30 April 2008

Restless Hearts Rest in Peace in the Ascension of Our Lord

It is the Eve of the Ascension of Our Lord here in Siberia, which means, liturgically speaking, that the day of the feast has already begun. That shall not be the case for another ten or twelve hours back home in the United States, which strikes me as rather intriguing at the moment. No one knows the day or the hour when the Son of Man will return upon the clouds with power and great glory, but it will be a different day, or at least a different hour, in each part of the world. How very odd, and yet, how very appropriate, since the name of the Lord is greatly to be praised from the rising to the setting of the sun; not only round the world but round the clock. As there will be that one final moment when He comes to judge the living and the dead around the world all at once, there is no moment when He is not now coming to His Church in grace, mercy and peace, by the Ministry of His Gospel to the end of the age.

We are always making plans for the future. In itself, such planning ahead is not sinful, yet our plans are always tainted and hindered by our sinfulness and sin. The fact is that we do not know what tomorrow holds; it is entirely contingent upon the grace of God. Still, what do we do? We do not simply plan, but we worry about tomorrow. And all the while, we continue to fret about the past. Though today has sufficent obligations and troubles of its own, we spend far too much of our time living in the past with regrets, and wishing away our present moments in pointless anxiety for the future, which may or may not even come to pass. Only as God so wills, shall we do this or that. Or perhaps, this very night, He shall call us from this temporal world to Himself.

We all make plans for the future, both for the near and distant future, as best we can on the basis of what we know. As Christians we do so in faith, in accordance with the Word of God. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of true wisdom, which does not judge by what the eye sees in the world, but by the hearing of the Word of Christ. As such, it is often the case that our wisdom appears foolish in the eyes of the world, though it is really only our sin that is foolish and false. The goal of our life, the aim of our decisions, is simply that of faithfulness and love.

Because the Holy Triune God, who is Love, is faithful above all others — and because He is the Creator and Preserver of all things — our life on earth (even under the Cross) is actually more stable and predictable than not, most of the time; certainly, it is more so than our sins deserve. Thus, being the sinners that we are, we can be lulled into a false sense of complacency and pride, as though we were the masters of our own destiny, calling the shots and running the show. It is not so, no matter how much we may think it or act as though it were.

There are, however, those times in life when we are made much more aware of the uncertainties and vacillations of our finite, mortal life in this fallen world. There are such times of sickness and death, for example, when we are forced to admit that we can neither heal nor sustain life by any power of our own. Changes in the weather, in world politics or the economy, are likewise out of our control. Natural disasters, wars and rumors of war, and so forth, shake our false sense of security to its very core (and so serve as special signs of the end). Less dramatically, but closer to our own heart and home, life can become very confusing, downright stressful, and even quite daunting, when we are faced with making plans for college and career, marriage and family.

There is a restlessness within us, St. Augustine famously confesses, which does not rest until it rests in God. It is exacerbated by our sinfulness, because we look for peace and rest, for love and hope, in all the wrong places, in things and people instead of the one true God. But even apart from our sin, we were not created to be self-sufficient, independent creatures, as though we could make our own way and find our place in the world apart from God. Attempting to do that very thing is the original sin! By contrast, we are granted peace and rest for both body and soul when we live by faith in the Lord our God, who created us for such life in and with Himself.

The promises of God throughout the Old Testament centered especially in that peace and rest which He would grant to His people. He bequeated the good land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants. He promised, then, to bring the sons of Israel out of Egyptian slavery into that very land again. And in that promised land, He would cause His name and His glory to dwell; He would live and abide among His people, and they would live and abide with Him in His presence. Then they would have peace and rest.

It was Joshua the son of Nun (the Old Testament Jesus) who lead the Israelites into Canaan. It is the new and better Jesus of Nazareth who leads us into the promised land of heaven. There He is our God, and we are His people. His own Body is the Temple and Glory of God, whereby He abides with us, and we in Him forever. By the Atonement of His sacrifice for us upon the Cross, He has reconciled us to God the Father in Himself, and He has become our perfect Peace. Thus, Christ Jesus Himself is our eternal Sabbath Rest, which remains for the people of God.

What does this mean for us? The Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ establishes the place that God the Father has prepared for each of us, His people, in the Person of His beloved Son. Where He is, there shall you be also. Indeed, you have already died with Him in your Baptism, and your life is now safely hidden with Christ in God. It doesn't get any safer than that! By His Cross, in His Resurrection and Ascension, He has prepared a place for you — He has become your true Home! — and He shall bring you there in peace, to be and abide with Him forever where He is.

That accomplished fact and established reality does not render meaningless or futile the life that you now live in the flesh. Rather, it is the very thing that frees you to live, even here and now, because it bestows real meaning and genuine significance upon your life in the body. For this very body in which you now live on earth, even subject as it is to sickness and death, shall be resurrected to life everlasting, renewed, perfected and glorified, immortal and imperishable, like unto the glorious body of your risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ. Consequently, what you do in and with that body of yours here on earth really matters.

It matters alright, but not in the sense that you must somehow obtain a righteousness of your own by the works of the Law. You are not able to do that, but neither is it necessary. It is not as though you must hit upon just the right combination of choices and decisions in order to find your own way to heaven. You would never know the way to go; except that Christ Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, who has come to bring you to the Father in and with Himself.

So, then, your life in the body matters, because the life that you live, already here and now on earth, you live no longer for yourself but for Him, who for your sake died and was raised and has ascended to the right hand of the Father. Your life right now is not only a case of anticipation. It is true that you do wait upon the Lord, and you hope for that which is not yet seen, and you long for the final revelation of the sons of God; you groan with all of creation for the consummation of all things, for the resurrection of all flesh, when Christ Jesus shall be all in all. But all of this for which you wait has already been fulfilled and established in the Person of Christ, in His Cross and Resurrection. And again, because you are united with Him by your Baptism into His death, so do you also share His Resurrection, His Ascension, and His Life. For that reason, even while yet in this vale of tears, you are already living before God in righteousness, innocence and blessedness; you're already living with Christ in His Kingdom, as you live by grace through faith in His Gospel, within His one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, on earth as it is in heaven.

This life in Christ is your perfect peace and rest (through the forgiveness of all your sins). It is still by faith, not yet by sight. But it is no less real, sure and certain than Christ Himself is True.

Of course, that doesn't give you all the answers to the questions in your heart and on your mind. There is no one "right answer" as to whether or where you must go to college, or what you must be and do when you grow up, or whom you should marry, or when. You live by faith in the Gospel, not by the works of the Law. To be sure, your faith is guided by the Law of God, which is His good and acceptable will. So are you guided by your parents and other authorities, who love you and serve you by God's grace. But in all of this, His Law does not guide you in the way of self-righteousness, nor in selfish self-achievement, but in the way of faith toward God and love for your neighbor. In this way of faith and love, there is great freedom.

A young person who knows the stability of his earthly home and family, who has the certainty and confidence of parents who love him, has a tremendous advantage in growing up and finding his way in the world. His foundations give him a solid footing, even when he's far from home. I have much the same experience, even on the opposite side of the world, knowing that my wife and children, our home and family, are established and safe and waiting for me in South Bend. My identity as a husband and father gives me a sense of myself and helps me keep my bearings in the world, no matter where in the world I may be, whether on my own or in a crowd.

So much more is that the case for us, who belong to the Lord our God, the Maker of the heavens and the earth. For we are children of the heavenly Father; and we are members of the Bride of Christ. That is our security, our identity, our place, our permanent home. And it is from within that certainty that we are free to make our choices and decisions about the future without fear. Our restless hearts have found their peace and rest in Christ.

29 April 2008

The Sacramental Significance of the Christian Faith and Life

Pastor Grobien likes to kid me a bit, that my favorite Bible story is whatever Holy Gospel I happen to be preaching on that week. That's just about right, actually. At the same time, there are certain passages of Holy Scripture that remain consistently at the forefront of my theological understanding; key passages that decisively define my own Christian faith and life, as well as my preaching to others. I suppose those texts would have to be identified as my "favorites," if it's not inappropriate to pick and choose such a "canon within the canon."

There is no doubt or question that St. Mark 10 (yes, the entire chapter) is near the top of my list of all-time favorites. That chapter is an incredibly profound and pivotal point in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It includes His Word concerning marriage and divorce (which is ultimately a Word concerning the forgiveness and reconciliation of His adulterous bride, and His steadfast faithfulness toward her); His encounter with the rich young man; the clear forthtelling of His Cross and Passion; His response to the bold request of James and John; His preaching of His sacrificial servanthood as the ransom for us all; and His healing of blind Bartimaeus at Jericho, as He, this new and greater Joshua, prepares to bring His Israel into Canaan.

In particular, I find it most significant that our Lord describes His forthcoming Cross and Passion, the culmination of His earthly life, in terms of the Sacraments: the Baptism with which He is baptized, and the Chalice that He drinks. What is more, He then also defines the faith and life of His disciples as being baptized with His Baptism and as drinking His Chalice. It is by the sharing of these Sacraments of His Cross and Passion that His disciples will live with Him in His Kingdom. Except that, what is death for Him, and judgment and the wrath of God, is forgiveness and life and salvation for us. It all comes to a head, for Him and for us, in Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion. St. Paul demonstrates much the same emphases in his discussion of Holy Baptism in Romans 6, and in his discussion of the Holy Communion in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11.

Such sacramental emphases have served as an important key to my reading and preaching of the Gospel. Indeed, it has seemed patently obvious to me that the Church's faith and life are founded on the Sacrament of Holy Baptism and centered in the Sacrament of the Altar. For these are the very things that define our Lord's own life and ministry, even unto His death upon the Cross. Of course, the Sacraments would be nothing apart from His Cross and Resurrection, but, the fact is, they could not be more intimately united than they are with that great Victory of Christ, our Paschal Lamb who sets us free. We are baptized into His death, and we eat the Feast of His sacrifice — His body given, His blood poured out — proclaiming His death until He comes.

