The Voice of Conscience

As it is every year at this time, I never anticipate sending these notes while on vacation. I know, I know. I’m supposed to take full advantage of my time away and leave these types of things behind. It’s just that the temptation to be a pastor—to reach to you on the Lord’s Day with something even the least bit edifying—is just too great even while I’m away. Besides, the rest of my family is still sleeping and won’t be up to get ready for church for another half hour or so. With that, I have some time for coffee, a pre-sunrise view, and a visit with you.

Just so you know, as I type this here in Florida, I’m sitting in my usual chair near the window that allows an unobstructed view of the swimming pool and my favorite summertime flora. Trust me when I say I’m relaxing. With that, don’t expect whatever comes next to be too… well… profound.

Our plan this morning is to attend Zion Lutheran Church in Winter Garden. Pastor Rojas is the shepherd there. I know him. Not well, but enough to know we’ll be well fed by the faithful preaching of Law and Gospel and the right administration of the Sacrament of Christ’s holy body and blood for our forgiveness.

How about you? Will you be well fed in worship this morning, too?

If with honesty your first inclination was to say “no,” then I suppose my question may have unexpectedly jarred your conscience to attention. That’s good. You need your conscience to be aware of its surroundings. This is true not only for knowing and understanding the looming threat of Sin and humanity’s deepest necessity for rescue, but because of the challenging days in which we live. A somnolently weak conscience, one that isn’t assisting your navigation or pestering you to stay connected to Jesus and the truth of His Word, is of little use to you. It certainly can’t match the volume of the world’s voice.

For example, having arrived in Florida just yesterday through the Orlando International Airport, I can affirm that had this been my very first visit to earth from another planet, I’d probably be somewhat puzzled by the flourishing population. I say this because the LGBTQ voice appeared to be quite dominant throughout the terminals and their various shops. It could lead one to assume that most of the world’s population is homosexual. And if that’s true, a logical question might be: “Where did all these earthlings come from?”

Homosexuality cannot produce people.

In short, from our gate to the tram, from the tram to the bus, from the bus to the car, my conscience contested loudly within me against the overwhelming voice around me. As it did, I understood the tragic miscommunication and I was able to tune it out. Admittedly, a sense of sorrow was stirred for the bustling people already so overwhelmed by the voice.

This got me thinking…

I appreciate the text of Hebrews 9. Take a look when you have a chance. The epistle’s author talks about lots of very important things throughout, but in that particular portion, he notes the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as being all-sufficient for Sin. And then at one point along the way, right around verse 14, he makes sure we understand how the blood of Christ purifies the human conscience, enlivening it within the believer for faithfulness to God. In other words, the voice of the Christian conscience is born from the Gospel and readied for real life discernment leading to Godly action.

This, of course, walks in stride with what the Apostle James wrote in James 4:17—which alludes to the fact that if our Christian conscience is doing its job, having been fed by the Word of God, we’ll know what’s right. But if we muzzle it when it speaks, knowing what’s right but refusing to listen and then do it, we fall prey to Sin and its consequences.

Finally, I suppose all this brushes into Matthew 5:13-16, too. It’s there we learn that the voice of the Christian conscience is in place not only for the self, but for others, too. Its grammar sounds a lot like God’s Word. Its tone communicates both immovable commitment and loving care. And its goal: not only to be heard, but to be seen. It operates with the desire that others would behold and be led to give glory to the Father.

Circling back around to Hebrews 9, remember what was written there about the blood of Christ purifying the conscience for faithfulness to God—which means having the ability to discern the countless external voices. While you are recalling that text, don’t forget when and where the purifying interaction happens most powerfully.

Worship. Now, if you aren’t already, go get dressed and ready for church—just as your Christian conscience already urged you to do.

It’s Good to Be Home

It’s good to be home. Still, vacations certainly are great. They’re the allotment of time and distance you set aside for setting things aside.

But let me just shoot straight with you. I get more than a little anxious before coming home. We haven’t been taking vacations as a family for that many years, so I can look back at each of them and say with conviction that I’ve never once thought while thrashing around in the pool with Jen and the kids, “You know, I’ve had enough of vacation. Let’s get back to reality.” For me, Voltaire’s comment amount rest being a brother to boredom falls flat on its face when I’m enjoying my early morning vacation ritual of sitting at my computer drinking coffee, unrestricted, free to type whatever I feel like, and as I do, every now and then, catching a glimpse of a favorite palm tree covered in scurrying anoles just outside the window.

