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.

Good Luck With That

I saw a recent post on Facebook by my friend Tyrel Bramwell. He was heralding his arrival at five years in the holy ministry. Congrats, Tyrel!

I’ll say that while reading Tyrel’s post, his words regarding the challenges rang true.

It seems as though at any given point on the timeline, as a pastor, I exist in the midst of a handful of volatile situations in my congregation that have more than enough potential for keeping me awake at night—for causing restless friction in my family, impatience with others, and an overall sadness that can pall any sunny day. It’s in these moments when I can easily catch myself at the edge of saying, “I just don’t get paid enough to do this job.”

Interestingly, before I can ever get to the end of that sentence, the Lord so kindly, so faithfully, breathes a bit of refreshing air by His Word, being sure to bolster my resolve with other-worldly whispers of “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:14); and “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10); and “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me… I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:2-3, 33); and finally, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

In those divine reversals, I am reminded that God’s mandates of “Be faithful” are not over-lording commands from an uncaring Master to “toughen up, you crybaby,” but rather they are tender imperatives that bring along with them the viscera-tightening Spirit for actually steering fearlessly into the challenges and enduring them. They are empowering nudges that enable me to recall that by faith, I am the Lord’s, and with that, I’ll be okay. Be faithful. Even if Death is the endpoint, be faithful. Death no longer has mastery over me. I am a child of eternal life.

When the world faces off with a Christian positioned on such a foundation—a foundation that knows Death has been defanged, and as the “last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26), has been ultimately defeated by the resurrection of Jesus—the world had better rethink its strategy against such a person. They won’t roll over so easily.

Say what you want. Do what you will. Attack as you find opportunity. Just know that I have everything I need to keep going. And put this in your pipe and smoke it: Keep in mind that if you would tear me down from such a place of certainty, you would also need to dethrone the One who both won and gave it to me by His Holy Spirit through the Gospel of my redemption.

Good luck with that, tough guy.

And so whether any given scene be wrought with challenges or blossoming with joys, all become opportunities to give thanks to the Lord for His great love. I may be at war with the world, but I’m not at war with Him. That war ended at Calvary. In Jesus, I am at peace with God, and everything will be just fine.

Again, any person, place, or thing in this life scheming against someone who stands firmly on this Gospel had better go back into the devil’s basement and come up with a better plan. And once again, I say, good luck to you.

In the Midst of Regret, Get Behind Jesus

I posted something last week that got quite the response. If you missed it, you can read it at https://cruciformstuff.wordpress.com/2019/06/10/the-death-and-burial-of-the-christian-faith/.The thrust of my words, which I know hit some folks pretty squarely: Death comes for all, and a funeral filled with the hopelessness of a family that has strayed from the faith is a dreadful thing.

There were, as I expected, a few who reached to me in response. They said in summary: “Your words came a few years too late, Pastor. I didn’t put the effort that I probably should’ve into raising my children. I wasn’t deliberate in teaching them who they are as God’s child; how as His forgiven people we are to hold to His Word as our everything; how worship is essential to life itself, especially as we venture into a world in conflict with the Christian faith. I didn’t do these things with my kids. I didn’t steer them faithfully. Now they’ve strayed. They’re living with their boyfriend or girlfriend. They’ve married someone who is more than pulling them away from Christ. They subscribe to lifestyles that are contrary to God’s Word. My grandkids aren’t baptized. I feel terrible, pastor, and I wish I would’ve done more.”

I won’t lie. These are the words of real regret. And they hurt. Harriet Beecher Stowe rightly said, “The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.”

The honesty of regret sets before us a very important, but also very simple, question: Now what? I would say the answer to this question is of equal import and simplicity: Jesus.

The only way through regret is to look to Christ. And such remorseful pivoting is the humility of a penitent faith that acknowledges some things.

First it acknowledges the humanness in which we dwell. Even now as we say, “If I could go back, I’d do things differently,” the honest and contrite heart admits that we probably wouldn’t do things differently. We are sinners and we get trapped in the same kinds of sins over and over again—even the ones we know can destroy us.