If this has seemed quite obvious to me, it has not appeared to be so for many others; and so I have wondered sometimes whether my understanding were my own idiosyncrasy. If so, I would not regard that as a good thing; for theology should not be overly clever, unique or peculiar, but consistent with the teaching and confession of the Church catholic. There is always the danger that what seems very clear to one or another of us, may have more to do with our own imperfect perceptions than with the sure and certain Word of Christ. Thus, we do not stand alone in our reading and preaching of the Scriptures, but we abide within the House that our wise Lord Jesus Christ has built upon the Rock. Attempting to stand upon the Rock outside of that House will only get us swept away by the storms of life that rage against us.

With that in mind, I have been encouraged, as well as edified, by my reading and teaching of the early church fathers these past few weeks. Not that I went looking to find anything or to prove anything; I didn't. I simply studied, along with my students, some of the most important works of a dozen fathers, eastern and western, from the first century to the fifth. In doing so, I was gratified to find a beautifully consistent sacramental emphasis, over and over again, in one father after another, from the "Apostolic Fathers" to the great champions of the first three ecumenical councils (Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus). I'm not talking about systematic treatises on the doctrine of the Sacraments, but a decisively and distinctively sacramental view of faith and life. That is to say, Holy Baptism and the Holy Communion are not simply practiced as a given in the life of the Church; but, as such, they serve to shape and define the Christian's life in the world. Perhaps the following examples and broad summaries will illustrate what I mean.

For St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp of Smyrna (early second century), participation in the Sacrament of the Altar is a real participation in the fruits of Christ's Passion; which means the theology of the Cross. Eating and drinking the crucified body and shed blood of Christ, the Lord, conforms one's own body to bear the cross and to suffer for the sake of holy love. The culmination of the Christian life and discipleship, therefore, is expressed and experienced especially in martyrdom, as Ignatius anticipates for himself in writing his seven letters, and as Polycarp demonstrates in his own heroic martyrdom. And for those who are not put to death in this way, even so, their bodies are offered as a living sacrifice of love within their own proper vocations. Either way, the Christian who lives and dies by faith in Christ becomes a kind of holy wheat, ground into eucharistic bread, and fills up the chalice of suffering.

For St. Irenaeus of Lyons (late second century), the Sacrament of the Altar demonstrates and testifies to the goodness of God's Creation, since He gives to us the very Body and Blood of His incarnate Son by way of the created gifts of bread and wine. As such, participation in the Holy Communion is a sharing in the bodily reality of the Incarnation. This Sacrament transforms the Christian's mortal flesh and blood into the image and likeness of Christ, in preparation for and anticipation of the Resurrection of the body to the life everlasting. In the meantime, along with giving thanks (eucharistia) for God's good gifts of Creation, the Christian already lives by faith and love precisely in and with his body, within his vocations in the world, serving his neighbors according to their own bodily needs. This charity of the body is one of the key things that sets the orthodox Christians apart from the various gnostic sects.

Likewise, for St. Justin Martyr (mid-second century) and Tertullian of Carthage (early third century), the remarkable love of the Christians for one another and for their neighbors — the community and charity of the Church — is rooted in and inseparable from the gathering of the Christians for the Divine Service of the Word and Sacrament. It is in that liturgical context that alms are gathered; and as the deacons distribute the body and blood of Christ to the faithful in the congregation, so do they distribute the Church's charity to the poor and needy in the world.

Tertullian eloquently emphasizes that the soul is neither cleansed nor redeemed apart from the body. For the body is washed in the waters of Holy Baptism, and it is fed with the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar. Thus, the life of the Christian in the body is significant; it is in and with the body that faith and love are exercised.

For both Tertullian and Origen of Alexandria (also third century), the sacramental oath of Baptism defines the Christian life in contrast to the idolatry of the world and its temptations. For the renunciation of the devil, all his works and all his ways, and the confession of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, completely redefine the Christian's relationship to the entire world in which he lives. These rites and ceremonies of Holy Baptism testify to a clear distinction between faith and unbelief, between life and death. There simply is no middle ground between darkness and light, no place for any compromise on the part of a Christian. His participation in the Baptism and Cup of Christ necessarily rule out a participation in the demonic rites and ceremonies of the pagans.

By the same token, St. Cyprian of Carthage (mid-third century) warns that, for those who have renounced the faith by sacrificing to idols and participating in the altars of demons, it is not only wrong but dangerous and deadly to participate in the Holy Communion apart from repentance. There is a very tangible and practical seriousness about all of this, and therefore an equally serious practice of pastoral care for those who have fallen, that they may be healed and restored. And restoration to the Church means, specifically, restoration to the Holy Communion.

Cyprian understands that a common sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ constitutes the unity of His Church. It is, indeed, the Holy Communion of all His saints in His one Body, by their participation in these holy things of His Body and His Blood. Even the elements of the Sacrament signify this: As the bread is made from many grains of wheat, and the wine produced from many grapes, and these are gathered from hither and yon into one Meal of Christ, so are His disciples called and gathered from all nations into His one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

For St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, the Cappadocian Fathers, and St. Cyril of Alexandria (in the fourth and fifth centuries), the Incarnation of the Son of God by the Word and Spirit of God — and especially His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary — is foundational for the parallel mystery of His Holy Communion. Therein bread and wine, again by the Word and Spirit of God, become the selfsame body and blood of Christ that were conceived and born of St. Mary, in which He also suffered and died under Pontious Pilate. Likewise, the reception of this Body and Blood of the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for us men and our salvation, tranforms our mortal flesh and blood through communion with Him, and so also vivifies our bodies for life with Him, both here and time and hereafter in the Resurrection.

One of the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Basil the Great (mid-fourth century), beautifully explains that the Church's theology is confessed and practiced and manifested in her doxology. That very point is particularly obvious in Basil's eucharistic rite, which celebrates by way of thanksgiving his confession of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Specifically, the saving work of the Holy Trinity continuously culminates for us Christians in the Sacrament of the Altar, wherein the Holy Spirit reveals the incarnate Son of the Father to us, and whereby we are brought to the Father through Christ in the Spirit. Thus, where others theorize and speculate, Basil prays and praises and gives thanks, and he receives the Holy Communion.

It is not only implicit in Basil's eucharistic rite, but explicit in his great treatise On the Holy Spirit. There he persistently maintains that the foundation for all Christian prayer and doxology is the form and confession of Holy Baptism, as taught and given to us by Christ. That is to say, we are to pray in accordance with that great confession of the faith into which we have been baptized: in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Having brought us through the water by His Name, the Lord is our strength and our song, for He has become our salvation.

How to Contend for the Faith without Killing Your Brother

One of my young friends has asked me how to "defend the truth without brutally maiming one's erring brothers." That's a good and worthwhile question. Sadly, answering is easier than doing. It is only by the Spirit of Christ that we are enabled to accomplish it. Here is how I would answer the question, therefore, in accordance with His Word, which is the very means by which His Spirit works.

Your brother is not your enemy, no matter what either one of you may think of the other. If he is your brother, than he belongs to you in Christ Jesus (and if he is not your brother, the Lord would call him to become your brother in Christ). You have one enemy, that is the devil, who is a liar and a murderer. If your brother has fallen into the snare of the devil, then you and your brother have a common enemy, and now you are given to aid your brother. Defend the truth, therefore, in order to thwart the power of the devil's lies over your brother. Contend for the faith, in order that your brother may have life in Christ instead of death.

The goal is not to win the argument, but to win your brother. Your aim is to be reconciled to him; not by any compromise of the truth, but by harmonious agreement in the truth. If it is the faith and the truth for which you are concerned, then it is not about you, but about Christ Jesus. Not as though Jesus needed your help, but because your brother does.

Listen carefully and compassionately to what your brother has to say. Be patient and considerate. If he is in error, you will not be able to help him if you do not hear him accurately. He may not be far from the Kingdom of God, to begin with, but you may push him further away if you are too quick to speak before you have listened. Such impatience and such a rush and hurry to correct your brother, more likely stems from a defensiveness of your own sinful weakness and uncertainty than from the conviction of faith and the confidence of truth.

Bear in mind that your own faculties of intelligence, knowledge and wisdom, are fallen and imperfect. It is not only your body and your heart that are tainted by your sin, but also your mind. Allow that your own understanding may need to be corrected. Or, while it may be true that your faith is quite rightly informed, it may also be the case that your confession of the faith needs to be ordered with greater clarity.

Do not hesitate to acknowledge your own errors when they are brought to light by the Word of God. Do not fail to apologize where you have spoken poorly, and to confess your sin where you have spoken falsely. What is more, do not fail to apologize where you have spoken the truth in a manner unbecoming of a Christian. Do not apologize for the truth, of course, but own the error for whatever in your words and actions has denied that very truth which you confess.

In humility, consider others to be better than yourself. Think more highly, even of your erring brother, than you think of yourself. Be more zealous for your brother's needs than your own, especially if you have been given a greater knowledge and better understanding of the truth than he has received. If you have been granted wisdom, thank God for His grace and mercy toward you, and recognize the privilege and responsibility that He has given you to confess the faith according to His Word.

Just as the Lord does and accomplishes everything by His Word, which alone endures forever, defend the truth by speaking His Word. Say the same thing that God the Father speaks to you by His Son. In thus confessing His Word, it is God who speaks through you, and it is the Spirit who works in your brother. Speak that most powerful Word in humility, because it is the Word of God, whereas you are a sinful man or woman; but speak it with confidence, nevertheless, precisely because it is the Word of God, even when spoken by sinners. You do not empower it with your eloquence, nor do you render it impotent by your stammering tongue. If you would contend for the faith, do so by no other means than by the confession of God's Word.

