04-25-2021: Fourth Week of Easter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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