The Barometer of Shame

I’m very capable of “stupid.” We all are. It’s in our nature to be Sin’s fool. And then, lest we think we can hide it, our thoughts, words, and deeds prove to others just how deep the roots of Sin’s foolishness go.

I could share plenty of personal examples of my stupidity. But I really don’t want to. And why not? Because, as I’m sure it is with you, I’m ashamed of my foolishness—my failings, my flaws, my deficiencies. Although, for the sake of piloting toward something worthwhile this morning, this discussion brings to mind a generality that likely applies to us both—but only if as Christians we are willing to deal in honesty.

It seems to me that for an honest person, a telltale sign in most circumstances that you’re being Sin’s fool is to make excuses for something you feel shameful for doing. In other words, you know it’s wrong, and you get a sense of indecency from it, but you commit to doing it, anyway. And then from there, hoping to feel better about it, you do what you can to convince yourself (and others) it was virtuous.

Now, let’s be clear. I’m not talking about the sadness we sometimes experience in certain situations. Sometimes sadness happens when we’re doing something right. I often experience sadness when punishing my children. I don’t enjoy it, and yet, I know that correcting them is the right thing to do. But if while disciplining them, I do something I shamefully regret—let’s say I’m so angry that the punishment I inflict clearly exceeds the crime—then I know by shame’s pestering that I should repent and amend my behavior, even though I’m pretty sure I could, like most parents trying to save face, conjure countless rationalizations for staying the course.

In short, when you’re doing something that stirs your inner shame, but still you find yourself making excuses for the behavior—projecting it as dutiful, or describing it as your only option, or perhaps worse, scrambling to defend it by lifting portions of God’s Word from their appropriate contexts—it could be in those moments you’ve been duped into embracing Sin; or as I said before, you’re being Sin’s fool.

“Well, I know you said you didn’t want to,” you might interject, “but can you provide an example, something that comes to mind that you can share to shed light on this?”

Sure. The first example that comes to mind as the pastor of a school is the idea of making our students wear masks. Now, having let you into my feeble mind, give me some room to explain.

For starters, if you were to look backward across the expanse of everything I’ve ever written or said publicly over the last eighteen months, you’d discover that I rarely, if ever, used my energy to argue for or against masks. Those closest to me know I’m against wearing them. They also know my reasons, which I prefer not to cram down anyone else’s throat. Instead, my steady goal has simply been to do what I can to help keep people connected to Christ during a time when the government seems to be doing everything it can to divide Christians from Him. Of course, I’ve experienced circumstances requiring me to face off with the mask issue as it relates to the State’s impositions on churches. When that happened, I made it clear that requiring masks in public worship or study, no matter how people tried to twist the “love thy neighbor” premise, was not something I would impose because it would mean straying beyond the boundaries of God’s Word. I knew the issue to be one of Christian liberty. If you wanted to wear a mask in church, you were free to do so. If you didn’t, that was okay, too. But whichever you preferred, no matter your reasoning, I could not establish your preference as a law that could potentially prevent others from being in the presence of God to receive His Word and Sacrament gifts.

Getting closer to the point, I’d say some of the same theological principles spill over and into the practice of mandating the masking of children in schools.

Aside from the serious physical, psychological, and pedagogical damages masking causes among children—all of which form a mountain of absolute wrongness I’d feel shameful while climbing—I’m far more concerned about the shame found in trespassing God’s will. I say this knowing that the authority of God vested in the Fourth Commandment and given to parents to raise and care for their children is not something I’m allowed to usurp. It is the sole duty of parents to decide if their children should or should not be masked, and for me to impose such a rule without leaving room for parental exemption or recourse would be to stray beyond the borders of God’s Word and wield a sovereignty He did not grant to me. Even worse, if I did decide to participate in it—if I try to justify it by saying I’m obligated to comply with the Health Department, or it’s my duty as a Christian according to Romans 13 to abide, or that there’s no reasonable doctrinal stance that can be taken against it—I’d be defending something I know is wrong and I’d experience shame. I’d be Sin’s fool.

That’s the example that comes to mind.

But since I brought up Romans 13 (v. 1), I might as well go a little further, because it’s likely someone has already started pulling the pin from the “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities” hand grenade and is thinking of throwing it. Preemptively, I should say that I doubt in this circumstance it will detonate as expected. And why? Because as it meets with the discussion, there are plenty of other similarly minded Bible passages that help define and then test the legitimacy of governing authorities to be obeyed. Simultaneously, I’d say the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and its centuries-old confessional documents have a pretty good handle on such texts, ultimately realizing their depth in the “Two Kingdoms” doctrine, which is the biblical teaching that not only understands the authority of the Church and the authority of the State, but also when, where, and how these two kingdoms meet. By this doctrine, Christians can know and understand what it means to be subject to a legitimate government established by God. And by legitimate, we mean that it maintains its divine ordination and does not transgress God’s moral law. Likewise, we can know by the Two Kingdoms doctrine the possibility of a ruling authority’s delegitimization, thereby knowing when we, as Christians, may find ourselves in an unfortunate situation requiring us to disobey men in order to remain faithful to God (Acts 5:29).

Digging a little deeper, especially since we’ve now gone down the rabbit hole of governments maintaining their ordination, we need to remember that the United States government, as well as the state and local governments, are not sovereign entities. In the U.S., all people, Christian or otherwise, live within the contours of a constitutional republic established on the premise that the citizenry is the sovereign authority. In other words, all federal, state, and local governments are, by design, holders of limited authority over and against the citizenry’s personal liberties and their right to act and defend according to concern of conscience.

