The Feast of All Saints – Go To Church

“Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say” (1 Corinthians 10:14).

Saint Paul wrote those words to the Corinthian church just as he was about to begin explaining the doctrine of Altar Fellowship, which when you really get down to the nuts and bolts of it, is all about the significance of what is happening in Holy Worship, namely, the Lord’s Supper.

This comes to mind this morning because, well, Paul’s words just felt right. They form a very short statement, easily understood by any and every Christian taking time to read this note.

If you haven’t been to church in a while, there’s a Sunday on the horizon I’d like to encourage you to consider aiming for as your return date.

A few Sundays from now—November 1—the Holy Christian Church will be celebrating All Saints’ Day. If you have plans to be somewhere else—or to do something else—might I encourage you to reconsider your plans? This time, instead of arranging your schedule to accommodate moments that will only get in the way of worship—which is to be idolatrous—consider arranging your schedule to accommodate the forgiveness of sins delivered by Christ in the sure and certain location He has promised to give it: Word and Sacrament made available in holy worship. Skip those things that would get in the way of pursuing that which gives to you all that Christ has won by virtue of His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

In fact, I challenge you that if you have been away for a while, make All Saints Sunday the day you return.

To accept this challenge, you’ll need to take a quick look in the mirror and recognize that you need to be there. You need to be there, firstly, because of the idolatrous tendencies you possess. We all possess them, and they’re evidenced by our creative excuse-making and subsequent absences. But secondly, know you need to be there because, by virtue of your Baptism into the fellowship of Saints, you actually belong there. It’s God’s home, and because you are a part of His family by faith, it’s your home, too. It’s where your real family lives, and you belong with your family.

Rest assured, if you’ve been away for a while, and because of this, you feel a little uneasy in returning, you won’t be alone in the uneasiness when you do finally reemerge. In fact, think of it this way. In the Confession at the beginning of the Divine Service, every Christian in the room, if they know what the Confession is all about, will drop to his or her knees alongside all the others. Together they’ll bow their heads. They’ll close their eyes. They’ll confess together that everyone in the room, by their thoughts, words, and deeds, are members of the fellowship of sinful humanity; by the things they’ve done and the things they’ve left undone. They’ll confess this together. And again, being a sinner myself, I can assure you that when we all go to our knees in this way, we’ll all have good reasons to do so. All will have plenty of causes for feeling the uneasy need to participate.

You won’t be alone. You won’t stand out. You won’t be different.

But there’s something else you should know.

After the sea of penitent voices speaking in solemn sadness goes quiet, you will hear a single voice—your pastor’s voice—and it will be for you as the Lord’s own voice announcing you need not fear. You need not be uneasy. You need not be afraid. Through repentance and faith in His merciful love, you belong with Him, and He will not push you away, but rather will embrace you as His own—because you are His own. He loves you, forgives you, and He stands ready to lift you to your feet by His absolving Word.

And He’ll do just that.

On All Saints’ Day, at least if you’re in a Lutheran Church of any substance, when you rise to your feet, you’ll acknowledge your place among all the other forgiven sinners in the room by singing the Introit appointed for the day, which is a combination of Revelation 7 and Psalm 31: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. In you, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me.”

Sing those words with confidence. You own them as a forgiven child of God.

So, my brother or sister in Christ, hear this Gospel imperative to repent and believe in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and be moved to return. Be moved to come and get from your loving Savior what He has won for you—which is also the only thing that will sustain you in a world seeking to impose itself upon you and convince you to stay away in the first place.

Remember, in faith, you are the Lord’s saint. Aim for your special day with an eager heart. Make your way back. Join with your Christian family. Be with your Redeemer, the One who has made it possible for you to be called His holy one.

Assumption’s Regrets

The countdown has started. Five days until a powerhouse weekend here at Our Savior. Saturday we’ll enjoy a day-long conference filled with tier-one personalities. On Sunday we’ll gather together to celebrate our school’s 40 years of service in the community, again, being joined by appreciative newsmakers. To wrap it all up, on Monday we’ll host a debate dealing with the topics of God, culture, and politics in America—a more than crucial matter as we teeter at the edge of a world-altering election.

Much is happening. I’m assuming much will be accomplished by God’s gracious will.

Actually, I shouldn’t say I’m assuming. Better said, I’m trusting that God will accomplish great things through our efforts. And while I suppose it’s not necessarily incorrect to use the word “assume” in the context I have, overall, there’s a difference between assumption and trust.

When we assume, we deal in knowledge without the certainty of truth. We consider bits of information separated by blank spaces that we attempt to fill in through interpretation. To trust in the Lord is nothing of this sort. To trust in Him is to be found making plans—and living out those plans—according to the schematic of the Gospel. It is to act in life’s occurrences with the mindful certainty that we dwell beneath God’s forgiveness in Jesus in all circumstances. That means no matter what happens, we are certain that God will provide for the good of our salvation in every situation (Romans 8:28-39). Trust doesn’t assume He will. It has the complete list of Gospel facts—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—and so it knows He will. From there, it steps out knowing that with hearts set on faithfulness to Him, when we speak, He will use our words, no matter how jumbled they might feel. When we act, He will carry us through, no matter how powerless we believe we are. When we are observing and listening, we’ll receive the necessary information for aiming each and every situation toward Godliness and peace, no matter how confusing all of it might seem to be.

