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.