For me, vacationing does not share the same parentage as boredom.

You may have a different locale with different rituals, but I’m sure it’s the same for you. Still, let me dig a little deeper into the anxiousness, because I’m guessing this might be familiar to you, too.

While on vacation, we usually drive cars that are better than our own. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not like we troop through the rental lot in search of the Porsche section—although, I’ve pestered Jen about it once or twice. We usually get a minivan. And if we’ve paid more than $250 to borrow it for the whole trip, we consider ourselves as having been ripped off. I’m not kidding. Jen is the one who plans all this stuff, and she is magnificent this way. This year she managed to get us situated for the whole two weeks in a really nice Dodge Caravan for only $238. But more to my point, it had 115,000 miles less than the car I drive now, and as far as I could tell, not one of its dashboard warning lights was beaming steadily.

While on vacation, even though we only go out to eat about four or five times over the course of the entire two weeks, that’s still far more than we do as a family in an entire year—maybe even two years. And rest assured, our time in the various restaurants while vacationing is never wearisome. The staff is kind and equipped to serve, smiling and ready to bring us whatever we ask. We are kings and queens for the moment.

While on vacation, we do whatever we feel like doing. Of course, with the fear of COVID-19 looming everywhere this year, it was more of a challenge when it came to getting out and finding things to do. And yet, we never grew tired of the swimming pool. We were never met with exhaustion playing board games. We were never fatigued by huddling together on the couch, a bowl of popcorn in hand and watching “Shark Week” episodes featuring our favorite underwater cameraman personality, Andy Casagrande.

My point here is that while vacations are a temporary respite from reality, we can become anxious when we find ourselves actually heading back into reality. We want the vacation to be our permanent reality. We don’t want to come back to the car that has trouble starting. We don’t want to come back to the places where we are rarely, if ever, the one being served. We don’t want to come back to the relationships peppered with conflict. We don’t want to resubmit ourselves to stress-filled schedules filled with ungrateful patrons eager to tell you how undelighted they are with you. We don’t want the seemingly impossible workloads or the pressurized deadlines.

In the final analysis, across the expanse of a year’s fifty-two weeks, we want a reversal. We want fifty weeks of ease, and only two weeks of trouble.

But consider that word “reversal” for a moment.

I did a little bit of devotional reading each day while I was away. Every now and then, Luther spoke of God as staging a great reversal in Christ. We most often hear it referred to as “the great exchange.” If you ever get a chance to read from some of Luther’s writing on this subject, do so. His excitement is palpable. In fact, I sometimes think his words are at their poetic best whenever he’s dealing with this topic in particular. And why would they be this way? Because of all people who needed a reversal, it was Martin Luther, a man who monopolized the time of his father confessor because he couldn’t find the end to his own faults in a single day. He was a man terrified that he could never do enough to find God’s favor and win eternal life. But here in the great reversal, terrified sinners discover a God who, even in our ghastliness, loves us beyond measure. We discover a God who has no desire whatsoever to give sinners what they truly deserve. Instead, we behold Jesus on the cross and we see God working hard to lose so that we might win. We see Him taking the lowliest position of a foot-washing servant, laboring to make sinful peasants into righteous princes. We behold Him striving to endow the simplest of human words and means with an extraordinary power for delivering immeasurable forgiveness from the storehouses of heaven itself. For a guy like Luther—and for all of us for that matter—the Gospel turns what was once an awful truth of our inescapability from God’s divine reach into the most comforting of truths.

There’s an interesting aspect to all of this that relates to the anxiety of wishing a two-week vacation and the fifty weeks of reality that follow could switch places. By the Gospel, in a sense, God helps us to see that in Christ, this has actually happened. He gives us the eyes of faith for seeing that in the scheme of things, life in this world is really more like the “two weeks” of trouble in comparison to the inevitable “fifty weeks” of eternal rest we’ll experience with Christ.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m in the midst of a stressful situation while at the same time knowing that very soon I’ll be leaving it all behind, the worry I experience in those harder moments feels a little more like borrowed trouble. With that, I can endure it because I don’t really own it. It’s the same with life in this world. I don’t own it. Christ does. He took all its troubles into Himself on the cross. He carried them with Him into the grave. He rose again to justify my freedom from their permanence, which means I can make my way through all of this world’s nonsense knowing it’s already passing away, and in less than a blink in eternity’s eye, I’ll soon be resting with Him.