Assumption doesn’t necessarily work this way. Sure, an assumption can be useful for determining certain things. For example, an assumption may be made about the contents of a milk carton based on its expiration date. An assumption may be made when a carbon monoxide detector goes off warning of dangerous fumes in a home. And yet, I have personal experience in both instances. I’ve taken a chance on a gallon of milk past its date, only to learn it was fine. I’ve also been brought to concern by a screaming carbon monoxide detector in our kitchen, only to learn after investigating that it was triggered by exhaust wafting from our car in the driveway through the garage and into the kitchen through a door left open by one of the kids.

In both circumstances, my concerned assumptions were only right until the actual facts proved otherwise.

When it comes to relationships—family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and the like—assumption is often more of a wrecking ball. It can be the corrupter of human lines of communication and the destroyer of opportunity. In the rubble of these things, assumption builds an altar to foolishness, and it worships there with incredible devotion.

“What do you even mean by all of this, Pastor Thoma?”

I don’t know. Remember, I’m typing as I’m thinking.

As I re-read what I just wrote, I guess where I’m headed with this—at least what I think I mean—is that at a person’s last hour, I’d be willing to bet a significant portion of the regrets in life will be because of the assumptions from which he or she just couldn’t break free.

People assume things of others, and then they hold to those assumptions for years like bark holds to a tree. But then one day, they discover they’re out of time, and in the shadows of the impending situation, they understand people and situations differently, and they wish for more hours from the clock. They wish they could go back and enjoy a relationship with a person they assumed all along was an enemy. They suddenly realize just how wrong they were to think that people are static in their character and personalities. People are complicated, multi-faceted creatures. They change. Who they were, the way they were, is likely very different today than it was yesterday. And so, in the last moments, people come face to face with the foolishness of their begrudging assumptions of others. They realize they never asked the questions that would fill in the blank spaces. They never investigated. In fact, it never even crossed their minds to explore, to have a conversation. Instead they remained comfortable believing they already knew the innermost thoughts and intentions of the people around them.

These are the kinds of folks who will stare at the edge of regret for having interpreted as hurtful years of genuine attempts at friendship from others.

In truth, this is idolatry. It’s self-worship.

Digging just a little bit deeper, by way of such idolatry—such self-worship—we take detrimental missteps in life. Because of assumptions, we’ll have been silent when we should’ve spoken. Because of assumptions, we will have reacted when we should’ve remained an observer. Because of our assumptions, we may just learn all too late that we were wrong, that we treated as an enemy someone who could’ve been a friend, that we did something to make a relationship that could have been a joy into something unbearably thorn-like.

I guess what I’m saying is don’t be this kind of person, especially with your Christian family. Instead, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Instead of assuming, how about letting the Gospel do the steering in our lives as Christians with one another, and by it being found pursuing “unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). Instead of holding tightly to your grudge, assuming it’s justified, almost virtuous, how about you “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Ephesians 4:31). How about being “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Don’t be the person who learns all too late that the most important things we can know of others were, unfortunately, hidden behind a foolish assumption that we don’t need to learn more because we already know what we’ll discover. More often than not in such situations, at least in my experience, I’ve discovered that what I expected to be true and what was actually true were not exactly in perfect alignment.

Take a chance. Reach out. Have a conversation. Find out more. Odds are you have a few blank spaces that need filling.

