30 June 2007

Expect the Unexpected, and Thank God for Benadryl

Thinking-out-loud about parenting (as some of us have been), there's more to it than discipline and punishment, more than love and forgiveness. There are those times when you frantically cast about for whatever it is you can possibly do to help and protect, to heal and make better your children. Not only are they sinners to be dealt with by the Law and the Gospel; they also live in a fallen world full of other sinners (fathers and mothers included), surrounded on all sides, round about, by the curse and consequences of sin. Not only do they have the old Adam to contend with, but the devil hates them and despises the life that God has given them in both body and soul. Read what Dr. Luther has to say about the devil's rage and spite in the Large Catechism, especially in his discussion of the Our Father, and you'll be prompted to pray the more fervently and often; in particular because we pray, not only for ourselves and for the Church and the world in general, but also for our children. Too often, though, I presume that I am taking care of them myself, and then I do not make a point of praying for them as I should.

One of my very good friends was wearing a shirt today, which his wife and children gave him, identifying him as the "Best Dad in the World." We were affectionately teasing him about this, and then I made the comment that he is the best father his children have; at which point a particularly bright young man noted that, well, that isn't really the case. His children, and mine, have a far better Father in heaven. In His foolish wisdom and divine providence, He entrusts them to our care, to a certain extent, but He is never an absentee parent, and we never do go it alone. Remove His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy from the picture, and it's all over. It is good to be reminded of that fact, not only for the sake of calling us human fathers to repentance and humility under God, but especially for the sake or renewing our faith and trust in Him, who is our own dear Father, and we His own dear children, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I've recently had some lessons in this fact, as I've dealt with Zachary's move to Nebraska for the summer, and as I have considered his coming transition to college in Texas this fall. Have I really come to imagine that, for all this time, I'm the one who's been guarding and keeping my son from harm and danger? And should I suppose that his Father in heaven and the holy guardian angels will be less equipped to care for Zach and protect him when he is many miles removed from me? It has been humbling for me to realize that my fear, love and trust have not been in the Lord, the one true God, in this regard. Not only have I been prone to make an idol of my sons and daughters, but I have made a false god of myself, as though I were the author and giver of life to my children. I've been brought to repentance for much the same sort of sin on other occasions, too, such as when Monica had her surgery, or when Ariksander wandered off and went missing. At times like that, I am brought to my knees in prayer. Kyrie Eleison! Christe Eleison! Kyrie Eleison! Lord, have mercy and help me! Really, that needs to be my prayer every day and night.

Today I saw it from another perspective, from the outside looking in, so to speak. "Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, sent the postcard," in the case of my own children, time and time again. But this morning it was the little child of some very dear friends, a little boy I had the privilege of baptizing within this past year. The children of my congregation are precious to me as a pastor, especially as I get to catechize them and watch them grow in the faith over time; and the children of close friends can very often seem like extensions of my own family. So, when good or bad things happen to these "little people" who are so near and dear to my heart, I feel it almost as much as I do with my own children. Almost. But there is enough difference to give a greater sense of objectivity, and to maintain a more level perspective.

Certainly didn't expect the day to begin in the way that it did. There were plans in place for our friends, involving some of our children, too, but all of that ended up being delayed to begin with. One of their boys had a sleepover with Ariksander last night, and I was getting into the car to take him home when LaRena stuck her head out the door of the house to say that I needed to hurry; there was an emergency, and the paramedics were on the way. Okay. What's up with that? Sure enough, the paramedics were on hand when I got there. Turns out that little Stefan had a severe allergic reaction to something, and swelled up alarmingly, to an extent that threatened to choke and suffocate him to death. This is a terrifying thing to experience, and as much or more so for a parent to experience in the case of a little child. What do you do?

Our dear Lord Jesus admonishes us not to fear those who can hurt the body but not the soul. We are to fear, love and trust the one true God, who truly is the Author and Giver of life, who both chastens and heals, who kills and makes alive, who destroys and raises up, who humbles and exalts. Yet, the reality is that we do fear for the safety and welfare of our children, and there is hardly any fear that grips a parent's heart like that which surely does when his or her children are threatened or in mortal peril. My heart went out to my friends as they desperately sought whatever they could possibly do to be of help and assistance to their little boy. And I also wanted to do something, anything, to serve and assist both them and him. We all did what little we could, such as it was, but it was Stefan's Father in heaven who cared for his body and spared his young life, even here on earth.

Christians see everything through the eyes of faith, and faith sees the hand of the Lord at work behind His earthly means, His face behind the many and various masks He wears. Thank God for Benadryl, that amazing and marvelous antihistamine, with which He set about relieving Stefan of the harm that had beset him. Thank God for paramedics, through whom He set His healing hand upon the little boy and cared for him. The devil rejoices in malady, and causes it wherever he is permitted his little bit of leash. What is more, Satan then delights, in a case such as this, to attack and accuse the poor, distraught parents, roaring at them with guilt and fault and blame and despair. But the Lord is merciful. Even before we have prayed, He answers. He yanks the devil's chain and shuts the lion's mouth, and He does not suffer His children, big or small, to be overcome with distress. He has His means of grace to cure the soul, and He has His earthly ways and means to heal the body, as well. He was there with those means when Stefan and his family needed them this morning. He gives them all to us by grace, Christ be praised!

We parents are the masks that God normally wears, most of the time, to care for our children. So we can be tempted to suppose that we are the ones who are in charge of them, caring and providing for them. We do what we are given to do, as best we can, but it is only by the grace of God. Truly, our children are ever and always in the care and keeping of the One who loves them even more than we do, who is better able to protect them from all harm and danger than we ever could (or could even imagine). He is the One who has given them life, and who has given His life for them. They could not be in better hands than His.

Dear little Stefan is blessed to have the parents that he does, a father and mother who both clearly love him with all that they are and have, and would lay down their own lives for his in a heartbeat. I felt for them this morning, when there was so little they could do. But in their crisis, in their watching and waiting upon the Lord, I was also called to repentance for my misplaced fear, love and trust, and I was taught once more how to pray (both with them and for them, and for myself, and for us all): "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name; Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen! Amen!"

Not to Destroy, But to Save

The Son of Man has come not to destroy you, but to save you. By the "ascension" of His Cross, He has borne your sin and atoned for it. He has redeemed you from sin, from death and the devil. He has reconciled you to God the Father in heaven. And He has opened up heaven to you in His Resurrection, which is your resurrection, also, by grace through faith in Him.

All of this is given to you and becomes yours, as the Lord Jesus sends His messengers to you "to make arrangements for Him." They preach His Word and work His works in His Name. They proclaim the Gospel of peace and life and salvation, which are yours through the forgiveness of all your sins.

By this preaching and Ministry of the Gospel, Christ Jesus comes to you and gives Himself to you (with all His benefits). So is the Kingdom of God among you, and so are you called to follow Jesus, by faith, to live with Him in His Kingdom (in His righteousness, innocence and blessedness forever). This indeed you do, as you give attention to His Word and the preaching of it. For thus are you returned to the grace and waters of your Holy Baptism, by the Law and the Gospel, through contrition, repentance, confession and forgiveness. And being led from the font to the altar, from the Word to the Word-made-Flesh, you receive the life-giving Body and Blood of your dear Savior, the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Praise God for His grace and mercy toward you, for His Word and Holy Spirit, which have made you a disciple of Jesus and continue to keep you steadfast in this faith and life.

But given all of that, why is it that you so often (daily!) fail to follow Jesus?

You refuse to receive Him according to His Word, that is, in His means of grace, because you would have Him only on your own terms, or not at all. You refuse to receive Him as the crucified God and as the blessed Savior that He is, because you insist upon a god and a savior of your own making and image.

Or, you refuse His grace and mercy and the peace of His forgiveness unto others. Supposing yourself to live by a merit and righteousness of your own choices and decisions, of your own works and efforts, you insist upon such a righteousness of works in others and seek to impose it upon them. In short, you demand that life be lived according to the Law, apart from and instead of the Gospel. You seek retaliation and revenge against your neighbor, instead of repentance and reconciliation with him.

All of this (and more) belongs to your refusal to let go and leave behind the things of the flesh, the things of this world. You keep looking back over your shoulder at what you are afraid to leave behind (like Lot’s wife!), instead of eyes forward to follow after Christ Jesus. Instead of letting go your idols and the false gods of your sinful flesh, you let go of and turn away from the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Of yourself, therefore, you are not worthy of God’s Kingdom, which is founded upon and centered in the Cross of Christ the Crucified.

Repent of your idolatrous unbelief, of your selfishness, self-centeredness and self-righteousness. Leave the dead to bury the dead. Put your hand, instead, upon the plow to which the Lord has called you (no matter how onerous it may be), and do not look back any longer. But wherever you are, wherever you go, confess and proclaim the good things of God in Christ (good things both for you and for your neighbor).

Plow the field God has given you in the confidence that Christ has not come to destroy you — His Cross is not laid upon you to destroy you — but to save you. His messengers are sent before His face, not to call down fire and brimstone upon you, but to bring the Kingdom of God to you. They speak and bestow His peace upon you, by speaking His forgiveness of all your sins.

You are not worthy of the Kingdom, that is true. But the Lord bestows His worthiness upon you — that is the righteousness of Christ, your Savior — by His fatherly, divine grace and mercy, in His Love. Even when He speaks and applies His Law to you, He does so in love, in order to recall you from your sin and death back to Himself and His Life. He does all things for you for the sake of His Gospel, for the sake of forgiving your sins and giving you life.

See what love the Father has for you, that He has given His only Son to die for you. And see what love the Son of God has for you, that He has willingly borne your sin, the Cross and death, for you, so that you inherit His Kingdom as a beloved son of God in Him.

