Hope and COVID

I wrote and shared this note of encouragement with my congregation this morning. If it can serve you and your Christian community, too, then praise God.
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Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The Lord be with you.

I woke up this morning with the urge to reach out to you. I hope you’ll take a little time to read my words.

The COVID cases in Livingston County are rising. Even in our own congregation we’ve seen a few cases here and there, which certainly doesn’t stir us to complacency, but rather to acknowledge the enemy is indeed at the gates. The pastors here know this. The Elders know this. And so even as it’s inevitable that we’ll continue to see cases among us for some time, we intend to make our way through, being sure to put our hope in Christ and seeking first and foremost to be faithful to His mandates above all others.

As a Christian, this had me thinking.

This past Sunday, as a congregation, we didn’t get to hear the readings appointed for the Second Sunday in Advent because we enjoyed Advent Lessons and Carols instead (although, Pastor Zwonitzer did preach on the Old testament text). If I could go back, I would plug the Gospel reading into the service. The appointed text was from Luke 21:25-36, and it focuses our attention on the Last Day. Take a look:

“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Reading through and thinking on this text this morning—and remember, I’m a guy who visualizes what I’m reading—I realized something. If you really think about it, Jesus paints a dreadfully terrifying picture. He speaks of worldwide distress. He speaks of globe-encompassing fear. He says we’ll see and experience frightening things—things that cause everything on earth and everything in the sky to shake. Many among us might be able to imagine an earthquake, but have you ever thought about the cosmic power necessary for rattling the sun, moon, and stars—and for us on earth to actually see them shaking and coming apart as they’re throttled in their orbit? When it comes to inescapable terror, such things are completely beyond human comprehension. There will be nothing scarier.

Still, did you notice how the Lord described the response of His Christians in this moment of moments? He said that while everyone around us would be fainting with fear and foreboding, we’d find a strange vigor for standing up straight, for lifting our heads. And how would this be possible? Because the Spirit for faith alive within us would awaken a resident and unshakeable hope—a hope that knows the redemption we have in our Savior, Jesus Christ, who loves us. Jesus is making sure that we understand that in Him, we don’t ever need to be afraid.

I dare say that the same Spirit is at work in us now. How do I know this? Because this kind of pastoral care being shown by Jesus wasn’t just limited to His description of what we’d face at the coming of the Last Day, but rather He gives by His Gospel Word the same hope for facing every single day of our lives (Romans 15:13).

I suppose I should add that as Christians, in one sense, it’s okay to be fearful. Fear can serve as a protective mechanism, and God doesn’t want us to test Him by living insensibly. That Baptist pastor in the news who so brazenly told his congregation to go out and deliberately contract COVID just to get it over with is an example of what we should not do. In fact, I’d say he sounded eerily similar to the devil as he was tempting Jesus to throw Himself from the temple peak in Matthew 4:5-7. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” the Lord replied. In other words, we’re not to test God’s care for us by deliberately putting ourselves into harm’s way. But in the same vein, if a Christian is found in a jeopardous situation and yet is embracing fear in the same way that unbelievers embrace it—that is, rolling along in senseless and unbridled terror as if there was no hope—then I’d suspect such Christians are failing to grasp what Jesus actually meant by hope.

Trust the Lord. Use your reason and senses to do what makes sense in your context for your safety and for the safety of your family. But don’t let your human reason and senses rise above faithfulness to the Lord. Reason and sense can be reliable, but both are tainted by Sin. They can and will fail you. But Jesus won’t fail you. He has you well in hand. He loves you. Which is why He gave the warning about the Last Day in the way that He did. He didn’t hold anything back. He wants you to be ready for both the easy stuff and the hard stuff. That readiness is more than permeating this COVID-19 moment, too. Believe it or not, He said what He said being well aware of the nature of 2020.

