It’s Good to Be Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But consider that word “reversal” for a moment.

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

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

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

I want to add one last thing.

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

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

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

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

Learning to Do Nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two more quick things…

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

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

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

Don’t Be Surprised

How can any of us not be moved to exclaim with concern, “What a world we’re living in right now!”?

Pandemics. Failing economies. Skyrocketing unemployment. Brutality. Death. Divisions. Riots.

America’s list is rather long these days.

Like me, I’m sure many of you are consuming your fair share of articles offering a wide array of perspectives on all of this. My friend shared an interesting one with me this past week. In it, Harvard Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker, was noted as suggesting that the ones leveling the most pressure on the governors to loosen the grip of the lock downs are the Christians, namely, those Pinker refers to as being afflicted by the “malignant delusion” of belief in the afterlife. In his opinion, it’s the Christians who are proving themselves to be the enemies of life and are putting their neighbors at risk. In contrast, he believes atheists—people unwilling to trust in the possibility of an afterlife—are the ones showing the truest concern for society’s health and safety. Unsurprisingly, they’re a significant portion of the voices pressing most fervently for masks, social distancing, stricter government mandates, and longer quarantines.

I read another article (well, more like a blog post) last night that connected a few more of these dots. Written by a supporter of the lock downs, the post inferred rather disingenuously that everyone is obligated to support the rioting protests no matter how violent they become. I use the word “disingenuously” because the protesters are by no means quarantining, obeying government mandates, practicing social distancing, or wearing proper masks while they burn buildings and empty the local Target store of its wine and fat fryers. The irony is thick. But it’s overlooked and given room to breathe. Why? Well, because in the blog writer’s mind, the violence is justified, being the proper reward for thousands of years of oppression fostered by Judeo-Christianity. In other words, he blamed the riots on Christians.

Both of these are interesting perspectives. Ignorant, but interesting. And certainly you, the reader, will take from them whatever you want. I’ve learned that much along the way of sharing things like these.

For those of us who follow the historic lectionary in worship, we’ve heard a lot lately about how the world is in vigorous opposition to Christ and His Church. Sunday after Sunday for several weeks of the Easter season, the Lord has reminded us from John 14 and 15—sometimes subtly, and other times directly—that the world (the collective of sinful humanity in opposition to God) is waging open war against God’s people.

Simply put, Jesus kept reminding us that the world hates us. But He said this is only true because it hates him most of all (John 15:18-25).

At one point along the way, the Lord unpacks this hatred by reminding Christians they are distinct from the world and the world knows it. It’s not because of anything inherent to any of us, but rather because by the work of the Holy Spirit for faith (whom the Lord speaks about over and over again throughout John’s Gospel), God has claimed us as His own.

“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:19).

For as frightening as this particular verse might be, it certainly does help make sense of the seemingly imbalanced nonsense Christians face day in and day out. We can understand why Professor Pinker would believe as he believes, while at the same time being one to justify keeping the local Walmart open during the lock down—a place where thousands upon thousands of people visit in a single day, touching this and that item before putting it back on the shelf undecided, and not one single employee in sight to sanitize any of it. Scientifically speaking, Walmart is a bio-hazardous mess. But Pinker, and others in the blogosphere, can turn blind eyes to such things and be found supporting both violence as well as a Governor’s threatening of churches with fines if they hold in-person worship services, even as the church-goers practice social distancing within an immaculate worship space that has had every square inch scrubbed and sanitized multiple times every day of the week, and doubly so over the course of the few hours when the congregants actually meet.

One might be tempted to think that the only real way forward for Christians is to step into a silent stride beside the world, to blend in, to do what it tells you, to keep one’s head down, and maybe even try to keep one’s faith a secret in order to abide. But I see two problems with this.

The first is that the world can smell a Christian a mile away. Clandestine or on the sleeve, a Christian’s devotion to Christ will eventually be discovered. The fruits of faith are hard to hide, and the more the world demands submission to its gods and compliance with its rites and ceremonies, the harder it will be for the Christian to continue in the lemming-like stride of ambivalence. Eventually the Christian will be found at the edge of a cliff, and in that moment, the Christian will be aware of the Lord’s words to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). But the world will be whispering there, too. It will hiss an undercurrent of doubt, asking, “You don’t really believe all that stuff, do you?”

It’s there the distinction is revealed and the Christian is forced to show his or herself as being in or out of step with the world.

If you haven’t experienced moments like this yet, trust me, you will.

I suppose the second problem I have with this is that as Jesus was speaking the words I referenced from John 15:19, in His divine omniscience, He was already mindful of what He preached in Matthew 5:13-16 where He called His believers salt and light. Salt is hard to ignore. Sprinkle a little onto a bite and give it a taste. You’ll know it’s there. Light is equally noticeable in comparison to darkness. Have a group of people close their eyes, then turn off the lights and light a candle. When they open their eyes, I guarantee they’ll be drawn to the candle’s flickering flame long before noticing anything else in the room.

Christians stand out. There’s really no way around it. And from the Lord’s perspective, this is a good thing. It means He has established us as both servants and leaders in a world filled with death and destruction. We are those who add humble, but steadfast, flavor while at the same time being those who lead with the bright beaming light of truth—namely, the Gospel. Perhaps even better, we are fortified for both of these roles by God’s Word, which means we have the source for knowing both how and why we are salt and light.

The whole of our identity is located in Christ who has redeemed us, reclaimed us, recalibrated us, and re-established us as His people in the world.

But once again, the Lord is careful to instruct us that the first test of this identity is to endure the hatred of a world that would much rather be rid of us. It’s almost Biblical the way Shakespeare wrote: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (Henry IV, Part II). This is true. The crown of righteousness borne by the Christian, while it is a joy for eternal life, it can seem heavy in this mortal life. Still, Christians are given minds to understand the weight of the crown, seeing it for what it is—a baptismal mark that not only designates the bearer as one purchased and won by the Redeemer and an inheritor of the world to come, but as one who has been led into the duty of being a dealer in hope—real hope.

Yes, situations requiring the hope we bring can be sketchy. Carrying the message of Christ crucified into any setting can be risky. But again, Christians have been given the task of doing it, and it is accomplished, for the most part, by just being who we are in Jesus Christ—servants and leaders, salt and light—no matter the flatland, valley, hill, or cliff.

Personally, I think all of this begs deep reflection right now.

And by the way, Jesus has been very clear along the way to say that any ability for reflecting on any of this (discerning the knowing, being, and doing) will be discovered only as we are connected to His Word (John 14:23-31, John 15:1-8). Disregard the Word—both verbal and visible—and your trip over the cliff is all but certain.

In conclusion, I suppose that’s my simplest prayer for you this morning is that you would remain fixed in the Word of God in all things, and there, knowing and understanding the world’s hatred for you, still you’d be found courageous. I pray for your readiness in season and out of season to be salt and light, fully prepared at the edge of each cliff to step out of stride with this world, if necessary, and “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

The New Normal

I hope all is well with you and your family. I continue to pray for you daily, trusting that the Lord knows your struggles, and even before any particular challenge may begin, He’s already at work using it for the good of your salvation (Romans 8:28).

