Vacation for Vocation

Like many of you, I have vacationing on the brain.

Memorial Day is meant to remember those who gave their lives in service to the country. Still, judging by the weekend’s typical worship attendance, it’ll be akin to a test run of the forthcoming summer’s getaway potential. In other words, it’s a practice vacation. It doesn’t offer much time to rest, but it gives a sense of what rest could be. And if not rest, then at least the liberty to spend a long weekend with friends and family—some we like and some we don’t—doing something…or nothing.

I just used the word liberty.

I’m not above reminding anyone why the rest they enjoy in America is possible. People died to provide it. Considering that Thomas Jefferson once called religious liberty “the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights,” I’m not above reminding folks to consider churchgoing as one of liberty’s best exercises. A far more critical death sits at its center—the death of God’s Son. His death won far more than freedom from earthly tyranny or foreign threats. His death stole you away from eternal condemnation and the power of Death. That’s certainly worth a day or two of any vacation.

At our Church Council meeting last week, our new Youth Board chairman, Jason, spoke about future opportunities for our youth to enjoy fellowship together and serve in the community. As he explained, I drifted back to my days as the youth leader, a time when we were heavily invested in international mission efforts, going to places like Russia and Lithuania. I share this because later that night, on the treadmill, I visited a travel website to check on airfare prices to Lithuania, figuring it might once again be a possibility. Of course, Russia seems like a stretch right now. Anyway, while ticket shopping, one of the side advertisements was scrolling quotations about vacationing. I don’t usually pay much attention to advertisements. The sayings caught my eye in this case, probably because the Thoma family is precisely 20 days away from our annual two-week getaway to Florida.

The first quotation I jotted down was from Robert Orben. He said, “A vacation is having nothing to do and all day to do it in.” Another from Hal Chadwicke offered, “A vacation is a sunburn at premium prices.” I also saw one by Susan Sontag. She wrote, “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” Finally, there was the following from Gustave Flaubert: “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”

I know who Robert Orben was. In fact, he died just this year. He was a comedy writer who later became a presidential speech writer. I only know this because he managed to do something I’d appreciate doing, which is speech writing for political candidates. Other than that, I’ve never been a fan. I don’t know who Hal Chadwicke is. I’ve never heard of him. I’ll probably look him up after typing this. Known or unknown, he said something insightful that was worth sharing. Susan Sontag was a leftist crazy. She did all she could to depict America as a villain. For example, she was the kind of person who could visit an orphanage in Africa built by Americans and figure out how to blame America for the local warlord’s murdering the children’s parents. I’m not a fan of Susan Sontag. Still, she wrote at least one thing worth sharing.

Gustave Flaubert’s observation resonated with me the most. He was a nineteenth-century French novelist. He wrote Madame Bovary. I’ve never read it. It’s a classic, so I probably should. I guess I’ve never been that interested, mainly because of its reputation for having a class-envy theme. Still, Flaubert’s words about travel are pinpointedly accurate. Stepping beyond the front door of our lives has a way of revealing the uniqueness of one’s place in the world.

Vacations are inherently good for this.

Relative to this ramble’s start, I think I’ve sorted out a few things. One lesson learned concerns my being completely disinterested in spending a Memorial Day weekend with any of the authors I mentioned. However, even though I might not be fond of particular people, situations, or tasks, I can garner something of value from almost anyone or anything if I’m paying attention. Even Saint Paul found value in the pagan poets. With that, no matter where you are or what you’re doing, pay attention to what’s happening around you, even when you’re doing absolutely nothing. You’re bound to discover something worthwhile. This leads me to something else.

I suppose vacations are designed to provide rest. But they’re also supposed to be rejuvenating. Rejuvenation isn’t necessarily a do-nothing event. It’s restorative. It’s a creative act. It’s also self-contemplative. It takes in information and applies it to the self. It has a heightened awareness, one that’s undistracted from the usual day-to-day bustle and capable of looking around at life for new ways of making one’s regular days healthier and, perhaps, more productive. I can promise you that’s one of the only reasons I try new things while on vacation. I rarely do nothing. But I rarely do something to say I’ve done it. I eat food I’ve never eaten or try activities I’ve never tried so that I can decide if I want to add them (if possible) to my life back home. I discover things about myself and my everyday routines as I do this. As Flaubert hinted, I’m reminded how small my corner of the world is compared to the rest of God’s beautiful creation. The older I get, the more aware of this process I become. And it really is a splendid process.

Now, I didn’t set out at the beginning to sound like some new-age therapist bent on meditative self-help techniques. Instead, I’m thinking about my upcoming vacation, realizing I’m going away to a place that’s not my home. I will return to the real world and its seemingly endless tasks.

I’m also thinking about what I read in Ecclesiastes 3 this morning. Chapter 3 is that memorable portion from King Solomon that talks about how there’s a time for everything under heaven. I noticed vacationing fits into what Solomon wrote.

Interestingly, after Solomon lists various seasons in life, some good and some bad, he appears to connect all of them to man’s general toiling—his day-to-day vocation. In verse 13, he summarizes that God wants man to take pleasure in his work. His phraseology implies that the toil and its fruits are God’s gifts to us, not simply a package of things we endure until retirement. They’re proof of God’s love.

In verse 22, the final sentence of the chapter, Solomon adds one more thing. He once again restates that man should rejoice in his work, but then he ends by asking the rhetorical question, “Who can bring him to see what will be after him?” I won’t dig too deeply into this question because I’ve already been long-winded. In light of everything Solomon has written, it sounds like he’s assuming a life of labor in gratefulness to God produces a job well done. A job well done benefits those who come after us.

Finally, reading Solomon’s concern for times of laughter and healing—and knowing they’re relative to our daily labors—I think one of the “vacation” takeaways is that we shouldn’t necessarily be thinking about our time off as an escape from work. Instead, we vacation for the sake of our vocation. In other words, we take time to rejuvenate—we grow and learn and take in new mental and physical resources—so that we can return to our daily labors better equipped for faithful laboring to the glory of God and the good of the neighbor.

Returning to the real world after vacation can be depressing for some. I get it. Still, I think Solomon is telling us there’s a way to take a little bit of it with you. My advice: pay attention. Ask yourself while away, “What can I bring back to my corner of the world that’ll make my vocation more of a joy in thankfulness to God and a blessing to my neighbor?”

Now, if I can only figure out how to fit Florida’s sunshine, a few palm trees, and a swimming pool into my suitcase. I’ll bet that would make everyone in Michigan happy. Florida can keep its sharks.

