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.

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.”

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.

Unearthly Courage

It was quite the lineup we had on Saturday. Charlie Kirk—someone I don’t know that well, but have gotten to know much better in the past few days—he did a splendid job. Dinesh D’Souza and Rafael Cruz—both men that I know and respect and call friends—they, of course, spoke to the issues facing the Church with passion and clarity. They were inspirational in so many ways, and their verve was contagious.

Then there was Jack Phillips. And I must say, I’m not the same man I was before I met Jack.

For those of you who attended, you know it sometimes took Jack a minute or two to find the words he wanted to say. And when he finally reached to where the words were hiding, he took them, wrapped them in an easy gentleness, and handed them to us in a way that warmed all in the room. The love in his family and the story of his new life in Christ made us all smile. Sometimes we gave a chuckle as he attempted to add humor in his descriptions of situations of sheer terror. Other times he brought us to tears as we saw him doing what he could to hold back his own.

After he and his lawyer, Jake Warner, were done speaking, I took Jack back to the green room so he and his wife, Debi, could rest a little before lunch. While there, we visited a little further on some things. Before I left to get back to the conference, I confessed to Jack that for all the good he is doing for the cause of Religious Liberty in America—and specifically in the moment for my own congregation and the community in which she is serving in so many ways as the tip of the spear—I confessed that I don’t think I like being responsible for Jack and Debi having to relive the horrors they’ve endured. The death threats. Terrorized children and grandchildren. The six-figure debts. The years in court he’ll never get back. The verbal attacks and the vitriol he endures day after day. The badgering from his own state rulers and the constant dread of a new lawsuit threatening to shatter everything he holds dear and to bury him in hateful rubble. With each moment that he struggled to communicate to us the seriousness of his predicament and the concern he has that the same things are facing many of us, too—each of his words being born from a severe and tortuous pain—I was sad that he was called upon to retell it. I wanted him to know how thankful I truly was that he took the time to be with us, and I told him I would forever be his servant in the Lord. He needed only to call me—anytime—and I’d be there to help, to speak, to pray, to listen.

Jack shook my hand and smiled. He thanked me and in a few short words reminded me that even as it hurts to tell the story again and again, such care from others makes it better. And ultimately, Jesus has already figured it all out. With that, everything will be okay. In the meantime, as a Christian family, we’re in this together.

Before worship yesterday, my own devotions began with a portion from Ephesians 3:16, which reads: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being…” Luther offered the following regarding those words:

“Worldly people are full of courage and of high spirits, and so are Christians. Christians are much stronger through the Holy Spirit, for they fear neither the world nor the devil, neither death nor misfortune. This is called spiritual strength… Worldly courage endures no longer than there is some earthly good on which to rely; but the true courage trusts in God alone and has no other good or gold than God alone; in Him it withstands all evil and wins an altogether different heart and courage from that of the world.”

It would seem that we need that unearthly courage more than ever before these days. Those who attended the conference were fortunate enough to see such courage in full bloom in Jack and Debi Phillips.

This reminds me of something. Do you remember the shooting incident at the outdoor concert in Las Vegas a few years ago? Such a horrific tragedy. A day or so after the ungodly event, I remember reading a news article about reporter interviewing a survivor of the incident who offered some startling words. The survivor said, “I arrived at the concert an agnostic. I’m leaving a believer.”

While I don’t know the fullness of what the person meant by that, I assume from the context that his agnostic beliefs (which is the belief that it’s impossible to know whether or not there is a God, and so the person neither claims faith nor disbelief) this man’s position changed to one that admits God is real. Whether he saw God at work through the people involved in the rescue and caring for others (Matthew 5), or he was willing to admit that only devilry could move a heart to such darkness, thereby inferring such evil must have an opponent, whichever it was, this man took a step toward recognizing this world is coming undone and it needs rescue.

Yesterday, Sunday, those of you who made it to church here at Our Savior, you heard the Good News of that rescue. We were blessed to have some visiting clergy. Reverend Rahn from the Lutheran Heritage Foundation, and Bishop Peter Anibati, the Bishop of the South Sudanese Lutheran Church, were both with us. Reverend Rahn preached the Gospel, and as he did, you met with and received from the One—Jesus Christ—who provides for the rescue of a world steeped in terror. Last week you heard me preach, quite literally, that on the cross, Christ gave Himself over—horrifyingly, grotesquely, vividly. He plunged into Death’s mouth, down its throat, and into its belly to be digested. From there, he was the poison that killed Death. And then He tore back up and out of Death’s corpse by way of His resurrection at Easter. You were told by way of the story of the Widow of Nain that never before has there ever been someone who could contend with the terrors of this world, namely Death, and win. And yet, the Gospel declares that the day has come, and the One who can do it is Jesus. The week before that, Pastor Zwonitzer delivered the same Good News of incredible power. Receiving a steady diet of this Gospel here at Our Savior, whether you realize it or not, you are being forearmed for meeting with a world that would seek to crush and utterly destroy you. You are being fed by His Word and Sacraments for the courage Luther described in the portion above. This supernatural food meets you where you are, and it instills the very message that supersedes the world’s hope and gives true Christian hope.

