Take Hold

Have you ever had one of those days when no matter how hard you tried to interpret life through the lens of positivity, there was an itinerant itch of crankiness that just wouldn’t let it happen? Of course you’ve had such days. You’re a human being. I know I’ve had days like that. I just had one last week, which I guess is why I’m bringing it up—and why I’m about to examine it.

I remember feeling the grouchy cogs begin to turn when I heard that we were likely to get a few inches of snow. I know for a fact I whispered the words, “I want to move to Florida.” Following those words with a bit of daydreaming, I was so easily undercut by the harsh reality that I have neither the funds nor the general flexibility for being in Florida for any great length of time beyond the twelve or so days we, the Thoma family, enjoy there each summer. The futility of this harsh realization began draping my world in negative hues almost immediately, and the subsequent events of the day bore witness to it.

I was easily frustrated by other drivers on the road. Little mistakes in my everyday labors became sizable. I lost interest in things that might normally bring me joy. I found myself scrutinizing humanity with far less grace. For example, I found myself in conversation with a fellow clergyman regarding Church and State issues. As we talked, I recalled silently the familiar thought that dialogue is indeed dead, that general conversation involving differing viewpoints has become illusionary, that the modern exchange of ideas has evolved into little more than crisscrossing monologues between people incapable of actually listening to anyone but themselves.

I don’t like feeling this way. I don’t like viewing the world this way. It’s a hard way to go about life, and in the end, it can do little more than to devolve into sadness. So, how does one get free from this?

Well, for me it wasn’t anything I was able to do, but rather the doings of others. It was an unexpected email from a friend offering some encouragement. A little later that afternoon, it was an unanticipated and bright-eyed “Hey, Pastor!” coupled with a high-five from one of the second-graders passing in the school hallway. That night it was an enjoyable conversation during a game of pool with my son, Harrison. Before bed, it was an exceptionally tight and lengthy hug and “I love you” from my daughter, Madeline, followed by the same from Evelyn.

In a sense, I didn’t find a way out of the gloom. I was lifted out.

There is the saying that there is no tomorrow when a friend asks today. This means that when a friend is in need, there is nothing in our future that we can’t put off until we’ve attended to that friend. But sometimes that friend can’t ask. Sometimes he doesn’t even know he needs to ask. Sometimes he is unaware he’s been slow-boiled into his darkest identity, and with this, he doesn’t realize the identity is consuming him.

We all know people like this, folks whose essential personalities were one way, but then when we encountered them again after some time apart, they were noticeably different. They had changed. Their happiness had somehow become muted and the vibrancy of their light had become a little dimmer.

I wonder if this is becoming more common in a society shaped by digital communication and social distancing. Well, to be honest, I’m certain it is. While plenty of studies have provided mounds of data inferring it, as a pastor, I can see it for myself. I don’t really need the studies to confirm what’s right in front of my face. Having interacted with people here at Our Savior who, previously, hadn’t been out of the house or come to worship in over a year, it was easy to see the change. Yes, they were glad to be back, but it was a reserved gladness held in check by a foreign specter—almost as if it had convinced them to reconnect only because the inevitable “death by virus” was better than insanity in seclusion.

You may question this interpretation, which is fine, but I’m here to tell you that if you thought the world was becoming a negative place before the pandemic, COVID has hit the gas pedal on society’s emotional downturn toward instability.

Thinking back to what raised me from my own melancholy sulk, it was the people around me who did the heavy lifting. From that casual example, I sure hope you realize just how much you need to be with other people on a regular basis—how humans need not only to see each other’s faces, but to experience each other’s physical presences. Regular togetherness is no small thing to God, and so He urges His Church to gather for worship, making sure we’re not “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25). Of course He does this for the sake of giving Himself to His people through the richest of fare—Word and Sacrament ministry. But there are other reasons hovering in the realm of practicality that He has in mind, too.

