You’re Already Home

Having just returned to Michigan from Florida yesterday, I suppose I’ll begin this morning’s note with a simple observation. In short, one of the most enchanting qualities of “home” is that while it sometimes feels so incredibly good to be away from it, there’s very little that compares to returning. The ghostly warmth hovering throughout—the familiar smells and the favorite spaces; one’s bed or best-loved chair—all of it together is a resonant foretaste of the purest welcome to be found only in the chambers of heaven.

Indeed, as Cicero once said, “There is no place more delightful than one’s own fireside.”

I was thinking on the plane yesterday afternoon about how difficult it can be to make one’s way back into the busyness of life. After two weeks in which the hardest thing I had to do was adore the palm trees while swimming from one end of the pool to the other, just about anything else can seem daunting. Even unpacking the suitcase last night felt like a chore, especially compared to the exertion that today will require. Today, I’ll drift from yesterday’s lazy river into the swifter current of this and that and then this and that. I’ll finish tapping out this message, and then I’ll write the prayers for the Divine Service. From there, I’ll make my way toward plenty of other preparatory things before the 9:30 AM start time. At that point, I’ll preside over the liturgy, baptizing a little one at the beginning and seeing that you get the Lord’s Supper at the end. After the Bible study hour that follows, I have a couple of meetings, and then it’s off to officiate a wedding followed by another baptism.

Today will be nothing like yesterday’s palm trees. I expect I won’t find my way home until mid-evening. I’m grateful to Rev. Christian Preus for joining us this morning as a guest preacher and for taking time during the Bible study hour to talk about the up-and-coming Luther Classical College. Not only will this help, but if you’re at all concerned about sending your child off to any of today’s modern colleges or universities, his time with us will be worthwhile.

Having said all these things with an unmistakable tenor, you must know that none of them changes the point I made in the beginning. No matter what’s going on, L. Frank Baum was correct to make his character Dorothy repeat, “There’s no place like home.” Surrounded by her family and friends at the end (who echoed through the characters she discovered in Oz), Dorothy realized, as so many often do, that it’s not necessary to travel the world to find what we need. Home is where you’ll often find it. In that sense, home is more than things. It’s people. It’s routines. It’s a sense of belonging. It often requires from you just as much as it gives, and that’s okay. It’s a two-way investment that creates unique relationships resulting in lives actually lived rather than only being observed from afar. You’re not just passing through. Instead, you belong—with and for the others who are there, too. God so graciously works these things into our lives, settling the solitary in a home (Psalm 68:6) and blessing them with a wonderful synergy of both needing and being needed.

These thoughts on home bring something else to mind.

Last week I learned a new word from Rev. Dr. Scott Murray. He used the term “theologism.” If I recall correctly, he defined it as a religious statement that many people regularly say, having accepted as totally self-evident. But when the saying is rigorously tested, it’s proven to be far less than all-encompassing. In particular, he identified as an example the saying, “God hates sin but loves the sinner.” I think he’s right. Psalm 5:5 is an easy example of God’s dislike for sinners. The first chapter of the Prophet Malachi combined with Saint Paul’s handling of the same material in Romans 9:10-13 is another example. Personally, I think many Christians gravitate toward the saying because they feel God needs a little help in the Public Relations department. In other words, rather than simply accepting that God hates Sin and everything it produces—which includes sinners—we attempt to soften the blow of such things. When we do, we confuse the theology and allow wiggle room for missing the seriousness of the predicament and our need for actual rescue. When that happens, we begin redefining Sin in ways that enable us to remain comfortable with it in certain forms. I think it’s better to say that hate is an alien thing for God. His natural inclination is one of love, which is why the Gospel is far more prominent in the Bible than God’s hatred. If anything, we are to know that what’s innate to God’s very being has overpowered what He knows we’re due and what He has every right to exact. In other words, His love moved Him to do what was necessary for rescuing even the things He hates. In our case, by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ, He makes us into friends.

Perhaps another theologism is the saying, “We’re only just passing through this life. Heaven is our home.”

For the most part, the saying is true, especially when you consider Saint Paul’s words in Philippians 3:20. He refers to Christians as citizens of heaven awaiting the Lord’s return. Hebrews 13:14 speaks similarly, describing God’s people as awaiting the arrival of “the city that is to come.” The Apostle Peter calls us “sojourners and exiles” in 1 Peter 2:11.

I suppose I start to steer away from this saying as all-encompassing or all-interpreting when I realize how it licenses far too many for disengagement in this world’s affairs, as though they don’t belong. This bothers me, especially when I read the Lord’s words in John 17:14-16, which is a moment where He prays to the Father on our behalf, saying, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”

Two things come to mind in this.

