Virtual Overlords and a Few Lessons Learned

So, what is there to talk about these days? Yeah, I know, right?

I don’t know about you, but the events of the past week have been concerning. And without sounding completely tone deaf, I should at least acknowledge that while I know what’s going on, I just don’t feel like visiting with it in the detail some may expect.

To be honest, with all of the conservatives on the news and social media platforms being rounded up and digitally executed, I think my time on certain networks is coming to an end. I’m not as active on Twitter as most, but I do have a few thousand followers, and so on Saturday night, just to see if I’d been affected by the mass cleansings, I discovered that about half of them were gone. I checked again later before the 12:30pm Divine Service on Sunday and saw that the number had risen to about two-thirds having gone MIA. Whether they’re leaving the platform or being punted, I think that’s a foretaste of what’s coming for guys like me who do what they can to bring the concerns of the Gospel to bear in the public square and culture.

Either way, no worries in this regard. I’m already in the process of closing my Twitter account as soon as I can get all of my data downloaded. Although I noticed that the Twitter overlords intend to craft the contours of that decision for me, too. Their archive downloading instructions read: “You can request a ZIP file with an archive of the data we think is most important to you.”

“…the data we think is most important to you.”

I can’t have all of my content. I can have what they decide I can have.

For the record, I’ve been trying to leave Facebook for a few years. Just ask my wife, Jennifer. She’ll tell you the only reason I’ve stayed as long as I have is because it’s been incredibly useful for introducing Our Savior Lutheran Church and School to the surrounding community—who we are, what we do, and why. Beyond that, everything else I write could just as easily be housed at one of my blogs: AngelsPortion.com or CruciformStuff.com.

But give it some time. Those might end up on the virtual book pyre in the next few weeks, too. I mean, I do scribe and share things on both sites that say horribly divisive things—like abortion is a no-no, and marriage is God’s property.

It should scare Americans that it’s only the conservative, pro-life, and Christian thinkers who are being booted, even as groups like “PornHub” (which, by the way, was successfully convicted of dealing in child pornography), most chapters of Antifa, and countless other liberal echo chambers are being allowed to stay and spread their doctrines. Interestingly, I read through Joe Biden’s presidential campaign donor report, and can you guess who some of the biggest donors were to his campaign? Yep. Big tech. He received lots of help from the likes of Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Bill Gates (Microsoft).

Perhaps even more terrifying is that Amazon.com gave notice to Parler, which is a conservative competitor to Twitter, saying that unless Parler begins employing the same kind of draconian content policing policies that Twitter employs—which is code for cancelling conservatives and Christians—it’ll be dropped from their servers. I think the threat actually became reality last night. And both Apple and Google have already dropped the Parler mobile application from their stores so that no one else can join. They just don’t want conservatives to be able to communicate with mass momentum. I’ve read that MeWe, which is the conservative competitor to Facebook, is on the chopping block, too.

“That’ll never happen,” so many among us have said. “Just stay in your lane and leave it to God to handle.” Well, it’s happening. And oh, by the way, God handles these kinds of things through His people. There are countless portions of God’s Word urging us to be engaged in our communities and world. If the reader of these texts is being honest, then he’ll realize they’re nothing short of mandates for Christians to be who they are in the unavoidable areas of life. Stripping away rights, mass censoring of the conservative Christian voice, unjust fines and jail sentences, the murdering of the unborn, politics in general, and so much more—these topics are all born from the unavoidable areas.

Get in the game.

Now, I’ve already talked about this more than I wanted to when I sat down at the computer screen. But as I said, I didn’t want to sound tone deaf to the fact that we’re making our way into some serious times calling for solemn reflection and serious courage. Still, I’d rather steer in a different direction… that is, if you still have time this morning, because I have far more intriguing things that I’d still like to share.

Perhaps like me, at the beginning of every year you find yourself thinking on what you learned over the course of the preceding 365 days. If you don’t, I recommend making it a deliberate practice. I recommend grabbing a pen, a sheet of paper, and spending some time writing a list of the significant occurrences in your life from last year and what you garnered from them.