It’s important to say and repeat this. We need the comfort of knowing that God is not our enemy, even if sometimes it seems as though He is. We need to be reminded that when we don’t know what’s going on, we can go to what we do know: The Gospel. We are not at war with God. He loves us. In fact, He proved it. Even in our most vile state of hatred toward Him, He was moved to give Jesus into death for us (Romans 5:1-8).

While the more typical struggles continue to abound, it would seem that in so many homes across our state and nation a good number of rarer struggles are taking root. As a pastor, someone laboring in the middle of this particular aspect of it all, I can assure you that for every gilded remark about how the quarantine was essential for our own safety, or that it was good in the sense that it forced families to reconnect, there are plenty of households experiencing the very real and exponential increase in anxiety, depression, marital discord, and violence. Where I knew of two divorces in progress, now I know of ten. Domestic abuse has skyrocketed. People I know to be very strong have crumpled emotionally in my presence. I came across an article last Saturday in National Review noting an unprecedented spike in suicides during the lockdown. One particular doctor reported one full year’s worth of attempts in four weeks’ time.

Again, I’m praying for you and your family. I hope you’re praying for me and mine, too.

But as we extend this care to one another, be mindful that the ones we so often consider to be the most resilient among us—the children—they’re being hit the hardest. They’re experiencing one of the most abrupt and life-altering events in American history, and for the most part, the only advice anyone has to share is that we must do our best to help them adjust to “the new normal.” A trip through the CDC guidelines for the reopening of schools will chill your spine when you see what the new normal might look like for a public school preschooler—a desk surrounded in plexiglass; directional arrows on the floor; gloves and masks; a six-foot expanse between friends at lunch, on the playground, and on the bus. I imagine the school supply lists this coming fall will be unlike anything any of us have ever seen.

At first, I wasn’t too sure how I felt about the usage of the phrase “the new normal.” But now I do. It seems sneaky. On the surface, it seems to be a relatively innocuous term folks are using to ease others into a level of comfortability with abnormality. But digging a little deeper into this thought as I tap away here at the keyboard this morning, I’m not convinced it’s as innocent a term as its well-intentioned users might think.

Again, for the most part, it’s a phrase that sounds like a gentle coaxing toward a crucial realization, but in reality, its heart is much colder than that. When you hear it, you are meant to know you have no other choice in the matter. You’re meant to understand that if you want to live and survive in the land of the new normal, you must comply. You’re meant to know that there’s no going back to the way things were before. Things are what they are, and this is the ordinary of “now”—the new normal.

I’m pretty good at remembering the first time I heard certain things. Seriously. I remember the first time I heard the word “innovative” as a kid. I liked the way it sounded—crisp and intelligent—and used it probably more than I should have. I remember first hearing the phrase “the new normal” several years ago. It stayed with me. In fact, I’ll bet if I looked back at my various scribblings, I probably wrote something about it. I know I was sharing with someone about how a particular lifestyle was being artificially—and so overwhelmingly—inserted into pretty much everything involved in daily life. Everything on TV, every movie, commercial, song, parade, sporting event, religion, you name it—it was (and still is) being crammed down society’s throat as ordinary.

“Well,” I’m almost certain I heard my conversation partner say, “get used to it. It’s the new normal.”

As far as the phrase goes, in one sense, it has a bit of an irony connected to it.

Libby Sartain, the head of HR for Yahoo, wrote in the foreword of a book by John Putzier that the person to be credited with the phrase’s first usage was a technology investor by the name of Roger McNamee. She claimed he used it in an interview with a magazine in 2003.

Unfortunately, Sartain was wrong. The phrase “the new normal” was around long before McNamee. In fact, an effortless search within the last few minutes uncovered it was used in lots of various writings by a number of people in history. Take for example the following piece by Henry Wood written in the wake of World War I. It was published in 1918 in the “National Electric Light Association Bulletin.”

“To consider the problems before us we must divide our epoch into three periods, that of war, that of transition, that of the new normal, which undoubtedly will supersede the old. The questions before us, therefore, are, broadly, two: How shall we pass from war to the new normal with the least jar, in the shortest time? In that respect should the new normal be shaped to differ from the old?”

So why bother to share all of this? Well, two reasons, I guess.

First, because once again, the inspired Word of God proves true—namely, the Holy Spirit at work in Ecclesiastes 1:9:

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

The Holy Spirit is winking at us through King Solomon’s pen. He’s reminding us that there’s nothing new about the phrase “the new normal” just as there’s nothing new about the human condition it’s attempting to define. Perhaps deeper still, the heavier hand the phrase embodies as it tries to shepherd the world into an acceptance of darker, more harmful things, well, that shouldn’t surprise us, either.

That’s more or less the second reason. As believers in Christ, we shouldn’t necessarily be surprised by the world’s ability to concoct dreadful normals and call them “new.” I think it was G.K. Chesterton, or maybe it was C.S. Lewis (or someone best-known by his first two initials), who said something about how the latest monsters produced by the world shouldn’t necessarily amaze us until the normal nature of Mankind begins to amaze us. I think part of the point was to say that by God’s Word we already know the reservoir of human depravity will never fully be explored in any of our lifetimes, so how can the never-before-seen monsters that continue to crawl from its bottomless depths be all that astonishing to us?

Again, there’s really nothing new in this regard, especially when it comes to the downward trajectory of humanity.

Since I was already thinking on our public schools… It was less than fifty years ago that students actually studied the Bible in class, even if only as great literature. Now the Bible is strictly forbidden. Within the last sixty years, our public schools used to teach gun safety—with real guns! Now kindergartners get expelled for making gun-like gestures with their hands on the playground. In the time of yesteryear, parents would discipline their children for misbehavior in school. Now teachers are blamed for the children’s misdeeds, even being fired for touching students while breaking up a fight. I remember feeling terrible, almost sick, when I’d overlooked or forgotten to complete a homework assignment. But now, I suppose many teachers are blessed to get half of a completed assignment, let alone any of the homework at all.

The phrase “the new normal” has become synonymous for the passive acceptance of a devolving society.

Maybe you heard that Fred Willard died recently. The folks from my generation will remember him as a brilliantly dry comedian, someone cut from the same witty cloth as men like Bob Newhart or Bill Murray. After I learned of his death, I watched a short clip of an interview with him. In it, he described the essence of his comedy as a continual attempt at putting himself into abnormal situations and then acting as if they were normal.

I think he nailed my concern for “the new normal.” Much of what we’re experiencing right now isn’t normal. Maintaining distances of six feet between friends and family rather than sharing embraces; wearing masks that hide the smiles adorning our unique and friendly faces; two-dimensional birthday or anniversary celebrations minimally enjoyed by way of video streaming rather than the warm resonations of a room filled with in-person sights, sounds, and smells; none of these describe normal human behavior, even at a base level. This is all abnormal, and it’s the innermost marrow of comedic foolishness to live as though it’s normal.

