A Resolution for Solitude

The new school year is on the approach. For many in our world, the beginning of the school year is as January 1—a day for resolutions.

People resolve to make changes in the family routine. They vow to be more vigilant with the children’s videogame and TV time. They speak out loud a commitment to more exercise. They make promises to themselves that even as exhausted as they might be at the end of the day, they’ll still take time to read to their children before bed.

I’m one to encourage people toward making such resolutions, even though I know statistics would say the efforts are often short-lived. It doesn’t change the fact that such people are concerned enough to try, which for me is like watching someone eyeing a glimmering object below the surface of a dangerously swift river. They’re cognizant of something better and more valuable, but it’s out of reach. And so inch by inch, they work their way into the water only to realize that unless they receive help from beyond themselves, the current will sweep them away.

In one sense, these scenes boil down to lessons in humility. People resolve to make changes because they know they’re not so good and want to be better, but the sin-nature is ever-vigilant to sweep our feet from beneath us each and every time. For the Christian, these experiences are opportunities to recall the frailty of humanity and the need for a Savior.

In another sense, when it comes to meeting challenges, these situations teach Christians the importance of being together as the Church—of sitting beside one another in worship, of existing as brothers and sisters in Christ beyond the doors of the church building, of working together and building one another up as being of equal necessity. All of this is in motion by God’s grace to strengthen us with saving faith so that we would be sturdy when threatened by the world and while we accomplish the seemingly impossible things of God. To know God’s great concern for those who would break away from regular fellowship with the Church, stop by Hebrews 10:19-29 for a quick recalibration. For all others interested in basking in the bright beams of His wonderful encouragement, take a trip through Psalm 31:24, 2 Corinthians 3:12, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Romans 12:4-8, Joshua 1:9, Psalm 138:3, 2 Chronicles 32:7–8, Ephesians 6:19-20, and Philippians 1:14.

Thinking on all of this, I’ve made two particular resolutions for the new school year, the second of which, at first glance, might sound counterintuitive to what I just said.

My first resolution is to give more money to the church. Because I already live pretty frugally, I don’t have many corners to cut. But with the ones I do have, the blade of mindfulness is already at their edges. For example, instead of stopping at McDonald’s four or five times in a week for a medium black coffee—which has become my routine—I’m only going to stop once, and then all of the money I would have spent will be put into the offering plate. I intend to be heedful of these little things and to make changes.

My second resolution is to steal away into solitude more often.

Yeah, I know, right. I just finished telling you that we need to be and work together as a Church, and now I’ve told you I’m going to keep to myself more than before. Let me explain.

I’m going to seek solitude, not isolation. Isolation is a removal of self from community for all the wrong reasons. It simmers in discontent. This is deadly and really quite draining. Solitude is a far different kind of alone time. In my case, solitude is time to think, to read, to explore, and then to produce. More often than not, solitude results in substantive snippets of crisp thought that eventually become sermons, poetry, short stories, and so very much more. It helps provide the wherewithal for the practical, everyday things, while at the same time stoking the coal in the locomotive’s engine for the long haul required for realizing goals and maintaining long term vision.

Solitude is healthy. It makes me better.

Throughout the school year, solitude is rare, and if summer had anything to teach me, it was the benefit of alone time without interruption to do these things. I intend to do my level best to find solitude.

I suppose in the end, if you’re like me and you make new school year resolutions, I’m glad for you. When it comes to meeting them, know that I’m already rooting for you, and I stand at the ready to help however I can. Perhaps even this little jaunt served to give you the prompt you needed.

A Sunset in Ludington

Last week the Thoma family took Jen’s mom, Sandy, to Baldwin, Michigan for a few days as a gift to celebrate her 70th birthday. While there, we took an evening trip to Stearns Park in Ludington, which rests at the edge of Lake Michigan. We were only there for about an hour and a half, but there was enough time to explore a few dunes, play in the sand, and wander a short way into the white capping water.

Our time there ended with a stunning sunset.

As I watched the sun make its extraordinary exit, Jen snapped an unsuspecting photo of me stooping in the sand and holding a juice bottle for my diabetic daughter—you know, just in case. I didn’t know Jen had taken it until I saw it on Facebook later that night. When I saw the image, and because I only took the posture briefly, I remembered exactly what I was thinking in that moment.

I had the first portion of Ecclesiastes 7:13 on my mind. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t just thinking the words, but rather I’m certain I said them out loud.

“Consider the work of God,” I said.