Experience is the Best Teacher

Julius Caesar is the one who said that experience is the best teacher. At least I think he did. I’ll check on that after I finish typing this morning. If I’m wrong, I’ll fix what I wrote. If it’s still here when you’re reading it, then I was right.
That being said, the thing about experience is that she’s a relentless teacher. And the strangest part of being in her class is that she does almost everything in reverse. What I mean is that she tests you on the material before she teaches any of her lessons. I suppose the comfort in this is that if you fail, you don’t get put back a grade, and it’s not necessarily the end of the road. Although, I did see a church sign in Linden last week which read, “If at first you don’t succeed, just make sure it didn’t happen while skydiving.”
Or something like that.
The COVID-19 classroom of experience has been a tough one. We’ve learned a lot from its devilish curriculum. Some of what we’ve learned has actually been good. Just as much of it has been bad. All of it has more than added to the storehouse of knowledge.
While sitting in this particular class, I have to believe that most Christians with any sense for the necessity of God’s Word are likely to have stopped by the Book of Proverbs for a visit sometime during the past few months. I know I’ve found myself there, and I’ve shared some texts I’ve pondered. The Book of Proverbs is filled with important instruction. It’s overflowing with opportunities to meet with experience in ways that will make whatever lesson is being learned something that keeps our hearts and minds where they belong: Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen for the transgressions of the world.
In other words, the point to all of Proverbs’ wisdom is Jesus.
Of course the most essential and thematic verses in Proverbs are the ones I would imagine most Christians know fairly well, texts such as, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7), and “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (2:6). The Church of all ages has known texts like these to be in place to, as I said already, set our hearts in the firm location of faith. But the Church has also known these texts to reveal the pragmatics of faith—or better yet, what faith actually looks like. Having these texts in our pockets as we proceed, our hearts and minds are readied for everything else in the book that follows. Since at the moment I’m thinking on the topic of experience, I know these same texts help us take proper aim at the results experience might bring, helping us to better extrapolate words like:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding… Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.” (3:5,7).
These holy instructions remind us to trust in the Lord in all things. We shouldn’t be so quick to trust ourselves. We shouldn’t begin by looking inwardly. We should begin by looking to the externals of God’s faithful Word. Don’t trust what you think you know. Go with what God says, even if it is counter to your understanding. Hearing such things, at least for me personally, gives texts like the following some uncomfortable traction:
“Wisdom rests in the heart of a man of understanding, but it makes itself known even in the midst of fools” (14:33).
Wisdom is made known in the midst of fools. Fools will prove their foolishness by scoffing at Godly wisdom. They’ll despise it. They’ll actually move in active opposition to it. Seven verses into the very first chapter of the Book of Proverbs, the stage is already set for us to expect this.
Of course these days, according to the Sin-nature, we’re all proving just how hard it is to trust God before we trust ourselves. At one point or another throughout the COVID-19 ordeal, we’ve all demonstrated just how easy it is to align with foolishness. Still, God’s Word remains the same as it meets with our experiences and the lessons learned throughout. In all of it, He continues to offer the clarion call to trust Him no matter what. “Don’t be a fool,” He says to the Christian. “You already know by my Word that I’m trustworthy.” In tandem with His powerful Word, He urges this trust knowing you’re already more than capable of matching that Word to plenty of moments in your own life proving His dependability. Thirty seconds alone to think, even with a migraine, and I can come up with plenty.
God has never let me down.
Having those experiences in mind, we have a far better perspective on His countless mandates to be with Him in worship—in person, together with other Christians—to receive His holy gifts of Word and Sacrament. While it might not make sense to our Governor, it makes perfect sense to us. And with this knowledge, we can easily know and accept that apart from natural incapacity (which is to say we’re a shut-in), nothing should keep us away, and anyone or anything confessing otherwise is claiming a level of trustworthiness above God and is in alignment with foolishness.
In particular, Hebrews 10:19-31 reveals such obstacles—human or not, real or imagined—will be judged accordingly.
In the meantime, we simply take God at His Word, knowing it is immutable. He knew what He was saying when He spoke. He knew the situations we’d be in. He knows everything, sees everything, and yet is above everything. He gives us the promise that He’s working for the good of those who love and trust Him by faith. He’s not even remotely interested in allowing anything into our lives that would keep us from Him. He’s actively seeking us, and with the fullest measure of His divine heart, is wanting us to look to Him as the better bet in every situation.
Every. Single. Situation.
My prayer today is one of hopeful thanksgiving for the Christians who know and believe this. But also, my prayer is that if you somehow missed it before, you won’t miss it now—and I suppose I should add that if you don’t feel comfortable worshipping at Our Savior, I’m very near the edge of begging you to go somewhere you do, that is, if you can find a place that’s actually open. You need to be fed. You shouldn’t stay away from the Lord’s gifts for you. When the feast is both bountiful and available, a starved soul is an unnecessary tragedy.
Remember, no poison can be in the cup the divine Physician sends. Do you believe this? I sure do. I hope you do, too.

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.

Christian Reconciliation

It truly is amazing how at certain moments in life something that was once very baffling suddenly begins to make sense. I’m guessing you know exactly what I mean. Perhaps like me you’ve experienced situations where you felt as though you were immersed in uncertainty, but then suddenly, and for whatever reason, you saw the framework of the challenge in a different light, and by this, the solution stepped to the forefront.

I liken it to the Rubik’s Cube we have at home. My kids will jumble it up and hand it to me. It takes me a little while, but usually I can figure it out. I just need some time with it. And I know what to expect of that time. It’ll be a procedure of turning the cube’s various multi-colored pieces this way and that way, all the while observing and calculating the potential of each piece’s role in the puzzle—and I’ll do it with the hope that I’m actually making progress rather than confusing the device even more. In other words, even as I’m doing what I can to solve it, I’m acutely aware that as a fallible human being, if I’m not careful, I’m more than capable of making things worse. This means being very mindful. It means thinking several turns past the present turn.

But there’s something else I expect from the process. While humming along steadily—because I’m not a quitter, and also because I don’t like to lose—I stick with it. As I do, there always seems to be that moment when persistence and fate meet one another. In other words, after a while of determined laboring, I’ll turn the cube just right and I’ll see all of its parts in a different way, ultimately revealing what it is that I need to do to solve it.

