Even Jesus Took A Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even Jesus took a break.

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

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

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

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

Cue the Bolt of Lightning

I pray all has been well with you so far this week, most especially since the recent snowfall made travel for some very difficult. It certainly does give each Christian behind the wheel an opportunity to pause before setting out to seek the Lord’s care and then pause once arriving to give Him thanks for the safe keeping. If in between those two points, an accident occurs, it remains an opportunity to call out to Him as Luther once urged: “O, you have helped me before, help me now!”

Speaking of Luther…

I read the following line from Luther in my morning devotions yesterday: “Man does not even know his own sin, and thinks his blindness is the highest wisdom.” When I finished that sentence, even as it was right in the middle of a paragraph, I paused. In a way, the comment struck like a lightning bolt to a weathervane, and it made me think. In fact, it sort of reminded me of the warning that God gives to His priests in Hosea 4:4,6: “For with you is my contention, O priest… My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…”

The point: Without God’s help, without God revealing to Man in some way that he is doing wrong, it is highly likely that Man will continue to move along in the ignorance of his sin, perhaps even considering his own efforts—all things he does with the best of intentions, things he does for the benefit of family, for self, for work, for life in general—as being wise, when in reality it is harmful to the soul and dreadfully diminishing of his relationship with Christ.

I share this as I look back on the events of this past Sunday—Anniversary Sunday. As a good number of you know, Reverend Dr. Peter Scaer was with us, and at one point on Saturday evening while he and I were sitting together and visiting over a couple of my nicer whiskies, while Jen had gone upstairs to tuck the kids into bed, he asked about attendance numbers and the basic demographics of the congregation. I shared some of the details—about how things are really turning around in this place in some pretty amazing ways. But somehow in the midst of the conversation, I was drawn to confess to him a very personal frustration: Many of our families with young children appear to care so much more about making sure their kids are involved in sports—hockey, wrestling, or whatever—rather than being in worship and Bible study. Confirmation responsibilities on Sunday morning? Sure, when hockey season is done. Worship and Sunday School? No, not this week or next. We have indoor soccer tournaments that will consume the next two weekends completely.

Not all, but unfortunately, far too great a number of families are caught up in this swirling torrent of making sure that our children are socially adaptable or well-rounded individuals, seemingly unaware as to just how harmful it is, that by doing this we are actually training them to see time with Jesus as optional—and for that matter, that the time with the Lord isn’t even the most preferred option among the ones vying or our attention. All of this is pretty much an unabashed casting aside of the First and Third Commandments, as well as the duties of parents well-established by the Fourth Commandment. It doesn’t even seem to blush as it shuns all of the New Testament texts which mandate togetherness with Christ and His church for the benefit of our souls as He feeds us through Word and Sacrament.

I dare say, the attention given to these other priorities is the very reason we saw our usual 220-per-week attendance number drop to 165 this past Sunday. But in the end, I suppose that what bothers me more than anything else is the fact that we continue to do this deliberately. Christian parents are starving and killing the souls of an entire generation of children. And they think they are doing the right thing.

Cue the lightning bolt.

So, what did the good doctor say to me this past Saturday night with regard to this?

“You’re the pastor, Thoma,” he said in a round-about way. “What have you done to show these people their sins?”

Hmm. What have I done? I guess I sort of preach about it here and there. I touch on the topic in Bible study occasionally. But again, if people aren’t in regular attendance in these places, they will have missed it. Have I steered into it directly? Have I ever thought about dedicating an entire newsletter to the issue? Have I come right out and given the knowledge of the Scriptures to God’s people? Perhaps not.

For with you is my contention, O priest… My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…

People of Our Savior, forgive me for failing you in this way—whether it was because of a fear of offending you or because of a level of apathy—forgive me. And hear now, first, the Word of the Lord’s Lawful warning as it meets this challenge among the gathering of saints in this place.

Worship and Bible study is not optional. Don’t ever fool yourself into thinking that it is. There’s only one other character outside of you with such a scheming intention: the Devil. He does not want you in worship (or study) because he knows that it is of the utmost essential for your life and faith and it is where you belong. And so, when you begin to consider it as just another gathering of like-minded people—a country club measure of sights and sounds that you can take or leave—behold as the writer to the Hebrews (chapter 12) pulls back the spiritual curtain on holy worship and warns:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them… But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven… Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

With this in mind, step back in the same inspired Word to chapter 11, which speaks not only to the confidence of our baptismal right as Christians to be with God in worship, but to be careful not to refuse those who warn us when we fall away to other distractions, or even worse, when we set our hearts and minds upon other things and deliberately refuse Christ as He comes to be with us, most especially by the preaching and the Lord’s Supper:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

I know. These are tough words to hear. And not just because they speak to some, but because they speak to all of us. Every one of us is guilty of such spiritual recklessness. Even me. Again, please forgive me.

Now hear the Word of the Gospel—and I will most certainly be listening to it for myself as I write it.

God knows the heart of sinful Man. He knows the innermost desire to absent ourselves from His presence. He knows it well because it was the very first thing Mankind did in the Garden after the fall into sin. We hid from Him. But God did not leave us there. His first words to fallen Man were to seek and find him. “Where are you?” He called to Adam—to us. This tells you a lot about your God. He loves you. He does not give up on you. He does not want to lose you. He does not want to lose your children.

In Jesus Christ, He has reached out to all of us in the fullest of ways. He took upon Himself human flesh and gave up His life to redeem us—to buy us back from Sin, Death, and the power of the Devil. In our baptism, He has poured upon us the merits of this work and He has recreated us to be His children—little ones of faith who see the world and all of its trappings around us in a very different way; to have priorities that are no longer as that of the world. How can this be? Because we are forgiven. We are holy. The Holy Spirit lives in us as God’s people. We are no longer as we were before.

Thanks be to God for this!

Now, repent. The Gospel gives all that is necessary for amending the sinful life. Repent and change. Don’t be mad. Don’t get angry and begin seeking out a church that keeps silent on these things, one that is unwilling to steer into this with you for fear of offending you. You don’t want that. The Lord’s Word already told you that you don’t need that. You need truth. Rejoice now that the one God has set in place to give this to you has indeed given it. Why? Because it stems the results of God’s own dreadful foretelling: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…” I don’t want this for you.

Now, before closing, I should make a quick clarification. If you are planning to be away for a tournament, no sweat. Just be sure to find a faithful Lutheran congregation and go to church. I know for a fact that some of our families do this, and for that, I commend their faithfulness. Either way, just know that you don’t have to be here, but you do need to be in worship. That’s the priority. Be fed. Don’t skip it and think you’ll pick it up next week. Habits form and it becomes all too easy to slip away. And if you don’t know which church to go to, let me know. I can help with that. I want to help with that!

And so, with all of this being said, know that I’m praying for you. Know that I am trusting that by the Gospel truth that has been given, God—the Father, the + Son, and the Holy Spirit—will strengthen you, and He will bless and preserve you as His holy child.

I won’t stop moving with this important kind of encouragement. You need it. I need it. We all need the rightly divided Law and Gospel. Thanks be to God that our Lord has given these to us as the treasures that they are!

Indeed, thanks be to God!