God’s Shame

I want to start off by saying thank you to all who’ve reached out to me to show their care and concern following the surgery. Your love has been an uplifting thing, and I truly appreciate it.

This morning’s attempt at some sort of message to you is really my first time back at the keyboard since the surgery. I just haven’t had the energy for much. I still kind of don’t. I know others have far more difficult roads to travel than the one I’m currently on. Still, I won’t lie. It’s been a rough week. For one, I think I can officially say I miss sleeping far more than walking.

My plan was to forego the prescribed pain medications for as long as I could, but as it would go, I ended up taking them, anyway. Once I did, the pain lessened, but the typical difficulties I experience with the medications began. After a little more than a day of nausea, headaches, and sweating, I decidedly went cold turkey (except for Tylenol), having realized that all the discomforts brought on by the surgery were far preferable.

Of course, as some of you know, things got even more complicated this past week. Less than twenty-four hours after surgery, a terrible storm blew through and we lost power, which didn’t get repaired until Friday morning. Thankfully, we invested in a generator a few years ago. When the storm was at its worst and the lights were flickering, Madeline was over at her grandma’s house and Jennifer was running some necessary errands. Harrison and Evelyn were here with me. I probably shouldn’t have, but when the power finally did go out, I managed to hobble from my upstairs bedroom to the basement to help get the generator up and running. Harrison and Evelyn did the heavy lifting to get it outside and gassed up. Josh drove from his apartment in Argentine (through a warzone of fallen trees, as he described it) to take and fill our other gas cans. I directed traffic on breaker boxes, switches, and hookups. Once everything was in place, Evelyn covered my leg with a towel while I crutched outside in the rain to pull the startup. Not long after that, Jen made it home, and like a champ, took everything from there. I could see she’d already switched into “prepper” mode as she went right into doing things like putting flashlights in each of the bedrooms, giving directions on what things could or could not be operated while the generator was engaged, and making a point to go outside every twelve hours or so to shut the generator down to let it cool before refilling it with gas. Of course, while doing all of this, she was also making sure I had everything I needed.

I am, indeed, a blessed man with a wonderful family. And so, here we are together a few days beyond all the excitement and well on our way to greeting whatever new and exciting things may be coming over the horizon.

I won’t keep you long this morning. Again, I don’t have much energy for sharing at the moment. I guess I’ll say that for me personally, the last few days have been nothing short of constant conversation with God. Prayer, that is. I’ve been sending along a steady stream of anything and everything to His listening ears. I’m praying while eating. I’m praying in the shower. I’m praying at two o’clock in the morning. Sometimes it’s little more than unintelligible mutterings as my calf muscle cramps and pulls on the newly sewn tendon. In those moments I’m just begging for relief because the Tylenol does very little to help. In between, I’m telling Him random things that come to mind; things that pertain to my family, things that meet with many of you as individuals, things relative to the entire church family at Our Savior and beyond. Other times, my words to Him are self-analyzing. They’re honest communications telling Him what I really think about things; about myself, about what’s happening right now, about what’s going on in our world, about the things I do or don’t do that I want to change for the better.

Thankfully, God is so graciously willing to hear all these things, especially when it comes to the darker moments of genuine contrition or concern. I assure you that devout prayer does turn in such directions sometimes, so be ready.

Of course, and technically, God knows every little detail behind every possible thing we could share before we utter the first word. And yet, how incredibly comforting it is to know that He still craves for His children to spill it all, that He wants to hear our voices in His divine ears, that He wants us to know that He is listening and won’t turn us away. He loves us.

You should know that this love is what fuels His very core, and its most vivid display can be seen in the crucifixion of His Son, Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:8; John 3:16-17).

We’d expect the world to disparage the crucifixion of Jesus, and so it does. It’s strange, then, that here at 3:50 AM I’d stumble across a few Christian friends on social media expressing in passing their general discomfort with crosses and crucifixes. While I don’t know the math behind Facebook’s algorithms, I’m guessing there’s a chance these friends might read this. Still, I’m pretty sleep-deprived and in pain, so, whatever.

