Unearthly Courage

It was quite the lineup we had on Saturday. Charlie Kirk—someone I don’t know that well, but have gotten to know much better in the past few days—he did a splendid job. Dinesh D’Souza and Rafael Cruz—both men that I know and respect and call friends—they, of course, spoke to the issues facing the Church with passion and clarity. They were inspirational in so many ways, and their verve was contagious.

Then there was Jack Phillips. And I must say, I’m not the same man I was before I met Jack.

For those of you who attended, you know it sometimes took Jack a minute or two to find the words he wanted to say. And when he finally reached to where the words were hiding, he took them, wrapped them in an easy gentleness, and handed them to us in a way that warmed all in the room. The love in his family and the story of his new life in Christ made us all smile. Sometimes we gave a chuckle as he attempted to add humor in his descriptions of situations of sheer terror. Other times he brought us to tears as we saw him doing what he could to hold back his own.

After he and his lawyer, Jake Warner, were done speaking, I took Jack back to the green room so he and his wife, Debi, could rest a little before lunch. While there, we visited a little further on some things. Before I left to get back to the conference, I confessed to Jack that for all the good he is doing for the cause of Religious Liberty in America—and specifically in the moment for my own congregation and the community in which she is serving in so many ways as the tip of the spear—I confessed that I don’t think I like being responsible for Jack and Debi having to relive the horrors they’ve endured. The death threats. Terrorized children and grandchildren. The six-figure debts. The years in court he’ll never get back. The verbal attacks and the vitriol he endures day after day. The badgering from his own state rulers and the constant dread of a new lawsuit threatening to shatter everything he holds dear and to bury him in hateful rubble. With each moment that he struggled to communicate to us the seriousness of his predicament and the concern he has that the same things are facing many of us, too—each of his words being born from a severe and tortuous pain—I was sad that he was called upon to retell it. I wanted him to know how thankful I truly was that he took the time to be with us, and I told him I would forever be his servant in the Lord. He needed only to call me—anytime—and I’d be there to help, to speak, to pray, to listen.

Jack shook my hand and smiled. He thanked me and in a few short words reminded me that even as it hurts to tell the story again and again, such care from others makes it better. And ultimately, Jesus has already figured it all out. With that, everything will be okay. In the meantime, as a Christian family, we’re in this together.

Before worship yesterday, my own devotions began with a portion from Ephesians 3:16, which reads: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being…” Luther offered the following regarding those words:

“Worldly people are full of courage and of high spirits, and so are Christians. Christians are much stronger through the Holy Spirit, for they fear neither the world nor the devil, neither death nor misfortune. This is called spiritual strength… Worldly courage endures no longer than there is some earthly good on which to rely; but the true courage trusts in God alone and has no other good or gold than God alone; in Him it withstands all evil and wins an altogether different heart and courage from that of the world.”

It would seem that we need that unearthly courage more than ever before these days. Those who attended the conference were fortunate enough to see such courage in full bloom in Jack and Debi Phillips.

This reminds me of something. Do you remember the shooting incident at the outdoor concert in Las Vegas a few years ago? Such a horrific tragedy. A day or so after the ungodly event, I remember reading a news article about reporter interviewing a survivor of the incident who offered some startling words. The survivor said, “I arrived at the concert an agnostic. I’m leaving a believer.”

While I don’t know the fullness of what the person meant by that, I assume from the context that his agnostic beliefs (which is the belief that it’s impossible to know whether or not there is a God, and so the person neither claims faith nor disbelief) this man’s position changed to one that admits God is real. Whether he saw God at work through the people involved in the rescue and caring for others (Matthew 5), or he was willing to admit that only devilry could move a heart to such darkness, thereby inferring such evil must have an opponent, whichever it was, this man took a step toward recognizing this world is coming undone and it needs rescue.