Firstly, and indeed, we are foreigners in this world. The world hates us, but mostly because we do not rely on it as the source of our lives. We look to something else, that is, someone else—namely, Jesus. John 15:19 confirms this. Here in John 17, the genitive preposition “ἐκ” (which is often translated into English as “of”) implies the same thing. The word means “out of, out from, by means of, or as a result of”—which is to say the source of our lives and existence does not come from this world. It comes from God.

Secondly, the Lord digs deeper into this when He prays that we not be extracted from the world but protected while living in it. In other words, we belong here, and until the Lord returns on the Last Day bringing the new heaven and earth, this world, as a location, is just as much our home as is heaven—even as exiles, even as sojourners, even as prisoners. What’s more, God’s Word (which is also Jesus Himself [John 1:1-3, 14]) is referenced as the source of this protection right at the beginning of the Lord’s plea in verse 14 above. From this perspective, we understand our home as far more than the house in which we live or the community in which we dwell, whether in the past, present, or future. Instead, the definition of home becomes akin to Solomon’s inspired words in Proverbs 24:3-4: “By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.”

Your truest and final dwelling is coming. But your home—both in this life as a foretaste and the next as fulfilled—is in the Word. I’m guessing this isn’t far from what the Lord meant when He said in John 14:23, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

I suppose I should probably end this morning’s note right here, primarily because I need to get started on some other things. In the end, know that even as eternal life is yours in Christ, you’re not just passing through this mortal life. By faith in Him, eternal life is happening to you right now, too. Holding fast to Him and His Word, no matter where you are, you’re already home. He’s with you, and wherever He promises to dwell, there, too, is the Christian’s own fireside.

Vacation

A lot has happened in the past few days, hasn’t it? For one, Roe V. Wade was overturned. Praise God for this. Now, America actually has a good reason for expressing pride during the month of June—Godly pride, that is. Personally, I’d say the timing couldn’t have been better.

First of all, and liturgically speaking, the day the ruling was handed down—June 24—is traditionally celebrated by the Church as the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. I know lots of folks are jumping up and down about the ruling happening on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is a distinctly Roman Catholic devotional celebration more or less born from private revelations the Jesuits claimed Saint Gertrude experienced in the 1600s. The point of the celebration has become Christ’s love for humanity. I suppose that’s a fine theme, too. Except to say that the Sacred Heart celebration was never really a fixed feast date. It moved around throughout history based on various papal decrees. I can’t say for sure, but I think it still does. If that’s the case, then remembering June 24 becomes more difficult.

But the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist is cemented to June 24. Even better, its origin isn’t speculative. It remembers events and characters actually recorded in God’s inspired Word, having been fixed on the calendar by Christians since the fifth century. This is no insignificant thing when we consider the SCOTUS ruling in relation to the date. Yes, it celebrates John’s birth, but it also digs deeper. It’s seasoned with the memory of John who, as an unborn child in Elizabeth’s womb, leaped for joy when Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, the mother of our Lord, stepped into her presence. And why did the unborn forerunner of Christ begin stirring with joy at that moment? The scriptures tell us it was because Mary was pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1:41-45). Even superficially, the Bible considers John and Jesus to be far more than clumps of cells as the vile pro-choice ideologues would claim.

Second of all, and a little closer to home, the 6 to 3 ruling by the highest court in the land was well timed in the sense that it arrived on the heels of 14 pastoral and lay delegates who, at our recent English District convention, voted anonymously against a resolution affirming life and the important resources made available for preserving it pre and post-birth. I know that’s not very many votes, especially since there were a few hundred in attendance over the three days. Still, I struggled to stomach the fact that 14 people representing a handful of LCMS congregations in my own district had just proved themselves to be at odds not only with the church body in which they hold membership but with God’s Word. If that weren’t enough, a handful of pastors and delegates voted against a resolution affirming human sexuality as God designed it—namely, that men cannot be women and women cannot be men. A small number opposed this biblical truth, and yet, it was still quite bothersome. Another resolution decrying Critical Race Theory and its ideological promulgators, such as the openly Marxist organization “Black Lives Matter,” had a much larger contingent of dissenters. There were 44 among us who voted against that particular resolution.

For the record, I intend to do a little investigating. If I can know the voting record of my elected representatives in congress, I should be able to know the votes (and the reasons) of those who voted on doctrinal issues. I mean, if any electoral process requires the integrity of letting one’s yes be yes and no be no (Matthew 5:37), it’s in forums that discern and determine the future of the Church’s doctrine and practice.

