31 May 2007

May the Last

In the calendar of my life, the 31st of May is a biggie. I suppose that my birthday, my Baptism day, and my wedding day would be in the same orbit, and I don't know how or why I'd try to rank such stellar occasions. Well, okay, since Holy Baptism works the forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, that day wins. But today is way up there, anyway. It's the anniversary of my ordination to the office of the Holy Ministry, and also of my installation as the pastor of Emmaus Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Bend. That was in 1996, eleven years ago, which seems rather amazing to me. My wife and I will celebrate our twenty-second wedding anniversary in a few weeks; so I've been a pastor now for exactly half of our married life, and for slightly more than a quarter of my own lifetime. I'm not sure what to make of that, but it seems significant in any case.

My ordination didn't happen on the 31st of May by accident, of course. I chose the date because, in the three-year lectionary, it is the Feast of the Visitation of Our Lord. I know there are folks who object to any changes in the historic lectionary (fair enough), but it makes a whole lot more sense to celebrate the Visitation prior to the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (24 June), rather than after the fact (on July the 2nd). It is one of my favorite festivals, whenever it may be celebrated; and, actually, the Holy Gospel of the Visitation (St. Luke 1:39-56) also occurs at several other points in the church year, which is fine with me. It is such a paradigmatic text! There's dear St. Mary as a living Sacrament of Christ and an icon of His Church, bearing the Word-made-Flesh within her womb. And there's St. Elizabeth, receiving the Mother of God as the new Ark of the Covenant that St. Mary has become, and heeding the preaching of her son, St. John the forerunner, while he is yet in her own womb. What a great Word of God to hear in the midst of this culture of death. What a comforting Word of the Gospel for those who miscarry and mourn their unborn children. What a beautiful picture of the Church, of the means of grace, of life under the cross. Here, too, is the Magnificat, with which the Holy Spirit continues to open the lips of the Church to sing forth the praises of Christ to the Glory of God the Father.

My ordination was a glorious day. I was surrounded by my family, friends and loved ones from all over the place. In fact, that weekend was the last time I got to be with my Grandpa Stuckwisch in his lifetime on this earth. Colleagues were here from near and far, and several of my dear fathers in Christ. Dr. Just, who taught me homiletics at the seminary, preached a marvelous sermon on the Visitation of Our Lord, highlighting its many connections to the office of the Holy Ministry. Kantor Resch served as the organist, and that speaks for itself!

Of course, it is an awesome and humbling thing to be put under holy orders, to receive the yoke of Christ as a servant of His Gospel. To be a good and faithful pastor is an ongoing challenge, one that is utterly beyond my own feeble reason and strength. If we learn from our mistakes, then I guess I've learned a fair bit along the way; but if practice is supposed to make perfect, I've still got a lifetime of practicing to do. After eleven years, I'm more aware than ever of my weaknesses and shortcomings, and hopefully more reliant on the grace of God in Christ. I trust His Word and Spirit, His means of grace, to do and accomplish His own purposes. I am grateful for brothers in office who have assisted me along the way: for speaking Jesus to me, for patient conversation, and for good examples of faithful service.

Turns out the 31st of May was already an important day in the history of Emmaus. It was on that date in 1922 that a meeting took place at St. Paul Lutheran Church, South Bend, which led to the formation of Emmaus in the course of the following year. It's a case in point of the sacred tradition by which the Church lives and grows from one generation to the next. Christian congregations do not descend whole cloth out of heaven; nor are they spontaneous gatherings of like-minded individuals. They are gathered and formed by the Word and Spirit of God, in the Name of Jesus, through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. It was the giving of those divine gifts at St. Paul that was then extended to Emmaus on the corner of Milton and Dale Streets. So does the Ministry of the Gospel continue.

The sacred tradition of the Gospel was continued in the Divine Service earlier this evening, in more ways then one. The Father continues to hand over His Son, to and for the world, hidden in the womb of His Church. The incarnate Son continues to hand Himself over to His disciples, especially in the giving of His Body and the pouring out of His Blood for us Christians to eat and to drink. Those whom He has called and ordained to the Ministry of the Gospel, hand over to the Church what they have first of all received from Him: the confession of His Cross and Resurrection, the proclamation of His death until He comes, and the rites and ceremonies of the Holy Communion. I know that orders of service and musical settings differ from one place to another, as they have over the centuries, but the Lord's Supper is the same: the taking, the giving of thanks, and the distributing, all with the Verba Domini, "Take, eat; this is My Body. Drink of it, all of you; this Cup is the New Testament in My Blood. It is for you, for the forgiveness of sins."

What I have received, I have also handed over. Tonight I had the profound pastoral privilege of giving the Holy Communion to Egon and Martin for the very first time. My sermons sometimes click, and sometimes they don't. I am bound to preach the Word of God, but I am an imperfect preacher. I am grateful that the Sacrament of the Altar does not depend on any creativity or ingenuity on my part. The Words of Jesus do not change, nor do the gifts He gives with those Words. It is an awesome thing to be a servant of such Words and such gifts. Less so than it was for St. Mary to conceive and bear the Son of God in her womb, but analagous to that, and awesome in its own right. There is but one thing to say to that: Let it be according to His Word.

30 May 2007

Fathoming Friendship

Friendship is surely one of the most profound and significant aspects of our life. Yet, I have always found it to be a rather mysterious thing, as well. To be a son and a brother, a husband and a father, and to be a pastor of a congregation, are stations in my life that are defined, established and governed by a clear Word of God. These relationships are my vocations in a very particular and unambiguous way. I know who my parents and my siblings are; I know my wife and children; I know the congregation to which God has called me. By comparison, friendship is far more subjective and amorphous. There is both a greater freedom to it, and a greater precariousness. A friend can pack up his toys and go home.

It’s not that friendship is forgotten in the Word of God. There is that marvelous example of David and Jonathan, as remarkable in its own right as the Greek legend of Damon and Pythias. As I recall, the patriarch Abraham is somewhere described as the friend of God Himself, as were Adam and Eve prior to the fall into sin. Better still is the way that Jesus calls His disciples His friends. Yet, even among His disciples, there is one who is distinguished as particularly beloved of the Lord. Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany are likewise friends of the Lord Jesus in a special way. Dr. Luther is right to include "good friends" among God’s gifts of daily bread, but what is it that sets apart some people as our friends? And what does friendship mean for us?

The kindergartner who comes home from the first day of school excited about her thirty-two new best friends is sweetly innocent and naive. By the end of the year, if not by the end of the first week, she’ll know better. You can’t be everyone’s best friend; nor can everyone else be your best friend. I’m not really sure what it means to speak of "best" friends, anyway, as each friendship tends to be unique and special in its own way. But it’s that whole finitude thing again. We don’t have the capacity to befriend everyone we know, far less the rest of the world! It wouldn’t work for all sorts of reasons. If you run your car off the side of a road, into a ditch in the middle of nowhere, there’s a pretty small circle of friends you’re gonna call for help, and vice versa. It’s a good thing, too! None of us is capable of helping everyone else out of such pickles. We’d only end up getting in each other’s way if we tried.

Man is created to live in relationship to others like himself. It is not good for him to be alone. A wife is the Lord’s preeminent provision of a helpmate to live and work alongside of the man, but marriage is also the origin and the model of all other human relationships. Marriage necessitates both the similarity and the difference between the man and the woman. Friendship finds its place mainly on the side of similarity. Marriage involves both a distinction and the closest possible union of two persons. In friendship, both the distinction and the union are less pronounced, certainly far less intense, and less definitive of the relationship. The man and the woman are created to be compatible and complementary to each other. With friends it is more a matter of comradery and cooperation. Husbands and wives often gaze into each other’s eyes, face-to-face, whereas friends are mostly side-by-side, engaged in some common activity, endeavor or pursuit. Your friends are those with whom you share the same interests, the same hobbies, the same values and goals. Your spouse is the one with whom you share yourself.

Friendship broadens the circle of those we love and serve in this world. For we ought not to be so consumed with love for spouse and children that we become selfish and turned inward on our families, to the neglect of our neighbors. By the same token, friendship also narrows the pool of those whom we are given to help and assist. We are to love even our enemies, especially through the forgiveness of sins and the charity of Christian mercy toward those who hate us. But even to suggest that we ought to love everyone in exactly the same way, would be to rule out doing much of anything for anyone. Our friends present us with an opportunity to do what we can, in love, within our limited capacities. What is more, in loving our friends we learn better how to love others, as well, and we exercise our capacity for love.

The freedom and precariousness of friendship, it seems to me, also contribute to this exercise of love. It is sadly far too easy to take our families for granted, because we know they’re stuck with us. But friendship depends upon a mutual effort, communication, give and take, which prevents us from being too wrapped up in ourselves and forces us to be more considerate of others. At the same time, it is a love that is given freely, not under compulsion or necessity. In that respect, it tends to run in the way of the Gospel, rather than under the burden of the Law. Hopefully, these characteristics of friendship are regularly translated into the loving service of our families, as well. In any case, good Christian friends will always be pointing us to the Word of God, to the Law and the Gospel, to repentance and faith.

It Was Twenty Year Ago Today

I don't know what Sgt. Pepper may have been doing at that point, but it was twenty years ago today (30 May) that more than one of our Emmaus couples were united in holy matrimony. Cheers to all of them! And the Lord's richest blessings upon all husbands and wives.

I've mentioned before that our parents and our spouses are adorned with the hidden majesty of God's Word. This is one of the most significant things that I have learned along the way. Dr. Luther writes of this in the Large Catechism, especially with respect to the offices of father and mother, in his discussion of the Fourth Commandment. He speaks of marriage according to God's Word in his lectures on Genesis. There Dr. Luther makes the wonderful point that one's own wife has been given to him by God, and therefore has a special beauty unlike any other woman in the world. The Sixth Commandment serves, not only as a prohibition, but as a divine Word that honors and adorns the particular spouse that God has given to each husband or wife.