Yesterday, Sunday, those of you who made it to church here at Our Savior, you heard the Good News of that rescue. We were blessed to have some visiting clergy. Reverend Rahn from the Lutheran Heritage Foundation, and Bishop Peter Anibati, the Bishop of the South Sudanese Lutheran Church, were both with us. Reverend Rahn preached the Gospel, and as he did, you met with and received from the One—Jesus Christ—who provides for the rescue of a world steeped in terror. Last week you heard me preach, quite literally, that on the cross, Christ gave Himself over—horrifyingly, grotesquely, vividly. He plunged into Death’s mouth, down its throat, and into its belly to be digested. From there, he was the poison that killed Death. And then He tore back up and out of Death’s corpse by way of His resurrection at Easter. You were told by way of the story of the Widow of Nain that never before has there ever been someone who could contend with the terrors of this world, namely Death, and win. And yet, the Gospel declares that the day has come, and the One who can do it is Jesus. The week before that, Pastor Zwonitzer delivered the same Good News of incredible power. Receiving a steady diet of this Gospel here at Our Savior, whether you realize it or not, you are being forearmed for meeting with a world that would seek to crush and utterly destroy you. You are being fed by His Word and Sacraments for the courage Luther described in the portion above. This supernatural food meets you where you are, and it instills the very message that supersedes the world’s hope and gives true Christian hope.

This is the same kind of hope many of you saw beaming brightly from Jack and his lovely wife, Debi—two of the humblest, and yet fiercest, heroes in American Christianity. Period.

My prayer for you, dearest Christian, is that even as you go about your day and week and are confronted by struggles—as you watch and listen to the newscasts, as you behold the sadness, the terror, the creeping hopelessness that seems to pall a Christian’s world day after day—my prayer is that you would first be calmed by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, which is a message not just of God’s existence, but one that actually displays and works His wonderful love revealed in Jesus Christ and His life, death, and resurrection. Sturdied by this, emboldened by this, made courageous by this and by this alone, go out into the world to be salt and light. Be the ones whom God will use to show a suffering world that He exists, He loves us, and He has reached out to us in our moment of greatest need. Be emitters of a Gospel that proclaims that on the cross, Jesus has already figured it all out, and with that, everything will be okay. And in the meantime, as a Christian family, take comfort in knowing we’re in this together. In Him, no matter the terrors that appear to consume this fallen world, we are and have been well cared for in and through the person and work of our rescuer, Jesus Christ.

The Devil and the Liturgy

It was Henry David Thoreau who said that “life is frittered away by detail.”

I can’t exactly say why this comes to mind this morning. But since it’s out there, now, I suppose what he meant was that it’s very possible for us to travel the vast and winding lanes of our lives spending far too much time concerned over the throwaway minutiae rather than enjoying the actual journey. Perhaps this applies to people, as well. Perhaps the lens of our examination is often focused too finely that we miss the human being for the over-magnified imperfections of the individual.

Perhaps.

In a sense, I think this maxim can be applied to the Church.

As a side to the Gospel of Matthew, I’ve been working through The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis with the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students in my theology class on Wednesdays. We’re taking careful steps through the volume. Last week we happened upon a portion of advisory text from the well-experienced demon, Screwtape, to his nephew-demon, Wormwood, which offered, “There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us.”

By “the Enemy’s camp,” Screwtape means the Church. He goes on to say, “One of our greatest allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.”

I’ve read the book no less than fifteen times, and so I know where he intends to go with this. Nevertheless, notice the elementary nature of Screwtape’s vantage point. He knows and understands the Church to be a singular entity spanning the entirety of human history and finding itself born from something eternal. His words assume a culture, a language, and way of life that belongs to all believers and not just a few. It isn’t born from any of us in particular, but rather is rooted in Christ and His Word.

In other words, the Church’s identity isn’t the sole property of any one generation, thereby giving it that generation license to change what it looks and sounds like just because it no longer appreciates the details.

Screwtape continues, “But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is…”

It’s from this point forward that Screwtape turns the lesson to the things a Christian might see as flaws in the people sitting in the pews around him, and Screwtape suggests that Wormwood might begin cultivating in his patient the feeling that the Church—the true Church—is nothing more than one giant mechanized establishment of hypocrisy going through the motions.

“I don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites!”