We’re human. He knows what this means better than we do. He scribbled togetherness into our framework. Individuals were not designed to be alone in seclusion (Genesis 2:18). We’re meant to be out and among others. And why? Well, it’s the reason that before Adam gave Eve her formal name, God called her “helper.” God knows that when we’re together—whether it be in a marriage, a family, a friendship, a bible study group, serving on a board at church, or any other situation involving human togetherness—there will always be those around us who are in tune with our real selves and who will be ready to reach out to lift us up when they sense we are falling. In fact, God said this very thing about togetherness rather precisely in Ecclesiastes 4:10: “For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.”

I didn’t expect that email from the friend who sent it. But he noticed something about me on Sunday that left him thinking he should. I get tight hugs from my daughters all the time, but I didn’t expect the tight hug from Madeline that lasted three-times as long as normal. In that moment, for some reason, she was moved to give me a little extra love, and it helped. And as God would so generously provide through such faithful Christians, these happenings arrived at just the right moment, ultimately beginning the Lord’s divine effort to begin holding back the wave of negativity that was making its way toward my spiritual shore and, quite possibly, pull me out into the inescapability of deeper waters.

I pray you’ll consider these words and take them to heart. The first of which to take in is that if you sense someone is falling down or slipping away, reach out to help them. A gentle word will do. An act of kindness will help, too. A confident explanation of the courage Christ gives will prompt.

Second, if you’ve been away from your church family for a while, maybe it’s time to start making your way back. At the time of this writing, it’s been over four-hundred days since the first of the lockdown and mask mandates. It’s been over four-hundred days since a smile and a friendly embrace have been openly available between people without shame. It’s been over four-hundred days since people started unnaturally touching elbows instead of reaching out to make bare human contact by shaking hands. It’s been over four-hundred days since almost everything humanly personal about mankind since the beginning of time was relegated to the impersonal and dead-spaced world of Zoom meetings and virtual learning. Maybe it’s time to reconsider what’s separating you, not only from the places and means by which God is pleased to dwell and operate, but from the ones God has put into place as the hands and feet of His care and intended community in your life. Maybe it’s time to admit that perhaps—just perhaps—God isn’t a fan of what the last four-hundred days has produced: skyrocketing depression, a spike in suicides and domestic violence, and so much more. Perhaps God isn’t happy about what the last four-hundred days has so easily convinced us to accept as either virtuous or shameful, of the division the last four-hundred days has produced among His people, a body of believers who claim to confess Christ and the certainty against Death that faith by the power of the Holy Spirit gives. That’s what Easter is all about—which means that, if anything, you’re in a church season that is most certainly nudging you in this regard right now.

Yes, get vaccinated if you want. Wear a mask—or two, even. Social distance. Do whatever. But maybe consider that it’s time to come back.

Whatever conclusion you come to, I can assure you that you’re missed, even if you’ve somehow convinced yourself you’re not. We have on average about 250 people here in worship every Sunday, and I promise they are asking about and missing those who’ve been away. The negative feelings suggesting you need to continue to stay away or that you haven’t been missed are nothing more than slow-boiled changes in your identity. The devil is fooling you. They’re most certainly not anything being emitted by your church family.

Come back. Be together with the rest of us. Know that when we see you, it’ll stir the joy you’d expect from Christian friends intent on drawing you close and not pushing you away. And on your part, be ready to be overwhelmed with the delight such a reunion will provide. It truly is a magnificent elation that togetherness in the Lord unleashes. Plenty have experienced it. I bet you will, too.

The Cruel Grave of Jealousy

I’m wondering… have you ever experienced a moment when you felt like you were at the bottom of the barrel in your station? Like you were the worst accountant in the firm? Like you were the least valuable engineer on the project or the worst teacher in your school? Like you were the least relevant mother in the PTL? Like you brought the least muscle to the team?

On second thought, what am I saying? Of course you’ve had these thoughts. Everyone has. Only a narcissist can exist in a way that preserves the “self” from such honest reflection. Only a narcissist would believe his or herself to always be right, to always know what to do, to have no imperfections, and to be the brightest star in the sky.

