Think It Through

Do you want to know what I think is one of the truest indicators of a sincere friendship?

Easy silence.

I think the sincerest kind of friendship becomes evident when two people who know the best and worst about each other can sit in silence without feeling awkward. Nothing needs to be said. Nothing needs to occur. No distraction is required. Talking about the weather is never even a thought. Instead, what’s most important is simply being together—within reach, within earshot, breathing the same air in the same space in the same part of an otherwise sprawling world. Such a relationship—one friend enjoying the quiet presence of the other—understands the dreadful alternative of the other’s absence, of being apart and out of reach, of the palpable but clumsy incompleteness that would occur if he or she were gone.

I’ve had other thoughts about the ingredients I think make for genuine friendships.

Speaking only for myself, I want to be a person who doesn’t feel the need to check his schedule when someone I care about asks for my time. Instead, I want to live as though the schedule doesn’t even exist. Not only that, but I want the ones I love to know I’m available to them in all circumstances and that they can take just as much comfort from the assumption. As busy as life so often seems, this sometimes feels like wishful thinking. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that a friend’s readiness at any moment is telling, and it’s something I long to exude.

I’ll be turning fifty this year, and as I get older, these and other theories on relationships have begun sparking in my mind. It’s almost as though God has started cracking flint rocks in my brain, kindling fires of realization about the people in my life before it gets too late into the human evening. Maybe the same kinds of analyses are happening in your life. I suppose certain stages of maturity do that. Immature people do very little reflecting. They’re most often reactionary. When it comes to ideologies, immature people usually just vomit out what they think they know, having let others do the thinking for them. I read somewhere that two of immaturity’s common denominators are a messy room and the inability to delay self-gratification.

On the other hand, maturity brings patience. It maintains focus and stays the course. It tends to think for itself. It takes time to reflect before application. For some things, the reflection is brief. For others, it’s a bit longer. Either way, it happens. In fact, it could be that thinking—careful discernment—is maturity’s most crucial task. Interestingly, when asked how he discovered the law of gravity, Isaac Newton didn’t nod to successful experimentation with his theory but instead replied, “By thinking on it continually.” His achievement was in the discerning.

Spiritual maturity most certainly thinks. Saint Paul was a thinker. His epistles are saturated with this premise.

In Philippians 4:8, Paul compels constant reflection on the things of God, writing, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” In Romans 12:2 he warns against conforming to the world, urging his readers to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” In other words, Christians must think through their challenges, weighing them against the revealed will of God exposed by His Word. Of course, before Paul wrote the twelfth chapter of Romans, he’d already set the stage for Godly reflection as a lifestyle, having jotted in 8:5-6: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

Thinking calibrated to the Word of God not only takes aim at eternal life but also gives peace in the here and now. I suppose that’s one reason Paul told the young pastor Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). Firstly, he wrote these words having already sent a previous letter to Timothy describing some incredibly complicated situations the new undershepherd would need to navigate. Secondly, Paul’s words served in this follow-up epistle as an introduction to a chapter concerned with false teachers.

Paul wanted Timothy to think through what he would do.

I think my favorite of Paul’s instructions to be a Christian who thinks—to be someone who pitches everything against the Word of God—is the summary phrase he scribbles in 2 Corinthians 2:5. It’s there he says so plainly that we are to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” This phrase needs no explanation.

These are just a few of the texts that lend themselves easily this morning. There are plenty of others, and not just in Saint Paul’s writings. In the end, the point is to think—to use the Word of God as the filter for one’s reflection on everything.

Does this mean thinking through and applying the Word of God at every stop sign you come to while driving? No. Although, if you discover your brakes are out, or you’re one to blow through stop signs purposely, some reflection on the Law and Gospel of God’s Word might be worth your while when you see one of those bright red octagons on the horizon. Apart from these, and assuming a greater maturity, does it mean thinking through raising your children; how you’ll vote; whether you should have another drink; how you’ll deal with conflict; what you’ll do in situations of sexual temptation; which organizations you’ll support with your time, talents, and treasures; how often you’ll attend worship; and so on? Yes. In all these things, take every thought captive to obey Christ. Think them through, seeking alignment with God’s revealed will, all the while trusting that His will is always best.

Do this and be at peace.

Take Hold

Have you ever had one of those days when no matter how hard you tried to interpret life through the lens of positivity, there was an itinerant itch of crankiness that just wouldn’t let it happen? Of course you’ve had such days. You’re a human being. I know I’ve had days like that. I just had one last week, which I guess is why I’m bringing it up—and why I’m about to examine it.

I remember feeling the grouchy cogs begin to turn when I heard that we were likely to get a few inches of snow. I know for a fact I whispered the words, “I want to move to Florida.” Following those words with a bit of daydreaming, I was so easily undercut by the harsh reality that I have neither the funds nor the general flexibility for being in Florida for any great length of time beyond the twelve or so days we, the Thoma family, enjoy there each summer. The futility of this harsh realization began draping my world in negative hues almost immediately, and the subsequent events of the day bore witness to it.

I was easily frustrated by other drivers on the road. Little mistakes in my everyday labors became sizable. I lost interest in things that might normally bring me joy. I found myself scrutinizing humanity with far less grace. For example, I found myself in conversation with a fellow clergyman regarding Church and State issues. As we talked, I recalled silently the familiar thought that dialogue is indeed dead, that general conversation involving differing viewpoints has become illusionary, that the modern exchange of ideas has evolved into little more than crisscrossing monologues between people incapable of actually listening to anyone but themselves.

I don’t like feeling this way. I don’t like viewing the world this way. It’s a hard way to go about life, and in the end, it can do little more than to devolve into sadness. So, how does one get free from this?