The Possibilities

It has begun. Multiple times a day, the Thoma children announce how many days remain until the last day of school. I bet they’d be ready with the hours, minutes, and seconds if I asked any of them. I’m certainly not annoyed when they do this. I know why they do it. For youth, summer and freedom are synonyms. Besides, I did it, too. As a kid, I counted the days until my only schedule-consuming responsibilities would be jumping ramps on my bike, hunting crawdads in muddy creeks, playing army in the forest behind my best friend’s house, participating in socially recalibrating neighborhood scuffles, watching late-night scary movies, and just about anything else summer could conjure.

Thinking back to those days, even though I stayed up pretty late almost every night, I don’t really remember sleeping in the following day. I remember wanting to get as much from my summer as possible. And so, I’d hop out of bed no later than 8:00 or 9:00 a.m., throw on the cleanest clothes from my floor, have a bowl of cereal, and then fly out the back door to the rusty shed where I kept my bike. I’d throw up a dust trail speeding down our gravel driveway or go off-roading through our bumpy backyard, my bike clanking and rattling all the way. But whichever direction I went, the horizon’s possibilities were limitless.

Some of the summer’s possibilities were great. Others, not so much. I remember one summer hearing that my friend, Todd Smart, fell from the tree in his front yard and died. It was July of 1983. I was ten years old at the time. My dad told me the news. I certainly knew the tree. I’d climbed it, too. If I had to guess, I’d say it was at least twenty feet tall. Although, things seemed so much bigger when you were a kid. As the story goes, Todd had just about reached its peak when the branch he was standing on broke, and he fell to the ground, hitting branch after branch all the way down. A couple of days later, my friend, John, told me he’d heard Todd looked like a pinball bouncing off the bumpers as he fell. Oddly, John and I had that conversation about ten feet from the ground in a tree near my grandmother’s apartment.

It’s strange the things one remembers from childhood. Before telling me the news about Todd, I remember the look on my dad’s face. It was uniquely unordinary. I knew I was going to hear something I didn’t expect. I remember the tree near my grandmother’s apartment. I remember which branches a kid needed to grapple with to climb it. I remember my friend John’s home phone number. I just typed it into Google. A woman with an extraordinary name—Drewcylla—appears to own it now.

Whether winter, spring, summer, or fall, each season holds more across its horizon’s boundary than what’s right in front of us at any given moment. What we experience in those lands will be with us well into the future—well into forthcoming seasons. Some things we’ll remember in detail. Other parts we’ll forget. Some we’ll observe from this side of life and realize how we didn’t fully comprehend the event’s particulars because of our immaturity at the time. Remember, my friend died climbing a tree, and a few days later, another friend and I discussed the tragedy while climbing a tree. I’m well past ten years old, and I only recognized the irony just now as I typed this. Still, the Christopher Thoma tapping on this keyboard this morning is the same one who dangled from that tree near Valleyview Heights Apartments in Danville, Illinois, forty years ago. And yet, I’m not the same person. I’m entirely different after meeting each season’s moments. That’s life. That’s development. That’s growth. And it’s normal.

Seasonally speaking, I’m absolutely certain that growing up in the 1970s and 80s barely compares to childhood today. For one, I don’t remember any of my classmates identifying as cats. (Honestly, the neighborhood scuffles I mentioned before would’ve fixed that weirdness in a hurry.) I don’t remember any of my teachers encouraging me to explore my gender identity or encouraging anyone I knew to consider gender reassignment surgery. The 70s and 80s could get crazy, but not this kind of crazy. I certainly don’t recall any of my teachers attempting one of the worst kinds of crazy: to undermine my Christian faith or divide me from my parents. For example, my son, Harrison, came to me this past week to tell me that his AP US History teacher at Linden High School overheard him talking to a friend about a scene from the Monty Python film “The Life of Brian.” Harrison hasn’t seen the movie, but I have shown him a few of its more hilarious scenes. The conversation unfolded something like this:

“Isn’t your dad a priest or something?”

“He’s a Lutheran pastor,” Harrison answered.

“He actually let you watch that movie?” the teacher pressed.

“No, I haven’t seen it. I’ve only seen a few scenes. They don’t really want me watching it.”

“Of course not,” the instructor replied. “He probably doesn’t want you watching it because it’ll challenge what he’s taught you to believe and teach you another way to look at the Christian religion.”

Nice try. But most certainly a hit and a miss. Jennifer and I haven’t kept the movie from Harrison because we’re his cruel overlords. Thankfully, he knows this. And thankfully, he talks to us openly about things like this. For the record, Mr. History Teacher, his mother and I don’t want him to watch the movie because it employs a few choice words we’d prefer for him to avoid and has full frontal male and female nudity. Other than that, it’s hilarious. And if anything, the “I want to be called Loretta” scene makes you and your dreadfully woke automaton colleagues look imbecilic by comparison.

Right now, even as Harrison is sixteen, he’s developing. It’s our job to help him along. We do this by ensuring he knows we love him more than anything, second only to Christ. When Harrison’s beyond this season of our responsibility, we’ll be happy to let him take the helm. That’s how it works. He’s already proving his ability to make his way without us. He’s already showing that he’s seeing and enjoying the world in ways far different than what the world would prefer. I’ll come back to this in a second.

In the meantime, as sure as I am of the vast differences between the 1970s/80s and today, I’m just as confident that the nature of humanity hasn’t changed all that much. Kids are developing—spiritually, socially, physically, and psychologically. What happens right now—how we talk to them, what we allow to happen to them, whom we allow in their circles, whom we allow to teach or influence them—all these things might seem irrelevant in the moment. And yet, like it or not, every one of the atom-sized occurrences relevant to each situation is affecting them. Twenty years, thirty years, forty years from now, each situation’s truest impact will be remembered and likely demonstrated. As I already said, that’s life. That’s development. That’s growth. And it’s normal.

But know this: The Lord’s normal differs from the world’s normal. And so, with Christ as one’s north star, “normal life” itself is affected. Both the good and bad seasons meet first with the One who promises to go before us, pledging to never leave nor forsake those who are His own (Deuteronomy 31:8). With that, all things meet the child quite differently. In any given moment, recognizable or not, this Gospel will be doing what our faithful God says it’ll do: cultivating joy, resilience, and a necessary endurance that will only strengthen as one matures toward a final breath and then enters eternal life (Proverbs 22:6; Deuteronomy 6:7; Isaiah 54:13; Jeremiah 29:11; Matthew 19:4; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; and the like). As parents, we bear no insignificant role in this exchange. God included us in His baptismal mandate, insisting that we teach our little ones the Christian faith and support them in it (Matthew 28:19-20).

I suppose one reason I’m probably thinking about these things leads back to where I began. We’re coming to the end of the school year. My kids are counting down. As I look around at the children in this congregation’s school, I’ll bet they are, too. Even so, I’m hopeful for their forthcoming summers. I can be. For any of our good or bad seasons (which every community experiences), each child and his or her family has enjoyed the opportunity to meet first with the Gospel of our faithful Savior. Myriads of parents and children in countless schools worldwide don’t enjoy that. In our little corner, on this fractional portion of each of our students’ developing timelines, they do—and in abundance. Forty years from now, when I’m ninety—if I’m still alive—I expect to hear retellings of the memories associated with these things. I’m sure it’ll make me smile then, just as it does right now.