I want to add one last thing.

When I returned home and found myself among so many of you, I again experienced the joy of one of God’s most generous provisions to humans for enduring the relative “two weeks” we spend on this earth. I came home to friends.

Cicero referred to a friend as a “second self.” Aristotle referred to friendship itself as “a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” For as insightful as these two philosophers were, they certainly spoke most handily in this regard. Coming home to friends, dwelling with you in the midst of this world’s struggles as a community of people immersed in the mercies of God and prepared to labor together, well, that helps to steer the anxiety away, too.

For that I am grateful to our gracious God who put you into my life, and I can repeat what I said at the beginning of this note: It’s good to be home.

By the way, I also began yesterday’s sermon with that sentence, and then doing something that probably seemed a little out of character to all of you, I asked Alexis Shirk (who was sitting in the first row near her parents) to snap a quick picture of the congregation for me. I had her do this because only moments before I stepped into the pulpit to preach, having just surveyed a Godly sea of 240 familiar faces, I remembered once again what a privilege it is to be the one preaching God’s Law and Gospel to people I love. It was an instance confirming for me the Christian proverb that “a faithful friend is the medicine of life; and those who fear the Lord shall find him.”

Learning to Do Nothing

Considering 2020’s winter and spring cargo, my hope is that its summer will bring to us a semblance of calm. The Thoma clan will be leaving for Florida soon. We were concerned we might not be able to go, but as it turns out, Governor Ron DeSantis moved into the necessary phases for reopening, and this made it possible. We certainly are more than ready for a few days of tranquility in our happy place doing nothing. Although, I saw a colorful moth of some sort flittering leisurely outside my office window on Saturday after the Board of Elders meeting, and my first thought was that if I were an insect, that wouldn’t be me. I’d most likely be an ant. You never see a tranquil ant. You never see an ant sitting still doing nothing. They’re always doing something, scurrying this way and that way. Even Jennifer would agree I’d most definitely be an ant.

I’ve shared with you before that when we first started taking vacations a few years back, I had to force myself to do it. Stepping out of the pace and leaving everything behind felt wrong. Not so much anymore. Now I cannot hardly wait to put everything down and wander into the weeds. But I didn’t get to this point by myself. It took a friend (and member) here at Our Savior (and you know who you are) to say to me with incredible forthrightness, “Pastor, you need to get away. You need to learn how to do nothing.” And then he went on from there assuring me that if I didn’t learn how to do it on my own, he’d be forced to teach me.

Don’t worry. There was nothing contentious about the conversation. Still, with his words in the back pocket of my mind, it felt as though I’d just met my teacher for a summer school class designed to keep me from being useful. Those who know me best will understand why the phrase “learn to do nothing” would cause me to bristle, even if the reason for my bristling sounds a bit crazy.

First of all, if you don’t know how to do something, then yes, you need to be taught. And yet, the truest test of anything learned would seem to be the skill for applying it. To learn how to do nothing seems innately counterintuitive to this. How can nothing be something applied? It just sounds weird. And lazy. Not to mention, learning to do nothing sounds eerily reminiscent of things I’m already overly concerned about when I think of the current generation’s trajectory.

Define “learning” however you’d like, but for me, it’s really rather simple. In an elementary sense, it’s the process of bringing objective truths and the intellect together, not just for knowledge, but for producing capability. You learn in order to understand and do. But let’s be clear. Capability doesn’t always mean the skill for demonstrating what’s been learned. It does, however, assume a basic facility for communicating what’s been learned, resulting in the ability to prove critical reasoning and present evidence for one’s position.

As I said, learning to do nothing feels like the opposite of all this, and it reminds me of a generation that is, in many ways, proving that while it has learned to read, write, and communicate, it is yet to figure out what’s worth reading, writing, or communicating. Even worse, the journey of learning—critical thinking—appears to have become little more than the lazy gathering of pre-packaged opinions mined from the internet and assembled into superficial philosophies easily encompassed by a meme that ninety-nine percent of the time contains misspellings.

