Mud and Stars

God sure is good, isn’t He? I’m sure if you looked back over the years of your life, you’d agree. I’m certain you’d find plenty of moments acknowledging His gracious hand in both the good times and the bad.

I would imagine that like me, there are a number of things that have happened in your life that took a few years to make sense, even if only in part. You struggled to understand why God managed them the way He did. I’m guessing there are just as many bygone happenings on your timeline you still don’t understand, and it’s likely you never will, at least not until you meet the Lord face to face. Either way, until each of us breathes our last, each new day arrives at our doorstep, and God willing, we ripen with wisdom and are found capable of saying, “Each day is a new day in the Lord.”

Only Christians can say that. It’s a vocalized fruit of faith budding on the vine of Jesus. Its flower takes in both the sunshine and the rain, the joys and the hardships, knowing three things in particular. First, we are guaranteed to experience trouble (John 16:33a). Second, we can take heart in the fact that Jesus has overcome them all by His life, death, and resurrection for us (John 16:33b). And third, we can steer into each new day knowing that both the good and the bad are being used by God for the benefit of our salvation—for our final future in heaven with Him (Romans 8:28-39).

Imagine if this clarity of faith were hidden from us. Imagine if we didn’t know to expect both joy and sadness in this life. Imagine if we didn’t know that beneath the wing of our Savior, all these things were already well in hand and being worked in a way that gives the upper hand to the Gospel in our lives. Imagine if, when peering out toward any future, hopeless gloom was our only windowpane.

I say this knowing everybody is different, that everyone has various perspectives on things. When it comes to human outlooks, I’m one who believes the world can be divided into optimists and pessimists, with realists locating themselves in one category or the other depending on the situation. Thinking about this, I don’t know who said it, but I learned a rhyme many years ago about two men in prison. It goes something like, “Two men are looking through the same bars. One sees the mud and the other the stars.” For me, when the feeling of imprisonment sets in, and it sometimes does, I prefer to look at the stars. The more shackled I feel, the more I strive, the more I reach upward from the window of my cell looking for and anticipating a way to change my current situation. But I say this knowing that for some, the bars are often physiological or psychological in nature. In other words, no matter how hard they try, they just can’t seem to see anything but mud, and as a result, they have little energy for grasping at anything beyond their cell.

So, where am I going with all of this? I don’t know. I guess I’m sitting here listening to an early morning thunderstorm, thinking about the current bars of my cell, and having an unusually difficult time seeing anything but the mud.

I’ll be having surgery tomorrow at 2:30pm. It’ll be to repair the torn Achilles tendon on my right leg—my driving leg. Forget the fact it’s already been over a week since the tear. Disregard the doctor’s promise of two weeks of post-op pain. I’m imprisoned by something else. For a guy like me who’s relatively self-sufficient and always on the move, the prospect of countless weeks of immobility entangled with the impending need to rely on so many folks for so much help for so many things is tantamount to a prison sentence. At a minimum, it is a very hard lesson for me to learn. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the help. Truly. It’s just that it goes against the grains of my personality in the most visceral ways, and this being true, I can all but guarantee I’m going to experience guilt for burdening others with my needs.

Again, sitting here observing the cast on my leg while considering the months-long recovery ahead, I must admit that regardless of my usual capabilities and feelings of general optimism, it’s always possible for something to come along and kick these props from beneath me. This moment has challenged me once again to keep my heart and mind fixed in the right place. It has reminded me that whether one is inclined to see the mud or the stars in any situation, spiritually speaking we’re all in the same cell. We’re all imprisoned by Sin and Death, and no matter what we do, we cannot save ourselves. We need help from the outside. We need a rescuer who’s cosmically more than what we might be inclined by perspective or ability to see or reach for in this life. We need someone who can actually melt away the steely bars for all time, ultimately shattering the very real chains that refuse to let us go.

Christians can say each day is a new day in the Lord because they know that “someone” is the Son of God, Jesus Christ. He’s the One who meets us in the mud, submitting himself to the unrelenting murk of hopelessness in our place. He’s the One who gives His life for ours, and by His sacrifice, is found outshining even the brightest, most optimistic stars, and bringing life and light to the darkest prison cells. In moments like the one I’m experiencing right now, He proves the recalibrating power of this Gospel through His people as they brighten the lives of others around them.

I suppose that’s one reason why I began by saying just how good God is. Optimist, pessimist… whichever. Faith brings a completely different perspective, and from all the messages and help I’ve received from so many of you, I’m relearning just how over the top God can be with His goodness (1 Peter 4:10; John 13:35). This alone cuts through my sinful inhibitions and serves as a glimmering star beyond my cell window. It reminds me of a much bigger and better reality at work behind what I think I’m experiencing.

With this perspective, I assure you I’m ready to go into the forthcoming days—both the good ones and the bad ones—with gratefulness and hope, staking the claim that each day is a new day in the Lord. I’ll have my ups and downs. Still, through daily Word and prayer, I’m certain I’ll be strengthened for planting the flag of confidence every morning, trusting that God had a very good reason for not preventing my current situation, and being content to know that whatever His reason was, it was for the good of my salvation.