Dear friend in Christ, there is no other treasure in heaven or on earth to compare with this dear Savior, Jesus Christ, who loves you and has freely given Himself for you, who graciously gives Himself to you. Receive Him in this blessed faith and confidence, that no greater love exists than His Love for you: the Love of God in Christ, which is for you. Nothing shall ever be able to separate you from that Love, nor from Him who loves you. No matter how much you may waver and falter, fail and fall, He remains faithful, steadfast, sure and certain, for you. And He has not come to destroy you, but to save you.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

29 June 2007

The Wise Man Built His House Upon the Rock

The almighty and eternal Son of the living God has come down from heaven, in the flesh, to give His Life a ransom for many. He has entered our pagan territory of sin and death, in order to slay and defeat our ancient enemy, that old dragon, the devil or Satan (the accuser). By His death, He has atoned for the sins of the world, reconciled us (all) to God the Father, and thus destroyed death, the sting of death and the power of the devil (which are sin and guilt and accusation). He has plundered the grave and Hades of their dead, and in His Resurrection has opened the gates of heaven to all who believe and are baptized into Him, our dear Lord Jesus Christ.

It is by this precious Gospel, this forgiveness of sins, this life and salvation of His Cross & Resurrection, that Christ establishes, builds, and protects His Church (on earth as it is in the Kingdom of Heaven). Whoever lives and abides within His Church on earth is safe and secure from sin, death, the devil and hell, and shall live and abide forever with Christ in heaven. For He is the Wise Man who has built His House upon the Rock: the winds rage, the rains downpour, the floods rise and pummel that House, but it shall not fall.

Why, then, shall you stand outside and drown and die?

The problem that confronts you, your old Adam and the sinful world in which you live, is that the Wise Man appears to be, not wise, but foolish — and the Rock foundation of His Christian Church appears to be, not solid and secure, but shifting sand.

The Lord Jesus Christ appears to be no more than a man — a great Prophet, perhaps, a good and righteous man, and a powerful preacher, but surely not the Son of God (no one can see that by flesh and blood). And when He is crucified, dead and buried, executed as a criminal, hung upon a cursed tree in naked shame and humiliation, and laid to rest within a borrowed tomb, where is the victory in that? Where is the power and might of His great glory? Where is the promise of His coming? Where do you ever see or feel or experience His Resurrection and His Life?

He says the gates of Hades shall not overpower His Church, but what of the fact that you and your loved ones, your family and friends and fellow Christians, are subject to death and finally buried in the ground? Where is your hope, your life and your salvation? Where is the living God who can and will help you?

The Church appears to be a pitiful fortress indeed, little more than a fisherman’s shack upon the seashore. Its so-called "Rock" foundation is but the Ministry of the Gospel, the preaching of repentance, the spoken word of Absolution, the washing of water with the Word, the administration of bread and wine in the Name and stead of Christ Jesus (the Crucified One!).

And what sort of men are called and sent to preach and administer this Gospel? Sinners, the lot of them! Men like Simon Peter and Paul of Tarsus — a wavering denier of Christ, and a former diehard Pharisee, a persecutor of Jesus. Pastors to this day are quarried from the same rockpile — sinners in need of forgiveness for their own sins — mortals subject to death and the grave, like you — finite, flawed and frail creatures of flesh and blood.

And what keys do they bring? With what do they come to set you free from the death-grip of sin and to open the gates of heaven to you? By what power and authority are they supposed to keep you safe? Nothing but the Gospel, the Word of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the means of grace. Pitiful and pathetic, it would seem, and impotent in the face of all your needs.

You shall not perceive or believe otherwise, not by your own reason and strength.

You cannot recognize the Lord Jesus Christ for who He is, nor come to Him, nor love and trust in Him, unless the Father reveal Him to you, and give Him to you, and lay Him upon your heart by His Word and Holy Spirit. Yet, all of this, the Father surely does, in grace and mercy and love, by that very Cross of Christ and the preaching of His Gospel, which appear to all the world to be so foolish and miserable and weak.

You cannot open your eyes wide enough to see it, but He opens your eyes in faith by the Light of His Word (by His Gospel of the forgiveness of all your sins). You cannot open your heart or your head to accept it, but He opens your ears to hear, your mind to understand, your heart to believe, and your lips to confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, who has become your Savior, your strength and your song.

The Word that His servants speak in His Name, is His Word. The Sacraments they administer are His works of life and salvation for you. Their forgiveness of your sins is His forgiveness, as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ your dear Lord dealt with you Himself (for so He does in this way).

And this forgiveness of sins, this free and full forgiveness of all your sins, though it seem a still small voice against the rage and roaring of the devil, is a most solid foundation of an impenetrable mighty fortress.

Where sin is forgiven, the devil cannot accuse you, and God’s own Law does not condemn you anymore forever. Where sin is forgiven, death no longer has any claim on you, and must relinquish you (body and soul) unto Christ, your Redeemer, who has purchased you with His own blood. Where sin is forgiven — and your sin is forgiven — there is only life and salvation, come hell or high water against you (it cannot touch you; it shall not reach you). You shall not die, but live; the gates of hell shall not prevail against you (within the Church of Christ); the Word of Christ abides and stands fast forever. His death has been the death of death and hell’s destruction; His Resurrection is your resurrection, and His life everlasting is yours.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

28 June 2007

Parenting with Both Hands and Both Keys

To clarify up front, I'm not writing this to advocate for or against spanking. I know there are divergent opinions on that means of discipline. I believe there is a place for spanking and other kinds of corporal punishment, but I am also convinced that a wide variety of factors are involved in determining the best and most appropriate sort of discipline in any given situation. Families have different personalities, as do individual parents and children, and different people respond differently to various ways of dealing with circumstances. At least in my experience, boys generally require a different approach than girls; which shouldn't be much of a revelation to anyone who may have noticed that men and women also tend to communicate in rather different ways. In any case, we sin not only in our thoughts and with our words, but also in and with our bodies; so there also needs to be an exercise of bodily discipline. But I'm not writing this to make any particular case for how such things ought to be handled.

I do not presume to be any expert in parenting. I have had twenty years of experience as a father, including multiple opportunities to deal with all of the ages and stages of childhood, but most of what I've learned has been by trial and error. My wife has done the vast majority of hands-on parenting along the way, although I've certainly taken an active interest in that work. I try to be consistent and fair, objective and just, firm but understanding, patient and merciful, as our Father in heaven is merciful. That is what I want, and what I aim for, and yet I still find that I get impatient and lose my temper. Especially if I'm feeling stressed out or anxious about other things, or weary and exhausted, I too quickly raise my voice, speak too harshly, and yell at my children when a calm and quiet voice would be more effective. I do believe there is a time and place for spanking, but sometimes I resort to that approach too readily, instead of taking the time to train my children in a better way. Aware of these weaknesses in myself, and concerned to be the best parent I can be, out of love for my children, I think a lot about how best to discipline them. I'm writing this to think out loud about that a bit.

There are vocational hazards to being a pastor, such as the fact that I am inclined to analyze everything theologically. Actually, that's not a bad thing in itself, but I do tend to overanalyze things and second guess myself. There are plenty of times when it would be better just to do whatever it is that needs to be done without thinking too much about it. Well in this case of parental discipline, I've had some confusion in my mind and questions that I've wrestled with since the very beginning. I remember comments that were made in some of my psychology classes at Concordia, Seward, that really perplexed me and never did make sense to me, neither in theory nor in practice. To say it simply, the question has been one of how to divide the Law and the Gospel without compromise or confusion in the discipline of children. This question was brought to the forefront of my mind at the CCA a couple years ago, when we dealt with the Fourth Commandment, and I think my own confusion has been exacerbated since then. Perhaps it is not an issue with anyone else, but it has been a nagging concern for me.

I don't know, this may even sound amusing to others, but I honestly find myself tied up in knots over how to apply both Law and Gospel in disciplining my children. How do I avoid a confusion of the Law and the Gospel, practically and concretely, when I am given both to punish and to forgive my children? How do I ensure that the Gospel has the last word and predominates, while at the same time administering consequences for behavior that must be corrected? These are the questions I have found myself asking and trying to answer in my mind, time after time, as I have gone about the task of parenting and disciplining my children.

These broad concerns have come up, indirectly and in general, in our Monday evening Bible class over the past couple of weeks. We're studying the Smalcald Articles, and we've been looking at Luther's discussion of Sin, the Law, and Repentance. A good question was asked about how these things pertain and play themselves out in the context of a family. Specifically, how should confession and absolution take place between spouses, parents and children? In the process of responding to such questions, and in subsequent conversations with Pastor Grobien, I've recently had one of those wonderful "light bulb" experiences that help to clarify things.

I remember Dr. Preus once saying, in the only class I was able to take from him (Justification!), that when his wife would apologize for something or other that occurred in their life together, he would not respond with a word of absolution, "I forgive you," but would wave it off with a simple "that's alright." I was intrigued by that comment, and I'm sorry that I never had the opportunity to engage him in conversation about it. Surely there are circumstances in which a specific word of forgiveness is called for. I believe that would happen naturally and appropriately within families (and among friends), if Christians were making regular use of Individual Confession and Absolution with their pastors. Nevertheless, I am also convinced that Dr. Preus was making a very good point about the day-to-day life that Christians live with one another in this world. If every sin were confessed and absolved in a deliberate and formal sort of way, it would all become terribly complicated, cumbersome and contrived, and we'd never get on with living in our vocations and stations in life. It would become another version of the enforced enumeration of sins that the papacy required and the Lutherans rejected at the time of the Reformation. Similarly, it would bring disproporionate attention to the outward infractions that we commit against our neighbor, and thereby distract us from the weightier sins of the heart, our covetous lust and idolatry. As a general rule for family life, I think that Dr. Preus was exactly right. Love simply covers a multitude of sins, and we live together in faith.