Invalidate the Lie

A few weeks back in religion class, I asked the 7th and 8th-grade students to tell me about the behaviors among friends that hurt them the most. Some said cliquish activities. Others said cruel words. Not sure how to define it, one student described self-absorbed and egotistical behavior. I told her the word she was looking for. It’s “narcissism.”

The kids asked me the same question. I told them I despise lying. You can mock me, belittle me, and curse the day I was born. Plenty have. Interestingly, some of those friendships have survived to this day. They’re testaments to God’s grace. However, from a human perspective, if a person lies to me, it’s only then that our relationship is likely to change in unrecoverable ways. It’s not that forgiveness won’t win between us. It will. It must. And, certainly, we can still be friends. It’s just that, from where I stand, we’ll have become distant friends.

Of course, the problem with this particular personality trait is that I’m just as guilty of deceit as the next person. In my mind’s eye, I sometimes imagine a singular door marked with a burnt placard bearing three letters—L, I, and E. In Eden, the devil unlocked this dreadful door, we turned its knob, and Sin stepped through, infecting humanity. Not just a few of us, but rather, all of us. If you doubt this, the 18th-century philosopher, Denise Diderot, offered an intuitive and very personal way to prove the premise, one relative to deception’s truest nature. He said rather precisely, “We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.”

Truth is bitter to Sin. It prefers to gulp from deceit.

Conversely, God despises untruth. He dislikes it so much that He wrote truth into the very fabric of mortal existence. In other words, His natural law is unbending. Its veracity is unbreachable. Even though it can be misunderstood, it will never lie to us. A man can lie to himself in every conceivable way. He can believe himself to be a woman. But he’ll never be a woman. Despite our misunderstanding, natural law won’t allow it. A man can believe himself to be a bird. But if he jumps from a building intending to soar without first applying the mechanics of natural law’s rules for flight, he won’t fly. He’ll die. Natural law will judge, convict, and sentence all its offenders.

Truths like this are all around us. The only real way to obscure them is to lie. Nevertheless, the truth will meet with the lie. It always does. From a human perspective, I’m guessing one of two things happens when this meeting occurs. Either the deceitful course is realigned with what’s true, and the course’s travelers are spared, or the travelers are foolhardy self-worshippers, choosing to steer straight into the lies and ultimately into destruction. I’d say this says something about the nature of lying. It hints at its sway.

I’ve probably shared with you why I always spell the word “Sin” with a capital “S.” I believe Sin is no small thing. I believe it’s a very real power at work in this world that deserves special attention. We wouldn’t have needed the divine Son of God to wage war toward its defeat if it didn’t. Perhaps I should start spelling “lie” with a capital “L.” Lying isn’t an insignificant vice. Mark Twain said, “The main difference between a cat and a lie is that a cat only has nine lives.” He’s right to say this. Lies are innumerably perpetual. If they’re not stopped, things only get worse. And when they’re believed, the trajectory of deceit’s worseness skyrockets. Take a look around. You’ll see. Horrible untruths are being perpetuated and believed. These untruths are washing across our globe like an oily tsunami, destroying countless lives in unimaginably dark ways. I read an article on Monday about how gender reassignment surgeries are being performed on two-year-olds. A pastor friend of mine in Canada, his son was arrested and fined $10,000 for reading the bible and praying across the street from an LGBTQ demonstration. A few weeks ago, I watched a video blog from a fellow Lutheran pastor who more or less accommodated the ever-growing “furry” movement, considering it harmlessly comparable to ComiCon costuming. I read a news story about an after-school Satanic club in an elementary school. I read another about an after-school drag club. They’ll have catwalks and everything.

I suppose I ought to ask if we should be surprised by these things. If you are, then that means you haven’t been paying attention. Although, I doubt too many Michiganders are surprised. Our own Attorney General, Dana Nessel, gave a speech in which she said she’d like to see drag queens in every Michigan school. Michigan is more than gulping from deceit. And by the way, if you’re a Michigander who voted for Nessel, you’re one of the foolhardy ones I described before. Like it or not, you’re rooting for the tsunami.

So, what do we do?

I have a two-step answer. But honestly, the answer might be too shocking to share. And why? Because employing it requires courage and commitment—the kind sorely lacking in our radically individualized, self-preserving world.

The first step is to admit that truth exists, can be known, and applies to all, not just a few. You do not have your own truth. No one does. The sooner you accept this, the better.

The second step—a daily activity—is the harder step. It’s harder because enacting it all but guarantees discomfort and the possibility of offensive division. In short, the second step involves living according to truth while being ready at every moment to invalidate untruth. I’ll give you a personal example of what I mean.

Earlier this past week, I took an online questionnaire. At its beginning, I was asked to share my gender. I was offered a multitude of choices. Thankfully one was “male,” and so I chose it. But in a small comment box meant for longer gender explanations, I took a moment to write, “There are only two genders, male and female.”

The comment will likely matter very little to the company taking my information. Nevertheless, the opportunity to invalidate deceit was before me. As inconsequential as it may have been, I acted.

Indeed, invalidating untruth becomes much more complicated and uncomfortable when dealing with real people. Still, it must be done. For example, when you get invited to your homosexual niece’s wedding, you must refuse the invitation. If you decide to go, convincing yourself it’s for keeping the family peace, understand that your presence will be considered a condoning one unless you make your position known publicly. Of course, even as you stay home, don’t lie and say you had other plans. Speak the truth and invalidate the lie of same-sex marriage.

Or when your son seeks a college degree in healthcare, one leading toward the abortionist trade, you must remove all material support. Don’t avoid the conversation, tiptoeing and saying, “Well, it’s finally time for you to make your own way.” Speak the truth and invalidate the lie that abortion could be anything other than murder.

Or, when your pastor actively perpetuates the ungodly doctrines of Critical Race Theory or Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, you must admonish and refute him and say why you’ve done so.

In each of these examples, until our allegiance to Christ is stronger than our allegiance to people—until we take courage and act—the lies will continue to take ground, leaving countless corpses in their wake.

If you have time, look at Mark 15:43. You’ll meet Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a believer, or as the text reminds us, “a respected member of the ruling council.” In other words, his life was among the Pharisees, Jesus’ gravest enemies. John 19:38 tells us Joseph kept quiet about his faith “for fear of the Jews.” In other words, his concern for his colleagues outweighed his allegiance to his Lord.

