Illusionary Moons

Last Thursday morning on the way to the church, I stopped my Jeep beside a farm on Linden Road and attempted to take a picture of the moon. The pale sphere was massive and full, and it hung just above the horizon. Its appearance was so grand, and its presence so near, I felt as though I could reach out and touch it.

To be sure, we all know the foolishness of trying to capture celestial moments like this. And my foolishness was proven by the moon’s barely representable image on my camera. Before my naked eye, it looked grand, but in reality, it wasn’t so. What I was seeing was an illusion.

I’ve read about this before. I know there’s more than one theory as to why the moon looks the way it does when it’s so close to the horizon. Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher, wrote that it had nothing to do with science, but was really nothing more than a trick of the mind.

Philosophers. Go figure.

Ptolemy claimed it had something to do with a combination of things, namely optics and light refraction. Strange, though. Even though what I was doing in that moment was a waste of time—because it has never worked for me before—I still attempted to capture the image anyway. And of course, the result was as it has been in the past: a distant and blurry dot seated in an unreachable expanse.

Funny. We keep on doing the same old things.

In the end, I suppose it wasn’t a complete waste of time. I drove away with plenty to consider.

Mindful of God’s Word, I realized how even the natural laws can serve as powerful extensions for much deeper truths. Even a solitary moment beside a farmer’s field on a brisk and misty morning can be a useful metaphor capable of teaching something really very important, maybe even becoming a moment for multi-tiered self-diagnosis.

At first, I was reminded of how humanity tries to encapsulate things that just aren’t there—to grasp the ungraspable, to control the uncontrollable, to take hold of something’s fixed substance but really only being found swatting at its shadow. I suppose the topic of human sexuality was the first example that came to mind that morning, but that probably because I was listening to a podcast hosted by a transgender man discussing current attempts across the country to expand the meaning of the word “sex” to include “sexual orientation and gender identity” in the civil rights legislation in various states.

He argued with heartfelt sincerity, and he presented his case with believable concern.

In that moment, there was the grandest of illusionary moons right in front of me. In the podcast, there was a biological man putting himself before this spinning globe as a woman, doing all he could to play the part. But then I paused the podcast, stopped my car, and I took the picture. Natural Law remained fixed. The moon was as the moon really is. When I pressed the play button, no matter how hard he tried to sound feminine, his deeper, gentlemanly voice always betrayed the biological man. I’m sure if I saw a picture of him, the same betrayal would occur.

This was my initial contemplation, and for the record, it didn’t really last all that long. I stopped the podcast, and drove the rest of the way to the church listening to a mix of songs Evelyn made for me. And as I did, more applications swept through.

For one, I pondered the temptation of Man to believe his deeds play a part in salvation.

Our efforts seem so grand. Our good deeds appear so bright, beaming with a superior light in comparison to the other stars in the heavens. But then God takes out the camera of His holy Word, and through the lens of His Law, we see the distance between us and what we would like to believe our abilities to be. The parable Christ told of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14 reveals this foolishness clearly. The momentary self-analysis Paul performs in Romans 7:14-24 does, too. And if we somehow miss these easily-digestible texts, there’s always the all-encompassing reminder of Mankind’s birth in Sin in places like Psalm 51:5.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

In summary, God doesn’t hold back on making sure we see our attempts to win His favor by our deeds for what they are: an infinitesimal speck on the horizon of worthiness. In fact, even using the word “worthiness” is being overly generous. In Sin, we’re completely dead (Ephesians 2:5). Apart from the Holy Spirit’s work in and through us for faith in Christ, we’re a dead sky—deep, dark, and completely barren.

Then there’s the Gospel—and the moon’s metaphor works here, too. In this instance, however, the illusion is reversed.

The sinful flesh struggles within me to communicate one thing, but the eyes of faith see something completely different. My sinful flesh would have me believe that because I am so dreadful, God is distant, that He could never love me, that He’ll be forever out of reach, that I’ll be forever squinting to see His mercy. But the Holy Spirit works through the Gospel, and by faith, I put down the mechanisms of this world and behold that which they cannot reveal. God is not far, but near. He is with me. He has seen me in my desperate state, and He’s reached to me in love through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. By Him, I am not lost, but rescued. By Him, I am not condemned, rather I’m justified and counted as His holy one (John 3:16-18).

Of all the allegories born from that beautiful display by the moon last Thursday, this was the best one. If I’d had a lawn chair in the car, I’d have set it near the edge of the field and watched until the moon finally dissipated into a more sunlit atmosphere. I’d probably have broken into chanting Psalms 8, 19, and 139; all texts proclaiming the majestic glory of God’s wonderful creation.

With that image in your mind, I offer one last important note.

Notice that God’s Word was the translator in all of this. As I observed the natural world, God’s Word was governing my discoveries. And so I say, stay in the Word. Live in it. Hold fast to it. It will always provide the better, truer, view of your surroundings. With a faith fed by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God, each and every moment will always be so much more than a natural occurrence. Each moment will hold the potential for teaching. It will be an opportunity for seeing Christ at work when and where the world cannot, just as the Lord said in John 14:19.

A Sense of Humor

Maybe you sensed by my last few eNews messages that one of the bigger concerns I have during this time of quarantine is the seemingly irreparable damage that is occurring between people—friends becoming enemies.

There’s so much dividing so many right now. Honestly, I’m concerned that much of what’s at the root of these struggles is manufactured.

Of course, whether it is or whether it isn’t, I suppose the human divides are being amplified by the non-stop virtual access to everything and everyone. That’s part of the irony in this “quarantine.” We’ve been apart, and yet by way of social media, hardly. Our keyboards—the devices designed for giving our thoughts to others—have become both offensive and defensive weapons, rifles aimed into an expanse of folks who are there, but not really. The communal “false sense of security” we already had before this mess began has only gotten worse. In many of the conversations, far too many folks begin their arguments with phrases like “The real problem with the issue is,” or something like that, as if they actually had all of the relevant information—as if they have an 8’ by 16’ chalk board in their garage adorned with a dusty matrix of all the accurate data (not the false), and in its bottom corner is the only accurate conclusion in the world. Far too many are jockeying for the leading spot as “expert,” and few are actually listening. Even further, many appear to be astounded by their own brilliance, so much so that I dare say even their thoughtless replies/memes laced with profanity that took a whole ten seconds to create are beginning to tempt them with the deceptive feeling of having been divinely inspired.

The result in all of this has been a spewing of a whole lot of nothing; a vomitous mess revealing not much more than the deeper chambers of folks’ secretive innards; a cavernous sharing of opinions many of us wish we’d never written, heard, or seen.

Indeed, we’re seeing the darker sides of both ourselves and others.

After the mess we’re in eventually gets mopped up—and God willing, it will—if the communities in which we live, work, and serve are to ever regain a semblance of wholeness, we have to be prepared to put everything about these days behind us. We’ll need tools for doing so.

To start, if you’re wondering about these tools, I’ll let you in on a little secret. The Christian Church—the community of believers in Christ—is the only segment of the population that genuinely possesses them. Others might have facsimiles—replicas of sorts—but only the people who gather beneath the Niagara-like waterfall of forgiveness pouring forth from God Himself will have the capability for truly putting these days in the rearview mirror where they belong. Only the Church can exist in a time and place where our sins are put as far from us as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). Only the Church has the real peace that can outlast the time-stamped promises of the shallow what’s-done-is-done kind of handshakes extended from this finicky and crumbling world (John 14:27; John 20:21-23).

Beyond this, and even better, Christians don’t have to wait until this “shelter in place” order has passed to begin in this peace. This peace is ours right now, and we can live mindfully of it. As someone whose Facebook bio includes the descriptor “cultural critic,” I’m one who takes deliberate time to contemplate these things with the ultimate goal of passing along my discoveries—good or bad—to others. I think I’ve discovered one of the best ways to live in the peace of the Lord, especially right now.

Keep an eye out for humor.

We’re in a sideways situation. If you really think about it, the purpose of humor is to turn things a little sideways, and in the process, scowls are made into smiles. This is true because with humor, people find different avenues for connecting, avenues that perhaps they didn’t have access to before. Besides, when was the last time you heard of an angry person hoping to become angrier by watching their favorite comedy? Or a depressed person listening to their favorite comedian in order to foster more depression?

Humor can change things, and I have the perfect example.

