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.

Home Sweet Home

At the end of this week the Thoma family will be in Florida. God willing, I’ll be back in the saddle at Our Savior on Sunday, July 14. Until then, folks at the church won’t be hearing from me by way of the weekly eNewsletter I send out. As in the past, I’ll be setting it aside with the intent on being refreshed.

Already folks have commented, saying things like, “It’ll be good to get away and do nothing for a little while.” In response, I usually offer a word of agreement, because I certainly know what they mean. But honestly, even as I’m nodding, I have in mind something along the lines of what Voltaire scribed:

“Repose is a good thing, but boredom is its brother.”

In other words, I’ll be doing anything but nothing. Among the many relaxing activities in store, the Thoma family will be playing board games, going out to dinner and seeing the sites. We’ll be swimming, walking, watching “Shark Week” bundled under blankets on the couch, and a whole host of other things.

We’ll be taking time to be together.

On a personal front, I’ll be taking time each and every morning to write about anything and everything that comes to mind—most of which usually finds its way back to many of you in the form of whisky reviews at Angelsportion.com.

As you can see, brother “boredom” will be wholly shunned on this vacation. But there’s something else I’m expecting to do.

I’m expecting to miss all of you.

First off, while vacations are nice, it’s nice to come home. Dorothy was right—there’s no place like home. The Lord put an interesting spin on the idea of “home” when He pointed out in John 14:23 that it’s not just a place, but it also has to do with the One who makes His dwelling among the people who gather within the structure. Jesus offers so straightforwardly, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my Word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

The first thing we can take from this is that Jesus is most certainly present by His Word. He promises that, and such a promise is a tender bit of comfort for anyone wondering where they might find Jesus. You can be sure that you’ll have access to Him by His Word.

But there are a couple of other things to keep in mind.

Jesus makes His home among those who, by faith, keep His Word. The word for “keep” is τηρέω (tēreō). It means “to watch over,” or even better, “to guard.” I’d say that’s a near-perfect verb for communicating the identity of the people of God at Our Savior in Hartland. When we gather together, Jesus is here. We have His Word. We hold it as our most precious possession, and there’s no question that we’ll pit ourselves against anyone or anything seeking to snatch it away.

For that, I’m thankful. Which leads to me to a final observation.

Because of who we are in Christ, by virtue of His promises among us, I know that when I come back through the doors in a few weeks, I’ll be walking into my Christian family’s home. Home is where family lives. Our Savior is also my home because all of you—my Christian family—are here.

Truly, there’s nothing better than a familiar face, a welcoming embrace, and a kind word that is sure to let you know that while you were gone, as a member of the family—a member of the body of Christ—you were missed. When it happens, and I know it will, it’ll be one more reminder to me of just how wonderful being home can be. Even anticipating it now, I can’t help but remind you to count Our Savior as your home, as well. We are your Christian family. You belong here, too. And no matter what you’ve done, this is a place where those who, by repentance and faith, exist together and are always received… and not only by our gracious and loving Savior, but by those within the walls of this home in Hartland where the Holy Spirit is busily working by the wonderful Word of the Gospel delivering our Lord’s tidal grace.

We are family by His grace.

This, of course, means that this spiritual home and the family that occupies it are nothing of themselves. Neither exist by their own doing. God brings us together. Just as you don’t choose your earthly family, neither do you choose the family of God. You’re born into it. You’re born into the Christian community through Baptism into Christ, the One who gave Himself on the cross to win for you your place before the throne as an heir of heaven.

I think that’s pretty great stuff. And I hope you think it’s pretty great stuff, too. It is a Gospel that changes the way we deal with one another, and it strengthens all of us to be honest with ourselves—to recognize our need for a Savior from Sin—and then, together as a family, to kneel before His throne of grace to be absolved of anything and everything that would cause despair in the home.

Again, I say that’s pretty great stuff.

I suppose one more thing that makes it truly spectacular is that because of the person and work of Jesus Christ, it’s all free—free as the ocean breezes that jostle the palm tree leaves I’ll be sitting beneath in Florida very soon.

I’ll think on that while I’m away. I’ll breathe it in, and I’ll remember that together with you, in Christ, we’re family. And when I get home, it’ll be great to see you.