Firstly, and for the record, I prefer crucifixes over crosses. The corpus—the body of the Lord on the cross—matters to me. Secondly, what are you, vampires?! Why would a Christian be offended by the symbol of the Lord’s work to save us? How is it at all possible to be offended by the depiction—the visible communication, the visual transmission, the observable delivery—of the very act that rescued the world from Sin, Death, and the power of the devil?

No wonder Christianity is slipping away in America.

Although, what should I expect? So many of our mainstream churches are believing and teaching some ridiculous things these days. It should be no surprise to me, then, that there’s a pretty popular megachurch in Brighton, Michigan teaching that both crosses and crucifixes are offensive to visitors, and as a result, they refuse to display them anywhere in their facility. Think about that for a second.

Saint Paul dealt with this kind of idiocy in various places in his ministry, one of which he addresses in the very first chapter of 1 Corinthians (vv. 18-31). By the way, this was a letter written to a church filled with Christians who thought they knew better than the rest of Christendom. In many circumstances, they thought they knew better than Saint Paul, himself! So, from there, I think I’ll just say that any Christian or church offended by a crucifix needs to rethink things—a lot. I honestly don’t know how anyone can look at a crucifix and, in any way, disregard the all-important Gospel message it is silently proclaiming—which is that God was indeed ready and willing to meet us in our filth, that He wanted to be the absolute miracle of relief we needed in our most dreadful of hours. And how did He bring forth and accomplish this aid? By His Son’s death on the cross.

As this meets with prayer—since that’s what I was originally talking about—I don’t know how anyone can look at a crucifix and say honestly that God does not care enough to hear our cries no matter the hour or the need.

To close, there’s something else to consider when approaching prayer from this gritty perspective. I’d urge you to keep in mind the nature of the things you’re sharing with God and then ask yourself, “Would I be willing to publish on social media what I’m sharing with God right now?” If the answer is a red-faced “no,” then you’ve taken one step closer to the deeper teaching value of a crucifix: to the visceral nature behind something unseen becoming seen. I suppose in one sense you can know that seen or unseen, you have a “seen-it-all” God who loves and receives you as others couldn’t and wouldn’t. But then in tandem, you can be mindful that your God didn’t rescue you from your darkest, most secretive, sins by some private act. His death was a humiliating public spectacle—a sanctioned execution. He was tortured and propped up for all. His death for all sins for all time was meant to be seen. And I dare say, once you see it, you can’t unsee it. I’m guessing that while God is okay with your shame remaining hidden from the masses, He thinks it’s better for His to be out there in the open.

I’ll just leave you with that.

Read That Again Very Slowly

I should start this morning by mentioning I experienced a “flux capacitor” moment last night in my garage. If you’ve seen the movie “Back to the Future” then you’ll know that Doc Brown came up with the idea for the device that makes time travel possible right after he hit his head. Well, I was fetching a Halloween bin from the attic storage in our garage when I fell off of the top rung of our eight-foot ladder and hit my head, giving my forehead a pretty good split. Thankfully, I didn’t need stitches. Nevertheless, once I was back to my feet and the stars in my eyes were dissipating, strangely, what I wanted to write about this morning became clear. So here it is.

I flashed back to something I’d read from Luther last week about prayer. In particular, he landed on the topic by way of Psalm 42:4, which reads:

“These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.”

Luther observed:

“The multitude needs a certain place and certain days and hours suitable for listening to the Word of God; and therefore God has ordained and instituted the Holy Sacraments to be administered to the congregation at a place where all gather together for prayer and thanksgiving. The advantage of this is that when Christians gather together, prayer is more powerful than at other times. We can and should most certainly pray at all places and hours, but prayer is nowhere so strong and powerful as when, in unity of Spirit, the whole congregation is gathered together to pray.”

Did you catch all that?

