Introversion as a Superpower

Thinking back on the events of the past week, I’m thankful that I was able to attend the Exegetical Symposium at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It’s the first time in about five years or so that I’ve been able to get away to attend what is really two symposia—an exegetical symposium followed by a systematic symposium—offered over the course of four days. Although, having now returned, I remembered three reasons why I don’t make more of an effort to attend.

The first is that I never really feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. I mean that in a good way. There’s so much offered across the expanse of the two-part event. But as it would go, I can usually only afford to get away for a day or two. This time around, my inability to stay for the whole thing stung a little more than in the past because one of my favorite professors, Rev. Dr. David Scaer, invited me (and Bishop Hardy) to sit beside him at the event’s concluding banquet. Unfortunately, I was already back in Hartland, Michigan, when I received the invitation. Still, what I did get to experience while I was there was incredibly enriching. I thoroughly appreciated the papers given by the professors who beamed everything I remember appreciating about them while a student.

The second reason is as I just hinted. When I’m on campus, I miss the tutelage of insightful professors, and the collegiality of fellow seminarians, many of whom would become brothers in the trenches of a warfare that unfolded in ways few of us expected. When I see these friends again, it is a homecoming of sorts.

I’ll explain the third reason this way.

I learned something rather important about myself within the past ten days, some of those days spent traveling to and from events in Vermont, and the others, as I already mentioned, spent at the Symposium. Well, maybe a little more accurately, I didn’t necessarily discover something new about myself, but rather, I found myself finally willing to admit something I already suspected may be true.

I’m anti-social.

Okay, maybe I’m not anti-social in the clinical sense. Instead, perhaps the devout craving for solitude that almost always washes over me in a crowd is, at a minimum, suggesting I’m far more introverted than I ever truly realized.

I took a moment to look up the typical behavioral patterns of introverts, and for the most part, it seems I fit the bill. I prefer quiet in order to concentrate, which means I’m more than comfortable being alone. I’m not a fan of group work, but much prefer to do things myself. I’m often exhausted after being in a crowd, which explains why I’m in desperate need of a nap after Sunday morning’s usual activities. I dig into and use my imagination more so than my intellect both to solve problems and to relieve stress. Finally, I prefer to write rather than speak. But, having claimed all these individualities, I would not say I lack confidence in a crowd. I can’t remember a time when I was afraid to assume the pulpit. I can’t recall ever being afraid to take the lead in a public conversation when asked to do so. I’m also pretty sure I use more than just my imagination to unpack any given topic at hand. Still, the truth is, in these situations, I’m most comfortable settling in and sitting quietly while someone else dominates the conversation.

I say these things more so in relation to the Symposium, which, again, was a series of events infused with the kind of brilliance God doles out to a select few among us, with one of the Lord’s divine goals being that those wellsprings of information would shine the bright beams of their wisdom upon the rest of us. And yet, in between the Symposium’s scheduled speakers and the papers they presented, I also experienced coffee and conversation on occasion with various fellows whose only apparent goal was to, no matter the audience, prove their intellectual prowess to all within earshot.

Now, I don’t want to complain too much about this, mainly because if there was ever a time and place for vibrantly deep and tangential theological thought leading to discussion, it’s at such a Symposium. Still, you know the kind of person I’m talking about.

It’s easy to tell when someone is intelligent. It’s even easier to tell when someone wants you to think they are intelligent. This is one aspect of such contexts that must be endured rather than enjoyed, namely, the high probability of being cornered by someone you may or may not know intent on proving his cleverness. In my opinion, pocket flasks were made for such moments.

For the record, no, I don’t carry a flask. Although, I do own two.