I pray the same confidence and contentment for you in whatever you may be enduring at this very moment.

Vicisti, Galilaee

Christ is risen. There is no mistaking this. The tomb is empty. He has visited with His people in the flesh. He isn’t a ghost. They have seen Him, embraced Him, and eaten meals with Him, all the while marveling at the scars of His crucifixion wounds.

Indeed, the wounds prove He was dead. Yes, His enemies killed Him. And like any other human caught in the riptide of mortality, He was embalmed according to the era’s standards and buried.

And yet, here He is. His skin is not pale. His limbs are not stiff or motionless. His eyes are not greyed and sunken. The scent of rot is not wafting. His wounds are healed. Instead, He is lively and laughing. His mouth moves, his teeth and tongue forming precious words. His voice is not shaky, but certain. His chest expands as it brings in oxygen. His hands are warm and His eyes are bright with joy.

He is alive. Risen.

Not one of His disciples could leave this interaction with fear. Not one would be found in the world with a willingness to deny His resurrection. Of course, the enemies of Jesus would circulate rumors, saying these backwater imbeciles were fashioning stories, perhaps having stolen and hidden the body of Jesus to keep the Galilean’s religion alive. But even these desperate accusations would collapse under the weight of countless more who’d testify to having seen the Lord, not dead, but alive. Even one of the enemies’ own—Saul of Tarsus, a rising star among the Pharisees—he, too, would commit himself to the Christian claim, having crossed paths with the risen Christ in a most luminously magnificent way on the road to Damascus.

Perhaps the enemies of Jesus needed only to give the current excitement time to wane. Besides, the fuel in every lamp must eventually run dry. The insignificant things are so easily lost to time’s sands. As the days and months and years pass, so many manias fade from view and are eventually forgotten. Surely, this was Christianity’s destiny. Surely, a religion being preached and defended by a handful of inconsequential no-names would evaporate. Even better, with the help of Jesus’ powerful enemies, whether they be the Pharisees, the Roman Empire, or a venomously unrelenting culture, Christianity would never even find itself a jot in the history books.

But again, here we are.

On every continent across the world, both in the lands where faith is easy and the domains where faith is hard, the Christians are rejoicing in the victory of Jesus over Sin, Death, and Satan. They can be discovered at this time every year bearing the full-throated announcement, “Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!”

Christians have always been willing to sing out what they know to be true. Interestingly, the enemies of Christ, whether in this life or the next, have all eventually joined in the chorus (Philippians 2:10). Emperor Julian (A.D. 331-363) comes to mind as an embodiment of this fact.

The son of Christian parents, and yet one who fell away in his twenties (likely because of the dangerous doctrines of false teachers like Arius), Julian did all he could during his time as Caesar to bury Christianity. His main effort for accomplishing this was by chiseling away at the rights of Christians while working to restore Roman paganism. He believed all that was required for pushing Christianity to its brink was a competing religion fortified by a collaborating Emperor. And yet, like all who came before him and all who’d come afterward, Julian realized the impenetrability of the Gospel, and eventually, he found himself confessing this truth angrily before his death.

“Vicisti, Galilaee,” were his final words. “You have conquered, O Galilean.” Not even the Roman Emperor, with all the conquering power of the known world, could bring Christianity into submission.

And so it goes throughout history. The Gospel continues forth, people are saved, and as the Lord Himself declared, the gates of hell will never find a sure footing to prevail against these wonders (Matthew 16:18).

Of course, Jesus never promised that the Church would always be set toward increase. There would be an ebb and flow to her life. He sent His apostles out to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19) even after He’d already pondered rhetorically whether He’d find any faith on the earth at all when He returned at the Last Day (Luke 18:8).

These are sobering words. And yet, against the backdrop of history and all potential futures, they are forever comforting. The Gospel will remain. Jesus said so. Even right now in America as the snuffing of all things Christian is in an unprecedented upsurge, still, here we are. The Good News of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ is going out from the churches (the faithful ones, that is) just as the Lord, the conquering Galilean, promised. He has neither left us nor forsaken us. Indeed, He is with us always, even to the end of the age.

Bearing this in your heart, may God continue to strengthen and preserve you by His powerful Holy Spirit as you carry forth rejoicing in the victory of the One who gave His life on the cross—and then took it up again in conquering might—all for you! Undeniably, Christ has assured us that this Gospel message will continue to go before us like a juggernaut across the landscape of all things created and uncreated forevermore! Indeed, Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Let’s Be Honest About Death

Just yesterday (Saturday, February 20), the Life Team of Our Savior blessed our church and community by offering an “End of Life” seminar. It was well attended. I was glad for that.

The keynote speaker for the event was Genevieve Marnon, the Legislative Director for Right to Life of Michigan. I know Genevieve. She’s a great servant of the cause for life, and as you’d expect, she gave great insight into a multitude of things facing the Church in America when it comes to end-of-life decision making. All who took advantage of the day’s events were well fed.