I was reprimanded by a clerk in the UPS store in Fenton for not wearing a mask. In all honesty, I had it around my neck. It just wasn’t on my face. I was trying to carry a stack of boxes, and while doing so, my glasses kept fogging up, so I took the mask off so I could see what I was doing and where I was going. The clerk was swift to tell me that if I came into the store again without my mask, he wouldn’t serve me. Admittedly, the moment got a little contentious, especially when I reminded him that the wording of the Governor’s executive order strongly encouraged the wearing of masks, but did not actually mandate them. I did not have to wear a mask. Nevertheless, he said very plainly that I would not be allowed back into the store if I wasn’t wearing a mask.

Okay.

I came back the next day wearing a Stormtrooper helmet. (Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/christopher.thoma.52/posts/10221290584389903)

He laughed. I laughed. The situation was eased. In fact, even my own original feeling of having been bullied had subsided. Things were fine, it just took a little bit of humor, something out of the ordinary, to bring two opponents together.

God gives humor. No doubt He has a sense of humor, Himself. Just look at the platypus. Poor guy. It’s like God had a whole bunch of leftover parts from the other animals, and in order to keep from wasting anything, he made a platypus.

Anyone familiar with the Bible knows God reveals His humor through more than just His unique creation. We get glimpses of it all over the place in the Holy Scriptures. That moment when Elijah is taunting the prophets of Baal, that’s hilarious, especially when, by the original language, you realize what Elijah is really saying. When his poking comment clicks, a giggle is hard to suppress. Take a look:

“And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened’” (1 Kings 18:27).

Relieving himself? Hah! That’s funny, right there.

The uptights among us might argue the following point, but I think Paul is a pretty funny guy sometimes. In fact, I’d say we get a little off-color humor from him in Galatians 5. If you know the context, then you know Paul is pretty angry with the Judaizers who are demanding that circumcision be considered part of salvation. In frustration, Paul essentially says, “Well, since they like circumcision so much, they should prove their own super-Christianity to us and just cut the whole darn thing off!”

Seriously. Read Galatians 5:7-12 and you’ll see.

Jesus used sarcasm for humor in order to make His points. There’s a perfect example in John 1:45-48. I imagine a half smile on His face during His conversation with Nathanael.

“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you’.”

I imagine the same of the Lord’s response to the disciples’ outburst in John 16:29-31. Read that one, too, when you get a chance.

If you’re listening carefully, even the Divine Service has a little bit of humor sprinkled in. Quite honestly, a smirk is not all that far from my face when we mention Pontius Pilate in the Creed. Why? Because of the irony involved. Having washed his hands of the Lord’s death, going out of his way to make sure his role in the unjust results would be forgotten, here we are saying his name over and over again throughout the centuries.

Admit it. That’s kind of funny.

There’s another side to humor that’s helpful to us. It was Will Rogers who said, “Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else.” There’s truth in that observation. Humor can work in a confession/absolution sort of way. Humor can be used to reveal the things about ourselves that we’d much rather to hide. I’d argue that in many ways, humor is often the better stepping stone toward the honesties that might normally sting. Of course, if we’re not too pretentious and we actually have a sense of humor—that is, we’re willing to see our true selves a little sideways—humor can help guide us to an honest confession while equipping us with an even better tolerance for the mistakes of others. I don’t mean tolerance in the sense of being okay with Sin, but rather recognizing the need to pull the plank from our own eyes before we can remove the speck from someone else’s eye. We can acknowledge our failings, having realized our own foolishness, and we can seek the Lord’s forgiveness, fully enabled to forgive others, ultimately standing together and laughing at our collective past.

I suppose what I’m rambling on about here is that God does have a sense of humor, and in one sense, for us to see the humor in things is to affirm the peace we have in Him. Perhaps more succinctly, having a Godly sense of humor in the midst of terror proves the superiority of Christian joy against anything and everything that might attack us. It was Saint Peter who wrote in 1 Peter 2:11-20 that we are to “live as people who are free.” In context, what he meant was that even as the world challenges us, by the Gospel, we have what we need to live in the joy of Christ no matter what’s happening. He also points out that as Christians, if we freak out in the middle of struggle, we do our unbelieving onlookers a great disservice.

I guess I’ll end with the clarification that, like all forms of communication, humor has its place. I’m just letting you know that I’m deliberately looking for it in our current situation, and most of the time, it seems to help. I’m reading posts and follow-up replies, I’m considering the broken logic in memes and quick-witted sayings, and I’m discovering more opportunities to laugh than get frustrated.

Naturally, I’m not implying the license to laugh at someone’s unfortunate job loss, or to yuck it up at a funeral. No doubt the folks with no sense of humor were already preparing to lock and load in that regard. However, having re-read what I just wrote right there, go ahead. I’d say Christians would be the only ones capable of discovering a smile during such strife-filled situations. Read Psalm 27. What have we to fear in any circumstance? Death? Hardly. Even if an entire nation rises up in war against you alone, you have hope. This world is passing away, and with it, so goes all of its sorrows. Most certainly we can laugh at Death. Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, if we actually had a picture of Death, I imagine seeing a toothless, skin-and-bones beastie on a leash, stripped of all his power and his tail between his legs.

If those of us with a sense of humor had a picture like that to view through the eyes of faith, I’ll bet the only struggle we’d experience would be to contain ourselves.

You Can’t Do Everything

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Don’t tell Jen I told you.

She got a little angry with me this weekend, and it wasn’t because I went out and around Linden and Fenton dressed as Star Lord from “Guardians of the Galaxy”—which I did, by the way. Don’t believe me? Well, then you need to click here.

The reason she gave for her grievance was that it feels like I’m far busier than I was before the quarantine and I’m giving even less time to the family, not more. Of course in response, I did what you’d expect a husband to do.

I made excuses.

I offered that when it comes to pastoring God’s people, things are much more complicated these days. Just trying to commune even only a handful of folks takes all day, and who would’ve ever believed I’d one day be ministering to a shut-in through an exterior window of her home?

Sheesh, this COVID-19 stuff is crazy.

I’m also doing what I can to be at the church every day, not only for making sure I’m on top of anything urgent—messages, pastoral care situations, and the like—but to assure I don’t fall behind on writing obligations while making sure God’s house is available to His people if necessary. I don’t want to close the doors to anyone desiring to pray before the altar of God, which I also do every single day.

Even more, while I’m not necessarily going anywhere when I’m at the church, time certainly moves along swiftly. I’m on the phone a lot, and I’m answering emails pretty much 24/7. I can easily spend three or four hours every day just trying to get back with people. Add to this that recording worship services has steered me into a whole new task that I’m still trying to master.

I did try to point out that, technically, I’m home in the evenings. I’m not out visiting anyone or attending meetings. But Jen was swift to present evidence that I continue the same pace when I’m home.

Once again I tried to swerve around her words, this time saying that perhaps the quarantine was getting to her and she needed to get out of the house. It was nearing dinnertime, and like a good husband trying to change the subject, I asked if she wanted to go for a quick drive. She agreed and asked where we might go. I said I needed to get over to the UPS store to ship some things, and then I mentioned one more phone call I needed to make about a graveside funeral service, but that I could make the call really quickly along the way.

She just looked at me.

The look was all I needed.

She was right about me. Even in that sensitive moment, I’d already partitioned a percentage of our time together to others.

I’m going to let you in on three more secrets. The first is that God was right when He aimed His people to confession and absolution. Using Saint Paul’s pen, He commanded, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:13-15).

The second secret is that it’s one thing when someone else knows you’re being an idiot, but it’s something altogether different when you actually arrive at this honest realization of yourself. It’s scary, but also liberating.

The third secret is that I apologized to Jen, and she forgave me.

Amazingly, just as God knew it could, confession and forgiveness born from Christian love changed the scenario altogether. An honest admittance of my stupidity combined with her gracious heart helped bring us together, putting us back onto the same page. In fact, and perhaps humorously, we still ended up finding our way to the UPS store. She wanted to help me do what I needed to do. We were living in the light of Christ’s peace. This meant that running an errand together really wasn’t all that weird. In fact, it’s never been unusual for a “Jen and Chris” date to include getting groceries at Walmart, and so now we were accomplishing something together, rather than apart. And by the way, Jen proved her gracious heart one more time by allowing the phone call. When it comes to the work of the Church, she’s well-skilled at wife-of-a-pastor stuff. She can distinguish between essential and non-essential things (far better than our Governor, that’s for sure).

Okay, one more secret and then I’m done.