In truth, Christians exist in a sphere apart from this, which means we have a capability for seeing and analyzing this silliness for what it is. For one, the Holy Spirit at work in us for faith makes it so. Add to this the steady equipping by the Word of God and we’re found standing a little taller as our confidence for discernment and action begins to breathe. We may not be able to change things too drastically, and certainly we need be mindful of finding middle ground among communities of people with varying concerns, but in the end, that certainly doesn’t negate the fact that God’s people can see and know what the world cannot, and then do what we can to help steer things into better waters.

Indeed, we can truly serve as salt and light in the midst of the devolution into new normals. We can be a source of better flavor to an otherwise stale world. We can be a stream of much needed radiance in darkness and confusion. We can be found taking the lead in situations where others might want only to follow. We can know when to give a little in the face of change, and we can know when to stand firm and resist societal adjustment completely. We can know when to be silent and cooperate, just as we can know when the world around us needs so much more than compliance, but rather needs the boldness of action, maybe even resistance. Perhaps best of all, we can carry into the world what is the truest “new normal”—the fact that Christ is the world’s Redeemer. He has conquered the abnormal brokenness of this world and has exchanged it with the new, better normal of His merciful forgiveness. By His life, death, and resurrection, He has reversed the downward spiral into undoneness and made a way for humanity’s rescue (Isaiah 43:19). “Behold, I am making all things new,” He declares so wonderfully of His glorious work to save us (Revelation 21:5).

His people are, by default, the emissaries out in front with this life-altering message.

The Gospel we possess as a community is more important now than ever before. It’s what we are charged with bringing to the world. Sure, like the rest of you, I have my opinions about what’s going on around us right now, but I sure hope you know my opinions are tempered by the desire to never see the Gospel dimmed for you by the world’s impositions. They’re equally tempered by the desire to keep my particular church and school I’ve been charged with shepherding—Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Hartland, Michigan—from participating in anything harmful that might slink up and out of the tarry goo of the new normal. If we do discover the Gospel taking a back seat, or we find ourselves partnering in this way, then I’ll do what I can to defend against it. And if for some reason it overtakes our ranks, I’ll be the first to sit with church leadership to reconsider the legitimacy of our existence as a Christian congregation and school.

The times are not easy ones. Still, we know God is good. Pray to the Father in and through Jesus Christ that all of God’s people would be found faithful to His will and Word (John 16:24) in the midst of whatever the new normal might bring. He loves you. He is listening. He will answer. He will give His people His care. He will provide us the obstacles we need when we’re ready to run headlong apart from His will. He’ll provide the way of escape in the midst of trouble. He’ll deliver wisdom in the midst of confusion. He’ll drench us in comfort when we are sad, and He’ll give fervent courage in the face of fear.

Trust me. I speak from brutally wonderful experience in all of these, as I’m sure many of you do, too.

Quid Est Veritas?

For those of you who made it to worship at Our Savior yesterday, if you took anything more from the sermon than the Gospel of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, I hope it’s that you noticed I didn’t use the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” once in the whole sermon.

That was deliberate.

Like me, I’m sure many of you are exhausted by those words. Almost every radio commercial includes them. Nearly every news report is in some way related to them. So many in-person and online conversations I have are about them. They dwell at the center of many conflicts among far too many of us. Also, if you tune into sermons around the world, you’ll discover a lot of preachers crafting their sermons to include them whether or not they actually fit into the theme at hand.

There’s a rock song that holds the line, “I hate the sound of my own voice.” It’s eerily resonant right now. I’ve gotten to the point of despising the sound of my own voice when I say “COVID-19” or “coronavirus.”

Still, I try to stay abreast of the data, and so part of the struggle for me is due to the hydra-like nature of information and the ever-shifting landscape of the “data” feeding it. (I put the word data in quotation marks for a reason.)

I read a news article from CBS (WWMT in west Michigan) about how hospitalizations in Michigan have dropped 65% in the last month. There was a point of connection to another article reminding the reader that this number doesn’t even factor in that 99% of all COVID-19 related deaths were most likely due to other illnesses. This was good news. But then no sooner had I finished the article, did I read a more fearful article from Fox News sharing Dr. Fauci’s concern that a second wave could hit in the fall. I then landed on another piece from CNN inferring that millions more in America will become infected and die unless mask-wearing becomes the new normal in our society. These two articles were bad news—very bad news.

I refer to all of this as “hydra-like” because, as with the mythical creature, when one fearful head is cut off with the flaming sword of data, plenty of folks are waiting in the wings with opposing data to grow more heads in its place. With every news story saying one thing, plenty more are armed and ready for saying the exact opposite. Unfortunately, these “my-data-is-better-than-your-data” scuffles happening among us regular folks are also happening at the top levels of government. For example, I’m reminded of a brief conversation I had last week with Georgine at the church.

Regardless of what I believe is happening, I shared with her that the Mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, had just finished a press conference in which he gleefully reported that what’s being done across the state to stop the spread of the virus is definitely working. To prove this, one of the details he shared was that the number of cases in Detroit (a major hotspot in the nation) was in a steady curve downward, shrinking daily by half. Again, he was elated by this, and really rather hopeful. Essentially, the data he offered lopped off one of fear’s heads.

But then our Governor, Gretchen Whitmer (someone working closely with Duggan and mining from the same data sources) held a press conference in which she said, essentially, while we’re doing a lot to curb the spread of the virus, data shows we’re not doing enough, and because of this, the extension of her various lock down orders would be the safest way forward for all in Michigan. The next couple of news stories that crossed my feed were grim tales of death and destruction, several in particular aimed at a 77-year-old barber in Owosso, Karl Manke, portraying him as dangerously defiant for reopening his shop in the midst of the lock down. Besides the fact that he felt he had to reopen in order to survive, the stories recounted him being ticketed twice, having his license revoked, and subsequently shamed by the Attorney General as an “imminent threat” to his community.

One of fear’s heads was lopped off. “Don’t worry. What we’re doing is working.” Within moments, two of fear’s heads grew back. “Be worried. What we’re doing is not enough. And watch out, because cold-blooded folks like Karl Manke could be anywhere!”

I suppose going a little further into all of this, I can’t help but sense two particular undercurrents tugging at the rest of us. Both require honesty to grasp.

The first is that for many, it seems data isn’t really data anymore, at least not in an objective sense. People are inclined to believe a certain way, and so data-mining has become little more than a point on the timeline where people stopped digging any deeper because they already found what their belief system required. For me, that teeters at the edge of fanaticism, and quite honestly, I wrestle with it in discussions with itinerant folks wielding what they refer to as “unarguable facts.” So far, it would seem every fact is frustratingly arguable. That’s part of the problem. Who’s telling the truth?