We were also joined by Gary Borg from Lynch and Sons Funeral Home. I know the folks at Lynch and Sons well. Some years ago, Thomas Lynch, being the friend and writer that he is, wrote a kindly endorsement for my first volume of The Angels’ Portion. Knowing Tom’s directors to be top-notch, as expected, Gary’s words were valuable as he explained the funeral home’s role in the process, giving helpful tips to families for navigating what is likely to be a taxing and turbulent time.

I was tasked with kicking off the event. My topic: “How to Prepare for a Funeral Service and Beyond.” Of course, I did what I could to fulfill the expectations of this topic, being sure to talk about the nature and theology of a funeral service, as well as emphasizing and encouraging faithful practices. I talked about how to be proactive in planning one’s own funeral, and I went through the basic steps of what families should do when a loved one’s last breath occurs.

But before I could speak to any of these things, I felt the need to steer into an honest discussion of what sits at the core of the conversation.

Death.

There is the temptation to avoid the word “death” altogether. I, on the other hand, give the word a capital “D” in every sermon I write. Why? Because Death is no small thing. It’s owed our attention. It’s big. It’s powerful. When it’s lurking, you know it’s there. When it steps onto the scene, there’s no questioning its intentions. Shakespeare personified Death in this way, too, describing it as keeping court, as sitting and scoffing at the pomp of man, waiting for the inevitable moment (Richard II, III, ii, I, 160). When Death has passed through, the devastation is real. It leaves behind things that are tangible to each of the human senses. You can see its shadow in the pale skin of the deceased. You can touch and know the coldness of its labor. It even has its own smell. The people who’ve been powerless to stop its savage work on a loved one have red cheeks and bloodshot eyes. They’ve tasted the salt of their own tears. When there’s no more heavy breathing and the life-support machines have been stopped, the silence is thunderous.

W.B. Yeats once wrote that Man knows Death to the bone (Death, 1933). And he’s right. For the victim, it leaves nothing untouched. For those left behind, it cuts into the depths of their being, and its scars are long-lasting.

Against the overwhelming evidence of Death’s strangling might, in an attempt to be at peace with its inescapable work, I’ve heard some refer to Death as a friend, something to embrace as good. Yes, it’s true that an end to mortal suffering can be counted as a blessing. But the verity of such a statement isn’t so for the reasons the mortal flesh would conjure. Death is not a blessing. It’s a curse. It’s not natural. It’s completely foreign to God’s design for creation. He makes sure we understand these things in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:19. In 1 Corinthians 15:26, Saint Paul makes sure we never utter the words, “Death is a friend.” It’s not a friend. It’s the last bitterest enemy of Man.

Before we can even begin to fathom the glorious purpose and momentum of a Christian funeral, we need to be wise to what we’re actually dealing with. Death is everything I’ve described. It’s real, and it’s coming for all. Each of us will breathe our last and be returned to the bosom of the earth. We don’t know how or when it will happen, we just know that it will. And when it does, what will we do? What shall we expect from and for those around us? Where is our hope in the midst of the mess?

A Christian funeral beholds Christ right in the middle of it.

In the midst of the initial sadness—Christ. When the machines are being unplugged and rolled away—Christ. When the plans are being made at the funeral home—Christ. When the readings and hymns are being selected and the obituary is being crafted from memories—Christ. When the bell tolls and the service begins, when the casket is closed and the mortal remains are covered by the pall—Christ. When the sermon is ringing out to the listeners—Christ and more Christ! Yes, the loved-one in the casket will be remembered, and likely in some heart-warming ways. Nevertheless, none of these will rise to the prominent station of “most important.” At a Christian funeral, Jesus owns that spot. And so the unmistakable communiqué to be dispatched to the troubled community will be the Good News of Death’s cure—the great heralding of Death’s utter defeat at the hands of Christ.

A Christian funeral is to be nothing less than the proclamation of this Gospel—the overabundant proclamation of the world-splitting news that Death no longer rules the spaces between heaven and hell because of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, Death is no longer the believer’s lord. It is not the believer’s master. It is not the believer’s end. Jesus has seen to this. He said so Himself: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Trusting in the divine Son of God, the One who throttled Death by His own demise on Calvary’s cross, believers—both in the casket and in the pews—can be sure that Death has been remedied. The process itself, no matter how it may unfold, is now only for believers to close their eyes and exhale a last breath in mortality, and then to open their eyes and inhale the freshness of eternal life in the nearest presence of Christ in heaven.

Christ made sure of this.

If we don’t understand these things, a funeral can devolve into a circus sideshow very quickly. If we don’t empower our pastors to direct our funerals in a Godly way, being sure to leave behind very clear instructions for our families, then our own funerals very well could become less of what Christ would desire and more of what the unbelieving world would do to find peace, which ultimately means everyone in attendance will be left searching for hope in all the wrong places.

Lent is a good time to have a seminar like the one we had. This is true because Lent takes seriously what plagues humanity, knowing the immensity of the Lord’s work to save us from it, while at the same time knowing that Easter is on the very near horizon.

My prayer for you this day is that you would know the immensity of the Lord’s work, too, and that you would look to Him in all things, being assured of eternal life through faith in Him. Lent reminds us of the serious nature of the wage for Sin, which is Death. Easter reminds us that neither has a hold on Jesus. This being true, by faith in Him, they don’t have a hold on you, either.

