Peeling Back the Layers

Maybe I should share it and maybe I shouldn’t, but Jennifer asked me recently if I’d ever thought about using a content subscription service like Patreon. I know why she asked. Because as it may also be for you, the need to make ends meet is never far from us. Thinking creatively, she knows that I put out thousands of words a week across various platforms, and I do all of it pretty much because I can, without personal benefit. I’ve said before, I often consider my writing proclivity to be more of an affliction. I’m stricken with the need to observe and then scribble into words what I’ve observed. Most folks with the same disease use it to make a living. I can’t even imagine writing for a living, other than to consider the basics of what I’m already doing as a pastor in service to the Gospel.

Either way, Jen’s questioning prompted at least two thoughts worth considering this morning.

The conversation continued with me saying, essentially, no, I haven’t thought of using Patreon. Although, my response was more, “I’ll look into it when things slow down a bit.” That’s my default reply. It’s not a lie. I’m always hoping for things to slow down. But she and I know they never do. She went on to ask if I sometimes feel like I’ll look back on my life with regret, concerned that I’ll have spent too much time running myself ragged. I didn’t tiptoe around that question. Yes, that thought has crossed my mind. I’ll bet it has crossed yours, too. I do my best to be honest when it does, admitting I’m sometimes to blame for my own busyness. Not always. But sometimes. And I say that with a caveat.

For one, the simple truth is that pastors are often treated like genies in bottles. (By the way, I wrote about this in my book Ten Ways to Kill a Pastor.) No matter the relevance of the need, people rub the pastoral lamp through an email, text, phone call, private message, or whatever (at any given moment at any particular hour of the day) with the expectation the pastor will immediately pop out with a willingness to do whatever is needed. Like other pastors, I struggle with this. But before you take offense at this, let me explain.

For me, the struggle comes because I have a tendency to look at everything as an opportunity for ministry, and as a result, I have a hard time saying no. A real-world instance of how this gets me into trouble could be, for example, those moments when a non-member who just so happens to know me—or is referred by someone—reaches out to ask me to come and pray with a dying friend or a sick relative. As it relates to my official duties, this is not necessarily my responsibility. As it relates to my calling as a Christian, it is. I know this, and so, I wrestle with what to do. More often than not, I find myself willing to commit to just one more thing (on top of an already overwhelming stack of things in a bustling congregation and school requiring a lot of attention) because I’m hoping there’s a chance the Gospel will be heard and take root. I do this fully aware that if I say yes, it’ll be an overtax on my family, my actual duties, and my health. If I say no, it’s likely I’ll be interpreted as cold, ultimately representing the congregation as uncaring, and possibly seeing an extended relationship come undone.

Believe it or not, these types of situations happen more than you might think. I get requests like this regularly. If you don’t believe me, just ask our office administrator, Georgine.

Still, even when I say no, admittedly, I’m more than capable of making bad choices with the limited free time I do have. I almost always fill it with something I hope will be productive. Perhaps it’s inherent to pastors to be as Longfellow described, which is “up and doing, with a heart for any fate; still achieving, still pursuing….” There’s always something that needs doing in any congregation. Personally, I’d argue that if the pastor isn’t relatively tempted by countless opportunities for service, it’s likely he’s not all that attuned to his role and its surroundings.

Carrying this back around to Jennifer’s question about Patreon, a second thought comes to mind.

I suppose when it comes to using something like Patreon, I also mentioned to Jennifer that I’m not so sure people would subscribe. I say this because the kind of writing I do is far different than what’s popular.

Just look at what’s in front of you right now. My content is rarely brief.

I know, I know. Countless people would say less is more. Mindful of this, I try to be as crisp as I can. It’s just that when I start thinking about something I want to say, I often get lost in the layers, feeling the need to share with the reader what I’ve discovered—or at least pondered—and then fill any potential holes. As a result, a paragraph turns into two, followed by a free-thinking examination of those first two paragraphs that becomes two more, and so on.

I can’t just give a little. I want to be thorough. Remember, everything is an opportunity for ministry. This includes everything I write.

Digging deeper, I’m not sure people would pay a couple of bucks a month to read that deeply. As a society, we no longer exist in an age designed for that kind of content. We’re living in a time of memes, mic-drop soundbites, and pithy Tik-Tok videos created and uploaded while driving. Unfortunately, people aren’t just being entertained by these things. They’re being trained by them, too. They’re learning that life’s important things can be received and understood in 15-second intervals.