Streaming directly from this, a second undercurrent takes hold. It steers toward the realization that one too many humans on both sides of the mess are indeed functioning as fanatics and are showing themselves to be just as Winston Churchill so brilliantly described—people incapable of changing their minds or the subject.

Around and around we go talking about the same stuff, this fact canceling out that fact, and that datum voiding this detail, all the while doubling down on our trolling efforts and having completely lost sight of where we were trying to go in the first place.

For Christians, it’s in moments like these that Psalm 119:105 beams a little more brightly.

“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

Much of what we’re hearing these days does little more than stir “Pontius Pilate,” “What is truth?” type confusion (John 18:38). And yet, by the Word of God, Christians have a point of origin for discerning truth from falsehood, fact from opinion, right from wrong. As we tread along darkened paths, the lamplight of God’s holy Word brings clarity. We can know by the Word of God that fear is unwarranted in any situation. Jesus—the Way, the Truth, and the Life—is standing right in front of us. He’s with us and leading us. He’s giving us the forgiveness we need for our failings, and by that same Gospel, He’s equipping us with courage for living in this world. On top of that, He’s giving us a dexterity of heart for measuring the words and deeds aimed at us (and the thoughts, words, and deeds we might want to aim at others) against the truth of God’s Word.

In other words, a Christian has what is necessary for discerning truth and acting according to it in this fog-laden landscape of opinion editorials.

Of course if you’re starved of that Word, it won’t be so easy, and I dare say it’ll be noticeable in the substance of your opinions. The further you are from the Word—the less you are immersed in it, the more you avoid time with it—the thicker the fog will become, and the harder it will be to navigate, let alone offer anything of value to the conversation.

By the way, I’m not suggesting the Bible is just a book (like so many others) filled with great advice and worth learning, or that being immersed in the Word means having texts from scripture written on paper or cards or whatever and scattered around the house serving as talismans to fan away spiritual plumes. (Believe it or not, I know people who think that if they just keep their unread Bible on the nightstand, they’ll be protected while sleeping at night. That’s an unfortunate misunderstanding.)

When I say these things regarding the Word, I mean what Saint John means in John 1:1-14 and 1 John 5:6-12. I mean what Saint Augustine meant when he wrote of the verbal and visible means of the Word of God—Word and Sacrament—the Word read, preached, given in Absolution, poured out in Holy Baptism, and fed into us by way of the Lord’s Supper. To be apart from the Word is to be apart from Christ, the Word made flesh. It is to be distant from Him, and to be disconnected from the supply chain of His faith-sustaining gifts. And take note, this avenue of distribution isn’t as opaquely intangible as one might think. God works in real, concrete, face-to-face, in-person ways. He has established His church for functioning in, with, and under these ways (Hebrews 10:23-31). You don’t want to be starved of this. The Sin-nature is strong, and like every human being before you who has ever deliberately neglected the Word in this way, having fitted this or that excuse into seemingly reasonable contexts calling for separation, basic human history proves you’ll be in jeopardy of losing sight of the forgiveness Jesus won and delivered to you by His life, death, and resurrection. And if this occurs, the resultant life that flows from such faith—which includes the ability to live as God’s child in this world, discerning good from evil, right from wrong, and being a reliable source of truth in the midst of falsehood—all of this will become a jumbled, uninterpretable mess of uncertainty.

Remember this, especially during these times. It is eternally important.

Illusionary Moons

Last Thursday morning on the way to the church, I stopped my Jeep beside a farm on Linden Road and attempted to take a picture of the moon. The pale sphere was massive and full, and it hung just above the horizon. Its appearance was so grand, and its presence so near, I felt as though I could reach out and touch it.

To be sure, we all know the foolishness of trying to capture celestial moments like this. And my foolishness was proven by the moon’s barely representable image on my camera. Before my naked eye, it looked grand, but in reality, it wasn’t so. What I was seeing was an illusion.

I’ve read about this before. I know there’s more than one theory as to why the moon looks the way it does when it’s so close to the horizon. Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher, wrote that it had nothing to do with science, but was really nothing more than a trick of the mind.

Philosophers. Go figure.

Ptolemy claimed it had something to do with a combination of things, namely optics and light refraction. Strange, though. Even though what I was doing in that moment was a waste of time—because it has never worked for me before—I still attempted to capture the image anyway. And of course, the result was as it has been in the past: a distant and blurry dot seated in an unreachable expanse.

Funny. We keep on doing the same old things.

In the end, I suppose it wasn’t a complete waste of time. I drove away with plenty to consider.

Mindful of God’s Word, I realized how even the natural laws can serve as powerful extensions for much deeper truths. Even a solitary moment beside a farmer’s field on a brisk and misty morning can be a useful metaphor capable of teaching something really very important, maybe even becoming a moment for multi-tiered self-diagnosis.

At first, I was reminded of how humanity tries to encapsulate things that just aren’t there—to grasp the ungraspable, to control the uncontrollable, to take hold of something’s fixed substance but really only being found swatting at its shadow. I suppose the topic of human sexuality was the first example that came to mind that morning, but that probably because I was listening to a podcast hosted by a transgender man discussing current attempts across the country to expand the meaning of the word “sex” to include “sexual orientation and gender identity” in the civil rights legislation in various states.

He argued with heartfelt sincerity, and he presented his case with believable concern.

In that moment, there was the grandest of illusionary moons right in front of me. In the podcast, there was a biological man putting himself before this spinning globe as a woman, doing all he could to play the part. But then I paused the podcast, stopped my car, and I took the picture. Natural Law remained fixed. The moon was as the moon really is. When I pressed the play button, no matter how hard he tried to sound feminine, his deeper, gentlemanly voice always betrayed the biological man. I’m sure if I saw a picture of him, the same betrayal would occur.

This was my initial contemplation, and for the record, it didn’t really last all that long. I stopped the podcast, and drove the rest of the way to the church listening to a mix of songs Evelyn made for me. And as I did, more applications swept through.

For one, I pondered the temptation of Man to believe his deeds play a part in salvation.

Our efforts seem so grand. Our good deeds appear so bright, beaming with a superior light in comparison to the other stars in the heavens. But then God takes out the camera of His holy Word, and through the lens of His Law, we see the distance between us and what we would like to believe our abilities to be. The parable Christ told of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14 reveals this foolishness clearly. The momentary self-analysis Paul performs in Romans 7:14-24 does, too. And if we somehow miss these easily-digestible texts, there’s always the all-encompassing reminder of Mankind’s birth in Sin in places like Psalm 51:5.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

In summary, God doesn’t hold back on making sure we see our attempts to win His favor by our deeds for what they are: an infinitesimal speck on the horizon of worthiness. In fact, even using the word “worthiness” is being overly generous. In Sin, we’re completely dead (Ephesians 2:5). Apart from the Holy Spirit’s work in and through us for faith in Christ, we’re a dead sky—deep, dark, and completely barren.

Then there’s the Gospel—and the moon’s metaphor works here, too. In this instance, however, the illusion is reversed.