The Shape of the Gospel — Ash Wednesday

The penitential season of Lent is soon to be upon us. It begins this week with Ash Wednesday.

So, who cares? Christians do. At least, they should. Although, it would seem many Christians—even some of the clergy—are preaching and teaching against it. I don’t know why. I did hear one say it’s some sort of innovation to the Church Year and therefore to be avoided. I heard another suggest it hinders the Christian’s ability to prepare for Easter with joy. That’s sad. One sure way to rob the victory of its joy is to be ignorant of what’s at stake in the war. Ash Wednesday offers a much-needed glimpse of the battlefield.

I find it strangely interesting that even the sensual (though unofficial) liturgies of something like Mardi Gras would portray a better awareness and care for Ash Wednesday and Lent, whether their partakers actually realize it or not. Even in the midst of a celebration that holds the well-deserved reputation for overindulgent debauchery, there is the sense that it must and will come to an end.

“Live it up,” its rites and ceremonies proclaim, “for after Fat Tuesday, it must all expire.”

And it does. What once was gives way to the ashen dust of death remembered by Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the proper headstone for all things carnal.

A day in the Church Year in which believers’ foreheads are marked with the ashes of what were once lively and verdant branches (the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration), Ash Wednesday reveals that the Christian Church knows something of this world that the world itself cannot fully fathom. It knows the wage for Sin is Death—real and eternal Death. It knows this as it recalls God’s terrifying words to Adam and Eve after the fall into Sin. These words still reverberating, it hears the truth in them. It knows the necessity for their honest contemplation so that we would see the world as it ought to be seen. It knows to immerse itself in the depths of a solemnity that acknowledges the horror of the very real predicament that the entire human race is facing. The Church knows there’s so much more than just an end to things, but there’s also a terrible dreadfulness just over that end’s border for those who remain enslaved to the mess.

You can’t ignore it.

You can’t hide from it.

You can’t outrun it.

You can’t overpower it.

The inevitability of its reach is woven into the very fleshly fabric of every man, woman, and child who was ever born in the natural way.

It was with divine, and yet heartbroken, authority that God announced this to His world and its first inhabitants: “Because you have done this, cursed is the ground because of you…” (Genesis 3:17). Cursed things are put away from God. By this curse—this self-inflicted and permanent vexation—“you will return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

The thing about Ash Wednesday is that you can’t make your way into and through Lent without contemplating the veracity of the curse. Ash Wednesday has become a guardian of sorts at Lent’s contrite door, and it won’t let you into the forthcoming events without being stamped. The stamp it reaches out to give, it goes on your head and not your hand. Its dust crowns the human frame as the only appropriate coronation for someone born into the un-royal lineage of the Sin-nature. It adorns the skull that shields the corrupted human mind, the organ fed by a sinful heart so that it would calculate and then initiate every ungodly act of thought, word, or deed. The mark’s dirty-cold embers are the kind that distinguish Cain from Abel, openly identifying the murderer and reminding him of the dusty ground that opened up to swallow Godly innocence.

And yet, even as Ash Wednesday won’t let you forget the seriousness of the disease, it will be just as fervent with the cure.

Remember: That filthy mark is in the shape of a cross. It’s smeared onto the penitently-postured foreheads of Ash Wednesday’s observers who know their need for a Savior. It serves as a silent proclamation of God’s truest inclinations in our darkness. It’s the shape of the Gospel—the death of the Savior, Jesus Christ, for a cursed world. The Great Exchange—His righteousness for our unrighteousness. It tells of a birthright, not earned, but given in love. It beams through dusty grime the truth of an imperishable crown of blamelessness, not earned by the wearer, but won and granted by the Savior. Cain is marked and no one can touch him. God has been gracious. For us, even in that smeared cross’ quiet, there thunders above every human wearing it an otherworldly hope for eternal life through faith in the Savior who was nailed to it on Good Friday. The booming crack of its message drowns out the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh’s accusations to the contrary.

Ash Wednesday’s mark serves as a gentle reminder of something else in particular. It heralds rebirth.

That cross of ash will dot the same place where God first made the sign of the cross upon His Christians in Holy Baptism. If only for a few hours, it will make visible the invisible, leading each of its bearers back to the moment when God He put His own name on them, claiming them as His through the washing of water and the Word, thereby grafting them into the entirety of Christ’s self-submitting work to accomplish Mankind’s redemption (Romans 6:1-10).

It’s been said that the best opportunities are seldom labeled. This “best opportunity” of Ash Wednesday is, in fact, labeled. Its tag may be grimy, but it happens to be one of the most condensed opportunities in the entirety of the Church Year for a right understanding of our condition in Sin and our glorious rescue by the Son of God. Don’t keep it at arm’s length, but rather embrace the opportunity to gather with the faithful and sing as we do in the appointed tract, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).