Of course, this same thing happened in many of the other district conventions bearing similar resolutions. Thankfully, the English District passed all of the resolutions I mentioned with overwhelming support. This is proof that we still have an overwhelming number of faithful pastors and lay leaders throughout the 22 states we call home. I thank Bishop Jamison Hardy for leading the way in this regard.

Anyway, enough with this stuff. I’m writing from a bright little spot about an hour and thirty minutes south of Tampa, Florida. The sun has just arisen. There’s a palm tree just outside the nearest window. I can see the anoles are already skittering up and down the tree’s trunk as though it were a miniature highway. I don’t know what they’re doing, but whatever it is, it seems far more important than what I’m doing at the moment.

I don’t have to do anything right now. Not even this tapping at the keyboard is required. I’m on vacation.

I won’t tell you where the Thoma family is presently holed up only because I value your friendship and I’d miss you if you were gone. You know the saying: I could tell you but then I’d have to… well… you know. It’s likely those of you closest to me also know that of all the routine things the Thoma family might do in a year, the two weeks of vacation we attempt each summer are the most sacrosanct. There is no other moment amid the earth’s regular orbiting of the sun when we get to be together, just us, for such a significant stretch of time. Not even the days post-Christmas and Easter offer the kind of rest we get in these moments. In that sense, this time is untouchably holy.

It hasn’t always been this way.

It wasn’t until 2016 that we took our first real family vacation. I’ve been serving in the church since 1994, and yet, before 2016, I’d never gone away for any significant amount of personal time. The only time I can remember being out of the saddle for more than a week with family doing something that wasn’t necessarily church-related occurred in the summer of 1995 when my brother Michael died. Other than that, I had only ever scooted away for two or three days in the middle of the week a handful of times. Not much changed after Jennifer and I got married in 1997. We took two or three midweek days to visit family, but we were always sure to return home no later than Saturday night so that I could climb back onto Sunday morning’s horse.

But then, Jennifer took a chance. Without really even including me in the plans, she scheduled a ten-day vacation in Florida. She paid the airfare, reserved a house with a pool, and rented a van that seated six people. The phone conversation was incredibly brief. If I remember correctly, it happened sometime in January, and it went something like this:

“Chris, whatever you have scheduled from June 25 to July 7,” she said, plainly, “get someone else to do it.”

“Um,” I likely mumbled.

“We’re going to Florida for two weeks.”

“We are?”

“Yes,” she replied, just as simply as she began. “All six of us.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll tell you more tonight when you get home. Love you.”

That was about it. Needless to say, I first checked to make sure I wasn’t presiding at any weddings, and then I noted in my calendar accordingly.

Admittedly, it was challenging at first to step away from my duties. It felt alien to be so far out of reach. The life of a pastor is a 24/7 thing, and it’s not kept cleanly compartmentalized in public and personal boxes—at least, not like so many other jobs. It’s just the plain truth that the public’s gravity is almost always stronger than the personal. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I’m always within reach of anyone who needs me. This is good. But it can also be incredibly draining, not only for me but for my family. Ask them. Plenty of family moments have been abruptly altered by a phone call and my sudden departure. That’s not a complaint. It’s what I signed up for. Still, and I suppose humanly speaking, rest is needed, and if the 24/7 access to anyone and everyone isn’t kept in check, the pastor and his family can be irrevocably harmed. In a way, I’ve been forcibly taught that a vacation is one of the necessary barriers that help to preserve my family’s wellbeing.

Sometimes we need to be forcibly taught what’s good for us.

The English novelist Lisa St. Aubin de Terán said something about how taking a vacation is like flirting with actual life. I don’t know the context of her words. I only know that she wrote them. I’m guessing she meant that for many, vacationing is a brief interlude with a way of life they cannot have. In a sense, that’s true. I’d love to wake up each morning and do what I’m doing right now with a palm tree outside my window. And after a brief bit of early morning writing, I’d awaken my lovely family with the crisp aromas and crackling sounds of breakfast, all before inviting them to join me for a leisurely dip in the pool, the rest of the day being an open horizon leading toward whatever we’d prefer.

This is the life I’m flirting with right now. That being said, one day, I intend to make it a reality. Strangely, I had to be forcibly introduced to it. And now that I know it, I never want to surrender its pursuit. In fact, I’ve learned I need it. Without the rest these two weeks in a year provide, the potential weariness of the year’s remaining days would almost certainly overtake me.

I suppose this word-rambling is leading me to something else.