I suppose these words came to mind, first and foremost, because a sunset is an inspiring thing. To be able to see this magnificent sphere that hovers nine million miles beyond the edge of our world—a rotating ball of liquid fire so big that a million earths could fit into it—to see this and to know that it was given as a gift from God is quite moving. And then to watch it trace a careful course exactly as God designed it, leaving streaks of lovely hues across the entirety of an open sky and rolling sea, one can’t help but think the divine hand of God is in that moment sketching upon a heavenly canvas.

To steal the words of Thomas Browne, such things are indeed the art of God.

But I was also a little anxious in that moment. I remember thinking that I cannot revise these things. God has put them into place, and with that, they spin and dip and rise and turn without any help from me. The anxiety set in when I thought this was one sunset closer to summer’s end. Soon this season would become another, and eventually another, and with each well-timed tipping and spinning of the earth in its orbit around this beautiful sun balanced before me, I’d remain forever powerless to coax the process to try a different way. Like it or not, summer would pass me by, and as it was last year, I’d stand in its shadow and watch. Why? Because God has fixed it into place. It is to be this way. And while I may disagree, it doesn’t change the fact that what I’m observing is actually good.

In the beginning, God spoke these things into existence and declared them so.

As I revisit these things, another thought emerges. Juvenal wrote in his Satires, “Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another.” The Natural Law that God has established steps in time with the wisdom of the Creator, and from this lovely enterprise, life is set into motion. God is actively engaged in all of this. Seeds are planted, they grow, they bear seeds, and other plants are born. God sees to this. Only those things particular to a man can combine with those of a woman to create another human being. It’s an order that can’t be changed. God established it, maintains and blesses it, and He calls it good.

But we resist this. The sin-nature would have its own way. A man would call himself a woman. A woman would call herself a man. With unprecedented ignorance, Planned Parenthood boldly argues for the right of a man to menstruate. A sixty-year-old man leaves his wife and daughter in order to live as a six-year-old girl and eventually be adopted by an elderly man and woman in England.

Sin is its own seed for insanity. It is the ultimate attempt at deviation. But when we wrestle against the Natural Law, we so foolishly wrestle against the One who established it for our good, and in the end we prove two things: We are destined for death and decay, and we need a Savior.

Another thought emerges.

That moment on the beach when the sun slipped below the edge of the world, I was reminded that the Natural Law our God has put into place is not only tireless, but for as bendable as we might seem to consider it, it is impenetrably sturdy. Look at a vacant parking lot and you’ll see what I mean. Man and his sin-stained ego are nothing more than a layer of concrete upon soil. Layer upon layer, façade after façade, the years pass, and the concrete crumbles. But without question, up from between the decaying cracks, blades of grass will emerge. They will always and eventually heed the voice of Natural Law no matter what we do to try to cover them up.

In one sense, I suppose this gives me hope, especially in this current age of radically individualized ego-insanity. I see the structures of mankind decaying and I am reminded that what God has established will never shift into untruth.

This truth sheds light on something even better—which sits at the heart of the text I whispered from Ecclesiastes 7. The entire verse is:

“Behold the work of God. Who can make straight what He has made crooked?”

The cross is a scandalously crooked thing permanently fixed in place. The world finds Calvary shameful while choosing to find value in the crumbling mammon of this life. But for the Christians, there’s no need to be offended by it. There’s no need to soften the image. Behold the work of God for what it is. Look and believe. It’s there that the Son of God died the crookedly grotesque and wretched death of all deaths in your place. Nothing can alter this fact. It’s there that He’s winning, not losing. It’s there that your eternal life was purchased, and as it meets with what’s been shared here, it served to give over to you as a gift every sunset that will ever occur in your lifetime.

Crouch into the sand and be amazed by the workings of His Natural Law, but as you do, let it be a gentle nudge to not only recall the intricacy of His beautiful world and its value, but also the certainty that what He has established—no matter your opinions of it, no matter if you agree or not—will always best. The cross itself is the unseemly proof.

Stop It In Its Tracks

Before leaving the church this past Sunday, I had a quick chat with one of the members that reminded me of a similar conversation I had with Jennifer a few days ago. She and I were sitting on the deck and recalling bygone days. We noted how parenting is so much harder now than it was when the kids were little. We laughed and affirmed for each other that we’d much rather lose sleep to a baby’s cries than sorting out the details of a much heavier situation with that same baby who is now a young adult.

Again, changing a diaper—even the messiest of the messy—is nothing compared to helping a child navigate the rough waters leading to adulthood. It’s far more terrifying when they get older.

