There’s No Such Thing As Luck

I don’t like the term “luck.” I don’t mind someone saying to me, “Good luck.” Although, anyone who knows me will admit I’m the kind of guy who, if someone calls me lucky, will reply with, “There’s no such thing as luck.” I don’t say it just because I’m a Christian and I know better, but also because I know myself to be someone who’s always ready to grab opportunity by the throat and throttle it until it produces what I’m after. In other words, I’m a determined person. Perhaps that’s why Han Solo was always a favorite Star Wars character. If you were ever to attempt to discourage me with the mathematical impossibility of navigating an asteroid field (which according to C3PO is 3,720 to 1), like Han, I’d likely turn to say resolutely, “Never tell me the odds!” as I proceed to steer into it, anyway.

Don’t call me lucky, and don’t tell me how something can’t be done. There’s no such thing as luck, and with that, let’s talk about how it can be done.

This past Monday I took my Jeep to a repair shop in Milford where I happened upon someone I used to be friends with on Twitter (that is, until I deleted my Twitter account). Interestingly, we’d never actually met in person, and yet he knew an awful lot about me, my family, and my church. At one point during the conversation, he referenced our Covid-19 practices here at Our Savior. He knew what they were because I’d been very open about them throughout the past year. He said we were lucky we didn’t experience an outbreak. In reply, I suggested that perhaps it wasn’t luck, but rather it was the Lord’s hand of blessing for holding to His mandates for worship and fellowship, no matter how the world around us was tempted to weaponize the phrase “love thy neighbor.”

Yes, I said it exactly as I wrote it above. Of course, I didn’t want to be too aggressive, but I also didn’t want any confusion with regard to my theological position on the matter.

He countered with the usual argument about caring for the “lesser brother” and about how easily the virus spreads. For reference, he shared how his brother’s church had experienced a serious outbreak among its members even though they were all pretty much required to be drenched in sanitizer, socially-distanced, and fully masked in order to attend worship. In his mind, any church that pressed forward without the same kinds of safety protocols in place was testing fate. I don’t think he realized that comparing Our Savior to his brother’s hermetically sealed church sort of, well, made my point for me. Again, I simply replied by suggesting that perhaps we weren’t lucky, but rather blessed. Thankfully, I was able to bring the conversation to an end by saying I needed to go out to the road and wait for my ride back to the office. (Thanks, Ed Dietrich!) However, outside at the curb, I struggled to put my friend’s terminology away completely.

Being lucky and being blessed are two very different things.

Luck is born from chance. Blessings are bestowed. In the Christian sense, I’d say blessings are emanations of God’s undeserved kindness in our lives. And no matter the form they take, God promises to bless His people for their faithfulness (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10). Indeed, God smiles upon those who, by the power of the Holy Spirit for faith, hold on when holding on is the hardest.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not saying that the more you pray the more God will bless you with worldly health, wealth, and wisdom; or if you just believe enough, God will take away your mortal misfortunes. That’s the kind of bad theology sold by heretics like Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen. I’m talking about the backward perspective that can actually embrace struggle as a blessing. And how is this possible? Because faith understands that anything in place to loosen our grip on this world while tightening our grip on Christ is a blessing. Even a virus can serve as a determiner in this regard. As you face off with it, are you holding on too tightly to this world, or are you clinging to Christ? I’d add that in these same moments, God promises to be at work in His people by the power of His Holy Spirit (Ephesians 2:10) instilling the faithfulness that produces discernment. He’ll be there giving us the eyes to see the individual details through the lens of His Word of truth. By this, He’ll reveal that He’s working for our good, namely, that He’s setting His divine sights on drawing us closer to Him, on keeping us as His own in the faith (Romans 5:1-5; 8:28). He doesn’t want to lose anyone to fear or unbelief, and so anything He does or allows for a Christian along life’s way—no matter if it’s labeled good or bad by the world around us—can be embraced as a blessing from the one true God who loves us.

As far as the successes of Our Savior, Matthew 5:11 and 1 Peter 4:14 come to mind as relative examples of blessings taking a more difficult form. Both describe being insulted for faithfulness to Christ as blessings. Wow, do we sure know this here at Our Savior. God has mandated in-person worship (Hebrews 10:24-25). That’s what we maintained. I can promise you we were insulted by believers and unbelievers alike for this. When we made clear that God does not leave room for His Church to mandate legalistic barriers that would sound anything like, “Unless you’re wearing a mask, you cannot be with your God in worship to receive His gifts,” more insults came. Still, we were unmoved, choosing instead to encourage Christian liberty even as many loaded up their pious rifles with texts from the likes of Mark 12:31 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, taking aim and then pulling the trigger.

“Bang! You’re not requiring masks and so you’re not showing love to the neighbor!” But each of these rounds misfired because they lacked the propellant necessary for actually loving one’s neighbor rightly.