That’s our form of government in a nutshell. It was thoughtfully constructed in a way that its executive, legislative, judicial, and all leadership bodies by extension would not be found suppressing its citizens’ lives, liberties, and pursuit of happiness.

This means, then, that when a body of unelected appointees, such as a Health Department, begins governing with seemingly inescapable sovereignty, the kind that leaves no room by exemption for citizens to self-determine in these ways, it becomes delegitimized, and I dare say a Christian is no longer bound to obey.

Now, I know this was a lengthy answer, but you asked for an example, and this is the one that came to mind. This is true, most likely, because I’ve had so many conversations about it lately. It certainly is a relevant topic right now.

In the end, as the pastor of a school, I pray we don’t have to face off with these things again. My hope is that the Livingston County Health Department will simply leave things alone, allowing the individual schools to determine their own fate. If that’s the case, then things will be a lot easier for leadership around here at Our Savior. But if they don’t, well then, we already know that doing the right thing can sometimes bring a measure of sadness. For the record, I’m willing to accept the reward of sadness dished out by the world for doing what’s right rather than to experience shame before God for doing what I know is wrong.

Hope and COVID

I wrote and shared this note of encouragement with my congregation this morning. If it can serve you and your Christian community, too, then praise God.
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Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The Lord be with you.

I woke up this morning with the urge to reach out to you. I hope you’ll take a little time to read my words.

The COVID cases in Livingston County are rising. Even in our own congregation we’ve seen a few cases here and there, which certainly doesn’t stir us to complacency, but rather to acknowledge the enemy is indeed at the gates. The pastors here know this. The Elders know this. And so even as it’s inevitable that we’ll continue to see cases among us for some time, we intend to make our way through, being sure to put our hope in Christ and seeking first and foremost to be faithful to His mandates above all others.

As a Christian, this had me thinking.

This past Sunday, as a congregation, we didn’t get to hear the readings appointed for the Second Sunday in Advent because we enjoyed Advent Lessons and Carols instead (although, Pastor Zwonitzer did preach on the Old testament text). If I could go back, I would plug the Gospel reading into the service. The appointed text was from Luke 21:25-36, and it focuses our attention on the Last Day. Take a look:

“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Reading through and thinking on this text this morning—and remember, I’m a guy who visualizes what I’m reading—I realized something. If you really think about it, Jesus paints a dreadfully terrifying picture. He speaks of worldwide distress. He speaks of globe-encompassing fear. He says we’ll see and experience frightening things—things that cause everything on earth and everything in the sky to shake. Many among us might be able to imagine an earthquake, but have you ever thought about the cosmic power necessary for rattling the sun, moon, and stars—and for us on earth to actually see them shaking and coming apart as they’re throttled in their orbit? When it comes to inescapable terror, such things are completely beyond human comprehension. There will be nothing scarier.

Still, did you notice how the Lord described the response of His Christians in this moment of moments? He said that while everyone around us would be fainting with fear and foreboding, we’d find a strange vigor for standing up straight, for lifting our heads. And how would this be possible? Because the Spirit for faith alive within us would awaken a resident and unshakeable hope—a hope that knows the redemption we have in our Savior, Jesus Christ, who loves us. Jesus is making sure that we understand that in Him, we don’t ever need to be afraid.

I dare say that the same Spirit is at work in us now. How do I know this? Because this kind of pastoral care being shown by Jesus wasn’t just limited to His description of what we’d face at the coming of the Last Day, but rather He gives by His Gospel Word the same hope for facing every single day of our lives (Romans 15:13).

I suppose I should add that as Christians, in one sense, it’s okay to be fearful. Fear can serve as a protective mechanism, and God doesn’t want us to test Him by living insensibly. That Baptist pastor in the news who so brazenly told his congregation to go out and deliberately contract COVID just to get it over with is an example of what we should not do. In fact, I’d say he sounded eerily similar to the devil as he was tempting Jesus to throw Himself from the temple peak in Matthew 4:5-7. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” the Lord replied. In other words, we’re not to test God’s care for us by deliberately putting ourselves into harm’s way. But in the same vein, if a Christian is found in a jeopardous situation and yet is embracing fear in the same way that unbelievers embrace it—that is, rolling along in senseless and unbridled terror as if there was no hope—then I’d suspect such Christians are failing to grasp what Jesus actually meant by hope.

Trust the Lord. Use your reason and senses to do what makes sense in your context for your safety and for the safety of your family. But don’t let your human reason and senses rise above faithfulness to the Lord. Reason and sense can be reliable, but both are tainted by Sin. They can and will fail you. But Jesus won’t fail you. He has you well in hand. He loves you. Which is why He gave the warning about the Last Day in the way that He did. He didn’t hold anything back. He wants you to be ready for both the easy stuff and the hard stuff. That readiness is more than permeating this COVID-19 moment, too. Believe it or not, He said what He said being well aware of the nature of 2020.

And so, God be with you this day and always. Know that I love you in the Lord, and I’m here as you need me. The same goes for Pastor Zwonitzer and Pastor Hardy. We are your servants, and as such, we stand at the ready to give you the only remedy for the wounds of fear: The Gospel that we are saved by grace through faith in the One who gave His life that we would not die, but live!

Call if you need me.

In His holy and most precious name,
Pastor Thoma+