Two wrongs don't make a right, of course, and the union of two sinners does not result in a sinless, carefree life. Nevertheless, the Lord's institution of marriage is a powerful corrective to the curse and consequence of sin. It is a great mystery, St. Paul writes, which ultimately signifies Christ and His Bride, the Church. Thus, it is chiefly to be characterized by self-sacrificing love and forgiveness. Herein, the man and the woman are once more naked and unashamed. This is why the devil hates marriage so much, and works so hard to destroy it. But Christ is ever faithful to His Bride, and He continues to serve her with His love and mercy, His forgiveness and peace, His Body and Blood, and His life. It is especially as members of His Bride, therefore, that wives and husbands learn how to live together in faith and love. By and with the Word of God, marriage is a little school of charity, of hope in the face of adversity, and of unity in the face of division.

The Word of God makes every difference. When husband and wife are united as one flesh, also in the marriage bed, this is a sacred union, despite the sinfulness of each spouse. Sex outside of marriage, though it has become rampant and taken for granted, stands outside of and apart from the Word of God; for that reason, it is not only wrong, but it exacerbates sin and multiplies the curse and consequence of the fall. Within marriage, however, all the hurts and fears, all the frailities and weaknesses, all the faults and failings of two poor, miserable sinners are brought under the shelter and protection of Christ and His forgiveness. When husband and wife cling to each other, they lay hold of the Word and promises of God, and in the face of sin and every evil, they are returned by His grace to a little paradise on earth, in anticipation of the great Wedding Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, which has no end.

It is a matter of faith, not of sight. Marriage in this sinful world is under the Cross. Daily life can be hard, often tedious, and then there are the crises and disasters that bring even greater trials and tribulations. Yet, the Lord does not abandon His children in adversity; He has mercy and compassion for them in all the big and little cares and occupations of this life. The wine that He provides and causes to flow in celebration of our marriages and anniversaries is a present blessing that spites the devil's tyranny of false belief and despair. And it is a sign of the new and better wine that flows from the riven side of Christ, from the throne of God and of the Lamb.

29 May 2007

A Day With My Daughter

I felt badly about going away on my daughter Oly'anna's birthday, but I needed to drive my oldest daughter, DoRena, back to Bloomington after lunch. It was worth it, in order to have had her home for the big weekend at our house. But my poor wife had to say goodbye to everyone today, including me; so I hope that she was able to commiserate with friends in South Bend this afternoon, and was not left feeling too lonely. I think that it was a good birthday for Oly'anna, and a fitting conclusion to her grand and glorious weekend.

For my part, I am giving thanks at this late hour for the blessed day that I got to spend with my biggest girl, my "Beanie." Our times together are getting fewer and further between, as she continues to grow up into adulthood, and that makes each time we do have the more precious to me. There is something about the firstborn child that is never outgrown. I first learned how to be a father with DoRena, mostly by trial and error. I'm grateful that she has turned out so well (thanks be to God!), and that she has not held my mistakes along the way against me.

Anyway, it was a wonderful afternoon and evening that we got to spend, first of all traveling from South Bend to Bloomington, then going out for supper and hanging out together for most of the evening. I love the opportunities that I still have to serve and take care of my daughter. I like taking her out to eat, not only because I enjoy that chance for pleasant conversation, but also because I can show her by example how a gentleman ought to treat a lady. (On that note, I need to mention how pleased her Mom and I are that DoRena has found a real gentleman who cares for her and treats her well.) Well, our dinner conversation this evening was not only pleasant, but a significant and meaningful discussion of her present pursuits and future plans. How does a Daddy put into words, just how much this means!

I've written recently of my Zachary, and how proud I am of him. I am likewise proud of my daughter, DoRena. She is disciplined and determined and a real go-getter. She is intelligent and hard working, conscientious and considerate. She is doing well in school, learning her subjects and getting good grades. Her goals are shaped by a sound theological view of the world and of her place in it. Her hopes and aspirations are in accordance with the Word of God. As I listen to her think out loud about the future, I hear her speak from the same values and commitments that my wife and I have endeavored to live by. In all of this, my prayers for my daughter have been answered. So I sat there at supper time, listening and talking and swelling with pride and joy over this beautiful young woman who is my daughter.

I also got to buy her a set of bookshelves for her new apartment, and was even able to assemble them for her this evening. My wife knows how much I dislike assembling pieces of furniture, so she may attest to the fact that such was truly a labor of love. I was happy to do it for my Bean! Then I took her out to see a movie, Shrek the IIIrd, and that was fun. I doubt that it will win an Oscar, but there were lots of funny parts, and Shrek spent most of the movie anticipating the birth of his first children. Animated films are not generally profound, and I won't claim that Shrek the IIIrd is, either, but I appreciated the angst that Shrek felt over the prospect of becoming a father. He worried that he wouldn't know what to do, and that he wouldn't be very good at it. I know those feelings, too, and I can look back and see that I haven't always done so well.

DoRena and Zachary both did most of their growing up while I was a student: college, seminary, grad school. I was gone much of the time, studying and working, and then writing my dissertation. I'm sure they must have felt that lots of other things were more important to me than my children. My priorities have not always been in order, at least not in the way that I've actually invested and used my time and energy. I still need to work on that. But there's never been anything on earth that has actually been more precious and important to me than my children. On those dark and dreary days when I am feeling down and discouraged, and I am tempted to question the point and purpose to it all, it is most often my children whom the Lord uses to pull me out of my pity-party and to refocus my perspective on the proper priorities.

Today, in particular, was a very good day, one of those days in which everything makes sense. Not every day is like that, but I really rejoice in those that are. I spent some time remembering the past and those who have gone before us, but I am grateful that I got to spend this Memorial Day living in the present and making some special new memories with my firstborn daughter.

28 May 2007

Oly'anna Phillippa Elizabeth Mary

Today is my youngest daughter's seventh birthday. I guess that she is still my "baby girl." At any rate, she has always been a "daddy's girl," even as an infant. Monica was very much her Mommy's girl, especially after her surgery and hospital stay (at ten months); it was a long time before she really warmed up to me. DoRena has always had a more independent spirit; I guess that goes with being the firstborn (like each of her parents). But Oly'anna took to me right away, and unless she needed to nurse, she generally preferred to be with me. Of course, she's also had me wrapped around her finger since the day she was born.

I've often used my Oly'anna as a good example of what it means to pray to God as our dear Father in heaven. Whenever she's been hurt or upset by something -- even if it happens to be a "reprimand" from Daddy (which may be little more than her name with "that tone" to it) -- she's generally taken the approach of simply throwing herself into my lap, wrapping her arms around me, and being wrapped up in my arms, and basically hiding herself there. Sometimes sobbing, often unable to speak through her big ol' tears, she finds her comfort in knowing that her Daddy loves her, and that he's going to keep on loving her and taking care of her. That is where she is safe and sound. I'm far from being a perfect father, but she knows that she can trust me, and that I would do anything in my power for her. Mostly she knows that I forgive her trespasses, and that I will not cast her aside. How much more can we trust and rely upon "our Father who art in heaven," and come to him as little children to throw ourselves into His lap and hide ourselves in Him, for Jesus' sake; praying the words that He has taught us to pray, or sometimes just relying on the groanings of the Spirit, too deep for words.

Oly'anna's first name is a contraction of "Olga Anna," which is a bit of a story in itself. My Russian translator, each time I have had the privilege of teaching at the seminary in Novosibirsk, is named Olga. But when she was baptized (as an adult), the pastor inadvertently called her Anna. Because there are a fair number of women named Olga in Russia, the seminary students would often refer to her as Olga Anna, and I picked up on that. She has been a good friend to me, and a huge help to me, and a true gift of the Holy Spirit in translating my English lectures into Russian. When we knew that we were going to have a daughter, we thought at first of calling her "Olga Anna." That seemed a little harsh for American ears, and my wife and I each came up with the softer contraction, "Oly'anna."

Queen Olga was the Christian mother of Prince Vladimir, who was instrumental in the conversion of Russia. Anna was his Byzantine bride from Constantinople. So, our Oly'anna's name is also a commemoration of the early bringing of the Gospel to that part of the world, and a constant reminder to me of the small part that I have been given to play in that ongoing work. She was baptized on the Feast of Pentecost seven years ago (on the 12th of June that year), and she received her First Communion on the Feast of Pentecost yesterday. We are so grateful that her Godfamily has been able to share this weekend with us, both for Oly's sake and ours! I'm sorry that Olga could not be with us on this occasion, as she was for Oly'anna's Holy Baptism. I guess my "baby girl" will always be my "Pentecost daughter," a sign of the Lord's outpouring of the Spirit on His Church.

Oly'anna's birthday also falls very close to the Feast of the Visitation of Our Lord (her due date was even closer to that Feast). So she also bears the names of St. Elizabeth and the Blessed Virgin Mary, in honor of the joyful meeting of those two holy women. Here is the foundation of the Pentecost that would come. By the Word and Spirit of God, St. Mary conceived and bore the Son of God in her womb, and thus became a kind of living Sacrament. In this she is an icon of the Church, receiving the Savior unto herself, by grace through faith, and bearing her incarnate Lord unto the world. As St. Elizabeth rejoices to receive the visitation of the Lord, while He is yet hidden in the womb of His Mother, so do we give thanks unto the same Lord, Jesus Christ, who is hidden for us in the womb of His Church on earth.

"My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name."

27 May 2007

The Voice and the Works of the Spirit

"Gentlemen, unlike all of you, the Holy Spirit does not talk about Himself." So said one of my dear fathers in Christ at the seminary. He was quite right, both about us men and, more importantly, about the Holy Spirit, who brings Christ Jesus to us from the Father, and lays Him upon our hearts through the Gospel. The Spirit is most actively present and at work, not when we are talking about Him, but when He is speaking Jesus to us.