Dr. Luther, in his preaching on the Fifth Petition, makes the marvelous point that we are all so deeply indebted to one another, and all the moreso indebted to God for our trespasses against Him, that we should all be badly off without the recourse of this prayer. In praying for the forgiveness of our trespasses, and pledging the forgiveness of our neighbor for his trespasses, the Lord has enabled us to draw a line through the entire ledger, and all the debts are cancelled. That doesn't mean there aren't occasions for apologies and reconciliation, for confession and absolution (both between brothers and with the pastor). But our daily life is not burdened and bogged down with a neverending stream of transactions, as though we were in constant need of negotiating sins and the forgiveness of sins. Rather, we live in the Atonement of the Cross, in the free and full forgiveness of Christ Jesus, in the global Absolution of His Resurrection, clothed (and clothing our neighbor) in His righteousness, innocence and blessedness. The status quo, if you will, is not the measure of our behavior (be it good or bad), but the grace of God in Christ.

This state of grace, it now seems to me, is the key to the predominance of the Gospel in parenting and discipline. That is to say, the entire family lives each day, each week, each month, year after year, in the context of grace and the forgiveness of the Gospel. Not so much in the sense that everyone is kind and polite, considerate and nice to one another; though it is surely true that gentleness and respect should characterize a Christian home (and the fact that it often does not is a call to daily contrition and repentance). What I have in mind, quite concretely, is that parents faithfully take themselves and their children to Church: to hear and receive the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, in Word and Sacrament. And that parents, in the home, living from the weekly Divine Service and back again, daily catechize themselves and their children in the Word of God and prayer; that parents read the Scriptures to their children, and review the Catechism with them, and pray with them, and sing Psalms and hymns with them. In short, that the family be making regular use of the means of grace, and finding their spiritual life and health and strength in the Gospel precisely there. This then serves as the foundation and the norm for the rest of life. The Gospel then predominates, even in the midst of discipline, because it is the overriding context in which everything else happens.

In the past, at least for the last few years, I have tended to think about parental discipline in terms of the Office of the Keys. Maybe that is another vocational hazard to being a pastor, because this is certainly the framework in which I think about the pastoral care of my members (among whom are my own children). I'm not so sure, at this point, whether or to what extent fathers (and mothers) are to exercise the "office of the keys" per se. Certainly, they are to call their children to repentance by means of the Law and the Gospel, and they are to speak and bestow the forgiveness of sins upon their children. But I'm not clear on how or when a father would ever use the binding key with his child (to retain sins). In any case, it is no prerogative of parents to excommunicate their children or exclude them from the Christian congregation.

Such questions aside, I think I have been mistaken to suppose that every occasion of discipline or punishment requires a specifically corresponding word of forgiveness. This is where I have gotten myself so tied up in knots. Do I speak forgiveness right away, and then administer punishment? Do I withhold forgiveness until an apology is given? Or do I wait until after there has been some consequence suffered, and then forgive my child? Trying to think through these things in terms of the Office of the Keys and Confession, it always seemed muddled to me. We don't believe, teach or confess that absolution (or forgiveness) is contingent upon any penance; yet the Office of the Keys is the authority to forgive the sins of those who repent and want to do better. Where sins have been forgiven, there is no longer any condemnation. There are no contingencies or strings attached to the Gospel. But as a father, I must discipline and train my children to live responsibly and obediently, to respect authority, to do no harm to their neighbor; not for the sake of forgiveness or salvation, but for the sake of their life in this world.

Here is where the two "hands" come in, the left and the right. This is terminology that Lutherans have used for the two "kingdoms," that of the temporal governing authorities on the "left hand," and that of the Church (the Kingdom of Christ and His Gospel) on the "right hand." Parents are given a responsibility and a coinciding authority on both hands. They are responsible for the catechesis of their children in the Word of God, in faith and prayer, but they are also responsible for the temporal care and training of their children for life in this world. There is a kind of discipline on either hand, but it seems to me that parental discipline is chiefly carried out with the left hand, that is to say, for life in this world as good neighbors and citizens. It is not primarily aimed at spiritual correction and improvement, but has for its goal the safety and well-being of bodily life and property, as well as the ongoing formation of self-discipline and personal responsibility, which become more and more necessary as children grow into adulthood, if they are to provide for and serve their own future families and communities. All of this is fine and good, an aspect of God's ongoing providence of His creation and among His gifts of daily bread. But it isn't the Office of the Keys, and it doesn't require that every admonishment, correction and rebuke be coupled with an explicit word of forgiveness.

If you blow it at work and bear the consequences of some error or infraction, you don't expect your boss to absolve you of your transgression or allow the problem to go uncorrected. Or, if you get pulled over for speeding, you don't suggest to the officer that you are heartily sorry for your sin and repent of it, supposing that he will forgive you and tear up the ticket. In neither case do you conclude that you remain in your sin and have no recourse. You go to the pastor and to the means of grace for the forgiveness of your sins, even as you pray for such forgiveness daily in the Our Father. You know and trust that, for Jesus' sake, your sins are forgiven and taken away, as far as the east is from the west. You still have things to take care of at work, and you still have your traffic fine to pay, but you understand that these do not touch upon your life and salvation in Christ (except that you go about them in faith and love as a Christian).

Likewise, when a Christian parent disciplines a child in the context of a Christian home, the child knows and trusts the Gospel, and will continue to hear and receive the Gospel (both in the home and at Church), without supposing that he or she will escape the consequences and punishment of sinful behavior. Of course, the Law does its work of accusing and crushing the old Adam, whether it be applied on the left hand or the right. That is the Lord's prerogative, and it is always aimed at repentance, unto faith in the forgiveness of sins. The Law best serves that purpose, however, not when it is tempered or compromised, qualified or softened, but when it executes its judgment and administers its sentence with firm, objective fairness.

Well, those are my rambling thoughts on the matter for now. Perhaps I will think of a dozen more things I should say, and would like to say, as soon as I publish this post. But I suspect that my thinking (and thinking out loud) about parenting and discipline will be an ongoing, lifelong enterprise. Parenting is more of an art than a science, and I need to keep practicing the art. It is ultimately my Father in heaven who catechizes me to be a good father to the children He has entrusted to my care and discipline. I give Him thanks and praise, therefore, for what seems to be a greater understanding and clarity of thinking at this particular juncture in my life.

27 June 2007

St. Cyril of Alexandria

Today (27 June) is the commemoration of St. Cyril, the great fifth-century bishop of Alexandria who defended the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ and the unity of His Person. He’s one of my favorite early church fathers. I relished the chance to chat about him on "Issues, etc." this afternoon, and then to remember him with thanksgiving at Evening Prayer.

One of my most treasured possessions is a chasuble that was custom-ordered for me and given to me as a gift by some very dear friends, I think it was seven years ago, featuring St. Cyril in iconographic form on both the front and the back. St. Cyril was a most excellent choice, not only because he is such a favorite father of mine, but because his office and vocation as a faithful pastor and teacher of the Church, and his ardent defense and confession of orthodox Christology, make that chasuble an ideal vestment for many of the "white" festival days. I always wear it for the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord, when we celebrate the manifestation of God in the flesh of Christ, in whom all the fullness of the Deity dwells bodily. I wore it again this past Sunday for the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, as I do each year for the Feast of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, because those men also were called and ordained to preach and administer Christ in His Gospel-Word and Sacraments.

St. Cyril was first and foremost a biblical theologian. Most of the writings that we have from him are commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, including a magisterial work on the Gospel According to St. John. It was from those Holy Scriptures that he learned to know Christ Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, our Savior. Along with that, he learned from the teaching and example of the earlier church fathers, especially his predecessor, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, to confess the Person and work of Christ as the heart and center of the entire Christian faith, as the foundation of the Church. For such fathers, among whom St. Cyril is now prominently numbered, Christological debates were not esoteric arguments or trivial pursuits, but an essential contending for the faith once delivered to the saints. Theological battles are not immune to the contentiousness of sinful old Adam, yet they are necessary to the health and vitality of the Church. Not simply for the sake of getting things right (thought that is not a bad thing), but for the sake of the Gospel. Right doctrine is not an obstacle to evangelism; it is that which is necessarily believed, taught and confessed for the life and salvation of the world.

Probably St. Cyril’s most significant contribution to the life of the Church was his opposition to the heretic, Nestorius, when that false teacher had been made the Patriarch of Constantinople. Where Nestorius divided the two natures in Christ to such an extent that he advocated a distinction between the Son of God and the man, Jesus, as though there were two sons and two persons, St. Cyril rightly insisted that there is but one Person, one and the same Lord Jesus Christ, who is true God from all eternity, begotten of the Father, and also true Man, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nestorius insisted that St. Mary could not properly be called "the Mother of God," but only "the Mother of Christ," and in so doing he attacked the most fundamental article of Christian doctrine. Lutherans speak of the doctrine of justification as the article upon which the Church stands or falls, and that is well said; but justification depends upon the Person and work of Christ, upon who He is and what He does. If He is not true God, who is conceived and born of St. Mary, then we have no real Savior, we are not justified, and we remain in our sin, under the Law, condemned to death and damnation.

If Jesus Christ were a separate man, a person distinct from (but somehow conjoined to) the Son of God, then such a man would be no more than a good example of a righteousness of works. Yet, that is not the Gospel or the Christian faith. The Lord Jesus Christ is God, who has become our Savior. He is very God of very God, who is truly conceived and born of St. Mary, so that she is rightly called and truly is "the Mother of God." So also, He is very God of very God, who suffers under Pontius Pilate, is crucified, dead and buried. It is God Himself who dies for us, who redeems us with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. No creature in heaven or on earth could do this for us, but only Christ, who is both God and Man. It is this same incarnate God, crucified and risen, who also feeds us with Himself, which is to say, with the life-giving Body and Blood of God, whereby He cleanses and forgives us of all sin. It is this sweet Gospel that St. Cyril defended and confessed against the dangerous false teaching of Nestorius.