My truest ailment in all of this: I can get to feeling pretty guilty sometimes. I’m not completely sure, but I think it has something to do with my self-diagnosed “completion complex.” Whatever goal I set, I need to see it through to the end. Mix into this the disappointment that comes when something doesn’t work out as I’ve planned. Add to this that I’m doing lots of different things with and for lots of different people, many of whom are more than gracious. However, there are plenty others who live by Eric Hoffer’s thought that to “have a grievance is to have a purpose in life.”

Mix all of this together, and after a while, it can become easy for just about anyone to believe their onlookers are keeping track of their deeds in two different kinds of ledgers—that they’re permanently etching the things we’ve done wrong into stone, but scribbling the things we’ve done well into the surface of water.

I do have fairly thick skin, and I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but sometimes I do, and it gets the better of me. It stirs me to juggle everything I can all the time, doing my best to not let anyone down.

It may be admirable to some, but in the end, it’s a foolish way to live. It’s far too taxing on the body and mind. And the thing is, I know it. I tell plenty of other people this. But like every good hypocrite, I rarely do it myself.

Again, confession is the key, here, and forgiveness is the cure. God used Jennifer in that moment to prompt it. With her voice, He reminded me that I don’t need to do everything—and I certainly don’t need to be afraid to fess up to my sins—which means admitting I’ve not really been home with my family even while I’ve been home with my family. And you know me. I’ve written or said a thousand times before that the most courageous among us are those who can admit when they’ve done wrong. Those are the people I truly respect. I’m not one to latch onto “self-esteem” lingo, but in this regard, I’d like to be respectable.

I should add that God also made sure to let me know that He’s ever-vigilant to show mercy, and one of the great ways He does this is through other Christians. When it comes to the family of believers, His desire to forgive the penitent heart doesn’t have an expiration date. That’s partly what He meant when He said, “Bear with each other and forgive one another…” And when two people can live in this Christian love—not necessarily human love, but Christian love—then this Gospel truth will prove itself so wonderfully true.

In the end, this was a moment when God looked at me through my wife’s eyes and said, “You can’t do everything, dummy. But you don’t have to, anyway. It’s my job to be God, the Creator. It’s your job to be Chris, the created—a husband, a father, and then finally, a pastor. Are you doing your best to be faithful in these roles? Yes? Then, slow your roll, apologize to your lovely wife, receive My forgiveness through her—because I can’t wait to give it!—and then take her for a drive. Kind of like your relationship with Me, I’ll bet if she is part of your life rather than just tagging along, you’ll accomplish every bit of the daily nonsense that needs accomplishing. You may even get those packages shipped and that phone call made.”

And so I did. I mean, we did.

Prayerfully Mindful

I mentioned to Jennifer that these Monday morning eNews introductions are a little harder to write because of the quarantine. Normally I can sit down, and within a few minutes, I discover a thought that leads me into something worth sharing—something that is, hopefully, of use to you. But not so much these days. I think this is true because I’m apart from my best writing prompts—you!

Most of what inspires me emerges from daily, face-to-face interactions with people, and right now, I’m at a severe disadvantage in this—at least for the time being.

I suppose I could mine social media. Although, that’s not my preferred place to interact with you, nor is it the safest place these days to look for material in general…unless, of course, I want to spend time providing verbal contour for what the Bible already describes well enough as the Sin-nature. Social media is a real ugly place right now. It seems the worst parts of ourselves are parading through its alleyways. Fear of COVID-19 is playing a big part, but so is the lack of space being allowed to the fearful by the bombastic among us.

Indeed, there are varying degrees of concern. I’ll confess I used to be more concerned than I am now. I’ve been included in a few local and federal conversations suggesting that while the virus is indeed a mean kid on the block—the kind you don’t want to run into if you don’t have to—nevertheless the incoming data is more than proving the kid to be less the monster and more the mouse casting an unnecessarily frightening shadow. In the end, most folks are more likely to die from flesh-eating bacteria they encountered while working in the yard than to contract and die from COVID-19. Of course I’m still bathing in hand sanitizer, both for your sake and for the sake of my family. (By the way, I keep poking at Jennifer, saying that in a few years, don’t be surprised if there’s a spike in never-before-seen hand cancers.)

I’m doing my best to land in the middle, while at the same time, I’m unwilling to accept statements sourced from wholly insufficient evidence claiming absolute certainty. That’s about as close to the definition of ignorance as any could get, and folks who do this are fanning preventable wildfires of panic. No one should be making decisions (or declarations) in this way. It’s a bad idea, and history proves bad results when people do. And yet this seems to be the general tenor for many in the mainstream media. Of course this practice has touched down with a thud in social media. To make things worse, radical individualism remains in high gear.

Everyone is right and no one is wrong. What a mess.

I participated in one particular phone call with a friend in D.C. suggesting that if the shelter-in-place orders in some of the stricter states (Michigan being one of them) go much further than April 30, it’s likely civil disobedience will begin to erupt. People are already beginning to protest in mass numbers in many state capitals. If civil unrest does become open disobedience, the Church will need to be ready to weigh in. I shared this information with my Bishop among a gathering of other English District (LCMS) pastors during a recent Zoom meeting, and in so doing, I expressed my concern that the brothers ought to be ready, if necessary, to help their people navigate the turbulence. For starters, silently, I’m hoping all pastors are brushing up on their understanding of the “Two Kingdoms” doctrine.

As a quick side note, I’m also finding it rather interesting how certain pastors I know, ones who’ve been incredibly vocal in their opposition to the Church having anything to do with politics, well, it seems they’re asking me what I know, what I’ve heard, what my plans are. They’ve a newfound interest in all-things-government now that so much of what they do has been seized by the civil authorities. The government has claimed emergency authority for stepping into the Church’s sphere, and now the so-called separation of Church and State has become blurry, while at the same time making the purposes for my own efforts in the public square all the more clear. An avenue has presented itself for the state to justify control of the Church, and now churches are being fined, pastors are being ticketed, and in some states some pretty ridiculous mandates have been issued, even ones forbidding online services.

Interesting, huh? But how far should we let this go? When do we actually need to say out loud, “I will obey God and not men”?

Anyway, getting back to the premise of social media as an ugly place…

Just to give you an example, I’ve come pretty close a few times in the last week to deleting my Facebook account altogether. I actually typed up a list of the pros and cons while walking on the treadmill. Both categories had an equal number of items. So much for that. Also, while I try not to unfriend people, no matter how cruel they can be, I’ll admit to having come close a few times this past week to begging some folks to unfriend me. But I didn’t… as usual.

Believe it or not, I sort of have to be in Facebook. I’m certainly not here for casual scrolling before bed. It’s a significant means of communication for me. Not only has it been beneficial for communicating our congregation’s theological identity, but there are groups in which I’m involved that only use Facebook forums for meetings. I can’t participate if I’m not in it.

In the meantime, the essential skills I’ve learned over the years for using social media are proving valuable. I continue to do my level best to stay in the mix while at the same time letting the hurtful commentary sail by without incident. I have to ignore quite a bit of personal accosting (much of which comes through private messaging) if I want to participate in the open waters of discussion I think are of consequence—or if I want to make or encourage points I believe are important. Truthfully, however, I confess to having discovered a long while ago that ignoring the venomous words from folks on social media isn’t as hard as one might think. Over time, I’ve learned that the people with whom I share genuine relationships are less likely to attack and more likely to either converse or simply ignore me. The folks who steam and then go for my jugular, well, I’ve realized it’s really me who’s injecting the poison into my veins when I let their words actually matter to me. When I remember that violent language—insults, name-calling, all-caps swearing, persistent trolling—is typically nothing more than the veiling of shallow opinion, when I remember their words and actions are really more at enmity with reality, then their efforts lose their sting and I can move on to other things unshaken. Usually I just say something like “okay” and then move along.

Publilius Syrus was right when he said that cruelty is strengthened by tears. And so the saying must go: “Sticks and stones may break my bones…” Well, you know the rest.

There’s lots of venom being spit in these arenas right now, and because I’m cognizant that social media is one of the only avenues for human interaction for many of you right now, I pray specifically for your mental agility in avoiding its darker underbelly. I can’t avoid it, but I hope you can.

If not, might I suggest one practical—nay, Godly—way to persevere in it?

I once heard someone define the advancement of a civilization as the communal ability to increase in things it can do without having to think about doing them.

