Study the Word and You’ll See

I mentioned yesterday after worship that because I’d spent a good portion of last week trying to adjust to a new medication, I didn’t actually get to the meat of the sermon writing process until early Sunday morning. That rarely happens, but when it does, I don’t like it. I don’t like it because I don’t feel as prepared with the text, at least not as prepared as I think a preacher should be. Still, I used the time I had at my disposal, and I kept close to a more simpler pace of just observing the scene in the text and then being what I am as a Christian man—someone who is excited to know Christ, a witness who wants to tell you what I’ve seen and heard, a friend who wants very much to introduce you to Jesus. Working from this perspective, the task of preaching is really rather eventual. It has a way of coming alive. It has a way of becoming otherworldly and beautiful, and it has the potential for causing anyone to feel a little like Andrew running to tell his brother Peter, or Philip running to tell Nathaniel, “I have found the Messiah!”

But this reminds me of something else, too, and a guy by the name of O.C. Edwards poked at it when he wrote: “When you come right down to it, the idea that the most exciting message the world has ever heard can be presented in a way that makes it sound old hat and dull is mind boggling. There are probably only two circumstances under which that could happen. First, we are uninteresting, or second, we find the gospel uninteresting. In either case, something ought to be done about it.”

Truth be told, he’s talking about those who are called to preach. Nevertheless, I think his words still resonate for all Christians in a practical way, especially as the Church finds herself more and more immersed in a culture of religiosity where the Gospel is just one thing among many things, and often considered as not all that important in comparison. To say it another way, Christians are not immune to portraying to the world that we like the Gospel, but we don’t necessarily love it. When this is true, it affects the way we communicate Christ to others.

Maybe another, more practical way to think about this would be to consider something that Richard Hays, a New Testament professor at Duke Divinity School, once said about one of his former professors, Alvin Kernan:

“When I was an undergraduate at Yale University, students flocked to Alvin Kernan’s lecture courses on Shakespeare… Even though it was the late 1960s and we were living in an atmosphere charged with political suspicion and protest, none of this overtly impinged on Kernan’s lectures. Kernan was not a flashy lecturer. What, then, was the draw? He loved the texts.”

In other words, Kernan was an expert on Shakespeare, but being an expert didn’t make him a productive communicator of Shakespeare. Hays sheds a little more light:

“His teaching method, as I remember it, was simply to engage in reflective close readings… delineating their rich texture of image and metaphor and opening up their complex themes – moral, philosophical, and religious. Often, Kernan would devote a significant part of his lecture time to reading the text aloud, not in a highly dramatic manner, but with sensitivity to the texts’ rhythms and semantic nuances. I would often sit in class thinking, “Oh, I hadn’t heard that in the text before.” And I would leave the class pondering the problems that Shakespeare addressed: love, betrayal, fidelity, sacrifice, death, and hope.”

Quite simply, Kernan was in love with and devoted to the texts of Shakespeare. When he wasn’t teaching Shakespeare, he was reading Shakespeare and enjoying it for himself, and this directly affected his telling of the story to others.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28). I’m sure I’ve shared with you before that the word Jesus uses in the Greek for “keep” is one that relays a defense of something considered to be invaluable and most precious. Considering this, while at the same time knowing that by faith, a Christian is in the deepest of loves with the One who spoke the words, we learn something very important.

And here’s where I’m going to suggest that you follow Kernan’s example and immerse yourself in the study of something you love…

Consider joining the Sunday morning adult Bible study because regular study of the Word of God is crucial!

Now, don’t stop reading here. Keep going.

Through the study of God’s Word, not only is the Christian fed from the divine wellspring that gives true wisdom for salvation, but there’s another product of the effort that many might overlook, and it’s that it provides a depth for a multitude of discussions. And when one is truly prepared, one is much more confident and convincing. Again, what I mean is that there’s a genuine difference between someone who knows about the Ark of the Covenant and someone who has spent time in the Word admiring its golden dimensions. There’s a difference between someone who knows about the Israelites being pursued by Pharaoh and someone who, through deliberate study of God’s Word, has had the opportunity to be led in a way that sees the fear in the Israelites’ eyes and feels the quaking ground—the rocks trembling and the dust rising—as Pharaoh’s army charges toward them in pursuit. There’s a difference between knowing the story of the feeding of the five thousand and being so aware of the implications of the event that one can begin to hear the rumbling stomachs of the hungry crowd and be concerned. It’s one thing to say so nonchalantly, “Yeah, Jesus died on the cross,” but it’s something altogether different to study Saint Paul’s words regarding the depth of the event, and by this, to be led to envision the blackened clouds of darkness and to feel the stern breezes casing the scene at Golgotha. I could go on and on, telling you how Easter is just one thing that happens every year for so many Christians, and yet for those immersed in the study of God’s Word, it is an emotionally jostling celebration that sees the absolute unexpected become reality—Sin and Death have been done away with forever—and it’s a reality that applies to us right now!