In the Midst of Regret, Get Behind Jesus

I posted something last week that got quite the response. If you missed it, you can read it at https://cruciformstuff.wordpress.com/2019/06/10/the-death-and-burial-of-the-christian-faith/.The thrust of my words, which I know hit some folks pretty squarely: Death comes for all, and a funeral filled with the hopelessness of a family that has strayed from the faith is a dreadful thing.

There were, as I expected, a few who reached to me in response. They said in summary: “Your words came a few years too late, Pastor. I didn’t put the effort that I probably should’ve into raising my children. I wasn’t deliberate in teaching them who they are as God’s child; how as His forgiven people we are to hold to His Word as our everything; how worship is essential to life itself, especially as we venture into a world in conflict with the Christian faith. I didn’t do these things with my kids. I didn’t steer them faithfully. Now they’ve strayed. They’re living with their boyfriend or girlfriend. They’ve married someone who is more than pulling them away from Christ. They subscribe to lifestyles that are contrary to God’s Word. My grandkids aren’t baptized. I feel terrible, pastor, and I wish I would’ve done more.”

I won’t lie. These are the words of real regret. And they hurt. Harriet Beecher Stowe rightly said, “The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.”

The honesty of regret sets before us a very important, but also very simple, question: Now what? I would say the answer to this question is of equal import and simplicity: Jesus.

The only way through regret is to look to Christ. And such remorseful pivoting is the humility of a penitent faith that acknowledges some things.

First it acknowledges the humanness in which we dwell. Even now as we say, “If I could go back, I’d do things differently,” the honest and contrite heart admits that we probably wouldn’t do things differently. We are sinners and we get trapped in the same kinds of sins over and over again—even the ones we know can destroy us.

In brutal honesty, a penitent heart of faith also acknowledges that we’re the ones responsible. We don’t look to others around us, our conditions, or anything else in order to find loopholes for excusing our thoughts, words, and deeds done or left undone. We are to blame.

It’s here that the human heart peers into a darkness of sorts. In that darkness, faith and regret wrestle.

Regret sees nothing but a hopelessly endless night. But faith in Christ and His merciful care proves stronger. By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel of forgiveness for any and all things we’ve ever done—even the grim failures marked by regret—faith beholds the deep darkness of midnight becoming a more hopeful blue, which is a kinder color promising that night won’t remain forever, but that soon the sunlit morning of a brand new day is coming. In other words, by faith we confess our sins, and we know with certainty that God in His faithfulness will forgive us and give us a brand new start.

Forgiveness buries regret. Life begins anew. Life begins right now.

In the midst of that hope-filled turnaround, Jesus has plenty of Gospel to give, and by it, He steadies us with a courage of word and skill we didn’t seem to have years ago. He reminds us that even workers who come late to the harvest will receive the same glorious reward (Matthew 20:1-16). God is merciful. He desires that all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), which also means that He won’t be working against anyone in any of their efforts to do now what they didn’t do years ago (Psalm 118:6-9).

Next, by His Gospel He never fails to show us the determination of a parent for a child. He wants for our rescue. In particular, in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), our God paints the portrait of an enduring and long-suffering love He has for us, and it’s one that He can work in us as we reach back into the lives of our own families. By God’s grace, the muscle for doing this remains available to us as we remain connected to Christ and His gifts in holy worship.

The example of Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine, comes to mind.

If ever there was a prodigal son, it was Augustine. His mother raised him in the faith, and yet he strayed terribly. He lived with a woman, fathered child, and lived a life of self-centered decadence. And yet, she prayed—which some might say is an understatement. Monica lived and breathed a vigil that God would move Augustine to embrace the Gospel truth he’d been given. When he moved away from his mother to Milan, she followed him, even joining Saint Ambrose’s church. Eventually Augustine did return to the faith, and as it would be, did so not long before his mother’s death. He wrote in his Confessions that he was thankful to God for her diligence—that she never gave up, but rather wept prayerfully for him for so many years.