Don’t let this definition be the description of your relationships with others. Think before you type. Think once more before you post. Check your information. Check the spirit behind your words. Why are you writing? Why are you responding? And then think one last time as you move your mouse and lead the cursor to the symbol for posting.

Be prayerfully mindful of what you’re about to say.

By the way, this isn’t novel advice for Christians. We know what humans are capable of. We know our God knows the sinful inclinations of the heart, too, and so He warns us. We trust Him for the better weapons that lead to peace on the other side of war.

“Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends” (Proverbs 17:9).

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).

“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26).

“Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit” (1 Peter 3:10).

“The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Proverbs 15:28).

“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (Proverbs 17:27).

Of course, none of this is to say that truth must be silent in the face of error. Indeed, errors need fixing. Just be careful when you aim to do so. And be ready to realize you may be just as wrong as the person you’re trying to correct.

No one but Christ has all the answers. Indeed, we’re truly living in a time for testing our own humility.

I suppose I could wrap this up by sharing that pastors, whether in real life or in the virtual world, live and die by the maxim that we’re always only one word away from ticking someone off. These days it seems no matter where we are and what we are saying, someone is offended. God willing, most pastors are carefully deliberating as they scribe. Having said this, whether or not you’re in the same kind of unavoidable spotlight as pastors, here in the midst of what is nothing less than the close quarters of a social media concentration camp, all of us together can be mindful of the long-term damage a careless word leaves behind in a community of friends.

Again, my point here, please be prayerfully mindful.

For those who’ve found themselves already offended (or far too easily offended by pretty much everything), I simply say to pray and then move along. Pray for a heart of peace and keep going. If you’re already cruising along deflecting the hypersensitivity, or you’re covering over the careless offenses with a humble spirit, odds are the irritations will ricochet right off you and probably won’t even rise to the level of Matthew 18 and its instructions for reconciliation. Of course, if they do, I’m here to help. But in the end, my guess is that by God’s grace, you’ll make it through this slow-moving narrative where, seemingly, everyone’s opinion is the annoying theme resonating on every page. Just move on, trusting that with each turn of the page, you’ll be closer to the end of this worldwide episode, and with that, the moments of annoyance along the way will comprise a volume worthy of being filed in the “Of Little Use to Anyone” section of your mental library.

Okay, I guess that’s enough typing for this morning. Sheesh, I sure do miss seeing you folks in person.

Opinions at Easter

The Lord is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Don’t you just love that announcement? I sure do, especially during times of uncertainty. Standing on the foundation of Christ’s all-sufficient death and justifying resurrection, the rest of the world can do all it wants to terrorize God’s people, and yet we are unmoved in spirit.

He is risen. Death holds no dominion over us. And that’s that. We have life—real life.

A few times during this world-wide pandemic, like others, I’ve caught myself bemoaning what not only felt like the tragic loss of the final weeks of Lent, but of Holy Week and Easter. And please, don’t get me wrong. I more than wish we could have celebrated these times together. But the more I view the situation through the lens of God’s handiwork, the more I realize the importance of the strange context in which we heard and received some of the most important texts the Bible has to offer. We heard what God thinks about Sin and Death. We heard what He intended to do about it. We heard the story of His plan in action.

We heard God’s opinion.

Everyone has an opinion about what life should or should not be like in our nation and state right now. Unfortunately, part of the curse of social media is that we all get to read those opinions over and over and over again, and this includes the insulting ones. When it comes to opinions, I’m certainly no exception. I have mine, and I share them where and when appropriate. Interestingly, Voltaire mused something about opinions being more devastating than plagues.

That’s ironically fitting.

In the end, God’s opinion is all that matters. Once again, He is risen. Death holds no dominion over us. And that’s that. We have life—real life.

And so here we are in quarantine, and the world continues to preach to us what life is to be. Life is the economy. Life is civil freedom. Life is a vaccine. Life is a doctor saying the data is right. Life is another doctor saying the data is wrong. Life is family. Life is rest. Life is hand sanitizer, a face mask, and a pair of gloves in public. Life is curbside pickup. Life is whatever the governor decides. Life is what the citizens choose. Life is your terror. Life is your overreaction. Life is this and that.

As everyone funnels into these discussions, my hope is that for the Christians engaging in the conversation—the ones who know the deeper meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—the reality of Easter will be there for them like a lifeboat of truth in a rising flood of confusion. No matter the threat, Christians will always have in their pockets the reminder that Death has been conquered, and with that, the assuring knowledge that life—real life—is located firmly and surely in Jesus Christ alone.

It can’t be found in money. It can’t be found in fame. It’s not located in anything this world would offer. Apart from Jesus, real life in the midst of a world coming undone will always be a mist-like dream that shifts with every societal breeze. Apart from Christ, real life will always be the vaccine (or essential oil, if you prefer) that remains out of reach. It’ll be the foreign language that no one can read, write, or come close to pronouncing correctly.

In the days ahead, even as the Church continues to receive the Word of the risen Christ through some pretty weird mediums, my prayer is that you’ll commit to receiving that same Word—that you’ll remain immersed in it in every possible way, being sure to see it and hear it for all that it is during this time of questioning what life is all about. If you can, join the online Bible studies. Watch and re-watch the worship services. Listen and re-listen to the sermons. I can promise you’ll read or hear something new each and every time. Most importantly, you’ll continue to be nourished by the wellspring of real life, just as Christ said (John 6:63), and you’ll be more than ready for that future day when we can all be together to rejoice before the altar of God—and I’m not just talking about when the quarantine finally ends.

But you Christians knew that, didn’t you?

The Christian Birthright of Prayer

We’ve entered into Holy Week. This is the week of weeks in the Church Year. When it comes to our life together as a congregation, it’s surreal to be apart like this. It’s not an easy thing.

I want you to know that during this time I’m praying for you—every single day.

Each and every day I’m on my knees before the altar of God here at Our Savior, not just praying for the world in a general sense, but for all believers in Christ—and most especially for the people of God here at Our Savior in Hartland.

While I don’t get through the whole roster of names in the congregation in a single day, I can pretty much guarantee that each member’s name is spoken out loud and into the divine ears of God at least every other day or so.

When I pray, I’m praying for your health. I’m praying for your livelihood. I’m praying for your family. I’m praying for your renewed strength and a spiritual stamina in the face of adversity to trust in the One who gave His life that you would have eternal life—an everlasting home beyond the pale edges of this passing world.

No matter the circumstances in this life, I do this confidently—as I’m sure other pastors do, too—because there are a few things I know of God.

It certainly isn’t that God needs informing. A bird does not fall from the sky without His knowledge (Matthew 10:29). He knows the number of hairs on the head of every human being (Luke 12:7). Our thoughts are not too quiet for Him to hear, and the slightest of gestures never escapes His view (Psalm 139:1-3). Well beyond us even these things, the sun and moon and stars all continue on their courses according to His gracious and upholding care (Hebrews 1:3). He knows your joys and sorrows. And the scale of the occurrence does not matter. From the bloodiest of wars to the most insignificant slights against any one of us, God foreknew their hours (Isaiah 42:9). Nothing is lost on Him, and so He doesn’t need for me to tell Him what’s going on.

Of course, I reach to God in prayer because I need Him. But perhaps more importantly, I do this because He invites me into His presence to speak as a privilege of faith (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18).

We’ve entered into Holy Week, which means we’ve made our way into a time when the Church remembers that at the death of Jesus, the temple’s curtain was torn from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51), signifying the Lord’s work on the cross as all-sufficient for granting every believer full access to the Heavenly Father. Believers have been given the promise that we can go to our God through Jesus, and He promises to hear and answer us as we pray according to His will (John 14:6-14, 1 John 5:14).

There’s great comfort in this birthright of faith, and it serves us in both the good times and the bad.

Ambrose Bierce wrote somewhat snidely of Christians that prayer is really just nothing more than an attempt by unworthy petitioners to get the laws of the universe annulled. Setting aside his condescension for a moment, in a sense, Bierce is right. We don’t deserve anything from God. And yes, we are asking Him to rewrite the universal laws. In humility, we ask to be forgiven of our seemingly unforgiveable crimes. We do this knowing full well that the order of this universe is one of justice, that the guilty pay for their own crimes, and the innocent go free. But we are approaching God already knowing He has heaped the punishment we are due upon His own Son. The innocent One was sentenced to death. The guilty were set free.