If you have any say in your evening activities, I encourage you to participate. Set aside 7:00pm this Wednesday. Make your way to Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan. Or go to your own church if it is offering a service. Either way, just don’t make the mistake of missing out on the powerful manner and message of the Ash Wednesday proclamation. You’ll be given the opportunity to look Sin and Death square in the eyes. You’ll see your mortality there. But you’ll see so very brightly and hear so very clearly the Good News of your brand new beginning through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the compassion of God who took upon Himself human flesh and made His dwelling among us for our rescue.

Virtual Overlords and a Few Lessons Learned

So, what is there to talk about these days? Yeah, I know, right?

I don’t know about you, but the events of the past week have been concerning. And without sounding completely tone deaf, I should at least acknowledge that while I know what’s going on, I just don’t feel like visiting with it in the detail some may expect.

To be honest, with all of the conservatives on the news and social media platforms being rounded up and digitally executed, I think my time on certain networks is coming to an end. I’m not as active on Twitter as most, but I do have a few thousand followers, and so on Saturday night, just to see if I’d been affected by the mass cleansings, I discovered that about half of them were gone. I checked again later before the 12:30pm Divine Service on Sunday and saw that the number had risen to about two-thirds having gone MIA. Whether they’re leaving the platform or being punted, I think that’s a foretaste of what’s coming for guys like me who do what they can to bring the concerns of the Gospel to bear in the public square and culture.

Either way, no worries in this regard. I’m already in the process of closing my Twitter account as soon as I can get all of my data downloaded. Although I noticed that the Twitter overlords intend to craft the contours of that decision for me, too. Their archive downloading instructions read: “You can request a ZIP file with an archive of the data we think is most important to you.”

“…the data we think is most important to you.”

I can’t have all of my content. I can have what they decide I can have.

For the record, I’ve been trying to leave Facebook for a few years. Just ask my wife, Jennifer. She’ll tell you the only reason I’ve stayed as long as I have is because it’s been incredibly useful for introducing Our Savior Lutheran Church and School to the surrounding community—who we are, what we do, and why. Beyond that, everything else I write could just as easily be housed at one of my blogs: AngelsPortion.com or CruciformStuff.com.

But give it some time. Those might end up on the virtual book pyre in the next few weeks, too. I mean, I do scribe and share things on both sites that say horribly divisive things—like abortion is a no-no, and marriage is God’s property.

It should scare Americans that it’s only the conservative, pro-life, and Christian thinkers who are being booted, even as groups like “PornHub” (which, by the way, was successfully convicted of dealing in child pornography), most chapters of Antifa, and countless other liberal echo chambers are being allowed to stay and spread their doctrines. Interestingly, I read through Joe Biden’s presidential campaign donor report, and can you guess who some of the biggest donors were to his campaign? Yep. Big tech. He received lots of help from the likes of Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Bill Gates (Microsoft).

Perhaps even more terrifying is that Amazon.com gave notice to Parler, which is a conservative competitor to Twitter, saying that unless Parler begins employing the same kind of draconian content policing policies that Twitter employs—which is code for cancelling conservatives and Christians—it’ll be dropped from their servers. I think the threat actually became reality last night. And both Apple and Google have already dropped the Parler mobile application from their stores so that no one else can join. They just don’t want conservatives to be able to communicate with mass momentum. I’ve read that MeWe, which is the conservative competitor to Facebook, is on the chopping block, too.

“That’ll never happen,” so many among us have said. “Just stay in your lane and leave it to God to handle.” Well, it’s happening. And oh, by the way, God handles these kinds of things through His people. There are countless portions of God’s Word urging us to be engaged in our communities and world. If the reader of these texts is being honest, then he’ll realize they’re nothing short of mandates for Christians to be who they are in the unavoidable areas of life. Stripping away rights, mass censoring of the conservative Christian voice, unjust fines and jail sentences, the murdering of the unborn, politics in general, and so much more—these topics are all born from the unavoidable areas.

Get in the game.

Now, I’ve already talked about this more than I wanted to when I sat down at the computer screen. But as I said, I didn’t want to sound tone deaf to the fact that we’re making our way into some serious times calling for solemn reflection and serious courage. Still, I’d rather steer in a different direction… that is, if you still have time this morning, because I have far more intriguing things that I’d still like to share.

Perhaps like me, at the beginning of every year you find yourself thinking on what you learned over the course of the preceding 365 days. If you don’t, I recommend making it a deliberate practice. I recommend grabbing a pen, a sheet of paper, and spending some time writing a list of the significant occurrences in your life from last year and what you garnered from them.

It’s not hard to do. I usually try to think of at least five, even though I know I could rake into a pile far more from the annals of my brain. I list these five events, giving each a title, and then beneath each one I write a short sentence—a summary statement of what I learned in that particular instance.

Sometimes it hurts to see what I’ve written. Sometimes it’s a joy. Either way, the result is that I can put a finger on and work to remember something I know now that I didn’t know before, and it continues to be a way to reach higher when it comes to being a better pastor, teacher, husband, father, friend, thinker, and all around human being.

One of the five things in this year’s list isn’t necessarily something I learned, but rather more of a recap. I was reminded that I am more than capable of lying to myself. I’ll give you an example.