But then the Lord died. Joseph witnessed it. Saint Mark records in 15:43 that Joseph “took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” Validating the lie that Jesus was a charlatan with his silence was no longer an option for Joseph. He took courage. This courage became action, forever changing Joseph’s public standing before friends and foes. It was Saint Chrysostom who wrote, “The courage of Joseph is greatly to be admired, in that, for the love of Christ, he exposed himself to the danger of death.”

Invalidating lies takes that kind of courage. The funny thing is, for as scary as the world tries to make these moments seem, Jesus said such courage would be available to his Christians. He said, “You will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:18). And while standing in these terrifying situations, “the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:12).

Listen to Jesus. Trust Him. Take a hint from Joseph. Dig into the courage you already bear by virtue of faith in Christ. Meet with the lies whenever and wherever you can. Don’t be a jerk. Show the love of Christ. But remember, holding the line on truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, is an essential way of demonstrating the love of Christ to others. You love them by invalidating their dangerous course. It won’t be easy. But as the saying goes, few things worth doing are easy.

The World is Watching

What book are you reading right now? Maybe you’re not much of a reader. If so, which TV show currently has your attention? I don’t watch much TV. I read far more than I watch. When it comes to people, I do both. I watch, and I read.

I suppose, hypocritically, I don’t like being watched. Unfortunately for me, it happens a lot. I wear a clerical collar pretty much everywhere I go. Because far too many clergymen have ditched the traditional pastoral garb, trading it for whatever is more acceptable to the secular culture at the time, for many onlookers, a guy dressed in priestly duds is little more than a traveling relic. He’s weird and out of place. Spend five minutes in Walmart with me. You’ll see. Ask Jennifer. Ask my kids. They’ll tell you, too.

I hope she doesn’t mind me sharing it, but I think Jennifer has far too much fun with the staring. For example, we’ll be walking near to one another in a store, not necessarily close enough for people to assume we’re associated. She’ll see someone watching me, and immediately she’ll come over and take my hand. If she’s feeling somewhat rambunctious, she may even give me an affectionate kiss on the cheek as she leads me past the stunned spectator like a prized bull. I don’t use “prize” as though I’m exceptional. I mean “prize” in the sense that she’s exceptional. In other words, experience continually proves that anyone wearing clerical attire must be a Roman Catholic priest. When an onlooker sees Jennifer attending to me tenderly, I’m guessing they think that she must be exceptionally divine among all women, having managed to rope a man sworn to celibacy.

Once again proving the “Roman Catholic priest” theory, I took Evelyn to the dentist on Tuesday. Standing together at the receptionist’s desk before leaving, a high school girl watched us closely. As we departed, I heard her say to the gentleman beside her, whom I assumed was her father, “I didn’t think priests could marry and have kids.” Her dad replied, “The churches are way different now.”

He’s not wrong. Many churches are different now. I offered a subtle hint before as to how this is true. The hint: they’re becoming indistinguishable from the secular world. Regardless of your agreement, this is an important point. As people watch, they are also reading, or perhaps better said, interpreting. This interpretation reminds me of another recent incident. When I told my family about it at dinner, they were astonished.

Two weeks ago, I’d just left the self-checkout area at the Meijer in Hartland and was making my way to the exit doors. About fifty feet from full escape to the parking lot, a woman reached out and grabbed my arm as I walked by. Can you believe it? She actually took hold of my arm to stop me.

“What church are you from?” the bold woman asked, almost gruffly.

Stunned by her aggressive approach, I’m surprised I replied relatively peacefully, “I’m from a Lutheran church just down the street.” After that, she did all the talking. And her reason for stopping me, that is, what did her words directly imply? Assuming the conservative nature of my Christianity by looking at me, she needed me to know there was nothing special about my church compared to hers. In her words, all faiths worship the same God and lead to the same place. Taking a hint from both her demeanor and her “Love is Love” shirt, I interpreted her. The result: I assumed the nature of her church and the minimal likelihood that I’d convince her of its dreadful heresies. With that, I said absolutely nothing. I mean that. I did what one of my former seminary professors would do. He would meet illogically incoherent commentary with an uncomfortable smirking stare.

When the woman finished with her foolishness, the awkward nature of my grinning silence was enough for her to say, “Well, okay, thanks for chatting, and have a great day,” or something to that effect. I can’t recall for sure. The end of her final sentence met the back of my head.

Now, for all the seasoned people-watchers reading this note, had you watched this scenario unfold, you would have accurately interpreted the tenor of my response without me having to explain it. People-watchers are highly attuned to visual cues, making them adept conversationalists and skillful navigators of humanity. In other words, when a person learns to see what someone is likely thinking, the communication game changes. It elevates to another sphere.

Alfred Hitchcock once said something about how the dialogue in his films was just sound among sounds. For him, the real story was told through the characters’ movements, facial expressions, and the like. This is probably why he famously said, “If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off, and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.”

How might this principle apply to so many churches embracing a seemingly secular trajectory? What is the “perfectly clear idea of what’s going on” the unchurched onlooker will likely have?

Perhaps from another perspective, I wonder if that’s part of what Jesus meant by His words, “You are the light of the world…. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16). He knew the world was watching. Saint Paul certainly knew the same. For example, in Colossians 4:5-6 he calls for behavioral distinctions before unbelievers. He urges the same in Philippians 1:27, insisting on observable behavior unique to the Gospel.

Don’t think for one second that I believe Jesus and His great apostle, Paul, are saying that words don’t matter. They do. The power for faith leading to salvation is given by way of the Word of the Gospel (Romans 1:16). However, feel free to accuse me of believing that the Word produces communicative behaviors that both carry and display it. These behaviors are distinct from the world. How do I know? The flesh gives birth to flesh while the Spirit gives birth to spirit (John 3:6). This is Christian faith. It produces visual cues, ones that, whether you’re speaking or not, transmit to others who you are in Christ and what you think is true and untrue about Him. If your church believes the LGBTQ, Inc.’s mantra that love is love—which is to say, homosexuality is perfectly acceptable before God, you’ll demonstrate it. That’s how it works.

By the way, silence is a demonstrative behavior, too. No matter the situation, it communicates. My cold silence that day in Meijer told the woman in unmistakable terms what I thought of her goofy theological impositions. On the other hand, how does the world interpret a Christian’s passive silence relative to abortion, gender confusion, and so many more gross atrocities happening in our world?

As a pastor, I know what God thinks of his pastors’ who prefer to keep a safe distance from their voices: “For with you is my contention, O priest…. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me” (Hosea 4:4,6).

The world is watching and learning what we believe. Our worship—the depth of its substance—demonstrates. Christian silence in the face of ungodliness does, too.

It’s Past Time You Got in the Game

I read recently that Christians in Oregon are no longer allowed by law to adopt unless they agree to the state’s radical gender ideology. But a Christian can’t do that, not in good conscience, at least. I’ll likely take a long way back around to this point, and so in the meantime, I wonder if you’ve ever heard of Rev. Jason Lee, the Methodist missionary who led the effort to see Oregon annexed by the United States. For the record, while Lee’s diary doesn’t speak about the annexation, it does record his support for Oregon joining the Union. He believed that by partnering with the United States, his missionary efforts to the Native Americans could only be helped.