If that isn’t counter to the way of normalcy in this world’s order, then I don’t know what is. And yet, Christians reach to God, asking Him to continue in this mercy, praying through the merits and mediation of Christ.

But there’s something more to my reasons for praying.

I also pray because by the power of the Gospel for faith, the Holy Spirit is alive in me (Romans 1:16-17, Romans 8:10-11), and He is at work recreating me to be one who loves God and desires faithfulness to Him (Galatians 5:22-25). In other words, a very real facet of my life as a Christian involves actually telling and showing God I love Him. Prayer is a very real fruit of faith in this regard.

A very basic way to think of it…

I’m a father, and while I know my children love me, there’s an element of proof to their love when they say it. It serves both our hearts well, and it feels good to hear. God is the same way. He knows that by faith we love Him, and yet He also loves to hear us say it—and so we pray.

By the way, another very practical way the Bible describes our prayers to God is not just according to the sense of hearing, but by the sense of smell. As we have those favorite aromas—flowers, a sizzling steak, a spouse’s cologne or perfume (for me it’s a good Scotch, sunscreen, a swimming pool, and Florida palm trees)—so also are our prayers compared to a fragrant incense wafting to the heavens and into the divine nostrils of God (Psalm 141:2, Revelation 8:3). Prayers arising to Him by faith, calling out to Him according to His gracious will in Christ Jesus, these are ever-so-sweet to Him, and He loves to receive and then respond to them. By contrast, prayers in contradiction to His will—words tossed out toward the sky in unbelief, the use of His name in vain, greed, arrogant self-righteousness, and the like—these are sour and off-putting to God, and He waves them away from His face in disgust (James 4:3, Isaiah 1:15-18, Luke 18:9-14, Proverbs 3:34, 1 Peter 5:5).

I suppose the last thing I’ll say is that even as prayer is to be a part of the Christian life, I’m guessing prayer isn’t so easy for everyone. Some folks want to pray, but just don’t know what to say.

First of all, know that this concern is, in a sense, a prayer in itself. You’re showing God you want to speak to Him, and because He is worthy of your best, you want to do it in a way and with words that will show Him this love. Wrestling with this concern, remember, He knows you love Him. Let that comfort you. No matter how the thoughts or words come out, He won’t turn away from you. He’ll listen.

Secondly, if you struggle to focus, don’t be afraid to use pre-written prayers. There’s nothing wrong with the practice. This is how the Church has prayed since the beginning, and I do it all the time. Just because I may be using someone else’s words, doesn’t mean what I’m praying is of lesser value to God. Pre-written prayers can be an incredible help in times when inner clarity seems out of reach. In fact, because I know folks are struggling right now to find the right words in the midst of this worldwide pandemic, I posted a Vigil of Prayer on Our Savior’s website. If you are struggling to pray, take a look at the video and pray along.

(https://www.oursaviorhartland.org/prayer-vigil/)

Also, think practically. When one is feeling like a novice, the way to better skills is to study the efforts of others and to practice. Think about it. How did you first learn to speak? Most likely by mimicking the words of your parents. Praying while using the words of our Christian fore-parents is a good practice. Don’t let anyone tell you that unless your words are spontaneous or whatever you’re not really praying. That’s ridiculous. If someone does tell you this, then brush it off. They’ve made prayer into a legalistic venture, and you should avoid their advice altogether.

Thirdly, the easiest and best place to start is with the prayer the Lord taught us. There’s no better prayer than the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). Start with that. It doesn’t get any better.

To close, and as I’ve said already, be mindful that we have prayer for such times as these. This COVID-19 situation is, if anything, an exercise in knowing to whom we should run in times of trouble. Turning to the only One who can rescue us from all our burdens and give us the gift of real rest is always the better bet (Matthew 11:28).

Go to Him in faith. Pray for your needs. Pray for the needs of others. He loves you. He loves them. And He’s listening. He has already promised that no matter what is happening, He will work all things for your good (Romans 8:28).

Memory

My wife, Jennifer, shared with me her hope that this time together as a family will be one that instills good memories in the children rather than being a recollection of a fearful time. I’m hoping for the same, as I’m sure you are, too.

Of course, after our conversation, I got to thinking about the role memories actually play in shaping us. It’s hard to argue against the influence this pandemic is having on the communal memory of the whole nation, but in this particular moment, my concern is for you and your family.

After it’s over, what will be remembered? What will be forgotten? What will the new normal be in your lives?

Well, before going any further, we have to be honest about memory’s linking to our truest condition.

Informed by God’s Word, we already know Sin’s blast radius is vast. Every living thing in the created order exists within reach of its initial detonation. “Because you have done this,” God said to the first man, “cursed is the ground because of you” (Genesis 3:17). Perhaps worse, when we actually venture into the wasteland to examine Sin’s wreckage, we discover that it didn’t just interlace with the world in ways that would give rise to COVID-19 alone, but it actually broke the whole globe. Sin is an occupying power now, one that’s intricately woven into the fabric of mankind in every way (Matthew 15:19, John 3:19, Jeremiah 17:9). With this, we shouldn’t be surprised that the human mind and its vault of memories are diseased, too.

Aware of this, I’d say Sin labors to infect the human memory in at least two notable ways.

I don’t know about you, but I experience the first of Sin’s twining grips on my memory when scenes from my past unexpectedly come to mind—words and deeds I’ve regretfully said or done. I could be doing just about anything—mowing the grass or eating a cheeseburger—and then suddenly, it’s as if I’ve been whisked into a darkened corridor, and all along its uneasy length, I’m forced to pass sinister portraits of what haunts me most. There they are, everything I wish to forget, in all of their ugly details.

Sin won’t let me forget my transgressions. It wants me to remember.

The second of Sin’s handlings is related to its effect on the flesh. Again, the Lord announced after the fall: “From dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). And Saint Paul affirms: “Outwardly we are wasting away…” (2 Corinthians 4:16). Indeed, our bodies are coming undone with age, and as they do, so also comes the deterioration of the mind. For the honest among us, there is the haunting knowledge of a lifetime of memories we’ll struggle to remember. Sin works here, too. In our “wasting away,” it steals the scenes we hold dear—the children, when they were little, what their voices sounded like or which were their favorite toys; the mannerisms of a parent or grandparent we’ve lost to Death, their smiles and the familiar scent of their embrace; the rooms of our childhood home; the summertime freedoms with family and neighborhood friends.

Sin wants us to forget these things. It wants to strip us of the outward evidence of God’s fatherly divine goodness throughout our lives.

So what do we do?

First of all, when it comes to Sin’s ugly accusation, the best weapon against this is the Gospel of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for you. Hold onto this. In other words, do what you can to stay in the Word of God. The Word of God clads the Christian in ways nothing else can. Soak it up. Be devoted to it. Talk about it. Live and breathe it as God’s people. I say this firstly because God tells us that His Word is far more powerful than the sinful flesh (Hebrews 4:12, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Jeremiah 23:29, Isaiah 55:11). Secondly, not only do I believe this, but I can confirm it as true by way of countless examples.

Here’s a great one.

Back in December of 2018, a friend of mine (someone most here at Our Savior probably know) experienced a cataclysmic aortic rupture. He wasn’t expected to survive. He’d been without blood to both hemispheres of his brain for hours before medical personnel were able to get to him and do anything to help.

Plainly speaking, no one survives such an episode. In fact, thinking back, I remember being in his room in the ICU when the surgeon who’d worked on him said she’d never operated on anyone in as bad a condition as his.

Throughout the ordeal, I was with him pretty much every day—praying, reading the Word, giving Him, as Paul would say, “the unsearchable riches of Christ…” (Ephesians 3:8). Each time I was there, the doctors gave little hope that he would ever wake up, let alone be able to function cognitively if he did.

After surgery he’d been given no sedation. The hope was that within 72 hours we’d know. Either he’d wake up, or he wouldn’t.

Now I won’t go into all of the details, but as I said, I was with him at least once a day. During those times, I often noticed him giving my hand a little squeeze during prayer. Although, the nurses politely described it as nothing more than an involuntary response to this or that going on in his body. But one day while reading from Mark 4:35-41—Jesus calming the storm—after I was done, he turned his head to me. It’d been five days of careful watching, and this was a first.

I went back to be with him the very next day. When I walked into the room, the man who was barely alive the day before, was sitting up and watching baseball. The nurse was absolutely beaming. He’d quite literally awakened an hour before I’d arrived, and the breathing tube had been taken out only moments before I walked through the door.