There’s someone I know who, no matter what I say or do, just doesn’t seem to like me very much. Whether passively or with deliberate hostility, this person has proven a readiness to take anything I’ve said or done as a reason to lunge at almost any moment. Of course, it’s easy to see why this would bother me. No one wants to be treated this way. I certainly can’t think of too many people who enjoy being disliked. It’s painful. For me, it hurts even more because one of my New Year resolutions in 2020 was to make a genuine effort at bridging the gap of disdain between the two of us. And I did. But it seems each attempt only seemed to ricochet. In the end, however, the self-deception occurred, not in the sense that I was wrong in thinking I could better the relationship, but rather in thinking that it matters if the person genuinely likes me or not. The deception went deeper as I began believing that the person must actually be deranged for not liking me, because, I mean, how could anyone not like me? I’m so easy to get along with, and really quite wonderful in almost every single way.

Sure.

We all think this way sometimes, and with that, the poison of the lie begins seeping into our veins and arming us for retaliation—for giving us a false justification that gives us permission to despise them right back, and even worse, to act on that disposition.

Something else on the list of things I learned: Faithfulness means honesty, and honesty means responsibility, which is precisely why so many go out of their way to redefine faithfulness.

What I mean is that so many people appear to be able to keep their consciences clean while doing just about anything, just so long as they believe what they’re doing is okay with God. But the only way to do something like that is to set honesty aside in order to redefine faithfulness. For example, skipping church becomes acceptable as long as the core of our definition for faithfulness means that our actions are in some way divinely approved, or perhaps that true worship can happen in any form and anywhere. Or maybe we deliberately choose candidates in an election who support the murdering of babies in the womb because, in our thinking, the social welfare programs offered by those same candidates intend to lift far more from poverty, ultimately bettering far more lives than the ones they’d allow to be snuffed out. In other words, in the economy of good deeds, certainly God would be okay with that calculation because it helps more than it harms. Or how about shaming a person in a store for not wearing a mask. If one believes wearing a mask to be an unarguably virtuous cause, a moment spent showing some tough love to a maskless perpetrator in a grocery store can be internally translated as a brave display of righteousness that has as its goal the saving of lives.

I’m taking better care to be aware of these darkly maneuverings, especially among Christians. And as the days of 2021 unfold, I intend to continue probing such foolishness and being ready to respond.

I’ll share one more of my five-item list. Like the first one I shared, it isn’t anything new, but rather a re-learning of sorts.

Other than God, everything has a beginning and end, and if you can just give the stormy situation you’re in a little bit of time, some prayerful consideration, and if required, some careful conversation, eventually the situation will dissipate like a raincloud that has wept all its tears.

Even some of the worst situations I’ve ever experienced as a pastor have all quieted down at one point or another. “This, too, shall pass” is a well-worn phrase for a reason. Although, the phrase will never outmatch the value of Saint Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4: 17-18, where he reminds us that the troubles of this life are momentary, and in comparison to the eternal glory that is ours in Christ, they just can’t hold a candle.

To conclude, maybe give this exercise a try. Look back at 2020 and see what’s there. You may be surprised by what you discover. The Lord only knows what some of your lists might look like after the year’s remarkably unremarkable collection of insanity. Heck, even the last ten days of 2021 have been enough to generate those “Here, hold my beer” memes we all expected, and as a result, it’s likely you already have some items for next year’s list.

Still, whatever you discover (some of which I’m hoping will be Christian honesty, responsibility, and courage for faithfulness), as the knowledge of these discoveries flow from your heart and mind to the pen at the surface of the paper, as God’s child, be sure to keep in mind what He intends to teach you each and every new day: We needn’t be afraid of those who can harm us in this life but have no jurisdiction in the next (Matthew 10:28). God will never leave us nor forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6). He is with us to the very end of all things (Matthew 28:20). His steadfast love never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is His faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23).

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.
——————

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+

Chasing Happiness

I don’t mean to alarm you, but it’s nearing the end of September and it’s 44 degrees outside right now. And this past Saturday before an early morning meeting with the Elders, I noticed the leaves on one of the trees near the church’s bell tower beginning a course toward yellow. Even before the sun had pierced the horizon, in the dim light, there was the illusion of the tree’s plume being tinged by a bright beam. Of course it wasn’t the sun causing the leaves to glow. It was the onset of autumn.

The world is turning toward winter.

My wife, Jennifer, bought a special type of lamp for me. I haven’t used it yet, but it’s one that’s supposed to help with the seasonal doldrums that come along in the wake of winter’s relentless (and seemingly endless) plodding. She knows I love the summertime. She knows I love the longer days, and that as they grow shorter, I do everything I can to get as much from them as possible. I’ll be outside. I’ll take the top and doors off of the Wrangler, even if only to get an hour or two of enjoyment between passing rainclouds. I do everything I can to pull from each day. Admittedly, I’m easily irritated by kids who’d rather be inside playing a video game instead of doing the same. I see them on the couch with controllers in their hands and I’m reminded of something Peter Shaffer, the English playwright, said of his wife’s disinterest in the surrounding splendor while on vacation in Tuscany:

“All my wife has taken from the Mediterranean—from that whole vast intuitive culture—are four bottles of Chianti to make into lamps.”

