31 December 2007

Remembering Rev. Raymond A. Mueller

I attended the funeral of a good friend today, a brother in Christ and in the Holy Office. The Reverend Ray Mueller was in his late 70s, and he served both actively and faithfully as a pastor for considerably longer than I've been alive. He was retired, ostensibly, two or three times over, but he sure didn't let the grass grow under his feet. He attended winkels more regularly than a lot of brothers I know who are still serving parishes; he came to contribute and to participate in discussions, and I always appreciated the wisdom and insight that shared with us younger men. He may have slowed down somewhat in the latter part of his life, but he had decades of experience to draw upon, and he remained thoughtful and conscientious and on his toes.

One of the things I always appreciated about Ray was the fact that, for all his seniority, he never failed to listen carefully to what his younger colleagues had to say; he wasn't afraid to rethink his position and to learn new things from others. He was passionate, surely; confident of his faith in the Word of God; solid as the day is long, and maybe even a little stubborn, as old German Lutherans tend to be. But he wasn't hard-headed or obstinate, and he was never rude that I ever heard or witnessed. He was good-natured and good-humored in all his dealings.

Ray wasn't shy about participating in the political life of the Church on earth. Yet, anyone who might suggest that he was motivated by political ambition or any such desire for power and position, clearly didn't know the Reverend Ray Mueller. I've never known anyone more impassioned by the Gospel and driven by faithfulness to the Word of the Lord. What Ray cared about was Jesus, and confessing Jesus in all the world. It was as simple as that. He was zealous, enthusiastic and energetic for missions and outreach, and it wasn't just rhetoric with him; nor was it a gimmick, but honest-to-goodness, roll-up-your-sleeves preaching and teaching, and the hard work of bringing the Word to those who weren't going to hear it or find it on their own. Ray's contributions to the Church's earthly polity and governance were considerable and blessed, but I am most grateful for the good example he gave of genuinely confessional evangelicalism.

I'm quite convinced that it was because Ray knew and loved the Gospel of his Lord Jesus Christ, that he was consistently pleasant and jovial. He had an endearing chuckle that often preceded his answers to questions or his comments in discussions. He took things quite seriously, but he wasn't morbid or down in the mouth about the good word he was given to confess. He lived in the joy and freedom of the Gospel, and it simply exuded from him all the time; he wore it on his sleeve, and in the warmth of his smile you saw a glimmer of his peace and happiness in Christ. I count it among the blessings in my life that, for the past many years, I have frequently been privileged to share the pleasure of Ray's company. That's been a treat, and I will really miss those opportunities, as I will miss my friend and colleague, Ray.

I'm pleased to say that Ray's surviving son, the Reverend David Mueller, follows in his father's footsteps. Not simply in the Office of the Ministry, but in his commitment to the Word of God, his deep love for the Gospel, his evangelical spirit, and his ready laugh. I'm glad to count Dave among my friends and colleagues, and I pray that he and I and many others will be granted to serve our generation and those that follow us as faithfully as his father did. I felt for Dave at the funeral; for how could my heart not go out to my friend, now bereft of his Dad in this earthly life. But I was touched by the unaffected honesty of his emotions. He wears his heart on his sleeve, much like Ray did. So I was able to share with him the bittersweet joy of a Christian funeral, the mourning that is not without hope but weeps for a time while remaining in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection. Thanks be to God, who has given us the Victory in our Lord Jesus Christ.

25 December 2007

Kinda Happy, Kinda Sad

Every year it's more or less the same. I feel like such a bi-polar bear on Christmas Day. That's probably an offensive thing to say, for those who really are "bi-polar" (which I don't claim to know anything about), but I have no other way to describe the mixed feelings I always seem to have on the 25th of December.

I love the Feast that is the ChristMass. I revel in the celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord, the preaching and administration of the Word-made-Flesh. I could sing the hymns of the ChristMass all day and night, especially the Latin chants and the Lutheran chorales. Even the simpler carols, those that actually sing of Christ, bring joy and gladness to my heart. As much as I love Advent Tide, I honestly and thoroughly delight in the arrival of this high and holy day.

For all of that, there is perhaps no other day of the year when I feel so odd and out of sorts with the rest of the world around me. Not only the secular world with its "happy profaniday" (one can hardly call what the pagan populace observes a "holiday" in any true or proper sense), but sometimes even the celebrations of beloved fellow Christians can leave me feeling like an utter stranger in a strange land.

It's not that I'm angry or upset with anyone; there's been no offense either given or taken. Besides, 'tis the season of charity and forbearance, even where there may at times be some offense. As our dear Lord condescends to love us, in spite of all our many sins and enmity against Him, how shall I not cover my neighbors trespasses against me with love and forgiveness, for Jesus' sake?

No, it isn't anger that besets me on this day, but a profound sadness that descends upon me. In part, I suppose, I am simply spent from all the planning, preparations, and performance of the ChristMass rites and ceremonies. There is a sense of that on Easter Sunday, too, yet not the same burden of melancholy. There are probably lots of reasons for the difference. For one thing, Easter has not been so hijacked by the commercial world around us. More to the point, I can't imagine a Christian who wouldn't make every effort to be in church on Easter Sunday. It is not so with Christmas Day. There is a stereotype of "Christmas and Easter Christians," but, so far as I can tell, it really isn't such a common thing for Christians to be in church on Christmas Day. Two years ago, when Christmas Day occurred on a Sunday, there were any number of churches in our community that actually cancelled their regular services that morning! Prior to my coming to Emmaus, even this pious and faithful congregation did not have a Christmas Day Service; and I spoke with a colleague today whose congregation, similarly, has never yet had a service on this occasion. The rationale has been that "Christmas" is a time for family gatherings.

I'm all in favor of families. I'm something of a family man, myself. I also understand that, for some Christians at least — because of the structures and strictures of society, and due to the fact that many of their relatives may not be Christians — this day may end up being one of the rare opportunities they have to gather with their extended families. In the freedom of the Gospel, and no less in Christian love for the neighbor, I do not begrudge anyone the prerogative to spend the day traveling and visiting. Such personal prerogatives do not really pertain, however, to the Church collectively, nor to the divinely called and ordained servants of the Word. The fact that Christians are individually free to come and go, as they may be so inclined or need to do, surely does not mean that every other member of the Church should be deprived of the opportunity to hear the Gospel and receive the Body and Blood of Christ in celebration of His Nativity. Accordingly, it is not only my own desire, but my obligation as a pastor, to mark this day with the celebration of the Divine Service (and I count that a most blessed privilege).

Actually, the whole world ought to give thanks for pastors and congregations who celebrate the Divine Service on the 25th of December, for it is precisely that (and only that) which makes this day the ChristMass at all. While many Christians routinely go about urging that we "keep Christ in Christmas," there seems to be a rampant nonchalance about keeping the Mass in the ChristMass. As the Word becomes flesh and is born for us today in the Divine Service of the Gospel, which is the preaching of Christ and His Sacrament, there really is no way to "keep Christ," nor the ChristMass, without the Mass.

What makes me so sad, I guess, is that this day really is not so defined by the ChristMass, not for the vast majority of people. Again, I do not begrudge Christians the freedom to make other plans for themselves and their families, as their own vocations and stations in life may suggest, and as the needs of their neighbors may require of them. I do wish there didn't seem to be such a "take it or leave it" attitude about the Divine Service, as though it were incidental to the day. Assuredly, there are many Christians who do recognize the centrality of the Sacrament and its definitive significance to this day; who hunger and thirst for the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary to be sacrificed for the sins of the world. It is all the more sure and certain that the same Christ Jesus has given Himself, not only for the pious and faithful, but also for those who let this day of His birth come and go without a second thought. Thus, I desire to be more charitable and forgiving, merciful and considerate of my neighbor; for I know that I am too impatient and short-tempered with others. Nevertheless, it saddens me that the heart and center of the day — the Holy Communion — is generally not recognized.

Along with this sadness, there is also a frustration that derives from a pressure to compete with the world on its own terms. By the time I have officiated and presided over the several Services of the ChristMass, I have very little left for my own family. On Easter Sunday, this is readily understood and, barring any funerals or the like, there is no expectation that I must proceed to whoop it up and party hardy with my family. Christmas is trickier. My wife and children are patient and long-suffering, but with everyone else in the world rejoicing over gifts and parties and such, it is hard to avoid the feeling that I am dropping the ball and letting them down when I have no energy or enthusiasm for such festivities.

It's not only today, but the whole "season" leading up to this day, that weighs upon me in this fashion. For me it has been Advent Tide, and for the past month I have given myself as completely as I am able to the Word of God and prayer: to the observances of Advent, and to preparations for the Twelve Days of the ChristMass. Consequently, I've not sent out any cards; I only helped to finish up our annual family letter today (despite the fact that LaRena had mostly finished it a month ago). I've had neither time nor other means to do any shopping, and I'm sorry to say that my covetous flesh has a difficult time with the shopping that everyone else appears to be doing. It is a humbling blow to my pride, too, that others are so generous with us, while we are so poorly able to reciprocate in any like manner. I'm very grateful for the gifts that we receive, especially because they enable us to do some things for our children that we would not otherwise be able to do, but I would equally desire to be in a position to give good gifts to our family and friends.

What I do have to give — the Ministry of the Gospel — is warmly received and deeply appreciated by the people of Emmaus, and that should be sufficient for me. My sense of personal satisfaction and fulfillment is hardly the point, in any case, and certainly not the most important thing. It is unrealistic, and contrary to the theology of the Cross, to expect the world ever to understand or honor my vocation as a pastor. Yet, even knowing all that, I still leave the church on Christmas Day overwhelmed by sadness that the world pays no attention to the Gospel I administer.