In short, the exchange of humanity’s thoughts seems to have become little more than an ever-streaming attempt at witty succinctness that really has no handles, nothing to grab onto. People think what they’re hearing is a truth bomb. But it really isn’t. It’s a superficial statement filled with gigantic holes. Its hook is more emotional than substantial. I suppose folks working at genius levels can accomplish hole-less truth bombs that do both. Admittedly, Jordan Peterson seems capable of such things. Ben Shapiro, too. But that’s two people. Last I heard, there were almost five billion people using social media on any given day. The best any of the rest of us non-geniuses can do is to be as lucid as possible—to take a chance at presenting an intelligible case made from the best words in the best order and sent along with the best of intentions. That takes work on both sides of the digital screen. Most people don’t want to work in this way. They want to be spoon fed the sweeter things. In our internet age, anyone willing to work—whether it be a person wishing to write substantially for public consumption or someone eager to be taught and then employ what they’ve learned in the surrounding world—nowadays, these people risk vicious cancellation. And why? Because sinful human beings prefer what pads the throne upon which they’re already sitting. Soundbite communications are designed to be that padding—to be emotionally comfortable, and ultimately, subjectively moldable to almost anyone’s closely-held ideology.

I don’t recall who said it, but someone once observed that few people would bother speaking at all if they actually knew how much of what they were saying was being misunderstood. To overcome this—to actually understand other people and their ideas in a way that benefits society—we must be working from points of origin that are far more than witty posts from our favorite influencers. It takes deeper levels of interaction, concentration, and contemplation—far more than what Tik-Tok videos and Facebook stories can provide.

Saint Paul wrote in Colossians 4:6 that Christians should be capable of giving an answer to anyone who asks. Saint Peter said something similar in 1 Peter 3:15. He noted the need for “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you….” Giving an answer and making a thorough defense means being equipped for conversation with content. It means study. Study takes work. It understands that being able to answer one question is possible with a little work. But it’ll take more to answer a second and third, or a fourth and fifth. Normal human conversations are rarely one or two sentences in length. They’re dialogues. They require content.

Mindful of people’s New Year’s resolutions, maybe a worthy exercise would be to start thinking through and then challenging (if necessary) your friends’ one-sentence social media posts before clicking “like.” After a little more thought, you might realize the foolishness in the meme I stumbled upon this morning which reads, “You don’t need a lot of friends to be happy, just a few real ones who appreciate you for who you are.”

Neat picture. Very moving. Two women toasting with a bottle of wine between them. However, these emotional hooks don’t change how stupid the meme is. It sounds nice, but it’s foolishly shallow. And it’s inviting moral disaster. I won’t tell you how. Take a minute to think about it. Just know there are a gazillion of these narcissistic messages feeding the egos of billions. I think folks will need to dig deeper to avoid becoming one of the billions.

Assumption’s Regrets

The countdown has started. Five days until a powerhouse weekend here at Our Savior. Saturday we’ll enjoy a day-long conference filled with tier-one personalities. On Sunday we’ll gather together to celebrate our school’s 40 years of service in the community, again, being joined by appreciative newsmakers. To wrap it all up, on Monday we’ll host a debate dealing with the topics of God, culture, and politics in America—a more than crucial matter as we teeter at the edge of a world-altering election.

Much is happening. I’m assuming much will be accomplished by God’s gracious will.

Actually, I shouldn’t say I’m assuming. Better said, I’m trusting that God will accomplish great things through our efforts. And while I suppose it’s not necessarily incorrect to use the word “assume” in the context I have, overall, there’s a difference between assumption and trust.

When we assume, we deal in knowledge without the certainty of truth. We consider bits of information separated by blank spaces that we attempt to fill in through interpretation. To trust in the Lord is nothing of this sort. To trust in Him is to be found making plans—and living out those plans—according to the schematic of the Gospel. It is to act in life’s occurrences with the mindful certainty that we dwell beneath God’s forgiveness in Jesus in all circumstances. That means no matter what happens, we are certain that God will provide for the good of our salvation in every situation (Romans 8:28-39). Trust doesn’t assume He will. It has the complete list of Gospel facts—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and so it knows He will. From there, it steps out knowing that with hearts set on faithfulness to Him, when we speak, He will use our words, no matter how jumbled they might feel. When we act, He will carry us through, no matter how powerless we believe we are. When we are observing and listening, we’ll receive the necessary information for aiming each and every situation toward Godliness and peace, no matter how confusing all of it might seem to be.