Like I said, I could go on and on about this stuff, but I suppose I’ve already written way more than most people might be willing to read. With that, I pray that you’ll take these words to heart and that you’ll think about joining the adult study on Sunday. My words are given here in love as they are given from someone who, like Andrew and Philip, has met the Messiah and truly wants for you to meet Him, too.

Visiting the Classics

The Lord be with you. I pray all is well with you and your family and that your summer has been more or less relaxing so far. For me, your pastor, a man who pretty much writes a five page paper each week and needs time to refill his mental reservoir in various ways in order to do it, I’ve had the chance to really dig into Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, and at the same time, I’ve managed to visit a little here and there with some of the finer bits of literature from folks like Twain and Dickens.

Twain cultivates insightful observation. Dickens is an artisan of language.

It may sound somewhat trite to say, but the classics are classics for a reason. They have a proven way with words. They communicate so well, and in this, they have become tools for teaching communication. Personally, I think they are gifts to preachers. They emulate ways we might use language for introducing a listener to Jesus.

I know, I know. Someone might already be thinking, “Just preach the text, Thoma, and don’t worry about this kind of stuff.” To that, I say, “Humbug.” I say this not because I don’t want to preach the text. You, the members of this congregation, already know that I do. What I mean is that when you intentionally employ some of the communication tools—things like point-of view, simile, hyperbole, personification, and others—you find yourself capable of communicating in a way that’s less talking about Jesus and more preaching Jesus to the listener. In other words, and by way of example, let’s say you want your son to meet the new child who just moved in down the street. You could tell your son about him, or you could put in the extra, more intense effort and walk him down there and introduce him. With this, you’ve made your son a participant in the event, and in so doing have cultivated for a better chance at friendship.

Care with the language that goes into the sermon—looking at all of the propers, hymns, and the like and finding ways to join them all together with a verbal cadence set on true faithfulness—this takes work, but in the end, it’s well worth it. Additionally, and personally, I think it helps to keep the never ending task of preaching the same texts over and over again somewhat fresh. And I suppose that in a purely human sense, it helps the listener absorb and maintain what’s been preached for a little longer than five minutes.

Of course, preachers can safely admit that in all of this, the Holy Spirit will impact the heart exactly how He sees fit when the Gospel is purely preached. Still, that should never give the preacher license to be lazy with the task and ultimately the words. He’s not putting on a show, but he is doing everything he can to handle the Word of God carefully and to communicate it the best way.

I think that visiting with the classics helps in this effort, and so I do it. And I’m just glad that this summer has afforded some time for the exercise.

I Could Never Have Imagined It

(Please note that I do not share the name of the missionary due to the danger he and his family could experience because of this post.)

What a pleasure it was to have Pastor ****** and his family with us in the Divine Service and leading the Bible study hour yesterday. To hear all of what is being accomplished by God’s grace through such servants across the massive region that he now oversees is incredibly heartening to say the least. I’m sure that like you, after hearing and seeing his presentation, you know that the Lord has raised up the right man for the right job at the right time.

There were two things in particular that he said yesterday that continue to resonate with me this morning as I write this note.

The first of these is when he mentioned a small gathering of men studying the Book of Concord in Vietnam, and at one point during his time with them, Pastor ****** offered his own sadness that they were so terribly persecuted for their Christian faith. But one of the men surprisingly replied that he hoped the persecution would never end. He explained that he was far more fearful that if the challenges ever subsided, the Christians might be tempted to begin taking what they have for granted.

This is an astoundingly potent truth, one that brings to mind the ever-present challenge of convincing American Christians not only why it is so important to be present in holy worship, but also to take the faith seriously—to know and understand that membership in the Church isn’t just one freedom among many that we enjoy, but rather it is the design and desire of Jesus Christ for administering what you need to save your soul for eternal life. I would even go so far as to say that it is the single most important wellspring for the truest freedom that matters most in this world.

We seem to be losing this understanding in the American churches, and it brings to mind what I’ve heard from one of my former professors who spent some time in Madagascar. He said, essentially, that the Christians there consider the United States to be a slothful and ungodly nation, one that shows no concern for what faith in Christ really means, thereby making the U.S. a prime mission field.

Yes, Africa is sending missionaries to the United States. Who’d have ever imagined such a thing?