Continuing on, God is certain to both remind and then comfort us that even as we are tools in His hands for others, no one within reach of any of us is convinced or converted by our efforts. Faith is worked by the power of the Gospel (Romans 1:16; 10:17). It’s not our job to save anyone. It’s our task to give that which saves and to pray to the Lord of the harvest to produce the fruit. And so we do what we can when and where we can to give the message of Christ’s death and resurrection in love as Christ gave it to us (2 Corinthians 5:14). Sometimes we’ll find ourselves in situations where we might season our speech with the salt of the Gospel (Colossians 4:6). Other times we’ll find ourselves communicating the Gospel without words. Once again, Monica comes to mind. She had been given in marriage to Patricius, an unbeliever. She tried to encourage him, but in the end, discovered that simply following the Lord’s Word in 1 Peter 3:1-6 was the better way. Eventually, Patricius became a Christian. We can be as Monica. We can display a love for Christ and His Gospel through simple, everyday deeds—such as praying before a meal and teaching the grandkids to do the same, making time to go to church even while visiting family out of state, and so many other things—knowing these actions themselves proclaim a trust in and commitment to the One who gave His life for the world. And who knows? Perhaps by these potent displays, onlookers will see Christ and give Him glory (Matthew 5:13-16).

I could go on sharing other particulars I know the Lord can work in and through you as you step from the regret of “Now what?” into the action of “Right now,” but I suppose the last thing I’ll mention is Christ’s promise to be with you. He is true to His Word, and He has more than established that He is with us always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20), a promise connected to baptism and the teaching of His Word. Naturally, from that promise comes the fortified certainty that He will never leave nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5), that He will not leave you orphaned in your newfound desire to engage in this work, but rather will come to you (John 14:18) and make His home with you (John 14:23).

God will set up residence in your midst. That’s a wonderful promise.

My prayer for you is, first, one of strength, that God would give you all that is necessary for enduring the way forward. Second, I pray for your comfort. Cast aside the regret and get behind Jesus. The devil will poke at you, doing all he can to remind you of your failures. And as you reach back into the lives of your loved ones with the saving Gospel, he’ll stir up as many disheartening obstacles as he can. He’ll see to making you feel foolish. He’ll see to the suggestion that it’s a lost cause. He’ll see to the sense that by speaking the truth in love, you are being offensive and at the edge of alienating a family member.

Don’t worry. Get behind Jesus and stay there. Trust Him. Cling to His Word. Remember, He’s the one who told Peter (a seasoned fisherman who’d already been fishing all night and caught nothing) to cast His net into the deep water at a time of day when all reasonable sense suggested it would be an incredibly foolish thing to do (Luke 5:1-11).

Jesus gives the Word. It’s a Word of great power and hope. We trust Him and we let down our nets. We don’t expect anything beyond this except that He will give the successes according to His good and gracious will. Even more so, if we labor on and eventually breathe our last without having seen any results, we can remain at peace in His comforting love, because His promise still stands that our labor in the Lord was never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). There is no doubt that something wonderful was indeed accomplished through us.

God grant for you the humble faith to believe this, the comfort to know our Lord’s forgiveness, and the courage go forward from here.

The Death and Burial of the Christian Faith

The school year has ended.

When anything comes to an end, it’s not unusual to think on the finality of life itself—that approaching day when each of us will inhale and then exhale for the very last time. Anticipating that final moment, rich or poor, weak or strong, legendary or just a regular Joe, each and every person will at some point betray human fragility and show concern for particular things.

In those contemplative moments, some worry they’ll die without a legacy, that perhaps they’ll simply disappear into history without having made a memorable impact on this world. Others show concern for the material comfort of their twilight years and the financial wellbeing of those they leave behind. Some invest all their worry feeling they haven’t lived their lives to the fullest, being uneasy about the career they chose, the places they’ve gone, and the things they’ve seen. Many, if not most, admit to wondering about the words others will use to describe them at their funeral. What will people say?

I’ll admit that I experience the occasional commotion from such thoughts. And why wouldn’t I? Like you, I’m human.

Still, even as these thoughts muscle in, they’re never gripping enough to haunt me. I have deeper concerns, one of which took shape two weeks ago during a funeral.

The Lord’s house was full. The family of the deceased filled the first two rows of the pulpit-side pews. Among them sat three generations of ancestry. Beyond those two pews, the room held a crowd of distant relatives and close friends.

The service began, and with it came a tidal wash of something dreadful—something I don’t want happening at my funeral.

When you think about it, a Lutheran funeral really is an easy conversation of sorts. It’s situated in God’s Word. The rhythm is one in which God speaks (through His word by way of a pastor) and the congregation responds. At this particular funeral, the cadence of the conversation was far different. The Word of God was given, but silence was almost always the reply.