And then I do it.

I suppose like the Rubik’s Cube, the theological observation in all of this is multi-dimensional. Of course in one sense, for me as a pastor, it’s reminiscent of something that’s not all that uncommon—which is  to get handed a mixed-up problem between people with the expectation I’ll be able to fix it. In another sense, it has me thinking this morning on what can actually solve fractured human relationships in the Church when they occur.

And they definitely do occur. We certainly have our share here at Our Savior.

To start, it’s good to recognize that everyone in the situation is different—just like the individual pieces of the cube. All are in certain places as a result of various circumstances. All have individual personalities and mindsets shaped by the same. And yet, all remain a part of the same cube, which means all are part of sinful humanity, for indeed “there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). This means that every single person involved in the conflict is more than capable of self-love aimed at self-preservation. It means every single person is more than proficient at cruelty, deceit, betrayal, and so much more. Perhaps worst of all, most don’t even need a reason or motive to act on these darker inclinations in order to hurt others. They only need the opportunity. That’s the way of the sinful flesh, and everyone involved in the situation is infected by it.

It’s good to recognize this stuff. It’s even better when everyone in the situation recognizes it, and not only are they on board with it in principle, but they are ready and willing to humbly confess it personally.

That carries us to something else we can keep in mind when sorting through conflict among Christians. Unlike the world around us (which pretty much always has our demise in mind), I’d hope that Christians who know their sinful nature and know their Savior could safely assume such faith is at work in the life of their opponent, that the people involved in the conflict truly are believers in Christ who’ve staked their claim of salvation on the fact that even as they are sinners, Christ died for them (Romans 5:8). If this Gospel is indeed surging through their spiritual veins, then you, their opponent—someone mirroring this truth—can labor by the premise that all involved are “justified by (God’s) grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-25).

Beholding one another through this Gospel, acknowledging that forgiveness is already abounding between God and everyone involved, the stage is set for Christian opponents to seek genuine peace in ways unavailable to the unbelieving world. By the power of the Holy Spirit through this Gospel, all involved are enabled in some way to take hold of the cube, to diligently turn it this way and that way in search of an avenue for solving the problem. And we’ll do this, not with a desire to win or to find an endpoint that ultimately proves our side right, but rather a solution that proves faithful to Christ and His Word.

God promises to bless such laboring (1 Corinthians 15:58). Interestingly, one of His blessings is diligent hopefulness. That is to say, one very important fruit of faith in the whole experience will be that you actually make an effort to pursue a solution.

I mentioned before that eventually the solution to the Rubik’s Cube is revealed, but usually it takes time and attentiveness. If I really want to solve it, I can’t give up and walk away. Well, let me rephrase that. Sure, I can give up. Giving up is probably the easiest thing anyone can do in the face of challenge. But by doing it, the endpoint—which is failure—is already pretty much predetermined. Personally, I appreciate the hopefulness Helen Keller described when she said something along the lines of, “Don’t dwell on today’s failures, but on the successes that may come tomorrow.” For as burdened by struggle as she was, she always looked to the next day as fertile ground for better opportunity. That’s pretty great. It’s hard to feel that way sometimes, but still it’s a great way to live. Pitching her words against the endurance required for reconciliation among God’s people is very near to hearing the Lord whisper by way of King Solomon in Proverbs 24:16, “For the righteous falls seven times and rises again.” It is to hear the Lord urging through the Apostle Paul in Galatians 6:9: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”

A lot of bad things have happened in the last six months. Christian friendships were by no means immune to the badness. I’m certainly no exception in the mess. By my own faultiness, I’ve seen things go south in a hurry. Nevertheless, the call goes out from the Word of God to all of us: Humble yourself. Confess your sins. Be absolved by the God who loves you. Go and be reconciled to your brother or sister in Christ. If they receive you, rejoice at the refreshing rain shower of grace God is most certainly sending to both of your souls. If they turn you away, while it may be a telling moment as to the condition of their heart, still, don’t give up. If anything, be ready to receive them if they have a change of heart. Do all of this in pursuit of that rain shower you know is forming on the horizon. Chase after it for as long as you can. Eventually you’ll reach it, even if you reach it alone.

On second thought, rest assured you’ll never be in it alone. Jesus will be there, too. And that’s pretty great.

The Beginning and End of Christian Love

What daily devotional materials do you use? I read from Luther every morning.

Of course, reading from Luther’s writings isn’t just an opportunity to sit at the feet of brilliance, but rather it is to be carried out into the deep water of the Bible. It’s like boarding a vessel commanded by an esteemed captain who wants to help you to truly meet with the open sea—to meet its serene breezes; to steer into its tempestuous waves.

What I read this morning was truly remarkable. I wasn’t looking for what I discovered. In fact, I get the feeling it came looking for and discovered me. It certainly is more than appropriate for sharing, considering the current climate.