The other thing that came to mind during the presentation was the picture of his daughter holding her teacher’s hand to her forehead. He explained that in Thailand when the students come into the classroom each morning, they are to exhibit a form of respect for the teacher by taking his or her hand and touching it their foreheads. I researched this. It is a well-entrenched practice of culture. In one particular article it noted that this was really more a sign of reverence for the office of teacher, one in which the child acknowledged that he or she was not only well below the teacher in wisdom, but was willing to learn and be grateful for the lessons that would be placed into the mind by their hand.

Again, I wonder if in the swelling tide of radical individualism in America, we are losing this fundamentality. To illustrate, consider the following.

Truth be told, it is becoming more and more common that I end up in conversations with students in our school who have shown a surprising level of disrespect to a teacher, whether it’s blatant obstinacy or simply bad-manners and discourteous speech. Roles are becoming blurry. But no matter the behavior, even as the opportunity for repentance and forgiveness is fostered, in these moments I’ve found it necessary to make one thing very clear as I’m speaking to the child: No student in the school is my equal, and no student in the school should consider his or herself to be equal to any of the adults on the premises. Certainly a student may be counted as an equal at home or by a coach on a team or whatever, but here in the order of academia, the child is the child and the adult is the adult, the student is the student and the teacher is the teacher. Proper adherence to this order as faithful to the Fourth Commandment is expected, and when it is time for it to be enforced, if there is an unwillingness to comply, there should be the expectation of unpleasant proceedings.

I dare say that there was a time when all of this, for the most part, was innately understood in classrooms. But not so much anymore. We have to teach this now. What I mean is that as a young student, it would never even have crossed my mind to show up for class having deliberately disregarded my homework assignment just because I didn’t want to do it. Likewise, it never would have crossed my mind to be told by my teacher to do something and to so plainly tell them, “No, I’m not going to do that.”

I could never have imagined it then. As the pastor of a school who is familiar enough even with the education philosophies in the public schools, I can see that the problem is fairly inescapable in our nation.

Now, before I leave you with the impression that I came away from the presentation completely deflated, you should know that I didn’t. Instead, I was reinvigorated by the joy of knowing that in so many places across the world, in fact wherever the Gospel is being preached, it is being sponged by the people. God is at work and people are being brought to faith. As a result, there is a genuine craving for pastors, teachers, Bibles, hymnals, the liturgy, and so many substantive things that make for and sustain faith in Jesus Christ. This is exciting to see, and I know that a congregation like ours understands the crucial nature of such mission work and we want to see it continue. It’s one reason why we continue the fight to maintain confessional Lutheranism in this place and we never bow to surrender the importance of preserving a Christian day school in our community. It is well worth the struggle.

Praise God for this power of the Holy Spirit by the Gospel among us! Let it be the lens for interpreting the challenges that are ever before us, while at the same time stirring us to know that no matter how tough things may be, our labor in the Lord is never in vain!

Give Jesus to Your Children

I don’t know about you, but I sort of feel like the summer is already flying by far too quickly. It seems like only a few days ago we were getting ready for the last day of school and the celebrations that followed, now we’re nearing the middle of July! Time certainly does fly right by!

I know that in the days leading up to the break, Jennifer and the kids put together a list of the extra things they wanted to try to do this summer, such as visits to the park, picnics, swimming, and a host of other things. The heat has been somewhat of an obstacle for several of the activities. My own personal list involved doing a whole lot less than normal—in fact, a whole lot of nothing—and yet I’ve found myself in the middle of finishing a basement renovation before Joshua’s graduation party this Saturday. It wasn’t necessarily how I was planning to spend my midsummer evenings, but looking at it long term, it will be worth the effort when it’s done. I suppose there are a lot of things we can view from this same perspective.

Considering my son Joshua and looking back over the years, I’m sure that just like me, you can think on times when raising your own children was a difficult task. In fact, you might say it was one of the most challenging endeavors that the Lord ever allowed. It’s not uncommon for Jennifer and me to turn at look at one another in any particular circumstance involving our children and say, “Would you have ever thought you’d be here right now?” The answer is almost always, “No.” And it’s an honest no, because when either of us was younger—still kids, in a sense—who’d have thought we’d ever really be on the other end of the strange situations that we were imposing on our own parents. Forget the diaper changes. Over the course of years, that seems easy to me now. I’m talking about the late night in the Emergency Room because the child made a poor choice on the jungle gym, or terrifying diagnosis, or a conversation of comfort and encouragement in the face of a friend’s harsh words, or the seemingly never-ending sanitizing when the Rota virus is sweeping through the house, or sorting through a situation when the child did something wrong and found himself in trouble, or the countless hours of cleaning only to see everything wrecked again in less than ten minutes, or the arguments about this or that issue. I could go on and on, and I’m sure that most anything I’d share would resonate with many of you. But the point is that a lot goes into seeing a child through to adulthood, and while many of the events are not what we may have wanted or expected, I stand here at the edge of our first child’s graduation from high school and I say that the work was worth it.