I spoke the invocation, but the congregation didn’t react. I prayed. There was no response. I read aloud the Scriptures, finishing as Lutherans do with “This is the Word of the Lord,” but the people didn’t answer. Even with the liturgy and all of its components printed in detail and being held in their hands, the room was hushed at every turn, only the barest number of voices being heard. What bothered me the most is that while the pipe organ was sounding out in grandeur and carrying some of the most Gospel-potent hymns that have ever been written—hope-filled anthems that have inspired armies to charge through the flames in defense of the Gospel—still the people in the funeral sat silently. Barely a handful sang.

It’s disheartening when a mighty song of Christ’s triumph over Death is resounding and the only voices to be heard are those of the pastor and maybe two or three others.

Why did it happen this way?

I refuse to say that it’s because more and more people don’t like to sing in public. Stop by Our Savior in Hartland on a Sunday sometime and you’ll hear a full-throated resonation of liturgy and hymnody that will hastily negate that perception. I also refuse to accept the premise that the liturgy and hymns are too difficult to follow or sing. Regularly immersed in these things, I know three-year-olds who can sound them out with reverence and carefree ease. Lastly, I won’t submit to the idea that what we’re doing isn’t meeting the people where they are. That’s just an excuse for dumbing things down—for embracing anthropocentric preference over Christocentric substance—and I just won’t do it.  And besides, if we’re being honest, when it comes to the things of God, that’s not the direction the Scriptures encourage.

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-4).

My best guess as to why a funeral might unfold this way: The Christian faith in this family died years ago and is only now being put into the casket for burial.

What I mean is that years ago, family routines were established that competed with Sunday morning worship. Years ago, perhaps during the high school years, I’m guessing that church attendance was set before the children in the home as optional. Years ago, the parents had nothing to say about how important it is to date other Christians in preparation for eventually choosing a Christian spouse. Years ago, the parents were too distracted or timid to do and say some very important things that would prepare their children for engaging in a world spinning in opposition to the Christian faith.

And now the church organ is sounding with might but the church pews are silent and weak. It’s painful, but it’s honest. One can’t sing with integrity what one doesn’t believe.

Unfortunately, this is more and more becoming the standard. Funerals are becoming more the opportunity to exist in a fumbling and uncomfortable stillness, rather than being a time of voicing a joyful hope in Christ by people who actually believe what they’re seeing, hearing, and saying.

And it’s not just funerals.

Far too many young couples are stopping by my office and asking me to preside at their wedding even as they’re already living together. Such a scenario is becoming appallingly commonplace. In tandem, there’s the ever-increasing trend of young parents requesting baptisms for their children, but they’re only interested because grandma is pestering them. They’re willing to act on the first part of Christ’s mandate, which is to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Unfortunately, they have no intention for keeping the second part—“and teach them all things”—which is the promise to raise the children in the Christian faith (Matthew 28:19-20). Both parts go together. You can’t have one without the other.

And so, coming back around to where I began…

For me personally, I suppose my chief concern is not how much money I’ll have when I die. And I suppose I don’t really care if I ever get to exotic locales on vacation. It would be nice, but I’m not salivating over it. As far as fearing that I’ve not maximized my potential, while I’m sure I could be using my talents toward more lucrative enterprises, I’m absolutely certain the Lord has me right where He wants me.

What I hope for most in the face of my own death is that, firstly, when it arrives at my door, I’ll be found trusting in Christ. I say this as I’ve been in the room with a dying person who teetered at the edge of uncertainty. Uncertainty in the face of Death is the absolute equivalent of maximum dread. It is uncontaminated terror and I’ve seen it.

And so, secondly, my hope is that none in my family will experience this terror. I hope to have passed along an uncompromising faith in Christ to my own children—one that will be more than detectable in their spouses and children, one that will more than prove itself at my funeral. My hope is that the hymns will be full, my sorrowing family will give hearty replies of thankfulness to the Lord’s comforting Gospel, and the words spoken of me by the pastor who knew me—if he chooses to speak of me at all—will be ones that in every way find their way back to Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of the faith I possessed and the faith I did all I could to secure in the hearts and minds of my own loved ones.

I don’t say this with a prideful spirit. My goal is really very simple. I want my family to be with Jesus in the glories of heaven. And as an added bonus, I want to know we’ll be within arm’s reach of one another there.

Emily Dickinson was right when she mused, “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.” Unless the Lord returns first, everyone will eventually be the guest of honor at a funeral. My encouragement to you is to make the most of the time you have for fortifying the Christian faith in your family. Do all that you can to be faithful in worship. Do all that you can to balance the joy of sporting commitments with the absolute priority of keeping to the baptismal mandate for raising your children in the faith. Be mindful in every circumstance to talk with them about the substance of what it is that we believe as Christians according to the Word of God and what it means to be a child of Christ in a world that isn’t all that fond of the Lord.