What do I want for Christmas? Chiefly, I want Jesus — who has in fact given Himself to me in the Gospel that was beautifully preached to me this morning, and who fed me with His Body and Blood in the ChristMass at midnight and again today. Along with that, I want everyone else to hear and receive the same Gospel-Word and Sacrament, and thus to have Jesus their Savior. Yes, that is what I want. That would make me happy. But how silly of me to suppose that I want it more than the Lord Himself desires it! What is my sadness to compare with the sorrow of Him who came to His own to save them, and His own did not receive Him? Yet, as many as do receive Him in faith, He gives them the new birth of the sons of God in Christ. Such faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. Therefore, irrespective of the world's apathy or ire, and despite my own frailty and weakness, there is nothing better for me to do than preach and administer the Gospel of the Word-made-Flesh, as I have been called and sent to do. In that Gospel alone is the hope of the nations and the only real cure for my melancholy blues.

23 December 2007

The Rhythm of Life

No, I'm not thinking of the late-80s Scorpions song, but of the Christian faith and life in daily prayer and the weekly Divine Service, the Sundays and Seasons of the Church Year, and the sanctoral cycle of feasts and commemorations. That's where I live, mostly, and I love it. I do it for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of faith and piety, for the benefit of my congregation and anyone else who cares to hear the Word of God, to receive the gifts of Christ, and to pray, praise and give thanks. The Apostles deemed it most necessary that they devote themselves to the Word of God and prayer, and I can't imagine that I ought to become preoccupied with anything else than that. In this way, all things are sanctified to our use and received with thanksgiving.

The fundamental cornerstone of the Christian faith and life, and of the whole Christian Church on earth, is the celebration of the Lord's Supper in the Lord's House on each Lord's Day. Of course, there have always been those who find themselves unable to sanctify the Holy Day in this way, on account of infirmity or conflicting vocational obligations; for those folks, other ways and means are found to serve them with the gifts Christ freely gives. Otherwise, to be a Christian is to be in church at least every Sunday, to hear the Gospel and to receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. It is as fundamental to the spiritual life as breathing and eating and drinking are to earthly life. Which is precisely why the devil, the world, and the sinful old Adam conspire together and work so hard to prevent the children of God from being gathered around His Table in His House.

Over the past several weeks, the devil has worked particularly hard here in the South Bend area to make going to church downright difficult. As I recall, Luther makes some reference to the way the devil messes with the weather in order to harass Christians, and that has surely been the case lately. This morning I kept thinking of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," as we have been living in the land of ice and snow, without any midnight sun that I know of, but the harsh winds were blowing all day today! (I know that Robert Plant actually sings of the "hot springs" blowing, but it's always sounded more like "harsh winds" to me, and that's what we actually had today.) Two weeks ago it was a treacherous layer of ice on the roads and everything else. Last week it was a foot or more of snow that fell between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. And then the incredibly strong and bitterly cold winds today, which took down trees and power lines all over town and managed to make a mess of things everywhere. I'm somewhat amazed, impressed and pleased, that the attendance at Emmaus has actually been pretty good, in spite of the weather; though certainly not what it would have been otherwise. The people of Emmaus are pious and faithful and generally rather gumptuous, but the worse sort of winter weather can be hazardous for some of our older members, who end up missing out when the going gets tough. Of course, the Lord remains the real Weather Man, and He only allows the devil a limited degree of latitude to muck about. As He continues to provide food and clothing, shelter and protection for the body all year long, so does He nourish and sustain the spiritual body and life with His means of grace, both in season and out of season.

From the 17th of December through the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January, Emmaus is gathered at least once a day: for responsive prayer on each of the last seven days of Advent (in addition to the Feast of St. Thomas on the 20th and the regular Sunday Divine Service), and for the Divine Service on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas and the Epihany of our Lord. I pray that the devil is not given the leeway to mess up the weather on all of those coming days!

Even with my faithful assistant to help me with the preaching during Christmas Tide, it is still a lot of work to prepare for and administer all of the Services. It is a rigorous undertaking, as is the similar rhythm of Holy Week and the first Octave of Easter Tide. But I relish it and revel in it, nonetheless. It saddens me, actually, that more Christian pastors and people do not experience the blessed peace and tranquility that derives from the daily hearing and receiving of the Gospel. If I could keep this pace all year long, I would gladly do it. As it is, there is something to be said for marking Christmas and Easter in such a uniquely emphatic way.

Christmas Eve will begin with Lessons & Carols (at Evening Prayer), and then the Midnight ChristMass to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. Christmas Day in the morning will be observed with the order of the Chorale Communion (LSB Divine Service Setting Five). The next several days are festivals commemorating St. Stephen the Martyr, St. John the Apostle & Evangelist, and the Holy Innocents. The Fifth Day of Christmas, and other non-festival days in the course of Christmas Tide, will be marked with a brief spoken Divine Service. The First Sunday after Christmas, New Year's Eve, and the Feast of the Name & Circumcision of Jesus (on the 1st of January) will each be celebrated with appropriate festivity. Finally, the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord will be marked with particular solemnity, as the grand culmination of our corporate celebration of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Of course, we continue to confess and celebrate His Incarnation and Manifestation throughout Epiphany Tide, and really throughout the entire Church Year, but the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January provides a grand and glorious pivot from the festival Season of the ChristMass to the regular rhythm of the Church's faith and life in Christ. I'm already beginning to savor it now!

22 December 2007

Do Not Be Afraid to Do What You Are Given

The Word of the Lord is spoken to you, as it was spoken to St. Joseph. Not now by an angel in a dream, but by a messenger of the Lord in His Church. Indeed, His prophetic Word has been fulfilled and made more sure with the coming of Christ Jesus in the flesh. So this Word is now proclaimed to you as the Gospel, unto the obedience of faith.

It is a wondrous Word that is here preached to you, full of the gracious and wonderful works of God. He has acted on your behalf, and He is still taking every initiative and acting to save you, to give you all good things and every perfect gift. The Lord Himself is your Savior, and He has become your Salvation. He has been conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, becoming flesh of her flesh and blood of her blood, so that He who is begotten of the Father from eternity is also (now and ever) true Man: like you.

He is the promised Son of David, who shall be seated on His throne and reign forever and ever. But neither David himself, nor any of his royal sons, nor humble Joseph either, brings about this birth and crowning glory. The Lord Jesus is conceived and born of David’s daughter, the Virgin, apart from any man. The House of David neither takes from God, nor gives to Him, but hears His Word and receives His gift, His Son.

With Ahaz, the Word and the gift are despised and rejected, but they could not be thwarted. With Joseph, they are heard and received in faith, in repentance and righteous obedience. St. Joseph is no king, nor is he the natural father of the Christ. But the Lord speaks to Joseph, and that righteous man believes and obeys. There is no hesitation, no talking back or argument. Each time he hears the Word of the Lord, he takes it to heart and immediately acts upon it.

It is in the righteousness of faith that he does so. Even before the Lord has revealed to him that his bride has not been unfaithful and adulterous, but shall bear a Son by the Holy Spirit, Joseph has already determined to deal with her in mercy. His righteousness is found, not only in his respect for the Law, for the Sixth Commandment and the sanctity of the marriage bed, but all the more deeply in his compassion for Mary. The letter of the Law would have her not only divorced and sent away, but stoned to death as a public spectacle, as a harsh example to others. Joseph honors the command, but he honors the heart of God in the Gospel, which does not punish but spares the sinner.

Of course, though Mary is a sinner, because she too has inherited the sin and guilt and death of Adam and Eve, she is without any sin or guilt in the conception of her Son. In this she is chaste and pure and faithful. But not in the eyes of the world. St. Joseph believes the Word of the Lord concerning his bride, but in taking her to be his wife he makes her public shame his own. He covers her with righteousness, as her Son shall cover the world with His righteousness. St. Joseph protects the Blessed Virgin from the accusation of the Law, but he will suffer for it. Her Son will suffer far more; for them and all the House of David, for you and all the world, for Jews and Gentiles alike.

Already in St. Joseph you are given a beautiful example of the Christian faith and life, of righteousness and faithfulness under the Cross of Christ. The Cross is several decades down the road, but it is the Cross that Joseph suffers for his obedience of faith.

It is the Cross that you are given to bear and suffer, as well, for the benefit of your neighbor, your spouse and children, your friends and enemies. It is sure that none of your neighbors is the pure and spotless Virgin Mary bearing the Son of God in her womb, but you are called to deal with all of your neighbors in charity and love, for the sake of her Son.

Do not condone or accommodate sin, whether against the Sixth Commandment or any other, but forgive as you are forgiven; show mercy in the loving-kindness of your God; deal with your neighbor in the Peace of Christ. It is more than the cheerfulness and generosity of the season. It is care and concern and real help at all times, in every place, as you are given the opportunity. Not for a show or the goodwill of man, but even at great personal cost, and even when it causes the world to scowl at you.

Help your neighbor in need, up and down the street, left and right. But do not neglect or despise those neighbors whom the Lord has entrusted most closely to your care: your parents, your spouse and children. Honor your father and mother with obedience when you are young, and with tender provision when they are old. Not only when they are wise and kind and attentive to you, but also when they are grumpy and ill-tempered, or senile and crazy.

Love and cherish your wife or husband, not only on your honeymoon, but every day of your life together, for as long as you both shall live: in good times and bad, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer. Be faithful and honest, not only by avoiding adulterous affairs, but by giving yourself, your heart, mind and body, fully to your spouse. Trust the Lord who has given your wife to you, who has given you to your husband. And trusting the Lord, forgive your spouse for Jesus’ sake.

Care for your children, also, with love and mercy and forgiveness. Deal with them gently and with patience, as the Lord is long-suffering, slow to anger, and compassionate with you. Do not fail to discipline your children, to teach them right and wrong, to train them in the way they should go, in the fear of the Lord. But do not vent your own sinful anger upon them; they suffer, as it is, for the sins of their father and mother. Remember that the little Lord Jesus was Himself a Child, and that He welcomes the little children to His own embrace; not because they are perfect little angels without sin, but because He has given Himself for them, and He forgives them, as He also forgives you.

Do all of this, and more, according to the vocations in life to which the Lord has called you. Do so because it is good and right: to honor the Word of the Lord and to serve your neighbor in love. Do not be afraid to do what you are thus given to do. Perhaps you will suffer greatly for it, but the Lord shall sustain you; He will strengthen you and keep you, in faith, even unto the life everlasting.

Consider the outcome of the Cross of Christ: Both He and you are vindicated in His Resurrection from the dead. What is there to fear? What can any man, woman or child do to rob you of that life which is yours forever by grace through faith in Christ?