And part of the problem in all of this is that what we do when they’re little affects the way they’ll operate as adults. Of course we shouldn’t feel as though we are to blame for every stupid decision they make, but our thumbprints are certainly noticeable on plenty. For example, if we swear a lot, odds are they’ll swear a lot, too. If we are always late to everything, chances are the kids will consider the hands of the clock to be just as irrelevant. Thinking on Evelyn for a moment…

She’s the most finicky among the kids when it comes to food. When she was little, we’d do whatever we could just to make sure she didn’t look like she belonged on a promotional poster for Orphan Grain Train. With that, we probably accommodated her more than we should’ve. Now she’s nine, and it remains that almost every meal is a struggle. We’ll be eating grilled cheese, and she’ll ask for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We’ll be eating hamburgers and she’ll request that the chef make her waffles. Just today we were eating hotdogs and she asked for one of the breakfast muffins instead.

A habit has been formed. She learned when she was young that she doesn’t necessarily need to eat what the rest of the family is eating. If she doesn’t like it, there’s a Pavlovian urge to just order up something different from the kitchen.

I suppose that because we didn’t help her transition into a better habit, we’ve had to change our ways with most of this stuff. I once described my new approach to the problem in an Angelsportion.com post. Honestly, it’s been incredibly successful. Here’s a snippet of my strategy:

——————–

I don’t know about you, but after four children, I had a portion of my guilt gland removed. It was an elective surgery. But I did it in order to embrace a very important verity. I’ve learned that to accomplish what needs accomplishing among the smaller versions of myself, a stale face and a plain tone sprinkled with a little bit of “horrible” is necessary. I can assure you that since the surgery, life has become considerably less maniacal.

“Eat your food.”

“I don’t like mashed potatoes.”

“I don’t care.”

“Can I have a bowl of cereal instead?”

“Nope.”

“But I don’t want this!”

“I don’t care. Eat it.”

“But I don’t like it!”

“Okay, how about this? I’m going to count to five. When I reach the number five, I’m going to put that food into you through one of the various holes on your body. Right now, you can choose to do it through your mouth. But sweetie, if I get to five, I’ll choose the hole. I don’t know which one it’ll be, just yet, but you need to know that’ll be the next stage of the meal and the end of this conversation.”

By the way, after a scene such as the one I’ve just described, you should know that the adults in the Thoma house now live five seconds at a time during meals. But in all honesty, it’s a small price to pay. And it really only took a few moments involving a spoonful of mashed potatoes and a child’s flared and angry nostril as a reasonable entry point to set the pace. The cereal-munching beasties are now convinced that my words, while non-aggressive, are by no means hollow.

“How do those mashed potatoes taste?” I ask with a kindly tone.

“I don’t know,” she replies in a huff, doing all she can to hold back tears of defeat. “They’re in my nose.”

“Well then, honey, how do they smell?”

———————–

All humor aside, it works the same way in so many facets of life. If we want our kids to make regular visits to the dentist as adults, we need to take them when they’re little. If we want them to care about their health, we need to take them to the doctor—even when they don’t want to go.

With that, you probably get where I’m going with this.

Don’t skip church. And if you have been skipping church, stop.

And now that you’re stopping, if your kids still live at home and they’re in the habit of skipping church, pitch to them the house rules and force them to go. Be sturdy in your Fourth Commandment duties and require it. Don’t give them options. Just go. I know it’s probably a trite argument (nevertheless, it rings true), but never would you have let them skip brushing their teeth or taking showers. As long as it depends on you, don’t let them jettison from their lives that which matters more than anything else in this life: faith in Christ and all that He puts in place to sustain that faith. When this is optional to us, we are more than framing everlasting life as optional for our kids.

That’s eternally deadly—and not just for our kids, but for our grandkids and great grandkids, as well. God warns that this will reach into the third and fourth generations. In other words, the habit reaches up and into the branches of the family tree yet to come. On the other hand, God promises countless blessings to thousands of generations who, by the power of His Holy Spirit, steer into the horizon of faithfulness.

And so, as much as it depends on you, do what you can to stop it in its tracks today. In fact, the forthcoming school year is a great point on the timeline for starting over—for beginning things anew. Again, you can be certain that God will bless your efforts. In fact, it’s been my experience that when children stray, the forthrightness of their parents to remain faithful has played a significant role in those same children knowing and then realizing the joy of returning to what they knew all along was better.

Of course, as always, if you need my help in any of this, just ask.

A Fool and His Sandwich at Panera

As so often happens when I’m out and around, I managed to find myself in a conversation with someone who saw me in my clerical collar and wanted to chat. And as is also becoming more common, his questions weren’t for the sake of investigation, but rather for taking the opportunity to ridicule Christianity.