In this regard, learning how to be someone skilled at doing “nothing” sort of bothers me.

I know, I know. All of this is an over-analyzation of my friend’s words “learn to do nothing,” and it lands far from his intended encouragement to embrace the opportunities God gives for rest. I suppose this is what happens sometimes when I free-think and free-type.

Remember, I’m more of an ant than a moth.

And so, admittedly, over the years I’ve eventually learned to do nothing, knowing that sometimes nothing is actually something. Better said, I’ve learned to rest. Rest is good. It’s refreshing, replenishing. I’ve learned to ask rhetorically with W.H. Davies, “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” Let the moment with the moth outside my window affirm the things one can learn by doing nothing. I’d just returned from an Elders meeting thick with important church business, and yet as I took a moment of rest to observe the colorfully darting crawly on the bush just beyond the window, I was inspired to self-analyze. I was sitting still, and yet I was learning to admit something of myself.

That’s what it’s like for me on vacation, and that’s why I love it so much. Doing nothing provides so many opportunities for a million other soul-replenishing somethings to occur. It becomes an occasion to understand what God means when He says, “Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:6). It’s a chance to see that being too much about the affairs of life can prevent one from knowing why any of it matters, anyway. Taking time to rest helps to reteach the very important lesson that one ought not to use every bit of energy trying to catch something that, in the end, will never be caught.

The amusing thing is, and going back to where this morning ramble began, I couldn’t figure this out on my own. Someone had to tell me—even worse, nag me!—to do it. Similarly, God found it necessary to command rest for all of us, namely that we stop what we’re doing and engage with Him in holy worship. The Third Commandment mandates this (Exodus 20:8-11). Still, when you consider God’s intention here, it isn’t hard to see how it’s a command born from His love (Mark 2:27). He knows we need a break, and not just any kind of break, but rather the kind of respite that provides the avenue for receiving what He loves to give—the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal salvation (Matthew 11:28-30).

God knows humanity intimately, and so He knows that unless He requires this restful time with Him in worship, we just won’t do it. We’ll have far too many other sensible “somethings” that get in the way. And so His holy Law instructs us to take at least one day of the week to join with other believers in the rejuvenating arms of His love, receiving as a community the gifts of His Word and Sacraments—the means of Grace that keep us as His own and strengthen us for going back out into the world as His useful people.

As the summer rolls in, and assuming the lock down restrictions continue to be eased and the passage of time gives you and yours a little less room for anxiety, my hope is that if you’ve been away from worship, you’ll consider returning. It might feel weird at first. Expect that. It’s been a long time for many of you. But don’t let that trepidation stop you. It’s the Lord’s house, and you are a member of His family. This means it’s your home, too, and you belong where the much fuller delivery of the Father’s gifts are provided.

He certainly wants to give these gifts to you. He certainly wants to give you His rest.

Two more quick things…

First, this will be the last eNews for the next two weeks. I intend to do what I do every year while on vacation—which is to wake up at 6:00 AM, make some coffee, eat some breakfast, sit by the window where I can see my favorite palm tree, write a bit of something to post at AngelsPortion.com, and then when the other vacationers awaken and finish their breakfasts, join them in the pool. Beyond that morning routine, each day will be filled with carefree leisure. That’s what I intend to do. Of course, the two Sundays we’ll be away, we’ll be sure to find our way into the Lord’s house to receive the kind of refreshment that tops even this.

Second, if you’ve annulled any vacation plans, maybe reconsider the cancellation. I encourage you to go somewhere and do nothing. Yes, nothing. Rest. Unwind. Take some time to let the winds of this life’s cares get away from you for a little while. And even if there’s something preventing you from actually getting away from home, commit to doing something that brings you joy. Find time each day for those tranquil moments that each and every honest human being needs—the moments God gives because He knows you need them, too.

Of course if you do manage to steal away to the distant lands of “nothing” but find yourself unable to locate among its citizens a faithful congregation in which to worship, let me know. Just be sure to do it before Friday. After that, I probably won’t be able to research churches for you because there’s a good chance I’ll be in the middle of a “Death Ball” match. And if I’m not in the actual game, I’ll most likely be on the sidelines nursing some life-threatening injuries. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you should visit https://wp.me/p2nDyB-1di and maybe https://wp.me/p2nDyB-1o6.