It’s not hard to do. I usually try to think of at least five, even though I know I could rake into a pile far more from the annals of my brain. I list these five events, giving each a title, and then beneath each one I write a short sentence—a summary statement of what I learned in that particular instance.

Sometimes it hurts to see what I’ve written. Sometimes it’s a joy. Either way, the result is that I can put a finger on and work to remember something I know now that I didn’t know before, and it continues to be a way to reach higher when it comes to being a better pastor, teacher, husband, father, friend, thinker, and all around human being.

One of the five things in this year’s list isn’t necessarily something I learned, but rather more of a recap. I was reminded that I am more than capable of lying to myself. I’ll give you an example.

There’s someone I know who, no matter what I say or do, just doesn’t seem to like me very much. Whether passively or with deliberate hostility, this person has proven a readiness to take anything I’ve said or done as a reason to lunge at almost any moment. Of course, it’s easy to see why this would bother me. No one wants to be treated this way. I certainly can’t think of too many people who enjoy being disliked. It’s painful. For me, it hurts even more because one of my New Year resolutions in 2020 was to make a genuine effort at bridging the gap of disdain between the two of us. And I did. But it seems each attempt only seemed to ricochet. In the end, however, the self-deception occurred, not in the sense that I was wrong in thinking I could better the relationship, but rather in thinking that it matters if the person genuinely likes me or not. The deception went deeper as I began believing that the person must actually be deranged for not liking me, because, I mean, how could anyone not like me? I’m so easy to get along with, and really quite wonderful in almost every single way.

Sure.

We all think this way sometimes, and with that, the poison of the lie begins seeping into our veins and arming us for retaliation—for giving us a false justification that gives us permission to despise them right back, and even worse, to act on that disposition.

Something else on the list of things I learned: Faithfulness means honesty, and honesty means responsibility, which is precisely why so many go out of their way to redefine faithfulness.

What I mean is that so many people appear to be able to keep their consciences clean while doing just about anything, just so long as they believe what they’re doing is okay with God. But the only way to do something like that is to set honesty aside in order to redefine faithfulness. For example, skipping church becomes acceptable as long as the core of our definition for faithfulness means that our actions are in some way divinely approved, or perhaps that true worship can happen in any form and anywhere. Or maybe we deliberately choose candidates in an election who support the murdering of babies in the womb because, in our thinking, the social welfare programs offered by those same candidates intend to lift far more from poverty, ultimately bettering far more lives than the ones they’d allow to be snuffed out. In other words, in the economy of good deeds, certainly God would be okay with that calculation because it helps more than it harms. Or how about shaming a person in a store for not wearing a mask. If one believes wearing a mask to be an unarguably virtuous cause, a moment spent showing some tough love to a maskless perpetrator in a grocery store can be internally translated as a brave display of righteousness that has as its goal the saving of lives.

I’m taking better care to be aware of these darkly maneuverings, especially among Christians. And as the days of 2021 unfold, I intend to continue probing such foolishness and being ready to respond.

I’ll share one more of my five-item list. Like the first one I shared, it isn’t anything new, but rather a re-learning of sorts.

Other than God, everything has a beginning and end, and if you can just give the stormy situation you’re in a little bit of time, some prayerful consideration, and if required, some careful conversation, eventually the situation will dissipate like a raincloud that has wept all its tears.

Even some of the worst situations I’ve ever experienced as a pastor have all quieted down at one point or another. “This, too, shall pass” is a well-worn phrase for a reason. Although, the phrase will never outmatch the value of Saint Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4: 17-18, where he reminds us that the troubles of this life are momentary, and in comparison to the eternal glory that is ours in Christ, they just can’t hold a candle.