One often reads that St. Cyril was politically motivated, that he was more concerned about power and position than theology, and that he was heavy handed and mean spirited in his dealings with opponents. I don’t know to what extent these accusations may be true; I tend to read them with cautious skepticism, especially because many of the people who describe St. Cyril in these ways appear to have sympathies for Nestorius. Maybe I should be glad that I didn’t have to deal with St. Cyril and his personality, but in the end it doesn’t matter. Whatever his motivations, he spoke the truth with clarity, and he confessed the Lord Jesus Christ in a way that made a difference then and continues to serve the Church to this day.

One of my closest friends and colleagues once commented that, sure, some of our "confessional/conservative" brethren can be difficult to get along with. Truth be told, a few of them are real jerks (to say it politely). Nevertheless, these men are generally correct in what they have to say, both in their critique of what is wrong, and in their confession of the orthodox faith. Even more to the point, in their preaching and teaching, and even in their sometimes abrasive conversation, they speak Jesus to us. Thus, not only for the sake of Christian love, but especially for Jesus' sake, I bear with my contentious brothers. More than that, I thank God for such men. Warts and all, they may very well be the faithful pastors and teachers whom the Lord has raised up to guard and protect His flock against modern-day Nestorians, who would blaspheme the Name of Christ among us (from this preserve us, heavenly Father!). If I'm going to be facing an army of Persians, I'd just as soon be in the company of Spartans than gentlemen.

So, I'm giving thanks to God today for His servant, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and praying that He would enable me to be likewise so forthright, so clear and consistent, and so doggedly persisent in confessing Christ Jesus, my Savior and my God. It seems most appropriate, as well, to sing with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven; therefore, "O higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim, lead their praises: 'Alleluia!' Thou bearer of the eternal Word, most gracious, magnify the Lord: 'Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!'"

25 June 2007

Harry the Horcrux (unauthorized predictions)

I’ve been intending for a long time now to put some of my thoughts and predictions concerning Harry Potter into writing, and with The Deathly Hallows coming out in less than a month, I better do it. Predictions lose their significance if they are made after the fact. I’m told that a number of folks at the CCA this past week were in the process of re-reading the books in anticipation of the upcoming release, and I know that is also the case among my young friends at Emmaus.

Last summer, I had the great fun of presenting a sectional on the theological significance of Harry Potter at the Higher Things conference. The idea for that topic came from my reading of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, book six in the series; which goes to show how long it took me to realize that J.K. Rowling has a whole lot more going on than just a good yarn. She hasn’t always been given the credit she deserves as an author, though I suspect that the massive success of her books worldwide has been some consolation for that. She is intelligent, well educated and highly literate, and she knows her craft well. No, not witchcraft, but the craft of writing. In the case of Harry Potter, she has emulated some of her literary heroes, such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, in crafting a story that works at several different levels.

The story of Harry Potter is ultimately a christological story. I don’t think that is saying it too strongly. To put it in Lutheran theological terms, it is a story of the significance of Holy Baptism, a journey of repentance and faith, through death into newness of life. In book after book, Harry is catechized by his spiritual fathers into the image of his father, James; and in the fictional literary universe that J.K. Rowling has created, this is an image like unto that of Christ our Lord, an image of self-sacrificing love. The story of Harry Potter is not a morality tale, but a tale of faith and love, and of hope in the face of death.

Rowling is a Christian, and while she has evidently suffered some disillusionment with the institutional church, it is to her Christian faith in Christ, crucified and risen, that she has turned for comfort and understanding in her own life. That’s how I take it, anyway. I’m not suggesting that she is an orthodox theologian, nor even a "theologian" in the usual sense; and I don’t recommend that anyone read the Harry Potter books as a course in systematics. I read the first five books, and most of book six, and thoroughly enjoyed them, without recognizing any Christian subtext. In retrospect, I’m not sure how I missed it, but I just didn’t think of it, and I certainly wasn’t looking for it. Read the books for fun, or choose not to read them at all, and that’s okay. But for myself, my enjoyment and appreciation of the books, and my understanding of them, have all increased with a recognition of their christological story.

When I was interviewed about Harry Potter on "Issues, etc." last year, following my presentation at the Higher Things conference, I was eager for a chance to talk about the christological symbolism and allusions that permeate the books. Although I enjoyed the interview, the folks who called in to the program were mostly interested in the question of whether it’s okay for Christians to read these books at all. Actually, some of the callers had no question about it; they only called to tell me that I was doing the work of the devil in speaking positively about Harry Potter. I don’t share that opinion, obviously. The elements of magic in the books are simply a literary device within a fictional universe created by the author, and that’s all I’m going to say about it here.

I’m not going to go into detail concerning the pervasive christological symbols in Harry Potter, either, because there are frankly far too many of them, and John Granger has already done a marvelous job of discussing this in his wonderful little book, Looking for God in Harry Potter. I discovered that gem and devoured it toward the tail end of my preparations for last summer’s conference sectional, and I was delighted to find it affirming many of the things that I had found on my own, as well as helping to clarify and substantiate those points and bringing others to light. If you’re at all interested in this topic, I highly recommend Granger’s book. He has another book coming out, also, which I will look forward to reading as soon as I have the opportunity to do so. I’ll probably wait until after reading Deathly Hallows, just because the real thing is always better than books (or blog posts!) about the real thing.

What I do want to offer here is simply my "big picture" assessment of the Harry Potter series, and how I believe it will be resolved in the end. If I’m wrong, everyone can enjoy pointing that out to me, and my faith won’t be shattered as a result. If I’m right, my faith won’t be any stronger for it, and I’ll probably need to repent on account of my prideful ego, but I’ll bask in the satisfaction of having understood Rowling’s masterful work. That is, I think, part of the fun in reading a series like this.

So here is how I see it. The point to the story is the triumph of self-sacrificing love over a self-serving lust for power. In particular, self-sacrificing love is stronger than death, and it lives beyond death; whereas the selfish attempt to preserve one’s own life in this world (at the expense of others) results in a soulless existence that is far worse than death. Voldemort, for all his bravado and tyranny, lusts for power because he fears death above all, and he is frantic in his efforts to avoid it. He cannot imagine anything worse than death, although his existence is hardly any sort of life at all. He knows no real life, because he knows no real love. He has spurned the loving kindness that was shown toward him, and he has had no love for others, no mercy and no kindness. So he is driven by fear of death, because he has no care or concern for anything other than himself. He craves only his own self-preservation, and this very craving devours him, even as he deliberately rends his own soul through acts of pure evil.

Harry is being catechized by his parents and friends, and by his various "spiritual" fathers, so to speak, to learn the self-sacrificing love that will finally triumph over Voldemort. This victory will not come by way of a power struggle, as though Harry’s love would make him strong enough to kill Voldemort. Rather, Harry will defeat Voldemort in much the way that Christ has trampled the serpent’s head and defeated Satan, that is, by laying down his own life and allowing himself to be killed. The real crisis, at the end of The Half-Blood Prince, is that Harry is being driven by his anger and a hot-burning desire for revenge, instead of being led by the sort of love that others have been showing him since the very beginning. He has yet to understand what really happened with Dumbledore and Malfoy and Snape in the tower. The key is in the fact that what mattered there was Dumbledore’s mercy toward Malfoy. Snape, for his part, was neither a traitor nor cowardly, but courageous in carrying out Dumbledore’s orders. The headmaster laid down his own life, in order to spare Malfoy from rending his soul through an act of murder. In doing so, he has given Harry one more lesson in the way of love instead of hate.

All along, others have been risking themselves for Harry, and sacrificing their lives for Harry. It was his mother’s self-sacrificing love that protected Harry from Voldemort in the first place. Now that protection has been circumvented, but the principle involved is still at work. Dumbledore has understood this, and has trusted this, while Voldemort can only think in terms of power and personal advantage. Harry has known love, and he also loves others fiercely, and this will be his strength and his victory. His hatred for Voldemort (and Snape), which is already threatening to take over and undo him, will reach a fevered pitch with Hagrid’s death, but it will be overcome by his love for Ron and Hermione and Ginny. For the sake of that love, Harry will allow Voldemort to kill him, and in that self-sacrifice Voldemort will find himself defeated.

I agree with others who have suggested that Harry is the final horcrux, in which a portion of Voldemort’s soul has been sealed. From infancy, Harry has borne this curse of death in his own body, and he will finally bring an end to it by laying down his body in death. That’ll be Voldemort’s undoing, the death of death and hell’s destruction. The victory will belong to self-sacrificing love.

I’ve resisted the temptation to imagine for myself the details of how all of this will transpire. J.K. Rowling has far more creative talent for such things than I do. But I am predicting that these are the broad strokes that will bring the story to its climax. Harry’s death will bring an end to Voldemort. And then, I think, there will be a resurrection of sorts; whether in heaven or on earth, I do not know, but there will be some evidence of Harry’s life after death. We’ve already been taught at various points that there is life after death, and I believe that will be demonstrated conclusively in Harry’s case. He will be, yet again, the boy who lives.

As I understand it, the final word of the seventh book is supposed to be "scar." At least that’s what I’ve been hearing for a long time. J.K. Rowling has had the final chapter, or some portion of it, locked in a safe from the beginning. We’ll all be finding out soon enough. But here is my prediction about that final word: In Harry’s resurrected body and life, his forehead will bear no scar. That’s different than our dear Lord Jesus Christ, who ever bears the marks of His victorious Cross and Passion, even in His risen and glorified body. In the fictional literary universe of Harry Potter, his scar has been the signature mark of the curse of death, and I believe that the removal of that scar will signify the victory of life.

Well, that’s it, then. Have at it now, or revel in my mistakes after the real thing is out there for all of us to read and enjoy. I’m fine either way. I’m looking forward to sharing the conclusion of the story with my children, as I have the previous six books.

