The Masterpiece of Family

If I were asked to choose God’s greatest masterpiece from among the many things He has fashioned, of course I’d select His plan of salvation worked through His Son, Jesus Christ. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ on behalf of a straying creation is His greatest work. The resplendence of the Christmas season more than certifies this magnum opus. But if I had to choose a second place from among the rest of His handiwork, before I’d ever even consider the majesty of a mountain range, or the cascading and jewel-like glistening of a sunlit waterfall, or even a pitch black sky filled with an endless array of iridescent stars, I would choose the family.

The human family is truly a remarkable thing.

Besides being the fundamental building block of all societies in history, I suppose one aspect of family that’s so remarkable is that just to observe one is to see a number of important truths in our world. For one, Christians know the source code for family is born from the relationship God intends for us to have with Him. He is our Creator—our divine parent—and we are his children; and as His little ones, we are free to go to Him to receive the benefits of His loving kindness and concern, and He is sure to exercise that care as He watches over us. When we’re sick or hurting, He brings the right medicine and healing. When we’re sad, He’s there to give comfort. When we’re scared, He provides security. Perhaps best of all, when we’re lost, He seeks us out. In fact, such a scene epitomizes the Lord’s very first words to Adam and Eve in the Garden after the fall into the dreadfulness of Sin. He didn’t reprimand the misbehaving dolts, but rather His first action was one of love. Like a concerned parent, God called to his children, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9).

In an existential way, a human family portrays an orderly world and its functioning parts. From our planet and everything within its protective atmosphere all revolving around a preserving sun, to a body moving and breathing and living by way of individual cells creating tissue that become parts ultimately forming a whole, the human family is iconic of purposeful togetherness. At least Saint Paul certainly thought so, especially when considering the universal Christian family—the Church—as a functioning body (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).

I suppose one of the most remarkable aspects of the masterpiece of family—an aspect that almost certainly makes all other created things jealous as they look on—is the element of unconditional love to be had between its members. God certainly intends this love to be a part of a family’s DNA, and this is a good thing because no human family is perfect.

Thomas Fuller spoke wisely when he said something about how anyone born into a family that doesn’t have the usual screw-ups and headache-makers must have been born from a flash of lightning and not in the natural way. In other words, and again, no family is perfect. As a matter of fact, every member of every human family is carrying around faults plaited in the human flesh. Sure, some members of our families cause more problems than others—and some of these problems are the worst kinds—but in the end, none of us are free from the complications we ourselves impose on others around us, no matter how big or small those complications may be. Because of this, it’s an absolute miracle that human beings can live in such close proximity to one another for very long, let alone in the same home as something called family. Being a family is not only remarkable, but it is perhaps one of the most challenging endeavors, too.

And yet, by the love God models and then sets as the standard—a love He establishes both in and between the members of a family—we can maneuver among one another with our individual distinctions knowing that we also “carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:10).

In other words, no matter how horribly dysfunctional things might seem to be, it’s the love of God among its members that makes it work and sees them through the seemingly unsurvivable times.

With this Gospel sense about us—even if we’re the only ones sitting at the Christmas dinner table who believe it—as I heard someone once say (and I don’t remember who), for Christians, a family becomes something in which we might sometimes feel trapped, and yet in our innermost, we don’t ever really want to escape. We know there’s too much to lose by doing so, and so we look around at one another and we not only see people we love, but we behold people whom God loves—people He was willing to die for. That means when even our closest family members betray, hurt, or disappoint us, they remain someone we’d fight hell and high water to keep safely within reach.

This comes to mind as I think of all of you this Christmastide.

If there’s one thing I know for sure about many of the people of God here at Our Savior, it’s that each and every day, by God’s grace, they are growing closer and closer to one another as a Christian family. I’m seeing it with my own eyes, and I’m experiencing it personally, too. As a congregation, we heard some tough news yesterday before both of the worship services regarding the health of one of our own, Pastor Zwonitzer. And yet the oxygen-like joy we have in Christ was not sucked from the room when he shared the concerning details. Instead, we took it in together, and then we exhaled together in prayer—and then we breathed in the Lord’s promised care as a Christian family during the worship service that followed the announcement. I can barely begin to top this hopeful imagery of our mutual togetherness, except to say that this kind of togetherness is happening in so many other corners of our congregation. Differences are being overcome. Care is being shown. Needs are being met. People are rallying to one another’s sides in times of both desperation and joy.

As the world around us is so easily rattled, as it appears to be coming undone by frustration and despair, I actually can’t think of a time as a pastor of a congregation when my own personal peace has felt so impenetrable. Truly, God is blessing our togetherness with love, strength, and determination that only He can provide, and it’s bringing along in its train a sense of safety—the kind of safety one experiences when he knows he’s surrounded by loved-ones.

Christmas is only a few days away, and with it will come gatherings with folks you might call family. My prayer is that you can carry this Godly perspective from your church family into your own home. To be thoroughly equipped for this, I’d encourage you first and foremost to gather for worship with your Christian family on Christmas Eve and Day. Join your brothers and sisters in Christ at the Heavenly Father’s divine table for the celebration of the coming of His Son, our Brother, who came to take away our Sin. From there, be refreshed to venture into the midst of your earthly families humbly understanding none of us is perfect—none were born from a flash of lightning—but on the other hand, we were reborn by water and the Word for faith, and so we aren’t as we were before. We are equipped for exemplifying the unconditional love God intends to be found in the midst of families, and in due course, extended to others beyond the borders of our family.

I know such love won’t always be easy, but I know for a fact that it’s possible by God’s grace at work through us.

Again, know that I’m praying specifically for peace in your families this Christmas, and I’m trusting that God will grant to you the special merriment of heart that knows no matter what happens, this peace has already been won by Jesus, the very brushstrokes carrying the splendid hues of God’s greatest masterpiece—the Gospel.

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.

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.