Take a vacation from the day-to-day and go to church. Don’t be fooled into thinking you have no time for it. You do. And you need it. Join your holy Savior in worship. To do so is to enjoy a divine romance with life—eternal life. Although, this is a flirtation that extends far beyond what I’ve already described. To be with your loving Savior each week in worship is by no means to experience something you’ll never have. Instead, it is a rest-filled foretaste and proclamation of the divine promises of God’s forgiveness that are already yours by faith, something you will fully retire into when you breathe your last breath. Unfortunately, this is something that far too many Christians appear to resist, especially during the summer months. And so, for a person’s wellbeing, Christ and His pastors must sometimes forcibly say, “Go to church. And take your kids.” They do this because they know the routine rest that worship provides is necessary. It’s fundamental to Christian health, both as individuals and as a community.

We’ll be going to church this morning. Just like a vacation itself, worship is a relationship with life—the One who is the way, the truth, and the life—we never want to surrender. We need what Christ gives. We need the rest God imputes by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel preached and administered. And so, we go. No matter where we are, we go. This year we’ll be attending Redeemer Lutheran Church in Englewood, Florida, which is a confessional congregation helmed by one of the Lord’s faithful servants, Reverend James T. Kress. Although I suppose now that I told you this, you can figure out the general vicinity of our retreat. Still, I suppose if you want to use this information to crash our time of respite, you’ll need to move quickly. Worship begins at 9:15 A.M. Also, I should say you wouldn’t be crashing anything. It would be a pleasure to sit beside you and your family in the pews, partaking together of God’s gracious gifts of Word and Sacrament with the rest of His people at Redeemer.

I’m okay with that. But I’ll draw the line there. Don’t plan on following us to our rental home after the Benediction. I love you in the Lord and all that, but rest assured I’ll be driving like a criminal on the show “Cops” to lose you along the way.

Unguarded

Even though summer doesn’t technically arrive until mid-June, for many, it has already begun. School is out. Graduations are underway. Schedules become shapeshifters ready to consume each newly liberated hour the season promises. I don’t know what this means for you, but for the pastor of a church with a school it means arranging my day in a way that gets me to the office much earlier in the morning than usual with the hope that I can find my way home by mid-afternoon. Doing this allows time I don’t normally have with the family before needing to venture out for anything church-related in the evenings.

As it is every summer, I intend to use a portion of the morning’s quiet time for reading. Hardly moved by the criticism of my fellow pastors, I rarely spend much time in the summer with anything distinctly theological, but instead, whatever is enjoyable in the moment. Although, technically everything is theological—or better yet, Christological. I’ll give you an example.

I’ve already started my summer wanderings by picking away at a collection of letters from Charles Lamb, an essayist and poet of remarkable style from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I stumbled upon the compilation in Google Books while looking for something else.

One thing is for sure, you can learn a lot by reading from a historical character’s personal correspondence. Not only do you discover the superficial things relative to culture—such as favorite foods, pastimes, manners, colloquialisms, and the like—but you learn quite a bit about the person’s hidden qualities. For instance, a rather famous Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a letter to Lamb, one in which he described summer setting in “with its usual severity.” Coleridge’s point was to complain about England’s unfortunate (but not unusual) coolness in May and June. Apparently, he didn’t like it. Interestingly, Lamb didn’t acknowledge Coleridge’s complaint in his reply, but instead carried on about how the painter who’d recently completed a portrait of Lamb had captured him in “one of those disengaged moments… when the native character is so much more honestly displayed….”

From what I know of Coleridge, which is that he was a delightfully expressive man, one who could hardly be characterized as a complainer, Lamb’s words to his friend seemed almost out of place. Or better yet, if they were intended as a subtle response to a very wise Coleridge, then they were pointed. In other words, they appeared to suggest that just like everyone else, the real Coleridge could be betrayed by an unguarded moment. For as beloved as Coleridge was by the public for his eloquent appreciation of all things, his secret dislike for English summers slipped through to Lamb.

Whether or not this was Lamb’s point isn’t exactly clear. Still, I have the nagging sense it was. Either way, like everything else in life, it can be viewed through theological lenses. In this circumstance, it first serves as a reminder that no one is perfect. It’s also a lesson to the would-be narcissists among us. For as complete as one might appear to be, the unguarded moments eventually come around, and when they do, our incompleteness breaches the surface. And this is a good thing. It brings about the opportunity for honest confession—the opportunity to recognize one’s need for rescue from Sin’s deathly grip.

Lamb wrote something else of interest in his reply to Coleridge. Having included a small facsimile of the portrait with the letter, he scribbled, “Whatever its pretensions, I know it will be dear to you, towards whom I should wish my thoughts to flow in sort of an undress rather than in the more studied graces of diction.”