I’ll admit to having had a moment not too long ago when I felt like the most useless pastor on the planet, that everything about who I am as a person in comparison to others who hold the same office—the things I appreciate, the activities I enjoy, my personality that communicates my very real humanity—all of it was of little value, and maybe even in complete contradiction to the office I hold.

I suppose when it comes to serving in the church, that’s probably about as close as one can get to reconsidering one’s future in any role.

But again, I presume we all go through this. I have to believe that Saint Paul felt this way sometimes. There was a time when he was a persecutor of the Church. He hunted and killed Christians, and yet God made him an essential asset in the proclamation and spread of the Gospel of justification for the sake of Christ. The proof of this rests in the simple fact that Paul wrote most of the New Testament. We receive the words of our Lord by way of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But so often we see how Paul was put into place to help us see how it all fits together.

Just thinking out loud, I wonder if one reason we find ourselves in such low points, perhaps as I hinted to before, is because of a kind of jealousy born from comparison between individuals. In other words, I wonder if Paul ever slipped into comparing himself with Peter. I wonder if he ever found himself jealous that Peter was with Jesus from the beginning. Peter saw the miracles. He was with the Lord for the Transfiguration. He walked on water, even if only for a moment. He saw the Lord on Easter Day. Peter certainly didn’t have a past like Paul’s. He hadn’t been complicit in the unjust executions.

I wonder if Paul was ever jealous of Peter in these things.

This certainly is an itch that I sometimes need to scratch. I see other pastors—their seemingly carefree schedules, casual workloads, the freedom to pursue higher degrees in education—and I get a little jealous. But it’s also in those moments that I have to be mindful of just how easy it is to fool myself. The jealousy of self-comparison has a way of sharpening the eyesight, but in reality, it only sees in part. It’s only fixing itself on one piece while missing the bigger picture. It sees what another person has, but really, it’s seeing what it “thinks” the other person has. It’s not seeing that perhaps Peter, as a normal human, sometimes feels as though he’s doing all he can to stay afloat. It’s not seeing that he still wrestles day and night with his betrayal of Jesus. It’s not seeing that he’s still pit against his bumbling inadequacies that not only played out with regularity right in front of Jesus and the other disciples, but because of his personality, they probably still do. It only sees the Peter it wants to see (and maybe even expects to see), rather than the one who’s truly there in a very holistic way—someone with flaws, someone who’s often burdened by the cares of this life, someone who struggles with relationships, someone whose efforts in the ministry are by no means perfect because he is not perfect.

I like the way the King James Bible translates Song of Songs 8:6. It reads, “Jealousy is a cruel grave.” It sure is. It buries us with unnecessary and unrealistic concerns. It tempts us to measure our worth in the Kingdom of God according to the wrong standards.

I suppose in conclusion, and being as honest as I can, if everything I’m doing is a product of my intellect and muscle, then the only kind of pastor I can be is a bad one. In fact, the only kind of father, husband, or friend I can be is a bad one. I’m of the same mind as Paul when he said that when it comes to sinners, I’m the chief (1 Timothy 1:15). As a sinner, I’m not fit for any of these roles, let alone the job of pastor, and I’ll never produce anything by way of these roles that would ever meet the Lord’s lawful expectations. I just can’t do it.

But on the other hand, if it’s the Lord who is at work in my life and labors by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, if He’s the One who has taken such a flawed and quirky individual and set him here and there in the world, all the while knowing the flaws—sometimes using them and other times sequestering them—then I can be content with where I am and happy with what I have. I can be found willing and able to change the aspects of my person that seem to get in the way, and I can pursue enhancing the more helpful ones. In all of this, I can be faithful and keep on keeping on, knowing that I’m right where God wants me.

This is His gig, not mine. It’s His plan. It’s His work. By faith, I know it’s all for my good—and God-willing, yours, too.

Having said all this, I know what I’ve rambled on with this morning might seem somewhat relative to me, but I’m hopeful there’s something here that you can take and apply to your own circumstances, especially when you’re feeling down. Remember that God loves you, and if you ever question your value, look to the cross. He exchanged the life of His only begotten Son for your life. That’s a pretty big deal.