I was doing my best to stay out of sight in the corner of Panera in Brighton eating my favorite chicken salad sandwich. The young man—Todd—claimed atheism as his point of origin, and for some reason, his particular approach to our discussion involved testing my abilities to reasonably explain the afterlife. To be completely honest, I was quite annoyed. I was taking advantage of some limited time in between tasks, and all I really wanted to do was eat my Napa Almond Chicken Salad sandwich in peace. Not to mention I was in the furthest corner of the restaurant for a reason. I actually wanted to avoid such interactions—which again, happen far too often these days. And lastly, as I already mentioned, it was obvious that his intentions weren’t to learn, but rather to try to prove Christianity to be the backwater foolishness he already believed it to be.

A side note: For the record, looking foolish in such conversations doesn’t concern me all that much anymore. The Word of God has already declared that the Gospel will be received as foolishness, and so what does a guy like me truly have to lose in these circumstances?

Anyway, I took the time to talk with him. Well, actually, I didn’t have much of a choice. He actually pulled out the chair across from me and sat down at my table.

Essentially, we went around and around on a few points, his mouth filled with philosophical ramblings and my mouth filled with chicken salad. As I was taking the last bite and doing my best to politely communicate that I needed to leave soon, he somehow landed at the trite phrase, “Know thyself.” Truthfully, I don’t recall exactly how he arrived there. I just remember him saying it and then trying to explain what it actually means.

Now, I’m not entirely stupid. I know Socrates repeated it. Plato, his student, taught from the phrase, too. Todd was now using it, and doing so more along the lines of the way Plato tried to spin it—saying that the mythology of religion is irrelevant and that we shouldn’t waste our time investigating such foolishness, but rather we should spend our limited days employing reason to better ourselves in the here and now with the hope of something better.

Here’s something funny… I asked Todd if he knew the origin of the phrase. He didn’t.

Another quick side note: Don’t get into a discussion and use a phrase you can’t trace to its origin.

Γνῶθι σεαυτόν is the phrase that Pausanias (2nd century B.C.) says was etched in the granite of the forecourt to the temple of Apollo in Delphi. “Know thyself” the passerby would read. I’ve heard it said that this same phrase was sometimes carved into the stone caps of early Greek ossuaries. In other words, for early Greeks, to know the self was to know something essential to the nature of man. It was to be reminded that the bones inside the burial box had arrived at the destination to which every human being who ever lived would be traveling.

“Know thyself” was not necessarily a self-empowering phrase. It was a reminder that in the end, everyone will face off with Death. Every person—good or bad, smart or not-so-smart, reasonable or unreasonable—was going to die. The phrase betrayed the futility of human betterment against Death.

I told Todd this. I also told him that Saint Paul called Death “the last enemy destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). I told him Paul could say this because Jesus (who was crucified and buried and yet whom Paul had seen personally afterward) had defeated Death on the cross. I told Todd that Paul, a man who had everything to lose by believing this foolishness, was killed for it. I told Todd that Paul wrote about a new “self” that was put on through faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross (Ephesians 4:24). In other words, now in faith, to know the self is to know Christ and His promises that surpass the limitations of ossuaries with stone caps and dreadfully depressing phrases. For the Christian, Death is now nothing more than a portal—a trail blazed by Christ—through to eternal life.

Todd said I was, in essence, simpleminded, and that everything I’d just said was unprovable. Of course there were a thousand different directions I could’ve gone in response, but I was already very late, so I told him that far too much in this life points to Todd’s position being a very dangerous gamble. I encouraged him to do a little more digging, and if he didn’t want to read the Bible, then to consider studying the Early Church Fathers. They’re rich in ways I thought might resonate with his philosophical mind. I suggested Chrysostom and Athanasius in particular. I gave him one of the new business cards that Pastor Zwonitzer had printed up for me, and then I left.

This is the most recent of my episodes at Panera.

But still, there’s a little more I learned in the jaunt—and maybe it’ll be of use to you and maybe it won’t.

It was Menander (a Greek dramatist who Saint Paul actually quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:33) who said something about the phrase “Know thyself” being a silly proverb. He said that to know the man next door is a much more useful rule. I kind of like that thought. Bringing it into the sphere of Christianity, it can mean anticipating and receiving someone—anyone—in order to find just the right way to share the Gospel that saves, even if the initial goal of that someone is to test his own intellectual skills in order to make you look like a fool. Menander’s view means knowing the needs of others and responding, even if being late to your next appointment is the result.