In speaking the Word of God, you speak the Truth. His Word is Spirit and Truth. Ultimately, His Word is Christ, the incarnate Son, the anointed One, the Savior of all men. Thus, in speaking the Word of God, speak Christ above all. Speak the Law, because Christ is the fulfillment of the Law. Speak the Gospel, because Christ desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth. It is true that in speaking the Law, you do risk killing your brother; or, rather, it is the Lord who kills him, putting the old Adam to death. But in this you do no harm to your neighbor; for the Lord kills in order to make alive, He chastens and He heals. Speaking the Truth of His Word never does make things worse, although it may seem like it for the time being. Speaking the Truth of His Word is the only way to make anything better.

Speak the Truth of His Word — both painful and sweet, both deadly and life-giving, the Law and the Gospel — in season and out of season, but always in love. Speak to your brother in love, for love's sake, and not for your own vindication or pride or accomplishment or repuation. Speak the Word of Christ, who is Love incarnate. You are not really defending the truth, nor contending for the faith, if you speak for any other purpose than love. Certainly, the Word of Christ that you may yet confess shall accomplish the purpose for which He has spoken it, and your brother may thus benefit, in any case, by the grace of God. But as for what you are doing with your words and your contending, if you have not love, it is not of God that you are speaking. Yet, the love of Christ constrains you, and so, for the love of God, do speak.

Speak the Truth in love. Not only for love's sake, but let love itself be the very language that you speak. Not superficial or frivolous emotion, but the self-sacrificing love of God in Christ. That love alone melts hearts of stone and turns them from idolatry to serve the true and living God. This Love, incarnate in the Crucified One, speaks with gentleness, peace and forgiveness. That is how you are to speak, therefore, even to those who hate you and persecute you and say all manner of evil about you, for Jesus' sake.

Consider the example of our Lord, who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return. Instead, He entrusted Himself to the Father, who hands Him over to the Cross for our salvation. He does not destroy or cast aside His enemies, but by His Cross He draws all people to Himself. By His Cross — by His sacrifice of propitiation for your sins; and not only for your sins, but for the sins of the world — by His Cross, He has called you out of darkness into light, out of death into life, out of unbelief to faith, out of ignorance to the knowledge of the truth. It is by the Word of the Cross, therefore, that your brother is called from error to orthodoxy; not by violence or coercion, but by the powerful persuasion of compassionate forgiveness. Accompany your words with such compassion, and trust the Lord to vindicate you in the Resurrection of Christ from the dead.

Remember that the Lord has manifested His divine love for you, in that, while you were yet His enemy, Christ died for you. He has that very same love, also, for your brother: warts and all! Do you see your brother's sins and errors? Christ sees them, too, as well as He sees yours. And seeing them, He does not cast you away from His presence, but He moves to save you, both you and your brother. He does so by grace. That is the chief truth of the faith. Christ Jesus is the Savior of sinners. He has come not to call the righteous but sinners to Himself in repentance.

The Lord's desire for your brother is that he would receive and hold fast the forgiveness of his sins, which has already been obtained for him by the holy and precious blood of Christ, by His innocent suffering and death upon the Cross. That forgiveness of your brother's sins is one and the same forgiveness of Christ that you also depend upon for life and salvation. Therefore, irrespective of your brother's attitude toward you, whether or not he is willing to recognize his fault and receive your forgiveness, forgive your brother his trespasses against you.

Pray for your brother. Not in the way of the old Irish proverb, that God would either turn his heart or turn his ankle, but pray sincerely that your brother would be brought to repentant faith and sustained in the knowledge of the truth. It is almost impossible to retain any anger or bitterness toward someone, irrespective of the hurt that he or she may have caused, when you pray that Christ would deal with that person in accordance with His good and gracious will. You know that He desires all men to be saved, including your brother, so you can pray with absolute confidence for that. In addition, Christ has admonished you to pray for those who persecute you (and no less so for those who may not be persecuting you at all, but who are simply in error).

Pray for yourself, too, that the Lord would enlighten your mind with His Word and Holy Spirit, and that He would humble you unto repentance. Do not presume to contend for the faith by your own piety, holiness and willpower. Pride comes before a fall, but the Lord exalts those who humble themselves. Pray for that humility, therefore, and for the power of Christ that is made perfect in weakness. Pray that you may bear the Cross in such quiet and steadfast faith, that the world may see Christ Crucified in you and glorify the Father in Him.

Conduct yourself in fear and reverence, as all your thoughts, words and actions are carried out in the presence of God. Repent of your sins and return to the daily death and resurrection of your Holy Baptism. Speak only as the Lord your God has spoken to you. But do speak, always being ready to give a defense for the hope that is in you. Speak with charity, not only with your words but in your demeanor and by your actions, as one who is redeemed by the grace of God in Christ.

Forgiveness and charity do not require nor permit the tolerance of false doctrine. You rightly do contend for the faith in love for your brother, in love for the truth and purity of the Gospel, and in love for all your other neighbors in the world. But if your brother refuses to listen to you, be content with having spoken the Word of the Lord as clearly and faithfully as He has permitted. Rest in the knowledge that His Word, not your powers of persuasion, accomplish His intentions. And rejoice if you are counted worthy to suffer persecution for the sake of Christ and His Gospel. If you suffer on account of your own faults and failings, for those things repent; but for His Gospel, dare to risk all treasures, all comforts, pleasures and accolades. Contend only for the honor and glory of Christ Jesus, that His Name alone be great to the ends of the earth.

Not to us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Thee alone be all praise.

28 April 2008

How Many Does Your Church Worship on Any Given Sunday?

"When the Lord taught us the doctrine of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, He did not make arithmetic a part of this gift! He did not say, 'In the first, the second, and the third,' or 'In one, two, and three.' He blessed us with the knowledge given us by faith, by means of holy Names. We are saved through faith; numbers have been invented as symbols of quantity. These men bring ruin on themselves through every possible source; they have even turned man's ability to count against the faith!

"Numbers cannot change the nature of anything, yet these men honor arithmetic more than the divine nature, lest they give the Paraclete more honor than He is due! But the Unapproachable One is beyond numbers, wisest sirs; imitate the reverence shown by the Hebrews of old to the unutterable name of God. Count if you must, but do not malign the truth. Either honor Him Who cannot be described with your silence, or number holy things in accord with true religion.

"There is one God and Father, one Only-Begotten Son, and one Holy Spirit. We declare each Person to be unique, and if we must use numbers, we will not let a stupid airthmetic lead us astray to the idea of many gods.

"If we count, we do not add, increasing from one to many. We do not say, 'one, two, three,' or 'first, second, and third.' God says, 'I am the first and I am the last.' We have never to this present day heard of a second God. We worship God from God, confessing the uniqueness of the Persons, while maintaining the unity of the Monarchy. We do not divide divine knowledge and scatter the pieces to the winds; we behold one Form (so to speak) united by the invariableness of the Godhead, present in God the Father and God the Only-Begotten.

"The Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son; what the Father is, the Son is likewise and vice versa — such is the unity. As unique Persons, they are one and one; as sharing a common nature, both are one. How does one and one not equal two Gods? Because we speak of the emperor, and of the emperor's image — but not two emperors. The power is not divided, nor the glory separated. One is the dominion and authority over us; we do not send up glories to God, but glory; the honor given the image passes to the prototype. The image of the emperor is an image by imitation, but the Son is a natural image. . . .

"The Holy Spirit is one, and we speak of Him as unique, since through the one Son He is joined to the Father. He completes the all-praised and blessed Trinity. He is not ranked with the plurality of creation, but is described in the singular; this is sufficient evidence of His intimacy with the Father and the Son. He is not one of many but one only: just as there is one Father and one Son, there is one Holy Spirit." (St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, chapter 18; translated by David Anderson, 1980)

Thank You, Pastor Gehlbach

A dear friend and colleague of mine, the Reverend Gary Gehlbach, has preached his final sermon as the pastor of a congregation that he has served faithfully and well for the past seventeen years. He has had to relinquish his pulpit and altar and office in that place, not for any unfaithfulness in teaching or practice, nor for any impiety or impropriety in his Christian faith and life, but for a lack of money. The Lord has instructed His Church not to muzzle the ox while it is treading the grain, but this faithful servant of the Word has now been muzzled twice over. He has not been granted to live by the Gospel that he preached; and now he is no longer granted to preach, leastwise not in that place where he was called by the Lord to serve.

I have not had the privilege of hearing Pastor Gehblach preach to me from his pulpit. But he has preached the Gospel to me, nonetheless, in various things that he has written here and there, and in fraternal conversations over the years, for which I am profoundly grateful. His confession of the Word of God has, so far as I have ever seen or heard it, been clear and consistent and resoundingly evangelical. What is more, the witness and testimony of his life and demeanor have been a powerful example and encouragement to me in my own Christian vocations. For he is a gentleman in every sense of that word, a pious and faithful man, a kind and gracious man, a good husband to his wife, a good father to his family, and a good friend to his neighbors and colleagues. His patience in the midst of hardship, his integrity in the face of every challenge and difficulty, his perseverance under the Cross, have on more than one occasion humbled me and called me to repentance for my prideful impatience, my fearful despair, and my whining complaints.

I know Pastor Gehlbach's character and commitments. I know the orthodoxy of his doctrine, the clarity of his confession, the diligence of his labors in the Lord. I know his conscientiousness with respect to the Office of the Ministry, and his steadfastness in remaining at his post long after other men would have turned tail and run away. I know his loving care for his family, for I have witnessed it first hand, and his generosity toward others even in the midst of his own wants and needs. He has seemed to me an especially good example of St. Paul's contentment with that which the Lord has provided, even though it has been far less than the wealth and riches of most others. If I have ever heard him complain, it has been for the sake of his family, and for the needs of his congregation, that he should somehow be able to serve and provide for them more. Yet, I know that, notwithstanding his frailities and weaknesses as a sinful and mortal man, he has served them all faithfully and well with the gifts entrusted to his stewardship on their behalf. The faith and love and piety of his dear wife and children are further evidence of that very thing.