Please note that no animals, college guys, or mythical creatures were harmed in the writing of this blog post. It is, however, unauthorized by either J.K. Rowling or any of her publishers.

24 June 2007

Happy Anniversary, Greg!

Today is the 30th anniversary of ordination for one of my closest friends and colleagues here in South Bend, the Reverend Greg Fiechtner. He's been at St. Paul in South Bend since 1989, so he's been a local colleague of mine since my own ordination eleven years ago. He was there for that occasion, and I can't remember any special services or events at Emmaus that he hasn't attended in the years since. He's not only been a good and faithful colleague, but truly a good friend, as well. We've enjoyed going to conferences together, sometimes sharing a room in addition to the drive. We've also had opportunity to share meals and beer and even a couple of movies. I know that I can always count on Greg for good conversation, for a sympathetic ear, a good sense of humor, and to be patient with me even when I'm acting surly with the world around me. He's a good egg, any way you look at it.

St. Paul hosted a wonderful celebration of Greg's anniversary today, and I was pleased to attend, along with my son Nicholai and my dear colleague, Pastor Grobien. What a lovely time it was. I thoroughly enjoyed the nice program that the people of the congregation put together for their pastor. They clearly love him and appreciate him, and rightly so. I especially liked the slide show of Greg's life and ministry, which gave me a glimpse of my friend from his younger years. I've gotten to know him well over the past decade, and I was tickled to see the same personality and sense of humor shining through in the photos from long before I knew him. It is refreshing to see evidence of a real Lutheran who knows and loves the freedom of the Gospel and the goodness of God's First Article gifts. I am also humbled by the way that Greg rolls up his sleeves and really dives in to share the everyday life of his people.

I also have to say how pleased and impressed I was with the nice article the newspaper featured on Pastor Fiechtner this past week. Now that was a beautiful example of faithful witness in the public square! The straightforward, down-to-earth clarity with which he spoke of Christ and of His Gospel as the very heart and purpose of the pastoral office was refreshing. I've known Greg for a long time, and I love him as a brother in Christ and in office, but I have never been more proud to call him my friend and colleague than I was in reading his words from the heart concerning Jesus, who is the only real reason that any of us are pastors.

Among the other things included at Greg's anniversary celebration was the reading of a great letter from Dr. Weinrich, who is now teaching at the Luther Academy in Latvia. Greg and I both had Dr. Weinrich as one of our favorite seminary professors, which is perhaps one of the reasons that we also get along so well with each other. Dr. Weinrich's letter expressed the significance of the pastoral ministry, and the appropriateness of celebrating such an occasion as the anniversary of ordination to that holy office. I also give thanks to God for His gift of Pastor Fiechtner to His Church on earth, and I give thanks to Greg for being the friend and colleague that he is.

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

This is one of the more significant festivals in the course of the year, though I don't remember hearing much about it as I was growing up. I love the Holy Gospel for this day, including not only St. John's nativity, but his circumcision and naming, and then the song of Zechariah, the Benedictus, which continues to serve the Church as one of the canticles at the Office of Matins. Everything about St. John, even from the womb and in his infancy, is pointing to Jesus, the Lamb of God, which is of course the best and most and important thing about the Forerunner. He gets to be the Best Man of our heavenly Bridegroom, and though he comes neither eating nor drinking, he raises a toast to the One who is greater than he, our kinsman Redeemer, and calls us to rejoice in Him.

Among those born of women, our Lord Himself testifies, there has not arisen a greater than John the Baptist. Of course, the circumstances surrounding his conception and birth are extraordinary. His parents were righteous and devout, pious and holy, living by grace through faith in the Word of God; yet, they had grown old without the blessing of children. Here are faithful Abraham and Sarah all over again. When Zechariah received the message of the angel Gabriel, that his wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son in her old age, it seemed to him too good to be true. How often the words and promises of God seem that way to us! But the Lord was true to His Word, and the Church celebrates today the birth of the promised son.

When the news gets out that the formerly-barren old Elizabeth has given birth, her neighbors rejoice in the mercy of the Lord upon her. It struck me this week, as I was preparing to preach on this Gospel, that His mercy was shown not only in the fact that she conceived in her old age, but especially in the fact that both she and St. John survived the ordeal of pregnancy, labor and delivery. Having seen how much harder such things have become for my own wife, at age 40 for example (when Gerhardt was born), as compared to age 20 (when DoRena was born), I marvel at what it must have meant for an old woman like Elizabeth to carry and deliver a baby. Nowhere do the blessing of God and the curse of sin come together more poignantly and personally than in the bearing of children. It is by the mercy of God that mother and child are preserved, despite the consequences of the fall into sin and the constant threat of death.

Some of the early church fathers were of a mind that St. John entered the wilderness immediately after his birth, already as an infant. My wife asked me, when I made this observation, whether he was supposed to have been raised by wolves or something. I remember an old movie, from my childhood, about a boy who was lost in the wild and raised by wolves, which I considered incredibly cool at the time (and I even wished, on occasion, that I could have been so lucky as to be raised by wolves). Well, I don't know what the church fathers would have thought about such things as that, but thinking about the possibilitiy of St. John entering the wilderness already as an infant did make me wonder about how long his parents may have lived after his birth. Given the hardness of his life, as the last and greatest Prophet, as the preacher of repentance, it would not have been out of character for him to have lived his entire life in the wild. The Lord would surely have been able to preserve Him even there. And maybe it is the case that giving birth to him was enough to do his mother in before too long.

We are not told, in any case, that Zechariah or Elizabeth ever saw the Lord Jesus Christ. He was there in utero at the Nativity of St. John, hidden in the womb of His Mother, St. Mary. But that dear Blessed Virgin returned to Nazareth, then journeyed to Bethlehem for the Nativity of our Lord, and had to flee into Egypt while He was yet an infant. There is certainly no indication that the holy parents of St. John the Baptist lived to see their son grow into adulthood, to hear his preaching or receive his Baptism.

That was the other thing that really struck me in my preparation for this morning's preaching. Though Zechariah had doubted and questioned the word and promise of the Lord concerning the conception and birth of his son, and he was therefore left unable to speak for the next ten months or so, his mouth was opened in praise and thanksgiving when he called his son by the name the Lord had called him. Okay, fair enough, he got to see the fulfillment of that promise, and at first I was thinking that he had that advantage over us. But consider the Benedictus, his song of praise unto the Lord. No longer does Zechariah doubt and question the words and promises of God. He confesses what has not yet happened, and what he will not live to see happen, as though it is already an accomplished fact. Here there is the sort of faith that is wrought by the Word and Spirit of God, and by no other means than that. It is the faith by which we also live in the sure and certain hope of that which we do not yet see or experience.

The conception and birth of faith in our hearts, as also the new birth of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism, is no less miraculous than the conception and birth of St. John the Baptist to old Zechariah and barren Elizabeth. Nor is the conception and birth of each and every child any less the work of God, His gift and blessing, than the creation of faith and the gift of new life in Christ. In both cases, we receive these works of God under the cross, where they are not always easy to bear. But the One who promises is faithful, and He will not fail to accomplish all that He has spoken. Both the bearing of children and the bearing of the cross in every case are hard things to endure, and yet it is out of the curse that the Lord brings forth the blessing by His own Cross.

22 June 2007

Ticks and Tunes Won't Break Your Bones or Hurt You

I’m really not in the business of music reviews, but listening to music is one of my joys and passions in life, and my son Zachary has expressed an interest in my opinion regarding recent new releases. So, there you have it.

I’ve been hearing people talk about Brad Paisley’s recent single, "Ticks," for the past month or more. My wife was the first one to mention it to me, after she heard it on the radio and found it hilarious. Others have also told me about it, because I’m famous for getting the willies just thinking about ticks. Some people get freaked out about spiders and snakes, and I don’t much care to share space with those creatures, either, but the very idea of a tick on me tends to make my skin crawl for the rest of the week. When I was in Russia, several years ago in June, my friend Olga warned me to beware of the ticks there, because, as she put it, if you get bitten by one of those, you will die. That didn’t really help to improve my attitude toward ticks in general. Now that I’ve finally heard Brad Paisley’s song, however, not on the radio but on his new record, 5th Gear, I’m inclined to agree that it’s hilarious.

Brad had a pretty tough act to follow after his last record, Time Well Spent, which thoroughly lived up to its name. I’ve listened to that one a lot, and have found that I consistently go back to it and enjoy it. By comparison, 5th Gear doesn’t really break any new ground, but at least it’s no major disappointment. There’s nothing on this new record that matches or exceeds the best of the best on Time Well Spent, but there are some great new songs nonetheless. If you’ve enjoyed "Ticks," you’ll probably like 5th Gear, as that song is a fair representation of what the record is like.

Actually, I was very excited to begin with, because the first half of 5th Gear is terrific. If it had continued in that vein, I think it would have been a better record overall than its predecessor. Alas, it begins to limp along a bit after the midway point. I do think that Brad was having more fun playing his guitar than singing on this record, and I will say that there’s some pretty impressive country guitar work throughout. He’s included an instrumental track on his past few records, and there’s one here, too, "Throttleneck," which is good fun in the way that some of the old surfing songs like "Wipeout" were. But one of the things that I like best about country music is its more narrative character, and the way that it tends to be more driven by the lyrics than rock-n-roll usually is. Brad and his band are a fine bunch of musicians, to be sure, but I personally think that his greatest strength is in his song writing and selection. He’s had a number of wonderful songs, some of them tender and touching, many of them humorous and clever, and usually weaving a good yarn along the way. That’s how 5th Gear begins, but it clutches down after "Mr. Policeman" catches Brad and throws him in the clink halfway through the record.