Have you ever heard this? It’s certainly not new to me—or most pastors, for that matter. It’s a tired go-to excuse that I hear quite often when chatting with inactive members, and every time I do, I hear the words of Jesus from Mark 2:17 ricocheting in the empty spaces of my feeble mind: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” And which of us pastors in such a moment could forget the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14, which begins with the words, “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable…”

“I don’t go to church because it’s boring. They do the same thing over and over again.”

Have you heard this one, too? Again, I have. Although, there’s something else worth considering here. Screwtape already hinted to it. There’s a very real difference between Tradition and Traditionalism. I like to think of Tradition as “the living faith of the dead.” It’s the life and culture of the Church unbound by time—just as Screwtape described fearfully. The going-through-the-motions of Traditionalism is “the dead faith of the living.” I suspect that while Screwtape would prefer a Christian not locate himself in a liturgical church because of the possibility of what a liturgy properly understood might ultimately reveal and teach, but if his “patient” must end up there, Traditionalism would be the best he could hope for. He would prefer that the Christian interpret all of the gloriously Gospel-centered words and actions as Traditionalistic, as little more than the mechanically necessary, but soullessly hollow, placating of a deity—just in case that deity is actually real.

That’s dead faith. The demons are just fine with folks going through the motions.

By the way, Traditionalism isn’t owned by the liturgical churches alone. This more than happens in the ones with coffee bars in their narthexes, too. It happens in every church building in every nation across the world.

But steering away from all of this, my interest remains back at Screwtape’s point of origin. It’s quite the calibrating assessment that a demon would surmise that a gathering of worshippers that looks and sounds nothing like the Church of history—a church that shuns the liturgy—is fertile ground for the greatest success among the ranks of the underworld. And why? Well, in the end, the details of personal preference—what I like and dislike—reign supreme in such worship spaces. What makes me happy becomes the standard determiner, and when that happens, Sin is not so easily defined, and if that’s true, then neither is the Gospel remedy. From this, the only result would be that objective truth is obscured and Christian hearts are more easily led into uncertainty.

Don’t lie to yourself. It’s true. People are naturally desperate to chase after what they like. In this case, I’d say it’s how so many in mainstream evangelicalism find room for slandering the Church’s historic liturgy—and guys like me who appreciate it. The liturgy takes Man out of the driver’s seat, while Man wants God as his co-pilot. The liturgy doesn’t steer us where we want to go, but rather where we need to go. From its organic origins in the early house churches, all the way through the centuries, the liturgy has been a means for seeing that the shifting uncertainties of anthropocentric tendency aimed at doom are exchanged for Christocentric truths that establish certainty and save. They’re not just words and motions—rites and ceremonies—but rather they’re Godly contexts born from eternity that keep your eyes on Jesus. Every turn of the liturgy is in place to take the spotlight from you and put it on Christ.

The liturgy isn’t oppressing you. It’s serving you. It’s keeping you from frittering away at the wrong things and missing the point of the reason you’ve come into the presence of Christ at all.

This is why the historic liturgy remains so important, especially today. It’s why words like the following from Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel come to mind as so penetrating:

Thus, the liturgy can be a great gift, haven, and joy to people who live in a society and a world where they can’t be quite sure what things are going to be like five years from now, or whether tomorrow everything will be changed. In a world where everything has gotten to be so transitory and “throw it away tomorrow,” is there anything that they can count on as lasting, that they can be sure will still be there tomorrow, next Sunday, next year, and when they die? The liturgy delivers the answer, “Yes!” Same old liturgy every Sunday. You can count on it like it’s been there for a thousand years and more. When people bump into that in a world where there isn’t anything else they can be sure of like that, there is something real! And so we decline the demands of a consumer society which has to have a new model every year or every week if you’re going to sell. For then you’re talking marketing, and you’re not talking the Church of Christ and the holy liturgy. (“Whose Liturgy Is It?” Logia II 2, [April 1993]: 7.)

Liturgy. Leitourgia. Λειτουργία. This is the word the Bible uses. Jesus participated in liturgy. The Church lived it out in the Book of Acts. Paul encouraged it in his Epistles. He even instructed on how to do it. I guess if the Bible and its central figures are keen to the importance of liturgy, then perhaps we ought to be as well.