First of all, understand that Luther wasn’t one to speak loosely. When he wrote things like “God has ordained and instituted,” he meant exactly that. God has established certain things that we do not have the freedom to adjust. And thankfully, just as Luther used the word “advantage” to describe what God has mandated, we can be assured that God puts these particulars into place for our good and not our harm. I suppose in addition, being the biblical exegete that Luther was, had he been challenged on this, you could’ve expected him to write in tiny print a list of proof texts as long as your dining room table.

Beyond this, Luther’s observation had me thinking about a particular irony unfolding in the Christian churches throughout the world right at this very moment. Interestingly, forces from both within and without are still doing their level best to keep the churches closed and the people apart, while at the same time desperately desiring deliverance from the COVID-19 scourge. Again, this is somewhat ironic. Even better, I’d say its satire is epitomized by the comments I’ve heard from so many, words that sound a lot like, “I’m being a better Christian neighbor by staying home and away from others. But not to worry! I’m using my alone time to pray, most especially for this mess to be over!”

Admittedly, such words bring to mind a recent tweet from the Flat Earth Society. Having a hard time swallowing the verity of the organization, a person asked, “Is the Flat Earth Society an actual thing with actual members?” And the group spokesman tweeted in reply, “By all means, yes! The Flat Earth Society has members all around the globe!” It was to this reply that another person chimed in, “Go back and read what you just wrote… very… slowly.”

Eh-hem.

“…when Christians gather together, prayer is more powerful… prayer is nowhere so strong and powerful as when, in unity of Spirit, the whole congregation is gathered together to pray.”

Now, read that again… very… slowly.

The Christian Birthright of Prayer

We’ve entered into Holy Week. This is the week of weeks in the Church Year. When it comes to our life together as a congregation, it’s surreal to be apart like this. It’s not an easy thing.

I want you to know that during this time I’m praying for you—every single day.

Each and every day I’m on my knees before the altar of God here at Our Savior, not just praying for the world in a general sense, but for all believers in Christ—and most especially for the people of God here at Our Savior in Hartland.

While I don’t get through the whole roster of names in the congregation in a single day, I can pretty much guarantee that each member’s name is spoken out loud and into the divine ears of God at least every other day or so.

When I pray, I’m praying for your health. I’m praying for your livelihood. I’m praying for your family. I’m praying for your renewed strength and a spiritual stamina in the face of adversity to trust in the One who gave His life that you would have eternal life—an everlasting home beyond the pale edges of this passing world.

No matter the circumstances in this life, I do this confidently—as I’m sure other pastors do, too—because there are a few things I know of God.

It certainly isn’t that God needs informing. A bird does not fall from the sky without His knowledge (Matthew 10:29). He knows the number of hairs on the head of every human being (Luke 12:7). Our thoughts are not too quiet for Him to hear, and the slightest of gestures never escapes His view (Psalm 139:1-3). Well beyond us even these things, the sun and moon and stars all continue on their courses according to His gracious and upholding care (Hebrews 1:3). He knows your joys and sorrows. And the scale of the occurrence does not matter. From the bloodiest of wars to the most insignificant slights against any one of us, God foreknew their hours (Isaiah 42:9). Nothing is lost on Him, and so He doesn’t need for me to tell Him what’s going on.

Of course, I reach to God in prayer because I need Him. But perhaps more importantly, I do this because He invites me into His presence to speak as a privilege of faith (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18).

We’ve entered into Holy Week, which means we’ve made our way into a time when the Church remembers that at the death of Jesus, the temple’s curtain was torn from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51), signifying the Lord’s work on the cross as all-sufficient for granting every believer full access to the Heavenly Father. Believers have been given the promise that we can go to our God through Jesus, and He promises to hear and answer us as we pray according to His will (John 14:6-14, 1 John 5:14).

There’s great comfort in this birthright of faith, and it serves us in both the good times and the bad.

Ambrose Bierce wrote somewhat snidely of Christians that prayer is really just nothing more than an attempt by unworthy petitioners to get the laws of the universe annulled. Setting aside his condescension for a moment, in a sense, Bierce is right. We don’t deserve anything from God. And yes, we are asking Him to rewrite the universal laws. In humility, we ask to be forgiven of our seemingly unforgiveable crimes. We do this knowing full well that the order of this universe is one of justice, that the guilty pay for their own crimes, and the innocent go free. But we are approaching God already knowing He has heaped the punishment we are due upon His own Son. The innocent One was sentenced to death. The guilty were set free.