Know thyself. And know the man next door.

Know you’re passing away. Even better, as a Christian rescued from Death, know the new self which has been established and given by Christ. Accept that this self will be considered foolish to a world of neighbors, and yet be ready for the Holy Spirit at work in that self to be open and aware of these other selfs around you—to the dire spiritual conditions of the person next door. It’ll be in those moments that the foolishness of the Gospel is given through you. And knowing the new self also means trusting the Lord when He promises these opportunities will never be seized in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Let Your “Yes” be “Yes” and Your “No” be “No”

“Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

Jesus said that in Matthew 5:37.

“But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”

The Apostle James said that in James 5:12.

Plenty of folks spend time debating what is meant by either of these Biblical texts, but I suspect if you keep them simple—that is, you keep them in context, taking the words for what they are—you’ll find, ironically, that the way to interpret them is almost the same as their meaning: Keep things simple. In other words, know what you believe and take your stand.

Mean what you say.

Speaking of keeping things in context, I would add to the mixture the following text from Matthew 5:13-16:

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

And now let me add one more from James 1:

“He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we would be a kind of first fruits of His creation. My beloved brothers, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness that God desires.…” (vv. 18-20).

All of these texts stirred in together set the stage for us to know a couple of things.

First of all we learn that there’s really no arguing against the fact that as God’s people, we are a means for blessing the world around us. What we say and do as Christians—our words and deeds born from faith—have spiritual muscle. They have meaning as well as the potential for accomplishing both seen and unseen things.

Second, as God’s people, we can be certain that we’ve been established as those born from the Word of Truth—which is Jesus Christ, Himself. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. By our baptism into Him, we are the first fruits of truth in the world around us. This means that when someone is interacting with us, there’s a great chance they’ll be interacting with someone who will direct them to truth. And why might this happen? Because we’ve been re-created by the truth to be people who are quick to listen and slow to speak, not only as people interacting with other people, but as people facing off with so many various issues in general in this confusing world. We are a contemplative people. We don’t judge and then act in these circumstances based on our own opinions. In each instance, we align our opinions with God’s opinions—the truth—and then we move forward in response, doing our best to navigate the crazier details, weighing even these against the Word of God.

It’s a pretty neat thing to be a part of such a process. The ground is sturdy beneath someone who is a pursuer of truth for the sake of faithfulness to the One who is Truth in the flesh.

Bringing this to a point—and reflecting on the first two texts from the Bible I referenced above—we really can give very simple answers to complex questions, even in some very confusing situations, ones where 99% of the situation appears acceptable, and yet involve that pesky 1% that just doesn’t seem right.

Take for example what happened to me a couple of years ago.

I received a call from a representative of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) letting me know that I’d been nominated as a “person of influence” in Livingston County and was being asked to participate with a handful of others in a fundraising event. They called it the “Livingston County Lockup,” and the details were that I’d be “locked up” at Aubree’s Pizzeria in Brighton for an hour or so with the hopes that people in my circles would donate toward my bail. In the end, all of the money collected would go toward the MDA’s research efforts toward to a cure.

It sounded great. But I said no. I’ve taken a position by God’s Word against supporting anyone or anything that promotes abortion or the trades that keep the vicious practice in business. The MDA is one of the worst offenders when it comes to fetal tissue research. No insignificant percentage of their samples are actually the remains of aborted children they’ve purchased from various sources. In fact, it’s no secret that Planned Parenthood has long been one of the MDA’s chief suppliers.

 

I can’t support that. I’ve taken a stand against ever doing so. And I’d be a pretty rotten person if I drew any of you—unwittingly—into giving money in support of it, too. As unfortunate as it is, raising money for the MDA is to put money into the pockets of the folks at Planned Parenthood and is thereby supporting an economic situation that actually gives them an incentive for staying in business. I want Planned Parenthood out of business. But here’s where it gets a little harder.

“Isn’t Planned Parenthood already funded by the US Government?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you pay taxes?”

“Yes.”

“Isn’t there a chance that some of your dollars are going to Planned Parenthood?”

“Yes.”

“Are you going to withhold your taxes from the Government?”

“No.”

“But Pastor Thoma, wouldn’t it be great to find a cure for Muscular Dystrophy?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you think that the cost is worth the gain?”

“No.”

“I mean, these kids were going to be aborted anyway. Some were even the result of rape or incest, so isn’t it better that they would have an ultimate purpose, and that it would be one for good, perhaps saving millions in the future from a debilitating disease?”