Today is the Feast of Pentecost, however, and there is something to be said about the Holy Spirit, after all. There is the witness and revelation of the Holy Scriptures, and the confession of the Creeds, which do catechize us in the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. The fact that it all comes back to Jesus, is not to leave the Spirit out; for you do not have the One without the Other. What is more, Jesus is "the Christ" because He is anointed by the Holy Spirit for the salvation of the world. He receives and bears the Spirit, on our behalf, in order to bestow the Spirit upon us; which is to share with us the very life and love of God.

Jesus says that, while you cannot see the Holy Spirit, you are able to hear His voice and to behold Him in His works. The voice and works of the Spirit are the means of grace, the Gospel-Word and Sacraments. In hearing the Word of the Gospel, you hear the voice of the Spirit and receive Christ Jesus. In Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Holy Communion, you are the object of the Spirit's work, and you receive Christ Jesus.

Dr. Luther comments in the Large Catechism, that the the gifts and blessings of Holy Baptism are more than enough to occupy our consideration for our entire lives. Each day appropriately begins with the confident confession that we are baptized into Christ! As He received the anointing of the Spirit in His Baptism, so does He pour out the Holy Spirit generously upon us in our Baptism. By His Word of the Law and the Gospel, the Holy Spirit returns us daily to those life-giving waters through repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins.

Concerning Holy Absolution, Dr. Luther writes that Christians who know the Gospel will gladly run a hundred miles in order to confess their sins and receive forgiveness from their pastor, as from God Himself. This gift of Holy Absolution is the Lord's breathing of His Holy Spirit into our hearts, into our bodies and souls, so that our dried up, dead and dusty bones are resurrected to new life. As we are born of God in Holy Baptism, so do we breathe divine life in Holy Absolution. And as we inhale this forgiveness, so do we exhale forgiveness of our neighbor's trespasses against us. Nothing could be more basic and fundamental to the Christian life.

It is well known that Dr. Luther understood the Sacrament of the Altar to be the very Gospel, the Word-made-Flesh for us men and our salvation. The Body and Blood of Christ Jesus are the truly Spiritual food and drink, by which we are nourished and sustained through the wilderness of this life, unto the life everlasting. Another Lutheran father in the faith, Wilhelm Loehe, viewed the entire life of the Church on earth as a kind of journey to and from the Altar of the Lord Jesus Christ. Everything that Pastor Loehe and his congregation did, which was considerable in every way (and extended all over the world), he regarded as a sacrifice of thanksgiving unto the One who feeds us with His holy Body and gives us to drink of His holy and precious Blood. To live such a life of faith and love, and to offer such thanksgiving, is also the voice and work of the Holy Spirit in us.

The Holy Spirit does still bestow the gift of tongues. Not gibberish, but the voice of the Gospel. It is translated into the numerous languages of the world, whereby those languages (and the people who speak them) are sanctified and united in the common confession of Christ. For with the heart we believe, and with the tongue we confess; as we have heard, so do we speak.

25 May 2007

First Communion

I’ll have to check the date on my confirmation Bible, but I believe that it was twenty-seven years ago today, the 25th of May, when I received the Holy Communion for the first time. It was at the end of eighth grade, and I was fourteen years old. As far as I was aware at that point in my life, that was the way it had always been done. I knew my catechism well, and all the basic Bible stories, as well as a lot of hymns. My confirmation verse was the Word of Jesus, "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (St. John 14:27). My Dad was my pastor, the one who chose that verse for me, and for that reason among others it has always meant a great deal to me. It was also the verse I chose for my Zachary when I confirmed him as his pastor.

I don’t remember if my heart was strangely warmed by the experience, but I do vividly recall that my mind was thoroughly engaged by the doctrine of the "real presence," which had fascinated me already for years. I was glad to begin receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus, and have been grateful to do so ever since. In fact, my understanding and appreciation of that Holy Sacrament have only increased with time, as I have grown older and continued to study the Word of the Lord. Yet, the straightforward essentials were already clear to me long before my First Communion. "It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink," for the forgiveness of all our sins. After all, Jesus said so, and I can’t honestly say that I ever doubted the simple truth of His Word.

My youngest daughter, Oly’anna, will be seven years old on Monday. She’ll receive her First Communion the day before that, on Pentecost Day. The Holy Gospel appointed for that Feast includes my confirmation verse from St. John 14, but Oly’anna and the other first communicants will not be confirmed this week. That won’t happen for at least another four or five years; and, frankly, if I had my druthers, I’d wait until eighteen or twenty-one years of age before the rite of confirmation. But seven years old is not too early to begin receiving the Body and Blood of Christ.

What I discovered in my seminary studies of the Reformation and the Lutheran Confessions, is that children of evangelical parents and parishes in the sixteenth century were simply taught the basic chief parts of the Catechism and admitted to the Holy Communion by their pastors, usually at seven or eight years of age. The Lutherans at that time had no use for the man-made rite of confirmation. Ongoing catechesis, that was fundamental; it was to be the warp and woof of household life. As Dr. Luther understood so well, it was essential to teach the faith, the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel, and the means of grace to the children, because it becomes all but impossible to teach the adults any of this if they haven’t already learned it. Well, let us not underestimate what the Word and Spirit of God can do, even with recalcitrant grown-ups. But let us all the more take to heart the Word of Jesus, that we must all become like the little children in receiving the gifts of His Kingdom.

Dr. Luther concludes his discussion of the Lord’s Supper, in his Large Catechism, by stating that the little children should be catechized and admitted to this Sacrament, since they also are the baptized faithful, and we need them to assist us in praying and fighting the devil. Not "cute little poopsies," but courageous young Davids with five smooth stones and hearts of faith in the Lord of hosts, who is more than able to slay an army of Goliaths. But recent generations have been more inclined, like King Saul, to encumber the little shepherd boy with a grown man’s bulky armor. As though the accumulated burdens and weight of life in this sinful world were better able than Yahweh Sabaoth to defend the lambs and sheep of His pasture.

When I was called and ordained to the Office of the Ministry at Emmaus eleven years ago, there weren’t really any catechumens to speak of, and only a handful of children in the congregation. The oldest of those children were my own DoRena and Zachary, and the firstborn daughter of a former pastor who had become a lay member of Emmaus around the same time that we arrived. Those three children ranged in age from seven to nine years old, and they were each being catechized by their fathers at home. There wouldn’t be any traditional "confirmands" in sight for several years, but there had been one case of a catechumen being admitted to the Holy Communion prior to the completion of confirmation instruction. So I offered to the Elders that I would just as soon do things according to the model that I had found in the Large Catechism and in the history of the Lutheran Reformation. There were no objections to that proposal, which is what I then proceeded to follow. DoRena was ten years old when she received her First Communion; Zachary was eight; their fellow first communicant, Lizzy, was nine.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this whole process of admittance to the Holy Communion in the decade that has passed since then. I believe that I have gotten better at catechesis, and that I have a better understanding of what it means that Jesus gives His Body and His Blood to His disciples. There are various ways in which I have modified the procedure and the method of catechesis and examination, depending largely on the circumstances of each individual catechumen. I’ve come to approach all of this as pastoral care, more so than pedagogy. I make every effort to be both objective and evangelical. What has never wavered, but only intensified, is my conviction that children ought to be catechized and admitted to the Holy Communion much earlier than they typically have been.

I’ve heard the argument, over and over again, that we have to maintain a standard practice for admission to the Sacrament. I agree that we should have a standard, but I don’t agree that it is or ought to be a standard of age or grade level; nor that a man-made rite of confirmation provides an acceptable or salutary criteria. "Confirmation" at any given congregation can mean almost anything, ranging from a three-hour Saturday morning shotgun blast to a four-year program of intensive academic instruction. The real standard, I believe, which we don’t have to invent, is the one identified in Dr. Luther’s Preface to the Large Catechism, namely, catechesis in the basic texts of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Our Father, and the evangelical Sacraments.

Parents and pastors, within their respective offices, ought to be teaching these chief parts of the Christian faith and life all the time, to everyone under their authority and care. The little children ought to be brought to Holy Baptism, and they ought to be hearing the basic Christian catechism before, during, and after the fact, from the womb to the tomb. As soon as they are able, according to the abilities with which they are endowed by their Creator, they ought to be taught to confess that same faith; which they will do in much the same way as they learn to talk at all. Having thus been baptized, and continuing to be catechized (until they die), they ought also to be given the gifts Christ freely gives to His disciples, that is, His holy Body and precious Blood.

The question in my mind, as both a pastor and a father, is not whether seven years old is too early to begin receiving the Sacrament of the Altar, but whether First Communion ought to happen even earlier in many cases. Actually, I don’t believe that any particular age should be determined as a criteria for admittance to the Sacrament. As much as I advocate and appreciate an objective criteria and approach, I am more and more convinced that a responsible and evangelical practice requires pastoral discernment and care on a case-by-case basis. A child who is born into an environment of daily catechesis and prayer in the home, and who is faithfully brought to the Lord’s House to be regularly immersed in the preaching of God’s Word, is surely a different case than a child who is rarely exposed to the Word.

A well-catechized child knows what the Lord's Supper is, and what it is for, and hungers for the forgiveness and life and salvation that it offers and bestows. I see the evidence of that all the time, often in the youngest of children. One of my most precious memories of my Zach is from the night before his First Communion, ten years ago. When I went to say his prayers with him and tuck him into bed for the night, I discovered that he had an awful lot on his eight-year-old mind. We spent the next hour or so having one of the more profound theological discussions I have ever had. He asked questions that demonstrated both a knowledge and a keen understanding of the Scriptures. And at the heart of it all was his concern that he might not be ready to begin receiving the Lord's Supper; he wasn't sure that he had it all figured out just yet. He knew and believed his Catechism, but he couldn't fathom all the mysteries of the faith. I assured him that I couldn't, either, and that I didn't know anyone who could! I asked him if he trusted the Word of Jesus, and most assuredly he did. He confessed his sin, and confessed the faith, both in the words of the Catechism and in his own words. His fears did not stem from ignorance or doubt, but from a heart of humble repentance. All I could think of was that this Sacrament has been instituted for the special comfort of those who recognize their sin and weakness and desire to be strengthened and served by Christ, their Savior. That was my Zach, both then and now.