If that isn’t counter to the way of normalcy in this world’s order, then I don’t know what is. And yet, Christians reach to God, asking Him to continue in this mercy, praying through the merits and mediation of Christ.

But there’s something more to my reasons for praying.

I also pray because by the power of the Gospel for faith, the Holy Spirit is alive in me (Romans 1:16-17, Romans 8:10-11), and He is at work recreating me to be one who loves God and desires faithfulness to Him (Galatians 5:22-25). In other words, a very real facet of my life as a Christian involves actually telling and showing God I love Him. Prayer is a very real fruit of faith in this regard.

A very basic way to think of it…

I’m a father, and while I know my children love me, there’s an element of proof to their love when they say it. It serves both our hearts well, and it feels good to hear. God is the same way. He knows that by faith we love Him, and yet He also loves to hear us say it—and so we pray.

By the way, another very practical way the Bible describes our prayers to God is not just according to the sense of hearing, but by the sense of smell. As we have those favorite aromas—flowers, a sizzling steak, a spouse’s cologne or perfume (for me it’s a good Scotch, sunscreen, a swimming pool, and Florida palm trees)—so also are our prayers compared to a fragrant incense wafting to the heavens and into the divine nostrils of God (Psalm 141:2, Revelation 8:3). Prayers arising to Him by faith, calling out to Him according to His gracious will in Christ Jesus, these are ever-so-sweet to Him, and He loves to receive and then respond to them. By contrast, prayers in contradiction to His will—words tossed out toward the sky in unbelief, the use of His name in vain, greed, arrogant self-righteousness, and the like—these are sour and off-putting to God, and He waves them away from His face in disgust (James 4:3, Isaiah 1:15-18, Luke 18:9-14, Proverbs 3:34, 1 Peter 5:5).

I suppose the last thing I’ll say is that even as prayer is to be a part of the Christian life, I’m guessing prayer isn’t so easy for everyone. Some folks want to pray, but just don’t know what to say.

First of all, know that this concern is, in a sense, a prayer in itself. You’re showing God you want to speak to Him, and because He is worthy of your best, you want to do it in a way and with words that will show Him this love. Wrestling with this concern, remember, He knows you love Him. Let that comfort you. No matter how the thoughts or words come out, He won’t turn away from you. He’ll listen.

Secondly, if you struggle to focus, don’t be afraid to use pre-written prayers. There’s nothing wrong with the practice. This is how the Church has prayed since the beginning, and I do it all the time. Just because I may be using someone else’s words, doesn’t mean what I’m praying is of lesser value to God. Pre-written prayers can be an incredible help in times when inner clarity seems out of reach. In fact, because I know folks are struggling right now to find the right words in the midst of this worldwide pandemic, I posted a Vigil of Prayer on Our Savior’s website. If you are struggling to pray, take a look at the video and pray along.

(https://www.oursaviorhartland.org/prayer-vigil/)

Also, think practically. When one is feeling like a novice, the way to better skills is to study the efforts of others and to practice. Think about it. How did you first learn to speak? Most likely by mimicking the words of your parents. Praying while using the words of our Christian fore-parents is a good practice. Don’t let anyone tell you that unless your words are spontaneous or whatever you’re not really praying. That’s ridiculous. If someone does tell you this, then brush it off. They’ve made prayer into a legalistic venture, and you should avoid their advice altogether.

Thirdly, the easiest and best place to start is with the prayer the Lord taught us. There’s no better prayer than the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). Start with that. It doesn’t get any better.

To close, and as I’ve said already, be mindful that we have prayer for such times as these. This COVID-19 situation is, if anything, an exercise in knowing to whom we should run in times of trouble. Turning to the only One who can rescue us from all our burdens and give us the gift of real rest is always the better bet (Matthew 11:28).