Well, for me it wasn’t anything I was able to do, but rather the doings of others. It was an unexpected email from a friend offering some encouragement. A little later that afternoon, it was an unanticipated and bright-eyed “Hey, Pastor!” coupled with a high-five from one of the second-graders passing in the school hallway. That night it was an enjoyable conversation during a game of pool with my son, Harrison. Before bed, it was an exceptionally tight and lengthy hug and “I love you” from my daughter, Madeline, followed by the same from Evelyn.

In a sense, I didn’t find a way out of the gloom. I was lifted out.

There is the saying that there is no tomorrow when a friend asks today. This means that when a friend is in need, there is nothing in our future that we can’t put off until we’ve attended to that friend. But sometimes that friend can’t ask. Sometimes he doesn’t even know he needs to ask. Sometimes he is unaware he’s been slow-boiled into his darkest identity, and with this, he doesn’t realize the identity is consuming him.

We all know people like this, folks whose essential personalities were one way, but then when we encountered them again after some time apart, they were noticeably different. They had changed. Their happiness had somehow become muted and the vibrancy of their light had become a little dimmer.

I wonder if this is becoming more common in a society shaped by digital communication and social distancing. Well, to be honest, I’m certain it is. While plenty of studies have provided mounds of data inferring it, as a pastor, I can see it for myself. I don’t really need the studies to confirm what’s right in front of my face. Having interacted with people here at Our Savior who, previously, hadn’t been out of the house or come to worship in over a year, it was easy to see the change. Yes, they were glad to be back, but it was a reserved gladness held in check by a foreign specter—almost as if it had convinced them to reconnect only because the inevitable “death by virus” was better than insanity in seclusion.

You may question this interpretation, which is fine, but I’m here to tell you that if you thought the world was becoming a negative place before the pandemic, COVID has hit the gas pedal on society’s emotional downturn toward instability.

Thinking back to what raised me from my own melancholy sulk, it was the people around me who did the heavy lifting. From that casual example, I sure hope you realize just how much you need to be with other people on a regular basis—how humans need not only to see each other’s faces, but to experience each other’s physical presences. Regular togetherness is no small thing to God, and so He urges His Church to gather for worship, making sure we’re not “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25). Of course He does this for the sake of giving Himself to His people through the richest of fare—Word and Sacrament ministry. But there are other reasons hovering in the realm of practicality that He has in mind, too.

We’re human. He knows what this means better than we do. He scribbled togetherness into our framework. Individuals were not designed to be alone in seclusion (Genesis 2:18). We’re meant to be out and among others. And why? Well, it’s the reason that before Adam gave Eve her formal name, God called her “helper.” God knows that when we’re together—whether it be in a marriage, a family, a friendship, a bible study group, serving on a board at church, or any other situation involving human togetherness—there will always be those around us who are in tune with our real selves and who will be ready to reach out to lift us up when they sense we are falling. In fact, God said this very thing about togetherness rather precisely in Ecclesiastes 4:10: “For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.”

I didn’t expect that email from the friend who sent it. But he noticed something about me on Sunday that left him thinking he should. I get tight hugs from my daughters all the time, but I didn’t expect the tight hug from Madeline that lasted three-times as long as normal. In that moment, for some reason, she was moved to give me a little extra love, and it helped. And as God would so generously provide through such faithful Christians, these happenings arrived at just the right moment, ultimately beginning the Lord’s divine effort to begin holding back the wave of negativity that was making its way toward my spiritual shore and, quite possibly, pull me out into the inescapability of deeper waters.

I pray you’ll consider these words and take them to heart. The first of which to take in is that if you sense someone is falling down or slipping away, reach out to help them. A gentle word will do. An act of kindness will help, too. A confident explanation of the courage Christ gives will prompt.

Second, if you’ve been away from your church family for a while, maybe it’s time to start making your way back. At the time of this writing, it’s been over four-hundred days since the first of the lockdown and mask mandates. It’s been over four-hundred days since a smile and a friendly embrace have been openly available between people without shame. It’s been over four-hundred days since people started unnaturally touching elbows instead of reaching out to make bare human contact by shaking hands. It’s been over four-hundred days since almost everything humanly personal about mankind since the beginning of time was relegated to the impersonal and dead-spaced world of Zoom meetings and virtual learning. Maybe it’s time to reconsider what’s separating you, not only from the places and means by which God is pleased to dwell and operate, but from the ones God has put into place as the hands and feet of His care and intended community in your life. Maybe it’s time to admit that perhaps—just perhaps—God isn’t a fan of what the last four-hundred days has produced: skyrocketing depression, a spike in suicides and domestic violence, and so much more. Perhaps God isn’t happy about what the last four-hundred days has so easily convinced us to accept as either virtuous or shameful, of the division the last four-hundred days has produced among His people, a body of believers who claim to confess Christ and the certainty against Death that faith by the power of the Holy Spirit gives. That’s what Easter is all about—which means that, if anything, you’re in a church season that is most certainly nudging you in this regard right now.

Yes, get vaccinated if you want. Wear a mask—or two, even. Social distance. Do whatever. But maybe consider that it’s time to come back.

Whatever conclusion you come to, I can assure you that you’re missed, even if you’ve somehow convinced yourself you’re not. We have on average about 250 people here in worship every Sunday, and I promise they are asking about and missing those who’ve been away. The negative feelings suggesting you need to continue to stay away or that you haven’t been missed are nothing more than slow-boiled changes in your identity. The devil is fooling you. They’re most certainly not anything being emitted by your church family.

Come back. Be together with the rest of us. Know that when we see you, it’ll stir the joy you’d expect from Christian friends intent on drawing you close and not pushing you away. And on your part, be ready to be overwhelmed with the delight such a reunion will provide. It truly is a magnificent elation that togetherness in the Lord unleashes. Plenty have experienced it. I bet you will, too.