To conclude, maybe give this exercise a try. Look back at 2020 and see what’s there. You may be surprised by what you discover. The Lord only knows what some of your lists might look like after the year’s remarkably unremarkable collection of insanity. Heck, even the last ten days of 2021 have been enough to generate those “Here, hold my beer” memes we all expected, and as a result, it’s likely you already have some items for next year’s list.

Still, whatever you discover (some of which I’m hoping will be Christian honesty, responsibility, and courage for faithfulness), as the knowledge of these discoveries flow from your heart and mind to the pen at the surface of the paper, as God’s child, be sure to keep in mind what He intends to teach you each and every new day: We needn’t be afraid of those who can harm us in this life but have no jurisdiction in the next (Matthew 10:28). God will never leave us nor forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6). He is with us to the very end of all things (Matthew 28:20). His steadfast love never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is His faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23).

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.
——————

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+

Molon Labe

I haven’t spoken much of the election, except perhaps a few online comments here and there to express my usual discontent with pastors for not getting more involved. I did this after reading an article sharing what I would say were low turnout numbers for Christians. And when I say low, I don’t mean less than those who voted in 2016. As I understand, we handily surpassed that number. When I say low, I mean far less than what’s possible, and far less than what I’d say is redeemable among citizens who would call themselves “God’s children.”

There’s a reason the Church is slipping into obscurity and persecution in the United States. The Christians themselves are a big part of it. For those who’d infiltrate us, Christian indifference is the welcome mat. For those who’d poison and kill us, Christian passivity is a seat at the dining room table.

Yes, I know, the Bible teaches that the Church should expect to be persecuted by the powers of this world. Yes, I know, the Bible teaches that we ought not to trust in this world’s princes. Believe me when I say I’ve seen and heard that particular verse from Psalm 146 being distributed and donned like the disposable masks currently littering the landscape around us. But the expectation, threat, or actual condition of persecution doesn’t mean we roll over as though helpless—as though it is a divine lot against which we have no right to resist, and certainly no license to combat. On the contrary, God has been just as clear about discerning that there is, indeed, a time for peace just as there is also a time for war (Ecclesiastes 3:8). And when Saint Paul calls for the believers to fight the good fight of faith, urging us to “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called,” he doesn’t say these kinds of things in mushy, one-dimensional terms (1 Timothy 6:12). This “taking hold”—a word that means to grasp or catch something, especially to the point of holding so tightly lest it be stolen away—this is anything but indifferent or passive. Paul has in mind the same depth and determination that the Lord has when He calls out to His listeners, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28). I know I’ve shared with you before that the word used for “keep” (which is also sometimes translated as “obey”) means far more than simple submission or passive reception, but rather communicates a belief and compliance that results in a willingness to dig ones toes into the earth and lean into any oncoming forces attempting to snatch the Word of God away. It is a “molon labe” (come and take it) kind of word indicating a willingness to engage—to fight back.

When Christians—or worse, pastors—sit idly by assuming God will simply handle everything without our engagement, well, we make a foolish assumption of God even as we misunderstand our role in the world around us. We are missing the fact that the very same Word of God we are hearing and keeping is the active source by which the Holy Spirit works to recreate us for action. Yes, God is leading us. Still, we are in the brigade—and we’re armed.

In another sense, these texts serve as helpful interpreters for the tritely used (and I’d argue, incorrectly applied) “trust not in princes” phrase. In other words, and as my friend Peter Scaer rightly pointed out, it is precisely because we do not put our trust in princes that we are called to engage in the public square. Humans are fallible. And besides, saying “trust not in princes” is really not all that different from saying “trust not in doctors” or “trust not in auto mechanics.” Understanding the First Commandment rightly, we’d say these things while at the same time we remain diligent in the selection and subsequent monitoring of our doctors and auto mechanics. We don’t just let them do whatever they want to our bodies or cars. God’s Word teaches that His Church holds an important role in holding princes to their ordination in the civil kingdom, or the Kingdom of the Left. It is our job as citizens to do as much as we can to see to the preservation of good government, namely, to the safeguarding of a national context in which the Gospel can be freely preached and taught for the sake of the salvation of the world (1 Timothy 2:1-6). If we forfeit this very important part of our Christian identity, or worse, we shame those holding it sacred as ones worshipping a false God, we can and should expect for things to get worse.