In brutal honesty, a penitent heart of faith also acknowledges that we’re the ones responsible. We don’t look to others around us, our conditions, or anything else in order to find loopholes for excusing our thoughts, words, and deeds done or left undone. We are to blame.

It’s here that the human heart peers into a darkness of sorts. In that darkness, faith and regret wrestle.

Regret sees nothing but a hopelessly endless night. But faith in Christ and His merciful care proves stronger. By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel of forgiveness for any and all things we’ve ever done—even the grim failures marked by regret—faith beholds the deep darkness of midnight becoming a more hopeful blue, which is a kinder color promising that night won’t remain forever, but that soon the sunlit morning of a brand new day is coming. In other words, by faith we confess our sins, and we know with certainty that God in His faithfulness will forgive us and give us a brand new start.

Forgiveness buries regret. Life begins anew. Life begins right now.

In the midst of that hope-filled turnaround, Jesus has plenty of Gospel to give, and by it, He steadies us with a courage of word and skill we didn’t seem to have years ago. He reminds us that even workers who come late to the harvest will receive the same glorious reward (Matthew 20:1-16). God is merciful. He desires that all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), which also means that He won’t be working against anyone in any of their efforts to do now what they didn’t do years ago (Psalm 118:6-9).

Next, by His Gospel He never fails to show us the determination of a parent for a child. He wants for our rescue. In particular, in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), our God paints the portrait of an enduring and long-suffering love He has for us, and it’s one that He can work in us as we reach back into the lives of our own families. By God’s grace, the muscle for doing this remains available to us as we remain connected to Christ and His gifts in holy worship.

The example of Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine, comes to mind.

If ever there was a prodigal son, it was Augustine. His mother raised him in the faith, and yet he strayed terribly. He lived with a woman, fathered child, and lived a life of self-centered decadence. And yet, she prayed—which some might say is an understatement. Monica lived and breathed a vigil that God would move Augustine to embrace the Gospel truth he’d been given. When he moved away from his mother to Milan, she followed him, even joining Saint Ambrose’s church. Eventually Augustine did return to the faith, and as it would be, did so not long before his mother’s death. He wrote in his Confessions that he was thankful to God for her diligence—that she never gave up, but rather wept prayerfully for him for so many years.

Continuing on, God is certain to both remind and then comfort us that even as we are tools in His hands for others, no one within reach of any of us is convinced or converted by our efforts. Faith is worked by the power of the Gospel (Romans 1:16; 10:17). It’s not our job to save anyone. It’s our task to give that which saves and to pray to the Lord of the harvest to produce the fruit. And so we do what we can when and where we can to give the message of Christ’s death and resurrection in love as Christ gave it to us (2 Corinthians 5:14). Sometimes we’ll find ourselves in situations where we might season our speech with the salt of the Gospel (Colossians 4:6). Other times we’ll find ourselves communicating the Gospel without words. Once again, Monica comes to mind. She had been given in marriage to Patricius, an unbeliever. She tried to encourage him, but in the end, discovered that simply following the Lord’s Word in 1 Peter 3:1-6 was the better way. Eventually, Patricius became a Christian. We can be as Monica. We can display a love for Christ and His Gospel through simple, everyday deeds—such as praying before a meal and teaching the grandkids to do the same, making time to go to church even while visiting family out of state, and so many other things—knowing these actions themselves proclaim a trust in and commitment to the One who gave His life for the world. And who knows? Perhaps by these potent displays, onlookers will see Christ and give Him glory (Matthew 5:13-16).

I could go on sharing other particulars I know the Lord can work in and through you as you step from the regret of “Now what?” into the action of “Right now,” but I suppose the last thing I’ll mention is Christ’s promise to be with you. He is true to His Word, and He has more than established that He is with us always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20), a promise connected to baptism and the teaching of His Word. Naturally, from that promise comes the fortified certainty that He will never leave nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5), that He will not leave you orphaned in your newfound desire to engage in this work, but rather will come to you (John 14:18) and make His home with you (John 14:23).

God will set up residence in your midst. That’s a wonderful promise.