This is the same kind of hope many of you saw beaming brightly from Jack and his lovely wife, Debi—two of the humblest, and yet fiercest, heroes in American Christianity. Period.

My prayer for you, dearest Christian, is that even as you go about your day and week and are confronted by struggles—as you watch and listen to the newscasts, as you behold the sadness, the terror, the creeping hopelessness that seems to pall a Christian’s world day after day—my prayer is that you would first be calmed by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, which is a message not just of God’s existence, but one that actually displays and works His wonderful love revealed in Jesus Christ and His life, death, and resurrection. Sturdied by this, emboldened by this, made courageous by this and by this alone, go out into the world to be salt and light. Be the ones whom God will use to show a suffering world that He exists, He loves us, and He has reached out to us in our moment of greatest need. Be emitters of a Gospel that proclaims that on the cross, Jesus has already figured it all out, and with that, everything will be okay. And in the meantime, as a Christian family, take comfort in knowing we’re in this together. In Him, no matter the terrors that appear to consume this fallen world, we are and have been well cared for in and through the person and work of our rescuer, Jesus Christ.

Christians Have No License to Hate

Minna Antrim once said, “To be loved is to be fortunate, but to be hated is to achieve distinction.”

I think on these words sometimes.

In one sense, her words are offered as a warning to those pursuing notoriety, reminding them they won’t be loved by everyone when they arrive at fame’s station. In another sense, she sets the words before her readers as a reminder, a prodding emblem for those laboring to achieve for the sake of a common betterment. We are to know that as we wrestle toward good, we’ll accumulate along the way some who despise us.

Why is this?

Because hate is natural to Man’s fallen fabric. It’s the oily-black blood flowing in the sin-nature’s veins, bringing malevolent nutrition to all parts of its body.

I think this proves Lord Byron’s words true when he wrote that “hatred is by far the longest pleasure; men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.”

Hatred is easy for us, and we can do it for a long time.

I remember a few months back I was listening to a fellow clergyman and friend (well, now I’d call him a former friend) making the point before a group of listeners that the Bible gives license to hate as God hates. He didn’t speak to anything specifically, and yet because I know the texts, I suppose I was assuming he was thinking on the passages that say God hates things like divorce (Malachi 2:16) and idolatry (Hosea 9:15) and other such resulting weeds that grew from the soil of man’s sinful heart. Paul says in Romans 7:15, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” And for the record, in the Book of Revelation, Jesus says, “Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” In context, the Nicolaitans were a group that more than proffered sexual immorality. And please take note that Jesus said He hated the works of the Nicolaitans, not the Nicolaitans themselves.

Having said all of this, what I remember most about my former friend’s overall words was the sense of defending a Christian’s right to hate in an emotional sense. I remember walking away with a sinking feeling of disconnect with his words. It seemed as though he was trying to cram the broader theology of God’s righteous anger against Sin into the lesser box of simple human passion and its fleshly responses. He seemed to be working to stir the already sin-capable hearts of his listeners to take up a cause, one that involved wielding the sword of God’s vengeance in hand under the guise of a righteous vigor against evil.

Friends, if this was the goal, it was wrong, and it just won’t do among us.

There’s an interesting passage in the Book of Hebrews which reads, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.”

The word “therefore” is pivotal here. What comes after it is to be understood as the result of what preceded it.

Contextually, the writer of the book sets the stage as having an inspired knowledge of God the Father having said the words to His Son, Jesus. And surrounding the short accolade of this particular verse, all of the Father’s verbiage points to His divine hatred and righteous judgment for evil, and how ultimately, it has been heaped upon Christ in His death on the cross. Christ was the propitiation of God’s righteous wrath against wrongdoing. From this, and finally, the anointing of Christ’s efforts for the extension of His kingdom—which is our anointing as well by virtue of having been baptized into the death of Christ—becomes one of joy.