I suppose lastly, from the profoundly faithful and deep-thinking mind of C.S. Lewis, it would appear that the demons know the importance of the liturgy, too, and they have a justifiably deep-rooted fear that if we were to somehow come to the realization of its truest benefits, we might actually embrace it and be far harder to catch. We may even demand it of our pastors and defend it in our churches. I mean, which demon losing a patient in this way would want to hear as Wormwood heard from Screwtape: “Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties…”

Resolve

I can’t even begin to tell you how much stuff is happening around here. And then when I look at the calendar of events in which we as a congregation are active in our extended community with the chance to make a difference—multiple conferences, leadership meetings, legislative endeavors, you name it—the list pretty much doubles.

It’s opportune battlefront after opportune battlefront.

It’s exhilarating sometimes—and also very hopeful. But it’s also quite exhausting. The human geist that would take a deliberate step beyond thoughts and words into a field of deliberate action must demand of the body a certain diligence—a measure of understanding, resilience, and as the calendar is proving, stamina.

But there’s something else required.

Resolve.

In other words, before you jump into the trench and load the chamber of your weapon for these engagements, you must know why you’re there and what’s at stake. An unwavering commitment to going the distance to serve a cause born from your heart is essential. So many in history have pointed to the futility of a soldiery that fights without concern for or investment in an effort. In such circumstances, a committed soldier is worth a thousand uncommitted ones. It was John Keegan, the renowned military historian, who said, “Soldiers, when committed to a task, can’t compromise. It’s unrelenting devotion to the standards of duty and courage, absolute loyalty to others, not letting the task go until it’s been done.”

I said before that while the calendar seems to be an endless campaign of engagement, it’s all very hopeful. This is true because the Lord never fails to introduce me to people who exhibit the resolve I described. What’s even more impressive is that so many are entirely dismissive of being an all-star in the match. They’re not here for the Heisman Trophy. They’ve learned and practiced the fundamentals, and now they’re here to play the game and to play the game hard. They are seeing their loves—unborn children, Religious Liberty, Natural Law, Constitutional rights, you name it—all under assault from a formidable and equally committed enemy. They’ve suited up to take the field and to push the opposition back.

Again, they do this because they want to protect their loves, and they want to make sure that when the enemy approaches to attack, there will be no question as to their verve. As Homer said, they’re wise to resolve and patient to perform. The only giving up is in death, and in the meantime, the enemy will endure an unforgettable war—and perhaps even regret waging it.

I suppose in a more precise sense, I pray this same resolve for Christians when it comes to their concern for the Church, for faithfulness in worship and study, for the snatching away of the Christian faith from our children by the culture, for the unnerving dissolution of marriages and the fracturing of families, for the objective truth of God’s holy Word. I pray with the deepest concern that before we venture out to fight the hordes seeking to steal away our right to this or that, we’ll have already committed to the causes that feed the very reasons we’d be committed to these other efforts.

I mean, every life is valuable, and yet for argument’s sake—and from the Christian perspective—what good is there in being pro-life if you see very little value in taking your own children to church, being sure to introduce them to the One who can give them eternal life? What good is standing against the wealth-stealing pestilence of big government socialism when you can’t rightly govern your tithes and offerings to the Lord with the current freedom you possess? Or what good is there in fighting for traditional marriage when you yourself are living with your boyfriend or girlfriend outside of the holy estate’s boundaries?

Sort of disingenuous, don’t you think?

I do.

As Christians, let these kinds of things matter to you, especially before joining the regiments gearing up to defend the freedoms we hold dear as Americans. I guarantee you’ll have a better perspective on your loves while having a better grasp on the value of the freedoms in place to keep them secure.

A Resolution for Solitude

The new school year is on the approach. For many in our world, the beginning of the school year is as January 1—a day for resolutions.

People resolve to make changes in the family routine. They vow to be more vigilant with the children’s videogame and TV time. They speak out loud a commitment to more exercise. They make promises to themselves that even as exhausted as they might be at the end of the day, they’ll still take time to read to their children before bed.