So here is a pointed example of the theology of the Cross, which pertains also to the life of the Church on earth and to the ministers of the Gospel. Here is a man who has preached and taught and catechized, who has visited and cared for his people, who has administered the means of grace in accordance with the Word of Christ, and who has diligently fulfilled his office. He has done what he was called and sent to do. And for all of that, what he and his family now see and feel and experience is nothing but empty pockets, a quiet ending and sad goodbyes. This breaks my heart, but I am ashamed even to say so; for how shall I associate my sadness with that of my dear friend and colleague, who has actually suffered and sacrificed in these ways that I have not.

The mysteries of the Cross are God's ways, and they are contrary to the way we think as men. It is not only for our sins that we suffer, but sometimes for our faithfulness and righteousness in Christ. That Cross appears foolish and futile, as the Lord's own Crucifixion appeared an utter shame, a crushing defeat, a sad ending to a promising but ultimately failed life. There is no sense that we can make of it. It remains the Lord's good work, not ours, even when He works the Cross in us and in our lives. The old Adam in us is crucified, dead and buried; and still the New Man who is raised in us does not yet live by sight — for we are lifted up by the Cross of Christ to see by faith His Glory hidden and His power made perfect in weakness.

We cannot measure faithfulness by what our eyes perceive to be the "end results." A pastor and a congregation may do everything exactly right, just as they are given to do, and yet the number of people and the amount of money may dwindle and disappear. Elsewhere, all caution may be thrown to the wind, another "gospel" may be preached and practiced than that of Christ and His Apostles, and so many people may flock to it that bigger barns must be built while careless souls are being put at ease (to their own final destruction). Or, all of this may be turned entirely around, for the Lord remains the true and only God of heaven and earth, who establishes the limits and the boundaries of the land and sea and sky and man. Faithfulness is measured in the midst of it all, not by the outward "results," but by the Gospel of the Cross, by the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the Name of the Crucified Christ Jesus. However few or many seats may be filled, the souls that are won for the Kingdom of heaven are converted from death to life by that preaching of Christ Crucified, and by no other ways or means than Him.

Pastor Gehlbach, as your brother in Christ, as your colleague in the Office of the Holy Ministry, and as your friend, I thank you for your faithfulness. Thank you for staying the course and fulfilling your duties all these many years. Thank you for your good example, and, better yet, for your eloquent speaking of the Gospel to me on any number of occasions. You have not known all the good that you have done; or, rather, the good that Christ has done through you for others. You have simply done what you have been called and given to do; for that, above all, I thank you and commend you most sincerely. There is nothing more nor less to be said or done than that. For the One who has called you is faithful, and your labors in Him are never in vain. They have not been, nor shall they be, even now. In this, I do not presume to answer the questions of your heart and mind, nor by any means to dismiss your hurts and fears and sorrows, but I do proclaim to you the One who loves you dearly, who has given Himself for you, who has forgiven all your sins, and who even now delights in you as His very own. You are of more value to Him than many sparrows, more precious than the young ravens which do cry, and lovelier in His sight than all the lilies of the field. He has never yet forgotten you; neither will He ever leave you nor forsake you. This is most certainly true.

27 April 2008

"The Present Conditions of the Churches"

"To what can I compare our present condition? It is like a naval battle, kindled by old quarrels, fought by men who love war, who cultivate hatred for one another, and have long experience in naval warfare. Look at the fearful picture I am painting for you; see the rival fleets rushing against each other on both sides, and finally they converge in a burst of desperate fury. Imagine, if you will, the ships driven into confusion by a raging tempest, while thick darkness falls from the clouds and blackens the entire scene, so that signals cannot be recognized, and one can no longer distinguish between friend and foe.

"To add more details to this picture, imagine the sea swollen and whirling up from the deeps, while torrents of rain pour from the clouds and the terrible waves rise higher and higher. All four winds meet together and dash one fleet against the other. Meanwhile some of the combatants are betraying each other; some are deserting in the middle of the battle; while others at the same time are compelled, while the wind drives them on, to urge their boats forward against the enemy. The men become jealous of those in higher authority, and lusting for power among themselves, they split into factions and begin to slaughter each other.

"Think of the confused and unintelligible din raging over the entire sea, from the howling winds, the splintering of ships, the boiling surf, the cries of the warriors as they give vent to their passions with every kind of noise, so that not a single word from the admiral or pilot can be heard. The disorder and confusion is beyond description, but the worst evil of all soon raises its head: once men despair for their lives, they claim license for every sort of wickedness. Suppose they are stricken with the incurable sickness of megalomania; then they will not cease their efforts to defeat one another even as their ships sink into the abyss.

"Now I ask you to turn from this fanciful description to the evil reality. When the Arian schism was first denounced as a sect opposed to the Church of God [at the Council of Nicaea, a.d. 325], did it not appear then to stand alone? But when the enemy's policy against us was changed from one of long and bitter contention to open warfare, then, as everyone knows, the war was split into a myriad of factions, so that all men succumbed to irreconcilable hatred, either through individual suspicion or party spirit. What storm at sea was ever so savage as this tempest of the Churches? It has moved every boundary established by the Fathers; every foundation, every established bulwark of doctrine has been shaken.

"Everything still remaining afloat is shaken by unsound teaching and thrown back into the absyss. We attack one another; we are overthrown by one another. If the enemy does not strike us first we are wounded by our comrade; if he is wounded and falls, he is trampled by his fellow soldier. Although we are united in our hatred of common foes, no sooner do they retreat, and we find enemies in each other. Who could even list all the casulaties?

"Some have fallen in battle with the enemy; some have been treacherously betrayed by their allies; others are the victim of their leaders' incompetence. Entire churches are dashed and shattered on the sunken reefs of subtle heresy, while other enemies of the Spirit of salvation have seized the helm and made shipwreck of the faith.

"The tumults devised by the princes of this world have brought about the downfall of the people with violence surpassing hurricane or tornado. A darkness full of gloom and misery has descended on the Churches: the lights of the world, established by God to enlighten the souls of the people, have been exiled. The terror of universal destruction already hangs over us, yet they continue enjoying their revalries, ignoring any sense of danger. Private enmities are more important to these men than the struggle of an entire people; they prefer the glory of subduing their opponents to securing the common welfare, and they love the immediate delights of worldly honor more than the rewards awaiting us in the age to come.

"So all men alike, depending on how much power each one has, rush upon each other with murderous hands. They fight against each other with harsh words; they nearly fill the Church with the meaningless cries and unintelligible shouts of their incessant clamor. They continually pervert the teachings of true religion, sometimes by adding to them, and other times by reducing them. On the one hand are those who confuse the Persons [of the Holy Trinity] and revert to Judaism; on the other hand are those who oppose the natures, and are swept away into Greek polytheism. Inspired Scripture is powerless to mediate between these two parties, nor can apostolic tradition offer them terms of reconciliation. One honest word and your friendship with them is finished; one disagreement with their opinions is sufficent pretext for a quarrel. No oath is so effective for holding a conspiracy together as common fellowship in error. Every man is a theologian; it does not matter that his soul is covered with more blemishes than can be counted. The result is that these innovators find an abundance of men to join their factions.

"So ambitious, self-elected men divide the government of the Churches among themselves, and reject the authority of the Holy Spirit. The ordinances of the Gospel have been thrown into confusion everywhere for lack of discipline; the jostling for high positions is incredible, as every ambitious man tries to thrust himself into high office. The result of this lust for power is that wild anarchy prevails among the people; the exhortations of those in authority are rendered utterly void and unprofitable, since every man in his arrogant delusion thinks that it is more his business to give orders to others than to obey anyone himself.

"Since no human voice is powerful enough to be heard in such an uproar, I reckon that silence is more profitable than words. If the words of the Preacher are true: 'The words of the wise are heard in quiet,' then with the present state of affairs, any discussion of them at all is scarcely appropriate. Moreover, I am restrained by the Prophet's words: 'Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time,' a time when some trip their neighbors, others kick a man already fallen, others applaud, but no one is sympathetic enough to lend a helping hand to the weary, even though the old law says, 'if you see the beast of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it, but you shall help him to lift it up.' This is certainly not the case now. Why not?

"The love of many has grown cold; concord among brothers is no more; the very name of unity is ignored; Christian compassion or sympathetic tears cannot be found anywhere. There is no one to welcome someone weak in faith, but mutual hatred blazes so fiercely among brothers that a neighbor's fall brings them more joy than their own household's success. And just as a contagious disease spreads from the sick to the healthy during an epidemic, in these days we have become like everyone else: imitators of evil, carried away by this wicked rivalry possessing our souls. Those who judge the erring are merciless and bitter, while those judging the upright are unfair and hostile. This evil is so firmly rooted in us that we have become more brutish than the beasts: At least they herd together with their own kindred, but we reserve our most savage warfare for the members of our own household.

"These are the reasons I should have kept quiet, but love pulled me into the opposite direction, the love that is not self-seeking, but desires to conquer every obstacle put in her way by time and cirucmstance. I learned from the example of the children in Babylon that when there is no one to support the cause of true religion, we must accomplish our duties alone. They sang a hymn to God from the midst of the flames, not thinking of the multitudes who rejected the truth, but content to have each other, though there were only three of them.

"Therefore the cloud of our enemies does not dismay us, but we place our trust in the Spirit's help, and boldly proclaim the truth. . . . Either through me or through others the Lord will provide a full answer for any remaining questions, since He gives knowledge to those He has chosen, by the Holy Spirit." (St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, chapter 30; written in the latter half of the fourth century; translated by David Anderson, 1980)

26 April 2008

Preaching the Catholic Christ

The catholicity of the Church, as confessed in the Creeds, is not simply its universal spread throughout the whole world. It is especially the gracious and glorious presence of Christ — in all His fullness and with all His gifts and benefits — in each and every parish of His Church on earth, wherever His Gospel is preached and administered in His Name.

What I mean by "the preaching of the catholic Christ," therefore, is the preaching of Christ in all His fullness, with all His gifts and benefits. Such preaching not only proclaims what He has done for everyone (once-for-all); it actually delivers every good thing and all that He continues to do for each person in each place.