You do not work and serve and strive and suffer for your own sake, as though to save yourself. You do it for the Lord (in faith) and for your neighbor (in love). Because the Lord has commanded, and your neighbor has need of it.

Rest assured, the Lord will accomplish His purposes for you, and for your neighbor. He does not need your help. But you need Him. And as He does serve you with all that you need for both body and soul, for this life and the life everlasting, so does He desire that you serve your neighbor in His Name. Feed and clothe and shelter your neighbor’s body, therefore, with the means provided by the Lord. And do not neglect to speak His Word to your neighbor; it is the most precious gift of all.

You are privileged to speak this Word of God (to confess His Word) — which is to say what is more important and significant than any president or king might otherwise declare — you are able to do so, because the Lord your God speaks to you. His Word of the Law commands the way you are to go, according to the good and acceptable will of God. But His Word to you is chiefly and decisively His Gospel, the speaking of the beloved and well-pleasing Son in the flesh: into your ears, into your heart, into your body and life.

In this Gospel He has great mercy and divine compassion upon you, exceeding that of Joseph for Mary; exceeding all that you could ever imagine or suppose. He does not punish you for all your sins and failures of thought, word and deed. He spares you, and does not withhold His goodness from you. He bears with you in love, and bears both you and all your burdens with divine charity and providence.

Not with a wink and a nod, but at the greatest cost and sacrifice. The Father gives the Son, and the Son submits Himself in humble obedience, even unto death upon the Cross. He becomes flesh, in which there is no shame, but in that flesh and blood like yours, conceived and born of Mary, He bears your sins and carries your sorrows and suffers all the curse and consequence of your wrongs.

He has borne the full burden of the Law on your behalf, in order to cover you with His righteousness. He makes all your shame and guilt His own, in order to clothe you with His innocence and glorify you with His holiness. For He has kept the entire Law perfectly, both the letter and the Spirit of it, to your credit and benefit! And yet, He has also suffered the guilty verdict, the sentencing, and the punishment of the Law against all of your transgressions.

In this way, the Lord Jesus Christ has perfectly satisfied and perfectly fulfilled the Law: in your stead and for your advantage. In His Incarnation and His Cross, the true heart of God the Father has been opened to you in love and forgiveness. For He has rescued you from every evil, from sin, death, the devil and hell, and He has reconciled you to Himself.

His good and gracious will for you has been, not only to save you from death and damnation, but to share with you Himself and His Life. It is finally for that purpose that He has come to be with you: that you may be and abide with Him forever, where He is. Not as a visitor, a temporary guest, but as a son of God by grace, truly at home with Him in His house, in His Kingdom, in the very bosom of His Father — who is now your Father in heaven.

Here is a Word as "impossible" and difficult as the Word of the Lord to the House of David. The Virgin has conceived a Son by the Holy Spirit, and He is God the Savior. Your Savior.

In the flesh and blood of Mary’s Son, Christ Jesus, the Lord your God is with you. Not "once upon a time," back then and there, but here and now: with you, and for you. This same Jesus, this same God, this Savior, is with you and speaks to you in His Word of the Gospel, which is the Absolution of your sins. You are acquitted. You are set free. You shall not die but live.

He is with you, with His Word, in the waters of Holy Baptism. Therein, by the same Word and Spirit of God by which the Blessed Virgin Mary conceived the Son in her womb, you have been conceived and born again as a son of God in Christ. You bear His Name — you are a Christian — because He is with you and He saves you.

He is with you, also, as intimately as He was with St. Mary in her womb, when He feeds you in the Holy Communion with the same Body and Blood that she bore in Bethlehem.

Do not be afraid to take and eat and drink this Sacrament, as a member of His Bride, the Church, but know that He is here for you to save you, closer than a lover. And He shall keep you and preserve you, chaste and pure by His gracious forgiveness, steadfast in the one true faith — even under the Cross — unto the life everlasting.

It is by these means of grace that He fulfills and accomplishes for you what His dear Name proclaims: Salvation! For it is by and with this flesh and blood of His, conceived and born of the Seed of David, that He has redeemed you. He is here with you, not to punish you or put you to death, but to love you, to give you Himself and His Life.

20 December 2007

The Original Beanie Baby Is Back

At least, I had never heard of any other "Beanie Babies" back before my DoRena-Beana was born. That was 21 years ago this coming month. We called her "Dinky" prior to her nativity, because we didn't know whether she was a boy or a girl, and we did not want to depersonalize her by calling her "the baby" or "it." I've always been uncomfortable with referring to a baby as an "it," whether in or out of the womb. If DoRena had been a boy, I don't remember what we would have named him (my wife probably does); but never mind that, it doesn't matter. I nicknamed her "DoRena-Beana" very soon after she was born, and that eventually morphed into "Beanie," which has pretty well stuck with her family and friends; except that she is also "Sissy," especially to her siblings (and to her parents when they are talking to her siblings about her). Whew, I'm already exhausted, and I haven't even gotten to the main point yet!

I went to Bloomington on Sunday to bring my Beanie Baby back for the holy days. I am well aware that she is not a baby anymore, but daddies perceive and relate to their daughters within a time warp, and, I'm sorry, but Tim McGraw is right, to me she'll always be my little girl. I can look at her and see that she is all growed up and beautiful, and positively glowing with happiness as she looks forward to getting married in May. But she is my firstborn, and the memories of her as a baby and a toddler are permanently etched upon my brain and on my heart. So, anyway, I was relishing the chance to go and get her for the Christmas break, especially because this is the last "hoorah!" for us as a family before her spring wedding. I was looking forward to the chance to visit with her, and to car trip with her homeward.

Well, you know that old saying about the best laid plans of mice and men?

Okay, so she got a car. Yep, that's right, her very first set of wheels. No, she didn't win it as a prize, but she did get it for a good price, and I'm pleased as punch for her to have her very own vehicle. But that's where the plot begins to thicken. First of all, it already meant that we wouldn't be road trippin' it together, not exactly. Still, caravanning can also be fun, even if it is only two people in two cars with lots of college stuff. Alas, that was also not meant to be. For, lo and behold, and unbeknownst to me (it is a good thing that Emily has her wits about her), when you purchase a car from a private individual (in contrast to a dealership), you don't get any "in transit" time. No sirree, Bob, you had better get that little beauty registered and plated quick smart, lest you be pulled over, ticketed and towed. Great. And just to make things even more interesting, the department of motor vehicles in Bloomington, Indiana, isn't open on Mondays. Why not? you ask. I could not tell you. Nor could I remain in Bloomington, myself, past Monday morning.

So, instead of bringing home my Beanie Baby on Monday, I brought home a carload of her belongings and left her behind for another day in Bloomington. To be more precise, I ran her around on a couple of errands, put some spending money in her hands, and tucked her back into bed with a head-splitting, sick-to-her-stomach migraine. That was not such a fun way to start the week. I drove home to South Bend, thankful that the roads were much improved over the condition they were in the day before. And I prayed that, first of all, she would not have any trouble getting her car registered the next day, and second, that she would be kept safe and sound on her lonely drive home all by herself. I was not the most cheerful person on Monday, as I was discouraged for my daughter, disappointed that I wasn't bringing her home, and most of all distraught that I could not simply take care of her. It is, I think, most difficult to let go of the responsibility that I have had for her all these years. I'm still her Daddy, to be sure, but my headship as her father is beginning to give way to the one who will soon be her husband, and to the plain fact that she is an adult now (no matter what my mental picture of her may be).

Ah, cruel world it is. I'm already empathizing with my colleague, who has five daughters to give away in years to come. Those years will come and go too quickly, if my own experience is any indication. Saying goodbye to sons as they grow up is no picnic, either, but that separation is of a different sort. I guess that each relationship and each experience is different, as each person is a unique individual, but there are certain things that simply are what they are for everyone.

Now, then, we have three weeks to bask in the glow of our Beanie Baby and to savor our time with her while she still shares our name and officially calls our home her "permanent" address. To speak of "permanence" seems a cruel sort of irony, but I am pleased for her to be spreading her wings and making plans for a nest of her own. In the meantime, I cannot hide my delight to have her around again. (Oh, yeah, she got home safely Tuesday night, in answer to my prayers and much to my relief.) I got to take her to the dentist this morning, and then out for brunch. She was also in church for an Advent prayer service this morning, and I am positively giddy to have her around for the services of the coming weeks. That is where and how I get to serve her best, not only as her Daddy, but as her Pastor (for a little while yet). My heart likewise thrills to hear her having fun with her brothers and sisters, too, who clearly love having her home.

The original Beanie Baby is still in her original packaging, so I guess that makes her a mint condition collector's item. Sam certainly seems to think so. She's not for sale at any price, but I am pleased to be giving her away to a good man; I know the two of them will make a good home together. She is a one-of-a-kind treasure, not to be found on e-bay or at any garage sale. I'm not sure how it is that the Lord should ever have entrusted such a priceless creature to one such as me, but He has not only preserved her but enabled her to grow and thrive and excel in so many ways. There must be people who get tired of hearing me dote over my daughter and my other children, but I can't help myself. I'm sure I must be quite a sight sometimes, gazing at my "little girl" with a goofy grin on my face, bursting with pride and joy in my beautiful Beanie Baby, marveling at the accomplished young woman she has become. I am truly blessed to be her Daddy, and sincerely thankful that the Lord has brought her safely home to us once more this Christmas.

15 December 2007

Whose Way St. John the Baptist Prepared

I realize I run the risk of ruining my reputation, if ever I say anything positive about the three-year lectionary. All the more so if I offer any hint of constructive criticism concerning the historic (medieval western) lectionary. I have no beef with the historic lectionary, but neither do I regard it as the litmus test of orthodoxy that many of my dear friends and colleagues hold it to be. It has its strengths and, dare I say, its weaknesses; so does the three-year lectionary. Normally, though, because I have grown weary of arguing about it, I simply bite my tongue and swallow any comments I might otherwise offer.