My prayer for you is, first, one of strength, that God would give you all that is necessary for enduring the way forward. Second, I pray for your comfort. Cast aside the regret and get behind Jesus. The devil will poke at you, doing all he can to remind you of your failures. And as you reach back into the lives of your loved ones with the saving Gospel, he’ll stir up as many disheartening obstacles as he can. He’ll see to making you feel foolish. He’ll see to the suggestion that it’s a lost cause. He’ll see to the sense that by speaking the truth in love, you are being offensive and at the edge of alienating a family member.

Don’t worry. Get behind Jesus and stay there. Trust Him. Cling to His Word. Remember, He’s the one who told Peter (a seasoned fisherman who’d already been fishing all night and caught nothing) to cast His net into the deep water at a time of day when all reasonable sense suggested it would be an incredibly foolish thing to do (Luke 5:1-11).

Jesus gives the Word. It’s a Word of great power and hope. We trust Him and we let down our nets. We don’t expect anything beyond this except that He will give the successes according to His good and gracious will. Even more so, if we labor on and eventually breathe our last without having seen any results, we can remain at peace in His comforting love, because His promise still stands that our labor in the Lord was never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). There is no doubt that something wonderful was indeed accomplished through us.

God grant for you the humble faith to believe this, the comfort to know our Lord’s forgiveness, and the courage go forward from here.

The Death and Burial of the Christian Faith

The school year has ended.

When anything comes to an end, it’s not unusual to think on the finality of life itself—that approaching day when each of us will inhale and then exhale for the very last time. Anticipating that final moment, rich or poor, weak or strong, legendary or just a regular Joe, each and every person will at some point betray human fragility and show concern for particular things.

In those contemplative moments, some worry they’ll die without a legacy, that perhaps they’ll simply disappear into history without having made a memorable impact on this world. Others show concern for the material comfort of their twilight years and the financial wellbeing of those they leave behind. Some invest all their worry feeling they haven’t lived their lives to the fullest, being uneasy about the career they chose, the places they’ve gone, and the things they’ve seen. Many, if not most, admit to wondering about the words others will use to describe them at their funeral. What will people say?

I’ll admit that I experience the occasional commotion from such thoughts. And why wouldn’t I? Like you, I’m human.

Still, even as these thoughts muscle in, they’re never gripping enough to haunt me. I have deeper concerns, one of which took shape two weeks ago during a funeral.

The Lord’s house was full. The family of the deceased filled the first two rows of the pulpit-side pews. Among them sat three generations of ancestry. Beyond those two pews, the room held a crowd of distant relatives and close friends.

The service began, and with it came a tidal wash of something dreadful—something I don’t want happening at my funeral.

When you think about it, a Lutheran funeral really is an easy conversation of sorts. It’s situated in God’s Word. The rhythm is one in which God speaks (through His word by way of a pastor) and the congregation responds. At this particular funeral, the cadence of the conversation was far different. The Word of God was given, but silence was almost always the reply.

I spoke the invocation, but the congregation didn’t react. I prayed. There was no response. I read aloud the Scriptures, finishing as Lutherans do with “This is the Word of the Lord,” but the people didn’t answer. Even with the liturgy and all of its components printed in detail and being held in their hands, the room was hushed at every turn, only the barest number of voices being heard. What bothered me the most is that while the pipe organ was sounding out in grandeur and carrying some of the most Gospel-potent hymns that have ever been written—hope-filled anthems that have inspired armies to charge through the flames in defense of the Gospel—still the people in the funeral sat silently. Barely a handful sang.

It’s disheartening when a mighty song of Christ’s triumph over Death is resounding and the only voices to be heard are those of the pastor and maybe two or three others.

Why did it happen this way?

I refuse to say that it’s because more and more people don’t like to sing in public. Stop by Our Savior in Hartland on a Sunday sometime and you’ll hear a full-throated resonation of liturgy and hymnody that will hastily negate that perception. I also refuse to accept the premise that the liturgy and hymns are too difficult to follow or sing. Regularly immersed in these things, I know three-year-olds who can sound them out with reverence and carefree ease. Lastly, I won’t submit to the idea that what we’re doing isn’t meeting the people where they are. That’s just an excuse for dumbing things down—for embracing anthropocentric preference over Christocentric substance—and I just won’t do it.  And besides, if we’re being honest, when it comes to the things of God, that’s not the direction the Scriptures encourage.