My Oly'anna is a couple years younger than Zach was then, and she is different in demeanor and personality. But she has such an eager desire for the Sacrament, I would be hard-pressed to question her readiness for it. She knows that she is a sinner, and that what she needs most is the forgiveness of her sins. And she knows that the Lord's Supper is the Body and Blood of Jesus, which He gives to His Christians to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of sins. It's all pretty simple from that perspective, and I can't see why it ought to be any more complicated. Oly'anna has been asking me, almost on a daily basis since January, how long it would be until her First Communion. For the past couple of months, she has often dreamed about that day, and nothing has caused her greater joy or delight than anticipating it. My Ariksander was much the same way, though he was quieter about it. He did tell my wife, the night before his First Communion, that it was the best weekend of his life, because he would be receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus the next day. He was seven years old then.

My wife overheard Oly'anna talking to her friend, Martin, who will also be receiving his First Communion this week. Martin and his family are out of town for Memorial Day weekend, so his big day will be next Thursday, the Feast of the Visitation of Our Lord, which also happens to be his ninth birthday. Oly'anna was rejoicing in the fact that she'll be receiving her First Communion the day before her birthday, and that her Godfamily, the Schlueter's, are coming from St. Louis to be here with her. This is almost more excitement than one little girl can contain! Dear Martin's reply was that he would be receiving the Holy Communion on his birthday; and so, he went on to explain, he would be receiving the forgiveness of sins for his birthday. He reasoned that this was the very best present of all, and he was happy with that. I could not have said it any better myself.

"Do you hear what these children are saying?" And Jesus said, "Yes; have you never read, 'Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies You have prepared praise for Yourself?'" (St. Matthew 21:16) "I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this was well-pleasing in Your sight." (St. Matthew 11:25-26)

24 May 2007

Happy Queen Esther Day!

One of my young friends, Anna, had her "sweet sixteen" today, the 24th of May. I hope that her day became sweeter as it went along, as it began with some sad disappointments. But she is a sweet girl, in any case, and my family and I were pleased to be able to help her celebrate ahead of time this past Sunday.

Today also happens to be the commemoration of Queen Esther, and I told Anna that, if she ever felt extra-middle-name envy of my children (who tend to have two or three middle names, instead of only one), "Esther" would make a fine addition. It has been my custom at Emmaus to give each of my confirmands a particular saint, selected from the Holy Scriptures or church history, as an example of the Christian faith and life. I would have chosen Esther for Anna, I am sure, if I had been her pastor at that point in her life; not only because her birthday coincides with the commemoration of that noble queen, but because she possesses similar qualities of intelligence, courage and faithfulness.

Esther is a fine example of living by faith within one's vocation. Discussions of the service to which women may or may not be called, like discussions of Christian "stewardship" in general, tend to be in terms of some connection to the church. The church needs faithful servants, also, but the vast majority of Christians live their vocations within other stations in life, in the world (though not of it), outside the walls of the church. "Stewardship," for example, is not only more than money; it is also more than simply the time, treasures and talents that are given to the church; it is the way in which the Christian lives by grace through faith in Christ, in love toward his or her neighbor, wherever in the world God has placed that dear child of His.

The life of Esther, along with the inspired book that tells her story, is an important case in point, not only for Christian women who want to know where and how they may and ought to serve the Lord, but for any child of God living in the world. The Book of Esther is not a "churchy" book. It makes almost no mention of the life of the Church, nor does it even once invoke the name of God. It does tell a story of God's people, and of one faithful woman in particular who was given a rather unusual station in life. She was beautiful and savvy and courageous, and she served her vocation as the wife of a pagan king, as a queen of Persia.

The Lord worked through Esther a great deliverance of His people, Israel, through whom He ultimately gave the Savior of us all. Those events became the impetus for the Jewish feast of Purim, but there was nothing all that "liturgical" about the events as they unfolded. Like most of the stories in the Bible, it all happened in the bump and grind of everyday life. It was messy and unpredictable. Esther lived by faith, not by sight. She prayed and fasted, as did her Uncle Mordecai and the whole Church of God's faithful people. And having done so, she proceeded to live and to serve precisely where the Lord had placed her, for such a time as it was.

It is my hope and prayer, for Anna and for my own children, and for all of the young people entrusted to my pastoral care, that they would live by grace through faith in Christ wherever God may put them in the world. I anticipate that some of those young men will become pastors, and some of those young women may become deaconesses; and I'm confident that all of them will continue to serve the church in a variety of ways. But I expect that most of them will not become "professional church workers," and I'm not at all sorry for that. Who knows what the Lord has in store for them, and for their neighbors round about. Whatever it may be, He is and remains faithful, and He will accomplish His good and gracious will, both for them and through them.

Esther was guided in large part by the godly counsel of her Uncle Mordecai. Children and young people, in particular, know the will of God for themselves chiefly by hearing and heeding the counsel of their parents and the other authorities whom God has placed over them in life. If Anna (or any of her peers) wants to know where to go to school, what to do with her life, or what to be when she grows up, she ought to listen first and foremost to her father and her mother, "that it may be well with her, and she may live long on this earth." For God has crowned the offices of father and mother with the honor and authority of His Word. No parent or guardian on earth is perfect, but the Lord who has given us our parents and guardians is to be trusted. If we perish, we perish; but, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's. No one shall ever snatch us out of His hand.

The Fragility of Fathers and Sons

I've teased my Dad a little lately, that he's running out of internal organs that he can live without. One has to keep a sense of humor about such things, in order to spite the devil who would have us despair.

It was almost four years ago that Dad began spitting up blood, late one Sunday night, and ended up spending the next month or more in the hospital. The first week was spent in a desperate but ultimately futile attempt to cauterize an array of bleeding ulcers that had begun to rupture, one after another, in Dad's stomach. In the course of that week, he received over eighty units of blood, which is many times more than a body holds; so, my thanks to those who have donated blood, because my Dad was going through the stuff like my college buddy's old Dodge used to go through oil (we used to joke about how many miles per quart that car got!).

When it finally came down to it, the doctor told my Mom that Dad could live without his stomach, but he couldn't live without blood. Consequently, in the wee hours of Saturday morning, they removed his stomach. I had never heard of such a thing before, but that was that. I spent as many hours as I could at the hospital with my Dad, praying Matins and Vespers and reading Psalms, and waiting for him to recover. It was a long haul, for him and for my Mom, but they took it a day at a time, and eventually Dad went home again.

Now, this past month, Dad had to have his bladder removed due to a fast-growing cancerous tumor. The good news is that the cancer was still contained within the bladder, and therefore came out with it. But that's one more thing for Dad to live without, and another sobering reminder of his frail mortality.

My Dad's family hasn't fared so well, either, in the good health department, and I know that he has fretted about the genetic propensity for cancer and cardiovascular illness that he has presumably passed on to his descendants. Such is the legacy of death that we have inherited from our fathers and hand over to our sons. The wages of sin is death, and there you have it. I'm not falling apart completely, yet. I still have all of my vital organs, and most of my natural teeth, as well as my tonsils and appendix (as does my Dad!). But my body is slower and feels a whole lot heavier than it used to, and I have aches and pains in places where I wasn't previously aware of having places. Exercise would help, no doubt, but only to prolong the inevitable.

I recognize the curse and consequence of sin that my own children have gotten from me, in turn. Their eyes and their teeth are weak and problematic (although it is amazing what dentistry and orthodontia have done for my two oldest children). They get sick, they get hurt, and the day will come when they wear out and die.

It isn't only the fragility of our mortal bodies that we fathers and sons receive and hand over from one generation to the next. Our hearts and minds, our reason and all our senses have also suffered the fall into sin. The way we think, the way we feel, the way we react, it's all prone to sin. We get impatient and short-tempered. We forget things we ought to have remembered. We fail to do what we ought to get done. We're simply wrong about a lot of things, and yet suppose ourselves to have it all figured out. We are prideful and self-centered. The older we get, the more feeble we become, our foibles and eccentricities more pronounced. Love covers a multitude of sins, to be sure, and in many ways the quirks and idiosyncracies of our loved ones can even become endearing to us. Yet, sin exacerbates everything, such that our entire lives are permeated with flaws and weaknesses.

Please understand, I'm not saying any of this to complain about my Dad. I've been blessed with a wonderful father, who loves me, who provided for me as I was growing up and, most important of all, taught me the Word of God. It is that very Word of God that lays bare the truth of the matter, that we have inherited and pass on a terrible legacy of sin and death. It is harder to ignore when it requires the removal of important internal organs, but it is no less the case when our bodies are in relatively good shape. My short temper is a bleeding ulcer of sorts, and my selfishness a cancer of the heart, which are every bit as destructive and deadly as any bodily infirmity. As one father in the faith has written, the good that I would, I do not, and the evil I would not, I do. Who, then, shall save us from these bodies of death?

Thanks be to God, who has given us the victory in our Lord Jesus Christ. For He is the Father who has given His own dear Son for us, who bore our fragility in His own flesh, made mortal by our sin, and suffered all the pangs and anguish of the condemnation we deserved. He took our sin and death, in order to give us His life, the divine life that He has with the Father from all eternity. That is the legacy He shares with us by His grace, the inheritance of life and salvation that is now ours as sons of God in Christ.