“No.”

Each of the above “yes” or “no” answers is grounded in the Word of God, whether its Ezekiel 18:20 teaching that a child shall not pay for his father’s sins; or Matthew 22:21 where we are instructed to give Caesar his financial due; or Romans 13:1-7 where we are mandated to honor those in seats of governmental authority. Each answer is shaped by the Word of God. And when we let our yes be yes and our no be no, we have a simple point of origin for getting into the depths of the truth as it arises from the Gospel of a love so incredibly wonderful that by the power of the Holy Spirit we can’t help but want to be in alignment with the One who won our forgiveness that we would be His own and live under Him in His kingdom.

As a father, I raise my two sons to know just how important it is in this day and age for them to be men of their word. When they say they will do something, they are to do it. If they take a position on something, make sure it aligns with the Word of God and then be unbending—even when human reason might test the fences of the enclosure, even when they become tired and they see a way of escape to a safer but less truthful situation. I should add that all along the way, they must know that their efforts matter a whole lot less if they lack humility—even as their efforts relate to God’s Word. Simply put, if you discover by the Word of God you are in error, change. For example, you’ve got God’s Word all wrong if you refuse to do your homework because Ecclesiastes 12:12 says, “Much study wearies the body.” There’s no truth to be found in hearing Jesus say “Do not judge” and then refusing to call sin a sin. These statements teach us, but in such out-of-context ways, they are nothing less than God’s Word pit against itself in the same way the devil manipulated it in Matthew chapter 4. It was there that the old evil foe tried to turn the Scriptures against Jesus.

Not good.

Our “yes” and our “no” arises from faithfulness to Jesus and the whole of His Word. And I should add that in my experience, it’s pretty amazing the levels of courage to which one will ascend when challenged by a world seeking to consume everyone and everything that doesn’t get into line with its opinions.

Having said all of this, I suppose I’ll leave you with the encouragement to trust your Savior, to know that you are children born of truth who are seeking faithfulness to the One who is Truth in the flesh. Trust Jesus in the face of difficult situations that don’t make sense or appear to require an uncomfortable or counterintuitive answer. Rest your efforts on His shoulders. He’s stronger than you, anyway. Get behind Him. He is your ever-present help in trouble. Knowing this, be strengthened to let your no be no and your yes be yes—because in the end, odds are they’re His no and His yes, too.

You’ll be amazed at how much bluer the sky in any situation will become even when it seems gloomily dark. I can say this because the peace that God provides His people in times of struggle isn’t just something we talk about as an abstract. It’s real. Take a look around. You’ll discover Christians who’ve been through an awful lot—who’ve let their yes be yes and their no be no—and yet they’re still standing.

Even Jesus Took A Break

A two week vacation is one thing. The regimen of actual life is quite another. I’m sure you realize this.

It might sound unbelievable, but Jen and I figured out that the vacation we just ended was the seventh in my twenty-five years of church work. What’s unbelievable to me is that before we started taking a vacation, I never knew just how much I actually needed one.

As a kid growing up in central Illinois, it was never assumed that at some point during the summer break, the family would board a plane or jump into a car and leave everything behind. Summer wasn’t much more than freedom from the school day’s shackles. It was about getting up and feeling like every morning was Saturday. It was about counting out a hundred pennies from the penny jar (which was the entry fee to the local pool), putting them into a paper cup, and doing my best not to spill them while holding a towel and riding my bike. Or perhaps my day would begin by eating a bowl of cereal, putting my ball glove through the handlebars of my bicycle before hopping on, and adventuring through the streets of Danville with my neighborhood friends until the sun went down. Somewhere along the way, we’d find food and water. Somewhere along the way, we’d jump ramps and play games like “hot box.” Somewhere along the way, we’d make new bike trails through mid-city fields and forests behind familiar neighborhoods. Somewhere along the way we’d end up in a wrestling match—sometimes for fun and sometimes not. And always before the last of the street lights came on, my bike was back in the shed and I was ready to call it a day—at least until the late night monster movies slid in behind the evening news. Then it was time to sprawl out on the living room floor, my head resting in my hands on propped elbows, and doing my best to see if I could stay awake through to the end of the double feature.

I suppose beyond any of this, getting away meant going camping at a state park just outside of town, a place we knew just as well as our own neighborhoods. And while there, the kids would do the exact same things we did in the city. We’d ride our bikes, play hot box, cut trails, and get into scraps—all coming to an end when the campfire lights were brighter than the sky and the mosquitoes were on the hunt.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve never really known how important it is to actually take the time to put some distance between “self” and “actual life”—to actually go and do and be something that’s a little bit different than what you are the rest of the year.