That’s an interesting factoid concerning Oregon’s statehood. A Christian pastor helped make it happen, and the United States government followed his lead, one fixed on the Gospel.

I mentioned in passing during last week’s sermon that I think I’ve read more in the last sixteen months of studying for my doctorate than I did in all my years of college and at seminary combined. I wasn’t kidding. My dissertation’s usable bibliography has 239 books, articles, reports, and the like, and I haven’t even begun the third of its five chapters. Of course, some of the resources I’ve only skimmed. Still, most I’ve read completely.

I’m not sure if you’re at all interested, but as I mentioned, the typical doctoral dissertation has five chapters. While the first chapter tees everything up, Chapter Two is the part that really sets the stage. Chapter Two establishes the conceptual framework, beginning with a thorough review of all the available literature. My study focuses on Two Kingdoms theology, primarily Church and State engagement. I recently finished Chapter Two, and as I’ve been told, it’s about three times the length expected. This is not a vain statement. I share it to show I’ve put a lot of work into ensuring I’m familiar with anything and everything relative to my thesis.

As you can probably guess, many discoveries have been made along the way. While not necessarily central to my effort, one relatively widespread speculation I now unequivocally categorize as debunked is the assertion that America’s founding fathers were principally Deists. Again, it doesn’t matter all that much to my effort. However, a side result of my literature review has proven it fabricated.

Interestingly, the idea doesn’t appear on the scene until the early to mid-20th century, and only then is it considered a tactic more so than a truth. In other words, the folks pressing for absolute separationism (the complete removal of the Church’s voice in the public square) are the ones driving the idea, some even rewriting crucial statements from critical Founders to secure the premise. By the way, do you know who else was doing this? Early American Marxists, and for the same reasons.

That’s just a little bit of what I discovered. Now, as the usual decriers hop onto the internet to assemble quick arguments against it, I will take a sip of coffee and continue.

Admittedly, it is true that some of the Founders were Deists. Still, that needs clarification. The term “Deism” itself wasn’t really in use during the time of the American Revolution. While there indeed were individuals who held Deistic beliefs—some of whom were quite notable—even when the term was used, it didn’t have the same connotations or associations as today. That’s a pretty important part of the discussion. Today, Deism is plainly associated with a specific set of beliefs. For example, Deists believe that while God created the universe, He doesn’t intervene in human affairs. Deists also deny the divinity of Christ, along with countless other cultic dogmas. However, even the prominent Founders so often labeled devout Deists didn’t actually believe these things during the American Revolution. Again, some did. But most didn’t. In certain respects, that disqualifies the label’s application. But to learn these things, more than internet snippets are required. You need time with what they and their observing biographers recorded. For example, there are many opinions concerning Rev. Jason Lee’s reasons for engaging in government as he did. His diary is a far better source than an agenda-driven professor from the 1960s.

But even beyond the usual suspects, the more significant majority of Founders responsible for the nation’s design—many of whom are unknown by comparison to the usual suspects—this majority did the heavy lifting. They were crucial in designing and building the American ship, hoisting its sails, and putting it to sea. This majority was unequivocally Christian. Not Muslim. Not Jewish. Not Buddhist. Christian. That’s not being exclusionist. It’s simply being honest. From the founding documents’ authors to signers to justices to cabinet secretaries to military leaders, these captains and crew members were a mish-mash of creedal believers from various Christian denominations. Did they have doctrinal differences among them? Yes. Still, they confessed the Triune God, proclaimed Christ as the divine Son of God and the essentiality of faith in Him for salvation, held fast to the sacramental things as the mysteriously miraculous gifts they are, and so on.

By the way, when I say “majority,” I mean 99%. That being said, an honest historian won’t centralize and label a nation’s innermost identity and destiny based on the ideologies of its 1%. But a dishonest one would. A dishonest one (or, at a minimum, an ignorant one) would insist America was founded on Deism, and so would those fooled by such a historian’s destabilization of truth.

And there you have it—a postmodern, radically individualized America destabilized by a lunatic fringe laboring to separate her from her genuine identity by destabilizing truth. A man can be a woman. All white people are inherently racist. Murdering unborn babies is healthcare. The Church has no right to influence political discussion. And so on.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The obnoxiously loud 1% would be no match for the 99%, even if only a portion of the majority had the slightest fraction of the Founders’ courage to speak and act.

But that’ll forever be a problem, especially when the seeds of America’s garden—the churches—are occupied by pastors who buy into the Deist, and ultimately the absolute separationist, claims.

I recently told my daughter, Evelyn, the story of Major General (John) Peter Muhlenberg. When she heard how Muhlenberg, a Lutheran pastor, stood before his congregation and preached in a way that inspired the men of his congregation to join him in the fight, she felt a strange craving to read all about him. I’ve since given her a few books. She’s going to discover along the way one unique detail. She’s going to learn about Peter’s brother, Frederick, a pastor in New York. Frederick was not happy with Peter. He believed the Church, especially her ministers, had no right to speak about, let alone engage in, civil affairs. He openly denounced his brother’s enthusiasm on multiple occasions.

But then, one day, the British surrounded Frederick’s church and burned it. Rev. Frederick Muhlenberg eventually became the first Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, avidly supporting the importance of Church and State engagement. Of course, he learned this the hard way. Like Frederick, a pastor in the shadows will have had plentiful opportunities to enjoy what the Founders gave us, regardless of their individual beliefs: religious liberty.

Concerning these things, I suppose I should at least encourage you: if you hear an insistent pastor enforcing the Deist claim, and you feel like challenging him, do it. Challenge him. Because, well, he’s wrong. Make sure you tell him as much. Simply put, he’s bought into a dangerous tactic key to the separationist premise leading to religious liberty’s demise. This is dangerous, and we can see where it’s headed. Again, I just read that Christian parents in Oregon seeking to adopt must sign an agreement saying they accept the state’s radical gender ideology. As I said before, Christians can’t do that in good conscience. So, how will these families adopt? Go out of state? Stay in the state and do it illegally? I don’t know for sure. Either way, they’ve already started living the Gospel in the shadows. Perhaps a stronger Christian voice in the public square—one like Rev. Lee’s—could’ve changed that. When pastors buy into the radical left’s insistence that the Church must remain silent in civil affairs, the Christians they lead are harmed, not helped, and the floodgates to anything and everything counter to America’s actual foundation on essential and objective truths are opened.

Speak up. Get engaged. It’s more than past time you do.