No surprise, then, that all of my favorite songs are in the first half of 5th Gear. In addition to "Ticks" (track 2), check out "All I Wanted Was a Car" (track 1), "Online" (track 3), and "I’m Still a Guy" (track 5). Any one of these would have found a worthy place on Time Well Spent, which is saying something as far as I am concerned. There are some bright spots later on, but nothing that comes close to those early highlights. There’s a duet with Carrie Underwood, which is fine, but certainly isn’t the showcase that it could have been. I would have preferred to do without the intrusion of "The New Kung Pao Buckaroos," who are presumably featured for comedy relief, but simply aren’t that funny.

Normally, I like the fact that many country artists are comfortable wearing their Christian faith on their sleeves. They usually aren’t in your face or annoying about it, and they don’t come up with the contrived religiosity of the "contemporary Christian music" pop culture. A number of my favorite country artists have on occasion included a hymn as a concluding track, usually a "hidden bonus," and that has generally not been so bad, either, even if the selections tend to be of the so-called "Gospel song" variety. I’ve yet to hear anyone include a Lutheran chorale, and I’m not holding my breath for that. But Brad has included a hymn, of sorts, "When We All Get to Heaven," which strikes me as universalistic in its theology. I don’t know if that’s what Brad intended, but it would have been better to leave it off his record. It only reinforces the false and dangerous notion, which many Americans harbor, that only the really wicked, evil, mean and nasty people (like crooked politicians and dishonest CEOs) will be condemned (the "bigger fish to fry" of track 14), because Jesus is simply too nice a guy to shut the pearly gates to all the rest of us good folks, who really aren’t so bad after all. Oh, well.

Concordia Catechetical Academy

By now the Augie BBQ has wound itself down, and everyone is beginning the homeward journey (or thinking about how best to avoid Chicago traffic). I've been feeling sort of glum, off and on all day, because this is the first time in six years that I wasn't able to attend the CCA in Sussex. For each of the past five years, it's been one of the highlights of the entire year for me. Typically, I spend several months anticipating and looking forward to it, and then another month or two afterwards reveling in the experience. I'm especially sad to have missed it this year, with the convention coming up in a few weeks. If I wasn't a delegate to the convention, I could more or less ignore it, and deal with the consequences in small doses on a "need to know" basis. Being a delegate, however, I will have to endure the entire ordeal, and I have no doubt that it will be a trial and temptation of my faith. I say that not to accuse anyone else, but to acknowledge my own sinfulness and weakness. Three years ago, it was the CCA in June that strengthened and preserved my faith and spirit in the subsequent moil and toil of the convention a month later. So there's a catch-22, isn't it? If I wasn't a delegate this year, I probably could have found a way to attend the CCA. As it is, I couldn't be in Sussex this week, and without that booster shot of catechesis, I'm wary of being in Houston three weeks from now.

In my opinion, the CCA is one of the best and most important things happening in the Lutheran Church in my lifetime. I've learned as much or more from the CCA than I did at the seminary; which is not aimed as a criticism at the seminary, but indicates the benefit I have derived from my very dear friend and colleague, Pastor Bender, and from my other brothers in Christ who have contributed to the CCA over the past half decade. I've had the privilege of being a presenter myself in those years, but I've always felt that I received far more than I contributed.

There are so many things I appreciate about the CCA, I could hardly begin to identify them all. The Divine Service on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, the daily prayer, the pre-conference workshop, the papers and catecheses, the meals together with friends, the opportunity for long talks with people I rarely get to see, the barbecue at the end of it all. To hear Pastor Bender preach the Gospel, to learn from his teaching of the faith, the joy of visiting with him in between the many events of the week, and the honor he has done me in counting me among his friends. These are all most precious gifts, which I have counted among the greatest blessings in my life.

The thing about the CCA that has been most important and significant to me, is that it not only teaches me about the process and methodology of catechesis, but it catechizes me. That was what really struck me the first time I ever attended (in 1999), and it is what I have found every time I've been there since. In saying that it "catechizes" me, I don't mean that it helps me to learn the Catechism better; although it does that, too. The catechesis to which I refer is the actual instruction of the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel. It puts me to death and raises me to new life. It calls me to repentance, forgives my sins, renews and strengthens my faith, and gives me life. It does all of this, because it is the preaching and teaching of Christ Jesus.

Pastor Bender told me once that what makes for a true father in Christ is that such a man gives us Jesus. Although he has taken me under his wing more like an elder brother than a father, he has been such a man for me: one who has consistenly spoken Jesus to me, and, in so speaking, has given Jesus to me. I'm bummed to have missed the CCA this year, but even in regretting that, I am rejoicing in what I have received and learned in the past, and giving thanks that others have once again been fed with the real meat and potatoes of the Word of God.

Beer, Brothers and Blogs

I had the pleasure of drinking beer and sharing conversation with a couple of brothers in Christ last night, and it was a reminder of how much I enjoy and appreciate such opportunities. One of the main things that I like about blogging is the chance to "think out loud" about various and sundry matters, as that really is the way that I typically process things and sort them out. But as helpful and beneficial as a blog can be — and really, I do thank God for this new mode of communication, which is surely among His good gifts of creation — nevertheless, it is no substitute for the chance to sit down together and chat. There is something that happens in a face-to-face discussion that isn’t possible otherwise. No need to despise or dismiss phone calls, letters or e-mails, but being in the bodily presence of another person is significant and should not be allowed to go by the wayside.

In a recent conversation with another brother about the significance of the Lord’s Supper, I was trying to make the point that it does make a difference whether or not the Holy Communion is celebrated. It ought to be obvious that it makes a difference, but his argument was that the Word of God does all that is necessary, and that the people can still believe in Jesus and pray to Him without the Sacrament. To speak of what is "necessary" is already to be thinking in terms of the Law instead of the Gospel. It is also a kind of minimalism that seems to have more regard for our own works and efforts than those of Christ Jesus. Aside from that, it seems naive to me. Having my older children away from home has made me more aware of what a difference it makes, whether someone you love is with you in person or not. They’re still my children, and I’m still their father, no matter how far apart we may be. And believe me, I’m thankful for phone calls and e-mail messages, which enable us to communicate more readily than earlier generations could ever have imagined. But it’s not the same as living together in the same house and sharing space in the same room. I believe, teach and confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is omnipresent as the Son of God, also in and with His human nature as true Man, and that He truly reveals and gives Himself to His disciples in the preaching of His Word of the Gospel. Yet, I also believe that when He puts His holy body and precious blood into my mouth, into my body, He is laying hold of me and relating to me in a way that is uniquely and profoundly personal. He is infinite, but I am not. I am not able to comprehend Him apart from the ways and means by which He comprehends me. I am grateful that He does so, not only with His Word in my ears, in my head and in my heart, but also with His flesh and blood in my mouth and in my body.

Anyway, I think it is a similar sort of blessing and benefit to engage in the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren, not only over the phone or via the computer, but in person. God’s good gift of beer isn’t necessary to such conversations, but it contributes another kind of blessing and benefit, and it is good to share such joys in the company of brothers. There is a freedom of expression, a sense of relaxed comfort, a safety and confidence, all of which encourage the sort of discussion and debate that challenge and sharpen our thinking, correct and clarify our understanding, expand and refine our perspectives. I think there are insights to be gained from these face-to-face fraternal "symposia" that are not possible in any other way. I know that I am helped to be a better pastor as a result.

I relate to the people of God under my pastoral care with more sensitivity and sympathy when I have the opportunity to converse with my brothers in Christ. Because, along with the freedom, the comfort and safety of the brethren, there is also an accountability in place, a consideration and compassion for one another, which give us pause for more careful thought and temper our speech. It’s far too easy in communicating via computer to fire off words without stopping to consider the people they will affect, or to misinterpret words that have been written to or about us. To speak in the presence of another person, especially in one-on-one or small group conversation, requires and enables a far more sophisticated and responsible kind of communication. It can be very relaxed and jovial, and yet there is a give-and-take, an adjustment of both thinking and expression, that curbs our sinful self-centeredness and allows us to be corrected and instructed, so that we grow in knowledge, wisdom and maturity.

21 June 2007

Continuing Comfort from Dr. Luther, for those under the Cross

Dr. Luther continues his comments on Galatians 4:6, as follows. I've very much appreciated his lectures on the earlier chapters of Galatians in the past, but have found this section to be of particular comfort in recent days. Perhaps others will likewise be encouraged and strengthened in their faith.

"No matter how great and terrible the cries are that the Law, sin, and the devil let loose against us, even though they seem to fill heaven and earth and to overcome the sighs of our hearts completely, still they cannot do us any harm. For the more these enemies press in upon us, accusing and vexing us with their cries, the more do we, sighing, take hold of Christ; with heart and lips we call upon Him, cling to Him, and believe that He was born under the Law for us, in order that He might redeem us from the curse of the Law and destroy sin and death. When we have taken hold of Christ by faith this way, we cry through Him: 'Abba! Father!' And this cry of ours far exceeds the cry of the devil.

"But we are far from supposing that this sigh which we emit amid the terrors and in our weakness is a cry — so far indeed that we hardly understand that it is even a sigh. For so far as our own awareness is concerned, this faith of ours, which sighs to Christ in temptation, is very weak. That is why we do not hear this cry. We have only the Word. If we take hold of this in the struggle, we breathe a little and sigh. To some extent we are aware of this sigh, but we do not hear the cry. But 'He who searches the hearts of men,' Paul says, 'knows what is the mind of the Spirit' (Rom. 8:27). To Him who searches the hearts this sigh, which seems so meager to the flesh, is a loud cry and a sigh too deep for words, in comparison with which the great and horrible roars of the Law, sin, death, the devil, and hell are nothing at all and are inaudible. It is not without purpose, then, that Paul calls this sigh of the pious and afflicted heart the crying and indescribable sighing of the Spirit; for it fills all of heaven and earth and cries so loudly that the angels suppose that they cannot hear anything except this cry.