Go to Him in faith. Pray for your needs. Pray for the needs of others. He loves you. He loves them. And He’s listening. He has already promised that no matter what is happening, He will work all things for your good (Romans 8:28).

Change of Plans

As it turns out, I will not be offering the invocation before the Michigan State Senate tomorrow. I had to bow out. I did what I could with all involved to negotiate the wording of the prayer. I presented three different versions, in fact. But alas, far too much was deemed by Senate rules—well, actually more like subjective suggestions—as politically off-limits. I cannot speak to things such as abortion, Natural Law, traditional marriage, and ultimately, religious liberty. I can’t say anything that might offend other faiths or ideologies. Instead, I can speak encouragement and praise for the body–sort of a “Great job, guys!” while giving plenty of room for the impression and possibility that everyone’s truths—and the gods from which they come—are of equal value.

I’ve shared below what I intended to say. I don’t think it’s all that corrosive.

Enjoy.

Of course, if you have the time, perhaps you might pray it on your own.

(Sigh.)

By the way, when I got tired of trying to shapeshift this prayer, I ended up hopping on the treadmill and writing a satirical one. Looking back, I’m starting to think that had I submitted it, it might have been doable. That prayer is shared at this link: https://www.facebook.com/notes/christopher-thoma/o-god-of-the-senate/10157775729255629/

——————-
In the name of the Father and of the (+) Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Almighty and most merciful God, Your holy Word teaches that all authority begins and ends with You, and so you are the Divine Author of earthly governance. Your Word reveals that You do this as you employ men and women for service within the three estates of the Church, the Family, and the Government, not lifting anyone in these to a position of self-privilege and tyranny, but setting them to the task of humility given for the well-being of those they serve.

Faithful God, move all attending to the work of this body to know such humility, and by it, to love these three estates.

As their work would meet with the Church, let them be ones seeking to preserve religious liberty, desiring to maintain the freedom to live according to the doctrines of faith. Hinder all attempts to burden Godly consciences by unjust laws. Defend against the crafting of legislation designed to cause your faithful to forsake the truth of Your Word.

As these Senators observe the estate of Family—a father, a mother, and children—cause them to admire the institution, not only as honorable, but as a society’s most powerful agent for stability. Be swift to avert the confusion of Holy Marriage as You have designed it. Within these same ranks, let children be cherished. Unravel any spirit that would consider a child in the womb to be nothing more than an inconvenience, a gelatin of cells, a non-person whose tiny frame is not protected, but rather fit only to be destroyed and scraped from a surgical tray into the trash. Convert and convince all leaders away from such atrocities born of radical individualism—which is the worship of “self” as the first and last to all things—a false liberty declaring each person free to do whatever he or she wants or feels, and to do so without consequence.

Being the embodiment of the estate of Government, grant these Senators wisdom to seek legitimate impartiality according to objective truth born from Natural Law, and protect all who desire to remain in stride with biological verity from the threat of punishment or the labeling of bigotry.

Hear us as we pray, and help us, dear Lord! We need you. Be merciful, and do not rest idly by as this elected body joins for service. Cast the bright beams of Your love and insight into their hearts. Strengthen us, the citizens of Michigan, with the resolve to stand alongside Senators pursuing truth, and pit us mightily against those who do not. Equip us with the patience to pray for all, and by Your grace, lead us together to sunlit horizons where this government might be called “good.”

As all of Mankind dwells in Sin and is unworthy of Your help, still, Your Word heralds Your great love for us. Even now, Your believers implore you with contrite hearts, confident that you will hear and mindful that You will work for the good of those who love You, who are called according to Your purpose. We pray these things through the merits and mediation of the Son of God, (+) Jesus Christ—the only savior from Sin and the one way of eternal life—who lives and reigns with Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Amen.

I’ll Pray Intently

I’ll be giving the invocation before the Michigan State Senate on Tuesday. I’m not nervous. I’ve done it several times before. And I rarely get nervous before speaking to a crowd, anyway. Imagine if I did. As a pastor, I’d be a constant wreck. A good portion of what I do involves public speaking.