I can’t even begin to tell you the joy at seeing my groggy, but living, friend! And the grin he gave when he saw me, it was breathtaking. For the first time in days, I could talk with him and hear him reply.

I did most of the talking, of course, not only because he was exhausted, but because his throat was very sore from the breathing tube. Still, we heard the Word of God again, prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and this time, he prayed every single word along with me. I was able to give him a get-well card his fellow choir members had made for him, and he was able to hold it with his own hands and read it.

I asked him some questions, to sort of gauge where he was cognitively. Looking back, I’m glad I did, because if there was ever a time when Sin’s grip on human memory would’ve proven itself, it would’ve been then.

I asked if he remembered anything.

He said he remembered Jesus on a boat with the disciples calming a storm. When I asked what he remembered about it, he whispered raspily the sense of a familiar voice, and when the voice stopped speaking, he wanted to hear more.

Do you get it, friends?

If God’s Word is merely language—something that can be shelved like a favorite novel during this time of worldwide trouble—then it certainly made no earthly sense for me to be speaking it into this man’s ears. And yet, there was my friend telling me he not only heard God’s Word, but he wanted more.

Not even the natural deterioration of a Sin-destroyed body of flesh could get in the way of the power of God’s Word. It sort of reminds me of the Lord speaking into the ears of the lifeless son of the Widow of Nain and raising him from the dead (Luke 7:11-17).

Again, I share this story as an urging to stay in the Word during this time away from your church. God’s Word will continue to write into your heart and mind the certainty of a divine memory that knows all that Jesus has done to save you. It will continue to certify for you just who you are by faith in His sacrifice.

Beyond this, and I suppose as a side note to this time of quarantine, I’d encourage you to do things together with your family. Pack up the video games and put aside the mobile phones. Spend time together. If it’s just you and your spouse, do the same. If it’s just you and the dog, do the same. And while you’re doing this, take some pictures. Or perhaps you could keep a journal. I guarantee that in a few years you’ll come back to these crystalized memories of the pandemic of 2020 and you’ll remember the feeling of joy more so than the sense of dread. You’ll have something in hand to remind you just how much the Lord has blessed you.

I give one last example in this regard.

One of the great things about my The Angels’ Portion volumes is that they serve as annals for the Thoma family. They’re a retelling of so much of what has happened in our lives. In fact, it’s not uncommon for one of the kids to fetch a volume from the shelf during dinner and ask me to read a few of their favorite tales from among our countless everyday adventures. Within seconds, long-forgotten events in which we all participated come back to life, and with them arrive the sights, sounds, and smells—the enjoyment of distant times and former selves joining with us in the “right now.”

For the Thoma’s, these books are Godly ramparts against Sin’s effort to cause us to forget.

Finally, I’ll conclude this longer note by reminding you of God’s memory.

When He forgives you, He forgets your sins. We may remember them, but He doesn’t. “I will remember their wickedness no longer,” He says resolutely (Hebrews 8:12). This means if you were to stand before Him and say, “Hey, God, do you remember that one terrible thing I did yesterday?” His answer would be, “I forgave you, and so I really have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Even better, while He forgets your sins, He can never forget His loving promises (Psalm 136:23, Psalm 105:8, Psalm 103:17, and Hebrews 13:5). The death of His Son for the sins of the whole world is the fulfillment of His greatest promise. His merciful memory is locked to this. All who believe in His Son, Jesus Christ, are ever-remembered by the Creator of the world as being His beloved and forgiven children.

Let all of this be of comfort to you during this time. It certainly is comforting to me and my family.

Fishing ≠ Worship

It would appear that our world is indefinitely fixed with the global stamp which reads “Pandemic,” and so I don’t know what the future holds. For the most part, I’d say our efforts to maintain as a church engaged in public worship together here at Our Savior in Hartland is succeeding. It hasn’t been without snags, but it’s certainly been well worth the labor. (To see what we’re doing, click here.)

All I can say now is that we’ll keep doing what we’re doing as safely as we can for as long as we can. We’ll keep this stride knowing that if we need to make changes, we will.

I should say that through all of this, the people who comprise the congregation of Our Savior have proven one thing in particular. Instead of fleeing from public Word and Sacrament ministry, we’ve shown an instinctive desire for preserving it, and an even more visceral dismay at the possibility it could be snatched away. There’s a hunger for it, and we just don’t want to exchange it for other, less communal avenues—at least until we’ve met the absolute end of the road in our abilities to make it happen. With this spirit, we’ve been far more inclined to triple our efforts rather than reduce them.

This is by no means an indictment of anyone in our midst who hasn’t wanted to participate, nor is it a finger of critique aimed at other congregations. These are serious times, and I believe so many are gauging their situations and communities with honesty. Like us, they’re balancing. They’re doing what they need to do to be faithful. I’m glad for that. That being said, however, I’ll admit to being surprised by the road sign in front of a nearby Methodist church that reads something like, “We’re closed for March and April. Enjoy the break. Take this time to go fishing.”

Enjoy the break? Go fishing?

Hmm.

Putting the best construction on this, I’m hoping their sign committee (if they have such a thing) is just trying to be funny. Or perhaps they’re using insider terms, words that only the congregation members will understand. Maybe the sign is a wink to a recent sermon which preached that even as they’re no longer gathering together formally, they’ll be receiving God’s Word in other ways, and as they do, their communal focus will be to become better fishers of men among their neighbors. Still, the wording of the sign sure makes it look like taking a break from worship is a good thing, that somehow leisurely activities are viable alternatives to remembering the Sabbath Day and keeping it holy.

Thinking on the Third Commandment, Luther explains in the Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Pandemic or not, the Church has never been underwhelmed by people who bear the name “Christian” and yet betray a lack of love for holding the preaching and teaching of God’s Word in worship as important. The last thing I want to see is a church broadcasting such a disposition as good practice. It isn’t good. It’s ungodly. It’s deadly to the soul. It embraces a course of spiritual starvation that robs the Christian heart of hope.

On second thought, I want to take back what I said above about not knowing what the future holds. I know plenty of what the future holds.

I’m not talking about the financial markets or executive orders. I’m not talking about whether or not the store shelves will finally be stocked like they used to be. I’m not even talking about which of us, if any, will contract the coronavirus.

I’m talking about Death.

We’re all going to die. Virus or not, Death has ten thousand other doors for us to pass through, and at some point in our lives, each of us will go through one.

Being a reader of poetry, I appreciate how so many versifiers throughout history have observed and shared this fact. Dorothy Parker’s words come to mind:

It costs me never a stab nor squirm
To tread by chance upon a worm.
“Aha, my little dear,” I say,
“Your clan will pay me back one day.”

And of course, there’s Emily Dickinson’s infamous rhyme:

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.

Poems like these, no matter who wrote them, are observances of the point that we’re all going to die. They remind us that never in the history of the world has there ever been a man, woman, or child from any race, color, or creed who could stand his or her ground when mortal Death came calling, saying to the dreadful specter, “I refuse to go.”

All have gone. All will go. And God affirms this. The wage for Sin is death (Romans 6:23a).

And yet, there’s something else I know about the future. It’s an awareness fed by a divine wellspring of hope born from the Holy Spirit through the Word of the Gospel. I know that Death doesn’t have the last word for believers in Christ.

“…but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b).

Through faith in Jesus Christ, eternal life is the final decree echoing well beyond Death’s ten-thousand doors and into an everlasting future.

It was François Rabelais (a 15th century French monk who was, unfortunately, overly influenced by humanism) who said with uncertainty at his Death something like, “I am going to the great perhaps.”

These words were spoken by a man who traded the truth of Mankind’s absolute depravity, as well as the certainty of an all-surpassing salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, for the deficient belief that, perhaps, mankind had a chance by his own merits, or perhaps through philosophy and science, we might gain better certainty of our eternal future.

Oh, the uncertainty of the great “perhaps”! Oh, the terror of doubt at the hour of Death!

But there’s no need for such uncertainty. Christians have certainty. The Gospel Word of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for our salvation is the beacon of eternal hope, and Christians lean into the headwinds of the future with it well in hand. Its luminescence is fed by the Word of God and His holy Sacraments—the verbal and visible means of grace Christ has established and then mandated for His Church to gather and distribute. The Lord warns that without the oil of these means continually being poured into the lamps of our hearts, the daily readiness of our hope in Him will be extinguished. No question. If the flame of faith isn’t being fed by this fuel, it cannot burn with the torch-like strength necessary for withstanding the squalls of this attacking world (Matthew 25:1-13).