Did you pick up on Lamb’s inference? He offered two things that, if thinking theologically, are likely to resonate with Christians. The first is that no matter our failings, we can be counted as dear to one another. This is true because God’s grace is holding us together as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). With this as the connective tissue for our friendships, the second thing Lamb said becomes incredibly clear. He notes his hope for genuine honesty between he and Coleridge—that the things troubling, worrying, or haunting either of them can be made bare, rather than remaining guarded by a “studied” carefulness with words. This means as brothers and sisters in Christ, we don’t need to hide our real selves, as though needing to project an image of having it all together. We don’t even have to exist in a way that stays within the easy boundaries of cordiality. Instead, we can be real friends—folks ready to walk together through both the complete and incomplete parts of life.

In short, Lamb implies what the rest of us already know by King Solomon’s words, “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!” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). This is the epitome of Proverbs 27:17, which reads: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another,” and certainly it’s at least a molecule in the Lord’s formula fueling the encouragement to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 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 10:24-25).

My prayer for you today, and always, is that you will remain part of a Christian church family that truly enjoys such collegiality. We can do no better than to be surrounded by genuine Christian friends as much as possible, knowing full well that a “friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).

The Voice of Conscience

As it is every year at this time, I never anticipate sending these notes while on vacation. I know, I know. I’m supposed to take full advantage of my time away and leave these types of things behind. It’s just that the temptation to be a pastor—to reach to you on the Lord’s Day with something even the least bit edifying—is just too great even while I’m away. Besides, the rest of my family is still sleeping and won’t be up to get ready for church for another half hour or so. With that, I have some time for coffee, a pre-sunrise view, and a visit with you.

Just so you know, as I type this here in Florida, I’m sitting in my usual chair near the window that allows an unobstructed view of the swimming pool and my favorite summertime flora. Trust me when I say I’m relaxing. With that, don’t expect whatever comes next to be too… well… profound.

Our plan this morning is to attend Zion Lutheran Church in Winter Garden. Pastor Rojas is the shepherd there. I know him. Not well, but enough to know we’ll be well fed by the faithful preaching of Law and Gospel and the right administration of the Sacrament of Christ’s holy body and blood for our forgiveness.

How about you? Will you be well fed in worship this morning, too?

If with honesty your first inclination was to say “no,” then I suppose my question may have unexpectedly jarred your conscience to attention. That’s good. You need your conscience to be aware of its surroundings. This is true not only for knowing and understanding the looming threat of Sin and humanity’s deepest necessity for rescue, but because of the challenging days in which we live. A somnolently weak conscience, one that isn’t assisting your navigation or pestering you to stay connected to Jesus and the truth of His Word, is of little use to you. It certainly can’t match the volume of the world’s voice.

For example, having arrived in Florida just yesterday through the Orlando International Airport, I can affirm that had this been my very first visit to earth from another planet, I’d probably be somewhat puzzled by the flourishing population. I say this because the LGBTQ voice appeared to be quite dominant throughout the terminals and their various shops. It could lead one to assume that most of the world’s population is homosexual. And if that’s true, a logical question might be: “Where did all these earthlings come from?”

Homosexuality cannot produce people.

In short, from our gate to the tram, from the tram to the bus, from the bus to the car, my conscience contested loudly within me against the overwhelming voice around me. As it did, I understood the tragic miscommunication and I was able to tune it out. Admittedly, a sense of sorrow was stirred for the bustling people already so overwhelmed by the voice.

This got me thinking…

I appreciate the text of Hebrews 9. Take a look when you have a chance. The epistle’s author talks about lots of very important things throughout, but in that particular portion, he notes the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as being all-sufficient for Sin. And then at one point along the way, right around verse 14, he makes sure we understand how the blood of Christ purifies the human conscience, enlivening it within the believer for faithfulness to God. In other words, the voice of the Christian conscience is born from the Gospel and readied for real life discernment leading to Godly action.

This, of course, walks in stride with what the Apostle James wrote in James 4:17—which alludes to the fact that if our Christian conscience is doing its job, having been fed by the Word of God, we’ll know what’s right. But if we muzzle it when it speaks, knowing what’s right but refusing to listen and then do it, we fall prey to Sin and its consequences.

Finally, I suppose all this brushes into Matthew 5:13-16, too. It’s there we learn that the voice of the Christian conscience is in place not only for the self, but for others, too. Its grammar sounds a lot like God’s Word. Its tone communicates both immovable commitment and loving care. And its goal: not only to be heard, but to be seen. It operates with the desire that others would behold and be led to give glory to the Father.