I'm throwing caution to the wind in this case, however, because I have been struck by a realization this past week that still leaves me curious. Advent Tide in the three-year lectionary features prominently the preaching of repentance by St. John the Baptist, especially from St. Matthew (in Series A) and St. Luke (in Series C), and to the extent that St. Mark records it (in Series B). I think this is a good thing, which accords well with the good purpose for which the holy Evangelists recorded St. John's preaching. What has struck me, in particular, is that this preaching does not occur in the historic lectionary, leastwise not on any of the Sundays (neither in Advent Tide, nor elsewhere in the course of the year). It does seem likely that it may be among the Lections appointed for weekday Masses in the historic Roman missal, but I'm not sure to what extent those have found a regular place among Lutherans. Granted, the historic Fourth Sunday in Advent features the important words of St. John the Baptist as recorded by St. John the Evangelist, but that is a decidedly different sort of proclamation than his preaching of repentance in the three Synoptic Gospels.

Not only that, but the historic lectionary has tended to relegate the Baptism of Our Lord to relative obscurity, although that occasion has floated about a bit between Christmas Tide and the first week of Epiphany Tide. The Lutheran Service Book redaction of the historic lectionary has taken the liberty of listing the Baptism of Our Lord as the first option for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, following the lead of the three-year lectionary in that instance. Heretofore, I have to wonder to what extent the Forerunner's preaching and Baptism of repentance were heard among those following the historic (medieval western) lectionary. I also wonder why it may have been so limited, because that does not seem like such a good thing to me.

I realize that, of course, the work of St. John the Baptist was historically fulfilled and completed with the first Advent of the Christ in the flesh. Clearly, John does decrease and Christ increases, and that is only right. But I maintain that the office of the Forerunner necessarily continues, as the Advent of Christ also continues in the Ministry of the Gospel. In any case, the Evangelists not only record the preaching of St. John (as more than a bit of historic trivia, I warrant), but they also summarize the preaching of Christ and His Apostles as a continuation of St. John's preaching: "Repent! for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." The preaching of St. Peter on Pentecost Day is once more an echo of the Forerunner's preaching: "Repent, and be baptized!" And when our Lord Himself was questioned as to His authority, He linked Himself specifically to the authority with which St. John the Baptist had been sent. In light of all of this, it seems to me that the actual preaching of St. John, as recorded especially by St. Matthew and St. Luke, is a proclamation that needs to continue in the life of the Church on earth, as the very means by which the Lord prepares His way before Him.

For my part, I am very pleased and satisfied with the way in which the LSB three-year lectionary handles the end of the Church Year and the Season of Advent, which historically belong together as a penitential period of waiting upon the coming of Christ. Each of the three years offers its own nuances, but they all retain essentially the same basic pattern and movement. The eschatological preaching and emphasis of Advent 2 in the historic lectionary, sound forth in the final Sundays of the Church Year, and then the ministry of St. John the Baptist comes into focus on the Second and Third Sundays in Advent. In this way, the LCMS Proper Preface for Advent seems less like reminiscing and more the confession of what the Lord is still doing among us. The entry of our Lord into Jerusalem is given preference on the First Sunday in Advent, reclaiming that salutary keynote to the Church Year, and the coming of our Lord in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary characterizes the Fourth Sunday in Advent. Waiting with a woman for the birth of her child seems most appropriate, not only in anticipation of Christmas, but also as the Church experiences the "birth pangs" of the approaching judgment.


Hear the Gospel that is preached to you, which heals you and gives you life in place of death. Hear it and believe it, though you cannot see it or feel it.

Be patient. Do not give up hope; do not despair; but wait upon the Lord who comes to save you. He is at hand with mercy and compassion in all His dealings with you. He has not forgotten you.

Be patient also with your neighbor. Do not complain about, criticize or condemn him (or her). But bear with your neighbor in love and with forgiveness, in the faith of Christ Jesus (the Savior of all).

Would you presume to wrest away from God or your neighbor, by force, what you can only receive as charity? You may try it, in your restlessness and littleness of faith, but you cannot do it. You are not greater than John the Baptist, and neither he nor you could escape from the prison house of sin and death, nor break your own way into the Kingdom of Heaven. For by your natural birth, the inheritance of your parents and ancestors all the way back to Adam & Eve, you are burdened and beleaguered, subject to infirmity and mortality: blind and deaf, crippled and impoverished.

Of yourself, you are a reed shaken by the wind, a leaf that is blown away by even the slightest gust. You are prone to discouragement and despair, impatient with God and man, irritable and cranky.

You have not suffered as the Prophets have, nor as St. John, the holy Apostles, or Christ Himself have. You have not been sifted and sorted by Satan to the extremes that Job was. Yet, you doubt; you wonder and worry; you question and complain. You shake your fist and wring your hands and rail at the heavens that your life is not fair, that God is not fair, and that you have been abandoned.

In truth, the Lord has been faithful to all His servants. He has not abandoned them, but delivered them in mercy. He is faithful to you, also, and in His Love He will never leave you nor forsake you. He deals with you, not as you deserve, but with compassion: by and from and with His own Cross: by the way of His voluntary suffering and death, the shedding of His holy, precious blood for you.

Do not be offended by the Cross and Crucifixion of your Savior and your God, but rejoice in this!

It is by His Cross that He has opened the way into the Kingdom of Heaven. By His Cross that blind eyes are opened and deaf ears unstopped. By His Cross that the lame walk and lepers are cleansed. By His Cross that the dead are raised with Him to new life.

It is the Gospel of the Cross that is preached to you in the wilderness, in your poverty and weakness. And it is by that Gospel of the Cross — especially by your death with Christ in the waters of your Holy Baptism — that you are born again to a new and living hope in the Kingdom of God.

This way and means of the Cross is a paradox and contradiction. But do not take offense. It appears to offer nothing, to do and accomplish nothing. It promises life and health and every blessing, but you remain hungry and hurting, imprisoned or worse, whether in mind, body or other circumstance.

The preacher of the Gospel of the Cross, himself, comes to you in the frailty and weakness of mortal flesh like your own, as feeble and fallible as you are. What good are such prophets and apostles of the Cross, if they too are sick or in prison, hungry or thirsty, tired or anxious? How can they help or save you, if they cannot help or save themselves?

Yet, if St. John the Baptist exceeds all the Prophets before him, because he ushers in the Lord Jesus Christ — the Son of God in the flesh, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world — your own pastor surpasses St. John in the Word that he preaches and the gifts that he gives to you from the Cross of Christ. Here is the Kingdom of Heaven, not only at hand, but fully accomplished.

That is the Word that is preached to you — the Gospel — the forgiveness of all your sins! A Word of the Cross: a Word of contradiction, but for all of that a Word of Christ, which heals and gives life.

Now, for a little while, it may seem as though this Word does nothing, as though it were a lie. Yet, you cannot live without this Word of Christ — and by it you do in fact live forever. Go out to hear that Word, therefore, and do not seek any other sort of help or hope. If you cannot go out to hear it, then ask that it be brought to you and spoken to you, wherever you may be confined. Do not suppose that you have already heard it and know it well enough. You need to be hearing it, and to keep on hearing it, for as long as you shall live.

You need to hear this Word of Christ, for faith comes and remains only by this hearing of the Gospel. You need to hear it, also, so that you have the Word of Christ to speak to your neighbor (including your pastor). For it is by this Word of Christ that you are patient with the Lord and with your neighbor: Patient with your Lord in faith, and patient with your neighbor in love; so that, instead of grumbling and complaining, you forgive and you encourage; instead of envy and jealousy, bitterness and resentment, you have mercy and compassion (even for those who hurt you).

You live in love toward your neighbor, because you live in the true freedom of the Gospel. Your body may be imprisoned by any number of restrictions, but you are free indeed in Christ. Herod may even put you to death, or Pilate may crucify and bury you, but you shall live.

Be patient. The Lord is coming for you. He is always coming to you, always preaching His Gospel to you. Even now He is standing at the door. In His Word to you, He is with you, now and always. His preaching of the Gospel is not empty or useless. His Word is true, as He Himself is true. And He is for you. He has not forgotten you; He will not forget you. He remembers you and helps you.

Consider the outcome of His dealings with you. You already know it in His own Resurrection from the dead. Sharing His Cross, you share His Life! In this you rejoice, as He rejoices over you in love. In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

14 December 2007

The Fruits of Repentance

Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven Is at Hand.

Return to the waters of the Jordan: to the significance of your Baptism. Die, and be raised up.

The coming of the Kingdom of Heaven is not to be taken lightly or for granted, nor approached carefree like an annual Christmas party. This is no lark. God’s Kingdom comes upon you with both threat and promise. How shall you enter and live in that Kingdom?

Do not boast of your own works or pedigree, nor rely upon your own accomplishments or contributions. Do not rest easy on your Lutheranism, nor even rely upon your Baptism (far less your Confirmation) if you are not returning daily to the dying and rising of contrition and repentance, confession, and faith in the forgiveness of sins (which is what you need if you are to live).

Examine yourself. Consider where God has placed you in life, in light of His Ten Commandments. Remember that your entire life is from God, and that all your days and hours are lived before Him. He is a jealous God; He punishes the sins of the fathers and of their children. Fear God, therefore. Fear His wrath, and do not disobey Him.

Repent of your sins. Stop doing what you should not do, and begin doing what you should. Stop making excuses for yourself. Do not mock and despise the Lord your God by remaining content and at ease in your sin.

If you would live by faith — if you would live at all — confess your sins and seek the grace of God. Seek the Lord where He may be found: not in your heart, nor in your own head, nor in your closet, but in His Word and the preaching of it. Don’t hole up in your house. Go out to the Jordan (to the Church, the community of the baptized) to hear the Voice of the Lord in the preaching of His Word. Confess your sins, that you may hear and receive the Absolution of all your sins from the one who is sent to speak for Christ.

If you knew the wrath of God against sin — against your sins of thought, word and deed — and if you knew the wrath that is to come in the final judgment — you would not delay any longer; you would not stay away nor be so proud (or so shy, or whatever it is that prevents you).

Repent of your sins, and bear the fruit of repentance.

Confessing your sins and seeking forgiveness from the Voice of the Lord, that is the first fruit of repentance. And having then confessed your sins, do better. Go and sin no more.