No wonder our God commands for us to go to church (Hebrews 10:19-31). No wonder we hear our Lord say over and over again to so many just how important it is to hear the Word of God and keep it (Luke 11:28). And by the way, by keeping His Word, He doesn’t mean in the shallow sense of simply knowing and obeying it, as is often preached by so many. The word in the Greek is phylassontes (φυλάσσοντες). It means to fulfill one’s orders as a guard—to protect and defend a most precious possession, and to make sure no one can steal it away, being ready to raise a sword and shield against anyone or anything trying to steal it away. The harder truth in this is that sometimes the “anyone” is us and the “anything” is fishing.

Pondering all of this as I tap away at the keyboard this morning, I suppose there’s one more thing I know about the future.

What we do now will shape our practices later. Without absolute connections to Word and Sacrament ministry, people will drift away. It’s the nature of Man, and there’s plenty of data external to the Word of God to prove this. In the midst of a time when the sources for Word and Sacrament seem to be far more limited—a time that could feel a little like a spiritual drought—don’t let go of God’s Word. Get it from faithful sources where and when you can. If you can go to church, do it. If you’re concerned about being in public spaces during this time, stay home. Either way, commit to regular devotions, to watching your church’s services that are shared online, to hearing the Word of God and keeping it.

Let fishing be what you do after your most valuable possession has been secured and the oil in your lamp has been replenished.

In Favor of Self

I hope you’re not expecting me to talk about the coronavirus. Sure, it’s on our minds. But since we’re already being so diligent, how about we catch our collective breath and get back to considering other things?

Mindful of the season of Lent, the current desktop image for my computer is the portrait by Carl Heinrich Bloch entitled “An Angel Comforting Jesus before His Arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.”

Yes, it’s a rather long title. Even so, it’s a moving image, one that not only gives a glimpse into the Lord’s diligent prayer in the garden before His capture and eventual crucifixion, but it also attempts to portray in the moment His exhaustion and absolute loneliness—the kind of loneliness that can only be soothed by otherworldly comfort. Thus the angel in the image (Luke 22:41-43).

The portrait is deeply moving in its depiction. But it’s equally moving because of what it doesn’t portray. It’s just Jesus and the angel. No one else. And yet the Gospel narratives remind us that Jesus was only a stone’s throw from friends. The Lord had asked for His disciples to keep watch with Him as He prayed. He was preparing to enter into the hours that belonged to the powers of darkness (Luke 22:53), but before taking that first fateful step, He wanted nothing more than to pray to His Father, having the comforting presence of friends at His flanks as He did.

But they slept. In the midst of the Lord’s praying, even as the intensity of the oncoming moments caused His sweat to become drops of blood, his friends slept.

This is a telling moment, and it sheds a little light on something of the human nature.

I’ll give you an example relative to me.

Over the past few years, I’ve experienced a fair share of disconcertion from people who disapprove of me engaging in the affairs of the state. On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed an equal portion of encouragement from friends all around the state and nation who are glad for a clergyman’s willingness to carry the concerns of the Church before the princes of this world, and then to share the details of the efforts with others through writing.

But here’s the twist…

A couple of weeks ago after the Republican Primary Candidate Forum here in Livingston County, I did the kind of thing I’ve done a thousand times in the past. I took the liberty of writing a piece about the event, namely the handful of men and women running for the particular seat in Congress. As usual, it was an attempt on my part to think out loud, to observe critically, and to tip my hat to what an opposing party’s candidate might bring to the table of critique. Of course, all readers were free to take from it whatever they wanted.

Interestingly, very soon after I posted the piece, my phone began chirping with private messages from online friends and acquaintances who’d always been so glad in the past for my engagement in the public square, but were now rather unhappy with me. So unhappy, in fact, they were going out of their way to discourage me from involvement in politics altogether, urging me to consider that pastors shouldn’t be so outspoken in the public square. Seriously. They were imploring me to delete the piece and to bow out of the conversation.

I should add to this that my closer friends—the ones who actually know me as a person and know I’d never close the door on a conversation with anyone—they didn’t do this. They reached to me with their opinions, and they did so in courteous ways. I listened to them, considered their points of view, and then I gave a little more of the content behind mine. Those conversations were incredibly enriching, and I can say those friendships are even stronger now than they were before. I’m glad for that.

But what happened with the other folks? Why the 180 degree turn from being so glad for my activities in the public square to working overtime to convince me to tone down my efforts and exit the discussion completely?

Well, apart from the strange criticisms of my writing style, which so many already know so well—my typical words, forms, and device choices (which, out of respect to a few folks, I did end up going back to rearrange here and there)—the deeper thread of concern, the one that was common to all of their pings to my phone, was that my article came to its conclusion with me recommending one particular candidate as the best performer in the forum and ultimately the best bet for beating the opposition.

But the candidate I favored wasn’t the candidate they favored.

Simply put, my trajectory didn’t align with these particular friends’ preferences. This angered them—enough so that it erased their previous sentiments, replacing them with words of admonition, words meant for quieting any influence I might have on a larger community of readers still teetering at the edge of a decision.

Interesting.

The disciples slept. Why did they fall asleep? It’s not that they weren’t Jesus’ friends. Of course they were. It’s also not that they weren’t in favor of Him. They had great favor for the Lord. It’s just that they were more in favor of themselves and what they wanted, and with this, His particular trajectory would remain out of alignment with theirs.

He was suffering, and He wanted the comfort of their watchful companionship. They were tired and went to sleep.

The human nature.

Again, Lent is a time to reinvigorate the combat against the human nature. It’s a time for us to observe and then apply extra pressure to those situations in which we put our wants first, and as a result, discovering ourselves saying and doing things that fracture relationships, things we wish we could take back. It’s a time to examine the motives behind our responses and to see if they really can withstand the beaming light of God’s Word that’s always ready to challenge them.

I, for one, am glad for the season of Lent. As I’ve said before, it’s incredibly recalibrating. Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Life is made up of marble and mud,” which is to say sometimes life is sturdy and steady, and sometimes it’s shifting and messy. Lent—its liturgies, readings, prayers, and the like—they all work together to remind us of something here. They lock arms as one and burrow through our hardened exteriors (which we like to think are impenetrable) and they implant in the core of our human nature. Lent prompts us to recall we’re far more shifting and messy than we’d ever like to admit. Lent shines a light on the fact that as we go about our days making our lists of “bad guys” and “good guys,” it should be no surprise that we have the tendency to shift so many of the people we know from one list to the other and then back again, all the while our own names remain strangely fixed in the list of good guys.

It’s not necessarily that we’re against anyone in any particular moment. It’s just that we’re always more in favor of ourselves. Again, that’s the human nature—the Sin-nature.

Just so you know, Christ went to the cross to drown this nature in the tides of His blood. Lent reminds us that when it comes to the human nature, there really aren’t two lists. There’s only one—the bad guys. But Lent also primes our hearts to know that Jesus went to the cross for every single person on that dreadful list (Matthew 9:12; 1 Timothy 1:15). With this, there’s an urgency to Lent’s plea for contrition. It calls for us to awaken to the fact that if in our own hearts and minds we never seem to find ourselves on the list of bad guys, then we’re heading toward a Good Friday event that will appear to be of little value to us.

Lent calls out, “Repent! Turn around and go the other way! Wake from sleep and watch with Jesus (Romans 13:11)!” Lent sets before us the gory, but ever-so-splendid, message of the Gospel of our Lord’s passion. It encourages us, “Wait and watch with your Lord. You’re not going to want to miss what the Son of God is about to do for you and the rest of the whole world beside you on the ‘bad guys’ list.”

Christians and Swearing

I sat down this morning intending to write something relative to Lent, something helpful to you. However, the only thought that keeps emerging from my early morning mind is one that’s already been swirling around in it for a while. It’s sitting at the forefront right now because of a Facebook conversation between two friends that I re-read just a few moments ago.

Who knows? Maybe this will find its way around to the topic of Lent. Maybe it won’t. Either way, I’m suspecting it might be something that concerns you, too, and if we can at least gather something of value from it, then great.