But as I was saying, I struggle to find joy in winter. I struggle to discover happiness in what seems to be the monopoly of its darkness, and so I do all I can to relish in what summer gives before it’s gone. I suppose one particular bit of happiness I find in winter is, in itself, paradoxical. I do a lot more writing during the colder, darker months of the year. I do it to help survive winter—to be distracted from its confinement, to sort of take a little time each day to jot myself into imaginary spheres where I’m in control of the pace of the earth’s position and rotation. In those moments, I give far more ticks of the clock to the daylight. If I didn’t have this as mental medicine, I can only imagine the depressions I might endure.

Perhaps you have similar practices that help to get you through your personal melancholies.

Admittedly, every year at this time, I’m reminded of how the changing seasons run parallel with a number of things in life. For one, I’m reminded to embrace the happy times—to appreciate family, friends, and the moments we have together in the “right now.” I recall these things knowing that everything could be very different tomorrow. Come to think of it, tomorrow itself is never a certain thing. This has begun to make more sense as my children get older. With each and every step toward adulthood, I’m reminded of just how momentary the current days truly are. At the moment, all four of my children still live at home, but it won’t be long before each will pass from the summertime of his or her life with mom and dad into the winter of “farewell.” Of course, they’ll move beyond that winter toward the spring and summer of new careers and family, and God willing, the parents will be brought along with them into these seasons of happiness.

All the same, too many parents know exactly the mixed emotions of this icy in-between that I’m describing, and so as the twilight of the events draws near, parents do their best to take as much joy from the moments as each will give. They’ll do what they can to hold onto the happiness.

I suppose before I go any further with my Monday morning tip-tapping of the keyboard’s keys—of putting onto your screen whatever I feel like putting there in the moment—I suppose I should get to some sort of point. Or how about a question? I think there’s one hidden in what I’ve shared so far.

How about this: What makes for real happiness?

Misery seems easy enough to find. Funny thing is, I sometimes think a good portion of society’s misery comes from its endless chasing after happiness. I also sometimes wonder if while we waste a lot of time trying to capture contentment, do we really even know what it looks like, and would we know it if we actually caught it? I’m guessing that for the most part, no. Elderly parents reminisce regarding the happier days when their kids were little and at home. But in many of those moments, they were longing for easier days with older, less dependent children—ones who didn’t whine or get in trouble at school—ones who would finally know enough to run to the toilet to throw up rather than just doing it right there in their bed. At the same time, children are unhappy under the watchful yoke of their parents. They want to be free. But as adults with the flu, they long for the days when mom would coddle them with a makeshift bed on the couch and a never-ending supply of chicken noodle soup and cartoons.

Youthfulness or maturity, obscurity or fame, poverty or wealth, sickness or health—none of these things, or anything in between has ever truly succeeded at being the ultimate conduit for happiness.

The Bible speaks of happiness in some pretty strange ways. One of those ways is hope.

In Proverbs 10:28, King Solomon wrote that the “hope of the righteous will be gladness.” In Romans 15:13, Saint Paul actually connects both joy and peace with the hope of faith when He says, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

At first glance, texts like these might seem counterintuitive. We often see joyful happiness as the emotional object that comes with having something material in hand. We believe that only by holding the first place trophy will we experience joy. For many in our world, only by having more money in hand will they be happy. Few consider the process of hoping for joy to be the joy itself.

Another strange way the Bible talks about happiness is in connection to suffering. The Apostle James wrote:

“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:2-3).

Here we are told that we can actually experience happiness when the world is coming down on us. Of course, James was only repeating what Jesus said in John 15, just a few sentences before He began prepping the disciples for persecution:

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

But notice how Jesus phrased His statement. His joy would be our joy, and He inferred this joy would be ours right now. This should give us a hint as to what real joy—real happiness—truly is. It’s the comforting knowledge given by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel for faith. It’s the divine awareness implanted deep down in our core that knows the freedom from Sin, Death, and the power of the devil won for us by Christ. The world can’t give to us anything remotely close to this. Only God can. And He promises that such happiness can be experienced in both good times and bad. Why? Because it is as Nehemiah proclaimed: “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10). Such joy has steely innards. Its foundation is one of divine confidence, and its framework is built according to the schematic that knows no matter what happens, it stands before the Father justified on account of Christ. By this, Christian joy forever bears in mind the impermanence of this world as it anticipates the world to come in His eternal presence.

“You will show me the path of life,” King David wrote in Psalm 16:11, “and in Your presence is fullness of joy.”

Add to this Saint Paul’s words from Romans 5:1-2:

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

The peace we’ll experience in its fullest sense in the future of heaven is the same peace of which we have a foretaste right now. Beautiful. Our God reminds us by His holy Word that through faith in His Son, right here in this life, we know that any chance for being at war for our eternal future has passed.

We needn’t fear.

In this we can be hopeful. In this we can be happy.

Have You Ever Dreamt of Falling? I Haven’t.

For the record, I made a commitment to myself three weeks ago that I was going to shorten these Monday morning eNewsletter messages. I believe my first attempt two weeks ago was reasonably successful. However, last week’s note… well… I couldn’t stop writing, even though I started the whole thing by saying I didn’t really feel like I had anything to write about.