God is able to raise up children for Himself from stones, that is true, but the stones do not presume upon Him. They are not so proud as those who rest easy in their self-conceit, who do not fear the Lord their God. The stones fear God and honor His commands.

Do you not fear Him? Obey His Voice.

The trees also do not presume upon the Lord, but produce fruit after their own kind, according to His Word (in their own proper place). Every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire to be destroyed. How is it with you and your tree?

Are you bearing the fruits of repentance? Are you living in faith toward God, in constant prayer, always hearing His Word as your very life breath, and seeking every opportunity to receive His gifts? Are you abiding in love toward your neighbor, with peace in your heart and grace upon your lips and tangible charity in your hands? Are you keeping the commandments of the Lord, not only superficially (so that man can see and praise you), but inwardly and outwardly, from a heart of faith and love, abounding in every good work?

The Lord has brought you out of Egypt by His mighty hand, yet you grumble against Him in the wilderness (as though He had wronged you), and you despise the bread with which He feeds you.

The Lord is coming, your King, the Judge of all the earth, of the living and the dead. His axe is already laid to the root of the tree. Shall you bear fruit and live, or be cut down and die? He shall harvest His fields and thoroughly sift His crops. His fruit He gathers, the chaff He destroys.

Repent — for His Word and Spirit leave no one unscathed and no one standing. Repent — for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Indeed, it is among you in the Person of Christ. Behold, your King is coming to you. He is righteous, and He judges the world in His righteousness.

But His ways are not your ways, and His thoughts are not your thoughts, and you never could prepare yourself for Him. Not even John, the Voice of the Lord in the wilderness, yet knows or comprehends His Wisdom and His Righteousness.

Your tree has been barren. But He hangs Himself upon it. It is cut down by the Axe of His Law, and He is stricken and slain by the judgment of His own mouth. He bears the verdict, the wrath, the punishment and death, in order to bear the fruit of repentance for you.

His tree is the burning bush, engulfed with flames in a blazing, fiery furnace, but not consumed. In this the glorious presence of God is manifest, in that He comes to save His people from their sins.

Here then is the tree of the Cross, raised by the Lord and standing as a signal for the nations, even to the ends of the earth: according to His promises, according to His mercy.

Here is the one tree that remains, bearing the fruit of Christ.

His death is the pathway of repentance for you: through the wilderness, across the Jordan, into life. When you are put to death with Him, you are not destroyed but delivered, for He Himself has conquered death. His Resurrection from the dead is the gathering of the first fruits into His barn (into His heaven). And you are gathered together with Him in that harvest, not to be scattered to the winds nor burned with unquenchable fire, but to live with Him in His Kingdom forever and ever.

Thus, the preaching and Baptism of repentance are for the forgiveness of your sins. This Voice and this water turn you around, away from sin and death, to face the Lord, your King, who comes to you: not for condemnation, but for mercy, peace and joy.

You have not borne good fruits for Him, but He has borne the fruit of repentance for you; and with His Word and Spirit, with His Gospel of forgiveness, He bears good fruit in you (faith and love). He bears this fruit in you after His own kind: after His own kindness: with which He also now and ever feeds you, in the wilderness unto life, and in His Kingdom, here and hereafter forever.

Receive and eat this fruit of His Tree, His holy Body. Drink this fruit of the true Vine, His precious Blood. Eat, drink, and be merry, abounding in the hope of His mercy. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

10 December 2007

Frederick Wilhelm David Thomas

My second youngest son turned three years old today. We didn't have a cake, a card or a gift for him (how sad is that), but I did manage to scrounge up the means to take the handsome young man out for lunch. That was a treat for him, and a neat opportunity for me to spend some time with him. I also enjoyed the chance to watch a movie with him when we got home after lunch, even if he did get bored with the movie halfway through it. Except for the fact that he doesn't have brown eyes, he is another Nicholai in appearance, but he's got a personality all his own. He can really be a pistol sometimes, but he can also be the most adorable little guy. It is still one of my favorite things in life to watch my children growing up and to savor each stage of development. Three has proven to be an especially fun age with a number of my boys so far, and I expect I will be delighted with my Frederick in this coming year of his life.

I should say right away that he is not named for any of the unionistic Prussian rulers who proved to be such a bane for the Lutherans. That would have been particularly ironic with his younger brother then named for Paul Gerhardt! But no, he is rather named for Frederick the Wise, who defended and protected Luther in the early years of the Reformation. In addtion to that, he is named for the exemplary Lutheran pastor, Wilhelm Löhe, for King David and St. Thomas, the Apostle. His due date was the 20th or 21st of December, which would have coincided with St. Thomas' Day, but as it was he showed up almost two weeks early.

As compared to the excitement of Gerhardt's birth last year, labor and delivery with Frederick was relatively "easy." (I know that such things are never really "easy," but I'm fairly certain that even LaRena would say it was "easy" by comparison.) In some ways, it was sort of humorous. Having had seven other children by then, I already knew how things tend to go with our babies; I'd learned how to read my wife pretty well in that respect. I certainly knew that delivery was getting close when we arrived at the hospital, and that it was also quite normal for LaRena to be calm and quiet about the whole thing. There was a resident on duty on the maternity floor, and a nurse assisting her, and they were both already focused on another woman in labor who was making a fair amount of noise down the hallway. They did a quick check on LaRena and made a judgment call that they had plenty of time with her, and that the other woman would surely deliver first. I had no idea, of course, regarding the other woman, but I did know there wasn't long to wait for our baby to be making his appearance. Labor generally goes smoothly and quickly for LaRena, and she progresses to the point of delivery in short order once the process is underway. This is one of the reasons that Zachary was delivered at home (not by intention), and why it is that Ariksander was born nine minutes after we entered the front doors of the hospital.

Well, anyway, we'd been at the hospital for not very long, and the nurse and the doctor were down the hall with the other woman, but I could tell that we were on the verge of delivery. So when the nurse poked her head in the door, ostensibly to assure us that everything was fine and they'd be around in plenty of time to assist LaRena, I casually observed that the baby would be born with the next contraction. I then watched with a certain degree of amusement, as the mental process played itself out on the nurse's face. She went from smirking incredulity to a dawning realization that, not only was I serious but, this being child number eight, I might actually know what I was talking about, and then came the look of frantic panic. She went tearing out the door and down the hall to fetch the doctor. I could hear them beginning to mess with the equipment, only to abandon that time-consuming nonsense in order to return more quickly. Sure enough, the next contraction delivered Frederick into the barely ready, waiting arms of the resident doctor, and that was that.

Dear little Frederick was baptized on the Feast of the Epiphany, which made for an all-the-more glorious celebration. His godfamily, Tim & Debbie Theiss and two of their daughters, were here for the occasion all the way from Texas. Getting them to come from Texas to northern Indiana in early January goes to show what good friends and devoted godparents Tim and Debbie are. We are grateful for them on all counts.

Frederick has been a challenge at times. He developed quite a piercing scream, which could send shivers up and down the spine, and for a while there I thought he would never outgrow it. I guess it was maybe a year ago that I threatened to write "Frederick and the Deadly Hollers," but I never have followed through on that potential best-seller. He's actually grown up a lot, and even though he still resorts to throwing a fit now and then, he can also be a real charmer. He asks lots and lots of questions, but does not hesitate to disagree with the answers he's given. We had several interesting such discussions over our lunch together today. Oh, the joys of mischievous, fun-loving little boys! They're not without original sin, but what you see is what you get, and there's something terribly refreshing about that.

Having a larger family means that the older children are growing up and leaving home as the younger ones are just arriving. There are benefits to that, as the younger children are not then always overshadowed by their older siblings. It also enables this family to fit inside its house! But I do regret that Zach and Fredo don't get to spend much time together. The two of them, in particular, bonded pretty closely in the first two-and-a-half years of Frederick's life. I know that Zach misses his little brother, and that goes both ways. Last night Frederick wanted Zach to snuggle with him as he was supposed to be going to sleep. I reminded him that Zach is in Texas with Bekah (as Frederick often reminds the rest of us!), and Fredo knows very well that Zach's Bekah is also his own godsister. So then he was missing not only his big brother but also his godfamily, but he was content with the way things are and was willing to have Nicholai snuggle him. He is such a little clone of Nicholai, I suppose the two of them will hit it off, also.

08 December 2007

Halfway To Hazard

I don't know whether Zach has had a chance to pick it up and check it out for himself, but I've urged him to get the self-titled debut from Halfway To Hazard. I'm quite convinced that he would love it, given his musical tastes and preferences. This is one of those records that rockers with a prejudice against country most fear and flee, because it breaks down all their defenses.

There were a number of CDs I picked up over the course of the summer at great sale prices, and this was one of the best. I took chances on various things because of the lower-than-usual cost, and I'm happy to say that I've been pleased with just about everything I snagged. In this case, it wasn't just the $7 pricetag, but also the fact that Halfway To Hazard is produced in part by Tim McGraw, that motivated me to pick it up. Zach and I both love Tim McGraw's brand of country music, and his own 70s classic rock sensibilities are fully in evidence here.

Oddly enough, I wasn't impressed with Halfway To Hazard the first time I listened to it. Or, rather, I should say that I wasn't terribly impressed with the songs; the music I thought was great from the get-go. DoRena and I heard it together on our way to Fort Wayne, and I don't think she was all that interested, either, but maybe we just weren't paying attention properly. The songs struck me as trite and cliche. But even then, I could recognize the musicianship in the performance. Think a countrified Aerosmith or Bon Jovi, and the original Bad Company; maybe Lynyrd Skynyrd, too, and even the Allman Brothers Band without the long guitar jams. It's clear these boys (there's two of them in the band) know and love their rock 'n' roll, and they know how to play. Musically, H2H is great stuff, including an impressive range of tunes. One song, "Welcome to Nashville," reminds me a little of "Hot Dog" on Zeppelin's In Through the Out Door, but neither of those two songs is really typical of its larger context; so there you go.