For me, the going, doing, and being has pretty much become about my role as a husband, father, and writer. Yes, I experience these roles every day of the year, but admittedly, they’re more than overshadowed by my role as “pastor.” I’m a man who is and must be accessible to hundreds of others who aren’t my wife or children. As someone who enjoys the creative writing process, most of what I scribe ends up in sermons, eNews articles, or other such outlets aimed at the fulfillment of others.

It might sound like what I do all year long isn’t fulfilling, but that’s not what I mean. On vacation, things are different. Very different. And this good. And I’ve learned just how healthy it can be. Knowing this, I continue to sort out the boundaries for protecting the Thoma vacation.

Just to give you some perspective on this, while sitting on the couch watching “Shark Week” reruns with the kids, I heard a ping to my phone. It was a text from the congregation president. He’d just finished a special council meeting and was asking if I might send out a quick email to let folks know about the congregation meeting being scheduled for July 21. The meeting has to happen soon in order to complete the efforts of the Call Committee. Now, this gent is more than mindful of the sanctity of my time away, and so his text was somewhat sheepish. He just didn’t want to bother me. Still, I understand why he sent the text. As the congregation president, he had to. I’m the only one who has access to the eNews mailing list, and our by-laws require a two week notice for a congregation meeting. But no sooner than I sent that email did I receive a collection of reply messages, phone calls, and texts from folks inside and outside of the congregation—all on the mailing list—who thought I was home from my vacation. I sent a text back to the president—one adorned with a smiley face to let him know I wasn’t bothered by his request, but that next time I would just give him access to the mailing list.

Lesson learned, just like others the Thoma family has cultured over the years.

Now that we know the joy-filled rejuvenation of vacationing, we have established a family rule that we cannot vacation within a one thousand mile radius of our home. It’s kind of a mental thing. It stems from the attempts we’ve made in the past to take vacations only to be called back a few days into the getaway because of an emergency. With that, we decided that if we’re ever going to accomplish an actual vacation, we’d have to kick for the goal line. That’s when we started going to Florida instead of places like Traverse City. When we’re only a few hundred miles away, it seems easier for me to just pack up and head back home, leaving the family behind to finish the vacation.

But mentally, a thousand miles seems a lot harder. And it’s certainly more convincing on the phone.

“Pastor, there’s been a zombie outbreak in Hartland. We need you to come home and provide spiritual care to the ones who’ve been bitten and are dying. And while you’re here, we sure could use your help fighting the ones who are turning.”

“I’m a thousand miles away. Grab a Bible and pray the Psalms with them. Just be sure to do it wearing body armor—in case they turn before you finish. I’ll be back on Friday night. On Saturday, I’ll finish unpacking, and then I’ll grab my bat and get down to Hartland to help you fight the undead.”

If the caller is persistent, I’d remind him or her that rest is essential, even for Christians. We’re the ones put into place to hold the lines against both visible and invisible forces. And don’t forget, even as God doesn’t necessarily need to rest, He certainly set the stage for us to know what it means after He created the world. Ultimately, He ended up mandating rest. And then the Son of God, Jesus Christ, came along and put another divine stamp of approval on the idea of rest when He reminded us that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). A few chapters later, He urged His disciples to join Him in a much needed time of rest away from the busy cadence of serving the people (Mark 6:31).

Even Jesus took a break.

Yes, I know at a base level, when we’re talking about Sabbath rest, we’re being led to the importance of holy worship—that time of respite in the arms of the One who cares for us, giving us the forgiveness of sins and strengthening us for life in this world. But the theme of mental and physical rest is woven into these details, too. God sometimes has to mandate the good things, the beneficial things. He has to mandate silence. He has to mandate reverence. He has to mandate prayer. He has to mandate rest. He knows that if He doesn’t tell us to do it, we won’t, and then we’ll miss the benefits inherent to these things.

I guess the reason I’m spending so much time with all of this is because, first, I haven’t written an eNews article in two weeks and it’s sort of bottled up. Remember, when I sit down to write these things, it’s more or less a “say whatever comes to mind” scenario. But second, be sure to take a vacation. It doesn’t mean you have to go anywhere. It just means separating from the regimen of everyday life in order to rejuvenate the “self.”

We all need it. We might not think we do. We might think we can continue to go and go and go without ever slowing down, but we can’t. God knows it. And it’s been a hard lesson for me to learn over the course of twenty-five years.