Circling back around to Hebrews 9, remember what was written there about the blood of Christ purifying the conscience for faithfulness to God—which means having the ability to discern the countless external voices. While you are recalling that text, don’t forget when and where the purifying interaction happens most powerfully.

Worship. Now, if you aren’t already, go get dressed and ready for church—just as your Christian conscience already urged you to do.

It’s Good to Be Home

It’s good to be home. Still, vacations certainly are great. They’re the allotment of time and distance you set aside for setting things aside.

But let me just shoot straight with you. I get more than a little anxious before coming home. We haven’t been taking vacations as a family for that many years, so I can look back at each of them and say with conviction that I’ve never once thought while thrashing around in the pool with Jen and the kids, “You know, I’ve had enough of vacation. Let’s get back to reality.” For me, Voltaire’s comment amount rest being a brother to boredom falls flat on its face when I’m enjoying my early morning vacation ritual of sitting at my computer drinking coffee, unrestricted, free to type whatever I feel like, and as I do, every now and then, catching a glimpse of a favorite palm tree covered in scurrying anoles just outside the window.

For me, vacationing does not share the same parentage as boredom.

You may have a different locale with different rituals, but I’m sure it’s the same for you. Still, let me dig a little deeper into the anxiousness, because I’m guessing this might be familiar to you, too.

While on vacation, we usually drive cars that are better than our own. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not like we troop through the rental lot in search of the Porsche section—although, I’ve pestered Jen about it once or twice. We usually get a minivan. And if we’ve paid more than $250 to borrow it for the whole trip, we consider ourselves as having been ripped off. I’m not kidding. Jen is the one who plans all this stuff, and she is magnificent this way. This year she managed to get us situated for the whole two weeks in a really nice Dodge Caravan for only $238. But more to my point, it had 115,000 miles less than the car I drive now, and as far as I could tell, not one of its dashboard warning lights was beaming steadily.

While on vacation, even though we only go out to eat about four or five times over the course of the entire two weeks, that’s still far more than we do as a family in an entire year—maybe even two years. And rest assured, our time in the various restaurants while vacationing is never wearisome. The staff is kind and equipped to serve, smiling and ready to bring us whatever we ask. We are kings and queens for the moment.

While on vacation, we do whatever we feel like doing. Of course, with the fear of COVID-19 looming everywhere this year, it was more of a challenge when it came to getting out and finding things to do. And yet, we never grew tired of the swimming pool. We were never met with exhaustion playing board games. We were never fatigued by huddling together on the couch, a bowl of popcorn in hand and watching “Shark Week” episodes featuring our favorite underwater cameraman personality, Andy Casagrande.

My point here is that while vacations are a temporary respite from reality, we can become anxious when we find ourselves actually heading back into reality. We want the vacation to be our permanent reality. We don’t want to come back to the car that has trouble starting. We don’t want to come back to the places where we are rarely, if ever, the one being served. We don’t want to come back to the relationships peppered with conflict. We don’t want to resubmit ourselves to stress-filled schedules filled with ungrateful patrons eager to tell you how undelighted they are with you. We don’t want the seemingly impossible workloads or the pressurized deadlines.

In the final analysis, across the expanse of a year’s fifty-two weeks, we want a reversal. We want fifty weeks of ease, and only two weeks of trouble.

But consider that word “reversal” for a moment.

I did a little bit of devotional reading each day while I was away. Every now and then, Luther spoke of God as staging a great reversal in Christ. We most often hear it referred to as “the great exchange.” If you ever get a chance to read from some of Luther’s writing on this subject, do so. His excitement is palpable. In fact, I sometimes think his words are at their poetic best whenever he’s dealing with this topic in particular. And why would they be this way? Because of all people who needed a reversal, it was Martin Luther, a man who monopolized the time of his father confessor because he couldn’t find the end to his own faults in a single day. He was a man terrified that he could never do enough to find God’s favor and win eternal life. But here in the great reversal, terrified sinners discover a God who, even in our ghastliness, loves us beyond measure. We discover a God who has no desire whatsoever to give sinners what they truly deserve. Instead, we behold Jesus on the cross and we see God working hard to lose so that we might win. We see Him taking the lowliest position of a foot-washing servant, laboring to make sinful peasants into righteous princes. We behold Him striving to endow the simplest of human words and means with an extraordinary power for delivering immeasurable forgiveness from the storehouses of heaven itself. For a guy like Luther—and for all of us for that matter—the Gospel turns what was once an awful truth of our inescapability from God’s divine reach into the most comforting of truths.