I've baptized most of my own children, beginning with Monica eleven years ago, and I've been struck each time by the fact that, as their pastor, as a Minister of the Gospel of Christ, I am thereby able to give them something that I cannot give them as their earthly father. The washing of water with the Word of Christ gives them a new Name, a new heart, a new and right Spirit, and a new Father in heaven. That their souls are not cleansed apart from this water that washes over their mortal bodies, is already a sign of the bodily resurrection for which their dear Lord Jesus Christ lays hold of them as His own precious possession. From me they received the sinful and deadly inheritance of Adam. From the Holy Triune God they receive the forgiveness of sins, new life and salvation, the adoption as sons, the anointing of the Spirit, union with Christ. This striking contrast was made all the more poignant for me, when my little Gerhardt was baptized by my colleague, and I witnessed the bestowal of this gift of life in place of the death that my son received from me.

Of course, the beauty is that we human fathers are given the privilege of bestowing that same gift upon our children, not of ourselves, but from Christ through His Gospel. As our own sin is forgiven, our unclean spirit driven out and replaced by the Holy Spirit, and the New Man daily rises and emerges in us, so do we pass on this Gospel to our sons and daughters. We love them, as we are loved. We have mercy and compassion upon them, as Christ is merciful and compassionate toward us. We forgive them, as we are forgiven, for Jesus' sake. And we catechize them in the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel, unto repentance, unto faith and life. That catechesis was the best and most important thing my Dad did for me, and it is the best and most important thing that I can do for my own children; not only as their pastor, but already as their father.

22 May 2007

Empty Chair Syndrome

It hit me again last night, as it has off-and-on since I took Zach to the airport and sent him off to Nebraska for the summer (2-1/2 weeks ago). We have a Monday evening Bible class at Emmaus (currently studying the Smalcald Articles), and Zach was always faithful in attending. It has meant the world to me, to see the interest that my children have in the Word of God. And I really felt Zach's absence at Vespers and in Bible class last night.

It's obvious enough to everyone, and my wife and I certainly realize, that we are a long way from "empty nest syndrome." With seven more children still at home, the youngest only six months old, we've got a lot of parenting yet to do. By the time Gerhardt is leaving the house for college, I'll be pushing sixty years old. And by that point, I expect that grandchildren will be a regular part of my life. That is all pretty hard to imagine at the moment, but it did occur to me the other day that, if each of my children has as many children as LaRena and I have, that'll be 81 grandchildren. I doubt that I'll live to see that many of my offspring, but who knows.

In the meantime, with DoRena taking summer school in Bloomington and Zachary working for his Uncle Rob out in Nebraska (then heading to Sam Houston for college in the fall), it is amazing what a hole there is in my heart and in my home. Especially when I come home at the end of the day, I keep thinking that I'll find my Zach down in his bedroom. Then, as I come in the door, I realize that, no, he's not living here anymore. We've had a few years to get used to having DoRena away from home, but it still chokes me up every time I send her off or take her back to school. Bloomington is only four hours away, and close enough to Indy that I've had regular opportunities to visit her over the past two years; so that has helped to ease the transition of her growing up. Western Nebraska is far, far away, and Houston, Texas, is even further away. Suddenly my boy is a young man, making his own way in the world, and not under my roof any longer.

My dear wife put it well when she described what we are experiencing as "empty chair syndrome." The fact that we still have seven other children at home doesn't change the fact that two of our children are not at home. None of the children are interchangeable. Each one is an individual, a unique person, who can neither take the place of, nor be replaced by, any other.

It's not unusual, when other people learn that we have nine children, for them to wonder out loud why we have "so many." I realize that such people either mean well, or they don't really mean anything at all; they're simply not used to the prospect of a larger family (by comparison to what has become the norm in more recent generations). But I always want to respond, and sometimes I do, "Which of my children do you think I should get rid of?" It's a rhetorical question, of course, but it calls attention to the unspoken assumption that the younger children are in some sense incidental and expendable. No one would ever say such a thing (I hope!), but that is what it amounts to when a person questions the number of children we have.

There are a couple of things to be said. First of all, I still believe, teach and confess the First Article of the Creed (which would be true, in any case, even if I didn't believe it): God is the Author and Giver of life, not me. Each and every one of my children has been created by God for life with Himself forever; and He is more than willing and able to provide all of them with everything they need to support this body and life, as well as the forgiveness of their sins, eternal life and salvation. To suggest that it would have been better for any of them not to exist, is to pass the severest sort of judgment against both the child and the Creator and Preserver of us all.

I have to confess that my own heart and mind have often reacted to the news of a pregnancy with fear and unbelief. How will we manage? How will we provide? You see, such thoughts and questions are evidence of my own failure to fear, love and trust in the Maker of the heavens and the earth. Yet, He has never failed to feed and clothe and shelter and protect my entire family. With food and clothing, let us therewith be content. He loves even me, as well as my wife and the children He has given us, far more than the birds and the flowers which He nourishes and adorns.

And here is the other thing to be said: Once that new child has entered our life, even before his or her birth, and all the moreso afterwards, I simply cannot imagine my life or my family without that little person. A new son or daughter is never just "another child," "another body," "another mouth to feed," but an individual with a unique identity, a personality, and a life of his or her own. The Lord numbers the very hairs on our heads, and He loves each of us personally; surely it is the case that each and every child is precious in His sight. And in my own limited capacity, I find that to be true for me with each and every child He has entrusted to my care.

So, back to the fact that DoRena and Zachary are out of the house and now making lives of their own in the world. So long as I live, I'll always be their father, and I appreciate the fact that they both honor me and keep me "in the loop," but my role in their lives, and the nature of my relationship with them, is changing. It's all good, even though it hurts a bit, sometimes more than others. But my point is that having seven other children, or even another dozen more than that, does not fill up the space that is left in the wake of the two that have left. But then again, it isn't necessary to replace those two, because they haven't ceased to exist. They are alive and well and making their way in the world. More than that, even when they are finally called from this vale of tears to the Lord in heaven, they shall not be "dead and gone," but they shall live forever in Christ.

Truth be told, we don't actually have any empty chairs around the table. It's just a little less crowded now, and we don't have to pull out as many folding chairs to squeeze everyone in! But my wife was right in her observation. The nest is still full, but two of our birds have spread their wings and flown. And now I find that, just as I learned to appreciate my parents all the more when I went off to college, so am I learning to delight in my children all the more as they leave my nest to begin collecting the twigs and leaves that will eventually form their own.

21 May 2007

Another Significant Seven

Here's seven more significant things that I've learned:

1. Seven-year-olds make ideal catechumens. But the entire Christian life is one of ongoing, daily catechesis, before, during and after Holy Baptism, from the womb to the tomb.

2. Catechesis is not primarily information; it is God putting you to death with His Law and raising you to life with His Gospel of forgiveness.

3. The Law always accuses; and whatever else the Law does is the Lord's prerogative, not mine.

4. The means of grace are as integral to the Gospel as are the Cross and Resurrection.

5. Everything depends upon the Word of God, which is the only thing we can ever be sure of.

6. Prayer, praise, thanksgiving and confession are simply the voice of faith, saying the same things that God has spoken. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise.

7. Parents, Professors and Pastors are also finite, flawed and frail creatures, like everyone else. They don't know everything, and they can't do everything. They do know many things, and they are very good at some things. Sometimes they are wrong and make mistakes. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. They are to be respected and honored for the sake of their offices.

The Magnificent Seven

Susan has "tagged" me to identify the seven most significant things that I have learned in life. Here is a first attempt:

1. Everything you really need to know is in the Small Catechism.

2. The little children are right: the correct answer to every question is "Jesus."

3. The Lord has so arranged His Church on earth for the forgiveness of sins, which is what we need the most; where there is forgiveness, there is faith and life and every blessing.

4. Discerning what is the will of the Lord for my life is simply to consider my vocation as a child of God and my stations in life according to the Ten Commandments.

5. We ought to view our parents and our spouses as being adorned with the hidden majesty of God's Word.

6. God accomplishes His purposes, not in spite of the Cross, but by the way and the means of the Cross.

7. Our bodies matter to God. He created them. He took a body of His own, in order to redeem them. He puts His own body and blood into our bodies, in order to save them. He will raise them up and glorify them on the last day, unto the life everlasting.

19 May 2007

Braggin' a Bit 'Bout my Boy

It's official as of today, so I'm going to use my blog as a bit of a brag book for a moment. My eldest son, Zachary, received a letter in the mail today from the President of Sam Houston State University, announcing that Zach will be provided "full tuition and fees throughout [his] academic career" at SHSU. This in recognition of his academic "accomplishments and potential," and especially in view of his status as a National Merit Finalist.

Two weeks ago, we were all still wondering where the money was going to come from to pay for Zach's college education. He had already received some nice scholarships, but so far as we knew and could tell they were a drop in the bucket up against the out-of-state tuition that he would presumably be charged at Sam Houston. Knowing that things have worked out pretty well for my daughter DoRena at I.U. in Bloomington, I was confident that funds would be available to Zach from one source or another, but feared that would include a sizeable student loan. Since he is planning, at this point, to go on from college to the seminary, I was loathe for him to take on a debt load already in his undergraduate years. I'm going to be paying off my own seminary loans forever, it seems, and I would hope that my son won't find himself in the same boat down the road.

Well, the Lord already had it all worked out, and while we were still praying He had already answered. In the course of the past two weeks, scholarships that we didn't even know about were awarded to our Zach, such that his college education will now be covered. My wife and I would still suggest that Sam Houston is getting the better end of the deal, as our son is worth every penny of it. But the truth of the matter is that we are very grateful, and we do not take such divine providence for granted. We are worthy of none of those things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that our Father in heaven would give them all to us by grace, for Jesus' sake. And surely He does; this is most certainly true. Jesus is always His "Yes!" and "Amen!"