The Imitation Game

I recently listened to a new album from a band I’d been introduced to a few years ago. One particular song told the tragic story of a young girl stuck in a life of prostitution and drugs, leading to her eventual death. Along the way, the singer blamed the absent father, reminding the listener that it wasn’t the girl’s fault he wasn’t around to guide her—to teach her right from wrong, protect her, and love her like the precious gift that she was. The song ended. Another of the same band’s songs started. The new song spoke of carefree sex, and it did so in an encouraging way. The singer—a man and father—referred to himself as enjoying the activity with multiple people from various walks of life and in countless places.

Do you get it? If not, how about this?

I don’t watch much TV. But I happened to plop down in my usual chair while one of my kids watched an episode of “Castle.” It’s a typical cop show with a twist. The main character, Richard Castle, is a famous author who collaborates with a hard-nosed detective, Kate Beckett, to solve murder cases. As the seasons unfold, the handsome Castle and the beautiful Beckett become an item. Eventually, she moves in with him, and of course, the two begin engaging in everything you’d expect from such a situation.

I happened to sit in my chair during an episode in which Castle’s teenage daughter, Molly, had met and started dating a young boy. Of course, the episode portrayed Castle as a bumbling father wrestling with how nosey he should be with the relationship, getting all his advice from Beckett. More than once, Castle spoke aloud about how he didn’t want Molly to do anything she shouldn’t do. In other words, he didn’t want her to have premarital sex.

Again, do you get it? Not yet? Well, how about this one?

I’d gotten home late, and as is my custom, no matter the time, I took to the treadmill. Just as I pressed the start button, my cell phone rang. I usually try to avoid taking calls at such a late hour, especially when the person isn’t a member of my congregation—which this caller wasn’t. Still, I’d failed to return the person’s call earlier in the day, so I owed the caller a moment of my time. The heart of the caller’s concern was essentially this: “How do I get my sexually confused child to understand the importance of living biblically?” My first inquiry was, “Where’s your home church, and how often do you attend?” The person couldn’t claim a home church. When pressed for history, the caller admitted to barely a handful of visits to church over the years.

Do you get it? I sure do. In fact, after experiencing the series of comparative examples I described, I understand what the American poet, Amy Lowell, meant when she wrote, “Youth condemns; maturity condones.” She indicated that we often hold different standards for our children than we do for ourselves—double standards that prove our iniquitous nature. In other words, we don’t want promiscuity for our children even as we might practice it. The point: If you don’t want your child to do something, then don’t do it yourself. When you do it, you condone it.

Don’t use swear words if you want your child to avoid and condemn swearing. If you’re going to be crass, they’ll be crass, too. If you smoke weed, it’s likely they will, too. If you act abusively toward others, they will, too. If you gossip about others, it’s expected they will, too. If going to church means very little to you, it’ll also mean very little to them.

The premise really isn’t that hard to understand. In a way, I made the point in a brief social media post I wrote years ago. In fact, I pinned it to the top of my “Rev. Christopher Thoma” Facebook page. I wrote:

Go to church. And take your children. Yes, yes, I know that, in general, children are not very good at listening or sitting still, and this can make worship very challenging. Still, I say go to church—and take your kids—because, for the record, there is something that children do magnificently. They imitate adults.

The Scriptures certainly weigh in on the discussion. Solomon’s child-rearing advice in Proverbs 22:6 lends substance to it. Hebrews 12:11 points out that while it can be challenging for parents to hold the line for godliness, in the end, doing so produces immeasurable blessings for both the parents and children. In 1 Corinthians 15:33, Saint Paul reminds his readers that bad associations (ὁμιλίαι κακαί) result in corrupt habits (φθείρουσιν ἤθη). The word he uses for “habits” is from the root word “ethos.” A person’s ethos is the storehouse of his core beliefs. It supplies his character, which is demonstrated through action. Paul’s point is that a poisoned ethos will produce poisoned behavior. That’s how it works. And lest you doubt him, Paul begins this admonition by urging, “Do not be deceived.” In other words, don’t fool yourself into thinking it could ever be otherwise.

These things said, it’s unfortunate how adults are so often the “bad associations” Paul is describing—the hypocrites we so often accuse others of being. The Scriptures are pretty clear that how a person lives in front of others influences them (Proverbs 12:26, 13:20, Matthew 5:13-16, and others). It’s no secret that parental behavior shapes children. The way a parent lives in front of little ones will impact them, eventually forming how they live in front of their children—good or bad—and so on.

Do what you can to be mindful of this. And when you fail to demonstrate godliness for your children, the best advice? Confess your failing. Do it openly. What does a child learn from a hypocritically impenitent person? They learn to reject Christ. What do they learn from a penitent one? They learn to live within the better sphere of Christ’s mercy, holding fast to His grace.

But there’s another practical benefit to this, which helps make families even stronger, especially when the parents feel like they have no authority to lead the child because they’re guilty of some of the same harmful behaviors they’re trying to prevent.

For example, parents who lived together before marriage instructing their child to avoid doing the same thing presents an apparent contradiction that naturally negates their authority to steer the child in this circumstance. But if the parents admit that what they did was counter to God’s design—that they’ve repented, been forgiven, and are glad to be living in that grace—their parental authority is restored. The child cannot say, “Well, you did it, so why can’t I?”

“Yes, we did,” will be the parents’ answer. “We’ve confessed to this. God has forgiven us fully. Having been lifted from this self-defeating behavior, it’s our job as parents to help you avoid it altogether. We do this because we love our Lord, and because we love you.”

This is the way of things in a Christian family. We labor to help keep ourselves and each other fixed firmly to Christ. Living this way, neither the family’s victories nor defeats can crush it because every situation becomes an opportunity to demonstrate the Gospel of forgiveness. And it’s this same Gospel that, by the strength of the Holy Spirit, stirs an equally powerful desire to demonstrate faithfulness.

Do Not Disbelieve

I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it: when I get to heaven, after reconnecting with my brother, Michael, I want to meet the disciple, Thomas. The people here at Our Savior in Hartland know I think that of all the apostles, he seems to get a bad rap. That being true, there are some things I want to ask him.

Before actually asking any questions, I’d probably commend him first. After the Lord’s resurrection, he really was the only one demanding the evidence the Lord had already promised would be given (Matthew 16:21). In other words, he demanded to see a living Savior who’d recently been crucified. Once again, that’s what Jesus said on multiple occasions they’d see—a formerly dead Jesus now very much alive, wounds and all (Luke 9:22, 24:7; Matthew 17:9,23; 20:19, 26:32; John 10:17, 20:9). Even the angel at the tomb affirmed this, telling the women that Jesus had gone ahead of them into Galilee and that they’d see Him just as He said they would (Matthew 28:7).

Knowing this to be an essential part of the Lord’s regular teaching to His disciples, I suppose I’d ask Thomas what he was thinking when he refused to accept the other disciples’ message. Was he actually doubting, or was he simply unwilling to accept anything other than Jesus’ own words? Of course, Jesus somewhat answers the question when He eventually visits with Thomas in the upper room after the resurrection. It’s there He encourages him, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

“Do not disbelieve….”