There’s an interesting aspect to all of this that relates to the anxiety of wishing a two-week vacation and the fifty weeks of reality that follow could switch places. By the Gospel, in a sense, God helps us to see that in Christ, this has actually happened. He gives us the eyes of faith for seeing that in the scheme of things, life in this world is really more like the “two weeks” of trouble in comparison to the inevitable “fifty weeks” of eternal rest we’ll experience with Christ.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m in the midst of a stressful situation while at the same time knowing that very soon I’ll be leaving it all behind, the worry I experience in those harder moments feels a little more like borrowed trouble. With that, I can endure it because I don’t really own it. It’s the same with life in this world. I don’t own it. Christ does. He took all its troubles into Himself on the cross. He carried them with Him into the grave. He rose again to justify my freedom from their permanence, which means I can make my way through all of this world’s nonsense knowing it’s already passing away, and in less than a blink in eternity’s eye, I’ll soon be resting with Him.

I want to add one last thing.

When I returned home and found myself among so many of you, I again experienced the joy of one of God’s most generous provisions to humans for enduring the relative “two weeks” we spend on this earth. I came home to friends.

Cicero referred to a friend as a “second self.” Aristotle referred to friendship itself as “a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” For as insightful as these two philosophers were, they certainly spoke most handily in this regard. Coming home to friends, dwelling with you in the midst of this world’s struggles as a community of people immersed in the mercies of God and prepared to labor together, well, that helps to steer the anxiety away, too.

For that I am grateful to our gracious God who put you into my life, and I can repeat what I said at the beginning of this note: It’s good to be home.

By the way, I also began yesterday’s sermon with that sentence, and then doing something that probably seemed a little out of character to all of you, I asked Alexis Shirk (who was sitting in the first row near her parents) to snap a quick picture of the congregation for me. I had her do this because only moments before I stepped into the pulpit to preach, having just surveyed a Godly sea of 240 familiar faces, I remembered once again what a privilege it is to be the one preaching God’s Law and Gospel to people I love. It was an instance confirming for me the Christian proverb that “a faithful friend is the medicine of life; and those who fear the Lord shall find him.”

Learning to Do Nothing

Considering 2020’s winter and spring cargo, my hope is that its summer will bring to us a semblance of calm. The Thoma clan will be leaving for Florida soon. We were concerned we might not be able to go, but as it turns out, Governor Ron DeSantis moved into the necessary phases for reopening, and this made it possible. We certainly are more than ready for a few days of tranquility in our happy place doing nothing. Although, I saw a colorful moth of some sort flittering leisurely outside my office window on Saturday after the Board of Elders meeting, and my first thought was that if I were an insect, that wouldn’t be me. I’d most likely be an ant. You never see a tranquil ant. You never see an ant sitting still doing nothing. They’re always doing something, scurrying this way and that way. Even Jennifer would agree I’d most definitely be an ant.

I’ve shared with you before that when we first started taking vacations a few years back, I had to force myself to do it. Stepping out of the pace and leaving everything behind felt wrong. Not so much anymore. Now I cannot hardly wait to put everything down and wander into the weeds. But I didn’t get to this point by myself. It took a friend (and member) here at Our Savior (and you know who you are) to say to me with incredible forthrightness, “Pastor, you need to get away. You need to learn how to do nothing.” And then he went on from there assuring me that if I didn’t learn how to do it on my own, he’d be forced to teach me.

Don’t worry. There was nothing contentious about the conversation. Still, with his words in the back pocket of my mind, it felt as though I’d just met my teacher for a summer school class designed to keep me from being useful. Those who know me best will understand why the phrase “learn to do nothing” would cause me to bristle, even if the reason for my bristling sounds a bit crazy.

First of all, if you don’t know how to do something, then yes, you need to be taught. And yet, the truest test of anything learned would seem to be the skill for applying it. To learn how to do nothing seems innately counterintuitive to this. How can nothing be something applied? It just sounds weird. And lazy. Not to mention, learning to do nothing sounds eerily reminiscent of things I’m already overly concerned about when I think of the current generation’s trajectory.

Define “learning” however you’d like, but for me, it’s really rather simple. In an elementary sense, it’s the process of bringing objective truths and the intellect together, not just for knowledge, but for producing capability. You learn in order to understand and do. But let’s be clear. Capability doesn’t always mean the skill for demonstrating what’s been learned. It does, however, assume a basic facility for communicating what’s been learned, resulting in the ability to prove critical reasoning and present evidence for one’s position.