In the broad scheme of things, nothing else really matters all that much. Life in this world is temporary. Life in the next is eternal. Unfortunately, far too many in the church don’t even begin to think about such things until the time of parental influence is too far out of reach or Death is already applying the brakes to the carriage and preparing to stop at the door.

My proposition: Consider and act on it now. In fact, the time before us—the season of summer—is the perfect time to begin. Summer is filled with grand temptations for steering clear of Christian worship and daily devotion. But don’t. Wrestle through it with your kids and commit wholeheartedly to continued time with the Lord.

It’s the right thing to do. It’s the faithful thing. And it’ll be worth it in the end.

Basic Human Courtesy

I have to admit that last week was one of the more grueling weeks of the 2018-19 year. I was moving non-stop from Monday morning until the men’s Bible Study group last night. From morning until evening, every minute was pretty much accounted for. I suppose I wouldn’t even bother to mention this if it weren’t for something that happened earlier in the week that pretty much doubled the weight of the calendar’s challenges. Although, in the right frame of mind, what occurred bore valuable lessons well worth sharing.

The story begins with a funeral—and it was one of the most contentious circumstances in all my years as a pastor.

The first of the facts is that much of the funeral was pre-arranged. It was to be a Lutheran service coming to its conclusion in a Lutheran cemetery. The Bible readings and hymns were all selected years ago. I was present when they were chosen. I assisted in the choosing and I wrote them down. The funeral home handling the burial details had them recorded, too. It was also decided at the time that I would preach and preside at the funeral. And why wouldn’t I? I’d been regularly tending to this person’s spiritual care for over a decade, and in many ways, was counted as an extension of the family.

Thankfully, these plans went pretty much unscathed. And the one change that was eventually made to the plans—the fact that Pastor Pies did the preaching—was more than appropriate. He’d cared for the deceased for plenty more years than I.

And so, the trouble began as it relates to who and what we are as Lutheran Christians and what that actually means when it mixes with the “however the spirit moves you” flavor of Christianity trending in America.

If you know anything about Our Savior in Hartland—which I’m assuming many of you do—then you know it is a confessional Lutheran church of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. We hold to the historic rites and ceremonies as the best means for carrying and communicating the Christian Gospel for faith. The person being buried was a lifelong and devout LC-MS Lutheran Christian and a longtime member of this congregation. One would assume that with such well-established and careful intentions by the deceased and her pastor, the funeral event would be fairly easy for the extended family to navigate, and one might think that the contours of Lutheran doctrine and practice would be an assumed rudder for steering the funeral ship through rough waters for a group of people stricken by grief.

But the essential dilemma is that the one representing the family was by no means Lutheran, and throughout the process desired that I know it.

For example, the derogatory word “sanctimonious” comes to mind. Along with a few choice expletives and a couple of times of hanging up on me, I was called this pretty straightforwardly as I treaded as carefully as possible, doing my best to hold to our doctrine and practice. But still, through every careful explanation, I was told that all this congregation really cares about is its doctrine and holier-than-thou fluff, which was further explained as being something “no real Christian cares about. Real Christians care about people, not doctrines.”

Unfortunately, it only got uglier from there. Statements like “I hate your stupid doctrines” and “I hope your dog dies” were words crassly stitched into the conversation’s fabric.

Yes, someone actually wished for the death of my dog. I suppose it’s a good thing I don’t have one.

Anyway, herein is the first lesson I think we can learn.

I know that to many in mainstream evangelical Christianity, a traditional Lutheran funeral service can seem a little stiff. This is true for various reasons, one of which being that we don’t see a funeral as a free-for-all therapy session in the face of grief. It’s a time to hover with the preeminent and saving truth of the Gospel. With that, we’re not ones to let anyone and everyone get up in the midst of the service to speak about whatever as it relates to the deceased. It’s not that eulogies are bad. They have their place. It’s just that between the Invocation and Benediction of a Lutheran funeral service, something else is to occur entirely. We are to be laser-focused on the Gospel of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. The fluff of the world gives way to the sturdy underpinnings of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins and the hope that comes for facing the last enemy, which is Death (1 Corinthians 15:26). This means we hold to the belief that little Susie’s poem about auntie would be better suited during the viewing or while folks are fellowshipping at the luncheon. It’s not going to happen during the service.