That’s the word the writer uses to describe what’s driving our efforts for the extension of the Kingdom in this world. Joy.

By faith, we can hate evil in the purest sense of its ancient definition—meaning we despise it as the opposite of what God, who in perfect love, intended for His creation. But how do we wage war against others being consumed by this evil. The Book of Hebrews points its inspired finger at joy.

So be honest. Can the word “joy” at all—or could it ever be—an emotionally hate-filled word? Is it possible to ever say that you joyfully hate someone? If you can, you’ve got serious problems. If you try to defend it as such, you are a liar and unable to see that Godly joy is incapable of producing hatred, but rather it is unbreakably intertwined with the other eight fruits of the Spirit, which are love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22,23).

In short, Christians do not hate anyone. We are to love others. We are to seek peace with others. We are to be patient and kind. We are to exercise and amplify goodness. We are to seek faithfulness to Christ and thereby be found faithful to our neighbors. We are to engage with others gently, employing the carefulness that comes only by way of self-control.

And should any of us ever give the impression that we hate anyone while claiming the Bible as our justifier, I’m willing to say such a person will have stepped beyond the truest borders of the Word of God, and frankly, is no longer holding valid citizenship in the Kingdom of Christ until repentant faith is restored.

I suppose if you disagree, you could take it up with the Apostle John—the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 13:23)—who wrote, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:21); and “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15); and “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness… But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:9,11).

If you need more help with this, knock on King Solomon’s door. He’ll be sure to remind you that “hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses” (Proverbs 10:12). And I suppose if you need a final lesson, sit at the feet of Jesus and hear Him say so gently and plainly, “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).

I suppose my point in sharing this is, first, because I sat down to type something—anything—and this is what came out. But second, because we are dwelling in some rather confusing times, ones that call for us to be vigilant and steadfast in the face of some pretty unsettling efforts against us. Still, our Lord’s superior Word doesn’t change. It is immutable. And so we trust Him. He knows far better than we do what will win the hearts of others, even those who’d rather see us fed to the lions.

And so, Christians, do not hate. Love as Christ loved you and gave His own life for yours. Only the love of Christ—lived out through us—can meet with courage the opponents of the Church and expect to be blessed. Such love is truly a fearless love, for “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

A Whole Lot of Nothing

There was a storm that passed through Livingston and Genesee counties last Thursday evening, one that put on quite the show as it approached. If you’re at all familiar with the show “Stranger Things,” from a distance, the storm was eerily similar to those lightning cast skies in the realm of the “Upside Down.” I fully expected to see the Shadow Monster hovering above Argentine, which is the town immediately west of us.

Jennifer and I spent some time on the front porch watching the storm roll in. It looked pretty threatening. It wasn’t until Madeline intercepted news from the frontline using her weather app that I decided to go the nearby gas station to fill up the gas cans I keep on hand for use with our generator. The forecast indicated high winds and large hail destined for Linden around 9:35 pm.

It was coming, and based on the reported time, I only had about 15 minutes to get to the gas station and back.

I managed the round trip in about 8 minutes. When I got home, the winds were picking up. What was once a relatively mild sky was now in the process of being palled by a shredded covering of blackness—a giant layer with tattered edges being pulled over the earth. There were moments when the portion of the storm creeping over our house actually took the shape of grizzled hands at the end of stub-like arms reaching after the calmer sky. Bright bursts of lightning coursed around and through all of it, and with the clouds being so low, each abrupt surge was powerful enough to rival noonday light, giving the impression someone was standing at the sun’s light switch turning it on and off again.

It was a menacing display, but it was also quite remarkable.

The storm didn’t fully arrive until about 10:00 pm, which was well after predicted. And when it did, it was a whole lot of nothing. The winds were strong at times, and there were a few periods of rain with larger-than-usual drops, but other than that, the intimidating forecast of its strength was far more than its actual grip. It appeared terrifying on approach, which stirred my worry, but in the end, it had barely enough force to knock the leaves from the trees let alone the power from the neighborhood.

Worry is a strange thing, isn’t it? Seneca wrote that there are more things “that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

How true. And while I’m one for the hearty employment of imagination, nevertheless, the mind’s eye still proves its binding to sin. Worry hires our imaginations in order to accomplish its dirty deeds of despair and trustless anxiety.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with reading the context of an uncertain scene, and by its cues, doing what’s necessary to prepare. We’d be fools to hear the forecast of a terrible storm and not do all we can to get ready. For example, our congregation just faced off with a pretty significant pile of bills. The mortgage, payroll, and a mass of other obligations came due all in the same week. We knew they were coming. We could see the clouds gathering on the horizon, and it was pretty scary. With that, we communicated and we prepared. I’m here to tell you that we navigated the winds and waves and did not sink.