"Within ourselves, however, there is the very opposite feeling. This faint sigh of ours does not seem to penetrate the clouds in such a way that it is the only thing to be heard by God and the angels in heaven. In fact, we suppose, especially as long as the trial continues, that the devil is roaring at us terribly, that heaven is bellowing, that the earth is quaking, that everything is about to collapse, that all the creatures are threatening us with evil, and that hell is opening up in order to swallow us. This feeling is in our hearts; we do not hear these terrible voices or see this frightening face. And this is what Paul says in 2 Corinthians (12:9): that the power of Christ is made perfect in our weakness. For then Christ is truly almighty, and then He truly reigns and triumphs in us when we are, so to speak, so ‘all-weak’ that we can scarcely emit a groan. But Paul says that in the ears of God this sigh is a mighty cry that fills all of heaven and earth.

"Likewise in the parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1–8), Christ calls this sigh of the pious heart a cry, and a cry that cries to God incessantly day and night. He says: 'Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate His elect, who cry to Him day and night? Will He delay long over them? I tell you, He will vindicate them speedily.' Today, amid all the persecution and opposition from the pope, the tyrants, and the fanatical spirits, who attack us from the right and from the left, we cannot do anything but emit such sighs. But these have been our cannon and our instruments of war; with them we have frustrated the plans of our opponents all these years, and we have begun to demolish the kingdom of Antichrist. But they will provoke Christ to hasten the day of His glorious coming, when He will abolish all principalities, powers, and might, and will put all His enemies under His feet. Amen.

"Thus in Exodus (14:15) the Lord says to Moses at the Red Sea: 'Why do you cry to Me?' That was the last thing Moses was doing. He was in extreme anguish; therefore he was trembling and at the point of despair. Not faith but unbelief appeared to be ruling in him. For Israel was so hemmed in by the mountains, by the army of the Egyptians, and by the sea that it could not escape anywhere. Moses did not even dare mumble here. How, then, did he cry? Therefore we must not judge according to the feeling of our heart; we must judge according to the Word of God, which teaches that the Holy Spirit is granted to the afflicted, the terrified, and the despairing in such a way that He encourages and comforts them, so that they do not succumb in their trials and other evils but conquer them, though not without very great fear and effort." (Dr. Luther's Lectures on Galatians, Luther's Works, Vol. 26, CPH 1963)

20 June 2007

A Tasty New Bon-Bon from Jon Bon, by Jovi

I've been listening to the new Bon Jovi record, Lost Highway, which was released on Tuesday of this week. I'm just finishing my third time through it, and I already like it very much. This is a solid follow-up to Have a Nice Day, which I considered to be the best thing Bon Jovi had done since the late 1980s, and really one of the better rock-n-roll records of the past few decades. Others are entitled to a different opinion, but that's mine. Lost Highway is perhaps not as much "fun," but it does have more texture and variety to it. I'm not ready to say whether I'll end up liking it as well, or better, but if you like Bon Jovi, I think you'll be pleased if you pick up this latest offering for yourself.

Rumors that Lost Highway would be a "country" record have been seriously misleading. That's one of the inherent dangers of trying to pigeonhole everything into categories, but I can't believe that anyone would mistake this new Bon Jovi record for what is normally classified as "country music." Some of the songs do have some hints and characteristics of the more popular modern country, but there's no more than three or four out of thirteen songs that would get any country radio airtime. There's a song with Big and Rich, which is actually one of the more rockin' songs on the record; it reminds me as much of AC/DC, Kiss, and 80s rock as it does anything country! Then again, Big and Rich have revelled in defying categories from the opening song of their first record, and they seem to be everywhere these days. Bon Jovi does another song featuring Leann Rimes, and that may be the most "country" song on Lost Highway, maybe to the same extent that "Who Says You Can't Go Home" with the chick from Sugarland on Have a Nice Day was. There's one or two other songs that might be called "country," depending on one's sensibilities. But this is really no different than when Tim McGraw emulates classic 70s rock, or when Keith Urban sometimes sounds like rock-n-roll. In my opinion, Jon Bon's Young Guns II soundtrack was more of a "country" record than Lost Highway is.

It's still Jon Bon Jovi's vintage rock-n-roll voice and Richie Sambora's vintage rock-n-roll guitar that drive and carry this new record, and the results are sweet music. I like the fact that they continue to grow as artists, without getting weird or turning their names into hieroglyphics. Whatever "country" elements there may be on Lost Highway have found a comfortable place in a rock-n-roll record. It's a more grown up and sophisticated record than the grand good-time Have a Nice Day, but it feels like a natural progression from that excellent predecessor. I've been enjoying Bon Jovi's music since my Beanie was a baby, and I'm frankly impressed that they're still producing consistently good and interesting records. Keep rockin', boys, one more time . . . with feeling.

19 June 2007

Father Knows Best

I think that I was recently accused of playing "Father Knows Best." Well, no, not me personally or specifically. But the description was intended for pastors who have admitted children to the Holy Communion at an earlier-than-LCMS-average age and apart from the rite of confirmation. As I understand the line of argument, it is evidently now okay to do this, because the Lutheran Service Book includes a "Rite of First Communion." But to do so heretofore was, again, a case of playing "Father Knows Best."

I've been puzzling over this for the past few weeks now, ever since I encountered it. I honestly don't understand the intention of this label. I am vaguely aware that there was an old, black-and-white television sitcom by the name of "Father Knows Best." I doubt that I would be able to differentiate it from "Leave It to Beaver" or "My Three Sons." Maybe avid watchers of cable t.v. would instantly be able to nod in sage agreement with the critique at hand. For my part, though, I am more than a little hazy as to what it is that pastors like myself have been "playing."

Let me go on record as being categorically opposed to pastors re-enacting episodes of old television programs. I really don't think they should be coming up with any new episodes, either. Those characters and their situations are someone else's intellectual property, and I'm sure that playing them would be a copyright violation, syndication notwithstanding. Besides, that stuff was all in black and white, which isn't very attractive, effective or successful anymore. Yet, that doesn't seem to have been the point of criticism, after all.

Maybe the point is that pastors should not be allowing fathers to teach their younger children the Catechism. Admittedly, that is a risky thing to do. Those little ones just believe whatever they're told, they learn it by rote and repeat it. Better to let pastors and professional educators confuse them with abstract object lessons. I guess if I presume to know better than that, then I am playing "Father Knows Best." The thing of it is, though, that the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions tell me that fathers are supposed to be teaching their children the faith, to be doing it early and often, and even to be insisting that their children learn it by heart, word for word.

Not only that, but then there's also this whole Fourth Commandment thing. I take it from Dr. Luther, for example, that fathers are to be honored and obeyed, even if they happen to be a bit senile and eccentric, and I suppose even if they happen to be into old television sitcoms. Fathers are neither omniscient nor infallible, but they do have their office and authority from God, which makes for pretty good credentials in my book. Unless a father is commanding what God forbids, or forbidding what God commands, I believe a child should consider that his father does know best, and leave it at that. As a pastor, I will not thwart or undermine a father's authority, unless intervention be required for the sake of saving a child from mortal peril to body or soul.

Maybe the accusation of playing "Father Knows Best" wasn't referring to our human fathers, but to pastors, our spiritual fathers in Christ. I suspect that was the point, though I'm hardly certain of it. The gist of the argument does seem to be that no one should act out of concert with the rest of the Church. In response to that, I must agree with my friend and colleague, Pastor Petersen, first of all, that it isn't possible for the whole Church simply to begin doing something "all at once." If no one ever takes the lead and the first step, then nothing would ever happen. At least in my own experience, the practice of First Communion at a younger age and prior to "confirmation" has been a process of learning and refining how best to go about it. I've also found that when my colleagues are contemplating a move in this direction, they are eager to chat with me about what I've done, and how I've done it, in order to benefit from what I've learned along the way. There are too many aspects to the whole matter of catechesis and admission of the Holy Communion that cannot be solved by theoretical discussion alone.

Aside from those practical considerations and concerns, which are not insignificant, it is a special case when the practice in question is such a fundamental part of the Christian faith and life, and of the Church's corporate life as the Body and Bride of Christ, our Lord. I'm well aware of Dr. Luther's patience and his conservative approach to the Reformation, but he didn't simply keep on talking forever without ever acting. Certain things did finally have to be dared for the sake of the Gospel. The authority for catechesis and admission to the Holy Communion is the Word of Christ, not the consensus of the Church; although the catholic consensus of the Church, in this regard, was to catechize and commune much earlier than the typical LCMS practice has been.

Apart from the big questions of how a pastor ought to act as a steward of the Mysteries of God in relation to the Church catholic, I have become more and more convinced that the particular question of admittance to the Sacrament of the Altar requires pastoral discernment and discretion on a case-by-case basis. It is, as I have posited before, an aspect of pastoral care. I am a firm believer in having objective criteria and standards, and I agree wholeheartedly that there must be accountability on the part of the pastor, as well as humility and self-discipline. Yet, there is a reason that God calls and ordains men to be living pastors of His Church on earth, rather than simply making provision for individuals to use the self-service checkout lane, or the fast food drive-through, to pick up and run with the means of grace. Is there risk involved? Will pastors not sometimes screw up, or abuse their authority and pastoral prerogatives? Of course! Pastors also have to repent within their particular station in life, and it is all the more crucial because the care of souls is at stake. The risk and danger are not greater, in my opinion, than that of waiting until adolescence to begin the process of admission to the Holy Communion.

Neither human fathers nor pastors have all knowledge or wisdom. Indeed, we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. Yet, the Lord in His wisom has called both fathers and pastors to their particular offices and stations in life, and they are not permitted, whether by laziness, fear or negligence, to sit back and wait for some heavenly download of information. This is no different, in its own way, than the Thessalonians sitting back and waiting for the Parousia, refusing to work but counting on their neighbors to feed them. We all stumble in many ways, but the man who bridles his tongue to speak the Word of the perfect Man can be sure of what he teaches and confesses. When fathers and pastors carry out their offices with and according to the Word of God in Christ, then surely it is true that "Father Knows Best."