And so, God be with you this day and always. Know that I love you in the Lord, and I’m here as you need me. The same goes for Pastor Zwonitzer and Pastor Hardy. We are your servants, and as such, we stand at the ready to give you the only remedy for the wounds of fear: The Gospel that we are saved by grace through faith in the One who gave His life that we would not die, but live!

Call if you need me.

In His holy and most precious name,
Pastor Thoma+

Chasing Happiness

I don’t mean to alarm you, but it’s nearing the end of September and it’s 44 degrees outside right now. And this past Saturday before an early morning meeting with the Elders, I noticed the leaves on one of the trees near the church’s bell tower beginning a course toward yellow. Even before the sun had pierced the horizon, in the dim light, there was the illusion of the tree’s plume being tinged by a bright beam. Of course it wasn’t the sun causing the leaves to glow. It was the onset of autumn.

The world is turning toward winter.

My wife, Jennifer, bought a special type of lamp for me. I haven’t used it yet, but it’s one that’s supposed to help with the seasonal doldrums that come along in the wake of winter’s relentless (and seemingly endless) plodding. She knows I love the summertime. She knows I love the longer days, and that as they grow shorter, I do everything I can to get as much from them as possible. I’ll be outside. I’ll take the top and doors off of the Wrangler, even if only to get an hour or two of enjoyment between passing rainclouds. I do everything I can to pull from each day. Admittedly, I’m easily irritated by kids who’d rather be inside playing a video game instead of doing the same. I see them on the couch with controllers in their hands and I’m reminded of something Peter Shaffer, the English playwright, said of his wife’s disinterest in the surrounding splendor while on vacation in Tuscany:

“All my wife has taken from the Mediterranean—from that whole vast intuitive culture—are four bottles of Chianti to make into lamps.”

But as I was saying, I struggle to find joy in winter. I struggle to discover happiness in what seems to be the monopoly of its darkness, and so I do all I can to relish in what summer gives before it’s gone. I suppose one particular bit of happiness I find in winter is, in itself, paradoxical. I do a lot more writing during the colder, darker months of the year. I do it to help survive winter—to be distracted from its confinement, to sort of take a little time each day to jot myself into imaginary spheres where I’m in control of the pace of the earth’s position and rotation. In those moments, I give far more ticks of the clock to the daylight. If I didn’t have this as mental medicine, I can only imagine the depressions I might endure.

Perhaps you have similar practices that help to get you through your personal melancholies.

Admittedly, every year at this time, I’m reminded of how the changing seasons run parallel with a number of things in life. For one, I’m reminded to embrace the happy times—to appreciate family, friends, and the moments we have together in the “right now.” I recall these things knowing that everything could be very different tomorrow. Come to think of it, tomorrow itself is never a certain thing. This has begun to make more sense as my children get older. With each and every step toward adulthood, I’m reminded of just how momentary the current days truly are. At the moment, all four of my children still live at home, but it won’t be long before each will pass from the summertime of his or her life with mom and dad into the winter of “farewell.” Of course, they’ll move beyond that winter toward the spring and summer of new careers and family, and God willing, the parents will be brought along with them into these seasons of happiness.

All the same, too many parents know exactly the mixed emotions of this icy in-between that I’m describing, and so as the twilight of the events draws near, parents do their best to take as much joy from the moments as each will give. They’ll do what they can to hold onto the happiness.

I suppose before I go any further with my Monday morning tip-tapping of the keyboard’s keys—of putting onto your screen whatever I feel like putting there in the moment—I suppose I should get to some sort of point. Or how about a question? I think there’s one hidden in what I’ve shared so far.

How about this: What makes for real happiness?

Misery seems easy enough to find. Funny thing is, I sometimes think a good portion of society’s misery comes from its endless chasing after happiness. I also sometimes wonder if while we waste a lot of time trying to capture contentment, do we really even know what it looks like, and would we know it if we actually caught it? I’m guessing that for the most part, no. Elderly parents reminisce regarding the happier days when their kids were little and at home. But in many of those moments, they were longing for easier days with older, less dependent children—ones who didn’t whine or get in trouble at school—ones who would finally know enough to run to the toilet to throw up rather than just doing it right there in their bed. At the same time, children are unhappy under the watchful yoke of their parents. They want to be free. But as adults with the flu, they long for the days when mom would coddle them with a makeshift bed on the couch and a never-ending supply of chicken noodle soup and cartoons.