Well, whatever the reasons may have been for my lukewarm first impressions, the next time I got around to listening to the record, I fell in love with Halfway To Hazard. I honestly don't know what I was thinking previously, because the songs on this record are solid and engaging. David Tolliver and Chad Warrix (the guys who comprise H2H) co-authored almost all of the songs, along with various other writers (including Bobby Pinson on one and Anthony Smith on several others), and their work is frankly intelligent and interesting, in some cases even profound. In this respect, too, it is easy to see why Tim McGraw was inclinded to have a hand in the project, because Halfway To Hazard produce the kind of thinking man's country rock that McGraw loves. (Hecklers in the peanut gallery should check it out before rolling their eyes and snorting at such a description). There are various ways in which these guys remind me favorably of Big & Rich, Hot Apple Pie, and the Warren Brothers, too. And it's not surprising to find Bobby Pinson and Anthony Smith among the writers on the record, as there are also similarities to those artists.

I've been intending to blog about H2H for the past few months, and I've only grown to appreciate this record all the more in the time that it's taken me to get around to it. Maybe this will motivate Zach to find his way to the store and buy the record, if he hasn't already done so. I guess I normally identify some of my favorite songs when I write a "review," so I'll mention "Taking Me On," "Devil and the Cross," and "Die By My Own Hand," in particular. Good stuff.

This Country Girl Is a Gem

So far as I can tell, Rissi Palmer is an African American. A young child could look at her and tell you that she's not "black," nor even dark brown, but a caramel-hued light brown in appearance. None of this has any bearing on her musical ability, her artistic creativity or vocal performance. But I do find it interesting that an African American country singer should seem so unusual. There is that tall black rapper, Cowboy Troy, who came into the spotlight a bit with Big & Rich, but he's somewhat unique in his own right. Black singers have always had a big foot in the door of rock 'n' roll, but they are most commonly to be found in the Rhythm & Blues, Soul, and Gospel genres, and they've had close to a monopoly on the rap music industry. Why not country music? Am I just missing something? In any case, Rissi Palmer is a gem of a country girl singer.

Rissi's self-titled debut is really a great record. I'd compare her musically to Faith Hill, but she has a stronger and more versatile voice than Faith. The production strikes me as a bit thin or tinny at times, but not her voice. She's written many of her own songs on the record, and she's obviously got some real talent in that regard, too. All of the songs (both her own and those she has selected) are thoughtful, well-crafted, and interesting; they convey a depth of emotion and, in a number of cases, genuine cleverness. I found the entire record to be instantly enjoyable, yet it has continued to grow on me with repeated listening. I certainly have not grown tired of it, but really delight in it.

I'd put Rissi Palmer in a league with Carrie Underwood, Kelly Pickler and Taylor Swift, though I suspect that Rissi may actually exceed them all. She seems to have a little more natural breadth than those other girls, both in her writing and in her singing. Her voice is pleasant and mature, at times with subtle hints of Soul and R&B. For those who like country music, I recommend giving her a listen. I suspect that my Beanie and a number of my young friends, including a few southern belles I know, would find Rissi's music quite a treat. There's not a song on her record I don't like, but my favorites are "Country Girl," "Heart Don't Know When to Quit," "All This Woman Needs," and "Flowers on My Window Ledge."

07 December 2007

Sixteen Deep Compelling Truths (Dave Barry)

I've been contemplating various deep thoughts of my own lately, but haven't managed to think any of them "out loud" this past week or so. Who knows when my muse will strike? Meanwhile, I spotted the following on the wall of a sub sandwich shop (which is not so different, I suppose, than the words of the prophets written on subways walls), and I was happily able to find the same profound wisdom readily available on the internet. There's more than one version of this list, but what follows is the list as I spied it with my little eye on the wall of the sandwich store.

I'm not as witty or funny as Dave Barry, but I'm evidently a faster learner. I'm only 42, and I can already verify most of these things; the rest of them, I could have guessed. But still.

By Dave Barry (on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday)

1. Never, under any circumstances, take a sleeping pill and a laxative on the same night.

2. If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings.'

3. There is a very fine line between 'hobby' and 'mental illness.'

4. People who want to share their religious views with you almost never want you to share yours with them.

5. You should not confuse your career with your life.

6. Nobody cares if you can't dance well. Just get up and dance.

7. Never lick a steak knife.

8. The most destructive force in the universe is gossip.

9. You will never find anybody who can give you a clear and compelling reason why we observe daylight savings time.

10. You should never say anything to a woman that even remotely suggests that you think she's pregnant unless you can see an actual baby emerging from her at that moment.

11. There comes a time when you should stop expecting other people to make a big deal about your birthday. That time is age eleven.

12. The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we ALL believe that we are above average drivers.

13. A person, who is nice to you, but rude to a waiter, is not a nice person (This is very important. Pay attention. It never fails.)

14. Your friends love you anyway.

15. Never be afraid to try something new. Remember that a lone amateur built the Ark. A large group of professionals built the Titanic.

16. Men are like fine wine. They start out as grapes, and it's up to the women to stomp [on] them until they turn into something acceptable to have dinner with.

01 December 2007

You Shall Not Bear False Witness

I was recently reminded how important it is to keep the Eighth Commandment, and how challenging that can sometimes be. The Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Commandments protect our neighbor's life, wife and property from us (and ours from him), and they are considerably assisted in this good work by the significant consequences that perpetrators of murder, adultery and theft are likely to suffer. Perhaps there would be less false witness of the "garden variety" type, if all forms of gossip, innuendo and misrepresentation were dealt with as firmly as lying under oath in a court of law. Yet, I know how easily I can fall into the trap of speaking out of turn, putting not the best construction on things but assuming the worst, and not explaining things kindly but cynically.

We ought to speak to and about our neighbor in the way that Christ Jesus speaks to us in love, with grace, mercy and peace, and in the way that He defends us and testifies on our behalf unto righteousness and life. But that is often not the case, even among Christians. For my own part, I do not always speak with such evangelical eloquence. I ought to know better.

There are people in the South Bend area who barely know me, including some who have never met me, who have formed impressions and opinions of me on the basis of what they have heard about me. "Oh, that Pastor Stuckwisch, he's 'too Catholic' (sic), or he's too conservative, or he only wants to find fault with other people, or he's opposed to Lutheran education," or whatever. Consequently, there are people (near and far) who have written me off and rejected me, who prefer to avoid me and have nothing to do with me, because they've already drawn their conclusions from such and sundry comments. Not only that but, in some cases, people who don't really know me at all, have passed on these assessments with apparent impunity.

It is hurtful to be treated in this way. So, as I say, I ought to know better, and I ought to do better in speaking to and about my neighbor. I can't control the way that people speak concerning me, and I finally have to trust the Lord to vindicate me with His righteousness, even if none of my neighbors defend me, speak well of me, or explain my actions charitably. As the Lord does defend me, speak well of me, and cover me with His charity, so should I do and speak for my neighbor.

The old saying goes, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." That is rubbish. Broken bones can heal more readily than the wounds that words can cause. Sometimes those very real hurts and consequences go well beyond personal feelings. When someone bears false witness against me, not only is my name and reputation damaged, but the confidence that my parishioners need to be able to have in me as their pastor is jeopardized, and that is ultimately a far more serious offense than any other sort of hurt, because it undermines the Gospel. I would sooner be martyred outright than to have my integrity and veracity thrown into doubt and tossed up for grabs. A Christian has to believe that his or her pastor is speaking the truth and acting faithfully according to the Word of God. Even small misrepresentations or "spins" on the truth can cause great harm to faith and life.

In the same way that my good reputation as a pastor is important for the sake of the Gospel, so is it all the more important that I not bear false witness against my neighbor. All of my speaking needs to be a confession of the Word of God; not only saying what He has said, but saying it according to the order that He has established, that is, within my proper vocations and stations in life. If any man speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. The way that I speak to and about my neighbor in general, informs the way that people will expect me to speak from the pulpit and in the confessional. It is imperative that they be able to trust what I say as the very Word of God, and also that what I say is not simply true but truly evangelical. Even the Law that I preach must finally serve the truth of the Gospel.

The Gospel never bears false witness. It testifies the righteousness of Christ on our behalf, and so declares us "not guilty." That contradicts the sin and death that we find and feel in ourselves, but let the Gospel be true and the accusation of the Law a liar. This is no deception, but grace. Which is why the "truth" of gossip is a lie, and the forgiveness of sins bears the truest witness.

Three Christmas Memories

Susan tagged me for a "meme," which I understand to mean that I am to follow her and others in listing three Christmas memories. I've been giving this some thought, off and on, for the past day or so, and I guess it doesn't have to be anything that profound; so, here's my contribution:

I remember one Christmas in particular during the years that my family lived in Australia. My Dad was the headmaster of a rural Lutheran school in Tabor, Victoria, and we lived in the "teacherage" right on the grounds of the church and school. It was a very neat place to live as a young boy, and I treasure my memories from those four years very fondly. Anyway, the headmaster (my Dad) and the pastor were each welcome to select and cut down an evergreen tree for Christmas from a row of such trees on the church's property. On Christmas Eve Day one year, my Dad went out to pick a nice tree. The teacherage happened to have rather high ceilings (in my mind's eye, I remember them to be a good ten feet tall), so my Dad selected and chopped down a suitably tall tree to fill the living room impressively. Well, I cannot tell a lie. Turns out that particular tree was actually tall enough to have been the very one intended for the sanctuary that year. Oops! As it was, we certainly enjoyed it. I well remember coming home from the Christmas Eve Service and finding the tree set up and decorated with presents under it, including some nice gifts from our Grandmas and Grandpas back in the United States. It might have been our first Christmas in Australia, but I'm foggy on which year it was exactly. There was a game from Mom and Dad under that great big tree, called "Discover Australia," and for a long time that was a real favorite of mine. Things have blurred together in my mind since then; I was maybe only eight or nine years old at that point; but it was definitely a "best Christmas ever" kind of occasion.

