has to share is that we must do our best to help them adjust to “the new normal.” A trip through the CDC guidelines for the reopening of schools will chill your spine when you see what the new normal might look like for a public school preschooler—a desk surrounded in plexiglass; directional arrows on the floor; gloves and masks; a six-foot expanse between friends at lunch, on the playground, and on the bus. I imagine the school supply lists this coming fall will be unlike anything any of us have ever seen.

At first, I wasn’t too sure how I felt about the usage of the phrase “the new normal.” But now I do. It seems sneaky. On the surface, it seems to be a relatively innocuous term folks are using to ease others into a level of comfortability with abnormality. But digging a little deeper into this thought as I tap away here at the keyboard this morning, I’m not convinced it’s as innocent a term as its well-intentioned users might think.

Again, for the most part, it’s a phrase that sounds like a gentle coaxing toward a crucial realization, but in reality, its heart is much colder than that. When you hear it, you are meant to know you have no other choice in the matter. You’re meant to understand that if you want to live and survive in the land of the new normal, you must comply. You’re meant to know that there’s no going back to the way things were before. Things are what they are, and this is the ordinary of “now”—the new normal.

I’m pretty good at remembering the first time I heard certain things. Seriously. I remember the first time I heard the word “innovative” as a kid. I liked the way it sounded—crisp and intelligent—and used it probably more than I should have. I remember first hearing the phrase “the new normal” several years ago. It stayed with me. In fact, I’ll bet if I looked back at my various scribblings, I probably wrote something about it. I know I was sharing with someone about how a particular lifestyle was being artificially—and so overwhelmingly—inserted into pretty much everything involved in daily life. Everything on TV, every movie, commercial, song, parade, sporting event, religion, you name it—it was (and still is) being crammed down society’s throat as ordinary.

“Well,” I’m almost certain I heard my conversation partner say, “get used to it. It’s the new normal.”

As far as the phrase goes, in one sense, it has a bit of an irony connected to it.

Libby Sartain, the head of HR for Yahoo, wrote in the foreword of a book by John Putzier that the person to be credited with the phrase’s first usage was a technology investor by the name of Roger McNamee. She claimed he used it in an interview with a magazine in 2003.

Unfortunately, Sartain was wrong. The phrase “the new normal” was around long before McNamee. In fact, an effortless search within the last few minutes uncovered it was used in lots of various writings by a number of people in history. Take for example the following piece by Henry Wood written in the wake of World War I. It was published in 1918 in the “National Electric Light Association Bulletin.”

“To consider the problems before us we must divide our epoch into three periods, that of war, that of transition, that of the new normal, which undoubtedly will supersede the old. The questions before us, therefore, are, broadly, two: How shall we pass from war to the new normal with the least jar, in the shortest time? In that respect should the new normal be shaped to differ from the old?”

So why bother to share all of this? Well, two reasons, I guess.

First, because once again, the inspired Word of God proves true—namely, the Holy Spirit at work in Ecclesiastes 1:9:

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

The Holy Spirit is winking at us through King Solomon’s pen. He’s reminding us that there’s nothing new about the phrase “the new normal” just as there’s nothing new about the human condition it’s attempting to define. Perhaps deeper still, the heavier hand the phrase embodies as it tries to shepherd the world into an acceptance of darker, more harmful things, well, that shouldn’t surprise us, either.

That’s more or less the second reason. As believers in Christ, we shouldn’t necessarily be surprised by the world’s ability to concoct dreadful normals and call them “new.” I think it was G.K. Chesterton, or maybe it was C.S. Lewis (or someone best-known by his first two initials), who said something about how the latest monsters produced by the world shouldn’t necessarily amaze us until the normal nature of Mankind begins to amaze us. I think part of the point was to say that by God’s Word we already know the reservoir of human depravity will never fully be explored in any of our lifetimes, so how can the never-before-seen monsters that continue to crawl from its bottomless depths be all that astonishing to us?