I’m one to encourage people toward making such resolutions, even though I know statistics would say the efforts are often short-lived. It doesn’t change the fact that such people are concerned enough to try, which for me is like watching someone eyeing a glimmering object below the surface of a dangerously swift river. They’re cognizant of something better and more valuable, but it’s out of reach. And so inch by inch, they work their way into the water only to realize that unless they receive help from beyond themselves, the current will sweep them away.

In one sense, these scenes boil down to lessons in humility. People resolve to make changes because they know they’re not so good and want to be better, but the sin-nature is ever-vigilant to sweep our feet from beneath us each and every time. For the Christian, these experiences are opportunities to recall the frailty of humanity and the need for a Savior.

In another sense, when it comes to meeting challenges, these situations teach Christians the importance of being together as the Church—of sitting beside one another in worship, of existing as brothers and sisters in Christ beyond the doors of the church building, of working together and building one another up as being of equal necessity. All of this is in motion by God’s grace to strengthen us with saving faith so that we would be sturdy when threatened by the world and while we accomplish the seemingly impossible things of God. To know God’s great concern for those who would break away from regular fellowship with the Church, stop by Hebrews 10:19-29 for a quick recalibration. For all others interested in basking in the bright beams of His wonderful encouragement, take a trip through Psalm 31:24, 2 Corinthians 3:12, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Romans 12:4-8, Joshua 1:9, Psalm 138:3, 2 Chronicles 32:7–8, Ephesians 6:19-20, and Philippians 1:14.

Thinking on all of this, I’ve made two particular resolutions for the new school year, the second of which, at first glance, might sound counterintuitive to what I just said.

My first resolution is to give more money to the church. Because I already live pretty frugally, I don’t have many corners to cut. But with the ones I do have, the blade of mindfulness is already at their edges. For example, instead of stopping at McDonald’s four or five times in a week for a medium black coffee—which has become my routine—I’m only going to stop once, and then all of the money I would have spent will be put into the offering plate. I intend to be heedful of these little things and to make changes.

My second resolution is to steal away into solitude more often.

Yeah, I know, right. I just finished telling you that we need to be and work together as a Church, and now I’ve told you I’m going to keep to myself more than before. Let me explain.

I’m going to seek solitude, not isolation. Isolation is a removal of self from community for all the wrong reasons. It simmers in discontent. This is deadly and really quite draining. Solitude is a far different kind of alone time. In my case, solitude is time to think, to read, to explore, and then to produce. More often than not, solitude results in substantive snippets of crisp thought that eventually become sermons, poetry, short stories, and so very much more. It helps provide the wherewithal for the practical, everyday things, while at the same time stoking the coal in the locomotive’s engine for the long haul required for realizing goals and maintaining long term vision.

Solitude is healthy. It makes me better.

Throughout the school year, solitude is rare, and if summer had anything to teach me, it was the benefit of alone time without interruption to do these things. I intend to do my level best to find solitude.

I suppose in the end, if you’re like me and you make new school year resolutions, I’m glad for you. When it comes to meeting them, know that I’m already rooting for you, and I stand at the ready to help however I can. Perhaps even this little jaunt served to give you the prompt you needed.

Stop It In Its Tracks

Before leaving the church this past Sunday, I had a quick chat with one of the members that reminded me of a similar conversation I had with Jennifer a few days ago. She and I were sitting on the deck and recalling bygone days. We noted how parenting is so much harder now than it was when the kids were little. We laughed and affirmed for each other that we’d much rather lose sleep to a baby’s cries than sorting out the details of a much heavier situation with that same baby who is now a young adult.

Again, changing a diaper—even the messiest of the messy—is nothing compared to helping a child navigate the rough waters leading to adulthood. It’s far more terrifying when they get older.