Too many pastors are doing this.

And so now, we are where we are—underrepresented at the polls. Again. I say this with a sigh, knowing there is still much work to do.

On another front, just thinking out loud as I do on Monday mornings, I find myself this time around the post-election curve warring on an altogether different front. Personally, I think this field is grittier than many others we’ve experienced so far. I say this because even as it involves trying to reconcile Christians who’ve been at each other’s ideological throats during an election, the real problem with this, as I’ve said before, is that God cannot be for and against evil at the same time, and so there’s a valid reason some Christians are so angry with others in the Church. During an election cycle of national consequence, these others are acting as if what’s happening doesn’t matter all that much—or even worse, they’re using their turn at the ballot box to actually choose platforms and candidates in opposition to God’s holy will.

I understand why reconciliation is hard in this regard.

In one sense, it’s already hard because both parties are tainted in Sin—which is unarguably true. No matter the topic and no matter the engagement, when humans are involved, it’s going to be touched by iniquity. And yet it gets more complicated when, for example, a pro-life Christian discovers his or herself at odds with a pro-choice Christian. When this is the scenario, a far deeper dive into the Sin and Grace discussion becomes necessary. And most likely, I’m guessing that the only apologies required of the pro-life person will be in relation to the way he or she went about dealing with their pro-choice counterpart, perhaps because they used unkind words or engaged in hurtful actions that resulted in the harboring of hatred. Still, these are absolutely fixable. But beyond that, a prolife Christian has nothing to apologize for when it comes to their position. And they have nothing to apologize for when pressing that position. It’s Godly, and it becomes necessary for communicating to the prochoice Christian that he or she is beyond the borders of God’s will and in much deeper waters of concern. It’s not about opinions anymore. They are actively opposing God’s Word. When this is happening, a hard line must be drawn.

A Christian is not required to apologize for drawing a hard line in this regard. The opponent must repent and come back to God.

It’s situations like these in churches that make after-election gatherings very complicated. The wrong side feels like it owns the right to do whatever they want in the civil realm while requiring an apology from the faithful who’d stand in their way. Strangely, often it is that the faithful feel obligated to give one just to keep peace. Yes, I know, Saint Paul says in Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

“If possible…”

This assumes that sometimes it isn’t. A Christian is not required to apologize for faithfulness to God’s Word, and with that, peace is not to be had, but war.

I guess to wrap up this morning rambling, I’ll just add one more thing…

Wherever we end up as a nation after this election, I continue to hope for the restoration of the many life-long friendships I’ve seen dissolve in a single season. It’s not easy to watch (or experience) relationships coming undone between people who’ve known years of loving kindness, togetherness, like-minded service to and for each other, and all of the other things that make for fellowship in Christ. It’s not easy to watch this come undone in a few months—as though all those previous years didn’t matter.

To get through this, repentance and forgiveness will be needed. But again I’ll emphasize that it’ll need to be repentance for that which actually needs repenting and forgiveness for that which actually needs forgiving. There is right and wrong, truth and untruth. A person poking with the stick of truth has nothing to apologize for, and to offer an apology is to cheapen genuine confession and absolution. And honestly, when it comes to the issues at stake in this current election, there is too much being shoveled into the Christian lap for any of us to be stickless, being found willing to just walk away agreeing to disagree here.

I suppose the irony in my words—and I know what I’m about to say will sound somewhat pessimistic—but I do believe we’ve entered into a time in human history where dialogue is pretty much dead and emotion-fueled opinions hold the most prominent seats of influence in our society. Indeed, the Christian truth which urges, “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), well, this seems to be harder than ever to employ.

I don’t know about you, but I get tired sometimes.