Let it not go without saying that I am proud of my son. I'm proud of his intelligence, of his disciplined and conscientious study habits, and of the knowledge he continues to gain. I'm proud of his accomplishments, and of the goals that he has set for himself. Along with all of that, I am especially proud of his maturity, of his theological understanding and insight, of his love for the Gospel, and of his commitment to the Word of God as his highest priority. Whether he does go on to seminary or not, he will be a faithful servant of Christ and of his Church, bringing his considerable talents and gifts to bear within whatever stations in life he is given.

A Virtual Toast to Several of My Friends

Three cheers for three friends on this auspicious day, the 19th of May.

Today, Mrs. Naomi (nee Rhein) Kavouras is twenty-two years old! Which means that I have now had the privilege of knowing this young lady for half her lifetime, since she was the tender age of eleven when I met her and the rest of her family. She and my firstborn, DoRena, have been the best of friends ever since. My wife and I are proud to count Naomi among our own friends, as well, and considering that her daughter, Saranita, is only a couple months older than our Gerhardt, I guess that puts us in the same generation, right? I mentioned that Ann & Andrew's wedding (a week ago) was among a handful of my favorite weddings ever. Well, two years ago is when I had the great joy of officiating Naomi's wedding to Mr. Nick Kavouras, and it will be hard to top that one. It was as close as I have come, so far, to marrying one of my own children; all the more so, since my DoRena was Naomi's maid of honor. That whole day was one big amazing celebration. And today is a cause for celebration, too, in honor of Naomi's nativity twenty-two years ago.

Today is also the birthday of another young friend, Miss Maggie Burreson, who is now a teenager (13). She's just a few months older than my son, Nicholai, and the two of them did a lot of growing up together in their first several years. Maggie's Dad (more about him in a minute) and I were classmates together at Notre Dame, beginning in 1994, the year that Maggie and Nicholai were born. My wife, LaRena, took care of Maggie during the days while her parents were going to school and working. The Burreson's have been living in St. Louis for better than half of Maggie's life now (by my reckoning), but they remain among our dearest friends. They are our Monica's Godfamily, which makes Maggie her "Godsister," as Monica has always affectionately described. We count our opportunities to visit Maggie and her family among our many blessings. And for the time being, even from a distance, I propose a virtual toast to this newest teenager. Hip, hip, hooray!

Today is a big day for Maggie's Dad, too, the Reverend Dr. Kent J. Burreson. It was on this day eleven years ago that he was ordained to the Office of the Holy Ministry, as an assistant to the pastor at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Mishawaka, Indiana. It was two weeks before my own ordination at Emmaus; so I didn't get to participate in the laying on of hands, but did get to assist otherwise with the Service. Dr. Burreson has been a professor at the Seminary in St. Louis for the past seven years now, and he is well-suited for that vocation. The Church ought to rejoice to have such a faithful teacher of the Word helping to prepare her future pastors. Such is the ongoing tradition of the Church on earth, that the Ministry of the Gospel is received and handed over from one generation of faithful pastors to the next. The Father has sent the Son; the Son has sent His chosen Apostles; and from those sainted Apostles onward, the Holy Triune God has called, ordained and sent men who follow in their footsteps. Dr. Burreson received those holy orders, that divine sending, eleven years ago today. He's one of my dearest friends and colleagues, no doubt, and I have missed him terribly since he left the South Bend area. Being colleagues in the same town was a treat, especially because of his fraternal encouragement and his evangelical pastoral care. The mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren is one of the Lord's most precious blessings. I'm grateful that I have continued to benefit from such conversations with my brother in Christ and in Office, Dr. Burreson, though I'm sorry that I don't more often avail myself of that opportunity. It's always far too easy to let the time go by with too much busy-ness. Nevertheless, especially on this day, I give thanks not only for Dr. Burreson's friendship and collegiality, but also for his faithful service to the Church.

So, get yourself a glass and fill it with your favorite Lutheran beverage, and join me in toasting the good health and happiness of several friends who celebrate important milestones on this day: To Kent, to Maggie, and to Naomi, Cheers!

The Year of the G

It's really bugging me that I can't remember where it comes from. I'd like to think it was Samuel Beckett's absurd "Waiting for Godot," because that would fit, but maybe someone can clarify or correct me, one way or the other. Anyway, there is this scene in which a character shows up claiming to be God, and his evidence for this is a big letter "G" on his shirt. That cracked me up when I first read it, and I still find it pretty funny. I've thought of it any number of times since this past November, when my "Baby G" was born. He's not God, but he is God's child; for God put His Name upon him, and sealed him with the sign of the Holy Cross on both his forehead and his chest.

The Year of Our Lord 2006 turned out to be the year of the "G" for me and mine. Not only did we spend the year waiting to welcome our little Gerhardt (immediately dubbed "Baby G" by his big sister); we also welcomed Gifford Grobien, his wife 'Gina and their gaggle of giggling Grobien girls at Emmaus, first as fellow members of the body of Christ, and then as a second pastor's family.

Welcoming an assistant pastor was a pretty significant development, but I was surprised at how quickly it seemed very comfortable and natural to have a second pastor serving along with me in the Divine Service. My eldest son immediately picked up on the way it helps to distinguish the pastoral office from the person of the pastor. There is a dynamic, as well, in the interaction of two pastors working together, that really serves to confess the locus of Christ and His Gospel in the preaching and administration of the means of grace.

I am reminded all the more of these benefits and blessings of an assistant pastor, by the fact that Pastor Grobien and his family are on vacation now, and suddenly it feels very strange to be on my own again for this time. I was glad to have the assistance of a brother pastor for the Feast of the Ascension, but there were still things for me to do, myself, that Pastor Grobien has been doing since his ordination this past October. That wasn't all that long ago, but the rhythm and rapport we established from the start has simply been so right, anything else seems odd. I'm not suggesting that a faithful administration of the Divine Service requires two or more pastors, but I'm grateful that we normally have that opportunity at Emmaus. And I am mainly just thinking out loud about the fact that I will miss the assistance of my friend and colleague on the morrow.

Somebody tell me, though, whether the fellow with the big "G" on his chest is in "Waiting for Godot," or elsewhere.

17 May 2007

What I Really Meant to Say

I hate it when I fall into the trap of preaching about Jesus. Don't get me wrong; it's certainly better to preach about Jesus than anything else one might preach about. But the best preaching of all isn't "about" anything; it is simply Jesus talking, speaking His Word of death and life. Nothing contradicts the Gospel of the Ascension of Our Lord like a sermon that talks about Jesus as though He were away on holiday!

Everything I said in my sermon tonight is true. But the people of God need more than the truth of facts and information. They need Jesus. I'm called and ordained to preach Jesus, to speak not about Him but for Him, His Word. It is as necessary to preach repentance in His Name, unto forgiveness of sins, as it was for Him to die and rise again. I trust, and I am grateful, that the Holy Spirit is actively present and at work in the facts and information of the Gospel narrative, and He doesn't need my help to accomplish His purposes. But that's no excuse for me to do anything less than I am given to do.

One of my dear friends and colleagues profoundly wrote, in a recent article, that a sermon doesn't teach you about the love of God; it loves you. That is well said. Jesus loves His people with His Word of the Gospel. It's not "about" anything. It is everything. The Kingdom of God is at hand in the proclamation of Christ. Faith comes by the hearing of that Word, which forgives sins and gives life in place of death.

Well, I dropped the ball tonight. I spoke truthfully, but I did more preaching about Jesus then preaching Jesus Himself into the ears of His people. Christ be praised that He gave His Body and poured out His Blood into their mouths, down their throats and into their bodies. His Words, "for you, for the forgiveness of sins," do and give exactly what He says. And where there is this forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.

The Ascension of Our Lord

Something ought to be said concerning the Ascension of our Lord on this fortieth day of Easter. I would like to think that every Christian congregation around the world were going to be assembled in joyous celebration of this great Feast, but I do know better than that. I honestly don't remember whether it was much observed in the course of my growing up years, but I have been told that the Ascension was celebrated with gusto and exuberance by Lutherans in the not-so-distant past. Nowadays, it is tough to gather much of a crowd for the occasion. Turns out that the fortieth day of Easter is always a Thursday, and most folks don't think of going to church in the middle of the week.

There are five great high Feasts of the Church Year, and the Ascension of Our Lord is one of them. The other four are Christmas and Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost. Everyone knows about Christmas, and most churches are gathered for services of one sort or another on that occasion (if not on Christmas Day, then Christmas Eve). Easter Day and Pentecost Day are always Sundays, and at least the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord is given as much attention as anything is in the life of the Christian Church. The Epiphany and the Ascension of Our Lord don't fare so well.

I've already mentioned that I can't remember celebrating the Ascension in my childhood. Certainly I was aware that Jesus ascended into heaven, and I probably could have answered that it happened on the fortieth day following His Resurrection. I don't think I understood what any of this meant, however, until I became a pastor and became responsible for preaching this particular Gospel story. It needs to be preached and celebrated in order to be comprehended.

The Epiphany and the Ascension, though largely neglected and forgotten in practice, are like a pair of bookends to the great Salvation accomplished for us by Christ Jesus. The early church fathers understood from the Holy Scriptures, and they confessed, that God became man, so that man might become divine (that is, by grace through faith in Christ). Such a provocative saying can surely be misunderstood, but it can also be a powerful corrective to a host of alternative misunderstandings that run rampant among Christians. It says that the nature and content of our salvation is not simply a gift from God, but the gift of God Himself, who reveals and shares Himself with us in Christ, the incarnate Son, and makes us partakers of His divine nature. The life everlasting is life with God in Christ (and life with Christ in God). Heaven itself would be void and bare, if not for the fact that Jesus is there, in whom the very heart of the Father is opened to us, and in whom we are brought into the eternal Life and Love of the Holy Trinity.

Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of God in the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus. He became in every way like us, only without any sin of His own. He took His stand among us sinners, and He so identified Himself with us and our predicament that He actually became sin and a curse and suffered our death and damnation upon the Cross. Sin and death He dealt with in mortal flesh like unto our own. But our humanity, which is now also His humanity, He did not leave behind; that would have defeated the whole purpose. We are not saved from our human nature, nor rescued from our bodies of flesh and blood. We are redeemed from sin, death and hell, in order to be reconciled to God the Father, in both body and soul, and bodily raised from death and the grave to the life everlasting (with Christ) in the paradise of the new creation.

The Ascension of Our Lord is our ascension, no less than His Resurrection from the dead is our resurrection. In and with our flesh and blood, sharing our human nature, in His risen and glorified body (the same body conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and crucified for us men and our salvation under Pontius Pilate), our Savior enters into the courts of heaven to live before God the Father in righteousness, innocence and blessedness forever. In His Person, God and man have been perfectly and permanently united; and we are His own members, His Body and His Bride. Where He is, there are we also. Not only in our hearts and our heads, but in our bodies. Though we presently suffer the curse of sin and death, these have already been defeated once and for all in the flesh and blood of Christ. The One who died in our place, has risen in our place. So, too, in His Ascension to the right hand of the Father, His place becomes our place. By our Baptism into Him, we are all sons of God in Christ Jesus.

The Gospel is the narrative of a great journey that the Son of God has undertaken for our salvation. He came down from heaven, became flesh, and descended all the way down into the depths of our sin, even unto death and into the grave. Victorious in His Passion, vindicated in His Resurrection, He has returned to the Father in His Ascension. And He has taken us with Him. He has united us with Himself, in His Cross and Resurrection, in His crucified and risen Body, and He has brought us into the Holy of Holies made without hands, eternal in the heavens.

The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord ought to be celebrated with fullest fanfare. It is not a day of sad goodbyes, but of a joyful homecoming. For in Christ Jesus we have come home, at last, to our true Father in heaven.

16 May 2007

Finitude, Faith and Forever

I’ve been on something of a "finitude" kick for a while now. I think it began while I was trying to take care of my wife and home and family following Gerhardt’s birth, and I became increasingly aware of how finite I am! The very fact that I get on such "kicks" from time to time, which vary from one year to the next, is another aspect of my "finitude." I simply cannot do it all; nor can I accomplish what I do get done all at once. If I’m focusing on one thing, then I’m not paying as much attention to a countless number of other possible emphases. Unlike my wife and my computer, I’m not very good at multi-tasking. One thing at a time, one thing on my mind at once, and the more transition time in between things the better.

I really chafe at being a finite creature. Just thinking about everything on my "to do list" is overwhelming and debilitating. Working on my dissertation helped a lot, because it forced me to focus on the task at hand, and not to waste time and energy fretting about all the other tasks that were waiting in line to get done. It’s still the case, though, that I generally get most stressed out when I find myself with piles of projects crying out for attention. The piles are not only metaphorical, nor the ways in which they trip me up. Days when I start out feeling ambitious and ready to tackle the world usually end in disappointment, as often as not with more new piles added than old piles dealt with.

In the past, I’ve been inclined to think of my finitude as a consequence of sin, like mortality and death. I don’t like being finite, and I’m constantly fussing and fighting against my finitude; so I’ve assumed that it must be a bad thing, something to be overcome. But that’s not right. Being a finite creature is not a curse and consequence of sin. On the contrary, trying to live as though I were or could be infinite is at the heart of my sinfulness, an assertion of my self-idolatry. Bucking up against my finitude ought to be a call to repentance, not for being finite, but for acting as though I were an independent, self-sufficient being. Wanting to be able to do it all, to be the best at everything, and to be everywhere at once is a covetous desire to be God.

It is true that sin exacerbates and burdens our finitude, just as it weighs upon every other aspect of our being. In our sinful unbelief, we run away and hide from the Author and Giver of life, which surely does result in our falling apart and wasting away over time. But we are finite creatures, not because the Lord has destined us for death and destruction; it is rather because He has created us to live by grace through faith in Him. We are not designed to make and to manage a life for ourselves, but to be loved and served by God, and to receive life from Him.

Living be grace through faith in the Holy Triune God means living within the parameters of my stations in life, and not coveting more than I’ve been given or could ever handle. Recognizing my limitations is not a cause for despair, but to be turned toward Him who opens up His hand to satisfy the desire of every living thing. For my every sin and failure, there is the free and full forgiveness of Christ the Crucified, who died for me and shed His blood for me. But my finitude is not a sin to be confessed and forgiven. It is to be a creature of the Creator, an object of His divine love and gracious providence, for Jesus’ sake (that the only-begotten Son might be the firstborn of many brethren by grace). For receiving all things from the One who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, this finite creature lives forever.

15 May 2007

Mrs. Beth Schlamann at Peace and Rest

While I was in Minnesota this past week and over the weekend, I was without cell phone most of the time, and without any internet access. Consequently, I was unaware that a friend, Mrs. Beth Schlamann, was reaching the end of her life on earth. When LaRena picked me up from the South Bend airport, she shared with me the news that Beth had died on Saturday the 12th. It was the end of her roller-coaster battle with cancer over the past couple of years. I rejoice with Beth, that she is at Peace and Rest; not simply that her sickness and suffering are ended, but that she abides forever in Christ, in the life everlasting for which she was created by God. Her soul resides securely with Him who became flesh and bore her sin in His own body to the Cross, who rose again and ascended to the right hand of the Father, there to prepare a place for her in the mansions of heaven. Her body, ravaged by a terrible disease, is returned to the dust from which mankind was taken; but not forever. The Word and Spirit of God shall raise Beth's body on the last day, and she will be all glorious indeed, in both body and soul, like unto Christ.

I rejoice with Beth, that her warfare is ended, but I grieve with her husband, Mark, my friend and colleague in the Office of the Holy Ministry. He knows and believes the Gospel, and the Word and Spirit of Christ will surely continue to sustain him in his sorrow. But I do not suppose that even such a faithful Christian escapes the bitterness that death causes. He was granted less than three years of marriage with his bride, most of that time spent caring for her in illness. I hurt for him, although I cannot claim to know the disappointment that he must be feeling. The only answer I have for his agony is the Cross. I know that is the right answer, and I trust it, but I cannot claim to understand that, either. By faith I rejoice in the Cross, but my sinful heart and mortal flesh do not like it; it seems to be nothing but foolishness and pain and finally defeat.

As it happened, I had lunch with Mark and Beth two summers ago, on the day they got the diagnosis of Beth's cancer. We were at the Synod's worship conference in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I had met each of them before, but I think it was my first opportunity to visit with the two of them together, as husband and wife. They both had a fiesty spirit and a witty sense of humor; I hope that Mark will not lose that. Sometimes we have to laugh in order to keep from crying, and that can be a way of denying the truth of sin and death. But when Mark and Beth would joke and laugh in the face of Beth's cancer and chemo, I think they were mostly confessing their faith and confidence in Christ. They have known their fraility and weakness, but they have also known and loved their dear Redeemer, and they have waited upon His Gospel for their real life.

During the time that Mark and Beth lived here in Indiana, not far from Bloomington where my DoRena goes to school, I enjoyed several opportunities to visit with them. God forgive me that I didn't find and make more such opportunities. It was a joy to speak the Gospel to them, and a humbling thing to observe the way in which they found delight in that simple Word of Christ.

People battle cancer all the time, but Christ has beaten it. Beth was a fiesty person in her life on earth, and she battled as valiantly as anyone I've ever known. From the temporal standpoint of the world, she has finally lost the fight. But she had already died years ago in the waters of her Baptism, and her real life has been hidden ever since with Christ in God. Her body suffered the curse and consequence of sin, but her mortal flesh was fed with the Body and Blood of the One who has conquered sin, defeated death, and trampled Satan under His feet. Death is always reaping its harvest, and foolishly building its bigger barns, but it is robbed of its prize. Nothing shall snatch the sheep of the Good Shepherd from out of His hand, nor ever be able to separate those whom He has called by His Gospel from the Light and Life and Love of God.

14 May 2007

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

That was the name of an old Iron Maiden song. I always found the title to be a whole lot more interesting and memorable than the song itself. I couldn't even tell you how it goes, actually, except to say that it would have involved lots of screaming guitars. Anyway, I ran cross country in high school, and that's probably why the title of the song struck such a chord with me. I haven't done any long distance running for many years now, but I thought of the phrase again yesterday, as I was travelling home from Minnesota.

As usual, I spent more time sitting and waiting in airports than flying. I don't mind too much. I don't mind flying, either, other than the fact that my dear wife gets anxious about it. Sitting and waiting in airports is not the most enjoyable part of it, but I do appreciate layovers that are long enough to enjoy a real meal. Coming home from Novosibirsk two years ago, I ended up spending my several hours in Frankfort waiting in a series of lines for security checks. At least I didn't have to figure out what to do with myself.

Return trips are always more tedious than travelling to wherever it is that I was going. Flying home from Novosibirsk is always a marathon, one extraordinarily long day (moving with the sun through a dozen different time zones), and I'm always so tired to begin with that it all becomes a surrealistic fog. It typically happens that I make it to Chicago (having already flown over South Bend on the way there), and then spend a few hours waiting for my thirty-minute final flight home. It's been more than once that I've sat like a zombie in a daze at Chicago, O'Hare, sagging and sighing in every molecule of my being, in body, mind and spirit.

Yesterday's trip was hardly to be compared with a thirty-hour journey from Siberia. I had a good night's sleep, and a fairly relaxed morning. There were others with earlier flights, with whom I was transported to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, so I was there in plenty of time to get my bearings. Treated myself to a liquid desert from Starbucks and an Entertainment magazine, and had a pleasant wait for my plane to board.