We also don’t give room for anyone and everyone to assist with the liturgy or do the Bible readings. We believe as the scriptures teach, that pastors are the ones called to stand in the stead and by the command of Christ in these things. Pastors are, as Saint Paul says, stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1). With that, if Cousin Sally wants to be a part of the service, at the most it’ll be to sing a solo stanza from a pre-determined hymn.

Speaking of hymnody, we don’t typically allow secular music to be played during the service, either. Why? Mainly because of the first point I made, but also because it’s just flat out dangerous. Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” may have been a beloved song for many in the family, but like it or not, it preaches a theological message that is about as counterintuitive to the Christian message as it gets.

A funeral is a holy event, and if the pastor is doing his job, he’ll get in between the world’s things and the Church’s things—for the sake of the people. He’ll protect and encourage the rites and ceremonies—the words and motions and places and times that make sure that everyone in the house of the Lord knows nothing less than that God is unquestionably present and at work for our good. Doctrine and practice, the rites and ceremonies of a funeral, all are in place to communicate an unclouded Gospel and provide genuine comfort.

The last of this—and you’ve probably guessed it already—is that in a traditional Lutheran funeral, God pretty much does all the talking. He has the first and last word on everything. He does this through the reading of His holy scriptures. Through the preaching, He showers His merciful love on heartbroken listeners like a torrential rain on a drying landscape. Even the hymns we sing and prayers we pray are a resonation of this bountiful relief found only in the risen Savior, Jesus. There’s no room for the world’s transient attempts at comfort in the face of Death. They’re completely out of their league in this regard—an atom-sized splinter of import in comparison to the saving message of Christ and Him crucified and raised so that Death would be defanged and we would live eternally.

That’s the first lesson—the world says, “I want it my way,” while God intends something far more substantial.

There are at least two more lessons that come to mind. But before I share them, I ask you to be prepared to really contemplate them—to really think about what I’m saying. I say this because in our radically individualized world, far too often will folks believe they’re thinking something through, but in reality, they’re merely rearranging their personal agendas in order to build better defenses around what they already believe and want so desperately to continue believing.

I’m asking for you to really think about this stuff.

The second lesson is that, while I won’t assume to speak for you, I’m guessing that any one of us would expect pastors—no matter the denomination—to take their ordination vows seriously. A Lutheran pastor intends to keep to the doctrines and practices to which he has subscribed just as a Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal would. With that, I can assure you that even as I’d never expect for a pastor from another denomination to come into my church and tell me how things ought to be done, I’d never step foot into his church expecting him to abide by Lutheran practices. If I were to engage in such behavior, it would only expose the cracks in my character as opposed to revealing another pastor’s seemingly offensive practices. In other words, he’s not the jerk. I am.

This stirs a final lesson.

Basic human courtesy is still a thing among Christians, right? I mean, it still exists, yes?

I know that plenty among the Christian ranks expel a lot of energy critiquing the doctrine and practices of other congregations or denominations. No denomination is immune from engaging in such banter. Every Baptist has his Lutheran joke. Every Lutheran has his Baptist joke. Trust me, I get why this happens. Doctrine and practice matter, and denominations differ greatly on some pretty significant things. I do my fair share of speaking to this very topic during the Sunday morning Bible study here at Our Savior. I want my people to know the differences. Saint Paul makes that very point in 1 Corinthians 11:17-19. In my efforts in the public square, I do the same thing. I take every opportunity to show how bad doctrines producing bad practices has the potential for harming the efforts of the Church Universal as we attempt to face off together with the princes of this world. In both of these forums, plenty of folks have shared with me that when they see something happening in a church that is clearly unfaithful, they cringe with a desire to fix it. And again, rightly so. Once more, Paul was concerned about these things among the churches and pastors. He wasn’t messing around when he instructed Timothy to watch his doctrine and life (practices) closely. By doing this, Timothy would save both himself and his hearers (1 Timothy 4:16).

Still, as much as any of us might find concern for a church’s handling of its own doctrine and practices among its own people, it remains a basic human courtesy to keep your commentary to yourself while right in the middle of it, especially if you find yourself in a situation where you are the recipient of the church’s efforts. Your silence in those moments doesn’t mean you approve, but rather that you have the ability for discerning self-restraint. Talk about it as much as you want with whomever you want after it’s all over, but in the midst of it, be respectful. Prove by your silence in that moment the integrity of the words you may find yourself using in the next. Plenty move forward in these circumstances bent on establishing proper piety, but fewer these days are making their way to an opponent with that piety immersed in the tenderness of humility.