It’s impossible to love your neighbor if you set aside God’s Word, even if only temporarily. You can’t love your neighbor if you don’t love God more.

Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel used to say, “A lot of love talk is a lot of Law talk.” Think about this in light of a text like 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. If Nagel was right, then this particular text is dealing in the Law. From this angle, we’re equipped to see Saint Paul’s attempt to not only show us what genuine love looks like, but to admit our complete inability in relation to it. The love he is describing is divine—the kind that only God can produce. It’s an “always” kind of thing, which is why Saint Paul uses the word so often in the text. Knowing we can’t live up to what he’s describing, the text becomes a reminder of our need for a Savior who can. With that, what we learned in previous chapters begins to resurface. For example, chapters 10 through 12 teach us about how and where to locate this Savior and the love He gives. Before chapter 13, Paul has already revealed who sits at the midpoint of real love. Together, these become strong influencers for knowing the significance of communion with Christ and for not letting anything get between you and His love located in the Means of Grace.

I’d add to all of this that the harmonizing center of the text from chapter 13 is verses 6 and 7:

“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

This is not all that confusing when you realize Paul is talking about love in relation to God and not necessarily the neighbor. Paul personifies love here. Interestingly, Saint John said God is love (1 John 4:8). Here in verse 6, Paul says this love is offended by evil. He writes that this love is gladdened by truth. Jesus said in John 17:17 that God’s Word is truth. Together, these are all incredibly interpretive. If God’s truth mandates in-person worship, then by what we’ve learned here, He’s likely not in favor of completely shutting down churches or doing anything that might hinder a Christian’s in-person access to the verbal and visible Word He distributes there. Only a spirit of evil would translate love for the neighbor this way.

And then verse 7 lands right on us. Again, knowing that verse 6 was describing God, is verse 7 all of the sudden talking about human love aimed at others, as is typically interpreted? So then, love always protects… people? Tell that to an allied soldier in a fire fight with Nazis. Love always trusts… people? Tell that to a battered wife whose husband promises after each violent episode to never do it again; or the parent whose child has been molested by a pedophile. Love always hopes… in people? Joe Biden, as it is with any good Marxist, would appreciate this one, having you putting your faith in the government rather than Christ. Love always perseveres… for people? Let’s just be frank, Christian or not, human patience runs out.

Keeping verse 7 connected to verse 6, if it’s saying anything in relation to our love for others, I’d say it’s first describing a love instilled by God and aimed at God that will eventually result in love for neighbor. This makes more sense to me. It certainly jives with what I know of the Ten Commandments—which is that the 4th through 10th Commandments (loving the neighbor) mean nothing without first visiting with the 1st through 3rd (loving God). By this thinking, verse 7 is telling us love’s deepest commitment in faith by the power of the Holy Spirit always seeks first to protect what is God’s, always trusts in Him, always hopes in Him, always finds perseverance in Him. This kind of love will find itself unable to choose the world’s ways above God’s. This kind of love will always produce what’s best for the neighbor.

In other words, and again, you can’t even begin to love your neighbor if you don’t love God more.

Holding to this premise, things went very well for us here at Our Savior. By loving God and what He wanted more, we found ourselves retooled for avoiding the temptation of law-based and heavy-handed control, and were instead equipped with a clarity for resting in Christian liberty. Worshipping in person might have been considered unsafe to the world, but we did it anyway… because it’s what God’s truth instructs. That fostered a Gospel-driven freedom for knowing how to actually live in love for the neighbor while piloting an asteroid field of CDC protocols. In the end, this equated to countless Elder meetings spent observing data and doing what we could to balance the disquiets without imposing in ways that might separate people from God.

I think the Christians here at Our Savior navigated this mess marvelously, and God appears to have blessed this course with success. It was by no means luck.

I suppose I’ll close this lengthy meandering by sharing that I know there are some inside and outside of God’s Church who are frustrated by our success. For them, 2020 and much of 2021 disappeared without a trace, while for us here at Our Savior, we managed to go about our lives enjoying relative normalcy as a congregation, and we did it without incident. To anyone bothered by our success, just know your frustration speaks volumes. It’s eerily reminiscent of the saying that the only way to feel better about the success of an enemy is to simply believe he got lucky. I’m kind of wondering if such frustration might have something to do with a faith that believes in luck in comparison to a faith that understands God’s gracious care. I’m wondering if it might be revealing a trust that holds more firmly to this world than the next.

Well, whatever. There’s no such thing as luck, friends. I know this, and I hope you know it, too.

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+

Assumption’s Regrets

The countdown has started. Five days until a powerhouse weekend here at Our Savior. Saturday we’ll enjoy a day-long conference filled with tier-one personalities. On Sunday we’ll gather together to celebrate our school’s 40 years of service in the community, again, being joined by appreciative newsmakers. To wrap it all up, on Monday we’ll host a debate dealing with the topics of God, culture, and politics in America—a more than crucial matter as we teeter at the edge of a world-altering election.