“People speak of two kinds of humility: one which we are said to owe when doctrine and faith are concerned, the other when love toward our neighbor is concerned. But may God never grant me humility when the articles of faith are concerned. For then no action is called for which is a yielding for the sake of love, for the sake of peace and unity, for the sake of keeping the church from being ruined, or for the love of the imperial majesty. The fanatics and sectarians are complaining about us as though no humility and love were found among us. But we reply: First abolish the Word, doctrine, and faith? For in these matters we will not budge a handbreadth though heaven and earth were to fall because of our firmness. For the Word does not belong to me; neither do Baptism and the Lord’s Supper belong to me. God has reserved these for Himself and has said, ‘You are to teach in this way!’ I cannot pass this injunction by. Therefore your will must yield. But when we speak like this, they say that we are proud people. In reality, however, this is true humility. God has commanded us to take this attitude. We are to connive at no omissions from His Word… By the grace of God we would be glad to lie at the feet of everybody if only the Word of God remained pure and people did not interfere in God’s affairs.” (W 49, 81.)

Did you get all that? If not, take a moment to scan it again, because it’s important.

Essentially, Luther sets faithfulness to the Word of God right beside love for the neighbor, and he does so within the context of humility. Then he takes out a hammer and smashes the idea that loving the neighbor could ever be interpreted as humble service if it includes sacrificing faithfulness to what God has mandated.

“…though heaven and earth were to fall because of our firmness.”

That phrase is important. Luther isn’t speaking figuratively. He’s being literal. Even if being faithful to God’s mandates means that the earth and sky would become completely uninhabitable, still, we obey. We do it and we trust. And why? Because neither the mandate nor what the mandate delivers belong to us. They belong to God. He’ll handle the details of their efficacy. He simply calls for us to be faithful. With this, we simply do them. We maintain them among us and follow along with them as recipients of what God is actively working.

“The fanatics and sectarians are complaining about us as though no humility and love were found among us.”

That phrase is important, too. By it, Luther identifies the true villains. First, the phrase makes plain that the fanatics and sectarians believe a church that holds to sound doctrine does so at the expense of love for the neighbor. As it might meet us this very moment, a church desiring to maintain the mandates of Christ and preserve in-person Word and Sacrament ministry during a pandemic—real or imagined—would be villainous. But Luther implies that such a church is not the villain. The fanatics and the sectarians are.

I don’t have time to give a lengthy dissertation here, but in short, Luther uses the term “fanatic” to mean someone who has strayed from a right understanding of God’s Word regarding the verbal and visible Gospel—the Word and the Sacraments. A fanatic no longer grasps Christ’s real presence and work in and through them. A fanatic has confused their source, nature, significance, and substance. Naturally, having lost sight of these things, a fanatic can neither appreciate nor practice them rightly. More than likely, a fanatic would have missed the value in the following words we sang during the Lord’s Supper yesterday:

By Your love I am invited,
Be Your love with love requited;
By this Supper let me measure,
Lord, how vast and deep love’s treasure. (“Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness” LSB 636, st. 8.)

When Luther uses the term “sectarian,” he’s taking aim at the next step in fanatical evolution: Protestantism’s teachings that the holy things of God are little more than symbols, things that man initiates, and because of this, are negligible and can be easily jettisoned at any moment or because of any circumstance, all without the fear of a seared conscience.

Fanatics and sectarians would likely argue during a time such as ours that a church and her Christians who insist on gathering together to preach, teach, pray, sing, kneel in confession, administer Baptism, and serve the Lord’s Supper are being careless and not truly loving one’s neighbor. They would likely urge the Church away from in-person worship. They would urge that she not perform baptisms. They would urge that she refrain from administering the Lord’s Supper. They would do these things, all under the banner of genuine love for the neighbor.

Once again, Luther urged, “I cannot pass this injunction by. Therefore your will must yield.”

He’s right. The fanatics and sectarians must yield, and the Church must continue on in faithfulness to the Lord’s mandates no matter how the world around her might spin a description of her actions. The Church must continue to gather for Word and Sacrament ministry. We must continue to be together. We must continue to baptize and receive the Lord’s Supper, which is only possible by way of in-person worship.

Again, some might insist, “But you’re not loving your neighbor and you’re putting people at risk!”

No, we’re not. We’re being faithful to God. Loving one’s neighbor will always have its beginning and end in being faithful to God first. Faithfulness to God is, by default, the only real way that showing love to the neighbor is possible.

Still, let’s think a little deeper on this concern.