Youthfulness or maturity, obscurity or fame, poverty or wealth, sickness or health—none of these things, or anything in between has ever truly succeeded at being the ultimate conduit for happiness.

The Bible speaks of happiness in some pretty strange ways. One of those ways is hope.

In Proverbs 10:28, King Solomon wrote that the “hope of the righteous will be gladness.” In Romans 15:13, Saint Paul actually connects both joy and peace with the hope of faith when He says, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

At first glance, texts like these might seem counterintuitive. We often see joyful happiness as the emotional object that comes with having something material in hand. We believe that only by holding the first place trophy will we experience joy. For many in our world, only by having more money in hand will they be happy. Few consider the process of hoping for joy to be the joy itself.

Another strange way the Bible talks about happiness is in connection to suffering. The Apostle James wrote:

“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:2-3).

Here we are told that we can actually experience happiness when the world is coming down on us. Of course, James was only repeating what Jesus said in John 15, just a few sentences before He began prepping the disciples for persecution:

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

But notice how Jesus phrased His statement. His joy would be our joy, and He inferred this joy would be ours right now. This should give us a hint as to what real joy—real happiness—truly is. It’s the comforting knowledge given by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel for faith. It’s the divine awareness implanted deep down in our core that knows the freedom from Sin, Death, and the power of the devil won for us by Christ. The world can’t give to us anything remotely close to this. Only God can. And He promises that such happiness can be experienced in both good times and bad. Why? Because it is as Nehemiah proclaimed: “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10). Such joy has steely innards. Its foundation is one of divine confidence, and its framework is built according to the schematic that knows no matter what happens, it stands before the Father justified on account of Christ. By this, Christian joy forever bears in mind the impermanence of this world as it anticipates the world to come in His eternal presence.

“You will show me the path of life,” King David wrote in Psalm 16:11, “and in Your presence is fullness of joy.”

Add to this Saint Paul’s words from Romans 5:1-2:

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

The peace we’ll experience in its fullest sense in the future of heaven is the same peace of which we have a foretaste right now. Beautiful. Our God reminds us by His holy Word that through faith in His Son, right here in this life, we know that any chance for being at war for our eternal future has passed.

We needn’t fear.

In this we can be hopeful. In this we can be happy.

Light and Darkness, Certainty and Uncertainty, Courage and Fear

Technically, the sun rose this morning at 6:04 AM. I watched it from my kitchen window. It was stunning.

Before the moment had fully developed, the world beyond my window pane was a cool and shapeless dark with very little definition. I could barely make the mist twirling up from the Shiawassee River. Although, peering straight into the darkness, after a while, my eyes were more than capable of deceit, maybe even taking hold of imagination’s hand as she beckoned toward some impossible things.

I mean, I’m pretty sure I saw a pack of velociraptors crossing from one shore of the river to the other, pausing at the water’s edge before rushing into the thicket. Or maybe it was a herd of deer.

Eventually the tree line defining the horizon (which in the first few minutes of the sun’s visibility was edged with an extraordinary copper luminescence) couldn’t seem to stop the sunlight from revealing every single detail of the world behind my home. Minutes before I could only see what I thought I could see. In the light, I could see everything for what it was.

Oh, the in-between murmurs of the sun and its rising in summer! It comes and goes, rising and setting and rising again, ever reminding its onlookers of deeper, more glorious things—always bearing a much grander intuition than we’re often willing to confess.