There’s something in that phrase. In Greek, the Lord’s words are, “μὴ γίνου ἄπιστος”—do not right now become unbelieving. This is to say, “You’re heading in that direction. Don’t go any further.” Personally, that’s all the wiggle room I need for saying Thomas was not underwater in doubt. Moreover, he certainly doesn’t deserve the unfortunate (and absolutist) title “Doubting Thomas.” He had faith. It was just wobbly.

A scene like this isn’t unfamiliar to any of us. Jesus spoke similarly to the terrified disciples during the storm on the sea in Matthew 8:26. He said, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Again, His words are precise. In Greek, He calls the disciples “ὀλιγόπιστοι”—little faiths. Each of the disciples had faith. But their faiths were just beginning to sprout. They were little. How much faith does one need to be saved? Jesus has already said multiple times that whoever believes will be saved. In these scenarios, perhaps one of the lessons we learn is that focusing on quantity has the potential to be distracting. Again, did they have it or not? Yes, they did. They likely wouldn’t have slipped and slid across the boat to wake the sleeping Jesus for rescue if they didn’t. But they did go to Him. They went to the One they somehow knew could save them. The same goes for Thomas. For whatever human reasons may have been involved, he was back among the disciples (even though it didn’t make much sense to be there), fiercely demanding what Jesus had already promised. These are clues. Jacob did a similar thing in Genesis 32:22-32. He wrestled with God, demanding a blessing before he’d let God go. The Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 did, too. She nagged and pestered until the seemingly cold Jesus finally relented in the test. These people had faith. Large or small, they were moved to hold God to His promises.

In a way, by demanding the signs, Thomas was doing the same. But still, it goes deeper.

I think faith was more than stirring in Thomas because, by his words and actions, he forced out into the open the Church’s confession that Jesus had risen in bodily form. In other words, for Thomas, it would be one or the other. Jesus was either fully dead in the body or fully alive in the body. As He couldn’t be both, He also couldn’t land in between. He couldn’t be a ghost. He couldn’t have risen only in a spiritual sense. That’s not what Jesus promised. The resurrection would be physical.

Having nowhere near the disciples’ specificity concerning the resurrection, even the Pharisees understood this. For the record, the Lord never once said in the Pharisees’ presence that He’d die and rise again in the flesh. But He did say, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). This was to affirm that they’d kill Him, and yet, He would rise from death three days later. After the Lord’s burial, the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law revealed they knew what He meant. They demanded that Pontius Pilate place guards at the tomb, saying, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore, order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first” (Matthew 27:63-64). Why a guard? Again, to stop a bodily resurrection. Genuine or fraudulent, that would exist at the heart of the Christian Gospel.

Even the Lord’s enemies knew it could only be one or the other.

So, what’s the difference between Thomas and the Lord’s enemies? Faith. Jesus kept His promise and visited Thomas. The disciple declared, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Even after countless eyewitness accounts, the Lord’s enemies denied Him, doing all they could to kill the message and the messengers. That’s hardened unbelief. That’s real doubt.

Today the Church retells the Lord’s resurrection, and as it does, it includes Thomas’ important role. As you listen, go easy on him. Remember, he’s a believer like you and me. Times get tough. Things get confusing. We find ourselves calling out things like, “Why are you allowing this to happen?! How can you claim to love me?!” Still, we’re calling out, right? And to whom? The only One who can hear and save us. With that, follow Thomas’ lead. Look for the wounds of Christ. Look to the cross. See the Lord’s passionate display. Look there and, as the Lord said, do not right now become unbelieving. Be empowered to go no further in that direction. And then remember, He actually had you in mind when He said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

That’s you He’s talking about. That’s me, too. We were on His mind. And He called us blessed. His blessed ones are His believers. Big or little faith, believers go to the One with the gifts that strengthen faith. That One is Jesus.

Death Could Not Hold Him

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

We offer plenty of cheerful statements at various times and for multiple reasons. “Happy birthday” is one. We say that year after year as we recognize the passage of another twelve months in a person’s life. “Congratulations” is another. We’ll use that word for many reasons, never just one thing. We’ll offer it if a person lands a new job, gets engaged, wins at bingo, or any other significant or insignificant occasion.

But then there’s, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” No other declarative assertion in history compares, and only one event can claim it.

Jesus of Nazareth, the One mocked and physically abused into gross malfiguration, and then spiked to a cross until His body could take no more, He met with the last enemy, Death (1 Corinthians 15:26). And yet, He is beautifully, brilliantly, wonderfully alive! “He has risen,” the angel told the women visiting His tomb, “he is not here. See the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6).

It’s likely they looked. But they didn’t need to. They already knew the scene well—the terribly dreary place palled by Death’s sights, sounds, and smells. They were sitting across from the tomb’s entrance watching Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea take the Lord’s limp body—battered, hemorrhaging, and likely beginning to stiffen—and wrap it in a linen shroud and place it inside (Luke 23:55). The women saw the Lord’s end—His brutally gruesome end. How could anyone survive such a thing?

They don’t survive it. No one does. Even in Jesus’ case, Death came, bit down hard, and then carried Him away.

At least, Death thought it had a hold on Him.

To call out, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” is to know that at one particular moment on the timeline, somewhere out of sight, and sometime between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, a cosmic encounter ensued. Death’s trophy opened His eyes and took back His own life (John 10:18). Having never lost His divine authority over all things but only hidden it, He enacted His ambush. He pushed apart Death’s jaws, and in between its now fully realized predicament noted by terrified whimpers, took to His feet. And in the next few moments, as His body was restored, keeping only the scars from the nails and spear (for our sake), He leaned into Death and made it His trophy.

Jesus accomplished and forever sealed the death of eternal Death.

Calling out “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” is so much more than “Happy birthday” or “Congratulations” ever will be. It’s a phrase that genuinely meets with every single moment of life—from one’s birth to one’s final breath. Easter, a singular event, celebrates the defanging and ridding of humanity’s last enemy, the one residing at the center of all human fear: Death. Death has forever lost its power. There is no longer any reason for hopeless concern in this life, no matter how challenging life may be or what the devil or the world might bring our way. Jesus defeated such concern’s master. All who believe this—those who cling by faith to Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross—receive the merits of the same conquering Christ.

And what are these merits?

The forgiveness of sins. And, of course, where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is also life—eternal life—and salvation (John 3:16-17 and 6:40, Hebrews 10:10, 1 Peter 2:24, Matthew 26:28, 1 John 1:7, and so many others).

Indeed, alleluia, Christ is risen! May God continue to bless you by the power of the Holy Spirit for faith in Jesus. May He keep you enveloped by Easter Day throughout every moment of every day.