The sinful flesh struggles within me to communicate one thing, but the eyes of faith see something completely different. My sinful flesh would have me believe that because I am so dreadful, God is distant, that He could never love me, that He’ll be forever out of reach, that I’ll be forever squinting to see His mercy. But the Holy Spirit works through the Gospel, and by faith, I put down the mechanisms of this world and behold that which they cannot reveal. God is not far, but near. He is with me. He has seen me in my desperate state, and He’s reached to me in love through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. By Him, I am not lost, but rescued. By Him, I am not condemned, rather I’m justified and counted as His holy one (John 3:16-18).

Of all the allegories born from that beautiful display by the moon last Thursday, this was the best one. If I’d had a lawn chair in the car, I’d have set it near the edge of the field and watched until the moon finally dissipated into a more sunlit atmosphere. I’d probably have broken into chanting Psalms 8, 19, and 139; all texts proclaiming the majestic glory of God’s wonderful creation.

With that image in your mind, I offer one last important note.

Notice that God’s Word was the translator in all of this. As I observed the natural world, God’s Word was governing my discoveries. And so I say, stay in the Word. Live in it. Hold fast to it. It will always provide the better, truer, view of your surroundings. With a faith fed by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God, each and every moment will always be so much more than a natural occurrence. Each moment will hold the potential for teaching. It will be an opportunity for seeing Christ at work when and where the world cannot, just as the Lord said in John 14:19.

A Sense of Humor

Maybe you sensed by my last few eNews messages that one of the bigger concerns I have during this time of quarantine is the seemingly irreparable damage that is occurring between people—friends becoming enemies.

There’s so much dividing so many right now. Honestly, I’m concerned that much of what’s at the root of these struggles is manufactured.

Of course, whether it is or whether it isn’t, I suppose the human divides are being amplified by the non-stop virtual access to everything and everyone. That’s part of the irony in this “quarantine.” We’ve been apart, and yet by way of social media, hardly. Our keyboards—the devices designed for giving our thoughts to others—have become both offensive and defensive weapons, rifles aimed into an expanse of folks who are there, but not really. The communal “false sense of security” we already had before this mess began has only gotten worse. In many of the conversations, far too many folks begin their arguments with phrases like “The real problem with the issue is,” or something like that, as if they actually had all of the relevant information—as if they have an 8’ by 16’ chalk board in their garage adorned with a dusty matrix of all the accurate data (not the false), and in its bottom corner is the only accurate conclusion in the world. Far too many are jockeying for the leading spot as “expert,” and few are actually listening. Even further, many appear to be astounded by their own brilliance, so much so that I dare say even their thoughtless replies/memes laced with profanity that took a whole ten seconds to create are beginning to tempt them with the deceptive feeling of having been divinely inspired.

The result in all of this has been a spewing of a whole lot of nothing; a vomitous mess revealing not much more than the deeper chambers of folks’ secretive innards; a cavernous sharing of opinions many of us wish we’d never written, heard, or seen.

Indeed, we’re seeing the darker sides of both ourselves and others.

After the mess we’re in eventually gets mopped up—and God willing, it will—if the communities in which we live, work, and serve are to ever regain a semblance of wholeness, we have to be prepared to put everything about these days behind us. We’ll need tools for doing so.

To start, if you’re wondering about these tools, I’ll let you in on a little secret. The Christian Church—the community of believers in Christ—is the only segment of the population that genuinely possesses them. Others might have facsimiles—replicas of sorts—but only the people who gather beneath the Niagara-like waterfall of forgiveness pouring forth from God Himself will have the capability for truly putting these days in the rearview mirror where they belong. Only the Church can exist in a time and place where our sins are put as far from us as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). Only the Church has the real peace that can outlast the time-stamped promises of the shallow what’s-done-is-done kind of handshakes extended from this finicky and crumbling world (John 14:27; John 20:21-23).

Beyond this, and even better, Christians don’t have to wait until this “shelter in place” order has passed to begin in this peace. This peace is ours right now, and we can live mindfully of it. As someone whose Facebook bio includes the descriptor “cultural critic,” I’m one who takes deliberate time to contemplate these things with the ultimate goal of passing along my discoveries—good or bad—to others. I think I’ve discovered one of the best ways to live in the peace of the Lord, especially right now.

Keep an eye out for humor.

We’re in a sideways situation. If you really think about it, the purpose of humor is to turn things a little sideways, and in the process, scowls are made into smiles. This is true because with humor, people find different avenues for connecting, avenues that perhaps they didn’t have access to before. Besides, when was the last time you heard of an angry person hoping to become angrier by watching their favorite comedy? Or a depressed person listening to their favorite comedian in order to foster more depression?

Humor can change things, and I have the perfect example.

I was reprimanded by a clerk in the UPS store in Fenton for not wearing a mask. In all honesty, I had it around my neck. It just wasn’t on my face. I was trying to carry a stack of boxes, and while doing so, my glasses kept fogging up, so I took the mask off so I could see what I was doing and where I was going. The clerk was swift to tell me that if I came into the store again without my mask, he wouldn’t serve me. Admittedly, the moment got a little contentious, especially when I reminded him that the wording of the Governor’s executive order strongly encouraged the wearing of masks, but did not actually mandate them. I did not have to wear a mask. Nevertheless, he said very plainly that I would not be allowed back into the store if I wasn’t wearing a mask.

Okay.

I came back the next day wearing a Stormtrooper helmet. (Here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/christopher.thoma.52/posts/10221290584389903)

He laughed. I laughed. The situation was eased. In fact, even my own original feeling of having been bullied had subsided. Things were fine, it just took a little bit of humor, something out of the ordinary, to bring two opponents together.

God gives humor. No doubt He has a sense of humor, Himself. Just look at the platypus. Poor guy. It’s like God had a whole bunch of leftover parts from the other animals, and in order to keep from wasting anything, he made a platypus.

Anyone familiar with the Bible knows God reveals His humor through more than just His unique creation. We get glimpses of it all over the place in the Holy Scriptures. That moment when Elijah is taunting the prophets of Baal, that’s hilarious, especially when, by the original language, you realize what Elijah is really saying. When his poking comment clicks, a giggle is hard to suppress. Take a look:

“And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened’” (1 Kings 18:27).

Relieving himself? Hah! That’s funny, right there.

The uptights among us might argue the following point, but I think Paul is a pretty funny guy sometimes. In fact, I’d say we get a little off-color humor from him in Galatians 5. If you know the context, then you know Paul is pretty angry with the Judaizers who are demanding that circumcision be considered part of salvation. In frustration, Paul essentially says, “Well, since they like circumcision so much, they should prove their own super-Christianity to us and just cut the whole darn thing off!”

Seriously. Read Galatians 5:7-12 and you’ll see.

Jesus used sarcasm for humor in order to make His points. There’s a perfect example in John 1:45-48. I imagine a half smile on His face during His conversation with Nathanael.

“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you’.”