In many cases, what this love for the neighbor actually looks like must be weighed very carefully. Sometimes that’s not so easy. Right now it sure seems like a lot of Christians have settled for the premise that to love one’s neighbor means being licensed to impose one’s subjective opinion on another, ultimately using the “love your neighbor” doctrine as a club to bludgeon them until they give you what you want. I heard this described in our Elders meeting this past Saturday as “spiritual blackmail,” and it was framed according to the all-to-familiar practice in churches of threatening absence and the withholding of giving unless certain demands are met. Personally, I think the term “spiritual extortion” is more fitting. But whichever term you use, both communicate dangerous expressions of self-righteousness born from self-love. In the end, this is about as far from loving the neighbor as it gets. Luther gave a nod to this in a piece I read last Friday:

“No one wants to be regarded as hating and envying his neighbor; and everyone, by words and gestures, can appear friendly—yes, as long as you are good to him and do what he likes. But when your love for him lessens a bit, or he by chance is angered with a word, then he is entirely through with you. Then he complains and rages about the great injustice done to him, pretends that he needs not put up with it, and praises and exalts the loyalty and love he showed toward his fellow man, how he would gladly have given him his very heart and is now so badly repaid that the devil may hereafter serve such people. This is the love of the world.” (W 21, 415 ff.)

Personally, I think a lot of this can be applied to the current debate regarding masks. It seems it’s not so much about the benefits of wearing or not wearing a mask, but rather how ready people are to mistreat others who don’t agree with their preference, all the while using the “love thy neighbor” doctrine to legitimize their behavior. The snag in all this, however, is that while some believe they’re being a good neighbor by wearing a mask, plenty of others truly believe they’re being a good neighbor by not wearing one. Both have their reasons. Both believe their positions to be arguable from science, even as both might accuse the other of believing flawed science. Naturally, both also have plenty of doctors—people far smarter than any of us—waiting in the wings and ready to support their individual positions. But none of these details changes the fact that they both believe deeply they are showing the better form of love for the neighbor by the position they’ve taken.

So, then, now what?

Well, now it would seem that loving one’s neighbor means stopping right there and actually doing what the “love thy neighbor” doctrine insists—which is that we become flexible to the other person’s concerns and we give them room. It means respecting their apprehensions and allowing space for our neighbor’s liberty to wear or not wear a mask, whether or not we appreciate his reasons. Christian love certainly isn’t found in shaming your neighbor, or bemoaning him as being unloving while you, the obviously better Christian, are most certainly proving a truer form of concern for the neighbor by your better practice.

That’s pretty pompous, wouldn’t you say?

How about this: You do what you think is reasonably best. I’ll do what I think is reasonably best. And let’s both agree that neither of our positions is giving room to some sort of false doctrine that jeopardizes the other person’s eternity. Let’s just leave it at that. That’s loving the neighbor. Any militancy beyond that crosses the line and ceases to be genuine Christian love.

Barely tangential, if there’s concern about the hygiene practices employed by a church in their holy spaces, I should add that it’s likely they’re more capable of using their reason, sense, and resources to love their neighbors far better than the other communal locales into which so many are willing to enter; places like Walmart, where I’ve run into so many of you shopping, picking up this and that item that had been touched by numbers of people before you, not once having been wiped clean by an employee. And don’t forget about the cashier behind the Plexiglass shield who just handled every single item in your cart, all of which will end up in your car and eventually in your home.

“But the Governor has mandated that no more than ten people assemble in indoor gatherings! You’re disobeying the Government and breaking the Romans 13 mandate!”

No, we’re not. First of all, it’s not the Government’s job to interfere in God’s affairs. When it does, it defaults on its ordination and is not to be obeyed. Period. Second, obedience to the Fourth Commandment is never accomplished at the expense of the First and Third Commandments. In all things, the Church must obey God rather than men.

“Well, God knows the dangers of the pandemic, and He knows we mean well. We’re doing all of this to His glory and for the good of our neighbor.”

That’s interesting. Let me share another bit of Luther’s wisdom I happened upon last Thursday. Again, I think this stuff came looking for me.

“For here you think, ‘I am doing this for the glory of God; I intend it for the true God; I want to serve only God. All idolaters say and intend just that. Intentions or thoughts do not count. If they did, those who martyred the Apostles and the Christians would also have been God’s servants; for they, too, thought they were rendering God a service as Christ says in John 16:2…’” (E 63, 48 f.)

And so we go forward here at Our Savior in Hartland, aligning our thoughts and intentions in all things to the holy will of God, praying as we did yesterday in the Collect for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity:

“Let Your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of Your humble servants; and that they may obtain their petitions, make them to ask such things as shall please You; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”

We pray this way in order to show love to our neighbor as it would be pleasing to God, and we do it only as we have first let our fears be comforted and our faith be strengthened by the Gospel delivered through the Word and Sacrament ministry of Christ.

Please Excuse Me

I’ll be swift with my thoughts this morning. In truth, I have little energy today for much more than what I’m being moved to ponder out loud.

As a pastor, there’s something I’ve learned all too well over the years. I assure you it was already true long before the fresh stack of executive orders arrived at our doorsteps legitimizing certain human behaviors.

Few need a good reason for avoiding time with the Savior.

Unfortunately there’ve always been plenty of self-deceiving excuses available to Christians. Each of our narratives is full of them, and in our Sin, each of us is well-equipped for handily decriminalizing the reasons, no matter how foolish the road to doing so may actually be. For example, I once shared in one of my The Angels’ Portion volumes a story from years ago about crossing paths with an inactive member at a department store at 3:00 AM on Black Friday. The particular person was one who’d always insisted that after a busy week of work, it was just too challenging for him physically to get up and get ready for a 9:30 AM worship service on a Sunday morning. Standing there in line, both of us shivering in temperatures unsuited for anyone’s lengthy exposure, he spent several awkward minutes doing what he could to defend his disjointed premise.