Much is happening. I’m assuming much will be accomplished by God’s gracious will.

Actually, I shouldn’t say I’m assuming. Better said, I’m trusting that God will accomplish great things through our efforts. And while I suppose it’s not necessarily incorrect to use the word “assume” in the context I have, overall, there’s a difference between assumption and trust.

When we assume, we deal in knowledge without the certainty of truth. We consider bits of information separated by blank spaces that we attempt to fill in through interpretation. To trust in the Lord is nothing of this sort. To trust in Him is to be found making plans—and living out those plans—according to the schematic of the Gospel. It is to act in life’s occurrences with the mindful certainty that we dwell beneath God’s forgiveness in Jesus in all circumstances. That means no matter what happens, we are certain that God will provide for the good of our salvation in every situation (Romans 8:28-39). Trust doesn’t assume He will. It has the complete list of Gospel facts—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and so it knows He will. From there, it steps out knowing that with hearts set on faithfulness to Him, when we speak, He will use our words, no matter how jumbled they might feel. When we act, He will carry us through, no matter how powerless we believe we are. When we are observing and listening, we’ll receive the necessary information for aiming each and every situation toward Godliness and peace, no matter how confusing all of it might seem to be.

Assumption doesn’t necessarily work this way. Sure, an assumption can be useful for determining certain things. For example, an assumption may be made about the contents of a milk carton based on its expiration date. An assumption may be made when a carbon monoxide detector goes off warning of dangerous fumes in a home. And yet, I have personal experience in both instances. I’ve taken a chance on a gallon of milk past its date, only to learn it was fine. I’ve also been brought to concern by a screaming carbon monoxide detector in our kitchen, only to learn after investigating that it was triggered by exhaust wafting from our car in the driveway through the garage and into the kitchen through a door left open by one of the kids.

In both circumstances, my concerned assumptions were only right until the actual facts proved otherwise.

When it comes to relationships—family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and the like—assumption is often more of a wrecking ball. It can be the corrupter of human lines of communication and the destroyer of opportunity. In the rubble of these things, assumption builds an altar to foolishness, and it worships there with incredible devotion.

“What do you even mean by all of this, Pastor Thoma?”

I don’t know. Remember, I’m typing as I’m thinking.

As I re-read what I just wrote, I guess where I’m headed with this—at least what I think I mean—is that at a person’s last hour, I’d be willing to bet a significant portion of the regrets in life will be because of the assumptions from which he or she just couldn’t break free.

People assume things of others, and then they hold to those assumptions for years like bark holds to a tree. But then one day, they discover they’re out of time, and in the shadows of the impending situation, they understand people and situations differently, and they wish for more hours from the clock. They wish they could go back and enjoy a relationship with a person they assumed all along was an enemy. They suddenly realize just how wrong they were to think that people are static in their character and personalities. People are complicated, multi-faceted creatures. They change. Who they were, the way they were, is likely very different today than it was yesterday. And so, in the last moments, people come face to face with the foolishness of their begrudging assumptions of others. They realize they never asked the questions that would fill in the blank spaces. They never investigated. In fact, it never even crossed their minds to explore, to have a conversation. Instead they remained comfortable believing they already knew the innermost thoughts and intentions of the people around them.

These are the kinds of folks who will stare at the edge of regret for having interpreted as hurtful years of genuine attempts at friendship from others.

In truth, this is idolatry. It’s self-worship.

Digging just a little bit deeper, by way of such idolatry—such self-worship—we take detrimental missteps in life. Because of assumptions, we’ll have been silent when we should’ve spoken. Because of assumptions, we will have reacted when we should’ve remained an observer. Because of our assumptions, we may just learn all too late that we were wrong, that we treated as an enemy someone who could’ve been a friend, that we did something to make a relationship that could have been a joy into something unbearably thorn-like.

I guess what I’m saying is don’t be this kind of person, especially with your Christian family. Instead, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Instead of assuming, how about letting the Gospel do the steering in our lives as Christians with one another, and by it being found pursuing “unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). Instead of holding tightly to your grudge, assuming it’s justified, almost virtuous, how about you “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Ephesians 4:31). How about being “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Don’t be the person who learns all too late that the most important things we can know of others were, unfortunately, hidden behind a foolish assumption that we don’t need to learn more because we already know what we’ll discover. More often than not in such situations, at least in my experience, I’ve discovered that what I expected to be true and what was actually true were not exactly in perfect alignment.

Take a chance. Reach out. Have a conversation. Find out more. Odds are you have a few blank spaces that need filling.

Light and Darkness, Certainty and Uncertainty, Courage and Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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