I’ll add it’s also highly probable that what’s being peacocked in those moments seems, more often than not, to be of very little value to the Church. When that’s true, I may look like I’m listening, but in reality, I’m praying that God would smile on me by rewinding the clock to give back to me the hour I just wasted. And considering the vigor with which some of these conversations unfold, I almost feel guilty for not caring. An example of this involved listening to someone insist that Luther, influenced by Saint Jerome, considered belief in Semper Virgo (the perpetual virginity of Mary) as fundamental to salvation. Firstly, let me take a quick sip. Secondly, just know that mentally I begin to wander off into the weeds when the foundation of any theological argument appears to lessen the import of the Bible’s perspective, choosing to rest solely on non-biblical sources, instead. Thirdly, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth—the fact that the Son of God was born of the “clauso utero” (closed womb) of a virgin—is fundamental to the Christian Faith. It matters in more ways than we’ll ever be able to comprehend in this life. But Semper Virgo is not fundamental. And while Luther may have believed Mary was forever a virgin, he never imposed it on salvation’s equation. A Christian can believe Mary was forever a virgin if he or she wants to. Or not. It doesn’t matter. And our own Lutheran dogmaticians have long affirmed this, saying things like, “If the Christology of a theologian is orthodox in all other respects, he is not to be regarded as a heretic for holding that Mary bore other children in the natural manner after she had given birth to the Son of God” (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Volume II, p. 308). This is a reasonable analysis, especially since biblical texts such as John 2:12, Matthew 1:25, Matthew 12:46, and Matthew 13:55-56 appear to suggest by their contexts something other than Semper Virgo. But again, because the Greek words used in these texts (ἀδελφοὶ, most often used of male siblings; and ἀδελφαὶ, typically used for female siblings) have been used in other contexts to describe fellow believers, neighbors, and countrymen, the exegesis is open and inconclusive, giving folks the freedom to take whichever position they prefer. Personally, I think the texts and their contexts aren’t that complicated. But that’s just me.

Taking another quick sip, although this time from the practical opinion of a husband, I’m guessing the only person Semper Virgo would have really mattered to was Mary’s spouse, Joseph. If Semper Virgo is truly a thing, then we should be spending more time heralding the durability of the poor guy, and we should probably at least consider that there’s more to the reason he’s one of the select few the Bible grants the descriptor of “righteous” (Matthew 1:19). I’m guessing it was not only because he had a merciful heart, but because he endured never having the opportunity to enjoy the God-given delight granted to marriage for making babies. Even more, maybe Semper Virgo actually is true, and another of its proofs is Joseph’s disappearance early on in the Gospel narratives. His absence is a hint to his death at an early age. I can imagine a man married to a woman with a strict “hands off” policy dying well before his time.

In a prattling world of nonsensical chatter—even as it meets with theological things—I sometimes wish more people could discover and embrace the superpowers of their inner introvert, because for as counter-intuitive to its clinical definition as it might seem, introversion is one particular personality type naturally equipped for listening, observing, and then learning.

I think that may be where this morning’s meandering is finally carrying me.

When it comes to basic conversation, taking turns at listening is not only helpful, it’s also polite. A person who monopolizes the conversation is rude. The rude behavior blossoms into offensiveness when the monopoly is one of bloviating grandeur that becomes the imparting of wisdom no one really cares to receive. It’s what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he said, “The louder he spoke of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.” On the other hand, both contributing and listening—namely, listening, and the subsequent learning that occurs naturally from it—are key aspects of the Christian faith. The Bible is not silent in this regard (Proverbs 19:20; Romans 10:17; Ecclesiastes 5:1-3; and the like). Even the Lord Himself regularly emphasized listening and learning as crucial to the salvific exchange (Matthew 11:15). This is true not only because the message of the Gospel to be heard and learned is God’s chosen power source for salvation (Romans 1:16), but because the critical aspects of listening and learning flank what I already mentioned: observing. Together, the listening and learning of faith become the fabled sixth sense that calibrates the other five senses for rightly engaging with the world around us.

When we listen and learn through the lens of the Gospel for faith, we see things as they really are.