This preaching of the catholic Christ is essential to the catholicity of His Christian Church. It is divinely necessary, He says, that repentance be preached in His Name to all the nations (St. Luke 24:46-47). Such preaching bestows the forgiveness of sins, precisely because it is the preaching of Christ, the Crucified and Risen One. We hear it already in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:36-39). It is the continuation of all that Christ Jesus still does and teaches, the continuation of His Holy Gospel (Acts 1:1-2). Upon this Rock, He builds His Church.

The preaching of the catholic Christ is kerygmatic (proclamatory) and catechetical, announcing the fulfillment of the Holy Scriptures in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. It opens the Scriptures to reveal them as the Word of the Word-made-Flesh, who has entered into His Glory by the way of suffering and death. Such preaching is the Voice of the Father speaking His Son and breathing His life-giving Spirit into man. By this Word and Spirit, ears and minds and hearts are opened to recognize Christ Jesus in His Church, and to believe in Him.

This preacing of the catholic Christ is the preaching of repentance, because it is the preaching of the Law and of the Gospel. Not simply facts and information "about" the Law and the Gospel, but the commands and prohibitions of God the Lord, which accuse and execute the sinner, and then the very Word of forgiveness which raises the dead man up with Christ to newness of life. Learning to preach the Law in this way, as the Lord's own commandment, forbidding every manner of sin and requiring every act of love — and learning to preach the Gospel in this way, as the Lord's own voice of Holy Absolution, which does and gives exactly as it says (the forgiveness of sins) — that is the perennial challenge of real preaching. It is far easier to scold, or lecture, or inform, or entertain, or simply to ramble on a bit before stopping . . . but none of that is real preaching, and it doesn't accomplish what needs to be done in the Name of the Lord.

The preaching of the catholic Christ is not generic or bland or the same every week. It is not the proverbial vicar's sermon that tries to include the "whole counsel of God" from Adam and Eve to the final judgment. The "whole counsel of God" is embodied in the Person of the catholic Christ, who is preached concretely from the appointed Holy Gospel of the Day. Such preaching tells the story of Christ Jesus, the narrative of His Gospel, in such a way as to draw the congregation into that story. It is not "once upon a time," but "now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:2).

This preaching of the catholic Christ is not simply preaching "about" Him (although it's always good to be talking about Jesus), but, better still, it is really His own preaching. The pastor preaches in the Name of Jesus, in His stead, from within His Office. The pastor preaches in the same way that he baptizes and absolves, as the one who has been called and ordained to speak with the voice of Christ Himself. In preaching, therefore, it is Christ Jesus who is speaking to His people, calling them to repentance, forgiving their sins, giving them His life and salvation.

In other words, Christ Jesus is the proper Subject of the preaching in a two-fold sense: both as the One who is "doing the verb" (i.e. He is the Preacher), and as the Content of the preaching. Christ is the One who preaches, and Christ is the One who is preached.

This preaching of Christ necessarily includes the preaching of His means of grace. Not simply as dogmatic facts, nor as legalistic obligations, nor as automatic downloads and deposits of divine favor, but as the real continuation of the Gospel narrative in this time and place. In this way, the Words and works of Christ Jesus are revealed to be happening here and now. Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Holy Communion are thus declared to be the genuine fruits and benefits of the Cross, and the Christian's foretaste of the Resurrection and the Life.

Even so, "sacramental preaching" does not primarily describe a didactic preaching "about" the Sacraments. It rather refers to the preaching of the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Certainly, there should be ongoing instruction (catechesis) in the Sacraments within the life of the Church, also in sermons from time to time, especially as the Propers of the Day may suggest. But the preaching itself is properly sacramental when it delivers the flesh and blood of Christ — from His Cross and in His Resurrection — with His forgiveness of sins. That is to say, the preaching is sacramental when it proclaims Christ Jesus Himself into the ears and hearts and lives of His people. Ordinary words cannot do or accomplish such amazing things, but preaching is the Word of Christ, with which He Himself is actively present and at work.

St. Athanasius of Alexandria's beautiful treatise On the Incarnation is a marvelous case in point: It barely mentions the Sacraments, if at all; yet, it is a powerful preaching of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, crucified in the flesh for us mortal sinners, and bodily raised from the dead for our salvation. On the Incarnation is an example of "sacramental preaching," not because it discusses the means of grace per se, but because it is a means of grace: a pointed proclamation of the Gospel to and for the hearer, which is itself a call to faith in the forgiveness, life and salvation of Christ our Lord. For such preaching of the Gospel is the way and means by which the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the entire Christian Church on earth and keeps it united with Christ Jesus in the one true faith.

Similarly, the preaching of the catholic Christ is "liturgical preaching," not so much when it incorporates references to the order of service or incidental remarks on the Propers of the Day, but when it serves its own place and purpose in the order of service. The sermon is "liturgical" when it proclaims what has been read in the appointed Lections as fulfilled in the hearing of the people, and when it brings them by that particular Word to the Altar of Christ in repentance and faith (whether or not there is any explicit reference to the Sacrament). "Liturgical preaching," properly speaking, is not a lecture or a commentary on the "parts" of the Divine Service; rather, it is an integral part of the Divine Service, and so should it be undertaken and delivered as such. Sometimes it will say quite a lot about one or the other of the means of grace; other times only a little bit; sometimes it will comment on all of the means of grace, whereas at other times it may not make any explicit reference to any of them. But however much or little it may say explicitly, the preaching of the catholic Christ will always have the Sacrament of the Altar especially in view as the very height toward which the entire Divine Service is moving.

In all events, the liturgical and sacramental preaching of the catholic Christ has for its entire goal and purpose the forgiveness of sins in His Name. Whatever other benefits may be derived — including the new life in Christ that arises with faith in His forgiveness — everything else is contingent upon this most necessary preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His Name. No preacher should ever ascend the pulpit with any other intention or agenda than that; nor should he presume to preach without that goal and purpose of forgiveness in view.

I have often found, myself, that my best preaching (which ultimately has nothing to do with cleverness or eloquence, but the Gospel) has occurred on those occasions when I have specifically reminded myself that the point to preaching is the forgiveness of sins. So I have written these thoughts out loud to remind myself of that very thing, and thereby also, perhaps, to serve and assist my fellow preachers of the Gospel. To Christ alone be all glory and honor and praise, with the Father and His Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

25 April 2008

A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action

I just remembered that today is the Feast of St. Mark, the Evangelist. This is not the sort of thing that I would normally forget, but I'm having trouble keeping track of what day it is. It also doesn't help that I'm in no position over here to celebrate this Feast in the way that I would be doing if I were back home in South Bend. For now, my vocation has taken me from the Ministry of the Table to the Ministry of the Word, and I shall have to be content with confessing the faith in honor of St. Mark, without the opportunity to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, to take up the chalice of salvation and call on the Name of the Lord from His Altar at Emmaus. It is not the first time that I have been in Novosibirsk on this festival day, as it happened that way nine years ago, too.

Interestingly, it was also nine years ago, while I was here in Novosibirsk, that the Lord's Supper working group of the Lutheran Hymnal Project began its careful study and discussion of the early eucharistic rites, including the Anaphora of St. Mark. That great prayer of thanksgiving of the Church in Alexandria was not written by the holy evangelist, but it was named in his honor. Tradition holds that St. Mark took the Gospel to Alexandria (in Egypt) and founded the Church there. To whatever extent that particular tradition may be rooted in the actual historical events, the Church has rightly understood that to be Christian is to be established upon the foundation of the Apostles and Evangelists of Christ our Lord. Someone brought the Gospel According to St. Mark to Egypt, and someone preached that Holy Gospel to the people there. In that respect, therefore, it is quite sure and certain that St. Mark was a founder of Alexandrian Christianity. And by the Word of Christ recorded by St. Mark, we too have received the Gospel of life and salvation.

Actually, there were many pastors and bishops in succession who preached the Holy Gospel in Alexandria, including the early church father, St. Athanasius, whom I lectured on today. That sainted, long-suffering bishop will be commemorated one week from today, the 2nd of May, on what I reckon to be the 1635th anniversary of his heavenly birthday. We were looking especially at his great treatise On the Incarnation, which ought to be required reading for every Christian at some point or another in life. Such a splendid preaching of Christ and Him Crucified is seldom found, and it is a fitting testimony to the presumed legacy of St. Mark. It is all the more remarkable for the fact that it betrays no hint of the Arian controversies that rocked the fourth century, nor breathes any sort of bellicose or polemical spirit; even its apologetic refutation of the Jews and the Pagans is offered in the spirit of calling all men to repentance and the knowledge of the truth. For Christ has sent the Gospel to be preached to all creation, and has promised that all who believe and are baptized into Him shall be saved. From St. Mark to St. Athanasius to us.

St. Mark's Gospel is distinguished by its fast pace and vigorous activity. Here we are given the Lion of Judah, who comes to tread the serpent and bitter death beneath His heel into the dust. In the past, I have referred to the work of this second evangelist as "the action figure Gospel," which appeals to the young men. It is Jesus in action that St. Mark preaches, the Lord of Life hard at it, always moving, always doing. His doing culminates in His voluntary suffering and death. That is done to Him, but He is no passive victim. He knows where He is headed and what He is about. He takes up His Cross willingly and lays down His life of His own accord. He says that explicitly in the record of St. John, but He does it no less explicitly in the record of St. Mark. The latter's Gospel is especially devoted to the Cross; it has been described as a Passion account with an introduction, and that is about right. No other Gospel more clearly depicts the fight of which Dr. Luther sings: "It was a strange and dreadful strife, when life and death contended. The victory remained with life; the reign of death was ended."