A few years back, a former member of Our Savior told me to my face not only that he was leaving for a different church, but also that when such financial situations loomed at Our Savior (and such things were pretty regular back in those days), I’d miss his offerings in the collection plate. In fact, he was sure to tell others in leadership that he was giving us six months before we’d be forced to close our doors.

That was in 2011.

I’ll admit that in the moment, it was a worrisome thing to hear from him. Still, I knew right then and there that a man will only say such things if he believes the only way for success in this life and the next is by his own efforts—that everything depends on him—that the only way he can save himself and all he loves is if he shutters the windows and has plenty of gas for the generator.

I get the feeling that worry’s gravity is exceptionally heavy for such self-oriented people. Even the small storms become big for a person trapped within his or herself. The smallest things become destructive. A singular raindrop of an innocuous word from a friend has the potential for causing a massive divide between two people. That raindrop is like a torrential flood. It sends the person running for the sandbags.

As I type away at my keyboard and share these thoughts unfiltered or unfocused, I guess part of my point is to say that whether the challenge you’re facing is a monumental tempest or a raindrop of concern, steering into them believing you’re the captain is never a safe bet, and it’s dangerous.

The doors of Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan will close if God wants them to close. In the meantime, the words of Nick Fury to Agent Hill in the movie “The Avengers” comes to mind: “Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on.”

Of course for Christians, there are better words we can consider when facing insurmountable odds:

“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

These are better because they’ve been given not from fiction but from fact. They roll from the divine mouth of our loving God—a Captain who stands unrattled against any and every gale, a God who sent His Son into the cyclone of Death to defeat it from the inside, stealing away its supremacy in this world—and giving the fruits of the victory to all who trust in Him.

By such a Gospel, mistakes can be made among friends and the world they share will spin on. An alp-sized avalanche of expenses can drop on us and we’ll be okay. It won’t be easy, but in the end, the worst we have to fear in any situation is Death, and that has already been brushed aside as a whole lot of nothing.

Like the storm that passed through Linden, Michigan last Thursday.

Even Jesus Took A Break

A two week vacation is one thing. The regimen of actual life is quite another. I’m sure you realize this.

It might sound unbelievable, but Jen and I figured out that the vacation we just ended was the seventh in my twenty-five years of church work. What’s unbelievable to me is that before we started taking a vacation, I never knew just how much I actually needed one.

As a kid growing up in central Illinois, it was never assumed that at some point during the summer break, the family would board a plane or jump into a car and leave everything behind. Summer wasn’t much more than freedom from the school day’s shackles. It was about getting up and feeling like every morning was Saturday. It was about counting out a hundred pennies from the penny jar (which was the entry fee to the local pool), putting them into a paper cup, and doing my best not to spill them while holding a towel and riding my bike. Or perhaps my day would begin by eating a bowl of cereal, putting my ball glove through the handlebars of my bicycle before hopping on, and adventuring through the streets of Danville with my neighborhood friends until the sun went down. Somewhere along the way, we’d find food and water. Somewhere along the way, we’d jump ramps and play games like “hot box.” Somewhere along the way, we’d make new bike trails through mid-city fields and forests behind familiar neighborhoods. Somewhere along the way we’d end up in a wrestling match—sometimes for fun and sometimes not. And always before the last of the street lights came on, my bike was back in the shed and I was ready to call it a day—at least until the late night monster movies slid in behind the evening news. Then it was time to sprawl out on the living room floor, my head resting in my hands on propped elbows, and doing my best to see if I could stay awake through to the end of the double feature.

I suppose beyond any of this, getting away meant going camping at a state park just outside of town, a place we knew just as well as our own neighborhoods. And while there, the kids would do the exact same things we did in the city. We’d ride our bikes, play hot box, cut trails, and get into scraps—all coming to an end when the campfire lights were brighter than the sky and the mosquitoes were on the hunt.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve never really known how important it is to actually take the time to put some distance between “self” and “actual life”—to actually go and do and be something that’s a little bit different than what you are the rest of the year.

For me, the going, doing, and being has pretty much become about my role as a husband, father, and writer. Yes, I experience these roles every day of the year, but admittedly, they’re more than overshadowed by my role as “pastor.” I’m a man who is and must be accessible to hundreds of others who aren’t my wife or children. As someone who enjoys the creative writing process, most of what I scribe ends up in sermons, eNews articles, or other such outlets aimed at the fulfillment of others.