He’s long gone from our church’s roster. But I can only imagine what my conversations with him would be like if he was still with us today, how his deeper inclination would have been granted permission to stroll about openly by our Governor’s orders, and on top of that, within a society being collectively slow-boiled into believing it’s honorable to frown upon in-person worship gatherings and the people who desire them.

Forget the whole “you’re not being a good Christian neighbor when you don’t wear a mask” thing. Christians are now telling other Christians they’re not showing Godly love for their neighbor by going to church at all!

Read that sentence again and know that the job of pastor got a lot more complicated in 2020, that’s for sure.

Putting it bluntly, no matter the real reason for staying away from worship that may be lurking beneath a person’s glossy surface, any excuse has suddenly become virtuous and neighbor-loving, and anyone insisting otherwise is labeled a guilt-shoveling villain. A question I’d set before you, however: How villainous can your pastor really be if he’s made clear over and over again that if you can’t get to the church to receive the Lord’s Word and Sacrament gifts—no matter your reason—all that’s needed is a phone call and he’ll bring it to you—masked, gloved, wrapped in bubble-wrap, in a HazMat suit, or whatever? Speaking personally, this has been a standing promise of mine since I was first ordained, and not only have I upped my ante by repeating it publicly since March of this year, but I’ve made good on it. Since March, I’ve been to some of your homes and served the Lord’s Supper through a kitchen or bedroom window. And yet, I’d still say 2020 isn’t exactly a unique situation when it comes to such an offer. If you’d have been afraid of the flu in 2019 but still desired Word and Sacrament, I’d have accommodated you. I only need to know. Phones are great for that. And for the record, the last I checked, the cell towers and communication satellites aren’t susceptible to the flu or COVID-19.

In the end, I guarantee all your pastor wants is for you to be fed with the life-sustaining gifts of God’s grace!

Again, as a man called to stand in the stead and by the command of Christ—a man bringing a Word of invitation from the King of kings—I find myself reminded on occasion of a telegram sent by Lord Charles Beresford, a British admiral who served in the Royal Navy at the turn of the twentieth century. The telegram was sent in reply to a dinner summons from Prince Albert of Wales, the man who would soon ascend the throne as King Edward the VII. The invitation to dine with the future king was delivered to Beresford assuming he would be glad for the honor and make plans to attend.

The admiral’s reply was simple.

“Very sorry can’t come. Lie to follow by post.”

In short, I actually appreciate Beresford’s response. At least he was willing to deal honestly with his king. He just didn’t want to attend, and that was easy enough to understand. I’m sure it bothered the king, but if you know the rest of the story, then you also know the king moved on to include others, eventually abandoning his relationship with Beresford. But again, the truer inclination of the admiral was that he didn’t want it, anyway. And the king—one of England’s most beloved—certainly wasn’t going to build the friendship by force.

So that was that.

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.

Don’t Be Surprised

How can any of us not be moved to exclaim with concern, “What a world we’re living in right now!”?

Pandemics. Failing economies. Skyrocketing unemployment. Brutality. Death. Divisions. Riots.

America’s list is rather long these days.

Like me, I’m sure many of you are consuming your fair share of articles offering a wide array of perspectives on all of this. My friend shared an interesting one with me this past week. In it, Harvard Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker, was noted as suggesting that the ones leveling the most pressure on the governors to loosen the grip of the lock downs are the Christians, namely, those Pinker refers to as being afflicted by the “malignant delusion” of belief in the afterlife. In his opinion, it’s the Christians who are proving themselves to be the enemies of life and are putting their neighbors at risk. In contrast, he believes atheists—people unwilling to trust in the possibility of an afterlife—are the ones showing the truest concern for society’s health and safety. Unsurprisingly, they’re a significant portion of the voices pressing most fervently for masks, social distancing, stricter government mandates, and longer quarantines.

I read another article (well, more like a blog post) last night that connected a few more of these dots. Written by a supporter of the lock downs, the post inferred rather disingenuously that everyone is obligated to support the rioting protests no matter how violent they become. I use the word “disingenuously” because the protesters are by no means quarantining, obeying government mandates, practicing social distancing, or wearing proper masks while they burn buildings and empty the local Target store of its wine and fat fryers. The irony is thick. But it’s overlooked and given room to breathe. Why? Well, because in the blog writer’s mind, the violence is justified, being the proper reward for thousands of years of oppression fostered by Judeo-Christianity. In other words, he blamed the riots on Christians.

Both of these are interesting perspectives. Ignorant, but interesting. And certainly you, the reader, will take from them whatever you want. I’ve learned that much along the way of sharing things like these.