Another long-standing tradition concerning St. Mark understands him to be the rich young man who once inquired of Jesus how to inherit eternal life (St. Mark 10:17). I am quite inclined to accept that tradition, and along with it to delight in several other related references unique to St. Mark. It is well known that the rich young man, upon that first encounter, went away sorrowful, because he had many possessions and was reluctant to let go of them and follow Jesus. Yet, the Lord Jesus looked upon him in love (St. Mark 10:21), and what was impossible for that man (or any other) was not impossible for the One who alone is good, who is true God and perfect Man. Though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor; He liquidated everything, even His very body and life, that He might bequeath the inheritance of His Kingdom to us.

For St. Mark the Gospel is the Cross and Passion of the Christ, and so too for those who would be His disciples. To live with Him in His Kingdom is to share His Cross and follow Him. It is to be baptized with His Baptism: into His death, in order to share His Life. It is to drink the Cup that He drinks; though for Him it is the Cup of God's wrath and bitter woe, so that for us it is the Cup of Blessing and Salvation. He drinks it down to the dregs, in order to fill it to the brim and overflowing with His Blood of the New Testament, which He pours out for us and for the many for the forgiveness of sins. So too is He stripped naked on the Cross, that we may be clothed with His robes of righteousness.

That's what He did for St. Mark. For there is that marvelous little passage in his Gospel, which the children find so captivating and even amusing, concerning the young man in the Garden of Gethsemane, who slips out of his linen sheet and runs away naked at the onset of the Passion (St. Mark 14:51). If this is the same young man who had previously declined to give up his riches, he has followed Jesus to the point of giving up everything now! Yet, the Lord would not have His disciples found naked, but clothed with immortality (2 Corinthians 5:1-4). As He once clothed Adam and Eve with the skins of sacrifice, so does the once-for-all sacrifice of His own flesh and blood clothe all who are baptized into Him (Galatians 3:27). His garments are removed and distributed to us, so that His nakedness and shame should fully cover all of ours.

And surely He has done it! For the next time we are told of that "young man" in St. Mark's Holy Gospel, he is sitting in the tomb whence the crucified Jesus has risen, "wearing a white robe" (St. Mark 16:5). Yes, of course, we know from the other evangelists that it was an angel (one of two, actually), but St. Mark records the historical facts with theological intent, and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he thus catechizes us in the significance of Holy Baptism. The rich young man has been called to repentance, turned away from the idolatry of his many possessions to follow Christ Jesus to the Cross. He has been stripped naked of all his own prideful self-righteousness, in order to be crucified, dead and buried with his Lord. But, see now, he emerges from the tomb in the Resurrection of that same Lord, Jesus Christ, and he has been cleansed and clothed in the purity of that New Man.

Who has believed his report? To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? With man it is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God. He does it by His Gospel. And He has done it by the Gospel of that beloved young man, St. Mark, by whose poverty many have now been made rich. For his voice has gone out into all the earth — from Galilee to Alexandria, to South Bend, and even to Siberia — his words to the ends of the world. How beautiful, indeed, the feet of him who was sent with such tidings of good things.

23 April 2008

At What Point Does It Cease to Be a Skirt?

It has warmed up since this past Saturday in Siberia, and now the girls in their stilleto heels are showing off their calves and more. I don't wish to be prudish or unkind, but at what point does a skirt cease to be a skirt and constitute little more than a belt or a waistband? I've trained myself pretty well to avert my eyes, but I'm in danger of running into things if I must cast my gaze so low as to avoid the sights that spring unbidden to my eyes. It's no wonder that I notice shoes!

If wearing heels in the snow is not a matter of immodesty, wearing a skirt that disappears under the hem of a spring jacket surely is. I am embarrassed for these girls, and I want to know where their fathers are (or where they were when their daughters were learning how to dress). Is it the goal to tease and tantalize the boys? If so, I'm sure it must be working, but I don't believe it's wise. Nor do I want my sons to be so enticed by such temptations of the flesh. Nor myself, either, frankly. It is already hard enough to keep one's heart pure and one's thoughts chaste, while surrounded by such a constant barrage of "sexy" images. For all the pictures that we can hardly help but see on the television and in the movies, on the covers of books and magazines, and popping out at us from billboards and other advertisements, it is all the more difficult to avoid the lust of the eyes when confronted with bodies on display in the shops and on the streets.

I've noted several recent blogs, all of them by women, which bemoan a lack of modesty on the part of many young ladies, and which ask the girls to dress more becomingly and appropriately. I appreciate such observations and requests, and I concur. There was the suggestion made, in one case, that Lutherans are reluctant to speak forthrightly on such matters, lest we become legalistic and offend against the freedom of the Gospel. There was another comment that men are shy about saying anything at all, lest we appear to be giving undue attention to such things. So perhaps I am taking a double risk in thinking out loud about this topic of feminine modesty. Nevertheless, it seems to me that something does need to be said, and, as both a pastor and a father, it also seems to me that I ought to be among those who are saying it.

The early church father, Tertullian, did tend to be a bit legalistic in his theology, the more so toward the end of his life (in the early third century). However, he addressed himself to matters of real concern, and his critique of worldly behavior on the part of Christians often hits the mark. His legalism, then, will not be rightly corrected by resorting to licentiousness, but rather by the preaching of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins. Tertullian's biggest problem was his growing uncertainty about the possibility of repentance and the availability of forgiveness for post-Baptismal sins. We Lutherans understand with evangelical clarity that the entire Christian life is one of daily repentance, the drowning of the old Adam and the resurrection of the New Man in Christ through faith in His Gospel of forgiveness. We shouldn't be afraid to preach the Law, as though it were the Law that is the problem! Sin is the problem, and the Law exposes it for the deadly cancer that it is, opening up the patient for the healing work of the Good Physician.

Tertullian wrote more than once on matters pertaining to feminine modesty, specifically with reference to apparel. In one such treatise, he discusses the wearing of veils in the Church. The custom was for the married women to do so, but there was some question and disagreement as to whether the young virgin women should also be veiled. Evidently, many of the virgins in Tertullian's city of Carthage were not, and he argues vociferously that they should be. I'm not inclined to advocate the wearing of veils per se; although I do think that Tertullian's underlying argument for modesty remains appropriate (especially in view of the fact that we are a long way from veils in our cultural climate). I am more intrigued by his critique of the "veils" that some of the married women were wearing, and I was reminded of those comments by some of the "skirts" that I have regretfully noticed on this warm Siberian afternoon. Here are his words:

"We warn you as well, women of the other modesty who have rushed into marriage, lest you so fade away from the teaching of the veil, that, because you are not able to cast that veil aside, you destroy it by another means, walking neither covered nor bare-headed. For certain women are covered on top of the head to a limited extent by strips of linen — lest they constrict the head, I believe — not hanging down as far as the ears. I feel sorry if they have such infirm hearing that they are not able to hear through a covering. Let them know that the whole head is the woman. The limits and boundaries of it extend as far as from where clothing begins. The veil needs to be as long as the hair is when it is let down, in order that the neck too may be wrapped. Yet, there are those who during the Psalms, or at any mention of God, continue uncovered, who even when they are about to spend time in prayer, most readily place a fringe or a piece of cloth or whatever thread they like over the top of their head and consider themselves covered. They say falsely that their head is only that size. Others, whose palm of their hand is clearly greater than every fringe and thread, do not abuse their head any less; just like an ostrich, which, when it has to hide itself, conceals only its head and leaves behind the rest of itself out in the open" (Tertullian, The Veiling of Virgins, excerpts from chapter 17, as translated by Geoffrey D. Dunn, 2004).

If Tertullian is prone to legalism in his theology, it is no less legalistic to make a pretense of modesty while abusing the outermost limits of propriety. Modesty, in our day, does not require or imply the wearing of a veil, as I think most Lutherans would readily agree. However, St. Paul's admonitions pertaining to the order of creation (1 Corinthians 11) and the Christological implications of the Man's headship and the Woman's modesty, both within the family and in the household of the Church, certainly do still apply. Women ought to cover themselves, with more than a cloth or a fringe or a thread, not only to avoid causing the men to stumble and fall, but with due reverence unto Christ their Head, as members of His Body and Bride, the Church.

Tertullian is at his best and most compelling, I believe, when he declares a Christian ethic from the significance of Holy Baptism. He famously quips in one place that we Christians are like little fishes who are born in the water and live our whole lives in the water. In the rites and ceremonies of that Sacrament, we have renounced the devil with all his pomp and circumstance, all his works and all his ways, and we have sworn that our life is now and ever to be found in the Church of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Thus are we betrothed and given to our heavenly Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, who has redeemed us from futility and purchased us to be His own at the cost of His blood, by His bodily suffering and death upon the Cross. Our bodies and our lives, therefore, do not belong to us, but to Him who loves us, who has given Himself for us, and who shall raise us with Himself to live forever in a bodily resurrection from the dead.

In Holy Baptism, we have been stripped naked of all impurity and clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ our Lord. He covers us with Himself, with His forgiveness, with His love. He is a Husband jealous for His Bride, and He will not suffer her to be shamed or ravaged by the world. Shall we then shame ourselves by putting on display the bodies that He has washed and cleansed from sin and every evil, as though they were now back on the market for consumption?

A Lutheran evangelical ethic will resist every urge to dictate fashion choices and decisions, but that is not to say that "anything goes." We live in the joyous freedom of the Gospel, surely, but we exercise that freedom in faith and love. Not to gratify ourselves; neither in vanity nor in lust; but to reverence the Lord Jesus Christ with heart and mind and mouth and body, and to serve one another in His holy Name, with which we are adorned by His grace. Proper modesty is not a matter of shame or prudishness, but of humility before God, the Creator and Redeemer of our bodies. It proceeds in charity from the heart in the confidence of the resurrection, knowing that He will raise our mortal bodies from the dust and glorify them to be like unto His own glorious body. With fear, love and trust in Him, we recognize that our bodies matter, and that what we do with our bodies matters. So do we confess — with the words of our mouths and the conduct of our bodies — that we belong to the Lord who bought us, and that we are not for sale at any price.