But having said this, there’s a more important point that needs to be shared, and it’s that without the Lord and His Gospel being at the heart of the effort, there’d have been no chance of true success. And by success, I don’t mean that the child manages to stay out of prison and instead gets a great job, has a great marriage, and is a productive member of society. What I mean is that the child has been raised in a way to know the savior, Jesus Christ, and the forgiveness of sins He has won by His life, death, and resurrection. This is most important.

I’m pretty sure I once shared in a sermon that while I’ve had many goals as a dad, the most important thing to me is that when I’m well situated in the midst of heaven’s eternity, at some point along the way, my wife and children will be within arm’s reach, and I’ll be able to turn to them and say, “I’m so glad you’re here.” That’s what I want most. And so all of the effort now, no matter how challenging it may be, has as its main strategy the effort to keep Jesus in the middle of it all.

Always be willing to give Jesus to your children. And I encourage you to do this as much as you can while you can. Of course this means being faithful in worship, but it also means keeping Christ at the center of life’s occurrences—both good and bad. Again, things may or may not turn out for success in this life. Our children may stray. They may get into some serious, life-altering trouble. But in the end, their hearts will have been regularly cultivated to know that, ultimately, Christians are not inheritors of this world. We are inheritors of the world to come, and so we continue to introduce Christ to our families knowing that the Word of the Gospel is powerful, and in the hour of deepest need, there is the promise of forgiveness no matter how long and hard the road has been.

It will be a moment when the effort seemed so challenging—and sometimes even hopeless—but in the end, it will have been worth it.

I pray the Lord’s blessings by this Gospel to you and your family. I am most certainly confident that it is the only true message of power that can actually change human history and establish the best future for our kids.

Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse

As always, I pray all is well for you this week and that the approaching Fourth of July holiday will be a joyous one.

I had an interesting occurrence this past week, one that, of course, stirred a particular thought that I’d like to share.

During Philip Haney’s visit here at Our Savior, I managed to have a quick conversation with a pastor with whom I’m friends online but have never actually met in person. It was nice to visit together in person, and while we were talking in my office, at one point his eyes shifted to the shelf beyond my desk where I keep all of my classical literature volumes. If you’ve ever been in my office for any length of time, then you’ll know I have reasonably full assemblage of Dickens and Shakespeare and Twain and so many others—all the good stuff. But as he was observing the selections from a short distance, he noticed lying sideways across the top of editions by Hemingway, Hawthorne, and Poe an obviously well-read volume entitled The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks.

Yes, you read that rightly. I have a book that I read pretty regularly about how to survive a zombie apocalypse.

“What’s a guy like you doing reading a book like that?” was the tone of my friend’s commentary.

The essentials of my answer:

While the book is written with a tone of complete seriousness, it’s easy to see how it deals with itself and its own momentousness as being nothing short of laughably entertaining. With that, it’s not entirely uncommon for me, before wading into challenging moments of great seriousness, to first read from Psalm 27 or 32, and then to measure my own emotions by flipping through Brooks’ volume for some satirical levity. In other words, after receiving the right comfort for my soul from the Lord, I’ll say to myself before things get a little crazy, “Well, it could be worse,” and then I’ll turn to a chapter about how important it is in a zombie apocalypse to keep one’s hair short lest the undead have one more thing to grab in close-quarters combat.

Yeah, I know. Silly, right? Still, I share it because it leads to a deeper point, at least for me—and I hope I can explain it properly.

God speaks by way of His Word regarding the ultimate peace we have in Jesus, how it overcomes all things. This Word actually changes us to know that there is nothing that this world can throw at us that is so powerful that it can conquer our Lord and His promises. Giving this serious consideration, that’s what I mean when I read the zombie guide and say, “Well, it could be worse.” Sure, things can always get worse. Zombies are the perfect example. But still, the promise is that even if we suddenly find ourselves surrounded by them, the promises of God do not change. There’s still nothing that can ever be so overwhelming in the life of a Christian that it can actually usurp God’s loving might and His efforts to keep us in steadfast in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Christ died that we might have eternal life—not a zombie-free life. With that in mind, and as silly as it may sound, I really can make my way into some pretty threatening situations without getting too flustered, overly-bothered, or angry. In fact, after reading about strategies for protecting a two-story home from a ghoulish horde, a smile and a lighter step comes a little more easily when talking to someone who’d much rather call me an enemy than a friend. And trust me, a kindly, easier smile in such circumstances is much more fruitful than one that is forced.

With that, take what you can from this casual rambling from a fellow human being who struggles with sin in this world and the challenges it brings just as much as the next person. And I suppose you can be assured that if you ever need a good handbook on zombies, I’m your guy.