For those of us who follow the historic lectionary in worship, we’ve heard a lot lately about how the world is in vigorous opposition to Christ and His Church. Sunday after Sunday for several weeks of the Easter season, the Lord has reminded us from John 14 and 15—sometimes subtly, and other times directly—that the world (the collective of sinful humanity in opposition to God) is waging open war against God’s people.

Simply put, Jesus kept reminding us that the world hates us. But He said this is only true because it hates him most of all (John 15:18-25).

At one point along the way, the Lord unpacks this hatred by reminding Christians they are distinct from the world and the world knows it. It’s not because of anything inherent to any of us, but rather because by the work of the Holy Spirit for faith (whom the Lord speaks about over and over again throughout John’s Gospel), God has claimed us as His own.

“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:19).

For as frightening as this particular verse might be, it certainly does help make sense of the seemingly imbalanced nonsense Christians face day in and day out. We can understand why Professor Pinker would believe as he believes, while at the same time being one to justify keeping the local Walmart open during the lock down—a place where thousands upon thousands of people visit in a single day, touching this and that item before putting it back on the shelf undecided, and not one single employee in sight to sanitize any of it. Scientifically speaking, Walmart is a bio-hazardous mess. But Pinker, and others in the blogosphere, can turn blind eyes to such things and be found supporting both violence as well as a Governor’s threatening of churches with fines if they hold in-person worship services, even as the church-goers practice social distancing within an immaculate worship space that has had every square inch scrubbed and sanitized multiple times every day of the week, and doubly so over the course of the few hours when the congregants actually meet.

One might be tempted to think that the only real way forward for Christians is to step into a silent stride beside the world, to blend in, to do what it tells you, to keep one’s head down, and maybe even try to keep one’s faith a secret in order to abide. But I see two problems with this.

The first is that the world can smell a Christian a mile away. Clandestine or on the sleeve, a Christian’s devotion to Christ will eventually be discovered. The fruits of faith are hard to hide, and the more the world demands submission to its gods and compliance with its rites and ceremonies, the harder it will be for the Christian to continue in the lemming-like stride of ambivalence. Eventually the Christian will be found at the edge of a cliff, and in that moment, the Christian will be aware of the Lord’s words to Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). But the world will be whispering there, too. It will hiss an undercurrent of doubt, asking, “You don’t really believe all that stuff, do you?”

It’s there the distinction is revealed and the Christian is forced to show his or herself as being in or out of step with the world.

If you haven’t experienced moments like this yet, trust me, you will.

I suppose the second problem I have with this is that as Jesus was speaking the words I referenced from John 15:19, in His divine omniscience, He was already mindful of what He preached in Matthew 5:13-16 where He called His believers salt and light. Salt is hard to ignore. Sprinkle a little onto a bite and give it a taste. You’ll know it’s there. Light is equally noticeable in comparison to darkness. Have a group of people close their eyes, then turn off the lights and light a candle. When they open their eyes, I guarantee they’ll be drawn to the candle’s flickering flame long before noticing anything else in the room.

Christians stand out. There’s really no way around it. And from the Lord’s perspective, this is a good thing. It means He has established us as both servants and leaders in a world filled with death and destruction. We are those who add humble, but steadfast, flavor while at the same time being those who lead with the bright beaming light of truth—namely, the Gospel. Perhaps even better, we are fortified for both of these roles by God’s Word, which means we have the source for knowing both how and why we are salt and light.

The whole of our identity is located in Christ who has redeemed us, reclaimed us, recalibrated us, and re-established us as His people in the world.

But once again, the Lord is careful to instruct us that the first test of this identity is to endure the hatred of a world that would much rather be rid of us. It’s almost Biblical the way Shakespeare wrote: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (Henry IV, Part II). This is true. The crown of righteousness borne by the Christian, while it is a joy for eternal life, it can seem heavy in this mortal life. Still, Christians are given minds to understand the weight of the crown, seeing it for what it is—a baptismal mark that not only designates the bearer as one purchased and won by the Redeemer and an inheritor of the world to come, but as one who has been led into the duty of being a dealer in hope—real hope.

Yes, situations requiring the hope we bring can be sketchy. Carrying the message of Christ crucified into any setting can be risky. But again, Christians have been given the task of doing it, and it is accomplished, for the most part, by just being who we are in Jesus Christ—servants and leaders, salt and light—no matter the flatland, valley, hill, or cliff.

Personally, I think all of this begs deep reflection right now.

And by the way, Jesus has been very clear along the way to say that any ability for reflecting on any of this (discerning the knowing, being, and doing) will be discovered only as we are connected to His Word (John 14:23-31, John 15:1-8). Disregard the Word—both verbal and visible—and your trip over the cliff is all but certain.

In conclusion, I suppose that’s my simplest prayer for you this morning is that you would remain fixed in the Word of God in all things, and there, knowing and understanding the world’s hatred for you, still you’d be found courageous. I pray for your readiness in season and out of season to be salt and light, fully prepared at the edge of each cliff to step out of stride with this world, if necessary, and “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).