And part of the problem in all of this is that what we do when they’re little affects the way they’ll operate as adults. Of course we shouldn’t feel as though we are to blame for every stupid decision they make, but our thumbprints are certainly noticeable on plenty. For example, if we swear a lot, odds are they’ll swear a lot, too. If we are always late to everything, chances are the kids will consider the hands of the clock to be just as irrelevant. Thinking on Evelyn for a moment…

She’s the most finicky among the kids when it comes to food. When she was little, we’d do whatever we could just to make sure she didn’t look like she belonged on a promotional poster for Orphan Grain Train. With that, we probably accommodated her more than we should’ve. Now she’s nine, and it remains that almost every meal is a struggle. We’ll be eating grilled cheese, and she’ll ask for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We’ll be eating hamburgers and she’ll request that the chef make her waffles. Just today we were eating hotdogs and she asked for one of the breakfast muffins instead.

A habit has been formed. She learned when she was young that she doesn’t necessarily need to eat what the rest of the family is eating. If she doesn’t like it, there’s a Pavlovian urge to just order up something different from the kitchen.

I suppose that because we didn’t help her transition into a better habit, we’ve had to change our ways with most of this stuff. I once described my new approach to the problem in an Angelsportion.com post. Honestly, it’s been incredibly successful. Here’s a snippet of my strategy:

——————–

I don’t know about you, but after four children, I had a portion of my guilt gland removed. It was an elective surgery. But I did it in order to embrace a very important verity. I’ve learned that to accomplish what needs accomplishing among the smaller versions of myself, a stale face and a plain tone sprinkled with a little bit of “horrible” is necessary. I can assure you that since the surgery, life has become considerably less maniacal.

“Eat your food.”

“I don’t like mashed potatoes.”

“I don’t care.”

“Can I have a bowl of cereal instead?”

“Nope.”

“But I don’t want this!”

“I don’t care. Eat it.”

“But I don’t like it!”

“Okay, how about this? I’m going to count to five. When I reach the number five, I’m going to put that food into you through one of the various holes on your body. Right now, you can choose to do it through your mouth. But sweetie, if I get to five, I’ll choose the hole. I don’t know which one it’ll be, just yet, but you need to know that’ll be the next stage of the meal and the end of this conversation.”

By the way, after a scene such as the one I’ve just described, you should know that the adults in the Thoma house now live five seconds at a time during meals. But in all honesty, it’s a small price to pay. And it really only took a few moments involving a spoonful of mashed potatoes and a child’s flared and angry nostril as a reasonable entry point to set the pace. The cereal-munching beasties are now convinced that my words, while non-aggressive, are by no means hollow.

“How do those mashed potatoes taste?” I ask with a kindly tone.

“I don’t know,” she replies in a huff, doing all she can to hold back tears of defeat. “They’re in my nose.”

“Well then, honey, how do they smell?”

———————–

All humor aside, it works the same way in so many facets of life. If we want our kids to make regular visits to the dentist as adults, we need to take them when they’re little. If we want them to care about their health, we need to take them to the doctor—even when they don’t want to go.

With that, you probably get where I’m going with this.

Don’t skip church. And if you have been skipping church, stop.

And now that you’re stopping, if your kids still live at home and they’re in the habit of skipping church, pitch to them the house rules and force them to go. Be sturdy in your Fourth Commandment duties and require it. Don’t give them options. Just go. I know it’s probably a trite argument (nevertheless, it rings true), but never would you have let them skip brushing their teeth or taking showers. As long as it depends on you, don’t let them jettison from their lives that which matters more than anything else in this life: faith in Christ and all that He puts in place to sustain that faith. When this is optional to us, we are more than framing everlasting life as optional for our kids.

That’s eternally deadly—and not just for our kids, but for our grandkids and great grandkids, as well. God warns that this will reach into the third and fourth generations. In other words, the habit reaches up and into the branches of the family tree yet to come. On the other hand, God promises countless blessings to thousands of generations who, by the power of His Holy Spirit, steer into the horizon of faithfulness.

And so, as much as it depends on you, do what you can to stop it in its tracks today. In fact, the forthcoming school year is a great point on the timeline for starting over—for beginning things anew. Again, you can be certain that God will bless your efforts. In fact, it’s been my experience that when children stray, the forthrightness of their parents to remain faithful has played a significant role in those same children knowing and then realizing the joy of returning to what they knew all along was better.

Of course, as always, if you need my help in any of this, just ask.

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.