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.

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.

Connecting the Dots

If ever there was a season for sharing our stories with one another, it’s the season of Advent. Advent is a season for gathering stories—the narratives of our lives. Even better, Advent leads the way as it ventures to gather up the accounts of the Bible—which are our stories, too—and it aims them at Jesus.

I like that.

I like that Advent plays by the all-important rule that Jesus is the key to understanding the Holy Scriptures. If you don’t approach the Bible through the lens of the Gospel, you won’t be able to see the whole picture. Your connect-the-dot picture of a puppy will look like more like a tornado of scribbles.

A big part of being a Christian is being able to connect the dots that no one else can. It means beholding this world’s monsters stacking tragedy upon tragedy and knowing the deeper concern behind it all. It also means seeing our God laboring in the middle of all of it for our rescue through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. It means being able to see Him through the fog—to see Him when and where the world can’t.

Jesus said that would be the case for His believers. In John 14:19, He said that He was going away, and yet, even as the world wouldn’t be able to see Him, we would.

Now, you may be thinking that I’m carrying this toward Christians beholding God in the gentle display of a mid-summer rain shower or the majestic grandeur of an Appalachian mountain range in winter. But that’s not what Jesus meant, and so that’s not where I’m going. That’s natural revelation. Everyone, even unbelievers, can look to these things and know there’s a chance that a divine Someone is behind it.

I’m also not headed to where my confessional friends would expect, which is to the sacramental nature of the Lord’s words, being that He said them in context of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Yes, we see Him there, even as many can’t or just won’t. Still, that would be too easy, and that’s not what started this thread spooling in my head, anyway.

I’m thinking of something else. I have Matthew 18:1-3 in mind.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

Perhaps one of the best ways to figure out what I’m talking about is to set yourself at the feet of a Christian child. Wind the child up for discussion by mentioning Jesus, and then let ’im go. Let the little one do the instructing. Of course, not just any child can do this, but rather, one who is actually being raised in the faith—a little one who is taken to church with devout regularity, a child immersed in the discussions of faith at home with family, a child who’d consider it bizarre to eat a meal without first praying, whether at home or at McDonald’s. These kids can connect the dots far better than most adults.

I’ll give you a very brief example.

This past Friday morning, my daughter Evelyn and I were making our way to school through the chilly darkness of a Michigan December. All the way there we listened and sang along to The Beach Boys.

California Girls. Good Vibrations. Fun, Fun, Fun. Surfin’ Safari. Little Deuce Coupe. I Get Around. All of our favorites were gushing from the roll bar speakers of the Jeep.

Winter was upon us, but our hearts proved a longing for summer. But then, right in the middle of it…

“If summer were Christmas,” Evelyn said, “these would be Advent songs.”

“Wha—?”

I was stunned, and I nearly drove off the road.

The ten-year-old girl was right. She could see a much bigger picture. She didn’t have to search for Jesus. She was proving herself attuned to Him, showing it was far too natural for her to know Him by faith in relation to even that very moment. In other words, she demonstrated her otherworldly eyesight by making the deeply intricate connection that Advent comes to us as people existing in the wintry darkness of Sin and Death. It sees us in our longing for rescue. And yet, it brings us along on hopeful melodies that look not only toward the warming sunrise of Jesus in Bethlehem, but to the full on summer of His second coming at the Last Day.

Evelyn had connected the dots. She could see Jesus where the world could not. By her leading, I saw Him, too.

My prayer for you is that you would see Jesus so easily—that you would know He is with you in each and every moment.

I’ll admit it can be a lot harder for adults in this regard. We’re carrying things children aren’t. Still, our Lord urges us to believe as they do, setting an even deeper plea before us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

These are good words—just a few more dots in a design that sketches our kindly Advent King, Jesus.

A Sunset in Ludington

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

Our time there ended with a stunning sunset.

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

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

“Consider the work of God,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another thought emerges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop It In Its Tracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————–

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

“Eat your food.”

“I don’t like mashed potatoes.”

“I don’t care.”

“Can I have a bowl of cereal instead?”

“Nope.”

“But I don’t want this!”

“I don’t care. Eat it.”

“But I don’t like it!”

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

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

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

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

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

———————–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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