And so with that, if you haven’t already, I hope you’ll find some time this summer to land at a restful place—whether that be a cabin up north, a place somewhere down south, or your own back yard. I hope it’ll be a time of thankfulness to God for His merciful kindness. I hope you’ll find rejuvenation, so that when the dust of everyday existence kicks up again, you’ll be just as ready as the rest of us to lock arms and hold the line in the trenches.

Home Sweet Home

At the end of this week the Thoma family will be in Florida. God willing, I’ll be back in the saddle at Our Savior on Sunday, July 14. Until then, folks at the church won’t be hearing from me by way of the weekly eNewsletter I send out. As in the past, I’ll be setting it aside with the intent on being refreshed.

Already folks have commented, saying things like, “It’ll be good to get away and do nothing for a little while.” In response, I usually offer a word of agreement, because I certainly know what they mean. But honestly, even as I’m nodding, I have in mind something along the lines of what Voltaire scribed:

“Repose is a good thing, but boredom is its brother.”

In other words, I’ll be doing anything but nothing. Among the many relaxing activities in store, the Thoma family will be playing board games, going out to dinner and seeing the sites. We’ll be swimming, walking, watching “Shark Week” bundled under blankets on the couch, and a whole host of other things.

We’ll be taking time to be together.

On a personal front, I’ll be taking time each and every morning to write about anything and everything that comes to mind—most of which usually finds its way back to many of you in the form of whisky reviews at Angelsportion.com.

As you can see, brother “boredom” will be wholly shunned on this vacation. But there’s something else I’m expecting to do.

I’m expecting to miss all of you.

First off, while vacations are nice, it’s nice to come home. Dorothy was right—there’s no place like home. The Lord put an interesting spin on the idea of “home” when He pointed out in John 14:23 that it’s not just a place, but it also has to do with the One who makes His dwelling among the people who gather within the structure. Jesus offers so straightforwardly, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my Word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

The first thing we can take from this is that Jesus is most certainly present by His Word. He promises that, and such a promise is a tender bit of comfort for anyone wondering where they might find Jesus. You can be sure that you’ll have access to Him by His Word.

But there are a couple of other things to keep in mind.

Jesus makes His home among those who, by faith, keep His Word. The word for “keep” is τηρέω (tēreō). It means “to watch over,” or even better, “to guard.” I’d say that’s a near-perfect verb for communicating the identity of the people of God at Our Savior in Hartland. When we gather together, Jesus is here. We have His Word. We hold it as our most precious possession, and there’s no question that we’ll pit ourselves against anyone or anything seeking to snatch it away.

For that, I’m thankful. Which leads to me to a final observation.

Because of who we are in Christ, by virtue of His promises among us, I know that when I come back through the doors in a few weeks, I’ll be walking into my Christian family’s home. Home is where family lives. Our Savior is also my home because all of you—my Christian family—are here.

Truly, there’s nothing better than a familiar face, a welcoming embrace, and a kind word that is sure to let you know that while you were gone, as a member of the family—a member of the body of Christ—you were missed. When it happens, and I know it will, it’ll be one more reminder to me of just how wonderful being home can be. Even anticipating it now, I can’t help but remind you to count Our Savior as your home, as well. We are your Christian family. You belong here, too. And no matter what you’ve done, this is a place where those who, by repentance and faith, exist together and are always received… and not only by our gracious and loving Savior, but by those within the walls of this home in Hartland where the Holy Spirit is busily working by the wonderful Word of the Gospel delivering our Lord’s tidal grace.

We are family by His grace.

This, of course, means that this spiritual home and the family that occupies it are nothing of themselves. Neither exist by their own doing. God brings us together. Just as you don’t choose your earthly family, neither do you choose the family of God. You’re born into it. You’re born into the Christian community through Baptism into Christ, the One who gave Himself on the cross to win for you your place before the throne as an heir of heaven.

I think that’s pretty great stuff. And I hope you think it’s pretty great stuff, too. It is a Gospel that changes the way we deal with one another, and it strengthens all of us to be honest with ourselves—to recognize our need for a Savior from Sin—and then, together as a family, to kneel before His throne of grace to be absolved of anything and everything that would cause despair in the home.

Again, I say that’s pretty great stuff.

I suppose one more thing that makes it truly spectacular is that because of the person and work of Jesus Christ, it’s all free—free as the ocean breezes that jostle the palm tree leaves I’ll be sitting beneath in Florida very soon.

I’ll think on that while I’m away. I’ll breathe it in, and I’ll remember that together with you, in Christ, we’re family. And when I get home, it’ll be great to see you.