However, midway through that confession, I paused, and suddenly the empty space was filled with notable experiences, things God is so gracious to allow into all our lives. In my particular case, that grace is something I want to observe, digest, and then share with you. Whether it’s the casual comment in passing at the Red Lobster in Troy I mentioned last week, or an open field of freshly harvested grain I stopped to enjoy last Tuesday while out on visitations—a field, by the way, I was more than tempted to wander out into and toward its encapsulating tree line because… well, just because.

If you can attune yourself to what’s going on around you, it becomes possible for the most inconspicuous of details to become a thing of fascination. Even better, when you become adjusted to the world around you by way of God’s Word, seeing these things as God would see them, the deeper meanings arrive, and with that, there’s plenty to write about.

This means everything to a sermon writer. It’s also a big deal to a pastor who’s intent on sending out a note to the people of his congregation every single week of the year.

And so, since I promised to keep this short, I’ll give you a passing example.

Have you ever dreamt of falling? I haven’t. Not ever. That is until this past Wednesday.

First of all, I’m a firm believer that what happens to you during the waking hours will remain with you during the somnolent ones. Tuesday night I went to bed around 10:30 PM, which was exactly thirty-eight minutes after I’d returned home from one of the longest School Board meetings I’ve ever attended here at Our Savior. We started the meeting at 6:15 PM.

The meeting was long because there was much work to be done. We’re intent on resuming in-person instruction in our school on August 24, and yet no matter what we decide to do, the Governor is requiring all public and non-public schools to submit a plan that proves alignment with her executive mandates. The problem is that we’re not necessarily in alignment with many of her mandates as they relate to the best methods for educating children, and so we had to steer through the mess in order to remain who we are as a Christian school while at the same time doing what we can to abide without contention.

It wasn’t easy. At times, it felt a little hopeless. That night I dreamt of falling, and it’s easy enough to see why.

In the dream, before I hit the ground, I remember seeing a gravel-like ground forming beneath my feet. The gravel was the kind you might find on the side of a country highway beside a freshly harvested field—wink wink. Falling fast, the closer I got to the earth below, the more the ground spread out around me, eventually becoming so wide that I had the feeling its wind resistance was helping to slow my descent to the pace of something along the lines of an unhurried elevator. I remember thinking that while I needed to be ready for the impact, when it came, I could probably survive it. In fact, I recall thinking that if I took a running jump from the plateau when it hit the earth below, the impact might be less like a jarring collision and more like dismounting a moving sidewalk at the airport—and we all know how fun that can be.

Again, I think what happens while a person is awake sometimes makes an appearance while he or she is sleeping. I repeat this claim because earlier that day while eating lunch and tapping away at the sermon for Sunday, I’d also been reading a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge entitled “Dejection: An Ode.” Yes, yes, I do study the appointed texts in preparation for preaching. Don’t worry about that. But I’m also someone who reads from other sources, one of which is poetry. Not the newer stuff, but the classics. I appreciate great poetry more than folks might know. In fact, I think more pastors should consider spending time in the classics in general. I suggest giving poetry a try because it doesn’t necessarily play by the regular rules of communication, and what I’ve discovered is that not only will it help to expand a person’s vocabulary, but it’ll serve up fresh ways to use themes, imagery, and devices of emphasis for better communication of the Word of God. Such efforts pay dividends with a listener’s attention span.

Anyway, as I was reading Coleridge’s words, when I came across the following stanza, it fascinated me enough that I scribbled it onto a sticky note and slapped it on my bookshelf beside other quotations I don’t want to forget:

“For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.” (st. 6)

These words are not precisely from the Bible, but they certainly are a reflection of God’s Word (Colossians 1:27; Jeremiah 29:11; Hebrews 10:23; Philippians 1:6; Romans 5:5; and so many more). They are a beautiful bit of prose from the son of a pastor—and a notable theologian, himself—who knew the power of hope. More importantly, he knew that the hope we experience isn’t anything we can produce, but rather is something God gives us by the Gospel. And we stand on it in the midst of struggle.

Whether or not that’s what Coleridge actually meant for the casual reader to glean from that stanza, I can’t say for sure. Still, his seemingly effortless scribing of “not my own, seemed mine” was deeply impactful.

I think those words were somehow activated while I was sleeping, and they played a part in producing a landscape that reminded me of God’s gracious attention in all things—how He has me in his care at the edge of and over every cliff. In fact, He has me in His care all the way down, and He promises to grant me a safe landing in His merciful love, no matter how catastrophically crater-like the actual landing in this life may be. Even better, He gives to me the vigor for running forth from the platform of hope spreading out beneath me, confident of His protective care, and ready for meeting with a world in desperate need of the same hope.

Or this could all just be a result of the taco I ate before the School Board meeting.

Well, whatever. As I hinted to before (and have said countless times in the past), through the lens of faith fixed on God’s Word, a Christian sees things differently. I certainly prefer to observe things this way, and then as the words come, to share them with you. Hopefully, this particular opportunity was as valuable for you as it was for me, and God willing, it didn’t take up too much of your time.