Again, there’s really nothing new in this regard, especially when it comes to the downward trajectory of humanity.

Since I was already thinking on our public schools… It was less than fifty years ago that students actually studied the Bible in class, even if only as great literature. Now the Bible is strictly forbidden. Within the last sixty years, our public schools used to teach gun safety—with real guns! Now kindergartners get expelled for making gun-like gestures with their hands on the playground. In the time of yesteryear, parents would discipline their children for misbehavior in school. Now teachers are blamed for the children’s misdeeds, even being fired for touching students while breaking up a fight. I remember feeling terrible, almost sick, when I’d overlooked or forgotten to complete a homework assignment. But now, I suppose many teachers are blessed to get half of a completed assignment, let alone any of the homework at all.

The phrase “the new normal” has become synonymous for the passive acceptance of a devolving society.

Maybe you heard that Fred Willard died recently. The folks from my generation will remember him as a brilliantly dry comedian, someone cut from the same witty cloth as men like Bob Newhart or Bill Murray. After I learned of his death, I watched a short clip of an interview with him. In it, he described the essence of his comedy as a continual attempt at putting himself into abnormal situations and then acting as if they were normal.

I think he nailed my concern for “the new normal.” Much of what we’re experiencing right now isn’t normal. Maintaining distances of six feet between friends and family rather than sharing embraces; wearing masks that hide the smiles adorning our unique and friendly faces; two-dimensional birthday or anniversary celebrations minimally enjoyed by way of video streaming rather than the warm resonations of a room filled with in-person sights, sounds, and smells; none of these describe normal human behavior, even at a base level. This is all abnormal, and it’s the innermost marrow of comedic foolishness to live as though it’s normal.

In truth, Christians exist in a sphere apart from this, which means we have a capability for seeing and analyzing this silliness for what it is. For one, the Holy Spirit at work in us for faith makes it so. Add to this the steady equipping by the Word of God and we’re found standing a little taller as our confidence for discernment and action begins to breathe. We may not be able to change things too drastically, and certainly we need be mindful of finding middle ground among communities of people with varying concerns, but in the end, that certainly doesn’t negate the fact that God’s people can see and know what the world cannot, and then do what we can to help steer things into better waters.

Indeed, we can truly serve as salt and light in the midst of the devolution into new normals. We can be a source of better flavor to an otherwise stale world. We can be a stream of much needed radiance in darkness and confusion. We can be found taking the lead in situations where others might want only to follow. We can know when to give a little in the face of change, and we can know when to stand firm and resist societal adjustment completely. We can know when to be silent and cooperate, just as we can know when the world around us needs so much more than compliance, but rather needs the boldness of action, maybe even resistance. Perhaps best of all, we can carry into the world what is the truest “new normal”—the fact that Christ is the world’s Redeemer. He has conquered the abnormal brokenness of this world and has exchanged it with the new, better normal of His merciful forgiveness. By His life, death, and resurrection, He has reversed the downward spiral into undoneness and made a way for humanity’s rescue (Isaiah 43:19). “Behold, I am making all things new,” He declares so wonderfully of His glorious work to save us (Revelation 21:5).

His people are, by default, the emissaries out in front with this life-altering message.

The Gospel we possess as a community is more important now than ever before. It’s what we are charged with bringing to the world. Sure, like the rest of you, I have my opinions about what’s going on around us right now, but I sure hope you know my opinions are tempered by the desire to never see the Gospel dimmed for you by the world’s impositions. They’re equally tempered by the desire to keep my particular church and school I’ve been charged with shepherding—Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Hartland, Michigan—from participating in anything harmful that might slink up and out of the tarry goo of the new normal. If we do discover the Gospel taking a back seat, or we find ourselves partnering in this way, then I’ll do what I can to defend against it. And if for some reason it overtakes our ranks, I’ll be the first to sit with church leadership to reconsider the legitimacy of our existence as a Christian congregation and school.