I imagine the same of the Lord’s response to the disciples’ outburst in John 16:29-31. Read that one, too, when you get a chance.

If you’re listening carefully, even the Divine Service has a little bit of humor sprinkled in. Quite honestly, a smirk is not all that far from my face when we mention Pontius Pilate in the Creed. Why? Because of the irony involved. Having washed his hands of the Lord’s death, going out of his way to make sure his role in the unjust results would be forgotten, here we are saying his name over and over again throughout the centuries.

Admit it. That’s kind of funny.

There’s another side to humor that’s helpful to us. It was Will Rogers who said, “Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else.” There’s truth in that observation. Humor can work in a confession/absolution sort of way. Humor can be used to reveal the things about ourselves that we’d much rather to hide. I’d argue that in many ways, humor is often the better stepping stone toward the honesties that might normally sting. Of course, if we’re not too pretentious and we actually have a sense of humor—that is, we’re willing to see our true selves a little sideways—humor can help guide us to an honest confession while equipping us with an even better tolerance for the mistakes of others. I don’t mean tolerance in the sense of being okay with Sin, but rather recognizing the need to pull the plank from our own eyes before we can remove the speck from someone else’s eye. We can acknowledge our failings, having realized our own foolishness, and we can seek the Lord’s forgiveness, fully enabled to forgive others, ultimately standing together and laughing at our collective past.

I suppose what I’m rambling on about here is that God does have a sense of humor, and in one sense, for us to see the humor in things is to affirm the peace we have in Him. Perhaps more succinctly, having a Godly sense of humor in the midst of terror proves the superiority of Christian joy against anything and everything that might attack us. It was Saint Peter who wrote in 1 Peter 2:11-20 that we are to “live as people who are free.” In context, what he meant was that even as the world challenges us, by the Gospel, we have what we need to live in the joy of Christ no matter what’s happening. He also points out that as Christians, if we freak out in the middle of struggle, we do our unbelieving onlookers a great disservice.

I guess I’ll end with the clarification that, like all forms of communication, humor has its place. I’m just letting you know that I’m deliberately looking for it in our current situation, and most of the time, it seems to help. I’m reading posts and follow-up replies, I’m considering the broken logic in memes and quick-witted sayings, and I’m discovering more opportunities to laugh than get frustrated.

Naturally, I’m not implying the license to laugh at someone’s unfortunate job loss, or to yuck it up at a funeral. No doubt the folks with no sense of humor were already preparing to lock and load in that regard. However, having re-read what I just wrote right there, go ahead. I’d say Christians would be the only ones capable of discovering a smile during such strife-filled situations. Read Psalm 27. What have we to fear in any circumstance? Death? Hardly. Even if an entire nation rises up in war against you alone, you have hope. This world is passing away, and with it, so goes all of its sorrows. Most certainly we can laugh at Death. Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, if we actually had a picture of Death, I imagine seeing a toothless, skin-and-bones beastie on a leash, stripped of all his power and his tail between his legs.

If those of us with a sense of humor had a picture like that to view through the eyes of faith, I’ll bet the only struggle we’d experience would be to contain ourselves.

Opinions at Easter

The Lord is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Don’t you just love that announcement? I sure do, especially during times of uncertainty. Standing on the foundation of Christ’s all-sufficient death and justifying resurrection, the rest of the world can do all it wants to terrorize God’s people, and yet we are unmoved in spirit.

He is risen. Death holds no dominion over us. And that’s that. We have life—real life.

A few times during this world-wide pandemic, like others, I’ve caught myself bemoaning what not only felt like the tragic loss of the final weeks of Lent, but of Holy Week and Easter. And please, don’t get me wrong. I more than wish we could have celebrated these times together. But the more I view the situation through the lens of God’s handiwork, the more I realize the importance of the strange context in which we heard and received some of the most important texts the Bible has to offer. We heard what God thinks about Sin and Death. We heard what He intended to do about it. We heard the story of His plan in action.

We heard God’s opinion.

Everyone has an opinion about what life should or should not be like in our nation and state right now. Unfortunately, part of the curse of social media is that we all get to read those opinions over and over and over again, and this includes the insulting ones. When it comes to opinions, I’m certainly no exception. I have mine, and I share them where and when appropriate. Interestingly, Voltaire mused something about opinions being more devastating than plagues.

That’s ironically fitting.

In the end, God’s opinion is all that matters. Once again, He is risen. Death holds no dominion over us. And that’s that. We have life—real life.

And so here we are in quarantine, and the world continues to preach to us what life is to be. Life is the economy. Life is civil freedom. Life is a vaccine. Life is a doctor saying the data is right. Life is another doctor saying the data is wrong. Life is family. Life is rest. Life is hand sanitizer, a face mask, and a pair of gloves in public. Life is curbside pickup. Life is whatever the governor decides. Life is what the citizens choose. Life is your terror. Life is your overreaction. Life is this and that.

As everyone funnels into these discussions, my hope is that for the Christians engaging in the conversation—the ones who know the deeper meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection—the reality of Easter will be there for them like a lifeboat of truth in a rising flood of confusion. No matter the threat, Christians will always have in their pockets the reminder that Death has been conquered, and with that, the assuring knowledge that life—real life—is located firmly and surely in Jesus Christ alone.

It can’t be found in money. It can’t be found in fame. It’s not located in anything this world would offer. Apart from Jesus, real life in the midst of a world coming undone will always be a mist-like dream that shifts with every societal breeze. Apart from Christ, real life will always be the vaccine (or essential oil, if you prefer) that remains out of reach. It’ll be the foreign language that no one can read, write, or come close to pronouncing correctly.

In the days ahead, even as the Church continues to receive the Word of the risen Christ through some pretty weird mediums, my prayer is that you’ll commit to receiving that same Word—that you’ll remain immersed in it in every possible way, being sure to see it and hear it for all that it is during this time of questioning what life is all about. If you can, join the online Bible studies. Watch and re-watch the worship services. Listen and re-listen to the sermons. I can promise you’ll read or hear something new each and every time. Most importantly, you’ll continue to be nourished by the wellspring of real life, just as Christ said (John 6:63), and you’ll be more than ready for that future day when we can all be together to rejoice before the altar of God—and I’m not just talking about when the quarantine finally ends.

But you Christians knew that, didn’t you?

Memory

My wife, Jennifer, shared with me her hope that this time together as a family will be one that instills good memories in the children rather than being a recollection of a fearful time. I’m hoping for the same, as I’m sure you are, too.

Of course, after our conversation, I got to thinking about the role memories actually play in shaping us. It’s hard to argue against the influence this pandemic is having on the communal memory of the whole nation, but in this particular moment, my concern is for you and your family.

After it’s over, what will be remembered? What will be forgotten? What will the new normal be in your lives?

Well, before going any further, we have to be honest about memory’s linking to our truest condition.