As I said, learning to do nothing feels like the opposite of all this, and it reminds me of a generation that is, in many ways, proving that while it has learned to read, write, and communicate, it is yet to figure out what’s worth reading, writing, or communicating. Even worse, the journey of learning—critical thinking—appears to have become little more than the lazy gathering of pre-packaged opinions mined from the internet and assembled into superficial philosophies easily encompassed by a meme that ninety-nine percent of the time contains misspellings.

In this regard, learning how to be someone skilled at doing “nothing” sort of bothers me.

I know, I know. All of this is an over-analyzation of my friend’s words “learn to do nothing,” and it lands far from his intended encouragement to embrace the opportunities God gives for rest. I suppose this is what happens sometimes when I free-think and free-type.

Remember, I’m more of an ant than a moth.

And so, admittedly, over the years I’ve eventually learned to do nothing, knowing that sometimes nothing is actually something. Better said, I’ve learned to rest. Rest is good. It’s refreshing, replenishing. I’ve learned to ask rhetorically with W.H. Davies, “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” Let the moment with the moth outside my window affirm the things one can learn by doing nothing. I’d just returned from an Elders meeting thick with important church business, and yet as I took a moment of rest to observe the colorfully darting crawly on the bush just beyond the window, I was inspired to self-analyze. I was sitting still, and yet I was learning to admit something of myself.

That’s what it’s like for me on vacation, and that’s why I love it so much. Doing nothing provides so many opportunities for a million other soul-replenishing somethings to occur. It becomes an occasion to understand what God means when He says, “Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:6). It’s a chance to see that being too much about the affairs of life can prevent one from knowing why any of it matters, anyway. Taking time to rest helps to reteach the very important lesson that one ought not to use every bit of energy trying to catch something that, in the end, will never be caught.

The amusing thing is, and going back to where this morning ramble began, I couldn’t figure this out on my own. Someone had to tell me—even worse, nag me!—to do it. Similarly, God found it necessary to command rest for all of us, namely that we stop what we’re doing and engage with Him in holy worship. The Third Commandment mandates this (Exodus 20:8-11). Still, when you consider God’s intention here, it isn’t hard to see how it’s a command born from His love (Mark 2:27). He knows we need a break, and not just any kind of break, but rather the kind of respite that provides the avenue for receiving what He loves to give—the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal salvation (Matthew 11:28-30).

God knows humanity intimately, and so He knows that unless He requires this restful time with Him in worship, we just won’t do it. We’ll have far too many other sensible “somethings” that get in the way. And so His holy Law instructs us to take at least one day of the week to join with other believers in the rejuvenating arms of His love, receiving as a community the gifts of His Word and Sacraments—the means of Grace that keep us as His own and strengthen us for going back out into the world as His useful people.

As the summer rolls in, and assuming the lock down restrictions continue to be eased and the passage of time gives you and yours a little less room for anxiety, my hope is that if you’ve been away from worship, you’ll consider returning. It might feel weird at first. Expect that. It’s been a long time for many of you. But don’t let that trepidation stop you. It’s the Lord’s house, and you are a member of His family. This means it’s your home, too, and you belong where the much fuller delivery of the Father’s gifts are provided.

He certainly wants to give these gifts to you. He certainly wants to give you His rest.

Two more quick things…

First, this will be the last eNews for the next two weeks. I intend to do what I do every year while on vacation—which is to wake up at 6:00 AM, make some coffee, eat some breakfast, sit by the window where I can see my favorite palm tree, write a bit of something to post at AngelsPortion.com, and then when the other vacationers awaken and finish their breakfasts, join them in the pool. Beyond that morning routine, each day will be filled with carefree leisure. That’s what I intend to do. Of course, the two Sundays we’ll be away, we’ll be sure to find our way into the Lord’s house to receive the kind of refreshment that tops even this.

Second, if you’ve annulled any vacation plans, maybe reconsider the cancellation. I encourage you to go somewhere and do nothing. Yes, nothing. Rest. Unwind. Take some time to let the winds of this life’s cares get away from you for a little while. And even if there’s something preventing you from actually getting away from home, commit to doing something that brings you joy. Find time each day for those tranquil moments that each and every honest human being needs—the moments God gives because He knows you need them, too.

Of course if you do manage to steal away to the distant lands of “nothing” but find yourself unable to locate among its citizens a faithful congregation in which to worship, let me know. Just be sure to do it before Friday. After that, I probably won’t be able to research churches for you because there’s a good chance I’ll be in the middle of a “Death Ball” match. And if I’m not in the actual game, I’ll most likely be on the sidelines nursing some life-threatening injuries. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you should visit https://wp.me/p2nDyB-1di and maybe https://wp.me/p2nDyB-1o6.