The times are not easy ones. Still, we know God is good. Pray to the Father in and through Jesus Christ that all of God’s people would be found faithful to His will and Word (John 16:24) in the midst of whatever the new normal might bring. He loves you. He is listening. He will answer. He will give His people His care. He will provide us the obstacles we need when we’re ready to run headlong apart from His will. He’ll provide the way of escape in the midst of trouble. He’ll deliver wisdom in the midst of confusion. He’ll drench us in comfort when we are sad, and He’ll give fervent courage in the face of fear.

Trust me. I speak from brutally wonderful experience in all of these, as I’m sure many of you do, too.

Quid Est Veritas?

For those of you who made it to worship at Our Savior yesterday, if you took anything more from the sermon than the Gospel of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, I hope it’s that you noticed I didn’t use the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” once in the whole sermon.

That was deliberate.

Like me, I’m sure many of you are exhausted by those words. Almost every radio commercial includes them. Nearly every news report is in some way related to them. So many in-person and online conversations I have are about them. They dwell at the center of many conflicts among far too many of us. Also, if you tune into sermons around the world, you’ll discover a lot of preachers crafting their sermons to include them whether or not they actually fit into the theme at hand.

There’s a rock song that holds the line, “I hate the sound of my own voice.” It’s eerily resonant right now. I’ve gotten to the point of despising the sound of my own voice when I say “COVID-19” or “coronavirus.”

Still, I try to stay abreast of the data, and so part of the struggle for me is due to the hydra-like nature of information and the ever-shifting landscape of the “data” feeding it. (I put the word data in quotation marks for a reason.)

I read a news article from CBS (WWMT in west Michigan) about how hospitalizations in Michigan have dropped 65% in the last month. There was a point of connection to another article reminding the reader that this number doesn’t even factor in that 99% of all COVID-19 related deaths were most likely due to other illnesses. This was good news. But then no sooner had I finished the article, did I read a more fearful article from Fox News sharing Dr. Fauci’s concern that a second wave could hit in the fall. I then landed on another piece from CNN inferring that millions more in America will become infected and die unless mask-wearing becomes the new normal in our society. These two articles were bad news—very bad news.

I refer to all of this as “hydra-like” because, as with the mythical creature, when one fearful head is cut off with the flaming sword of data, plenty of folks are waiting in the wings with opposing data to grow more heads in its place. With every news story saying one thing, plenty more are armed and ready for saying the exact opposite. Unfortunately, these “my-data-is-better-than-your-data” scuffles happening among us regular folks are also happening at the top levels of government. For example, I’m reminded of a brief conversation I had last week with Georgine at the church.

Regardless of what I believe is happening, I shared with her that the Mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, had just finished a press conference in which he gleefully reported that what’s being done across the state to stop the spread of the virus is definitely working. To prove this, one of the details he shared was that the number of cases in Detroit (a major hotspot in the nation) was in a steady curve downward, shrinking daily by half. Again, he was elated by this, and really rather hopeful. Essentially, the data he offered lopped off one of fear’s heads.

But then our Governor, Gretchen Whitmer (someone working closely with Duggan and mining from the same data sources) held a press conference in which she said, essentially, while we’re doing a lot to curb the spread of the virus, data shows we’re not doing enough, and because of this, the extension of her various lock down orders would be the safest way forward for all in Michigan. The next couple of news stories that crossed my feed were grim tales of death and destruction, several in particular aimed at a 77-year-old barber in Owosso, Karl Manke, portraying him as dangerously defiant for reopening his shop in the midst of the lock down. Besides the fact that he felt he had to reopen in order to survive, the stories recounted him being ticketed twice, having his license revoked, and subsequently shamed by the Attorney General as an “imminent threat” to his community.

One of fear’s heads was lopped off. “Don’t worry. What we’re doing is working.” Within moments, two of fear’s heads grew back. “Be worried. What we’re doing is not enough. And watch out, because cold-blooded folks like Karl Manke could be anywhere!”