I only had an hour or so to wait at Chicago, O'Hare, shortly after lunchtime. Basically enough time to eat a proper meal. Tried to call home on my cell phone, but my thoughtful older children had called my wife to wish her a Happy Mothers' Day. That meant I had time to myself, to sit and think about life, the universe and everything. It was at that point that the title of that old Iron Maiden song came to mind. I didn't waste any time trying to remember the song, but did ponder the similarities to long distance travelling.

I've always been a bit of a people watcher. I like to observe the way that people interact with each other, and to envision the context and narrative that are their lives. As I child, I was fascinated by the fact that there are these whole "worlds" of existence, so to speak, that are lived by all these other people. Mind-boggling, and a bit overwhelming. I'm stunned and relieved that the Author and Giver of life has His eye on each and all of us. If sparrows don't fall out of the sky apart from His gracious providence, then it's sure and certain that the airplanes all us sons and daughters of Adam & Eve are strapped inside won't fall out from under His oversight.

It seems to me that travelling, both the flying and the waiting in airports, is like a microcosm of forty years in the wilderness. For me it is, anyway. Not just because of being in between where I'm coming from and where I'm going. There's that, too. But for me there is this more profound sort of loneliness that settles upon me, when I'm surrounded by hundreds and thousands of other people, and yet I don't know any of them, and I don't have any connection to any of them, and everyone is racing past in their own little parallel universes. It makes me more aware of my fraility and weakness, and how little I am in control of my life in this world. The Lord lets me hunger, and then He feeds me, and I am reminded that I do not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Would that I were more like the sparrows, and the young ravens which do cry, waiting in faith upon the One who opens His hand to satisfy the desire of every living thing.

Every homecoming is a little crossing of the Jordan into the promised land. But we are still strangers and aliens, pilgrims on a journey to a land we cannot see but by faith and hope in the sure and certain promises of God. We are fellow heirs with Christ, and our citizenship is in heaven, in that city whose builder is the Lord. I'm glad for the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, by which He leads me to His milk & honey.

13 May 2007

The Once and Future Dean

One of the pleasant perks of Ann & Andrew's wedding was the opportunity to work with Dr. Daniel Reuning, who served as the organist. He's not only a dear friend and colleague, but one of my own father's in Christ. I had him for more than one course at the seminary, including an introduction to the theology and practice of Lutheran worship. I wish I could have had more courses from him.

During my time at the seminary, Dr. Reuning was the on-again, off-again, on-again Dean of the Chapel. The "off-again" was due to synodical politics. But the "on-again" was every bit as instructive as any of my courses. It was especially in the seminary chapel that I learned to know and love the Lord's Liturgy of the Gospel, as well as the Church's morning and evening sacrifice of prayer, her Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs of faith. Where my life has gone since then is due in no small part to what I received and learned from Dean Reuning.

As a pastor, I have had the privilege of serving with Dr. Reuning on the Lectionary Commitee of the Lutheran Hymnal Project (from 1998 until 2006). He also did me the honor of having me come to preach and celebrate the Divine Service in the seminary chapel, usually three or four times a year, from 1997 until his retirement. That was always a humbling experience, but no less so, one of the greatest joys I have had in the Office of the Holy Ministry.

The chance to share the last few days with Dr. Reuning was a blessing and a privilege. It will be one of those precious memories I savor in the years to come, as I consider a father in Christ who is also a colleague and a friend.

It appears that another friend and colleague is to be the future Dean of the Chapel, and I am pleased for him. He will serve faithfully and well, of that I have no doubt. I hope that he will also continue to be my friend and colleague, too, as one can never have too many friends and colleagues, and I rather cherish those I do have. This friend, specifically, has been a tremendous help to me in many different ways over the past ten years. He has been patient with me, even when I have been impetuous; and he's always been kind and encouraging. He even taught me how to carry on cordial and constructive e-mail correspondence! For all of that, though he is a few years older than I am, he's not so much a father in Christ as he is a brother and a peer. I don't say that as a complaint. I'm just struck by the fact that the generation of my fathers is waning, and the men of my own generation are stepping up to assume the leadership of the Church on earth in our day.

The Mother of My Children

My wife and I will celebrate our twenty-second wedding anniversary next month (the 15th of June). That seems pretty amazing to me, and I am truly humbled by the way that God has blessed me with my dear bride. But today, in particular, I am thinking especially of the fact that she is also the mother of my children.

Our oldest child, our daughter DoRena, is twenty years old and a sophomore at Indiana University in Bloomington. Which means that my wife, LaRena, has been a Mommy now for over twenty years. She's done a wonderful job of it, although I know full well it isn't easy. She's made lots of sacrifices along the way, while I certainly haven't always been as helpful and supportive as I ought to be. When DoRena was born, LaRena went to part-time coursework in college, and ultimately was not able to finish her bachelor's degree. While I was going to the seminary, she basically worked two full-time jobs, giving up lots of Mommy time with DoRena and Zachary, and really wearing herself out to support our family. She's basically been on her own with our growing family in the pew each Sunday, since I've been serving up front for the past eighteen years, since I started my fieldwork as a seminary student back in 1989. Zach was less than a year old at that point, and we've had another seven children since then. One by one, LaRena has weathered the infant years and the terrible twos and managed to teach our children how to receive the gifts Christ freely gives in the Divine Service. She's also their full-time homeschool teacher, on top of caring for our home and our family in more other ways than I can count, and probably lots of ways I don't even realize or stop to think about.

LaRena takes her vocation to be a mother seriously, and I have no doubt that she is gifted for it. The older I get, the more I find myself living for the sake of my children. One must fear, love and trust in God above all things (even family), but in terms of the life that He has given me here on earth, there is nothing more precious to me than my children. So, also, among all the wonderful things I love and appreciate about my wife, there is nothing more marvelous than that she has borne and cared for and taught our children. I am daily amazed at what this requires of her, and of what it means for all of us. When our youngest, Gerhardt, had to be delivered by Caesarean, and LaRena's incision was infected, so that she had to spend the next four weeks in bed, I was reminded of how much I and our entire family depend upon her. I'm sorry that I still too often take that for granted. I don't know whether or not the Lord will bless us with any more children. We are one boy shy of Job's seven sons and three daughters, but God knows that I do not have Job's patience or faith! In any case, whatever the future may hold, I owe my wife a debt of gratitude that I could never pay in full.

The Lord has blessed the vocation of motherhood above all others, in that the very Son of God was conceived and born of the Woman, the Blessed Virgin Mary, in order to redeem and save us in our own flesh and blood. That immaculate conception and holy nativity have sanctified the significance of every other. The curse and consequence of sin are still upon childbearing; there is pain and anguish, sometimes sickness and death. But sin and death do not get to have the last word in the matter; that has been spoken in the flesh of the Christ-Child. We received a little plaque when DoRena was born, which declares that babies are God's way of saying that the world should go on. That may be on the precious side, but I've always liked that saying, and I agree. Bearing children in the hope of the redemption is a confession of faith in a life that is stronger than death. And I thank God for the faith and life that He has granted to the mother of my children.

Mr. & Mrs. Andrew & Ann Cashner

I'm back from Minnesota, having successfully fulfilled the duties of my office in performing the rites and ceremonies of holy matrimony for Ann (nee Miller) and Andrew Cashner. It was one of a small handful of my very favorite weddings, and I thoroughly enjoyed the entire weekend. I lost track of the number of times people thanked me for coming all the way to Minnesota for the occasion; but truth be told, it was a genuine treat for me, a privilege and a real pleasure all the way around.

If Ann and Andrew and their circle of friends are any indication, I am greatly encouraged about this next generation after my own. I'm afraid that I spend a lot of my time feeling pretty cynical and pessemistic, but the young adults I got to spend the last few days with were a delight to be around. They were courteous and respectful and pleasant, and really quite interesting to visit with. I'm actually a rather shy person; I am confident in my preaching and teaching, because it isn't my Word that I am given to speak, and it isn't about me; but when it comes to social gatherings, especially large crowds of people I don't really know, I would almost always rather blend into the wallpaper or disappear altogether. This weekend wedding was a whole different experience for me. I honestly enjoyed the chance to chat at some length with all these different people, and basically to hang out with the crowd. Ann and Andrew and their parents were so wonderfully kind and gracious; they took such good care of me while I was there, and I loved every minute.

It's only been over the course of this past year that I've gotten to know Ann and Andrew, but it would be hard not to love this pair! Their personalities are different, but they complement each other beautifully. I was struck from early on at how much they have in common; certainly, they share similar values and a common zeal for the Word of God. When they asked me to do their wedding, they were looking for more than "a man with a Bible who can tie a knot," as the song goes. They're serious about theology, and no less so about their Christian faith and life. I had the privilege, two months ago, of confirming them in the Lutheran Church. Most of their friends are not Lutheran (they span a variety of confessions), but so far as I could tell, at any rate, they are dedicated Christians and likewise serious about their faith. Not in the happy-clappy, what a friend we have in Jesus, sort of way, but intelligent, thoughtful, and conscientious. It was a helpful reminder to me, that there are members of the Bride of Christ, the baptized faithful, even outside the Lutheran communion.

I usually have to work pretty hard at names, at least until I get to know the people. I can remember the names and picture the faces of many of the people I met at Ann & Andrew's wedding. That says more about the sort of people they are than it does about my memory for names! Win & Nancy, Randy & Ann, Bobby, Matthew & Kirsten, Kora, Mandy, Amanda & John, Sara, Ryan, Sarah, Katherine, Devin, Jim, Jess, Peter. There were more, and I could tell you at least a little something about each of them. It makes me a little sad to think that I'll probably never get to visit with most of them again. But it is encouraging to consider that these young people are out there, all over the country, serving faithfully within their respective stations in life. If we are known by the friends we keep, then here is yet another indication of the fine people that Ann & Andrew are.