It might sound like what I do all year long isn’t fulfilling, but that’s not what I mean. On vacation, things are different. Very different. And this good. And I’ve learned just how healthy it can be. Knowing this, I continue to sort out the boundaries for protecting the Thoma vacation.

Just to give you some perspective on this, while sitting on the couch watching “Shark Week” reruns with the kids, I heard a ping to my phone. It was a text from the congregation president. He’d just finished a special council meeting and was asking if I might send out a quick email to let folks know about the congregation meeting being scheduled for July 21. The meeting has to happen soon in order to complete the efforts of the Call Committee. Now, this gent is more than mindful of the sanctity of my time away, and so his text was somewhat sheepish. He just didn’t want to bother me. Still, I understand why he sent the text. As the congregation president, he had to. I’m the only one who has access to the eNews mailing list, and our by-laws require a two week notice for a congregation meeting. But no sooner than I sent that email did I receive a collection of reply messages, phone calls, and texts from folks inside and outside of the congregation—all on the mailing list—who thought I was home from my vacation. I sent a text back to the president—one adorned with a smiley face to let him know I wasn’t bothered by his request, but that next time I would just give him access to the mailing list.

Lesson learned, just like others the Thoma family has cultured over the years.

Now that we know the joy-filled rejuvenation of vacationing, we have established a family rule that we cannot vacation within a one thousand mile radius of our home. It’s kind of a mental thing. It stems from the attempts we’ve made in the past to take vacations only to be called back a few days into the getaway because of an emergency. With that, we decided that if we’re ever going to accomplish an actual vacation, we’d have to kick for the goal line. That’s when we started going to Florida instead of places like Traverse City. When we’re only a few hundred miles away, it seems easier for me to just pack up and head back home, leaving the family behind to finish the vacation.

But mentally, a thousand miles seems a lot harder. And it’s certainly more convincing on the phone.

“Pastor, there’s been a zombie outbreak in Hartland. We need you to come home and provide spiritual care to the ones who’ve been bitten and are dying. And while you’re here, we sure could use your help fighting the ones who are turning.”

“I’m a thousand miles away. Grab a Bible and pray the Psalms with them. Just be sure to do it wearing body armor—in case they turn before you finish. I’ll be back on Friday night. On Saturday, I’ll finish unpacking, and then I’ll grab my bat and get down to Hartland to help you fight the undead.”

If the caller is persistent, I’d remind him or her that rest is essential, even for Christians. We’re the ones put into place to hold the lines against both visible and invisible forces. And don’t forget, even as God doesn’t necessarily need to rest, He certainly set the stage for us to know what it means after He created the world. Ultimately, He ended up mandating rest. And then the Son of God, Jesus Christ, came along and put another divine stamp of approval on the idea of rest when He reminded us that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). A few chapters later, He urged His disciples to join Him in a much needed time of rest away from the busy cadence of serving the people (Mark 6:31).

Even Jesus took a break.

Yes, I know at a base level, when we’re talking about Sabbath rest, we’re being led to the importance of holy worship—that time of respite in the arms of the One who cares for us, giving us the forgiveness of sins and strengthening us for life in this world. But the theme of mental and physical rest is woven into these details, too. God sometimes has to mandate the good things, the beneficial things. He has to mandate silence. He has to mandate reverence. He has to mandate prayer. He has to mandate rest. He knows that if He doesn’t tell us to do it, we won’t, and then we’ll miss the benefits inherent to these things.

I guess the reason I’m spending so much time with all of this is because, first, I haven’t written an eNews article in two weeks and it’s sort of bottled up. Remember, when I sit down to write these things, it’s more or less a “say whatever comes to mind” scenario. But second, be sure to take a vacation. It doesn’t mean you have to go anywhere. It just means separating from the regimen of everyday life in order to rejuvenate the “self.”

We all need it. We might not think we do. We might think we can continue to go and go and go without ever slowing down, but we can’t. God knows it. And it’s been a hard lesson for me to learn over the course of twenty-five years.

And so with that, if you haven’t already, I hope you’ll find some time this summer to land at a restful place—whether that be a cabin up north, a place somewhere down south, or your own back yard. I hope it’ll be a time of thankfulness to God for His merciful kindness. I hope you’ll find rejuvenation, so that when the dust of everyday existence kicks up again, you’ll be just as ready as the rest of us to lock arms and hold the line in the trenches.