I suppose going a little further into all of this, I can’t help but sense two particular undercurrents tugging at the rest of us. Both require honesty to grasp.

The first is that for many, it seems data isn’t really data anymore, at least not in an objective sense. People are inclined to believe a certain way, and so data-mining has become little more than a point on the timeline where people stopped digging any deeper because they already found what their belief system required. For me, that teeters at the edge of fanaticism, and quite honestly, I wrestle with it in discussions with itinerant folks wielding what they refer to as “unarguable facts.” So far, it would seem every fact is frustratingly arguable. That’s part of the problem. Who’s telling the truth?

Streaming directly from this, a second undercurrent takes hold. It steers toward the realization that one too many humans on both sides of the mess are indeed functioning as fanatics and are showing themselves to be just as Winston Churchill so brilliantly described—people incapable of changing their minds or the subject.

Around and around we go talking about the same stuff, this fact canceling out that fact, and that datum voiding this detail, all the while doubling down on our trolling efforts and having completely lost sight of where we were trying to go in the first place.

For Christians, it’s in moments like these that Psalm 119:105 beams a little more brightly.

“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

Much of what we’re hearing these days does little more than stir “Pontius Pilate,” “What is truth?” type confusion (John 18:38). And yet, by the Word of God, Christians have a point of origin for discerning truth from falsehood, fact from opinion, right from wrong. As we tread along darkened paths, the lamplight of God’s holy Word brings clarity. We can know by the Word of God that fear is unwarranted in any situation. Jesus—the Way, the Truth, and the Life—is standing right in front of us. He’s with us and leading us. He’s giving us the forgiveness we need for our failings, and by that same Gospel, He’s equipping us with courage for living in this world. On top of that, He’s giving us a dexterity of heart for measuring the words and deeds aimed at us (and the thoughts, words, and deeds we might want to aim at others) against the truth of God’s Word.

In other words, a Christian has what is necessary for discerning truth and acting according to it in this fog-laden landscape of opinion editorials.

Of course if you’re starved of that Word, it won’t be so easy, and I dare say it’ll be noticeable in the substance of your opinions. The further you are from the Word—the less you are immersed in it, the more you avoid time with it—the thicker the fog will become, and the harder it will be to navigate, let alone offer anything of value to the conversation.

By the way, I’m not suggesting the Bible is just a book (like so many others) filled with great advice and worth learning, or that being immersed in the Word means having texts from scripture written on paper or cards or whatever and scattered around the house serving as talismans to fan away spiritual plumes. (Believe it or not, I know people who think that if they just keep their unread Bible on the nightstand, they’ll be protected while sleeping at night. That’s an unfortunate misunderstanding.)

When I say these things regarding the Word, I mean what Saint John means in John 1:1-14 and 1 John 5:6-12. I mean what Saint Augustine meant when he wrote of the verbal and visible means of the Word of God—Word and Sacrament—the Word read, preached, given in Absolution, poured out in Holy Baptism, and fed into us by way of the Lord’s Supper. To be apart from the Word is to be apart from Christ, the Word made flesh. It is to be distant from Him, and to be disconnected from the supply chain of His faith-sustaining gifts. And take note, this avenue of distribution isn’t as opaquely intangible as one might think. God works in real, concrete, face-to-face, in-person ways. He has established His church for functioning in, with, and under these ways (Hebrews 10:23-31). You don’t want to be starved of this. The Sin-nature is strong, and like every human being before you who has ever deliberately neglected the Word in this way, having fitted this or that excuse into seemingly reasonable contexts calling for separation, basic human history proves you’ll be in jeopardy of losing sight of the forgiveness Jesus won and delivered to you by His life, death, and resurrection. And if this occurs, the resultant life that flows from such faith—which includes the ability to live as God’s child in this world, discerning good from evil, right from wrong, and being a reliable source of truth in the midst of falsehood—all of this will become a jumbled, uninterpretable mess of uncertainty.

Remember this, especially during these times. It is eternally important.