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-4).

My best guess as to why a funeral might unfold this way: The Christian faith in this family died years ago and is only now being put into the casket for burial.

What I mean is that years ago, family routines were established that competed with Sunday morning worship. Years ago, perhaps during the high school years, I’m guessing that church attendance was set before the children in the home as optional. Years ago, the parents had nothing to say about how important it is to date other Christians in preparation for eventually choosing a Christian spouse. Years ago, the parents were too distracted or timid to do and say some very important things that would prepare their children for engaging in a world spinning in opposition to the Christian faith.

And now the church organ is sounding with might but the church pews are silent and weak. It’s painful, but it’s honest. One can’t sing with integrity what one doesn’t believe.

Unfortunately, this is more and more becoming the standard. Funerals are becoming more the opportunity to exist in a fumbling and uncomfortable stillness, rather than being a time of voicing a joyful hope in Christ by people who actually believe what they’re seeing, hearing, and saying.

And it’s not just funerals.

Far too many young couples are stopping by my office and asking me to preside at their wedding even as they’re already living together. Such a scenario is becoming appallingly commonplace. In tandem, there’s the ever-increasing trend of young parents requesting baptisms for their children, but they’re only interested because grandma is pestering them. They’re willing to act on the first part of Christ’s mandate, which is to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Unfortunately, they have no intention for keeping the second part—“and teach them all things”—which is the promise to raise the children in the Christian faith (Matthew 28:19-20). Both parts go together. You can’t have one without the other.

And so, coming back around to where I began…

For me personally, I suppose my chief concern is not how much money I’ll have when I die. And I suppose I don’t really care if I ever get to exotic locales on vacation. It would be nice, but I’m not salivating over it. As far as fearing that I’ve not maximized my potential, while I’m sure I could be using my talents toward more lucrative enterprises, I’m absolutely certain the Lord has me right where He wants me.

What I hope for most in the face of my own death is that, firstly, when it arrives at my door, I’ll be found trusting in Christ. I say this as I’ve been in the room with a dying person who teetered at the edge of uncertainty. Uncertainty in the face of Death is the absolute equivalent of maximum dread. It is uncontaminated terror and I’ve seen it.

And so, secondly, my hope is that none in my family will experience this terror. I hope to have passed along an uncompromising faith in Christ to my own children—one that will be more than detectable in their spouses and children, one that will more than prove itself at my funeral. My hope is that the hymns will be full, my sorrowing family will give hearty replies of thankfulness to the Lord’s comforting Gospel, and the words spoken of me by the pastor who knew me—if he chooses to speak of me at all—will be ones that in every way find their way back to Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of the faith I possessed and the faith I did all I could to secure in the hearts and minds of my own loved ones.

I don’t say this with a prideful spirit. My goal is really very simple. I want my family to be with Jesus in the glories of heaven. And as an added bonus, I want to know we’ll be within arm’s reach of one another there.

Emily Dickinson was right when she mused, “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.” Unless the Lord returns first, everyone will eventually be the guest of honor at a funeral. My encouragement to you is to make the most of the time you have for fortifying the Christian faith in your family. Do all that you can to be faithful in worship. Do all that you can to balance the joy of sporting commitments with the absolute priority of keeping to the baptismal mandate for raising your children in the faith. Be mindful in every circumstance to talk with them about the substance of what it is that we believe as Christians according to the Word of God and what it means to be a child of Christ in a world that isn’t all that fond of the Lord.

In the broad scheme of things, nothing else really matters all that much. Life in this world is temporary. Life in the next is eternal. Unfortunately, far too many in the church don’t even begin to think about such things until the time of parental influence is too far out of reach or Death is already applying the brakes to the carriage and preparing to stop at the door.

My proposition: Consider and act on it now. In fact, the time before us—the season of summer—is the perfect time to begin. Summer is filled with grand temptations for steering clear of Christian worship and daily devotion. But don’t. Wrestle through it with your kids and commit wholeheartedly to continued time with the Lord.

It’s the right thing to do. It’s the faithful thing. And it’ll be worth it in the end.