Still, the Gospel continues to invigorate. By it, I can remember that the Spirit creates the hopeful and enduring love Saint Paul is describing. And the Holy Spirit has been promised to the Church by Christ and He is at work to do it. With that, I can find the skill for entering into every discussion in humility—which is the ability to confess one’s own offenses and seek forgiveness—and I can do this knowing it’s the best way for approaching my counterpart.

By the way, since I’m thinking about it, one very important evidence of Christian humility’s residence in people calling themselves Christian is whether or not they’re actually willing to pursue reconciliation as God’s Word mandates. If they’re completely unwilling to find peace, or again, if they’re intent on a “let’s agree to disagree” result regarding the things with which there’s no wiggle room to be had, then that’s an indication of something dire.

Believe it or not, still, I’d say pursue it. The division might not get fixed today. It might not be repaired tomorrow. But eventually it will, with or without your participation. It has to. God judges justly. Let’s just hope it gets fixed in our lifetime. I think it can, because the promise remains that where the Holy Spirit is at work in differing people who are navigating by the same North Star, Jesus Christ and His holy Word, Godly peace is most certainly within reach.

So, again, all of those folks who unfriended you on Facebook, deleted you from their mobile phone contacts list, who’ve said in anger they want nothing else to do with you, well, if you are willing to humbly pursue a reunion with them in Christ according to His Word, and they are willing to do the same with you, then all will be well. God promises peace and every blessing in this. In the meantime, continue to go about your business, being sure to remain active toward giving a faithful witness to Christ and His Word. Don’t bend in this regard. Be humble, but don’t bend, knowing you have nothing to apologize for when it’s the truth of God’s Word that’s pushing back on someone’s confused ideologies. It’s not you bruising their ego or hurting their feelings. It’s God.

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.

Saying No

The previous Sunday’s Bible study here at Our Savior got a little tense near the end. The uneasiness was clearly painted on the faces of most of the participants. And why? Because during the discussion, somehow we steered into the topic of excommunication, and as we did, I offered the observation that for the most part, the Church has become weak in this department. One participant agreed, putting forth as eligible examples both pro-choice Christians and people who vote for pro-choice candidates.

“You said it, not me,” I think I said, snarkily—which meant I completely agreed. From there, I suggested that perhaps it’s time for churches and their pastors to start muscling up in an effort to tell those in their midst who would support the killing of the unborn—and vote for candidates who do—that in truth, they’ve fallen from fellowship with the Lord and can no longer commune at His table.

In other words, perhaps it’s time to tell them “no.”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” someone called out, honestly. Indeed, pastors, God be with you on such a noble quest. Although, before you go, be sure your estate is in order. Or at a minimum, have another job lined up, because unless you have broad sweeping support from the rest of the congregation, you’ll likely need a moving van.

Well, whatever. The moment stirred good conversation. In addition to carrying us a little deeper into the text of 1 John 1:5-10, it also provided a brief opportunity to better understand the Johnson Amendment, which I took a quick moment to examine relatively.

The Johnson Amendment, for as scary as most think it is, really doesn’t prohibit churches all that much. We can pretty much do what we want. Although, as it meets with the topic above, there is one particular sticking point that bothers me, and not because it’s necessarily bad, but because it would likely be misinterpreted, and as a result, misapplied.

In short, the Johnson Amendment expressly forbids a congregation from punishing one of its own for his or her individual political positions and/or voting practices. This means that if a pastor or congregation ever moved to excommunicate someone because that person was immovable in his or her support of the murder of the unborn—even after the Church has made clear the doctrines of Christ while at the same time making every effort to reconcile with the person as prescribed in Matthew 18—still, it’s possible the individual coming under the ban might consider the congregation’s action “punitive” and seek solace beneath the umbrella of the Johnson Amendment. But as I said, this would be a misapplication, and for multiple reasons, the first of which is that excommunication isn’t punitive. Its goal is restoration. It’s meant to preserve someone from continuing to willfully offend God while at the same time laboring to lead the person toward repentance and full restoration of fellowship. But odds are the courts wouldn’t be able to distinguish these things, and personally, I’m hard-pressed to find too many human beings in this post-modern century who would either. More and more people are reactively put off by someone telling them no. I say this with all seriousness because I’ve been in the situation more times than I’d prefer. Not necessarily in a formal court—although I’ve come close—but certainly in the court of public opinion here in our own midst. As a pastor, nearly every single time I’ve had to tell someone “no more,” my effort was received negatively, as something unjustly punitive, and in the end, the longtime relationship crumbled.