I dare say that such self-restraint is an incredibly important asset that serves very well in any and all conversations, especially those designed to communicate critiques across theological borders.

I suppose in the end, there are plenty more lessons we can learn from this situation. Suffice it to say that this is enough for now.

As I said, I pray you will consider these things, and if anything, you’ll understand why pastors hold the line in this regard. Don’t shout and swear at him. Don’t wish dreadful things upon him. Give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s not trying to be offensive. He’s just trying to do his job. He’s just trying to be faithful.

We Thank You for Your Love

The Thoma family thanks everyone for their messages, cards, meals, and so much more. Your loving kindness to us as we made our way through the situation with our son, Harrison, is a direct reflection of the Lord’s love to and for His world. We can’t begin to thank you enough. Although, I suppose by myself, I can make the effort to paint a portrait of the appreciation.

This past Friday, Harrison and I shared an elevator at Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor with a mother pushing her daughter in a stroller. The little girl couldn’t have been more than three years old.

I’d seen the two of them before. In fact, Jennifer and I saw them down near the cafeteria at the beginning of the week and we commented on what the situation might be for the little girl.

In this moment, leaning against the wall of the elevator, mom looked exhausted. She tried to fool me with a less than credible smile, but I knew better. Her daughter’s brown eyes were bright. They were locked onto the lighted buttons with the numbers 7 and 12. I couldn’t see her expression. Other than being ornamented with bandages and a couple of IV ports, she was wearing a mask. And she was balding.

They got off at the seventh floor. We exited at the twelfth.

It’s remarkable how in a singular moment one’s lens of perception refocuses, and you change from someone concerned for your own sphere of existence to having a desire to step outside of that sphere for the sake of another human being.

This happened to me in that elevator.

Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” He’s right. Sin complicates our peripheral vision. Most often we view life through our own joys and sorrows, becoming stuck in the mindset that the best and worst to us is the best and worst in the world.

But that’s just not a very honest view. I’m pretty sure I’ve offered from the pulpit on more than one occasion that Mankind is still searching for the depth of Sin’s creativity. It’s very possible that whatever “worst” may be happening to you will be easily overshadowed by someone else’s tragedy.

Even though, for the most part, it would seem we are through the darker days of Harrison’s situation, I don’t mean to look back at it and say everything was simple and carefree in comparison to others. There’s nothing to downplay about what Harrison has endured. Two procedures to open up his body to his hip socket and pelvis in order to manually clean them, excruciating pain both day and night through the first three days, the taxation of round-the-clock sequestering to his room by Infectious Disease doctors—all of these things were monumentally challenging to a boy who just wants to be twelve. I’ll admit that through all of this, I discovered myself hovering above a chasm of worry, especially when the attending physician assured us that his kind of infection is deadly serious, and if not fatal, can cause irreversible bone damage. We’ve been reminded on more than one occasion that had Jennifer not been moved to take him to the ER when she did, things almost certainly would have been worse.

Again, no downplaying. We’ve been teetering at this precipice.

Nevertheless, I saw another parent in the elevator, someone both like and unlike me. I saw a child in there, too, someone similar and dissimilar to Harrison. They were like us because they’re human and struggling. They’re different in ways I can’t necessarily describe. Except for one. My guess in the moment was that while my son was going through a lot, he was slowly improving, and I suspected he had a chance at full recovery. But the future of the little girl with brown eyes and cancer was less certain.

In the midst of personal concern, God granted my field of vision to become a bit wider. I could see both her and her mom as all of you have seen the Thoma family.

Like all of you—people in the midst of woeful struggles none of us may ever know—I was moved to look beyond my own sadness and take time to care. To be totally honest, I tried to discover their room number on the 7th floor so that I could send the little girl an anonymous gift from the hospital gift shop. Of course, no one would share that information. Instead, I took a moment to do something better, to do what Christians do. I prayed for her—for her entire family—as all of you have done for us.