Another Christmas I remember well is the one that came immediately after our return from Australia, when I was twelve (so that was thirty years ago this month!). We had left my Dad at the seminary in Fort Wayne after flying into Chicago in November, and then the rest of us had continued on to Seymour, Indiana, where we would live with Grandma and Grandpa Stuckwisch for the next couple of years. Those were difficult times in lots of ways, as it was hard to be away from Dad so much of the time. He came to be with us on weekends whenever he could, but that wasn't always possible. He had his studies and a campus job, and there was the weather to contend with, and the cost of the trip back and forth (both time and money). He was "home" with us that first Christmas, though, and it was wonderful to be there with all of us together, not only our immediate family but Grandma and Grandpa and aunts and uncles and cousins galore. I was old enough to remember Christmases at their house from before we lived in Australia, so even at the age of twelve I was feeling pretty nostalgic and sentimental about the whole thing. I don't have a clue what I might have gotten as gifts that year, but that hasn't dulled the sense of joy and happiness that I still recall from that occasion. I can still picture the tree in front of the window, full of ornaments and colored lights, and sitting there on the davenport just soaking it up and feeling as though I were living a wonderful dream. That was great.

My third Christmas memory is from the holidays that LaRena and I have celebrated and shared with our own children. Sad to say, I'm a little hazy on which year it would have been, but I think it must have been 2001 or thereabouts, maybe 2000. My wife and older children will probably remember the year, and I trust them to set me straight on the specifics. In any case, it was the first year that we observed each of the Twelve Days of Christmas together as a family. There have been some years, and that was one of them, when we've received enough gifts (counting both the "big" and the "little" packages) to allow each of the children to open up one thing on Christmas Eve, and then one thing on each of the next Twelve Days, and still have a bit of a pile left over to open up on the Feast of the Epiphany. Of course there are years when we have to stretch out the presents a little thinner, but we still make a point of celebrating each of the Twelve Days, and then we pull out whatever stops may be left for Epiphany. There were various reasons for adopting this approach. For one thing, we wanted to be able to focus on the Services of Christmas instead of the rip-roaring hoopla of tearing open a mountain of presents in one fell swoop. By the same token, we also wanted the children to appreciate and really enjoy each of their gifts, and to have a clear sense of the people who had given them each gift. Not only did all of this work very well for us; it also established a family tradition of our own, which we have cherished and enjoyed each year since. It fits nicely with our observance of the Twelve Days of Christmas at Emmaus, too, and it helps us to celebrate the beauty of the entire Season.

29 November 2007

Penitential Advent

I wrote the following on the penitential character and emphases of Advent for the Emmaus newsletter last year. Somewhat to my surprise, I was taken to task by a few of my colleagues, who evidently felt that I was being a bit of a curmudgeon. Maybe I am a "Scrooge" from time to time, but I have no beef with Christmas (how silly would that be?). Nor do I revel in gloom and doom. In point of fact, I am delighted to rejoice in the Incarnation of the Son of God all year long, 24/365, and I am likewise quite pleased for others to find great joy and comfort and peace and happiness in the flesh and blood of the Christ, our Savior. My point has not been to detract from any of this salutary good news, surely, but rather to serve and support the blessings and benefits of Advent.

I happen to love the Season of Advent with its particular focus on the three-fold coming of Christ (in the incarnational past, the sacramental present, and the impending future). But my personal proclivities are hardly the point. Like it or not, and with or without this particular season of the Church Year, it is the Lord’s desire and design that His coming be preceded and prepared for by the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The singular ministry of St. John the Baptist has, in one sense, already served its purpose of ushering in the Lamb of God, and there’s obviously no repeating of that historical work. But the Office of the Forerunner continues in the Ministry of the Word, as the preaching of Jesus Himself is summarized by the Evangelists as that of repentance, and the preaching of St. Peter and the other Holy Apostles was likewise the necessary preaching of repentance unto the ends of the earth. In the way that the Old Testament prepared for the New, and St. John prepared for the Christ, and the Service of the Word prepares for the Service of the Sacrament, so does Advent with its preaching of repentance prepare us for the coming of the Christ, not only at Christmas but throughout the year, even to the end of the age. My goal in writing what follows, and in sharing it again, is to serve that salutary purpose.

The Season of "Advent" originated as a six- or seven-week penitential period, which to begin with had little or nothing to do with Christmas per se, but with agricultural cycles and the changing of the natural seasons (in the northern hemisphere). With the final harvest of the year gathered and stored, there was thanksgiving for the providence of God, but also a realization that the coming year would depend upon His continued provision of sun and rain, of seedtime and harvest. The onset of winter with its dark days, dreary weather, and the annual "death" of the natural world, was a reminder of the coming judgment. These were signs of the end, and a call to repentant faith.

This time of repentance tended to begin in early November, often coinciding with the commemoration of St. Martin of Tours (11 Nov), for whom both Martin Luther and Martin Chemnitz were named. For that reason, it was sometimes called "St. Martin’s Lent," a name that helps to convey the sober and somber character of the season. It was not aimed at the celebration of Christmas, but toward the coming of Christ for the final judgment of the living and the dead. Yet, as the celebration of Christmas came to be established on December the 25th, this penitential period could not help but gravitate in that direction. Similar to the way that Lent developed as a time of repentance in preparation for Holy Week and Eastertide, so did "St. Martin’s Lent," or Advent, become a time of repentance in preparation for Christmas and Epiphany.

In more recent generations, much of the original focus and benefit of "Advent" has largely been lost. With electricity and other utilities providing us with light and heat around the clock and all year long, rarely with any interruption, we are not so confronted with the waning of the year and the annual "death" of the world around us (although some of us do suffer more than others from the diminishing amount of sunlight). It is much easier to believe the lie that man is providing for himself, rather than recognizing our absolute dependance upon the merciful providence of God. Likewise, since most of us are not farmers living off the produce of the land, but can simply go to the store and purchase almost anything we want, anytime, day or night, whether in season or not, we do not pray for daily bread with quite the fervency that comes from knowing that our life depends on God.

Even many Lutherans would just as soon leave such penitential emphases to the Season of Lent, and would rather begin celebrating Christmas with the world on the day after Thanksgiving.

We are all familiar enough with the challenges and distractions of materialism and consumerism, of the artificial glitz and glamor that mainly hide a great poverty of soul and a woeful lack of substance. But the Church on earth has managed to manufacture her own distractions and diversions from the matters at hand. Christmas, for many Christians, is caught up in emotional sentimentality, a dreamy-eyed nostalgia for the past, and a pleasant reminder that, "once upon a time," the little baby Jesus was born in a stable. It is viewed and approached as basically a "family" occasion, rather than a High Feast of the Church, the family and household of God in Christ. There will be lots of well-intentioned reminders to "keep Christ in Christmas," but as many or more Christians will forget and forego the Mass altogether, and in doing so will have neither Christ nor Christmas at all.

The Nativity of Our Lord surely makes it clear enough that Jesus is not a warm feeling in your heart, but a true man of flesh and blood, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And this same Word of God (the almighty and eternal Son), who became flesh to dwell among us, continues to sound from the lecterns and pulpits and altars of His Church, and continues to give His true Body and true Blood for us Christians to eat and to drink, for the forgiveness of our sins.

The Son of God was born to die, to sacrifice His own flesh and blood for the sins of the world, to satisfy the righteous wrath and judgment of God, and to reconcile us to the Father. He was incarnate for the purpose and intention of carrying our sins in His own body to the Cross, and, having thus made atonement for us, to unite us with God in Himself. This is what the ChristMass is all about; indeed, it is what every "Mass" (the celebration of the Lord’s Supper) is about.

It is with all of this in view that the sacred Season of Advent calls us to repent and prepares us to receive the coming Christ.

The final Sundays before Advent (which also belong to that original "St. Martin’s Lent") have already sounded the warning and admonition that the Season of Advent now conveys: Be sober, be watchful. Be awake and alert to the coming of the Lord. The end of all things is at hand, and there is safety and salvation in nothing else but Christ.

For the time being, you have life on this earth, health and strength, light and heat, food and drink—only by the Lord’s fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, for Jesus’ sake. But all of these temporal things will pass away; just as you, yourself, will whither and fade like the grass. Only Christ and His Word endure forever. He alone is your life and health and strength, here in time, and hereafter in eternity. It is the light of His Word that shines upon you and keeps you warm against the winter chill of death and hell. It is the food and drink of His Supper, His Body and His Blood, that strengthen and sustain you, in body and soul, unto the life everlasting. And it is the new birth that you have been granted, by the washing of water with His Word and Spirit in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, that has united you with the Lord Jesus Christ in the eternal springtime of His Resurrection.

The call to repentance that Advent proclaims is the perennial and necessary preaching of St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner of Christ, who goes before the Lord to prepare His Way. It is an insistent and sober warning that you must recognize your frailty and weakness, your failings, faults and sinfulness, your finitude and mortality. But for all that, it is also a proclamation of the Gospel, returning you to the cleansing and life-giving waters of Baptism, and pointing you to the Lamb of God, who takes upon Himself and takes away your sin.

On the Weaknesses of Preachers

It's been a while since I've posted anything from Dr. Luther's Lectures on Galatians (1535), but the following comments on Galatians 4:13-14 really struck home with me this morning. The Reformer's words seem particularly poignant, as I am aware of several dear colleagues in the Office of the Holy Ministry who are presently suffering the weight of the cross most sorely. I share the following, therefore, because it offers the soothing balm and sweet comfort of the Gospel. The Cross of Christ does not destroy forever, but finally saves His people, including His pastors:

"When knowledge, training, and the pure interpretation of the Word are not present among pastors and bishops, they cannot avoid being smug; for they are not being disciplined by the trials, the cross, and the persecutions that inevitably follow the pure preaching of the Word. Therefore it was impossible for Paul to find understanding among them. By the grace of God, however, we have the pure teaching of faith, which we also freely confess. Therefore we are compelled to bear the bitter hatred and persecution of the devil and the world. If we were not being disciplined by the power and the wiles of tyrants and heretics, as well as by terrors of heart and the flaming darts of Satan (Eph. 6:16), Paul would be as obscure and unknown to us as he was to the whole world in past centuries and still is today to our opponents, the papists and the fanatics. Therefore it is the gift of prophecy and our own effort, together with inward and outward trials, that opens to us the meaning of Paul and of all the Scriptures.