An intriguing characteristic of light is that when its beams break through, the terrors—both real and imagined—scatter. The very real roaches run for the baseboard crevices. The same goes for the imagined velociraptors. They, too, scramble back to the shadows. I’m sure you know what I mean. You need only to think back to your younger days and recall the fear that came with fetching something from the darkened basement—or whichever unlit space was most fearful in your home. Everything and anything with hooked claws, piercing fangs, and a leathery hide was waiting to snatch you before you could get to the light switch. Perhaps the heaviest dread in those moments came somewhere between the bottom and top steps after the item’s retrieval. In the seconds after turning off the light, with the darkness at your back, whatever unseen beasties were previously restrained by its beams were now almost certainly scurrying from their hiding places to catch you before you could leap through the door at the top.

We all know the dread that comes with darkness. We all know the comfort of the light.

There’s a broader interpretation to be had from such scenes of light and darkness, certainty and uncertainty, courage and fear. Opening the door of my home this morning and stepping out into the current state of darkly affairs in our world, I’m reminded of this, and as such, I continually retell myself two things in particular.

The first is that things won’t be as they are forever. This world had a beginning. Because of Sin, it will have an end, too. No matter the invented truths of today, the Lord promises that at the Last Day, the divine light of truth will eventually break through with its fullest brightness at the appearing of Christ in glory (Titus 2:13, Revelation 1:7-8, Malachi 4:2). In that ensuing moment, nothing will be obscure. Everyone will see things as they truly are. Every system of belief, every controversy, every philosophy will be revealed by and measured against the only standard of judgment that ever mattered in this life: the truth of God’s Word.

This thought reminds me that the imagined velociraptor-like sense that truth appears so often to be losing ground to untruth will be proven infinitesimally short-lived soon enough. Regardless of the truths being cast aside in our world—that a man is not a woman and a woman is not a man; that killing an unborn child is murder; that all lives, no matter the skin color, have value; that murderous rioting beneath a banner of virtue is the devil’s business—while these truths may be hidden from so many right now, eventually the lights will come on. The sun will rise and we’ll see the landscape clearly. It’ll be a moment experienced by the whole world, and all will acknowledge it on their knees, either in humble gladness, or in terror (Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10-11).

It’ll be a moment in which all accounts are settled.

In relation to this, the second thing I do my best to keep in mind is that temporal worry is just plain foolishness. In Matthew 6:25-34, Christ explains the futility of worry and the better exchange found in faith. Christ is always the better bet, and so He teaches trust in Him as powerful against worry. Trust severs worry’s fuel line, which is fear. When fear is starved, it does what every malnourished thing eventually does—it dies. Personally, going forth from fear’s funeral, I can live in confidence through each and every day leading toward the final judgment knowing by faith that Christ has settled my account for me. By the power of the Holy Spirit at work through this Gospel, He is establishing in me the desire to seek and abide in His truth in all situations. In other words, my opinions take a back seat to His opinions.

Looking to the days ahead, if we establish our footing on anything other than the truth of God’s Word, we are doomed. And certainly, if there’s anything to be learned from the last few months it’s that no human word or deed can assure us of what’s next, let alone what’s true. Not an executive order, a doctor’s opinion, a social media post, or news report.

There’s lots of uncertainty at the bottom of the basement steps. But through faith in Christ, we can know to reach for the light switch of God’s Word. It’s there we learn that no matter how dark the days may become, “nothing in all creation is hidden from His sight” (Hebrews 4:13). He is well aware, and by no means has He lost control.

As the cities continue to burn, as de-educated punks continue to topple monuments, while self-righteous thugs deliberately trample others because of skin color, continue to let your legs carry you to the place where your finger can flip the switch. Be found in the bright beaming light of the truth which affirms, “‘Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’” (Jeremiah 23:24).

Rest assured He sees it all. He sees and knows you, too. He also knows what’s happening around you. Trust Him. Follow Him. Labor in these dark days by the strength He provides, being assured by the light of His Gospel truth that as you make your way through this seemingly unhinged world of ungodly wokeness, “your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).