First off, I don’t know if an anonymous surprise from the gift shop would have accomplished the moment of joy I was hoping for her, but I feel safe in assuming it might’ve. So many of you are the proof of this. So many of you reached out to help us in the same ways, all showing a field of vision well beyond the self. This is nothing less than the Holy Spirit at work by way of the Gospel you’ve received. Christ’s effort to live, die, and rise again for your redemption wasn’t lost on you. You’ve been recreated by this powerful act, and the Thoma family has been the recipient through meals, gas cards, and the like.

But there’s something more.

Aristides said, “And to me there is no doubt but that the earth abides through the supplication of the Christians.”

Gift or no gift, I know the prayer I prayed for that mother and daughter will suffice. Again, all of you are proof. God hears the cries of His people and He answers according to His good and gracious will. And that’s all I asked for—His will to be done—that He would grant peace, healing, and hearts set upon trusting in His Son for real rescue.

As a family, we are grateful for your care, but as a pastor and friend to you, I’m most grateful for who you are in Christ—the example you are even to me. I’m grateful that He has made you people with a broader field of vision than what the sinful flesh can muster, even in the midst of struggle. He has made you His bright beaming lights emitting a great and wonderful love to the world around you through acts of mercy and prayers that seek His faithful will in the lives of others.

I am truly grateful to be your pastor. God is at work through you, offering a care for His world so often flexed by way of muscle that only the holy Christian church bears.

With all of this in mind, there’s one more thing I’d ask of the countless people who prayed for us. I’m asking for all of you to turn the diligence of your prayers back to the Lord on behalf of someone else. Adam Pushman’s niece, Lucille Aldred, has been suffering from cancer. The tumors they thought were in remission in this little girl have returned. Needless to say, Lucille’s parents are scared, and scared parents wrestle with fathoming how God could allow such things. My request of all those who prayed for us: Pray diligently for Lucille. Pray continually. Under the banner of His gracious will, ask for healing as well as for steadiness and comfort to the parents.

Spread the word to other churches. Tell family and friends. Pray.

May God continue to strengthen you for this. And again, thank you for lifting us before God. Let’s do it now for Lucille.

Forgiveness is Hard

I took a tangential turn in the sermon yesterday. I mentioned from the pulpit that when I got to the church and was looking over my sermon manuscript, I experienced the urge to add something to the text.
During the sermon, right after considering the immeasurable depth of the Lord’s efforts to save us by way of His sacrificial death, I steered into the expense of forgiveness as it unfolds among people. Just as the forgiveness of Christ isn’t cheap, it isn’t cheap between any of us, either. It was a hard-fought forgiveness that streamed from the Lord’s work on Calvary’s cross. It’ll often be a hard-fought reality among God’s people, too.
Of course I don’t mean to say that the Lord found it difficult to forgive us. In His perfect love, that’s always His first inclination. He desires to show mercy to the contrite. He desires to be gracious to the penitent sinner. He reminds us by His Word that when His forgiveness is given, He forgets our wicked deeds and we begin anew (Hebrews 8:12).
But we’re not God. We struggle to forgive. We find it even harder to forget.
My point is that as true, deep, consequential forgiveness is needed among people, we should be wary of a couple of things.
First, for the offender, I suppose I’d be skeptical of forgiveness that is too superficially given. If it comes thoughtlessly and without expense to the offended, then the wounds are probably not being mended properly and things are bottling up and heading for catastrophe at a much later date. Take the time to talk about it. Really talk about it. Reconcile. Mend. Confess again and again if need be. Actually ask for forgiveness. Say the words.
If necessary, I’ll walk with you through this. Just send me a message. I am your servant.
Second, for the one offended, know that forgiveness is possible. It’s always possible. But it won’t be easy. It’s going to hurt. A lot.
Dear Christian, this is a reflection of the suffering of our Lord and what He endured to win our forgiveness. There are plenty of Scripture texts I could share in this moment that talk about partaking in the sufferings of Christ. Dealing in the excruciating exchange of forgiveness between people who have done ungodly things to one another is a way this partaking happens.
I share all of this—and I think I was moved to actually say it from the pulpit—because we need to hear it more and more. There are marriages that need mending. There are friendships that need healing. There are families that need recalibrating. There are lives that are in upheaval because forgiveness is exactly what’s needed even as it seems so impossible.
But it’s not impossible. It’s just hard. Really hard. And God promises He will accomplish it through His people—human beings who have their hearts and minds set on His loving kindness—a loving kindness that actually did achieve the impossible. He points to the death of His Son on the cross as the proof.
I hope these words speak straight to your middle. And know that I’m praying for you in such situations.