Having said all this, I suppose I’ll end by sharing a portion of something from Luther’s Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535) that my friend, Terry E. Hoese, posted on Facebook last week. At its core, I think it speaks to what I’ve shared here. By the way, I was blessed to see Terry at the Symposium, and was able to spend time in a wonderful conversation with him!

“Never should we think that we are so holy, so well instructed, and confident that we have learned it all. Because the more confident we are, just as much, we can err and fall, placing ourselves and others at great danger and risk” (p. 92).

Finally, I don’t know if any of this was helpful to you or not. Whether it was or wasn’t, I hope I didn’t sound too negative. I appreciated my time at the Symposium. As I said, I was enriched, and this is because there’s always so much to be mined from everything it offers—even by way of the sometimes maddening side-conversations. But as I said, no matter if a conversation is enjoyable or annoying, every interaction will be for a Christian a time of learning. They’re all opportunities for clarity. Through the lens of the Gospel for faith, all human dealings are opportunities for observing and then navigating this world in faithfulness to Christ. Even better, they’re times for communicating that same Gospel, that is, if you can get a word in edgewise.

Bumper Stickers

The Thoma family just returned from a very short trip south to visit my parents. We met up with my sister, Shelley, and her family, too. My mom turns 70 tomorrow, and as it would go, we were actually able to sneak away for most of Friday and Saturday to celebrate with her. We met them all in South Bend, Indiana, which is about half way between us. My mom was glad we came. And thankfully, returning home yesterday, we managed to stay ahead of the storms, having arrived just before they hit.

At one point during our adventures, as it is whenever one travels, it became necessary to eat. Unfortunately, there weren’t many places near to where we were staying. As it would happen, however, right across the street from our hotel was a gas station with a pizza restaurant attached. When I saw it was a Noble Roman’s pizzeria, I more or less lunged.

Noble Romans was a thing for my family when I was growing up in Danville, Illinois. When we moved to Morton, Illinois, just before my junior year in high school, we left Noble Romans behind, and I can say that I probably haven’t visited one since I was sixteen or so. Still, seeing the sign brought back memories of pizza-making birthday parties and after-game gatherings with basketball families. Needless to say, I left the family to unpack, having promised them a delightful dinner. Because it was a fairly busy intersection, I decided to drive, which in essence meant crossing from one parking lot over the road to the restaurant’s lot. Easy enough. Except the restaurant’s parking spaces were full. No problem. I wasn’t staying long. With that, I pulled up next to a gas pump and parked.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

On the other side of the pump was a minivan adorned with bumper stickers—so many stickers, in fact, that there was very little uncovered space left on the back hatch of the vehicle. Had its pilot been a little less aware of my presence, I’d have taken a picture, because I think like me, you would have laughed at the spectrum of stereotypical concerns communicated by what was, in essence, a rolling billboard of “political correctness.”

There were stickers shaming big corporations beside stickers complaining about pollution’s effect on the natural environment. There was a sticker asking the viewer to save the lives of honey bees. There were stickers degrading guns and their owners. There were stickers decrying poverty and income inequality, one speaking rather specifically about raising the minimum wage. There were stickers warning of the dangers of climate change beside stickers selling the proposition that we’re killing polar bears. There was a “Black Lives Matter” sticker near a “Stop Police Violence” sticker. There were stickers lauding PETA. Of course, there were stickers degrading President Trump and his supporters. There were stickers promoting marijuana. There were stickers celebrating transgenderism near rainbow-colored “equality” stickers promoting same-sex marriage. There was a sticker that referred to organized religion as evil—although, it was by no means a generalized statement since it displayed a Bible with a red X through it. Humorously, just below the “religion is evil” sticker rested another one promoting Wicca, which is the modern pagan religion that employs witchcraft. And as if that wasn’t funny enough, only inches away from the Wicca sticker was a token “Coexist” sticker.

I suppose I’m sharing this for a reason. I’ll try to find my way to it.