18 June 2007

Til I Was a Daddy Too

For those who enjoy country music, I heartily recommend the most recent record by Tracy Lawrence, For the Love. I’ve always liked Tracy’s great voice, and I usually appreciate his song selections, too, all the more so as he has matured as an artist and a person. I gather from various sources that his life has not been so smooth, but I guess he’s been able to translate his difficult experiences into songs with real heart. For the Love is a great example of such songs, including some of the best he’s done, in my opinion. I really like, "Find Out Who Your Friends Are," which he sings with Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. The title song, "For the Love," and "As Easy as Our Blessings" are solid contributions, too. But my hands-down favorite song on this new record is, "Til I Was a Daddy Too," which Tracy co-authored. I appreciated discovering that song about the time that Zachary moved out to Nebraska for the summer, and I was thinking about it a lot on Fathers’ Day, too.

Yesterday, I reminisced about my Dad and some of the things that I shared with him as I was growing up. It occurred to me, again, that Tracy Lawrence is right: "I guess I didn’t know what a Daddy goes through, ‘til I was a Daddy too." The way that I experienced my father’s love as I was growing up, it was easy for me to take it for granted, especially because he was always there for me, and it was just a given that he loved me and took care of me. Now that I experience things with my own children, and I feel their hurts and fears, their joys and delights, as their father, I am profoundly and sometimes painfully aware of how deep these things can run. I do get too wrapped up in myself, too much of the time, but I am ultimately more concerned about my children and their lives than I am about myself or my own. Nevertheless, I often don’t know how to cope with that love and concern, or what to do with it.

DoRena and Zachary are gone for the summer, and they most likely won’t be living under my roof in any sort of permanent way again. I’m still sorting that out and learning how to deal with it, juggling the mixed emotions of pride in their growing up and sadness over the sense of separation and transition. On top of that, my Nicholai left for Boy Scout camp yesterday morning, which left me with only six of my children at home for Fathers’ Day. The number is neither here nor there, but the absence of my three oldest children left a pretty big gaping hole in my day. It made me feel old and empty and all out of sorts with the world around me. I guess it was the first time it really hit me, how my parents must have felt over the years when my siblings and I couldn’t all be there with them for holidays and family occasions. There’s nothing to be done. It’s part of growing up, as children make their way and find their place in the world, and establish families of their own. But that doesn’t make one feel the ache of it any less.

First Zachary, then DoRena, called me on the phone yesterday. They’ll have to wait until they have older children of their own, calling them from far away on such occasions, to know how much that meant to me. It was a poignant lesson for myself, suddenly understanding what those phone calls I have made over the years have meant to my parents, and the disappointment they have probably felt at times when I didn’t.

Nicholai didn’t have any way or means of calling, but I got to say goodbye to him before church, and I found the Fathers’ Day card that he made for me and left with my things at home. He’s a good boy, and I am so proud of him, of his sensitive and caring heart, of his creative imagination and artistic skill, and of his growing sense of responsibility and daily-increasing maturity. But I’m afraid that I haven’t done a very good job of letting him know how much I love him, or how much I care about him. He’s languished a bit as the third child, enough younger than Zachary to be counted among the "little ones." I’ve been a graduate student and/or a pastor for Nicholai’s entire life, and he’s probably had less of my personal time and attention than any of the other children, not by design but by circumstance, which doesn’t make it any easier. I can’t beat myself up for the past, but I need to do better in the future.

I can’t undo the past, either, but I remember much of it quite fondly. I’ve been thinking about each of my children, and about some of the more memorable points in their lives. It would weary even me to type out everything I’ve thought about, and I doubt that anyone else would have the stamina to read it all. Still, I have wanted to jot down some of my thoughts, if only because it’s important for me to remind myself.

I remember walking DoRena home from her babysitter in Seward, and having her stop and crouch down on the sidewalk, repeatedly, to observe the progress of the bugs. Fascinating. She’s heard that cute little story a bazillion times, I think, but it remains one of my most prominent mental images of her. I also remember taking her to meet the school bus in Fort Wayne, and going to meet her when the bus brought her home at the end of the day. Gary Allan has sung about that in one of his songs, and I know exactly what he means! That first time I sent DoRena off like that, I could have sworn my heart was going to break. It got easier with time, but it is still pretty hard to send her off to school.

I remember Zachary making his arrival in our apartment in Hopkins, Minnesota. I went out to start the car, since it was pretty cold up there in the middle of January, but when I came back in LaRena told me to forget about the car and call an ambulance. By the time I got off the phone, my father-in-law had delivered my son and managed to unwrap the umbilical cord from around his neck. It’s rather ironic that the only one of my children I haven’t witnessed being born, is the one who was born at home. A few years later, while we were living in Fort Wayne, Zach had the bad habit of falling down the stairs. I was a basket case the first time it happened; about the tenth time it happened, I think we had gotten used to it. The one time he actually managed to hurt himself on the stairs, it wasn’t falling down them, but running up them and full tilt into the hallway corner of the upstairs landing. So, a week or two before vicarage, I was at the emergency med center watching them sew up my little boy’s forehead.

I remember a number of outings and longer trips that I’ve gotten to make with Nicholai. When his godfather, my good friend Kevin, was still serving a congregation in northern Indiana, we used to meet about once a month to go over an upcoming Gospel. Shortly before he moved, I took Nicholai along for lunch with his godfather, and that was a memorable occasion. Several years later, Nicholai went with me to the CCA in Wisconsin, and we were able to sneak away for a visit with his entire godfamily, who were living just an hour further north at that point. I’ve taken Nicholai on other trips, too, including a visit to Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Illinois. He’s a good traveling mate, and I always enjoy his company. Lately, he’s been getting into Dungeons and Dragons, thanks to a program at the local public library. I’m pleased to see him having fun with that, and it has brought back pleasant memories of playing D&D with my Dad when I was about the age that Nicholai is now.

I’ve written before about Monica’s surgery, when she was just ten months old. It would be hard to top that memory, or the depths to which I felt that experience as her father. It is a more pleasant memory to recall her Baptism, my very first as a pastor, on the Feast of the Holy Trinity in June 1996. That was two days after my ordination, and the whole extended family was here for that blessed weekend. I have memories of trips with Monica, similar to those I’ve taken with Nicholai, such as taking her to visit her godfamily in St. Louis. In recent years, I have enjoyed the chance to attend her piano recitals, as she continues to excel in that area of her life. I marvel at what a young lady she is growing up to be.

I remember most vividly when Ariksander, at age three, wandered away from my sister’s house in Savannah, Georgia, and we spent the better part of a frantic hour searching desperately to find him. I know he’s tired of hearing that story, but I won’t ever be able to forget the surge of panic that gripped my heart, and how I became increasingly terrified with each passing minute. It was my brother-in-law who found him, several blocks away, and of course it was the Lord who guarded him and kept him safe from harm and danger. The gratitude and joy that flooded my heart when I had my little boy back in my arms were sweeter than anything else I’ve ever tasted in this life on earth. In the years since, I have appreciated Ariksander’s quiet curiosity about the world around him, and I try not to worry too much that he’ll get lost again. I am most touched by the many times when he asks me to say a special prayer with him, usually late at night, to help him sleep and to ward off nightmares

One of my favorite things to do with Oly’anna is going out for lunch together, and then shopping for new clothes or shoes. This is what we have done for several of her birthdays, and on a couple other occasions, too, so we are building up a collection of pleasant memories from such outings. Because she is such a "Daddy’s girl," Oly’anna has taken it especially hard when I’ve been away from home for any extended length of time, such as for my dissertation or teaching in Siberia. I remember finding her a little Daddy-bear figurine, a number of years ago, which was her "hug" from me whenever I was gone. We put a picture of the two of us together in the little box that "hug" was packaged in, and I guess that was her security item for a very long time.

I remember thrilling to hear Justinian say his "whole big long name," Justinian Matthias Gregory Basil Stuckwisch, already at a pretty early age. He is a bright little boy, with sparkly eyes and the sweetest little face you could imagine. He can be mischievous and ornery, especially when roustabouting with his siblings, but mostly he’s a sweetheart. I was most amazed to have him sit down next to me yesterday, and then proceed to read aloud the book, Go, Dog, Go. My little bear is growing up!

Frederick is still in the process of making more memories than he’s already logged. I know that he is a "high maintenance" two-year-old, and he can be a challenging handful, but he is precious to me. I do remember the ear-piercing, head-splitting scream that he utilized for quite a while, which thankfully began to go by the wayside when he really started talking and was better able to express himself otherwise. I’m pleased to say that he has become quite a "Daddy’s boy" in recent months, and we have been enjoying neighborhood walks together almost every day. I don’t know if he’ll remember that in years to come, but I’m already tucking it away for future reminiscences. The other day, when LaRena and I went to pick him up from the Horner’s, after we had gone out on our anniversary date, Frederick was gleefully announcing that "Daddy’s back." Okay, so that warmed my heart pretty good.

I remember Gerhardt being delivered by caesarean. That was a sight to behold. Watching them pull my baby out of the incision in my wife’s tummy, and actually having to tug quite a bit to get his little head to disengage and pop out, was surrealistic and bizarre. I’m sorry, but the only thing I have to compare it to is the creature busting out of that guy’s chest in the classic movie Alien. I’ve never breathed such a sigh of relief as I did when he took his first gulp of air and started crying. I remember holding him and rocking him and singing Paul Gerhardt’s hymns to him at the hospital, over the next several days before he came home. And I surely do remember his Holy Baptism, administered by my friend and colleague, Pastor Grobien. I got to see Gerhardt be born twice, and the contrast between those two events could not have been more drastic. The end result for him is life everlasting as a dear child of our dear Father in heaven, and I’m most grateful that all of my children have been called to that divine inheritance in Christ.