Dads, teach and train your daughters to dress in a way that demonstrates their real beauty, which is first of all the Gospel of their Savior, Jesus Christ; so also, clothe them with your own paternal love and affection, your forgiveness and protection. In care and concern for their well-being, for their hearts as well as their bodies, warn them against ways of dressing that will attract all the wrong kinds of attention. Do not berate them, but do not neglect to help them, to guard and guide and serve them in this way.

Moms, exemplify the modesty becoming of a Christian woman. Honor your own husbands, and no less so your heavenly Bridegroom, by the way in which you dress and speak and act. Do not be flirtatious, and neither invite nor welcome the flirtatious advances of others. Do not instruct your daughters according to one standard while living by another standard in your own conduct: whether in the books and magazines that you read, the movies that you choose to watch, or the clothes that you wear. If your clothes are not immodest in what they reveal, let them not be immodest in what they cost, either.

Boys, avert your eyes and flee temptation as best you can, and do not excuse your own lust on account of the poor choices that some of the girls around you might make. Look them in the eye, instead of elsewhere, irrespective of what they are wearing. Honor them as you would honor and respect your mother or your sister. If a young lady is a Christian, she is your sister in Christ, a daughter of your own Mother, the Church; and if she is not a Christian, still, she is one for whom Christ died, an object of His compassion. Treat her with the courtesy and kindness of that gentle Man who has laid down His life for her. Befriend her honestly, and, if you would win her heart, then woo her in the way that Christ woos His Church: not by selfish lust, but self-sacrificing love.

Girls, dress yourselves beautifully and becomingly. The Lord has made you lovely by His love for you, and He would also have your own husband delight in your beauty someday. For that very reason, do not profane yourself, your body and your life, by the way in which you dress. It is not the love of Christ, nor any sort of true love, that is inspired by showing off your body in public. You may well be innocent in your heart, but it's not your heart that all the boys are looking at. Of course it is true that they must guard their own hearts and minds against lust, and that you cannot be held responsible for their sinful thoughts and actions. Yet, you do not help them, nor do you do yourself any favors, when you dress and act provocatively. Flirting may be fun, but teasing with temptation is both sinful and dangerous. Please don't.

Don't wear your shirts too tight or too low. It's much easier for a young man to look at your face and look you in the eye, to speak to you and relate to you as a person, if he isn't wrestling with the urge to check out your chest. The fact is that God created boys to like girls, to appreciate their form and femininity; unfortunately, sin has perverted that whole business, so the strong attraction that is felt is not so easily governed according to God's good intentions.

The same thing goes for the lower half of your hourglass figure. Don't wear your jeans too tight, and do not wear your skirts too short. I'm not a fashion expert, and I'm not going to get out a tape measure, but your skirt should be longer than your jacket, and you should be able to sit down without flashing the world with your underwear.

No matter what anyone else may think or say or do; whether or not your daddy gives you the attention that you need from him; whether the boys even look at you or think you're pretty; whether you have a boyfriend, or wonder if you'll ever get married; whether you've been hurt or abused; whether you've fallen into sin and already given away more of yourself than you should, there is one Man who loves you with a perfect and eternal love, who shall never leave you nor forsake you. He does not take from you, but gives you Himself and every good thing. He knows your sin, but He removes it with His free and full forgiveness. He knows your doubts and fears and worries and anxiety, and for all of that He grants you the peace and comfort of His strong embrace. He does not measure you by your appearance, but He sees you all-beautiful and gorgeous by His grace. He does not evaluate you by what you wear, but He dresses you in the white wedding gown of His own righteousness, holiness, innocence and blessedness. He has washed your body, as well as your soul, with tender mercy and compassion. He has given His own body for you, and He gives His own body to you, that you may have abundant life in Him. He is your Life, your Light and your Salvation. He is ever and always your one true Love.

As that perfect gentle Man has dressed you with Himself, and He does not leave you naked and ashamed, dress yourself with Him.

20 April 2008

Honoring the Fathers

Before I ever became a daddy with daughters and sons of my own, of course I was myself a son with a Daddy of my own. Today is his birthday, in honor of which I offer him "cheers," with thanks to God for this dear man through whom I received my life and my name and much more. Indeed, I have been more than doubly blessed to have had my Dad also as my gradeschool teacher, as my pastor while I was in high school and college, and as a colleague in the Office of the Holy Ministry for these past twelve years. In this he has been my father several times over, and there is no sufficient thanks with which I can fully repay my debt of gratitude.

Aside from all the benefits of body and soul, heart and mind, which I have received from God the Father through my father here on earth, I am in any case instructed and commanded to honor my father. Luther rightly understood and taught that, with this Word, the Lord has clothed my earthly father with His own divine and holy majesty, even though it is hidden under the frailty and weakness of mortal flesh. My Dad is a good man, but it is not finally for his own goodness that I am to honor him. Rather, it is unto the Lord, in faith and love toward God, that I honor my father, love and cherish him, serve and obey him. My father on earth is not perfect (nor is his son), but he is the man whom my Father in heaven has given me in this office and vocation, and for this gift I return thanks.

Today is also the commemoration of Johannes Bugenhagen, Dr. Luther's pastor in Wittenberg, a stalwart confessor of the faith and reformer of the church in the sixteenth century. He is a father in Christ, also for me, as he was Luther's spiritual father by the preaching of the Gospel. We give thanks to God on this day, as we should, for His gift of this pastor. In particular, we honor Father Bugenhagen, with thanksgiving to God in Christ, by remembering and retaining his confession of the faith, and also by honoring those spiritual fathers who are called by God and sent to us as our own pastors now. Considering that such a great teacher of the faith as Dr. Luther also had his own pastor, to whom he made confession and from whom he received the forgiveness of sins and the teaching of the Word, calls us to mind of the fact that we are not self-sufficient in our own faith and life, nor independent Christians who proceed according to our own wisdom, reason and strength. For what do we have that has not been given to us? What Gospel have we received apart from those whom God has bestowed upon us as our fathers in Christ?

As I am in the midst of teaching a course on the early church fathers, I am daily being reminded of those who have gone before us in the faith as preachers and teachers of the Word. They were mortal men and sinners like myself, yet men of tremendous abilities whom the ascended Lord Jesus graciously gave to His Church on earth for the care and tending of His sheep in those days. How shall I rightly honor them, who are not only "church fathers" but my own fathers in Christ, as I am also a member of His one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church? Martin Chemnitz has written, in a little treatise on how to read the fathers (which I here summarize and paraphrase as best I can from memory), that we honor the fathers with thanksgiving for that which they have said well, by the grace of God, and in love we set aside and pass over whatever they have said poorly or in error. We do not condone false teaching, but neither do we condemn the fathers for their imperfections; instead, we rejoice in their faithful confession of the Word of God, and we cover their weaknesses with charity, as we also are covered by the charity of Christ.

It has been said that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is no longer my grandfather's church. That is true of my father's father, who now resides in the Church triumphant of his dear Lord Jesus Christ, to which he was called from this vale of tears almost twelve years ago. But the LCMS, for good or ill, with warts and all, is still the Church of my children's grandfather. In due time, I expect that it shall also become the Church of my grandchildren's grandfather, the good Lord willing. My heartfelt hope and prayer is that it will continue striving to confess the Word of God with clarity and confidence, steadfastly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints, training pastors and other workers for the Church on earth, and sending missionaries to every place where Christ Himself would go. We shall be well served in those godly endeavors by honoring the fathers and grandfathers who have gone before us. Not because they were perfect, but because they have been given to us by the God and Father of us all, for Jesus' sake.

19 April 2008

Of Daddies and Daughters

It is six weeks from today that my DoRena will be wed, the good Lord willing, and while I am so far away from her right now, she is closer than ever to my heart and always on mind. Of course I'll be home again before the big day, exactly four weeks prior to it, but that remaining time will speed by fast, and it's not like I'll be spending it with my Bean. She'll have school and plans and preparations in Fort Wayne, while I have church and home and family (and recovery from my teaching and travel) in South Bend. The truth is, she's not my baby anymore, nor even my little girl, but a fully grown up young adult and, if I do say so myself, a lovely young woman. She will make a beautiful blushing bride, indeed, as Sam surely knows! She has already been glowing with joy and happiness since her engagement this past summer. Oh, my, how the days go by.

She had a bridal shower today, and I was glad for my own lovely young bride, LaRena, and our other two daughters, Monica and Oly'anna, to be there for that joyful occasion. I've been thinking of it all day long, hoping and praying that it would be a great little party for her, and wondering what it might be like. She's been blessed with some really great friends, and I am so grateful for the loving care that is shown to my big girl by her very own circle of peeps (many of whom, I'm pleased to say, are also my peeps!). I know it was a special thing for her little sisters to be there with her; a good thing, both for them and for her. Sisters are important to each other, but I think it must be more difficult to nurture that bond with a bigger gap between them. DoRena is almost a decade older than Monica, and more than thirteen years older than Oly'anna, and she's been away from home now for most of the past five years. So it goes.

I've been reminiscing quite a lot lately, with my wife as opportunity has permitted, but mostly to myself (though not out loud except here on my blog; I haven't resorted to chatting with myself just yet). As I've shared in this forum any number of times in the past, I cherish many fond memories of my Beanie-Belle, going back to her birth and infancy, her toddler years, her first few years of school (in Fort Wayne), and then there is that blur of years that seem to have come and gone in the blink of an eye since we moved to South Bend in 1994. Up until that point, even with my seminary studies, I spent a lot of my time with DoRena (and Zachary). Between my doctoral studies, and then my parish responsibilities at Emmaus on top of that, and then the hymnal project on top of that, my time at home with my wife and children was squeezed pretty thin. I was busy enough that I didn't always realize how little I was around, or how little I was fully "there" even when I was around. I realize it now in retrospect, but I can't get it back.