Informed by God’s Word, we already know Sin’s blast radius is vast. Every living thing in the created order exists within reach of its initial detonation. “Because you have done this,” God said to the first man, “cursed is the ground because of you” (Genesis 3:17). Perhaps worse, when we actually venture into the wasteland to examine Sin’s wreckage, we discover that it didn’t just interlace with the world in ways that would give rise to COVID-19 alone, but it actually broke the whole globe. Sin is an occupying power now, one that’s intricately woven into the fabric of mankind in every way (Matthew 15:19, John 3:19, Jeremiah 17:9). With this, we shouldn’t be surprised that the human mind and its vault of memories are diseased, too.

Aware of this, I’d say Sin labors to infect the human memory in at least two notable ways.

I don’t know about you, but I experience the first of Sin’s twining grips on my memory when scenes from my past unexpectedly come to mind—words and deeds I’ve regretfully said or done. I could be doing just about anything—mowing the grass or eating a cheeseburger—and then suddenly, it’s as if I’ve been whisked into a darkened corridor, and all along its uneasy length, I’m forced to pass sinister portraits of what haunts me most. There they are, everything I wish to forget, in all of their ugly details.

Sin won’t let me forget my transgressions. It wants me to remember.

The second of Sin’s handlings is related to its effect on the flesh. Again, the Lord announced after the fall: “From dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). And Saint Paul affirms: “Outwardly we are wasting away…” (2 Corinthians 4:16). Indeed, our bodies are coming undone with age, and as they do, so also comes the deterioration of the mind. For the honest among us, there is the haunting knowledge of a lifetime of memories we’ll struggle to remember. Sin works here, too. In our “wasting away,” it steals the scenes we hold dear—the children, when they were little, what their voices sounded like or which were their favorite toys; the mannerisms of a parent or grandparent we’ve lost to Death, their smiles and the familiar scent of their embrace; the rooms of our childhood home; the summertime freedoms with family and neighborhood friends.

Sin wants us to forget these things. It wants to strip us of the outward evidence of God’s fatherly divine goodness throughout our lives.

So what do we do?

First of all, when it comes to Sin’s ugly accusation, the best weapon against this is the Gospel of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for you. Hold onto this. In other words, do what you can to stay in the Word of God. The Word of God clads the Christian in ways nothing else can. Soak it up. Be devoted to it. Talk about it. Live and breathe it as God’s people. I say this firstly because God tells us that His Word is far more powerful than the sinful flesh (Hebrews 4:12, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Jeremiah 23:29, Isaiah 55:11). Secondly, not only do I believe this, but I can confirm it as true by way of countless examples.

Here’s a great one.

Back in December of 2018, a friend of mine (someone most here at Our Savior probably know) experienced a cataclysmic aortic rupture. He wasn’t expected to survive. He’d been without blood to both hemispheres of his brain for hours before medical personnel were able to get to him and do anything to help.

Plainly speaking, no one survives such an episode. In fact, thinking back, I remember being in his room in the ICU when the surgeon who’d worked on him said she’d never operated on anyone in as bad a condition as his.

Throughout the ordeal, I was with him pretty much every day—praying, reading the Word, giving Him, as Paul would say, “the unsearchable riches of Christ…” (Ephesians 3:8). Each time I was there, the doctors gave little hope that he would ever wake up, let alone be able to function cognitively if he did.

After surgery he’d been given no sedation. The hope was that within 72 hours we’d know. Either he’d wake up, or he wouldn’t.

Now I won’t go into all of the details, but as I said, I was with him at least once a day. During those times, I often noticed him giving my hand a little squeeze during prayer. Although, the nurses politely described it as nothing more than an involuntary response to this or that going on in his body. But one day while reading from Mark 4:35-41—Jesus calming the storm—after I was done, he turned his head to me. It’d been five days of careful watching, and this was a first.

I went back to be with him the very next day. When I walked into the room, the man who was barely alive the day before, was sitting up and watching baseball. The nurse was absolutely beaming. He’d quite literally awakened an hour before I’d arrived, and the breathing tube had been taken out only moments before I walked through the door.

I can’t even begin to tell you the joy at seeing my groggy, but living, friend! And the grin he gave when he saw me, it was breathtaking. For the first time in days, I could talk with him and hear him reply.

I did most of the talking, of course, not only because he was exhausted, but because his throat was very sore from the breathing tube. Still, we heard the Word of God again, prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and this time, he prayed every single word along with me. I was able to give him a get-well card his fellow choir members had made for him, and he was able to hold it with his own hands and read it.

I asked him some questions, to sort of gauge where he was cognitively. Looking back, I’m glad I did, because if there was ever a time when Sin’s grip on human memory would’ve proven itself, it would’ve been then.

I asked if he remembered anything.

He said he remembered Jesus on a boat with the disciples calming a storm. When I asked what he remembered about it, he whispered raspily the sense of a familiar voice, and when the voice stopped speaking, he wanted to hear more.

Do you get it, friends?

If God’s Word is merely language—something that can be shelved like a favorite novel during this time of worldwide trouble—then it certainly made no earthly sense for me to be speaking it into this man’s ears. And yet, there was my friend telling me he not only heard God’s Word, but he wanted more.

Not even the natural deterioration of a Sin-destroyed body of flesh could get in the way of the power of God’s Word. It sort of reminds me of the Lord speaking into the ears of the lifeless son of the Widow of Nain and raising him from the dead (Luke 7:11-17).

Again, I share this story as an urging to stay in the Word during this time away from your church. God’s Word will continue to write into your heart and mind the certainty of a divine memory that knows all that Jesus has done to save you. It will continue to certify for you just who you are by faith in His sacrifice.

Beyond this, and I suppose as a side note to this time of quarantine, I’d encourage you to do things together with your family. Pack up the video games and put aside the mobile phones. Spend time together. If it’s just you and your spouse, do the same. If it’s just you and the dog, do the same. And while you’re doing this, take some pictures. Or perhaps you could keep a journal. I guarantee that in a few years you’ll come back to these crystalized memories of the pandemic of 2020 and you’ll remember the feeling of joy more so than the sense of dread. You’ll have something in hand to remind you just how much the Lord has blessed you.

I give one last example in this regard.

One of the great things about my The Angels’ Portion volumes is that they serve as annals for the Thoma family. They’re a retelling of so much of what has happened in our lives. In fact, it’s not uncommon for one of the kids to fetch a volume from the shelf during dinner and ask me to read a few of their favorite tales from among our countless everyday adventures. Within seconds, long-forgotten events in which we all participated come back to life, and with them arrive the sights, sounds, and smells—the enjoyment of distant times and former selves joining with us in the “right now.”

For the Thoma’s, these books are Godly ramparts against Sin’s effort to cause us to forget.

Finally, I’ll conclude this longer note by reminding you of God’s memory.