In our world, telling someone no is getting much harder to do. Our society has become so radically individualized that saying no is more so portrayed as cruel, as coming from an intolerance intent on smothering someone’s personal preferences. In one sense, we all know the sting of hearing someone say no. We heard it when we were young and we’ve heard it as adults, too. I heard my parents tell me that I couldn’t have a cookie just as my wife has told me more than once as an adult that I can’t just up and move to Florida. But when it cuts to the core of someone’s deeply held beliefs, especially the ones that play a part in his or her identity, we often find ourselves in much more dangerous waters. These particular waves on the undulating sea of personal relationships aren’t just making a ruckus on the surface. They’re also moving way down in the deep. Saying no in these situations can be a hard thing to do because we know they can end catastrophically.

In short, there’s always the chance that our efforts toward faithfulness will come with a price we may not want to pay.

This tension didn’t exist in the beginning. In our sinless origin, Adam and Eve knew God perfectly, as God would have us know Him. In this, whether God said yes or no, newborn humanity never questioned whether or not the answer He gave was emerging from His immeasurable love. And He actually did say no right there in the beginning. Could we eat from this and that tree in the garden? Yes. How about the tree in the middle of the garden? No. Why not? Because if you do, you’ll die.

“Okay,” we said, and off we went with a “Dum-de-dum-de-dum” to enjoy the rest of God’s wonderful creation.

But then the devil came along and convinced our first parents that God’s “no” was deceptive and cruel, that He was holding us back from a much fuller potential.

And then Mankind fell.

Fully aware of the effects of the fall into Sin, Jesus not only knew it would be tough for us to be told no, but He also knew it would be hard for His followers to tell others no, especially when it means dealing in the life-or-death, heaven-or-hell scenarios. He knows the significance of Sin’s grip. He knows that the unbelieving world will often choke on truth’s no like an addict coughing up the anti-drug, and so He speaks so plainly:

“Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:32-38).

These words are both terrifying and comforting all at the same time, and the longer I serve as a pastor, the more I learn that divine truths can sometimes be that way.

But an even deeper digging into the Lord’s words will reveal that He didn’t say any of this until He first preached:

“When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (vv.19-20).

You know what this means, right? It means that Christ is true to His promise that we will never be left to fend for ourselves in the tough situations. The Holy Spirit will be working in and through us. In fact, as the Holy Spirit moves us to seek faithfulness to the Savior, even our words will be captured by His power and used to His glory and the good of those who hear them. We don’t necessarily know how each situation will turn out, and we may even walk away from the conversation feeling as though we put our own foot in our mouths, but we can know by faith the source of the truest courage for faithfulness to Christ and love for the neighbor. We can say the hard things and know that even if we feel alone, we aren’t. The One who spoke the powerful words noted above is the same One who capped Saint Mathew’s Gospel with the words: “And behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the age” (28:20).

I know that a good number of you are swimming in such situations, whether it be with family, friends, or co-workers. And I suppose if you aren’t experiencing such situations, well, then you’re weird, because the rest of us are. With that, trust me. The day is coming when you won’t be weird for long. Of course, I’ll keep you in my prayers, trusting that God will preserve and protect you in those moments requiring the courage of a love that says no. I know He’ll guide your words. He will shine His love through you to others, even when it doesn’t feel like it. Most importantly, I’m certain He will keep His promise that whoever loses his life for His sake, will find it—which is to say the ultimate discovery of eternal life is ours to claim through faith.

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.”

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.