I’ll get there by first saying I saw a meme re-shared this morning by a friend which offered, “Villainy wears many masks; none so dangerous as the mask of virtue.” For the record, the original sharer of the meme claimed the quotation’s source as Washington Irving, suggesting it could be found in his delightful little volume The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I know for a fact the line isn’t in that book. I say this because I read Irving’s story at least once a year. In truth, the quotation comes from the 1999 Tim Burton film “Sleepy Hollow.” This, too, is a favorite of mine, even though it’s hardly based on Irving’s story. I like the film because I appreciate Johnny Depp’s performance. I’m even more appreciative of Christopher Lee’s brief appearance at the beginning. As it would go, Ichabod Crane is the one who mouths the line in the film, and for what it’s worth, it’s well-placed as a nod to what I think is one of the sub-themes of Irving’s book—which is that while people may portray care and concern for others, in the end, most folks are really only concerned for the self, and this often results in a life of contradictory behavior. I’m guessing this is at the heart of the infamous line near the end of the book, something Irving writes with almost alarming plainness just after the schoolteacher, Ichabod, is thought to have met his end at the hands of the headless Hessian.

“As he was a bachelor, and in nobody’s debt, nobody troubled his head any more about him…”

This line is then followed by rich descriptions of the whole community simply going on without Ichabod. The reader is left with the feeling that for as virtuous as the community may actually be, it’s real creed is “better him than me.”

I suppose the quotation in the movie hints to the screenwriter’s knowledge of Irving’s work, and with that, it’s worth our while. Indeed, history proves that villains often prefer the mask of humble virtue, portraying concern for this or that issue, but in the end, only wearing it for the sake of “self.” They are a living contradiction in terms.

A similar bit of wisdom from Bernard Shaw comes to mind. With his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, even in the early 1900s, the Irish playwright tipped his hat to the inherent contradiction at the heart of virtue-signaling when he inferred sarcastically that the “more things a man is ashamed of, the more respectable he is.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the owner of the van beside me at the gas pump in Indiana was indeed a flaming meteor of ideological contradiction. He looked to be uprightly concerned for so many noble things, and yet he betrayed his darker devotion to “self” and its opinions.

Think about it.

Coexist, being sure to be tolerant of other beliefs, but do it leaving room in your tolerance for hating people who support Trump. And remember, all organized religions, namely the Christian denominations, are evil. Except for the Wiccan religion. That organized religion devoted to witchcraft is okay. Also, because life is very important, we ought to be mindful of it even in its tiniest form. Thusly, honey bees are important. But unborn human babies, not so much. Along those same lines, don’t forget to be mindful of the environment, being thoughtful of nature and its laws as they meet with society… except, of course, when it comes to the natural laws governing sexual orientation and gender identity. Even though those laws are pretty much foundational to humanity itself, it’s okay to confuse them. I mean, regardless of the long term effects, happiness must always eclipse truth, right?

I don’t necessarily know what the lesson to be learned here is, except maybe to say that sinful humanity most often lives by selfish opinion rather than fixed, objective truth. Of course, we all fall prey to such behavior. Even Christians. And it’s good to be aware of it.

But Christians know by the Word of the Gospel that while being aware of it is one thing, confessing and repenting of it is even better. Repenting and confessing is always met by the Lord’s forgiveness. His forgiveness continues to feed the ability to repent, confess, and amend our lives so that they realign with the truth of God’s Word. This keeps us from becoming a mess of contradictions that never really gain a firm grasp on actuality.

I dare say it’s what keeps genuine Christians from joining up with pro-choice, BLM, pro-LGBTQ groups, let alone slap their bumper stickers all over our cars.

Again, the Word of God is the Christian’s North Star. No matter our direction, whether we think we’re right or wrong, we can set our maxims by this standard—God’s standard. Established in this way, we’ll always be found in the impenetrably fixed grounds of Godly certainty.