Good Friday, 2023

It was a Friday of unimaginable viciousness and cruelty, leading to a horrible death. And yet, the Church has forever named it “good.”

At first, it certainly seems counterintuitive to do so. Referring to such horror as good appears to grant dreadfulness a license. It seems to give a coaxing nod to all that makes for this world’s misery, allowing it a certain measure of liberty to run wild, letting it off the chain to choose and devour its victim.

In a way, there’s an element of truth to these things. I think the Gospel writer, Luke, meant for us to sense it when He recorded the Lord’s words to the ones who’d arrived at Gethsemane to take Him into custody. His words were plain. Before giving Himself over, Jesus said, “Now is your hour and the power of darkness” (22:53). In other words, “You’ve been granted this time. Make the most of it and do your worst.”

We are to know that absolute devilry was let off its chain in those moments. In the truest condition of godforsakeness—the Heavenly Father mysteriously abandoning the Son—absolute ghastliness was granted permission to unleash its most devastating weapons from its cruelest arsenal.

This was the terrible license allowed that unique Friday, a day we call good.

Jesus would have called it good, too. He hints at this during His arrest. When Peter takes his sword to prevent the engagement, Jesus asks him rhetorically, “But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26:54). He sternly commands Peter to sheath his sword, questioning again rhetorically, “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). Again, this is to say, “Peter, this must happen. If I don’t endure darkness’ fury and drink the cup of wrath owed to those who brought the powers of Sin, Death, and hell into the world, then it will be left to its rightful owners. That’s you and all of humanity. But you cannot meet what’s due. None can endure it. None can defeat it. For your sake, Peter, what’s happening is good. It must be me. It has to be me.”

And so, it was.

Good Friday stands in history’s record as the moment when everything that had every right to consume and destroy everyone for all eternity turned its fullest attention on Jesus. It was a horrific day for the Lord—so horrible that human language can never describe it sufficiently. Knowing this, give the day your attention. Approach it with care. Know that something much deeper is happening to the Lord than what mortal eyes or ears can receive. It isn’t just physical or spiritual cruelty of the worst kind. It’s far more than that. It’s cosmic in proportion and beyond anything anyone could have ever endured.

Embracing this fact with all solemnity, if you feel the need to let out a sigh of relief at some point along the way home from worship, please feel free to do so. Good Friday was a good day for humanity. It was the day the ultimate punishment for Sin was endured, and its eternal price tag was fully met. Jesus did it. He wanted to. Good Friday sees Jesus’ arms stretched on the cross as far apart as they can reach. This is more than His death. It is the image of a world-encompassing embrace from the Divine. He loves you. He gives His life for all.

I mentioned worship a moment ago. Be sure to go. Here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan, there will be two services. The first is at 1:00 p.m. This is the Tre Ore service. Tre Ore means “three hours.” It symbolizes the Lord’s three hours of suffering at midday on the cross. The second is the Tenebrae service at 7:00 p.m. Tenebrae means “darkness.” We know the meaning of this title. It’s everything into which the Lord goes for our rescue. These services will lead their visitors into and through the details of the Lord’s work. If you can, immerse yourself in them. I promise you’ll be blessed. You’ll certainly be imbued with a more profound sense of Easter’s acclamation, which, together with the forgiven Church, we’ll sing out two short days later.

The Perfect Law, the Law of Liberty

As it happens on occasion, I crossed paths this morning with a social media post making the point that a person doesn’t need to go to church to be a Christian. For the record, this is not only a tired statement but also a theologically lazy one. The simple biblical fact is that Christians go to church. God mandates such fellowship. If you disagree, that is, if the Jesus you confess teaches it’s okay to be apart from Him and the gifts He gives in holy worship, then you’re following a false Christ.

I could go further with this, but I don’t want to. As I said, it’s a tired and lazy position. I’d rather steer into something Saint James wrote. It’s somewhat relevant to the way I started. Although, it reaches a lot further into the Christian life than worship attendance. Essentially, it establishes the premise that faith is one thing and faith adorned with deeds is another. Saying this, I mean what Saint James meant when he wrote:

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (1:22-25).

Do you know what the “perfect law, the law of liberty” is? Just know that whatever it is, James is not only insisting that we persevere in it but that such determination is somehow born from hearing it and then results in living according to it.

Maybe the best way to figure out what James means is to begin with the words he uses, namely, the word he employs for “perfect,” which is τέλειον. This word is equally translated as “complete.” In other words, the completed law—the totally accomplished law—establishes a standard for freedom. Variations of the same word are used in other places throughout God’s Word. But there is one crucial instance where it fully intersects with James’ understanding of the Law. It happens in John 19:30. It’s there the Lord announces from the cross the single word τετέλεσται, which is typically rendered as “It is finished.” Although, it’s just as accurately interpreted as “All is complete.”

By “perfect law, the law of liberty,” James has in mind Christ’s absolute fulfillment (completion) of the Law on our behalf. By His work, we have been set free, not only from Sin and Death but from the Law’s crushing burden as the only way of escaping eternal condemnation. In other words, instead of needing to keep the Law for salvation (which all of the Lord’s Apostles affirmed was impossible), we’re free to live in and according to it. It becomes a law of liberty, not one of bondage. James is saying that whoever keeps as one’s heading the Gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ—whoever believes and perseveres in it—will become a “doer,” someone desiring to keep the Ten Commandments, not for salvation but out of love for Christ. These doers will do. And they will be blessed, not because they’re performing the Law, but because they’ve been set free in Jesus. This freedom moves them to desire faithfulness to Him. Faithfulness results in works. This is why James goes on the say:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:14-18).

Samuel Butler once said, “You can do very little with faith, but you can do nothing without it.” That was a sloppy way to say it, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He attempted to speak alongside James. His point is that a proclaimed faith is not the same as a faith that acts to save the unborn from abortion. Although, from the proper perspective, a proclaimed faith hints at a much bigger picture. The proclamation is itself a deed. And faith made it happen. Faith produces. And why? Martin Luther so famously answered the question relative to justification. He said, “God does not need your good works. Your neighbor does.”

Do you have to go to church to be a Christian? How about this instead: genuine faith moves a Christian to desire to be in worship with his Lord.

On second thought, I did want to go further with my initial concern for worship attendance.

By the way, the people here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan, are going to have plenty of opportunities for being in worship this week. Today is Palm Sunday. We’re entering Holy Week. There are services every day, sometimes more than one a day, all the way through to Easter. Should you attend all of them? I’ll simply say, give it your best effort to attend as many as possible. Each plays a role in leading us to the Triduum—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter. Attending any or all certainly wouldn’t hurt you. It goes without saying that you’ll be blessed. Do you know what else goes without saying? The fact that your faith already knows this, and it’s craving to act on the knowledge.