When He forgives you, He forgets your sins. We may remember them, but He doesn’t. “I will remember their wickedness no longer,” He says resolutely (Hebrews 8:12). This means if you were to stand before Him and say, “Hey, God, do you remember that one terrible thing I did yesterday?” His answer would be, “I forgave you, and so I really have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Even better, while He forgets your sins, He can never forget His loving promises (Psalm 136:23, Psalm 105:8, Psalm 103:17, and Hebrews 13:5). The death of His Son for the sins of the whole world is the fulfillment of His greatest promise. His merciful memory is locked to this. All who believe in His Son, Jesus Christ, are ever-remembered by the Creator of the world as being His beloved and forgiven children.

Let all of this be of comfort to you during this time. It certainly is comforting to me and my family.

Fishing ≠ Worship

It would appear that our world is indefinitely fixed with the global stamp which reads “Pandemic,” and so I don’t know what the future holds. For the most part, I’d say our efforts to maintain as a church engaged in public worship together here at Our Savior in Hartland is succeeding. It hasn’t been without snags, but it’s certainly been well worth the labor. (To see what we’re doing, click here.)

All I can say now is that we’ll keep doing what we’re doing as safely as we can for as long as we can. We’ll keep this stride knowing that if we need to make changes, we will.

I should say that through all of this, the people who comprise the congregation of Our Savior have proven one thing in particular. Instead of fleeing from public Word and Sacrament ministry, we’ve shown an instinctive desire for preserving it, and an even more visceral dismay at the possibility it could be snatched away. There’s a hunger for it, and we just don’t want to exchange it for other, less communal avenues—at least until we’ve met the absolute end of the road in our abilities to make it happen. With this spirit, we’ve been far more inclined to triple our efforts rather than reduce them.

This is by no means an indictment of anyone in our midst who hasn’t wanted to participate, nor is it a finger of critique aimed at other congregations. These are serious times, and I believe so many are gauging their situations and communities with honesty. Like us, they’re balancing. They’re doing what they need to do to be faithful. I’m glad for that. That being said, however, I’ll admit to being surprised by the road sign in front of a nearby Methodist church that reads something like, “We’re closed for March and April. Enjoy the break. Take this time to go fishing.”

Enjoy the break? Go fishing?

Hmm.

Putting the best construction on this, I’m hoping their sign committee (if they have such a thing) is just trying to be funny. Or perhaps they’re using insider terms, words that only the congregation members will understand. Maybe the sign is a wink to a recent sermon which preached that even as they’re no longer gathering together formally, they’ll be receiving God’s Word in other ways, and as they do, their communal focus will be to become better fishers of men among their neighbors. Still, the wording of the sign sure makes it look like taking a break from worship is a good thing, that somehow leisurely activities are viable alternatives to remembering the Sabbath Day and keeping it holy.

Thinking on the Third Commandment, Luther explains in the Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Pandemic or not, the Church has never been underwhelmed by people who bear the name “Christian” and yet betray a lack of love for holding the preaching and teaching of God’s Word in worship as important. The last thing I want to see is a church broadcasting such a disposition as good practice. It isn’t good. It’s ungodly. It’s deadly to the soul. It embraces a course of spiritual starvation that robs the Christian heart of hope.

On second thought, I want to take back what I said above about not knowing what the future holds. I know plenty of what the future holds.

I’m not talking about the financial markets or executive orders. I’m not talking about whether or not the store shelves will finally be stocked like they used to be. I’m not even talking about which of us, if any, will contract the coronavirus.

I’m talking about Death.

We’re all going to die. Virus or not, Death has ten thousand other doors for us to pass through, and at some point in our lives, each of us will go through one.

Being a reader of poetry, I appreciate how so many versifiers throughout history have observed and shared this fact. Dorothy Parker’s words come to mind:

It costs me never a stab nor squirm
To tread by chance upon a worm.
“Aha, my little dear,” I say,
“Your clan will pay me back one day.”

And of course, there’s Emily Dickinson’s infamous rhyme:

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.

Poems like these, no matter who wrote them, are observances of the point that we’re all going to die. They remind us that never in the history of the world has there ever been a man, woman, or child from any race, color, or creed who could stand his or her ground when mortal Death came calling, saying to the dreadful specter, “I refuse to go.”

All have gone. All will go. And God affirms this. The wage for Sin is death (Romans 6:23a).

And yet, there’s something else I know about the future. It’s an awareness fed by a divine wellspring of hope born from the Holy Spirit through the Word of the Gospel. I know that Death doesn’t have the last word for believers in Christ.

“…but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b).

Through faith in Jesus Christ, eternal life is the final decree echoing well beyond Death’s ten-thousand doors and into an everlasting future.

It was François Rabelais (a 15th century French monk who was, unfortunately, overly influenced by humanism) who said with uncertainty at his Death something like, “I am going to the great perhaps.”

These words were spoken by a man who traded the truth of Mankind’s absolute depravity, as well as the certainty of an all-surpassing salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, for the deficient belief that, perhaps, mankind had a chance by his own merits, or perhaps through philosophy and science, we might gain better certainty of our eternal future.

Oh, the uncertainty of the great “perhaps”! Oh, the terror of doubt at the hour of Death!

But there’s no need for such uncertainty. Christians have certainty. The Gospel Word of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for our salvation is the beacon of eternal hope, and Christians lean into the headwinds of the future with it well in hand. Its luminescence is fed by the Word of God and His holy Sacraments—the verbal and visible means of grace Christ has established and then mandated for His Church to gather and distribute. The Lord warns that without the oil of these means continually being poured into the lamps of our hearts, the daily readiness of our hope in Him will be extinguished. No question. If the flame of faith isn’t being fed by this fuel, it cannot burn with the torch-like strength necessary for withstanding the squalls of this attacking world (Matthew 25:1-13).

No wonder our God commands for us to go to church (Hebrews 10:19-31). No wonder we hear our Lord say over and over again to so many just how important it is to hear the Word of God and keep it (Luke 11:28). And by the way, by keeping His Word, He doesn’t mean in the shallow sense of simply knowing and obeying it, as is often preached by so many. The word in the Greek is phylassontes (φυλάσσοντες). It means to fulfill one’s orders as a guard—to protect and defend a most precious possession, and to make sure no one can steal it away, being ready to raise a sword and shield against anyone or anything trying to steal it away. The harder truth in this is that sometimes the “anyone” is us and the “anything” is fishing.

Pondering all of this as I tap away at the keyboard this morning, I suppose there’s one more thing I know about the future.

What we do now will shape our practices later. Without absolute connections to Word and Sacrament ministry, people will drift away. It’s the nature of Man, and there’s plenty of data external to the Word of God to prove this. In the midst of a time when the sources for Word and Sacrament seem to be far more limited—a time that could feel a little like a spiritual drought—don’t let go of God’s Word. Get it from faithful sources where and when you can. If you can go to church, do it. If you’re concerned about being in public spaces during this time, stay home. Either way, commit to regular devotions, to watching your church’s services that are shared online, to hearing the Word of God and keeping it.

Let fishing be what you do after your most valuable possession has been secured and the oil in your lamp has been replenished.