Still, I’ll admit to the pestering concern I feel when it comes to leading a gathering of civil authorities in prayer. I’m not concerned because I don’t know what to say. I’m concerned because I do.

As a pastor, I’ve learned that every prayer offered in the midst of a public gathering is a confessing moment of sorts. If a pastor says it isn’t, he’s being dishonest. In simple form, it’s a representative “reaching out” to God on behalf of all gathered. But it’s also an instant to clarify for anyone listening and wondering just why we’d do such a thing. It’s a moment to make clear who it is we’re speaking to—what He’s all about and what faithfulness to Him looks like. A public prayer is a powerful tool for petitioning God on behalf of believers, but it holds an equal potency for planting the seed of truth into the hearts of unbelievers.

I’ll be doing this on Tuesday morning using precisely selected words geared for maximum resonation. I’ll do so before a gathering of people with the power to target me as an opponent and haunt my every effort when I’m done.

But again, you know me. I’m not necessarily afraid to do this. But it would be disingenuous of me to say I’m not concerned. I am. When the prayer concludes and I make my way down the side aisle to the door, I know what will happen. I’ve been there before, and so I know what to expect.

In perspective, standing before a cast of various ideologies—some friendly, and others salivating monstrously for everything contrary to Christ and His Church—I’ll pray for the Lord to grant His wisdom to all who serve in the Senate chamber. Most in attendance will smile politely in that moment. But then I’ll begin to define wisdom’s contours, and in the ticks of the clock that follow, some of those smiles will evaporate like raindrops on the sun-cooked pavement.

I’ll speak of the fellowship of sinful humanity, how we’re all transgressors. I’ll speak of Christ crucified for this transgressing world—Christ, the wisdom of God and the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:24)! As it meets Mankind, I’ll speak of faith in this Gospel as true wisdom. I’ll speak of such faith as it leads into the three estates of Family, Church, and Government.

I’ll speak to the magnificent value of family. I’ll give thanks for the wonderful gift of holy marriage—one man and one woman joining together, and, by God’s gracious design, producing children. I’ll warn against opposing Natural Law, asking specifically for the strength to withstand false biology and to unravel the efforts of anyone seeking to weave untruth into society. I’ll speak to the pricelessness of the unborn. I’ll plead quite illuminatingly—unequivocally—for the overthrow and destruction of any agenda that would provide for the killing of little ones in the womb.

If you know anything about me, then you know I’ll do this very descriptively.

I’ll speak to religious liberty, and I’ll ask that God would fight for His Church’s freedom to preach the Gospel and to live faithfully according to His Word. I’ll plead with Him before His enemies that He’d turn their hearts toward a peaceful existence. And if not, then I’ll hope for Him to crush any and all attempts to criminalize the Christian faith, life, and practices, and I’ll ask that He give sturdy spines to His people for rising up in the cause of defense.

I’ll name radical individualism, which preaches everyone is free to be and do whatever he or she wants or feels without consequence. I’ll be sure to throttle this ideology aggressively.

I’ll pray intently. I’ll say a lot. I’ll have about two minutes to do it, although I’d expect the Senate Secretary won’t interrupt if I go a moment or two longer. I’ll expect a response from those who are dissatisfied by my words. They’re pretty predictable that way. But I’ll bet on a better response from the Lord of heaven and earth—the One I’ll be addressing. He hears the prayers of His people, and He works for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purposes in faithfulness. I trust He’ll accomplish something by His Gospel tomorrow. Indeed, it is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16).

As far as my role in the whole thing, “When our actions do not, our fears make us traitors” (Shakespeare, Macbeth). In other words, my immediate concern is to let my words and deeds be counted as traitorous to this world rather than allowing fear to seize them, making my silence a traitorous thing to God. In the end, what have I got to lose, anyway? In this world, nothing. Against eternity, everything.

Friends, the burial shroud has no pockets. That’s a far better knowledge to keep close when standing before the mammon-doling powers of this age.