So here goes…

Have you noticed that more and more Christians are finding it perfectly acceptable to use profanity in their social media postings, whether it be casual conversation, sharing of memes, or whatever? And I don’t mean the relatively inane adjectives employed for emphasis on rare occasions. I mean the worst of the worst. It sure seems like more and more believers are practicing the crassest corners of our language as they’d so easily employ any other portions the dictionary might claim.

I don’t get it. Somehow these words have found a comfortable home in the vocabulary of so many believers.

Why?

At the Marriage Seminar we held at Our Savior this past Saturday, the leader of the event, Pastor Ron Farah, asked all in attendance to consider and then define the term “communication.” I didn’t speak up too often throughout the four-hour workshop, but in that moment, I raised my hand and took the opportunity to speak. I shared that I’m one who believes words to be the clothing in which we dress our thoughts. In other words, the thoughts in our mind are presented to others through the avenue of language. The best communication, I believe, occurs when people take care with the words they choose. Mindful of this, why would I seek to dress the thoughts of my intellect in gutter rags when I could adorn them for respectability?

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but hopefully you get the point.

Along these lines, however, past partners in exchanges on this topic have been quick to pull studies from thin air suggesting that people who swear a lot are above average in intelligence and may actually have better communication skills. It’s funny how the internet has made everyone into an expert. Playing that game, I’m equal in digital expertise by finding an equivalent number of studies proving the exact opposite. Put differently, I don’t believe the premise that profanity proves the swiftness and depth of a person’s intellect.

Anyway, my purer point isn’t how smart a person is or isn’t, or whether or not they’d beat me in Scrabble. First of all, my point is that profanity seriously devalues dialogue and the people engaging in it. Perhaps further, it grossly misrepresents the Christian faith. For these reasons alone, believers should avoid using it, that is, if they want their words to matter.

I’m sure there are plenty out there who think I’m nothing more than a shrieking ninny in this regard. Maybe. Although, I did take time to do a radio bit relative to the subject a few months back, and it’s gotten a pretty positive response. You can listen to it here: https://aminutetostopandthink.podbean.com/e/concern-for-others-must-always-be-a-part-of-your-calculation/

In the meantime, Colossians 3:8 and Ephesians 5:4-5 deal directly with this issue… so there’s that, too.

Another little something that comes to mind…

First off, we don’t swear in our home, and I dare say it isn’t just because we’re a “pastor family.” It’s because we know words matter. Think of it in the sense of swimming. Swimming is fun. Sure, you could swim in any kind of water. But why not the crystal clear shoreline of a pristine oceanfront instead of a sewage overflow. Or how about the attempts of a young man to woo the one he desires as his bride? He could hand her a wad of flowers he haphazardly ripped from the neighbor’s flower bed at the last second. Or he could present her with a well-arranged, and color-coordinated bouquet demonstrating he cares, that he took time, thought, and expense to show her his love. Some bodies of water are healthier than others for swimming. All efforts to communicate will in some way display the value of the participants to one another. Innately, some words are just better, too.

Along these lines, and as another example, every chance I get, I ask my daughter, Madeline, about her school day. She’s in high school. As I pry, I’ll ask her about the “boy” scene—you know, just to stay in tune with what she’s thinking in that department and to be ready to help her navigate. We have a great relationship, so we can have these conversations. Her response to the boy question is almost always the same.

“Dad, all of the boys at my school swear all the time.”

“All of them?” I’ll ask.

“All of them,” is her reply. “I guess,” she’ll begin with gentle passivity, “I’m just not interested in dating anyone who swears all the time. It feels sort of disrespectful.”

Good. I’m glad she’s keeping her eyes and ears open for someone better than what the vernacular of this generation of classmates is betraying. She doesn’t need to settle for the gutter. She’s valuable. How a boy speaks to her, while it reflects a lot of other things—culture, maturity, and the like—it also shines a light on his understanding of her as a person. I should also be sure to point out that it presupposes what’s important to the boy’s parents. Again, take a listen to the radio bit I shared above. It’s a true story. And you’ll see what I mean.

So, what does all of this have to do with Lent? Well, hold on a second. I think I’m almost there.

Since I’m already at this (and most likely have offended a few folks), when speaking of Christians using vulgarity, I should add that I don’t just mean the typical words that make PG movies into PG-13. There’s another particular phrase that’ll cause me to bristle.

“Oh, my God!” a woman will say emphatically in discussion, and the Thoma’s will get a little tense.

“Daddy,” Evelyn will whisper while tugging at my coat, “she just took the Lord’s name in vain.”

“Yes, I know,” is my returned whisper. “How about we just continue to show reverence for God and not do what she did, okay?”

“Okay,” is her reply.

Again, good. I’m glad Evelyn was so bothered by this that she felt the need to speak up. It means she not only has a sense of an acceptable manner for calling upon the name of the Lord, but she also understands that language itself has gravity and it affects people in its orbit. The way we use it matters. Habitually tossing out “Oh, my God” exclamatorily in casual conversation is not one of the ways it should be employed. Personally, when I hear the phrase used carelessly, I cringe. When I hear a fellow Christian say it, it takes everything in me not to claw my ears out of my skull. It’s an outright affront to the Second Commandment. Sure, I get how cultural swear words may slip into our lives undetected, but with this one, Christians should know better.

But they don’t. Why?

Because there are plenty of things Christians do that they shouldn’t. I do stuff. You do stuff. We’re humans. Humans are burdened by the human will. The human will is infected by the Sin-nature. The Sin-nature is great at establishing habits. Habits can become things we do but don’t necessarily realize or see, as if we’re completely oblivious to them. Yes, oblivious. Better yet, ignorant. The Sin-nature is an ever-present reminder that, indeed, we are ignorant humans. On the other hand, and as it meets with this thread, we need to understand that ignorance is by no means a justifier for behavior. You can’t kill someone because you didn’t know it was wrong. We can’t say we’re innocent because we’re ignorant.

At its barest minimum, ignorance will always be proof of our nature—a well-defined footprint of Sin.

So, why bring all of this up? Because again, it came to mind. I suppose it was worth pondering because Lent is good for this kind of discussion. Lent is a time to deal with the ignorance of sinful habits.

Okay, okay. I know some out there will say, “We should fight our sinful behaviors all year long and not just at Lent!”

Yes, I know.

And by the way, Lutherans do fight it year-round. At least they should. In my church, every service begins on bended knee in humble confession, followed by the absolving word of God’s forgiveness. Such a rite and ceremony are regular ammo for taking out the underpinnings of every ignorant thing that haunts us. We humbly submit to God all of the sins we know and the ones we don’t—thoughts, words, and deed—things done and things left undone. And then God replies with a gracious Word of love that washes away all of the specters, and He lifts us to our feet ready to engage in the war.

Still, Lutherans go a little further with this during the season of Lent. It’s a season that provides for the deliberate taking of aim at the deepest and darkest parts of the human nature and frame. This is the tarry muck from which the Sin-stained habits crawl. Lent calls for six weeks of thoughtful self-examination. It sets us at the shoreline of the tar pit so we can see these things for what they are, and it does this as preparation for viewing Good Friday and Easter Sunday rightly—for knowing the immense price tag of Christ’s efforts on our behalf. Certainly we are self-examiners all year long. But when it comes to the precise targeting of particular Church seasons, Epiphany doesn’t necessarily take aim like Lent. Christmas doesn’t either. Lent is a unique time of the year.

Self-examination. It’s good stuff. My Lenten encouragement for you: Do what you can to benefit from this aspect of Lent’s intentions. And I suppose as you do, be sure to know that by God’s grace through faith in Jesus, you have, as Saint Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:16, “the mind of Christ.” This means that by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel you have all the weaponry you need for waging war against the sinful flesh and being in alignment with the will of God—which is the salvation of your soul.

As you live your life of faith, you can do so with the Godly desire for wrestling and winning against the craving to embrace Sin—whether that be gossip, adultery, covetousness, or taking the Lord’s name in vain. And speaking of, when it comes to the other colorful bits of vocabulary we employ that have the tendency for misrepresenting the Church’s identity, well, you can pin those down for the count, too.

I’ll pray for you in your ignorance. You pray for me in mine. I certainly have plenty of sins that I need to lay before the Lord daily.

As we do this together, let’s “fix our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Let’s look to Him and know by faith that when we fail, He won’t be waiting in the wing to condemn us. He took that condemnation into Himself on the cross. The price for our failures was paid. By His victory, He stands at the ready to pick up all who look to Him for help—to dust them off, to bind up their wounds, to forgive them, and to send them back out into the world to be His people once more.