Assumption doesn’t necessarily work this way. Sure, an assumption can be useful for determining certain things. For example, an assumption may be made about the contents of a milk carton based on its expiration date. An assumption may be made when a carbon monoxide detector goes off warning of dangerous fumes in a home. And yet, I have personal experience in both instances. I’ve taken a chance on a gallon of milk past its date, only to learn it was fine. I’ve also been brought to concern by a screaming carbon monoxide detector in our kitchen, only to learn after investigating that it was triggered by exhaust wafting from our car in the driveway through the garage and into the kitchen through a door left open by one of the kids.

In both circumstances, my concerned assumptions were only right until the actual facts proved otherwise.

When it comes to relationships—family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and the like—assumption is often more of a wrecking ball. It can be the corrupter of human lines of communication and the destroyer of opportunity. In the rubble of these things, assumption builds an altar to foolishness, and it worships there with incredible devotion.

“What do you even mean by all of this, Pastor Thoma?”

I don’t know. Remember, I’m typing as I’m thinking.

As I re-read what I just wrote, I guess where I’m headed with this—at least what I think I mean—is that at a person’s last hour, I’d be willing to bet a significant portion of the regrets in life will be because of the assumptions from which he or she just couldn’t break free.

People assume things of others, and then they hold to those assumptions for years like bark holds to a tree. But then one day, they discover they’re out of time, and in the shadows of the impending situation, they understand people and situations differently, and they wish for more hours from the clock. They wish they could go back and enjoy a relationship with a person they assumed all along was an enemy. They suddenly realize just how wrong they were to think that people are static in their character and personalities. People are complicated, multi-faceted creatures. They change. Who they were, the way they were, is likely very different today than it was yesterday. And so, in the last moments, people come face to face with the foolishness of their begrudging assumptions of others. They realize they never asked the questions that would fill in the blank spaces. They never investigated. In fact, it never even crossed their minds to explore, to have a conversation. Instead they remained comfortable believing they already knew the innermost thoughts and intentions of the people around them.

These are the kinds of folks who will stare at the edge of regret for having interpreted as hurtful years of genuine attempts at friendship from others.

In truth, this is idolatry. It’s self-worship.

Digging just a little bit deeper, by way of such idolatry—such self-worship—we take detrimental missteps in life. Because of assumptions, we’ll have been silent when we should’ve spoken. Because of assumptions, we will have reacted when we should’ve remained an observer. Because of our assumptions, we may just learn all too late that we were wrong, that we treated as an enemy someone who could’ve been a friend, that we did something to make a relationship that could have been a joy into something unbearably thorn-like.

I guess what I’m saying is don’t be this kind of person, especially with your Christian family. Instead, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Instead of assuming, how about letting the Gospel do the steering in our lives as Christians with one another, and by it being found pursuing “unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). Instead of holding tightly to your grudge, assuming it’s justified, almost virtuous, how about you “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Ephesians 4:31). How about being “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Don’t be the person who learns all too late that the most important things we can know of others were, unfortunately, hidden behind a foolish assumption that we don’t need to learn more because we already know what we’ll discover. More often than not in such situations, at least in my experience, I’ve discovered that what I expected to be true and what was actually true were not exactly in perfect alignment.

Take a chance. Reach out. Have a conversation. Find out more. Odds are you have a few blank spaces that need filling.


It’s been a busy couple of weeks. But then again, for as quiet as it might sometimes seem, there’s always a lot happening here at Our Savior. A good part of my time lately has been spent in one-on-one conversations with so many of you—which is a good thing. Conversation is good.

In a basic sense, conversation is the transmission of information. It’s a means by which one person takes what’s in his or her own mind and puts it into the mind of another. When that uncomplicated mechanism is functioning as it should, the experience can be incredibly beneficial. Maybe like me, some of the best conversations you’ve had in life are the ones in which you don’t necessarily recall anything in particular that was discussed, but rather you simply recall an enjoyable time together with another person, and you remember hoping to be able to visit together again, soon.

That’s not only how I feel about the people in my congregation, but so many others beyond her borders.

There are, of course, those conversations that we sometimes wish had never happened; the ones we regret. These lamentable interactions take various forms.