As I was first getting to know Zach's future in-laws, Rebekah's dear family, her Mom made a comment that really cut me to the quick. She simply noted that, for the first few years after her Lynea and my DoRena got to be good friends (through Higher Things and the Mouthhouse list), all that anyone ever heard or knew about me was that I was either away from home working on my dissertation, or else I was at home working on my dissertation (and not to be disturbed). I'm afraid that's pretty much the way things were for several years, at least, and the years leading up to that point weren't much different or much better. I'm not at all sorry to have earned my doctorate. I'm glad to have had that opportunity, and now to serve the church with what I've learned along the way. I'm also proud of my disseration, and I hope that it will benefit posterity. But there are few things in life that I regret more than those years of being so distracted and so distant from my family. I regret it for their sake and my own. It is my firm resolve and fervent prayer that my regrets of the past will bear the fruits of repentance for the future.

By the grace of God, DoRena and Zachary have both grown up beautifully, and anyone who reads this blog already knows how much I love them, how incredibly proud I am of them. There's not a day goes by that I don't give thanks to God for the life that He has given to each of them, nor do I neglect to pray for His continued blessing upon their future, as also upon Sam and Rebekah and their families, as they become DoRena's and Zachary's, respectively. At this point in their lives, praying for them is one of the primary things I have left to do for them, as my children. I pray for all my other children, too, of course, but I also have a daily hands-on responsibility for those younger ones. With DoRena and Zachary, it is mainly by praying that I serve them now, and by disciplining myself to communicate with them regularly.

With DoRena getting married next month, I have been thinking especially about the role that I have been given to play in her life, specifically in bringing her to this point, and what it finally means for a father to give his daughter in marriage to another man. There is more than sentiment involved in all of this; there is something profoundly significant about it.

My good friend Tim (who also happens to be my Zachary's future father-in-law) commented on this very thing at his own firstborn daughter's wedding this past summer. I have very much appreciated his insight. He said that preparing his daughter for marriage, for that day when he would "give her away," was the very thing that he had been given to do from the beginning as her father. Even the way he said it, I knew that he was exactly right, and it was such a stunning realization; all the more so, coming, as it did, just days after Sam had proposed to my DoRena.

Not every little girl grows up to get married, but most of them do. How that all works out; what sort of man their husbands will be; what kind of marriage they will have, so much of it is shaped by and depends upon their daddies. This isn't Freudian psychology, but genuine theology. The Church is given to Christ, her Husband, by the God and Father after whom all fatherhood on earth is named. Daddies bring their daughters to that same Lord Jesus Christ in Holy Baptism, in daily catechesis from the time they are under his care until they are married, and in giving them away to the man who will be for them as Christ is for His Church. That is both a privilege and a responsibility, which is carried out rightly by the Word of God and prayer.

A father is to be the bishop of his own household, and a deacon to his own wife and children; by no means as a substitution for the family and household of God, but as pointing to that divine household, which is the Church, and as bringing his own into that divine family of those who hear the Word of God and keep it. In doing so, he is first of all to be as Christ unto his wife, whereby he will also be an icon of the Father to his children. By loving and serving their mother, forgiving her and caring for her, his sons and daughters will learn, not to despise marriage, but to embrace that good gift of God in faith and love. His sons will be catechized to follow his example in love; and his daughters will be catechized to live by faith in Christ, as they grow up to become wives and mothers, each receiving her husband and her children as from her dear Father in heaven.

The importance of fathers for their sons cannot be underestimated, but for now I am thinking out loud about the important significance of daddies for their daughters. I do not know how to express it adequately or eloquently enough, but I have been increasingly restless to put such thoughts into words somehow. For we fathers are so busy and so focused on our manly tasks and burdens and responsibilities, that we too easily overlook the tender feelings of our daughters. As they get older, they are less inclined to exercise their little girl wiles upon us, because they would so much rather that we exercise our fatherly attentions upon them without being asked. The day may come when they simply stop asking altogether, but only because they do not want to be crushed with disappointment. Daughters want and need their daddies.

Men and women communicate very differently; they say and hear things differently; they convey and perceive things differently. Lots of attention has been given to these differences, mostly with respect to the difficulties they cause within marriages, romantic relationships, and the workaday world. It has recently occurred to me that fathers have a similar difficulty when it comes to communicating with their daughters. Little girls can often be exasperatingly difficult with their emotional outlook and outbursts, but young women can be downright mystifying to their daddies. I hope our daughters know that we do not mean to misunderstand them or hurt their feelings; yet, we may not always be making our best efforts to understand and help them. I realize now, to my chagrin and deep regret, that the busier I was with my own matters at hand, the less and less I was paying attention to my Beanie as she was going through those teenage years. The fact that she has turned out so magnificently is in spite of my inattentiveness to her. Happily, I've done better in more recent years, but I am sorry, DoRena, for the years I missed.

Daughters don't necessarily want their daddies to answer every question for them, nor to dictate every choice and decision they will make, but they do want guidance and direction. They may be shy or feel awkward about asking, but they do want to know what their daddies think about their clothing and appearance, about boys and dating, about where they should go to school and what they should do with their lives.

For a young woman, there is hardly anything more important than having a father who takes an interest in her, who cares about what she is doing, who supports her ambitions and pursuits, who guards and protects her when it feels like the world is crashing down upon her. All of which is probably not as difficult as it may sound to a man. As wives often simply need their husbands to listen and to acknowledge their feelings, in order to be of tremendous help, it seems to me that a daughter may simply need her daddy to listen with a compassionate ear, and then also, when the time is right, to respond with a word of love and sympathy and forgiveness, as the case may be. Mainly, I think, a girl wants to know that she can depend upon her daddy; that he is her rock, not to crush her but to protect her; that, as often as she needs him, he is simply there for her, always strong and solid on her behalf, but no less tenderhearted and kind.

I cannot speak with certainty for other fathers, but I marvel at what I perceive in myself. There is something unique about the daddy-daughter relationship. It is one of those things that is both nature and nurture, but I am convinced that it is theological in each respect: It is the way God has created us to be, and the way that He catechizes us to be. It is the way that we are wired, and the way that we are taught by His Word and the Holy Spirit.

There are fathers, I realize, who hurt and abuse their daughters. Of all the heinous things that happen in this fallen, sinful world, there is nothing that makes me sadder and angrier than that. It is as vile and wicked as abortion, but I think a father is even more culpable in such a case than a woman who destroys the fruit of her own womb. The very title of this office and vocation, that of "father," is a confession of the God and Father of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. For a father to inflict abuse upon any of his children is therefore the most destructive sort of lie and contradiction, not only a physical but a spiritual perversion. It is all the worse when it is vented against his daughter. For even with proper paternal discipline, it is somewhow different with a daughter than a son. A father disciplines the son whom he loves, but he speaks tenderly unto the heart of his daughter; for that is how the Father speaks to daughter Jerusalem, at the cost of His dearly-beloved Son. Men are catechized to bear the cross and lay down their lives for their women, for their wives and, I warrant, for their daughters.

In any case, although there are hurtful and abusive fathers in this world, that is not the norm. Notwithstanding our sinfulness, the Father has crafted something of Himself into this office and vocation; He has given to daddies a special sort of care and consideration for their daughters. It is that way for me, at least, and I can only attribute it to my own dear Father in heaven. There is no other woman in the world that I behold and perceive in quite the same way as my daughters. My wife is uniquely my own in yet another way, of course. And there is a special familial relationship that I have with my mother, on the one hand, and my sisters on the other. But it is different with my daughters. Perhaps the closest comparison occurs in my pastoral care of the congregation, whereby I serve as their spiritual father in Christ, but that is obviously its own unique context, as different in some respects as it is similar in others. It is different, too, with my sons than with my daughters. My sons are younger versions of myself, and I am instinctively bidden to apprentice them as future husbands and fathers. With my daughters, my instinct is fundamentally different from the ground up: I am inclined to care for them, to protect them, to serve them, to soothe their hurts and quiet their fears, to provide for all their needs.

In one respect, I am proud of all my children. In another respect, it is pride that is at the forefront of my emotions when I look upon my sons, whereas my daughters immediately evoke my affection. I do not know how else to describe it. There is a sweetness and tenderness to it, not so different than it was when I first held them in my arms as newborn infants. Even now, when I consider my DoRena, for example, so grown up and beautiful, so poised and charming, so mature and competent, and so thoroughly a woman in the eyes of the entire world, I can see and take note of all those things, but what I instantly perceive in her is still my "little girl," my dear sweet daughter, the apple of my eye.

When I was at the seminary recently, I met up with DoRena and Sam and a group of their friends in the commons. As I approached, the group parted to each side so that I could walk right up to Beanie and give her a hug. It was in that moment that I realized, more poignantly than I have before, that I will always be her Daddy. There is no way, really, to put this into words. There are ways in which I am giving her up and giving her away to Sam, exactly as it should be. She will receive his name, and he will become her head, as Christ for His Church. In this respect, I have already served my vocation as her father, notwithstanding the times when I have fallen short in that office. Yet, she does not cease to be my daughter. My place in her life will be redefined and changed, but it will still be a place in her life. By God's grace, her children will be my grandchildren, and there will be joys and delights to share with them, as with DoRena and Sam, in the years to come. I serve her now, especially, as I have said, with my prayers; but so also by communicating with her, by listening when she speaks, and by speaking to her from the heart and from the Word.

As I do these things for DoRena, I am all the more reminded, too, of the responsibilities I have for my Monica and Oly'anna, who are still under my headship and my care at home. They are still my little girls, but they are growing up fast; I've already seen how fast it happens, and the years will not stop flying by at their relentless pace. It is barely one more year before Monica becomes a teenager. Another year after that, unbelievably, my dear little Oly will be ten! God grant that, even now, and no less then, I will be sensitive and attentive to their needs; not only to their needs of body and soul, but also to those of heart and mind and spirit. In doing so, I am already preparing to give them away to the husbands who will be as Christ unto them. And in this, above all, I am being the Daddy my daughters most need me to be.