"By ‘weakness of the flesh’ (Galatians 4:13), Paul does not mean disease or sexual desire; he means the suffering or affliction that he bore in his body, as contrasted with strength or power. But lest we appear to be doing injury to these words, let us listen to Paul himself. In Second Corinthians (12:9–10) he says: ‘I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.’ And in chapter eleven (vv. 23–25) he writes: ‘With far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked, etc.’ These sufferings, which he bore in his body, are what he calls ‘weakness of the flesh,’ not the poor health of his body. It is as though he were to say: ‘When I preached the Gospel among you, I was overwhelmed by various afflictions and troubles. From every side I was threatened by the plots and attacks of Jews, Gentiles, and false brethren. I was troubled by hunger and by a lack of everything. I was the scum of the world and the dregs of all things’ (1 Cor. 4:13). He mentions this weakness of his frequently, as in the above cases and elsewhere.

"Therefore it is clear enough that Paul calls ‘weaknesses of the flesh’ the afflictions that not only he but the other Apostles suffered. Although they were weak in the flesh, they were strong in spirit; for the power of Christ dwelt in them, and it continually ruled and triumphed through them. Paul himself testifies to this in Second Corinthians (12:10) in the words: ‘When I am weak, then I am strong.’ Again: ‘I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me’ (2 Cor. 12:9); and in chapter two (v. 14) he says: ‘Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph.’ It is as though he were saying: ‘Regardless of how cruelly the devil, the unbelieving Jews, and the heathen rage against us, we continue unconquered by all their insults. Whether they like it or not, our doctrine prevails and triumphs.’ Such was the power and courage of the spirit in the Apostles, with which he here contrasts the weakness and slavery of their flesh.

"This weakness of the flesh in the pious is extremely offensive to reason. Therefore Christ Himself says (Matt. 11:6): ‘Blessed is he who takes no offense at Me.’ And Paul says in First Corinthians (1:23): ‘We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.’ Therefore it is something great that you acknowledge as Lord of all and Savior of the world One about whom you hear that He was the most miserable of all, the least of men, ‘scorned by men, and despised of the people’ (Ps. 22:6)—in other words, despised by all and finally condemned to death on the cross by His own people, especially by those among them who were the best, the wisest, and the saintliest. It is, I say, something great not to be dissuaded by these huge offenses, to be able to despise all of them, and to make this Christ, who was shamefully spat upon, scourged, and crucified, more than the riches of all the wealthy, more than the power of all the mighty, more than the wisdom of all the learned, more than the crowns of all the kings, more than the religion of all the saintly.

"Thus it was something great that the Galatians were not scandalized by the offensive weakness and ugly form of the cross which they saw in Paul but received him as an angel or as Christ Jesus (Gal. 4:14). Just as Christ says that His disciples continued with Him in His trials (Luke 22:28), so Paul says that the Galatians did not despise the trial that he bore in his flesh. He has good reason to praise them as extravagantly as he does.

"Now the Apostles, and especially Paul, experienced not only the outward trials we have just discussed but also inward and spiritual ones, as Christ did in the garden. Such was the trial of which he complains in Second Corinthians (12:7), a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass him. It is impossible for anyone afflicted with these profound trials to be troubled by sexual desire. I am reminding you of this in passing because the papists, upon seeing the Latin translation, ‘stimulus in the flesh,’ interpreted it as the stimulus of sexual desire. But the Greek word means a very sharp stake or thorn; therefore it was a spiritual trial. It does not matter that he adds the word ‘flesh,’ saying: ‘A thorn was given me in the flesh.’ He purposely calls it a thorn in the flesh; for the Galatians and others with whom Paul had contact often saw him moved by great sadness, trembling, terrified, and crushed by an unspeakable sorrow and grief.

"Therefore the Apostles had not only physical but also spiritual trials. Paul testifies to this about himself in Second Corinthians (7:5), where he speaks of ‘fighting without and fear within.’ In the last chapter of Acts (28:15), Luke says that after Paul had struggled for a long time in a stormy sea and was sad in spirit, he was restored and took courage upon seeing the brethren who came from Rome to meet him at the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns. And in Philippians (2:27) he confesses that God had mercy on him when he cured Epaphroditus, who was ill and near to death, lest Paul should have sorrow upon sorrow. In addition to their outward physical trials, therefore, the Apostles also suffered sorrow of the spirit." (Luther’s Works, Volume 26, CPH 1963, pages 418–421, alt.)

23 November 2007

Gerhardt Hezekiah Klement Ambrose

My youngest son, Gerhardt, was born on Thanksgiving Day one year ago. He's named for the great Lutheran hymnwriter, Paul Gerhardt, and I spent as much time as I could in the first several days of his life singing the hymns of his namesake to him. Those are some precious memories of mine, sitting in the hospital room cradling my brand new little boy and singing to him. The "cross and comfort" hymns were particularly helpful and salutary at the time, because the circumstances surrounding Gerhardt's birth were difficult for my wife and our whole family.

For the month or two prior to his birth, we were aware that he was positioned feet downward in the womb, and there was the possibility of needing to have a c-section delivery. This was quite troubling to my dear wife, and she was most anxious about it. We prayed and hoped that our baby would get himself turned about for a normal labor and delivery, but it was not to be. Instead, he turned halfway, so that he was then positioned sideways in the womb. Our doctor was willing to entertain the possibility of a breach delivery, but there was no way for Gerhardt to pass through the birth canal shoulder-first. At the last minute, therefore, we were left with no option but to go with an emergency c-section.

Little children often speak of babies in their Momma's "tummy," but watching my son pulled out of a hole cut into my wife's belly was surrealistic. Gerhardt's head was firmly wedged inside of her somehow, and it took a fair amount of tugging before he could finally be pulled free. It felt as though forever passed by in those few minutes of watching. I've seldom felt such a wave of relief and gratitude as when I could see him fully delivered, heard him cry, and then at last held him in my arms. Not having gone through the usual birthing process, his little head was beautifully shaped from the get-go, and I just stared in amazement at him, so perfect in his appearance after all the worry and concern. Early in the pregnancy, before we had even announced that we were expecting, there were indications that suggested a miscarriage, and even though that proved to be a false alarm, there remained that nagging fear inside of me. But there at last he was, safe and sound and very much alive.

I was torn between wanting to be with my baby and wanting to be with my wife, who had to go through the process of being sewn up and cleaned up after the surgery. She was groggy and out of it because of the anesthetics she received for the c-section, and she couldn't take Gerhardt to herself immediately, as she otherwise would have done. She urged me to stay close to him, which I did, but it was the beginning of my worry and concern for LaRena, which extended over the next month. She developed a quite nasty infection in the incision, which confined her to bed and required that she be on antibiotics for weeks on end. There's no way I could have coped at home and at church if not for the help and assistance of the congregation and our Assistant Pastor. Also, Zachary, Nicholai and Monica did their part to help me with our household, and we all did our best to allow LaRena the rest that she needed.

All's well that ends well, and by the beginning of the New Year things were finally beginning to return to a semblance of normal. The plus-side of LaRena's month of recovery was that she and Gerhardt had all that time together, which made for a very happy and contented little boy. He's been a cheerful child from the start, with a ready smile and a wonderful, hearty laugh. He gets such a delight out of life, and from his family of adoring parents and older siblings. He's well-loved, and he knows it, no doubt. It's been neat to see him bond with Nicholai, in particular, who appears to be his favorite person in the world after his Mom.

It's amazing to me, as always, to watch Gerhardt grow and develop. He's been walking now for a month or two (I've completely lost track of time since the end of September!). He also manages to say a few words, or at least what sound very much like words to all of us. His siblings hear more words from him than I do, but he warbles out "Mom" and "Dad" recognizably. He also coos "goo-goo," really, which is amusing in light of the fact that his siblings have nicknamed him "Goo." His oldest sibling, big sister DoRena, nicknamed him "Baby G" on the day of his birth, and he's been the "G-Man" and "G-Force" along the way. Frederick actually calls him "Gerhardt," and he says it so cutely; and I think I am more likely to call him by his given name, myself, than I do the rest of my children, all of whom have gotten nicknames from me early on: as if I don't already given them enough real names to begin with!

Gerhardt is named also for good King Hezekiah and for St. Clement of Rome (who is commemorated on the day of Gerhardt's birth). St. Clement is one of the Apostolic Fathers, a bishop of Rome in the first century, within a generation of the Holy Apostles, and his epistle to the Church in Corinth is one of the most important early documents after the New Testament. He writes with profound insight into the life of the Church in Christ, and I pray that Gerhardt will grow up to learn from such wisdom of the fathers.

There is finally St. Ambrose of Milan, as well, for whom my little boy is named. Not only was he a faithful bishop and profound theologian, but also a great hymnwriter, indeed, the father of western hymnody. Gerhardt's Baptism day, on Gaudete (the Third Sunday in Advent), was a festive occasion replete with hymns by Paul Gerhardt and St. Ambrose. What a glorious day that was! It was the only day between Thanksgiving and Christmas that my dear wife ventured out of the house, but of course she was determined to be there. DoRena was just home from college, along with Gerhardt's godparents, Jason and Emily Thompson (barely more than a month away from the birth of their own son, John Michael). That was the same weekend when Sam first asked DoRena out on a date, and consider what came of that! It was a day of good beginnings.

Naming a child after Paul Gerhardt might be considered a daring move, given the suffering that he endured throughout his life in the seventeenth century. There were times when my own Gerhardt's life appeared to be likewise under the Cross of bodily affliction, but all such things are to be received and weathered in faith. Whatever his life may hold, he has been marked by the Cross of Christ, crucified, dead and buried with Him in Holy Baptism, and his life as a Christian disciple is to be one of daily dying through contrition and repentance. This can be most painful in its own way, but it is also undertaken in faith, through which the Gospel of forgiveness bestows life and health and every blessing. The hymns of Paul Gehardt (and of St. Ambrose) sing that Gospel into our ears, into our hearts and minds and life, and I can think of no greater blessing or benefit to bestow upon my son than such a legacy as that. Already he loves music, and I pray that he will grow up always singing the songs of the Church. Soli Deo Gloria!