For me personally, I suppose the most obvious of these are the conversations in which I said something or exhibited a demeanor that I wish I could go back and erase, and not necessarily from my own memory, but from the memory banks of others involved. I’ve always believed that a man’s reputation is one of the only things he truly owns that everyone else keeps for him, and yet it seems most often others keep that reputation in mental lock boxes impervious to the man’s repentance and amended life. In other words, no matter how hard the man tries to restore himself to them, his good reputation will forever be an island from which he set sail and is never allowed to return.

It’s probably safe to say that most folks reading this write-up will understand the sadness that comes with the guilty tolling of damaged integrity. The honest readers will understand, that is.

Beyond this, some of the more regrettable conversations I experience are the ones in which gossip is the predominating tenor. Precarious are the moments shared with someone who lives by the creed, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about others, then don’t do it from way over there. Come sit by me!” I say this because it would seem their only goal is to malign someone else or to continue the spread of an infectious rumor. Either way, I regret the time lost in such conversations. I suppose while they’re occurring, my truest hope is that I won’t become diseased by the darker spirit that’s actually fostering them. Admittedly, it’s harder than one might think to remain neutral in such conversations. When we spot a gossip, it’s instinctual to try to find favor with them, because if they’re prone to speaking this way to you about others, what might they be willing to say to others about you? Additionally, it takes a steady heart to forget the juicy bits of information shared. I regularly pray for God’s protection from gossips.

Other conversations I typically regret are the ones in which my counterpart is someone who knows everything about everything. The person who’s always on board with his or her own phenomenality is, for me, a huge bore. Personally, it only takes a few minutes of listening to someone establish their own greatness before I get bored. When I get bored, I get fidgety. When I’m cornered by an overtly proud person, you can pretty much bet that I’m already looking for a polite way of escape, having been reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wit when he said something along the lines of, “The more he spoke of his honor, the more we counted our spoons.”

Another form of regrettable discussion for me are the ones laced with profanity. I don’t like to read messages bearing the language. I despise even more so hearing it. Those particular interactions leave me feeling like I’ve been invited into a conversation among bathers in the catch basin of an outhouse. I’m not sure how else to describe it. They’re crass, and as I’ve written in other places, I believe such conversations genuinely devalue human interaction. Even worse, when such low-level language is strutted before others as though it were a sign of deeper sincerity or intellect, I think the person has somehow been fooled into a grave misconception. For one, I’ve never observed profanity-pocked prattlings do anything to convince a real opponent. I’ve only seen such things make an enemy more fervent. I suppose I’d add—and for as backward as it might seem, since I’m trying to promote goodness here—I’ve seen more success emerge from a well-crafted, profanity-free invective than from a retort filled with swear words. I’ve seen a well-spoken insult convince an adversary to not only investigate an opposing argument, but to consider the adversary worthy of collegial respect.

Perhaps the worst conversations of all are the ones in which no one is really listening. These seem to be the most common these days, which is probably why I’ve found myself confessing privately to others my suspicion that dialogue is dead. More and more folks are arriving at conversations with their minds made up, and so modern discourse surrounding the more contentious topics just seems to be less about convincing an opponent to the benefits of an alternate viewpoint and more an exercise in foes taking a breath between individual monologues. With that, very little seems to be accomplished.

I suppose I could go on. But if I did, I’d only be listing more of my own sinful failings and yours. We all fit into one or more of these descriptions. And so as Christians, we continue to pray most fervently, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). Stepping forth from this desire born of faith, we add the request for a patient heart and a listening ear in the midst of conversation. And then bearing a contrite spirit, we accept the Lord’s instruction by way of His Word, taking into ourselves that “a gentle answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1), and “he who answers before listening, that is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13), and “a false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will perish” (Proverbs 19:19), and “ he who guards his lips guards his soul, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3), and “ reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18), and “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19), and “do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

And the list goes on. It seems long. It sounds difficult. But by faith, we know the Holy Spirit is carrying the water in these things. Even Saint Paul affirmed this when he wrote, “And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

The days are getting darker. Both literally and figuratively. Pray for Godly graciousness in both your listening and speech. As a nation, as a state, as a Church, as married couples, as families, as neighbors, as human beings occupying various stations in our communities, the Lord knows we’re going to need it. And honestly, the Christians are the only ones who have the life-altering Gospel that can bring it.